Have you understood nothing?

There is an article in New Scientist by a couple of eminent professors, one of Hebrew Bible and one of New Testament, dealing with a variety of leaders of Christian groups who ascribe the Ebola epidemic to a divine punishment.

I have absolutely no time for people who do this, and still less for people who do it and then fail to render assistance to those who are suffering because “it is God’s will”. I agree with everything the writers say, in fact.

But I am surprised that neither of them marshals specific arguments from the traditions they teach. Where, for instance, is the reference to the book of Job (by either of them) in which, inter alia, Job is afflicted with a number of diseases through absolutely no fault of his own, and his “friends” who suggest that this is divine punishment for him secretly having been a bad lad are roundly criticised by God? Where is the reference by Candida Moss to John 9:3, in which Jesus says “neither this man nor his parents sinned” in response to his disciples asking why a man had been born blind?

I rather suspect the authors of the Fourth Gospel of having minimised the acerbity of Jesus’ comment here; this was, after all, someone who consorted with all the kinds of people whom the ilk of leaders who make these remarks regard as “undeserving”, i.e. with agents of a foreign invader, members of despised religions, extorters of taxes, prostitutes and other sinners, and who healed profligately and in circumstances distinctly frowned on by the religious authorities of the day. He was quite commonly acerbic with those religious leaders, and (particularly in Mark) not terribly polite to his disciples when they failed to understand things (Peter being told “get thee behind me, Satan” springs to mind).

I can easily insert words which the Jesus of my understanding may have said and which have been left out here, such as “have you understood NOTHING?”

And that is pretty much my response to any leader describing himself as Christian who makes such crass remarks.

Reconstructing prophecy

I’ve been reading Dale Allison’s “Constructing Jesus” and am struck by the force of his arguments in favour of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet.

Note that I say “struck by the force of his argument” and not “convinced that his argument is entirely correct”, because I see him as over-extending in an attempt to press home this main point. I suppose I have some past expertise in this business of “making an argument” from some 25 years as a lawyer; if this has taught me nothing else, it is that we shouldn’t ever just listen to one counsel arguing for a position, we should also listen to at least one opposing position and then weigh the arguments against each other.

My forte in court was to take the opposition’s case and show how it was almost entirely correct, and yet you should take a view which favoured my client. This was far more effective, I found, than setting up an entirely opposite account of facts and inviting a choice between the two. With the way in which the legal system actually operates, this was far too much like tossing a coin; my way allowed you to accept most of what the opposition said but just to interpret it a little differently, rather than forcing black and white decisions.

This is a technique I think I should commend to Dr. Allison. He starts really well, setting up the idea that you cannot say, for instance, that because Jesus plainly made statements typical of a social reformer, he could not therefore have been an apocalyptic prophet; because he talked a lot about living well in the present reality he could not therefore have expected divine intervention to instantiate the Kingdom of God in apocalyptic fashion. This is clearly right, and has founded criticisms I’ve made in the past of a set of commentators who have seen in Jesus, for instance, a social revolutionary (John Dominic Crossan) or a “spirit person”, in other words a mystic (Marcus Borg) to the exclusion or near exclusion of any other identity. There is a strong suspicion that they see in Jesus what they feel they are in themselves, and in the case of Dr. Borg, he is self-admittedly someone who has had his faith shaped by mystical experience.

Unfortunately, Allison then goes further and moves repeatedly towards the suggestion that “apocalyptic prophet” is the basic identity (adding into it self-designations which go beyond just “apocalyptic prophet”) and that really neither the social revolutionary nor the mystic are really the case; inasmuch as they are there, they are less important than “apocalyptic prophet”, and if anything flow from that base designation.

I think this is a mistake. I think that it is a mistake primarily because I do exactly what I criticise above, and read Jesus as primarily a “spirit person”. This is because I am a “spirit person” myself, and cannot see how, if one has had overwhelming mystical experience, that cannot be basic to whatever you then are. I can do thought experiments and consider the position were I basically an apocalyptic prophet or were I a social revolutionary, and none of the others flow naturally from that self-understanding. However, in the case of a “spirit person”, social revolutionary does flow naturally from the experience, and at least occasional prophetic vision flows as well, at least if the mystical experience is developed and felt reasonably consistently.

In terms of “social revolutionary”, I cannot see how this would not flow automatically from the dissolution of the felt boundary between the self and others. I can see how the depth of compassion engendered could be internalised and not acted upon (as it seems to me is often the case in Buddhism, and is a major reason why I have not pursued Buddhism more than I did in my dim and distant 20s), but I cannot see how the impulse not only to assist others as best you can but also to try to promote the dissolution or reform of systems which operate against the mass of people, particularly the poor, disadvantaged and marginalised would not be there.

Prophecy is perhaps a more difficult area. One thing granted by the constant practice of the mystical consciousness is, in my experience, an improved ability to discern trends and causes (sometimes without realising the fullness of the structure, intuitively). I do not on the whole see prophecy as “foretelling the future”, in the way in which it tends to be portrayed by, for instance, the evangelists looking for predictions of Christ, but in the more modern sense of speaking to the situation as it is and exposing it and its likely outcomes. The Hebrew scriptures have many examples of prophetic words which do not in fact come to pass when people change their ways, none more clear, I think, than the story of Jonah. Jonah is sent to predict destruction to Nineveh, and eventually does – but Nineveh changes its ways and escapes calamity (the book has also several other lessons which may need to be taken to heart by prospective prophets among others).

I’ve felt this in operation; I’ve only actually ever expressed any such prediction in small local matters, as I don’t think a wider scale prophecy would be likely to be heard in this day and age without a full scientific and rationalist work-up, and to date have never felt any compulsion to try to buck this trend. Jesus, however, lived in a different age, one in which prophets might perhaps be heard.

Now, one of the reasons I think liberal scholars are somewhat reluctant to label Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is that at the least since Schweitzer (building on Reimarus) proposed this label to the exclusion of others, the end of the investigation says that he was a failed apocalyptic prophet, as the predicted apocalypse did not happen – and they take too high a view of Jesus to want that to be the conclusion.

However, thinking about that, and about a recent article I read about predictions made by Science Fiction writers whose predictions had to some extent materialised (the link to which I’ve sadly lost) and about Karl Marx and some of his followers (notably Slavoj Zizek) predicting trends in society, I’m struck by a number of factors.

Firstly, none of these presumably mundane and non-divinely inspired prophets has ever managed to be anything like accurate about timing. Mostly, they predict things far too soon. I sympathise – as a newly coined BSc in Physics some 40 years ago I was predicting commercial fusion within ten years. I gather it’s still being predicted within ten years. As an example, Marx predicted that industrialised society would not tend to level out income and capital, but would intensify the gap between richest and poorest. Pace those who still think that “trickle down” economics actually works, I think we are now seeing exactly that. Marx thought it would take place at least 60 years ago; 20 years ago I would not have agreed that it was actually the case, but we’ve now had more opportunity to study less regulated capitalist systems, and I’d now agree with him – and I think we are likely to see some of his other predictions within at the least my childrens’ lifetimes.

Secondly, they are far more accurate about trends than about specifics.Marx thought that first England and then Russia would be the cradle of his predictions bearing fruit; at the moment it seems most likely to be the USA, but I could put in a long shot of China considering the speed at which China is currently moving. (No, I wouldn’t ask the almighty for a predictive word on the topic; that’s all my own fault!).

I should point out that I don’t think God is omniscient in the conventional understanding of knowing everything which will happen, though I accept that God may be omniscient in knowing all the possibilities of any situation on which God focuses and their probabilities. I therefore don’t think that predicting the future accurately is possible even for God. However, God may (possibly through very bright or very inspired people) be able to predict events a lot better than the average man in the street could; at the least, one might expect God to know all of the factors which were at work, which we rarely can.

Within these parameters, what Jesus is said to have predicted begins to take a more sensible shape, particularly if one bears in mind that in part (and in the mid-term) he expected Judaism generally to adopt his path – and Judaism didn’t do that. I also bear in mind that just as a localised flood appeared a worldwide catastrophe to a small tribe in Mesapotamia, so the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the remaining Palestinian Jews qualifies as an apocalyptic disaster. 70CE (the first Jewish revolt) was the end of the world as Second Temple Judaism knew it, and if that wasn’t enough, 135 CE (the second) pretty much completed the job. By the end of 135, there was no Temple, there were no Jews still resident in Judaea and they were banned from returning. The heart had been ripped out of Judaism and the people scattered (again), and the religion could no longer function as it had been doing.

Now, I haven’t yet done the heavy lifting of going through Jesus’ reported statements which could be thought of as apocalyptic one by one and applying these ways of thinking (as Dale Allison has been doing with a more conventional outlook on apocalyptic prediction), but using Allison’s concept of a certain “fuzziness” in social memory as well, I feel reasonably confident that Jesus could reasonably have predicted utter disaster for Judaism and been right; they were “living in the end times”. I also have in mind that if the whole of Judaism had turned to following the non-violence of Jesus over the course of the 20-30 years after his death, there would have been no revolts and very probably no destruction of the Temple or scattering of the Jews. I’m seeing there a salvation which didn’t come to pass because the message wasn’t taken up, just as Jonah saw an apocalypse which didn’t happen because the message was heeded. It was, of course, a collective salvation rather than an individual one, the salvation of a nation, but I think the Hebrew Scriptures tend more to the collective than the individual salvation in any event.

I rather think that much the same result could be obtained by reassessing Paul’s statements, and possibly even those in Revelation.

In fact, though, I think that many of the sayings used to demonstrate that Jesus expected an imminent apocalyptic advent of the Kingdom of God can be better interpreted, via thinking of him as a mystic, as indicating that he viewed the Kingdom as being a present and growing reality, accessible already by some and in the future by many more. Yes, I agree with Allison that saying he was not an apocalyptic prophet is foolish, but I still consider that “mystic” grounds more of his basic nature. And, let’s face it, if we take him as being a person in whom God indwelt constantly in some way, whether the only example of God incarnate or as something slightly less unique than that, that is inevitably going to be the most dominant feature of his thinking, and the mystic (who feels oneness with God) is going to be the type of ordinary human being most similar.

As this has largely been a review of Allison’s book, I should conclude by saying that it’s wonderfully well researched and argued, and in the later chapters I think he makes an excellent case (in passing, as this isn’t his main thrust) for establishing Paul as a source for much of the bones of the passion narrative alongside the gospels; I was also intrigued by his bringing into play of the Didache as an additional early source, as well as Thomas.


Alpha 1 – historicism/mythicism

For my Alpha group, here’s a debate between Zeba Crook (a non-Christian New Testament scholar) and Richard Carrier (possibly the only reasonably weighty scholar who argues complete mythicism). For our purposes, as none of us think the mythicist position is correct, the relevant portion is from about 11 minutes to about 31 minutes, which is Zeba Crook talking (No, it isn’t necessary to watch the whole hour and three quarters).

Zeba give a good overview of the position that the early Christians progressively mythicised an historical figure with a few excellent examples.

Sacrifice, giving and kingdom

The church I attend most regularly at the moment is quite keen on personal testimonies. I rather like that.

However, quite a few of these relate to giving while trusting in God to provide for our needs, i.e. giving when we don’t actually have enough to safeguard our own future. Again, in principle I have no problem with that, aside the fact that I see a significant chance of throwing people onto charity where they might not have needed that, and I tend to see charity as better directed to those who have no hope of providing for themselves from their own means than those who have themselves given wastefully, given the state of the world as it actually is.

The issue I do have, however, is that consistently these stories end with the giver receiving out of the blue sufficient for their needs. Again, I am delighted that they have been provided for. I might like to hear more testimony from people who haven’t “got it together”, as in twelve step, which I think is a template which people should want to qualify for. Granted there are now twelve step programs catering for so many things that it takes a really well-adjusted person to avoid qualifying for at least one of them! I might like to see something like twelve-step openness tried in a church setting, however.

However, there is another problem, in that the impression is given (and sometimes underlined by preaching what seems to me close to a “prosperity gospel” that those who give profligately will inevitably receive sufficient for their needs. If you give a lot, the message is, you can be confident that you will be provided for. There is some scriptural support for this concept, too.

Much as I might wish this to be the case in reality, it isn’t in line with my experience, either following my own actions or those of others. Nor, to my mind, should it be a hard and fast rule; that message removes the possibility of truly sacrificial giving, as giving is then done in the expectation of return. At that point it becomes not a gift but a transaction.

It is argued, of course, that faith demands that we should trust the divine promise that we will be taken care of and should not think to store up things in anticipation of times of dearth. Matt. 6:25-34 is one example, though there are others. Faith also, arguably, demands that we should do as Jesus advises the rich young man in (inter alia) Matt. 19:16-22, and sell all that we have and give it to the poor, but I do see very few people actually doing this within Christianity. I certainly haven’t done it myself, and part of my thinking chalks this up as one of the ways in which I am a bad Christian, or not-quite-yet a Christian. Granted, six years ago I was worth a negative amount, but I hadn’t got there by giving things away except in a very inventive interpretation.

Another part of my thinking reports that the evidence of history is that the very early Church actually did practice these principles, and this very probably resulted in the need for Paul to go round taking a subscription for the support of the Jerusalem Church. A reasonable guess from general economic principles suggests that they were doing this, taking their possessions, selling them and giving away the proceeds (or, to some extent, holding them in common), and that they had run out of people prepared to do this in support of their community and had fallen on hard times. A few people or a small community can get away with this in a world which doesn’t operate that way, a large group can’t.

I see this principle operating as well in one conception of the crucifixion, that which is principally drawn from the Fourth Gospel. In the synoptics, Jesus is seen as agonising over his future in the Garden of Gethsemane (“let this cup pass from me”) and as experiencing complete abandonment on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). In the Fourth Gospel, however, it is all seen as being part of the divine plan, and Jesus is completely aware of this and approaches his impending death with complete equanimity. Then, of course, on the third day he rises and a little later ascends in glory. What we have is a very temporary death, not a full blown extinction of the self.

To my mind, the Fourth Gospel somewhat torpedoes the concept that the cross can function as a valid sacrifice to the extent which is clearly desired by many atonement theories. In the synoptics, at least Jesus is seen as agonised by the prospect, and although there are hints that a resurrection is anticipated, this agony indicates to me that Jesus sees this as a hope rather than as a certainty. This is removed in the Fourth Gospel; there, Jesus knows throughout that his death will be very temporary and suffers no agonies of mind or spirit (as opposed to agonies of body).

I would contrast the situation in W.B. Yeats’ verse drama “The Countess Cathleen”, in which the Countess sells her soul to the Devil in order to save her tenants from starvation and to redeem their souls from him, having previously been sold by them. As this act is altruistic, the Countess is redeemed anyhow on her death. While the actual result there is also that she is not lost, she thinks she will be. Not so Jesus for the authors of the Fourth Gospel; he has no doubt of his resurrection and ascent. Of course, Yeats is there referencing a ransom theory of atonement in which Jesus ransoms humanity from the Devil, but cannot be held by him (this was one of the two early theories of atonement). I liken this to God buying humanity back with a dud cheque (three days to clear…) but will probably get flak for this. It is, incidentally, partly because it looks like God using a dud cheque that I don’t resonate with that theory.

This, however, doesn’t seem to me to work as well for the satisfaction theory (God is owed a debt in consequence of humanity’s sin, only a sacrifice of the magnitude of Jesus’ death will suffice, God accepts that as payment) because it’s not a lasting death. Granted, it can be argued that the death of God the Son, even if temporary, is of incalculable value, but that still doesn’t seem to me adequate. It works even less well for the penal substitution theory (God exacts the death penalty for sin on one life of incalculable value instead of myriad low value lives) if it’s temporary, but I suppose could be regarded as a real death and then a restoration.

I still think that a real sacrifice needs to entail a real loss, not just a temporary one.

So I return to sacrificial giving. Of course, I don’t in theory consider this a bad thing (“in theory” because I’m not very good at actually doing it), and there are two preeminent reasons for this. Firstly, it clears the decks for single minded trust in God and love of humanity, removing the obstructions of clinging to existing possessions and trying to get more. It represents, perhaps, a self-chosen equivalent of the twelve step “rock bottom”, from which there is no way but up and no valid action but trust in others. My own “rock bottom” involved loss of rather more than just economic self-sufficiency, but giving away all you have is likely to make those around you doubt your sanity and will probably damage your social standing as well, so there are other “benefits”.

The other is that it affirms that the Kingdom of God is already here. I may be somewhat unusual among liberal theologians in that I take Jesus’ pronouncement that the Kingdom was already present among his followers (Luke 17:21 is one of several relevant texts) as being accurate. I don’t think he was talking about some apocalypse to come, I think he was talking of an apocalypse within some of those who followed him, a personal transformation, a metanoia. I see the analogies of the Kingdom with the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31) and with leaven (Matt. 13:33) as indicating that this new way of living, which involved love of neighbour as yourself, and sometimes to the exclusion of yourself in sacrificial giving, even to following his path to the cross, had already started inasmuch as it was practiced (I also see the Kingdom statements as indicating another new form of consciousness, that of the mystical entering into the Kingdom; the two seem to me to go hand in hand).

Of course, as I indicated earlier in this post, significant numbers of the early church seem to have practiced this and to have ended up in a parlous economic position, needing to be “bailed out” by Paul’s collections. I don’t know whether, had the movement continued to grow apace and fill the earth with this practice, whether that could have been sustained economically; it hasn’t been tried in any sizeable society, and in smaller ones has consistently got into difficulty. In practice, I’ve regarded this as “counsel of excellence” and tried to balance it with the need to stay able to meet my obligations to my family and to society (and in the past my employees), and worked on the basis that I would keep only enough for myself and the rest could be given away; that has chiefly been my time as I was in a position to use my time to work for justice and equity for individuals and for the community.

And I still wonder whether my not taking the extra step was due to pragmatism or to fear.


Jesus at work