Tuesday, December 16, 2014

More on the immense difference between religion and faith

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, christology, catholic theology

There is a lovely video I saw earlier today in a FaceBook post: an elderly Jewish woman named Fell singing hymns ("Jesus Loves Me" for example) to a severely demented woman, and really, really connecting with her. How many Christians know a single Jewish song of the faith, and could connect with someone of a different faith so deeply and genuinely? Mrs. Fell truly embodies something Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I have become all things to all people."

Many years ago I read The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton, first published in 1924. As a young person searching for an identity, I found some insight in it, about the humanity of Jesus. But I was ultimately unsatisfied, and when I later found faith in Jesus Christ, I realized how shallow the presentation was, leaving the deity of Jesus almost unmentioned. One thing of value stayed with me: the understanding that Jesus was a Jew, and lived and worked almost entirely as a faithful Jew. His message, as he told a Lebanese (Syrophoenician) woman on a rare visit to Lebanon, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." Yet, when she answered wisely, he granted her request (healing for her daughter), indicating that what those "sheep" discard could be obtained by others.

The passage just mentioned, found in Matthew 15, is one of several showing that Jesus knew His rejection by most Jews would be followed by a more successful spreading among non-Jews. This is largely played out in Acts of the Apostles. Before the time the Jewish-Christian testimony in Jerusalem and Judea was practically exterminated by the Romans after 68 AD, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews, the Jerusalem-centered branch of the church was a distinct minority.

I approached with only moderate expectation Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age by James Carroll. I did not expect it to be a work of profound faith, and that expectation was confirmed. It didn't take long to recognize that the viewpoint is Roman Catholic. Later it comes out that Mr. Carroll is a former priest, but is now married and a university professor. That is OK, I haven't found works of Catholic theology to be accessible to any but extremely over-educated readers, so I was glad to find a more readable presentation.

I am not sure the author's theological stance is so clearly within that of the Catholic Church. Where he goes to great lengths to explain away the so-called miracles in the New Testament (and he'd probably do so with Old Testament stories as well, were they in the purview of his writing), I am pretty sure the Church's more official position is that Jesus did indeed work miracles. He writes again and again of exploring and examining the divinity of Jesus; in the end, he takes the position, if I understand him aright, that Jesus is counted divine only in retrospect, and neither thought of himself as God nor said so to others. I wonder what he makes of  John 8:24, where Jesus, after being asked where his Father is, finishes a long reply by saying, "I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins." Or that, when he was speaking to the disciples before going to the Garden of Gethsemane (John 14:9), and Philip asked him to show them the Father: "Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (All quotes are from NIV)

One mystery of Christology is to understand when Jesus obtained what is called his "pre-Incarnation knowledge". In Mr. Carroll's view, there never was any. Instead, he speculates quite wildly about Jesus as a disaffected and unemployed young man of Galilee chafing under the economic strictures caused by Roman occupation and taxation, becoming a disciple of his cousin John (the baptist) and remaining so for perhaps a decade. Jesus eventually reacts against the asceticism of John and embraces a more public life, preaching to the dispossessed. I find that harder to believe than the goofy story "Bel and the Dragon", found in Catholic Bibles, but not Protestant ones. I guess if the Apocrypha have found their way into your world view, your imagination is rather unfettered. (For the uninitiated, the Dragon story is about Daniel in Babylon, defeating a fire-breathing dragon by throwing a helmet full of water into its mouth and down its throat, causing a steam explosion.)

While reading, I marked a couple dozen places on which I thought I ought to comment. But I have little taste for detailed debate. I will instead take up two important items.

Firstly, Mr. Carroll's fundamental premise is that the four Gospels are "wartime literature", with the three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) written in the 70-80 AD time frame, and John written by 90 AD. I believe they were indeed produced during a period of growing warmaking and warmongering, but a decade or so earlier. He writes several times that "all scholars" agree on these late dates, but he overstates his case rather dramatically. Maybe all Catholic scholars late-date the Gospels, but I doubt it. And even some non-Catholic scholars do so, but primarily those who follow the "higher critics" whose fundamental premise is that the Scriptures are purely human products, and treat them as literature and literature only. Such "historical criticism" of Biblical texts was initially condemned by the Vatican (Leo XIII) in 1893, but later somewhat welcomed (Pius XII in 1943).

Those who don't have a hidden agenda to deny and denigrate the Bible's inspiration understand that the Synoptic Gospels were produced between about 55 and 65 AD; perhaps as late as 66 or 67. Certainly within the lifetimes of those we consider their authors. The late-dating historical critics simply cannot believe that Jesus foretold the fall of the Temple 35-40 years before the fact. Instead they posit that all the Gospel authors put these words in Jesus' mouth, even as they were writing about a Jerusalem that they saw being destroyed around them (or "just over there") in 70 AD. Historical critics go to great lengths to deny God's existence, and particularly Jesus's deity. I say "deity" rather than "divinity". Divinity is a quality; deity is the being of the Person.

So the fundamental issue is whether God inspired the writings we call the Bible, and how detailed His inspiration was. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:13), "This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words." He claims verbal inspiration for what he spoke and wrote. Later in the same book, he discusses marriage and differentiates between God's commands and his own opinion, then discusses the choice of lifelong chastity, beginning, "I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy" (7:25), yet ending, "I think that I also have the Spirit of God." (7:40)

We know that there are all sorts of things in the Bible that we can't count as God's words, not directly at any rate. Certain words of Satan are recorded, such as his accusation of Job. One chapter of Daniel was the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar, and the entire book of Ecclesiastes is written from a despairing, depressed, fully human viewpoint. Yet Ecclesiastes is followed by Song of Songs. How amazing, an aging Solomon could write both "vanity of vanities" and "the song of songs". What happened in between? He got back into contact with God! Note: the Shulammite is Solomon writing in a female voice of his ecstatic experience of God as his lover. Guys out there, you think you are male? Maybe a real he-man?!? Wait until you meet the Source of Maleness, dude! ...and God is also the Source of Femaleness, as the title El-Shaddai attests ("shad" is Hebrew for breast). I state my understanding of inspiration thus: The Bible tells us what God wants it to tell us. How He accomplished its production is up to Him.

And, has the text of the Bible been edited? Boy, and how! So what? Cannot God inspire an editor just as effectively as an author? For example, where did the author of Genesis get his material? While I believe it really was Moses, he must have used source writings to compose the Torah. The beasts of burden used by Abraham and Jacob and their servants are called camels in Genesis, yet historically we know that camels were introduced much later, perhaps even after the time of Moses. Abraham and Jacob would have used donkeys. Clearly, either Moses or a later editor updated the text to use a desert beast that had become more familiar. Maybe it was Samuel.

Historical critics late-date the Old Testament books by centuries, not just a decade or two as they do with the Gospels and some Epistles. For a long time it was not known how to counter their arguments. No texts of Old Testament books were known older than Tenth Century AD. After 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed the dates back to around 160 BC. Then, more recently, fragments dating back to the 700s and 800s BC have been found, mainly in ancient mezuzahs. Naturally, it would be helpful if larger texts were found dating to the times of David and before. If such materials exist, God is still keeping them hidden.

The book most enthusiastically late-dated is Daniel. The young Daniel is supposed to have been taken captive to Babylon in about 586 BC, and lived until the year before Cyrus allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem 70 years later. Many critics pooh-pooh this, and presume it was written during the time of the Maccabees, in about 160 BC. No matter when it was written, it contains a prophecy that is detailed enough to check. This was done by Sir Robert Anderson, who wrote The Coming Prince more than a century ago, in which he demonstrates that the period called "69 weeks" in Daniel began when a certain decree was issued in 445 BC and ended on Palm Sunday, the only day before the crucifixion that Jesus was proclaimed the Messiah. The length of that period comes to 69x7x360 days, or 173,880 days, exactly. If the book of Daniel predicted that period with such exactitude, then it is much more likely that it was written during and near the end of Daniel's life, in Babylon. Those who cannot believe God's word contains genuine predictions would have to late-date Daniel to some time after the year 32 AD to make their case convincing. They'd be laughed out of seminary!

Are the Gospels equally inspired? Faith says Yes. Mr. Carroll states at one point that what is most important is not faith but faithfulness. This is clearly in accord with Catholic teaching going back to the Fifth Century, that we are saved only by our own works. Jesus the Redeemer is never mentioned in Christ Actually. The title comes from something written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer's beliefs stretch the faith of Jesus a little, those of Carroll stretch it beyond recognition. Aquinas wrote that we must imitate Christ, and this subject informs the last full chapter of the book. This is not Biblical faith. We are told repeatedly by the apostles, particularly Paul, that believers are indwelt by Christ. In his resurrected condition, this is possible. Carroll will admit no bodily resurrection, neither of Jesus nor of anyone else.

In spite of my deep disaffection, I find certain value in the book. We need to be reminded of the Jewishness of Jesus. He did not hate the Jewish leaders, but wept over their intransigence. Yet Mr. Carroll goes too far, proposing that the Gospels are anti-Jewish screeds written later in the Roman-Jewish wars. Anti-Jew they are not, but anti-false-religion they most certainly are, because Jesus was anti-false-religion.

The Gospel of Matthew has been said to have the subject, "Christ versus Religion", and that of John, "Religion versus Christ." Yet, these writers made clear repeatedly that the religion being promulgated by the Pharisees and scribes and other leaders of First-Century Israel was far, far from the religious practice taught by Moses and Samuel and Ezra. And those who are sometimes called "Jews" in Acts, who were following Paul around and trying to undo his work, were a rival faction of what I call "Judaizers" among the Christians, probably based in Jerusalem, where James later told Paul, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law." So zealous for the law, they had nearly forgotten the freedom from over-interpretation of the law into which Jesus had called them. They occasioned the downfall of Paul, politically speaking. Let us remember, though, that the crowd that had been whipped up into crying, "Crucify him, crucify him!" was the same crowd that received the first gospel preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost, 7 weeks later, and 3,000 of them, now redeemed and forgiven and baptized, formed the nucleus of the church in Jerusalem. God first reached out to those who'd been duped into calling for His demise.

So here is the list, according to this former Catholic priest:
  • No deity, just a kind of after-the-fact divinity conferred by our adoration.
  • No miracles (a repeated statement: "He could not"!), which John called "signs".
  • No resurrection.
Yet, as the writers of the New Testament make clear, without these there is no salvation. Jesus said to those who didn't believe in him, "You will indeed die in your sins."

The Jesus Christ that Mr. Carroll writes of is not the Jesus Christ in whom I believe. Not even close. If he is a Christian, then I'd be ashamed to call myself a Christian. But if I am a child of God, then unless he repents, Mr. Carroll is destined to perish.

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