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Archive for December, 2011

I think the meaning of Luke 18:10-14 remains unchanged even when the roles are reversed. Here’s what I mean: What if Jesus had told the story this way?

… The tax collector stood and prayed thus with himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not as other men are, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Pharisee.  I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all that comes into my possession.’

But the Pharisee, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.

I doubt any of my readers would argue that switching the lines spoken by the two men has subtracted anything from the essential teaching of Jesus, but I’d be interested to hear.  The idea occurred to me while reading the following in a chapter on Prayer in the New Testament in a now-obscure 1926 book by W.F. Tillett.

“It is well for us to remember that there is no sin in being a Pharisee, and no saintliness in being a publican.  It is that for which one prays that reveals his real character and the quality of his religion… Thanksgiving is often the best kind of prayer, but such thanksgiving as this man offered was nothing but an offensive expression of self-conceit and complacent pride… The one supreme object of prayer is, first of all, to get rid of sin and to be justified before God.  Prayers that are directed toward this end are effectual and saintly, whether they be offered by Pharisees or publicans.” (Providence Prayer and Power, p. 214).

It is just as easy to detect the gist of the divine message when the Pharisee’s lines are placed on the lips of the wealthy publican. Because it’s not merely about the justification of the ‘outcast’ publican (although that element might have appealed to Luke) but about the inefficacious mindset of the self-congratulatory do-gooder at prayer – whoever he may be.

My role reversal does lose the implied criticism of the Pharisee as a religious type, but I doubt such a negative stereotype can explain everything – especially in view of the high probability that there were decent Pharisees among his own followers.

However, I admit that the New Testament version bears a glint of religious genius to which my role-reversal cannot attain – the added irony of the superior wealth of the ‘justified’ in the Gospel account.  The special shock-value contributed to the story by the wealth of the publican was a factor which I think cannot have escaped the mind of Jesus.  I’ve seen uninspired visual portrayals of the story which fail to deliver this irony because they depict the Pharisee as the far better-dressed man.

Wilbur Fisk Tillett  (1854-1936) was dean of the Theological faculty and professor of Christian doctrine at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

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Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul.  I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)

It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language.  But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him Truth itself is a realm that must be made independent of all images and sense data – in order that it may become the sole provenance of the Word.

“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe.  Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)

But Ellul compensates the materialist generously for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth – he readily concedes to these lesser forms the illustrious name ‘Reality.’

I don’t know if this move would appease our shrill acolytes of ‘Science’ who – unlike the professionals within its working ranks – believe ‘the Method’ to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems.  But a materialist who does not thoroughly understand that accuracy is a value existing on a level completely different from veracity or honesty is probably not equipped for understanding Ellul.

Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.

By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data.  He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.

And by differentiating Word from Image, Ellul does not intend to exclude language from its function in Reality. It is clear that language has given an evolutionary advantage to the speaking race of animals – by which they might overcome non-speaking predators who were better endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, habit.  But I think Ellul views this evolutionary advantage of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. Yes, language is the secret of material mastery, but its real essence as the Word is to be the guide in attainments that transcend material forms of success.

“What is Truth?”  Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.

“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.  And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)

I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one.  Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.

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