Wednesday, January 4, 2012

David Marshall: "Son of Heaven"

I have three items for my write-up today on Chapter 5 of David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. Chapter 5 is entitled “Son of Heaven”.

1. On page 55, Marshall states: “Lao Tse wrote that he who was ‘without thought of self’ would be able to ‘accomplish his private ends.’ Chinese history is full of notable examples. Confucius passed up official posts to remain untainted. In the shadow of Qin’s burial mound, Han Wei founded the great Han Dynasty by listening to people and avoiding pretense of god-hood. Nationalist founder Sun Yat-Sen won a revolution but in the interest of peace, allowed his rival to rule. In the Gospels we find evidence that God had the same idea: that Absolute Power could accomplish great things in the guise of weakness.”

The impression that I have gotten from what I have read so far of Marshall is that he believes that the positive moral elements of the Bible constitute evidence for its divine-inspiration (albeit not the only evidence). But how can one say that, when people in non-Christian cultures and religions are able to arrive at the insight that (say) humility is good, an insight that conflicts with people’s tendency to exalt and to benefit themselves? I’m open to saying that God is able to instruct people throughout the earth, in all sorts of cultures. Marshall argues this, on some level, when he presents Christianity as ingrained within all people, explaining the presence of Christian-like themes in different cultures. I personally am not going that far, however. I’m just acknowledging that God may illuminate people throughout the world about certain moral principles.

I guess my problem is with an apologetic argument that a specific religion (Christianity) is from God and is authoritative because it has good principles. Even if Christianity takes good principles further than other religions do, I think that an atheist can easily make the argument that Christians are arriving at moral insights on their own, without divine revelation. As I’ve said, I’m open to the concept of divine illumination, but my problem with Christian apologetics is that there is often a variety of ways to interpret so-called evidence, and not all of those ways support Christianity being the one authoritative religion.

2. In my post here, I mentioned some of the inadequacies that David Marshall believes are present in Confucianism, weaknesses that (according to him) Christianity does not have. I forgot to mention one inadequacy, which Marshall discusses on pages 59-60. Confucius said that, if you’re a government official, and you learn that your son has been embezzling funds, then you should bend the rules for your son’s sake. There’s much to admire about such grace and loyalty to family. But, as Marshall points out, this outlook has caused problems, such as nepotism. Emperor Qin went the other direction, according to Marshall, when he elevated rules over relationships, as he “made public office a prize to be won through diligence rather than birth.” Marshall can see strengths and weaknesses in both perspectives. Marshall believes, however, that “this conflict disappears” for followers of Jesus, who base their roles on the love of God that fills them, and who feel free to rebel when human authority goes too far.

I guess my issue here is with Marshall’s implication that Christianity makes ambiguity go away, in terms of the issue of justice and mercy. I don’t think that it does. For one, the question of when people should receive mercy and when they should get justice—-and how to balance mercy and justice—-is not always cut-and-dry, even from a Christian perspective. In my opinion, if a son of a Christian official embezzled funds, that official probably wouldn’t want for his son to go to jail, since that would result in the son having a record that could impact the rest of his life, the son facing threats in jail, etc. And yet, the official would desire for his son to learn that certain things are wrong, and he’d fear that the son facing no consequences at all would not help him in the long run. What should the official do? It’s complex. Christianity may offer some principles as guidelines, but it doesn’t make ambiguity go completely away.

Second, I can understand why Marshall believes that Christianity is a revolutionary religion, a religion that promotes rebellion against authoritarianism. After all, Jesus overturned tables in the temple, as Marshall notes more than once. At the same time, Marshall should at least wrestle with the fact that prominent strands of Christianity have historically promoted submission to unjust authorities, on the basis of such passages as Romans 13. John MacArthur is not getting his idea that the American Revolution was a bad idea out of the clear blue sky! He’s drawing from an influential Christian tradition.

3. On page 60, Marshall states: “It’s one thing for a leader to call himself ‘lord’ from a palace surrounded by walls and bodyguards…But suppose a rebel should march openly into the capital. Suppose his followers shout praises to God for the ‘new order’ he brings. Suppose only a band of weak-kneed fishermen and a couple rusty swords stand between him and the Emperor. Imagine, to top it off, he won’t let his side fight. What can you say about a revolutionary like that? Either he is a fool. Or he has a plan.”

Marshall may be expressing his admiration for Jesus here, or he may be making an apologetic argument—-that Jesus would only do something that weird if he was who he said he was. Perhaps it’s both. Can I think of another explanation for why Jesus would rebel and not even allow his disciples to fight—-as if Jesus had a death-wish? Why would any rational person—-especially someone who imparted wise teachings—-do such a thing? Perhaps Jesus did indeed expect for his death to accomplish something in terms of the imminent kingdom of God. Scholars have debated this, but there are some, such as Albert Schweitzer (if I’m not mistaken), who maintained that Jesus had a purpose behind proceeding towards his death. But does that mean Jesus was right? There are many people who die for causes. That doesn’t mean that their causes are divinely-authoritative.

At the same time, I would like to believe in a silver lining: that Jesus accomplished something with his death. I have problems with that being mixed up with Christian exclusivism, but perhaps I can believe that Jesus’ death was redemptive, on some level, without being the sort of person who believes that people have to believe one way in this life to avoid going to hell.

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