True Religious Extremism: A Response to Giles Fraser

gilesFraser.jpgGiles Fraser recently published a short opinion piece at the Guardian arguing that the problem with religiously-motivated terrorism is not that such terrorists–like the man who drove a truck into crowds on Bastille Day this past summer in Nice, France–are too religious, but that in fact they are not religious enough. Fraser goes on to argue an important theological point:

It’s a very basic point. The truth of God’s existence does not depend on me. It does not depend on me filling my church with believers at midnight mass. Nor does it depend on me (or anyone else) winning or losing arguments about God’s existence on Twitter. God is not like a political party that lives or dies on its support or lack of it.

Fraser is reiterating a fundamental theological doctrine central to the Abrahamic faiths: that of God’s utter sovereignty. God creates but is not created. God upholds, but is upheld by nothing except God’s own self. God defines without being defined. Fraser’s argument is simple: those of us who profess religious faith should be “more extreme” in our total reliance on God–and this should lead to less terrorism and less religious coercion rather than more. The more we depend on God, he argues, the less we will try to act as God’s guardians or agents. The more secure we are in our faith in God, a faith based on God’s solidity and not our own confidence or energy, the less anxious we will feel, the less need we will have to assert our beliefs on others.

To some extent, this strikes me as a good argument. Certainly, I will always applaud any public declaration of this kind of theology. Asserting the super-ontic, as it were, primacy and security of God over and above the material world or human thought and activity is something we need more of, and it’s refreshing to find this kind of discourse in the Guardian, which is not known as a place one goes for metaphysical subtlety (this is of course not a critique, as the Guardian is a newspaper generally focused on current events).

And yet, I have to say I have a problem with Fraser’s argument. While it may be the case that we believers in God need not defend God’s being or honor in public, and that we need to trust God more and our own actions less, I worry that, taken on its face, his argument could lead to a sort of religious quietism: trusting in the goodness of God while the world burns.

But this kind of extreme, to borrow Fraser’s own diction, understanding of God’s sovereignty and power is, in fact, un-Scriptural. It is certainly true that the Bible–both the Hebrew Bible and the much shorter Christian New Testament–frequently acclaim God’s ineffability, power, and utter sovereignty, yet both texts also make it clear that faith must always mean action. It’s true that God doesn’t need us in order to be Real, in order to be God. But! God does call us to action, to serve a broken a world, to heal wounded people, to speak truth in a time of falsehood. God may not need us, but God’s world does.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this is in the famous passage of the goats and the sheep in Matthew 25:31-46. I quote it here at length and encourage you to read it, even if it is familiar to you:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

It is easy to miss the central thrust of this passage by either dwelling on the implicit threat contained in this passage, or by snickering over the comparison of Christ’s followers to “sheep”. But note the main point Jesus is making: those who care for those in need have already entered ‘the Kingdom’, they are already doing the work of building the just and peaceful reign of God in the world. Meanwhile, those who profess faith while refusing to live that faith are proving themselves to be obstacles to God’s work, God’s plan for a creation imbued with justice and love.

jesuscleansesthetempleThat is to say: “extreme faith”, as Fraser calls us to have, should not lead us to disengage from politics, social action, or advocacy for what we hold to be true or right. This point can be summarized even more succinctly by John 14:15–“If you love me, keep my commandments.” One who professes faith in a sovereign God but refuses to endeavor to live a renewed life of love in light of that faith, does not really have faith at all. Or, as St. James put it, much to Martin Luther’s later chagrin: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17).

Thus, I worry that Fraser has oversimplified what it would mean to live an “extreme” faith. I agree wholly with him that those who kill, exploit, enslave, or disregard others in the name of God are indeed not nearly religious enough. But I disagree with his conclusion that this means that religious people ought to retreat from acting on their faith. It’s just that we must be very clear about what kind of action God calls from us. Let’s let Jesus’s word guide us again:

‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-19)

Those who are truly, and “extremely”, religious, will be people whose fruits are acts of love, kindness, compassion, social and economic justice. This means refusing to use force and violence in the name of God, to be sure, but it does not mean retreating from all religiously-inspired activity. To do so would be to abdicate our responsibility to build the just and loving society God calls the human community to be.

Plumbing Eternity, Getting Caught in the Depths

chrysalisApart from healing and feeding people as he traveled through Galilee and Judea, Jesus also spent a lot of time teaching people. Sometimes this meant interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures–explaining or reinterpreting the Law, for example, or quoting and applying passages from Prophetic literature. But frequently, when people ask him a direct question, they ask him about one specific thing: eternal life. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a frequent refrain (Luke 18, compare John 3, etc.). Jesus spends a good deal of time, then, explaining what humans should do to attain this state of eternal life. But eternal life itself remains more or less un-explained. When Jesus does reference it, he almost always refers not to the state of one human being existing eternally, but to what he calls the “Kindom of Heaven” or the “Kingdom of God”. And when he does start to explain and define this, he invariably speaks not directly, but in parables: “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”

Considering how important both Jesus’s followers, and Jesus himself, seemed to regard eternal life, it’s a bit curious that the term remains so nebulous, so undefined. His followers are exhorted to seek eternal life, to live lives of love that can lead to it, but what it is exactly is never really offered. This has left a gap in Christian thought in which a wide range of ideas has entered. A whole range of concepts and definitions have been put forward to explain what eternal life will be like. Some are sophisticated and deeply grounded in philosophy, as per the ideas around the beatific vision, explored especially in Roman Catholic Thomist thought. Others are more folklorish and popular, such as the trope about playing ping-pong with grandma in heaven. The trouble is that none of these ideas seem to have a firm foundation in Scripture, all seem to owe more to secular and even pagan ideas, cultures, and values than anything identifiably Christian (the beatific vision easily brings to mind neo-Platonism, while many lay Christians’ conception of heaven looks more like the pleasures of the Elysian fields of Greek polytheism than anything in Scripture).

That Jesus is himself quiet on the details of eternal life is itself something worth considering. As mentioned above, when he does say anything about it, it’s always indirect, constructing analogies through parables. Here, in this space, I’d like to offer one way of making sense of this unwillingness of Christ to say more, when, on other topics, he seemed quite happy to be explicit, as, for example, in his ethical instructions around wealth or caring for those in need (see e.g. Matthew 25).

What reason might there be for Jesus, if he came to reveal the Truth to humankind, to be so silent on what seems to interest us humans most of all? If achieving eternal life is so important, shouldn’t we be told more about it? It has been common for Christian authors in the past to respond to such questions by an appeal to the importance of faith: if we knew the truth fully and directly, such an argument goes, we would not choose it for the “right” reason: what use would faith be, if we simply knew what was at stake? But surely this is a churlish argument at best, and morally outrageous at worst. If God, manifest in Jesus, wished to convey to humanity the importance of living righteously, wouldn’t God be willing to use any tool, any information, to convince us to mend our ways? Isn’t faith, ultimately, to be commended only because it is necessary here and now, only because of our incomplete knowledge and deficient faculties? As Paul says: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

Faith is necessary now, Paul seems to be saying, not because living in faith is somehow better than living in knowledge or wisdom, but rather because there is something about the way we human beings are now that makes knowledge impossible. In other words, Paul is making a point that is–to employ a perhaps over-used and often-abused term–rather postmodern. He is making it clear that knowing everything about the world–in this case, what it would mean to inherit eternal life–is not just a matter of cataloging sensory experience and then organizing it rationally. Such an attitude towards knowing assumes that human beings can basically know everything there is to know, can come to have knowledge about any and all modes of being, if only we pay close enough attention and organize our conclusions rationally and systematically.

Paul is pointing to the possibility that there may be limits to what kind of information, generally, and what modes of being, more specifically, a given kind of knowing being might be able to access, process, or make sense of. The human way of sensing and knowing, that is, may have limits. This is a point that will more formally be made by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason and  will go on to be a central plank of his critical philosophy, itself providing the spring-board to what comes to be known as post-modern thought: that is, philosophy that questions the assumptions of modernism, the mode of thought launched (to oversimplify intellectual history drastically) by Descartes and Locke.

Well, I’ve clearly gotten well ahead of myself, and have meandered far beyond the boundaries of Scripture. But I think it’s necessary to make these connections, so that we can see what Paul is really up to. What can, at first, look like a somewhat sloppy, semi-mystical phrase turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a serious epistemic point. And Paul is not alone. Scripture frequently points to the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of formal limits on human ways of knowing–that is, it frequently offers a critical epistemology, or indeed a critique of overly confident epistemologies.

So: what if one of the states of being that human knowledge is unable to make sense of is the state of being called “eternal life”? That would make sense in at least two ways. Exegetically, all of the sudden, the fact that Jesus refrains from any kind of clear-cut discussion of eternal life looks to make a lot of sense. Secondly, it also may, somewhat paradoxically, tell us something about eternal life, even in the moment we announce our necessary ignorance of it.

This latter point is actually contained within the quote from 1 Corinthians above. Paul says that we see darkly now, that we have limited knowledge now–but he also says that, “then”, that is, once eternal life is present or has been achieved, we will see “as face to face”. He seems to be suggesting that the epistemic limits he points to in the first clause will themselves be transcended in the second. So how does this tell us something about what it might mean to attain eternal life? It seems that Paul is telling us there will be a transformation, from the kind of knowing being we are now–one with serious limits to our knowing–to a kind of being who will know differently, and indeed, better, perhaps even perfectly.

This idea of transformation is not limited to this one passage. Paul will himself say, later in 1 Corinthians: “we will not all die, but we all will be changed” (1 Cor 15:51). Likewise, too, Jesus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John says that we must be “born again” or “born from above” in order to enter the Kingdom. Whatever this may mean, it certainly suggests a serious transformation of our way of being.

Now, some may see such a move as a way of shutting down the question: by saying that eternal life will involve a transformation of some kind from the kind of knower that we are now to a different kind of knowing–that is, that an ontic change in our mode of being will effect an epistemic change in our mode of knowing–it may seem like we are just kicking the can down the road, avoiding hard questions. I’d like to conclude by providing two examples which may show, formally, the logic of this move. Pointing to analogies does not provide a shatterproof argument, but it may allow us to understand a previously-made argument with greater clarity and sophistication.

First off, we can quote Paul again, who speaks about the change between being a child and being an adult, in the sentence which precedes our original quote from 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Imagine trying to explain certain adult experiences to a young child: sexual attraction, or the stresses of the workplace, or the responsibility of paying bills. We can, of course, use language to present these experiences. But there is no way to really understand what it’s like to feel sexual attraction, occupational stress, or the burden of bills, until one actually undergoes those experiences. One has to be the sort of being who goes through those experiences to really understand any linguistic expression about them.

Another, more radical example is that of the caterpillar and the butterfly. We talk about the process through which the former becomes the latter as one of transition or growth, but in many ways, the process actually involves the death of the caterpillar and the birth of something totally different. Yes, they have the same DNA, but the two beings are constituted completely differently. The body shape, the legs, the mouth, the digestive systems, even the eyes and other sensory equipment of each are completely different. The caterpillar builds a cocoon which becomes a chrysalis–and within this, the caterpillar is effectively dissolved, and its matter reorganized into a totally new mode of life: the butterfly.

Now, presumably, neither the caterpillar nor the butterfly has what we humans would call self-consciousness. But imagine that they did. For the caterpillar, the chrysalis is really a death. Its consciousness would end as its brain and sensory organs are dissolved. However, it could be the case that the butterfly, upon its birth from the chrysalis weeks later, might look back upon the caterpillar’s existence as an earlier stage of its own life–just as I do, in fact, look upon my life as a 5-year old as an earlier stage of my own identity, even though the life I live and the consciousness I now have would be totally unrecognizable to that 5-year old version of myself–who has, in a real if figurative sense, died.

We Christians may be eager to imagine eternal life as our current identities, or at least some best-version of them, living on for eternity. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was referring to. He was calling for us all to endeavor to be changed–to be re-created into the true of image of God, that which we were meant to be but which we fail to attain in this fallen life. Imagine that a prophet-caterpillar came to a colony of caterpillars and promised them renewed life in the chrysalis. Imagine that they all rejoiced in the thought that they would enter the chrysalis and then live as caterpillars for eternity. Of course, that’s not what the chrysalis is, what the chrysalis does. It will transform them. Looking back from their butterfly-future, they may identify with their past selves, their caterpillar-selves. But first, they must be transformed into something radically different.

Modern Myths: Science vs. Religion

“Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos is so threatening.” This is the subheading to a recent article on the controversy over Neil de Grasse Tyson’s revamping of Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos series, which began airing earlier this year on Fox. Alternet‘s Adam Lee examines the public outcry of many fundamentalist Christians over the show’s portrayal of the history of the universe; as the show is hosted by an astrophysicist and focused on the scientific exploration of outer space, it is unsurprising that the creation stories related in Genesis are not discussed. For those who insist on a literal reading of Scripture, of course, this is a thrown glove, an invitation to ideological combat. Lee, however, sees the issue in much broader terms: for him, this debate between scientists and fundamentalists is really the manifestation of a much deeper and absolute tension between science and religion on the whole.

Massive volumes have been penned on the idea that science and religion are locked in existential combat, and I have neither the space nor the expertise to go into detail here. A Google search or perusing of Wikipedia’s article on the subject can provide a better introduction to the scholarly debate on this narrative than I ever could. The short summary of what I think you will find in those investigations is this: the idea that religion as such and science as such are locked in some unavoidable ideological war is, simply put, a myth–in the full meaning of that word. It is not only mythical in that this narrative is untrue in many respects (i.e. many scientists are religious, many believers are fully accepting of science, and historically, a vast amount of scientific discovery has been achieved by people who were deeply religious and spiritual) but also in the more pernicious sense: this narrative is mythical in that it forms the backbone of a polemical stance that thinkers committed to a certain vision of modernity employ to discredit their opponents and give the impression that readers and listeners must pick a side in this great battle between progress and knowledge, on the one hand, and ignorant superstition, on the other.

But here, in the small space of a single blog post, I want to focus in on one particular claim that Lee makes–let’s return to his subtitle: “Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos” is so threatening.” Many readers will likely find this claim barely worth mentioning, because the assumptions behind it are largely accepted as obviously true. The uncontroversial nature of this claim only drives home how successfully the “conflict thesis” has been accepted in contemporary thought, for the claim is, theologically and biblically, simply untrue. What Lee is describing here–the idea that humanity is ontologically located at the center of reality–can be called anthropocentrism, an idea which is actually closely tied to Enlightenment humanism–not biblical religion. The assumption of human importance in the universe is the bedrock for social contract theory Liberalism and the application of scientific knowledge to the development of industrialism through technology, all tied up in the modern assumption of historical “progress” towards brighter and better futures. But this view is simply not central to Jewish or Christian religious thought. Somehow, however, many people today–even highly intelligent and well-educated people–seem to think that Abrahamic theology is tied deeply to an anthropocentric vision of reality.

This modern confusion is more complex than a simple historical and philosophical misattribution, though. Anthropcentrism’s consequences are meted out to various ideologies in a specific and ideologically-guided way. What we tend to see as the good aspects and achievements of an anthropocentric culture are attributed to science, technology, and liberal democracy, while the bad aspects or failures of anthropocentrism are attributed to religion or traditional culture. Thus, vaccines, air-conditioning, airplanes, computers, and the moon landings are all proof of the glories of scientific living, while the atom bomb, global warming, and the indignities of modern life are attributable to reactionary, unenlightened religious or tribal thought.

But the problem isn’t just that there is ideological cherry-picking here, there is also a mass of unexamined and baseless claims. There are few, if any, sections of the Bible that lend themselves to an anthropocentric reading. It is true that Jewish and Christian Scripture broadly claim that human life is purposeful and inherently meaningful–that God, the creator of all that is somehow cares for us–but humans are by no means placed at the center of creation. Indeed, the Bible is a theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, text. God, not humanity, is at the center of the biblical universe, and it is only in relation to God that humanity can “cash in” its potential, so to speak. Far from being concerned only or primarily with the immediate material concerns of human beings, the Bible stresses that only in consciousness of and service to the Reality that transcends immanent being can humanity understand its true identity. Human life is recognized as fleeting and, in immanent and material terms, almost trite:

Consider, for example, Psalm 103: 14-17 (note that I have left all gendered pronouns referring to God in place; the reader should not take this as my approval of such pronouns. All quotes are from the English Standard Version):

For [God] knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.

Humanity is “dust” and “grass”, formless and fleeting: it is only by God’s continual creating and sustaining act that humans exist, and it is only in God’s loving act that we can have any hope. This same theme is present throughout the Bible; consider Isaiah 29:15-16:

Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Here again, any sense of human autonomy from the Ground of Being and Becoming from which it sprang is quashed–only through understanding of the meaning of existence, which is objectively determined apart from humanity, can the particular human harmonize themselves with the reality in which they live. Again, humans are not the center here, but rather a periphery offered meaning and importance precisely to the degree that they conform themselves to the Center, which gives them being in the first place. The writer of deutero-Isaiah continues this theme and even the same metaphor in Isaiah 45:9:

“Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

Job also takes up this theme of human impermanence and seeming unimportance, even demanding that God leave him alone to enjoy what little passing pleasure he might:

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass, look away from him and leave him alone,
that he may enjoy, like a hired hand, his day.

This lament, the opening of chapter 14, is later met with God’s reproval in the closing chapters, which maintain humanity’s determined and circumscribed existence while maintaining both God’s transcendent Otherness and sovereignty. Again, there is little room for a hubristic, anthropocentric reading here.

The Christian New Testament leans heavily on these images, continuing the insistence that the meaning–and indeed salvation–of humanity can come only via the human’s willingness to recognize and follow God, not on any human action itself. Thus James warns his comrades:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Here, even the rich person who seems in control of his or her life, with independent means and social power, is revealed as limited and contingent: the process of becoming will roll over them just as surely as it will over any other particular being in the world; death comes for all life. Similarly, the first letter of Peter directly quotes the lines from Psalm 103 above. And we have only skimmed the surface of this theme’s presence throughout Scripture: a number of other Psalms (e.g. 22, 90, 92) as well as Ecclesiastes explore the theme in greater breadth. But let’s not get carried away with quoting the text–I hope the point has been made.

This, of course, does not mean that religious people are often not anthropocentric in their thinking–but it does suggest, and I would say decisively so, that the source of this anthropocentrism is not their religiosity, but indeed the humanism that informs modern social thought. And here lies the interesting yet often unexplored tension within modern life. For it is modern social thought–social contract Liberalism in the Locke/Rousseau vein–that collides headlong with the scientific determinism of the 19th and 20th centuries–especially the Behaviorism of say, Skinner. The idea that human beings are largely determined and powerless in an often hostile universe is not at all threatening to a biblical view of the world–as we saw above, the Bible itself repeatedly asserts this very fact! It is humanism that finds this view of the world unacceptable and oppressive, for it suggests that humans, despite all our inventive cleverness and power, are ultimately unable to liberate ourselves from our material constraints. This would suggest that it is the largely unspoken yet ubiquitous classical Liberal view of humanity that, contradictorily, leads fundamentalist Christians to so vociferously reject scientific claims that seem to challenge an anthropocentric view of the universe, whether this is the Big Bang or evolutionary theory.

This will likely strike many readers as an odd claim, but, as counterintuitive as it is, I think its a much more accurate reading than the credulous pigeon-holing that Lee employs in his Alternet article. Fundamentalism, after all, is a religious movement that came about precisely to counter the rise of a robust Science in the 19th century; though its roots can be seen in resistance to early historical critical work on the Bible, it is not until geology and then biology undermined traditional readings of the creation stories that a full-throated ‘fundamentalism’ arrived on the scene. But this reaction already shows a major shift in the reading of Scripture, for creation stories that had meant to point to the mystery of creation had been bent–under the guiding rubric of humanism–to instead provide a firm basis for absolute human knowledge of the physical world. It is easy to forget that the basis for Evangelical and fundamentalist theology was and is (primarily) the Swiss Reformation–led by John Calvin, himself an avowed humanist. It was humanism that led to the idea that the Bible could be simply and directly translated–freeing the laity to interpret the text on their own, without ecclesiastical guidance (or interference, depending on one’s view). Although this certainly gave lay Christians more direct access to the Bible, it also meant that this highly diverse and ancient text was divorced from the cultural, philosophical, and hermeneutical context in which it was written–leading easily to a literalistic mode of reading in which the vast majority of the significance of the text is lost. This is, I think, precisely how the theocentric Bible can come to be read in a highly subjective, self-indulgent anthropocentric mode.

Thus, the real conflict here is not between religion and science, but between humanism and science. This seems paradoxical, precisely because we are so used to thinking of science as both the product of and servant to the humanist project: and again, medical, transportation, and information technology breakthroughs fit this narrative well. The last 2 centuries have been witness to an incredible surge in human knowledge, and that knowledge has led to human manipulation of the material environment in ways that have expanded human lifespan and quality of life (at least for those lucky enough to live in “developed” nations and of sufficient class status). This is an obvious historical fact. But of course, this same knowledge has also had its dark ramifications–not only in the development of military technology and the various negative “side effects” of industrialized society (pollution, rising levels of obesity, displacement of traditional culture, etc.) but also in the increased recognition of human beings as more object than subject. The Cartesian/Kantian view of human personhood as based in transcendental reason has collapsed. Humans now are immanent things, objects of science. This has resulted in massive medical breakthroughs–for only as a physical object can the human body be studied and healed scientifically–but it has also raised profound and unsettling questions: for can an object have intrinsic ethical value? When a person was understood as an immaterial soul, the separation of value and fact was not fatal to the maintenance of ethical realism. But if a person is no more than a body, how is a robust ethics to be maintained?

Herein lies the collision of what we might call “early” and “late” modernity: Locke, Rousseau, Descartes and even Kant inhabited a world of transcendent souls animating material bodies. Since the 19th century, this view of humanity has been challenged to the point of obsolescence: yet it remains the basis of our social thought. This philosophical view is necessary so long as we want to maintain modern liberal values of freedom and human rights, as well as the sense of human dignity, because there is no scientific basis for such claims. One cannot show, empirically, the existence of human rights. Nietzsche recognized that the collapse of transcendence meant the end of the old ethics just as much as it challenged old religious views of Divinity; Heidegger too saw the implications for classical Liberalism–and post-structuralist and postmodern thought has continued to drive home these conclusions. Yet, modern society remains caught in the limbo between humanist social thought and scientific determinism. It seems to me that the resistance to evolutionary thought and an “old” universe is as much about salvaging a sense of meaning to human existence–any meaning, religious or otherwise–as it is about defending a particular religious position. Fundamentalist Christians strike me more as the humanist canaries in the coal mine, rather than real countercultural traditionalists. And of course, they are far from the only people frightened by the conclusions of modern science and its manifestation in technology; lamentations of consumerism, the banality of industrialism, and the “disenchanted” nature of modern self-consciousness are common, especially among the artistic Left. What is perhaps unique about fundamentalists, however, is a recognition, even if it is pre-critical, that there is no “going back”–once one accepts the scientific view of the world, the realm of value and meaning seems forever lost.

I am not suggesting that we side with the fundamentalists in their angry, anti-intellectual assault. I am, however, suggesting 2 things that I think Lee–and many others–have missed. First off, fundamentalist angst is primarily humanist, not religious. Secondly, they aren’t wrong for sounding the alarm–their outbursts point to a central contradiction in modern life, the gap between our social/ethical and scientific/technological endeavors. The haughty cultured dismissal of fundamentalist fear only proves the uncritical complacency of many pundits and commentators. In the final analysis, if we are going to affirm science and ethical realism, we will need a new synthesis, a new way forward, that is not dependent on the transcendental individualism of humanistic classical Liberalism. The alternative to developing such a new way forward can only be the ethical relativism that post-structuralism and postmodernity promise. I would argue that such a synthesis can actually only come by reaffirming the theocentric view we briefly touched on above–but that’s a topic needing its own post.

>Biblical Signficance in the 21st Century: Criticism & Guidance

>This is the third post in a quick series of posts focused on reading the Bible. The first post asked What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions, and the second followed up, focusing specifically on Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible. If you haven’t yet, read them first, and then continue on here with a discussion of what significance (if any) the Bible can or should have for Christians today.

Christians’ understanding of the Bible began to change in the 18th century when historians and scholars of language began to analyze the texts in the Bible not for their theological, pastoral, and eschatological content, but as historical documents alone. What they slowly began to find was not only a series of texts that were far from inerrant, in a literal way, but also that the texts were heavily influenced by the political, theological, cultural, and personal biases of their authors. These two realities seriously challenged a Church that had become ossified and arrogant. The Bible had become an object of worship in itself, and the challenges that scholars were raising seemed to threaten Christianity itself. This worship of the Bible, or bibliolatry, is the central feature of contemporary fundamentalist Christianity, and is a serious error; in traditional Christian terminology, it’s nothing short of a heresy.

The earliest Biblical critics were all practicing Christians themselves, and were not seeking to tear down the faith at all, but rather to build it up with a more complete understanding of the Scriptures. It took more than two centuries, but today, the Roman Catholic Church and all the mainline Protestant churches accept and encourage historical criticism as central for a proper understanding of Christian history and belief. By admitting that the Bible was written by human beings, and is as susceptible to flaw as any other created thing, real Christian faith is strengthened rather than weakened. Bibliolatry, like any other form of idolatry, is mutually exclusive to the actual worship of, understanding of, and relationship with God. God is not contained by any book or creed. Any attempt to limit God in that way must be rejected as awful theology.

So biblical scholars can trace the arc of thought through the Judean prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. They can explain much of the language through historical context rather than resorting to some sort of inbreaking divine voice. Paul’s letters are brought into clearer focus. They quickly show themselves to be pragmatic, advising documents with a lot of theological loose ends. They leave a lot of questions unanswered, and they omit ideas and doctrines that will become essential later. The gospels are revealed to be differing accounts of Jesus’ life, whose content is drawn not only from oral accounts decades removed from Jesus’ death, but also from the theological and ecclesiastic opinions of their writers.

In short, any serious analysis of the Bible reveals imperfections and contradictions galore. Any attempt to hold it up as an inerrant document becomes utterly preposterous. But I’ve claimed that this strengthens rather than weakens Christianity. How can this be?

I’ve already talked about how insisting on literal Biblical inerrancy leads to the grave error of bibliolatry. But it also, as I mentioned in a previous post, actually strips the book of most of its meaning. Are we to read Jesus parables literally? When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, are we supposed to horde mustard in preparation? How are we to read the Song of Solomon, an intensely erotic poem from the Tanakh (the Old Testament)? How do we make sense of the intricate sacrificial demands laid out in the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh? A literal reading in any of these examples would yield all sorts of madness, and would prevent us from understanding the deeper truths being expressed, truths sublime enough that they cannot be expressed literally. That’s not to say that there aren’t verses, chapters, and even entire books that can’t be read literally. Jesus and Paul both have plenty of direct, pragmatic advice to offer, as do the writers of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. But it’s clear that each book and chapter must be read carefully and interpreted according to the sort of writing that it is.

So this recognition that not every book of the Bible can be read literally enriches Christian study by opening up all sorts of avenues of interpretation that were closed before. The fact that the Bible is far from inerrant doesn’t detract from its value. It’s a record of peoples’ struggles with God and attempts to both understand and serve God. It’s a messy book because it records a messy history. There are gems of knowledge there, but they have to be sought out. A facile, superficial reading will leave you empty handed if you come to the Bible looking for anything of value.

Recognition of the limited, created nature of the Bible also allows us to step back and see the struggles of its writers as part of a longer narrative of humanity slowly finding its way forward. As Paul understood things, Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t the end of history at all, but rather the “first fruits” of the coming justification (1 Cor. 15). Christianity is not a reassurance of smug complacency, but rather a call to join in the tearful, confusing work of bringing the rule of heaven to earth. The Bible shows can show is the way in both its truths as well as its errors, reminding us to be humble and thoughtful, and obedient to nothing–not a book, not a church, not a leader–but God alone.

>Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible

>(This post is one in a series of questions I’m asking about how to read the Bible. If you haven’t already, please start with What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions)

Questions around the meaning of the Bible begin (and end) for many Christians with the issue of inspiration; many Christians claim that the Bible is the “inspired Word of God”. Therefore, it’s prima facie to be accepted as true in a literal sense. Non-Christians, and even many Christians, of course, question this reasoning. What does it mean to say that the Bible in inspired? How can we prove a text is inspired? Isn’t there plenty of evidence that the Bible isn’t inerrant?

Discussions of these questions could fill (and have filled, in fact!) many volumes, so my goal here is to really outline the nature of the questions rather than to attempt any real substantial answer. I don’t think we can begin to make any headway to a valid and useful answer unless we really know what we’re asking.

Questions of inspiration could be subdivided into a number of categories. For one thing, we could ask questions about theology–what or Who is God? If we talk about God inspiring something, what does that mean? We would need to really flesh out a set of ideas describing how exactly God interacts with the universe, and that leads us to more in-depth questions about the nature of God–transcendence, immanence, omnipresence. Really, asking questions about how God might inspire a people or a document leads us down a metaphysical rabbit hole. The very fabric of the ideas we are trying to discuss starts to fray.

First off, if we consider God the creator of everything, couldn’t we say that everything is “inspired” by God? Claiming a special status for the Bible (or any other book) is an implicit claim that God is more involved in certain actions than others. This leads to all sorts of questions about God’s agency–how God “makes decisions” and how God executes God’s “will”. Some would say that just in framing questions about God’s agency, will, or plan, we are anthropomorphizing God–casting God in a human image–and that the very categories we use to discuss these topics lead us to problematic answers. In other words, is God even the sort of “thing” that we can describe like other concepts? Can humans say anything relevant about God?

We might also want to ask how inspiration might work, metaphysically speaking. Even if we step away from some of the really weighty questions above, we might wonder about how inspiration would interact with the personality of a writer, the cultural context they live in, the political and economic events that shaped their life, and so on. Even if we accept that a text can be inspired, do these forces influence the record of that inspiration? All of the major prophets wrote from a perspective that conforms well to our understanding of Jewish cultural, religious, and political norms–norms God certainly must transcend. So even if inspiration can occur in a literal and direct way, to what extent could that inspiration be hidden, or complicated, by all the personal baggage of the writer of a given book?

There are other questions relating to humanity to explore here: did God only speak through the Israelite and Jewish people? If so, why? If not, are there other books of valid scripture? Certainly many Christians would deny that any text outside of the Bible can be considered scripture, so these questions are significant. We might also want to explore that history of the formation of the canon. The Bible didn’t drop, completed, from the sky in 200 CE. Some of the texts were likely extant as oral traditions, hundreds of years old, and were first written down in the eight century (the 700s) BCE. The major prophetic books were begun in this time, but not finished for centuries. The New Testament is a compilation of stories and letters written over the course of at least 100 years. Who decided which books to include? And what of books that some communities ultimately decided not to include? Is there evidence that many of these decisions were politically, culturally, or personally motivated? If so, what does that say about the nature of inspiration?

There aren’t any easy or obvious answers to these questions; these are the big “what is the meaning of it all” sort of theological questions that have occupied humans since we began writing. So I’m not trying to suggest that we have to have all of these issues ironed out in order to have an understanding of how to read the Bible, but I do think we should have these questions in mind as we consider the nature of inspiration.

There are plenty of more mundane questions to be considered as well. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are plenty of contradictions in the Bible. Some people will simply deny this, but anyone who actually reads the Bible will find them, and pretending they aren’t there doesn’t change anything. I’m not going to spend much time proving my position on this; if you don’t accept that there are contradictions, just open up Genesis. Read chapter 1, and then read chapter 2. In chapter one, humankind is the last form of life created, while in chapter 2 humans come first, and then plant life and animal life is formed. For anyone claiming that the Bible is literally true, this is an irresolvable problem. A–>B is not the same as B–>A. There are, of course, plenty of other examples. But showing one in the first 2 pages of the Bible seems sufficient to me.

It also leads nicely into the obvious solution for Christians who do hold the Bible as scripture–as holy, inspired, as True. The fact that the writers and redactors of Genesis would put two stories, back to back, that gave markedly different accounts of creation makes it absolutely obvious that they didn’t hold these stories to be literally, historically true. But does that mean that the Bible is false? This really isn’t a question of truth or falsity in the same way that we would ask if a journalist’s account of an event is true or false. We expect that a journalist will report facts that they can verify, and that the record of events they present is consistent with historical events.

And there are plenty of books in the Bible that read like, and should be treated as, history. Both first and second Kings, as well as first and second Chronicles, fall into this category. They basically record the history of Israel and Judah from Saul to the Babylonian captivity. They give the names of kings, the places of importance, they talk about military, political, and religious events. But the first few chapters of Genesis are probably not meant as history. They are presented as allegory–a fictional story that captures a deep truth. The focus of the story of Adam and Eve is not the development of life on Earth–Genesis isn’t presenting a natural history of our planet that can be contrasted with evolutionary theory. The story illustrates how God–the source of all existence–became estranged from creation, and that it is this estrangement that is the ground of all suffering. Reading Genesis 1 as a narrative about the development of life on Earth is to completely miss the point of the book.

In short, we have to be careful to consider the genre of what we are reading as we read the Bible. Is it history? Is it poetry? Is it a prayer? Is it a lawbook? Is it political polemic? The Bible is all of these and more. Each book, and in fact different sections of each book, need to be carefully read, and not interpreted as something they clearly are not. And of course, there will be plenty of books which may fall into many genre categories. I’ve picked a pretty easy example with Genesis. Many other books are much more confusing and complex. How do we read Isaiah? Should his writing be seen as a prescient prophecy, warning of future events? Or is he rehashing history to make a theological and ethical point? Or does Isaiah contain both of these genres?

What’s important to remember is that there are not just two options–that the Bible is either inerrantly and literally true, or worthless drivel. In fact, limiting our reading of the Bible to either of these polarized perspectives will only guarantee that we miss the truth and beauty of the book. The deepest points made are not made on the surface in literal statements. The real significance can only be teased out by faithful, humble, and open-minded reading. Instead of unquestioningly seeing the Bible as the revealed word of God, what if we understand the Bible as a record of the Israelites’ (and later, the Jews’ and early Christians’) struggle to define, understand, and serve God. In other words, instead of God’s monologue, the Bible becomes a dialogue between God and humanity.

As I suggested at the beginning of this post, accepting this approach doesn’t line up a set of answers for us, but instead prompts us to ask many new questions, some of them unsettling, many of them fundamental to how we see ourselves and our faith. If the Bible has many genres, how do we read it? Is it easy to misinterpret? Who decides what readings are valid? How do we apply these various texts to our lives? This approach is far more challenging, but also holds the possibility of bearing much more fruit than an insistence on a literal/historical reading of the entirety of the Bible.

The next post deals with the Significance of the Bible in the 21st Century

>What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions

>A lot of Christians define themselves as “Bible” Christians. They seem to be contrasting themselves with other Christians, who presumably don’t center their faith on the Bible. But what does it meant to place a body of scriptures at the center of a faith? Is being a Christian simply a matter of reading the Bible and obeying whatever is found therein?

Modern American society is dominated by what is generally referred to as the “culture wars”. This analysis depends on polarizing society into two camps: conservative Christians and liberal atheists. The former are understood as reactionary, closed-minded fundamentalists and the latter as libertine, nihilist hedonists. As with any simplification of very complex matters, this narrative is wildly inaccurate. But this isn’t a post about politics; I want to dig into a specific question: what does the Bible mean? There certainly are fundamentalist Christians, and they would respond simply, saying that the Bible is literally and completely true, utterly inerrant, and that people achieve salvation through obedience to this book, which they often describe as an “owner’s manual” to the human soul.

But historians of religion see the Bible differently. Biblical scholars can dissect the text and expose the cultural, political, and economic forces that worked on the writers of the Bible. They can point out contradictions and inaccuracies, which abound: the first chapter of Genesis gives a different account of creation than the second; the major prophets denigrate the sacrificial cult of the Temple while the writer of Deuteronomy makes it a central aspect of Judaism. St Paul and the writer of the Gospel of St Mark seem to understand Jesus as a human being like any other who was elevated or “adopted” by God into divine status at his baptism by John the Baptizer, while the writer of the Gospel of St John describes Christ as the eternal, uncreated Word of God.

If one is honest with oneself, the conclusions to be drawn from Biblical criticism are inescapable. The Bible is a series of documents, written by humans, from their various human perspectives, and is subject to error just like anything else written by humans. Does this realization necessarily mean that Christianity is irrelevant, proven false through modern scholarship? I think to answer this question, we have to ask other questions. What do we mean when we talk about the Bible being “inspired”? How do we understand God as acting in the world? How do writers communicate in their work–is the literal interpretation of a text the only or best one? I’m going to give my own two cents on each of these in posts coming up soon.

Read the first post here: Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible
And the second post here: The Significance of the Bible in the 21st Century: Criticism and Guidance

>Lectio: Mark 1

>I began lectio divina reading of Mark today. I read chapter 1 through three times. I read almost aloud, mouthing the words in a breathy whisper to slow myself down. I have a bad habit of flying through texts and missing a lot in doing so. The standard instructions for lectio divina specify that one should read the passage repeatedly, and then find one verse or series of verses to meditate on. After the second reading-through, I thought I’d meditate on the end of the chapter, the healing of the leper. But as I began the third time through, my attention switched to the opening.

Mark loosely quotes Isaiah 40:3-5 in verses 2 and 3 of his Gospel:

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

The normal exegesis for this passage is pretty straightforward: John the Baptizer is identified as the ‘voice in the wilderness’ who is proclaiming the coming of the Lord (Jesus). But the original passage from Isaiah, of course, has a different context. First, the passage itself (Isaiah 40:3-5):

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah’s prophecy is speaking of a future prophet (generally identified as the returned Elijah) who is preparing the way not for a human Savior, but for God Gods’self. Mark appropriates the passage and re-theologizes it for his own uses. Jesus is Immanuel–God on earth with us–and so Isaiah’s prophecy takes on new, and more urgent meaning. John the Baptizer has proclaimed the immanent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven–which Jesus, as God Incarnate, has inaugurated. The waiting is over.

From a critical perspective, especially a Jewish one, one might criticize this appropriation of Isaiah, but for a Christian this approach to the Jewish scriptures is implicit and necessary. (That is not to say, of course, that the Christian reading of Isaiah, or any other book, is exhaustive or exclusively right, but only that each community has a right and responsibility to interpret texts as it is called to do). A more interesting question for modern Christians is, ‘what does this mean for us now?” Mark probably expected the coming of the Kingdom in his own lifetime. Nearly 2,000 years later, our approach to salvation history and prophecy is necessarily quite different.

I read the whole chapter three times over, but I read this one passage, verses 2 and 3, over and over and over. There seemed to be something hidden there, something beyond even Mark’s creative exegesis. Ok, so the Lord has come. Now what? It occurred to me, as I chewed over the passage, that the prophecy could be re-situated yet again. Understood as a direct exhortation to us Christians today, Mark could be read as calling us to make straight the paths of the Lord. Drawing on Paul’s famous explanation of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 wherein Jesus is the ‘first fruits’ of God’s justification. His resurrection is not the End, it is a beginning. We are called not simply to wait around for Jesus’ future return, but to accept as our own the crucifixion and to participate in the resurrection. Make straight the paths of the Lord. Feed the hungry. Silence our own anger. Stand for justice. Humble yourself before God.

In this light, the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy fills out with astounding and even frightening clarity. Here we have a great rebuke to those who wish to read the whole of the Bible literally. Are we to assume that the coming of the Kingdom means terraforming of the earth, that God hates geological variety? “…[E]very valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek. The lion shall lie down with the lamb. The running theme is clear: injustice, oppression, and poverty are enemies of the Kingdom; its coming means their end. Valleys and mountains are powerful metaphors for human division.

Continuing, we have a yet more powerful vision of what God’s justification looks like: “Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” God’s glory is synonymous with the leveling of human society, it is the rejoining of the human family. And it is not for one group alone–Israelites, Christians, Whites, Men, or any other privileged group. It is for all people, as the passage states (literally)!

So, in short, my meditation on this short passage–and, in fact, my first time practicing lectio divina–was quite humbling and enlightening. For someone who normally blazes through texts but leaves much, perhaps even most, of the meaning in the pages, this belabored reading brought forth great fruit.