Sunday, February 23, 2020

Observing Lent: "Do not let your heart be troubled"

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. (John 14:1)

During Lent I usually observe some kind of self-reflection. For me, this year's focus will be addressing fear and worry. Lent may seem an odd time to address those things; it's at advent that we read about the Messiah's Angel announcing "Fear not!" Still, it was on the night in which he was betrayed that Jesus taught his disciples, "Do not let your hearts be troubled." 

There are a lot of troubling thing in the world. Besides the troubles that come to us naturally, there are those who amplify troubles, fears, and accusations for their own purposes. There are media outlets that produce mini horror shows -- complete with caricatured villains -- and market them as news, or who thrive on shock and outrage. It is too easy to get caught up in this one fear being reasonable, that one worry being justifiable, those particular threats being a real danger. 

Of course there are real dangers in the world. "Do not let your hearts be troubled" was spoken the same night as "Let this cup pass from me." Neither do I agree with those who see "Fear not" as a commandment of obligation and therefore see fear as a sin of commission. Still, fear may make us vulnerable to temptation. Doesn't it play a role in greed, or enmity, or spite, or fits of rage? Who is more dangerous than someone who is frightened, or possibly frightened-then-angry? 

So for Lent this year I will be looking at how God and his messengers address fear and worry. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sacrament: You keep using that word

It's been my experience that Christians who object to the idea of a sacrament have never heard it defined by someone who embraces the idea. I've heard suspicion of idolatry. And (especially in connection with sacraments of forgiveness), I've heard suspicion of another means of salvation. But I haven't heard a view that would be recognized by the people who hold it.

Consider Father Stephen's recent piece, The One Mediator and the Sacraments
The great flaw in anti-sacramental thinking is its abstracted notion of “spiritual.” It is presumed that for something to be “spiritual,” it must have nothing to do with the material world. That “talking to Jesus” only consists in words spoken in our heads. ... The Word did not become flesh only to get our attention so that we would no longer have anything to do with the material world. It is the Word who became flesh ...
Father Stephen there conveys the heart of the sacramental view of God's interaction with the world: the world itself has spiritual value, and earthly things have spiritual weight. (That's part of the point of morality, while we're on a nearby subject. The most profoundly "moral" leave their light shining as saints, where we can recognize the beauty and holiness in the earthly lives.) "The heavens declare the glory of God" may be poetic, but many Christians -- especially those with a sacramental view -- find it to be factually true. There is a kind of beauty which communicates holiness. We see God's presence in earthly things: not in a "dispersed disembodied God" kind of way, but in an intentional, communicative way.

One of the chief of these ways that God is present for us tangibly is through baptism, where God promises a cleansing, forgiving, renewing grace. God gives the down-to-earth sign of water to down-to-earth creatures such as ourselves. Even those who have never studied formal theology can understand God's promise to us through the use of water, with all the experience we have of cleansing and purifying through water. Again, with the Lord's Supper he seals a covenant of forgiveness of our sins. "Christ the victim, Christ the priest" blesses the earthly bread and wine -- not in some magical way, or some way that leaves us magical bread, but in a way that we can grasp we are welcome at God's table now, and our souls are fed on Christ. The bread and wine are all about Christ's body and blood; it is not at all a different salvation that we grasp as "his body, given for you; his blood, shed for you." It is the same salvation that we have always preached, the same message embodied in a way that does what the gospel always does: humbles us, forgives us, unites us with God and each other, strengthens us and feeds us.

There are enough misunderstandings out there; I'm not naive enough to think that if I simply explain what I mean, then the misunderstandings will clear away. Still, it's even less likely for someone to understand if I've never said what I mean.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Abraham, Moses, and Old Testament covenants

Continuing the practice of interacting more with the community of Christian bloggers, I'd like to take a look at a post at the blog He Lives, where the author writes on the topic of the covenants of Abraham and Moses. I should mention that the author writes to address concerns with how Moses is being employed in his own theological circle; since that is not my circle I have a different starting point.

The author seems to bring the assumption that the covenant at Sinai was given without any intention in curbing sin:
The purpose is not to teach us how avoid sinning, but to teach how we are sinning. The law doesn’t save, the point is rather the opposite: the purpose of the law is to point out that its own impotence: the law cannot save anyone. It is not in conflict with the Abrahamic covenant, because it does not offer an alternative route to life—it is a reminder of the fact that our only hope is the Abrahamic covenant. (from linked post)
I'd agree that the law does in fact make us aware of our sinfulness:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:22; there are also other places that remind us that the law makes us aware of our shortcomings)
I haven't heard quite enough from the author about how he sees Christ's new covenant, so I'll pass on responding to his comment that "our only hope is the Abrahamic covenant", in the hopes that he sees our hope in Christ's new covenant.

The question I wanted to interact with here is: Is that really all that Moses' covenant provides?

My first concern is whether that considers the covenant of Moses as understood by the community that received it. On its own terms, Moses' covenant did have a route to forgiveness through the Day of Atonement and the sacrifices that prefigure Christ. The general understanding among the Jews was that sins of ignorance were easily forgiven but intentional sins were not covered on the Day of Atonement. However, a change of heart and intent (repentance) would see those intentional sins considered to be sins of ignorance in the eyes of the law, and so even those grave sins could be forgiven. Because of the path to forgiveness through atonement, the only thing ultimately required through Moses' covenant is faith in the one who made the covenant: that is, trust in God's faithfulness. This is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, but is prefigured well enough through Moses. So there's general agreement that our works do not save us, and that only trust in God's faithfulness saves us. Still, Moses' covenant prefigures Christ more fully than we would notice if we focus solely on the truth that nobody will be declared righteous by observing the law.

My next concern -- and I'm not sure whether anyone else shares it -- is how much benefit there is in the various laws (e.g. the Ten Commandments) if they are taken as what they are: not as paths to earn salvation, but instruction in what is righteous and holy. The Psalms are, in places, eloquent about the wisdom to be gained by studying the law and the statutes of God. There are other passage that enjoin common celebrations and other actions that are community-building and identity-building, preserving a memory of both God's gracious acts towards Israel and of Israel's identity within that. I see those passages as a corrective to the idea that the law of Moses serves only to show us our sin.

Are the Ten Commandments "the codification of God's moral law" for us Gentiles? Far be it from me to criticize the Ten Commandments, though Jesus calls us to surpass them. Love certainly doesn't lie or steal or otherwise harm our neighbor. And it's love that calls us to go the extra mile or to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate. It's love that asks us to forgive our brother 70 x 7 times. Love is the first commandment (and the second), which is why mercy is at the root of God's interactions with us under the covenant, and our interactions with each other under it.

Jesus told some students of the Hebrew scriptures, "Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" I believe that all Scripture will, sooner or later, point us to mercy.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

JEDP and their friend Ezra

"Who wrote the books of Moses?" There are still some out there who hold that Moses wrote the Torah (or if not, that he was somehow involved in parts of it), people who believe in Mosaic authorship. And there was a long-running consensus for the documentary hypothesis with pieces known as J,E,D,P, cobbled together in what I would call mosaic authorship. (Ok, yes, I've been waiting for a long time to use that pun.) I gather that the documentary hypothesis is having its consensus challenged, with the scholarly community not quite sure whether there are really 4 separate strains there (JEDP) or whether some other scenario is more likely (supplements, fragments, etc). At any rate there's uncertainty and lack of agreement over where the Torah came from, which plays its own part in the conversations here lately on Genesis and the "page one" problem.

When I research a thing, I like to check what information is available. When it comes to researching history, I like to start at the oldest available sources. In my opinion, one of the most persistent areas of hubris for scholarship in our era is acting as though nobody before our era knew or said anything worth considering even when the question on the table involves ancient history. So with that in mind, I'd like to mention what the Jewish sages of the classical era had in their own awareness about the questions that puzzle us: changes in script or alphabet, changes in language / rewrites, what happened during the Babylonian era, was there any memory of a cuneiform script on baked bricks, all that. I'm not making any assertions about whether any current reader should take their comments at face value; I'm suggesting that if we're seeking answers to questions, it's at least worth considering what was reported among people who were closer to the source.

So I'd like to present some relevant excerpts from the Talmud without either vouching for them or disparaging them in their introduction. This excerpt discusses changing alphabet scripts and the role of Ezra around the time of the exile:
Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar ‘Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script*{footnote: Assyrian; modern Hebrew square writing} and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans.*{footnote:  ‘The Samaritans’, so called because they were brought by Sargon, king of Assyria, from Cuthea, to take the place of the exiled Israelites. (V. II Kings XVII, 24 ff.). The reason for the change from Hebrew to Assyrian characters, was to build a greater barrier between the Samaritans and the Jews. V. Weiss, Dor, v. I, 59.} And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna'ah script.*{footnote: Rashi: Large characters as employed in amulets. R. Tam, in Tosaf. s. v. c,f recognises in ‘libuna'ah’ an adjective from the name of some locality. (Lebanon, or Libya?) Another opinion is that libuna'ah is derived from ‘lebenah’, brick; hence writing found on clay-tablets. V. J.E. I, p. 445.} 
It has been taught: R. Jose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel. Of Moses it is written, And Moses went up unto God, and of Ezra it is written, He, Ezra, went up from Babylon. As the going up of the former refers to the [receiving of the] Law, so does the going up of the latter. Concerning Moses, it is stated: And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments; and concerning Ezra, it is stated: For Ezra had prepared his heart to expound the law of the Lord [his God] to do it and to teach Israel statutes and judgments. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its writing was changed through him, as it is written: 
| page break in Talmud |  
And the writing of the letter was written in the Aramaic character and interpreted into the Aramaic [tongue]. And again it is written, And they could not read the writing nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof. Further, it is written: And he shall write the copy [mishneh] of this law, — in writing which was destined to be changed. Why is it called Ashshurith? — Because it came with them from Assyria. It has been taught: Rabbi said: The Torah was originally given to Israel in this [Ashshurith] writing. When they sinned, it was changed into Ro'az. But when they repented, the [Assyrian characters] were re-introduced ... 
(San Hedrin 21b-22a)
I find it interesting that in the middle of a discussion of changing scripts and religious boundary-marking with changed scripts, there's an extended discussion of Ezra as parallel to Moses, re-establishing the Torah. It's not the only time a connection like that is made in the Talmud: 
For in ancient times when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and established it. [Some of] it was again forgotten and Hillel the Babylonian came up and established it. Yet again was [some of] it forgotten, and R. Hiyya and his sons came up and established it. (Sukkah 20a)
There are also some who assume that the ancient Israelites had never noticed that Moses died before the end of the Torah, and that his death had implications for who wrote the parts of the Torah after Moses' death. Give the ancients a little credit, folks: 
The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as it has been taught: [It is written], So Moses the servant of the Lord died there. Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, ‘Moses died there’?
(Baba Bathra 15a)
I don't think that the complete history of the documents is kept in their archives. But I think there is enough that sheds light on our questions to merit consideration. As they say: Test everything; hold on to that which is true. 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

What's Eve got? (Conversation continued)

Thank you for all the comments and insightful thoughts on the previous post. I'm trying to figure out the best way to move the conversation forward. So I'll take a few things that I think are great starting points, in the order in which the comments came in:

Joe: You are sort of approaching it like a public relations issue. I am not concerned with convincing YEC's. I guess feel like they are hopelessly committed to not thinking ... Apologists are opinion leads.
You see apologists as thought leaders or opinion leaders ... that's a good place to start. In my experience, apologists are an interesting mix but some of them are thinkers and even a few may be thought-leaders or opinion leaders. The difference between being a thinker and being a thought-leader is the "leader" part. "Leader" means doing the work of leading other people, call it "public relations" if you will. For my own part, I see much of it as an "intellectual integrity" issue: for a view to claim to be the best it needs to have honest, straightforward answers for honest, straightforward questions. A view won't gain ground by belittling the questioner especially if the question deserves an answer on its own merits. Some apologists will learn to present their views in ways that are more readily understood; that rarely happens on the first try. Those who actually do the work there will emerge as the leaders. Btw in my experience YEC's are also an interesting mix, and many of them have not earned such a low opinion. Side note: in that context, my view of communication is building a bridge between where someone else is and where I am; if I don't start where they are then I can't possibly reach them.
Joe: YECs are still going by the antiquated notion of myth. myth = lie. 
Joe again: ... the theological issues apart from the false history
I'm really hoping that, when those two things are next to each other, it becomes apparent why someone might think there's not a clear consistent view being articulated there. How that's likely to be heard on the other side is, "Not a lie, just false history."
Joe (on why the Hebrew myth cycle is preferable to the Norse ones for developing a worldview, despite the lack of a hammer or lightning or Cate Blanchett in spandex for those whose interest goes that direction): It's based upon theological views about the true God.
Now there's a kernel that could be developed and articulated into an answer that matters in the ways that are important to those who are ... potential late adopters. I'd love to see that view more developed, and see someone on the front lines of apologetics doing the work there.
Kevin: What does Eve have that Pandora doesn't? I'll play!
Game on. Thank you! 
Kevin: Pandora is false; she never lived and her jar never spilled evil into the world. Her story teaches us to treat each other in a destructive way, and more so the more fully it's believed. That makes sense, because it's a lie. On the other hand, if we know what truly happened to bring evil into the world, it will guide us to doing things in a constructive way. Truth does that. But it can't be merely supposed truth. Us believing falsehood with all our hearts won't help us. Eve brings truth..
Devil's advocate here: looks like the working theory is "destructive things are lies and constructive things are true," or something to that effect. But what if that's not the case? How much of that is betting that truth can be gauged by whether it's constructive? Which dovetails with your next point:
Kevin: The question before the house is whether God told a true story that gives accurate history or true literature that gives accurate lessons. That is a new question that only came before the house a couple hundred years ago.
There are some different flavors of that question. Here's one: "What if God wasn't the one telling the story?"; that is, "What if people told a story about how they see God?" And some of the doors further down that road are "pretty stories but no real view of God", or "God was involved through how people experience God." There are probably other options too. Or another starting point might see "Archetypal stories -- profound ones that touch the bedrock of the human conscience and experience" (which the best stories will do, and archetypes do tend to populate myths). I'm still puzzling out the "archetypal" view's relationship to objectivity.
Kevin: The higher criticism movement grabbed these new facts and with them tried to destroy faith. In the Fundamentalists' fight-back, we threw out the facts with the lies. 
Go, Kevin! Yes. We'll get back to the fundamentalists' fight-back in a moment. Before that: to me, the place where the "reconstructed Christianity" movement lost the most street-cred is this: they didn't really join the fight back. For a time, it looked like they swallowed the premise that every claim against Christianity was true; or at least that any argument against Christianity did not need to meet a burden of proof. It looked as though mentioning Genesis could substitute for building an argument about any other topic where someone wished to claim that the Bible was in the wrong. I've seen implausible arguments against Christianity simply asserted as fact, and reconstruction-minded Christians giving that a pass. This capitulation (as it looked from the streets) gained so many more converts to the fundie camp than the "reconstructed" camp has imagined. The perceived firesale by the "reconstructed Christianity" camp has certain other Christians wondering, "Why should we take you seriously on Genesis when so many of you caved on the resurrection, and the virgin birth, and the reality of miracles?" I'm not saying that line of argument is right; I'm saying the trust is gone. That hasn't helped that conversation.
Kevin: We needed to fight back, but we needed to keep the facts. If the Fundamentalists can convince me they accept facts, and don't just go all-in on just so stories, I'll show an interest again. For now, I see them saying faith means believing any fact that doesn't align with their faith is not a fact. That doesn't work for me.
Definitely. Integrity first, or the whole thing is pointless. 
Kevin: The creation account makes the most sense as a carefully crafted rebuttal of all known, local creation myths. They believed chaos gave birth to the gods. God said he calmed the chaos and tickled the worst monsters. They believed the gods themselves were limited and limited each other. God said he was God alone. They believed the gods were abusive masters of unwilling slaves. God said he created humans for love and wished to enrich people for their own sake. There's no question, the account does counter-balance all the existing myths. We know this. It's not a blank history. It's a slanted history absorbing all the local beliefs and overturning them with prejudice.
I'll give you this: that's one heck of an ante for the conversation. And Genesis does make an interesting contrast to the other worldviews. Before I ante up myself, I'd like to throw out one question: where does that view leave you with respect to history or truth or objectivity and all that? And I know I haven't interacted with all of the interesting things you've said; pardon the selectiveness here, and let me know if you wanted interaction on anything particular.
Ok, my own ante into the conversation. I come to Christianity as a convert, and am fairly ambivalent about the Old Testament. On the one hand, there's a part of me that wishes I could just walk away from the account of Adam and Eve; it would save me a certain amount of headache. I'd have no problem with a Christianity that invested mainly in Jesus and viewed the Old Testament as a legacy. On the other hand, the reasons I don't just walk -- it's not about fundamentalism or some prior commitment to inerrancy, but about the depth and value of the worldview that it puts forward. For something that's classified in the same genre as Pandora and Hercules, it sure seems a lot more related to this world. Adam doesn't have superpowers. God has oddly benevolent aims and humble demands for a Deity from that genre; "Hey guys -- see the garden? Go make more of the world like this." Then there are the layers of meaning that are latent in the story -- insights that have been brought out without inserting things to the text -- that are not small or trivial things. So I'm left with a thought that here's something worth keeping, and something that is not actually wholly like the myth of Pandora. I have this nagging sense that we don't do justice to the material to say there's nothing but myth there.

I'm still pondering for more clarity, working to gain more insight on the clearest answer to my own questions. And I see that when different views interact with each other respectfully, it generally causes the wisdom to accumulate; that's my hope here.

Take care & God bless

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Genesis, Evolution, and Entrenched Battle-Lines

This continues a conversation with long-time friend Joe H, responding to his blog entry "Genesis, Evolution, and the Flood". For this post I'm sticking with the first few chapters of Genesis. I know that the same conversation needs to happen about the flood, but I expect that will only work after the groundwork has been done on the earlier material.

Sorry to rudely awaken some (no not you Anne) but denying evolution is no longer an option for apologists. Moreover,this realization  is about 50 years behind the times. Many christians have a barrage, an array of anti-evolutionary arguments, they are wasting their time.No one listens, you can think it's so well  documented and rationalize about the scientific knowledge  of hydraulic  engineers and reflect upon how all non Christians and many Christians are just ignoring the truth, that wont make them listen. You are on;y ranking yourself among flat earthers. Such apologists are not making strong bold proclamations of God's word the are making God's word look silly.

Hey Joe. You can get frustrated with people who "are making God's word look silly" all day. But when it comes to what makes people listen, that's a two-way street. I'm hearing a lot of frustration and anger and I understand it; being stuck in that conversation interferes with your own progress in discussions with other people, having to always be about those same old battle-lines. I know you've done a lot of work on other areas in theology and apologetics and epistemology, some of it ground-breaking stuff, and it's got to be frustrating beyond words to have an atheist not take your work seriously because he just talked to an internet troll who thinks the world is 6000 years old. But if the message to YEC's is "you guys are behind the times" then "that won't make them listen". People don't generally change their views unless they see a better one, and better is defined by what matters to them.

Here's one thing that the pro-evolution religious discussion has been missing: a clear answer to where that leaves all the worldview that's built on the creation section of Genesis. Here are some parts of the worldview based on the creation section of Genesis, that people are concerned they'd lose:
  • creation is good and orderly
  • creation reflects God's goodness and ability to create beauty and order from chaos
  • creation is beloved by the one who made it
  • God gives people respect and kindness as birthrights (grounded in grace)
  • God's intentions for humanity are compassionate - from wanting us to have a companion in life to the gift of clothing for maintaining dignity in a fallen state
  • God's intentions for humanity are benevolent: the first word God speaks to people is a blessing
  • God gives Eden as the model for the world, & we were to fill the rest of the earth accordingly (world-wide paradise with humanity as benevolent rulers/stewards of it)
  • God's first command to us shows benevolence and is a blessing; it's the basis for understanding the intent of all commandments as blessing
  • God was present and in-relationship with people from the beginning
  • that relationship was broken by us, contrary to God's intent; now God intends reconciliation
  • the inherent problem with morality and moralizing is that humanity was first interested in it to gain status, and its next use was to pass blame. It's been tainted ever since. 
  • there is intentional evil in the world that includes manipulation, deception, creating division, and maneuvering for status at someone else's expense

I've seen some people say that you can still get all that from Genesis even if you think it's a myth. But that's not a convincing thing to say; claiming it's true doesn't make it plausible. There are unanswered questions about willingly embracing a myth, and those are part of the work that needs to be done to persuade people that it's a better view.
  • Once you classify something as "myth", what is the rationale for taking it seriously? 
  • Once you classify something as "myth", doesn't integrity demand an intellectual separation of sorts, an arm's-length dissociation from whether we let it inform our viewpoint?
  • What makes the Hebrew myth cycle a better basis for a worldview than the Greek or Norse ones? 
  • To what extent can we be convinced that those worldview-points (above) are true in the sense of "related to the real world" if the genre is myth? 
  • Do we believe that God was involved in the development of the myth? 
These are not arguing-questions or rhetorical questions; I see them as to-do-list questions of things that need to be articulated well, clearly, convincingly before Christianity can regain a more widespread consensus. Right now the consensus of the pro-evolution side hasn't taken those questions seriously because those questions haven't really mattered to the pro-evolution side. But they do matter to the other side.

There's a point that I want to ensure doesn't get lost: for many YEC's, the debate in their heads is often not between YEC and a retooled Christianity; it's between YEC and atheism. If you don't believe that, think hard about how many of the atheist online trolls are former fundamentalists, and I'll say it again: the debate in their heads is often not between YEC and retooled Christianity; it's between YEC and atheism. Retooled Christianity assumes it's the default winner in their heads if only they adopt evolution; often it's not. If we approach the conversation with the viewpoint that all they have to do is accept evolution and they'll retool their Christianity, I'll say that's not generally how I've seen it work. Part of the issue is the "entrenched battle line" problem where they're sure that hill is worth dying on. Part of the issue is that modern retoolings of Christianity generally don't make a positive case for themselves but assume themselves to be the default winner of persuading someone about evolution, though in the other person's head the default winner may be the nearest exit. Many don't see that revised Christianity has kept enough for them to buy into it; or in some cases there's doubt that revised Christianity has kept it honestly enough, with the questions answered and the intellectual groundwork laid. It hasn't earned consensus status but claims it by default; not everybody buys that default. That's why it's so important in my view to do the groundwork and answer the questions honestly and clearly.

Joe, in linked post:
Atheists are trying to use evolution as disprove God but it's not going to change their minds to try and debunk evolution. That will only result  in making   up their minds even more. We have to undermine their view by showing it  up; it can't disprove God for God to have used evolution.
I agree with that so thoroughly. And what if the same approach you take with atheists may be the approach that would be helpful with fundamentalists? Going about the argument by trying to debunk something they cherish will not change their minds but will only make them dig deeper trenches. The way to replace their view is by giving them a better one. Which begins with having a better one -- defining "better" in the ways that that matter to them.

So what's a mythologized Eve got that Pandora doesn't?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Words of fellowship

I've spent a lot of years using words. Here I consider some of the best things I've seen done with them. On the whole, a useful and beneficial human undertaking will gather people together; may my conversation be useful and beneficial. And the best words in my day may be ones that I hear, instead of ones that I speak.
  • Listening builds a bridge to another soul, and
  • Understanding turns a stranger into a friend
  • An open heart sets the table where we gather, and
  • Fellowship blesses the feast

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, Lord. (Psalm 19:14)