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Archive for June, 2011

“Hearing, they do not hear …”

The hearing impairment to which Jesus referred, quoting Isaiah, was the same one which the Hebrew prophet had diagnosed in his own time – and it is no less prevalent in our day.

Diagnosis implies gnosis.  Jesus, like Isaiah, had a new truth (or more truth) to reveal to his listeners, but the words he had available for the purpose failed to penetrate the framework of every mind.  His choicest words were rejected as strange or irreligious in the context of old ‘tried and true’ principles which were in possession of their understandings.

The malady in question is worse than a physical ailment – with which Jesus had some success.  Instead it affects the listener’s inner attitude, the will, taking away the freedom with which they might break down the old shell of religious meanings from within.

“… and seeing, they do not see.”

It is likewise with the vision problem – the afflicted person has full use of his eyes, but lacks the insight required to get past conventional associations of meaning.

In the minds of the people of Galilee and Judea who suffered from these two afflictions  the man Jesus of Nazareth, qua Messiah, could not help but simultaneously evoke, disappoint, and offend their racial and religious hopes as long as he lived and breathed.  His fellowship with sinners was counted as sin, his healing was called Satanism, his forgiveness blasphemy.  His meekness was counted as weakness and, in our present age, his morality has been called the morality of slaves.

This sight and hearing failure especially affected matters of everyday appearances and social antecedents – things which ‘scientific’ historians most crave to know.  His place of origin (Nazareth!), family background (common!), accent (provincial!), formal training (or lack thereof!), apparel (unpretentious)  – all of the ‘facts’ only created, for his accusers (and for some modern historians), another layer of the unacceptable.

Does it seem unfair to suggest that the principle of interpretation used by believers to gain access to the Jesus of ‘history’ – then as now – must be different from that hermeneutic of suspicion used by the elders and others who rejected him (and by the ‘scientific’ historians who counsel rejection of his eternal truth today)?  How does one access the insight required to become receptive to a previously undiscovered truth?  What is the rational ‘order of love’ in a fruitful hermeneutic of faith?

This post is part of the promised continuation of thoughts posted on this blog last May.

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The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910].

(Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

The premier theologian of the Boston Personalists was Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953), who earned a Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, another thinker with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been characterized by the strife of its competing sectarian bailiwicks, and I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably contributed to its failure to attract a wide following among non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think it is sad that a perverse sectarianism infects so much of American religious thought even today.  From the nineteenth century, each sect has had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in all the other sects.  There has been little opportunity for a pooling of religious genius in this country, and therefore no great salient of progressive Christian thought.  Although each sect seems to have had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. It was not until the rise of secular universities very late in the 19th century that we see the fruit of combined intellectual powers from different backgrounds – except this fertility was chiefly won for non-religious concerns

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According to the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (produced about 200 years before Christ), the name given by Adam to “the woman” alleged to have caused all the trouble in the Garden of Eden was not Eve but Zoey.

The text is Gen 3:21 in my edition of the Septuagint (in some versions 3:20)

και εκαλεσεν αδαμ το ονομα της γυναικος αυτου ζωη οτι αυτη μητηρ παντων των ζωντων

“And Adam called the name of his wife ζωη because she was the mother of all των ζωντων”

What’s going on? My questions were answered in a comment made on the first edition of this post by a writer Solomon North:

Eve and Zoe are the same name. Eve (Chawah) is the Hebrew word for life, and Zoe is the Greek word for life. In her first appearance the translator uses translation to show the etymological significance behind her name, whereas in the subsequent passages he uses transliteration (“Eue”) because, as with Adam and Noah and so many subsequent persons, the name is known in the translator’s Greek-speaking Jewish community but not necessarily the etymological significance.

I have Mr. North to thank for curbing my excitement over the novelty of my discovery of ‘Adam and Zoey’, but I’m still wondering why ‘the woman’ in Genesis is not identified by any name whatsoever (neither in Greek nor Hebrew) until the end of Chapter 3.  The whole story of disobedience in the Garden is finished at Gen 3:8 without a single mention by name of either ‘Eve’ or ‘Zoey’ (not until Gen 3:21).

Has an ancient story about an original pair referred to only as “the man” and  “the woman” been combined with a later Adam and Eve story?  Take a look. When the story finally names Adam and Eve together, the narrative is much more concrete.  Rather than a tale of an original pair, by late Chap. 3 and into Chap. 4 the Garden is history, and the narrative frankly implies the existence of other humans all over the place.

I think it is not out of the question that Gen 4-5 might have had a ‘heart’ of its own before it got mixed into the creation stories of Gen 1 and Gen 2-3. Maybe this Adam was not a first man but a first revealer – a tradition-source leading to other teachers and men of God like Seth (Gen 4:25ff) and Enoch (Gen 5:22)

It’s anybody’s guess how the idea of a fall or of a link between Adam and Christ (taught by Paul) applies to a being who was a first truth-teacher. But we cannot deny that the world needs such beings – and something must have gone very wrong if Adam’s ‘teachings’ were lost and had to be re-started so many times – i.e. by Seth, by Enoch, by Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and finally Jesus.

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The evidence that Mark is the oldest of the canonical gospels was not examined systematically until the 1830s, but the argument has by now gained general acceptance among non-fundamentalist scholars, and I have endorsed the principle of Markan priority here and here .

There is a tradition that believers at Rome rejoiced to have Mark’s account – they were, after all, over 30 years removed from the living ministry of Jesus and had only recently been deprived of the presence of Peter and Paul (if we accept the view which places Mark late 60s AD, probably after the death of Peter).

However, as I suggested in an earlier post, the date of Mark’s ‘publication’ (i.e. the day a first copy was sent to Ephesus or Jerusalem) might be called one of those “good news / bad news” days for God and the church. Think of it – this abbreviated record, suddenly authoritative at Rome, is dumped into the laps of other tradition-communities by a writer who has failed to consult with them about their own traditions before going public with an epoch-making narrative about an epoch-making career. In these apostolic communities I think Mark must have had the effect of a literary ‘bombshell’.

[Note: the next two paragraphs are a revision of the original, re-written Nov 23, 2011]

The canonical status of Matthew, Luke, and John is equal to that of Mark, and this only affirms a basic condition of all testimony – that somebody must go first, and that it would be absurd to argue from the literary priority of testimony to its primacy over later testimony with regard to fact.  We should not be surprised if a large amount of narrative and logia was still ‘out there’ when Mark ‘hit the streets’ – and I think we can trust that most of it is represented by what we find in the three later-appearing gospels.

So Mark’s priority in time gives it no a priori privilege over the theological or christological content of the three later-appearing Gospels.  We might even question the motive and good faith of anyone who would attempt to finesse the literary priority of Mark’s threadbare account into an implied authority for a ‘minimalist’ interpretation of Jesus based on Mark alone (or on Mark and an imagined ‘Q’ document). I would certainly question the motive and good faith of a non-christian writer like Adam Gopnik for example, who has indulged his sophisticated New Yorker editors and readers with a very uneven and gently mocking article, What did Jesus do? (May 24, 2010), based very strictly on Mark alone.

For better or for worse (and I touched on some of Mark’s ‘positives’ in an earlier post), we should view Mark’s narrative premiere as a kind of material antithesis of the Incarnation, an epochal event which sets in motion an inevitable dialectical process by which three additional compilations of equal authority appear within about 35 years.

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when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace.

Has a great religion of the Spirit been obstructed by a Christianity of the flesh?

If the way of grace and truth bestowed by God’s Anointed was meant for the whole world, why after nearly 2000 years does more than half the world still remain aloof from its blessing?

I sincerely doubt those who say that this harvest shortfall was preordained. The tardy consummation of the church’s mission cannot even any longer be covered by the Son’s teaching regarding slow-growth (mustard seed, drop of leaven, etc) – because it is the number outside the church that is slowly growing.

The failure of the church cannot be of God, but of men. If the cause of all spiritual advance realized so far is of Christ, it stands to reason that the frustration of this advance is due to human errors which hang too heavily over that human institution which was charged with bearing God’s truth to the world. Can I get a pastor to agree with me here? I doubt it.

Instead of equating the human doctrines of Christianity with truth and orthodoxy, maybe we should check to see whether they have not been admixed with enough human error to obscure the whole truth revealed in Christ.

Instead of acquiescing in the church’s well-meaning attempt to symbolize the truth of Christ by sacraments, ritual, and old liturgies, maybe we should ask whether living truth has not been more deeply hidden, to less effect, by these mysteries.

The causes for the church’s failure might lie too close for us to see, “hidden in plain sight.” A good example is Pentecost itself, which the church has been pleased to celebrate as her own rather exclusive birthday party. She teaches that the Holy Spirit itself was given to her as a birthday present – always explaining that it is her members (only) who receive this gift. People visiting Jerusalem that day from other parts of the world, she says, were instructed about the death, resurrection and eminent return of the Messiah, and told it would be their doom unless they received membership with them through repentance and baptism.

I do not reject the idea that the church would have been unborn or stillborn without the aid of Christ’s new Spirit, but I think this Spirit can be limited in its effectiveness by false teachings which are alleged to determine its availability.

How well are we really able to see the true meaning of the day when the church insists on carrying on so? Tonight, when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace. Because I think the gift given on this day by God’s Anointed was meant to be a universal opportunity of atonement that transcends Baptism and orthodoxy.

If I’m right, it is the church’s failure to understand Pentecost that has curtailed her own effectiveness and obstructed the Kingdom.

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Michael Polanyi was an internationally regarded Professor of Physical Chemistry at Manchester University when he was selected to deliver the 1951-52 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen.

I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment. In the exact sciences this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But we shall see that it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. – Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, U. Chicago Press, 1957, vii

The Manchester academic Senate and Council judged the invitation and resulting lectures important enough to allow Dr. Polanyi to exchange his Chair of Physical Chemistry for a Professorial appointment without lecturing duties; an arrangement lasting 9 years, which enabled him to both prepare the lectures and write the ensuing book

“The personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge.”

I’ve owned Polanyi’s books for years, and read a good deal of his writing years ago. I was glad to get back to it this week after a fresh jolt of inspiration from the blog of Swedish philosopher Jan Olof Bengtsson, who has been posting his notes on American philosopher and Personalist Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) – material not included in Bengtsson’s 2006 book, The Worldview of Personalism: origins and early development.

B. P. Bowne is another old interest of mine, and I own old used copies of nearly all of his books. Thanks to Jan Olof, I am currently re-reading Personalism (1908), containing the substance of the 1907 Harris Lectures at Northwestern University, Chicago.

From Bowne’s 1908 preface: “The aim of these lectures is to show that critical reflection brings us back again to the personal metaphysics which Comte rejected. We agree with him that abstract and impersonal metaphysics is a mirage of formal ideas, and even largely of words which begin, continue, and end in abstraction and confusion. … Causal explanation must always be in terms of personality, or it must vanish altogether.”

It was Bowne’s contention that the only formal setting of experience able to give a concrete knowledge of causation (after Hume’s destructive analysis) is derived from our personal experience as agents of stasis and change. Thus all knowledge of effects requires the primacy of what I would call the Form of the Personal.

Back to Polanyi:

“Into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a vital component of his knowledge. And around this central fact I have tried to construct a system of correlative beliefs which I can sincerely hold, and to which I can see no acceptable alternatives.”

I think Michael Polanyi and Borden Parker Bowne would characterize today’s materialist schools in psychology and the humanities as monuments to intellectual cowardice; a surrender of moral insight and creative power to the human need for authority conceived as objective and detached – but not at all proper to the advance of knowledge in those particular fields.

B. P. Bowne: “Some harmless-looking doctrine is put forth in epistemology, and soon there is an agnostic chill in the air that is fatal to the highest spiritual faiths of the soul.”

Michael Polanyi: “Personal Knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind.”

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