Thursday, February 15, 2007

Just another wonder-worker?

In an era dominated by Jewish 'men of deeds,' a Jew would not have been overawed by tales of Jesus' miracles.

By David Klinghoffer

Jesus' miracles are well-known. Apart from those having to do with healing and exorcism, they include feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish; feeding four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish; turning water to wine; calming the wind and sea; walking on water; and giving life to a dead man, Lazarus, and to a dead girl, the synagogue president's daughter. Did these not show Jesus was a unique person with a very special relationship to God, perhaps that he was God incarnate?

The catalog of miracles is impressive, if brief, when listed in this way, item by item. However, a Jew who believed in the Hebrew scriptures would know that not all such acts, causing nature to depart from her course, came from God. In the book of Exodus, when Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that the Jews be allowed to leave Egypt and doing some wonders of his own, the Egyptian king's magicians at first match the Jewish leader miracle for miracle. To ascribe magical powers to forces apart from God would not have strained the imagination of a Jew in Jesus' day.

Even if we take all these deeds at face value, as having actually occurred as the New Testament describes them, they would not have made Jesus unique. A Jew at the time, upon hearing of such things, might well be expected to seek out this man and see what he was about. But no more than that.

As Professor Geza Vermes has shown, the Galilee in particular was famous for producing a species of charismatic sages and healers known as Hasidim (literally, "Pious Ones"), whose most prominent representatives included the aforementioned Hanina ben Dosa, along with his counterpart of a century earlier, Honi the Circle Maker. As the Mishnah relates, Honi got his name by bringing down miraculously huge quantities of rain during a time of drought. He first prayed to God, but when his prayer went unanswered he drew a circle on the ground and swore he would stand in it until rain fell. It immediately did so, but in miserly fashion, not the volume he had in mind. He said, "I have not asked for this, but for rain to fill the cisterns, the pits and rock cavities." God then sent a cloudburst so heavy that the people were compelled to petition Honi to make it stop. Josephus relates a brief version of this story in the Antiquities.

Honi had two grandsons who continued the tradition of miracle working. One was called Hanan the Hidden, whom when rain was scarce the children would follow around, tugging on his clothing and begging, "Father, Father, give us rain!"

For his part, Hanina was one of a category of wonderworkers called "men of deeds." He apparently lived through the destruction of the Second Temple, because the Mishnah states that from the time of the destruction, the power of the "men of deeds" (anshe ma'aseh) was weakened, and with Hanina's death they ceased altogether. Professor Vermes points out that Jesus in the New Testament is also characterized as a man of "deeds."

Hanina was a healer, deriving his gift from a special relationship with God, likened in the Talmud to a household servant who is always passing everywhere through the king's household. Such a personality, humble like a slave, nevertheless has the king's trust in every matter. He can gain entrance to the sovereign's presence anytime he chooses, so if he makes a petition, it is sure to be heard. Thus, Hanina intervened with God on behalf of the deathly ill daughter of his teacher. While the teacher, a far greater scholar, could do nothing for the girl, Hanina healed her, casting himself down with his face between his knees. His power operated even at long distances: He was able to heal his master's son without leaving his home to visit the boy.

A story is told about Hanina and a serpent. There was a dangerous snake known to live in a hole nearby a town. Local residents complained to the rabbi that the creature was menacing them and had killed or injured many. Hanina proceeded to the mouth of the viper's hole and calmly stuck his heel down into it. On this provocation the snake bit him--and died. With the animal wrapped around his neck as a trophy, Hanina made his way to the town's study hall and displayed it to the crowd. He explained, "It is not the viper that kills. It is sin that kills"-meaning that in the long run, while nature may take its toll on human longevity, a much graver threat is the wages of wrongdoing, which deprive a person of eternal life.

I am not trying to instigate a spitting contest between Jesus and the rabbis-just making the point that a Jew would not have been overawed by tales of Jesus' wonderful deeds. Admittedly I don't know of a sage of this century to whom the rabbinic sources attribute the power of resurrection. However, such is not lacking from a little later in Jewish history. The Talmud tells of a certain Purim feast--celebrated to mark the anniversary of the redemption of the Jewish people recounted in the biblical book of Esther, where by custom it was obligatory to engage in prodigious drinking. One revered rabbi, Rabbah, got so carried away with his observances that, in a heavily drunken state, he killed another sage, Rav Zeira. The next day he prayed and raised his colleague from the dead.

Unlike the Gospel writers, the Talmud doesn't make a fuss about this. Indeed, a sage of the Mishnaic period, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, presents the power to resurrect as a goal toward which a person of extraordinary spiritual ambition may direct his energies. He alludes to a program for developing one's soul, apparently known at the time in more detail, comprising ten steps leading finally to the capacity to give life to the dead. The Jews, whose religious consciousness was formed by the spiritual system later embodied in the Talmud, would thus have seen miracles, even if witnessed with their own eyes, as a proof of spiritual potency, but nothing more than that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The concept of "Divinity" in a pre-enlightenment world

The Bible, the New Testament, they are all operating in a pre-enlightenment world. In a pre-enlightenment world it is taken for granted by everyone (expect maybe some very erudite philosophers who don't believe in it, but the general culture takes it for granted) that, for example, divine babies can be conceived, that gods can come to earth and have intercourse with mortals and that this intercourse can produce divine babies. They take it for granted. It's simply part of the baggage of their culture.

Therefore in their culture, in a pre-enlightenment culture, to announce that your Jesus is a divine child is not going to get the general post-enlightenment reaction that this can't happen, couldn't happen, doesn't happen, we don't believe that stuff. It might get the reaction that we don't believe your claim, but they cannot and would not argue that it could not happen. What they would like to know is: what has your baby done for anyone? If your Jesus is divine, what has he done for the world? That is a pre-enlightenment question. The post-enlightenment argument that it can't happen is never used in the first century. The most you'll ever get is that we don't believe your claim. So in a pre-enlightenment world, whether we live in a post-enlightenment world or not, we have to respect that.

For example, if Paul goes around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, the immediate answer from a polite, pious pagan is not that we don't believe in that stuff. The proper answer is: good for you, good for Jesus, but so what? We've heard these kinds of stories before, what's he done for us? That is a pre-enlightenment question.

- excerpted from an interview with John Dominic Crossan

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Emphasis on resurrection or kingdom?

N.T. Wright defends resurrection in first point-counterpoint forum

By Gary D. Myer
Baptist Press
Mary 17, 2005

Jesus was raised from the dead,” N.T. Wright, an Anglican evangelical scholar, said.

“Over and over again, they use arguments that can be shown to be invalid and propose alternative scenarios which can be shown to be impossible.”

Wright and John Dominic Crossan, a member of the Jesus Seminar, voiced divergent views of the resurrection during the inaugural Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary March 11.

Wright, bishop of Durham, England, defended the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus as the only tenable view, while Crossan, a professor emeritus at DePaul University, set forth a metaphorical interpretation of the resurrection.

To begin the forum, each speaker was given 20 minutes to explain his beliefs. During the following dialogue, both Crossan and Wright questioned each other and clarified their positions.

Wright began by examining some of the common attempts to explain away the resurrection. He said one argument proposes that ancient people did not understand the laws of nature and were, therefore, more inclined to accept unsophisticated answers.

“That is simply absurd,” Wright said. “The ancients knew perfectly well that dead people didn’t rise. We didn’t need modern science to tell us that.”

Others have pointed to Hellenistic and pagan stories featuring empty graves and visions of the dead as the reason the early church began to believe in the resurrection. But Wright said these stories are completely different from the biblical resurrection accounts.

The presence of resurrection beliefs in Judaism cannot account for the focus on Jesus’ resurrection in the early church either, Wright said, noting that resurrection was peripheral in Judaism, or not a foundational part of the Jewish beliefs. In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus is central.

“I’ve shown conclusively that [the Apostle] Paul really did believe in the bodily resurrection despite generations of critics going back as far as the second century trying to make out that he didn’t,” Wright said.

The empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances caused the early church to believe in His bodily resurrection, Wright said, noting that the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances taken together constitute a sufficient condition for belief in the resurrection.

“Having examined as many of the alternative explanations I could find and having shown them all to be completely inadequate, the one we are left with, however unlikely, must press itself upon us as being true,” Wright said. “It is only with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, demonstrating that His death dealt a decisive blow to evil, that we could find the proper grounds for calling the kingdoms of earth to submit to the Kingdom of God.”

Crossan, on the other hand, said he believes the mode of the resurrection is secondary to the meaning of the resurrection. Though taking a metaphorical approach to the resurrection, Crossan maintained that, whether one believes in a literal or metaphorical resurrection, the implications of the resurrection should make a difference in the world today.

“We are talking about cosmic transformation from a world of injustice, impurity and violence into a world of justice and peace and purity and holiness,” he said.

Crossan denied that the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus served as a sufficient cause for the rise of resurrection belief in the early church.

“That would get you to the exaltation,” Crossan said. “It would get you to the conclusion that Jesus has been exalted, maybe even to the right hand of God.... Something else is absolutely needed to make that leap of faith [to belief in a literal, bodily resurrection].”

Crossan said Jesus’ words about launching the Kingdom of God caused the early church to believe in the resurrection.

“If you want to debate what has to be taken literally and what has to be taken metaphorically, it is a perfectly valid debate,” Crossan said. “But there is something else -– the question of meaning.”

Crossan said he would like to hear someone who takes the resurrection literally share the implications of that belief, asking how that belief could change the world.

“Tell me that from your literal reading,” he said. “I will try, as one who takes it metaphorically, to spell out the implications from a metaphorical reading.”

Those who disagree over the mode of the resurrection, whether literal or metaphorical, will find common ground in the area of meaning, Crosson said.

During the dialogue time, Wright pressed Crossan on the use of “literal and metaphorical.” Wright argued for the use of the terms “concrete and abstract.”

“Often we use the terms literal and metaphorical when, actually, we mean concrete and abstract,” Wright said. “I do think it makes an enormous difference if you say that what happened on Easter day was not a concrete event.”

Wright also challenged Crossan to explain the changes that occurred as believers in Christ moved from Judaism and other cultures to Christianity.

“Something happened which caused all those Christians from very different backgrounds to transform the beliefs their cultures had given them into this remarkable new shape,” Wright said.

Crossan, however, spoke again of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God.

“I think for me it’s extraordinarily important that the historical Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, has already made an announcement,” he said. “It is not that the Kingdom is beginning. It is that the Kingdom has begun. When He sends people out, I think these people ... experienced part of the Kingdom.”

Crossan said he believes the early believers saw apparitions rather than the literal risen Jesus. The apparitions along with their experience with the Kingdom, Crossan said, caused the dramatic shift in their beliefs.

Wright responded, “I agree with you that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and their awareness of the power of God through the preaching of Jesus is one of the preconditions for the eventual interpretation at which they arrived.” But, he said, “I don’t think those by themselves would have been sufficient to generate anyone saying, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’”

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Can one be a Christian without being a theist?

By John Shelby Spong

As a person who lectures extensively across this nation and the world, I have been asked a wide variety of questions from my audiences. They have ranged from the naive to the profound, from the obvious to the obtuse. Some questions have been hostile, designed not to gain knowledge or insight, but rather to embarrass, attack and minimize. Some have been profoundly questing, seeking in the wasteland the questioner occupied some hint that the living water of faith might yet be available. However, no one has ever confronted me with a question at once so penetrating and modern and yet so devastating and threatening as the one with which I began this column.

To my amazement and delight this question was asked by a lay person within the Diocese of Newark. It originated inside that activity we call Education for Ministry (EFM) and specifically from a member of St. Thomas' Church, Vernon. It was posed at an EFM graduation ceremony held at St. Stephen's Church in Millburn in June. It made me newly aware of the significance of the EFM program. If that program can free this person to inquire into her faith on this level, then it has renewed my conviction that EFM is the best educational tool available for lay people in the church today.

Theism is the historic way men and women have been taught to think about God. Most people think theism is the only conceivable way to think about God. The primary image of God in the Bible is a theistic image.

By that I mean that God is conceived of as a Being, even the Supreme Being, external to this world, supernatural in power, and operating on this world in some fashion to call this world and those of us who inhabit it into the divine will or the divine presence. This theistic Being is inevitably portrayed in human terms as a person who has a will, who loves, who rewards and who punishes. One can find other images of God in the scriptures, but this is the predominant and the familiar one.

Theism is also the primary understanding of God revealed in the liturgies of the Christian churches, including the various Anglican Books of Common Prayer. There the God we meet is described as a Being who desires our praises, elicits our confessions, reveals to us the divine will and who calls us into the spiritual life of communion with this Divine Being.

So dominant is this theistic understanding of God that if one rejects theism, one is thought to be an a-theist. An atheist is defined as one who dismisses the theistic concept of God and, since theism exhausts most people's definition of God, an atheist by definition is one who rejects the concept that God might be real.

So when one is confronted with the question, "Can one be a Christian without being a theist?" it opens vast doors for further thought and theological speculation.

This question becomes askable only when one lives in a world that has rendered the traditional theistic view of God inoperative. We may not like to confront that reality, but in a real sense, this is what the post-modern world forces the contemporary religious community to face. The Supernatural Being that we have traditionally called God has increasingly been rendered impotent by the explosion in human knowledge over the last five hundred years.

We once attributed to the will of this deity everything we did not understand, from sickness to tragedy to sudden death to extreme weather patterns. But today sickness is diagnosed and treated with no reference to God whatsoever. Tragedies, like the crash of the TWA Flight #800 or the rise of the AIDS epidemic, are investigated by this secular society without reference to the will of God. That was certainly not the case when ancient tragedies, such as the black death or the bubonic plague, swept across the world. When death strikes suddenly today, we do autopsies that reveal a massive coronary occlusion or a cerebral hemorrhage as its cause. We do not speculate on why the external Deity, the theistic Supreme Being, might have wanted to punish this particular person with sudden death. Even what the insurance companies still call "acts of God" are today thought to be completely explainable in non- theistic language. We chart the formation of hurricanes from the time when they develop as low pressure systems in the southern oceans and we mark their paths until these weather systems are broken up either over land, after unleashing their fury of wind and water, or in the cold and heavy air of the extreme northern parts of our hemisphere. No weather man I know of refers to this phenomenon of nature as divinely caused to inflict godly punishment upon a wayward region, people or nation. Only someone as naive theologically as American televangelist Pat Robertson would assume, as he did a few years ago, that his prayers could steer a hurricane away from his television and radio enterprise in Norfolk, Virginia. Interestingly enough, Mr. Robertson did not pray to break the storm up, but only to redirect its fury. Furthermore, there was no expression of concern on Pat Robertson's part about what might happen to those in whose path his prayers might have redirected the storm.

At least one English theologian, Michael Goulder, saw this shrinking conclusion of the theistic God destroying his faith. He became an atheist when he came to the perception that the God of traditional theism "no longer has any work to do." This God no longer explains mysteries, cures sicknesses, directs the weather, fights wars, punishes sinners, rewards faithfulness. Indeed, the idea of an external supernatural Deity who invades human affairs periodically to impose the divine will upon this world, though still given lip service in worship settings, has nonetheless died culturally. If God is to be identified exclusively with this theistic understanding of God, then it is fair to say that culturally at least God has ceased to live in our world.

If the theistic understanding of God exhausts the human experience of God, then the answer to the question of the EFM student from Vernon is clear. No, it is not possible to be a Christian without being a theist. But if, on the other hand, one can begin to envision God in some way other than in the theistic categories of the traditional religious past, then perhaps a doorway into a religious future can be created. That is to identify what I regard as the most pressing theological issue of this generation. Christianity has been shaped by traditional theistic concepts. Jesus was identified in some sense as the incarnation of this theistic God. It was said that He came to do "the father's (read: that external supernatural Supreme Being's) will." Indeed, Jesus was portrayed as a sacrifice offered to this God to bring an end to human estrangement from the Creator. Theologians talked of original sin, and "the fall" to which it was asserted the cross spoke with healing power and in which drama of salvation the shed blood of Jesus played a central role. But in a world that has abandoned any theological sense of offering sacrifices to an angry Deity, what could this interpretation of the Cross of Christ possibly mean? In a post-Darwinian world, where creation is not finished, but is even now ongoing and ever- expanding, the idea of a fall from a perfect world into sin and estrangement is nonsensical. The idea that somehow the very nature of the heavenly God required the death of Jesus as a ransom to be paid for our sins is ludicrous. A human parent who required the death of his or her child as a satisfaction for a relationship that had been broken would be either arrested or confined to a mental institution. Yet behavior we have come to abhor in human beings is still a major part of the language of worship in our churches when we speak of God. It is the language of our ancient theistic understanding of God. It is also language that is doomed first to irrelevance and later to revulsion. The real question then becomes, "Can Christianity be separated from ancient theistic concepts and still be a living faith?" That is why this inquiry from the EFM student was such a threatening, scary question. Once it is raised to consciousness, it will never again go away. It will also destabilize forever the only understanding of God most of us have had.

The "religious right" does not understand the issues involved here. On the other hand, the secular society, where God has been dismissed from life, has also answered this question by living as if there is no God. Only those who can first raise this question into consciousness and who then refuse to sacrifice their sense of the reality of God when all theistic concepts fail will ever wrestle with these issues.

It would surprise many pew sitters in our churches to know how deeply this debate already rages in the theological academy. In this world of scholarly dialogue God has not been spoken of as an external Supernatural Being who periodically invades the world in decades. Yet the experience of God as a divine presence found in the midst of life is all but universally attested. Jesus as a revelation of this divine presence is the heart of the Christian claim. The normative language of theism by which this experience has traditionally been processed and transmitted is, however, today all but universally rejected by the academy.

So perhaps the major theological task of our times is to seek a new language of faith or at the very least a new way to translate those pre-modern theistic categories into the post-modern, non- theistic language of tomorrow. That is not an easy assignment. It is, however, the vocation to which my mind and heart are dedicated as I begin to create the last major theological book of my active career. I cannot begin to say how much the posing of this frontier question about the relationship between the Christian faith and the theistic language of the past encouraged me. At least one lay member of this Diocese is wrestling on the same frontier where my mind is now engaged; I rejoice that I am not alone.