Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Fallen Gods

“If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came…” (John 10:35, KJV).

This is how Jesus described the rulers of the people, alluding to Psalm 82.  The immediate context of Jesus’ use of the psalm was his defense of his self-description as “the Son of God” (10:36).  As a leader of the people (in a society in which leadership was by definition religious) Jesus rightly claimed such a title.

Such titles were assigned to rulers of old, who were invariably remembered as great heroes and warriors; the ancient religious imagination could scarcely encompass any other concept of a leader, especially a foundational leader.

Such were “the sons of God” of Genesis 6:2, who seized for themselves “the daughters of men,” and who constituted “giants in the earth in those days, and also after” (6:4).

Nothing in this interpretation is new, but it is worthy of note (and rarely noted) that the intrinsic aspect of sexual depravity in this Genesis story is both heterosexual and prior to the account of Lot and Sodom.  The “daughters of men” in this story were not selected (to say nothing of wooed) for their virtues apart from sexual attractiveness.  The “sons of God” (the psalmist would later say “gods”) fell to the satisfying of their base desires.

Against this background we can truly understand the tendency of sober observers to note a strain of sexual obsession in Genesis.  To be sure, the sexual drive is a crucial aspect to include in any analysis of a society; it is not at all strange that sexuality would loom large in Scripture.  What gives the standard analyses of Genesis an air of sexual fixation is the sudden-seeming introduction of sexual sin in the form of the violent homosexual (or is it pansexual?) behavior in Sodom.

However, the earlier (and much-overlooked) story of the sons of God and the daughters of men contains the necessary elements for accurately describing the corrosive effects of sexual sin on human society.  Since ancient times, and in defiance of the will of God, the powerful have discarded their duties and degraded their positions in pursuit of sexual gratification.

Also, since ancient times powerful men have sanctified their breadth of heterosexual activity by systematically demonizing homosexual activity.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The What-If of this Blog

What if a convocation of thinkers could be summoned in some hyper-dimensional state, suffering neither burdens of physicality nor pressures of time?  Human beings they would yet be, yet also free to ponder collectively on the basic principles they would choose to guide an ideal society.

Men have tried sometimes to approximate such a process, with varying results.  One might think of the men of stature who conferred with Job, or of the ancient academies, or of the American Constitutional Convention, or of the assemblies of the French Revolution.  All quite different, yet all concerned with the timeless question of how man should act, and how he might be constrained to so act.

Of course their answers differed, and the results of their mutual ponderings (such as were enacted) differed.  And of course they were limited in the constraints of their humanity in manners that would not apply in the idealized convocation described above.

But is there really a complex, multivariable nature to any analysis we might make of real-life attempts to conceptualize an ideal society?  We could choose to analyze any such an attempt according to how we felt it was conducive to piety, reverence, loyalty, order, justice, equality, prosperity, happiness, transparency, accountability, or any such list or combination.  Or, on the other hand, we could examine any attempt to conceptualize an ideal society according to the real-world constraints that bore upon the attempt’s participants.

The choice is really that simple, as is the choice of (almost invariably privileged) thinkers to conduct their deliberations in an attitude of humility—or not.  For while fallible humans might choose legitimately to consider, say, justice (or not) as an element of an ideal society, they are not at similar liberty to ignore their own limitations.

Nor can any attempt to conceptualize an ideal society ignore the flawed humanity of the society’s constituents; if the populace is considered perfect, then any fantasized society can be constructed from them.  There persists, then, an inescapable reality: no conscientious analysis of human morality has any claim to legitimacy that does not accord primacy to humility and its necessary complement—mercy.

As an element of how we must treat each other, mercy is not one duty among others—it is the context in which all other duties are made intelligible.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Toll of “Ferment”

I am wondering about a notion that might rightly complicate any consideration of historicity when addressing first-century Christianity.  As an amateur, I can at least share what I believe is a common experience of neophytes in the field of biblical criticism.  That is, we are invariably introduced to the Judea of Jesus as a time and place of great “ferment” (at least that’s the term I recall most.)

Tragically, first-century Judea saw suspicion, oppression, tension, treachery, rebellion, zealotry, mania, and cruelty—almost beyond belief.  Certainly neither I nor anyone else can justifiably forget that backdrop when postulating about the mindset of (individually) undocumented and (collectively) marginalized people who enshrined coalescing beliefs into the gospels and epistles.

If a hitherto undiscovered collection of heterodox Maoist writings came to light, which had been shared by a small group of young men who died in the mid-1940’s, those writings could be subjected to the same scholarly analysis as any other body of thought.  What would not be so sober, of course, would be shunting aside a simultaneous discovery that those men were survivors in their teens of the Rape of Nanjing, and they had subsequently known little but war before their early deaths.  Who can say what phantasms might seize them?

I don’t think any reasonable proponent of the historicity of Jesus will deny a similar consideration.  Some of the historicity argument entails “It is less likely that so-and-so believed this…; it is more likely that so-and-so believed that….”  Thanks to the work of Bible scholars, we know that this “likelihood” argument is never more suspect than when speaking of first-century Judea.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Of What Should a Gospel Consist?

Of what should a Gospel consist?

Of course, a Gospel dictated word-for-word by God would consist of whatever God chose, and far be it from us to question divine choices.  But if the inspiration was more indirect, or even if the Gospel was man-made, of what then should it consist?

Would we not expect that a proper Gospel—meaning an instructive Life of Jesus, sincerely intended—be similar to any other biography?  Would it not contain a selection of events, drawn from a nearly endless source of events too numerous or inconsequential to mention?

Would not this Gospel—that is, biography—reflect the expectations and biases of the author?  Would not the author be liable to misconstrue some events?

Would not the author need to put the narrative in an historical context?  Would not the author be subjected to the limitations or flights of his or her imagination?

And so we have such Gospels from which to read.  (Assuming, of course, that the non-existence of original autographs, the puzzles of tongues no one speaks anymore, and the differences of the Gospels one from another are taken, ultimately, to mean that the word-for-word possibility is discounted.)

And so, again, we have such Gospels from which to read.

As alluded to above, the Gospels relate certain events and leave out many others.  Might different decisions and actions by myriad people over many centuries have created civilizations more attuned than ours to the Gospels’ content, or less?

We have Gospels that, as mentioned above, reflect the expectations and biases of the authors—or perhaps rightly challenge our own expectations or biases.  And as far as misconstruing events—some mysteries we might never crack.

And lastly there are the considerations of historical context and of the context of the authors’ worldviews.  People of the ancient world believed in heavenly dominion over events and in dominions on earth populated by innumerable invisible or ghostly beings.  Do we not see in the Gospels’ introductions and epilogues relative parallels to modern biographers’ conjectures about persons’ origins and legacies?  Do not the ghosts of modern biographers’ worldviews dance about in fancied interplay with the authors’ subjects?

And most importantly, are we not occasionally treated to the spectacle of a modern biographer wrestling mightily with the treatment of his or her subject?  This blog will try to discover if Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (so-called) were engaged in a similar struggle.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Primordial Sin and Ancient Judgment

An essay in Biologos by Austin Fischer (“Innocence and Evolution: You Don’t Have to Choose Between Christian Faith and Evolutionary Biology,” January 30, 2019) confirms (inadvertently) the theme of the present blog—that judgmentalism, which magnifies and multiplies all sins, is that which separates us from God, not sin itself.

Fischer, previewing the thesis of an upcoming book, asks the reader to entertain a scenario in which there “is no inherent incompatibility between historic, orthodox Christian faith and evolution.” His thesis is not inherently unreasonable; it might be crudely paraphrased as mankind developing overall in a generally biblical, religious sense, and concurrently developing an intellectual sense of the religious.

As Fischer presents it, “Eventually, the process of evolution produces a population of hominids with an emerging religious awareness, a sense of the divine. A relationship, albeit an embryonic one, between God and humanity is established.” (Please note that Fischer will speak no more of “hominids,” as he continues.) “We might think of this, metaphorically, as the ‘creation’ of Adam and Eve. And at this first dawn of religious awareness and relationship, humanity is ‘naked but not ashamed.’ We might call this ‘Eden.’ Humans do things that are wrong but are not ‘sinful’ because they lack the maturity to be held to account. They are spiritual babies (see Romans 5:13, where Paul seems to think along these lines).”

Here Fischer (like all Christian apologists) must try to lever his argument over the unyielding barb that tears at all orthodox interpretations of the Fall: the inanity of describing any creature as being simultaneously simply human and simply un-sinful. Even in the most severely literal interpretation, Eve’s dalliance with the serpent (and the conversation’s scurrilous references to God) would be viewed as grossly sinful, despite (or perhaps in tandem with) the elements of deception.

No conscientious interpreter will contend that, had Eve stopped short of tasting the fruit, Eden from that day forth could have been described as sinless. Nor, in the context of discussing what it is that separates us from God, and in describing that thing as “sin,” does it make sense to call anything a “little sin.” Humans describable as humans must be described as sinful, if the word “sin” is to mean anything.

Attempting to wend his way through the sinless Eden thicket, Fischer (as quoted above) refers to pre-Fall yet increasingly divinity-aware humans as “spiritual babies” who “do things that are wrong but are not ‘sinful’ because they lack the maturity to be held to account.” Fischer’s description of presumably hundreds of generations of child-begetting, child-raising, culture-fostering, genetically-complete, anatomically-identifiable adult human beings as “spiritual babies” is something he is free to postulate, but it is transparently a mechanism of convenience.

The essence of Fischer’s mechanism is revealed in the inconvenience that besets him as he tries to move forward. “However,” says Fischer, “this religious awareness eventually evolves to the point where humans are no longer spiritual babies but adults and, as adults, capable of sin. That is, they grow capable of deliberate rebellion against God.”

Here is where the attentive observer must call a halt. No sober analysis of human growth and development can swallow the notion that “deliberate rebellion” is an attribute of antisocial behavior that emerges in late adolescence (if the baby-to-adult metaphor is to be applied); “deliberate rebellion” explodes in full vigor the instant a toddler learns to say “No!” Moreover, no responsible scheme of morality will contend that intentional neglect or torment of a child by an adult might be wrong-yet-not-sinful in one generation, and then (in few enough generations to be called a “Fall”) such adults would be liable to judgment from a God who would punish even an unkind word from a parent.

Fischer’s picture of the Fall (if it is to be so called) suffers from a pair of intertwined difficulties. It attempts to make the Fall the beginning of sin, and it attempts to describe a humanity newly conscious of previously-permitted behavior now called sin. However, the Eden narrative does not fit well with sinlessness (would a sinless Adam in communion with God have needed a mate?), and the ensuing chapters of Genesis show a spectacular moral decline. Much of the moral horrors of the ancient world, moreover, were blithely committed in the name of divinity. Human beings were cast out of Eden when they began to imperfectly usurp God’s power to judge good and evil, and in the process always-sinful humanity began to institutionalize evil in the name of good.

This was the fruit of the poisonous tree: Mankind was not judged because of sin; mankind perverted judgment to embrace ever-greater sin.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

God was Talking about Death

One of the most destructive concepts in the world is that of “the Christian life.” There is no such thing, at least as it is generally understood. Followers of Jesus do not live individual lives, much less the individual lives of fulfillment and prosperity promised by the hucksters. Followers of Jesus necessarily, by definition, give up their lives. While “life” in a larger, exalted sense is the state of being of a Jesus-follower, this true life is a participation in the greater life of Creation.

Eve and Adam were not given an implicit promise of marital bliss or parental gratification when they were roundly cursed by God. Eve and Adam—who were promised death commencing the very day they ate of the forbidden tree—got what they had been threatened with. What they had been threatened with, moreover, was not just the “spiritual death” that the commentators like to describe.

The commentators sell a religion in which mankind is cursed from the Fall by having tribulations and impediments injected into a divine plan of personal and family life that, nevertheless, is predicated on the idea that good Christian living lets one enjoy a good Christian life. Just let the “spiritual death” of the Fall be attended to by the proper salvation mechanism, and the believer is free to revel in earthly delights.

No, when God threatened death, he meant it. In severest form, this means the requirement to be ready at any time to die for necessary just cause. In most poignant form, this means that death is intertwined with parenthood, as the very logic of the first parents’ curse entails. Parenthood is not the enlargement or fulfillment of life that the (demographically-driven) religions describe it as being.

The only good parent is he or she who gives up life, in the individually-driven sense, to engage in the process of parenting. (To be plain, there are no good parents—at least in light of the importance of the challenge.) Parenthood detracts from life; it doesn’t add to life or fulfill it. The parent who does not understand this fact is headed for horrible disappointment, or even worse is bound to engage in horrible self-delusion.

One thing that remains to be said, though it is logically evident, is that the concept of “parenthood” attends all of adult human life. By any number of analyses, we are all responsible for the world’s children (and all those requiring some manner of guardianship). We have only to choose whether we will address this responsibility as a joyful death to self, or as an exhausting and ultimately futile phantasm of “the Christian life,” or some such.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

We are Talking about Death

We scarcely remember our lives. One day, we were born, and we knew what it was to reach out for the touch of a fellow human being. Then a brief time passed, and we learned that we could, by touch or by sound, give comfort to another.

Then, it must be fairly said, we first encountered a stern word or touch (or withdrawing of touch); we encountered the first instance of disciplining. And, like the ages-old objection against the punishment of Adam and Eve (they were punished for doing that which made them aware of good and evil, and were therefore punished for what they did in a state of innocence) we were first initiated into the cycle of transgression and consequence by feeling the consequence.

These realities are the basics of what it is to be a child; mankind has never lived any other way, nor ever devised any other plan. It should scarcely need to be said that the concept of justice has little place here; how many millions of young people have said, “I didn’t ask to be born!”? How many times have children responded to a rebuke—often correctly—with “I didn’t know!”?

And yet even more sobering is the realization that the life of a child (or of a person relegated for some reason to a child-like state) is the only real “human life” that is ever experienced. When we become morally aware (when we, metaphorically, eat of the forbidden tree), we assume the power to level judgment against others and against ourselves. As the teachings of Jesus—and teachings consonant with those of Jesus—will reveal, this assumed power threatens spiritual death to those who are its victims, and assures the spiritual death of we who wield it.

The Fallen Gods

“If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came…” (John 10:35, KJV). This is how Jesus described the rulers of the people, all...