So We’re All Pluralists Now?

Posted: December 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | 4 Comments »

I’ve been pondering one of the recent reports from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths, for a while now. (There’s also a pretty good newspaper article about it here.) This seems to be another one of those areas in which my cultural childhood formation rode the leading edge of a wave that has now become normative. I’ve certainly explored and practiced many beliefs over the course of my life. My normal approach to a proposed belief or practice, if I find it appealing, has been to live and practice it as though it were true and see what happens. As a result, what I do or do not believe has always been somewhat fluid. It’s an approach that those who perceive reality in more rigid and sharply delineated ways have always had a hard time comprehending.

So I understand much of the ethos and practice that seems to underlie the data in the report. I truly do. And yet, on an another level, there is a degree of incoherence that is striking even to me. It really stands out in the context of the report’s exploration of belief in reincarnation. Roughly a quarter of the general population (and the same general proportion of Christians) believe in reincarnation. A tenth of conservative, white evangelical Christians believe in reincarnation.

Now, I have nothing specifically against a choice to believe in the transmigration of souls. I’m not singling out that question in the report because of any animus toward it. I have personally held variations of that belief within the context of different frameworks over the course of much of my childhood and adult life. I understand it well and if I were ever to decide that Christianity were untrue I would almost certainly return to some sort of framework that included some sort of belief in reincarnation. Other than the Christian narrative, I believe that perspective offers the only other lens on the nature of reality and what it means to be human that I ultimately find palatable.

However, the fact that so many people simultaneously say they are Christian and that they hold to some sort of belief in reincarnation tells me that they do not truly understand what one or both of those two perspectives say about reality. For they say very different things, indeed. Now, I have less difficulty than some at simultaneously holding thoughts and even beliefs that some might find … incompatible. But even I cannot reconcile and simultaneously hold those two perspectives. It makes me wonder what people are thinking.

While there are a variety of frameworks within which a belief in the transmigration of souls can comfortably fit, they do necessarily share some attributes. For instance, they obviously must hold that whatever it is that we define as ‘you’ (or ‘me’) is in some sense distinct and separate from our material body. In other words, to the extent that our body has any true reality (and that can certainly vary according to the particular framework), it houses our true self or essence. Our bodies are not what we are. They are something we have or wear, instead. The true you, then, can inhabit many material forms over the course of the ages, and yet remain distinctly ‘you’.

But that is not what Christianity has always said. We do not have a body (or the illusion of a body as the case may be). We are our body. That is to say that we are inextricably tied to our bodies in such a way that only our bodies and spirit together can truly form a living soul. We were not created to die and death is the ultimate enemy. The promise of which Christ was the first fruit is the promise of Resurrection. We are held and sustained within the life of God as our bodies sleep in death until we receive our body (renewed and recreated as Christ’s was) once again in the Resurrection of the Dead. The whole point of Paul’s great treatise on Resurrection in 1 Corinthians is that you can’t believe in Christ’s Resurrection unless you also believe in our own. Resurrection tells an utterly different story about who and what we are than reincarnation does. I don’t see how you can simultaneously hold both stories as true.

It boggles even my mind.

I also noticed that those constructing the survey did a poor job in their effort to capture a non-Christian belief in ‘ghosts’. It seems to me that, the way the question was phrased, it could easily be interpreted in a manner completely consistent with the very traditional Christian understanding of the communion of the saints. After all, we profess that those of us who are in Christ will never die, even though our bodies ‘sleep’. We’re the ones who say the nature of reality changed when Christ came out of that tomb. However, the Christian belief has nothing to do with either the ancient pagan or the ‘New Age’ practice of communing with the dead. We do not believe that those who have fallen asleep in Christ are truly dead, even if their exact state remains something of a mystery. As a result of the poor phrasing, I find it unsurprising, for instance, that a high percentage of Catholics answered the question positively. Now, I’m sure some of those probably had modern ‘ghost’ encounters in mind rather than a Christian experience of the communion of the saints. But it seems to me that there is no way to distinguish the two groups in the results.

In light of these results, I suppose it’s not surprising that editor of the SBTC Texan has written an opinion piece that essentially defends Christian pluralism, denominationalism, and division while excoriating those who don’t actually know what they believe. Of course, the argument that the sort of Christian pluralism the modern age gave us is simply inevitable is not supported by the actual history of the Church. And the argument that it is somehow a “good” (or necessary) thing contradicts the Christian Holy Scriptures. I suppose I generally agree with him that it’s better to know what you believe than not to the extent that that’s possible. I also agree that the distinctives of Baptist faith and practice diverge so much from historical Christianity that they could only exist within some sort of context of Christian pluralism. I do not, however, agree that the radical divisiveness of modern Christianity is or has ever been inevitable, necessary, or good.

I guess I’ve become some sort of out-moded and out-of-date pluralist made obsolete by the modern crest of pluralism that doesn’t suffer from my restrictions. Nevertheless, it looks … shallow … to me. I guess it’s time to go yell at the kids to get off the lawn or some other crotchety act. 😉


Lull in the Holidays

Posted: December 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Lull in the Holidays

Or at least that’s true for most of us in the United States who treat Christmas as over on the 25th of December and begin gearing up for a New Year’s bash. (Though, in truth, it’s mostly been quiet celebrations at home for my wife and me for many years now.) Much to my wife’s chagrin, I’ve never been particularly “into” the American style of Christmas celebration. I’m not really sure why. My childhood experiences of Christmas are all over the map, but I don’t recall any particularly negative experiences. My interest in our particular expression of the “holiday season” simply … faded … as I entered preteen and teenage years and never returned.

As a Christian, I’ve tried in various ways over the past decade-plus to connect to the particular celebration of the Nativity of Christ. That’s not been easy since it seems like relatively few American churches actually maintain much connection to anything traditionally Christian in their celebrations. Most follow the American rhythm of intensifying efforts at celebration that culminate and end on the 25th of December rather than the Christian rhythm of preparation for the Nativity followed by a feast that begins on the 25th and continues through January 6th.

I guess I’m just not much interested in another day the quality of which is primarily distinguished by how much you do or do not like the stuff you received from others. I’m a bit of a humbug that way, I suppose.

For those who might be wondering, I haven’t vanished. I was sick before Christmas with a bad cold. And then we had guests using the room where my computer sits. I like having family over, but it does mean that I have less access to my computer. I actually have a number of things bouncing around my head that I want to translate into written words at some point. But I’m in no particular rush at the moment to do so. Still, there will likely be some posts straggling out over the next few days.

I hope everyone stays safe and has a happy New Year celebration of whatever sort they choose!


Merry Christmas!

Posted: December 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to take a moment and wish any and all who might wander by here a very,  merry Christmas. This is, of course, the season during which Christians celebrate the nativity of our Lord, the wonder of the Incarnation. But it has also become a broader American celebration of family. For those who have suffered loss, this season is also often bittersweet at best and dark and hopeless at worst. I especially wish grace and peace to all those suffering during this time and I offer up my prayers.

Lord have mercy.


My Church History Perspective 7 – So what do I find in history?

Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 7 – So what do I find in history?

This question ties together some of my earlier musings. What actually matters to me in all the complex history of the Church? For there are things that do matter deeply to me and go well beyond my long-standing interest in trying to perceive the world through the lenses of different cultures and times. The history of the Church is a deep and rich history that is fascinating simply as a topic of exploration. That’s why there have been and I’m sure are historians who study it today even though they do not hold to the faith themselves. It has threaded its way into more (and extremely different) cultures than any ancient religion, adapting and speaking differently to those within that culture, yet retaining (at least until the modern era) the same perspective on the true nature of reality. There are ups and downs, good things and bad. It’s a deeply human history.

And yet it is also something more.

And it’s that “more” that I truly seek. Christianity is not a story about man seeking God as much as it’s a story about this God who searches for us. We see that immediately in the beautiful story of the garden, as God comes looking for the mankind who is hiding from him and clothes them. If that does not  prefigure the Incarnation of our Lord, then I don’t know what does. The Incarnation is, of course, the ultimate act of the God who seeks to rescue his creation by becoming a part of it, by joining his nature to ours. Jesus is not just a man, he is the true man who stands in the place of all mankind, faithful where we were faithless, but by joining our nature to his, making it possible for us to be true and faithful human beings.

And this Jesus of Nazareth was and is an actual person which means that as with any other person, we relate to him effectively only to the extent that we relate to him as he truly is rather than as we imagine him to be. And here the Christian story takes yet another odd turn when compared to other religions. We are told that the Church, those in communion with Jesus and with each other, form his body. There is a mystical connection and union such that in the Church we can see and know Christ.

No, it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve been driven away from Christianity and Christ by those who say they follow him. But I’ve also been attracted to Christ through and by Christians. I’ve experienced both dynamics first-hand and I see them both interwoven throughout the history of the Church. And in this day and age, we see more, and often contradictory, versions of “Christ” presented than in any other era, making it more rather than less difficult to see Christ in the Church. Nevertheless, it is Christ I seek to find in the Church.

I think one of many factors in the modern fragmentation and almost dissolution of the Protestant strand of the Church is that so much of it effectively turned its back on and walked away from its saints. Without that grounding in and among those who have been faithful, who have known Christ, it is easy to be swayed by the next charismatic leader or sexy new idea. We are the ones who claim that death has been defeated and that we are no longer subject to it. And yet so many modern Protestants seem to reject communion with those whose bodies may now sleep, but who nonetheless are safe and alive in Christ. I’m not interested in a faith or a God that is different from that known by St. Athanasius or St. Maximos the Confessor or St. Columba or St. Patrick or St. Gregory the Theologian or St. Basil the Great or any of the others who have come before me, remembered by name or not.

Now, that does not mean that I’m looking for the right outward form or practice. Those things are not unimportant, I suppose. In fact, I think they can be deeply important. But none of that matters until you answer that penetrating question Jesus asks us all, “Who do you say that I am?”

My interest and knowledge in history does mean I’m shielded in some ways from various trends. For instance, I’m not particularly interested in the house church movement in its modern incarnation because I don’t confuse an ancient Roman (or Greek or Jewish) household with the modern dwelling of a nuclear family. Further, the ancient church was not really rooted originally in households, anyway. Read Acts and read some of the things Paul mentions in his letters. The church initially met in the Temple and then as Christianity spread, in synagogues until the Christians were kicked out. The households (or before persecution became common the public meeting houses) where Christians met for worship carried over elements of that synagogue worship.

I suppose my knowledge of history also means I don’t believe there’s any one right way to do worship. I see how Christianity has threaded its way into different cultures, redeemed elements of the culture, added to its practice, and yet remained distinct from that native culture. However, the fact that worship practice adapted and changed in different cultures and times also does not mean that there are not some things which are, in fact, essential to Christian worship. We worship a particular God, a particular Christ. And that dictates some of what we must do if we are to say that we are Christian.

That’s why I have threads of thought like the one in my series of posts on Baptists and the Eucharist. At the heart of that discussion lies my recognition that by divorcing themselves from any and all historic practice and interpretation, the Baptist tradition (and the large swath of Protestantism that shares similar beliefs) is saying something very different about who Jesus is and how we relate to him. And, frankly, that thread of thought and practice seems inextricably tied to dualism. It’s a denial that we are our bodies. We do not “have” a body. We are our body. We are also more than just our body, certainly. But our identity, existence, and reality cannot be separated from our body.

And when we deny that, we also deny the deepest reality of the Incarnation. Jesus did not wear a body in some sort of spiritual play. That was actually the subject of a number of ancient heresies in different shapes and forms. Jesus became flesh. He remains flesh. And he invites us to make our flesh part of his flesh by and through consuming him and doing so rightly, which does not mean in the correct ritual manner, but with our innermost being and will directed toward Christ. We are what we eat in the deepest sense of the phrase.

I had thought I might explore some of my understanding of and interaction with various periods of Church history. But it didn’t really come out that way and I have the feeling that this is a good and right place to end this particular series.


My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

Posted: December 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

The title of this post flows from the fact that a lot of the discussion within Christianity in the US sometimes seems to revolve around “modernity.” Now, I will not argue that the modern culture in (primarily) Western Europe and the US was not significant for Christianity. It’s pretty much the culture that gave birth to the entire Protestant tradition. And it shaped not only our part of the world, but greatly influenced the rest of the world. That influence was in part positive and in part negative. Our scientific advances have made life better. But Western colonialism and the sense of “Manifest Destiny” (strangely rooted in some sort of a “Christian” ethos) under which we conquered what is now the United States left scars across the world. And the 20th century demonstrated clearly how our ability to improve life went hand in hand with our ability to destroy it.

The 20th century began the “postmodern” turn in Western culture and societies. Although still developing or “emerging“, that’s the culture that largely formed and shaped me. A discussion of that turn is beyond the scope of this series, but obviously that turn highlighted a question among Christians in what is broadly called “the West” today. What would the cultural turn mean for the train wreck that “Western” Christianity had become? Within that somewhat limited context, a discussion of “modern” and “postmodern” Christianity made and continues to make sense.

However, I had a problem when I began to encounter another term: premodern. Whether you are speaking of cultures and societies in general, or Christianity specifically, there is no one thing definably “premodern.” We can speak of Christianity within the culture and context of the Roman Empire (East or West). We can talk about Christianity in the context of western Europe after the city of Rome fell and the Roman Empire essentially contracted to the East. We can talk about Christianity in the early (or late) middle ages in western Europe. We can talk about Christianity in Armenia after it had won its freedom from Persia. We can talk about Christianity among the Slavs following their dramatic conversion. We can talk about Christianity in what we now called the Middle East before Islam, after the development of Islam but before Constantinople fell, or after the fall of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The list goes on and on.

Christianity is not centered on the modern culture of western Europe and the United States and cannot be defined in relation to that one culture. Framing the discussion in terms of modern, postmodern, and premodern seems to try to do exactly that. Even when you limit the scope of the discussion to western Europe, there is no common “premodern” period. There were rather many periods, cultures, and cultural shifts before the advent of modernity.

Further, western Europe was not the birthplace of Christianity. Attempting to center the discussion on the cultural shifts of the west strikes me as … odd. I don’t approach history that way. I suppose I don’t try to construct some sort of unified arc within which I can fit the topic of Christianity. Instead, I approach the history of the Church within each of its cultural settings simply trying to understand what it was and how it operated within that context. Although I’m as prone to generalize and make broad statements as anyone else, when pushed I drop back into the story of the small.


My Church History Perspective 5 – Translation and Textual Criticism

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

The two threads of the problem of translation and the impact of modern textual criticism strike me as interwoven with the work of history in different ways. Any work of translation, of course, is an intrinsically historical effort. Language is closely correlated with culture. So before an idea can be expressed in a different language, it must be understood in the setting of its original context. However, because different languages operate in different cultural contexts and historical settings, operating sometimes under very different assumptions, there is often not a clear expression of an idea from one language in another. Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, often seems to be used against actual historical evidence, as if working from texts alone one can somehow divine the “truth.” I wanted to touch on both topics, at least briefly, in this series.

The work of translation is, as I already mentioned, a fundamentally historical work. The success and accuracy of any translation effort depends on the correct understanding of the text that is being translated. Since idiom and cultural assumptions permeate any and every text, if you do not properly understand those assumptions and the idioms that flow from them, you will misunderstand the text being translated. Obviously, if you don’t correctly understand that which you are translating, the odds of correctly translating it are significantly worse.

But the task is even harder because it is impossible to approach any text without your own presuppositions. The more important the text is to you, the more your desires will influence your translation efforts. Modern translators of biblical texts into English try to overcome some of those biases by assembling teams of translators. However, that simply trades the individual bias for a group bias. No translation effort is ever free from that sort of bias. That’s why it’s always good to research a translation and understand which Christian tradition or group produced the translation. It’s a particular problem now due to the radical division and pluralism of belief that exists in Christianity today.

Sometimes translators simply ignore history. For example, there are those who decided that the Apostle Junia mentioned in Romans must have been a male named “Junias” despite the complete lack of any historical evidence that such a male name ever existed and over the clear historical tradition of the Church about Junia. Why did they reach that conclusion? Because they did not believe a woman could have been an apostle. The bias of the group drove decisions about the translation of the text in direct opposition to the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. However, translation bias is not usually as blatant as that. Typically, it’s more subtle.

Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, is much stranger and much more driven by the biases and goals of those performing it. I think I’m too “postmodern” in my formation to understand a perspective that believes you can “objectively” determine much of anything by studying texts. It’s this discipline, for instance, that has promulgated the widely held belief that the Gospel of Mark was written first and even that there is some mythical “lost” document that Mark and the other synoptics used as a source. There is no historical basis for either claim. Every patristic source we have states that Matthew was written first. Moreover, there would have been no motive for the ancient writers to lie or distort the truth. There is no evidence that the order itself was important to them. They were simply reporting the tradition they had received from the apostles themselves or from those who had known one or more of them.

The question then, is really why the modern textual critics wanted Mark to be the first gospel written? And when you ask that question, you begin to unravel a tapestry that allowed some in that group to place Mark in the second century, and remove all the gospels from an apostolic source. That’s not a widely held belief anymore from what I can tell, but the idea that Mark was written first, developed as a linchpin for that effort, persists nonetheless.

Bias also creeps in through variations in the ancient texts. If you read the notes in the translation of the Holy Scriptures you use, you might see notes to the effect that the “oldest” texts do not contain this or that bit of the text or that they say something different. Our initial reaction is to believe that the “older” texts are the more accurate, but that’s a reaction based on modern assumptions. In the ancient world, the texts were generally produced by hand. It was a long, laborious process and much depended on the skill of the transcriber. Given that texts were always less trusted in an oral culture, a poor text would be quickly identified and set aside while a good text would be used. Thus the oldest surviving texts are more likely to be poor copies that were little used while the better texts were much used and thus did not remain intact. If something exists in a broad array of old texts, there is no reason to reject those texts simply because one or two older ones have something different.

However, even among the best copies there are some variations in the text. But that doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody in the ancient world. They expected it and treated it as completely natural. If you read patristic sermons, you’ll encounter places where they note that the text they are reading says this, but they’ve read it differently elsewhere, and then they’ll tend to explore points in both variations. Later, as the texts were translated into other languages, you’ll see points made from the nuance of the language of the translation that go beyond the meaning in the original. Christianity has always believed that the Spirit speaks authoritatively through the text in any language and, as long as it is consistent with the tradition of interpretation, has had no problem with nuance arising from the translation itself.

The obsession with determining exactly what text is “right” is a purely modern one. And it most often seems to be a way of disputing or rejecting traditional interpretations and asserting novel interpretations instead. There is actually no such thing as a truly “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the word, not in the way it seems to be bandied about today) Protestant. But then, most people today (at least in the US) don’t use “conservative” or “liberal” in anything like their original sense. I’m not sure there is any consensus on what the new meanings of the words are because they don’t seem to be used in any consistent fashion at all. Most often, they seem to be used either as pejoratives or to describe the group with which you associate. If that group uses one of the words, then in that context, the word means the things that the group says and the other word describes everyone else.

Or at least, so it seems to me.


My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

There are many aspects in the study of ancient cultures and life that make it difficult for us to grasp the way people thought and interacted and the way various events are tied together. Not least of these problems is the essentially ephemeral nature of most human artifacts. A lot of people I encounter seem to think we know (as in some certain knowledge) a lot more about the ancient world than we actually do. The reality is that ancient history is a process more akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing and no certain idea what the assembled mosaic should portray. Discerning the overarching threads of the picture is made even more difficult because we do not think about or approach the world around us in the same way they did. Our culture, that is our basic assumptions about the nature of reality, other people, power structures, and the threads that tie it all together, is very different from any ancient culture. When we simply look at collections of artifacts or bits of information through the lens of our modern culture and assumptions, we will invariably construct a false picture of the past.

That’s one of the things that has always made ancient history so fascinating to me. I love the challenge of trying to see the world through those very different lenses. I can never fully do it, of course. I’m as much the product of the forces and assumptions that shaped me as we all are. But I can catch glimpses here and there. I can have flashes of insight. In truth, it’s the same sort of problem that has also drawn my interest to different modern cultures, trying to understand how they shape and form the lenses through which people view reality. But with ancient cultures, you’re operating with fragments. The glass is shattered. Nobody presently alive was a part of that ancient culture and so you’re looking through small pieces at a time and trying to discern the whole.

One of the core differences between most of our modern cultures and the ancient cultures is that modern cultures are predominantly literate cultures rather than oral cultures. Now, that statement means a whole lot more than simply whether or not people can read and write. In the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds it was not unusual for people of all classes (even slaves and women) to be able to read and write to some extent. But the cultures were fundamentally oral cultures. And that has some profound implications.

(I haven’t read biblical scholars to any great extent because many of the modern ones don’t seem to be historians and are thus less interesting to me. However, I have noticed that Ben Witherington III and N.T. Wright are two biblical scholars who are also historians and incorporate a lot of this into their work. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones. But, as I said, I haven’t read or listened to any broad spectrum of biblical scholars. I just happened to stumble across the two above over the course of years.)

One of the hurdles we face seems at first to be a relatively minor difference at first. We trust things in writing more than things that are spoken. They trusted things that were spoken more than things that were written. In other words, if somebody tells us something and we aren’t sure if they are telling us the truth or not, we will try to look it up in a trusted written work. We will look for a signed contract outlining the agreement. We elevate the text over the merely verbal.

In the ancient world the opposite was true. If someone spoke, you knew who was speaking and you knew for certain what they said. You could then decide (often through complex chains of trust) if the person speaking was someone you would believe or not. Agreements and contracts relied on verbal oaths with witnesses. Even when they were written down, the written text was considered poor evidence. Texts, on the other hand, were inherently untrustworthy. You had no idea if the person to whom they were attributed actually wrote them. You didn’t know if they had been changed or altered. And they were subject to misinterpretation.

Those problems were further exacerbated by the nature of writing in that part of the ancient world. Material on which to write was not inexpensive and so none of it was wasted. Ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts did not have upper or lower case letters. They did not use punctuation. And they did not put spaces between the words. Ancient written Hebrew didn’t even use vowels. They were inferred from the consonants and context.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine trying to read and understand this post if it were written in all capital letters, with no punctuation, and no spaces.

Now take out the vowels.

Most “letters” in the ancient world were very brief and factual. You could give a servant or messenger a letter that said (after greetings), “Here are the three donkeys I promised to send to you,” with little chance of being misunderstood. The “letters” in the New Testament are really not much like letters at all. They are generally sermons or treatises sometimes inserted inside the structure of a formal letter. (Not all the “letters” have any of that structure. 1 John, for example, is simply a sermon.) As a result, the written text alone would never have been trusted or even correctly understood by its recipients as a mere text. Rather, the text would have been entrusted to a messenger, someone those receiving the text would either know or know about, and would trust that the person came from the one said to have sent the text. That person would then deliver the text verbally in the stead of the one who sent it. It was the person carrying the message who was trusted first, not the message itself. And it was that person who knew how to accurately read the text and who could hand over the correct reading (or tradition it) to those receiving it. Once you recognize that fact, you realize how important those delivering any text like those in our New Testament canon actually were and you realize that a text had no independent authority. Paul does us the favor of identifying many of those who carried the sermons he could not deliver in person to various places. And it is therefore much more significant than many modern people seem to realize that the sermon/treatise to the Roman Church by Paul was given to Deacon Phoebe to deliver.

And that brings us to the way knowledge is held and transmitted in oral cultures. We use the written word as our repository of knowledge and our means of transmitting that knowledge to others. That is not essentially true in an oral culture. People instead commit the important things to memory. I’ve noticed that a lot of modern people are amazed at that or think it’s impossible. But it’s really not. We have trained our minds to work within the context of a literate culture so we use our memories differently than those in an oral culture do. But in an oral culture, people routinely commit segments of their tradition to memory essentially word for word. That is the process of “traditioning” knowledge in an oral culture.

When we do not understand that facet, we miss the many places where our texts speak of “handing over to you what I received” or urging people to hold fast to what was “traditioned” to them either in person or in a text delivered by a trusted messenger. We also misplace our trust. Their trust in the ancient Church was never in a text. They didn’t even have texts in all instances. (Texts were hand written and very expensive.) Their trust was in those who gave them the tradition of our faith within the context of our shared communion. The trust was in the network of people who proclaimed our Lord and who, originally, had seen our risen Lord and been instructed by him. That is actually the basis behind the acceptance of certain texts as canonical. They were texts believed to have originated from those taught by Jesus after his death, those who traditioned the apostolic witness to the Church, and they were texts that were widely read in the Church. (The gnostic gospels and other texts, by comparison, were very narrowly read. Others, like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, lacked a definitive connection to a specific apostolic witness.)

When we miss this facet of an oral culture, we also miss the import of statements like that in the Didache, where before Baptism those being baptized “say all these things”. They were reciting the tradition to show they had properly received it and were prepared to join the community. If you read ancient texts from an oral culture through the lens of a literate culture, you will misunderstand the framework that supports the texts and thus often misunderstand the texts themselves.

It’s hard for me to say whether any text in our Holy Scriptures has a “plain meaning” or not. I certainly find both John’s Gospel and Paul’s sermon to the Romans deep theological treatises that are not at all easy to understand and have layer upon layer of meaning. But I do know that even those texts that might have had a “plain meaning” to those originally receiving it no longer have one for us. We are simply too far removed from the cultural context, language, and understanding to interpret them on our own. We need the interpretation of the communion of the life of the Church to understand our faith. We need to receive it first from the Church. Now, that does not mean we cannot critically examine what we have received. That does not mean the Spirit will not lead us into new insight (though I tend to distrust ideas I have that seem truly new). It doesn’t even mean that everything we receive has necessarily been preserved accurately. But it does mean that if I read the text, or I meditate on God, and I come up with an idea that is not only new, but which contradicts the overall tradition of our faith, I am deeply suspicious of it. And that’s the standard I tend to apply to any teaching or idea promulgated by another.

I never applied that same standard to other spiritualities I pursued. There have been other buddhas and other sutras in Buddhism since Gautama Buddha. Every guru in the myriad paths we today label Hinduism takes a different turn of interpretation or application of the vedic literature. But Christianity is rooted in a specific person who lived, taught, and made known to us a very specific God with a particular perspective on the nature of reality. Christianity is tied to history in a way no other faith I’ve explored has been. Either Jesus of Nazareth was all that God is and the events of his life happened essentially as we believe, or there is no reason to be Christian. So there is no room for a plurality of visions about God within our faith. There is one faith and this is the faith in Jesus as delivered by and through the apostolic witness. If something demonstrably contradicts that witness, I don’t understand why someone would choose to believe it. If I believed their witness were wrong in a substantive way, or that the Church had lost the tradition that had been handed over to it, I wouldn’t see any point in being Christian at all. Once lost, I see no way a tradition as specifically focused as Christianity and rooted in historical events and teachings could ever be recovered.


My Church History Perspective 3 – So what’s up with all the fighting over a book?

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I must confess that I’ve had a hard time determining which thread of my interactions with the Church and its history to tackle first. However, given the sort of Christianity within which I found myself, the first thread of strangeness I encountered had to do with the Bible, so I suppose it makes the most sense to start there. It has always been an area of strangeness for me, and it still holds surprises for me.

I landed in a part of the Christian spectrum that speaks often about the “inerrancy” or “infallibility” of the Holy Scriptures. Now, I’ll be honest and confess that even after fifteen years, I’m unsure exactly what people mean when they use those terms. Further, it strikes me that different groups and even different individuals often mean different things by those words. Sometimes the differences are minor, but other times they seem quite large to me.

I’ve never been able to grasp how the concept of “infallibility” can even apply to a text. Structures and powers can fail you. People can fail you. Faith and spirituality and religion can fail you. You can even fail yourself. But a text is just a text. It remains what it is. I suppose it’s true to say that it won’t “fail” or cease to be what it is. But I’ve never seen any great merit or virtue in that attribute. It is, after all, true of all texts.

In the same way, I’ve never grasped the point of trying to use the category of “error” with a spiritual writing of any sort. Error is the sort of category that best fits the sensible realm within which the scientific method operates. It’s the realm in which you can devise empirical (or as close to empirical as we can ever get) tests to show that an idea either corresponds to the nature of the physical realm or it does not. But I don’t see any way to apply that category to any spiritual writing. After all, they all purport to describe those aspects of reality that transcend the sensible and material portion we can directly test. So I have always tended to assume that any spiritual writing, allowing for the differences introduced by changing cultures and the supreme difficulty of translation, accurately portrays the perspective of reality as it intended to portray it and is thus “without error.

Yes, I would say that’s true of Christian scripture. But I would also say that is true about the Qur’an. I would say it’s true of the many different sutras within Buddhism. I would say it’s true of the Vedas. The question does not ever seem to me to be whether or not any of these texts contain “errors.” The question is which of the many very different perspectives accurately describes the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being? And that question far transcends the category of error.

Some would say these are really an expression of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura. I suppose in some sense they are a natural extension of that idea within the context of growing individualism that marked much of the modern history of Western Europe and the United States. It is not, however, what the Reformers themselves meant by the term. I actually had relatively little difficulty discerning and understanding what they meant. They were basically using the phrase or idea as a way to assert their own right to interpret Scripture over and against the interpretation of the Roman Catholic magisterium of their day. It’s obvious from their subsequent actions as they joined with the political powers of their respective states that they never intended that anyone and everyone was free to interpret Scripture as they saw fit. No, variant interpretations were as brutally repressed and opposed within the Reformation as within the Catholic states. The fury of war that swept Europe as a result left a solution born more of fatigue than any resolution of the question. It was decided that the people of any given state would be a part of the particular sect that held sway in that state and on that basis the constant wars would cease. And many of the states further resolved the problems with their internal religious dissidents by shipping them off to the “New World.” It’s little wonder we’re such a divisive and fractious lot here in the United States when it comes to faith.

No text, of course, has any “objective” meaning apart from interpretation. And the more that interpretation is divorced from the culture and language within which a text was written, the more subjective any independent or individual interpretation of the text will be. That is, for example, why the Qur’an cannot be translated. It is only the Qur’an in its original language. Any translation is instead a commentary on the Qur’an.

But Christianity has never been a religion based on a sacred text. We are not “People of the Book.” No, we claim to be the people of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Living Lord. We are the people, the ecclesia, the Church of those who are in living communion with him and with each other. We are the ones who know, acknowledge and proclaim him Lord. This is why Christians from the earliest days of our faith have held that the truth about Jesus could be proclaimed in any and every language and remain Truth. This is a part of the message of Pentecost. Christian texts could therefore be translated into other languages and still, within the context of the interpretation and proclamation of the Church, remain Holy Scripture. The translation was seen to be as holy as the original, not merely a commentary on the original sacred text.

Now that is not to say that the Holy Scriptures are somehow unimportant. No, they are vitally important and are easily the greatest part of our Christian tradition. But they are only useful to the extent that they are read in light of Christ. They have no independent or separate usefulness or validity. They have no life of their own and they can give no life. Our life is hid with Christ in God as the Holy Scriptures themselves attest.

The Holy Scriptures are not somehow magically self-interpreting in a way that no other text can be. They were produced within the context of the tradition of the Church. They were canonized within that same tradition. And they have no valid interpretation apart from the history of the interpretation of the Church. Since Christianity is firmly centered around the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical reality, indeed the very center of all historical time, and the community he formed, our Holy Scriptures have no independent or separate meaning or holiness.

Indeed, history works against such views of the Christian Scriptures. All of Christianity eventually settled on one canon for the New Testament and all traditions continue to use that canon. However, the Church selected those texts rather than others because they felt they were directly connected to an apostolic author and because these were the texts that were “read in Church” widely, and not in a specific geographic area alone. However, the various traditions today do not use the same Old Testament canon. And the Old Testament canon used by Protestants has the least historical credibility.

The Reformers selected the Jewish Masoretic canon for their Old Testament. However, the process that eventually produced that canon within rabbinical Judaism did not even begin until the latter part of the second century. When you see Justin Martyr, for example, accusing the Jews of altering the text of prophecies to reduce their connection to and fulfillment in Jesus, he is talking about those who were beginning the work that produced the Masoretic canon. Now, I have no idea how much merit those accusations had, but it does illustrate part of the problem with the Reformers’ decision.

What text did the early Church use? What text did the Gospels, Paul, and the other NT authors call “the scriptures”? Easy. The same text that was read in most of the first century synagogues, and virtually every synagogue outside the environs of Jerusalem in Judea — the Greek Septuagint. (Oddly, although the Reformers adopted the Masoretic text for their Old Testament canon, they used the Septuagint titles for those books.) That’s especially true once the Church began including gentiles. The only text the gentile converts could have read or heard and understood was the Septuagint. From what I can tell, the Reformers in part wanted to choose a different canon because they did not like what some of those books said. And, in part, it was simply a mistake. They correctly chose to look back to the Greek New Testament text to correct some errors in late medieval interpretations of the Latin Vulgate. They seem to have thought the Hebrew Masoretic text was the “original” of the Latin Vulgate Old Testament. It mostly wasn’t.

In the light of that history, the modern ideas about Scripture make even less sense. The Old Testament canon Protestants are using is not the same canon the Gospel authors, Paul, and others were calling “the Scriptures” when the texts of the New Testament canon were written. It’s not hugely different, of course, but there are still some significant differences.

In Christianity, unlike some religions, the text is a product of the faith. The faith is not a product of the text. The faith is a product of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  I think some Christians today have that backwards.


My Church History Perspective 2 – So Now You’re A Christian

Posted: December 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was around 30 years old when my lifelong spiritual journey, which included many legitimate intersections with Christianity (both positive and negative) finally culminated in an identity that began to be shaped by, in, and through Jesus of Nazareth. I call it a pivotal point in a very long and extended process of conversion to “Christianity”, but that process included many legitimate encounters and decisions along the way, including baptism. So you can call it whatever you like. I’ve reached the point where I have no interest in trying to conform my personal narrative into anything others feel ought to be a conversion narrative. My life and story is what it has been and I’m content to simply let it be without distortion.

However, my experience as I revolved in narrowing circles around Jesus the Christ has been … interesting. My past excursions into history served me well at times. For instead, I knew something about Corinth as a Roman outpost. And when Lydia was described as a seller of purple, I grasped the implications of that immediately. I also understood how unusual, though certainly not unprecedented, it was that she appeared to be the head of her wealthy household. However, the fact that she was Jewish (Paul sought out the Jews first and that’s clearly what he was doing in Corinth as well) as well as a seller of purple and that Paul himself was a Roman citizen meant I clearly didn’t know enough about the interaction between the Jewish nation and people and Rome. (Actually, I knew next to nothing. I had always been more interested in the interactions of Rome further to the west.) I was also struck by the fact that even as the emperor cult grew in the first century, Jews were for some reason not expected or required to offer even a token sacrifice of incense. (I’m not sure if many modern Christians notice that fact or its oddity.)

Obviously I had a lot to learn.

I was not unfamiliar with Judaism, having had some interaction with its modern expression over the course of my childhood and early adult life. I did not, however, know anything about the interaction between Rome and ancient Israel. Also, as I had always done, as I became engaged spiritually, I wanted to know the history of this faith. Christianity is rooted in Judaism, so you cannot understand the history and origin of one without understanding the other. Obviously they diverged sharply early on, but I think many Christians fail to recognize how very Jewish our faith really is. Part of that, of course, is that many modern expressions look very little like anything connected to historical Christianity, but we’ll get to that later in this series.

I don’t know how to adopt or engage a spirituality or religion without delving into the culture and history that produced it. It’s not that I did something new when it came to Christianity. To one extent or another, this is what I had always done from early childhood into my adult life. Every form of spiritual perspective (even the materialistic perspectives that reject everything beyond the sensible or material realm) is interwoven with the culture and history that gave it birth. However, Christianity is a specifically historical faith. That is, it is rooted in an actual person, Jesus of Nazareth, and the historical events surrounding him.

It’s clear to me that many people engage Christian faith with relatively little regard or consideration of its history and formative culture. But I don’t understand how they do that. In some ways, it’s probably a blessing for them. At least, it eliminates some hard questions. But that’s not me. I became Christian, but that didn’t change the way I approached spirituality and faith. My exploration of Church history that will follow this post, however I meander, is rooted in that facet of who I am. I can’t be somebody else. At least not for very long.


My Church History Perspective 1 – History & Me

Posted: December 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 1 – History & Me

Since I frequently discuss and engage aspects of Church history, I thought it might be helpful to do a series that explores how I interact with history. In order to do that, I think I need to begin with the way an interest in and exploration of history in general has intersected and shaped my life. That flows into a variety of different areas so the series will continue until I’ve explored some of those nuances.

I’m not sure there was ever a time when I was not interested in how things came to be what they now are. Some of the earliest things I remember exploring include the formation of planets (and earth in particular), development of life, dinosaurs (of course), and some of the basics of how things came to be. The earliest encounter I clearly recall with specifically human history involves a big, highly detailed and illustrated book (probably one of those Time Life books) on the US Civil War my grandfather got me as a gift. I spent hours poring over it and remember becoming fascinated trying to imagine different perspectives of the experience through the lens that a letter or a battle report offered.

Not too much later, when I was in the 4th grade, I encountered Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and fell in love with it. I quickly read the Illiad and the Odyssey next and was hooked by ancient Greece. I followed that up reading about the various city states, the culture, and, of course, their theater, which was always interwoven with their religions. That sparked an interest in ancient Greece that has continued over the course of my life.

In fact, my primary and enduring interests over the course of my life have been the ancient Greco-Roman world and cultures that are a part of my own heritage such as the Celts, the Angles, the Normans, the Gauls, and the Saxons. However, I’ve often wandered off on tangents for a period of time. For instance, I recall an interest in ancient Egyptian religious symbols and spiritual practices in my early preteen years that naturally veered into an exploration of the people and religion which led into the whole topic of Egyptology. Similarly, when I was exploring Shinto as a young adult I could only do so in the context of learning about Japan’s culture, art, and history. All these things are interwoven and cannot really be disentangled.

It also points to the manner in which I’ve often interacted with history. My interest in a specific culture or period has often been sparked by fiction, by literature and the arts, by my own heritage, and by religious and spiritual interests. It’s always been an interwoven tapestry for me. I’ve never studied some part of history for its own sake or somehow in isolation from the rest of my experience and life. I’m drawn into any study of history in order to understand or better understand that which has shaped me, is shaping me, or the experiences that call to me.

History is not a collection of “facts” (which is in itself a misleading term in this context) but a mosaic of culture, art, spirituality, conflict, and the practice of everyday life. When I use the word “history” that’s the interwoven tapestry of threads I have in mind.