Friday, May 04, 2012
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Sermon for the Twelve Days of Christmas
And any other Day of the Year
Christmas Comes Again
There is a modern version of the Carol “Christmas Comes Once More’. So far as I recall it has images of a brightly burning fire round which is gathered a happy family. There are also the stock references to Santa, snow and reindeer. The original version of 1817, originating somewhere in Bavaria has a first verse that goes:
The happy Christmas comes once more
The heavenly Guest is at the door,
The blessed words, the shepherds thrill,
The joyous tidings, peace good will.
It goes on for another five verses tracing in some detail the combined Birth Narratives given us by Matthew & Luke. One must admit that the “jingly” rhyming scheme gets rather tiresome, but the contrast between today’s welcome of Christmas’s coming round again and that of two centuries ago could hardly be more stark.
The secular Christmas is part of the whole system of public holidays which provide a break for working people whom the Romans called them the “plebs”, and each holiday has to have something brand new – a game, a product a “grand slam giveaway” - to cheer up the dreary stretches of life in between; (the Romans called it panem et circuses). Providing the regular spectacles was the responsibility of the Senatorial class, notorious for their graft and greed, but willing to spend vast sums on the Coliseum productions for the political clout that could result.
I leave you to consider any parallels to this Roman history.
Doubtless, this cycle of our public holidays is of great importance to the social fabric and helps people through life in the rather sorry conditions of what is now called the 99%.
In this scenario, Christmas really does go away; it is packed up with the Christmas lights, put out with the discarded fir trees and ruefully contemplated in a “party’s over” mode as the credit card balance is presented.
Christmas Never Went Away
In contrast to this, for committed Christens, Christmas never went away. It is true that the symbols, and what one might call the “props” of the Liturgy, the crèche, the special candles and Christmas banners are stored in some deep place behind the Vestry, but the essential meaning of the Festival is with us always, woven into the very fabric of the life of the Christian Community. Furthermore we do not need something totally different (as the Pythons would say) each year to titillate the senses and relieve our boredom. A dominant theme of the secular Christmas is that everything from medicines to mattresses is “a new formula” or completely new design.
In contrast the Christmas Liturgy is content to make its way each year through the stories of the Nativity. We are not bored with this because it freshens up for us an essential aspect of everyday Christian life that sometimes becomes somewhat forgotten.
Promises of God
This is true of the whole of the annual progression of the Christian calendar, mot clearly understood in the case of the Easter Liturgy. Its particular rites and symbols come and go: any spare Palms are put away; the Paschal candle stick is carefully stored and the text & music for the Exsultet is put in its folder. A central, perhaps the central tenet of Christian belief is that Easter does not go away, but is woven into the fabric of everyday Christian life, and each Sunday Liturgy reminds us of this fact.
The major festivals of the Christian year commemorate historical events of the life of Jesus or the Church. Lying behind this is the central tenet of Judaism, which became central to the Christian tradition: it is that the one constant God is involved in human affairs and acts in historical events. In contrast to all ancient religions before the emergence of the Hebrews Yahweh is not capricious, not likely to fall into a rage because a pinch of incense was missed. To use an O.T. mode of speech, what does anger God, the Prophets clearly saw, was the failure of humans to apply God’s standards of faithfulness and compassion to one another.
This is the historical context of the birth of Jesus. The birth of a baby to an itinerant family is a common experience of humanity. This particular birth remains central to the Christian faith, however, because it proclaims the faithfulness of God to the promises made in the Covenants of Judaism, and to be fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus. The promise “Emmanuel”, God is with us is given concrete content in the teaching and healing work of the Messiah. The blazing truth of this birth, is the promise that the chaos of human life is human doing, not God’s; the promise is that the divine plan will, in the end, prevail over the powers of chaos and darkness that so mar our existence. This is the meaning of Christmas, and this is why Christmas does not go away when we pack up the Liturgical symbols of the Festival.
Christmas and Easter come year after year, but the theological truth they embody is with us always.
Christmas, Lent, Easter, Advent (repeat)
There is, however, one other important Liturgical season lying between Christmas and Easter. The season of Lent reminds us that the final victory only comes after a bitter struggle with the powers of the abyss: greed, hate, the exercise of unbridled power, lying and self-aggrandizement, to note a mere sample of the all too long list.
We see Jesus throughout his life engaged in this struggle, and, from the beginning, individual Christians have known that they are to join with him in the fight with the Christmas assurance that God, in & through Jesus is with us, always until the end (Mt 28.19)
Something the Arch of Canterbury said in his Christmas sermon last year is, I think, relevant here. It caused some ruffled feathers in the Tory press, but the Guardian, that staunch advocate of a liberal position, praised it and made a snide comparison to the Queen’s Christmas message which emphasized the power of Athletics to bring people together.
The Socio/Political Implications
The Archbishop of Canterbury says much the same as I have just said: that Christmas is about the unshakeable love of God for us, and the solidarity of Jesus with humanity.
He suggests, in line with the great Hebrew Prophets, that we think about our own solidarity with our fellow citizens, our own keeping of the social covenant. He goes on (I quote him):
"Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together? ….. [W]e can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out. That confidence isn't in huge supply at the moment, given the massive crises of trust that have shaken us all in the last couple of years and the lasting sense that the most prosperous have yet to shoulder their load”.
Christmas speaks of “God with us”, specifically in the mission of Jesus who has total solidarity with us. St Paul calls the Church “one Body” in which “if one suffers, all suffer”. So in solidarity with Jesus and one another we go through the trials of Lent, fighting the dark powers; and Easter proclaims that as Jesus the Christ is raised to new life, so we are raised with Him.
It might well be said that as a nation and a global community we are in a deep Lent, and Rowan Williams’ words translate Christian belief into the present challenge, that all members of the community shoulder their fair share of he pain.
One can see why the Conservative press took umbrage, but for those of us who know and live by the truth that Christmas, Lent and Easter do not come and go but are knit into our daily lives, his words makes perfect sense.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
On Trinity Sunday, one of the hymns at the Eucharist was All things Bright and Beautiful. I cannot recall when I last sang this hymn, but it produced in me a great flood of nostalgia; together with Away in a Manger I think it is one of the first hymns I learned in Kindergarten and our somewhat tuneless voices squeaked through it at least once a week.
The eight o’clock congregation at St Peter’s, Lewes, is totally atypical for such a service , particularly in the UK, but also in a fair number of Episcopal parishes: the church is full, the average age does not hover around 72 (which is probably a conservative norm for most “8 O’clocks”), the singing, led by a very competent organist, is lusty and does not drag, and, most blessed of all, this congregation is not shackled to Rite I (not to mention those who still regard the 1928 Book of Common Prayer as a Textus Receptus).
What was I Hearing?
With all this is mind, it is not surprising that I found myself singing more heartily than my now rather croaky tenor has achieved in years. “Each little flower that opens … the purple headed mountain … the cold wind in the winter”: verse after verse, I belted out the words, perhaps, for a fleeting fragment of a second glimpsing some of the wonder of a five-year old, but certainly for a moment transported to a less complicated state. As we got into the third verse, however, I sensed a sort of descant, not the one provided in the Hymnal music, which doubtless for artistic and not theological reasons, shortens “the Lord (should it be LORD?)† God” to a simple God –El(ohim) ; clearly the complexities of J & E were not an issue for Cecil Frances Alexander. I listened through the billows of enthusiastic sound. What was the descant? “In a manner of speaking. Sort of, but don’t let that matter”.
What Caused the Echo?
Luckily, there was an excellent sermon on the Trinity (“Who says, ‘Oh my Trinity’ when presented with a brand new kitchen?), or I should have spent the rest of the time mulling over the words of the descant and trying to work out what I really do with liturgical texts that pitch fork one back to an intellectual norm of two and a half centuries ago. Of course, the consideration of liturgical texts is a relatively innocuous occupation, but the boat begins to rock seriously when one moves to dogmatic and formulaic texts, and then, inevitably, to scriptural ones.
The reasons for the echo descant in my head are far too great in number and enmeshed in complexity even to begin to ‘unpack’ here: I suspect that that would need a full autobiography, which would, inevitably, not get at the many influences to which I am blind. Suffice it say that I moved from a childhood only tenuously connected to “Church” (and it was made clear to me that “Chapel” was not ‘our kind of thing’). I was of course Christened, i.e. baptized, and confirmed, but it was not until I was in the Royal Navy, aged 18 and training to be a Radar Mechanic, that I came into contact with the tiny Christian community served by a remarkable C. of E. Chaplain on a Naval station of almost 2000 trainees of various kinds. I suppose I moved from a kind of Deism (developed by hours of discussion in my latter years at school), to a kind of C.S. Lewisian and rather aggressively “orthodox” position. The typical Chesterton/Lewis/Greene/Belloc position was that it could only be 'invincible ignorance' that prevented people seeing the obvious superiority of Roman Catholic claims, going with a rather superior attitude towards “heretics”. C.S. Lewis’ remark is fairly typical (and slick) that if one approached the N.T. with an open mind one could only reach the conclusion that Jesus was God (sic) or mad.
Reassessing Ideas about God
It was at several years into my theological training before I completely escaped the dogmatic blinkers imposed by Lewis’s kind of Christian apologetic, a trajectory that has continued now for over 40 years with, it seems to me, an accelerated pace in the last decade.
A bumper sticker I have seen recently might sum it up, - except for the fact I didn’t have a car as a theological student: “My karma ran over my dogma”.
So behind the descant is a long development. The trigger for its appearance at “the Lord God made them all” resulted from a great deal of reassessing of orthodox views concerning the transcendence/immanence of God, the Christological dogmas of the fifth century, the nature of Christian prayer and a renewed tussle with the issues of theodicy.
Perhaps the immediate trigger was the feeling that the author of this rollicking hymn clearly took for granted a God who on a regular basis “meddled with the molecules” to borrow a phrase of David Jenkins. In a book with the rather quirky title, God, Miracle and the Church of England. On p. 61 he asks, “Did God push the Emperor Theodosius off his horse on 28July 450?” [This accident had significant historical and theological consequences, particularly in the framing of Christological dogma.]
How Does God Interact with the Universe?
This is not a frivolous question; it is, in effect, asking how does God interact with the universe; I assume that if one wishes to remain within the broadest perimeter of a definition of a Christian Theologian, one accepts as axiomatic some form of divine origin for the Universe.
At the same time, if one is not to remain a purveyor of formularies that depend on an understanding of the physical universe that is no longer in any sense tenable, the need for theological recasting of the central tenets of the Christian faith is urgent and paramount.
Even decades after the geological writings of Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology, 1830-33), Charles Darwin (Origin of Species, 1859), and a host of physicists, astronomers and chemists, conservative theologians, that is, the vast majority outside a few German universities, had hardly budged since the 14th century. The uproar over David Jenkins', views (particularly after his appointment as Bishop of Durham) suggests that more clergy than one would suppose have not come to grips with the total shift of world-view which any serious theologian must face. So far as the “person in the street” is concerned, we have daily evidence that this is the case; almost every day we see someone on TV, standing in a scene of desolation, giving thanks that God saved their house alone out of a row of a dozen.
God not an Arbitrary Meddler
David Jenkins writes, “Unless we can be clear that between the scientific and historical causalities of the universe and of the world on the one hand and the actions and transactions of God with persons on the other there is a space, then the problem of evil is absolutely overwhelming. I personally would sympathize with those who find evil overwhelming in any case. But as a Christian who believes that there is a real and basic sense in which God interacts with the world as he is in Jesus, I do not believe this. Nonetheless I am increasingly clear that God is not an arbitrary meddler nor an occasional fixer.” (p.63).
The Hymn with my Descant
In the light of all this, I hope it might be clear why my mentally edited version of All Things went like this
All creatures great and small,
The Lord God made them all.
Descant 1: In a manner of speaking
v. 1 Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.
Descant 2: So to speak
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
Descant 3: Join the tea party
He made them every one.
Descants 1 & 2 are repeated alternately at the end of each following verse.
In closing, it must be remembered that the hymn was written specifically for children who are unlikely to be bothered with issues of divine omnipotence and omniscience. Still, it raises something like the Santa Claus question at a much more serious level. After all, it is quite unusual to meet even a ten-year old who thinks it is worth putting out milk and cookies for Santa, whereas fully grown men and women go through life with images and concepts of God that affect them at every level. Would it be too absurd to suggest that such unreal ideas can cause governmental paralysis?
† LORD, in upper case characters is used in most contemporary English bible translations when the original Hebrew has the name of God, i.e. JHWH, mistakenly transcribed by the earliest translators like Tyndale as Jehovah.
In the early parts of the O.T. it was noticed (early 17th century C.E.) that sometimes the word God (El) alone was used - Gen. 5.1 and several hundred more! – and at others, the name of God was added – Gen. 3.1 ditto. This was one of the early clues that the first five books of the O.T., the Pentateuch, were by no means a single work (authored by Moses), but were made up of many elements.
Sections with El alone were called the “E” source, and those with the added name JHWH were designated “J
Part II of this essay will consider the “so to speak” aspect of reading the Chalcedonian Definition. Mercifully, that text has never, so far as I know, been included for congregational use in the Liturgy, though the Athanasian Creed, which is neither by Athanasius, not, strictly speaking, a Creed was mandatory for use at least three times a year in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. (In the 1552 Book, it was called for at least a dozen times a year).
The Theological College (Seminary) I attended in the UK of 1950s, dutifully followed the rubric, plumbing the depths of liturgical torture on Trinity Sunday when the thing was chanted in Plainsong. When we reached the passage which goes :
Such as the Father is, such is the Son : and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate : and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible : and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible,
the plainsong at least covered the sotto voce chorus/descant,
“The whole damn thing incomprehensible”.
Part II will take as its starting point John Hicks’ The Metaphor of God Incarnate.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Anyone who knows the works of Joachim Jeremias, Dominic Crossman and Marcus Borg will recognize my great debt to these scholars, though doubtless, many others of my past teachers also can be overheard; this is especially true of Roland Walls, who died recently. He was a great New Testament scholar, and my first guide to the study of the Gospels and Epistles.
What is 'Spirituality'?
A consideration of what part the Eucharist plays in the spiritual life might help us to get a better understanding of what “spirituality” means. I say this because I sometimes get the impression that the popular use of the word is to express something ethereal, something untouched by the messiness of matter. It also often seems to imply an activity, or perhaps an attitude, that is intensely private, solitary and personal; if this really were the case, it seems fairly clear that the Eucharist, which is public, corporate, shared, would not be all that helpful in the spiritual life.
Since it is fairly generally agreed that the Eucharist is an essential factor in living the Christian life, it seems that we need to have a rather clearer understanding of what precisely we are talking about when we use the phrase, “the spiritual life”.
Meaning of 'Spiritual Life'
The word itself has acquired a much broader meaning in the contemporary religious scene than it has in the biblical writings. This can, I think, be illustrated by browsing the “religious” section of any sizeable bookshop. In the sub-section labeled “Spirituality”, we shall find books on Yoga; cosmic meditations; the importance of crystals in the spiritual life, and, quite probably books on “self improvement” through spiritual exercises. Now, I do not want to belittle this very broad understanding of spirituality, and it is laudable that people seek for goals beyond a crass materialism. My point is that this is not what is meant when we speak of “eucharistic spirituality”.
So before directing our thoughts to the Eucharist, I want very briefly to look at the way the spirit is presented in the Bible.
Spirit in the O.T.
In the very first paragraph of the O.T. writings the book of Genesis gives a kind of preface to the long story of God’s dealing with humanity, we hear the words:
“Darkness covered the face of the abyss while the breath of God swept over the chaos”. (Gen. 1.2)
In Hebrew the word is ru’ach. This is the Spirit of God, and it is used to describe God acting in and on the material universe. It is the dynamic behind all the living things that appear as the story goes on. But the early bard/theologians focused particularly on human beings. In the first account, humans are said it be in the “image of God”, endowed with reason, will and conscience; in the second account, God breathes into “his nostrils the breath (ru’ach) of life”. The Hebrew understanding of human nature was very different from the that developed in Greek philosophy: the giving of God’s breath (spirit) did not create , as it were, two components for a human being, the material and the spiritual, but what we might call a psycho-somatic unity.
The Eucharist – Preliminary Points
It should, I think, be clear that this has profound implications for our understanding of “spirituality”, and we need to keep that in mind as we turn to consider the importance of the Eucharist in our understanding of spirituality. Louis Weil begins an essay on the Eucharist by saying,
“ [T]he eucharist is the action which most fully embodies the many dimensions of the Christian faith” (Christianity, Complete Guide p.395).
This is an excellent characterization of the Eucharist; I would like, however, to amplify the phrase “many dimensions” by an explicit mention of the dimension of prayer. It seems to me that the eucharistic service is one of the best frameworks for prayer that we have. It is important to note that this refers to the service as a whole and not just to a few sentences, the so-called ‘words of consecration’, that became the center both of bitter controversy and also an incredibly narrow kind of spirituality; I will return later to consider this point.
Eucharist – Medieval
We tend to see the Eucharist viewed through the lens of the medieval period, but by the fourth century much of the original context and significance of the early church’s celebration had been transmuted into an intense concentration on the Presence of Jesus in the elements of bread and wine. Moreover an actual eating of even a symbolic meal at Communion (‘making my Communion’) became extremely rare. The congregation stood around in the pew-less nave until the bell sounded: then all attention was on the elevated Host and Chalice. One of the main targets for the Reformers’ discontent (to put it mildly) with the established church was the many aspects of the Mass, which they believed had significantly departed from primitive practice, and, more importantly, from the foundational beliefs of the earliest communities. In this they were more or less correct, but since the Reformation, we have learned a great deal more about the background to the Eucharist, about the views of the early believers and about the way they celebrated this central act of worship. Their insight is,however, clearly expressed in the re-naming of the Mass as the “Last Supper”.
Meals in Judaism & the N.T.
It is on the central importance of the meals, not just the final one, however, that Jesus shared with his closest followers to which I want to direct our attention. It is here, I believe, that we can see most clearly the meaning of the Eucharist for the Church, and it is here that we understand its unique importance for our corporate and individual spirituality. It is here, too, that we penetrate a good deal of later, overlaid material, and get to the heart of Jesus’ message: something one might suppose was important for our own spirituality.
I think we all appreciate the social importance of meals we share together; there are the gatherings for big occasions, Christmas, a birthday, or a victory celebration of a football club. But on a much more regular basis we share family meals, though we hear increasing laments that they are an endangered species. For a majority in contemporary society these meals have great social significance, but no religious connotation. When we turn to Jewish society in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ ministry, nothing could be further from the truth.
Food as Total Sustenance
The Hebrew understanding of human nature as a material and spiritual amalgam meant that a shared meal nourished the whole person, not just the muscles and other tissue. It should be noted, however, that ‘amalgam’ is hardly strong enough: there is no hint of “mixture” in Hebrew thought. Thus, as Judaism developed from an early Israelite base, meals began and ended with a “blessing”, which in Hebrew means a thanksgiving. The first thanksgiving was when the host broke up a large pita-like bread. It could be your own prayer, but various fixed forms also developed which thanked for the bounty of the earth and for sustaining us, but often included metaphorical extensions. One was a prayer for the gathering back together of all the Jews scattered in the Diaspora of the 5th to 2nd centuries. Wine had also become part of the normal diet, though meat (lamb or goat) was normally served only on festival occasions. Most obviously, a Lamb dish was an essential ingredient in the most special meal of the year, the Passover. Just as the breaking of the bread was invariably accompanied by a Thanksgiving, so the first cup of wine was blessed before being shared round, as was a final one at the end. (It may be that Luke’s puzzling variation, where he adds a second cup, may be closer to the actual form of the Last Supper) The prayers connected with the cup, often reminded those present of the vine as a symbol for Israel.
Jesus’ Meals – Key to Understanding the Message
As scholars have discovered more and more about the life and religion of Judaism, it has become clear that it is a mistake to concentrate all our attention on the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples: it was, rather, the last of a long sequence. True, it was special, and Jesus gave, as was customary, a special Passover Thanksgiving for the shared bread and the common cup, but it had a very clear context in the life of that embryonic community.
There are far more references to Jesus’ table fellowship, both during his ministry and after his execution than you might realize. Furthermore, the reports of his radical actions are often linked to these meals: he did not follow the required ritual of hand washing (Mk. 7.1-5; Mt. 11.35); here, as is often the case in the recording of Jesus’ meals, some central teaching is delivered at the meal; he points out that hate and a whole catalogue of sins do not come from the food we eat, but from a disordered human will; so Mark comments, “Jesus declared all food clean”, a radical rejection of Judaism.
The rules of fellowship not only decreed what you could and could not eat, they also regulated with whom you could share a meal. In his practice Jesus was, in effect, giving an answer to a pressing contemporary question: “Who is a true member of the chosen People of God?” His answer was so radical that it was one of the main factors in his eventual execution as a heretic. Everyone is a member of God’s family he said, even those who are excluded by your purity laws. This is clear in Mt. 9.10f:
“As he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collector and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples”.
The Pharisees began to criticize and ask the disciples why Jesus flaunts the traditions and laws. Jesus hears this and responds,
“Those who are well do not need a doctor, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners”.
An Inclusive Community
It is also clear that the issue of Jesus’ table fellowship was a focus of orthodox criticism as a saying recorded by Mt, & Lk. makes clear. John came, he said and because he was ascetic you accused him of demonic fanaticism;
I am here enjoying the spiritual blessing of shared meals and you say: “‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”. (Lk. 7.31ff.). Marcus Borg sums up the importance of Jesus’ teaching and actions as follows:
“[T]he meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community. The ethos of compassion led to an inclusive table fellowship, just as the ethos of purity led to a closed table fellowship. Ultimately the meals of Jesus are the ancestor of the Christian eucharist”. (On Meeting Jesus Again 1994, p.56).
Inclusive Teaching & Acts
Once we understand the importance of these table fellowship stories, much else in the acts and teachings of Jesus becomes clearer. So many of the parables make the point: the Good Samaritan story rejects racism; the Prodigal Son teaches God’s acceptance of sinners; the Laborers in the Vineyard says clearly that supposing one belongs to a specially favored group is an illusion
Not only does Jesus’ teaching reject exclusiveness, so do many of his actions: healing lepers and mad people was, in effect, bringing them back into God’s family from which Judaic purity laws excluded them. Perhaps the most dramatic statement in action is Jesus’ turning out the tourist traders who had virtually taken over the court of the Gentiles; quoting Isaiah Jesus drove them out, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mk.1.17).
The idea that unclean Gentiles should have access to Judaism’s holy place must have caused a good number of pursed lips and narrow looks.
All this is quite enough to explain the fury of the orthodox establishment, which led to the decision to get rid of such a heretic.
And at the end, Mark has an editorial comment of staggering insight. As Jesus died, Mark reports, “The veil of the Temple was rent in two”. The Holy of Holies is opened to all people. Everyone is called to come into the Kingdom of God.
The Eucharist and the Church
Here we have all the ingredients that went to produce the act of worship, which both gave solidarity to the embryonic movement, but also was a powerful formative influence in its growth. There is just one more factor of paramount importance: it was the occasions after his death when the gathered disciples are reported to have been assured of his presence with them, (which in rather an academic way are labeled “Resurrection Appearances”); significantly several of these are in the context of sharing food (Lk. 24.41ff; Jn. 21.9ff.). Most important is the account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24.30f) which ends with Luke’s reporting that “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread”: in effect, they recognized that the Risen Jesus was still presiding at their table fellowship, still offering them the assurance of God’s love, still reminding them of the love in action in making people whole again and still calling the whole of humanity to come into the realm of God’s loving rule.
Where, then, do we look to find Eucharistic spirituality? Although it might not seem so, I think I have been demonstrating the answer all the way through.
Let me try in a few brief theses to highlight the salient points.
1) At the centre of the Eucharist is the Resurrection faith;
2) At the center of Jesus’ life is the long tradition of Hebrew religion, particularly the teaching of the Prophets, but illuminated by a deep and personal closeness to God.
3) At the center of the ministry of Jesus is a devoted group of disciples who regularly share their fellowship at the common meal, to which, contrary to tradition, all are welcome.
4) The openness of these meals is all of a piece with Jesus’ teaching and message. All people are the children of God, not just a chosen race. The God with whom Jesus is seen to be intimately close is a compassionate God who requires justice and love in all human dealings, and whose will it is to unite humanity under the Rule of God.
5) Several sayings in the reliable traditions of Jesus’ teaching, use the common meal as a metaphor for the end age, the completing of God’s plan and the banishing of sin.
6) The shared meals gave material and spiritual sustenance, provided by the food eaten and the fellowship shared: they are spirituality for the whole person.
7) After his death, the disciples re-assemble and continue the table fellowship with the deep conviction that Jesus still presides at the meal, reinforcing his teaching, reminding them of the parables and leading them into new insights.
At this point I need to break into the list of theses to mention, however briefly, the important place of the Holy Spirit in all parts of the N.T. References are most apparent in the Fourth Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s letters, strongly suggesting the importance of this dynamic force at work in the earliest communities. There is not time to look further, but it is important to note that the concept had considerable fluidity at this early stage. The Holy Spirit is not always distinguished from the Spirit of the Risen Lord, and Paul often makes little distinction between the Holy Spirit (of later doctrine) and the Spirit of Christ. So to the final thesis:
8) In the service that came to be known as the Eucharist, the gathered community were sure of the Presence of Jesus, the Savior and Messiah; this was the same as the Presence of God’s Spirit among them, the very Spirit that breathed over the waters of chaos, bringing into being an ordered universe; the very same spirit that God breathed into humans, forming them in the divine image.
The Spirituality of the Eucharist
The Spirituality of the Eucharist is that we gather in table fellowship, as big and small communities have gathered, first in Europe, and then world-wide: in that gathering, we are intensely aware that this Presence and this Power are with us, and at every Eucharist we are reminded that this sacramental sharing is a foretaste of the heavenly Banquet, to which God calls all people:
“In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons ad daughters” (Eucharistic Prayer B, B.C.P. p.396).
Friday, March 11, 2011
Centrality of the Bible
A predominant and recurring theme in An Anglican Communion Covenant (1) is the references to the “Scripture(s)” as necessary for salvation. This assertion is found twice in the Introduction to the Covenant Text, and thirteen times in the text itself. This number of references in a relatively brief document surely suggests that the framers regard assent to the Scriptures as one of the major unifying factors for the holding together of a diverse collection of autonomous churches. (2)
In this, they are clearly correct: the animadversion to this centrality is entirely laudable and firmly in the normative Anglican tradition, as the various footnotes clearly show. The biblical writings have long been accepted as one of the primary “legs” of the C of E (later on, the Anglican Communion) stool; the second leg, tradition, is something of a slippery character, but the third, reason, has enabled most Anglican scholars to resist pressures to prop up an irrational approach to the canonical writings. It is almost a reflex reaction to refer to the Scriptures when defining the characteristics of the Church that finally emerged from the Elizabethan Settlement.
The phrase has proved very useful, since it can cover a multitude of hermeneutical positions. Herein, however, is the difficulty that its over-arching presence in the Anglican Covenant presents.
How do We Read the Bible Today?
Is it not incumbent on those who want assent to a strict uniformity from all parts and shades of the Anglican community, to give some indication of the way many contemporary Anglicans read the Scriptures, as compared with the way a vast majority read them towards the end of the nineteenth century? Indeed, in 1888, the date of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, a century of study and critical assessment had already passed, but this movement had moved much more slowly in Britain and the USA than in Germany, and the memory of the outrage following the publication of Essays and Reviews (3) was still very much alive among the Bishops.
It is true that the Covenant ¶ 1.2.4 , as it were, takes brief glance out of the window as the train rushes by, but the paragraph takes the Anglican principle of saying as little as possible as vaguely as possible to new heights. I would be quite happy with that, but the whole point of this document seems to be radically to alter that long and useful tradition. In the light of this, I think we need to take some time to assess as accurately as possible what modes of reading the scriptures are commonly practiced by 21st century Anglicans.
Honest to God Furore
One might begin by recalling the uproar that followed the publication of John Robinson’s Honest to God (SCM Press 1963). John Robinson was by then Bishop of Woolwich, and this was an added cause for outrage among conservatives. The truth is, however, as many of John’s defenders pointed out, that there was nothing in the book that had not long been said again and again in University Lecture Halls, Tutorials and Seminars. In the UK the connection between University Theology Departments and the training of Ordinands was nowhere near as strong as in Germany; nevertheless, several leading Theological Colleges (US English – Seminaries) were in Universities, and the Faculty of the others, often set in a Cathedral close, had been educated in exactly the same approach to the Old and New Testaments as had Robinson himself. It was the hermeneutical norm of the Theological Colleges with the exception of about half a dozen Conservative Evangelical colleges: Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; Ridley, Cambridge; Oak Hill, London: Clifton, Bristol and two or three more.
Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was in a difficult position; he had had a brilliant academic career, first as Sub Warden of Lincoln Theological College (where I first got to know him) and then as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. His own writings took for granted the methods of historical criticism, but in this instance he was forced to give an official reprimand, and said that these issues should be pursued in the privacy of a Don’s rooms.
Robert Morgan & John Barton on Interpreting the Bible
Robert Morgan and John Barton give an excellent survey of the development of biblical interpretation from the end of the eighteenth century to almost the end of the twentieth in their book, Biblical Interpretation, Oxford 1988.
One of the recurring themes is the importance of holding together the biblical accounts and theological constructs (which involves the religious use of the texts by members of a believing community). When the biblical record was accepted more or less tout court it provided a foundation for the structure of Catholic dogma – Trinity, Christology, Soteriology and the rest, a doctrinal system universally accepted and the basis for the religious life of Christian communities. What happened in the 19th century, beginning with Strauss’s Life of Jesus, was fatally to undermine that foundation:
“For most Protestants, even in Germany, the truth of Christianity depended to an extent now difficult to imagine on a belief in the inspired holy scripture, free of all error”. Strauss showed that “this view was no longer generally held in university theology and among the educated: in some sense, the bible might be inspired; inerrant it evidently was not”. (46).
The authors’ phrase, “now difficult to imagine” is, in effect, the agendum for the rest of the book. They demonstrate clearly, how, by the end of the nineteenth century, the historicity of the gospels had been thoroughly examined, and how clear it is that the Fourth Gospel is almost a different genre from the Synoptic Gospels. This was a major factor in the rejection of the old dogmatic structure since it is in the Fourth Gospel alone that Jesus is heard to proclaim his own divinity.
“The historian investigating Jesus is greatly helped by having four sources…Comparison of these lies at the heart of critical study”. The painstaking analytical work made crystal clear “the contradictions between the accounts, especially between John and the Synoptics. … The centuries-long practice of Gospel harmonization is now discredited, though far from dead”. (64).
The Anglican Storm
I have added the italics to pinpoint the eye of the storm sweeping across the Anglican sky. Virtually all the vortices of the present storm go back to Christians who have not been able to come to terms with the historical, literary, sociological and scientific developments of the last two centuries.
The fundamental opposition to the ordination of women is grounded by an appeal to scripture; the insistence that homosexuality is a sinful aberration springs from the interpretation of a few texts; the rejection of evolutionary biology relies on the dogmatic framework that collapsed long ago. All these conflicts and many more result, ultimately, from the clash of views on how the Scriptures can (perhaps, should) be read some two centuries after new historical methods have increasingly revealed that the biblical records could not hold up the massive doctrinal superstructure that had been erected on them.
Morgan and Barton, as I noted, are consistently concerned to show us how successive generations have attempted to hold together the results of historical criticism with a reasonable theology that will make sense to their contemporary readers. I quote one of the many passages which centers on this important task:
“ [A] theologian has to show that these texts are speaking of God, i.e. the God that he or she acknowledges. A theologian cannot, like a historian, rest content with having described someone else’s religion… In order to fulfill this further theological task… it is necessary to use language, which is not only appropriate to the texts, but which the modern interpreter also deems appropriate to the subject matter. Since theologians understand the subject-matter of the Bible as the transcendent God, who lays claim to them too, theological interpretation has to use the language in which the modern interpreters themselves speak of God. Conservative theologians, who are happy to express their own faith in purely biblical terms, have no problem here; they can simply repeat Paul’s language. But liberals, conscious of the difference in world-view between themselves and Paul, are more aware of the problem of translation or interpretation”. (73)
This, it strikes me is a moderate and calm, not unfriendly view of Fundamentalism. I think it sad that in so many places in the world, people either do not know the facts, or knowing them, are unwilling or unable to face up to them. This second case must surely be true for the churches of Europe and the USA, and I cannot escape the feeling that what we are seeing is a power play in which the Covenant plan is to some extent complicit. In the UK particularly, Evangelicals felt aggrieved by their gradual loss of power from the mid nineteenth until the end of WWII.
They believed that an increasing number of Anglo Catholic and Moderate Bishops were being appointed; that, perhaps because of this, there were fewer preferments to “plum” parishes for Evangelic clergy, and that the increasing solidification of the “centre” with a growing consensus of moderate Catholicism was presenting a church with liturgies and ceremonials of a quasi popish kind: too many candles, too many vestments and even spaces for private confession.
I can remember well, in the earliest phase of my education in theology and history in what might be called a Theological College catholic orientation, though with a lower case ‘c’, witnessing a resurgence of evangelicalism. It seemed as though the Puritan movement was waking after a long sleep, induced perhaps by James 1st’s riposte, “No Bishops, No King”.
Twentieth Century Developments
Before returning to consider the Covenant itself, it is important to note that the task of interpreting the Bible in the light of the flood of new information did not stop at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, several highly important and suggestive techniques have developed: Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, the increasing importance of Sociology in historical study, and a great deal of work on the development of early Christianity, resulting from a new understanding of the importance of the non-canonical writings.
From all this study, a new understanding of the centrality of the community has emerged. Older concepts of “getting to heaven” were clearly less important to the earliest disciples than Jesus’ central teaching about the Rule (Kingdom) of God so pointedly set out in the parables when allegorisation was recognized and discounted. The conservative view of Form Criticism and other approaches to the understanding of the biblical texts is that they are “faithless” and undermine the trust of ‘ordinary’ believers. The truth is that while it is clear that we know a good deal less about the actual course of Jesus’ ministry than was assumed before the nineteenth century, that we cannot assume the words of Jesus in the long discourses of the Fourth Gospel are actual verba Christi, and that not only the Fourth Gospel, but also the Synoptics are under girded by not one theological position, but several, there have also been great gains.
What we have Gained
One of Christianity’s strong claims is that its faith and practice grew out of a real historical context: it was not just another form of the pervasive nature myths of the Mediterranean world. Its positions, therefore, are vulnerable to historical investigation and, indeed, disproof. The critical scholarship of the last two centuries means that we do not have to fight to maintain a position that very few cotemporaries think is a rational one: very few but by no means all, and therein lies the conflict.
Among the other very many gains, we note the greater appreciation for the central place of the early Community: its understanding of this loving, enabling man who revitalized the prophet message of God’s demands for justice, care for the weak and sick, who, indeed, stood accepted criteria of success and power on their head, and taught, in his open table fellowship ,an inclusiveness that Christians have so easily and quickly forgotten. It was as though all they could know of God they saw in Jesus, whom they soon came to call the Anointed One.
Looking beyond the confines of the New Testament we now understand much more about the development of this earliest Community. We understand why “orthodoxy” seems to have overwhelming historical support. Archaeological finds like Nag Hammadi suggest a more varied and complex scene; orthodoxy won and ensured that the records showed it was really the only choice.
We know, too, an immense amount more about the Hellenistic age and can identify its considerable influence both on the development of the New Testament writings and on the doctrinal gestation period of the first four or five centuries C.E.
Both Too Little & Too Much
It seems to me that the phrase, “the results of rigorous study” (Covenant 1.2.4) cannot possibly be adequate to encompass the significance of the development I have so briefly outlined, and which Barton and Morgan lay out for us in great and telling detail. It would, of course, be absurd to expect a short quasi-legal document to present the situation in a succinct paragraph, and this suggests to me the wrong-headedness of a “Confessional” approach. The history of required oaths for a specific and often narrow political or religious position is not a happy one; the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 is a good example (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solemn_League_and_Covenant), and the anti-Modernist oath of 1910 is another; this remained in force until the 1960s, stifling genuine biblical study in the Roman church.
If those who believe in a rational approach to biblical interpretation sign on, they run the risk of compromising scholarly integrity; and, in any case, those who take a less rational approach will continue will to insist on an immutable interpretation of the texts and demand the exclusion of those who do not share their position. Ostensibly, this will be on issues like the ordination of women and the accepting of homosexuals: in fact it will be about how we can read the scriptures in 2011.
1) See: No Anglican Covenant Anglicans for Comprehensive Unity
2) Most of these, by the way, are no longer Provinces as in the mid-nineteenth century when Bishop Colenso’s case ultimately arrived at the Privy Council, though the occasional use of ‘Province’ in the Covenant suggests a certain backward (nostalgic?) glance. It is odd that some still wish to be called a Province with its colonial overtones.
3) This book of essays was published just a few months before Origin of the Species, and the ensuing storm over an historical “attack” on the Bible, somewhat delayed the reaction to yet another from science, though when it came, it was even more virulent.
See my essay on “Anglican Polity & New Knowledge”:
4) The Birth Narratives are good example of continuing harmonization: angels, shepherds, lowing cattle and eastern Sages all appear as in a scripted Nativity play. Two of the gospels have no narratives about Jesus’ birth (unless you count “the Word was made flesh"), and Luke and Matthew have widely divergent accounts.
Sunday, January 02, 2011
a) In this kind of quest, one is always faced first with the question, “Where shall we begin?” If you consider the life situation in which you find yourself, the innumerable factors at work almost deny analysis, though most of us can discern the more dominant influences. This ad hominem approach suggest a long list of questions we need to ask: where was I born, when was I born, what kind of parents did I have, and, come to that, what kind did they have? With that last question the field has already opened out to six individuals, four grandparents and two parents.
b) The task of finding and defining the influences that shaped Jesus is infinitely harder than the process required for a more or less contemporary person. Genetic factors are powerful, but the influences of geography, history, culture and religion are also immense. In the case of Jesus, we are dealing with a long past history, with a culture that is very different from ours and a religion that was by no means the monolithic structure that is the more traditional picture of Judaism.
II) THE REAL HUMANITY
Furthermore, there is a salient question that must be addressed before we can go any further. It is to what degree we are still tied to a pre- modern, dogmatic view of Jesus, of the church that emerged and the causes of the march of events that produce the narratives of history. It is a rather loose generalization, but, I think largely true that a pre-Enlightenment view of the matter would suggest that asking what shaped Jesus was a non-question: there can be only one influence in the shaping of Jesus, the divine plan that arranges everything in the appropriate sequences, and directs history like a puppet master. The post-Enlightenment view, is that history has its own dynamics and reports of what happened cannot always be taken at face value.
A surprising number of conservative Christians still hold the “puppet master” view, and, therefore, they would say to ask what shaped Jesus is unnecessary or absurd, perhaps even blasphemous. This approach is, of course, firmly linked to the Christological issue. That is, how Jesus can be thought of as divine and also human. In spite of protesting very loudly that they do not approve of monophysitism, a heresy condemned in the fifth century (which, very roughly, sees Jesus as fundamentally a divine being with a human apparatus, possibly temporary, cf. the Carol, “Veiled in flesh, the God head see”), conservatives have tended in practice to emphasize the divine and fudge stories that show Jesus as human, as fallible, for example, statements that indicate that Jesus, unsurprisingly, held a pre-critical view of Old Testament authorship such as assuming that David ‘wrote’ all the Psalms. The more extreme are quite happy to talk about God traveling around Galilee, a remark I heard from a Televangelist the other day: the question of blisters on the foot or sun stroke was not addressed; presumably this god was immune from the “thousand shocks and heart aches the flesh is heir to”.
III) SHAPING INFLUENCES
i) Important Clarifications
With an intelligent, open-minded audience at the start of the 21st century, I feel sure that I can assume a solid belief in the complete humanity of Jesus. Much of importance follows from this, since it puts Jesus in an historical context, subject to the usual pushing and pulling of human development. It suggests that we cannot always take at face value the picture of Jesus we find in the gospels, particularly the Fourth one. This is not to say that we have nothing left with which to form a picture of Jesus, the Galilean preacher, but it does mean that we need always to beware that many influences were at work to form the books we call gospels that were not, repeat not, formative forces for the shaping of Jesus from Nazareth.
We also have other sources: writings of Roman historians, (remembering that “history” here means something rather different from today); Jewish writings, like the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) and a Jewish soldier historian, Josephus, and we should not forget the valuable contributions of significant archeological finds all of which paint the background for us in general terms, though the actual mentions of Jesus outside the pages of the N.T. are sparse indeed until we get to the second century C.E.
ii) The Shaping Influences –Culture, Politics, Religion & History
If we ask what was the primary force shaping my life, I suppose most would answer, my family, and this must have been true for Jesus.
It is important, however, to note that two of the gospels, Mark and John, say nothing about Jesus until he appears as a preacher. The other two, have stories about his birth, and only one Luke, says anything about him between his babyhood and a young boy who goes to Jerusalem with his parents. We know from Mark (3.31) that Jesus was not an only child, in spite of later dogmatic assertions. So what we know about Jesus’ early life is meager verging on next to nothing. We do, however, know enough of the typical family of the time to make some fairly solid assumptions. Time does not allow us to cover the many influences at work in any detail, and so the best I can do is to summarize the results of a century and a half of intense critical research that seem to have withstood minute examination and analysis.
(iii) Some Conclusions of Critical Study
Bethlehem may have been where Jesus was born, but, more probably, it is so designated as a result of strong, later theological presuppositions about the Davidic ancestors of Jesus. However, that he spent his youth, early manhood and ministry in Galilee is well attested by many direct and incidental references in the Synoptic gospels.
The fact that the family lived in Galilee is, perhaps, the most important fact that we know about the shaping of Jesus, and it is here that we need to examine the politics and religion that loomed large in his small world. It is also important to note that where one is brought up is as important as the kind of family that nurtured one.
We can, I believe, make the following assumptions with some confidence. I will later one suggest some significant references in the words of Jesus and in the editorial material about him that give weight to these assumptions. We may assume: that he attended the synagogue with his father and brothers (while his mother and sisters sat segregated); [See endnote on Synagogues in Galilee in First century C.E.];
that he worked on a tiny small holding of hardly more than an acre; that he was apprenticed to some trade or other (carpentry is as good a guess as any!);
that he spoke the lingua franca, Aramaic, but learnt a little Hebrew at the Synagogue, memorizing important passages, of the Torah and Prophets;
that living where he did (I will come too that soon) he might have had a tiny smattering of common Greek. He certainly had the experience of living in an occupied country under the domination of a powerful foreign military government.
(iv) The Distant Scene
• The origins of the Hebrew people are lost in the mists of time.
Disparate groups of Semitic nomads came together and gradually infiltrated into Palestine, bringing with them early sagas of their origins and the beginnings of a revolutionary way of thinking about God.
• By the tenth century, we see the emergence of a nation state, and, of paramount importance, the developing of a script for their language, an offshoot of north western Semitic. This period of the monarchy saw the appearance of the Prophets, establishing a firm basis for a unique view of God: not a god of caprice, who had to be flattered or appeased; not a god demanding rituals of the natural seasons, but a consistent and just God they called YHWH.
• The preaching of a whole line of prophets from Amos to Malachi established the revolutionary idea that God wanted justice, loyalty and love. Perhaps two and a half centuries of Prophetic teaching is best summed up in the succinct statement of Micah: “[W]hat does Yahweh require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness,, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6.8). The prophetic movement is truly one of the great advances of humankind. For the first time, in the West anyway, religion was seen to involve personal responsibility for others; it was no longer to be a matter of performing the correct ritual at the right time. By the time of Jesus, however, a second tradition had developed within Judaism that often eclipsed the insights of the Prophets. It was a central core of Jesus’ message that he took us back to the Prophets.
• In 586 BCE the nation state abruptly ended in an event that set a pattern for the Jewish people from then on. They were enslaved by the Babylonian empire. Escape from slavery is a dominant theme of the whole Hebrew Scriptures, and reappears in the NT. The early sagas had put at least some of the early Hebrews in Egypt as slaves, from where they had escaped. The story of the Exodus is paradigmatic for almost all the biblical writers.
• So when a century or so later when a few stragglers returned from Babylon (by then incorporated into a new empire of Persia) to a ruined Jerusalem, they thought in terms of a second liberation, a second Exodus. What they established, though, was a mere shadow of the earlier State of Israel, more like a religious community, centered on a re-built temple (stripped, as contemporaries lament, of all its precious adornments). Another momentous development resulted from the exile: it was the dispersion of Jews to other Mediterranean lands, a movement of immense importance for the future of Judaism and the spread of an embryonic Christianity. It was, however, the small group in Jerusalem that for the next few centuries forged the religion we call Judaism into which Jesus was born and in which he received his earliest religious ideas.
(v) Characteristics of this Community:
• It became the “people of a Book”. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries, the books of the O.T. were assembled and edited. There was no more a living voice of the Prophets declaring “Thus says Yahweh” delivering a stern message recalling Israel to its true religion. The final editors are known as the Priestly writers, and they stamped large tracts of the scriptures with their distinctive theology, a theology significantly different from that of the Prophets.
• It emphasized the need for the Jews to be quite separate from other cultures – qu’dosh, ‘holy’, has the root meaning ‘to separate’, thus to avoid any contamination of their absolute monotheism. In time, however, this became an assumption of superiority, a conviction that God cared only for Jews. Everyone else, ‘the Gentiles’ were outside the pale.
• With the finalizing of the scriptures, came a re-writing of the older laws to cover innumerable details of ritual and rules to keep “clean” from the great unwashed. Of course, the central core of the commandments was there, but it was now heavily overlaid. A new emphasis on the absolute holiness of the Sabbath is heard. The first creation story in Genesis is the work of the P(riestly) writers, and with its seven-day format, clearly exhibits their extraordinary insistence on the holiness of the Sabbath – one of the many ways of establishing Jewish identity and exclusiveness. The increased importance of the circumcision rite is another. This was to be an issue of central importance for Paul’s missionary work.
(vi) The Political Backdrop
• Several other characteristics of the Judaism of Jesus’ time are so intimately connected with politics and the play of international forces that we must take a look, however fleeting,
• The geography of Israel made it vulnerable to frequent foreign incursions and occupations. To the East was the series of Empires based on the Tigris/Euphrates river basin; to the West was Egypt, and for a thousand years the one tried to dominate the other, marching back and forth across a bridge formed by Palestine. Babylon, Persia, Alexander the Great, one after the other dominated the tiny state. After Alexander’s death one of his generals, Seleuceus and his successors, ruled Syria and subjugated Judea.
• One of the major legacies of Alexander’s brief ascendancy was to spread Greek language and culture widely round the Mediterranean and eastwards, almost to India.
• In around 160 BCE, the attempt to force the Jews into a Hellenistic pattern, produced a revolt led by the Macabees who after a long guerilla war gave the Jews about 60 years of independence.
This was a crucial period; the tiny state became a sort of theocracy ruled by the High Priestly families. It was at this time that the various religious parties known to us from the NT formed – the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes, to mention just a few.
• In 63 BCE, the Romans, pushing their borders eastwards, swallowed up Judaea with the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard. This was the situation when Jesus was born and for the whole of his ministry.
(vii) Religious & Economic Consequences
• As one power followed another, oppressing the Jews, they looked back to their glory days, particularly to David, and hoped and prayed for a new Davidic King. The word they used was messiach, - ‘anointed with oil’, the ancient rite of coronation. As the Roman domination repressed freedom, this hope burned brightly and produced a freedom movement. The remarkable things is that Jesus seems to have resisted any attempts to cast him in the role of Messiah as it was popularly understood, but messianic movements produced immense civil unrest and counter military measures.
• The last years of the century also saw great economic hardship. The only fertile land was a narrow coastal strip and it was heavily over-worked. The Roman presence produced a large slave population that made laboring work hard to find (cf. laborers in the vineyard parable), and taxes were a crushing burden, imposed both by the Jewish authorities, and the Romans.
The major forces at play were, (a) Judaism with its rigid legalism, yet instilling great reverence and the need for compassion. From the sayings of Jesus we know that he reacted against the legalism of official Judaism: “The Sabbath is made for people, not the other way round”. It seems that he also reacted against the narrow exclusiveness of Judaism, displaying a more tolerant attitude to Gentiles and taking note of women and children (who tended to be regarded as “non-persons”).
(b) Clearly he was strongly influenced by the reading of the Scriptures in the Synagogue, but in an amazing way, his teaching suggests that he went back behind the Priestly influences to the Prophetic core.
(c) He knew and shared in the burdens of foreign occupation, but remarkably refused to join in the popular resistance movement. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. Indeed, it is virtually certain that he advocated a stance of non-resistance.
(d) Perhaps more than anything else, his parables reflect the formative influences:
Agricultural life in a Galilean village (The sower, Mk. 4.1ff); J.Jeremias Points out that the details - stones collected year by year, piled at the edge; weeds soon growing there; a hard, trodden-down path, the result of a short-cut during the winter, - all these details give an accurate picture of typical ploughing and sowing methods.
The hardships of foreign occupation where press-gangs rounded men up; Mt 5.41 illustrates the occupation and Jesus’ admonition to do good to an enemy. A Centurion could press gang a group of men to carry baggage to the next village; one can hardly imagine the reaction of some hard-bitten veteran when the response to his barked “Fall out you dogs” was “Don’t go to the trouble of pressing a new squad; we’ve done one mile, we’ll do a second”
The Good Samaritan (Lk.10.29) illustrates both Judaic exclusiveness and Jesus’ rejection of it. The Prodigal son story (15.11ff) makes the point of God’s wide compassion for all.
The hardship of the day laborer is clearly seen in the parable of the farmer hiring men who gather in the market square to find work each morning; as late as five p.m., men are still there (with no hope of feeding the family that night). Mt. 20.1ff. The story not only gives us significant sociological information, but also goes to the heart of Jesus’ revolution in theological thinking: God’s love is the divine Being; it cannot be earned by working longer hours. It can only be received with amazement and thanksgiving.
Indeed, it is a mistake to see the sociological details as central; as in all parables, they are contextual, certainly not to be treated allegorically.
It is fitting, therefore, to close with this parable that gives us in story form, one of the foundational insights of the Christian Gospel which the first Theologian, St. Paul, formulated so strikingly in his Letter to Rome.
He begins this subtle and complex exposition establishing the very point of Jesus’ parable: “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. … [T] o one who works , wages are not reckoned as a gift (charis) but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (4.2ff).
In spite of all the discussion that has gone on about Paul’s showing so little knowledge of the verba Christi, I remain convinced that this whole passage in Romans is anchored on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. In the rest of the exposition Paul is concerned to understand how what happened to Jesus (rejection and execution of the supremely good man) was somehow connected with the central theme of God’s love. And so, many pages later he concludes: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come…nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God (i.e. ‘God’s love for us’) in Christ Jesus our Lord”. (8.37ff).
Note: Synagogues in Galilee
In the last several decades scholars have questioned the tradition of Jesus attending the synagogue on the grounds that the remains of only three such buildings have been found by archeologists. Nevertheless, the tradition of Jesus's religious observance is very strong, and since the Deuteronomic law of Jerusalem alone as the place of worship had never been followed, other solutions have been suggested. The main one is that the word sunagoge has a much wider connotation than its later use of a building suggests.
James D.G. Dunn in his magisterial work on the origins of Christianity (Vol. 1 Jesus Remembered) gives an excellent summary of the matter pp.302-306. He notes an analogy with "'church'=people' and 'church'=building", and says that here we have another reminder "of the need for historians of Jesus to jerk themselves consciously out of their contemporary perspective." (p.306).
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Readers of essays I have published in the last year or two will know that political issues are not thereby excluded. Indeed, it could well be argued that what is most needed at the present time is some penetrating theological analyses and criticism of the contemporary political situation.
Sad Reflections on Elections
Many would, I think, agree that this has been the most lie-laden political season within memory; a much longer historical perspective would modify that judgment as anyone who has read the political broadsheets of 18th century British politics will know. I will come to the lie that I think is most pervasive and frequently told by politicians later, but, at the moment, I want to turn our attention to the New Testament, with a glance at the O.T. background.
Light & Truth in John’s Gospel
One of the main threads of the Fourth Gospel is the contrast between light and darkness, truth and lies. At the very beginning of his book, John (it is too cumbersome to write “the author” every time, and perhaps he was called John) writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. (Jn. 1.5). As the narrative proceeds, John weaves this theme in an amazing way; darkness is the state of pre-creation chaos, the abyss from which emerge the beasts of falsehood and evil in The Apocalypse of John the Divine, that is, ‘Theologian’; this is the final book of the N.T. Canon, a book that reflects many Johannine ideas, but clearly is not by the same author as the Fourth Gospel.
Falsehood as Idolatry
A glance at the Old Testament shows that the predominant understanding of lying (Heb. kazab & sheqer) is in the worship of something other than the One God, Yahweh, summed up in the word idolatry, (cf. Isa.44.20, Jer. 10.14 and a myriad other references). It is not without significance, surely, that Adam’s first actual ‘conversation’ with God is based on a downright lie. In the course of the J narrative of the creation, God has spoken directly to man, Adam, (vv. 15 & 18), but it is only at 3.8 that a dialogue begins. What Adam says in v. 12 is “factually” true, but the whole tenor of his reply is a tissue of lies: perhaps a pattern for many political commercials. In summary, the O.T. writers proclaim the need for putting God first in all things; not to do that is to be out of touch with the reality of the human situation. St. Paul picks this up at the beginning of his letter to Rome, “[T]hey exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator”. (1.25)
A Pivotal Passage in John
Of all the passages in the New Testament one might consider, John 8.39-45 is possibly the best to illustrate the general point. It is part of the working out of the general theme I have mentioned. . It is a pivotal point of John’s theology that Jesus is the “way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn.14.6), and the contrary is that Satan is “the father of lies”. Moreover, the devil “was a murderer from the beginning”, almost certainly a reference back to the early narratives of Genesis (where the lies poured out by the serpent-devil lead to the introduction of death within the created order); this is a point that is underlined by the next step: the murder of Abel by Cain. Indeed, it is the position of all New Testament writers that lying is the root of all other human disobedience and sin, murder, greed, lust for power and on through the sorry list.
John sees the death of Jesus as a final assault of falsehood against the truth of God: “[Y]ou look for an opportunity to kill me” (Jn. 8.37) is the way John introduces this whole discourse on the power of darkness and falsehood: murder is abominable, but it springs from something even worse, the human propensity to lie.
The Hater of Truth; The Fate of Liars - The Apocalypse
Appropriately, I will conclude this brief biblical excursus by considering how this same theme is dramatically displayed in the Apocalypse of John the Divine. In the Fourth Gospel, the theme uses much Old Testament material in a quasi-philosophical way characteristic of John’s style.
By contrast, in the Apocalypse we are given a full-blown dose of myth and apocalypticism. Evil appears embodied in beasts from the abyss; the struggle between light and darkness is played out in scenes of war, famine and ruin on the earth and the casting of Satan from heaven, followed by the blood of martyrs flowing over the altar and heavenly choruses singing Hagios, Hagios, Hagios.
The climax of this great myth of catastrophic battles of the powers of good and evil is the establishing of the New Jerusalem. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…and I heard a voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people… and death shall be no more’” (Apoc. 21.1-5). It is tempting to spend much more time on this passage, exposing the many layers of the Seer’s imagery and countless allusions to earlier texts both Jewish and Christian, but I will resist and move to verse 8 of this chapter.
Blind to Truth
There we are given one of the typical “sin lists” that appear in the Epistles (Rom. 1.29ff.;Gal. 5.19ff.; Col. 3.5ff; I Cor.6 9f.); it is quite possible that they originate in the classical stoic tradition, but they are given, as we have seen, a new underpinning in the New Testament. The Seer places liars (psuedes) at the end of the list for emphasis. Psuedos is a much stronger word than ‘liar’, which suggests someone who twists the facts or makes up his own. In the Johannine context it means someone who is not capable of recognizing the truth, who in fact hates it; (perhaps this is the result of inhabiting by choice a fact-free zone over a long period). In any case, the result is that such a state is to be out of touch with reality, out of tune with the heavenly harmony. This, surely is the way we should read Mark 3.28, which follows the pericope where Jesus speaks of the opposition he has aroused; his opponents are ultimately unable to tell truth from falsehood: what is patently good and from God, that is, healings done “by the finger of God” (Luke’s addition), from the work of the demons of evil. The cost of such a level of lies is to be cut off from reality, in effect, to ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’, which is, above all, the spirit of truth.
The Contemporary Scene
Such a biblical perspective, must inevitably give us a gloomy view of contemporary politics, for it suggests that lie-laden political campaigns are not really about preserving “this great nation of ours”, or a concern to rescue and perpetuate “the American dream”, but an almost demonic drive to gain (or retain) power at any cost. This, in turn, points to a deeply embedded blindness of the kind that has again and again led to the downfall of empires.
Turning (did I hear someone sigh, “finally”?) to the mundane issue of lying politicians, I will reveal what I think is the most egregious lie proclaimed frequently by politicians of every possible hue.
It is like an antiphon that is chanted before every canticle, every political speech, and like an antiphon it is “doubled” on all special occasions. It is
“The American people are not stupid”.
Without doubt that is true of the majority, but many claims and incidents in the last six months must force any rational person to ask how big is the minority that does not seem wise?
• Last summer we witnessed the frenzied activities of constituents, meeting with members of the Congress, convinced of the establishment of ‘death panels’, the removal of all right to choose a doctor, and what was called (screamed?) a ‘government take-over’ of all health care; frequently, many senior citizens were the most vociferous in this last delusion, apparently completely unaware of the immense benefits they received from Medicare.
• We have seen more than enough pictures of rallies where placards have proclaimed the President to be a Fascist, and a Communist, totally unaware, apparently that the two positions are mutually exclusive.
• I am not able to give documentation, but more than once I heard news reports of someone in a mid-Western State making an angry protest because Michelle Bachmann’s name was not on the voting list.
• At the same time, our intelligence has been assaulted by the ‘Birthers’, and those who fervently believe that the President is a Moslem.
The following excerpt of an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 18, 2010) makes somber reading.
Poll: Growing number in U.S. say Obama a Muslim; more Republicans say he's Muslim than Christian
It's not true, but that doesn't stop a lot — and we mean a lot — of Americans from believing it.
A new poll released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that 18 percent of American adults believe that their president is an adherent of the Muslim faith — up from 11 percent last year. Meanwhile, just 34 percent of Americans say that Barack Obama is a Christian, down from 48 percent a year ago. Obama is a Christian Protestant.
The misperception about the president is strongest among Republicans. More GOP adherents insist that Obama is a Muslim than believe he is a Christian. Thirty-one percent say he is a Muslim, while 27 percent say he is a Christian and 39 percent say they're not sure. That's a massive turnaround in the minds of American Republicans. A year ago, by 47 percent to 17 percent, Republicans acknowledged that Obama is a Christian.
Ignorance not Stupidity
As the author says, “it’s not true”. Just a little reading and some competence in scrutinizing an argument and just a normal amount of critical thinking would have revealed the depths of these lies.
It is important to look carefully at what is actually being said in the “they are not stupid” chant. The bald statement is, without a doubt, true: clearly the majority of us cope with the complexities of a highly technological society; we make reasonable decisions about family responsibilities, about finances (on the whole!), and show common sense (mostly) in the complications of life.
So what has made over 30% believe that Barack Obama is not a Christian? I have to resort to the over-quoted remark of Samuel Johnson when one of his Dictionary definitions was questioned, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance”. Far too many are so ill-educated that they have never learnt to engage in analytical thinking; even the better levels of education in our schools encourage fact collection and regurgitation, and not critical thinking. It is not that thirty to forty percent of the
American electorate is ‘stupid’. It is that they have been deprived of a good education.
If this conclusion be accurate, I suggest the following anatomy of the political slogan which I have called the ‘most egregious lie’ of the politicians.
Anatomy of a Big Lie
What is the function of this frequent claim? I suggest it is two-fold.
• Firstly it is used as an anesthetic to a populist audience. The speaker is saying “I (and my Party) know that you are not stupid; we understand your needs and will meet them.
• But secondly, it is a stealth attack on the Opposition. In effect (though carefully hidden) it says: “It is our demonic opponents who assume you are stupid. They assume that you are so stupid that you will accept the misinformation and made-up ‘facts’ we have been pouring out. They think you are so stupid that you will not notice that in the health reform they have hidden a diabolical plan to set up Nazi-type death camps: they think that while they blame the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression on the previous Administration you are so stupid that you will not notice that it is they who are really to blame.”
• There is no need to add to the almost endless list of examples, but this dissection lays bare, rather like an anatomy class, the inner workings of this great lie. It is a lie of biblical proportions straight from the Abyss.
In a factual sense it is more or less true, but its use perverts the truth to a degree that blurs the distinction between truth and falsehood. There are no hidden death camps; the economic situation has been years in the making; the President is an American citizen.
In fact the slogan is saying, “the American People are not stupid (sotto voce they are ignorant)”. And why is there so much ignorance? The fact is that the party that uses this lie to the greatest effect are themselves often to blame for that lamentable state of ignorance though this also is deeply hidden.
But consider their priorities in spending: we must make the richest richer; we must increase the spending on the military, in spite of the fact that our military spending hovers around 44% of the world’s total arms bill. Yet when we are called to tighten belts, it is education, social services and care for the poor that has been starved.
John’s contrast between light and darkness, truth and lies could hardly be better exemplified than in this morass of distortion, manipulation and naked self-interest.
When a passion for truth flies out of the window, we are left in great peril. “The truth will make you free”, writes John (8.32), and if it is supplanted by carefully camouflaged lies wrapped in populist flattery, we are swallowing a bitter pill in a sugar coating that will destroy that freedom.