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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.

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.

On my one trip to Europe (in October, 2000) I enjoyed a 5-day river cruise, Frankfort-Trier-Cologne, as a guest of my parents, who arranged the voyage as a chance to spend time with their seven grown children. Wonderful reunion, great food and beautiful sights; but I confess I spent 25% of my daylight hours ashore and alone, visiting scenes from the life of the Christian ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’ -the 12th century Benedictine visionary and polymath  Hildegard von Bingen.

Ancient well at the Disibodenberg ruins

Hildegard’s experience marks an epoch in Christian history which has held a fascination for me since I heard her story 30 years ago. And a leisurely Rhine cruise turned out to be just the opportunity I needed to reach out and touch the memory of this wonderful woman.

Her reliquary on the altar at St. Joseph's, Rudesheim

First port in our cruise itinerary, in fact, was the town of Rudesheim, with its main street oriented to the tourist trade.  This 90 minute ‘shop stop’ for the others gave me a window of time in which to climb the hill to  Eibingen convent, a late foundation of Hildegard’s which is active today and still cherishes her memory. I stopped on the way to have a look inside St. Joseph’s parish church, where her reliquary is kept.  These two points of interest left me precious little time to make it back to my ship before it debarked!

Bingen itself was not a port of call and required a side-trip by rail.  Here I found another parish  church dedicated to her memory, with a scale model of the famous  Rupertsberg monastery on display.  Hildegard drew up the plan for her new monastery and directed the building of it herself – she became abbess when she and her fellow nuns moved in after 1150, and conducted four preaching missions from this point on the Rhine, all the while writing her books, until her death in 1179.  The last vestige of Rupertsberg -a restored wine cellar below street level- was closed to the public the day I visited.

The absolute highpoint of my trip -among other sites which included the home of Nicholas de Cusa, the tomb of Albert Magnus, and the cathedrals of Trier and Cologne- was the day I jumped ship for a self-guided excursion by rail, bus, sidewalk and footpath to the hilltop ruins of the monastery at Disibodenberg.

ruins of women's quarters - Disibodenberg

“St. Disibod’s mountain” was Hildegard’s first monastic home. She spent  the first 50 years of her religious life here above the confluence of the Nahe and Glan rivers south of the Rhine. And it was here that, in 1141, she heard those mysterious and compelling words, “Speak and write what you see and hear.”

For ten years after hearing ‘the voice,’ Hildegard kept listening, and seeing, and recording her experiences.  In 1151 her obedience brought forth to the world her big, very uneven and very difficult book, Wisse die Wege or Know the Ways (in Latin often abbreviated as Scivias).

The teachings –or maybe just the wonder attached to her great experience- gave a wide-ranging impulse to faith among many who in her day rejoiced in hope (against hope) that God was still speaking to his  broken church. And the church was so very busted in Hildegard’s day. In 1147, the pope (Eugenius III) was living in exile in France. The pontif’s ill-conceived Crusade had just ended  in disaster. For many months he had been afraid to show his face in Rome, where Arnold of Brescia and his Roman Commune had rendered the city for the time quite immune to the pomp and pretensions of the papacy. That year Eugenius called a synod at Trier to investigate Hildegard’s writings. At Trier the pope himself read aloud to his court from the Scivias  manuscript -and he judged at the end of the proceedings that she should continue the work. Even Bernard of Clairvaux  (not a liberal) thought  she was cool. Johannes Tauler also, in a sermon  preached  200 years later, made a point with reference to  an ikon of Hildegard which still had a place of honor among the sisters he addressed.

ruins of the abbey church, Disibodenberg

The 12th century is ancient history to us; however, if we reckon from the epoch of the Resurrection (c.30 AD), we still live and toil in the last years of the same Second Millennium in which Hildegard lived and worked – and I think this makes us her eschatological children in a sense – I mean I think we are obliged to take a look and to recognize that she started something that really hasn’t ended – that God ‘who in many and various ways spoke of old through the prophets,’ has not stopped speaking.  I have more to say about things the Holy Spirit was alleged to have spoken through his daughter Hildegard … for a later post.

View from the meditation chapel, Disibodenberg

Pete Rollins is planning a talk in Belfast in September to explain that The Apocalypse isn’t coming – it’s already happened.

Fundamentalist Christianity has long expressed a view of apocalypse as some future event that will consume the present world and replace it with a new one. Yet while this is a bloody and destructive vision, I will argue that it is inherently conservative in nature… For those who hold to such a vision are willing to imagine absolutely everything around them changing so that their present values and beliefs can remain utterly unchanged.  In contrast I will argue that a Christian apocalypse describes something much more radical, namely an event that fundamentally ruptures and re-configures our longings, hopes and desires…

This resonates with me, although I’m waiting to see where Rollins will take it.  If he has not forgotten his Greek, he will oblige us I hope with a vision of a true ‘apocalypse’ – not earth-scorching destruction but paradigm-shattering revelation.

I have made two attempts here to articulate my own growing sense that the Apocalypse is already history.  In January I first hinted at my post-apocalyptic ‘vision’ when I called out the folly of Harold (“I did the math”) Camping’s predictions of a Day of Reckoning for May 21 of this year.  But I’ve since elaborated a bit more of my view that puts us now almost a century past the end-times of a less-than-edifying ‘Protestant-Catholic’ Christian dispensation.

Philosophers’ ships is the collective name of several boats which, in September and November 1922 carried more than 160 expelled Russian intellectuals from Petrograd to Stettin, Germany.

Other intellectuals were transported in 1923 by train to Riga, Latvia or by boat from Odessa to Constantinople.

Three detention lists included 228 people, 32 of them students.

Among the expellees were these four Christian thinkers whose books I have read and would endorse:

Nikolai Berdyaev

Sergei Bulgakov

Semen L. Frank

Nikolai Lossky

See also, Chamberlain, Lesley, Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, St Martin’s Press, 2007

HT Wikipedia

I picked up at the library yesterday Larry Hurtado’s book on early Christ-devotion in the church, Lord Jesus Christ (2003) hoping to buff up a little on elements of what I think could be a good argument against the minimalist view that the Son’s divinity was not believed until after the written gospels started showing up.

I might have to check out Dunn’s (more recent) book on the subject later, but I already have Dunn’s book on The Theology of Paul (1998), and thought
I should avoid the distraction until after Hurtado.

I also grabbed Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel (2009) on the monotheism issue, because I think early devotion to Jesus would be huge if a context of strict monotheism could be shown for first century Judaism – also think it good fun to be able to harass the defenders of the idea that the Jesus cult
was just Judaism as usual until John’s Gospel showed up.

The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (ed. Bauckham and Mosser 2008) is another book of interest I’m looking into.  I also picked up Paul N. Anderson’s Christology of the Fourth Gospel (1996) because I’m hungry for authors who are willing to argue that John is an eyewitness source.

Meanwhile I have a new interest in the spiritualized approach to theology attempted by Hans Denck and Dirk Philips (early sixteenth century) to add to my theme of ‘getting over’ the Reformation (without going Catholic).

Henry Ward Beecher was one of my five favorite preachers of the nineteenth century (and no, the names Finney and Spurgeon and Moody are not
anywhere on my list).  I took home Beecher’s first ‘Plymouth Pulpit’ series (1868-69).  Another source of inspiration will be Fr. Pierre Charles (S.J.), Prayer for All Times (1922).

Found a 20th century  theologian of interest, the late John McIntyre; I have been reading his Theology after the Storm (1996).

Also excited about Sergei Bulgakov’s Bride of the Lamb (1945/2002).

Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth (2010) looks like it will be both stimulating and frustrating.

Lots of new reading – and this bunch is only part of my total 40-book check-out limit.

The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily the tables can be turned to transfer the ‘onus’ from Gospel-hearers onto the heads of Gospel-preachers whose method and theologies limit our ability to hear and enter into the Kingdom.

“You may as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road,” Jesus seems to say (Mt 13:18), “if you present to men a Kingdom of God having so little of the flavor of my Spirit that it is perceived as either humdrum or humbug” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines are either spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible and therefore misunderstood by large numbers of people.

“On the other hand,” we hear him saying (Mt 13:20-21), “if you think emotional hooks will frighten people into the Kingdom with threats covered by cheap grace, or entice them in with promises of great beds of roses, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“And it is a mistake,” he seems to imply (Mt 13:22), “to pitch my own sublime cares and delights in terms which resemble too much the cares of the world and its delights” – the issue here is confusion of realms, and this implicates teachers as well as students where preaching strives to resemble the everyday wisdom of the world in so many ways that the Kingdom is confused for the world and the spirit is choked by unspiritual meanings and values.