Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

I realized today that I left an important thought out of my discussion of oral cultures this morning — the cultural bias of trust. In an oral culture, texts tend to be distrusted. That was particularly true in the ancient world where all texts were written by hand. How do you know that a text really comes from whom it says it comes? Even if it did, how do you know that it hasn’t been altered? By contrast, verbal communication, especially in the form of oral tradition, tended to be trusted. You knew who was giving you the tradition and you had a basis on which you could decide whether or not you trusted that person and thus whether or not you trusted what they said.

If you look, you can actually see that dynamic at play in the NT texts, especially in Paul’s letters where he is typically trying to address problems and needs the Church to accept his communication in absentia. He makes a point of greeting and saying things that indicate his personal knowledge of people in the Church. He often describes who is with him as he was writing the text. He will sometimes commend the one carrying his communication (and who will present it to the Church). He will write a greeting in his own hand at times. While those serve multiple purposes, one thing Paul is doing is trying to overcome the automatic cultural distrust of texts.

By contrast, in a literate cultural we are biased to trust texts over oral communication. When we can reference something in a publication, it gives greater weight to our argument. Printed texts are not necessarily easy to modify. (We can see that dynamic changing with electronic communication, but there remains a cultural bias toward the written form.) It’s an unconscious bias that permeates our evaluation of the things we can or can’t trust.

I will note that the idea that an oral tradition — even one that can be traced continuously back to the first or second century — can’t be trusted unless it can be confirmed in a text is one that could only arise within the context of a literate culture. As such, it can be eliminated as a technique used in the ancient world. Instead, the bias would have worked the other way. The oral tradition would have had to attest to the reliability of a text before the text would be trusted.

If you don’t grasp the way in which that underlying bias works, you’ll probably make the wrong assumptions when examining ancient Christian writings.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 2

Posted: April 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

2.  Dispassion engenders love, hope in God engenders dispassion, and patience and forbearance engender hope in God; these in turn are the product of complete self-control, which itself springs from fear of God. Fear of God is the result of faith in God.

This text by St. Maximos revolves another idea we are prone to misunderstand. When we think of someone who is dispassionate, we tend to think of someone who is emotionless — either because they suppress or repress their emotions or because they have none. We most often associate dispassion, then, with the absence of emotion.

But that’s not what it generally means in ancient Christian writings. Since it is used pretty frequently, it’s an important concept to understand. The best explanation I’ve encountered is this one. Dispassion describes a state where, when you experience an emotion, you do not act on that emotion without a conscious act of volition or will. In other words, it describes a state where, rather than being ruled by our passions as we so often are, we rule them instead.

Dispassion does not mean that we do not experience emotion. It does not mean that we do express emotion. It does not mean that we do not act from that emotion. But it does mean that we do not think or act in response to that emotion without a conscious and deliberate choice.

Few of us ever attain this sort of dispassion even fleetingly. But I think it has to describe how Jesus lived his whole life. How else could he have kept his human will faithfully aligned with God’s if his every response was not under his conscious, volitional control? After all, he experienced the full range of human emotion and he often did so under more intense conditions than many of us will ever know. Yet even in the middle of his torture and execution, as he was reviled by all around him, he did not revile them in turn. Clearly, Jesus was a man who never “lost control” of himself.

I think we often interpret Jesus as though his thoughts and actions springing from his emotional responses mirrored our own. For instance, we often describe his actions overturning tables and driving out moneychangers from the temple as though Jesus became enraged and responded from that anger. But that’s not how it is described in the Gospels. Rather, it is portrayed as a prophetic act. Prophets didn’t just speak. They often acted in outrageous ways. And it was a Messianic act of cleansing and “rebuilding” the temple. And the leaders and the people understood it in that way. Efforts to eliminate him intensified.

No, Jesus didn’t fly off the handle and lose control in the temple. He acted faithfully in perfect accordance with God’s will. Was he also angry? Perhaps. It would have been a normal emotional response in those circumstances. But it was not anger that was driving him, whether he experienced it or not.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one place where our Scriptures explicitly tell us Jesus was angry, and that was standing in front of Lazarus’ tomb. In Jesus we see the sorrow and anger of God at the death of the eikon. We know that Jesus experienced all that we experience, so we know that he felt all our normal range of emotions. But we are infrequently informed in our Scriptures about Jesus’ internal emotional state or experience at any particular moment. And while I see no harm in our attempts to see things from his perspective, we need to always keep in mind that even in his extremity his emotions never ruled him.

I also find the order of St. Maximos’ last thought interesting. Fear of God flows from faith in God and not the other way around. It strikes me that a lot of people today tend to get that one backwards.


What To Blog Through Next?

Posted: December 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , | Comments Off on What To Blog Through Next?

I have several things already in mind to write, but since I’ve finished On The Incarnation Of The Word, I was wondering if there were any ancient Christian writings that anyone who reads what I write might like to see next? There are many things I’ve read over the years, but I’ve never really recorded my thoughts on those works in writing the way I’ve been doing here.

I was leaning toward the catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Dating from the fourth century, they capture the basic teachings and practices of the Church as it first emerged from its initial centuries of persecution. In many ways, these are those same practices the Church developed during that initial persecution. His lectures form one of the most concise windows into that part of the history of the Church.

Or I’ve considered exploring some of the recorded homilies or sermons of St. John Chrysostom. They remain as illuminating today as they were then in many ways, though of course some of the details of life have changed. Still, people are people, so less has changed than you might imagine.

I’ve thought about stepping back further and stepping through the apologies of St. Justin Martyr from the second century. Or perhaps even further back to St. Ignatius of Antioch.

If anyone reading has a particular preference, let me know. Personally, they all have works I have loved reading in the past. I would not mind writing on any of them (and more).

I wouldn’t be comfortable writing at length through any of the writings of Tertullian. I’m aware that he ended his life a schismatic and he held some pretty strange beliefs in places. I’ve read much of his preserved works and I’m simply not comfortable trying to parse what is or is not a reasonable representation of the orthodox thread of faith and practice from which Tertullian strayed.

Similarly, though I’ve read St. Augustine and am aware of the places he differs (sometimes markedly) from the overall theological tenor of his times (probably at times spurred by an over-reaction to Pelagius), I wouldn’t really feel comfortable trying to write publicly about his works. Perhaps I would be more comfortable at some point with St. John Cassian, who seems at times to be offering a corrective to St. Augustine, though he never explicitly says so.

Anyway, if anyone does have a suggestion or particular interest, I would like to know.

Thanks.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 9 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans Redux

Posted: July 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I decided to open and close the posts in this series reflecting on St. Ignatius with different chapters in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. In my first look at this letter, I focused on chapter 8. In this post I’m going to consider chapter 6.

Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly things, and the glory of the angels, and the principalities, both visible and invisible, if they believe not on the blood of Christ, for them also is there condemnation. Let him who receiveth it, receive it in reality. Let not high place puff up any man. For the whole matter is faith and love, to which there is nothing preferable. Consider those who hold heretical opinions with regard to the grace of Jesus Christ which hath come unto us, how opposite they are to the mind of God. They have no care for love, nor concerning the widow, nor concerning the orphan, nor concerning the afflicted, nor concerning him who is bound or loosed, nor concerning him who is hungry or thirsty. They refrain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.

One of the things about any ancient faith grounded in a predominantly oral culture that is difficult for many in a modern literate culture to truly “get inside” is the fact that they don’t tend to “document” normal practice and belief. For instance, you won’t really grasp Hinduism simply by reading the Vedic literature. You won’t penetrate very far in understanding Buddhism simply by reading the life of Siddhartha Gautama or any of the scriptures or traditional texts. In order to advance in understanding either path, you must find a guru or teacher or school that will then communicate to you the practice of this way of life. (In the West today, a number of these paths actually have been reduced to writing, so you can follow a guru to some extent without actually working with them in person. But that is not the preferred means of communicating their way.)

When we read the New Testament canon and ancient Christian writings, we encounter a similar dynamic. Nowhere does anyone actually write down in a formal structured manner all that Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples to see and understand following the Resurrection. We are told in several places that he did so, but frustratingly are not told what he taught. Similarly, we are never actually given details of the practice of worship in the Church in any organized manner. Instead, we get snippets here and there as the NT authors write letters to be delivered by trusted coworkers in the faith who would convey them accurately in order to resolve problem situations that the author could not, for whatever reason, resolve in person. Sometimes we’re told what the problem is. Sometimes we aren’t.

However, rather than expecting people to learn from individual gurus or within schools that preserved a particular piece of the teaching, new Christians were expected to learn the traditions of the faith from the bishops installed and taught first by the apostles and then by the later bishops in turn. The knowledge of the practice of the faith was thus conveyed from generation to generation in the predominantly oral cultures of the era. I think some of our English translations have something of an agenda behind them in this regard. For instance, the nine occurrences or so of a negative usage of the Greek paradosis (or variants) are typically translated tradition, as in the tradition of the Pharisees.  (Cue somber, warning music.) However, in the three or so instances where paradosis is used positively in the NT, it is translated teaching instead in some translations. Personally, I think that somewhat distorts what Paul is saying when he, for example, tells the Thessalonian church to hold onto the traditions they were taught, whether orally or in writing (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

I’ve prefaced my thoughts on today’s letter excerpt with these reflections because once again we are not seeing a formal written Confession, Statement of Faith, or written rule of worship. Those will be as uncommon in the ancient writings as they are in the New Testament itself. In the first century, the Didache comes as close as we get to such a written statement and even it is more the confession of the tradition intended to be recited by catechumens at their Baptism than something broader or more comprehensive. As in the NT, the ancient Christian writers were typically writing to address a specific problem or counter a specific heresy the author could not deal with in person.

And we see that here with Ignatius. From the description, he was clearly writing to address some variation of gnostic belief and practice that was apparently gaining some traction in Smyrna. Gnostics generally believed in special knowledge rather than the practices of love common to Christians. And they believed the physical was evil and the spiritual good. So they often did not believe Jesus ever actually had a body or was really a human being at all. (We also call that heresy docetism.) Gnostics loved lots of levels and ranks of powers. In the first sentence, Ignatius dismisses all such structures, however powerful they might appear to be, by asserting that all reality rests on the blood of Jesus. And he stresses that he who receives that blood needs to receive it in reality.

Finally, in the last sentence, St. Ignatius notes that the heretics refuse to receive the eucharist because they will not confess it is the flesh of Jesus. By contrast then, those who do receive the eucharist must confess that it is the flesh of Jesus. Naturally a gnostic, with the deeply engrained belief that all physical bodies are evil would be particularly repelled by the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood. (It was generally understood as a strange belief among Christians by those completely outside the faith as well.) Yet even by the close of the first century Christians not just believed that in the eucharist they were consuming Christ, but actually confessed it was his flesh before receiving it. That image stands in sharp juxtaposition with the modern Baptist belief and even with the 1689 London Confession.

This is why the Baptist perspective has a fundamental historical problem. As we proceed, we will see the Christian liturgy better described and the understanding of the Eucharist more deeply explored. But the basic idea that the bread is the flesh of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ and that we consume Jesus in order to receive life is not something dreamed up in the 4th century, or in the 8th century, or in the 13th century, or even in the mid to late 2nd century. The thread of this belief can effectively be traced all the way back to the start of the Church. It’s impossible to find a point where this belief ever changed from one thing to something different in the ancient church. In order to say that Baptists (or Zwingli or Calvin) have the correct perspective on the Eucharist, you virtually have to say that the Apostles got it wrong — or at least that they weren’t able to teach anyone following them the “correct” understanding.

Now, don’t misunderstand me on this point. Nothing we’ve looked at means you have to or even should accept the 13th century theory of transubstantiaton, which is one attempt to explain the mystery. You don’t need to know Aristotle or believe that Aristotle correctly describes the nature of reality. In fact, the list of things you don’t have to believe is pretty long. The two beliefs that are not supported historically, though, are the belief that it is “just” a symbol (whatever that may mean) and the alternative belief that while more than a mere symbol it remains a “purely” spiritual feeding.

Gnostics had no problem with symbols or with the spiritual. In fact, they had something of an overabundance of both.


The Didache – Series Intro

Posted: June 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache – Series Intro

I’ve mentioned the Didache: The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations a number of times in past posts and even reflected on its rules on fasting in my series, Not the Fast I’ve Chosen. It’s one of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving written Christian writings other than those writings which were later recognized as the Holy Scriptures. In fact, the Didache and another early work, The Shepherd of Hermas, were even on some of the early canon lists. The written document dates to around the end of the first century and appears to record in writing a long-standing oral tradition.

I’ve read the Didache many times over the course of my journey within Christianity. It’s a writing that keeps drawing me back in and I leave each time with new or renewed insight, not because the words have changed, but because I have changed. These last two months since my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that it strikes me often in ways that are different from the way I remember reading it before I knew I was a celiac.

I’ve decided I feel like writing a series walking through the whole of the Didache. It will be as many parts as it ends up being. Some days I may cover section. Other days I may reflect on a sentence. These will be my thoughts, though shaped of course by everything and everyone I’ve encountered and read over the years. I’m not an authority of any sort on ancient Christian writings. If you’re looking for scholarly analysis or insight, go elsewhere.

I’ll be writing because it’s a document that has meant a lot to me over the years and it still provokes new thoughts. I’ll be using the translation I linked above not because I think it’s the “best” translation. Frankly, I couldn’t judge that at all. I’m using it because it’s the translation with which I’m the most comfortable. I don’t really have any goal or point to this series other than to walk through the document and see what it spurs me to write. We’ll start tomorrow with my initial post in this series.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

Posted: May 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

I ended my first post in the series with the confession that I might never have chosen truly to fast. The reasons are many and complex and I’m not sure I even have them all worked out. It is true, however, that I am a product of our present American culture. And by and large, we do not fast. In this post, I’ll weave through aspects of my formation and journey that seem relevant to me at this moment.

I’m not certain, but I believe I first encountered something of the idea of fasting in practice (as opposed to literature) when I attended a Roman Catholic school a block from our home in Houston for 6th through 8th grade. Even then it had faded as the practice has faded across the board in Roman Catholicism in America. But there were some adults who, for instance, did not eat meat on Fridays. It was discussed in Religion class. And even though the practice of Lent had largely become one of each individual selecting something for themselves to ‘give up’ from Ash Wednesday to Easter, it was still a definite practice and fasting was discussed.

I was not Catholic and I did not participate in any of the fasts. In truth, my attention at that time, to the best of my recollection, was primarily focused on the practice of Transcendental Meditation, numerology, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and a number of similar avenues of spiritual exploration. But I did pay attention. I was interested in all things spiritual. I would not say I understood on any visceral level. But I was aware.

Flash forward now through the twists and turns of close to two decades, soon after the time when the idea that I was acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as my Lord and my God and attempting to follow him had become a core piece of my identity. (The word ‘conversion’ always seems inadequate to me. Plus, in a sociological sense, I probably had many ‘conversions’ both toward Jesus and away from him over the course of my life. All were ‘real’. That’s the best way I can describe what finally happened to me.) A lot happened over those years, some of it probably tangentially related to this discussion, but not central to what I want to explore right now.

Given my longstanding interest in history, especially ancient history, it did not take me long to begin reading ancient Christian writings and history in addition to the Holy Scriptures. Most particularly, it did not take me long to run across the Didache, a teaching and apparent baptismal confession recorded in the late first century and likely capturing an established oral tradition spanning back decades, very likely to the period of time when Paul and Barnabas were engaged in their early missionary journeys both together and separately. It’s a rich and haunting document, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on this excerpt.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The hypocrites is clearly a reference to Matthew 23 and those to whom Jesus was speaking. And we know it was the discipline in Judaism at the time to fast on Monday and Thursday. This is part of what Jesus is referring to in the Sermon on the Mount in the section when he discusses how not to act and how to act when (not if) you fast. The assumption was that everyone fasted and his point was not to act in a manner that you drew attention to your fasting or the recognition of men would be all you would receive. In order to distinguish themselves from the unbelieving Jewish communities (and for theological reasons) the church from a very early time moved its days of communal fasting from Monday and Thursday to Wednesday and Friday. They did not cease observing days of communal fasting. They moved them to days that related to Jesus.

The Holy Scriptures, of course, speak often of fasting. You encounter it everywhere in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of it. James speaks of it. It’s littered throughout the New Testament, where it frequently seems to be almost taken for granted rather than explained. I saw how the communal form of the practice quickly developed in the church. But I hadn’t really seen fasting like that anywhere in my life. And I saw no fasting anywhere in my particular community of faith. Feasting? (Or maybe gluttony, since I’m not sure you can properly feast if you never fast.) Oh yes! So much so that it was a topic for jokes. (When we meet, we eat!) But no communal practice of fasting. The only place I had encountered something close was in the Roman Catholic church. But even there, it was more a memory of the recent past than a present practice in the form I encountered.

This brings us up to the mid to late nineties and this post is more than long enough. We’ll continue this journey in the next post in this series.