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.

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.

“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)

Born from above? – or just born again?

Some born-again Christians of my acquaintance remind me of “Agent Smith.”

They can tell me the date and place of their conversion.  But I get the feeling they have been simply born again in a form which is just a replication of their old self – plus a self-righteous smile or a judgmental frown.

American psychologist of religious education, George Albert Coe (1862-1951) wrote of the distinction between being born again and being born from above in his 1902 book, Religion of a Mature Mind.

The simplicity of the Christian life-principle has been obscured by … the employment of “born again” to represent Greek terms whose plain, literal meaning is “born from above” (John 3:3).  The disciple of Christ is one who is born from above.  That which is of the flesh is flesh, and that which is of the spirit is spirit.  The root-contrast here is not between what is before and what is after, but between a higher and a lower…  Our English “born again” has promoted and kept alive a misunderstanding closely parallel to that of Nicodemus (John 3:9).

The merely ‘born again’ date everything from an heroic past effort to throw off some single ‘secret sin’ or gross vice.  Their old victory has left them relieved but basically unbroken.  Unbroken because they interpret their moment of truth as a trade-off of sin-for-salvation. With this kind of trade-off the principle transaction is complete, and there is no pressure to seek a relation to the life that is from above until the life here below is over.  Instead of relation to God in Christ the merely born-again begin a relation to doctrine.  Doctrines like election and predestination, for example, which offer rationales for a low-octane religion supported by a poorly conceived idea of ‘perseverance’ unto salvation.

We have been looking for events and disputing about processes.  We have caused men to ask themselves, “Have I been born again? Am I sure that an event has taken place?” whereas, we should have pressed home to them the sharp contrast between a spiritual and an unspiritual content or quality of life.   What am I, qualitatively considered? Am I living the life that is from above, or that which is from below?  In the absence of the heavenly quality in the life, no experience of internal wonders is valid evidence of the birth from above. On the other hand, if I am really on the side of Christ, I am born from above, however this comes to be the state of my mind. (Ibid)

The Christian who finds no birth from above in the moment of grace gets a heart ‘born again’ as a carbon copy of his old heart, the old self, the old man – except with an urge to convince others of its own self-justifying theology (instead of the gospel of Jesus).

The habit of looking for newness instead of for heavenly quality works confusion in two directions.

First, persons who are able to answer the question of dates to their own satisfaction, meet the temptation to substitute a “has been” for an “is.” They estimate themselves by something other than the present fact; they would turn the mill with the water that is past. Something of vital power must always be lost when the spiritual life is measured by anything whatever except its own content and its fruits.

Persons of a different make-up suffer from the opposite error. Desiring to dedicate themselves to the Master, yet unable to put their experience of spiritual realities into the forms of book-keeping, they hesitate, postpone action, are harassed by doubts of their personal status. They, too, ask themselves “Have I been?” when they should rather ask “Am I?” They need to be told that whosoever prefers above all things that for which God gave us his Son, and Jesus gave his life, is born from above. The fundamental preference is decisive as to the inner quality, and the fruits are decisive as to the vigor of the inner life.

These mere born-agains will go to church often and be watching out for the 10 commandments in everybody’s life, but underneath they haven’t changed much.  As if they have the idea that living faithfully is just staying ‘judgmental’ toward themselves and others.  They may smile more often than before, but you can catch them in a big frown just as easily.

Professor George Albert Coe was born in Mendon, NY, March 26 1862 ; educated at the University of Rochester (A. B.), Boston University (S. T. B., Ph. D.) studied at University of Berlin, 1890-1891; professor at Northwestern University 1893-1909, Union Theol. Seminary, 1909-22, Columbia 1922-27.  Dr. Coe retired in 1927 and died November 9, 1951.

Paul’s two perspectives on Jesus

I hope it is not controversial to say that Saul of Tarsus before his conversion must have shared what was probably the majority view in Israel – that Jesus of Nazareth was an offender against the Torah and a misleader of the people, who had rightly suffered the death of one accursed.

Even our first record of Jesus’ early career (Mark) moves immediately from a 16-verse introduction to a string of 88 verses in which ten out of twelve stories portray Jesus transgressing the literal sense of seven different points of the Law:

1. Sabbath-breaking (Mk 2:24 & 3:6)

2. Neglect of fasting (2:18)

3. Neglect of family (3:33)

4. Contact with lepers (1:41)

5. Eating with sinners (2:16)

6. Blasphemy i.e. Authority to forgive sin (2:7)

7. Alliance with Satan (3:22) i.e. authority over demons (1:27, 34, 39, 3:11)

Mark’s source for the early career of Jesus clearly relies heavily on stories of apparent law-breaking, most of which are accompanied by Jesus’ own prophetic rationale for setting aside the Law.  Can it be doubted that many reports of the deeds of Jesus were circulating without benefit of the sayings attached by Mark?  I think Mark’s emphasis suggests that lawbreaking was an issue for Jews who criticized the mission of Jesus in his lifetime and after the crucifixion.

To an unsympathetic ear it would make no difference if these stories circulated with or without Jesus’ rationale attached.  Because it was I think a matter of common knowledge – also confirmed by Mark (8:11-12) – that Jesus had refused to provide the test-sign demanded by the religious authorities in proof of his authority.  This constituted for them a warrant of the Law itself for disregarding Jesus’ prophetic claims.

I think this is the perspective of the old Saul – knowing that Jesus, despite his alleged works, had after all refused to authorize his mission by the sign required by Moses, Saul had judged that the Law justly regarded his sin as worthy of condemnation and death.

The perspective of the new Saul is best seen from the standpoint of his brief and electrifying encounter on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:2-9).  I trust this report to represent not a dream or myth but a genuine revelation event.  Saul sees and hears for himself what the martyr Stephen had claimed to see – that this Jesus who for all appearances had set the law aside – who under the Law of God was made to be sin and was crucified – is now in the power of the spirit alive.

Saul’s revelation doesn’t give him faith in the fact of the resurrection (one doesn’t ‘have faith’ in experienced facts).  The true object of Saul’s faith is his rapidly-developing view of the meaning and value of the resurrection.  This view was illuminated by Saul’s faith in God, which was never in question.  In its light he comprehends that it is the God of Israel who has raised Jesus from the dead.  A corollary to this faith is the belief that the risen one is God’s anointed, the hope of Israel.

All of which will be quite formative and quite problematic for the future of Christianity.

Justification (or not): Can ‘classical’ views be unbiblical?

All of the fall-out from the ETS Atlanta meeting last week was a great clinic for me on new and old perspectives on Justification.  My blog reading since Friday includes numerous posts by Marc Cortez, especially his final reflections.  Also the thoughts of Collin Hansen.  And N.T. Wright checked in with clarifying comments at Denny Burk’s site.

Meanwhile I’m reading Paul again, and Wright’s 2006 paper, ‘Redemption from the new perspective?’, but am still far from answering a question that intrigues me in all this discussion – Do Evangelicals have an unwillingness to address the complexity of all the Biblical evidence for justification?  If such selectivity exists, I am inclined to suspect it may be explained as the result of a close association in the evangelical’s mind between a particular theory of justification and the alleged ‘facts’ of his own conversion experience.  It’s common enough in the sciences that an interpretation of one’s own experience can (temporarily) prevent one from seeing contradictory evidence.

I find that, 130 years ago, some similar and allegedly ‘classical’ Protestant interpretations of justification were called out by Albrecht Ritschl as ‘unbiblical’ assumptions:

It is unbiblical to assume that between God’s grace or love and His righteousness there is an opposition, which in its bearing upon the sinful race of men would lead to a contradiction, only to be solved through the interference of Christ.  The righteousness of inexorable retribution is not in itself a religious conception, nor is it the meaning of the righteousness which in the Old and New Testaments is ascribed to God.  God’s righteousness is His self-consistent and undeviating action in behalf of the salvation of the members of His community; in essence it is identical with His grace.  Between the two, therefore, there is no contradiction needing to be solved.

It is unbiblical to assume that any one of the Old Testament sacrifices, after the analogy of which Christ’s death is judged, is meant to move God from wrath to grace.  On the contrary, these sacrifices rely implicitly upon the reality of God’s grace toward the covenant people, and merely define certain positive conditions which the members of the covenant people must fulfill in order to enjoy the nearness of the God of grace.

It is unbiblical to assume that the sacrificial offering includes in itself a penal act, executed not upon the guilty person, but upon the victim who takes his place.  Representation by priest and sacrament is meant not in any exclusive, but in an inclusive sense.  From the fact that the priest draws near to God when he brings near the gift it is not meant that because the priest and the sacrifice come near to God, the others may remain at a distance from God…

Lastly, it is unbiblical to assume that a sacrifice has its significance directly for God, and only under certain other conditions also for men.  On the contrary, the sacrificial act is just what combines these two relations.”

Justification and Reconciliation, Vol. III (1874; 3rd 1888, ET 1900), p.473-74

My problem with evangelical radio

For years I have had my liberal ears scorched by brief daily exposures to evangelical theology on my clock radio, dialed to a local ‘Family Radio’ station.  It’s eye-opening, certainly, and it prevents me from getting too comfortable in bed.

I used to wake up to a regular sermon spot by the late Adrian Rogers (the spot went away after he died).  Preachers like Rogers are fascinating.  Coming on all southern-fried with that big Johnny Cash voice, but I still remember one ‘family sermon’ that got my goat.

He started with an unobjectionable mix of moral and religious exhortation, a simple Doctor Phil wisdom with a Christian spin that would help anyone raising a family.

“Kids learn from example,”
“Parents should practice what they preach,”
“Love heals all wounds,” etc.

Well, yeah.

Next, a touching family story, with a moral (“…which just goes to show you, friends, we’d be lost without our families”)… at which point I’m thinking, “Man he’s right, I would be lost without my family!”

Then he sets a more serious tone.  A call for soul-searching, a gentle scolding, a little “nobody’s perfect,” “make an effort with the kids,” “stay with it for better or for worse,” etc.  All of this secular wisdom and morality; by now I’m thinking, where’s the Gospel?

But there wasn’t going to be any gospel.  Rogers suddenly and very simply forgets everything Jesus stands for.  His voice grows grim with warning tones, he places undue emphasis on some hard-boiled, out-of-the way place in the Bible, and then finds a point Jesus was trying to make and gives it a kind of nasty, judgmental spin that takes the heart right out of it.

I listen in horror as this old silvertongue leads me into dry and drier pastures, apart from all waters, until he takes away all my strength.  He has carefully spread a banquet of perfect calumny and fear in the presence of my enemies.  I hear how there’s a dangerous devourer of families out there, a cosmic enemy, who wants to bring an end to all our families.  All that sweetness and light I find is at stake in a terrific battle with Satan.

Finally – his ‘good news’ – I can be very thankful that this great cosmic evil is being ably challenged by … by Dr. James Dobson (er what!?).

And last comes the clincher:  the devil is very crafty, and the battle is a lot tougher than it needs to be, because a lot of well-meaning but utterly misguided and dangerous efforts are coming from “the Libruls” – who are just making the enemy’s work that much easier… etc.

O.M.G!

Friends, preaching like this has not gone away, and it must certainly be contributing to the destruction of our national discourse.  If our evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ appear unduly scared and angry, it’s because they have been flat-out lied to by their bad-shepherds – about the Bible, about God’s will, and about the motives of over half their fellow Americans.

The belief and unbelief of the Apostles

“your disciples … were not able” (Mark 9:18)

All three gospel records agree that the epileptic boy and his father enter the picture immediately after the events described on the mount of transfiguration.  Whatever we believe about the mountain-top experience, this sequel has a strong historical flavor – indisputable even by the unbelieving Jesus scholar who knows nothing outside of his poor ‘embarrassment principle’ – because it certainly reports a shameful failure of faith and power in the alleged Messiah’s chosen men.

Jesus, Peter, James and John return to camp to find the other apostles overwhelmed by defeat.  Two or more of them had tried and failed to perform an exorcism in a case obviously complicated by epilepsy.

Confronted with the scene, Jesus lumps the chagrined disciples together with the crowd and the scribes as one and all “faithless” (Mk 9:19).  “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” These expressions reveal an almost sorrowful astonishment, a mingling of disdain and divine homesickness.

“Faithless.”  In the absence of Jesus the disciples have been tested and proven ‘unable’ – they have tried and failed to exercise one of the hallmarks of messianic authority (power over demons).  What form might this failed exercise have taken?  I think it is fair to assume for it a standard form of prayer in his name, something like: ‘In the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, I bid you come out of him.’  Examples of the apostolic use of similar forms for healing are attested in the Acts.

But why had the authority of the messianic name been here invoked in vain?  Not because they lacked belief that Jesus was their Messiah.  These nine apostles had been present at Peter’s recent profession (Mk 8:29) of belief in their master’s messianic status.  And they had certainly seen wonders aplenty to confirm this special knowledge about Jesus.

And yet Jesus clearly viewed their failure as some kind of failure of belief, an example of faithless action, of unbelief.  In fact it looks very much like Jesus judges their current belief in his person and his mission not as belief but as unbelief.

“I believe, help thou my unbelief!” This cry of dilemma by the distraught father in Mk 9:24 is easily imagined in the mouths of the disciples later, when they asked about their failure privately (Mk 9:28).  And what did Jesus tell them they lacked?  Nothing but prayer (Mk 9:29).

So here is a group of logia with a strong warrant of historical authenticity which suggests two things:

(1) there are cases of belief about Jesus’ person and mission which are viewed by Jesus as a type of unbelief;

(2) there are forms of belief without which ‘prayer in his name’ cannot effect anything.

In a later post I will get some help from Martin Buber (Two Types of Faith, ET 1951) in further analysis of this story’s meaning for faith and belief – and unbelief.

What more can the theologian say to the secular materialist?

I found not one but two good theologically-minded writers last week, who are I think taking theology’s case against materialist ideology to the next level.  By that I do not mean to call the approach wholly new or to forget those who, in the spirit of Plato, Berkeley, and Kant, have contributed at a level quite above the hubris we often find today on both sides of the online discussion between religion and science.

In my last post I mentioned the interesting views of essence and existence recently published by Jason Michael McCann over at homophilosophicusThe second writer, Matthew David Segall is the mind and soul behind Footnotes to Plato, a blog which includes an interesting use of video, and has been running at least a couple years.  When I encountered Segall he was offering a defense of the essential ontological status of human consciousness against the usual bad philosophy utilized by today’s materialist neuro-metaphysicians when imagining themselves heirs to all the authority of science.  Matthew writes:

In the end, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its own methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I think it is obviously very good for the physical sciences that the scientist, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  It is good even that any truth-seeker, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  But no truth seeker – not even the scientist 24/7 –  has some kind of professional duty to be a strict materialist in all of their approaches to all of reality.

I keep looking for help in the so-called theological ‘dialogue’ with materialism because materialism is an ideology which today appears to inform the thinking of most of the brilliant minds in our culture.  Not many of them appear to understand truth as an objective extending outside the grasp of their ideology, but I think they would be superbly furnished for truth-seeking of a higher kind if only they could be disabused of this fatal misunderstanding.  I see great things coming for our society if our scientific-minded persons could only be persuaded of the folly of applying materialistic theories and methods wholesale to psychology, abiogenesis, philosophy, and theology.

The inadequacy of the materialist’s concept of existence

I found a theologically-minded blogger this week who is concerned with the state of the religious dialogue with materialism, and sees no harm in ending the logjam by making what at first seems to be a drastic concession.

The strategy may be seen in a nutshell in this definition of existence, which concedes to the materialist the point that – in strictly materialist terms – God does not exist, meanwhile returning to theologians the task of elaborating the meaningful essence of a being more fully worthy of living faith – the spiritual God-who-is.

God does not exist. This statement is both philosophically and theologically valid. Existence is that which we are aware of through our senses, and which continues to exist independent of them. In philosophical categories one must be careful to distinguish between existence and essence; a common confusion. Materialism limits existence to matter, and therefore whatever lacks matter lacks also existence. Theology, in order to share a common language with modern materialism, must adopt these definitions. Thus a theology which accepts the reality of God must also affirm the reality that God is not subject to existence and therefore does not materially exist.

I  think I get it.  The materialist’s categories of existence by definition equate material substance with the essence of all evidential things.  Meaningful discussion cannot take place unless the theist can analyze and resolve this fallacy of the identity of material substance with essence.  Until then he has no valid grounds for engaging the materialist in an argument for the ‘existence’ of a God who is clearly non-evident and therefore non-existent under material categories of essence and existence.

So we are not talking about a trite ‘whatever’ and a polite end to head-butting.  Because the real argument with the materialist has not gone away but may now shift to the logical and moral necessity of his recognizing the possible being of non-evident non-existents – initially, the commonly held ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Not because these values are to be set up instead-of-God, but because their claim to acknowledgment as real rests on an understanding of essence which is not equated with physical substance alone.

The establishment of the possibility that real essence is not necessarily dependent upon material substance reopens the discussion on the transcendental level, where the accessibility of values such as truth, goodness, and beauty allow for consideration of concepts of a God who similarly cannot be equated, in essence, with the material substance of mere existence.

“Why I believe again”

Today I found a link to a New Statesman article from April 2009 which I had completely missed, by A.N. Wilson, Why I believe again.”   Thanks to Studium et Liturgica for the link, and apologies to any who feel it’s way old news, but please indulge me in some observations about Wilson’s rediscovery of faith after 20 years as a convinced atheist. 

First, I appreciate the way he notices the differences between his conversion from and his conversion back to Christianity.  His conversion to atheism, he admits, had been like a Damascus Road experience, and yet he notes in retrospect that just such a rush of sudden decision had been very unlike him:

“By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience”… Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.

“For months, I walked on air… For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse.  If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens, I did not have to feel out on a limb.”

Meanwhile, Wilson’s return to faith in God has been accompanied by just the kind of doubting and slow probing which make his reconversion, he thinks, all the more a genuine expression of his true ‘doubting Thomas’ nature – effecting a change which he feels is irreversible.

And isn’t it interesting that Wilson passed over the line into atheism just after publishing a biography of C.S. Lewis?  I love such counter-intuitive anecdotes (I sometimes find Lewis overbearing, even unbearable, but love him for the good I also find).

Wilson describes a public discussion of Lewis’s work in which he hauls the great apologist up for blame – but we get the usual litany of gripes after all:

“I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world

And I loved this intimate scene with Hitchens from Wilson’s early atheist days:

Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world.”

The whole article is worth a look.

History, inerrancy, and failed eschatology – III

The first and second parts of this series described the moral and intellectual dilemmas created by the inerrancy principle.  This third and final post describes a spiritual problem.

“All men know that ‘to err is human,’ and a mere man who received and gave forth an infallible word of the Lord must be, for the time, not himself, not at home in his own brain and senses – in other words, beside himself.  Human values could not be brought forward as tests of such revelation; and human reason could have no power to criticize it.”  (Lily Dougal, The Lord of Thought, 1922, p.19-20)

Neither Dougal nor I would discount the value of honest humility in the face of religious texts alleged to be revealed.  But uncritical belief in a massive plenary inspiration does not truly ‘humble’ the mind in any spiritual sense of the word.  What takes place instead is an unnecessary belittling of the mind’s reasoning powers – unnecessary because it requires a surrender of reason in scientific and moral realms where reason has legitimate powers and jurisdiction.  The premature surrender of reason only frees the mind to wickedly indulge its craving for certainty amid systems of authoritative ‘facts.’

“Contradiction between man’s highest ideal and what he conceived God to be, felt even when not admitted to open-eyed consciousness, produced necessarily a complex system of doctrine at variance with the plain man’s reason and values” (p.39)

Where historical contradictions and immoral assertions about God are not submitted to the process of doubt and discernment, an unreasonable theology is easily elevated to a position independent of both reason and living faith.  This kind of believing mind is worshipping its own convictions as if they were a type of certainty.

 “With such inconsistency in his God, if man is to be truly religious it must be by exercising his affections and imagination upon the only attributes of this complex and inconsistent God that do not contradict human values.” (pp.40)

This kind of guilty ‘cherry picking’ is the only spiritual outlet for the inerrancy principle.  But it tends to encourage an emotional approach to God which is completely distrustful of a reasonable criticism of scripture.

“That is precisely what the best of the Jews did, what the saints of every religion founded on an ancient and closed revelation must do, with the result that emotion is supposed to find God where reason can produce only skepticism.”

For the ‘seer’ unable to take the emotional high ground of the ‘saint,’ the mind has no ground for carrying out its duty to discern the difference between sacred and profane history.

“in a nation believing in such revelation, man’s values and reasons were held to be on a level inferior to his religious visions…”

Dougal argues that the result was a failure of religious visions – the embarrassment of Jewish eschatology.  The apocalyptic prophets lowered their views to match their canonical texts and missed the truth of God’s shalom in Christ for Israel and the world.

History, inerrancy, and failed eschatology – II

In this series I’m featuring an old argument by English theologian Lily Dougal that belief in the inerrancy of their canonical scriptures caused the Jewish apocalyptic schools from Daniel to John the Baptist to be dead wrong about the plan of God and his imminent action in Christ. (The Lord of Thought, 1922, p. 18ff).

Dougal sees the adverse influence of belief in inerrant scriptures to be threefold:  moral, intellectual, and spiritual.  My first post introduced the moral dilemma created by a principle which tends to equalize diverse texts of unequal moral value.  The apocalyptic writers beheld the God of blessings and woes who had been written into the scriptures by the Deuteronomist, and turned around and ‘predicted’ a very predictable day of blessings and woes for the whole world.  These would-be seers were unable to see the imminent revelation of a new truth – that God and the Christ of God were beings dominated by self-giving love for both saint and sinner.

The second part of Dougal’s argument moves from the moral to the intellectual realm and shows how the belief that the Jewish canonical scriptures were all-truth played its part in making a ruin of the efforts of these would-be prophets to correctly see and ‘call’ the Incarnation.

“The paradox created by contradictory statements, to all of which equal value must be assigned, creates mental confusion…  The sacred scripture taught God’s love, but its history of the past was self-contradictory; the laws laid down in it were not consistent with each other” (p.18,19)

The idea is that the principle of inerrancy does not enhance but disqualifies and disables a believer’s god-given power of discrimination between fact and fiction, truth and error, good and evil.  It disallows the right of faith to go out on a limb with a teaching that might change everything.  Instead it magnifies the need to pay lip service to infallibility with energetic rationalizations and harmonies of the discrepancies and contradictions which inevitably arise among texts originating at different times in the history of Israel.

The eschatological schools might have benefited from an insightful cherry-picking of superior texts but were prevented by that fatal corollary to inerrancy which disallows intelligent eclecticism.   And so they completely missed the singular truth that the coming kingdom was opposed to the majority viewpoint of the canon.

“Reason never quails before the realization that knowledge is inadequate, that there is more to know about the object of research than is, or apparently can be, known.  It is only before contradiction that reason quails, and thus has always quailed and been unable to accept the God of an ancient and final revelation.”  (p.39)

Great verb, ‘quail’ – perfect for depicting stunned inaction, human reason gone to hiding in the bush.  In my third post I will say more about the flight from reason which so often belittles the religious mind unnecessarily, putting it in thrall to its own idols of infallibility.

Hawking’s idealism – it’s in the math

I think Mary Daly over at Notice the Universe rightly says Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, is oddly titled for a work claiming (as she says) “…that the universe will create itself, out of nothing, in an infinite variety of forms; and that, given an infinite variety of forms, a segment or sub-universe friendly to mankind is bound to develop,” which is the same as to say, as Mary points out, that there is “no design needed, grand or not.”

“Even supposing that Hawking is correct and that gravity and quantum physics suffice, that’s a pretty large “given”a little like the old joke in which a scientist challenges God to a creation-of-life competition and then, like God, picks up some dirt to start his work. ‘No, no,’ says God. ‘Go get your own dirt.’

“It seems as if the physicists have started saying that the math is the physics. But math is only a pattern; it is not a reality. Even such a simple mathematical entity as “two” is not real. There is no “two” in the world. There are two apples, two waves, two stars, two electrons, but no “two.”  Believing that the patterns are “real” and the physical things just odd shadows of those patterns has a name in philosophy: idealism.  Reducing the study of physical reality to mathematics is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one; it is philosophical idealism.

Agreed.  It’s one thing when a physicist, with an assist from the mathematician (identified by Daly as “the physicist’s alter-ego”) is able to construct a mathematical system that seems perfectly parallel to the patterns he’s seeing in the universe.  The problem arises when the system starts to imply things that are not even potentially observable and do not resemble either the visible universe or the original pattern that was seen in it – and yet the physicist has so much faith in the math that he finds such oddities to be real as well.

Daly:  “As every detective knows, having a solution that accounts for the facts is not the same as having the right answer.”