Thursday, December 30, 2010

Robert Price Regarding Jesus in Jewish Context

In the present ecumenical climate, in which, thankfully, Jews and Christians are working to overcome their long hostility, there is a tendency among Christian and Jewish scholars alike to maximize the connection between the two faiths (something amenable to the Christian apologetical agenda, since this trend minimizes possible influences on early Christianity from Hellenistic Mystery Religions or Gnosticism). An important part of this interfaith program is to make Jesus as conventional a Jew as possible. In my opinion, such a move is more of a construction of Christology than a sketch of the historical Jesus. That is, it is an attempt to come up with a Christian "Jesus Christ" that will prove more useful for ecumenical dialogue. The a priori character of the whole endeavor is evident from the way such scholars simply assume that the gospel stories and sayings must be interpreted in Jewish categories even when there are as good or better paradigms available to make sense of the sayings, for example, Cynic or Gnostic. As long as there is a Jewish parallel available, even when forced, these scholars will automatically prefer it. This is theological reasoning, not historical criticism (Price, p. 247, italics mine).

My favorite biblical scholar and atheist, Robert Price here does an excellent job exposing what is at the heart of the "Jewish roots" of Jesus movement—an attempt at ecumenism (commendable as that may be) and a veiled attempt to set forth "Jewish roots" as the way to reveal the historical Jesus. As Price points out, there are often better Cynic, Gnostic, or Mystery Religion parallels to the platitudes and the actions of Jesus in the gospels than the Jewish ones a priori esteemed to the exclusion of all others. As healthy as the ecumenism between Christianity and Judaism has been, a peace has been forged at the expense of serious Jesus scholarship among those unwilling to consider that Jesus is a recapitulation of the dying-rising man-gods of ancient lore.

Price, Robert. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. Prometheus Books, New York: 2003.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Believing Truly is Seeing

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote,

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

As I write this I think to the conversations I have and have had with fundamentalists. Frequently it is asserted that the reason that I do not accept their beliefs or see the world as they see it is that I am rebellious or willful in my desire not to accept their worldviews. "You do not believe because you do not want to." "You choose not to believe." I guess that for many my non-belief may seem to be of this stature, for indeed, I am sure, in their experiences, there is sufficient "reason" to believe. Let me explain.

The eminent psychologist of child development Jean Piaget used the concept of schema to describe a way of thinking. A schema is a category (or bucket) of knowledge and the process by which this knowledge was constructed or obtained. It should be noted that a schema can be the construal of both subjective and/or objective knowledge with the emphasis being on the personal, individual construction of this knowledge.

As one goes through life, schemas are developed to understand and explain sensory experience. A child encounters blackberries at the forest edge and is encouraged to pick and eat them. However, when the same child happens across an unknown berry, she is cautioned strongly against eating them. Hence, the child's "berry schema" is developed and expanded to include the concepts of both edible and dangerous berries. When the same child encounters another forest edible, let's say a red clover, she might very well accommodate her existing "berry schema" into a "forest-edible schema" or, she might assimilate the "berry schema" and so identify red clovers as berries. I have seen this in real life.

We all use schemas to work with the world around us. And, like the neurons in our brains, the pathways that are used the most become the strongest and the most capable of assimilating new knowledge. As a result, two people might look at the same information and come away with very different schema-based conclusions. The creationist sees in the feathered dinosaur a fraud but not a missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

When a fundamentalist approaches a holy book with schemas of inspiration and inerrancy, she will find grand patterns and sublime connections reaching and branching into more and more complex intricacies. She will "see" what she believes. Her faith will become sight as she bemoans, "Why can't others see what I see?" However, her reality is constructed and contingent—the result of her chosen schemas. When challenged with morally repulsive content or scientific and historical error in the Quran, the fundamentalist will most likely not be able to see it. Instead, she will assimilate the information into existing schemas creating a forced harmony betwixt the discordant.

The fundamentalist is bound to the prison of her schemas until she accepts a critical posture to herself and to her ways of thinking, her schemas. She must face that which is discordant and allow her schemas to be accommodated to new information. Until she does this, her world will continue to develop into an intricate balance of self-deceptive complexity and concordance. However, she will only further burry her head in the sand of her own making.

Science as a methodology relies on universalizing means—peer review and reproducibility. Science is the best methodology humans have derived to correct our schemas and to free our thinking from schematic prisons.

God of Discontinuity

In my last post I touched on how the vision of holiness in the Mosaic Law was one of demographic or ethnic segregation. The Mosaic Law through the application of arbitrary rubrics of table fellowship, genital mutilation, intermarriage restrictions, and ritual purity sought to segregate (make holy) the children of Israel thus creating a discontinuity between the covenant people and the rest of humanity. The particularistic vision of the Mosaic Law is expanded somewhat in the Hebrew Prophets such that foreigners are said to one day universally succumb to the arbitrary standards of inclusion mandated in the Pentateuch (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-4; 56:1-6) in the death of pluralism and cultural diversity.

In addition to the demographic discontinuities fostered in the Mosaic Law and the Hebrew Prophets, the Bible also promotes a profound dichotomy between humanity and the cosmos. In a famous passage, the psalmist states:

What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him? Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: sheep and oxen, all of them, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea; whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas (Psalm 8:5-9).

In a clear reiteration of the "image of God" and the "dominion mandate" themes of the exilic priestly pericope of Genesis chapter one and likewise of the earlier Yahwist passages Genesis two and three, the psalmist here affirms that man is crowned with dominion over creation including all the animals. The late theologian turned "geologian" Thomas Berry, in speaking of how our Western, Judeo-Christian, consumeristic culture has lost its sense of connection to the natural world, speaks of our ancestors' sense of continuity with nature:

To alter this primordial sense of continuity throughout the universe seems to have been the basic purpose of biblical revelation. Within the biblical context, the continuity of divine presence with the natural world was altered by establishing the divine as a transcendent personality creating a world entirely distinct from itself. In addition, the continuity of the divine with the human was altered by the establishment of a covenant relationship based on a juridic model. The continuity between the human community and the natural world was altered by identifying the human as a spiritual being in contrast to all other beings. Only the human really belonged to the sacred community of the redeemed. The previous sense of a multi-species community was diminished (p. 51, italics mine).

The biblical texts are not solely to blame for the great divorce between humanity and the natural world. With the agricultural revolution, humanity was already expressing a growing separation from the rest of nature, but the Bible canonizes this aspect of our cultural development—it takes what is otherwise malleable and dogmatizes it. As part of this discontinuity, the Judeo-Christian tradition envisions human nature, the natural man in Pauline rhetoric, as evil and sensual, something to be combated against. In reality, human nature is as much capable of selflessness and benevolence as it is of selfishness and violence—both polarities of our nature are rooted in our evolutionary past, both are part of our connection to nature.

With emphasis on personal, spiritual redemption, the Judeo-Christian tradition dichotomizes humanity and the natural world. This often results in knee-jerk rejection of the idea that humans are animals and have non-human animal ancestry, an ancestry shared with all of life on Earth. This sense of discontinuity hence works to enslave human minds in ignorance—teaching them to deny the important sociological and biological implications of evolution. Likewise, it results in "God-Hates-Green" ethics that teach against environmental ethics (see: God Hates Green) and concern for the long-term biological health and biodiversity of Earth's biosphere.

In contrast with ethical systems based on a God of discontinuity, humanity needs to foster a globally-responsible ethic, one that takes into consideration the long-term health of humanity as part of the biosphere. We need monistic ethical systems that disdain the dichotomies of our ancestors such as are encoded and cultivated in the biblical texts.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: 2006.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiness as Racism

What is holiness?

The definition of the term holiness varies based on what portion of the Bible one looks to for an answer. My focus in this post will be to outline what holiness means in the Pentateuch (the Mosaic Law) and the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I will not exhaustively define this term, but I hope to show its ugliest aspect: ethnic segregation.

The Hebrew word for "holy" is qadash and it carries the primary meaning of "to [be] set apart" or "distinguished." Hence, a holy item is one that is set apart from customary or normative use. In Hebrew use, one might call any item or person set apart for a particular use "holy"—the word, it should be noted, did not carry the immediate notion of being sanctimonious or sacred unless used in ritual context.

Written by an anonymous author, the Letter of Aristeas was most likely written in the 100's BCE by a Hellenistic Jewish author. He writes at length about the Mosaic Law, and provides this succinct summary of its purpose:

In his wisdom the legislator, in a comprehensive survey of each particular part, and being endowed by God for the knowledge of universal truths, surrounded us [the Jewish people] with unbroken palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with any of the other peoples in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soul…(Letter of Aristeas, 139).

The author of this treatise clearly understands one of the purposes of the Mosaic Law to be that of preventing the comingling of the covenant people with other ethnicities. Remember that an ethnicity is a racial designation but it is far more than just a reference to genetic background. Ethnicities are defined by more than race—they are also defined by religion, culture, behavior, profession, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, et. al, and I am using the term "ethnicity" in this sense. The author of the above quote sees the goal of separating the Jewish-Israelite ethos from other others as one of the goals of the Mosaic Law.

Deuteronomy 14:1-2 reads:

Ye are the children of the LORD your God… For thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be his own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the land.

In this passage we see the idea of holiness relative to the ethos of the covenant people Israel. The passage then goes on to highlight specific table habits that will foster and cultivate the segregation of the covenant people from outsiders. Notice that this chapter even allows outsiders to violate its stipulations (14:21). Holiness in this passage, and throughout the Mosaic Law, is hence not defined by good deeds but through the pursuit of separation and segregation from the heterogeneous, the outsiders, the non-Israelites or, later, the non-Jew.

Though written far after the supposed time of Moses, Deuteronomy 12 further outlines the relationship between the land-conquesting children of Israel and the first-nation Canaanites and other peoples of the Levant. Notice the following:

These are the statutes and the ordinances, which ye shall observe to do in the land which the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath given thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth. Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place…. When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest in to dispossess them, and thou dispossessest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying: 'How used these nations to serve their gods? even so will I do likewise' (12:1-3, 29-30).

Hence, not only were the children of Israel to remain separate from the heathen and heterogenous, they were to destroy them ("…thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" Deut 20:16) and all aspects and remnants of their cultures. Talk about ethnic cleansing and genocide! Destroy them—all of them—and then wipe out centuries of their cultural evolution so that it does not taint your ethos! Though the Mosaic Law does not get much worse than this, there are other explicit passages commanding ethnic segregation. Consider Deuteronomy 23:4

An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the LORD for ever…

The passage continues by offering similar restrictions on Egyptians and Edomites. Naturally, as any racial thinking would, the Mosaic Law justifies its racism. It demonizes and criminalizes the first-nation peoples into child sacrificers and inhospitable ingrates. The critical mind today should think twice than to accept the Mosaic Law's self-exonerations for racism….we have moved beyond this.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wisdom Regarding Religious Traditions from an Atheist

...treat Christianity just like you would any other mythic or cultural
tradition. All [...] reflect the struggle of our ancestors to determine
what is good and what is real and how to live in community with each other.
All contain a mixture of wisdom and foolishness and downright immorality.
Take what seems timeless and wise and move on. (from Creating Love and Light by Valerie Tarico)

This is how I have come to relate to my Christian traditions and upbringing. They are part of my culture, and I freely hold on to that which helps and works and jettison that which is harmful or does not work for me.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Getting Lost – Letting Go of Certainty


This entry is far from original. Others have made use of a similar illustration; this is my iteration. It is a true story.

I am ten, and it is the middle of July boy's camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. In my relentless pursuit of all things amphibian and reptilian, my curiosity veers me away from Blair Lake and into a sphagnum moss covered old lake bed. I immediately notice a number of elusive wood frogs that jump away from me. They distract me as I enter further into a forest of ten-foot tall tamarack pines situated in deep sphagnum moss. One hundred feet into this unique bog forest ecosystem, I turn around to look back at where I came from. I am alarmed. Every direction I turn looks identical to the next—a forest of lichen covered, ten-foot tall tamarack pines shading a forest floor of sphagnum moss peppered with green ferns.


Entoloma Mushroom in Sphagnum Moss

Though surrounded in an environment rich with the raw ingredients for imagination with its Carboniferous-looking mosses and ferns, I am overtaken with anxiety. With each step the sphagnum moss completely engulfs my foot and leg up to my knee only to return to form moments after my foot exits; hence, I leave no footprints. The thought takes hold of my mind that I might be wandering in the wrong direction, entering into the hundreds of miles of state forest surrounding the camp. My heart races with the thought that I might be spending the night alone in the woods—deep in a bog forest with a thick sun-blocking canopy. I walk back the direction I think I came from.


Two minutes later, nothing has changed. Though I was sure I had turned back the way I started, every direction I look is the same. Ahead of me I hear something. It is the sound of a vehicle driving over a gravel road—now I have a bearing. Three minutes later I see the terrain changing, and I emerge onto a familiar gravel road. A vehicle passes, and I try to look calm and together though I am overtaken by relief. Turning to look back and down the slope into the forest I left, I realize how amazingly near I was to the road the entire time. In fact, I realize that the forest was interrupted by roads on at least three sides and Blair Lake on the other—there was little chance of me being lost there for long. The next day I return to the same area to catch wood frogs, and in the years to come I returned there nearly every summer.


I have discovered that life is of this nature. To learn, to really know, I must forgo knowing and certainty—I must be willing to allow myself to get lost and then to find myself. Human learning is of this nature. The scientific advancement of human knowledge could not and did not occur until the dogmatic certainties of previous generations (e.g., the Earth is the center of the solar system, Noah's Flood created fossils, the Earth is 6000 years old, etc.) were laid aside. Once the "known" is forsaken, learning can happen. Once one allows the anxieties of being lost and lost certainties to experience, then she is ready to learn.


Dogmatic certitudes will be the death of humanity. Scientific epistemologies with its always contingent approach to the world will be our species' salvation. Let go of your dogmatic certainties. Let go of what you know with absolute confidence. Embrace the contingency of what you know. Get Lost.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Robert Price on Naturalistic Historical-Critical "Bias"

"Those who claim that only a naturalistic bias prevents critics from accepting the Biblical miracle stories as factual have to explain why they themselves are by no means willing to accept all the wonders of nonbiblical scriptures and legends. It is obvious that they are trying to substitute for historical method the old doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. Their real gripe is not that critics hold a theoretical bias, that of naturalism, but rather that they fail to hold one, namely belief in the historical infallibility of the Christian Bible (21).

Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. Price, Robert. New York: Prometheus Press, 2003.
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Torahphobic Torah Talmid

Recently I have been accused of being Torahphobic. The intent of the accuser(s) was to suggest that I am biased against “Torah.” A buzz word in media today is “Islamophobia.” I hear this word disparaged all of the time on Christian and conservative talk radio. I had to laugh once when I heard Janet Parshall, host of conservative Christian radio station Moody Radio’s In the Market with Janet Parshall, state that “Islamphobic” is a “made-up word.” Huh, I guess she would have a problem then with every word she speaks for being likewise made up.

Though her word choice might suggest otherwise, no doubt Parshall did not mean that the word was “made up” but that the concept of Islamophobia is fabricated or fictional. I would like to challenge Parshall to walk about most anywhere in America dressed as a conspicuous minority—say with a hijab on (as her very own Bible would have her cover her head I Cor 11:1-16). Have her do so for an hour in rural America or a day in a metropolitan suburb. In her white, majority culture Christian cultural identity, she has no idea, no concept of what if feels like to be a conspicuous minority, and, in her asinine myopia, she shrugs the concept off as an idea that somehow threatens her as a Christian. If she were trying to be funny, she succeeded.

However, this post is not about Janet Parshall and her fundamentalist intolerance; it is about my being called a Torahphobe. If I can again defer to the very-real concept of Islamophobia, I would like to illustrate how the accusation that I am a Torahphobe is heavily flawed. Islamophobia is characterized largely by an uneven-handed treatment of Islam. It is characterized by the common human tendency to be graceful, forgiving, and even-handed with one’s own in-group but to be intolerant, unforgiving, and overly general and critical of an out-group. There is plenty more that can be added to this, but I will stop here.

Torahphobia, as used by my accuser(s), assumes a misleading definition of “Torah.” Though the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or the Chumash, are often called “Torah,” the concept of Torah in Jewish use is expansive. Jews consider the entire legal process, anchored in the Pentateuch and in the Peoplehood of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) to be Torah. When my accuser(s) call me Torahphobic, they are defining Torah in a non-Jewish, Christian, Protestant, minimalist manner that rejects the Jewish legal process and Jewish peoplehood. Ironically, I accept the integrity of the Jewish legal process, but my accuser(s) do not. For them Torah is biblical texts, specifically the Pentateuch.

I have read the Pentateuch through over thirteen times. At least five of those reads were done in Hebrew with rabbinic Jewish commentaries to accompany and elucidate the read. Each read also lead me to look heavily into historical critical commentaries both from conservative and “liberal” commentators. I have a sustained fascination with the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch, and there is no body of literature that I study more than the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch. I am particularly caught up in the legal minutia and law codes present in the Pentateuch, and I think about them at a nearly compulsive level. Yet, I find the Pentateuch to contain ethical atrocities that any modern person should first of all recognize and then reject.

Who is the person that is “Torahphobic?” Using the definition of Torah that my accuser(s) assume, the Torahphobe is the one who is afraid to recognize the swine carcass in the Holy of Holies. The Torahphobe is the one who refuses to study the Pentateuch and to understand. The Torahphobe denies the swine carcasses and pretends they are holy cows who should not be touched.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Let Man be True and God a Liar: Judging God by "His Word"

Earlier this year I posited,

“…if one wants to disprove absolute naturalism, one could attempt [to use] the
Bible. All such would take is to show one instance of interruption—one
moment where a biblical writer expresses something beyond the cognitive horizons
of his life situation. As a lifelong student of religion and the Bible, I
am quite certain that it is impossible to do this
” (see Ontologically
Naturalistic Christian Scripture
, August 1 2010).

Prior to this statement I quoted the following powerful comment from process theologian Griffin:

Modern biblical criticism has removed…any reason for thinking that the writing
of the Bible involved any interruption of the normal thinking process of its
authors
(p. 23).

Just in case it was forgotten, I wanted to reassert the above. If anyone wants to demonstrate a single instance where a biblical writer expresses awareness beyond the mundane, “beyond the cognitive horizons of his life situation,” please feel free to do so. An important criterion for such an endeavor is to show that understanding a given passage as cognitively transcendent and supernaturally non-mundane actually makes better sense of the passage than any would-be naturalistic understandings.

So, there you have it. Show one exegetically sound reading of any passage showing that the author expressed ideas and facts beyond the intellectual, cultural, moral, and theological scope of his life situation. One is all it takes.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Design Argument


I cannot believe that the beauty and complexity we perceive in God happened by chance. Design requires a designer. Therefore humans exist.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Devil in the Details: Ichthyopterygia (Creatures that Defy Creationism)

When you look at the above picture, what do you see? Are you looking at a fish or a porpoise? Though the above organism shares a lot of morphological similarities with a porpoise, it is not a mammal. If it was a porpoise or a dolphin, the tail fin would be aligned horizontally as with all aquatic mammals which swim by undulating up and down movements of the body and any tail structures. If the organism in this picture exhibited horizontal tail alignment, it would be safe to conclude its mammalian land ancestry. But, its tail fin is vertically aligned.

Is this organism a fish? Fish do exhibit vertical tail alignment, and this organism does have a vertical tail. Yet, this organism lacks gills. Look closely and nose slats are apparent on the beak. The absence of gills in an organism that appears to be highly adapted to aquatic living and the presence of nose slats militate heavily against this being a fish. What other features can we examine? Though this picture does not illustrate these features, we know that this organism had a three-chambered heart, gave birth to live young after a gestational period in an internal egg sack, and may have even had endothermic, temperature regulatory characteristics.

What kind of organism is this? This is a reptile and it belongs to the reptilian suborder ichthyopterygia. Several dozen species of this suborder have been classified form the fossil record including the above pictured ichthyosaurus, one of the earliest classified representatives. Much like the later whales, the common ancestor(s) of this suborder descended from land ancestors who returned to the water. In this case, evolutionary pressures caused reptilian exaptations to be restructured into highly fish-like structures and morphologies. Yet, the distinctly though possibly disadvantageous reptilian features such as air breathing remain.

The ichthyosaurus, as a representative for its suborder, presents numerous challenges to creationism. First, if God created everything ex nihilio, then why make creatures that boast traits demanding an explanation beyond, "God did it." These traits include the obvious terrestrial ancestry. A God who creates false histories is a liar. Second, if the ichthyopterygia present in the fossil record were buried in the Flood, which is the uniform young-earth creationist explanation for the rock layers in which they are found, why are they not found with whales and dolphins which share not only incredible degrees of morphological similarity but also share profoundly overlapping ecological niches. The same depositional pressures which would have favored the deposition of ichthyopterygia in Jurassic layers would have likewise captured cetaceans such as whales and dolphins.

Really, I have only tiped the iceberg with the above questions. The ichthyopterygia are loaded with characteristics that demand an evolutionary ancestry and that defy creationism. Yet, my point in bringing them up is that they represent one of the ways in which creationism failed me as an explanatory model for the observational data from biology. And, I am speaking about more than just the ichthyopterygia—I am referring to each and every species and subspecies that I have ever encountered both in print and with my own hands. There are too many devilish details that defy creationist explanation so many that, "…if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written" (John 21:25).

Picture Credit:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ichthyosaurus_BW.jpg

Friday, November 5, 2010

Top Five Challenges to "Creationist Geology" from a Creationist

I highly recommend the following article:

The New Creationism Blog
Top-Five Challenges for Creationist Geology

In the above article young-earth creationist and author Paul Garner discloses the "top five" challenges from the empirical geological world to creationism. Can you guess which two of these challenges sunk Noah's Flood for me as a viable paradigm to explain Earth's geology?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My Experience with Prayer: Planning an Escape Route

There was a long season of my life, about ten years, when , under the influence of the writings and teachings of the revivalist Charles Finney and his modern-day endorser Keith Green, I made daily prayer a matter of intense discipline. I enjoyed, yes thoroughly enjoyed, at least an hour a day of early morning prayer on my knees. I followed the ACTS outline: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and I felt it incumbent on me to spend as much time as possible on adoration and thanksgiving so that God would not deem me an annoyance—always asking for things. But, even in my supplications and petitions I asked not for my wants or needs but rather for the advancement of God's glory and the conversion of individual souls: co-workers, family, friends.

When I was "baptized in the Spirit" in my sophomore year of high school and discovered glossolalia or "speaking in tongues," my prayer life changed and became more infused with zeal and sincerity. With my bedroom in the basement, I added dancing and singing to my prayers. I would literally "dance before the Lord" with all my might, singing praise songs and signing out in tongues. No one could hear me as it would be early morning and I was at a distance with my family upstairs and me in the basement, dancing on the concrete floor. I would dance. I would cry tears of joy, tears of repentance, and tears of supplication. I was sincere; I was zealous; I was the real thing. I looked forward daily to these times with God—they were very much a part of me.

Never, in all my time supplicating and seeking God, did I ever experience an answer to prayer. Yes, there were events that I attributed to God's providence or even to the miraculous, but nothing that now in retrospect I see as God's doing. I have never experienced an answer to prayer. During these early years of my faith, in my zeal I faulted myself for unanswered prayer. I often thought upon John 14:14, "If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it." I reasoned that if God was not answering my prayers, then the fault is not God's but mine: my disobedience or lack of faith. This rationale was fueled by I John 3:23 which conveniently states, "And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight." Hence, if God was not giving me what I asked, I knew it must be because I was being disobedient in some arena, some secret sin.

When my Father was sick and dying with cancer in August 2003, we gathered together a group of believers around him. I anointed him with oil and called upon God's promises to heal the sick in response to the prayer of faith. I felt that any doubt in my heart that God would not heal my Father would jeopardize my prayer's efficacy. I fasted that day, and I confessed extra long that morning of any sin, real or imagined, that the "Holy Spirit" would convict me of. I expected God to show. My dad died thirty days later. God did not show.

God does not answer prayer. Prayer may have a place—it might console a person or be a practice that quiets the heart from the bustle of daily routines, but it is not efficacious in the real world. I have never seen an undisputable answer to prayer. For the Evangelical and the Christian believer, God has an eternal regress—an escape route that will always exempt God from answering prayer. This excape route is you. You are why God is not answering your prayers, and, despite how pure you might think you are, there will never be an answer to prayer that cannot be attributable to other than God. God does not answer prayer.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Late October Araneus Diadematus

Introduced from Europe, the Araneus diadematus is often labeled the European Garden Spider. The female pictured above is nearly five times larger than the male of her species. She is plump with eggs, and before her death this fall, she will likely lay several thousand eggs into an egg sack larger than her 1" diameter abdomen. Of her eggs, any that survive to hatch in the spring will be fornunate. Any that survive the first twenty-four hours after hatching will be even more fornutate, and any that survive into sexual maturity will be less than 1% of the original brood. This female garden spider lives outside my front door, on my front porch. On evenings when it is warm enough, she creates for herself a new web. The last few nights have been too cold, and she has remained in this same position. Last night there was a frost which will be deadly to many smaller invertebrates though I expect her to have survived and to survive through the middle of November.
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Old [Yet Heavily Myelinated] Pathways

Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein (Jeremiah 6:16).

It is October 8th, 2003, and I am hunched over a book. "This is really interesting," I think out loud, "I can't wait to tell Dad." The thought of sharing with Dad while reclined on the back porch in the warmth of a early fall evening sunset lingers for a moment. Suddenly my mental pathway comes to an abrupt end. I remember that Dad died a week ago.

Thoughts of this nature were common in the months following my Father's death. An idea or a thought salient to Dad or to our relationship would rush into my awareness. I would emotively embrace the thought with the warmly comforting image of having a moment to share it with him. Then, I would suddenly recall that Dad was dead, and the stark reality that I would not be able to share another moment with him would coldly overtake me. Though this was a common occurrence in the immediate aftermath of Dad's death. I found that my well-worn mental pathways were slowly being replaced. Months later the pathways, still present and well-worn, were replaced by similar, more mentally satisfying routes—pathways with destinations. Seven years later I have all but replaced these pathways; however, I have experienced the loss of two additional pathways.

Mom died January 15, 2009. I am not surprised this time around; I expected my mind to default to its seasoned pathways. This time around I have less dead-ended pathways, but they occur every day. Less than a week after her passing, I should call Mom to visit with her. The mental pathway came to a dead end. Sometimes my mind lingers on the old path despite the dead end, and I find these thoughts peaceful; however, life goes on and so must I.

I was raised in a Christian household with close connections to my family's church community. For much of my life I was surrounded by people of faith. The models in my life exhibited faith behaviors which were reinforced either by the community or by the internal satisfaction of the performer. These pathways were blazed early for me, and when I decided to wholly "commit my life to Christ" just after 7th grade, I widened and branched the pathways into all areas of my mental life—intellectual and emotional. Few areas of my thinking were not traversed by a God-faith pathway. God and faith became my identity as I broached adolescence, and I became a compulsive God-faith addict.

Leaving belief in an interventionist, personal God was not an overnight decision for me. The last five years have been formative for my skepticism; it was a gradual process. Through my ongoing critical studies of the Bible, biblical languages, science, and comparative religions, I became increasingly aware of how fragile my faith system was. I won't detail the path of my discoveries here at the moment, but I gradually found the foundations of faith crumbling. On occasion I would admit to myself that I was a closet atheist, but I would maintain outward faith. Episodes of disbelief would often be met with episodes of even stronger commitment to irrational beliefs—with increasing emphasis on the virtue of belief in the irrational. This process of learning how to not believe was critical for me. Without it, I would not have been able to openly acknowledge my disbelief.

Disbelief is like the loss of a parent for me; it is not easy. My mental pathways default to the reassurance of providence or to the efficacy of prayer as I sometimes find myself conducting an internal God dialogue within myself. My God-faith pathways are still present, and as far as I understand brain physiology, neurotransmitters that fall into disuse eventually loose myelin and become less functional. As mentioned, the process of recognizing the absence of God (or the nonexistence of God) was gradual, and so it made the process easier, but it is not easy.

One may ask, "If disbelief is difficult, then why not just believe?" Before I answer this question let me explain that the difficulty of disbelief is not intellectual, it is purely emotive. I do not intellectually pretend that I am convinced there is no God.

Second, I choose to disbelieve because it is hard. Yes, I disbelieve because it is the more difficult option for my emotive pathways; it is the option that challenges me and propels my mind into higher levels of understanding, awareness, and transcendence. In fact, I find the implied answer to this question to be an unjustified plea for ignorance. It is akin to the student asking her teacher, "This stuff is hard, why do I have to learn it?" I learn because it is hard. I press forward because the alternative is ignorance and superstition. I am done with the old, dead-end paths.


posted originally at http://disevangelists.blogspot.com/2009/01/seasoned-pathways.html


Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Smiling Sun: A Reflection on Human Spirituality

Child psychologists, such as the Swiss scholar Jean Piaget, tell us that children instinctively give animate, personal characteristics to inanimate objects—draw a face on the sun, for example. Anthropologists tell us that all pre-scientific people are animistic in their religious beliefs, investing every tree, brook, and celestial body with personhood. What could be more natural? What metaphor is more ready at hand than the thing we know best: our self. For all of its grandeur and refinement, the idea of a transcendent Person who acts in the world is only the final manifestation of a primitive animism. A divine Person is not the Heraclitean mystery seen through a glass darkly, but a reflection of one's self in a mirror brightly (p. 20).

The above profundity draws a line connecting the most elementary stages of child development with Paleolithic human spirituality down to belief in the singular and refined immaterial monotheistic God of today. But, where the child attributes personhood to the sun and the earlier hominid to a brook, what is the theist today attributing personhood to?

Obviously, the [Western] theist today is not investing inanimate objects with divine personhood; instead, the theist today finds more abstract realities, real or perceived, with the divine animus. These realities include ignorance, mystery, fear, coincidence, personal feelings of transcendence and other such biological operations of the brain, etc.

Raymo, Chet. When God is Gone Everything is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist. Sorin Books: Notre Dame, 2008.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A More Authentic Experience? -- Allowing Experience to Change Your Worldview

In the book of Acts, the Apostle Peter finds himself presented with a vision while on the roof of one Simon the Tanner in Joppa. Though presumably a kosher Jew, Peter is shown a vision of unkosher animals and asked three times, "Rise, Peter; kill, and eat," to which he replies thrice, "Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." On the heels of this vision a group of pious gentiles arrive asking Peter to go with him to home of Cornelius, a gentile god-fearer and a Roman centurion.

The Apostle Peter states, "Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation…" and so expresses that Torah holiness creates an ethnic segregation intended to prevent the domestic and table intermingling of Jew and non-Jew. The Apostle, despite his biblical scruples, enters the home of Cornelius and lays out the early Christian kerygma of Jesus's death and resurrection. To the Apostle's surprise, the text states, "…the Holy Spirit fell on them which heard the word." Relaying the surprise of Peter and the Jewish Christian men who had joined him, the text states, "And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost."

Why were they astonished? The text seeks to establish the Jewish pedigree of the Apostle and the Jewish Christians who joined them. Knowing that covenantal participation and fellowship with God was contingent on circumcision and Torah observance, they did not expect God to bestow a seal of approval on a group of gentiles. Note the Apostle Paul's description of the Torah perspective on non-Jews:

Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).

Yet, despite the Torah preclusion of the non-Jew, the book of Acts presents God reaching out and expressing acceptance of non-Jews. Peter and his Jewish companions witness the sealing of gentiles through the "gift of the Holy Spirit." Peter's experience hence becomes the basis for his theology. From this singular experience, Peter discards his acceptance of biblical (the Hebrew Bible) boundary lines. He allows his experience to be an authority over the Bible and so reformulates his theology such that he forgoes with biblical boundary lines which before had defined the boundaries of who was in and who was out of the community and the covenants of God.

Paradigmatic?

Christian fundamentalists today, including Evangelicals, are quick to assert boundary lines so boldly defined christocentrically around one's dogmatic affirmations of Jesus. If one believes in Jesus as the Son of God, second Person of the Triune godhead, one's Personal Savior, etc., then one is saved. Gays, Muslims, Jews, and a myriad of others are not included in the Christian fundamentalist circle. "The Bible tells me so…" the fundamentalist will parrot ad naseum, "We must maintain biblical orthodoxy."

But, what if the Acts 10 is meant to be paradigmatic? What if it is meant to teach the Christian that experience is to hold sway? The Apostle Peter allowed his experience, an experience that crashed through biblical lines of exclusion, to change his theology and worldview? What if the Christian experience with those outside her circle is meant to change, yes change and alter, her worldview? What if, by excluding and demonizing the outsider, the fundamentalist Christian is failing to understand the limits of human potential and violating the biblical paradigm expressed with the Apostle Peter? If so, then the Christian should come to know and understand that the experience of the those outside her boundary lines: the Muslim, the Jew, the gay, the atheist, etc. are meant to change how she thinks, to extend her boundary lines.

The Christian who denies her experience the opportunity to trump the Bible is not following the example of the Apostle Peter. She is being unbiblical.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More False Dichotomies

True or False: This is the day that evolved from slime; we will be bitter and
waste our time.

This quippish remark was made recently by a friend of mine. This might become an enduring repeat for me as an example of a false dichotomy in the creation-evolution controversy.

Let me start off by attempting to interpret what this pseudo-aphorism is trying to relay. The reference to slime is apparently an allusion to the unscientific concept of “primordial slime” or the so-called “pre-biotic soup” of amino acids in which life supposedly found its inception. Hence, “slime” is a synecdoche for evolution. As such, “slime” suggests “molecules to man” evolution from the most “simple” to the emergent complexity that we call humanity today.

The references to bitterness and time wasting is apparently then correlated with the theory of evolution. The author is hence positing that acceptance of the theory of evolution leads to bitterness and time wasting. The structure of this pseudo-aphorism is derived from Psalm 118: “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This restating of Psalm 118 around the theory of evolution makes the suggestion that belief in creation versus acceptance of the theory of evolution results in lack of industry (time wasting) and bitterness. The implicit message of this quip is hence: If one accepts creation (“This is the day that the Lord has made”), then one is motivated not to be bitter or wasteful of time where one who accepts evolution “from slime” one is more likely to be bitter and wasteful of time.

Bitterness and lack of industry (wasting time) do not correlate with acceptance of methodological naturalism and the theory of evolution. Industry, as the opposite of time wasting, correlates with a number of variables including early childhood experiences, education, and a sense of ownership. There is an undeniable correlation between the degree of education one has and the likelihood that one will accept the theory of evolution. There is a similar correlation between education and industry. So, instead of there being a negative correlation between industriousness and accepting the theory of evolution, the correlation is in the reverse: acceptance of evolution correlates with higher levels of industriousness.

Now, as far as bitterness goes, we all know that there are bitter peoples in every political and religious group. For myself, I often feel bitter toward fundamentalist Christians not because of evolution but because of the socially-constructed false realities that they brainwashed me with. And, most of the bitter people I have known in my life have been political conservatives and fundamentalists.

Another dichotomy worth noting is that the theory of evolution is not opposed to the belief that God is the creator. One can accept evolution and believe that God providentially guided or set in place the process of evolution. If one wants to set aside science and methodological naturalism and allow for miracles, one can suppose, as the Old-Earth Creationists do, that God may have even intervened in the process with varying frequency.

The dichotomies of the initially-stated quip are hence shown to be false. If anything, the lack of education among many fundamentalists should be noted. Most of the people on welfare in America, I would venture to guess, reject evolution and accept conservative models of creationism.

So, as an alternative, I might state the following:

This is the moment that is shared, it’s in our hands to make it squared.
Feel free to offer your own alternatives.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Creation from Nothing

One of the cardinal doctrines of historical Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that God created all that exists—both visible and invisible—from nothing. This doctrine is called creation ex nihilio (from nothing). The primary implication of this doctrine is that God literally produced all things as an act of will. A secondary implication of this doctrine is that God therefore has complete power over all of creation.

The primary "proof text" for creation ex nihilio is Genesis 1:1 which in traditional English translations reads.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

From as early as the late second Temple era (c. 50 BCE) it can be documented that Jewish readers began to find in this verse the basis for the assertion that God created all things from nothing. This doctrine became the heritage of Christians and of Muslims in the generations that followed. However, Genesis 1:1-2 do not support the idea that God created all things from nothing—in fact, they express the opposite: that God created from pre-existing chaos.

The Cosmic Battle Motif

Nahum Sarna, in describing the available ancient Near Eastern creation accounts states,

"…polytheistic accounts of creation always begin with the predominance of the powers of nature, and invariably describe in detail a titanic struggle between two opposing forces" (21).
This statement from Sarna is of immense importance. Variously the forces of watery chaos are presented as the primordial state and are personified as a dragon or deity against which the hero-creator god gains victory. This mytheme is not only present in Genesis 1:1-3 but is also expressed variably in the cosmic ordeal between Yahweh and Levianthan, Rahab, Tannin, and Yam (see Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-10; Job 26:12-13).

Into the cultural context the cosmic battle between the forces of nature or chaos against the hero-god enters Genesis 1:1-3. The ancient readers of this text would have immediately recognized the thematic correlation with the primordial chaos and the various gods of chaos (e.g., Tiamat, Rahab, Leviathan, etc.) against whom God (Elohim) enters as the hero and victor.

Corrected Translation

Jewish scholar of Hebrew and Bible translator Everett Fox, in accordance with the majority understanding of this verse in Hebrew scholarship today, translates Genesis 1:1-2 as follows:

At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness was over the face of the Ocean, rushing-spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters…

Everett comments on the above passage, "Gen. 1 describes God's bringing order out of chaos, not creation from nothingness" (p. 13). Note also that he capitalizes "Ocean," adding the following comment: "The primeval waters, a common (and usually divine) image in ancient Near Eastern mythology" (p. 13). Everett here makes it clear that the ancient reading of this text saw not creation from nothing but rather the act of creation as the bringing of order out of chaos. This understanding militates heavily against the classical theistic doctrine of creation ex nihilio

Conclusion

Though brief, this post is intended to at least introduce the reader to this important study. Genesis 1:1 does not teach creation from nothing. If Christians and others desire to be true to the text of the Bible, they need to become current with what Hebrew linguists and what the ancient Near Eastern literature are telling us.


Everett, Fox. The Shocken Bible: Volume I: the Five Books of Moses. Random House: New York, 1995.

Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis: the Heritage of Biblical Israel. Melton Research Center, New York, 1966.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Biblical Inerrancy: A First-Line of Defense

Inerrant the Wind: the Evangelical Crisis of Biblical Authority, 2009 is a modified republishing of Robert M Price's 1981 doctoral dissertation at Drew University. In it Price presents the sociological development of the pluriform debate over biblical inerrancy and biblical authority in Evangelical Christianity from the modernist-fundamentalist controversy until today (appendices).

In discussing the general non-use and frequent disdain for higher criticism among Evangelical defenders of inerrancy, he observes that "[i]nerrantist apologetics abound…[as] exercises in rationalizing a position taken on other grounds (p. 47). He goes on to state the following:

[Inerrantist apologetics] construe the authority of the Bible in such a way that historical criticism would be proscribed from the outset. If [the Bible] were held to be totally inerrant, then criticism would be pointless. No Bible believer would be tempted to use [higher criticism] to elucidate scripture any more than he would find a Sanskrit-to-English dictionary to use for this purpose. Thus inerrancy was intended as a bulwark to defend the Bible's authority, not as a reason for believing in biblical authority in the first place (p. 48).

Here Price notes that inerrancy is a self-defense mechanism, a means by which the believer in inerrancy can dismiss with higher criticism. Time and time again in dialogue with fundamentalists, I find that believers use self-defense mechanisms that allow them to dismiss of evidence that his incompatible with their world views. Instead of facing the facts, the fundamentalist will deem the information that I present or the sources that I recommend as though they were demonic or as though it was lacking in virtue to even consider them—thus making their faith and their worldviews too sacred to even face the outside world and realities beyond.

Last year I recommend Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer to a friend. This is an excellent book that is friendly to religion as the author goes to lengths to explain why the theory of evolution is compatible with Christian and theistic beliefs. She agreed to read it, but she refused to bring the book into her house. From what I recall, she preferred to keep the book in her garage or outside the house because she feared demonic influence, etc.

This is what I am talking about—the defense mechanisms that prevent those who need information to the contrary the most from encountering it. Such behaviors and beliefs, including the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, are dangerous and damning.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sabbath Driving: the Messianic Slippery Slope to Gay Butt Sex

Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death. Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day (Exodus 25:2-3).

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them (Leviticus 20:13).

What do the two above verses have in common? How does the prohibition against fire on the Sabbath day relate to homo erotic behavior? Let me explain.

As a former Messianic Christian I identified with the "one-law" Messianics and sabbatarian Christians who believe that the Law of Moses is incumbent on Christians in whole or in part. I used to keep the Sabbath from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown, but unlike most of my former co-religionists yet in agreement with observant Jewry I understood the verses quoted above to be a prohibition against fire for cooking, for heating, for enjoyment, and for starting and running an internal combustion engine in a vehicle. This resulted in many obstacles for me as it precluded worship with others unless I was willing to compromise and drive my car or travel by other means (e.g., by foot or bike).

Oh, and I was criticized. I was called "too Jewish" and a "legalist" who missed the "spirit of the law." I was told that the Law of Moses wasn't referring to cars because they were not invented yet. I was given a long stream of rationalizations that exonerated the majority who drive on the Sabbath while relativizing the prohibition against fire into a command against chopping down trees, gathering heavy logs, and other such burdensome labor related to making a fire. Yet, I stood by the text and with the observant Jewish community—legalist or not.

Now, exegetically sound, or not, a series of arguments have been raised regarding the prohibition against male-male sex in Leviticus 20:13 from gay Jews and Christians and their sympathizers. These arguments often point out that the concepts of sexual orientation and gay marriage were not available at the time Leviticus 20:13 was penned and that the only male-male forms of sex known placed patriarchal priorities at risk. It is argued that we no longer look to the Law of Moses for how to sell or daughters into concubinage (Exodus 21) or for patriarchal family structures, so we likewise should not apply Leviticus 20:13 (and Leviticus 18:22) to non-heterosexual orientation or marriage.

How do sabbatarian Christians and Messianics reply to the above rationale? Well, they shoot it down. They argue that it is makes the Torah too relative and that it does not matter if the concept of sexual orientation was not yet invented because the text prohibits a specific behavior. Ultimately, they show no tolerance for the same rationalizations and exonerations that they use on themselves regarding driving on Sabbath though both behaviors (male-male sex and fire on Sabbath) carry the same punitive weight in the Torah: the death penalty. They tolerate their trivialization of the Torah regarding Shabbat but then use the Torah as a blunt weapon to criticize LGBT peoples.

Is it just me or is this not utterly hypocritical?

People often speak of gateway behaviors. Pot is a gateway to stronger and more dangerous drugs. Social drinking is a gateway behavior to alcoholism. Conservatives often speak of the slippery slope. They reason, if you compromise on one behavior what is to stop you from compromising further down the road? If you compromise with respect to one doctrine, what is to keep you from eventual atheism or heresy? Using this same concept of gateway behaviors I am satirically calling Sabbath driving a gateway sin. If one accepts the arbitrary voice of authority that is the Torah as a source for morality, one is obliged to accept the conclusion that fire on the Sabbath is a sin. If you compromise on this item, they why do you not accept other peoples' compromises and sins?

And, as a disclaimer, homosexuality is not a sin it is an orientation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 3: Pentateuchal Portraits – Genesis 1b

An essential aspect of exegesis is recognition of a text’s sitz im leben. Sitz im leben can be loosely defined as “context.” The term is German for “situation in life” or “life setting.” In exegetical endeavors the modern reader of ancient texts is apt to read modern-day questions, issues, perspectives, etc. into the text. A reading that retrojects modern-day exigencies into an ancient text is eisegesis—interpretation reflective of the reader’s own ideas or biases rather than true to the authentic reading of the text. Eisegetical readings abuse texts by stealing or covering up the meanings most authentic to an ancient text.

Disciplined consideration for a text’s sitz im leben is one means through which the modern-day reader can avoid abusing the text. Attempts to construct scientific ideas on the basis of Genesis 1 are certainly eisegetical abuses. Such uses of Genesis exhibit little or no consideration for its sitz im leben and hence for how the ancient Hebrew reader would have understood the text. Additionally, through eisegetical excess, such scientific ideas are not based on the text itself; rather, they are based on a select, idiosyncratic, highly-contingent *interpretation* of the text. Through jettisoning an authentic sitz im leben, such readings are guilty of eisegesis.

Genesis 1 is composed in the rhetoric of soft polemical diatribe. It is written against the backdrop of antecedent polytheistic cosmogonies. The exigency of the composer was not that of 21st century Creationism in any of its flavors. Rather, the composer sought to provide a morally and religiously monotheistic, non-idolatrous reworking of existing myths for the desired goal of religious purity and functional etiology. To posit any other goal is to eisegetically abuse the text in the interest of modern exigencies.

Genesis 1:6-8

ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם, וִיהִי מַבְדִּיל, בֵּין מַיִם לָמָיִם. ז וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ, וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ; וַיְהִי-כֵן. ח וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ, שָׁמָיִם; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שֵׁנִי.

6 And spoke Elohim, let there be firmament-rakia in the midst of the waters, and
let it separate the waters from the waters. 7 And made Elohim the
firmament-rakia to divide between the waters from below the firmmanet-rakia and
between the waters which [were] from above the firmmanet-rakia—and it was so. 8
And called Elohim to the firmament-rakia, “heavens.” And there was evening and
there was breaking, day two.

The reader will recall that the ancient Sumerian-Babylonian cosmology, like that in Genesis 1, began with the victory of the hero-god over the waters of chaos depicted in the dragon Tiamat. The hero-god of the Sumerian-Babylonian cosmology divides the dragon of chaos in two. Each half is used to hold water-symbolic of primordial chaos-at bay. Likewise, in Genesis, Elohim gains victory over the primordial waters, no doubt through an unmentioned combat with the watery chaos dragon. Such a combat is not specifically mentioned in this text, though other biblical portraits of creation do depict such a combat. Consider Psalm 74:12-14 for an example:

"You divided the sea by your strength; by your power you cleaved the
sea-monster in two, and broke the dragon's heads above the waters; you
crushed the many-headed Leviathan…"

Through conspicuous refusal to mention the dragon deity (other than the reference to T’hom-Tiamat in vs. 2), the author of Genesis 1 realizes that the reader, in her sitz im leben, is more than likely familiar with antecedent cosmologies. As a result, the author assumes that the reader will inject her meanings into the hegemony that Elohim gains over the waters.

With new-found hegemony over the original aqueous chaos, Elohim divides the waters. In so dividing the waters, the text specifies the purpose for the firmament-rakia: to hold the waters (chaos) in place. The author identifies the localities of the waters: above the firmament-rakia and below the same. To the ancient reader the hegemony of Elohim over chaos is described through the construal of the firmament-rakia. This same reader understood the firmament-rakia as a solid structure that vaulted the observed heavens.

Verse eight identifies the firmament-rakia as heavens-shamayim. In so doing, the author and reader understand that the solid structure of the firmament-rakia is also called heavens-shamayim. It is unnecessary and eisegetical to read modern ideas of heavens as “open space” into this passage.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Christian Gospel and Politics

I listen to a lot of conservative Christian and political talk radio, and I also read a lot of conservative Christian and some conservative political books and materials. If nothing else, I feel that repeated connection with those to the right of me helps me maintain relevance. I often notice incongruous platforms between conservative Evangelical theologies and their often associated conservative politics. One such disjuncture is that between the Christian message of mercy for the undeserving and the conservative ideal of "trickle-down economics." Many an Evangelical will gloat in her "I'm not perfect, just forgiven" theology while refusing to extend such a mercy to the many upon whom "the system" bestows the favors of structural injustices. Such an Evangelical will speak of God's mercy and then blame the minority for his apathy and psychology of servility when she herself is part of the systems of alienation that prevent the minority from socio-economic fecundity.

The general Evangelical Christian protection of oppressive conservative political and economic platforms contrasts heavily with the Pauline gospel of increasing inclusivity. Pauline theology, which heavily influenced the content of the four canonical Gospels, was initially focused on the inclusion of non-Jews into the benefits of covenant—benefits from which non-Jews were alienated by birth and foreskin. Galatians 3:13-14 reads:

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

According to Paul, Jesus died as one "cursed of the law," i.e., as one outside of the Torah and the covenants, in order to redeem, to include those likewise outside of the Torah and the covenants—the Gentiles. Hence, Paul's gospel is one of inclusion, bringing the formerly alienated Gentiles into the "family of God." This message was revolutionary—upsetting the social order of Jew-Gentile separation along with the Torah order that fortified such distinctions.

Along the lines of Moltmann, whom I quoted last night, the following comments are worth noting:

Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted the proclamation that in [Jesus] God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned of God (p. 19).

According to Paul, the Christian is to identify with the crucified Christ (Gal 2:20). Moltmann asserts that identification with the crucified Christ is acceptance of the kerygma, the message that God in Jesus identifies with the alienated. Moltmann goes on to state,

Christian identification with the crucified Christ means solidarity with the sufferings of the poor and the misery both of the oppressed and the oppressors… By alienating the believer from the compulsions and automatic assumptions of an alienated world, Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings him into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman. But this solidarity becomes radical only if it imitates the identification of the crucified Christ with the abandoned, accepts the suffering of creative love, and is not led astray by its own dreams of omnipotence and an illusory future (p.25).

So much can be drawn from the above. However, I find this to be a slap in the face against modern Sara-Palin Evangelicals. Would that said Evangelicals identify more with the crucified, dehumanized, and inhuman Christ!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Science Vs. God

A contributor to my blog recently made the following accusation against me:

Science is your god. The LORD is my God. You will continue to defend your god; I will continue to earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to me, and defend the truth of God's Word. You have faith in man; I have faith in God. We are poles apart.....and dialogue is not fun anymore.

In the above comment it is clear that the writer esteems the use of scientific logic and reason to be antagonistic and dichotomous to "biblical faith." This writer hence presents scientific ways of knowing and "biblical faith" in polarity, as alternatives to one another. This accusation reminds me of the following quote from the esteemed German theologian Jurgen Moltmann:

For Christian faith to bring about its own decay by withdrawal into the ghetto without self-criticism, is a parallel to its decay through [unbelief]. And the decline into pusillanimous faith [through not confronting the real world] and superstition is a parallel to the decline into unbelief. How close this parallel is, is shown by the way debates within Christianity become polarized into false alternatives (pp. 21-22).

In the context of the above passage, Moltmann is discussing the stagnancy of Christianity as evidenced through the rise of "superstitious faith" which, instead of confronting the issues, shields itself into self-contained worlds of "just-so" constructs. These constructs, Moltmann asserts, are falsely dichotomous, and he includes faith vs. science in his listing of such polarities. Is it not obvious that faith has become pusillanimous when it refuses to think and then shrouds itself with "just-so" or ad hoc models that are intellectually and scientifically barren?

The writer of the opening accusation then goes on to assert:

I am convinced that your objective is to discourage me, rob me of my faith in God and the Bible, and drag me into the atheistic bleakness and darkness in which you find yourself. I am no longer impressed with your intellectualism and learning, for it led to a dead end......a place I have no interest in going.

The polarity of this person's faith with its fortification by false alternatives is a clear attestation its intellectual bankruptcy. One can accept all of the data that I have submitted about fundamentalism, about the Bible's retrograde moralities, about the unscientific and false models of biblical cosmology, evolution, etc. and still believe in the God of the Bible. The fact that there is such a polarity between these positions is an attestation to the ghetto mindedness of Evangelicals.

Multmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God. SCM Press: Philadelpha, 1974.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 2: Pentateuchal Portraits – Genesis 1a

The reader will notice that the term “biblical cosmology” is not used in the singular in my titles. The author finds that it is tenuous to assume that the biblical authors all envisioned an identical model of the cosmos. Though the models of the cosmos found in the biblical texts contain commonalities, not every portrait is comprehensive. Some portraits focus on only one constituent of the cosmos while others reflect on a more complete construal. Hence, the author will focus on the explicit cosmological aspects of a given passage before addressing implicit connections.

For the reasons described above, the author has chosen to deal individually with texts that describe the cosmos. Though a systematic, biblical study could be done of “biblical cosmology” with fruitful results similar to those in this study, the author prefers to focus on each portrait individually. Patterns will emerge through systematic reflection on each portrait, and the author aspires to make connections so as to benefit the cognition of the reader.

The Genesis 1 creation narrative contains numerous convergences with pre-biblical Sumerian-Babylonian and Canaanite creation traditions. Some of these parallels are of the utmost importance as the exigency of Genesis 1 is likely found in these polytheistic creation myths. Genesis 1 is polemically directed to combat polytheistic cosmogonies through literary reworking and anesthetization of existing polytheistic creation myths.

Leeming (52) explains the Sumerian-Babylonian creation myth contained in Enuma Elish as the victory of order over chaos. In Enuma Elish, the hero-god Marduk combats the dragon goddess Tiamat who represents the chaotic waters of primordial existence. Marduk crushes Tiamat—dividing her dead body in half. Tiamat who was the dragon of primordial watery chaos becomes the vehicle to establish the separation of the chaotic waters. Part of her corpse was used to hold the chaotic waters above at bay while the other half is transformed into the terrestrial abode of humanity and the threshold against the waters below upon which the earth floats.

Contrary to popular assertions of creation ex nihilo, Genesis 1 follows the lead of the ancient cosmologies with the assumption pre-existent primordial water (Beltz, 35). Notice, at no point is there a specific creation of water in Genesis 1. Water is assumed to exist. The Hebrew T’hom (“without form”) of Genesis 1:2 linguistically and thematically correlates with the Sumerian-Babylonian Tiamat. Though sanitized of reference to gods and goddesses, Elohim ("God") in Genesis 1 combats the primordial, watery chaos to achieve victory. Creation itself is initiated through separating order out of chaos (darkness and water).

The first act of Elohim in the Genesis 1 creation myth is the separation of light from darkness. This act is followed on day two with the creation of the firmament (Hebrew rakia). The Hebrew word for “firmament” (rakia-- רָקִיעַ) is derived from the root raka. This root means to “spread out by beating” (BDB) or “to beat, stamp, beat out, spread out, stretch” (TWOT). It carries the idea of beating out a solid malleable material such as a metal.

Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) define rakia- רָקִיעַ (“firmament”) as follows:

…the firmament of heaven, spread out like a hemisphere above the earth (from the
root [raka]), like a splendid and pellucid sapphire (Ex. 24:10, compare Dan.
12:3), to which the stars were supposed to be fixed, and over which the Hebrews
believed there was a heavenly ocean (Gen. 1:17; 7:11; Ps. 104:3; 148:4…
When read against the backdrop of the ancient cosmologies and the literary-etymological etiology of the term rakia- רָקִיעַthe picture of the cosmos portrayed in Genesis 1 becomes a reciprocation of the pre-scientific cosmologies of the ancients—a flat earth with domed heavens.

The next post will develop build upon the Genesis 1 references to the firmament.

Beltz, Walter. God and the Gods: Myths of the Bible, trans. Peter Heinegg. Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.

Leeming, David. Jealous Gods, Chosen People: Mythology of the Middle East. New York: Oxford, 2004.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 1

Surah 2:22 of the Qur’an states,

[Your Lord]…Who made the earth a resting place for you and the heaven a structure…
This passage evidences the pre-scientific cosmology of the Qur’an. It envisions vaulted or domed heavens that consist of a solid structure. Such a picture of the cosmos is common amongst the ancients, and it is readily incorporated by the Qur’an and the biblical authors.

Oddly, if I were writing an article about the scientific absurdities of the Qur’an, many of my Christian readers would take little prodding to convince them of the idea that the Qur’an is lacking with regard to scientific realities. I do ask that my readers consider why it is that they are so willing to accept criticism about a book that nearly one billion religious adherents herald as the precious Word of God while they might be unwilling to countenance the idea that the Bible contains similar, if not more archaic, models of the cosmos.

In the next series of posts, I will develop several biblical portraits of the cosmos. It will become evident to the receptive reader that the biblical portraits of the cosmos are in disagreement and contradiction with the physical or material realities of the universe. How the incongruence between the Bible and science is understood by the reader is her own decision. I have taken this contradiction (and others) as grounds for rejecting the plenary inspiration of the Bible; however, I realize that there are educated, Evangelical [and Jewish] scholars who acknowledge such difficulties yet have developed exegetical paradigms by which to justify the biblical authors’ use of pre-scientific understandings. It must be noted that I have only encountered a handful of Evangelical scholars that are willing to deal with this difficulty. At the end of this series I hope to mention who they are and refer readers to their works about biblical cosmologies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hermeneutical Humility vs. Egoistic Eisegesis

Fundamentalist approaches to Scripture carry a fundamental egoistic component: they assume that the modern reader can assert a “God’s-eye” understanding of a given passage. The following is my response from a dialogue that I had with a fundamentalist creationist in 2007 in which he asserted that the proper reference point for understanding Genesis 1, and all Scripture for that matter, is God. In the following I attempt to show how such a “God-as-referent” approach equivocates God with the modern reader and looses the only basis for objectively-inclined study of Scripture: historical-critical hermeneutics.

In your posts you are asking for the reader to allow God to be the
scientist or referent of Genesis 1. In so doing I find that you are removing the
real-world anchor, the hermeneutical key, which is context. I see three primary
points of reference in Genesis 1 [and Scripture in general]: the modern reader,
the historical reader, and the ancient reader. The modern reader is any
contemporary reader that carries her biases to the text—we all do this. The
historical reader no longer exists, but through reading her reflections on
Genesis 1 [or any passage], we are given a glimpse into her interpretative
thinking about the text. The ancient reader is the reader that received the
Genesis 1 narrative in context. Our goal is to read the text as the ancient
reader. To posit that God is the referent is actually to camouflage the arrogant
assertion that one stands in for God to only now uncover meanings that are
relevant to the modern, individual egoistic reader (you or me).

Yes, the modern reader will never exhaust the possible meanings and
contexts that the ancient reader had at her disposal. This is unfortunate, but
it is the reality that every exegete faces with *every* text—ancient or not. I
do not assert that I have exhausted the hermeneutical means that were available
for the ancient reader, but I am trying to arrive at such a reading. Thus far
the reading that I am presenting does a much better job addressing historical
exigencies than the “God-referent” reading that you propose. Your reading
addresses modern-day exigencies. My reading grounds Genesis 1 in history and
deals with ancient exigencies.

Different readers read different
answers or questions into Genesis 1 [and any Scripture]. An Ethiopian will
likely find different meanings than a Laplander; a fisherman than a farmer; a
white collar than a blue collar, etc. This is important. When the individual
reader asserts that her biases allow her to construct the "God-approved" reading
of the Bible, this is bigotry....leading to such abuses of the Bible as
creationism. The *only* referent or point of reference that the reader can use
is that nestled in context: the sitz im leben. The process of contextualizing is
recreating the mind and interpretative framework that the original reader would
have relied on.

In this regard, special creationism as a scientific construct, fails at the
very foundation of its inception: the Bible. If the Bible contains the records
of numinous encounters, then the Author of the Bible is not a creationist. In
other words: God is not a creationist. If God is not a creationist, then the
entire creationist endeavor is simply intellectual backwaters, social backlash,
and repressive brainwashing. I think that creationism is all of the above. It
fails on the level of biblical interpretation. Need anything else be said?

Returning to the Cosmos - Reintroduction

Though it has been nearly three years since I last addressed this topic on my blog, the study of biblical depictions of the cosmos has remained a foremost area of study and thought. My discovery in late 2003 and early 2004 that the Bible depicts pre-scientific and incorrect models of the cosmos dealt a death blow to my faith in biblical inerrancy. Prior to this discovery I had always given the Bible the benefit of the doubt, trusting it despite the growing incongruence I was finding between my “biblical” and fundamentalist categories of veracity. I reasoned, “If the Bible depicted a cosmos consisting of an assumed flat earth with a solidly-domed cosmos over which the “waters above” were held at bay (one of the biblical models), and I could disqualify this model in the here-and-now, then why should I try to hammer out other inconsistencies such as internal contradictions and “old-earth” natural history?” The Bible became increasingly human, and my worldview became increasingly orphaned from the assumptions of biblical inspiration.

Really, if I had not been taught to expect an infallible record in the Bible by fundamentalist creationists, this discovery would have been far less likely to bring such a crisis of faith on me. I waivered for the next three to four years between ignoring the evidence and variously accepting its implications. Often in the same day or during the course of a week I would toggle between fundamentalism, atheism, and agnosticism. Again, to the fault of creationists, the thought of liberal models of religion never even crossed my mind. To me, as to the fundamentalist, the Bible was infallible and thus inspired or errant and thus uninspired.

Those who have followed this blog for any amount of time will recognize these posts—I posted them in the spring and summer of 2007, but I never completed the series. You are welcome to visit the originals and read the comments from others who have engaged me on this discussion; however, you will find no replies to the contrary that contribute anything but ad hoc and infertile propositions that detract from human ingenuity and knowledge of the natural world. I will re-post the first in the series tomorrow.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Asher (and cousins) at the Helm

Messianic Negation of Torah

Emerging almost entirely within a Protestant-Evangelical context, Messianic Judaism or Christianity (hereafter Messianic or Messianism), in its diversity of expressions, generally begins and operates with distinctively Christian Protestant assumptions and definitions. "One Law" or "One Torah" Messianics esteem the Torah, understood as the Pentateuch or the five books of Moses, as incumbent on Christians today. Using a post-Princeton, Protestant-Evangelical iteration of the doctrine sola scriptura Messianics operate, however artificially, with definitions and concepts inorganic to the very document which they esteem to be authoritative and so express a most basic form of anti-Semitism.

The Torah in Judaism is not just a document—it is not just the Pentateuch. For Jews of all sects and of all time, Torah is a process. The Torah as the Pentateuch is an authorized text and also an authorizing text—granting teaching and interpretive authority to the covenantal community who carries the torch from one generation to the next. To deny the covenantal continuity from the biblical era to the Jews of today is to deny the ethnic and pious experience of generations from the priest and the prophet to the scribe to the legal scholar to the rabbis. Such a denial is to deny the religiosity and piety of generations of Jewish people heralding from a diversity of historical-cultural locations yet within a unified and unfettered stream of transmission. Such a denial is itself the basest form of anti-Semitism.

As already indicated, Torah is more than Pentateuch. Deuteronomy 17:8ff, in commissioning the existence of a centralized authority structure, presents the priests and judges as authorized agents of interpretation. Regarding their verdicts in matters of legality and tort, Deuteronomy 17:11 states,

According to the torah (הַתּוֹרָה) which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence (הַמִּשְׁפָּט) which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.

The didactic role of the priests (cf Deut 33:10) and the judges is authorized here. The people are to learn torah/instruction from within the covenantal context—not alone in a supposed vacuum of private interpretation. Malachi 2:7 expresses a similar legal priority:

For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

Torah/instruction is not to be sought from a book, from the Pentateuch but from a person. This chain of command, if you will, ensures the integrity of covenantal continuity and the passing of the torch not of a dead letter but of a living tradition. Messianics today attempt to keep Torah as a document. They import concepts of scriptural authority onto the text, concepts which deny the experience of the Jewish people and attempt to artificially construct the Pentateuch into a document that can stand alone, without authoritative interpretation. As a result of their confused amalgam between the Pentateuch and Protestant piety, the end result is an insult to Judaism and an impossible matrix of observance with such fundamental differences of observance as to preclude enduring community. Yet, frankly, to accept the authenticity of Jewish religiosity from the biblical era to today would necessarily negate their identity today.

Much has not been said here. I have left a lot undefined and undefended, and I hope that more will be fleshed out in any replies or in further posts. I group this topically in post-modernism as it expresses the importance of historical-cultural location awareness.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Arbitrary Morality: Another Unifying Characteristic of Fundamentalists

Disambiguation: Ritual and Ethical Morality

Before I continue, let me briefly disambiguate between ritual and ethical morality. Ritual morality is a meme of ceremonial observance that is shared by a community. The ritual can be based on any number or combination of sources: long-standing tradition, a scripture, an authority figure, etc. Examples of ritual morality include fasting on Yom Kippur for Jews, making saalat five times a day for Muslims, Sunday partaking of the Eucharist for Catholics, daily devotions for pietist Evangelicals, and innumerable others both in and outside of explicitly religious contexts.

There can be little question that memes of ritual morality can become the cement of deep-seated cohesiveness for a community. This cohesiveness, though morally neutral, can incite the participant into acts of kindness and other “good works” while just as likely engendering hostilities, prejudices, fear, and hatred toward those outside the ceremonial circle.

Ritual morality contrasts with ethical or social morality. Social morality is found in the memes and standards that govern interpersonal behaviors between members of an in-group. It should be noted that social morality is expressly exhibited in social vertebrates such as non-human primates, dolphins, naked mole rats, canines, and prairie dogs—it is not a uniquely human phenomenon.

Arbitrary [Ethical] Morality: A Defining Aspect of Fundamentalism

All ritual morality contains components of arbitrariness and is hence a form of arbitrary morality. However, the arbitrary morality that is present in fundamentalism is not that which is ritual or ceremonial; instead, arbitrary morality is what happens when ethical or social morality has lost a real-world anchor in reason, culture, or experience and is instead compromised by other influences including, but not limited to ritual morality or “voices of authority.”

Yesterday’s Question as a Litmus of Fundamentalism

Yesterday I used the following question as a test, a sample of arbitrary morality:

If the Bible was silent on the matter of homosexuality, would you consider
it intrinsically sinful?

The responses received were interesting. Seth’s reply, in particular, displays an extreme, puritanical fundamentalism that is willing to assert that even such heinous acts as rape and pedophilia would be deemed morality acceptable or neutral without presumed biblical prohibitions against them. Never mind, as Fizlowski points out, the Bible does not explicitly prohibit pedophilia. It is also worth nothing that institutionalized rape is legislated in Deuteronomy 21:10ff in which the female captive of war is forced of her Hebrew captor’s will into a marriage that she has no authority to refuse. Of course believers in biblical inerrancy will go about rationalizing the obvious injustice of this word from God—a process which itself is an act of moral injustice.

Though Seth was able to concede that he would be able to accept homosexuality apart from the Bible and despite his insulting and hateful association between consensual homosexuality and the crime rape, Tandi did not appear to be able to even address this question apart from an arbitrary authority structure. Tandi, though, does attempt to work in the modern and post-modern concepts of pluralism, but seems herself to be unable to reason apart from it.

Arrested Development

Tandi’s apparent inability to think apart from arbitrary morality, Seth’s immature, from a moral development standpoint, inability to segregate rape from sexual orientation, and Seth’s apparent inability to see the wrongfulness of rape and pedophilia are examples of one of the harms done by arbitrary morality. Just like creationism and ID attempt to wedge doubts and gaps into the methodological naturalism of the scientific method in order to create regions where human learning and ingenuity must come to a screeching stop, so arbitrary morality arrests the human mind from thinking beyond the boundaries of arbitrary social standards and so compromises moral reasoning.

Compromised Moral Reasoning

Arrested moral reasoning and the inability to question arbitrary standards, even when they engender injustice, are what makes arbitrary morality so dangerous. Arbitrary morality is what drives the terrorist and the crusader. It is dangerous and is part of what makes fundamentalism so dangerous in the world today. It exempts morality from standards of justice, truth, and compassion.

In addition to the previous qualities which I delineated to define and identify fundamentalists, I now add arbitrary morality.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Question to Measure Arbitrary Morality

Arbitrary morality is an ethical standard that is arbitrarily based on the voice of authority. The authority can be a holy book, a prophet, a scholar, etc. Arbitrary morality often becomes a discussion stopper when dialoguing with fundamentalists about ethical issues such as, "If God told you to kill someone, would you do it?" Naturally this question invokes memories of the binding of Isaac and becomes a defense of Abraham who did what was right not because killing his son was a good and righteous thing to do but because, so argues the fundamentalist, "God told him to do it."

The following question is a good test of arbitrary morality. The Christian right has been launching its battle against constitutional rights for LGBT minorities for some time. Those aligned with the Christian right, i.e., fundamentalist Christians, argue that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible condemns it (Lev 18:22, Romans 1, etc.). For those who consider homosexuality wrong, let me propose the following question:

If the Bible was silent on the matter of homosexuality, would you consider it intrinsically sinful?

Friday, September 17, 2010

What is Fundamentalism?

Emergence in Protestant Context

"Fundamentalism" as a term describing a religious platform first came into vogue in a specifically Protestant Christian context. The later half of the 1800's witnessed the early maturation and widespread scholarly acceptance of the theory of evolution and the higher criticism of the Bible. In Protestant churches the acceptance and theological incorporation of evolution and higher criticism lead to an official splintering of the churches, especially in America, into two camps: the modernist and the fundamentalist.

As the term modernist implies, the modernist churches which today generally are represented in the mainline Protestant denominations (e.g., Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church USA, American Baptists, Episcopal, etc.), responded more favorably to advances in scholarship. They became less focused on doctrinal purity, more accommodating of other religious perspectives, and placed an emphasis on social responsibility and social justice. Their critics accused the modernists of having a "social gospel" which sought to ameliorate conditions in the world today, not save souls for heaven tomorrow.

Fundamentalist Christianity reacted to modern scholarship with disdain and suspicion—entrenching itself deep into sociological demarcations characterized by doctrinal purity. Initially fundamentalist churches refused to even partner with modernist churches in outreach (a situation that changed in the post-1950's era of "Neo-Evangelicalism" which has further bifurcated the American Protestants into the categories "Fundamentalist" and "Evangelical"). Fundamentalists churches, in order to maintain the doctrinal purity of their pews and pulpits, asserted the enduring truths of the following:

  • infallibility of Scripture
  • deity of Christ
  • virgin birth
  • vicarious atonement
  • physical return of Christ (implied acceptance of miracles)

These five fundamentals were hence held forth as the necessary conditions of fellowship within and ecumenicism between Protestant churches. Ironically, the Catholic and Orthodox churches never went through the sociological rift engendered by the modernist controversies. However, for Protestants, the lines were drawn, and for the fundamentalists, who bore the torch of doctrinal purity in a world of increasing skepticism, they knew that vigilance was necessary to combat the incursions of the modernist disease into their churches and seminaries. How odd is it, I must note, that fundamentalist-minded Christians today have customized modernist ways of thinking and apology and are now seeking to combat post-modernism (another issue)!

Use Today for Protestants

The term "fundamentalist" was used initially in the Protestant Christian arena. When I apply this term today to Protestant Christians of any persuasion I am actually using it in the way that their forbearers honorifically applied it to themselves as keepers of the fundamentals. If one had called a conservative Baptist a fundamentalist in 1910, she would have taken the designation as a compliment, and there are indeed still churches and Protestant groups that consider the term a badge of honor. My three oldest children, for example, attend a fundamentalist Baptist church school which prides itself for its undiluted stance for the fundamentals of "biblical faith."

Use Outside of Protestantism

I have read various accounts of how the term "fundamentalism" came into application in non-Protestant contexts; however, it is clear that the term is now used to describe dogmatic demographics in far broader uses. This use, due to its broader accommodation to non-Christian religions, has taken on meanings different than doctrinal purity, Muslims, for example, maintain belief in the absolute inerrancy and plenary inspiration of the Quran and the prophethood of Muhammad as defining aspects of what it means to be a Muslim. If such a doctrinal demarcation is at the root of Islam, are not then all Muslims fundamentalist? The answer is no, and let me humbly try to apply the term "fundamentalism" beyond the limited context of doctrinal and dogmatic affirmation.

Fundamentalism, in its broader, trans-Protestant use, is characterized by the following attributes:

  • tribalism—resisting global consciousness
  • triumphalism
  • lack of situational awareness
  • indifference toward or outright rejection of scholarship and science

Any one of these three attributes would be sufficient to make one a fundamentalist.

Tribalism is a psychological position which assumes that one's in-group is superior to other in-groups. This superiority can be thought to reside in particularism of belief or conduct or even shared experience. Tribalism is a basic attribute of humanity—we all do it. It shows itself in many contexts beyond religion: politics, ethnicity, and even among adherents of scientific theories. Tribalism becomes a fundamentalism in all of the above contexts.

Tribalism is fear driven—fearful that caring for oneself and immediate others are all that one can reasonably do. Hence, it retreats, seeking refuge in a "fortified enclave" constituted by ethnicity, religion, age, class, region, profession, or lifestyle. As a result, single-issue, polarized politics; fundamentalistic, intolerant religion; and indiscriminately relativized ethics get flushed out to the fore, obscuring reality and justice.

Triumphalism is a theological assertion that one's given faith tradition or revelation "abrogates, supersedes, or cancels out all others." Regarding dogmatic or religious commitments, triumphalism is inherently anti-relativistic and anti-pluralistic. Triumphalism, with its close ties to tribalism, pits a given revelation or religious entity against the other with no hope of middle ground. It does not express a theological maturity that concedes to the legitimate existence of the other.

Fundamentalists often assert their "truths" in full confidence without situational awareness of the functions of the contingencies of their historical-cultural location, upbringing, or even personality differences. For example, the fundamentalist Christian accepts the doctrine of the absolute infallibility of the Bible and does so with full acceptance of modern definitions of history and uses of science. She does not realize how modernistic her thinking is and so imports the weight of her historical-cultural milieu into her reading of the Bible.

Indifference or rejection of scholarship is a trait of fundamentalism in its trans-Protestant use that anchors it to the original Protestant context. Though fundamentalists differ on what aspects of scholarship can be accepted, there is always, at some point, a forgoing of critical thought and scholarship—a rejection of what can be known and evidenced empirically, in favor for a dogmatism of some sort.

Summary

Though fundamentalism was originally a Protestant phenomena, it is clear that the term works well to describe other types of religiosity. Fundamentalist religious paradigms contrast with liberal religious paradigms which accept religious relativism and allow for an Ultimate Reality larger than their present horizons. However, on point, fundamentalism can be identified either in its original Protestant moorings or with broader characterization by the traits mentioned above.