Archive for September, 2010

In Luke’s story of the Sabbath healing of the woman ‘bent over 18 years,’ the synagogue ruler interrupts the woman’s grateful praise of God with an indignant take-off from the Decalogue, aimed at Jesus: “Six days shall ye labor, and do all your work…” (Ex 20:9)

I enjoyed reading yesterday’s post on this text by Daniel Kirk,  who suggests that we view this disgruntled chazzan as:

“the stand in for the bible-believing Christian in this story… the person who checks everything to see if it’s in line with the word of God, telling the people not to upset the biblical norm for their own convenience or exceptional spiritual experience… the guy who can tell you why this can’t possibly be something that glorifies God because it’s happening in contradiction to scripture… But Jesus calls him on it.”

Yes sir.  And I notice Jesus strikes deep with his response to the chazzan but does not threaten the heart of the commandment – that crashing sound we hear is the fall of a post-Sinai tradition of strict observances which had gradually become painfully binding on the daughters and sons of Abraham.  When this sedimentary slag of unwritten and re-written addendums is dashed to pieces by Jesus, behold, we see the ancient stone of the Law standing forth in its original purity:

“Give rest to my people, comfort my people, water my people.”  This word to the shepherds of Israel is like a refrain running from Sinai, through Second Isaiah, to Jesus.  The law reached into every moment of the people’s life, but Jesus here seems to transform the Sabbath into a jubilee of rest from the sharia of binding and tasking and testing which they endured under the quotidian observance-rituals of man-made religion.

Jesus restored two Sabbath principles to the religion of Israel when he bid this shepherd to allow that his people be loosed, healed, and watered on this day.  First he minimized the ownership of the day by the rulers and scribes and redirected it back to its rightful owners – the congregation of the daughters and sons of Abraham.  “The Sabbath was made for man,” not the other way around.  Second he restores the meaning and value of the Sabbath rest to the congregation as a truth of mercy rather than of judgment.

Note:  Interesting that this story seems to have no place in the three year cycles of readings followed by some of the mainstream churches (I’ve only checked the 1979 ECUSA 3-year cycle in my possession, but I know others are very similar).  Do we wonder why the kinds of high clergy who make such decisions found this story so little inspiring?

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In this series I’m featuring an old argument by English theologian Lily Dougal that belief in the inerrancy of their canonical scriptures caused the Jewish apocalyptic schools from Daniel to John the Baptist to be dead wrong about the plan of God and his imminent action in Christ. (The Lord of Thought, 1922, p. 18ff).

Dougal sees the adverse influence of belief in inerrant scriptures to be threefold:  moral, intellectual, and spiritual.  My first post introduced the moral dilemma created by a principle which tends to equalize diverse texts of unequal moral value.  The apocalyptic writers beheld the God of blessings and woes who had been written into the scriptures by the Deuteronomist, and turned around and ‘predicted’ a very predictable day of blessings and woes for the whole world.  These would-be seers were unable to see the imminent revelation of a new truth – that God and the Christ of God were beings dominated by self-giving love for both saint and sinner.

The second part of Dougal’s argument moves from the moral to the intellectual realm and shows how the belief that the Jewish canonical scriptures were all-truth played its part in making a ruin of the efforts of these would-be prophets to correctly see and ‘call’ the Incarnation.

“The paradox created by contradictory statements, to all of which equal value must be assigned, creates mental confusion…  The sacred scripture taught God’s love, but its history of the past was self-contradictory; the laws laid down in it were not consistent with each other” (p.18,19)

The idea is that the principle of inerrancy does not enhance but disqualifies and disables a believer’s god-given power of discrimination between fact and fiction, truth and error, good and evil.  It disallows the right of faith to go out on a limb with a teaching that might change everything.  Instead it magnifies the need to pay lip service to infallibility with energetic rationalizations and harmonies of the discrepancies and contradictions which inevitably arise among texts originating at different times in the history of Israel.

The eschatological schools might have benefited from an insightful cherry-picking of superior texts but were prevented by that fatal corollary to inerrancy which disallows intelligent eclecticism.   And so they completely missed the singular truth that the coming kingdom was opposed to the majority viewpoint of the canon.

“Reason never quails before the realization that knowledge is inadequate, that there is more to know about the object of research than is, or apparently can be, known.  It is only before contradiction that reason quails, and thus has always quailed and been unable to accept the God of an ancient and final revelation.”  (p.39)

Great verb, ‘quail’ – perfect for depicting stunned inaction, human reason gone to hiding in the bush.  In my third post I will say more about the flight from reason which so often belittles the religious mind unnecessarily, putting it in thrall to its own idols of infallibility.

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[revised 06 Nov 2012]

A religious teaching  can make a life-changing truth available to one mind while appearing to another mind as paradoxical or self-contradictory or crazy or even heretical.  Jesus called his opponents’ perception of himself and his teaching a seeing without seeing and hearing without hearing.

The opponents of Jesus were blind and deaf to teacher and message because they were constantly seeing and hearing him in the contradictory reference frame of their own sacred texts.  This outlook revealed to them one “empirical” analysis above all – that the mission of Jesus did not resemble closely enough the mission of the Messiah as it was represented in their inerrant scripture.

When a church wields this kind of rationalized positivism in its treatment of sacred texts, the spirit of revelation is quenched. The Parousia itself might come and go without such a church even noticing the fact (just as the Incarnation was missed by those who insisted on comparing it strictly to their sacred text). Oddly I find an inappropriate positivism and rationalism in both fundamentalism and theological modernism. Maybe that’s what I find so irritating about both.

I was helped to a better view of this surprising commonality by an interesting paraphrase of Stanley Hauerwas I saw Thursday in a guest post over on Marc Cortez’ blog  where the discussion goes on into today.

“fundamentalism and theological modernism are simply different sides of the same radical modernist coin. Both embrace the paradigms of Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism too seriously (Hauerwas affirms this) – theological liberalism tries to keep the faith by cutting out all the things that don’t fit into the empirical and/or rational modes, whereas fundamentalism tries to defend them using the tools of empiricism and rationalism to the nth degree. Both end up embracing rationalism and empiricism as the first order basis or “metaphysic” as such, upon which to build a worldview. This is what led the fundamentalist strain in evangelicalism, according to Hauerwas, to make “Sola Scriptura” equal to “Sola Text.”

That is, the special, guarded form of the so-called literal-grammatical-historical method used to support the inerrancy principle is a form of positivistic empiricism which – in conjunction with a fanciful rationalization of discrepancies and contradictions – shares the same enlightenment-age pedigree with the positivism and rationalizations that dominate the unbeliever’s hermeneutic of suspicion.

The original rejection of Jesus was accomplished by a kind of flip-flop criticism which sometimes invoked a hermeneutic of inerrancy and sometimes a hermeneutic of suspicion – another indication that these two are sides of the same coin.

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Casting about for the like-minded this afternoon, I was gratified to find a link to Pete Enns’ series on The Book of Chronicles and the problem with literalism at BioLogos.  Pete discusses the role of the Chronicler’s messianic history in ‘setting up’ Jesus to be misunderstood,

The postexilic Israelites were yearning for a king to rule and guide them as the people of God. …For the Chronicler, that means a king who will honor temple worship, follow the law, teach the people to do likewise, and be God’s instrument for reestablishing Israel’s national glory among the nations… This messianic expectation is the context of Jesus’ coming, and what does he do? Not what his followers expected.  Jesus …is not like the kings of Samuel/Kings. He is not even like the idealized king of Chronicles. He …did not fulfill the messianic expectation of Chronicles; he transformed it.

Pete’s series is a good one.  I owe the link to Daniel Kirk, doing his own excellent series on inerrancy and history over at  Storied Theology, where we read: 

“For me, the question of “inerrancy” versus not, or the question of how “historical” the Gospels are, or the question of whether or not we should harmonize different passages pushes in this direction: When we push for inerrancy, harmonizations, and historicity, we show that we have a fundamentally different desire for what these texts might give us than the biblical writers themselves had when they composed them.”

I note that comments at both sites have a fair share of that wonderful tendency of inerrancy buffs to offer fantastic harmonizations of discrepancies in the texts.

In my own previous post, I attempt to expose the principle of Bible inerrancy as anti-prophetic  with the help of Lily Dougal’s 1922 criticism of the Jewish eschatological schools.  I don’t deny that these pre-Christian seers seemed to grasp that something of cosmic significance was brewing in the not-distant future for the God of Israel.  But they all blundered into gross error with respect to the nature of God’s coming king and kingdom, and fell to depicting scenes of great cruelty and destructive disaster for the enemies of God and his people.  All were proved wrong by history.  The irony of Dougal’s hypothesis cannot be missed – the apocalyptic writers erred because they labored under mistaken notions of inerrancy.  They were betrayed by their belief in the infallible trustworthiness of the Jewish scriptures to which they turned for guidance.

Meanwhile, Steve over at Undeception has been reflecting on his own journey out of the inerrancy cults.

“certainty in either direction is simply not in the cards. The dichotomy is not between doubt and faith — doubt is the qualifier that distinguishes a reasonable faith from an altogether blind faith — but between acknowledged and unacknowledged uncertainty. Christians and avowed atheists alike are simply going about their delusions of certainty in a different way. Christians who refuse to peek under the cover are not exercising faith but fear: fear of having to deal with uncertainty.  When former believers who embrace a thorough atheism as though it were the only option other than fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity, they are not exercising healthy skepticism”

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Not all learning disorders are inherited.  We commonly see persons with otherwise high-functioning minds and no adverse family history who are selectively disabled in music, art, mathematics, etc.  And we often find an acute narrowness of mind in selected areas of philosophy, politics and theology (including atheists with impossibly narrow views of theism).

Few would contend with the idea that some of these selective kinds of disabilities can be acquired in the course of the thinker’s learning experience.  Just as work-related disabilities are acquired as a result of bad work habits and unsafe conditions, we can easily imagine that adverse or unsound circumstances in the inner and outer learning environment of mind can contribute to temporary or permanent disabilities in mental work.

English theological writer Lily Dougal used a concept of acquired learning disability to answer the question, Why was the eschatology of post-exilic Judaism so wrong in its depiction of God’s coming kingdom?  Dougal argued that, for these apocalyptic writers, history and doctrine had combined to create an unhealthy environment for the kinds of mental work involved in truth-seeking.  Error overwhelmed truth in the minds of these Jews because their work was burdened by false principles of knowledge.  Above all, it was the dogma of scripture inerrancy  which most dominated and disabled (and ultimately embarrassed) the spirituality of the Jewish eschatological schools.

Dougal argued that the inerrancy principle ruined Judaism’s prophetic power because it tends to (1) demoralize, (2) confuse, and (3) belittle the human mind.

(1) Scripture inerrancy demoralizes the mind.  The principle of inerrancy is fatal to the morality of any religion – but especially those whose writings extend over a long history of spiritual development.

“The sacred scripture taught God’s love, but … within it there were the noblest visions of goodness and mercy, together with savage conceptions of deified cruelty… God in his relation to man was seen, not simply as the best and wisest being of whom man could conceive, but as a mixture of good and evil, and therefore hostile not merely to all those things to which man at his best was hostile, but also to much that was best in man.”  (Dougal & Emmet, The Lord of Thought, 1922, pp 18, 19, 39.)

The mind looking for inspiration from religious texts held to be inerrant is liable to apprehend all inspiration at a common par value.  This equalizing tendency contributes a source of drag on the highest teachings of any tradition.  It may compromise the balance of good in an individual’s moral compass.  It may even threaten the moral destiny of an entire religious body, rendering it unable to discern a turning point in history, when God offers the gift of a new light which transcends some point of earlier inspiration.

Next up (continuing with Dougal’s analysis): 

(2) The principle of scripture inerrancy confuses the mind by magnifying the importance of discrepancies and contradictions.

(3) The principle of scripture inerrancy belittles the mind by encouraging a fantastic view of inspiration and forcing the mind to create incredible rationalizations and harmonies to resolve its contradictions.

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I think Mary Daly over at Notice the Universe rightly says Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, is oddly titled for a work claiming (as she says) “…that the universe will create itself, out of nothing, in an infinite variety of forms; and that, given an infinite variety of forms, a segment or sub-universe friendly to mankind is bound to develop,” which is the same as to say, as Mary points out, that there is “no design needed, grand or not.”

“Even supposing that Hawking is correct and that gravity and quantum physics suffice, that’s a pretty large “given”a little like the old joke in which a scientist challenges God to a creation-of-life competition and then, like God, picks up some dirt to start his work. ‘No, no,’ says God. ‘Go get your own dirt.’

“It seems as if the physicists have started saying that the math is the physics. But math is only a pattern; it is not a reality. Even such a simple mathematical entity as “two” is not real. There is no “two” in the world. There are two apples, two waves, two stars, two electrons, but no “two.”  Believing that the patterns are “real” and the physical things just odd shadows of those patterns has a name in philosophy: idealism.  Reducing the study of physical reality to mathematics is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one; it is philosophical idealism.

Agreed.  It’s one thing when a physicist, with an assist from the mathematician (identified by Daly as “the physicist’s alter-ego”) is able to construct a mathematical system that seems perfectly parallel to the patterns he’s seeing in the universe.  The problem arises when the system starts to imply things that are not even potentially observable and do not resemble either the visible universe or the original pattern that was seen in it – and yet the physicist has so much faith in the math that he finds such oddities to be real as well.

Daly:  “As every detective knows, having a solution that accounts for the facts is not the same as having the right answer.”

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image by Tom Lowe, NMM 2010

It is an ancient practice to lay out a church building so that altars and great-windows are oriented to the east.  The original meaning of the word ‘orientation’ is derived I think from the architectural fact of this preference for an east-facing on the ‘business end’ of temples and churches.  There’s an obvious attempt to make the most of the morning sunlight, but there are other, more ancient associations which imply that east is the direction of divine presence and power.

Today, a higher cosmological perspective suggests (to me anyway) the need for a galactic rather than geographic orientation to divine presence and power.  The photograph above of the massive starry plane of our home galaxy shot from the White Mountains of California, might be called a view through the new East Window.  It makes no difference that the subject of the above photo may be lying to the west – the new ‘East Window’ always opens up in the direction of the galactic center.

I don’t think it idolatrous to view the galactic plane as a kind of focus for the localized universe presence of God.  Because it’s not easy to imagine how God’s existence could mean anything at all to the galaxy if no framework for sovereignty, ministry, mercy, or justice were stretched out upon it.  Moderns love to deny that God can actually be ‘out there’ somewhere – Sorry, for me this photographer captures, among the fingers of the ancient bristlecone pine, the starry path to the center of Light and Life and the eternal mansions of the God of love.

There are two primary theological orientations of ‘the eye of faith’, and this post is about only one of them – the outward, universe-oriented direction.  Augustine wrote of the other orientation in a well-known soliloquy which I will not here repeat.  And of course that second theological orientation tracks to an inward center rather than an outward center.

Various frightful and utterly spiritless depictions of the great outer centers (and the inner centers)  have been suggested by different human minds.  This is to be expected, since the measurable energies proceeding from the unseen center of our galaxy register (by definition) only a monstrous quantitative value – the instruments of choice are not made for the task of elaborating the strictly qualitative mystery of religious consciousness.

If some of our great scientific men suppose ‘a monstrous black hole’ or some other shocking thing at the center of their home galaxy, it is only their personal best in response to the quantities which dominate their analysis.  I would only expect that the theory by which they explain the numbers might sometimes resemble the featureless nightmare of a homeless child.

NOTE:  The photograph, “Blazing Bristlecone” is by Tom Lowe, the winner of the British National Maritime Museum’s 2010 competition for Astronomy Photograph of the Year in the Earth and Space category (the photo also gained him the award for best overall).  Thanks to Deskarati for the link.

Below:  The East Window of Glasgow Cathedral (for comparison)

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I’ve been keenly aware of my lack of commentary on current events around here.  Honestly, I feel hopelessly tongue-tied by the stunning idiocy which resides at the heart of so much that is in the public eye these days.  With little surplus of time, I have been unable to raise the level of my response above ad hominem,  so I’ve taken the silent route.

Here I will at least try to compensate for my lack of prophetic power by featuring another writer’s recent post on the reductionist swagger of our contemporary physicists:

“Philosophy is dead”  – What, again? Apparently Stephen Hawking is unaware of the fact that this rhetorical strategy for winning philosophical arguments has been tried before, without notable success. It is not only a classic ploy for physicalists, who hold that reality consists entirely of whatever physicists can talk about in their professional capacity, and who hold that we know this to be true primarily because physicists tell us this, in their professional capacity. It was tried by the old Vienna Circle boys, who made the philosophical assertion that philosophical assertions are nonsense, and therefore ought not to be made, excepting, of course, this last one, which should. It has been tried by Hegel and Heidegger, who both claimed that because one could discern a kind of narrative arc in the history of philosophy thus far, that therefore the story must be over (confusing the lights coming up in a movie theater for enlightenment itself). In a different way it was tried by Russell, who suggested that philosophers continue to do philosophy, but to act like scientists in doing so, dividing the problems up and parceling them out to teams like chemists—in this case, there’s no pretense that philosophy as such is dead, …

read more at: among the Poseidonians

The author’s reference is to a recent review of Hawking’s book, The Grand Design,  in The Economist :

“The authors [Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow] rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead.” It is, allegedly, now the exclusive right of scientists to answer the three fundamental why-questions with which the authors purport to deal in their book. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? And why this particular set of laws and not some other?”

I only discovered the blogger today, and haven’t asked his permission to put up his material here.  But the post is quite up to my taste in terms of depth of material – my only criticism is that it’s long, and so a little uneven in spots.  But overall I’m glad to find another writer saying things I’m feeling about the lack of decent public criticism of Hawking’s magesterial pose as metaphilosopher of popular cosmology.

I know that a daily rant (tastefully done) is an important fixture in blog protocol, and a good way to build a congenial readership.  I’m sure it ought to be tried in particular by a bloke who mostly presumes to write theology without a license (which certainly nobody is obliged to care about).   For now I am content to feature a blogger like the Poseidonian, who has more of what I lack – a cool head and a taste for the words I wish I could command in regard to Hawking, Park51, Koran burners, etc. etc.   Check him out.

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“Our aim in the present study is to show that Jesus did not expect a speedy and supernatural destruction of the world.” (Lily Dougal and Cyril Emmet, The Lord of Thought, from the Preface, dated Sept. 1922).

At the time of their writing, these two New Testament critics were very much alarmed at a growing bias in NT criticism.  “It is now widely held that the whole thought of Jesus was governed by the belief that the end of the world was very near, or, at least, that this belief was a confusing element in his outlook.”  Of course the authors were discussing a 15-year trend inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

Schweitzer had claimed that the teaching of Jesus is inconsistent with itself except when everything is viewed from the perspective of a thorough-going eschatological frame of mind.  Except the problem with his view is that it makes Jesus inconsistent with reality – because some scripture texts make Jesus wrong about the proximity of the end, and his return in glory.

Dougal and Emmet agree with Schweitzer that the eschatological teachings attributed to Jesus are inconsistent with his higher teachings, but they reject Schweitzer’s means of achieving consistency for Jesus.  Schweitzer, they argue, has only created his own false pattern of consistency in Jesus teaching, “by forcing upon all his sayings and parables an interpretation in harmony with the more fanatical Judaism of his time.”  (p.2)

They offer a solution which can only alienate both fundamentalists and moderns:

“Considering the circumstances in which the Gospels were compiled, it is more becoming for us, in the first instance, to suspect the records of inaccuracy than to assume that the inconsistency lay with Jesus.” (p.9)

I’m fine with the authors’ rejection of plenary inspiration.  Trouble is, they imply a new principle which skeptical critics are sure to hate – the principle of an inerrant Jesus  But I like it! 

“In the history of any one of the canonized Christian saints, when sayings and acts are attributed to him or her which to us appear inconsistent and unworthy, our first proceeding is to suspect the accuracy of the narrator … on the hypothesis that the inspiration of the saint for goodness and wisdom was greater than the inspiration for accuracy enjoyed by the disciple.” (p.7-8)

Seriously, a hermeneutic principle like inerrant Jesus is unapologetically faithful – only it requires that our faith in the perfection of Jesus trumps our belief in the perfection of scripture.  There’s bound to be difficulty discriminating the inerrancy of Jesus from the inaccuracy of apostles and gospel writers.  But the result for eschatology is an important one – the axiomatic rejection of a merely human Jesus who is either self-contradictory or  a fanatic and delusional Jew yields refreshing fruit in a healthy critical skepticism regarding all assertions or allusions in scripture which suggest that a destructive end-of-the world scenario is a necessary adjunct to the true Gospel.

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In my last post I quoted Dr. Vincent Taylor’s fine commentary on Mark, joining him in praise of the strokes by which the evangelist captured the complex and edgy person of the divine-human Son of God.  But there are also difficulties in Mark.  There are inadequacies in Mark, causes of perplexity, scandal and stumbling which engender further questions, questions about the birth and early life, about the lack of spiritual teachings, or whether anything substantial happened after the women found the empty tomb.

Do angels sing when the acts of a fallible human mind establish for all time such a history as Mark has made of the divine mission of the Word?

On the positive side, it cannot be denied that Mark’s story evokes a genuine sense of apostolic experience of an Incarnate Savior.  Mark’s framework of events was barely challenged by later writers, indicating that few in a fast-disappearing generation knew of a better.  And the passion narrative seems to have been a piece of his original territory.

Still, neither Jesus nor his apostles had (in 40 years) ‘put up’ any generally-accepted and authoritative text (even such a seminal text as the Sermon on the Mount seems not to have been known at Rome at the time of Mark’s writing).  There is a sense in which Mark broke this 40-year ban on written histories of the Word of God.

Mark makes available his invaluable material truth regarding the divine Son, but at the same time he casts into the world a Divine Antithesis, a ‘corpus’ a textual God of the letter, engendering other texts.  I think it has been the tendency of these texts to both release and to limit the power of the Divine Son.  But I am inclined to view a God-of-text as ultimately a negation of divinity, not to be worshipped.  The living God is real, shaping us in his image, but the textual God is a creation of human mind, a god shaped in our own image.

The human mind seems to crave escape from the obligations posed by the invitation of spirit to join it in real and living relationship – and it finds this escape in the relative safety of second-hand, imitative religious forms.  This retreat to creedal and textual forms is a kind of apotheosis of rejected mercy.  Since Pentecost the Spirit and the Son have been offered stubborn resistance by this human god (the text) which was ‘thrown’ into our finitude as a god of the ‘old ways,’ born from below.

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