Saturday, December 17, 2011

God's nature as revealed by Jesus and the Biblical narrative

English: Infant Jesus and John the Baptist, Mu...
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I was recently reading something at Wordgazer addressing the question, "Are those of us who follow a gentler version of Christianity really just deceiving ourselves about the real truth of what our religion is about?"

The author, Kristen, brings up her view of accommodation, that the Bible must be interpreted in a way that can be received and understood within a particular cultural and historical context. That is, rather than a straight reading, which can include misunderstanding based on our own ethnocentrism, the emphasis is one what was assumed and taken for granted in the particular setting in which a specific book of the Bible was written and was was new or exceptional in what was being said. This form of exegesis, for example, might recognize that sexist and violent imagery was common in a particular time and place and see its presence in a passage as uninformative. It would ask, "Yes, but what is different here?" And then it would try to take that difference and understand it's meaning for a contemporary audience.

Kristen then takes up a the position of the Bible as narrative, suggesting that the an unfolding theme or story can be seen in the various books of the Bible leading to a kind of progressive revelation. The teachings and example of Jesus are taken to be the culmination and final form of this revelation, even if it continues to be distorted to some degree by the views and beliefs of the Gospel writers and the authors of the various letters that make up the rest of the New Testament. This is supposed to free themes such as universal love, acceptance, peace, and nonviolence from Biblical passages suggesting indifference, division, division, strife, and violence. The overall effect is to try to translate as much of the social and personal context as possible to extract and purify some presumed key messages, perhaps how love and acceptance lead to forgiveness and reconciliation between people and between people and God.

But is it that simple?

Feel free to form your own opinion, but my take on it is that it isn't so simple. If we go the narrative route, even one based on the doctrine of accommodation, shouldn't we try to place everything, including specific themes, in a grand context?

If we do that, or should I say, at least when I try to do that, I see the following pattern from Genesis to Revelation (yes, I am aware they were not written in that order but there is a pattern to the organization). The pattern can be roughly summarized as follows:
  1. God sacrifices something of herself in act an act of creation, to bring something new and beautiful into existence. This can range from the universe itself to nation, such as Israel. A relationship is formed between God and humans.
  2. Humans take this relationship for granted, exploit it, or neglect it.
  3. God allows people tries to warn the people involved of the consequences of their actions, typically through angels or prophets, promising blessings if they repent and wrathful judgment if they do not. They are called to do love God and their neighbors as themselves, to be generous and peaceful, to forgo revenge and jealousy, etc., as vengeance and justice belong to God alone.
  4. Humans continue to violate and abuse their relationship with God and ignoring his pleas more a caring and peaceful way of life, so God becomes angry and pours out his judgment on those who have offended him. The people suffer greatly. This is typically symbolized by expulsion from some sacred place (the Garden, Jerusalem, etc.) and at times captivity (Egypt, Babylon, etc.). 
  5. The people are humbled and consciously or unconsciously cry out to God for deliverance.
  6. God hears their pleas for mercy, takes away his wrath from them and turns it against their enemies, thus liberating the people. God adds to their blessings (akin to step #1) and also gives a warning that they must not forget what has happened and harm their relationship with God again.
  7. Repeat steps 2-6.
  8. Repeat steps 2-6.
  9. Repeat steps 2-6.
  10. Etc., etc., etc.
Moreover, those who are oppressed by the unjust plead and for Step #6, which includes things such as shaming their foes, bringing plagues upon their foes, having  their foes waste away, having their foes children killed, and having their foes killed so that blood runs deep in the streets (which is apparently good for bathing your feet and giving your dogs something to drink). This is the justice which is cried for, to bring down the haughty, the mighty, and the arrogant -- the wicked ones who use their power to torment and steal and rape and murder. Or sometimes just the ones who are phony hypocrites.

This patterns and its themes occur so many times in the Old Testament that they practically are the Old Testament. It's just the same story over and over and over. So if we are trying to rise above the cultural noise, as it were, to find a narrative and its main themes, this pattern is essential.

The New Testament fits the pattern.

The Gospels, the stories of the life of Jesus, focus on Step #3. John the Baptist appears to warning the Jews that they have once again wandered into Step #2. Jesus appears on the scene and carries on this message, imploring people to love God and neighbor, to renounce violence, etc. But Jesus is also quite clear that his message is in the tradition of the prophets, citing them and the Psalms about what will happen to those who do not repent.

The writings of the apostles also keep up with with these themes, telling the faithful to endure all things as Jesus did so that they may be spared from what is to come and instead be rewarded. Paul even says that by such suffering and bearing of torments while still showing compassion to abusers, that this will heap hot coals on their heads in the day of judgment. The book of Revelation uses the same apocalyptic imagery from the Old Testament prophets and the Psalms to complete the pattern, anticipating Steps 4-6.

Just as in the Old Testament, those who are faithful and turn to God during this time of wrath and judgment will ultimately be spared, while the rest will be broken down and humbled. The same imagery of plagues, death, and blood makes an appearance again, clearly connecting it to the established tradition. This time, at the end, the liberation and restoration of the people and the defeat of the unrighteous is permanent.

I am not sure how anyone can try to understand the teachings and example of Jesus outside of this context. Even if we use the accommodation approach to understanding the Bible and the narrative approach to focus on the big picture, this pattern cannot be ignored.

That is, just focusing on the call to repentance and the exhortations to nonviolence and forgiveness in the Gospels is not enough. Claiming that this aspect of the Gospels trumps everything else does not make sense. They are part of a clear and larger Biblical pattern. Nor does Jesus shy away from the coming judgment in his teachings, or water it down from its Old Testament roots. Jesus identifies with the larger narrative in which peace ultimately must come through the utter defeat and complete crushing of the enemies of peace. In fact, the main difference between the New Testament version and the many versions played out in the Old Testament is that this time everything is to be definitive, and the pattern itself will cease.

This matters because there are those who want to split Jesus and the New Testament off from the context of the Old Testament and claim that the loving God of Jesus is somehow a new or improved revelation in relation to the harsh and fickle God of the Old Testament. That Jesus came to set people with an Old Testament mindset straight. They focus only on the middle part of Step #3 with a vengeance.Yet the Jesus story and the story of the Church in the New Testament are consistent with the major narrative from the Old Testament.

Now, can you still have an accommodationist approach or something like it given all of this? Sure. One can try to say that rather than actual people, the foes and the enemies of peace are demons, or temptations, or even an over-exaggerated ego, sometimes known as the lesser or false self in some religious circles. One can try to say that the pattern in the Bible is actually our own inner life played out on the stage of soul. These views actually have support from the letters of the New Testament itself (take Ephesians 6:12) as well as from the writings of some of the early Desert Monastics and the Doctors of the Church. One can make many such interpretations of the narrative, but to lay claim to being Biblically informed, one cannot pick and choose among the parts of the narrative, accepting or emphasizing some while rejecting or de-emphasizing others.

I do not claim that Kristen would disagree with any of this, but it does mean that to follow a Christian form of spirituality is to wrestle with what it means to follow a God who brings peace through suffering and death. There are many nuanced ways to understand this (the death of the false self as the center of our reality, the suffering of having to reorder or let go of our attachments to things which gives us a comforting but false view of reality, etc) that do not make God a megalomaniacal and genocidal cosmic dictator. Or at least potentially  allow for that possibility.

Of course, this doesn't change that in the past these images were taken literally, that many still take them that way today, and that in any case they are disturbing. Reading about people who are eager to see violence done on others can still be horrifying. For many people, other ways of talking about turning to a larger, ultimate source of one's being (for example, the typically gentle imagery of Buddhism) may be more suitable. It is also true that this same disturbing imagery is still used to generate and justify hate and violence against others. There is really no way around it though in following the Way of Jesus, only through it.
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  1. Dave, I think you have summarized accommodation and narrative theology very well. I agree that the pattern you show in the Old Testament does follow that pattern-- but that the pattern you show is not the only pattern that we see repeated in the Old Testament. There is also the constant looking forward to Messiah. It is this looking forward which keeps the Old Testament pattern from becoming merely meaninglessly circular. Progress is shown to be made towards getting the people of Israel ready for the coming of Messiah. The New Testament, as you have said, shows the culmination of the pattern-- but I think you downplay the differences that the coming of Messiah brings. The New Testament focuses on a new Kingdom of God, or New Creation, where the people of God are no longer a physical nation, but a spiritual family. The physical things of the Old Testament-- tabernacle, temple, priesthood and sacrifices, become a spiritualized within everyone who trusts in God. No more distinctions are to be drawn between people of different races, social classes or genders. The focus on people as subsumed collectively within nations, changes to a focus on each individual's value to, and person relationship with, God. And so on.

    It is true that the aspect of judgment continues through the New Testament. Where you and I differ, I think, is that you seem to believe that any form of divine judgment is impossible in an "enlightened" view of God. I, on the other hand, see no possibility for real maturity in the individual human soul without somehow facing the evil within itself and the wrongs that it has done to itself and others. If the soul refuses to face and be changed by this self-understanding (known as "repentence"), then the soul remains small, inwardly grown, and immature-- and ultimate union with God is impossible. I see the final, spiritual judgment, whatever it is, as somehow necessary to this process. Either all will be brought to repentence and union with God (universalism), or those who refuse self-understanding will be allowed to remain as they are forever (eternal torment, which I personally don't hold to), or they will simply cease to exist (annihilationism).

    In the meantime, it is certainly true that the New Testament teaches that our "enemies are not flesh and blood" any longer, setting up inclusiveness and mercy as the pattern for Christians. If certain sects want to focus on divisiveness and holier-than-thou-ing, I think this is clearly established as undesirable; those who follow it do not seem to me to be keeping to the teachings of Jesus.

    Anyway, I may have to stop the conversation here. It's less than a week before Christmas and I have two kids, a house to clean for relatives, and an impossible amount of stuff to do right now. . .

  2. As with all literature there are multiple possibilities. It's an ink blot but then all texts are. One thing the Derridian and Postmodern stuff teaches us is that all texts can be shattered into a thousand versions of interpretation. That's why they say the text belongs to the reader.

    The great liberal protestant Theologians of the 20th century, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, Niebuhr, and so on talked about the dialectical relationship between the reader and the text. The emphasis is on the reader not the author because the meaning unfolds in the mind of the reader.

    Kristen is,as usual, insightful and thoughtful.

  3. Hello Kristen. I will reply for the benefit of anyone else trying to make sense of the topic as it is presented here, and I wish you and your family a wonderful holiday time. Briefly, for the sake of these comment boxes:

    1. I am not downplaying role of the messiah or the restoration of an ideal community throughout the Earth in either the OT or NT narrative. That is covered in the pattern as it goes from Step #6 back to Step #1, and I did note that the difference for the NT is the hope of breaking the pattern and staying in Step #1. The resolution of Step #6 is to be permanent.

    My point is about the de-emphasis or rejection of Step #4 as a clear and key part of the pattern and of the message of Jesus and the apostles. This includes Jesus/God forgoing violence only for a time, and then using violence to achieve a lasting peace by subduing those who reject peace.

    2. Whether or not I personally see divine judgment and true love and peace as compatible depends upon what we mean by judgment. I have written and you have responded to my musings on what such judgment in a Christian context might mean. I reject the term evil in this context because it is subjective, and in any case I've said that the issue isn't narrative versus some other organizing principle for understanding the Bible it is how we interpret the narrative.

    One could try to see all of the judgment talk as allegory, but there is also quite a bit of textual information which suggests that actual people are the enemies of peace and the Gospel, not just temptations and selfish thoughts, because these people become the extensions of or expressions of or agents of these destructive impulses. There is also plenty there which suggests that God is intentionally meting out justice as an anthropomorphic intelligence rather than judgment being simply a human failing to reconcile themselves to their deepest inner source.

    There is plenty in the Bible to suggest that these people are intentionally harmed and tortured in a punitive fashion for failure to achieve a divine standard of love, for personifying and thus manifesting emotions and attitudes rooted in moral indifference and which can lead to the harm of self or others. One could argue that for people of a certain emotional maturity, threats of punishment and promises of reward are necessary motivators and therefore this imagery is a kind of skillful means: if one tries being humble and loving long enough out of an initial motivation of greed or fear they will come to see virtue's its own intrinsic value and no longer need such motivation.

    Now, I am personally a fan of the Bible being a model of our own interior landscape, especially the Book of Revelation (see How to Believe in God by Clark Strand), along with the idea that God as presented in the Bible is actually filtered through the lens of our own individual and cultural super-ego, in which case a lot of the judgment and wrath talk is just an expression of our own fear and lack of acceptance of ourselves or others projected onto God, but, well, it has no more support and perhaps less than all of the other views. To be clear, however, what I do reject is the idea of an external, objective God (i.e. one not fused with our own psychology) who "is love" who uses fear, intimidation, or violence to promote love and peace.


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