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Posts Tagged ‘revelation’

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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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

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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.

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“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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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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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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[Revised 06 Mar 2011]

A year ago I mentioned that I thought arguments supporting the literacy of Jesus offered some surprising theological insights.  I touched on it again in May.  To me it is still a question with fascinating implications for the doctrines of faith, of spirit, of divine and secular history, and of the Word of God:

Granted a probability exists that Jesus was able to read and write – what might have been his reasons for deciding not to leave his own teachings, memoirs, etc., in written form?

My position has been that a literate Jesus could only have judged that the consequences of leaving such artifacts were potentially unfavorable for the spread of his Gospel.  That sounds paradoxical and counter-intuitive, but I think it is very interesting to ponder the negatives.

1.  Jesus was reluctant to quench the Spirit

What could possibly be wrong with sponsoring a permanently fossilized, absolute specimen of truth, to be revered by the surviving community even before his death (and resurrection)?  I hope you see my point.  I think Jesus is always looking ahead to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.  A permanent and authoritative text in his name would be the one immovable historical force most capable of frustrating the higher mission of the great truth-seeking Spirit which was to come.

Jesus might even have seen at first hand the power of supposedly inerrant ‘scriptures’ to frustrate new life – in the negative effects of prevailing Jewish attitudes toward their scriptures upon his own mission.

2. Jesus was unwilling to risk corruption of the text

We might also postulate self-censorship for Jesus on the grounds that he recognized that no writing of the period could actually be safe from corruption over time.  Here Jesus would be making a very canny move to frustrate any chance that a document carrying the absolute weight of his personal authority might nevertheless be edited, manipulated, or falsified by later copyists and well-meaning editors.

Conclusion

Two things may be inferred from this one very non-miraculous feature in the life of Christ – that he could read and write his native tongue.

(1) Jesus was depending on the Holy Spirit for a kind of assistance that would be compromised by perfect character portraits and a verbatim transmission of doctrine.

(2) Jesus took a negative view of the suitability of ‘historical’ records (even scripture) to be direct purveyors of his transcendent Truth.

NOTE:  I’m celebrating the blog’s 1-year anniversary by starting a policy of revisiting topics from year-ago posts.  I think attachment of a ‘second chapter’ to some of those topics will allow me to develop my thoughts in the light of a year’s growth.  It will also keep me honest in some of those cases where I promised a ‘continuation’ which never materialized.

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