Saturday, November 28, 2015

Six Challenging Questions Regarding God's Ethics

Below are my responses to six challenging questions by an atheist friend regarding God's ethical behavior in the Bible. These are questions I've struggled with deeply myself, so I definitely identify with those who question the often harsh or seemingly unfair behavior of a God who's supposed to be good and leading us toward a perfect relationship with Him, each other, and creation.

1) Would you drown everyone except 8 people and a boatload of animals?

I think this story is a great example of the use of myth to convey truth. Especially in Genesis, but also throughout the Torah, there are many places where the text incorporates myths from other cultures and usually gives structural clues in the Hebrew as to the nature of the myth. An example of the parallelism within this story is found in the opening verses. In v. 5 “God saw [Heb. wayyar'], v. 6 “the LORD was grieved [Heb. wayyinahem]... his heart was filled with pain [Heb. wayyitasseb]” and on and on. Hebrew parallelism is regularly used both in mythic and poetic genres and suggests a carefully crafted structure, not just a historical account. This is a myth, and while there have been local destructive floods throughout history, Noah's flood almost certainly didn't happen literally.

When this story was included in the Torah, the Jews were in the midst of the Babylonian exile and though they knew the special character of their God, they wanted a way to viscerally convey this character to their people, so they used stories which were familiar, i.e. the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (for the flood), the Atrahasis Epic and the Enuma Elish (for creation), and Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (the Tower of Babel). Other sources may have been used as well, but these may have been lost. But what is most interesting is not the parallels with these other myths, but what is unique to the Hebrew myths. In the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian stories, the gods are pissed that humans are too noisy. We just party too hard, baby. So they want to kill us. Then when they realize they'll starve without our worship, they praise one of the gods who sneakily saved Utnapishtim (Noah). The Hebrew God on the other hand, cares about social justice and the violence that spreads through the earth. In fact, the Hebrew contrasts in the language with humanity's violence and the goodness of creation suggests that the violence was so bad, all humanity would have slaughtered each other completely. This means that by saving 8, God saved 8 more than would have survived without intervention.

This story's placement within the book of Genesis also serves an important theological purpose. It is the culmination of the acts of Adam and Eve, which first brought rebellion and deception into the world and out of that, the first acts of violence. This is foreshadowed in the skins with which they are covered, and carried on in the story of Cain and Abel, which in narrative structure (especially in Cain's dialogue with God) mirrors almost exactly the exchange between the first couple and God. Destruction was the inevitable path humanity was already on. I find it very interesting today, that in the face of climate change, we find ourselves in the same place again (only this time our violence is toward the earth and not just toward each other). If humanity cannot change its ways, it may very well destroy itself. I think that is the ultimate point of this story.

It is important to note as well that the Jews reading the Torah during the Babylonian exile would have immediately recognized these stories as myths (both because they were already familiar with the Babylonian myths and because of the Hebraic structural clues); yet even as myths they communicate essential truths about God and humanity: that we have the potential to utterly destroy ourselves, and that God cares about social justice and wants to show mercy to those who will reject the path of violence.

2) Would you consider women as property?

In the ANE (Ancient Near East) all the way through Greco-Roman times, women were indeed seen as property, either the property of the clan itself (whose authority was recognized either in the elder males, or a patriarch) or the property of the pater familias (head of household). These authorities generally had the power of life and death over the men and women under their control. It was through this cultural lens the original audiences (and even authors) of the biblical texts saw their relationships to each other and to their God (or gods). But what is very interesting about even the Old Testament is that, despite many brutal passages read in today's Western cultural light, there are some pretty huge changes to the status of women and all vulnerable classes (including widows, orphans, the poor, and migrants/immigrants) taking place in scripture.

This change begins with the creation myths at the beginning in Genesis (two are found here, as well as another six uses of creation imagery in the Psalms). In the opening verses, men and women are created equally (Gen. 1:27-28). Even in the second story (ch. 2-3), when Eve is taken from the rib of Adam, their relationship is like that of a river. The mouth of the river might be its “head” or its source, yet no part of the river is more important than another. It is all river. Inequality is first mentioned after humanity has sinned, and is described as a consequence of our sin (Gen. 3:16). In this context, all human inequality is the direct result of human sin and is not part of the original created order.

From this point forward, any law code, or instruction, or even mythic (or possibly historic for some) story must be read in the context of human-created inequality. So, in this context, let's say God decides to begin speaking into history and changing things. I think God began to do this gradually, because an outright revolution of thought would have been utterly rejected (as I've stated elsewhere, I think God's relationship with humanity is not deterministic, but a give-and-take, and we have a say in it). The Torah laws represent a compromise, and an understanding that God is not done interacting with (and changing) the nature of our relationship.

Even the more brutal laws are a vast improvement in terms of social justice when compared with either ANE cultural practice or other written law codes (such as Hammurabai's). Where in other cultures, slaves were held for life against their will, in the Torah they are set free the seventh year, and all debts forgiven after seven sets of seven years (the 50th year of the debt), meaning a debt could not be passed to children or over the estate (as the land was held in trust for descendants forever). The concept of the Jubilee year is remarkably more progressive than even today's debt laws. And where in the ANE, if a slave did a crime they were given a harsher punishment then a rich person, in the Torah all are punished for crimes equally (though harshly). Additionally, where women leaders were unheard of in much of that world, some of the oldest sections of the Torah include the stories (and song) of Deborah, a female judge who leads an army and prophecies to the people (Jg. 4-5), as well as women who kill kings (Jg. 4:21; 9:53) and who decide the destinies of princes (cf. Rebekah, Jacob & Esau). It's certainly not a perfect image of women, but if the Torah were all humanity needed to move into perfect relationship with each other, with creation, and with God; then Christ would not have come (this point is what much of my theology hinges on).

Even in the NT, Jesus and Paul provide a vast improvement in the treatment of women and their status. Women form a central part of Jesus' ministry. It is a woman who brings the Incarnate Word into the world (Mary), and it is women who first discover the empty tomb and bring the Proclaimed Word into the world (by telling the disciples). It is a Canaanite woman who actually bests Jesus with a riddle/analogy in one of the best uses of irony in scripture (Mt. 15:21-28) and it is women who have some of the most intimate discussions and interactions with Jesus (Jn. 4:4-26; Lk. 7:36-50). Women even sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen as his disciples which was unheard of at the time (Lk. 10:38-42). And, even though a later bishop (who wrote Timothy) uses Paul's name to place limits on women leadership in his congregations, Paul himself elevates the role of women, proclaims them equal with men (and all people regardless of background) (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28), and even praises the work of women leaders in the church and commends Junia, a female apostle (Rom. 16:7).

3) Would you yourself or would you condone owning another person?

No, I wouldn't. And I don't think God would either. Though Paul tells slaves they should serve their masters, this should be read in the context of the unequivocal rejection of violence by Jesus and the early church, and in Jesus' and Paul's statements regarding the equality of all individuals. Paul's admonition in this case is actually a position of nonviolent subversion of Roman structures. Christians were to serve (whether free or slave) in such a way that defied the expected reaction to those placed in bondage or forced in anyway. It was indeed a revolution, but a revolution that rejected force and instead relied on the overwhelming power of love to change people's hearts, even the oppressors.

As for the Torah references to slavery,  I stated earlier that I think these are concessions to the cultural mindset and state of sin, violence and oppression in human affairs so that God could begin to define humanity's relationship with each other and with God, and that even they were a vast improvement over contemporary societies. The laws are a stepping stone into relationship, but they do not bring us into ideal relationship with God. That's why the Incarnate Word (Christ) took on flesh, but only once human beings were ready for such a radical event to take place.

4) Would you condone beating said person as long as they didn't die right away?

Well, since I rejected slavery in the previous sections, I suppose I'd beat the s*** out of a free man (I kid, I kid). Again, I think the Torah was a progressive approach to the brutality of human beings and was part of the process of God breaking into our interactions with each other and beginning to establish the grounds which would form our relationship with Him (generally framed within the cultural practice of covenant). This progress continues with the ministry of Jesus, who as the Christ, reframes the entire relationship and sheds new light on the old ways.

It is deeply unfortunate that for many centuries the church forgot these important lessons and took steps backward. Still, God's value and love for women, the oppressed, and the alien has shown through in the work of many saints and mystics through history who tapped into the heart of God and shared it with others. And I think that when the progression of scripture is taken as a whole, and informed in the light of the writings of the early Church fathers, we see a definite movement toward rejecting violence and embracing mercy as a reflection of Christ's character.

5) Do you think eternal torture or annihilation for temporal crimes, unbelief or just 'wrong' thoughts is just?

Nope, and I also don't think scripture refers to eternal torture or annihilation. In the Tanakh, death was vaguely referred to as Sheol. This may have been understood as a shadowy existence, though many Jews believed a person lived on in name only, that they were wholly material infused with the “ruach” or “breath” of God, and that their bodies simply returned to the earth with no afterlife. There are many poetic allusions to death in the OT and very few of them suggest some type of afterlife.

When Jesus talks about Gehenna, much of what he was talking about was actually referring to the upcoming destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which happened 40 years after he died and a few years after the gospel of Mark was likely written). Like almost all prophets (including John of Patmos, who wrote Revelation), he was speaking of contemporary conditions and the near future. Now, ever since Clement of Alexandria (and the Alexandrian school), many have ascribed deeper allegorical meaning to these utterances, and I think that's fine as long as we recognize that there are certain lessons which can apply to every generation, there are certain ones which apply only to the original generation, and there may be some that refer to an apocalyptic final future (but these interpretations must always be taken with a grain of salt).

I do think scripture affirms a bodily resurrection, though I don't believe in an immortal soul (which I think is a Greco-Roman syncretic addition to later Christian thought). In fact, I think many of our modern Christian thoughts around the afterlife are Gnostic holdovers that need to be re-examined. Honestly, if an immortal soul was all that was needed for existing, a bodily resurrection wouldn't be necessary. But as Paul states, without the bodily resurrection of Christ, we have no bodily resurrection. And if we have no bodily resurrection, we have no hope (1 Cor. 15:3-19). While much of scripture is infused with myth, I affirm the historicity of the death of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb, as well as the perception by the disciples that they saw the risen Lord soon after. It through understanding these specific events as historical that my faith in Christ takes shape.

While I do not have a definitive answer, I have been looking at different possibilities for interpretation. One, is that the condition popularly known as “hell” (a word which never appears in scripture) is actually a post-resurrection state of an individual (or even a state in this life), where they are so filled with rejection, bitterness, and hate that they are agonizing and suffering in the midst of their willful separation. If this is the case, then I think that God's mercy is so great, that in the very moment this person were to turn to God, they would be immediately accepted into the Body of Christ. This could leave open the possibility for even universal reconciliation among all human beings (and, I interpret “human being” to mean all life that has evolved the agency to enter into relationship). Though, there may be some who would so much rather wallow in their own bitterness and general crapitude, that even though they may be resurrected into the midst of Paradise, still they would eternally and wilfully suffer in their own personal “hell.”

If these possibilities are the case, then perhaps scripture (and Jesus) is using the creative imagery of Gehenna and fire to describe these states. There are many places throughout scripture where concrete terms are poetically used (such as in the Psalms and Proverbs) to describe more abstract concepts. A great example is the female personification of wisdom in the proverbs. Concrete imagery (especially in prophetic and apocalyptic works) helps us to grasp almost ungraspable concepts.

6) Would you let your son be tortured and killed to solve a problem you created?

Which one, Samson or Conan? That's right, I named my sons Samson and Conan (I like epic characters, what can I say?). Anyway, I assume you are referring to Christ. I think this is where the doctrine of the Trinity comes into play (though it is a very sticky topic, with much of its thought originating well outside the scope of scripture and more in the context of 4th century Greco-Roman culture and Greek philosophy). I think that Christ as God's Son may be understood to the effect that the substance, Being God is eternally, coequally Personalized in perfect internal relationship as the Trinity. This relationship becomes our model for relationship, and it is with this understanding that Christians call Jesus the Son. We believe that the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, just as a Word is the expression of the Originator, while at the same time Being the Originator.

That might sound like a lot of word salad (and I think some of the 4th century and later formulations border on word saladness), but its better if we go back to my point in a previous post about how the symbols of language fail to fully register direct experience, and even less so, direct being (in this case, the Being of God). Part of the value of the symbolic language of Sonship is its connections to sonship (as in the Son of Man, the Son of David) in the OT, and Jesus' special context within Israel. Anyway, the point is, it is God Itself who took on flesh, was tortured, and was killed for a problem that we created. If we have free will (and I think we do, at least in a limited way in our environment), and we were created for relationship with God, creation, and each other, and to be able to create or destroy (as God does, cf. Gen. 1:26-27; Deut. 30:19), then we need to take responsibility for our own actions. Honestly, this is the point of humanism, and helps explain humanism's roots within Christianity. We are responsible for our own problems, and our decision to enter into Christ signals our willingness to be part of the solution.

Final Thoughts

I hope these responses help any readers who are struggling with the idea of a God revealed in scripture and in flesh. As I said earlier, they are the fruit of my own struggle, and it is my hope that they save you some time and maybe some heart-ache; and will hopefully lead you down the path toward the truth (wherever that may lead you).

#christianity #atheism #interpretation #hebrew #women #torah #tanakh #bible #ethics

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Recommendations for Those Struggling Between Faith and Reason

Many within Western Culture have struggled with just how faith and reason interact and some have erroneously maintained that these are incompatible, and that faith somehow suggests a rejection of reason.

For those struggling between these philosophical and cultural forces, I have a couple of recommendations, as I too have found myself at a similar crossroads and wrestled deeply with issues of faith and reason. I will go ahead and tell you that I do affirm my Christian faith and I also fully affirm the reliability of reason in determining and judging scientific discovery, but through this struggle I have both greatly expanded my ideas regarding who or what Christ is, and how this translates into purpose for my life. Anyway, here are some brief suggestions as you continue your journey:

1) Do not be afraid to doubt. Doubt is the means by which we humbly question our own assumptions. It provides the opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. Never fear doubt. If you decide to continue living a life of faith, remember that scripture never presents God as One who punishes doubters and that doubt forms a foundational catalyst for transformation in many scriptural stories (cf. dialuges beteween God and Abraham, Gideon, and Moses; the Lament Psalms; the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, & Lamentations).

2) Challenge your own definitions. Many on here argue from basic assumptions regarding what words like "reason," "faith," "spiritual," and "good," really mean. These are all philosophically, culturally, and historically complex terms each with many, often competing definitions. For me, a major turning point was when I no longer defined faith as "blind belief" or "belief contrary to evidence," and instead defined it as "relational trust" in a God who is present in the Incarnation of Christ, and who died and resurrected. This definition was shaped by a re-evaluation of the often misquoted verse in Heb. 11:1 (which refers to hope in the future based on the evidence of Christ's resurrection, and not in a baseless past). I realized that the only God which could matter at all is not a cosmological-derived god found in the gaps of reason; but instead in a relational God found in the Incarnation of Christ.

3) Challenge your cultural assumptions. Despite my belief in objective truth, I know that we all view life through our own cultural lens. For Evangelical Christianity in America, this has often meant that people equate faith with right-wing political machinations and the heavy collusion of state and church forces. This is unfortunate, because it turns a lot of people off to Christianity, who see it simply as another corrupt means of control. But the more I have studied the teaching of Jesus, the critical, textual, and historical development of the New Testament, and the effects of cultural biases; the more I have fallen in love with the promise which Christ has provided and represents even today.

4) Do not fall into the trap of confirmation bias. So many people, whether theists or atheists or any other stripe of religious philosophy (or the lack there of) actively seek out sources that only reinforce their current beliefs. Don't be afraid of contrary opinions, but at the same time, don't give undue weight to those who reinforce ideas you may already be forming simply because they are convenient. For example, I personally have become convinced of the relative historical reliability of the gospel accounts and the conviction that the disciples believed they had witnessed the resurrected Christ. I think the historical record confirms this (as do most scholars), despite the recent influx of scholars and writers who suggest that Christ never existed. I think the often overly vocal minority opinion is given so much weight in some circles because it confirms the preconceived notions of those who hold to it.

5) Expand your ideas concerning what is possible. A large part of my theological development has been heavily influenced by the works of the Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his writings positing the noosphere and the idea of The Omega Point as a realization of the hope that all of Creation will one day be fully integrated, fully self-realized, and fully united (cf. theosis) in the Body of Christ itself; as well as the works of Carl Jung within the field of analytical psychology. So many people lose sight of the great promises of what someday will be, that their philosophy collapses into nothing more than a self-serving, hedonistic practicalism.

You'll notice that in the recommendations above, I have tried to guide you to some influential thinkers while at the same time I have avoided telling you exactly what to think. I want you to discover that for yourself. Still, it may be provide some comfort during your intellectual and spiritual struggle ahead that others have fought along the same path you now undertake and many have found fulfilling insights (which are usually accompanied by more questions) along the way. God bless you as you look for answers and I hope that you find what you are looking for.

#faith #reason #philosophy #belief

Plumbing the Depths of God's Love

Someone recently said to me,
"You know, I believe in God, and though I've asked, I just don't know if he would forgive me for my sins or how to start back on religion."
Below was my response and is an attempt on my part to conceptualize and vocalize the depths of God's love for us:

I've ministered in both military and prison contexts, and sometimes people who are passionately telling me their story will swear or say something they think is inappropriate. But when they apologize, I always tell them, "Don't worry, both God and I have heard worse." I think that we assume that because we are the sons of apes, that we are somehow inconsequential. That we need to "clean up" and hide our failures and our weaknesses before approaching the Divine.

If there is a God (and I think there is, revealed in the Incarnate Christ), then this God knows the deepest part of every being on every planet, in every time in the cosmos. In a billion years after you turn to dust, you will still be dear to God's heart, even as another being, in a galaxy far away also wonders if there is any greater Consciousness that really cares about its life or can give it a fresh start and new purpose.

I think this God, while so utterly transcendent that it paradoxically extends even into non-existence itself, is also so utterly imminent that it vibrates along the fundamental forces of the universe, experiences the movement of every quark, and experiences the struggle, loneliness, and joy of every sentient being. When we rejoice, God rejoices with us. When we suffer and mourn, God suffers with us.

How could a God, so cosmically transcendent that universes pop into existence and recede into nothing in the blink of an eye; and yet so imminent that it marvels at the most inconsequential carbon atom in your thumbnail, do anything other than forgive you? How could the One who has seen potentially a million civilizations across ten-thousand star systems and yet witnessed your very entry into this world as a baby, be anything but utterly enthralled by you?

Of course you are forgiven! You are forgiven for a hundred thousand deeds in the past, and a hundred thousand possible deeds to come. I really think that if there is a God even worth mentioning, then this God has already fallen so deeply in love with you that It waits in anticipation for your call, like a giddy teenager waiting by the phone.

#God #love #transcendence #imminence #forgiveness

Monday, November 16, 2015

My Thoughts Regarding Evidence for God

A friend recently told me he had lost his faith. He had been a young-earth-creationist and had found the apologetic arguments regarding the relationship between science and scripture dissatisfying to the intellect, and insufficient evidence for his continued walk with Christ. Still, he asked for my thoughts on faith, how it fits with our current scientific understanding, and what my "best argument is for God's existence."  I generally dislike engaging in apologetic arguments, as I think Christ is best reflected in the life lived by faith and in the life of the Church, but below is the substance of my reply. Many Christians may find it controversial, but within it I believe I have confirmed the orthodox faith while also affirming the value and reliability of scientific discovery.

"I think the only argument for Christianity is found in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I do not think "proof" of God's existence can be found in cosmology, or evolutionary biology, and certainly cannot be found in any argument for a "god of the gaps."

Interestingly enough some of the 20th century's best theologians (including the theologian and theoretical chemist Charles Coulson) fully recognized this and emphasized the centrality of Christ's person to any theological understanding of God's work in the cosmos. I am particularly fond of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was put to death for opposing the Nazis and leading the confessing church in Germany during WWII) quote,
"How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."
It is with this in mind that I define my faith, not as "blind belief," as some might claim faith is; but instead as "relational trust," based on the evidence related below. I trust God because I think He has been trustworthy in the past, even in the midst of the chaos and suffering in which we find ourselves. Some might argue that this contradicts Hebrews 11:1, which states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Many Atheists tend to see this as justification for casting Christianity as unreasonable. But I would contend that this passage is not referring to things of the past, but things of the future. We do not hope that the past will happen again. Instead, based on what has already happened (and the evidence on which we base the knowledge of what has already happened), we hope in the unseen future.

The thoughts which follow are largely the result of much wrestling on my part. However, I've come to the conclusion that throughout scripture, God does not punish our doubt, instead He often speaks to us through it. If this weren't true, then we would have to ignore the dialogues of Gideon and Moses, many of the Lament Psalms, the entire books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations, and the narrative of the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and Thomas.

So, here I'll outline my current thoughts on my faith. Please bear with me, because this is a long one, but in the process of laying all this out, I am trying to communicate why I still have faith while at the same time affirming a completely material cosmos, discoverable through the natural sciences:

1) My Thoughts on God and Humanity
I am a Christian, but I absolutely affirm the necessity of scientific discovery for accurately shaping our worldview. I have no problem with the current, standard theories concerning the big bang, multiverses, or evolutionary biology. My current understanding of God most resembles what might be called Extensionalist Panentheism. Unlike Pantheism, best exemplified in some of the more spiritually inclined writings of Albert Einstein and Baruch Spinoza, which equates the total sum of the Universe (or Multiverse) with God; my understanding of Extensionalist Panentheism posits that the Cosmos is an extension (or expression) of the mind of God. The expression of God subsists within every particle or force within the Universe, and yet expands beyond it, even into,paradoxically, non-existence and potential futures. In this view, the Universe becomes an outflow of the mind of God, in whose Word everything finds existence (Jn. 1:3).

Its intelligence may be expressed through revelation (the interaction of mind-to-mind), but whenever such revelation happens, it takes the form of direct experience, and so in the process of abstraction and human mental process (including the translation into symbolic language), becomes a dim reflection of the original revelation and is written down by those who receive it using the best (often mythic) symbols available to them (i.e. the prophets of old). Ultimately however, the perfect revelation is expressed in the Word made Flesh, the Incarnate Son of God whose relevance is communicated through the Spirit (sometimes known as "ruach" in the OT Hebrew or "pneuma" in the NT Greek, both roughly translated as "breath" or "wind") (cf. Gen. 1; Jon. 1).

This perfect expression took on carnality, for the sake of carnal beings. I think that we are wholly physical (I do not believe we have a spirit, other than that which fills all life, that can be separated from the body, as this strikes me as a Neo-Platonist and Gnostic idea which was introduced to Christianity in the third and fourth centuries). Even our minds, where we find our identity and personality, are generated in the brain; just as the cosmos is generated from God through the Word. Because we are completely material, in a material cosmos, any salvation of the individual must be expressed materially. This is why the New Testament (and especially the Pauline and Johannine Writings) place such an emphasis on the bodily resurrection. Christ's sacrifice may have been the first and only truly selfless sacrifice, and served as both an example and as the avenue through which salvation comes. But if Christ was not bodily resurrected, then human beings have no hope of bodily resurrection in the future (1 Cor. 15:17).

I do not think science nor scripture support a vision of the afterlife where a person's disembodied spirit eternally inhabits heaven or hell. For one, we've come to discover through the neurosciences that the seat of our emotions, memory, and intellect all rest in the biological processes of the brain. Our hope is not in a disembodied, eternal heaven; but in a bodily resurrection and a restored creation where humanity is no longer separating from God by our sin and where we are no longer subject to the suffering found in chaos (Rev. 21:1). If there is judgment and a reckoning for the broken relationships we've caused, and for both individual and systemic sin; then I think this reckoning takes the form of self-imposed bitterness and hatred in individuals, to such an extent that one could stand in Paradise itself and still feel as though they were burning in hell. If this state is permanent, then it is likely so, because a person's bitterness and sin has twisted them up so much inside that they wouldn't receive the gift of grace even if it were offered.. Since I affirm that we are made in the Image of God, in that we have the creative and destructive powers of free will (Gen. 1:26-28; Deut. 30:19), I think that even when all is accounted for on the Last Day (which would require a physical resurrection), if a person is willing to turn from their own twisted insides toward the ever-present mercy of God, then they will receive it immediately (cf. Ps. 103:1; Ps. 118). I'm not 100% sure on whether those who find themselves in that state would do so, as it may be that if a person truly becomes utterly consumed by hate, then they may not even want to turn away from their own suffering, out of sheer bitterness and obstinance.

2) My Thoughts on the Old Testament
If God exists, and if this God were to reveal anything about Himself, then myths are just as good a literary form as any. After all, even today, we use myths (movies, fictional literature, etc.) to communicate ideas which are central to our cultural and relational understanding. Myths are often used to convey very poignant truth about who we are, and to completely dismiss them as irrelevant because of a lack of understanding regarding their source and purpose, is a bit silly.
 As C.S. Lewis said,
"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches... and in this respect irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."
I think that the Bible is a mix of song, poetry, myth, history, proverb, and parable. But when we confuse these literary genres, we totally miss the point of the text.

For example, the Jews most likely borrowed many of the elements in the creation story, the flood, and the early genealogy lists from the Babylonians (and them from the Sumerians before them).

But what makes the biblical stories kind of cool (if you're a nerd like me) in this context are the changes they made to the stories. In the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics, the earth is flooded because humans just party too hard and keep the gods up, so they decide to kill everybody. In the biblical story, God regrets his decision to create humanity because it fills the earth with violence.

This theme crops up again and again in the OT, and shows that even at an early point (they were probably included in the OT at the latest 2,600 yrs ago, but maybe a couple of hundred years before that), ideas about social justice were beginning to take shape. Even in some of the more brutal parts of the OT, the system of laws in place is much “fairer” in the modern sense than comparable law codes of the time (like Hammurabai's).

Also, and this often gets lost on modern audiences,but the narrative (especially from creation to the flood) takes on a very precise parallel structure. Genesis two (Adam & Eve) and three (Cain & Abel) are parallel structures, the days of creation are parallel structures (days 1 & 4 – light & light givers created; days 2 & 5 – waters & fish created; days 3 & 6 – earth and land creatures created; day 7 is a bookend of “rest); the flood exhibits a similar parallel device, as does the tower of babel, and the entire section of Genesis 1-7 exhibits an overarching parallel structure.

Additionally, in the Babylonian creation stories (the Enuma Elish), Marduk wrestles Tiamat (a chaos dragon), kills her, and creates the world from her carcas. In the Bible, Yahweh only needs to speak the Word, and chaos (tohu – an early cognate of Tiamat) recedes. This makes Yahweh a bit unique in the ancient near east, in that creation is an extension (through the Word) of God's mind into “the void” or “nonexistence.” The chaos dragon creeps up again throughout the OT and even in the NT, as a dragon or leviathan.

Since the Jews who were in exile in Babylon knew the Babylonian myths, they would have immediately recognized the similarities and recognized these biblical stories as myths. And if they somehow missed that, then the parallel structure would have tipped them off.

Finally, just in case anyone was still tempted to treat these stories as literal historical events, there are six “Creation Psalms” (Ps. 8, 19, 29, 65, 104, 139) which use creative language and have never been treated literally. I think this is primarily because they are immediately recognized as the creative outflow found in most songs.

The funny thing is, these creation stories, from the earliest Jewish works, all through early Christianity (cf. Origen and Clement of Alexandria), were understood in their mythical, figurative, and symbolic sense. And even the laws found in the Torah suggest a much greater work in the cosmos and a more socially just form of being (compared to the surrounding cultures, even if brutal by today's standards).

When Fundamentalist (and many Evangelical) Christians take these stories literally, not only do they make the faith look stupid to outsiders, but they miss much of the beauty of these early works. And that honestly makes me kinda sad that they think they are doing good, and yet are often totally missing the message that is in the works. Unfortunately, this also encourages people on the opposite end of the spectrum to completely reject any value in the text, even though their level of knowledge regarding them is on the same level as the Fundamentalists.

3) My Thoughts on New Testament Evidence
Long story short, it's all very much open to interpretation, and I'm not opposed to an allegorical reading for many of the events surrounding Jesus' life (in fact, Clement of Alexandria argued that ALL scripture has a deeper allegorical meaning, and that only chumps take everything literally, a position which came to define the Alexandrian School). Still, based on the below considerations, I think there is a genuine historical core which makes for very interesting study and discussion.

But, even where stories and myths are re-appropriated, I still find it useful to discuss the differences with source material, and what it could mean for interpreting theological positions based on the gospels. The gospel of John has fascinated me the most out of any of them. While the first three are Synoptics (meaning they share much of their material, with the most likely hypothesis being that Matthew and Luke used Mark, Special-L, Special-M, and Q as their source materials); John is very different in many respects.

At various times this has led scholars to tend to disregard John as non-historical, but I actually think John might be the most reliable of the gospels. His gospel is unique in that he shares details regarding the temple which (generally) only insiders would have known before it was destroyed in 70 CE. His timeline is also more likely for the Passover, given Jewish practice at the time (and also more theologically significant, as Jesus dies the moment the Passover lamb is slaughtered on the Day of Preparation before the Sabbath). He writes in slightly terrible Greek (especially compared to Mark or Luke), and uses multiple Hebraic idioms, suggesting a native Semitic speaker. The source of the book is evidently Ephesus, or nearby Asia Minor, and this fits with the written accounts of John's life by the men who knew him, specifically Ignatius of Antioch, Papias, Polycarp, and possibly traditions handed on to Irenaeus. The gospel writer self-identifies as the beloved disciple in the narrative, which is most likely John (as the only major unnamed disciple in the book).

The Johannine Epistles and Revelation are evidently already aware of the Gospel's existence, and as they have an estimated composition date of the mid-90's CE, this suggests the Gospel was earlier. The language between them is very similar (though there are some significant grammatical differences with 2-3 John), and may be from the same author.

Finally, we actually have a small scrap of papyrus from the gospel, dated to about 125 CE at the latest (called P52), and possibly only one copy removed from the original. Evidence from the writing and type of script suggests a devoted hand without formal scribal training, which would be consistent with an upstart community, not yet well established.

All of this suggests at least a strong core of a genuine first-hand account by the beloved disciple. The text may have been augmented with an unnamed sayings gospel and a signs gospel. This suggests that either some of John's followers added this material, or he used additional material to assist in telling his own story (as biographers often have). Based on the writings of his followers, and the date of the gospel, I think it was relatively finished while he was alive and I think it was really written by him.

Even when we look at the fact that the other three gospels were most likely not written by the apostles themselves, their sources were most likely in circulation while the people who remembered these events were still alive (especially with Mark, who seems totally unaware of the Temple's destruction in 70 CE). Additionally, recent scholarship on oral traditions of Africa (from the early Colonial period to the 1960's) has show a remarkable consistency among oral accounts, even over hundreds of years. Ironically, the effort to immortalize events by writing them down tends to remove them from the collective memory of a culture's storytellers.

Despite the explosion in written gospel narratives during the first few centuries of Christianity, there appears to be a genuine core narrative and teaching to Jesus' life which carries through the four canonical gospels (which in turn rely on at least 7 sources), the gospel of Thomas (which seems to have a genuinely early core), the epistles, and the writings of the Apostolic fathers (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Shepherd of Hermas, Bartholomew, etc. who are often overlooked, though these writers knew the apostles firsthand).

4) My Thoughts on Sources Outside the New Testament
As for outside sources, there is a ton of debate on the quotes by Josephus concerning Jesus. There are three normally quoted (Antiquities, XVIII, 3.3 & 5.2, XX, 9). I think two of them are probably later interpolations into the text, but Antiquities XX, 9 appears to contain a genuine narrative concerning Jesus. The nature of Josephus' treatment in this passage may suggest that he was more familiar with the trouble-making Chrestians and the Christ they followed, and so his attribution to Jesus as the Christ may not be a sign of belief (or later interpolation), but simply a helpful identifier for his Roman patrons, who were increasingly coming into contact with this group. Still, I would give this passage's authenticity about a 50-50 shot.

Perhaps most helpful when reading Josephus is not what he says about Jesus, but what he says about the destruction of the Temple. This strongly echoes Matthew and Mark (which was likely written earlier), and actually suggests that much of Jesus' teaching had nothing to do with "the end of the world," or "the rapture," but the end of the Temple in Jerusalem and the cataclysmic change it would bring to Judaism and humanity's relationship with God.

In fact, I think we can make a strong case that Jesus never talked about an afterlife that consists of a disembodied soul floating up to God was borrowed from Neo-platonism and Gnosticism. I don't actually think there is a soul apart from what is generated by the body, or a heaven we go to. As to the breath or Spirit which emanates from God, I think this is present in all life. And when the bible speaks of humanity, it may very well be speaking of that state of evolution in which life begins to exhibit the consciousness and will which is reflective of the power of God (cf. Gen. 1:27, Deut. 30:19)

Jesus seems to be speaking of a restored creation (cf. Rev. 21:1), and the Gehenna (what we interpret as "hell") that he speaks of is the natural consequence of suffering and shame brought about by the unjust life. I think there may be a physical resurrection for us, but only if Jesus was physically resurrected, and this would indeed be a miraculous event. If Jesus was only symbolically resurrected, then I think we rot in the ground as we have always done.

Even without Josephus, we have the written accounts/letters of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Seutonius from the early second century which lend credence to the New Testament claims regarding the quick spread of these teachings.

Essentially, when all of these various factors are taken into account, I think we can reasonably say that Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught (and that some of these teachings survive), that people perceived his ability to heal, that he was crucified by the Romans, placed in a tomb (which was not unheard of in the first century, as with the case of Yehohanan, son of Hagakol, whose body was discovered in 1968), that his body was discovered missing from the tomb, and that his followers genuinely believed he had resurrected and so spread the word (with almost all of them later dying for it, even after being given chances to recant).

While I think we can be relatively certain of the above events, that still doesn't guarantee that he was the Son of God or that he genuinely resurrected. But I do think that the suggestions that he didn't exist at all, or that we can't know anything about him, lack the same level of evidence.

Additionally, when everything above is put together, when the relative reliability of the Gospels (including the at least seven internal witnesses/sources within the canonical texts, as well as genuine core elements in the Gospel of Thomas) and the Apostolic Fathers, I think that a genuine belief in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ may be postulated (especially when framed within the cosmological understanding outlined above). Now, whether you choose to believe or not, and in turn live out a life of faith or not? That's totally up to you dude. I don't blame anyone who doesn't believe. In fact, I've always liked C.S. Lewis' quote,
"I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him the evidence is against it."
I just want us to have a good-natured discussion and still be able to have a beer together afterward. :)

In any case, I wish you the best on your journey, and along the way I hope and pray that you find enlightenment, peace, and joy and, dare I say, that you even find God in the process."

#faith #evidence #science #cosmology #atheism #Christianity

Monday, November 09, 2015

Abortion and the Language of Ownership

I recently read a Huffington Post article regarding a sermon preached by Pastor Jeff Crawford at Cross Church, where he states that a woman's body is not her own, but belongs to God. Theologically, he seems to be working from the point that if creation belongs to God, and humanity within it, then naturally our bodies belong to God. While I do not think that it was his intention to single out women's' bodies over men's; the fact that a male preacher is using the logic of ownership when speaking about the relationship between God, a woman's body, and a developing fetus, tends to reinforce the image of the church as a patriarchal organization whose chief purpose for being is to control people.

The Language of Ownership v. The Language of Emancipation 
While there are many who share the view that God “owns” us, I think that this is a misreading of scripture, especially when read in the context of Jesus' mission. There are definitely many religious leaders who frame their understanding of morality in terms of ownership and servitude, which borders on the rationale for slavery. But there are many others who frame their religious understanding of morality in terms of grace, freedom, and love. I tend to think that whatever the individual moral positions being debated (whether abortion, the death penalty, civil rights, etc.), the second line of thought is more helpful and a better paradigm for human beings to operate under.

While the Bible definitely addresses issues regarding ownership and property, they are almost always concessions to the human desire to find our identity in terms of control and occupation. God knows that humans have a tough time sharing. If we all were able to equitably distribute resources, then there would be no need for economic, political, or judicial systems. We would still be living in the paridisical relationship for which we were created. However, because we have chosen to corrupt our relationship to God, each other, and creation through sinful action, any attempts or even dreams of utopia tend to fall short. The Bible doesn't address issues of ownership because such a system is what God desires. It addresses these issues because it must address the reality of our fallen, selfish state and the inequality with which we tend to frame our relationships.

In fact, I would argue that the entire concept of ownership is a human (and relatively recent) invention. To frame our understanding of God, the cosmos, or ethical practice on terms of “ownership” will always pit human beings against each other. I think that if God exists, and if God created and sustains the cosmos, with life and an evolving humanity within it (with free will); then this means that even God has relinquished any "right of ownership" in favor of developing a relationship with humanity founded on mutual love.

Something which owns another, cannot expect the other to freely choose right over wrong, life over death. Ownership (and slavery, which is ownership of the body) is the language of force and violence. Redemption is the language of peace and reconciliation.

Applying the Language of Emancipation to the Abortion Debate
To bring this back to the issue at hand, I think we should address abortion theologically and in the context of the gospel message: which is the proclamation of redemption through love, and freedom through reconciliation (Lk. 4:17-21). I do not oppose abortion on the grounds of God's right of ownership (after all, the ownership argument still doesn't address the status of the fetus within the woman's body). I oppose abortion in most cases because all life is sacred, and the potential for life is sacred. Even if a fetus is part of a woman's body, its growth is still a sacred part of the life which God created. The sacred nature of life should be the focal point for the theological and philosophical consideration of abortion; instead of notions regarding ownership of the woman's body, or the individuality of the fetus.

I have no doubt that both sides value life. But for us to come to any kind of truly ethical conclusion, I think we should value BOTH the life of the mother and the potential of life for future generations, represented in the fetus. Using “ownership” as an argument is simply misleading, and I would argue, may even be contrary to the core of the gospel message.

#abortion #pro-life #pro-choice #women #God #ownership #emancipation #Gospel