Archive for April, 2011

I have been pleased enough with a 3-day review of writings by Richard Whately (1787-1863) to want him and his school on the front end of my project of cultural archaeology.  My aim in this project is to appreciate some under-appreciated Christian thinkers whose work has become submerged or ‘lost’ beneath other and stronger (not more worthy) religious and intellectual trends.

My long century is shaping up to extend roughly from 1820-1940.  I will eventually be focused on the later half of my period, works c.1875-1935 which I judge to be more valuable than Whately’s though no less submerged; but it was important for me first to find a theoretical ‘early strata’ for my project.

Richard Whately was elected Fellow of Oriel college, Oxford, in 1811; his first major work, The Use and Abuse of Party Feeling in Religion, reproduced his Bampton lectures of 1822.  Whately became a prolific and respected author and the acknowledged leader of what has been called the early Oriel School or the Noetic school in English theology and philosophy.  This group, including the older Edward Copleston and the younger R.D. Hampden and Thomas Arnold, and others, was a spiritual force at Oriel College and at Oxford until Whately was effectively taken out of the local picture in 1831, when Lord Grey dispatched him to Ireland as Archbishop of Dublin, an office he held I think until his death in 1863.

Shortly after Whately’s departure to Dublin, a second Oriel group caused such a stir in their rising as to eclipse the writing of the Noetics in the public eye.  This later group included John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Pusey, and others who comprised the Anglo-Catholic ‘Oxford Movement ‘.  These later thinkers need no archaeology – they have their fame – which contributed not a little to the relative obscurity of the Noetics.  But the dialectic between them will give me opportunity  to take into consideration the ‘greater names’ from time to time.

In an earlier post I signaled my esteem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a religious thinker who enabled many nineteenth century minds to maintain their bearings as Christians even in their criticism of Christianity.  My archaeology of obscure men will take in the stream of Coleridge’s thought initially through the work of Julius Charles Hare (1795-1855).  Hare, who lectured at Cambridge in the 1820s and 30s, will allow me to bring that University into the picture.  In America, my project will find its origin in the writing of Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and others like him.

Warning:  thinkers like Richard Whately (and others among my unknowns) don’t usually generate broad or flattering Google searches (food for gossips and wikipediacs).  Too often the antique quality of minor traits and opinions of early modern minds can be falsely accentuated and give to postmodern eyes the appearance of a quirky or unenlightened personality.  Of course that’s a large factor in the present obscurity of my unknowns, which in my opinion they do not deserve.

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“Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth …  He has risen.  He is not here.”  Mk 16:6

“He is not here.”  Was there ever an Easter service in which these words might have been spoken about your heart, or about a sermon, or about your congregation?

I’m no psychic, but I’m sure that, during a very dull sermon one Easter about 15 years ago, I heard these very words spoken inside my head while in church: “He is not here.”

In fact, I confess to whole years of faithful attendance at weekly services in which I purposely missed Easter (and Christmas) – because I honestly feel that the beauty of the Incarnation and Resurrection get muddled by the church’s forms of celebration.  On its highest feast days it seems that the church (instead of the risen Son) is just too much in control of the message.

I think the Gospels present a perfect figure of the church where we read that early on the third day some sincerely devoted women show up at the wrong place (the tomb) with the wrong worship (embalming spices).  The church is still bringing its members every Easter to the same wrong place (the tomb) and with the same wrong intention – that of spicing up a doctrine about physical, bodily resurrection.

I don’t deny the resurrection.  But we do have scripture accounts which give us the right to make a choice as to the issue of physical or spiritual resurrection.  And I think these other accounts, rightly interpreted, say “It was never about tombs or material bodies.”  Do we think Paul beheld a material body on the road to Damascus?

To me the words “He is risen – He is not here” have to mean something infinitely more than “He got up and walked out of the grave.”

In more than one Gospel we read something to the effect that the women at the tomb were ordered to tell Peter and the apostles: “He is going to Galilee before you.  There you will see him, as he told you.”  Basically this amounts to “Get out of town.   You can’t see me if you are living in fear.”  Can’t see me?

If we read (in John) that Peter and John go out to check on the tomb for themselves, is this better or worse than taking the women at their word?  Would Christ have failed to appear to them otherwise?

If from Luke it appears that they tarried in Jerusalem against his will, did he not finally shine a mysterious light on them from Emmaus just before he came to them in spite of themselves, and from behind closed doors?

Was it really necessary that the women or anybody actually saw the empty tomb for themselves?  What if the women had remained in hiding with the apostles until the authorities had maintained control of the spin by securing the tomb from inspection?  Do we think this would have mattered to – the risen Lord?

“He’s not here!”  Maybe the words were spoken today about you – when family and friends noticed your absence from the mandatory church service.  For you I have this advice:  Seek the truth again.  It may be obscured by all the outward stuff which the church is focusing on.  Don’t allow your negative feelings about any specific church to compromise your independent right to truth and your right to worship where and how you want – even to wait upon the Spirit in that inner place of meeting with “my Father and your Father.” (Jn 20:17)

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I was up before 7:00 as usual to fix my wife’s breakfast.  Normally it’s a hot shower right after, and then I fix my own breakfast and get on with reading/writing, after seeing her off to work.

But this morning I suddenly felt like skipping the comfort of the shower.  Not even a splash in the sink.  I’m a mess, a bit like a man rushed off from an all-night trial to the doom of a public sentencing.

It’s already noon and I haven’t even combed my hair.  I’m not fasting here – I’ve had coffee and all.  But I was right to think that skipping the hot shower would put me just far enough out-of-sorts to work like a hair-shirt, and keep me mindful.

So I’m home today, on Good Friday, with sleep still in my eyes and that overnight grungy feel – but this year I’m staying on point, and managing a little better at ‘keeping’ the awful memorial of my salvation.

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Finding evidence in ancient texts for a future place of punishment for the unrighteous is much easier and more straightforward in pagan literature than in the Bible.  In fact, references to anyplace resembling Evangelical or medieval Catholic concepts of Hell are almost non-existent in the Bible.  What little we think we find there is almost nil compared to what we find in Plato.

Plato thinks nothing of including in his chief dialogue a lengthy remark by the father of Polemarchus regarding the man’s own beliefs in “the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there” (Republic 330d-331b). Cephalus is grateful that his wealth has afforded him

“no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men when he departs to the world below.”

He implies that an old man without wealth must be unhappy because:

“suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others.  And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.”

This place in The Republic is not the usual stop for scholars discussing afterlife concepts in Plato (see Republic X., Phaedo, the end of  Gorgias, etc.).  But evidence right here for widespread folk-beliefs about future punishment among the Greeks seems to me more ‘historical’ in the everyday sense and less rhetorical than elsewhere.  At least it is clear that in the fourth century BC the belief was already ancient enough to be a commonplace of casual discourse.

My advice is to avoid trying to squeeze Hell-doctrines out of Scripture.  And you evangelicals who admit of Greek influences in the primitive church take note.

Yesterday I found a post by fellow Christian blogger, neglitz, who I think is trying to be honest about the problem of afterlife concepts in Christianity and their meaning for evangelical religion.

I hope I can get something up soon about why a Biblical and textual challenge of Hell-concepts does not necessarily justify that other questionable doctrine of predestination – universalism.

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I see a certain irony in Nietzsche’s reputation as a visionary.  Take, for example, the notorious section of Religious Aphorisms in his 1878 book, Human, all too Human. In this book we have a Nietzsche who admittedly cuts the figure of a kind of modern-day Jeremiah.  He offers great call-outs of Christianity for its outworn creeds and forms, pagan throw-backs, and ritual perversions.  On the other hand, I suspect I could find most of these same kinds of criticisms of ‘religion’ in the Bible itself.

Overall I think Nietzsche’s book fails to confirm his alleged prophetic credentials. When a Voltaire (to whom the book is dedicated) cries out “ecrasez l’infame,” we see that he refers to the superstitious abuses of a certain corrupt institution and walk of life – and rightly so.  But Nietzsche’s alienation from God is complete, and this explains what I see as his fatal flaw.  For he includes in one sweeping condemnation not only the oddities and obvious antiquities of religion’s outward form and teachings – he condemns the religious consciousness itself and the spiritual ground of religion. Dude.

The atheistic perspective on the human quest for God has one critical disadvantage in comparison to the spiritual perspective. Because the spiritually minded prophet is not devoid of the same insights into the farce of objective creedal and ritual trivia that are criticized by the atheist – the prophets of Israel condemn these abuses with the same prophetic ardor as a Nietzsche.  However, what the spiritual eye is able to see in addition is the folly of the whole secular project which confuses these trivia for substance.

In a new English translation of Nietzsche’s book (by Gary Handwerk, in The Complete Works, Vol. 3, Stanford 1995) I find the title of his infamous aphorism 113 is rendered, Christianity as anachronism.  In my unprofessional opinion I think this is a better rendering of Nietzsche’s meaning than was Walter Kaufmann’s “Christianity as antiquity”  (Viking, 1954, p.52). But herein lies the irony I mentioned at the beginning of my post.

The illusory holy grail for swashbucklers like Nietzsche is the notion that he will find (or has found) an omnipotent psychological explanation of religion, by which the religious consciousness is reduced to elements of illusion and self-consideration. I think Nietzsche himself must have looked for the dawn of a day in which it would simply be unnecessary for philosophers to distinguish between the reality of religious consciousness and the absurdity of some of Christianity’s (or any religion’s) peculiar expressions and outward forms. What he saw was the coming of just such a pseudo-philosopher as Richard Dawkins.

But if it is a category error to confuse the human quest for God with the antique or anachronistic forms of human religion, this quest cannot be explained or replaced by a scientific paradigm or a secular parody of consciousness. We need a return to a philosophy that recognizes that the scientific method by definition can function only on the ‘objective’ outskirts of religion, art, and consciousness (i.e. a return to Kant); the atheist only apes the method of science when he swaggers into the midst of the human quest demanding that it be judged in terms of a strictly physical or scientific humanities and psychology.

It is a false assumption that the student may approach the reality of man independently of an approach to the reality of God. This false start has contributed to the spectacle of our modern faculties of ‘Human Sciences’ – characterized by various irreconcilable schools of thought, each supported by a tissue of footnoted cross-references to great piles of like-minded studies. I suggest that this dreary edifice is the academic version of the ugly, dysfunctional modernist Pruitt-Igoe apartments inspired by Le Corbusier. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 has been characterized by Charles Jencks as “the end of modern architecture.” What is needed is a postmodernist critique that shall render the whole 100-year modernist cul-de-sac in the Humanities to the cool of library storage – where the fallacy of man without God can be studied as a curiosity of history – the supreme anachronism of the ‘modern’ age.

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If you are someone who thinks the 200-year history of New Testament criticism contains unanswerable arguments against the Fourth Gospel as a source of actual words and acts of Jesus and the apostles, then I think you have never studied the critical defense of John’s Gospel by English scholars of the nineteenth century.

But fundamentalists beware – the best of this early critical scholarship on John’s Gospel (both English and German) was not buttressed by any special pleading for plenary inspiration.  Beginning about 1848, British scholars like B.F. Westcott and J.B. Lightfoot took up the task of refuting the negative German criticism by following the good example of Schleiermacher, Neander, de Wette, Lucke, Bleek, Bunsen, and B. Weiss in meeting the negative arguments point by point on valid historical and textual-critical grounds.

I know it will be asked – if battle was joined over 150 years ago and fairly won in 40 years time – how do we find today scholars of repute who hold the Fourth Gospel in less esteem than the other three?

Here is a story told by Henry Watkins, archdeacon and canon of Durham Cathedral, of a conversation he had with Bishop Lightfoot in 1889:

“One day while walking with the late Bishop of Durham, when we hoped he was regaining strength, I took the opportunity of asking him how he accounted for the fact of the frequent assertion that the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel was disproved by modern criticism, in the presence of the strong and accumulating evidence in its favour.”

(Henry William Watkins, Modern Criticism Considered in Relation to the Fourth Gospel, 1890, p.viii)

J.B. Lightfoot at age 61 suffered from a physical illness which was to end his life that year, at the height of a very productive scholarly and church career.  When Watkins later sent him a review in rough outline of the chief issues of the 40-year campaign, the Bishop gave his last efforts in life to securing the archdeacon’s appointment as the next Bampton Lecturer at Oxford.  “No subject,” wrote the Bishop before he died, “could be more useful at the present day, and I think that the time has arrived when it can be effectively treated”.

Last year I began a defense of the historicity of John on the blog, and I mean to keep pushing this point.  Last month I found Watkins’ 1890 Bampton Lectures in my favorite old seminary, and I want to get some results of reading posted in the near future.

It should come as no surprise that I feel the history of fundamentalist bluster against the higher criticism can play no real part in the issues at stake with John’s Gospel.  The evangelical mind seems – by habitual abdication in the presence of texts conceived to be almighty – to have neither taste nor capacity for this kind of argument.  Even the ex-evangelical mind seems unsuited to the task of positive criticism.  The negative German critics themselves were in some cases ex-evangelicals who, after losing their belief in the Bible’s divine authorship, were unable to envision any human author for the texts who was not a deceiving rogue or a gullible fool.

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