Tuesday, November 30, 2010
"A friend told me that one of the things she's looking for in a guy is that 'he must love the Lord.' Whereas I'm looking for a girl who knows she's loved by God."
I struggle both to love the Lord and also to know that I'm loved by God. But I still like this comment because I get sick of reading the same thing over and over again on Christian dating profiles. "Ooooh, I want a man who is on fire for God!" But what do you expect? The dating game is salvation by works: I have to prove my worth to somebody else. How much grace is truly in it?
Monday, November 29, 2010
Sunday, November 28, 2010
This afternoon, I was reading somebody’s testimony about her journey from the occult into Seventh-Day Adventism. While I do not hold to her beliefs, I clicked “like” on her testimony because, in general, I like to read people’s testimonies, regardless of where they’re coming from or going to.
I’ve read or heard a variety of testimonies. One book I liked to read off-and-on was Jesus for Jews, a Jews for Jesus book compiled by the daughter of Moshe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus. Jay Sekulow’s testimony is in there, and this was before he became a right-wing celebrity. This book was about Jews who became Christians.
But I also read the other side—Jewish Christians who converted to Orthodox Judaism. The counter-missionary group, Jews for Judaism, had such stories on its web-site. I also enjoyed ex-fundamentalist sites, such as Walk Away, or Ex-tian (I think that’s what it was called). I’ve read one lady’s testimony about her departure from Seventh-Day Adventism and her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Moreover, in recovery groups, I’ve heard people give “leads,” which are essentially their story about how they got into recovery.
I wonder what these testimonies have in common. A lot of times, people have tried to say that the primary push for a person to convert to something is emotional. Conservative Christians have said that those who leave Christianity for atheism do so because they want to live any way they please, or because they’ve been hurt by Christians. Atheists have said that people become theists because they’re looking for a crutch, or community, or hope and meaning in life.
I don’t deny that there’s an emotional factor in conversions. For example, atheists and Orthodox Jews have expressed more than intellectual disagreement with the evangelical belief that non-Christians will be tormented in hell forever and ever: they’ve expressed disgust. I once read a Jewish Christian’s testimony about his conversion to Orthodox Judaism: he said that he was seeking a deeper connection with his people, the Jews. Jews who convert to Christianity or Messianic Judaism, by contrast, have testified that they feel a deeper connection to their Jewish heritage as a result of their acceptance of Jesus. There are probably as many reasons for conversion as there are people, and any generalization I make doesn’t do the issue of conversion complete justice.
When I read or hear people’s conversion stories, I notice a quest for wholeness. But what stands out to me even more is their quest for truth. People abandon one set of beliefs and embrace another because they conclude that their former beliefs are false, whereas their new beliefs are true. In this case, their reasons for converting are intellectual. When a Jewish Christian compares the Hebrew Bible with Christian interpretations of it, and concludes that Christians have not been faithful to the Hebrew Bible’s meaning, he may decide to become part of a belief system that he believes is faithful: Judaism. Someone with a general belief that the Bible is true may choose a denomination that appears to correspond with what she believes the Bible is saying, whether that denomination is Adventism or Roman Catholicism, or something else. A fundamentalist may notice contradictions in the Bible and conclude that the Bible is human (not divine) in origin, and so he becomes an atheist. An atheist may be convinced by Christian apologetics, feeling that Christianity presents the most sensible explanation for how the universe and life came to be, and for how the Christian movement got started and grew, despite persecution. In all of these cases, there is a quest for truth, although the quests may have different presuppositions.
In recovery communities, however, I don’t see so much a modernist quest for truth, but rather an experiential quest: recoverers know that their addiction has landed them into pretty bad places, and so they seek a better life. They notice that people who do the twelve steps have that better life, and so they do what those people do. At times, I may hear a recoverer use arguments for the existence of God—such as the cosmological argument, or the argument from design. But, in many cases, they choose to believe in a higher power because that has worked for people they know, and they notice that it works for them, too. I notice this sort of approach in testimonies by people who become Buddhists: for them, Buddhism presents an outlook that helps them in their lives. My understanding is that Buddhism doesn’t make heavy-handed doctrinal claims about God—the Buddha even said that he didn’t know how the universe began. But if offers an outlook that helps people to rise above their inner demons (i.e., jealousy, hate, etc.), cope with the transient nature of life, and achieve a quality of living. Some people taste this, and they like its consequences: that makes it true to them.
Granted, I also hear conversion stories from people who aren’t interested in truth claims, but in what appeals to them personally or meets their needs. In this case, it’s like preferring one restaurant over another: it’s a matter of personal taste, rather than what is true or false. I’m somewhat like this, though my current religious beliefs also overlap with how I characterized the recoverer’s quest for truth in the above paragraph. But many of the testimonies I’ve heard are by people who approach issues in a modernist intellectual manner, probably because they’re by people who were at some point in fundamentalism, which has a modernist outlook.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
We will all eventually die. That message is conveyed in vv 1-8, whether you see those verses as an allegory for our deteriorating body parts (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, the Targum, Rashi, and Augustine), as a description of a wealthy landowner's declining estate (Daniel Grossberg in the Jewish Study Bible, who refers to such a situation in Ecclesiastes 2), as an account of a funeral (Raymond Van Leeuwen in the HarperCollins Study Bible), or as a statement that almond trees and grasshoppers carry on, even after we die, meaning that nature is indifferent to us (Tremper Longman on v 5). Whichever of these interpretations is correct, the climax is v 7, which affirms that the dust of the corpse will return to the earth, while the spirit returns to God, who gave it.
Does v 7 support an afterlife? In Ecclesiastes 3:18-21, Qoheleth asks if the spirit of man goes upward, and he does so in the context of his discussion over whether humans have the same fate as beasts, namely, death. There, he appears to view the scenario of the spirit going upwards as an afterlife, and he dismisses it. Does he affirm the afterlife in Ecclesiastes 12:7? Tremper Longman says no, maintaining that Qoheleth is merely discussing death: when we die, our breath of life returns to God, who gave it. For Longman, that breath is not an immortal soul.
Ecclesiastes 12:5 refers to an eternal home, and Longman maintains that this, too, does not refer to an afterlife. For this verse, he documents that an eternal home in the ancient world simply meant a grave. Longman cites the second century B.C.E. Palmyrene Inscription (which was Punic), a targum on Isaiah 14:18, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 19a, and Tobit 3:6.
Because of Ecclesiastes 3:18-21, I'm not entirely convinced by Longman's treatment of Ecclesiastes 12:7; I'm more convinced, however, by his treatment of Ecclesiastes 12:5, since he brings in ancient sources. But I will say that Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 presents death as a horrible thing, as something we should keep in our minds to encourage us to serve God in our youth, as the source of this life's futility. That corresponds with Qoheleth's message throughout his book: that we should enjoy life while we still can. I have a hard time thinking that Qoheleth would have viewed death in such dismal terms had he believed in an afterlife.
Like the Nelson Study Bible, I interpret Ecclesiastes 12:11 to mean that Qoheleth's words are goads that stimulate us to move in the right direction. Because life is transient, we should enjoy it while we still can---tasting of its pleasures even as we obey God. For Qoheleth, pleasures by themselves are empty, but they can be sweetened when we partake of them with the realization that we will one day die and no longer be able to enjoy them (see Ecclesiastes 7). And a healthy respect for God can influence us to enjoy those pleasures appropriately (Ecclesiastes 11:9).
On Qoheleth's criticism of books and reference to judgment in Ecclesiastes 12:12-14, I think that Daniel Grossberg offers a decent explanation for what those verses are saying:
"[J]ust because human rational inquiry leads nowhere, in terms of demonstrating a system of reward and punishment or lasting achievements, it does not invalidate the power and sovereignty of God nor disprove the possibility that in some way He does call everyone and everything into account."
So we should believe in God's justice even when our eyes see the opposite? In my opinion, this can be a positive thing: I believe God is good and will make things right, even though there are so many things around me that are wrong; plus, I should do good, realizing that God is on the side of righteousness. But I can also envision an application of Qoheleth's approach that does not quite appeal to me: "This non-Christian only looks like a good person, but he's really evil because he doesn't have the new heart that believing in Christ brings to those who have faith in Jesus, and so he will justly go to hell." Why should I disregard the sight of my own eyes---experience---for "revelation" that presents a psychotic sort of God?
Overall, I appreciated the Book of Ecclesiastes. It's probably the most "real" book in the Bible. Evangelicals like to talk about God having a special plan for everyone (especially believers): God will lead us to our career, or to a spouse, or to good health. But life does not always appear to be like this. A person can go to school to prepare for what seems to be God's intended vocation for her, only for her to die before she gets to perform that vocation. A man can meet his "soul-mate" and get married to her, only for the couple to divorce. The man then searches again for the woman God supposedly has in store for him. Qoheleth is honest about life not always working out. He says that there are accidents---time and chance (which, for him, are actually the hand of God, whose ways we do not know). For Qoheleth, wisdom can help us to live better lives, but that doesn't work all of the time. Our lives can be cut short, plus there is a lot of unfairness in the world.
But there is a limit to Qoheleth's realism. He talks about oppression, and so he recognizes ills in society. And yet he encourages everyone to enjoy life---to eat, to drink, etc. But what if a person is too poor to eat or to drink? Although Qoheleth acknowledges the existence of victims in society, he seems to assume that everyone can live high off the hog, when such is not necessarily the case. And yet, maybe even the poor can enjoy life, in some capacity, and the message of Qoheleth can be useful even for them. (In my opinion, though, we should not use that as an excuse to refrain from helping the poor. Their lot is still horrible, even if they can make due with it, at times.)
Moreover, unlike Qoheleth, I believe in an afterlife precisely because this life is so unfair. But I thought about something yesterday as I was reading through an old paper for a theology class. In that paper from 2004, I state: "Everything bad that ever happened to me at some point came to an end. I am often relieved that the ultimate nightmare, life, will one day be over." As I think back to that time, even my experience at church was promoting a similar message: Tim Keller said on more than one occasion that our suffering in this life will make our enjoyment of the afterlife so much sweeter. There is wisdom in this attitude, but I find that, nowadays, I am enjoying this life a lot more than I did in 2004, rather than just looking forward to an afterlife. Maybe that's because there are shows on TV that I enjoy, or because I've learned social skills that help me to get along better with people, or because I have learned ways to cope with the ills of life. But I'm happier nowadays.
I still hope that there's an afterlife, however, for the people and the things I enjoy will come to an end, and I dread that. I should enjoy the people I love while I still can, even as I hope that there just might be an afterlife that is run by a benevolent God.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Yesterday, I finished up Season 4 of Dexter. On it, John Lithgow delivers an Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning performance as Arthur Mitchell, the “Trinity Killer.” Arthur Mitchell is a family-man, deacon, and builder of homes for the homeless by day, but he’s the Trinity Killer by night (or when he’s on trips). His wife and kids experience his abuse, however, even though they look like the perfect family to the outside world.
Arthur Mitchell had a traumatic childhood. He startled his sister in the shower when he was ten-years-old, which resulted in her accidental death, as her body smashed against the shower’s glass. In despair, his Mom then killed herself by jumping off a building, leaving Arthur with his drunken, abusive father. Arthur later killed his Dad by bludgeoning him with a hammer. Arthur re-enacts these events at various points in his life. His murders follow a pattern. First, he kills a woman in a bath-tub. Second, he makes a woman jump off a tall building. Third, he bludgeons a man to death. This three-fold pattern of his murders is why he is called the “Trinity Killer.” And yet, we learn in the course of the series that there is an earlier step in his pattern, before he performs the bath-tub murder: he kidnaps a male child, calls the child “Arthur,” and encases him in cement to preserve his innocence.
Dexter has homicidal tendencies, but he channels them into vigilantism, as he puts murderers permanently off the street. Dexter himself had a traumatic childhood experience: he and his brother (who grew up to become the “Ice Truck Killer” of Season 1) witnessed their mother being sliced to death with a chain-saw. As with Arthur, Dexter’s childhood trauma shaped how he performed his murders as an adult: Dexter cuts up his victims with a chain-saw.
Dexter plots to put the Trinity Killer off the street, but he tries to get close to him because he hopes that Arthur can teach him something. Dexter now has a family—his wife Rita, Rita’s two children, and his newborn son with Rita, Harrison. Dexter is not entirely sure how he should act in a family, for he often doesn’t have emotions; as a result—although he can put on a friendly, charming facade before others—he’s not entirely sure what people in his family want from him. Moreover, Dexter wonders how he can balance his family life with his extra-curricular activity, while concealing from his family the nature of that activity. Because Arthur is a serial killer who has a family, Dexter thinks that Arthur can offer him advice.
Dexter approaches Arthur under another name (“Kyle”), posing as a potential congregant at Arthur’s church. Arthur does not know that Dexter works with the police. Dexter gets some helpful tips from Arthur (i.e., encourage your kids to participate in activities, such as sailing), but, as he learns about Arthur’s abuse of his family, Dexter concludes that he does not want to be like Arthur.
Eventually, Arthur learns that “Kyle” is really Dexter Morgan of the Miami Police Department, and Dexter later gets Arthur on his slaughtering table. In a poignant conversation, Arthur says that he prayed repeatedly that God might take away his homicidal tendencies, but God did not do so. Dexter then replies that Arthur did not actively work to keep his tendencies in check, but he passively waited on God. In Arthur’s final minutes, Dexter agrees to play some 50′s music and to run Arthur’s toy train, reminding Arthur of the innocent childhood for which he longed. Then, Dexter puts Arthur to death.
I could not help but feel sorry for Arthur, a person scarred by a childhood trauma, who is trying to recapture his innocence as a little boy. At the same time, Arthur had to be removed from society, for he was killing people’s mothers, sisters, brothers, and fathers. How would I feel if somebody killed one of my friends or loved ones? What could have been done to help Arthur to heal, thereby preventing Arthur from committing murders? Therapy? Authentic community?
Dexter’s conversation with Arthur about God also stood out to me. I can look to God to help me to become a better person, but I am still responsible for my own actions. Even if God does not remove a person’s dark tendencies, that person is still responsible not to act on them.
For Thanksgiving, I studied Ecclesiastes 11. What I got out of the chapter (based on my consultation of commentaries) was the following:
1. On vv 1-2: We should give to charity or invest because we can gain positive returns from so doing. If these verses are about charity, then their meaning is probably that God might reward us for our generosity, or that people we help will be more likely come to our rescue at a time when we need them. If the verses are about investment, they are probably saying that we should make investments to gain a return, as well as diversify our investments rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket; if disaster hits, we’ll find that diversifying our investments was a wise decision.
2. On vv 3-6: But Qoheleth does not really believe that doing the right thing always brings good results. In his mind, we can’t control what happens. We don’t know the future, nor do we understand how or why certain things occur in the natural world. What God does is a mystery. We see this point also in Ecclesiastes 3:11; 8:17; and 9:12. Although the world is not predictable, however, we should still work hard, for at least then there is a chance that we might succeed. A point that I have repeatedly gotten out of Qoheleth is that practicing wisdom is not fool-proof, for time and chance can bring misfortune, even to those who do the right thing. But doing the right thing at least increases the probability that things will go well for us.
3. On vv 7-8: Enjoy life while you still can, for the days of darkness (old age and death) will be longer than the days of life (light). To demonstrate that Qoheleth equates light with life and darkness with old age and death, the Jewish Study Bible cites the following passages: Ecclesiastes 6:3-4, 6; 7:11; 12:1-2. This message coincides with Qoheleth’s lack of belief in an afterlife, which leads him to conclude that this life is all there is, and so we should enjoy it to the fullest, while we still can.
But how did religious interpreters who believed in an afterlife interpret Ecclesiastes 11:7-8? Ecclesiastes Rabbah 11:6-7 interprets this passage to mean that the Torah is light, and yet our lives have many days of darkness, for the study of the Torah in this age is futile and dark compared to the Torah study that will exist in the Messianic age. Ecclesiastes Rabbah subverts the meaning of Ecclesiastes 11:7-8. The biblical passage says that we should enjoy this life (light) because days of darkness (old age and death) are coming. But Ecclesiastes Rabbah interprets the passage to mean that this life is the darkness, whereas the afterlife in the Messianic Age is when Jews will have true light.
Pope Gregory the Great (sixth century) had a similar approach to Ecclesiastes 11:7-8: In Moralia Job 2.9.92, he interpreted it to mean that we shouldn’t value the present life so much, for it is transient and temporary. Qoheleth’s whole point is that we should enjoy and value this life because it is temporary, but Gregory draws the opposite conclusion from Ecclesiastes 11:7-8. For Gregory, the point of the passage is that we should focus on the afterlife.
The third century Christian thinker Gregory Thaumaturgos, by contrast, said that Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 indeed means that this life is all there is. But this Gregory says that these were the sentiments of the non-believer, not something that Christians should accept as authoritative.
4. On vv 9-10: Our youth passes by quickly, and so we should enjoy it rather than holding on to sorrow and evil, which can hurt us. While we should enjoy life and its pleasures, however, we should remember that God judges. There are times when Qoheleth doubts that God judges, but Qoheleth also affirms that God does so (see my post, Ecclesiastes 8). As Tremper Longman notes, following pleasures and the desires of our hearts can lead us into wrongdoing and hurt us if we are not careful (see Numbers 15:39), but there is such a thing as appropriate, responsible enjoyment of life’s pleasures.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
A poignant scene in the movie is when Nixon calls Frost on the telephone one night. Nixon is drunk, and he rants to Frost about elitists who have turned up their noses at both Nixon and Frost. Nixon was not a part of the Ivy League, and he resented John F. Kennedy because Kennedy was born into a life of privilege. Nixon, however, had to work for every ounce of prestige that he got, and even when he got it, the elitists whose praise he coveted did not respect him.
Prior to and during the Nixon interviews, David Frost was considered a mere entertainer. People expected him to throw softball questions at Nixon, rather than the tough questions that so many wanted answered in order for the United States to arrive at a state of closure. And so, in a sense, Nixon was rooting for David Frost to succeed. In Nixon's mind, both he and David Frost were underdogs, attempting to rise above the scorn of the establishment. And yet, Nixon realized that either he or Frost would succeed: if Frost succeeded in conducting a hard-hitting interview, then that would mean Nixon's disgrace. If Frost failed and Nixon succeeded in rehabilitating his image, then Nixon could re-enter public life in some capacity. Nixon could identify with Frost, but only one of them could win, and Nixon promised to give Frost the fight of his life.
At the end of the movie, after Frost had conducted a successful interview and was throwing parties, Nixon asked Frost if he actually enjoyed all those parties. Nixon then lamented that he himself was not born with the gift of charm---the ability to get people to like him---and that he was never good at small talk. Consequently, he envied David Frost.
I've often identified with Nixon, as well as admired him. Here was a man with a great sense of insecurity and introversion. He never felt comfortable in his own skin. He differed from John F. Kennedy in that things didn't come easily to him. Women flocked to Kennedy, but Nixon for a long time drove Pat on her dates with other men before she finally fell in love with him and agreed to marry him. Nixon got outside of his comfort zone and put himself in leadership positions when he was in high school and college. When he ran for the U.S. Senate against an incumbent, he put a lot of research into his debate preparation, and that really showed in the debate.
Unlike Kennedy, Nixon didn't have charisma, but he was a reliable hard worker who knew what he was talking about when it came to governance and policy. He could succinctly articulate various points of view when he was arriving at a decision. As different experts have remarked, Nixon could have easily held his own as a chair at a prestigious academic institution. In the real David Frost interviews, Nixon held his own as the lawyer that he was, even though Frost got Nixon to apologize to the American people.
Although Nixon was stiff and socially-awkward, he tried to reach out to people, and he somehow managed to succeed in a profession that demands extroversion: politics. Nixon could also be humble and warm. One scene in the Frost/Nixon movie was when Nixon remarked that he doesn't say "son of a b***h" anymore out of deference for his butler, who liked dogs. This butler also worked for Nixon in the White House. I admire Nixon for not being a social snob---for getting to know the people who worked for him.
In the movie Nixon, Nixon says to a portrait of John F. Kennedy, "When people look at you, they see what they want to be; when they look at me, they see what they are." I can understand why Nixon would envy Kennedy, with all of Kennedy's glamor and charisma. As Nixon's butler said in that movie, Kennedy made him "see the stars." But I admire Nixon more because Nixon had to struggle, and he accomplished a lot, in terms of his career and his accomplishments for the American people. Nixon is an inspiration.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
We also see this sort of thing in the movie, Reds, in which Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton play Communists in the early twentieth century. Part of their ideology was free love, and yet Diane Keaton didn't like it when Warren Beatty was cheating on her.
Moving into an ancient Near Eastern culture, the Hebrew Bible presents problems with polygamy. If a man has two wives, both wives fight over their husband's affections. I think here of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.
But there are exceptions to the rule. There are wife-swappers. There are women who don't mind when their boyfriend cheats, and they cheat themselves. What are we to make of exceptions? Do exceptions invalidate the rule that we are wired for monogamy? Or are the exceptions examples of sick people?
Sunday, November 21, 2010
What motivates my interactions with people? Do I love people? Do I love attention from people? Do I want to be liked? Do I desire to learn something new from people? Or is it a combination of these factors? If so, which is strongest?
Why do people in general interact with people?
Saturday, November 20, 2010
For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied Ecclesiastes 10.
I encountered a theme in Ecclesiastes 10:8-11 that occurs throughout Ecclesiastes: that wisdom can make our life better, and yet the world is not fool-proof. Accidents can still happen, even to the wise. A person may be digging a pit, tearing down a wall, quarrying stones, or cleaving wood, and he is suddenly injured or killed in his work. Granted, some difficulties with work are solved by good old practical wisdom: a wise person will chop wood after he sharpens the blade of his ax, for example, rather than chop with a dull blade. But wisdom does not solve everything: a man may be an expert snake-charmer, for instance, and yet his snake-charming will not help him if the snake bites him out of the clear blue sky, before the man even know what's what!
Jewish interpretations that I read (or read about)---such as Ecclesiastes Rabbah, Rashi, Jarchi, and targumim---tried to interpret Ecclesiastes 10:8-11 in an ethical sense. There are places in Scripture in which a man falling into a pit he has dug refers to punishment for sin: a man tries to hurt somebody by digging a pit for his potential victim to fall into, and, instead, the digger of the pit falls into it (see Psalm 7:14-16; 9:15-16; Proverbs 26:27)! Rabbis applied Ecclesiastes 10's reference to tearing down a wall to transgressing the words of the sages, and its passage about quarrying stones to Jewish students removing themselves from the study of the Torah. As is often the case with religious interpretations of Ecclesiastes, Jewish interpreters attempted to reconcile Qoheleth's belief in a chaotic world with their own view that the world is a place that's manageable because it is governed by a good God who consistently rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness.
I don't say this often, but Calvary Chapel preacher Bob Davis' sermon on Ecclesiastes 10 was actually pretty good, aside from the anti-Muslim comment he throws in (click on Ecclesiastes 10 to listen). Ecclesiastes 10:1 says that dead flies corrupt good ointment, and a little folly can outweigh much wisdom. Davis interpreted this verse to mean that it only takes one bad decision to dramatically and negatively affect a person's life, however wise he may have lived for the majority of his time. A sexual abuser, for example, may be sorry for her deed and have God's forgiveness, but she will experience legal consequences for the rest of her natural life. A person who normally does not party may go to a get-together and get drunk one night, and he ends up killing people in an automobile accident. One bad decision can have life-changing effects. That could be why many interpreters believe that Ecclesiastes 10 is saying that wise people are careful and moral: sure, wisdom is not fool-proof, but being careful can obviate problems that carelessness or immorality can create.
Ecclesiastes 10 also offers political commentary. Qoheleth is sort of a political elitist, for he bemoans the poor and the foolish being elevated, even as the rich and the nobles are brought down. In the HarperCollins Study Bible, Raymond Van Leeuwen identifies a similar elitism in Proverbs 26:1; 30:21-23; and Isaiah 3:4-5. Ecclesiastes 10:16-17 may offer Qoheleth's rationale for his elitism: a king who is a child is continually partying with his princes, which clouds his judgment, whereas a noble king only parties with them at appropriate times. But, soon after Qoheleth criticizes certain types of kings, he goes on to say that we shouldn't criticize the king in our thoughts or in private, for the king may learn that we have a bad opinion of him. This is Qoheleth's practical wisdom: we may not like a king, but the king is more powerful than we are and can hurt us, and so we should exercise caution.
Qoheleth's elitism makes me think: elites do not necessarily govern well, for there are many that have oppressed people, and the Bible criticizes oppression in a number of places. But non-elites that assume power can themselves be oppressive, and their new-found power can go to their heads. Moreover, non-elites' lack of experience in governing may not do people much good.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Under Rachel Held Evans’ post, Did Anne Frank go to hell?, Tara Meghan says the following:
“I am Catholic, and while I’m still learning the ins-and-outs of Catholic doctrine, I’m pretty comfortable with what I understand to be our beliefs about departed souls. As I understand, only real, out-and-out saints are actually prepared for what is called Heaven. The rest of us are still unfortunately (whether by weakness or ignorance) in need of some cleaning up, so to speak. Thus, the Purgatory. And it’s true, Catholics are asked to pray for all the dead! And (again, this is my understanding) we’re actually encouraged to pray that *nobody, anywhere, ever* is damned to Hell, because all of our souls, no matter what we make of them in this life, are precious. And, most emphatically, people cannot be damned to Hell over something they never knew. A Jewish person in the 40′s may have *heard* of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that they knew the whole story or understood the message. Paul to the Romans is what I would imagine would be most quoted to support the idea of non-Christians being doomed, but he also made it clear that ignorance is, in fact, a legitimate excuse.
“The God of the prodigal son, and of the 11th hour workers who received the same wage as those who came in the morning, and of the adulteress who no one threw a stone at, and of the Cross, is not a God to turn around and condemn the souls of decent people to an eternity away from Him, just because they didn’t get the memo! To me, *that’s* the hope of the Gospel, and *that’s* the hope of Christ. And that’s why I’m a Christian. Because Jesus rules.”
This is what my Mom and her husband learned in their Catholic classes when they were converting to Catholicism (or, more accurately, my Mom was converting, since her husband was already a Catholic). At Hebrew Union College, there was a Catholic woman who told me that Catholicism holds that moral people go to heaven, regardless of their religion.
At my Latin mass, however, and in the works of Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas, I encounter another view: the saved (Christians) go to heaven, or they go to purgatory, if they need further cleansing. And non-Christians go to hell. Moreover, my understanding is that mortal sins can damn a Christian to hell, if he does not take the necessary steps to repent of them. Venial sins don’t damn Christians to hell, however, but they do damn non-Christians, who lack the grace of Christ.
In the Catholic catechism, I read inclusivist language. I once received an ad for a James White debate with Bill Rutland over the following passages in the Catholic catechism:
”841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
“1260 Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery. Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”
But I also read in 1033 that to “die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice”, and 1032-1033 affirm that purgatory is for the elect, those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but [are] still imperfectly purified…”
But the question is this: Who has God’s grace and friendship? Is it only those who have an explicit faith in Jesus Christ? Or is it also people who are trying to follow whatever light they have? And how much light is enough for a person to be judged a non-believer? Indeed, there are people who have never heard the Gospel, but there are also plenty who have heard it, yet they choose to follow their own religions or ideas. Maybe they are still in the category of “ignorant” because they don’t fully understand the love of God through Jesus Christ. Perhaps intellectually understanding God’s love and rejecting it is not enough to get a person damned, for one has to taste God’s love and spurn it before God judges that person as hopeless. I don’t know.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
It seems like people have been nicer to me this week, plus I've been more outgoing. Granted, a lot of women turn up their nose at me, but that hasn't bothered me as much this week.
But I don't like being in a good mood. I long for a flat mood. I also like a passive "Who cares?" mood. But I don't like a sugary good mood.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
It had a lot of funny scenes. There was the ex-Jew for Jesus, who owned a Christian store, and he said that he saw miracles when he was in college. When Bill Maher asked him to talk about one of them, the man replied that a Jew for Jesus asked him to put his cup outside and ask for rain. The man did so, and it started to rain ten seconds later. Bill Maher said that was pretty lame, and that the man's bar for miracles was rather low.
In a deleted scene, Benjamin Creme (who also appears in the documentary Oh My God, which I saw a few days ago) channels Mayetera, as Bill has an irreverant look on his face.
Then there's the Jew who doesn't believe in the state of Israel, who actually hugged the President of Iran. When Bill told the Jew that the President of Iran wanted to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, the Jew replied that the President said nothing of the sort; rather, the President of Iran said that Israel would disappear. I got a big laugh out of Bill's response. "Disappear? Who are you? David Copperfield?"
Then there's a guy in a deleted scene who believes that the world is ruled by lizards, and who notes that some have actually seen Bush, Sr. shape-shift. Sounds like V!
I was intrigued by the scene in which Bill Maher was interviewing an orthodox Jew, who devised contraptions that allowed him to get by without using elecriticity on the Sabbath. They're pretty ingenious! But Bill Maher asked him if he was trying to outsmart God.
The closing scene was rather intense, as Bill juxtaposed Bible passages about the end of the world with similar passages in the Koran. (Bill actually took an anti-Islamic approach in this documentary. One person Bill interviewed said that the moderate Muslims were lying to Bill when they tried to defend their religion to him. This guy wasn't a conservative tossing out the word "taqiyya"; rather, he disliked the Old Testament as well. I wonder how Bill feels about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque.") Bill asked an evangelical Senator why we should bother helping the world, when it will soon come to an end. And there were Christians who didn't seem to care if the world came to an end, just so long as God protected them. "I'll be raptured, and I'll return on a white horse!", one woman jubilantly exclaimed. "Even if the world ends with a nuclear blast, God will protect me," the ex-Jew for Jesus said.
Within and outside of a formal educational context, I have heard, watched, and read plenty of critiques of religion. But this documentary made me wonder if I was harming others by having a sort of faith---in something that cannot be proven. Bill said that those who look to religion for comfort are doing so at a heavy price, for, when we accept the unproven, we open the door for others to accept the unproven---and people can do so in fanatical ways (e.g., jihad), or in ways that aren't helpful to humanity (e.g., Bush praying about Iraq rather than learning about it). For Bill, the best posture we can take is doubt, which is humbler than dogmatism.
I can think of conventional responses to Bill's statement. I can say that religion has done a lot of good in the world. I can ask if atheism provides a solid foundation for morality. I can point out the Communist dictators who were atheistic and bloodthirsty. I can say that we all accept certain principles without solid evidence, for it's impossible for anyone to run his or her life completely on empiricism. I can remind myself of people who have experienced a higher power.
These responses are good, or, at least, not all of them are bad. But they don't satisfy me, at least not right now. There's a nagging feeling within me that, even if religion has done good, its acceptance of the unproven sets a bad precedent. Why should Christians accept the Bible without proof, while looking down on those who do the same with Shintoism, or radical Islam? Bill had some pretty bizarre people on his documentary, one of whom claimed to be Jesus Christ. This guy said that he paid for humanity's sins in a previous incarnation, and so there is now no such thing as sin. How can I say this guy is wrong, if I myself believe in a system of thought without solid proof? Does acceptance of blind faith open the flood-gates for people to believe anything and everything?
I feel that societies have largely accepted certain principles of ethics---which extend from "love your neighbor as yourself"---because they work. They promote a stable society, in which everyone is safe. Maybe I can accept these principles at the outset, and I can evaluate religions according to the extent to which they promote or abide by these principles. If a belief in God leads me to abide by these principles, then that's a good belief in God. But not anything and everything goes. We have some foundation, or criterion, for the evaluation of faith: ethics.
Bill Maher himself is not totally anti-religion in his documentary. He castigates churches for not following the example of Jesus, who championed the poor. He talks about his own religious experiences in the past, such as the "deals" he made with God. He talks with his Mom and his sister about his family's religion, and, after we see his Mom say that she'll be "somewhere" after she dies, there is a caption dedicating the documentary to her memory. Even Bill Maher sees some value in Jesus. Paradoxically, his experimentation with religion encourages me to call out to God when I need help. And he doesn't dogmatically proclaim that this life is all that there is. Rather, he calls for a humble doubt (which probably won't assure a lot of people).
Bill Maher also argues that the Jesus story was copy-catted from other tales---such as that of Horus and Osiris. In a poignant scene, captions refer to certain features of those tales that overlap with the Gospel, as we see images from the movie, King of Kings, as well as other Jesus movies. Personally, I don't know enough about this issue to evaluate Maher's claims. I've read conservative Christians who claim that the Gospel story is different from its alleged parallels in earlier cultures. C.S. Lewis, however, said that the Osiris story foreshadowed the coming of Christ. I'd also like to see primary-evidence for the parallels. The problem I had with Tom Harpur's book, Pagan Christ, was that it did not refer to primary sources (as far as I could tell). Maybe there are other books that actually do so.
I enjoyed this documentary, and I got a good laugh from it. I think my neighbors could hear me cackling!
A final thought: I'll continue to believe in God, for I am cognizant of my own weaknesses.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
I’m reading Randall Heskett and Brian Irwin’s The Bible as a Human Witness to Divine Revelation off-and-on, and I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Wilson’s article in it, “Scribal Culture and the Book of Isaiah.” It tied together a lot of loose ends.
One thing that I have to know for my Hebrew Bible comp is Philip Davies’ view on Israel’s scribal culture. Wilson summarizes that. According to Wilson, Davies believes that not many people in ancient Israel could read, but that there were small scribal elites that were associated with the political and the religious establishments. Wilson states on page 99, as he describes Davies’ position:
“This relatively small arena for scribal activity in turn delayed the production of written biblical texts until the Persian period or later. Even then, writing was a monopoly of scribal elites, who created texts to support their own interests as well as the interests of the government and the religious establishment.”
In the case of prophetic literature, Davies believes that letters containing divine oracles were preserved in the royal archives, but that “these oracle collections would not have resembled the Bible’s prophetic books as they now exist.” In Israel’s post-exilic period, the Israelites became interested in composing a national history, and Davies believes that was the time when “the oracle collections [were] supplied with historical and cultural contexts of the sort now found in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.” Moreover, for Davies, “some of the oracles from the collections found their way into the historical narratives themselves, creating the prophetic stories now found in Samuel and Kings.”
This echoes some things that the professor giving my comp has said: that prophetic literature is not really historical, but was a literary exercise, and that the alleged historical contexts of the prophetic writings were attached to the text at a post-exilic date. At least that sounds like what Davies is saying. When Davies says that the oracle collections were “supplied with historical and cultural contexts” (to use Wilson’s summary of Davies), does that mean the historical and cultural contexts were artificially attached to anonymous oracles, whose historical setting the scribes did not know? Or does it mean that the scribes knew these oracles’ historical setting, and simply made that clear in their formulation of prophetic literature?
In addition to Wilson’s summary of Davies, I appreciated his discussion of how biblical texts could have been composed in exile. I asked in a class if a certain text was exilic, and the professor asked me how people could compose texts in exile, without a sponsor. I had just assumed that the Jews could compose texts in exile, and that biblical scholars had some way to account for that. After all, didn’t many of them date P to the exile? I was sure they wouldn’t do that if writing in the exile was impossible.
But Wilson discusses how it could have been possible, even when Israel lacked a political establishment and a temple. He states that there were scribes whom people approached whenever they needed something written, whether that be “certifying economic transactions, writing wills and marriage documents, and generally doing any writing that private citizens wanted done.” And so you had Jews in exile who could write, and who did so as part of their business. Some of them could have come together to produce a document such as, say, Second Isaiah. And we see in Scripture that small religious groups—circles around a prophet—wrote and preserved the prophet’s words. This was the case for First Isaiah (Isaiah 8:16; 30:8), and also Jeremiah.
Monday, November 15, 2010
The following is from page 92 of William Holladay's Hermeneia commentary on the Book of Jeremiah:
"Passages from Jrm also contributed to the development of fresh doctrine. [T]here developed a belief that the antichrist would come from Dan (see T. Dan 5:6, evidently part of a Christian interpolation); this belief was derived from Gen 49:17, but would be reinforced by Deut 33:22; Judg 18:11-31; and Jer 8:16-17---it should be noted that Dan is missing from the list in Rev 7:5-8 (Joseph and Manasseh are both listed, to make twelve) and that Irenaeus interprets Jer 8:16 of the antichrist."
I'd like to post the passages that Holladay cites, with the exception of Revelation 7:5-8, which is a list of tribes, and Judges 18:11-31, which is the story of Dan taking Micah's idols and getting territory up in the north. Bible passages are from the New American Standard Version.
Testimony of Dan 5:4-13: "4 I know that in the last days ye shall depart from the Lord, And ye shall provoke Levi unto anger, And fight against Judah; But ye shall not prevail against them, For an angel of the Lord shall guide them both; For by them shall Israel stand. 5 And whensoever ye depart from the Lord, ye shall walk in all evil and work the abominations of the Gentiles, going a-whoring after women of the lawless ones, while with all wickedness the spirits 6 of wickedness work in you. [For I have read in the book of Enoch, the righteous, that your prince is Satan, and that all the spirits of wickedness and pride will conspire to attend constantly on the sons of Levi, to cause them to sin before the Lord. 7 And my sons will draw near to Levi. And sin with them in all things; And the sons of Judah will be covetous, Plundering other men's goods like lions.] 8 Therefore shall ye be led away [with them] into captivity, And there shall ye receive all the plagues of Egypt, And all the evils of the Gentiles. 9 And so when ye return to the Lord ye shall obtain mercy, And He shall bring you into His sanctuary, And He shall give you peace. 10 And there shall arise unto you from the tribe of [Judah and of] Levi the salvation of the Lord; And he shall make war against Beliar. And execute an everlasting vengeance on our enemies; 11 And the captivity shall he take from Beliar [the souls of the saints], And turn disobedient hearts unto the Lord, And give to them that call upon him eternal peace. 12 And the saints shall rest in Eden, And in the New Jerusalem shall the righteous rejoice, And it shall be unto the glory of God for ever. 13 And no longer shall Jerusalem endure desolation, Nor Israel be led captive; For the Lord shall be in the midst of it [living amongst men], And the Holy One of Israel shall reign over it [in humility and in poverty; and he who believeth on Him shall reign amongst men in truth]."
(The stuff in brackets is not from me, but from R.H. Charles. I'm not sure what his basis for the insertion was. Was it to mark Christian interpolation?)
Genesis 49:17: "Dan shall be a serpent in the way, A horned snake in the path, That bites the horse's heels, So that his rider falls backward."
Deuteronomy 33:22: "Of Dan he said, 'Dan is a lion's whelp, That leaps forth from Bashan.'"
Jeremiah 8:16-17: "From Dan is heard the snorting of his horses; At the sound of the neighing of his stallions The whole land quakes;For they come and devour the land and its fullness, The city and its inhabitants. For behold, I am sending serpents against you, Adders, for which there is no charm, And they will bite you,' declares the LORD."
Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.2: "These men, therefore, ought to learn [what really is the state of the case], and go back to the true number of the name, that they be not reckoned among false prophets. But, knowing the sure number declared by Scripture, that is, six hundred sixty and six, let them await, in the first place, the division of the kingdom into ten; then, in the next place, when these kings are reigning, and beginning to set their affairs in order, and advance their kingdom, [let them learn] to acknowledge that he who shall come claiming the kingdom for himself, and shall terrify those men of whom we have been speaking, having a name containing the aforesaid number, is truly the abomination of desolation. This, too, the apostle affirms:
When they shall say, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction shall come upon them. 1 Thessalonians 5:3 And Jeremiah does not merely point out his sudden coming, but he even indicates the tribe from which he shall come, where he says,
We shall hear the voice of his swift horses from Dan; the whole earth shall be moved by the voice of the neighing of his galloping horses: he shall also come and devour the earth, and the fullness thereof, the city also, and they that dwell therein. Jeremiah 8:16 This, too, is the reason that this tribe is not reckoned in the Apocalypse along with those which are saved."
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Latin mass was rather boring this morning. We had bald Tom Bosley priest, and he was talking about praying for the souls in purgatory. What stood out to me, though, was one of the passages in the Scripture reading. The passage was in one of the books of Corinthians, and Paul was discussing the power of God in Paul’s ministry to the Corinthian church. That reminded me that Paul refers to miracles in his letters to various churches. In I Corinthians 12:9, Paul says that there are people in the Corinthian church who have the gift of healing. In Galatians 3:5, Paul reminds the Galatians of the miracles that have been done in their midst.
Would Paul refer to these miracles, if they had not occurred? If Paul realized that the Corinthians or the Galatians could reply with “What miracles?” or “What healings?”, would Paul have brought them up? This was a point that I used to raise as an amateur apologist. My argument was that Paul wouldn’t have referred to miracles in the churches if they were not occurring, and so they must have been real. Therefore, Christianity has supernatural confirmation, and is thus true.
But I can think of three challenges to my argument, and I’d like to wrestle with them.
1. One guy—a Jewish-Christian who did not accept the religious authority of Paul—disputed that these were actual letters that Paul wrote to congregations. His view was that they were written by an official body as Scripture, and so, of course, they would refer to miracles to convince their audience that Christianity had miraculous confirmation! For this guy, Paul was not talking to people about miracles that they had experienced. Rather, these “letters” were crafted by a group specifically to serve as authoritative Scripture, and the “miracles” that they mention were made-up.
I don’t see this sort of argument in too many places, for many assume that I Corinthians and Galatians were written by Paul for specific congregations. But I do remember having a discussion with former fundamentalist Ken Pulliam, who referred to scholar Robert Price’s argument that I Corinthians 15:3-11 was a post-Pauline interpolation (see the discussion under Ken’s post, The Memory of Eyewitnesses). I Corinthians 15:3-11 is significant to Christian apologists for the resurrection of Jesus. In that passage, Paul (or, for Price, “Paul”) mentions five-hundred people who witnessed the risen Jesus, some of whom were alive in the time that Paul wrote to the Corinthians. For Christian apologists, Paul would not have referred to those witnesses if they did not exist, for Paul realized that the Corinthians could have easily checked up on Paul’s claim that there were witnesses to the risen Jesus. Why would Paul claim something that could be easily refuted? Christian apologists conclude, therefore, that there were indeed witnesses to the risen Jesus.
Price does not go the route of saying that I Corinthians was not an authentic letter to the Corinthian church, but he does make an argument that overlaps somewhat with the view of that Jewish-Christian guy who challenged me: Price realizes that, at some point, I Corinthians became authoritative Scripture, and so pious interpreters could have added stuff to it, years after Paul wrote the letter. For Price, therefore, Paul did not refer to witnesses to the risen Jesus who were contemporary with the first century Corinthian church, the recipients of Paul’s letter. Rather, the passage that claimed this was inserted into the letter after the time of Paul, when the text was becoming (or had become) sacred Scripture. A later hand was holding that there were eyewitnesses to the risen Christ when Paul was alive.
I’m not sure how to respond to the claim that Paul’s letters were pious fiction. To me, they appear to address genuine communities, with real-life first-century problems. My impression is that even pseudonymous letters (e.g., Colossians, Ephesians, I-II Timothy, Titus) were written for real-life communities: someone was writing to a church what he thought Paul would say about its situation.
I don’t know if I Corinthians 15:3-11 was a post-Pauline insertion, but I don’t think that such was the case for Galatians 3:5 and I Corinthians 12:9, since Paul’s claims that there were miracles in these passages are integral to his argument: the Galatians didn’t have to keep the Jewish law because they experienced God’s miracles before they started observing Jewish customs; the Corinthian Christians are experiencing genuine miracles from God, but they must learn to exercise their spiritual gifts responsibly. I think Paul was referring to miracles that his audience had experienced.
2. Another response to my argument is that the “miracles” Paul mentioned may not have been all that miraculous. I once had a conversation with Ken Pulliam under his post, Psychological Factors Influencing Eyewitness Testimony–Part Two. Ken was arguing that, even if the Gospels were “eyewitness testimony,” that didn’t mean that that they are historically-reliable, for people mis-remember things. But I asked him what gave rise to the eyewitnesses’ memory of Jesus’ miracles. Those were unusual events! Would eyewitnesses to Jesus’ healing of a man’s withered hand mis-remember that event? In my mind, that would be too extraordinary to mis-remember!
Ken responded as follows:
“You raise some good questions. First, I think that for some of these ‘miracle’ events there was some kernal of historical truth. IOW, something unusual happened. Second, as the stories got passed along things got exagerrated. Third, I doubt seriously that anything that as dramatic as a withered hand or withered legs (as in Acts 3) was healed immediately and spontaneously. I think its more along the line of what we hear about today in many Charismatic circles. As these stories get passed along the anecdotes keep growing and expanding until you have something truly remarkable.
“Oncologists report the occasional spontaneous remission of cancer and they have some theories for it but that is not the same as a person covered with leprosy suddenly being healed and given brand new baby soft skin all over their body as some miracle reports have it. Nor is it like a person who had never walked in his life suddenly being healed and his previously atrophied legs now made like those of an Olympic pole vault champion (as in Acts 3). Or a person dead for 4 days like Lazarus coming out of the tomb. If I were to see something on that scale today, then I might be a believer.”
“BTW, a book I read years ago by William Nolan, A Doctor in Search of a Miracle, was very interesting. This medical doctor took a year off from his practice to investigate the people who were supposedly healed in charismatic healing services. He concluded that there was not ONE case of a truly organic disease being healed.”
Was Paul referring to genuine miracles, or to events that got exaggerated? Maybe, by “healing,” Paul and the Corinthians had in mind the sorts of things that occur at a Benny Hinn crusade. I don’t mean fake “healings,” but rather people who (for example) feel that they don’t need their glasses anymore because their eyesight has cleared up as a result of an evangelist’s “healing,” but later they realize that they do need them. (Of course, glasses did not exist back then, but I hope you get a picture of the sort of thing I’m talking about.)
I don’t know. I’ve heard evangelicals talk about friends who have been healed of AIDS or cancer. Are these exaggerations or urban legends, or are they real-life experiences? There are exaggerations and urban legends that arise, as a story is passed on from one person to the next, gaining different layers in the process of transmission. Christians can exaggerate events as they look at them through the lens of their faith. In Charismatic Chaos, John MacArthur refers to a man who claimed to have been healed of his paralysis, and yet the man still had leg-braces.
But I’m reluctant to dismiss every miraculous story that I have heard. There are people who appear to me to be reasonable, who mention experiences they have had that are out-of-the-ordinary. I don’t think they’re lying or making stuff up. Their story hasn’t gone through the “telephone” game, so I doubt that it’s an exaggeration. Personally, I don’t rule out that they have experienced a miracle.
My view is that Paul was referring to genuine miracles that his audience had experienced. Unlike many skeptics, I don’t think that the Galatians and the Corinthians were particularly gullible, even if they lived in a time when people attributed a lot to the supernatural. Rather, I believe that there were cases in which they labelled something a “healing” because a person’s disease went away, in a manner that was extraordinary enough to get their attention.
3. A third response to my argument is that there are miracles in non-Christian cultures and religions. Ken Pulliam, in his post, The Christian Delusion: Chapter Eleven–Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable, discusses scholar Richard Carrier’s point that Herodotus refers to eyewitnesses to miraculous events. Herodotus claims to have talked with these eyewitnesses. Ken and Carrier wonder why Christians make a big deal about the eyewitness testimony to the risen Jesus (i.e., Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-11 refers to eyewitnesses whom he knows), even as they dismiss the eyewitness testimony to pagan miracles that Herodotus cites. (Either they dismiss that testimony, or they attribute the miracles to demons.)
Personally, I think that there are miracles in non-Christian religions and cultures. Therefore, even if Paul referred to authentic miracles in his letters to certain churches, those miracles don’t prove that Christianity is the only legitimate way of seeing the world. But they do open up the possibility that there are things out there that have not been explained. Maybe they even show that there’s a benevolent God who reaches out to people in different religions and cultures.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied Ecclesiastes 9. Its message is the usual Qoheleth spiel: work hard and enjoy life while you’re still alive to do so, for one day you’ll die, and you won’t be able to enjoy anything then. Qoheleth also appears to argue that, while wisdom is valuable because it can bring about good results, that’s not an absolute. A wise man can save a city through his wisdom, for example, but all it takes is one bad apple to botch everything up. Moreover, for Qoheleth, the world doesn’t run on absolutes. The wicked aren’t always punished, the righteous aren’t always rewarded, and the prize does not always go to the most talented individual. All we can do in response to the unfairness of life is to enjoy our work and whatever fruits we derive from that, as well as the wife of our youth. (Qoheleth was most likely written for a male audience.)
That’s my summary of Ecclesiastes 9. Now, I want to discuss the interpretation of two passages: Ecclesiastes 9:5 and vv 14-15:
1. In my reading, I was interested in interpretations of Ecclesiastes 9:5, in which Qoheleth says that the dead know nothing. My religious background (Armstrongism and Seventh-Day Adventism) cited that passage to defend the doctrine of “soul sleep,” which affirms that human beings are unconscious during their death, meaning that they don’t have a conscious soul that goes to heaven or hell when they die; rather, they are unconscious until the resurrection at the last day.
In the rabbinic document, Ecclesiastes Rabbah, the rabbis are troubled by Ecclesiastes’ apparent denial of an afterlife. They believed that the soul existed apart from the body after death, and that a resurrection would occur in the latter days. Ecclesiastes, however, appeared to dispute the notion that the dead knew anything in a state of consciousness, as well as the afterlife in general. Consequently, there were rabbis who tried to reconcile the Book of Ecclesiastes with their belief in an afterlife.
The rabbis in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:4 argue that the “living” in Ecclesiastes 9:5 refers to the righteous, whereas the “dead” in that verse means the wicked. A rabbi points out that a righteous person is alive even while he’s dead, using a similar argument to that of Jesus in Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27, and Luke 20:38: God in Exodus 33:18 talks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as if they are still alive. Conversely, a rabbi contends that a wicked person is dead even while he’s alive, for Ezekiel 18:32 says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the dead. Since the dead cannot die, being already dead, the rabbi concludes that “dead” in Ezekiel 18:32 means a living wicked person, and he applies that definition of “dead” to the “dead” in Ecclesiastes 9:5: for him, the passage is saying that the wicked know nothing and will receive no reward after death. (Actually, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:4 doesn’t explicitly make that point after it applies the “dead” in Ecclesiastes 9:4 to the wicked, but we do find that sort of interpretation in the targum; also, see my old post, Ecclesiastes 9:4-10 and the Afterlife.)
The Nelson Study Bible offers the following comments on Ecclesiastes 9:4-5:
Friday, November 12, 2010
I just saw the documentary Oh My God, which my friend Felix mentioned here a while back. It’s about a film-maker who travels the world to ask people who God is. You can watch the trailer on Felix’s page to get the gist of the movie. I’ll just make three points about it:
1. The illusionist David Copperfield said that he could probably replicate the “miracles” of the Bible, and yet he still believes in a higher power. (Those weren’t his exact words, but that’s what I got out of what he said.) That reminds me of Erich von Danicken’s statement that he believes in God, even though he argues that Ezekiel saw alien spaceships. I’ve been watching Stargate SG-1, and its premise is that religions are based on aliens who visited earth.
Does anything have to threaten my faith in God? People may rip apart the Bible and inserts seeds of doubt about its inerrancy or reliability. But why’s that mean that I have to abandon my belief in a higher power who made everything and everyone around me, and who loves me?
2. There was a good scene about Islam. A fundamentalist Muslim quoted a Quranic passages that said (according to him) that non-Muslims won’t go to heaven. Then a moderate Muslim offered an alternative interpretation of that very same passage, saying that it said those who are closed to the truth—whether they be Jews, Christians, pagans, or Muslims—will not enter heaven. His definition of “truth” may be a belief in God and morality, for he referred to the Quran passage that said that those who believe in God, including Jews and Christians, will go to heaven.
I liked this scene because it dealt with two interpretations of a specific passage of the Quran. Usually, I hear the debate between fundamentalist and moderate Muslims expressed in terms of generalities rather than exegesis, so it was refreshing to get a taste of the latter.
3. The documentary leaned strongly towards the view that we are all God, and we should help one another. I have problems with reducing religion to that, as someone who has problems fitting in with people. One reason I like the Bible is that it presents people who rely on God and his goodness, even as they are marginalized by humanity. I think here of the Psalmist, the prophets (particularly Jeremiah, but also Moses), and Jesus.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Happy Veterans’ Day! It gets to the point where I don’t know what to say about the holidays that come around each year. But, come to think of it, I did watch a show about veterans’ issues last night: I was watching more of Season 3 of Brothers and Sisters, since I need to return the DVD as soon as possible. It has a hold, and so I can’t renew it. On Brothers and Sisters, Justin is a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In one of the episodes that I saw last night, Justin’s nephew is presenting Justin to his elementary school class, and the nephew says that Justin has a really cool life: he lives with his Mom, has no homework, and plays video games all day. Justin then realizes that he’s in a rut and has to get out of it somehow. Justin was kind of aimless even before he went to war. But war can still shoulder a person with a lot of baggage that can make it difficult for him or her to proceed through life.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
My Mom has an excellent post, The Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Destructive Imprinting and Growing Pains. She talks about how she's changed over the years, and yet people close to her expect her to be the same Janice that they always knew. She also discusses how certain beliefs (Armstrongism, among other things) were imprinted on her at an early age. The following passage stood out to me:
"It is probably safe to say that the roots of a person’s belief system are imprinted early on and, while the beliefs can change, some of the roots can remain to color the new beliefs."
I can identify with my Mom's frustration. I feel that I've changed my beliefs, and yet people still consider me to be a conservative evangelical. They read everything I write through the lens of "James Pate is a conservative evangelical." I can't say that this is entirely other people's fault, for it's happened so often---and among different people. For example, when I was in college, I made some liberal points in classes, believe it or not. But because my classmates had a preconceived notion of "James Pate is a conservative evangelical," they usually didn't accept my points at face value; rather, when they responded to me, they responded to their stereotypes of what conservatives believe, even if I had said no such thing.
I think that there are different reasons for this. One is that I have said strongly conservative things over the years, and that has left an impression on people's minds. Consequently, when they see me now, they have in mind the things that they heard or read me saying in the early days of them knowing me.
The second reason is that I still use conservative vocabulary, whether I'm aware of it or not. This has bitten me in the rear-end a couple of times. For example, I was one time getting into an argument with somebody about abortion. He said that we should save the mother's life if her having a child will result in her death. I sympathize with that point, but what really angered me was his justification for his position: he said that the mother is part of a community and contributes to society, whereas that is not the case for the child. He then said that we Christians should view issues through communitarian lens, not individualistic ones. Immediately, my buttons were pushed, on account for my dislike of communitarianism (since I have rarely fit into communities), and this guy's smug, arrogant, condescending attitude didn't help matters. But I responded that even the mother may not be contributing to society. He read that as me denigrating welfare moms who abuse drugs. At the time, I didn't think I was doing that---at least that wasn't in my mind when I wrote my comment. But now I wonder: was I displaying some deep-down prejudice against welfare mothers, based on what I had heard all of my life about them?
Then there was a more pleasant interaction on Rachel Held Evans' blog. The topic was homosexuality, and I used the expression "gay lifestyle," even as I made a liberal point. A lesbian lady gently told me that there is no single "gay lifestyle," and that I might alienate my homosexual friends through my use of that expression. Now, when I used the term, I had in mind the basic sexual act between homosexuals. I didn't have in mind the sorts of things you'd read about homosexuality in writings by Paul Cameron, or Concerned Women for America: water-sports, sadomasochism, multiple partners, fisting, etc. But, because the Right loves the expression "gay lifestyle" and uses it to refer to those sorts of activities, it carries a negative connotation for people like this one lady. And, as a person who has read and listened to the Right for many years, I've absorbed their vocabulary, even if I'm not as sold over their ideology these days. Even if I'm moderately liberal nowadays, I still use conservative terminology. (But I will say this: I say "gay rights," not "special privileges for homosexuals." I never understood the argument that gays are asking for "special privileges," even when I was a conservative.)
Third, I've kept one foot in and one foot out of the conservative movement. My heroes have always been conservative, and I still have some affection for people such as Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan, Connie Marshner, Richard Viguerie, Ann Coutler, and George W. Bush (if you want to call him a conservative). Moreover, I think that conservative public figures are cooler than liberal ones. Does the liberal side have anyone as cool as Nikki Haley, a daughter of Sikh Indians? Or the child prodigy Jonathan Krohn? And I still get excited when I hear that certain celibrities are conservative---such as Michael Caine, or Patricia Heaton, or the late Dixie Carter. And so I have a hard time exchanging one set of baseball cards for another. Other than Barack Obama, and maybe Marcy Kaptur, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Clinton (whom I like on account of his conservative approach to government, even though I consider him a scum-bag), I can't find liberals whom I admire.
Also, even as I learn about the Right's distortions of facts (case in point: Obama's trip to India), I still realize that the Left distorts them too. That Rand Paul supporter who put his shoe on a Move-On.org activist? He says that he had a motivation for doing what he did, and it wasn't anger or violence; rather, according to him, the Move-On.org activist was being disruptive and was trying to create political theater, and so he attempted to restrain her. But we don't hear the Rand Paul supporter's side of the story. And so leaving one sub-culture for another one is quite difficult: it means having to get new heroes, and having to embrace another set of "us vs. them" talking-points. I'm reluctant to do either.
Fourth, I look like a conservative Christian. I wear plaid shirts and glasses. I try to be clean-cut and smile as often as I can. Maybe these are factors that make me look like an evangelical. I don't know. I will say, though, that people who have never even heard my beliefs talk to me as if I'm a conservative evangelical. An intellectual recently said to me, "I'm going to say something to you, and I don't want you to take offense, but I think that Christians follow personality-cults because their religion was founded on a personality, Jesus." I've also gotten the impression that he thinks I struggle to reconcile the Christian faith with the historical-critical method. But I realize that all sorts of religions have baggage, and my approach to the historical-critical method is the same as his: I believe in loving-kindness, meaning I don't obsess over the problems that come with accepting the Bible as inerrant. But he, and others, think I'm an evangelical.
On some level, me coming across as an evangelical can be a good thing. The Right stays off my back, since they consider me to be one of them. At the public library this past Sunday, I was looking at religious books, and a guy standing close to me said, "We need to use discernment nowadays in reading the Bible, for not all that glitters is gold!" I politely agreed with him (even though I'd probably prefer what glitters to his definition of "gold"), and he told me to have a nice day. He didn't try to witness to me, and that's probably because I look like an evangelical---one of his people.
I wasn't intending to blog about this topic when I quoted my Mom. Tomorrow, if the mood strikes me, I'll write what I originally intended to write. Stay tuned!
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Chaplain Mike, the new Internet Monk, has an excellent post on II Corinthians 13:5, in which Paul tells the Corinthians to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. This verse has been a huge turn-off to me because I’ve thought it meant that I should look at my own life to see if I have spiritual fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, etc.—in order to determine if I’m a true Christian, one who has a relationship with God in this life and will escape hell and enter the good afterlife after death.
Of course, after self-examination, I always fall short, for I have difficulty loving others. I don’t always have joy and peace. (But I will say this: I have more joy and peace now that I focus on God being a God of love, rather than thinking about such topics as whether or not I am truly saved, my spiritual fruit or lack thereof, or whether or not non-Christians are going to hell.) I lack patience, especially when my Internet connection is acting up. So should I assume that I’m going to hell because of my imperfections?
But Chaplain Mike offers a different interpretation of II Corinthians 13:5. He says that the issue in this verse is not the quality of the Corinthians’ moral or spiritual lives, but rather the competing claims about Jesus that they were hearing. Paul was saying one thing about Jesus, and the super-apostles were saying something else. According to Chaplain Mike, Paul is asking the Corinthians to look at themselves to determine who is right. Whose message produced an effect in their lives? Paul believes that his did, not that of the super-apostles.
Chaplain Mike did not cite Galatians 3:5, but I thought of that passage as I read his post: Paul asks the Galatians if they received the Spirit and experienced God’s miracles through the works of the law or the hearing of faith. Because the Galatians had the Spirit before they started to observe Jewish rituals, Paul concludes that they received the Spirit solely through the hearing of faith. That means that they did not have to observe Jewish rituals to experience God.
But then questions enter my mind. You will notice that Paul appeals to the experience of the Galatians and the Corinthians. Is experience a legitimate criterion of faith? There are homosexuals who testify that they’ve experienced God, without giving up their homosexual lifestyle. I’ve read and heard stories of non-Christian Jews who experience what they consider to be divine providence or answers to prayer. People in recovery communities make similar claims, even those who don’t consider themselves Christians. What do these experiences say about the prerequisites for experiencing God? Does one have to be a conservative evangelical Christian to do so? And, if an evangelical responds that God can be involved in the lives of non-believers, but that God is leading non-believers to faith in Christ, tell me something: why couldn’t the Galatian legalists respond to Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:5 along similar lines—by saying that faith may be the door to experiencing God, but God wants to lead Christians to obey the law?
What if I look at my life and I don’t see any miracles? That’s often been something that I’ve resented, both as an evangelical and also as a non-evangelical: why do so many people experience tangible signs of the divine, and yet I do not? Is God passing me by? I remember Joyce Meyer saying that it takes more faith to believe without tangible experiences of the divine!
Chaplain Mike says that we should look to Jesus and not at ourselves. I hope that this is true, for I despair when I look at myself. But, unfortunately, there are biblical passages that can push Christians towards introspection. I John says repeatedly that we know we’re in the light when we love other Christians. But I have problems liking Christians, let alone loving them! Co-existing with them without rancor is enough of a struggle for me. To demand that I be in a relationship with Christians and actually like them in order to know that I am saved is too hard of a task for me, to tell you the truth. People have said that I need to be assured of God’s love for me before I can love others. Good advice. But that advice is somewhat cancelled out by Christianity’s message that I receive assurance of my salvation by looking at how I am doing spiritually.
I like Chaplain Mike’s interpretation of II Corinthians 3:5, and it’s refreshing to encounter fresh interpretations of Scripture that actually place God in a good light—something that legalistic interpretations that focus on my spiritual performance do not do. I see fresh interpretations of Scripture among certain Christians. That brings to my mind another point, and I hope that I express it clearly, since I’m unsure how to articulate it to myself, let alone others: when I have problems with the Bible, Christians tell me to “just have faith.” They’ll also tell me that I have to accept the Bible as a whole package—both what appeals to me, and also what repulses my moral sensibilities. But what if there are repulsive parts of Scripture that don’t mean what they appear to mean, which can be interpreted in a manner that’s consistent with God’s benevolence? What if I don’t know of such an interpretation? Do I have to accept the apparently repulsive passage as repulsive? Or should I have faith that the passage can be reconciled with God’s benevolence, even if I’m not sure how? And, if I go with the latter approach, aren’t I picking and choosing, in that I’m saying that the Bible agrees with what I already believe, only I’m not sure how it does so?
Monday, November 8, 2010
This is Julie Benz. I saw her while watching Season 1 of Dexter and thought she looked familiar. It turns out that she’s been on two other shows that I watch: she was in last season of Desperate Housewives, and she plays the Mom in No Ordinary Family.
I like her on Dexter because she’s vulnerable, and yet she’s finding her own strength. I also liked her role as a naive stripper in Desperate Housewives, trying to find a new path in the world (after she ditches the stripping profession). But I was about to stop watching No Ordinary Family because she’s a beautiful, smart woman in that, and those types intimidate me. I guess I prefer characters with problems who grow and learn to cope with life. Now that I know that I’ve seen and liked Julie Benz in other shows, however, I’ll keep watching No Ordinary Family. Also, Stephen Collins is on it, and I like Stephen Collins.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Today, I went downtown, and so I didn’t visit the traditional Latin mass that I normally attend. Rather, I went to the downtown Catholic churches, three of them, to be exact.
I was a little taken aback when I visited the 11 a.m. mass. A few months ago, when I visited that church, not many people were there. They were in the front rows, while the back half of the church was empty. There were cords on the sides of the back rows, indicating to us that we shouldn’t sit there, but in the front. And, in case we didn’t get that hint, a sign told us to sit in the rows further up. But I usually crawled under the cord and sat in the back. I like to leave right after the homily, and so I sit as close to the exit-door as I can.
Today, however, there were no cords, and the church was packed, in both the front and also in the back. Why? Is this a special Sunday?
The theme in all three church services was the resurrection from the dead. One of our texts was the story of the martyrs in II Maccabees 7, in which brothers and their mother choose to be martyred rather than eat a piece of pork. In so doing, they were protesting the demand of Antiochus Epiphanes that they abandon the Jewish religion. And they assured themselves that God would restore their lives in the resurrection.
The priest asked us what we would be willing to die for. He said that many people consider this present life to be all that there is, and so they probably wouldn’t give their lives for anything. That may be a blanket generalization, for there may very well be examples of people who don’t believe in an afterlife, yet give their lives for somebody else’s good. I think of an elderly Jewish man, who taught at a college where there was a shooting. He gave his life so that his students might live. As far as I know, he wasn’t doing this in order to get a good afterlife. Rather, he figured that he had already lived a full life, and so he should give others a shot, especially those who had their whole lives ahead of them.
But, speaking for myself, I’d have an incredibly hard time laying down my life, if this life were all that there is. If this life is it, then I’d try to preserve every moment of it that I possibly can.
But I’ve had problems with the Christian view of the afterlife. There are Christians who say that we shouldn’t live for reward in this life, but rather for reward in the afterlife. If you’re in a bad marriage and you’re unhappy, and you can’t tolerate the prospect of spending the rest of your natural life with your spouse, some Christians would tell you to stay married, for you’ll get a reward in the afterlife for so doing. After all, according to Jesus, God considers divorce a “no-no,” and those who marry a divorcee are guilty of adultery.
If you have same-sex attractions and desire a relationship, some Christians would tell you that you need to forego that desire and remain celibate for the rest of your natural life (right before they go home to their picture-perfect families). Sure, you may be unhappy for the rest of your natural life, but you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife! God opposes homosexuality as an abomination, and Paul says that homosexuals won’t enter the kingdom of God. For conservative Christians, homosexuals should forego their happiness in this life to avoid hell and to receive a reward in heaven, or the resurrection.
But that’s an extremely heavy burden to put on people, and all for something we’re not even absolutely sure is true. How do we know that the Christian view of the afterlife is the way things really are? And should we pressure people to be unhappy for the rest of their lives for something that may or may not be true?
At the same time, I hope that this life is not all that there is. This life by itself cannot make me happy. Things often don’t go the way that I want. I hope that there’s something more.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied Ecclesiastes 8. I’d like to start out this post with a quote from Raymond C. Van Leeuwen on vv. 10-17. It’s in the HarperCollins Study Bible:
“Human experience of God’s justice is mysterious, even inverted (thus vanity), leading the wicked to think it does not exist. Even the wise cannot know it (8.17; 3.11) yet Qoheleth insists on its reality (3.16-17; 11.9) and commends joy (8.15).”
Qoheleth looks at life and thinks that it’s not fair. There are wicked people who live long and prosper, while there are righteous people who have little to show for their wisdom, and whose lives may even be cut short.
Does Qoheleth believe that God is fair, in spite of all the injustice that he sees in the world around him? Van Leeuwen’s answer is “yes.” I can understand why Van Leeuwen concludes this about Qoheleth. Qoheleth says that we don’t know a lot of things about the past, the present, or the future (i.e., Ecclesiastes 3:11; 8:17). Maybe, in this life, God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked in ways that we cannot see.
Or perhaps Qoheleth is open to the possibility of reward and punishment in the afterlife. Granted, there are places in which Qoheleth dismisses the possibility of an afterlife (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22; 9:4-6). One could argue that his whole existential crisis is propelled by his belief that this life is all there is, for everything looks so pointless to him when he considers that life is so short. That’s why he exhorts people to enjoy the pleasures of life while they still can: recognizing the transitory nature of life enables one to appreciate more fully what life has to offer.
But Qoheleth wonders in 3:11 if the spirit of man goes upward while the spirit of animals goes downward—to the dust. In 12:7, he says that the spirit of human beings goes to God, who gave it. Qoheleth may assume that this life is all there is, but could there have been times when he acknowledged that there may be an afterlife? Qoheleth says in 11:9 that God will bring certain actions into judgment. Although Qoheleth never explicitly states that God will judge people after they die, could Qoheleth have believed in God’s justice amidst the apparent injustice in the world around him on account of some belief in an afterlife?
Perhaps Qoheleth had a “hopeful” view of the afterlife, just like there are “hopeful” universalists who aren’t sure that God will save everyone in the end, but who hope that God will do so. These hopeful universalists aren’t dogmatic that God will save everyone, but they don’t rule out the possibility that God will do that. Similarly, maybe Qoheleth hoped that there might be an afterlife, which would solve his puzzle of how injustice can exist in a world that’s ruled by a just God. But he wasn't sure.