Archive for June, 2013

luther“I ask that people make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans.  What is Luther?  After all, the teaching is not mine.  Neither was I crucified for anyone.  St. Paul would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian.  How then should I–poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am–come to have people call the children of Christ by my wretched name?  Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after the One whose teaching we hold…I hold, together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only Master.” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 45, ed. Walther J. Brandt, pp. 70-71)


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bloom“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.  If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending…The students’ backgrounds are as various as America can provide…They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality…The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.  Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is a virtue, the only virtue, which all education has dedicated itself to inculcating.  Openness–and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of the various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings–is the great insight of our times.” (Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, pp. 25-26)

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Fowl“Christian friendships will differ from contemporary notions of friendship.  For example, it is quite common to assume that we choose our friends.  Most of us could generate a list of characteristics describing the sorts of people with whom we prefer to associate…Christian friends do not really choose each other.  We are called into friendship with each other because of our common friendship in Christ…Friends in Christ might never have associated with each other on other grounds.  Factors such as compatibility in class, education, or ethnic or national background cannot be invoked as the basis for Christian friendships.

It is significant that this component of Christian friendship directly contradicts many contemporary strategies for increasing church attendance.  So-called church growth experts agree that people prefer to associate with those like themselves.  The theory is that homogeneity attracts like-minded newcomers.  This presents contemporary Christians with a particular challenge.  Ordering the common life of any Christian community with an eye toward homogeneity may well increase attendance.  We also, however, have good reason to think that doing so will also frustrate the formation of Christian friendships.  Such a strategy also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the church of Christ…

The New Testament decisively displays [that] one of the ways God’s redeeming work is most clearly manifested is in the formation of Christian friendships across the chasm that divided Jew and Gentile in the first century.  Thus, because Christian friendships are bound up in a common friendship with Christ, we should not seek to build churches around socio-economic, racial, or ethnic similarities…Christian friendship is founded on a common baptism, on common membership in Christ’s body.  It is not dependent on liking each other.” (Stephen E. Fowl, Philippians, pp. 216-17, 225)

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Dale Allison, commenting brilliantly on the historical implications of the numerous literary parallels that the Gospel writers draw between Jesus’ transfiguration and Moses’ supernatural mountaintop experience with God in Exodus:

Allison“Early Jewish Christians lived and moved and had their being in the Scriptures, and it was their wont to write up events and stories so that they echo biblical narratives.  That Eusebius, when he recounted the battle of the Milvian bridge, construed the event as a new exodus and turned Constantine into a new Moses (Ecclesiastical History 9.9) is not evidence that there was no battle of the Milvian bridge.” (Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, p. 75)

I would add Paul’s own explicit “rewriting” of his autobiography in Philippians 3, which he indisputably does in the light of his prior biography of Jesus in 2:5-11 (cf. also his descriptions of Timothy and Epaphroditus later in chapter 2), as another example of this principle.  Simply put, evidence that a story or event has been strongly “theologized” does not, by any means, neccesitate the conclusion that mere fiction is all that lay underneath the attempt.  No one doubts that Paul was a rising star among the Pharisees in his youth or that he persecuted the church in zeal.

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T. C. Chamberlin points out a human tendency that is spread universally and equally among all ideologies and worldviews.  As Pascal noted: in a (sinful) world such as ours, we cannot possibly come to know the truth unless we first love the truth for its own sake.

[Once a person adopts a particular theory] there is an unconscious selection and magnifying of the phenomena that fall into harmony with the theory and support it, and an unconscious neglect of those that fail of coincidence.  The mind lingers with pleasure upon the facts that fall happily into the embrace of the theory, and feels a natural coldness toward those that seem refractory…There springs up, also, an unconscious pressing of the theory to make it fit the facts and the facts to make fit the theory…The search for facts, the observation of phenomena and their interpretation, are all dominated by affection for the favored theory until it appears to…its advocate to have been overwhelmingly established.  The theory then rapidly rises to the ruling position, and investigation, observation, and interpretation are controlled and directed by it.” (T. C. Chamberlin, “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses,” Science 148 (1965), p. 755)

This tendency was similarly observed and lamented by Francis Bacon long ago:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it.  And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.” (Francis Bacon, cited in Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, p. 79)

I know of no other response but to say, firstly, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” and secondly, to then commit by God’s grace to “go and sin no more.”

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Allison“The basic sequence of Jewish eschatology appears again and again in the sayings attributed to Jesus: suffering then vindication, tribulation then blessedness, death then life…Part of the reason that Jesus so fascinates and inspires is that his life incarnates the eschatological pattern.  He is the coincidence of opposites, embodying in his own person the extremes of apocalyptic expectation, which means the extremes of human experience…

The tradition gives us a Jesus who knows how to laugh loudly and to wail miserably, a Jesus who knows the presence of God and the absence of God, a Jesus who experiences what some of us find long before we die: both heaven and hell.

That Jesus is big enough to take in the extremes of human experience makes him both sympathetic and convincing.  Any credible interpretation of human existence must come to terms with the acute polarities that characterize most of our lives.  Even in the midst of our relative prosperity, anxiety and anger by turns grip us; malevolence and foolishness greet us daily; sin and guilt never leave us.  Physical pain and mental pain haunt our lives, and we are ever the victims of the senseless sport of circumstance: something is always going wrong, when not for us then for others we love.  And over it all is spread the eternal shroud of death.  We blossom and flourish and wither and perish.  Our cruel fate is to close our eyes and become short-term memories.

And yet, in the midst of such universal misfortune and heartbreak, an inscrutable Providence allows us sometimes to behold the good, the true, and the beautiful, enables us to happen upon friendship and love, laughter and delight, knowledge and wisdom; and those of us with religious faith may further believe that, through some enigmatic grace, we have sometimes encountered the ineffable presence of a loving God.  So human experience in general and religious experience in particular offer intense paradoxes.  Maybe this is what Pascal was getting at when he wrote, ‘It is incomprehensible that God exists, and it is incomprehensible that he does not exist.’

Jesus’ words and life give fitting expression to all this.  The extremes of human experience are such that they are effectively represented by the extremes of eschatological expectation and by a life of celebration and crucifixion.  If Jesus had pretended to know only the blessings of the future age, we should turn our backs on him, for we would know his faith to be a hopeless flight from the pain and dread of living.  And if he had harped only on death’s doom and the tribulation of the latter days, we would have to judge his hope too small, the distance between him and God too great.  But it was otherwise.  By announcing not only tribulation present and coming but also salvation present and coming and then by living into both, Jesus commends himself to us.

One last thought.  Although Jesus may be the coincidence of opposites, he does not reconcile or unify them.  For him, death and life are not like summer and winter, the one always coming after the other, in an eternal return, without victor.  He may believe in the devil, but he believes far more in God.  Jesus’ dualism is relative, not absolute.  There can be no tie, for evil is bound to lose.  The divine love and goodness must triumph over all else.  So the opposites are not complementary but antagonistic, not equal but sequential: in the end, the good undoes the bad.  And in this, as in so much else, Jesus’ life instantiates his teaching.  For the resurrection does not balance crucifixion and the grave.  It defeats them.” (Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, pp. 116-19)



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Allison“[Jesus] more than made his own the traditional notion that God’s chief attribute is an all-inclusive loving-kindness.  Those of us so inclined may find solace in this theology.  Others, however, will view it as nearly absurd, because it comes up so hard against the innumerable woes of real life.  Every blessing is balanced by some curse.  The one-time appeal of Manichaeism, with its enduring clash between a good God and a bad God, requires no explanation.  What needs accounting for is why cosmic dualism has gone out of fashion: it makes such good sense.  Likewise sensible is denial of any deity, at least a good deity.

Jesus’ sort of God has, understandably enough, taken a beating in recent centuries.  Pierre Bayle, writing that human beings are ‘wicked and miserable,’ that ‘prisons, hospitals, gallows, and beggars’ are everywhere, and that ‘history is nothing but the crimes and misfortunes of mankind,’ confessed inability to harmonize the world’s agony with God’s goodness; and Leibnitz’s rejoinder on God’s behalf, that this is the best of all possible worlds, was readily mocked by Voltaire.  Feuerbach and Freud thought it evident that the image of a loving Father in heaven stems from self-deception: it is a projection created by our yearning for parental protection in what is in truth an unfeeling, unsympathetic universe…However one responds to the [modern philosophical] arguments of Rowe, Rubenstein, Freud, Feuerbach, and Bayle [on the problem of evil], Jesus’ assertion of God’s goodness is not, to say the least, transparently obvious.  This is partly why many Christians would say that their faith in his God is just that, faith.

Now it would be inane to expect a first-century Jew ot have pre-packaged, for our later use, apt answers to modern formulations of the problem of evil.  Jesus was not a philosopher, nor did he precognitively address directly the issues of a later time and place.  This does not mean, however, that he has nothing at all to say to us on the vexed subject at hand.  In fact, the memories about him offer, I suggest, some wisdom in the matter of what is perhaps the most intractable problem for Christian faith.

To begin with, Jesus was not Candide.  His eyes were wide open.  He saw and felt the omnipresent pain and evil around him, and the sources nowhere have him optimistically insisting that ‘Health is more common than sickness: Pleasure than pain: Happiness than misery,’ or that ‘for one vexation which we meet with, we attain, upon computation, a hundred enjoyments’ [the words of Cleanthes, the defender of God, in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion].  Jesus rather promoted his God of grace and mercy in the midst of a trying world…Jesus was under no illusion that things were going well or that obedience to God would fill us with sweetness and light…He may have told people to turn the other cheek, but he did not assure them that this would convert enemies into friends.  ‘Expect nothing in return’ (Luke 6:35).  He may have taught that God cares for the sparrow, but he knew that the sparrow nonetheless falls to the ground…That Jesus was not naive, that he was keenly alive to the pain and troubles of the world, seems confirmed by the sayings in which he speaks of Satan and the stories in which he casts out evil spirits.  Jesus knew a world with devils filled.

Not only did Jesus prudently not discount the ills around him, but the tradition nowhere has him accounting for or justifying evil.  That is, none of his words construct a theodicy.  He surely assumed that demons explain demoniacs, but to our knowledge he left demons unexplained…The point for us is that the tradition about him has no interest in explaining or rationalizing evil [Allison here cites Luke 13:1-5, John 9:1-12]…Jesus did not, to our knowledge, commit himself to any rationalization that might pretend to downplay evil or draw its sting.

This should come as no surprise, because the tradition [about Jesus, handed down to us in the Gospels], as before related, is overflowing with eschatological expectation.  Such expectation implicitly concedes that life as we have known it does not make sense.  It posits reward and punishment in a life to come precisely because they are missing from the here and now.  It locates meaning in the future because there is a deficiency of sense in the present.  It hopes for better someday because today it is worse.

Eschatology does nothing, of course, to explain away evil, and it leaves us with the question, Why should God be better to all in the future than God seems to be now?  To which Jesus prudently returns no answer.  But he does share with us his audacious imagination, born of his unswerving conviction that, despite appearances, God is profoundly good.  His fundamental intuition is that the creator must be the redeemer, that the divine Father is good enough to ensure that those who mourn will be comforted, loving enough to guarantee that those who weep now will someday laugh.  The world cannot be a fait accompli; it must instead be an impermanent stage on the way to some time and place in which God will be all in all.  Jesus is relentlessly optimistic about ‘eternal life’ because he is relentlessly optimistic about his God, who is ‘God not of the dead, but of the living’ (Mark 12:27).

We do well, I suggest, to follow his lead.  For although eschatology is not the solution to the problem of evil, without eschatology there can be no solution.  If what we see on this earth is all that we will ever see, if there is no further repairing of wrongs beyond what we have already witnessed, then divine love and justice do not really count for much.

This is not, for me, a theological cliche but a philosophical necessity.  If the sufferings of the present time are never eclipsed, if there is nothing beyond tragedy and the monotony of death, then I for one do not believe that Jesus’ good God exists.  But as I do believe in his God, I must believe in a resurrection of the dead…

I have no idea what the realization of God’s dream, which Jesus called the kingdom of God, will look like…But hope for something more than death’s wanton and cruel negation of life seems necessary if Jesus’ belief in God’s loving-kindness is to ring true.  Such hope is also, I have come to believe, a correlate of Jesus’ demand that I love my neighbor and live by the golden rule.  For to love others and to desire for them what I desire for myself is to wish them well, and if they are well, I can hardly want them to go out of existence.

One final comment on Jesus and his eschatological response to evil.  Many people, including some Christians, have, especially since Nietzsche, objected that eschatological hope is escapist, that it impoverishes the present and discourages ardent efforts to ameliorate human ills.  One sees the point.  Much that has gone under the name of Christianity sadly gives substance to the reproach.  As one nineteenth-century writer observed of his experience:

‘Those who stick closest to the Scripture do not shrink from saying, that ‘it is not worth while trying to mend the world,’ and stigmatize as ‘political and worldly’ such as pursue an opposite course.  Undoubtedly, if we are to expect our Master at cockcrowing, we shall not study the permanent improvement of this transitory scene.  To teach the certain speedy destruction of earthly things, as the New Testament does, is to cut the sinews of all earthly progress; to declare war against Intellect and Imagination, [and] against…Social advancement.’ [Francis Newman, Phases of Faith, 1850]

But this protest does not sound right if transferred from some of Jesus’ followers to Jesus himself.  For his faith in the world to come did not take him out of the world but rather, from what we can tell, all the further into it.  He did not proclaim the wonderful things to come and then pass by on the other side of the road.  He rather turned his eschatological ideal into an ethical blueprint for compassionate ministry in the present, which means that, in addition to saying that things would get better, he set about making it so…Although Jesus failed to explain evil, he did not fail to fight it.  Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer gets it right: whoever prays ‘your kingdom come’ must also see to it that ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (6:10).

Jesus’ eschatological hope and his humanitarianism cannot be sundered because they were both products of his infatuation with divine love.  God’s loving devotion to the world requires that it not suffer disrepair forever, and God’s love shed abroad in human hearts, a love that fosters self-transcendence, cannot wait for heaven to come to earth: it must, before the end, feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” (Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, pp. 108-13)

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