This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Ad Fontes.

One motto of Modernity was “ad fontes!  That is a Latin phrase which means “back to the sources!”  In the 16th century it was a call to recover original texts, not filtered through tradition.  Tradition, in fact, was increasingly considered inherently corrupting.  
The Reformation was built on this sensibility.  Seeking to bypass and override the institutional church and its tradition, the Reformers went back to Scripture as the only source for faith and religion.  

Ad fontes has been the basis for much of biblical studies over the last 500 years, culminating perhaps in the successive “quests for the historical Jesus” of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Repeatedly, what these researchers came up with was a “historical Jesus” who looked and thought suspiciously like the ones doing the quest, who were almost invariably white, male, middle-class academics.  

Historical studies use criteria established by the researchers.  Since these people have rarely done any serious spiritual work, but have been laboring in academia for years, they remain unconsciously under the grip of their own ego-centricity.  This is revealed in the absurd hubris involved in what they are doing to begin with, imagining that they can unearth a pure, objective, original text at a distance of millennia.  And it is compounded by an academic environment featuring intense pressure to find and publish something new.  For Modernity is nothing if it is not a quest for novelty.  Which means that what gets marketed as a return to the original sources is actually just the latest new take on what the original sources are and say.  So there is this contradiction between “older is better” and “newer is better.” 

But: Who decided that the original sources were better than what has been passed to us through tradition?  Who decided that the original sources were available at all?  Who decided what methodologies to use in supposedly accessing them?  Where do those methodologies come from?  Who gains and who loses from this project?   

Can we step outside of tradition at all?  Is not the historical approach just another tradition, built not on faith but on a secular, skeptical (not to say cynical and nihilistic) methodology?  

What is true is not what some academics have deemed to be “earlier;” it is what is in tune with Jesus Christ, who is himself the Truth.  If later editors and redactors were more aware of the gospel than the writers of earlier drafts then we should go with the later, more developed and evolved view.  If a particular reading was considered and treated as inspired by many generations of faithful Christians, how does its inspiration get nullified by a decision of some academics, some of whom may not even attend church?  

       Whose book is it anyway?

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Virgin Birth Is True… Whether It Happened or Not.

In the Times the week before Christmas Nicholas Kristof interviewed William Lane Craig about the Virgin Birth.  Craig is a philosophy professor at Houston Baptist University.  His entire response was to say that it really happened, and to point out the historical sources: Matthew and Luke.

I rolled my eyes in frustration.  Claiming that the Virgin Birth “really happened” neutralizes it into the absolute irrelevance of a distant historical event which means nothing to us today.  It is an artifact.  Nothing more.  It is merely asserted to have happened by smug, self-righteous, credulous Christians.  As if deciding that it happened is all that matters.

The “did it really happen” argument is pointless because there is no way to answer it.  It just devolves into an endless and moronic “tastes great/less filling” shouting match.  Even if proof could be available one way or the other, it misses the meaning of the stories.  Indeed, I wonder if the real point of historical arguments isn’t to neutralize and deflate the truth.  For deeper and higher truths may only be communicated by means of myth, story, image, symbol, ritual, metaphor, and poetry.  These are exactly the means of discourse that Modernity has ruled out of hand as lies, superstition, fiction, and fairy-tales.  (Actually, even many fairy-tales communicate more truth to us than a lot of historical analyses.)

To reduce a story to history is to kill it.  It is to render it a dead past event, something dissectible and disposable, something we can change according to our present agenda.  The demythologizing project of Modernity was always intended to undercut truth, so that self-serving propaganda may be inserted in its place.  And the most effective way to do that is to evaluate a story based on its “historicity.”  Thus the “did it really happen” question is taken for the only measure of truth… and it just so happens that it is unanswerable.  In this way the Modern Age systematically replaced truth with fake news.  That is, we denigrated and devalued the myths and stories that convey truth to us, and instead fed us the glorified advertising copy which often passes for historical analysis.  What call history — and often science — is always filtered through the subjective, ego-centric, thoroughly biased consciousness of the observer.  In the end it’s all entertainment. 

Once we have hit the impasse of, “yes, it did happen,” vs. “no, it couldn’t have happened,” we have nowhere else to go.  And we have failed to listen to the story itself.   

In terms of the Virgin Birth, it is not about history or gynecology.  One person who understood the story was anti-slavery activist, Sojourner Truth.  When challenged by male religious professionals who attempted to silence her, she pointed to the story of the Virgin Birth.  Christ comes into the world by God and a woman, she said; a man had nothing to do with him.  Therefore, one meaning of the story is that God’s entry into the world is an explicit contradiction of a world order that privileges maleness.  It is an inherently anti-patriarchy narrative. 

And that’s just one political meaning of the story.  There are meanings that go even deeper into human identity and destiny.  Meister Eckhart talked about how it shows God being born in each of us.  Karl Barth noted that it tells us that humans do not have the power to bring God into the world.  And then there is the whole question of the Incarnation, and its meaning in terms of the relation of Creator to creation.  “God became human so that humans might become God,” is the way the early Christians talked about it.

And so on.  All of which is lost if we focus exclusively on the tiny, pointless, and unanswerable question of whether it happened or not.  

Caving in and allowing the Modern world to define truth for us is what is killing faith and the planet.  I used to think that Christianity was courageous for applying historical analysis to its core documents and history.  Maybe.  Certainly we may have gained a lot of helpful knowledge about the context of the Scriptures.  Certainly we have liberated the gospel from some forms of self-serving institutional oppression.  But at the same time we have lost way too much in this exchange.  And too often what we were left with was even worse, if more subtle, forms of institutional oppression.  

Fortunately, we did not lose the stories themselves.  In spite of attempts to extract and dissect, slice and resect pieces of the Scriptures, the texts remain.  And the faith remains.  Because in the end reality wins.  Truth is.  Propaganda, fake news, advertising, and “history” all collapse for lack of any purchase in reality.  But the Word of the Lord endures forever.  (It is not by accident that the approach of scholars to the text is identical to the approach of the petrochemical industry to the planet.  Extract, waste, consume, and profit is their approach to everything.)

The late Phyllis Tickle related how she once talked about the Virgin Birth story at a conference.  One of the young servers at the hotel overheard her, and approached her later to observe that the Virgin Birth story is “too beautiful not to be true, whether it happened or not.”


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas Vacation.

My favorite Christmas movie is “Christmas Vacation,” in which Clark Griswold devotes himself to producing the “perfect family Christmas,” based on his rosy  childhood memories.  His aspirations collide with reality and the film gets hilariously crazy.  A lot of us can relate to Clark’s sentimental wishes for the holidays.  I remember and cherish the beautiful and happy family Christmases I knew when I was a kid.  

At the same time, I wonder if those memories aren’t more sweet and warm than the reality was.  At one point in the movie Clark’s dad confesses that he got through those fondly remembered family Christmases of yore with “a lot of help from Jack Daniels.”  I experienced Christmas rather differently when I was a student, parent, and pastor than when I was a child.  

In the church we seem particularly prone to nostalgia.  I suspect that this is because the church is often a place that people expect to be immune, or at least highly resistant, to change.  In church the tendency is to do things the way they have “always” been done (even if it has only been for the last few years).  The surest way for a pastor to get fired is not to do the candlelight “Silent Night” thing at the end of the Christmas Eve service.  If any institution is about preserving the past, it is supposed to be the church.  Right?  Can’t we at least depend on that?  

Well, no.  The church is always and only about Jesus Christ, whose ministry was hardly about conserving, maintaining, preserving, and sustaining the traditions, laws, and institutions of his time.  He got himself crucified for being an alternative to the religious and political establishment.  If you wanted comfortable and familiar religion, Jesus was not the guy to hang around with. 

The irony here is that the Advent and Nativity seasons, from the perspective of Scripture and the church, are about the future.  They are not nostalgic reveries concerning something that happened in the distant past; they are signs of the world to come, which Christ reveals and brings.  Many of the traditional Scripture readings for Advent are about the end of the world, for heaven’s sake!

The familiar creche scene, while it depicts a past event, points to a different, upside-down world in which the true King is born of a virgin in a stable, worshipped by poor shepherds and foreigners, and opposed by the supposedly legitimate rulers.  That is a vision of a different world that has yet to be fully realized among us.  But it is the truth to which we aspire and in which we trust.

Jesus calls us to a new life of love and justice.  Rather than Clark Griswold’s unrealizable fantasy of the “perfect family Christmas,” maybe we need to embody Jesus’ vision of a new world of compassion, healing, forgiveness, and peace.  It would be like taking a permanent Christmas vacation from the broken and violent world as we know it.  

So what would that look like? 

I wonder if it wouldn’t involve witnessing to Jesus’ economy of “give what you have, receive what you need.”  

What if it is about: 
  • blessing without judging?
  • healing without blaming? 
  • generosity without indebtedness?
  • welcoming without borders?
  • giving without spending?
  • sharing together in a new a future, rather than grieving over the past?
  • celebrating diversity, rather than enforcing uniformity?
  • cultivating hope and joy, rather than stoking fear and anger?
  • Jesus Christ?    

Maybe the best greeting for the Advent and Nativity seasons is a line from an old song by REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine!”