Religion


There are hundreds of gods I don't believe in.Outside of my formal academic work, I see myself as a cultural critic when I care enough to pay attention to anything outside of what I have immediately in front of me (which is generally too much). In particular, I see myself as a critic of much of contemporary Christianity, my own tradition. I’m interested in critically examining those elements of my religious heritage that many, if not most, would consider indispensible, essential, or fundamental; things without which, in other words, the faith would not be Christianity at all, but something different.

I know that, in the past, I have started several “series” on this site and never finished them. It’s been a year since I really blogged on anything. So I’m not going to say that this is a “series” of anything, but maybe a refocusing of the kinds of topics I like to think about, but with a sharper, more critical edge, an edge that I use when I teach my religious courses. Thus while my academic work mostly concentrates on antiquity, I want to apply some of what I do to stuff in my faith tradition that just Drive. Me. Nuts.

This will require a lot of blending of theory and method with the “stuff.”  So, in this first post, let’s get some of that out of the way.

Some basic things that I assume: Stuff doesn’t just exist. Societies, human relationships, social and cultural artifacts, and religions are created things, products of languages, practices, and habits, of social and historical conditions in relationship to powers and authorities. The world we live in does not exist as something “natural.” When I look at certain elements of a religion, I generally start from this point, and I ask “what social and historical conditions allowed this to come into existence?”  “How is this similar or different from the way this idea or element was presented in the past?”  “Whose interests are served by this element and by the way it is presented?”

Take the Bible, for instance, which is, outside of the figure of Jesus, the single most powerful icon in Christianity.  The sight of a Bible will trigger in most Christians a stimulus response that is at first biological and electrical that sends signals to the brain that identifies a book as a Bible. But those bioelectric signals are then interpreted by many Christians to signal not just a book, but “sacred book.” I am less interested in whether the Bible is, by some internal, eternal virtue “sacred”, and much more interested in questions like “how and why was it written?” “Who wrote the different parts of it?” “What social and historical circumstances caused the writers to interpret their reality in such a way that they wrote these texts?” “What social and historical circumstances have required some groups to apprehend this text as authoritative, and why?” “Whose interests are served by understanding the Bible this way?”

Another point here: “Critical” does not mean “tear down” or “attack” something. Instead, I use the word “critic” and “critical” in its academic sense, which is simply to seriously check out what is taken for granted (myself included). Sometimes (oftentimes, for religious people) the results can be unflattering or downright destructive to long-cherished notions. No doubt about it. Nevertheless, I have found that this kind of analysis can be liberating and exhilarating and open up new doors for understanding and practicing faith that can inject some much needed life into a faith tradition. (It goes without saying that there is also the risk that successful criticism will drive people away from faith; an unfortunate risk, but one that is unavoidable. It might be thought of as analogous to major surgery. “If you don’t have this surgery, you will have major problems later in your life. But if you decide to do it, it could also kill you.”)

With those preliminaries out of the way, then, we can get right to it. Perhaps the blog might pick up the readership again. In the next post, whenever that is, I’ll take up the subject of “religion” generally, like I do in my classes. What is it? Can we define it? Is there some “essence” that all religions have?

Apologies in advance for the longish title, but it works. And apologies for the delay, but remember that I said I wasn’t going to put myself on a schedule.

Looking over the first part of this sequence again, I thought I’d just move right into the Jewishness of Jesus or something, but it’s apparent (to me, at least) that I need to make sure that we understand something more fundamental: Christianity is a religion. This is a tough concept for many to grasp. There is a popular bumper sticker that reads something to the effect of “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship.” I used to think this was cool. I now think it is, to put it mildly, ignorant.

I understand the sentiment. Christian theology, particularly evangelical protestant theology, emphasizes that not only is Jesus alive now, but that he also is readily available and interested in having a “personal relationship” with you, with me, and anyone who is interested. The idea is that Jesus isn’t interested in what we call “religion,” but in being our friend, our brother, our BFF or our “buddy.” After all, Jesus is, as the old hymn asserts, our “ever present help in trouble,” someone who, like our best friend, would run through a brick wall for us at any hour of the night. Who doesn’t want that? In a digital age, where so many of us now experience an unprecedented lonliness as a result of our addiction to online social media, the idea of an ever-present Jesus who is available to have a bona fide relationship with is simultaneously unbelievably attractive on the one hand and  completely incredible and incomprehensible on the other.

Fine. But evangelical Christianity misses out on an awful lot by limiting itself to only this appreciation of Jesus. Christianity may well have started out exclusively as an intense bond of relationships between Jesus and 12 hand-picked men and who knows how many other women and men. But the tradition that claims the name of “Christ” in his wake became very much what scholars understand as a “religion,” and it didn’t take very long either.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of “definitions” of religion, and all of them are somewhat incomplete, but I generally work with a descriptive definition that runs something like this:  A religion is “is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations” (props to Clifford Geertz) that orients us to whatever we understand as having ultimate significance for individual and communal lives through creeds, rites, symbols, memory, behaviors, beliefs, and other cultural elements of our lives. It may serve a deep psychological need, and it functions as a tie or bind that creates and sustains meaning and promote healing in our experiences in the world.

It doesn’t take much to pick out some examples from the Christian religious tradition that we could drop into each one of these elements in my description here, and in fact every different Christian denomination is likely to be different from another on certain “ingredients” here. Christianity has its system(s) of symbols, and those symbols are able to promote moods and motivations that orient us to “the ultimate” as Paul Tillich calls it, whether it is God or Jesus or Heaven or Bibles or whatever else our particular Christian system promotes as the ultimate concern. And certainly Christianity has, for millions, satisfied deep psychological needs of security, safety, healing, and the like.

It is important to keep the Christian faith located in this context, because there are treasures there waiting to be discovered that can renew our faith or revive our confidence in our tradition. In my opinion the latter is at a critical stage; confidence in Christianity strikes me as being shallow at best and virtually non-existent at worst. My hunch is that it is because we have bought into the idea that Christianity is a personal thing and not a religion, and when that personal element cools or disappears, there isn’t much left.

I have decided to start blogging again. My mind is sharper when I blog, and I’m more in tune with my reading and interpretation/criticisms of the world when I do. I’m not going to put myself on a schedule, but perhaps some former readers will find some new stuff, and hopefully some new friends will enjoy it as well.

“Apologia” is a Greek word that implies a “defense of something.” The most famous Apology is probably Socrates’ Apology from the 4th century BCE, and it became an entire genre of literature in the early Christian period, as folks like Justin Martyr wrote sophisticated defenses of the new Christian faith to the well-to-do and well-placed members of Roman society in the first few centuries CE. Socrates’ Apology was more or less his answer to “Why are you doing what you are doing,” asked of him by Athenian accusers who believe that he was somehow corrupting the youth of the city and encouraging them to some other religion other than the one handed down to them with the blessing of those who believed themselves to be the guardians of the legitimate, official, and imperially-sanctioned religion.

I have, in recent months, felt like Socrates must have felt in 399 BCE in Athens. I am having to defend myself as a Christian and as a Religious Studies scholar who studies not only early Christian history, but ancient, early rabbinic, and medieval Jewish history and early Islam as well. Now, granted, this comes mostly from a particular quarter of Christianity, but there it is. Typically, the accusation, such as it is, runs something like this: “How can you, a Christian, justify teaching about other religions?” And there are corollary questions: “You’re a Christian, so I don’t understand how you can support anything the Democratic Party does or wants to do;” “I don’t see how you can be a Christian and even entertain the idea that natural history is anything other than what the Bible says.” And so on.

The second two questions I’ve written about on this blog in the past, and I don’t have much new to add, although if this new blog series goes anywhere I’m sure they’ll come up again. But I haven’t written much on the first and much more important question. I have been asked this often enough, and fumbled and bumbled through various answers to it. In this run of blog entries, I want to try to articulate why, and how, I teach Judaism and Islam and other world religious traditions alongside Christianity, and do so with a good conscience.

A project like this, though, is dangerous. As my friend the Ultrarev says, “whenever you blog, it’s not a good thing; more heresy.” He’s right, if heresy be defined as a deviation from status quo religion. But this isn’t heresy for the sake of being heretical, an academic exercise, an argument for tolerance of other viewpoints. My “heresy” stems from my recognition that so much of what we think is authentic Christianity has, in fact, little to nothing to do with the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, from whom our faith traces its origins. It also stems from my recognition that Jesus did not, in fact, give us Christianity as a “finished product,” and that Christians have domesticated, misunderstood, and mis-taught both the message of Jesus and who he was. Put in more blunt terms, our modern Christianity may have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. I study the history of religions because I am convinced that if indeed we Christians have misunderstood both the Gospel and Jesus to the extent that we no longer truly know what it is, the Gospel – and Jesus – need to be recovered.

If you’re still reading, you may be thinking “Ok, I’ll grant you that, but what does this have to do with OTHER religions? Like Judaism and Islam, or those Asian religions that have all those gods?” Fair question. But my answer is this: a religion, any religion, is a cultural system, or cultural artifact that derives from the common lot of human experience. This includes Christianity, especially in its modern versions of evangelicalism and liberalism in the US. When other religions offer answers to questions and issues that are relevant and pertinent to our own existential situation now, some elements of the world’s religious traditions may point us as Christians to additional paths to truth, to “true religion” via avenues that our own tradition does not include. Take, for example, the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, “actionless action,” the notion that the best, most appropriate, most truthful action may be to take no action, at all, or to say nothing at all. Christianity is a very wordy religion, and a very “active” tradition. But our monastic tradition, too little appreciated, understood (as did the author of the book of James, and, I am convinced, as did Jesus himself) that sometimes we can accomplish more in the name of what is right, true, and good by doing and saying nothing at all.

None of this is to suggest that all religions are the same; far from it, and I will get into this in due course, inshallah. My point here is merely that Christianity as we know and experience and practice it today has much that it can learn from the world’s religious traditions. In this series of blog entries, I will be exploring these lessons and examining ways in which the Christian tradition can learn from Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and so on, and yet remain the religion of the Gospel of Jesus.

Join me for the ride. En garde, heretic!

The Divine Name YHWH Jehovah“Theos” is a crappy translation for yhwh or elohim. Thanks a lot, Septuagint.

Comment.

I’ve been teaching Bible and Christianity now for a while, as well as “World Religions” surveys and a variety of other history of religions courses (Medieval European History, of which a primary component is the history of Christianity between 180-1000; Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, which is essentially a history of Jewishness [for lack of a better term] between 515 BCE and 637 CE, and includes Jesus, Paul, and the first generations of Christianity; Religious Ethics; Western Civilization; and American History, where I devote a substantial amount of time to the American religious experience from settlement to the Reconstruction era; and others as well). I find myself asking now “Why are you doing this? Seriously, Why?”

I used to know; when I was in seminary I believed that teaching the kinds of things that many Christians think are either taboo or too hot to handle was a subversive form of discipleship, and that’s the way I wanted to do it. I love teaching, I love the field of religion, and I love ancient western history, and I have always, ALWAYS, as long as I can remember, been so completely fascinated with the book of the Bible, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

Why?

A question like this only comes up when you lose the passion for what you are doing. I don’t think I was losing my passion for teaching, but there is no doubt I lost the passion for why I wanted to teach and why I wanted to teach the stuff I teach. Readers of this blog over the last few years know that I had a bit of, hmmm, a “falling-out” with “the Church” and the cynicism that this bred I think affected my teaching. The good news is that in our new parish home I’ve rediscovered why. Teaching my students, the majority of whom are very fine indeed, is a form of discipling…which, to me, is totally different from “evangelizing.”

My buddy Ultra Rev blogged last week on the need for pastors and parish leaders to somehow come to terms with the realities of the canon of the Bible, suggesting that this is a question of high priority on the one hand and a “hot potato” that most pastors and parish leaders are ill-quipped or too timid to deal with. I agree, and this is exactly why I do what I do; today’s young people, my students, ought to be our target for this. Ditto for the world religions besides Christianity. I have my students confront the imperial origins of the Bible head on; I lead them to the conclusion that the world’s great religions contain truth, and that their own tradition of Christianity has just as much of a history of error and falsity and violence as any of the others. For many this is dangerous territory, but the future of our faith depends on today’s young people facing these issues honestly and in a spirit of love and sensitivity. What we do in the classroom can be a subversive form of discipling for the Kingdom. Recognizing truth wherever it is found, whether in other religions, in the human origins of the Bible, in the checkered history of Christianity, or in Darwinian evolution, is the key, because disciples recognize and wrestle with truth when the situation warrants it. Disciples need the chutzpah, and I see the mission of the teacher (at least mine, I guess), to provide it.

Last night I had a great evening talking with my friend the Ultrarev, and among other topics covered, the idea of Scripture came up. The Ultrarev actually blogged on the topic after he got home (here), and my mind kept turning on the topic too. A lot of the discussion revolved around the old standard evangelical categories on scripture: Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired or God-breathed?

These terms are, as I’ve argued in my classes and in job application letters (eek…) and elsewhere (I think even on this blog), modern terms.  For example:

For Christians, Scripture must be the plumbline, the norming norm that guides each individual and community of faith to the Kingdom. I believe that in the modern world, the technology of the word has contributed to an understanding of Scripture that provides Christians with an effective means of expressing the authority of the Bible for the life of the church and its role in the world. While terms such as “infallible” and “inerrant” are modern terms alien to Scripture, I believe that they are dynamic equivalents to ancient understandings of the power of the written word that permit the force of that power to be understood and appreciated by modern Christians.  Early Christians and the writers of the New Testament understood the Word to be the message and proclamation of the Gospel and the person of Christ, a point that I believe has largely become lost in contemporary fetishization of the Scriptures among many in the Church today. The written word is witness to the Living Word that is Christ, and provides the only model for the church that, through its pages, teaches us the model of Jesus and of living a Christian life within the Church committed to bringing the Kingdom of God among us. Scripture is the pneuma of God that gives life, the essence of the same breath or inspiration that gave life to Adam from the dust of the earth and that animated Christ, the second Adam, from the dust of the grave.

But for many, this isn’t enough; somehow God has to have his hand in it, even if it’s not a mechanical, “hands-on” approach to the formation of Scripture (and I regard “scripture” and “Bible” as two different categories).  Ultrarev and I were talking about Arminianism and evolution and a bit of process theology. Subscribing to the basic elements of each of these, to hold to a mechanical, dictation-model of God’s role in scripture is, to say the least, pretty contradictory. I suggest, then, that we think of God’s hand in scripture not like we think of our hands at a keyboard or with a block of wood and some tools, but as the hand of the priest who touches and blesses the elements of the Eucharist. Like the priest over the ordinary elements of bread and wine, God similarly blessed an ordinary book or, more precisely, a collection of books that advances his Kingdom.

The irony here is that in both the Jewish and Christian cases, the “kingdom” was a literal one; for the Torah, it was the Persian Empire and then the post-Maccabean Hasmonean Dynastic would-be empire; for Christians, while the process took a while, it was the post-Constantinian empire of Rome. I’m in full agreement with Ultrarev here; today’s Christians need to two two things with regard to our Bible and idea of Scripture. First, we have to come to terms with the truly imperial origins of it, and somehow come to terms with all the connotations of empire that have accreted to the Bible over the last 1600 years (specifically colonialism, industrialism, western superiority, and consumer capitalism). This is a daunting task. Secondly, we need to let go of the mechanistic model of inspiration and replace it with something along the idea of God’s blessing of the Bible in much the same way that the priest blesses the bread and wine, or the penitent, or the baptized; in every case, it is the common, the ordinary, and the transformed for God’s Kingdom work that is blessed, not the already holy.

More work needs to be done here. The obvious question is “Why?” I hope some discussion might bring some ideas on this.

Stumbled across this today. the blogger, James McGrath of Butler University, leads off with a statement that I have made many, many times in my college and university courses:

It never fails to amaze me how, time and again, conservative Christians will, in the name of “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Christianity,” “faith,” or even the Bible itself, repudiate things that the Bible in fact says, and says in places quite clearly.

His specific case in point is how many conservative Christians, such as Steve Kellmeyer, in a badly misguided article, think that the doctrine of God’s ineffability is a clear and obvious biblical theme and that, because the almighty is ineffable (insert joke here), cannot and does not change his mind in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A couple of comments here. McGrath and many other professors and teachers (including myself) know that this is just wrong. There are numerous instances in the Bible of God changing his mind about X, Y, or Z, or where he is at least willing to entertain arguments that may sway him from a different course of action from the one he has decided on (Abraham’s discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind here, as does the Binding of Isaac; for the former, check out Exodus 32.14, 2 Samuel 24.16, Amos 7.3-6, Hosea 2, Jonah, 1 Chronicles 21, 15, Jeremiah 26.19… ).

I would go further here, however, and argue that the Jewish tradition fundamentally depends on this aspect of God. In Judaism, a central tenet is that we can, and in fact are obligated to, challenge God in the face of injustice. This is present in all three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is the dominant motif in the rabbinic literature of the Mishah, Midrash, and Talmuds, and, more contemporarily, in the Hasidic tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Not only do we have the audacity of chutzpah to challenge God as “Lord of the Universe” to “do what is right?” in the same line as Job, Moses, Abraham, and so on, but the tradition of the Bible and the rabbis is that this is an argument that we can win, not just make. God is a God who responds, and does not just humor us by listening apathetically.

Second comment: This aspect of Judaism has not had much of a carry-over into Christian tradition. This is unfortunate; the development of Christian doctrine has led to the doctrine of ineffability and transcendence of God, such that he cannot be swayed by impassioned argument and challenges to justice as in the case of Christianity’s sister religion of rabbinic Judaism. In Catholicism, it is possible that God might entertain the petitions of the saints, and that Christ can be swayed by appeals made by Mary. Protestants don’t generally have this system available to them, but to the extent that God is addressed at all, it still goes through the intercession of Christ himself. This is to say that this obtuse figure of God in Christianity is not Biblical in the strict sense, but it is to say that it is the result of the dogmatization of Christianity that hangs, often, by only the barest of threads to something “biblical.”

Clearly, we teachers of Bible and the Abrahamic religious traditions have our work cut out for us.

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