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.

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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.

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)

Hell a big deal with pagans – with Jews not so much

Finding evidence in ancient texts for a future place of punishment for the unrighteous is much easier and more straightforward in pagan literature than in the Bible.  In fact, references to anyplace resembling Evangelical or medieval Catholic concepts of Hell are almost non-existent in the Bible.  What little we think we find there is almost nil compared to what we find in Plato.

Plato thinks nothing of including in his chief dialogue a lengthy remark by the father of Polemarchus regarding the man’s own beliefs in “the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there” (Republic 330d-331b). Cephalus is grateful that his wealth has afforded him

“no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men when he departs to the world below.”

He implies that an old man without wealth must be unhappy because:

“suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others.  And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.”

This place in The Republic is not the usual stop for scholars discussing afterlife concepts in Plato (see Republic X., Phaedo, the end of  Gorgias, etc.).  But evidence right here for widespread folk-beliefs about future punishment among the Greeks seems to me more ‘historical’ in the everyday sense and less rhetorical than elsewhere.  At least it is clear that in the fourth century BC the belief was already ancient enough to be a commonplace of casual discourse.

My advice is to avoid trying to squeeze Hell-doctrines out of Scripture.  And you evangelicals who admit of Greek influences in the primitive church take note.

Yesterday I found a post by fellow Christian blogger, neglitz, who I think is trying to be honest about the problem of afterlife concepts in Christianity and their meaning for evangelical religion.

I hope I can get something up soon about why a Biblical and textual challenge of Hell-concepts does not necessarily justify that other questionable doctrine of predestination – universalism.

All too human!

I see a certain irony in Nietzsche’s reputation as a visionary.  Take, for example, the notorious section of Religious Aphorisms in his 1878 book, Human, all too Human. In this book we have a Nietzsche who admittedly cuts the figure of a kind of modern-day Jeremiah.  He offers great call-outs of Christianity for its outworn creeds and forms, pagan throw-backs, and ritual perversions.  On the other hand, I suspect I could find most of these same kinds of criticisms of ‘religion’ in the Bible itself.

Overall I think Nietzsche’s book fails to confirm his alleged prophetic credentials. When a Voltaire (to whom the book is dedicated) cries out “ecrasez l’infame,” we see that he refers to the superstitious abuses of a certain corrupt institution and walk of life – and rightly so.  But Nietzsche’s alienation from God is complete, and this explains what I see as his fatal flaw.  For he includes in one sweeping condemnation not only the oddities and obvious antiquities of religion’s outward form and teachings – he condemns the religious consciousness itself and the spiritual ground of religion. Dude.

The atheistic perspective on the human quest for God has one critical disadvantage in comparison to the spiritual perspective. Because the spiritually minded prophet enjoys the same insights into the farce of objective creedal and ritual trivia as the atheist – the prophets of Israel condemn these abuses with the same prophetic ardor as a Nietzsche.  The advantage of the spiritual eye is that it is able to see the folly of the sectarian and the secularist – both confuse these trivia of human religion for the substance of the quest for God.

In a new English translation of Nietzsche’s book (by Gary Handwerk, in The Complete Works, Vol. 3, Stanford 1995) I find the title of his infamous aphorism 113 is rendered, Christianity as anachronism.  In my unprofessional opinion I think this is a better rendering of Nietzsche’s meaning than was Walter Kaufmann’s “Christianity as antiquity”  (Viking, 1954, p.52). But herein lies the irony I mentioned at the beginning of my post.

The illusory holy grail for swashbucklers like Nietzsche is the notion that he will find (or has found) an omnipotent psychological explanation of religion, by which the religious consciousness is reduced to elements of illusion and self-consideration. I think Nietzsche himself must have looked for the dawn of a day in which it would simply be unnecessary for philosophers to distinguish between the reality of religious consciousness and the absurdity of some of Christianity’s (or any religion’s) peculiar expressions and outward forms. What he saw was the coming of just such a pseudo-philosopher as Richard Dawkins.

But if it is a category error to confuse the human quest for God with the antique or anachronistic forms of human religion, this quest cannot be explained or replaced by a scientific paradigm or a secular parody of consciousness. We need a return to a philosophy that recognizes that the scientific method by definition can function only on the ‘objective’ outskirts of religion, art, and consciousness (i.e. a return to Kant); the atheist only apes the method of science when he swaggers into the midst of the human quest demanding that it be judged in terms of a strictly physical or scientific humanities and psychology.

It is a false assumption that the student may approach the reality of man independently of an approach to the reality of God. This false start has contributed to the spectacle of our modern faculties of ‘Human Sciences’ – characterized by various irreconcilable schools of thought, each supported by a tissue of footnoted cross-references to great piles of like-minded studies. I suggest that this dreary edifice is the academic version of the ugly, dysfunctional modernist Pruitt-Igoe apartments inspired by Le Corbusier. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 has been characterized by Charles Jencks as “the end of modern architecture.” What is needed is a postmodernist critique that shall render the whole 100-year modernist cul-de-sac in the Humanities to the cool of library storage – where the fallacy of man without God can be studied as a curiosity of history – the supreme anachronism of the ‘modern’ age.

The early English defense of the Fourth Gospel

If you are someone who thinks modern New Testament criticism contains unanswerable arguments against the historical value of the Fourth Gospel, I think you have never studied the critical defense of John’s Gospel by English scholars of the nineteenth century.

Beginning about 1848, the British scholars who took up the task of refuting the negative German criticism of the Fourth Gospel followed in the footsteps of Germans who had already begun to counter the negative arguments point by point on valid historical and textual-critical grounds. But fundamentalists beware – the best of this early defense of John’s Gospel (both English and German) was not buttressed by special pleading for plenary inspiration.

So I’m saying that a ‘battle of modern scholars’ was fought over 150 years ago and was by 1900 fairly won by the side supporting the Fourth Gospel’s authenticity. I can’t blame you if you ask – Why then do we find so many scholars of repute today who hold the Fourth Gospel in less esteem than the other three? I can only urge you to consult the ‘British defense’ and judge for yourselves whether it has had a fair hearing among negative critics.

Here is a story told by archdeacon Henry Watkins, canon of Durham Cathedral in 1889, of a conversation he had with the Bishop of Durham, J.B. Lightfoot.

“One day while walking with the late Bishop of Durham, when we hoped he was regaining strength, I took the opportunity of asking him how he accounted for the fact of the frequent assertion that the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel was disproved by modern criticism, in the presence of the strong and accumulating evidence in its favour.” (Modern Criticism Considered in Relation to the Fourth Gospel, 1890, p.viii)

Lightfoot was age 61 at the time and suffered from an illness which was to end his life that same year. It was at the bishop’s urging that Watkins prepared a review in rough outline of the chief issues of the convincing 40-year campaign to defend Johanine scholarship against the negative critics. Bishop Lightfoot then gave the last effort of his life to securing the archdeacon’s appointment as the next Bampton Lecturer at Oxford.  “No subject,” he wrote before his death, “could be more useful at the present day, and I think that the time has arrived when it can be effectively treated”.

Last year I began a defense of the historicity of John on this blog, and I mean to keep pushing this point.  Last month I found Watkins’ 1890 Bampton Lectures in my favorite old seminary, and I want to get some results of reading posted in the near future.

It should come as no surprise that I feel the history of fundamentalist bluster against the higher criticism can play no real part in the issues at stake with John’s Gospel.  The evangelical mind seems to have neither taste nor capacity for this kind of argument – due to its habitual abdication of reason in the presence of texts conceived to be almighty.  Even the ex-evangelical mind seems unsuited to the task of positive criticism.  The negative German critics themselves were often ex-evangelicals who, after losing their belief in the Bible’s divine authorship, also lost their way in critical scholarship.

Empyrean Dialogues 8 – Temptations

In the Empyrean Moses and the Son discuss the transition to the public teaching career and some of the temptations which  might come up – both worldly and other-worldly.

MOSES:  Again, Sire, we know Father will announce his expressed approval of your incarnation in the presence of the Forerunner, but as to timing, he has not revealed whether this will come before or after your teaching mission, or during that mission.

THE SON:  Certainly it cannot come before I have proved my obedience to Father’s will in every aspect of the normal human walk with God.

MOSES:  Whenever it comes, the sign from Father is likely to present something of a crisis for you, Sire, from the perspective of your humanity.

THE SON:  So I understand.  The fullness of my human nature will be so complete that this sign will probably constitute my first real assurance of my divine pre-existence.

MOSES:  It’s going to be a lot to ‘take in’ in one afternoon.

THE SON:  Like I said, I hope to get away for awhile.

MOSES:  You will need both time and wisdom to decide whether to grasp or deny certain innate spiritual rights attached to your divine person.

THE SON:  Even with the dawning of my true self-awareness I doubt I will see the form of divinity as a thing to be grasped.  It should mean only a new phase of Father’s plan for the Incarnation.

MOSES:  The saints believe it will mean the beginning of the end, Sire.  Recognition of divinity will bring more problems than solutions.  Especially if there is resistance from the religious authorities.

THE SON:  We’re projecting a 1 to 3 year mission – probably no longer.

MOSES:  Right.  By the requirement of the No Thrones Rule you should always have in view some kind of fit termination of Father’s plan.

THE SON:  I expect to have this whole question of thrones thrust upon me soon after my recognition of divinity.

MOSES:  Sire, the issue of thrones will come up again and again.  Not only with your own self-recognition but every time somebody else recognizes your divinity – from the lowest demon to your closest follower.

THE SON:  But Moses, by that time, if anyone were to suggest that I go crashing kingdoms and playing messiah or prince, believe me I would get him behind me quickly.

MOSES:  I have no doubt that you will worship the Father eternally, and him only serve.

THE SON:  Even so.

MOSES:  There will also be immense pressure to satisfy human need by resort to your creative power.

THE SON:  Father has expressed a preference for No Bread and Circuses, but has not ruled out my discretionary use of powers.

MOSES:  if you get the people too miracle-minded, Sire, believe me you will lose control of the message in a hurry.  And miracles net you zero in the way of anybody’s saving faith anyway.

THE SON:  Right.  Well I wouldn’t think of it as far as a means of personal protection.

MOSES:  Good.  Don’t tempt the angels to get you out of a jam.  And no spectacles or crowd-pleasers.

THE SON:  It’s the ‘No Bread’ rule that’s going to be tough, Moses – tougher than Thrones, in my opinion.

MOSES:  Men do not live by bread alone, Sire.

THE SON:  Got it.  But I already feel compassion for the hungry and poor, and I’m not even one of them yet.

MOSES:  Look, Sire, if the people get a whiff of anything like mass feedings or the old ‘manna from heaven’ you are done, OK?  After that it’ll be earthly kingdoms all the way down.

THE SON:  You mean Father’s kingdom could be mistaken for a free bread program?

MOSES:  Oh verily, Sire.  And that is sure to pancake right back into Thrones.  You could get a popular groundswell to make you king, after which you won’t be able to show your face in Galilee without political harassment.

THE SON:  It really comes down to “No Circuses” then, doesn’t it?

MOSES:  Miracles and wonders are to be kept to a minimum, yes.  Solve that one and everything else should fall into place.

THE SON:  But Moses, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf..., it’s going to be hard to stay on point.

MOSES:  I can’t tell you what do do with your compassion, Sire.

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues 1 – the Annunciation

Note:  the Empyrean Dialogues is a recent experiment of mine to see if I can manage a piece of didactic fiction which both entertains a little and presents interpretations of the Bible I believe to be worthy of reflection and discussion from the standpoint of incarnation and divine pre-existence.