Elyon and the ancient Hebrew poets

Elyon (‘God Most High’) is one of the biblical names for God. Not as common as Yahweh or El, but I think we need to look hard at the uncommon in the Bible – because rarities can characterize early as well as late texts.

This divine name, Elyon, always appears in the Bible in the most beautiful prophetic and poetic fragments; we never find it admixed with those tedious lines of racial narrative and high-priestly detail. I think poetry works better than prose to preserve a revelation in relatively unadulterated state. Its fixed structure is more resistant to redaction by later editors, because it is more difficult to adapt or change than a line of narrative.

The Elyon poetry is represented in strata of all three high watermarks in Israel’s recorded history of relation to God – from the time of Abraham (Gen 14:18), to that of Moses (Det 32:8), as well as David (2 Sam 22:14). It is used for God’s name in 11 of the Psalms. In fact the Elyon tradition extends down to the late Second Temple apocalyptic writings, where we read Daniel proclaiming that “the saints of Elyon shall receive the kingdom” (Dan 7:18).

And it doesn’t stop there; the evangelist Luke includes a tradition which identifies Jesus as ‘Son of Elyon’ (Lk 1:32) and the Baptist as ‘prophet of Elyon’ (1:76). Finally, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews ties is all together by linking the divine Son with the ‘order of Melchizedek’ (Heb 7:1). Remember Melchizedek was a bread-breaking and wine-sharing priest of Elyon who was ‘without generation’ – and we should not forget that he was the recipient of Abraham’s tithe (Gen 14:18).

So Elyon – the Most High – has a nice even spread of representation in the best poetic writing in the Bible. Like the more famous divine names, Jahweh and El, this Elyon takes its place as a distinct theological tradition of poet-prophets whose teaching stretched from the Patriarchal era to the days of the Savior himself.

The domain of Truth – Jacques Ellul

Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul.  I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)

It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language.  But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him the Word has become the sole provenance of Truth. Which means that Truth must be considered independently of all images and sense data.

“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe.  Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)

Ellul compensates for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth by readily conceding to them the illustrious name ‘Reality.’

By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data.  He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.

I don’t know if Ellul’s generous concession can appease the most shrill acolytes of science, who – unlike actual scientists – believe scientific method to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems.  But we are probably not equipped for understanding Ellul if we do not thoroughly understand that accuracy is an epistemological value existing on a lower moral level than veracity.

Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.

When Ellul differentiates Word from Image, he does not separate language from ‘reality’ – he merely assigns it a certain dominance.  In one example, language shows its power over images and sense data by the fact that the race of speakers hold a distinct evolutionary advantage over non-speaking predators (though we are less endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, etc.). But Ellul does not view evolutionary advantage as a standard of Truth – in fact he views the evolutionary gains of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. While he would admit that language is the secret of material mastery, he would insist that its real essence as the Word unlocks higher attainments that utterly transcend all material forms of success.

“What is Truth?”  Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.

“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.  And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)

I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one.  Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.

In Germany with Hildegard

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

Ancient well at the Disibodenberg ruins

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

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

First port in our cruise was the town of Rudesheim.  This 90 minute ‘shop stop’ for the others gave me a precious window of time in which to hurry up the hill to  Eibingen convent, a late foundation of Hildegard’s which is active today and still cherishes her memory. On the way up I stopped inside St. Joseph’s parish church, where her reliquary is kept. I barely made it back to my ship before it debarked!

The town of Bingen was not a port of call and required a side-trip by rail.  Here I found another parish church dedicated to her memory, with a scale model of the famous  Rupertsberg monastery on display.  The plan of this monastery was drawn by Hildegard herself, and she directed the building of it. She and her fellow nuns moved in after 1150. At Bingen the abbess lived until her death in 1179, conducting four preaching missions while writing her books.  The last vestige of Rupertsberg may be found within the confines of a restored wine cellar below street level- closed to the public the day I visited.

The absolute highpoint of my trip was the day I jumped ship for a self-guided excursion by rail, bus, sidewalk and footpath to the hilltop ruins of the monastery at Disibodenberg,  

ruins of women’s quarters – Disibodenberg

Hildegard’s home for the first 50 years of her religious life. It was here that she heard the voice which told her “Speak and write what you see and hear.” In 1151, after ten years of listening and seeing, she brought forth to the world her book, Wisse die Wege or Know the Ways (abbreviated in Latin as Scivias).

The book  is large, difficult, and of uneven quality, but it has an undeniable core of experience, and it gave a wide-ranging impulse to new faith among many who in her day had lost hope that God was still speaking to his  church. For the church was so very broken in Hildegard’s day. In 1147, the pope (Eugenius III) was living in exile in France. His ill-conceived Crusade had just ended  in disaster. For many months he had been afraid to show his face in Rome, where Arnold of Brescia and his Roman Commune had rendered the city for the time quite immune to the pomp and pretensions of the papacy.

But it was in that very year of 1147 that Eugenius called a synod at Trier to investigate Hildegard’s writings. At Trier the pope himself read aloud to his court from the as-yet unpublished manuscript of Scivias -and judged that she should continue the work. Even Bernard of Clairvaux  (not a liberal) thought  she was cool. Johannes Tauler also, in a sermon  preached  200 years later, made a point with reference to  an ikon of Hildegard which still had a place of honor among the sisters he addressed.

ruins of the abbey church, Disibodenberg

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

View from the meditation chapel, Disibodenberg

I might like Pete Rollins on the Apocalypse

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

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

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

In January I articulated my own growing sense that the Apocalypse is already history when I called out the folly of Harold (“I did the math”) Camping’s predictions of a Day of Reckoning for May 21 of this year.

The Sower – how bad theologies delay the Kingdom

The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily one might use the text to implicate varieties of Gospel-preachers rather than Gospel-hearers.

“…some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them…” (Mt 13:4)

Listen again to those words, and hear Jesus saying, “Anyone preaching a Kingdom that sounds like humdrum or humbug might just as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines lack the flavor of Christ’s spirit, and come off spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible – and therefore misunderstood.

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil…” (13:5)

Can it be that Jesus is saying, “On the other hand, if you use emotional hooks to frighten or entice the people with threats of Hell or promises of cheap grace, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up…” (13:7)

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

New thoughts on providence in regard to evil events

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?

I was helped recently by some lines from American poet Walt Whitman while contemplating problems of prayer and providence which I addressed in two posts earlier this year.

Warning:  Whitman is famous for his optimism (and often criticized for it), but I like to reserve judgment on the ‘optimism’ of great poets, because they sometimes enjoy the prospect of horizons that lie beyond our own poor curve of earth.   The theological critic especially should check for signs of the optimism of the Gospel – the metaphysical ground of all really good news.

It was in the poem Assurances that I found this:

I do not doubt that the passionately-wept deaths of young men
are provided for,

and that the deaths of young women and the deaths of little children are provided for,

(Did you think Life was so well provided for, and Death, the
purport of all Life, is not well provided for?)

I do not doubt that wrecks at sea, no matter what the horrors of them,

no matter whose wife, child, husband, father, lover, has gone down, are provided for, to the minutest points …

Leaves of Grass,  Book XXX)

It was while reading these lines with my own recent questions about divine providence in mind that I saw how a useful distinction might be drawn between provision for and provision against evil.

The concept of provision for evil strikes me as profoundly positive and theologically different from the common idea that God provides against calamity. In fact, theories of divine intervention which posit the availability of a supernatural power able to fend off specific material evils seem to reflect a view of deity so ancient as to be arguably of origin in the pagan superstitions of the various pre-Abrahamic religions.

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?  Whitman’s concern is with the extreme case of innocent death – but taking the set of all possible evil events in a life, how would the distinction work?

The idea that God provides for rather than against calamity suggests to me a divine intervention functioning not externally but at an existential level, as part of a deep inner experience of spiritual presence or ‘help.’ All that would be required is to posit its universal bestowal – at least a spirit aid that was there simply for the asking, and available strictly for the high task of overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

If God has bestowed a  spirit  of  presence  to be with  us  in all  our  afflictions,  even as  he  is  afflicted  with  us  (Isa 63:9), there is no need of vain doctrines about protective shields intervening between ourselves and all possible evil contingencies.

This is not a providence that is passively hoped for in advance of the evil.  But neither is it hoped for after the evil, as compensation.  It is instead available in the very moment in which we are literally swamped by the evil – after we have done every material and moral thing we possibly can to avoid it.  Such provision for evil brings a consolation that is hidden not beforehand or afterward but in the very moment of calamity.  This is a providence of  the present moment – where we find God truly meeting and providing for every time-space contingency in the only truly Godly way – with Himself, in his Son, and by his Spirit.

Surviving victims of catastrophe and terrible loss will I think vouch for this inner truth whenever they have been able to see the evil of the moment overcome by good.

(to be continued)

The gift of ears

“I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me”

Thus begins Book III of The Imitation of Christ (Book IV in some editions). The words are actually a paraphrase of Psalm 85:8 – restated by the author in the pure gold of personal inner experience. The Bible verse is more general:

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

In my opinion, Book III of The Imitation is the spiritual heart of the whole work. It contains writing so high and unusually bold that it is easy to imagine that it was purposely placed after the admonitions and warnings in Books I and II – so that potential readers might be ‘screened’ for humility.

“Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within her, and receives from his mouth the word of consolation.  Blessed the ears that catch the pulse of the divine whisper, and take no notice of the whisperings of this world.” (Bk III, Chap 2)

I want to suggest that ‘the gift of ears’ ought to be among the spiritual gifts listed by Paul – which of course it is not. But I think the New Testament does much to suggest the importance of inspired hearing.

What is most important to understand is that the “divine whisper” is never given for group prophecy – they are never a means by which a listener may lord it over neighbor or church. Always are they to be received as personal admonition and enlightenment.

For example, a prayer like this one, which the author makes, clearly evokes a level of responsibility which everyone must choose for himself. It cannot be forced upon members of the group who are not prepared:

Let not Moses, nor any of the prophets, speak to me;

Speak Thou, rather, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets;

For Thou alone, without them, can perfectly instruct me; but they, without Thee, will avail me nothing…

They give the letter, but Thou dost disclose the spirit.

They announce mysteries, but Thou dost unlock their secret meaning.

They declare the commandments, but Thou dost enable us to fulfil them.

They point out the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it.

They work outwardly only, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart.

They water without, but Thou givest the increase. (Book III, Chap 2)

 

I think the ‘gift of ears’ – rightly used – is a likely candidate for an expanded list of spiritual gifts – I would go so far as to say it is the master-key to all gifts of the Spirit:

Do Thou speak, O Lord my God, the eternal Truth,

lest I die and prove fruitless,

if I be admonished outwardly only, and not enkindled within;

lest I be condemned at the Judgment

because the word was heard and not fulfilled,

known and not loved,

believed and not observed. 

(Book III, Chap 2)

On religious afflictions of the eye and ear

“Hearing, they do not hear …”

The hearing impairment to which Jesus referred, quoting Isaiah, was the same one which the Hebrew prophet had diagnosed in his own time – and it is no less prevalent in our day.

Diagnosis implies gnosis.  Jesus, like Isaiah, had a new truth (or more truth) to reveal to his listeners, but the words he had available for the purpose failed to penetrate the framework of every mind.  His choicest words were rejected as strange or irreligious in the context of old ‘tried and true’ principles which were in possession of their understandings.

The malady in question is worse than a physical ailment – with which Jesus had some success.  Instead it affects the listener’s inner attitude, the will, taking away the freedom with which they might break down the old shell of religious meanings from within.

“… and seeing, they do not see.”

It is likewise with the vision problem – the afflicted person has full use of his eyes, but lacks the insight required to get past conventional associations of meaning.

In the minds of the people of Galilee and Judea who suffered from these two afflictions  the man Jesus of Nazareth, qua Messiah, could not help but simultaneously evoke, disappoint, and offend their racial and religious hopes as long as he lived and breathed.  His fellowship with sinners was counted as sin, his healing was called Satanism, his forgiveness blasphemy.  His meekness was counted as weakness and, in our present age, his morality has been called the morality of slaves.

This sight and hearing failure especially affected matters of everyday appearances and social antecedents – things which ‘scientific’ historians most crave to know.  His place of origin (Nazareth!), family background (common!), accent (provincial!), formal training (or lack thereof!), apparel (unpretentious)  – all of the ‘facts’ only created, for his accusers (and for some modern historians), another layer of the unacceptable.

Does it seem unfair to suggest that the principle of interpretation used by believers to gain access to the Jesus of ‘history’ – then as now – must be different from that hermeneutic of suspicion used by the elders and others who rejected him (and by the ‘scientific’ historians who counsel rejection of his eternal truth today)?  How does one access the insight required to become receptive to a previously undiscovered truth?  What is the rational ‘order of love’ in a fruitful hermeneutic of faith?

This post is part of the promised continuation of thoughts posted on this blog last May.

Albert C. Knudson – American theologian

The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910]. (Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953) earned his Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology and the premier theologian of the Boston Personalists.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, also with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been limited by its division between competing sects. I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably created a certain indifference on the part of non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think a perverse sectarianism infects much of American religious thought even today.  Each denomination has always had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in their own and in all other denominations.  Although each sect had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. I think the lack of community among different types of religious genius in this country has thwarted progressive Christianity.  Not until the rise of non-sectarian universities in the late 19th century did the American mind finally bear the fruit of its diverse genius – unfortunately by that time the advances were chiefly limited to non-religious concerns.

Adam and Zoey? – [Updated]

According to the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (produced about 200 years before Christ), the name given by Adam to “the woman” alleged to have caused all the trouble in the Garden of Eden was not Eve but Zoey.

The text is Gen 3:21 in my edition of the Septuagint (in some versions 3:20)

και εκαλεσεν αδαμ το ονομα της γυναικος αυτου ζωη οτι αυτη μητηρ παντων των ζωντων

“And Adam called the name of his wife ζωη because she was the mother of all των ζωντων”

What’s going on? My questions were answered in a comment made on the first edition of this post by a writer Solomon North:

Eve and Zoe are the same name. Eve (Chawah) is the Hebrew word for life, and Zoe is the Greek word for life. In her first appearance the translator uses translation to show the etymological significance behind her name, whereas in the subsequent passages he uses transliteration (“Eue”) because, as with Adam and Noah and so many subsequent persons, the name is known in the translator’s Greek-speaking Jewish community but not necessarily the etymological significance.

I have Mr. North to thank for curbing my excitement over the novelty of my discovery of ‘Adam and Zoey’, but I’m still wondering why ‘the woman’ in Genesis is not identified by any name whatsoever (neither in Greek nor Hebrew) until the end of Chapter 3.  The whole story of disobedience in the Garden is finished at Gen 3:8 without a single mention by name of either ‘Eve’ or ‘Zoey’ (not until Gen 3:21).

Has an ancient story about an original pair referred to only as “the man” and  “the woman” been combined with a later Adam and Eve story?  Take a look. When the story finally names Adam and Eve together, the narrative is much more concrete.  Rather than a tale of an original pair, by late Chap. 3 and into Chap. 4 the Garden is history, and the narrative frankly implies the existence of other humans all over the place.

I think it is not out of the question that Gen 4-5 might have had a ‘heart’ of its own before it got mixed into the creation stories of Gen 1 and Gen 2-3. Maybe this Adam was not a first man but a first revealer – a tradition-source leading to other teachers and men of God like Seth (Gen 4:25ff) and Enoch (Gen 5:22)

It’s anybody’s guess how the idea of a fall or of a link between Adam and Christ (taught by Paul) applies to a being who was a first truth-teacher. But we cannot deny that the world needs such beings – and something must have gone very wrong if Adam’s ‘teachings’ were lost and had to be re-started so many times – i.e. by Seth, by Enoch, by Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and finally Jesus.

The Markan bombshell

The evidence that Mark is the oldest of the canonical gospels was not examined systematically until the 1830s, but the argument has by now gained general acceptance among non-fundamentalist scholars, and I have endorsed the principle of Markan priority here and here .

There is a tradition that believers at Rome rejoiced to have Mark’s account – they were, after all, over 30 years removed from the living ministry of Jesus and had only recently been deprived of the presence of Peter and Paul (if we accept the view which places Mark late 60s AD, probably after the death of Peter).

However, as I suggested in an earlier post, the date of Mark’s ‘publication’ (i.e. the day a first copy was sent to Ephesus or Jerusalem) might be called one of those “good news / bad news” days for God and the church. Think of it – this abbreviated record, suddenly authoritative at Rome, is dumped into the laps of other tradition-communities by a writer who has failed to consult with them about their own traditions before going public with an epoch-making narrative about an epoch-making career. In these apostolic communities I think Mark must have had the effect of a literary ‘bombshell’.

[Note: the next two paragraphs are a revision of the original, re-written Nov 23, 2011]

The canonical status of Matthew, Luke, and John is equal to that of Mark, and this only affirms a basic condition of all testimony – that somebody must go first, and that it would be absurd to argue from the literary priority of testimony to its primacy over later testimony with regard to fact.  We should not be surprised if a large amount of narrative and logia was still ‘out there’ when Mark ‘hit the streets’ – and I think we can trust that most of it is represented by what we find in the three later-appearing gospels.

So Mark’s priority in time gives it no a priori privilege over the theological or christological content of the three later-appearing Gospels.  We might even question the motive and good faith of anyone who would attempt to finesse the literary priority of Mark’s threadbare account into an implied authority for a ‘minimalist’ interpretation of Jesus based on Mark alone (or on Mark and an imagined ‘Q’ document). I would certainly question the motive and good faith of a non-christian writer like Adam Gopnik for example, who has indulged his sophisticated New Yorker editors and readers with a very uneven and gently mocking article, What did Jesus do? (May 24, 2010), based very strictly on Mark alone.

For better or for worse (and I touched on some of Mark’s ‘positives’ in an earlier post), we should view Mark’s narrative premiere as a kind of material antithesis of the Incarnation, an epochal event which sets in motion an inevitable dialectical process by which three additional compilations of equal authority appear within about 35 years.

Pentecost – a truth hidden in plain sight?

when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace.

Has a great religion of the Spirit been obstructed by a Christianity of the flesh?

If the way of grace and truth bestowed by God’s Anointed was meant for the whole world, why after nearly 2000 years does more than half the world still remain aloof from its blessing?

I sincerely doubt those who say that this harvest shortfall was preordained. The tardy consummation of the church’s mission cannot even any longer be covered by the Son’s teaching regarding slow-growth (mustard seed, drop of leaven, etc) – because it is the number outside the church that is slowly growing.

The failure of the church cannot be of God, but of men. If the cause of all spiritual advance realized so far is of Christ, it stands to reason that the frustration of this advance is due to human errors which hang too heavily over that human institution which was charged with bearing God’s truth to the world. Can I get a pastor to agree with me here? I doubt it.

Instead of equating the human doctrines of Christianity with truth and orthodoxy, maybe we should check to see whether they have not been admixed with enough human error to obscure the whole truth revealed in Christ.

Instead of acquiescing in the church’s well-meaning attempt to symbolize the truth of Christ by sacraments, ritual, and old liturgies, maybe we should ask whether living truth has not been more deeply hidden, to less effect, by these mysteries.

The causes for the church’s failure might lie too close for us to see, “hidden in plain sight.” A good example is Pentecost itself, which the church has been pleased to celebrate as her own rather exclusive birthday party. She teaches that the Holy Spirit itself was given to her as a birthday present – always explaining that it is her members (only) who receive this gift. People visiting Jerusalem that day from other parts of the world, she says, were instructed about the death, resurrection and eminent return of the Messiah, and told it would be their doom unless they received membership with them through repentance and baptism.

I do not reject the idea that the church would have been unborn or stillborn without the aid of Christ’s new Spirit, but I think this Spirit can be limited in its effectiveness by false teachings which are alleged to determine its availability.

How well are we really able to see the true meaning of the day when the church insists on carrying on so? Tonight, when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace. Because I think the gift given on this day by God’s Anointed was meant to be a universal opportunity of atonement that transcends Baptism and orthodoxy.

If I’m right, it is the church’s failure to understand Pentecost that has curtailed her own effectiveness and obstructed the Kingdom.

Personal knowledge and the worldview of Personalism

Michael Polanyi was an internationally regarded Professor of Physical Chemistry at Manchester University when he was selected to deliver the 1951-52 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen.

I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment. In the exact sciences this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But we shall see that it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. – published as Personal Knowledge, U. Chicago, 1957, vii

The Manchester academic Senate and Council judged the invitation and resulting lectures important enough to allow Dr. Polanyi to exchange his Chair of Physical Chemistry for a Professorial appointment without lecturing duties; an arrangement lasting 9 years, which enabled him to both prepare the lectures and write the ensuing book

“The personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge.”

I’ve owned Polanyi’s books for years, and read a good deal of his writing years ago. I was glad to get back to it this week after a fresh jolt of inspiration from the blog of Swedish philosopher Jan Olof Bengtsson, who has been posting his notes on American philosopher and Personalist Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) – material not included in Bengtsson’s 2006 book, The Worldview of Personalism: origins and early development.

B. P. Bowne is another old interest of mine, and I own old used copies of nearly all of his books. Thanks to Jan Olof, I am currently re-reading Personalism (1908), containing the substance of the 1907 Harris Lectures at Northwestern University, Chicago.

From Bowne’s 1908 preface: “The aim of these lectures is to show that critical reflection brings us back again to the personal metaphysics which Comte rejected. We agree with him that abstract and impersonal metaphysics is a mirage of formal ideas, and even largely of words which begin, continue, and end in abstraction and confusion. … Causal explanation must always be in terms of personality, or it must vanish altogether.”

It was Bowne’s contention that the only formal setting of experience able to give a concrete knowledge of causation (after Hume’s destructive analysis) is derived from our personal experience as agents of stasis and change. Thus all knowledge of effects requires the primacy of what I would call the Form of the Personal.

Back to Polanyi: “Into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a vital component of his knowledge. And around this central fact I have tried to construct a system of correlative beliefs which I can sincerely hold, and to which I can see no acceptable alternatives.”

I think these two personalists would characterize today’s materialist schools in psychology and the humanities as monuments to intellectual cowardice; a surrender of moral insight and creative power to the human need for authority conceived as objective and detached – but not at all proper to the advance of knowledge in those particular fields.

Bowne: “Some harmless-looking doctrine is put forth in epistemology, and soon there is an agnostic chill in the air that is fatal to the highest spiritual faiths of the soul.”

Polanyi: “Personal Knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind.”

“He is not here!”

“..you seek Jesus of Nazareth …  He has risen.  He is not here.”  Mk 16:6

I remember the Easter service, many years ago, in which I first heard these words of the tomb-angel spoken as if they were a prophecy against the church: He is not here.”

It happened during the sermon, in which the pastor was giving far too much time to his representation of what the world would be like – without the resurrection!

In fact, I think the Easter Morning Gospels present a perfect figure of the failed church: we read that some sincerely devoted women gather at a deserted place with gifts that our Lord is not disposed to receive.

Really? Embalming spices? And yet the churches persist in ‘spicing up’ this untidy idea of our Lord’s physical, bodily resurrection when varying scripture accounts give us a clear choice between a physical or a spiritual resurrection. I think we should be paying attention to those texts that say It was never about tombs or material bodies.  Did the risen Lord not ‘appear’ to his disciples at Emmaus and again in the upper room while the doors were locked? Does anybody think Paul beheld a material body on the road to Damascus?

What if the women had remained in hiding with the apostles long enough for the authorities to take back control of the spin by securing the re-opened tomb from inspection?  Do we think this would have mattered to – the risen Lord?

“He’s not here!”  Maybe the words were spoken today about you – when family and friends noticed your absence from church.  For you I have this advice:  Seek the truth again.  It may be obscured by all the outward stuff which the church is focusing on.  Don’t allow your negative feelings about any specific church to compromise your independent right to truth and your right to worship where and how you want – even to wait upon the Spirit in that inner place of meeting with “my Father and your Father.” (Jn 20:17)