Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Is the Holy Ghost the Second Coming?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit, ca. 1660. Stained glass. Throne of St Peter, St Peters Basilica Vatican.Wikicommons

Holy Spirit as a Dove (detail) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit, ca. 1660. Stained glass. Throne of St Peter, St Peters Basilica Vatican (Wikicommons)

While discussing bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, “The Fourth Gospel:  Tales of a Jewish Mystic” (which I enthusiastically recommend reading) the question arose as to whether we might understand the Holy Ghost as the Second Coming?  I think the answer depends upon how one understands the terms, and the ideas toward which the terms point.

Chapter 19 of Spong’s “The Fourth Gospel” relates the allegories of the “vine” to an understanding of God as an in-dwelling Spirit;  this is specifically in opposition to thinking of God as external to us.  Spong is speaking of the in-dwelling Spirit of God as comprising part of who we are as self-conscious human beings.

  • It is not that God is absent in animals, and even rocks.
  • But we do differ from rocks and even birds and cats and dogs, in that we have a very strong sense of self-awareness and self-consciousness.  This is why we struggle against the idea of death.  Dogs and cats and cattle may struggle against death itself, but they do not sit around worrying about the eventually.  We do;  because we are self-consciousness.  We know that we exist, and we know that we will cease to exist.  The effort to transcend this eventuality is the reason many of us search for God.

Pantheism

Pantheism basically means “God Everywhere.”  God is understood as being everywhere in the cosmos: in every rock, every tree, every stream, every bird, every dog and cat, and in every person. This is one of the ways animalism and many aboriginal religions are interpreted by persons living in the West, although typically with the arrogant caveat such a “primitive” notion must be mistaken.

Small Pantheism

The “small” way of viewing pantheism is as lots of little spirits dwelling within everything: wood sprites, water spirits, etc.  Every culture of which I am aware, from the dawn of history, developed such a view.  Greco-Roman paganism was similarly structured, ranging from the “Big Gods” on Mount Olympia to city gods, to family gods, to gods of brooks, streams, woods, etc.  There were gods everywhere, and they were vested in every part of leading one’s life.

Most forms of Christianity, I suggest, see this as a form of multiple (“false”) gods.  But there is an important point to add here, which I find adds perspective.  Christians tend to be concerned about their afterlife:  Heaven or Hell, as the saying goes.  Pagans were not especially interested in this.  Most of them assumed death brought our annihilation.  What did matter for them was this life and getting enough to eat, having enough water to drink and raise crops, remaining healthy, and related basic needs of our survival.

Also, death was ever-present in a way I feel we fail to appreciate.  Where we get an abscessed tooth, and go to the dentist, they usually died!  The world was very different 2,000-years ago, and this is a significant point we tend to forget or fully appreciate;  many of us (most?) certainly fail to feel that kind of reality in our own day-to-day lives.  So I suspect we tend to ridicule “pagans” and those who hold aboriginal beliefs largely out of our own ignorance.

Big Pantheism

The “big” way of viewing pantheism, starts by asking a very different question:

  • Where is God not found in nature?

This requires some thought regarding the nature of God.  Is God only a personality?  Or is God the vital force of life itself?  Does God have a face and lungs, or is God the very essence of life?  Stated poetically, we ask if God is the Breath of Life?  Stated more abstractly, the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich suggested that we consider God as our Ground of Being.

If God is the essence of Life, then we have to find some way of imagining God within everything:  rocks, dust, bugs, deer, sharks, cattle, dogs, cats, and ourselves.  I would suggest this way of seeing God is very close to the truth;  and would result, if taken seriously, in better treatment of all the creatures and resources of this world; as well as one another.

An alternate view, is seeing God as a Big Person Above the Sky.  Useful in terms of language and metaphor, to be sure.  But if we take this too literally, how does this significantly differ from Zeus-Jupiter?

Panentheism (note the –en-)

The late Prof. Ron Miller of blessed memory, suggested it is instructive to think of God as panentheistic.  Pan*EN*theism (adding the “en” between pan- and -theism) argues God is everywhere, both within the cosmos, and outside the cosmos.  The key point of this idea is that God is not limited to the confines of this universe (cosmos).

Of course, we cannot really wrap our minds around what this means.  Our language cannot adequately describe what this implies.  We are creatures of time and of space.  And our language reflects, and is limited by, our nature as beings of time-space.  How does one envision a Being which is not constrained by the very limits of the universe itself?  This is a really, really BIG God!

I believe this way of thinking about God has to be tied to Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” idea.  For me, this represents God as the very vitality of life itself.  As advanced as our medical science is today, we do not understand the *essence which creates life.  We, for example, know that brain trauma may become debilitating, but we also know the brain sometimes compensates by building new neural pathways.

And doctors have not found our spirit, or even our consciousness, inside the brain.  Some disagree, and equate behavior changes as the result of brain trauma as proof of our seat of consciousness residing within the brain.  I disagree.  I think this only demonstrates that the “radio” has been damaged, and no longer receives the “radio waves” properly.

In this analogy the brain is the radio, and the radio waves represent our spirit, our consciousness.  And I submit that our consciousness, or spirit, is our seat of being.  But from what does our spirit, or being, emanate?  Tillich suggests this flows from the Ground of Being:  God.

  • In this way of seeing God, God is the fabric, the very essence, of the universe;  God is what holds the subatomic particles together;  God is space-time, onto/into which everything else resides. God is all that, as well as that which is beyond the knowable universe.

If one believes this is likely to be true, then “God” is best understood as panentheistic.  And even though we cannot completely wrap our heads around this, we can sense this is a very, very BIG idea of what must comprise the very nature of the “Beingness” (ontology) of God.

Now, as Christians, we have to figure out what to do with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

  • In the early days of the Jewish-Christian “Jesus Movement” there was only One God.
  • Not three Gods.
  • And not God-three-is-one, as the doctrine of the Trinity came to propose in the 4th century.

Some early Christians believed Jesus was entirely human and unable to be God.  Others thought Jesus was God and unable to really be human (he just appeared so).  Others thought Jesus was a divine being of the highest order (above angels for example) but a creature created by the Uncreated God (this view presupposes there are only two categories of existence:  the Uncreated;  and that which is created:  “creatures”).

All of these ideas were early Christian teachings.  And they all had sacred books, thus proving their point!

  • Why books are so important to the Christian traditions is an interesting question.  In part, it is because Christianity evolved from Judaism, and the earliest Christians needed to be thought of as already “ancient” and therefore just another way of understanding the very ancient Jewish religion.  In part, it is because completely unlike pagan religions, Christianity is very concerned with what a person believes; pagans, in contrast did not care what a person believed, only in what actions they took – namely, offering the proper sacrifices and prayers to the gods, so as to sustain our life in the here and now.

All of these ways of “properly” understanding what it meant to be a Christian were being debated in the first 300 years after the execution of Jesus.  In the orthodox Christian tradition, these matters came to be codified in the Council of Nicene, convened in 325 ce.  It is from this council that we inherit the Nicene Creed.  While this council did not settle the debates entirely, they did resolve the larger issues, and framed the limits of theological debate to the present day.

But they lived in a three-tiered universe:  Heaven Above;  Earth; and Land of the Dead Below.  We no longer live in that three-tiered universe/cosmos. Therefore, we have to re-think their basic arguments and assumptions, if we wish to carefully think through questions such as the nature of the Second Coming and the Holy Spirit.  And we really have to re-think these kinds of questions if we are going to try to understand the Gospel of John on its own (mystical!) merits.

I find I agree with bishop Spong’s proposition:  the Gospel of John was written by Jewish-Christian mystics.  These authors were not speaking of God as residing Above the Heavens.  They were speaking of an In-Dwelling God, an understanding of God as dwelling within each of us.  This is a very different understanding of God, even today, nearly 2,000-years later!

And to be fair, this is a mystical way of thinking about the Divine, which makes it slippery to grasp.  It is difficult, not easy, to understand.  Anyone can understand a God Above the Heavens who gets angry and destroys cities and people, or rewards individuals or nations for “obeying” whatever it is one presupposes “God wants from us.”

  • The details of “what God wants from us” change, from one tradition to the next -even within Christianity, let alone across religions- but the core idea that God wants something from us, which we supply by modifying our behavior. But this is not a mystical understanding of God. A mystical understanding of God experiences God as in-dwelling! (In-dwelling in all persons; thus, one adopts Unity Consciousness.)

But what if “God” is within each of us and “wants” us to live in such a manner as to expand life for ourselves and everyone around us?  What if God is the very expansion of the universe and the force of life that constantly seeks expression?  What if this self-expression of the essence of God is vitally present in self-conscious beings, such as human beings?

  • God is present in everything, but we are aware of this in-dwelling Presence!

This is a very different understanding of “God” and for many it doesn’t seem easy to grasp.

What about the Trinity?

I am not a strong trinitarian.  In the many hundreds of years since formulating the conceptualization of God as the Trinity of Father-Son-Spirit, no one has nailed this down!  The best theologians of the last 1,700-years or so have always said the heart of this is a “mystery.”  In other words, no one understands it!

We can formulate it pretty clearly.  But this is not at all the same thing as understanding it!  Professor Phillip Cary offers the following technical formation:

1. The Father is God.
2. The Son is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
4. The Father is not the Son.
5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
7. There is only one God.

We can see how strange this is if we say much the same thing from the classical Greco-Roman perspective:

1. Zeus is God.
2. Apollo is God.
3. Poseidon is God.
4. Zeus is not Apollo.
5. Apollo is not Poseidon.
6. Poseidon is not Zeus.
7. There are three Gods.

Here we have the same formulation, one from a Christian perspective, and one from the Greco-Roman perspective.  They are identical in the logic of the first six steps.  However, the final conclusions are in direct opposition to one another!  This illustrates why Christianity was so perplexing to pagans 2,000-years ago.  And it demonstrates “why the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult, interesting and strange” (Cary: “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine”).

Some have said, when speaking of the Trinity, we forget how to count:  God is above/before numbers.  Others say that God is three Persons (I prefer to say, Personae) but with a single Will.  But no matter how we try to explain the idea of the Trinity, it seems strange and remains beyond our grasp.  And so it has for some 1,700-years, for even the best and brightest theologians over the centuries.  So if this does not really make perfect sense to you, you are in good company!

  • If, and when, one finds speaking of God-as-Trinity useful, I say go for it!  Where it is not useful, I suggest, speaking in different terms.

Active Agent of God

When I speak of the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, which is the transliteration we get from German scholarship on the Holy Spirit/Geist) I mean the active Spirit of the Divine, of which we are aware, and with which we seek to interact.  Our Christian history has offered this idea to us as the Holy Spirit, so I frequently use the same name-title.

  • “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” are two different names for the same thing:  Holy Spirit is translated from the Latin, Spiritus Sanctus;  from German as, heiligen Geist;  both of which are translated from the original Greek, άγιο πνεύμα, which is roughly “agio pneuma“.

From this perspective the “Holy Spirit” is what I sometimes call the “Active Agent” of God in the world.  I think of this as the aspect of the Divine with which we have interaction.  If one is able to go along with this interpretation, then I think we are getting close to being able to see the Holy Spirit as the Second Coming.  But we still have some more ideas to explore.

Transformational Christianity

I view both the Holy Spirit and the Second Coming as related to Transformational Christianity.  By this I mean the emphasis to first transform ourselves, and through and as a result of our personal changes -a transformation in our thinking, speech, and behaviour- to transform the community in which we live.  I believe this is how we observe the Holy Spirit as being active in our lives, and in our community.

  • As we think, speak, and act better toward one another, I propose calling this change in our personal formulation, the Holy Spirit as active in our lives. Some have also called this Putting on the Mind of Christ.

In this view, we understand the primary function of the Holy Spirit as that which transforms these elements (thinking, speech, and behaviour) in us, and through us, into our wider community.  Thus, the Holy Spirit is that aspect of the Divine which initiates significant changes in our lives;  It is the aspect of the Trinity with which we interact in this physical world.

But what of Jesus?  What about the Christ?

This is a closely related, but somewhat different question.  Here we must address the question of Christology, which is the effort to understand and make sense of the role of Jesus and the Christ, both in the early Jewish-Christian church, and in our own day and age.  This is a very deep subject, asking the very nature of Jesus the Christ!  Entire books have been written on this topic, and there is yet more to say.  This is obviously not a question which may be adequately addressed in one essay.

Christ is the Greek word for messiah, which in Hebrew is mashiach.  It means “anointed” or “the one anointed” and was a ritual anointing which identified the king of Israel as chosen of God, or as the son of God.  When the Babylonians wiped out the line of David, this began to symbolize something more than the kingship;  the idea of the messiah began to be associated with ideas of freedom and liberation from foreign powers.  God’s messiah would come in glory and overthrow the foreign rulers, and put the son of King David back on the throne.

In the Jewish understanding, the messiah was never thought to be a person executed by the state!  This is perhaps the single largest barrier to Jews coming to understand Jesus as the messiah.  He simply could not be, because far from overthrowing the Romans, he was crushed by them!  (Gentiles did not hold this presupposition, so it was easier for a gentile to see Jesus as the messiah, than for a Jew to come to the same understanding.)

  • In the synoptic gospels ―Mark, Matthew, and Luke― we find Jesus hesitant to speak of himself as the messiah.  I think this is because Jesus did not embrace the popular understanding of what this meant to his fellow Jews:  one coming in power to overthrown the Romans.  This concern is not shared in the Gospel of John, however.  But we also cannot read the Gospel of John as remotely literal.  To do so, is to miss the point entirely!

What I think I may say about Jesus and the Christ, in just a few words, is that the way in which Jesus is interpreted in the Gospel of John, expressed as a work of Jewish-Christian mysticism, is that Jesus is the embodiment of the Life of God flowing into the world.  Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, does not mean we “believe Jesus is God.”  And it is certainly not saying that Jesus has to be killed to save us!

Instead, we are asked to believe that Jesus lived his life in such a way as to promote the in-flowing of the Divine Spirit of God in him, and through him, into the world.  But more than this ―and more importantly I believe― is the proposition that you and I may do the same thing!  (“Even greater things shall you do,” Jesus is made to say in the Gospel of John.)

This is the core meaning of Jesus as understood in the Gospel of John.  Jesus lived a life which brought the vitality of God’s Spirit into this world, and we may do the same thing.  God is not “out there” somewhere, but rather God is “in here” ― dwelling within us.

  • The way to get more God into the world, is to allow more God to flow within us, and through us, into the world:  exactly as it did in, and through, Jesus.

And that ―I believe― is what the mystical Gospel of John is trying to relate to us as the Second Coming.

So, may we think of the Holy Spirit as the Second Coming?

Yes, I think we may.  In the same way, the Kingdom (or Realm) of God is always at hand.  But we are required to participate in bringing it into existence.

God is not going to just drop the Kingdom of Heaven upon us, crushing the wicked and rewarding the good.  That was the thought behind apocalypticism, which was very popular in the time of Jesus (both roughly 100-years before and after his execution).  This was the idea that God would come in glory, displace the evil (Romans) and install the City of God in his Heavenly Realm on Earth.  And all would be ruled in peace for 1,000 years.

But that did not happen.  2,000-years have passed, and despite that some argue “soon” means aeons may pass, that is clearly not what the people of Jesus’ time meant.  They meant really soon, as in their own lifetimes soon.  If we choose to read “soon” to mean thousands and thousands of years later, we are not reading the books as they were written to be understood in their own day and age.

And the writers of the mystical Gospel of John were aware of this!  Nearly 70-years had already passed, and a lot of people had given up on the apocalyptic understanding of “soon.”  So they searched for a new interpretation, one they viewed as replacing what they now understood to have been a mistaken interpretation.

And this leads to the mystical understanding of Jesus’ life and the way God seemed to be expressed in the life of Jesus.  This is why we get the “I am” saying, which very clearly means Jesus is God the Father.  But so too, as Jesus is in God, we are in Jesus, and Jesus is in us.  We all are able to embody God the Father!  This is the very radical change that John is bringing to our understanding, not only of Jesus, but of God the Father;  meaning the Uncreated, which brought all that is, into being;  that same vital essence is available to us, and may flow within us, and through us, and through us into the world!

John is a wonderful gospel! Wonder-filled Good News!  From within the Christian New Testament, it offers the most transformative way of understanding Jesus and God.

  • Yes, we may think of the Holy Spirit as the in-dwelling transformative Breath of Life, which brings about the Second Coming, and creates the Realm of Heaven on earth.  But our participation in this transformative experience is required!

May the Lord bless and keep you!
Erik+

References:

“The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic” (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013) John Shelby Spong.

Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine  http://www.scribd.com/doc/2385278/The-Logic-of-Trinitarian-Doctrine-by-Phillip-Cary

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Belief & Faith

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

When speaking of belief and faith, I find our common understanding of these words has become impoverished, lacking vitality as compared to their older meanings found in the Christian New Testament. The words belief and faith carry an importance we ought to appreciate as Christians, if we are to come to a deeper understanding of our own sacred texts, so that we may taste the richness of scriptural language.

What do you imagine most people now mean when they speak of belief? Of faith?

In the vernacular of contemporary American English, belief and faith are closely related. Their primary difference is one of color, taste, or degree. In my experience belief holds wider use in secular (nonreligious) language and faith is more common to religious language. Also, so far as I am concerned, faith runs deeper than belief.

In its secular use, belief may identify a difference in degree of certainty: to say I believe the capital of Alaska is Juneau, means I am not 100% certain that is factual; if I tell someone I believe them, I am assuring them I assume they are telling me the truth (as they perceive it, of course). As Marcus Borg observes, “…knowing and believing are different. Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.” [1]

In the religious context, belief carries a different connotation: affirming as true, that which one would otherwise not hold to be true, e.g. virgin birth (based upon a mistranslation and misreading of Isaiah 7:14 [2]), or that the earth was literally created in six days.

The assertion of a literal six-day creation also demonstrates a logical fallacy, in that one must willfully ignore that within the cosmogany [3] of Genesis itself, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day [4], and our measure of a day is dependent upon the earth’s rotation relative to the sun; thus, even within it’s own logical construct, Genesis cannot be understood literally. As with all mythology, it’s meaning runs far deeper than assertions concerning empirically demonstrable facts. Failing to appreciate the vitality of mythology is another impoverishment many (most?) in the modern age suffer.

Saying, “I believe you” does not carry the same conviction as saying, “I have faith in you.” Belief is directed toward an estimate of accuracy in data ―the known vs. the unknown― whereas faith is an estimation of a person’s intrinsic character or qualities.

Faith may also be understood as choosing to believe something as being true, which cannot be demonstrated to be true; or even choosing to believe a thing as being true, despite empirical evidence it is not true. One may choose to believe life has meaning beyond the physical; one may choose to believe there is a God; one may choose to believe Jesus was the son of God; one may choose to believe one is saved or redeemed. But none of these assertions may be empirically proved or disproved. This is why believing them requires a demonstration of faith.

Significant error creeps into our thinking when one confuses empirically demonstrable facts with claims of truth and perceptions of what one deems to be true. Simply put, facts and truth are not always the same things; many truths are imbued with an ineffable quality, or display a quality richer than that which may be measured.

For those interested in the topic of the meaning of Christian words, and how they have changed over the centuries, I commend to you Marcus Borg’s book “Speaking Christian.” I find Borg to be both an intelligent and caring person, able to convey refined details of theology from a scholars perspective, without losing touch with the heart of Christianity, which is love.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using faith

Faith, carries several simultaneous connotations: assensus, fidelitas, fiducia (Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament). [5]

Assensus, we may translate as assent; however, until we appreciate the depth of meaning in the remaining terms, we miss the mark if assuming this simply means to believe things that a rational person cannot. But let us first visit fidelitas and fiducia, then return to assensus.

Fidelitas, means faith as faithfulness; fidelity. To help us better understand this kind of faith, Borg uses the example of fidelity in marriage, as one being faithful to the relationship with one’s spouse; not faithful to a set of logical statements concerning one’s spouse.

In the same way, fidelity to God is not about believing dogma or church traditions or even scripture; fidelity to God is being faithful to one’s relationship with God; intentionally and mindfully enriching our sense of relationship with that transcendent More, which Christians identify as God or Father.

One aspect of this, is deliberately, consciously living in the presence of the divine throughout our daily life, as best we are able. How do we do this? We start by being aware of each moment as it passes. We open ourselves to the possibility of feeling a Presence at any time. We look for opportunities to relate to others directly, with compassion, and to help them when we are able.

Why? Because “God” is not up in heaven somewhere, and “God” is not “out there” somewhere. Quite the opposite: it is we who are “in God” because we are immersed in the sacred More all the time, as is a fish in water. Sometimes we are aware of this; other times we forget or become distracted.

Fiducia, is faith as trust. Radical –as in fundamental, foundational– trust in one’s relationship with God; this is not trust in statements, or affirmations, or assertions about God. The root lies not in logical constructs, but in experiential relationship. Thus, the heart of faith as fiducia, is rooted in personal experience of the divine.

Sensing our personal experience of the divine, by the way, is one way to define mysticism. Fiducia is related to fidelitas (fidelity), because fidelity is expressed through our concern for others, daily moving through our life mindful of the possibility of encountering the divine, and specifically of encountering the divine in those we meet. Thus, faith as fidelity is rooted in experiencing life, as is fiducia, faith as trust in relationship.

And let us remember, our daily life is where we must “meet God” because that is where we find ourselves. It is like the old joke, everywhere you go, there you are. But so too, “God” the transcendent and immanent More in which we swim, and have our very be-ing-ness, is there with us.

Returning to assensus –“faith as believing something is true” [6]– I agree with Borg, that first and foremost, we are (as William James defined the Sacred) affirming there is a mysterious More which permeates the cosmos. And for me as a Christian, Jesus is the “decisive disclosure of the More,” [7] that in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thus, as Christians we seek theosis [8] of the Christ living in, and through, us.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using belief

Belief, one may best read as beloved [9]. As used in the New Testament, the heart of its meaning is love; not assertion, nor affirmation, and certainly not as acknowledging empirically derived facts. Once one shifts one’s understanding of the word belief, to beloved, many passages in the New Testament take on a new life and vitality.

This brings to mind what for me is the most central aspect of the teaching of Jesus ― the Greatest Commandment:

Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [Deut. 6:5] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev. 19:18] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Speaking practically, what might one do to help encourage some experience of the divine, of “God” in one’s life?

Mindful, intentional, loving, engagement is the path many mystics cite when asked how one might draw oneself nearer an experience of the divine in one’s life. There are a number of ways one might begin one’s journey along this path. Among them are regularly praying and/or meditating, studying and/or contemplating scripture, and participating in the Eucharist.

Why pray? Why study scripture? Why attend Mass?

Each of these embeds one in the Mind of Christ, to some degree; to what depth changes with each person. Some respond more to prayer, some by immersing themselves in scripture, and others by partaking of Holy Communion. But in each case, the objective is to find a means of immersing oneself in maturing spiritual thought and maturing spiritual emotion.

I would make the point that both thought and emotion play important roles in acquiring the skill leading to one’s spiritual maturity. Each provides a measure of balance to the other. Without emotion one may become dry, empty husks merely spouting facts and figures which have been memorized. Where is the Spirit in this? Without thought, one is lost, awash in emotional turmoil, seething and reacting, but without guidance, lacking long-term goals and unable to direct one’s spiritual development. Where is the Spirit in this?

One prays, studies scripture, and partakes of Holy Communion because the more one does so, the more one embeds oneself in the process of forming in oneself the Mind of Christ. As one dwells more frequently in this mode of thought and experience, one more frequently views one’s view daily interactions and internal dialogue through this spiritual lens. One becomes more mindful of one’s presence, that of others, and ultimately of the More, to which we all aspire.

All of these are means of transforming oneself into the type of person one wishes to become. As one increasingly finds one dwells in this state of mind, one increasingly has an effect upon others. Thus transformation of self, overflows into transformation of community, which over time creates a feedback, in which one is more spiritually nourished by one’s community; and as one better nourishes other members of one’s community, the cycle of spiritual generation continues. Where the Heart and Mind leads, the body will follow.

John 3:16, For God so loved the world…

With all the above in mind, I wish to offer two translations of John 3:16 for your consideration. The first is the King Jame’s Version, and the second a translation done by Marcus Borg. I invite you to compare these versions of John 3:16 and ask yourself which version better promotes the mature psychological and spiritual thinking of Unity Consciousness; that of putting on the Mind of Christ.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish
but have everlasting life.
[John 3:16 KJV]

For God so loved the world that God gave the only beloved Son of God
that whosoever beloves him shall not perish
but experience the life of the age to come in the here and now.
[John 3:16 translation by Marcus Borg][10]

As you come to the end of this essay, I encourage you to read Marcus Borg’s short sermon, “What is Faith?” upon which this essay is based. I find his thoughts on this topic insightful, and I believe you will as well:

Marcus Borg’s Lenten Homily http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

May the Lord bless and keep you,
Erik+

Footnotes:

[1] Marcus J. Borg, “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored” (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) 116.

[2] Isaiah 7:14 is typically taken out of context when quoted by Christians in the defense of Jesus’ virgin birth; few who read it are aware the Hebrew word used is Almah, which carries a range of meanings: girl; maid; maiden; young woman, and virgin. Almah is indeed translated as virgin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (from which the author of Matthew drew their reference). However, this is obviously a mistaken interpretation when read in context; read Isaiah 7:10-17 for yourself: “Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel”… 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman [Greek, the virgin] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [God is with us]. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (NRSV) Basically, this passage is a prophecy that the current siege shall be lifted after the young woman gives birth, and that king Ahaz will not be defeated by these two kings, as he fears. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ virgin birth (although in the ancient literature of many cultures, accounts of virgin births are mythic/legendary elements often employed to raise the status of those to whom they are directed: Krishna (India); Horus (Egypt); Lao-Tsze (China); even Plato (Athens); as well as, Dionysus, Buddha, Zoroaster, and of course Jesus). This is not to imply that virgin births are not important, but they are not to be understood literally either.

[3]Cosmogany: a theory or story of the origin and development of the universe, the solar system, or the earth-moon system (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Cosmogony).

[4] Genesis 1:14-19. The fourth day.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: Lenten Homily, 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

[6] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[7] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[8] “Theosis literally means to become gods by Grace. The Biblical words that are synonymous and descriptive of Theosis are: adoption, redemption, inheritance, glorification, holiness and perfection. Theosis is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, whereby through Grace one becomes a participant in the Kingdom of God. Theosis is an act of the uncreated and infinite love of God. It begins here in time and space, but it is not static or complete, and is an open-ended progression uninterrupted through all eternity.” Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) page 86.

[9] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[10] Borg, “What is Faith?”

Resources:

Books:

Borg, Marcus J.:

“The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

“Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored”

Ehrman, Bart D.: “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew”

James, William : “Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature”

Online:

Borg, Marcus J.: Lenten Homily, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis.aspx (http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis-english.pdf)

Palm Sunday & Non-violent Resistance

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti

Perhaps the most frequent gospel reading for Palm Sunday is Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-10).

This is the scene in which Jesus is riding into the city of Jerusalem upon the colt of a donkey, amid the excited shouting of a crowd,

     Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
     Hosanna in the highest heaven!
     (Mark 11:9-10)

What is going on here? What are we to read into this scene?

Jerusalem was located in Judea, which during the first century was occupied and ruled by Rome. This was a contentious rule, literally maintained through the strength of the sword. The ancient historian Josephus informs us of several major uprisings and a number of smaller revolts against Roman rule. Some of these were violent uprisings and others were peaceful forms of resistance.

An especially turbulent and potentially violent period reoccurred annually during the celebration of the Jewish festival Freedom and Redemption (Pesachof in Hebrew; Passover in English). This festival celebrates the Jewish exodus from Egypt. It requires only a small leap of imagination to see the parallels between liberation from slavery in Egypt and how suffering under the rule of Rome might renew a call for freedom.

Clearly, Roman rulers would take extraordinary precautions during the week of Passover, and any disturbances were crushed ruthlessly. This is why prior to the festival of Passover, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, marched from Caesarea Maritima into Jerusalem. This would have been an impressive display of imperial power, with Pontius Pilate mounted upon a war horse.

Jesus riding a colt into Jerusalem is the antithesis of Roman rule and domination by force. Jesus was signaling an alternative vision of rule, which those who were familiar with his teaching would have known to be the kingdom of the Holy Blessing One (God) on earth.

But Jesus was also signaling his was a peaceful, nonviolent form of resistance. Pilate rides a war horse. Jesus rides a colt. But make no mistake, it was a demonstration of resistance against Roman authority and power (which is why Jesus was executed by Rome).

“What we call Palm Sunday featured a choice of two kingdoms, two visions of life on earth” (Borg, “Jesus” pg. 232).

To Which Kingdom Do You Pledge Allegiance?

The subtext would have been obvious to those gathering in Jerusalem. The choice is between the kingdom of Mammon (wealth, riches, Caesar) and the kingdom of the Holy Blessing One (God).

Both refer to an earthly kingdom, which is a point often lost. Jesus was a strong proponent of reforming this world, by transforming our own consciousness, and by transforming the community in which we live. And we transform our community by transforming the lives of persons living in our community.

It all begins with a choice. Do we pledge allegiance to the kingdom of Mammon, or to the kingdom of God? Do we choose to live in Darkness, or to live in Light? This is the choice Jesus acted out as he rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey.

May the Lord bless you and keep you,
Erik+

Resources:

Borg, Marcus “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary” (pgs. 229-232).

Ehrman, Bart “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings” (3rd Ed., Ch. 15, pgs. 231-249).

Josephus (Titus Flavius Josephus (37 – c. 100), born Joseph ben Matityahu)
Antiquities 14.2.1. 21-28; Ant. 17.9.3 213; Ant. 18.2.2 29; Wars of the Jews 2.1.3 10;
http://www.josephus.org/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus
http://www.josephus.org/Passover.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Sunday

Image: Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti (Wikicommons).

Mammon: a Chaldee or Syriac word meaning “wealth” or “riches” (Luke 16:9-11); also, by personification, the god of riches (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:9-11). Online reference: http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/mammon/

Mark 11:1-10 (NRSV)

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Radical Theology ― Is There More?

William Blake, sconfitta, 1795

William Blake, sconfitta, 1795

The question, “Is there More?” is deceptively simple.  Yet to my mind this may very well be the single most radical ―in the sense of most fundamental, most primary― interrogation one might make of their personal theology.  From this headwater, a vast ocean of religious and spiritual reflection flows.

We are of course, asking ourselves if there is something more to existence than the physical universe/cosmos.  Is there an aspect of reality that is spiritual in nature, rather than physical?  Another way of phrasing this question is to ask, do all dimensions of reality comprise only that which we may experience (or may observe/measure with scientific instruments)?

“Is there More?” may be answered in one of three ways:

 
1) Yes, there are aspects or dimensions of reality that are *not* limited by our physical universe/cosmos.

2) No, the physical universe/cosmos fully encompasses all that exists.

3) Unknowable;  we cannot answer this question.

 
1) Yes, there are aspects or dimensions of reality that are *not* limited by our physical universe/cosmos.

Do note that this is not the same thing as saying one understands all there is to be known about that which comprises More.  In fact, one need not know anything about It at all.  One is simply affirming there is “More.”

Some people hold this belief simply as a proposition, while others have had experiences which compel them to posit there is more to reality than is revealed by scientific, empirical method.  This response proposes there is a dimension of reality from which we are occluded, and which to some degree remains a mystery to us.

This position neither assumes or denies deism or theism;  nor does it assume or deny alternative propositions such as a more abstract “transcendental signifier” such as the “Ground of Being” in the language of Paul Tillich, or the Tao as expressed in Taoism.

2) No, the physical universe/cosmos fully encompasses all that which exists.   

This is a “hard” negation of the proposition of “More” which declares there is nothing more to life than we may observe.  One does remain open to what may be discovered through the application of the scientific method, but nothing more.

We are meat, consciousness is merely an electrochemical accident occurring in the physical brain, and upon death there is only annihilation.  Physics, once fully understood, will explain everything which may be known about the universe.

3) Unknowable;  we cannot answer this question.  

This position we might think of as a form of agnosticism.  The root meaning of gnostic is knowledge, and the root meaning of agnostic ―prefixing gnostic with an a― means ignorance, or lack of knowledge.

In other words, “I don’t know.”  In many ways this strikes me as a very honest, and even healthy position.  Ideally, one knows one is ignorant of a great many things, yet remains open to new information and new experiences.

How do we benefit by orientating ourselves to these three positions?

Religious apologetics is replete with debate between these propositions, as well as the subtle differences of their subcategories (pandeism, panendeism; Confucianism, Zen Buddhism; atheism, pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, agnosticism; etc).  But the point I wish to make is much more basic, and I believe radical (fundamental).

If we identify with the Unknowable view, we give ourselves permission to remain open to many wisdom traditions.  And all enduring religions have wisdom they have imparted for many generations, in many cases over thousands of years.  If one has the opportunity, it is my belief it behoves one to reflect upon the spiritual insights imparted by other spiritual traditions.

I do not mean to imply all religions are the same.  They are not.  But there are a number of tenets most share ―such as some version of the Golden Rule (do to others, as you would have them do to you)― and each enduring religion of which I am aware does offer some value to any sincere seeker.

If we believe there is only the physical universe ―nothing More― we must remain open to new discoveries.  Modern science is replete with discoveries which have completely reversed earlier models of the universe, or have completely upset previous paradigms.

One of the “hard” views of this position holds that all religions are illusionary ―if not delusionary― in nature, and as such are products of a weak, gullible mind.  There is nothing such as spirit-based beings, and those who claim to have encountered such beings are either lying or suffering from a hallucination or a malfunctioning brain.

While I cannot demonstrate this is untrue, I do observe that as the frontiers of science advances, sometimes that which was thought to be foolish is later found to be quite sound in principal, once properly understood.  This suggests to me a higher standard of humility than to denigrate all religious and spiritual teaching and practice as imaginary or magical thinking, or as simply as Iron Age superstition.

To those of us who hold there is More to the cosmos, I would appeal to one’s sense of the transcendent, and suggest that most of us should take this far more seriously than most do.  If this is a true proposition, then the “truth” will be far, far stranger than we can even imagine.

If there is a reality which transcends our own, by definition we are unable to apprehend It.  Therefore, we should be extremely humble in our declarations of Truth, and express a great deal of compassion when dealing with others, and their apprehension of the transcendent.

Is there More?

If we believe there is, or have had one or more experiences suggesting there is something More, then we may wish to embark upon our spiritual quest.

But even if we believe there is nothing More, we may still wish to improve our life and the lives of those we love through the expression of love and compassion.

So for me, while how one answers this question has a great impact upon one’s personal theology (or denial thereof) I still arrive at the same answer as how one might best live their life:  in the words of Bishop Spong…

Love wastefully.

May you be blessed,
Erik+

Seeking the Face of Christ

Christ And The Two Marys by William Holman Hunt

Christ And The Two Marys by William Holman Hunt

 

Seeking the Face of Christ

 
While reading Celia Hales’ blog, “Miracles Each Day” (https://celiaelaine.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/seek-to-find-christs-face-and-look-on-nothing-else/) the following observation struck me as worthy of reflection:

“Until we see the face of Christ in all others, we are still in the learning stages. And often, even when we succeed briefly, we do not sustain this manner of looking. When we see Christ, we are being loving and forgiving.”

This strikes me as one example of what I imagine Paul may have been suggesting when advising us of the importance of putting on the mind of Christ.  In so doing, we are seeking to emulate the behaviors that Jesus modeled for us, and to live in such a manner as to encourage the Christ to flow into us, and through our thoughts, words, and deeds, into the world; thereby affecting others positively through the example of our lives.

Understood in this way, I believe putting on the mind of Christ is one aspect of the process of theosis.

  •      Theosis  ―  Deification;  divinization;  in Eastern Orthodox theology it is the process of coming into union (or oneness) with God;  “The Son of God became man, that we might become god”  (St. Athanasius of Alexandria).

I believe we Westerners often have great difficulty seeing through the lens of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  In the above quote of St. Athanasius it is important to understand there is a difference in becoming God, and in becoming god:  the capital G God points to one meaning, and the lower case g god points to another.

The upper case God is the Uncreated;  that from which all that is created flows.  In the Christian tradition -both Eastern and Western- we perceive a line which cannot be crossed, between that which is Uncreated, and that which is created.

Henosis, in contrast, is the ancient Greek belief that one may literally be fully absorbed into God.  Therefore, using Christian terminology, henosis fails to make a distinction between the Uncreated and the created.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity appreciates there is a power or energy of God flowing from the Divine, into and through, all that is;  everything which exists, is caught up in the process of becoming or being, and does so as a result of being bathed-born of this energy flowing forth from the Divine/God.

There is a further subtly, in that there is both the potentiality to exist, and the actuality of existing.  Many things are possible;  some of these come into being.  This becoming is the the actuality of God ― the point at which a creature attains real-ness, as opposed to merely having a potential to become real.  The same may be said of atoms and rocks and suns.

This is how we see the cosmos itself as comprised of the Immanence of God.  The energy (Energeia) of God is sustaining the cosmos coming into existence as the actuality of God.  Were God *not* flowing into Time and Space, the cosmos would cease to exist.  Thus, the Immanence of God is the very fabric from which Time and Space is constructed.

Our solar system and planet may offer a useful analogy.  Energy flows from the sun, and this energy has the potential to sustain all manner of life on earth.  If the energy radiates out of the solar system, missing our planet, it’s life-giving sustenance may be said to have remained only in potential.  However, if the energy from the sun strikes earth, this potential blooms into life, and becomes the actuality of the sun on earth.

The energy of the sun (God) flows everywhere;  in some cases it also transforms into life, and becomes the actuality of the sun (God).

So, while we as creatures can never share the ontology (being-ness) of the Uncreated (we can never become the sun), we are living in the field of energy (sunlight) flowing forth from the Uncreated.

Perhaps this is what Paul Tillich had in mind when he spoke of God as the Ground of Being?  

The concept of God as the Ground of Being, I continue to find an awkward idea to wrap my mind around, but I suspect there is something to it.  It certainly better lends itself to the understanding of “God” as Transcendent, as well as panentheistic.

The pay-off is that a Transcendent, panentheistic God is the Immanence which sustains all of the cosmos, and without which/whom the cosmos would cease to exist (Hinduism and Buddhism have long held this view).  This is the aforementioned effect or “energy” of God within Time and Space.

But if we are to take panentheism seriously, there must be another aspect of the Divine which is outside of both Time and Space, which is totally alien to us.  We are creatures of Time and Space, so we cannot intellectually grasp what it means *not* to be of Time and Space.  Time and Space define everything we know and have the capacity to know.

However, I believe this is largely a mental-intellectual limitation.  If we reside only in our head, we cannot grasp God.  God must remain forever abstract, alien, and ultimately unknowable to us in any literal, logical sense.

In fact, every time we intellectually define God, we limit and diminish God.  We must do so, because we are taking what is Transcendent, and forcing it out of the Infinite, into a concept tiny enough for us to wrap our minds around.  This is seeing with our head.

But the mystics tell us we can learn to see with our heart.  They indicate we each possess some facility to sense there is something More beyond the confines of Time and Space.  This seems to be based in experience, is intuitive, and suggestive, and cannot be adequately described with words.  (Words are tools of symbolic logic, and therefore within the intellectual domain, not the domain of the heart experience.)

Becoming a lower case g, god

It is because we are living within the “energy” of God that we may aspire to become a lower-g god.  God is always everywhere, and God is always the center of the cosmos.  As the late Joseph Campbell observes:

God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.

Thus, God is anywhere we happen to be.  God’s Light, God’s Radiance, God’s Immanence, *is* the cosmos in which all the galaxies of the universe spin.  Thus, in a certain sense, we cannot help but be in the presence of God;  God is everywhere, always.

  •       God is always open to us.

The critical point is that we must open ourselves to God, so as to be able to perceive the Immanence of God.  But this does not normally happen spontaneously (although some report that it has);  typically, it requires that we change our perception through mindful attention and intention.

When religion is operating at its greatest spiritual potential, it helps open us to the Transcendent;  but when religion is made concrete and literal, it has the opposite effect, closing us to the Transcendent.

Living into the actuality of the Divine

Given that we are alive, we are already caught up in the actuality of God;  as with a fish living in the ocean, we cannot do otherwise.  But unlike the fish, we have the choice of living mindfully within this actuality, or of living our life in metaphoric darkness, unaware of, or denying, any connection to the Ground of Being.

With all of the above informing our thoughts, let us return to the observation made by Celia Hales:

“Until we see the face of Christ in all others, we are still in the learning stages. And often, even when we succeed briefly, we do not sustain this manner of looking. When we see Christ, we are being loving and forgiving.”

 

All of us are living within the actuality of God;  whether we know it or not.  Not only is the fish in the water, but the water is in the fish.  So when we look at another person, we should look for the Divine in them.  If we do not recognize the Divinity present in all persons ―and other creatures, for that matter― we are operating from a very young, early stage of faith, and we have a great deal more to learn about our spirituality.

As our spirit matures, and we become increasingly aware of the Divinity in others, at first we tend to do so only for short periods of time.  Life gets in the way, and we forget that we are all moving and living in the same God, sharing in the same Ground of Being.  Such is human nature.  Strive to do better, but do not beat yourself up unduly for simply being human.

With sustained observation, mindfulness, and practice, over time we will do better.  We do not physically or psychologically or emotionally mature over night.  So too with attaining greater spiritual maturity.  We are all works in progress.  But the work begins with mindfulness;  being present in each moment, and throughout our interactions with others.

Seeking the face of Christ

Where do we seek the face of Christ?  We seek the face of Christ in others!

When we are able to look into another person’s face, and see in them the Christ, we are able to recognize the Divinity living in each of us.  And seeing this, how can we fail to rise ourselves to a higher standard of living ―even if only briefly― and how can we fail to treat others with greater compassion and love (agápe)?

The more often we practice holding this vision of the Christ, the longer we will be able to retain it, the more easily it will return when disrupted, and the more deeply, and naturally it will become part of us.  All of this is related to the psychological and behavioral transformation of self.

Where do we seek the face of Christ?  We seek the face of Christ in ourselves!

This is why we strive for theosis, so that we may open ourselves to the in-flowing energy of the Christ, to first fill us, and then flow through us, into the world.  This is the process of conditioning ourselves to become beacons through which the Divine Light may illuminate the world.

Water, Light, Energy, the Christ, these are all metaphors which are designed to open us to some experience of the Transcendent in our lives;  hopefully, guiding us to engage in more compassionate dealings with ourselves and others.

And this is what takes place during the Eucharist.  We seek to open ourselves to the Divine, so that we may become entry points for the Divine into this world.  Ideally the in-flow of the  Christ energy takes place not only during the Eucharist, but continues to take place as we move through the world, revealing itself in our compassionate interactions with others.

This is why we seek the face of Christ in others.

This is why we seek the face of Christ in ourselves.

And Jesus said:

 
…Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?  (John 10:34, quoting Ps. 82:6, “I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you”)

…Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above [or born anew].  (John 3:3)

…the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.  (Gospel of Thomas, 113)

…the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.  (Gospel of Thomas, 3)

…the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21)

May the Lord Bless and Keep You,
Erik+

Resources:

http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theosis_%28Eastern_Orthodox_theology%29
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potentiality_and_actuality

https://celiaelaine.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/seek-to-find-christs-face-and-look-on-nothing-else/

Joseph Campbell, “Mythos” (Vol. I, II, and III)

Gospel of Thomas:
http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/thomas/
http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html

Hearing the Voice of Jesus

Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ

Why is Hearing the Voice of Jesus a Problem in the First Place?

The most obvious reason we find hearing the voice of Jesus so challenging, is that in so far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything.

At the best of times, literacy rates in the ancient world were very low.  Literacy rates of peasants living in the backwoods of Galilee would have been vanishingly low.  It took a great deal of time and money to learn to read and write.  Dirt poor farmers, fishermen, and other peasants simply did not have the luxury of the time or money required to acquire this set of skills.

So speaking from a strictly historical perspective, it is very unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.  Some biblical scholars argue that Jesus was an exception to this rule, however, while one cannot categorically state Jesus was illiterate, we have no objective reason to think otherwise.

And we ought not cite the story of the woman accused of adultery as evidence to the contrary.  This story, which includes the observation that Jesus wrote something in the dirt, does not appear in any manuscripts until the late 4th century, well over 300-years after Jesus’ death.  This story now appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, but over the centuries is has appeared elsewhere, including in an entirely different gospel.  It is a lovely, instructive story, but it cannot be properly attributed to the historical Jesus.

In any event, no writings of Jesus survive.  So to discover the voice of Jesus we are unable to appeal to Jesus directly, as we may with Paul, for example.

20-Year Silence

If anything was written about Jesus during his lifetime, it no longer survives.  In fact, we know of no Christian writings during the 20-years following Jesus’ crucifixion.  There are indications of an oral tradition during this period, but it remained an oral tradition for two decades.

The earliest Jewish-Christian writings we have about Jesus come from the pen of Paul, who began writing in the early 50s.  And as surprising as it may seem to us today, Paul wrote very little about Jesus.  This is because Paul wrote what are called occasional letters, meaning he wrote in response to specific occasions, or problems.

Why is it Important that we Hear the Words of Jesus?

To many ears this may sound like a crazy question.  Some answer, who would *not* wish to hear the very words of God!  Others answer that the original words of Jesus are long lost to history, and can never be recovered, so only a fool would propose the question in the first place.

My answer is to be found somewhere between these stark responses.

I start with the recognition that recovering the original words of Jesus is challenging.  We certainly cannot simply read the Red Letter Edition of the Holy Bible and assume that Jesus really spoke all these words.

The evolution of the Christian New Testament ―which is an anthology of 27 books and letters, written in Greek― grew organically, over a period of decades.  These writings were then transmitted to us over the course of several centuries.  And it took nearly 300-years for these books and letters to coalesce into an agreed upon canon of scripture.

Scholarly historical and textual criticism is able to inform our understanding of this organic process.  Through this scholarship we are able to discern layers of redaction (editing) and interpretation laid over one another throughout the New Testament.  And this is equally true for the words put upon the lips of Jesus by the gospel authors.

But those who already “know” Jesus’ voice is forever lost to us, will never hear it;  just as those who already know every word attributed to Jesus “must be” authentic, will be unable to hear the other voices laid over his.  Both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses.  And one must carefully weigh their merits, one saying at a time, teasing apart the accrued layers, when present.

Yet, provided we listen carefully, I do believe we may hear the voice of Jesus through these accrued layers.  But I also acknowledge it takes most of us some time to acquire that ear.
So how might we begin to train our ear to hear Jesus’ voice?  

One approach is to contemplate the various characterizations of Jesus, as represented in the gospels.  If we read these accounts carefully, what might we discern of Jesus?  What might we discern of the author who wrote the text?  Or of the audience to whom it was directed?  What were the completing religious-political concerns of ancient Palestine?

Each of these are useful interrogations of the text.  But in this essay I wish to discuss Jesus.  Some observations about Jesus are almost obvious, while others are quite complex and variously debated even among professionals in the field of biblical and New Testament studies.  So if we become confused at times, at least we are in good company!

Jesus the Jewish Mystic

Jesus was clearly a Jewish mystic.  “Mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God. … As a Jewish mystic, Jesus lived a life radically centered in God; that was its foundation”  (Marcus Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pgs. 89-90).

Jesus spent long hours in private prayer, which I suspect we would today understand as periods of deep contemplation and meditation.  We might even think of his 40-days in the wilderness as a kind of “vision quest.”  God was an experiential presence in Jesus’ life.  He spoke of God as his father, and even more affectionately as his Abba, which we may translate as Daddy or Poppa.

This speaks to a profound closeness Jesus felt with God.  For Jesus, God was not some distant sky god like Zeus or Jupiter, nor even a remote, abstract version of the Jewish God.  For Jesus, God was present in a deeply meaningful way;  God was experienced as present to Jesus, both in time and proximity.

Jesus the Jewish Prophet

Jesus was clearly a Jewish prophet.  Like other Jewish prophets before him, Jesus spoke of the God of Israel, the importance of centering one’s life in God, and specifically that a deep change was required of the people of Israel, because they and their nation had lost their way.

Prophets tell us we each face two paths:  we may estrange ourselves from God, and suffer as a result;  or we may return to the proper observance of what is important to God, and live with God’s blessing.

And as Marcus Borg observes, Jesus was specifically a social prophet, in the likeness of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, and “as such he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 91).

Jesus the Teacher of Wisdom

Jesus was clearly a profound teacher.  He was a master of the aphorism (a short, memorable, insightful saying) and metaphor, often teaching in parables.  Jesus was a travelling teacher, so most likely he used his most memorable phrases and stories frequently, although finessing them to fit specific occasions, which is typical of oral traditions.

“At the heart of the alternative wisdom of Jesus was the path of death and resurrection understood as metaphor for an internal psychological-spiritual process.  It involved dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus Taught “The Way”

In the book of Acts we are told the earliest name for what evolved into Christianity was simply, the Way (Acts 9:2).  And choosing to participate in the Way does seem to me an accurate characterization of many of Jesus’ sayings.

We may further observe that many of Jesus’ stories and parables fit quite well into a well-established mode of teaching, common to many world religions, frequently called “Two Way” teachings.  As Marcus Borg states in “The Lost Gospel Q” (page 18):  “There is the wise way and the foolish way, the narrow way and the broad way.  One way leads to life, the other to death.”

Jesus the Healer

Jesus was clearly a extraordinary healer and exorcist.  We know of other noted healers and exorcists in the New Testament period, but “more healing stories are told about Jesus that about any other figure in the Jewish tradition” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

I believe this is one of the hardest choices one must ultimately make about Jesus.  Was he an apocalyptic prophet or not?  It seems pretty clear that John the Baptist was, and many scholars believe Jesus must have been a follower of John.  And the canonical gospels do present Jesus as speaking with an apocalyptic voice (as does Q);  Matthew chapter 24 is a good example;  verse 34 is of particular interest to me:

>  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”  (NRSV).

Which leads me to ask the obvious question of how long does a generation last?  2,000 years or longer?  The old work-around to this troubling question is that it is merely metaphoric language, and generation means humankind.  While I do consider the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament to be highly metaphorical ―in the richest meaning of that term― in this case I’ve never found that argument convincing.

A far better explanation to my mind, is this language is reflective of the apocalyptic voice in the 1st century, which was common roughly 100-years before and after the life of Jesus.  In the Jewish apocalyptic movement, there was widespread belief that God was going to overthrow Rome and put in its place a kingdom ruled by God, through his emissary, the Messiah (the Christ, as it comes to us from the Greek, Χριστός).

So the question we have to answer to our individual satisfaction, is to whom shall we attribute these sayings of Jesus?  Did the historical Jesus really make apocalyptic prophecy?  Or did a later author put these words upon the lips of Jesus when writing his gospel?

I will not presume to answer for you, but I will state that I do not believe one may simultaneously hold Jesus to be an apocalyptic prophet and a divine incarnation of God.  Incarnation, means in the flesh, so if one posits that Jesus became divine after his death, this dilemma may resolve itself.

The Kingdom of God

This is a phrase we hear throughout the canonical gospels with some frequency.  Do these words reach back to Jesus?  If so, what might Jesus have meant?

To my experience, main stream Christianity predominately teaches the kingdom of God is referring to a heavenly existence to be experienced after our physical death, or a future second coming of Jesus on earth.  I however, disagree with these views.

The kingdom to which the authentic Jesus spoke, I firmly believe is to be found right here on earth, within each of us, and is found in our loving interactions with others, expressed through such actions as shoeing children, helping to feed the hungry, and providing winter clothing to homeless persons.

This is what Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg sometimes call the participatory model of Christianity.  They use this phrase to mean that the kingdom of God is only going to come about through our personal investment and actions to bring it about, directly into the communities in which we live.

I find this to be both an interesting and practical perspective which holds a lot of merit.  It may be that God could “invade” earth and establish his kingdom forcefully;  but I also think that would defeat the entire point of doing so.  What good would it be to artificially force such a kingdom upon persons who were not sufficiently evolved spiritually to sustain it?

The point is this:  our very natures are changed if we invest ourselves in the process of bringing the kingdom of God upon earth during our lifetimes.  And it is that very process of spiritual transformation that I believe may very well be the critical point.

Which is to say, it really does not do us any good to be “given” the kingdom;  we really only undergo personal, internal spiritual transformation if we mature ―evolve― to the point that we *desire* to help bring that kingdom into existence.  And I believe *that* is the point to which Jesus was trying to open our hearts.

Luke 17:20-21  Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among-within you” (NRSV).

The Jesus Movement

Jesus was a Jew from rural Galilee.  Jesus’ followers were primarily Jews, and Jesus primarily ministered to his fellow Jews.  This is the Jewish Jesus Movement which predates Christianity.  A few years after Jesus was crucified, Paul began to teach his understanding of Jesus’ ministry to the Greeks.  Used in this way, to be a “Greek” simply means one is a gentile ― a person who is not Jewish.

Thus, we may also speak of a Greek (or Gentile) Jesus Movement.  As greater numbers of gentiles entered the Jesus Movement, it evolved from a Jewish Jesus Movement, into a predominately Gentile Jesus Movement, and later into various forms of early Christianity.

Identifying the Authentic Voice of Jesus is Far from Obvious

I hope the above discussion allows you to see we may find a number of ways of understanding and characterizing Jesus.  And we may do so while remaining rooted within the canonical texts.  This is an important point.  One may arrive at a number of ways of seeing Jesus, while supporting one’s view entirely from a biblical point of view.  One need not introduce non-canonical texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Now, I happen to like the Gospel of Thomas, and take the late Prof. Ron Miller’s lead, and that of The Jesus Seminar, and suspect that perhaps a third of it may reach back to the authentic voice of Jesus.  And for this reason, I do make use of the Gospel of Thomas;  but thoughtfully, and with deliberation.  After all, if we hold the position that about 1/3 of the Gospel of Thomas may be the echo of Jesus’ voice, we are also observing some 2/3 of it fails to capture the voice of Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a fellowship of a biblical scholars who have spent decades attempting to identify the authentic voice of Jesus in the ancient texts available to us.  They do include the Gospel of Thomas as viable source material.  Their work has determined that approximately 20% of the “red letter” words of Jesus may be properly attributed to Jesus.

Q Hypothesis

Q is a hypothetical early text of the sayings of Jesus.  No surviving Q manuscript is known to exist.  This is the weakest link in the Q Hypothesis argument.  Supporters will however, point to the recent (mid-1900’s) discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which is an authentic sayings gospel.  Where one such gospel was written, so too a second may have been written.

But what is Q?

Q is short for Quelle, from the German, meaning “source.”  It is alternately known as the Q source, the Q document, the Q Gospel, and the Q Sayings Gospel.  But most frequently it is simply called Q.  It is primarily composed of the sayings attributed to Jesus which are found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

Scholars who find this hypothesis of value believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote without knowledge of one another, so there must have been a source for the sayings which they share, which are not taken from Mark.  Since both are known to have drawn extensively from the earliest gospel, Mark, it is a natural deduction they may have similarly drawn from another, as yet undiscovered, source document (Q).

Incidentally, the Gospel of John does not enter into such debates because it is clearly, dramatically different than the other canonical gospels.  John was written in the 90’s, after the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and is often referred to as the Fourth Gospel.  (And the Gospel of Thomas is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel, even though it is non-canonical.)

Detractors of the Q Hypothesis often have great difficulty with the invention of an undiscovered document.  Supporters of Q point out there may have already been such discoveries, but we cannot identify them.  Does this sound like a strange claim?  Their point is that if we discover a small scrap of ancient manuscript that only contains a portion of a saying which is shared between Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (a partial definition of a Q-saying) we cannot determine whether that scrap originated from Matthew, Luke, or the proposed Q.

Thus, the only way to provide evidence of Q is to find a much larger, much more rare, document fragment which contains at least large portions of two proposed Q-sayings.  Anything less, and detractors simply assume the small fragment originates in either Matthew or Luke.  This logic cannot prove Q ever existed, but it does demonstrate that proving Q will be very difficult.

How Might One Begin to Hear the Voice of Jesus?  

First and foremost, recognize that it is up to each of us to discern our own interpretation.  We may avail ourselves of a great deal of critical scholarship over the last 150-years which may greatly inform our investigation, but ultimately, we each have to come to terms with difficult and sometimes contradictory information.

>  Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?

>  Was the historical Jesus divine?  If so, when, and to what extent?

It is up to *us* to answers these and other difficult questions to our own satisfaction.  Through the process of resolving such questions, our apprehension of Jesus, and his role as the Christ, will progressively be revealed to us.

With the goal of informing our search for the voice of Jesus, I highly recommend studying each of the following books, which discuss Q, Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas.  “The Lost Gospel Q” and “The Gospel of Jesus” may be read quite quickly ―over the course of a quiet afternoon or evening― because the actual text of the ancient documents in each case is quite short;  but do spend time reading their introductions and appendixes.  Ron Miller’s book on the Gospel of Thomas is somewhat longer, but I find it to be superlative (as are all his books and lectures).

>  “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus” (Marcus Borg)

>  “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar” (Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar)

>  “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice” (Ron Miller)

I always welcome opportunities to mention the talks the late Ron Miller gave to the Theosophical Society.  And since I suspect many readers will not have these three books immediately at hand, I would like to recommend Ron Miller’s talks, which you may immediately access on-line:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

In reference to this essay, I would begin with his discussion of the Gospel of Thomas:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

For those who enjoy trying to discern the voice of Jesus, I would recommend another book published by The Jesus Seminar:

>  “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Guided by these books, authors such as bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, Ron Miller’s wise counsel, and time spent in quiet contemplation, I believe I have heard an echo of Jesus’ voice, reaching to me across 2,000 years.  My hope is that you too encounter the voice of Jesus.  And that through hearing, you are able to discern a variety of layers which have accrued upon Jesus’ words, as they have come to us in the Christian New Testament.

Upon attuning your hearing to Jesus’ voice, I suspect you may very well apprehend the Way of which Jesus spoke.  Once you do, you cannot help but to begin reading the New Testament with a heart born from above.

Erik+

Resources:

Marcus Borg

Book: “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

Book: “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus”

The Jesus Seminar

Book: “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar”

Book: “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Ron Miller

Book: “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice”

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

Transformational Christianity & Liturgical Address of Sept. 2014

Expansion by Paige Bradley (New York)

Expansion by Paige Bradley (New York)

What do I mean by Transformational Christianity?

I view Transformational Christianity as a deliberate, mindful, and active process of spiritual formation.  Spiritual formation itself presents a large stage, upon which there are many players, not all of whom are Christian.  All enduring religions speak to matters of spiritual formation, and in each case there are usually at least two key areas of work in which this formation takes place:

  1. Spiritual changes internal to oneself.
  2. Changes which take place within the community one lives.

One might note there are examples of persons retreating from society, seeking isolation, when undertaking deep spiritual formation.  In many cases, such individuals do later provide feedback to their society, or form communities in general isolation from the larger population.  The Desert Fathers and the formation of monasteries serve as Christian examples (there are parallels to be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, among others).

In some cases, we might observe a third key designation, which applies to those living outside of one’s community.  When seen from within young spiritual paradigms those who live outside one’s own community are seen as “Other” and in cases of extreme spiritual immaturity, even as sub-human.  (The late Ron Miller identifies this as living in the basement of consciousness.)

In contrast, when seen from within spiritually mature paradigms, the category of *Other* dissolves, and all persons are understood to share their humanity with one another.  The most highly refined spiritual paradigms see that all life is an expression of the One ―however that may be understood― in which, and from which, we are all rooted.  (The late Ron Miller identifies this as living in the rooftop garden of consciousness;  same talk as linked to in the previous paragraph.)

Thus, Transformational Christianity is a subset of the larger category of spiritual formation.

Proponents of Transformational Christianity employ the lens of Christianity to inform their spiritual formation.  And Jesus is the primary example of how we may best live our lives, serving as guide to both our interactions with others, and as the model for how we are to conduct our internal spiritual life.

By using the word “transformation” we are identifying our spiritual formation as an active process through which we seek to transform, or change, from one state to another.  This implies the transformation (changing) of oneself from one state, to another state, which we identify as being more spiritually refined.

Proponents of Transformational Christianity also recognise the need to sponsor transformation within our community.  This process simultaneously takes place within oneself and within the community in which one lives.  To a degree this happens automatically, because we each produce an effect upon the environment and community in which we live.  As we change, we also affect others.

There is also a degree of positive feedback, through which we are affected by the environment and community in which we live.  By means of this mutual feedback, both the individual and the community are influenced, and influence one another.  Thus, Transformational Christianity forms a symbiotic relationship between the individual and the community in which they live.  To the degree we are mindful of this dual process, we may better direct these influences favourably.

Several key points follow from these observations:

  •      Transformational Christianity is a process-driven model of spirituality.  This means there is more to it than simply affirming one’s belief.  It requires action.  Some may read this as the dirty word “works” which they read in stark contrast to “believing” in Jesus.  In my view this stems from a mis-reading of what constitutes “faith.”  In its older meanings, faith is active, and it was assumed to convey action within its very nature.  This is why faith without works is dead (James 2:14ff).  I would suggest one consider “belief” and “faith” from this perspective.  One is what one does, not what one only believes.  (One may also wish to watch Ron Miller’s presentation on James, “A Very Different Christian Story.”)
  •      Transformational Christianity is a “team sport.”  It does require community.  In its ultimate expression, in fact, it requires that the entire world become one’s community.  This however, is overwhelming, so it is important to focus one’s attention and energies upon a community with which one can directly interact.  In my opinion, this transformational understanding of community is best affected in those persons in whose eyes you can look.
  •      Think Globally, Act Locally is how the once-popular bumper sticker phrased this concept.  It is important to guide our choices with a mind toward our global impact.  We are all one.  We certainly all live on a single planet, and it is about time we lived our lives with this in mind.  At the same time, our actions are similar to other forms of energy.  Like heat, light, or radio waves, our action’s energy dissipates with distance.  This is why our ability to affect those persons in whose eyes we can look is greater than those persons living on the other side of the planet.
  •      When feeling stymied, just do something!  By yourself you are not going to change the world overnight.  But you can immediately begin your own internal transformation of thought.  Changing one’s thoughts promotes changes in behaviour.  And once you start looking for the opportunity, you can very quickly find some meaningful way to help another person.  When we all pull together, helping others in our individually small ways, the overall results are quite large.  And perhaps more importantly, the individual you help will be positively affected.

 

Liturgical Addresses

In September 2014, I offered several short liturgical addresses.  I intended some of these remarks to direct one’s thoughts toward what I think of as Transformational Christianity, because I believe the process of spiritual formation is one of the practical goals of Christianity.  I also appreciate that Transformational Christianity plainly acknowledges the importance of personal spiritual transformation, in parallel with transformation of community.

The service took place at the Community Christian Church, which is a progressive non-denominational Protestant church located in Springfield, Missouri (http://www.spfccc.org/).  I have retained the original section titles used during the worship service.  I have however, expanded upon the liturgical addresses.  If all goes well, those remarks actually delivered during the service should display in bold letters.

 

Wisdom Reading

(The purpose of the Wisdom Reading is to introduce the subject of the main sermon.  Thus, if commentary is offered, it should foreshadow the subject matter of the sermon to follow.)  

Romans is a letter Paul wrote to the Christians living in Rome.  A few of the more salient points to keep in the back of one’s mind when reading Paul’s letter to the Romans are:

Paul did not establish this church.  In fact, Paul had never even been to Rome.
Therefore, Paul is writing his own letter of introduction.
Paul is attempting to defuse negative impressions of his ministry in the East.
Paul wishes to secure funds for future ministry missions as far West as Gaul (Spain).
While Paul can display a very sharp tongue, in this letter he intends his best behaviour.

An additional point that should be remarked upon is the claim that Paul’s letter to the Romans is his attempt to fully lay out his thoughts on God, Jesus, his understanding of Christ, and how these relate to the church (which is often an anachronistic reading).  Attempting to do this is called systematic theology.  But this is not what Paul attempts to do in his letter to Rome.  If Paul ever wrote such a document, it has not survived.

I personally consider Romans to be another “letter of occasion.”  This simply means Paul wrote all his letters in response to a specific occasion.  Topics which would not be pertinent to the topic (occasion) being addressed, ought not be expected to be addressed by Paul.  And we certainly have no reason to think he told us everything he considered important.

What is different about Paul’s letter to Rome, is that he did not establish this community.  In all the other authentic letters of Paul, he is writing to communities which he founded, and as such, he assumed the role of “father” to that community.  And in the ancient world, a degree of authority ―in some cases a great deal of authority― was granted to the “father” of a given community.  And there are letters in which Paul does play to this role of “father” to the community.  But this is not the case in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars believe there are several authors of Paul’s letters in the New Testament.  In addition to the authentic Paul, there is the author of the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy & Titus), and possibly the author(s) of the the contested letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2nd Thessalonians).  And no credible scholar any longer believes Paul write Hebrews.

The primary reason this is important to me, is that the hurtful things “Paul” is supposed to have said of women are forgeries!  If you are a woman, or there are women in your life you care deeply about, this is a very important discovery!

Once this barrier was out of the way, I was open to discovering Paul, the Jewish Mystic.  And that is the Paul I find so inspirational.  In the 14th chapter of Romans we catch only a glimpse of the mystical Paul.  In verses 7-9, Paul essentially reminds us that “as we are born from God, we also die into God.”

This, by the way, is the response I remember Marcus Borg offering during an interview, when asked how one might respond to someone on their death bed, should they ask of God and the afterlife.  To date, this remains the single best piece of advice I have yet heard on that question.  I find Borg’s observation beautifully eloquent.  It reminds us that we are born from a realm beyond this world, and assures us that into that realm or state of existence we shall return upon our death.  And it allows one to understand what this means in one’s own terms.  In the context of a hospital or hospice visitation, I find it to be a brilliant, caring, hopeful response.

The other person being interviewed ―a former hospital chaplain― held the opinion that the only proper response is to attempt to force a dying person to accept his (the chaplain’s) theology.  Namely, the person dying had to acknowledge belief in Jesus Christ, and a very literal interpretation of the resurrection account, or burn in hell.

The differences in these views, are similar to what I imagine may have been taking place in Rome, some 2,000 years ago.  One point of view is taking a very hard line on what is the proper and improper understanding of Christianity, and they are belittling or brow-beating those who do not agree with them.

We may ascertain that some Jewish-Christian members of the community were having difficulty in laying aside concerns over ritual purity;  I suspect the reference to meat carries a similar concern as addressed in the 8th chapter of 1 Corinthians;  we may further presume, that other Christians were demeaning these Jewish-Christians for their “weak faith” or “weak conviction” (in this passage the Greek word *pistei* may be translated as “faith” or “conviction;”  possible alternates would include “trust” or “confidence”).

I am given the impression some were mocking these Jewish-Christians, as being in some way lesser Christians for not being able to give up what Paul considered to be superstitions, or to transcend the cultural mythology in which they had been raised.  We find these same judgements being made today.

In the face of such abuse, Paul suggests that we must refrain from judging one another.  This is in fact, the main point of the first half the 14th chapter of Romans.  Learning to effectively, and meaningfully, relate to persons who occupy a stage of faith development which is much younger than our own presents a real challenge.  Yet, we must find a way to speak with persons occupying other stages of faith, without judging them.

Paul suggests that we sincerely follow our beliefs, and extend grace to those who are following their own sincere beliefs.  The small details of our behaviour ―do we eat meat?  which days are holy?― in the final analysis, these are really of very little importance.

What is of critical importance, however, is that we sincerely honour God, in whatever way we understand that observance.  And, that we allow others the same freedom!

Implicit to Paul’s argument is that we honour and respect others, even when their religious practice is not our own.  Paul, of course, meant this only in the context of the developing forms of early Christianity;  I would argue, this is better understood and practised as a general rule governing our behaviour and interactions with persons of all faiths.

     Today’s Wisdom Reading is from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
 
     Paul has become one of my favourite authors.  Once, that is, I learned there are several Paul’s, and that the hurtful things said of women were forgeries.
 
     This opened me to Paul the Jewish Mystic, and Paul who so passionately speaks of putting on the mind of Christ, and of learning to live our lives in imitation of Christ.
 
     This is the Paul I find inspirational.
 
     There is a hint of this mystical Paul in today’s reading, when we are reminded in so many words…
 
               …as we are born from God, we also die into God.
 
     But Paul also has a very practical, down-to-earth side.  Throughout this passage, Paul speaks to the very practical matter of NOT judging one another.  Some Jewish-Christians were having difficulty in laying aside concerns over ritual purity.
 
     Other Christians were demeaning them for their “weak faith” or conviction…  as if they were somehow lesser Christians for not being able to give up superstitions, or to transcend the cultural mythology in which they had been raised.
 
     But Paul tells us NOT to judge others.
 
     We are to sincerely follow our beliefs, and we are to be gracious, to those who are following their own sincere beliefs.
 
     The small details of how we act out
     – whether we eat meat, or which days we consider holy –
     these are of little, real importance.
 
     What is of critical importance, is that we sincerely honour God,
     in whatever way we understand that observance,
     and allow others the same freedom.

 

Romans 14:1-10(a)

Do Not Judge Another

1 Welcome those who are weak in faith [or “conviction”], but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions.  2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.  3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.  4 Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord [other ancient authorities read “for God”] is able to make them stand.

5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.  Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.  6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord.  Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God;  while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;  so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?

(This is the YouTube presentation of the main sermon, given by Rev. Dr. Roger Ray.)

 

 

Offertory Sentence

(The Offertory Sentence is a brief affirmative statement one makes with regard to one’s attraction to the church and/or faith community.)

This small church helps feed persons every week at a local food kitchen, bringing food for that meal and providing volunteers to serve those who are hungry.  Volunteers also perform a variety of chores at a local food warehouse which distributes food directly to needy families.  Helping one’s neighbour does not get much more basic than this!

Members also solicit, collect, and then send shoes to needy children in Nicaragua.  I had not been aware children needed shoes in Nicaragua, but if kids run around barefoot, they naturally cut their feet, and these cuts easily become infected in their jungle environment.  Given there is little access to basic health care, these cuts may become so badly infected that amputations are required to save the child’s life.

These are the primary ways this church seeks to serve needy persons in their local community, and in a specific community in another country.  And, I must say, I find these efforts quite heart-warming.

The point of departure I chose for my Offertory Sentence is once again based upon a remark I once heard Marcus Borg make.  He offered the opinion that Christianity is transformational, and that this effect may be further divided into two different areas of our lives:

Transformation of Self
Transformation of Community

I find there is a lot of value in this perspective.  Transformation of self and of community are certainly related, but they are also different in many ways.  Transformation of self, is primarily an inward-looking practice.  Transformation of community requires becoming involve with other persons, and can only be accomplished through interaction with others.

     For me, Christianity is about Transformation.
     Transformation of Self.
     Transformation of Community.
     I believe these to be symbiotic relationships.
     
     Transformation of Self can be very inward-looking.
     Introspective. Mysterious. Elusive.
     
     In a great many ways, I feel it is beyond words.
     So how do we talk about it?
     
     With awkward, stumbling attempts, I suspect.
     But talk about it we should.
     Regularly.
     
     But Transformation of Self, is also found in experiences.
     And Transformation of Community, must be a result of shared experiences.
     Transformation of Community, we “talk about” by doing.
     
     My attraction to this church, is your Commitment to Community.
     I see this in the sharing of food at Bill’s Place and at Crosslines.
     I see this in the collection of shoes for needy children.
     
     What has attracted me to this church?
     It’s the opportunity, to do something, for someone else.

 

 

Invitation to Communion

(Communion, is also known as Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist.  The observance of Communion dates to the earliest churches of the 1st century.  This is the formal reception of bread and wine which symbolize the body and blood of Jesus.  While this is a central practice of many Christians, specifically how it is understood and enacted varies widely.)

     I think most of us stand at one margin of society or another.  
     I suspect most people here are “recovering Catholics” or “recovering Protestants.”  
     Or “recovering something-elses.”
     
     I suspect many of us are the “church people” no church wanted!  
     Trouble makers.  Broken toys, exiled to the “Island of Misfit Toys.”  
     Or maybe… just thrown away.  
     
     I suspect many of us, come here by way of pain, neglect, or abuse.
     But I hope we also come here to mend, and to heal.
     And I hope, we come here to offer mending and healing to others.  
     
     This Open Communion is symbolic of this desire for healing.
     In ourselves. In our loved ones. In strangers.
     In those who may become friends.
     
     This Communion is also an open invitation to share in our community.
     Even if this is your first visit.
     Even, if this is your only visit.
     
     And I hope, those we meet at Bill’s Place or Crosslines also feel part of this community.
     
     Sharing Communion always turns my thoughts toward Jesus.
     
     Jesus asked, that we love God with all that we are.
     Jesus asked, that we love others, as we wish to be loved.
     
     Jesus shows us, how to help those living at the margins of society.
     Shows us, that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
     Shows, in fact, that how we treat others, reveals the Kingdom within ourselves.
     
     This is what I hear in the Transformational words of Jesus…
     
     “Do this, in remembrance of me.”

 

May the Lord bless and keep you.
Erik+

 

References:

 

Marcus J. Borg

http://www.marcusjborg.com/

 

Community Christian Church

http://www.spfccc.org/

 

Community Christian Church YouTube Home Page

https://www.youtube.com/user/CCCSpringfield

 

Community Christian Church, Sermon for Sept. 14, 2014

http://youtu.be/0BF8YhqnHWA?list=UUeF1t9dro_UwXa5qO_FH7bg

 

Bill’s Place

http://www.thekitcheninc.org/bills_place.php

 

Crosslines Food Pantry

http://crosslines.org/

 

Overview of Holy Communion / Lord’s Supper / Eucharist

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucharist

 

Putting on the Mind of Christ

http://thepracticingcatholic.com/2011/09/22/putting-on-the-mind-of-christ/

 

The Mind of Christ

http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/1-corinthians/the-mind-of-christ

 

Ron Miller’s Presentations to the Theosophical Society

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

 

Ron Miller on Pluralism:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/guess-whos-coming-to-dinner-the-new-pluralism/

 

Ron Miller on the Letter of James

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/a-very-different-christian-story/

Did Paul Say Women are to be Subordinate to Men?

Did Paul Say Women are to be Subordinate to Men?  

Apostle Paul 19th Century Russian Orthodox Icon

Apostle Paul 19th Century Russian Orthodox Icon

In this essay we will explore this question by examining the passage which includes I Corinthians 14:34b-35, which reads,

  …women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Now, one response to this question is to simply say, of course Paul said women are to be subordinate to men;  it is obviously, clearly stated in the New Testament a number of times, including the above.  What more does one need to know?  As it turns out, one may wish to know quite a bit more!  While we will ask if these verses stand or fall on their own merit, I find a more thoughtful response begins by observing that we must first address an unstated question:

          Did Paul write all the letters attributed to Paul?  

Pauline Authorship

I addressed the question of Pauline authorship as part of my January 2014 essay (“Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle”).  In this essay I will simply say that for a variety of reasons, I am convinced there were at least four different categories of author writing in Paul’s name.  Most New Testament scholars identify these categories as:

Authentic Paul
Disputed Paul
Forgeries written in Paul’s name
Paul as described in the book of Acts

The authentic Paul was of course, only one human being.  But when we speak of the other categories of author writing in Paul’s name, we do not know for certain if these were individuals or groups of people representing a given school of thought.  I suspect reasonable cases made be made for both types of authorship.

I should note that some scholars who argue that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him, qualify that assertion by stating the authentic Paul wrote by committee, and that accounts for the variation in vocabulary and grammar when comparing these categories of Pauline authorship.  But within the scope of this essay whether or not any of these letters was written by committee is not an important question.

For the sake of completeness, the following are the letters most commonly associated with each of the categories of author writing in Paul’s name:

Authentic Paul

1st Thessalonians
Philippians
Philemon
1st Corinthians
Galatians
2nd Corinthians
Romans

SIDEBAR:  The above letters are presented in chronological order.  It has been suggested that studying their content carefully allows one to track Paul’s developing theology over time.  One should bear in mind however, that if Paul ever wrote a systematic theology, it has not survived;  there are almost certainly beliefs he held for which we have no record.  With the exception of his letter to the Romans, his writings are occasional letters (meaning they were written to address specific problems/occasions;  typically addressing difficulties people were experiencing in churches Paul had previously established).  Romans is somewhat different in several ways.  Paul had never been to Rome, and this letter was written primarily as a letter of introduction, to dispel concerns over his teachings, and to raise funds for a new ministry reaching into the west (Gaul/Spain).

Disputed Paul

Colossians
2nd Thessalonians
Ephesians (a “circular” letter, either considered disputed or a forgery)

Forgeries in Paul’s name

1st Timothy
2nd Timothy
Titus
Ephesians (unless one considers it as disputed)

Acts is not included in the above list, because no thinks Paul wrote Acts.  The author of Acts is also the author of the Gospel of Luke, and these are part one and part two of a two-volume work, Luke/Acts.  Where Paul is described or made to speak in Acts, it is the author of Luke/Acts describing the action or speaking for Paul;  it is not Paul.  I have included Acts in this list, as the fourth category of authorship, because many people rely upon it for biographical information relating to Paul.  However, this must be done critically.  The author of Acts and Paul at numerous points disagree about Paul’s history and movements;  who are we to believe when the same story is told differently?

Was Paul a Misogynist?

One of the stronger arguments for a misogynistic Paul is found in 1st Corinthians, chapter 14.  Because 1st Corinthians numbers among the undisputedly authentic letters of Paul -therefore, the argument goes- if Paul therein states that women are to be subordinate to men, Paul is in fact a misogynist (one who hates or denigrates women).  On the surface, I would agree that assertion seems logical, however, as is often the case in biblical studies, many important variables are not that simple and clear cut.

In much the same way that Paul did not write all the letters to which his name is attributed, the authentic Paul did not write every sentence passed down to us through history, even in those letters which we otherwise consider to be undisputedly written by Paul.

     I disagree that Paul wrote the misogynistic passages attributed to him. 

     Even those found in the undisputedly authentic letters of Paul.  

This may be where some cry “Foul!”  Am I not saying that I simply refuse to allow Paul to have said things with which I personally disagree?  Is this not simply, and only, a matter of personal opinion?  These are valid questions and concerns.  I am going to try to illustrate there is more to this assertion than personal opinion.  There is logical reasoning behind such a claim, and in this case, we can each read the text and see it for ourselves.

Such a strong degree of “obviousness” is not always the case.  Sometimes the reasons scholars cite for their positions requires that one is able to read the text in the original language.  The passage we are looking at is not one of these more complex cases.

While I will introduce a view which is based upon translation issues, that is not the argument I personally find to be the most important, nor most convincing.  However, for a number of reasons, I think understanding the logic behind the construction of the translation argument may be instructive;  not only as it pertains to getting at the “real” Paul, but as a broader example of the process of applying critical biblical analysis.

The critical verses we are examining are found within the longer passage of 1 Corinthians 14:26-40…

1 Corinthians 14:26-40 (NRSV)

Orderly Worship

26 What should be done then, my friends?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for building up.
27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.
28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.
32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

   (As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
   35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church [some ancient authorities put verses 34–35 after verse 40].
   36 Or did the word of God originate with you?  Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.
38 Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.
39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues;
40 but all things should be done decently and in order.

A Different Author Inserted the Text into Paul’s Original Material

This is a well known conjecture.  Some study bibles note there is scholarly debate as to whether or not verses 33b-36 were written by Paul, or were later additions created by a redactor (editor) of the text;  the Harper-Collins Study Bible is one such example.

The primary argument seems obvious to my eye.  Simply read the above passage, but skip verses 33b-36 which appear as a parenthetical statement.  Is it not abundantly clear the flow of the writing is better without including verses 33b-36?

We may also ask ourselves if the key ideas expressed in verses 33b-36 follow the logic of the rest of the passage.  Where else does Paul say that women are to remain silent in church, and are to be subordinate to men (or in some manuscripts to their husbands)?

The answer is, Paul does not say women are to remain silent in church, nor does Paul say women are to be subordinate to men (husbands or otherwise).  The ideas about women remaining silent and obedient are *only* found in the text which I am arguing has been inserted at a later date.

Remaining silent is mentioned in the original text, but it is not associated with women remaining silent.  There are two reasons given to remain silent, regardless of one’s gender:  (1) there is to be no speaking in tongues unless an interpreter is present;  and (2) in order to control the number or persons responding to revelations that have been given.  Both are efforts to reduce chaos in worship, which is the primary message Paul is trying to convey in this passage.

As to women being subordinate to men, this idea appears no where else in this passage.  It is just thrown in, completely out of the blue.  We may also observe, it bears no relation to the orderly conduct of the worship.

Participation of All is Welcomed  

Read this passage again, skipping verses 33b-36, and note how many times Paul speaks to participation in worship by everyone present.  Compare this with the number of times Paul says women are forbidden participation.  The count is overwhelming, because Paul never says that women are forbidden participation in worship, yet he exhorts participation, without regard to gender, numerous times.

The strongest argument against such inclusive language turns on the word translated as “friends.”  The Greek word used here is adelphos which can simply mean brothers or men;  but it can also mean persons of the same nationality, or a fellow believer in Christ, as we can infer from the definition given below:

G#0080 ἀδελφός adelphos {ad-el-fos’} (http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/0080.html)

1) a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the
same father or mother
2) having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same
people, or countryman
3) any fellow or man
4) a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection
5) an associate in employment or office
6) brethren in Christ
6a) his brothers by blood
6b) all men
6c) apostles
6d) Christians, as those who are exalted to the same heavenly place

In the translation I quote, adelphos is rendered as “friends.”  I think this is reasonable.  But is “brothers” more accurate, and if so, would that imply Paul is not addressing women?  I find this a very weak argument.  As a modern example, consider the phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “All men are created equal.”  Does this include women?  If you agree it does -as do I- then you cannot argue friends (adelphos) does not.  In both cases the language is being used inclusive of gender.

What If the Offensive Verses are Just Out of Order?  

Some ancient manuscripts place verses 33b-36 at the end of this passage, following verse 40.  The disruption of the train of thought is less obvious in such cases.  But their content still bears no relation to the topics being addressed in the rest of the passage.

Furthermore, when we find various manuscripts locating a set of verses in different locations within the text, that itself is often taken as evidence those verses may not be original to the text.  One of the reasons for this is because margin notes were sometimes added to manuscripts.  (This is another way the offensive verses 33b-36 may have found their way into I Corinthians chapter 14.)

Later scribes are then left to interpret why the margin note was made.  Is it a clarifying remark?  Is it the addition of a similar thought existing in the oral tradition at the time the note was made?  Is the scribe simply expressing an opinion?  Is the earlier scribe adding words that he thought the original author ought to have written, but did not?  Is it a correction to the text?  If it is an attempted correction to the text, is the correction itself correct, or does it introduce an error?  All of these reasons are possible, and all are known to have taken place in surviving manuscripts.

How Has Ancient Scripture Reached Us?  

To put it crassly, when Jesus floated up into the sky at his ascension, the completed King James Version of the Holy Bible did not fall out of his back pocket!  No, these texts were written over a period of many hundreds of years (perhaps a little over 100 years for the New Testament books) and were then copied, the copies copied, and recopied many times, over many generations.  And none of the original texts survive;  nor do any of the earliest copies survive.

Additionally, there are issues of translation to be considered.  The vast majority of the original Hebrew bible was written in Hebrew.  Some 200 years before the time of Jesus the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek.  All of the original New Testament was written in Greek.  Centuries later, both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament were translated into Latin.  Many centuries later it was translated into European languages, including the King James Version in 1611.

Today we have many modern translations available from which to choose.  Generally speaking, most translations of the last 50 to 100 years are going to be pretty good.  These typically reflect modern scholarship, in footnotes if not in the body of the text itself.  But the early hand-written manuscripts are rife with errors and omissions;  most are easily detected;  some are still debated.

One of the more important points to take from this, is there is no single irrefutable, inerrant source for either the Hebrew bible or New Testament.  All that we have inherited has been culled first from oral traditions, then written down, copied, edited, recopied, reedited, and translated, many times over, in its transmission to us today.

Modern scholars have done a good job of getting us close to what is thought to be the original text;  but they cannot do so perfectly, nor with complete certainty.  A degree of interpretation is always required.  And we too, must read the bible with a degree of interpretation.  If we are to best understand what may have been the original intention and meaning of those who wrote these texts, we have to approach the text openly, mindfully, and critically.

Ron Miller’s Interpretation

In his book, “The Sacred Writings of Paul” on page 128, Ron Miller offers the following annotation to I Corinthians 14:34-35…

   “Here we have yet another interpolation, a passage that clearly interrupts the flow of the text.  Paul was certainly no feminist by today’s standards, nor did he demonstrate much insight into the complementary role of the sexes in marriage.  But in the context of his time, he clearly supported an active role for women in his communities.  In this same letter (16:19), he wrote: ‘…Aquila and Prisca, together with the community that meets in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord.’
   “In Acts 18:2, we read about Paul meeting this couple, and in Romans 16:3, they are discussed in the most laudatory terms.  When the community met in their house, are we to imagine that, even though Paul called both his coworkers, only the husband Aquila spoke while Prisca was silent?  This contradicts all the evidence for the house churches Paul established, assemblies where Jewish and Gentile Christians, male and female Christians, slave and free Christians, were all called to share their gifts in a spirit of fellowship and peace.”  

Cultural Nuances

The world of the 1st century was very different from our world of the 21st century.  Scholars of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures help us better understand the context in which biblical authors were writing.  In the 1st century women were typically not educated and many were kept isolated within their homes.  So while Paul was telling his communities to no longer see social and cultural divisions between persons, many such divisions did in fact exist in his world.

Another point to understand about Paul, is that while he was accepting of persons across social barriers -women, slaves, etc.- he expressed little desire to change social roles.  Compare the following:

Galatians 3

27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female;  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I Corinthians 7

8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.
9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.  For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

I Corinthians 7

21 Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.

25 Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
26 I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

What is going on?  Taken out of the context of Paul’s broader understanding and teaching these can be confusing passages.  Are we all the same in Christ, or not?  Should a slave remain a slave, or not?  Should we marry, or not?

   Apocalypticism (Merriam-Webster):
         a doctrine concerning an imminent end of the world and an ensuing general resurrection and final judgement

One key to properly interpreting these kinds of passages in Paul is to remember he was part of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, and carried these eschatological (ending of the world) views into his interpretation of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Paul experienced Jesus as having been raised after his crucifixion.  Thus, Jesus was for Paul the “first fruits” of the general resurrection, which was to take place at the end of the world.  Paul speaks of this throughout the 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians.  And it is critical to understand that since Jesus was seen by Paul as the first fruits of the general resurrection, therefore, the end of the world and the general resurrection, were to happen very soon.  And by “very soon” I mean that Paul fully expected both to occur while he was alive.  Note the use of “we”:

   I Cor. 15:51, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed…”  

This is why Paul is not concerned with the long-term social status of people.  In Paul’s view, there simply was not going to be a long-term existence with which to be concerned!  If the end of the world is coming any day, it doesn’t really matter if you remain a slave, or whether you get married, or whether you have children.

In light of his expectation of the impending end of the world, I find it very interesting that Paul does expand the roles of women in his communities.  This would seem to indicate that even in the face of the immanent end of the temporal world, elevating women to equal status with men was important to Paul.

It may simply be that because many of Paul’s communities began as house churches, and some women did have some authority within their own home, that women were important to the founding of Paul’s communities.  I am not certain we are able to read into Paul’s writings clearly enough to discover why women were considered so important to Paul;  but we are able to see that women are important to Paul, and to his ministry.

Translation Difficulties

I wish to close this essay by taking a brief look at some difficulties and challenges that face us when dealing with translated texts.  Paul, I would hope it is obvious, did not write in English.  Paul wrote in Greek.  And Greek can be a very subtle language, offering many shades of meaning.

In some cases, Greek is much more subtle and nuanced than is English.  For example, there are at least eight different words for “love” in Greek:

mania:  lustful, obsessive love
eros:  sexual, emotional passion
ludus:  playful love, affection
philia:  deep friendship, kinship for fellow humans, brothers-in-arms (combat)
philautia:  love of the self (both healthy and unhealthy varieties)
storgy:  family, motherly love
pragma:  longstanding love, as between aged spouses
agape:  unconditional, universal love

In his book “What Paul Really Said About Women” John Temple Bristow states there are 30 Greek words which may be translated as “say,” “speak,” or “teach.”  He addresses some of these in his discussion surrounding 1st Corinthians 15:34-35, on pages 60-64.

In approaching this passage, Bristow asks that we consider the context.  Paul is speaking to concerns regarding public worship;  specifically, how to conduct orderly public worship.  At this point, Bristow begins to discuss the specific Greek words from which our translations derive.

I Cor. 14:33a, “…for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.”  (NRSV)  

Akatastasia is the Greek word translated above as “disorder,” and it is sometimes translated as “confusion” in this passage.  Elsewhere, when Paul is being confronted by angry mobs, enduring beatings, and other hardships, the same Greek word is translated as “tumult.”

Thus, should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself faced by an “unruly mob,” you may describe the chaos much as did Paul, who “described their noisy confusion and disorder as akatastasia” (Bristow, page 61).  And we can well imagine this is decidedly *not* what one would wish to be taking place during worship!  Yet, this is the impression Paul offers us of the chaos that had befallen the Corinthians.

And this is the context in which Paul offers advice as to how their worship services ought to be managed.  In I Corinthians, chapter 14, we find:

Verses 27-28:  No more than three persons are to speak in tongues;  and only then if interpreters are present.

Verses 29-32:  No more than three persons may prophecy;  they must take turns and consider the message of those who have spoken before them.

Verse 34:  Women are to remain silent during the service.

Verse 34 creates a difficulty.  In chapter 11, Paul states that women are permitted to pray and prophecy during worship.  Now the same Paul says women must remain silent?

Somehow, one must reconcile these apparently opposing statements.  I have already indicated, I find the best answer is that Paul never said that women should remain silent.  And I do not find Bristow’s argument changes my opinion.  But it is instructive to follow his argument for at least two reasons:

First, for those who cannot accept that some of Paul’s letters were forgeries, this offers a means of mitigating the foulness of Paul’s speech, while retaining Paul as the sole author of all the letters written in his name.  For some, retaining Paul as sole author is vital, and Bristow’s approach at least allows one to soften the mistreatment of women.

I wish to be perfectly clear:  the proper course, is to eliminate the misunderstanding.  It is far better to see that Paul never said this of women, and that women are to be treated as wholly equal human beings, than to begin treating women with a lesser degree of hostility.

Second, Bristow’s analysis allows us to peer into the subtle nature of the Greek language.  This offers us insights which we may apply to a great many difficult passages in the bible.  It is important for us to remember we are reading a translation.  And there are occasions when words and meanings do not translate exactly from one language to another.  And those making the translation must choose between offering a literal translation of the words, or the best translation of the meaning expressed in the original text.  The two are not always the same.

With these cautions, I’ll offer a sample of what Bristow has to say about I Cor. 14:34-35.

Silence in the Greek (Bristow, pg. 62-63)

Phimoo means “‘tie shut'” or to “‘muzzle.'”  This is the word that might best be translated from our English phrase “shut up.”  “Phimoo means forcing someone to be silent.”

Hesuchia is used to denote “quietness and stillness.”  Bristow observes that this is the Greek word used in 1st Timothy, but in that context it was not discussing worship, but while one is studying.  And one could make the argument that hesuchia (quietness and stillness) is a very practical attitude for all of us to adopt when studying.

Sigao is a voluntary silence.”  And this is the Greek word Paul used when he (or the person writing in his name) wrote, “‘Let the women in the churches be silent.'”  Furthermore, sigao can also be a request that one remain silent.  And, “[s]igao is the kind of silence asked for in the midst of disorder and clamor.  And Paul asked women of the Church to keep that kind of silence.”

This is a very different shade of meaning than telling someone to sit down and shut up!  We may now appreciate that the English translation misses a lot of the subtlety in the original Greek.  Where it is rude and offensive to demand that someone sit down and shut up, it is perfectly understandable that one may request that persons engaging in a worship service conduct themselves orderly, and without creating chaos.

Bristow makes another interesting point with regard to words which may be translated as “say,” “speak,” or “teach.”  In this case the Greek word chosen by Paul is laleo which of all the 30 options in Greek, is the only one which may simply mean to “‘talk'” or engage in frivolous conversation.

To illustrate the importance Bristow reads into this use of laleo in the Greek, he offers a story related by Kari Torjesen Malcolm, in her 1982 book “Women at the Crossroads”:

    “‘My mother used to compare the situation in Corinth to the one she and my father faced in northern China.  Back in the 1920s when they were first to bring God’s message to that forgotten area, they found women with bound feet who seldom left their homes and who, unlike the men, had never in their whole lives attended a public meeting or a class.  They had never been told as little girls, ‘Now you must sit still and listen to the teacher.’  Their only concept of an assembly was a family feast where everyone talked at once.
    ‘When these women came to my parents’ church and gathered on the women’s side of the sanctuary, they thought this was a chance to catch up on the news with their neighbors and to ask questions about the story of Jesus they were hearing.  Needless to say, along with babies crying and toddlers running about, the women’s section got rather noisy!  Add to that the temptation for the women to shout questions to their husbands across the aisle, and you can imagine the chaos.  As my mother patiently tried to tell the women that they should listen first and chitchat or ask questions later, she would mutter under her breath, ‘Just like Corinth;  it just couldn’t be more like Corinth.'”

Please note, this is not to imply the above is characteristic behavior of all women.  It really has nothing to do with women at all, other than it was women who were deliberately kept isolated and uneducated.  I submit that anyone who was treated as were these women, would behave in much the same manner.  By extension, we may imagine that similar behavior may have been engaged in by the women in Corinth, some 2,000 years ago, and perhaps for very similar reasons, given there may have been similar cultural influence;  both were situated in male dominated cultures.

Thus, Paul was not telling women to sit down and shut up, and he was not saying that women were prohibited from taking an active role in worship.  He was saying that the worship ought to be conducted in an orderly manner.  And that is all he was trying to convey in I Cor. 14:34-35.

I Find This is a Very Clear Passage to Interpret  

First, verses 34-35 read as if they have been inserted into the original text by a later editor.

Second, elsewhere in authentic Paul material, we read where Paul supports women taking leading roles in the communities Paul has founded.  (Romans 16:1, serves as one example:  “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [or minister] of the church at Cenchreae.”)

Third, for those of us who read the Pauline letters as having multiple authors, it is easy to see that those writing after Paul’s death (circa 67 ce) modified some of his views:  forcing male dominance over women;  harsh curtailing of women’s roles (1 Timothy 2:11-15, serves as an example).

Peeling Back the Layers of Paul

I hope this essay offers several insights into how we might read Paul, and better understand some of his more difficult -offensive!- passages.  Paul is an important figure in the history of the Christian church;  he wrote one third of the New Testament, and he wrote first;  his writing must have influenced many of the remaining authors of the New Testament.

Paul was well educated and wrote well in Greek.  We may assume he chose the specific words he did, with reason.  While I do not agree with a number of Bristow’s presuppositions, I very much enjoy his treatment of the Greek language, and do recommend his short book, “What Paul Really Said About Women.”

Ron Miller not only annotated his book, “The Sacred Writings of Paul” he also translated Paul’s writings from the original Greek.  The phrasing he chose in his translation is at times very interesting.  His annotations offer great insight to Paul’s writings, showing that Paul was a complex and multi-layered person, caught in a changing world.  I highly recommend reading Miller’s book.  He brings a great depth of understanding to Paul, as he does any subject he addressed.

I hope this brief examination of just one short passage, sheds a little light on how we might go about organizing our thoughts when getting ready to interpret scripture, and when trying to separate one layer of the text from another;  often, within the very same passage.

Erik+

Resources:

Bristow, John Temple:  “What Paul Really Said About Women:  An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love.”

Greece Index:  http://www.greeceindex.com/various/greek_love_words.html

Harper-Collins Study Bible

Krznaric, Roman:  Yes Magazine, “The Ancient Greeks’ 6 words for Love” http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/the-ancient-greeks-6-words-for-love-and-why-knowing-them-can-change-your-life

Legg, Chris:  “5 Greek Words for Love” http://chrismlegg.com/2009/10/01/5-greek-words-for-love-agape/

Lexicon-Concordance:  http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/0080.html

Miller, Ron:  “The Sacred Writings of Paul:  Selections Annotated & Explained.”

Should Women be Permitted to Serve as Bishops?

 

Should women be permitted to serve as bishops?  

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

In July of 2014 the General Synod of the Church of England meets to discuss and vote upon whether women will be permitted to be consecrated as bishops of the Church of England.  A similar vote failed by six votes in 2013.  This issue is discussed in an article published by the Religious News Service.  When reading this article, it was the final statement that really caught my eye:

  •      “Passage of legislation allowing women bishops will end a 20-year dispute.  Women were first allowed to be ordained as priests in 1994.”

How is it possible, I asked myself, that women were allowed entry into the priesthood, yet denied offering service as bishops?  I guess I am naive (I do have this tendency).  I would have expected any arguments against accepting women as priests, would simultaneously serve as arguments against accepting women serving as bishops.  And logically, once one accepts the service of women as priests, one simultaneously accepts their service as bishops.

 

I see only two ways of arguing this question:  

The first argument reaches back to Paul.  We have extremely clear evidence that Paul understood women as being able to serve at all levels of the early church.  Paul periodically speaks of this in his letters.  The strongest case is found in Romans 16:7 where Paul speaks of Junia as a woman who served the same role as himself:  that of an apostle.

  •      Sidebar:  Junia is a female name.  In some manuscripts this has been changed to Junias, which is a male name.  This point is debated by some, but most scholars agree this was originally a woman’s name (including the late Ron Miller).  So if your New Testament reads Junias, be aware this is a later revision of the original Greek text, as most scholars understand it.

Now, when I speak of Paul, I am speaking only of the authentic Paul.  I am not speaking of those authors who later forged their letters in his name, such as the letters supposedly written to Timothy and Titus, which contain the most misogynistic views within the entire New Testament.  Most scholars (but not all) are convinced these letters reflect a much later view than when Paul was alive.

In Paul’s day, an apostle was one who assumed the duty of spreading the gospel (good news) about Jesus.  I think we get a better feel for what their mission meant to them, if we use the late Ron Miller’s translation of “ambassador” in place of apostle.  To be recognized as an ambassador (apostle) was to be given a very high status in the early Christian community;  it is clearly a position of authority within the community.  But for me this is not the strongest argument in favor of allowing women to serve as deacons, priests and bishops.

To examine the strongest argument in favor of women serving as bishops, we need only ask…

Are we God?

If we answer in the negative, then the obvious conclusion is that being human is of a different nature than that of being God.  That the nature of any truly transcendent Supreme Being -or Ground of Being- must be categorically different than that of being human seems obvious to me.  (One may argue no such category of the transcendent exists;  but if we posit such categories of existence, then we must also accept the radical differences between the human and transcendent.)

Equally obvious is the corollary that there is no difference between being male or female, in terms of how this relates to the nature of the Supreme Being/Ground of Being.  Which is to say, neither men nor women are more like God than the other.  One’s sex and gender has nothing to do with such a question.  This is a question of one’s spirit, not one’s body.

  •      As one of my bishops is fond of observing, God does not have X or Y chromosomes.

Thus, I feel the only defense one may adopt in the attempt to restrict women from being ordained, and later consecrated as a bishop, is to admit one is sexist.  This is to admit one wishes to denigrate another based merely upon the disposition of their chromosomes.

This is an extremely weak defense, and one I would hope would be seen for what it is:  bigotry.

I certainly do hope the Church of England votes to join the rest of us, here in the 21st century!  May the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and all other churches, soon join those of us who accept all humans as equals in our humanity!

End of rant.

Erik+

References:

http://www.religionnews.com/2014/07/10/church-england-set-vote-women-bishops/

Art of the Religious Experience

earthrise-NASA
Modern science is a predominately progressive endeavour.  Those of us living in the developed nations, not only anticipate new discoveries, we normally embrace such change as beneficial.

We have become accustomed to the idea that pretty much everything is subject to revision and refinement.  This is among the identifying features of living in a technology-based society.  Everything changes, and over the course of time, generally for the better.

In contrast, true art reaches something deep within us, something which is timeless.  In Jungian terms, one might say true art resonates with a counterpart in our deep unconscious;  this may reach even deeper, into the depths of our collective -shared- unconscious.

Art awakens within us a desire for -and facilitates a connection to- that which is timeless.  Likewise, profound religious-spiritual experiences bring us into an awareness of this timeless dimension of reality.

In thinking about the religious experience as a form of art, I am suggesting there are unchanging elements of human nature, which activate archetypal resonances.  One may even argue whatever these elements are, they reach across species.  After all, why did Neanderthals bury their dead, with apparent concern for their continuing care, even in death?

But how might we identify what in our religious experience is timeless?  And how might such experiences differ from secular (non-religious) experiences?  I would begin by suggesting we consider two broad categories of experience:

  •   External (Exoteric)
  •   Internal (Esoteric)

External / Exoteric

In this view, external experiences govern our interactions with others.  The application of morals and ethics within our society serve as examples.  These concerns may be both secular and religious.  While it is possible to live to a high moral and ethical standard without holding a religious conviction, both the secular and religious norms seek to instruct us how we are to live with one another.

The central difference between the two are found in the “whys” of doing so.

Secularly, such reasons may range from, these are the regulations handed down to us from our rulers, to these are the means of finding personal happiness;  if we are more ethically mature, to allowing others to also find their happiness;  and for those embracing very mature ethics, to actively assisting others find their happiness.

What of the religious dimension?

I believe the shift from the secular experience to the religious experience is revealed in the transformational qualities of that which we seek.  The call of the secular is of a more limited nature to my ear.  At its best, it calls for us to live in peace, and live our life so as to be happy, and helping others do likewise.  But where is the terminus, the end?  For the secular, that ending point is here, on planet earth.

If we care only about ourselves, it ends with us, here and now.  If we care about our children, it ends with them, and their children.  If we care about the children of strangers, we extend our concern greatly.  But all these concerns are limited to the continuation of life on this planet.

It is not that seeking to live a life filled with happiness is a bad goal.  It is not that seeking out ways of helping others to do the same is a bad thing.  These are objectively beneficial goals to hold throughout one’s life.  But they are goals limited to our worldly realm.  Thus, their nature is secular.

Positive transformation of society is a good thing, but by itself it falls short of being a religious experience because it limits itself to the “horizontal” axis of our lives.  Time is the horizontal axis in which we all live in this world.  We are by our physical nature creatures subject to time;  we are captured within its boundaries.

Vertical Axis of the Eternal

But there is also a “vertical axis” which the religious experience affirms:  the eternal;  that which is outside of time;  that which is unconstrained by time;  that which transcends time, and by extension, everything found in our vast universe.

This contrast and interaction between the horizontal and vertical aspects of our existence is part of what is symbolized in the cross.  The horizontal arm symbolizes our physical, material, time-constrained presence in the mortal world;  the vertical arm symbolizes our connection to the eternal.

I believe we may think of our desire for the eternal as what Joseph Campbell called “finding our bliss.”  And I believe Bishop Spong invites us to “love wastefully” because we are best in alignment with the vertical component of our nature when we live in a state of love.  And I believe this is what St. Augustine was aware of when observing that our weight is our love (in whatever we place our love, that acts like gravity, drawing us ever-nearer to it).

What have these views in common?  They are transformative experiences, because they encourage us to live for more than merely the horizontal dimension of our lives;  they point us toward the timeless, vertical-spiritual axis of our being, which transcends our mortal experience.

Internal / Esoteric

Internally -esoterically- the religious experience is about living in the vertical axis.  Here we meet what we may of that which transcends our human condition.  This experience is as limited or profound as is our state of consciousness.  The timeless-transcendent is always available to us;  *we* limit how much of this we may drink.

The objective of this encounter is to experience the numinous in our life.

  Numinous  (Merriam-Webster)

  •     Having a mysterious, holy, or spiritual quality
  •     Supernatural, mysterious
  •     Filled with a sense of the presence of divinity :  holy
  •     Appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense :  spiritual

The numinous encounter is what I see as the primary goal of mysticism.  And I see the numinous as a unifying force across many -perhaps all- religions.  This is what draws their mystics of differing religions closer to one another, even as they are sometimes distanced from non-mystics within their own religious tradition.

  •      There is a tension between persons within each religion, of the mystic/esoteric and the non-mystic/exoteric, persuasion.  This may be symbolized by a circle with a dot in the middle of it:  persons experiencing the exoteric nature of their religion, traverse along the outer perimeter of the circle, and quite accurately, note differences among the various religious traditions;  meanwhile, mystics experience the esoteric nature of their religion, and move ever-nearer to the central dot, which represents the Transcendent, and in so doing, note their experience is becoming increasingly similar to other esoterics, regardless of their exoteric religious tradition.

I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.

In Christian and Jewish terms, these transformational experiences are conveyed in the teaching of the Greatest Commandment, which St. Augustine presented as:  loving God with all that you are, and loving others in such as manner as to best foster their ability to love God with all that they are.  This is why Augustine said our love is our weight, meaning:

  •   …as gravity draws a rock to the ground, so too, that in which we place our love, to that we are drawn.

The Art of the Religious Experience  

I believe the Art of the Religious Experience is about Transformation:  of ourselves;  of our communities.  We are to transform first ourselves and then our community in such a manner as to bring us into consonance with what we identify as our Ultimate Concern (God, Oneness, or Love, for the religious;  perhaps Happiness or Love, for the secular).

I further believe all great religions may be understood as using the ideal of selfless love (or compassion, or loving-kindness) as our daily measure of success in striving toward this understanding of Ultimate Concern.  I would further observe this is the process of becoming more fully human which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”

The opposite of this is also true.  Should our Ultimate Concern become Hate, we transform our communities into machines of war and destruction.  We turn from mystical unity with all, toward isolation, rejection of all that is not “us” (tribal thinking), and we project (transform) our hatred upon others to alienate them, so as to more easily cause them harm.  This is the corruption of the religious experience, and the rejection of the numinous.

Yet we may hope to learn from the great mystics of all religions, who seek to reveal to us the light they have encountered in presence of the timeless, eternal.

  •    It is up to each of us to choose that which shall become our Weight, our Gravity.

We each carry the dichotomies of Love-and-Hate, Eternal-and-Worldly, in our hearts.  The choice between Love and Hate is present in our interactions with others;  in each thought we harbour;  in each feeling we allow to linger within us;  in each look we cast upon another;  and carried in each word we speak.

We cannot be perfect, and we would drive ourselves mad were we to set such an impossible standard.  But we each may strive toward more frequently nourishing loving thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others.  This is a critical first- and continual-step in our spiritual maturity.  And I believe this is common to all true religions, when lived in their deepest, most spiritually transformative expression.

We should give ourselves permission to be gracious to ourselves when we fall short of this ideal.  And we should be gracious with others when they too fall short of “loving wastefully.”  Forgiveness, as with all things human, begins within us.  It is OK to be human.  It is OK to fall short of our ideals.

What is important is that we get up again;  that we start anew.

  •   It is never too late to recognize the vertical axis in our lives.
  •   It is never too late to embrace this spiritually transformative process.
  •   It is never too late to promote compassion for others.
  •   It is never too late to pick ourselves up after a fall.
  •   It is never too late to recommit our lives to transforming ourselves, and our community.
  •   It is never too late to be happy.
  •   It is never too late to love.

These are all important aspects of the Art of Living the Authentic Religious Experience.