Thursday, July 28, 2011

If Iron Sharpens Iron ...

As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the wit of his friend. (Proverbs 27:17, JPS)
This verse is usually quoted to point out the value of friendly debate, sharpening our wits and our knowledge. So why aren't we all that sharp?

If the verse is about debate, then our wits could be sharper if we took the time to debate each other as with a friend. With a friend, we are patient. We would never assume bad faith or stupidity or moral failing on their part, just because we had not succeeded in communicating our point or convinced them we were right. But those things are common in disagreements with strangers.

Sometimes we talk about controversies when no one who disagrees is present. Whether we intend it or not, this works out to discussing the other group behind their backs, and only when we are safe from contradiction.

Sometimes we simply avoid arguments. It's too easy for disagreements to become hostile. And so begins the separation into different groups who distrust each other, who avoid each other.

Within the Christian faith, denominations are sometimes in this type of situation. Each group quietly avoids the other, or criticizes in private where no one will contradict. And typically no one checks the accuracy of what is said about the other group; the "facts" being discussed probably become less accurate as time goes by without any dissenting voice to keep people honest. Isolation is bad for perspective. And if "iron sharpens iron," then denominations should not avoid each other as we do.

One thing the proverb makes clear: Our failure to talk to each other is our own loss, even if we're right. I'll say it again: even if we really are right, and the people who disagree really are wrong, still we lose something for not talking to other people -- because both sides gain from talking to the other, as iron sharpens iron. If we skip a conversation because we think we have nothing to gain by it, we've expressed contempt for the other person. If we are so dismissive of others that we assume that we have nothing to learn from talking to them, then we are wrong about that, regardless of whether we are "right" about the point of disagreement.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Euthyphro's dilemma: An ancient debate and the greatest commandment

There is an ancient dilemma that goes back to the days of Plato, possibly even the days of Socrates. Back in those days the ancient Greeks spoke of many gods, but asked some of the same questions that people still ask today. Here is a question on their minds, the dilemma from Plato's ancient work, Euthyphro:
Is something loved by the gods because it is pious, or is something pious because it is loved by the gods?

I'll switch over to monotheistic language for the discussion here.

Sounds like an innocent question or an interesting but academic debate, doesn't it? What makes a thing or an action good in the eyes of God? Like many good questions, there's more to it than you see at first. If you take door #1 where God loves something because that thing is good in itself, then God has recognized a standard for "good" that is separate from himself. Is God bound to recognize another standard? Who sets that standard? But if you take door #2 where the love of God causes something to be good, then what is good is arbitrary and could have been otherwise; it's not intrinsically good or right.

The usual Christian response has been that this is a false dilemma: that good traces back beyond God's approval and God's will, and has its roots deeper, in the very nature of God. There is no separation between what is good and the nature of God; they are the same thing. So there is no separate standard of good that God himself must acknowledge, and there is no other path of good that God might have decided.

While this answer has been generally accepted among Christians, it has been put forward, at times, without solid Biblical support. Does the Bible teach that right and wrong are rooted in the nature of God, or is that just a thing for the philosophers?

I'd like to offer two passages of the Bible -- already considered key passages by many Christians -- to show that this answer is deeply Biblical.

Consider this statement that is already considered key to understanding the nature of God:
God is love. (1 John 4:8)

Consider this statement where Jesus speaks of the nature of right and wrong:
Then one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, testing him and saying, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?"
Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like to it, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." These two commandments are the basis for all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:35-40)

So according to Jesus, all the laws -- and so all that is good and pleasing to God -- depends on love of God and neighbor. And love itself is the nature of God. That is to say, what is good and pleasing to God is based on who God is: God is love.

Or to put it in a short and simple form:
1. The character of God is love.
2. The foundation of morality is love.
3. Therefore, there is no separation between the character of God and the foundation of morality.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A mother's prayer for teenagers: Fellowship and friendship

Lord, thank you for (name). May he grow in love and friendship; may he excel in kindness and fellowship. May he lead the way in hospitality. May he be blessed with deep and enduring friends who join in him in following you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the fate of non-Israelites before Christ

One question that Christians debate is what happens to the people who died without knowing Jesus. There were entire nations and continents and eras of human history where nobody had ever heard the name Jesus. If salvation comes through Jesus, then how could they receive God's mercy? But if God is just, how can someone be cut off from the love of God because of where and when they were born?

Without going into all the layers of questions at once, I'd like to look at one closely-related subject: What, if anything, did the authors of the New Testament say about this topic? Did they talk as though they thought the people of other nations and earlier times were condemned?

I'm only aware of a few passages of the New Testament that specifically discuss this type of question about people who lived and died in the years before Christ. The first is Paul's sermon in Athens, addressing idol-worshipers:
From one man, God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. "For in him we live and move and have our being." As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring."

Therefore, since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone -- an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. And he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:26-31, NIV, emphasis added on the parts that apply most directly).

Here Paul is speaking to idol-worshipers and talks about the whole sweep of human history up to his own day. Almost all of the people discussed are in groups that some people would assume are condemned; they lived before Christ's birth in lands that worshiped idols. But not once does Paul sound as if he thought they were automatically condemned. Paul could easily have said -- as some have said -- "God set some people to live in times and places before Christ's birth, because he knew he had not elected them to salvation, and there was no way they would reach out or find him." But Paul said nearly the opposite: that God did it so that people would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him, since he is not far from any of us. Paul might have said -- as some have said -- "They were guilty of idol-worship, a sin worthy of death, a sin against the law that is written on the human heart, so there is no injustice in condemning them even if they had never been given a law." But again, Paul said nothing of the sort; he said in the past God had overlooked such ignorance. We are accustomed to a system of laws where "ignorance is no excuse"; but according to Paul, God has a more merciful standard. Paul seems to assume that God overlooks sins caused by their ignorance.

Paul makes a point to say that God arranged history and nations so that people would seek him -- and Paul leaves open the possibility that they might find him. Paul said that no one was ever all that far from God.

There is one other passage in the New Testament that seems to talk about sin and salvation for people who lived in the times before Jesus' birth. Paul's letter to the Romans contains an extended section on the topic. This is a short excerpt:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned -- for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. (Romans 5:12-14, though the surrounding material is also worth reviewing for a more in-depth discussion)

In Romans, much of the letter has something to say on the topic; this is just an example. In the earlier chapters Paul shows how thoroughly the whole world was caught up with sin and subject to death. Here we see again a group of people that was ignorant of the law, and ignorant of sin -- and still died. Paul again touches on the subject of ignorance: that sin is not taken into account when there is no law. But that did not stop death.

Paul does not end with talk of sin and death. His real point is about Christ:
Consequently, just as the result of the one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

Paul spends some time discussing condemnation and salvation, discussing the people who lived before Christ; he never sounds as though he assumes they were lost. And -- strangely to our ears -- he never sounds as though he assumes Christ has nothing to do with them because of where and when they lived.

That leaves a lot of questions unanswered for the moment. Sometimes a question left unanswered may be better than a question answered incorrectly.

I'd be interested in other passages of the Bible that other people think about in connection with this topic.

I do have some more on this topic, but it comes from a completely different angle and will wait for another post.

Friday, July 15, 2011

J K Rowling and the Resurrection

If you don't enjoy the Harry Potter books, you may want to skip this post because it may not make much sense without the background of J K Rowling's books.

If you do enjoy the Harry Potter books, you'll know the Christian themes of forgiveness and resurrection are worked into the plot of the books. Here is something I intend as fan fiction, a deleted scene if you will, where a Muggle targeted by the death eaters knows he is about to die. Professor Snape has warned him of his fate, but the fellow is facing his death with faith. Which is mostly a way to see some of the Christian themes she's worked into the books.

Snape took a deep breath and cleared his mind. He could not allow his heart to pound, his mind to race. He had taken considerable risk to warn the man of his upcoming death; the fellow's calm was unnerving. "Perhaps I have not made myself clear," Snape said in a tone usually reserved for students who were not paying attention. "They fully intend to kill you tonight." Still, there was no change in the man's untroubled demeanor.

The man looked up at the stars, blinking briefly. "It's not like it's the end. I'm a religious chap, you know. God will see me through."

"You're about to die," Snape enunciated each word carefully. He wondered briefly if fear had robbed the fellow of his senses. If that was the case, he had done all he could.

The man's smile was tinged with sadness as he replied, "Oh, I understood you just fine. I just don't see a way out of it. Not for me." The man fingered a crucifix that he wore on a chain around his neck -- Jesus on the cross, dying. As he showed it to Snape, the potions teacher greeted him with a sneer, but the man persisted.

"Nevermind, for the moment, who you think this is. I have a question for you: Do you know who I say this is?"

"I believe it's something about the fullness of God in bodily form. Nonsense, of course; why exactly would God take bodily form? He did as all 'bodily forms' ultimately do: he died," Snape said, with the impatient air of explaining a simple concept to a thick-skulled student. "Clearly, he was not the Immortal One."

The man continued with a patient smile, overlooking Snape's taunts. "And, when I go to services -- particularly when I take the Supper -- again, nevermind for the moment what you think is happening. Do you know what I think is happening?"

"You believe you are drinking the veritable blood of your savior."

"Exactly!" he exclaimed in delight, undeterred by Snape's exasperated look.

It was too much for Snape, who was accustomed to seeing his overbearingly cynical outlook put the brakes on even the most enthusiastic. "I fail to see how exactly that causes you good cheer. You go to drink a toast to the death of your 'God'?"

"Of course!" he smiled. "Though -- you all say you're wizards. Magic. I had a great aunt who went to Hogwarts, all hush-hush. She told me a thing or two. So -- you do recognize the ritual, right?"

"Naturally," Snape replied with smoldering anger. "A blood-bonding ceremony. Whoever drinks is blood-bonded to the one who has shed their blood. Afterward, their lives are inseparably linked."

"Right you are! But not just their lives -- also their fates." Snape raised an eyebrow, but refused to ask the question. The man again looked at the crucifix. "You do know what we believe happened next, don't you? On the third day?"

"Something about a resurrection, I believe -- which not even the Dark Lord can achieve."

"Well, meaning no disrespect, but your 'Dark Lord' is not exactly the most powerful force in the universe, is he?" The scowl on Snape's face was now truly frightening. "But allow yourself to at least think about it. Imagine the possibility that it did, in fact, happen. That should clear up the part that was puzzling you before." Snape made to interrupt, visibly gathering himself to launch a verbal strike after being accused of being puzzled -- but the man continued, cutting across him, "When you asked why, exactly, God would take bodily form." Snape's eyes narrowed as his boredom and exasperation gathered steam. He had little patience for being questioned about elementary matters of the supernatural by a Muggle -- least of all, by someone who imagined himself possessed of some sort of rare insight.

Snape had always taken a sort of delight in eloquent rudeness, and was preparing to demonstrate. "Your claim that the Lord Almighty would become human precisely so he could die, to join his fate with mortals, is nonsense. Though I should count on someone like you to have a God who is also an utter fool," he said by way of introduction, contentedly preparing remarks aimed at the satisfaction of watching the smile wither from the man's face.

"It's just this: that the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom."

"For some of us, perhaps," Snape muttered under his breath.

"But don't you see what he's done? When we take the cup, we are blood-bonded to the Immortal One. Because he lives, we are forever anchored to life. Foolish and weak to become human and die? -- I'll grant you that. But far wiser than man's wisdom, and far stronger than man's strength."

As with all fan fiction, no profit is being made and all the recognizable parts of the story are the property of the author of the original series. J.K. Rowling owns all things Harry Potter.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A mother's prayer for teenagers: A mature faith

Lord, thank you for (name). May he develop a mature and adult understanding of the faith that seeks and finds answers to its questions. May those hostile to you not succeed in taking advantage of his youth's inexperience and elementary understanding to persuade him that following you is a childish faith to be scorned by adults. May he seek you and find you, and follow you all of his days.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A familiar verse, a different way to interpret it

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." -- Genesis 1:28
Reading the Talmud and overhearing the ancient sages interpret Scripture is fascinating to me. It is completely common to see a single verse discussed at length from one angle after another. What would happen if we interpreted this familiar Scripture above in that way?

I could picture a conversation on this verse much like the following. I hope I can be forgiven my poor attempts at dialog and imitating the general flavor of the conversations in the Talmud. Here is how I would picture a conversation on this verse, in the general style of the conversations in the Talmud:
First Student: "Did God bless them, or did God command them?"
Older student: "It is a command. He said two things, for it is written, 'God blessed them and said to them, etc".
Other student: "It is a blessing, for it is written, 'God blessed them.'"
First Teacher: "If you say the blessing and the command are two different things, if you say 'Be fruitful' is the command, then what is the blessing?"
Second Teacher: "The ancients have taught that this is a command for us. If you say 'be fruitful' is the blessing, then what is the command?"
First Teacher: "The blessing is fulfilled in living the command."

Third Teacher: "The ancients taught, 'God's Word here is part of the Words of Creation.' As God said 'Let there be light' and 'Let the earth produce life,' so the Holy One also said, 'Be fruitful.'"
Student: "But -- 'be fruitful' -- is it not the first command of the Torah?"
Third Teacher: "The first command of the Torah is part of the Words of Creation."
Second Teacher: "Are all the commands of the Torah part of the Words of Creation?"

First teacher: "He spoke from paradise. What blessing was needed in paradise?"
Third teacher: "The whole world was not paradise, as it says, 'And God planted a garden in the East.' Therefore the Holy One says, 'Fill the earth.'"

And so ends my flawed attempts to give you all an idea of the way a verse might look when it is discussed in the Talmud.

I mostly wanted to give you all an idea how "context" comes up in ways we might not expect. When a blessing and command are mentioned in the same verse, it raises the question whether there is a difference between a blessing and a command. When a saying of God occurs in the context of creation, it may be part of creation. And if the very first command of the Bible could be viewed as a blessing and as part of creation, it raises the same questions of all later commands.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Richness of Scripture: Some ancient methods of interpretation (not allegory)

The author of The Pocket Scroll has recently posted on typology as a way forward in Bible reading. I wanted to continue the conversation here.

I've broken this out into "How we got into this situation" and "Some approaches from the Talmud", so that if someone is only looking for the new approaches they can skip to that part. If someone wants an explanation for why I'd be looking there, you may also be interested into the part about how we got into this situation.

1) How we got into this situation

If anyone reads commentaries on the Bible written in the Middle Ages or before, sooner or later (usually sooner) you find that some of the Biblical interpretation was a little bit fanciful and far-fetched. Our first reaction to reading a certain interpretation may be, "Wow, that's kind of a stretch." There is also a long history of finding "spiritual" meaning for certain Old Testament texts (such as dietary laws) because their literal meaning was difficult to find inspiring; I remember this coming up even in the Confessions of St Augustine, so it predates the Middle Ages by a long way. There were almost no limits to what could be claimed as the meaning of a text -- which is to say, the meaning of the text was not always relevant to its interpretation. If the meaning of a text is not directly relevant to its interpretation, that's not a good sign.

The reaction to this has been, in some ways, just as unfortunate, as some have insisted there is "one right meaning" of a text. This was probably a welcome antidote to the "anything goes" method of interpretation. But in practice, it denies the richness of Scripture. When you have a book containing parables, prophecies, and poetry -- in addition to historical acts and rituals meant to be symbolic -- the "one right meaning" might (possibly) be the right place for the journey to start, but not to end.

For comparison, consider a selection from one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs to come out of the last century:
There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure.
Because you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
(Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven)
Some will be offended that here I bring up a song with distinct pagan overtones. I want to be clear why I bring it up: are we really willing to say that a rock song has more depth, beauty, and layers of meaning than the Bible? Or is it just possible that "one right meaning" is far too rigid a way to read something that's rich in symbolism?

2) Some approaches from the Talmud

The Talmud is an ancient Jewish set of discussions of Scripture and religion that's nearly an encyclopedia unto itself. I've been fascinated with it for a long time now, for its glimpse into an ancient world, for its insights into Scripture -- and for a fresh set of ideas about how to read and understand the Bible. (I know some will smile that something as ancient as the Talmud can be called "fresh" -- but it really depends on how long the ideas have been left to rest, doesn't it?) Here are some of the general assumptions that are made.

Assumption #1: Scripture has layers of meaning. They believed that the Bible itself teaches that Scripture has layers of meaning, so that limiting Scripture to just one meaning was to mistreat the Bible.

Assumption #2: All prophecy relates to the Messiah and the Messianic age, even those that might have already had another fulfillment in its first context.

Assumption #3: If two passages of Scripture both speak of the same thing -- if they contain the same words or images -- then they shed light on each other.
Example: The teaching that wisdom is a "tree of life" (Proverbs 3:18) applies back to the "tree of life" in Genesis. So it's a legitimate conclusion that wisdom is the tree that gives life, in contrast to the tree of knowledge (without wisdom) that gives death.

Assumption #4: If two teachings of Scripture are next to each other -- placed consecutively in the text -- then it is reasoned that they are related and part of the same train of thought and shed light on each other. We might be tempted to consider this as too obvious, simply the meaning of "reading in context". But "context" is often understood as "background"; this approach instead moves the neighboring verse into the foreground as part of the same picture. It makes a direct application of the one verse or passage to its neighbor.
Example: "The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7) is often quoted by itself. But it can be seen as the conclusion to the immediately-preceding invitation to pray and commend all our troubles to God. In this way of understanding, the "peace that passes understanding" is tied inseparably to the act of prayer described immediately beforehand.

I could spend a lifetime studying the Talmud, as vast as it is, and still not have understood everything in it. I admire that these interpretive principles not only open up news ways of seeing things, but that they do so without resorting to an "anything goes" mentality where the interpreters could claim anything they wish. There are careful limits to what is legitimate, and how you can know it. Even for symbolic interpretation, it is necessary to show a Biblical reason why that symbolic interpretation is right, or legitimate to consider. There are sane and reasonable limits to what can be taught, a middle ground between the potentially shallow "one meaning only" reading and the potentially baseless "anything goes" reading.

I will mention one more of those sane and reasonable limits, and let that be enough for tonight. It was considered legitimate to take one verse and derive more than one teaching, but it was not considered legitimate to take multiple verses to piece together a single teaching. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to note which "teachings of Scripture" are never exactly taught in Scripture, but are pieced together from multiple verses.

It's a question that has always been some part of Christian discussion: Is it legitimate to claim that the Bible teaches something when there isn't a passage anywhere that actually says so?

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Crown of Creation: Passion or Chore?

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." -- Genesis 1:28
Whenever I see the Blue Angels -- the precision aircraft flying team -- I think of what amazing things we can do, if we set ourselves to it. That kind of achievement inspires wonder, awe, excitement. To make it happen, it took vision and passion. (There had to be enough passion to survive a hundred committees.)

For every crowning achievement, there are hundreds of good ideas that never become accomplishments. And there are hundreds of mediocre ideas that take their place, not as good but easier to achieve.

When we think about ruling over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and all the living creatures that move over the face of the earth, we can see the beauty and the possibilities of a vibrant world. When we set out instead to think of environmental responsibility, you can nearly feel the joy drying up like the morning dew, vanished before the passionless presentation of a morally obligatory chore.

We weren't called to only avoid doing harm, to achieve an adequate balance, or to create a merely sustainable environment -- to watch our step (or our carbon footprint) and hope that our passing leaves no mark. Our call has its roots in a paradise; being asked to settle for less -- to aspire for less -- leaves us apathetic. We may see it as a duty, as a chore. But our hopes are higher than that. We do not want that kind of moralizing -- the call to be adequate that is a dumbed-down version of the call for excellence. People resent that type of moralizing precisely because it is dumbed-down, where they would welcome an actual call for excellence.* 'Hope that our passing leaves no mark" -- where's the good in that? We are told to envision a paradise where there are rivers flowing down the streets of the city and an orchard lining its banks (Revelation 22:2).

I have an idea that every Bible verse, sooner or later, is lived out by someone. So to read a Bible verse, or to quote it, is to plant a seed and hope it grows.
There is a river, the streams of which make glad the city of God. (Psalm 46:4)

* There is something demoralizing about finding that someone's expectations of you (or your neighbor) are so cynical. And so, in its own way, I suspect that kind of moralizing has a demoralizing effect.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Crown of Creation

Mankind is unique among all the creatures in this world. But is there really anything we do that other creatures don't do? We can fly -- but the geese were there in the skies, flying in formation, long before us. Expert climbers can rappel down a cliff on a slender rope -- but the spiders were doing that on their slender threads long ago. We can dive into the ocean -- and we come to a place where the fishes and other creatures of the deep have been for ages.

What exactly is unique about us? One is our quest for knowledge. Another is our quest for accomplishment. But at a basic level we have the ability to look at any creature in all the world and see possibilities. Birds do not look at fish or spiders and see the possibilities of SCUBA gear or rappelling. They may see dinner (depending on the type of bird), but they do not see a way to transcend their own limitations.

As the ancients said, we are in the "image of God" -- God who saw the possibilities and created.

Note: I know it is traditional, at this point, to launch into hand-wringing over the evils done by mankind. But I'm going somewhere else with this ... a little patience, please.