Friday, March 8, 2013

On Islam, Humility, Biblical Interpretation, Etc.

My church's Bible study group is still going through Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, With Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung

The last two sessions have been about Romans 9-11, in which Paul is in anguish because most of the Jewish people do not accept Jesus as the Messiah, and yet Paul concludes that all Israel will be saved in the last days.  In the meantime, Paul argues, the Gentile Christians (alongside Jewish Christians) are a part of God's chosen people, with a mission to be a light to the nations, while the Jews who do not believe in Jesus have been broken off of that olive tree.  Paul exhorts the Gentile Christians, however, to be humble about their status.

We had a lot of interesting discussions last night.

1.  We were talking about why so many Jewish people don't accept Jesus as the Messiah.  One person said that there are many Jews who would be ostracized by their family were they to believe in Jesus, and he remarked that this is also the case with many within Islamic families who become Christians.  That got us into the topic of Islam.  One person said that he works with a couple of Muslims at his place of employment, and they are really nice people.  Another asked whether Muslims in the U.S. would be tolerant of Christians were Muslims to become the majority, since there are Islamic countries that are not particularly tolerant of Christianity.  Someone else said that we should not judge all of Islam by the acts of a few crazies, for most Muslims are probably like many of us: they come home from work, they have to deal with their children, they're trying to get through the day, etc.  He also noted that there are Christians who engage in acts of terror, such as the bombing of abortion clinics, and yet we don't judge all of Christianity on the basis of these particular Christians.  Someone then retorted that most Christians condemn such acts, whereas most Muslims don't condemn the acts of terror that Islamic extremists engage in.  I made a variety of points: that there have been Islamic countries that have been tolerant towards Christians, and that Muslims themselves have been victims of some of radical Islam's acts of terror.  A couple of people agreed with me, acknowledging that Islam is a diverse movement.

I was pleased that, overall, the people in the group were not Islamophobes. 

2.  We got into the issue of humility, since Paul exhorted the Gentile Christians not to be proud.  One of the people in the group said that most of the Christians whom he has known in his life have been humble people.  His comment was interesting to me because this person is someone who often looks for the best in people.  And yet, paradoxically, when we were in the part of Romans about how all of us are sinners, he was really preaching about how human beings are corrupt!  As an example, he referred to those who invent computer viruses or hack into people's computers.

Do I agree with my friend that most Christians are humble?  I have often said otherwise on this blog, and in my mind.  As I think more about this topic, I have to admit that there are plenty of Christians who are kind people, and my impression is that they don't think highly of themselves, as if they believe that they're particularly special.  And yet, the dogmatism of many Christians comes across to me as proud: how they seem to think that there is only one way to see things, and that those who believe as they do have some moral or spiritual edge that is absent among those who do not believe as they do.  I would probably be asking too much were I to suggest to conservative Christians that they shed these aspects of their outlook in order to become humbler people, for, after all, those are their beliefs!  I guess that, if I were to ask anything of them, it would be that they might recognize that people are in different places on their journeys, and that they would love those who are not where they are.  There are many conservative Christians who do precisely that.

3.  I was asked in the group what I thought about Paul's claim that all Israel would be saved, for people in the group are aware that I have studied Hebrew and Judaism.  I replied that I thought that Paul did envision Israel one day embracing Christ.  Did I believe that this would happen, however?  I said that the Jews have their own interpretation of Scripture, and that I do not believe that the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is so obviously correct.  There are debates about Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.  Moreover, earlier that evening, I said that many Jews may not believe in Christ because of Christian persecution of Jews throughout history, and also because they have issues with the Trinity, on account of their strict monotheism.

Some seemed to be surprised by what I was saying, but I'm glad that the group did not reject me.  Looking back, I agree with the gist of what I said, for I believe that Judaism is faithful to prominent streams of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the laws), and that it's difficult to harmonize Christianity with aspects of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the existence of animal sacrifices after the Davidic monarchy is restored, see here for my comments on that).  But I think that what I was saying was rather simplistic.  For example, many Jews did not believe in Jesus before Christians persecuted the Jews, plus there are elements of Judaism (i.e., the Zohar) that present God in a rather plural manner, and even some Jewish professors have compared that to the Christian concept of the Trinity.  I'm not sure, though, if Kabbalists regard the sefirot of God as independent persons in their own right, the way that Christians view the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as persons.

I was afraid that people in the group would bring up hard questions that I wouldn't be able to answer.  For example, does not Psalm 22 present someone being pierced in his hands and his feet?  Whom would this concern, if not Christ, whose hands and feet were pierced on the cross?  Could the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 truly be Israel, as a number of Jews have contended, when the Servant was blameless, whereas Israel in the Hebrew Bible suffered on account of God punishing her for her sins?

When I got home from Bible study, I read my post on Psalm 22 from a while back.  Does Psalm 22 say that someone's hands and feet were pierced?  Well, the Septuagint seems to think so, so there was at least someone who understood the verb in v 16 to concern piercing, as debated as v 16 has been.  Is there a way to explain why the enemies in Psalm 22 would pierce someone's hands and feet, without seeing Psalm 22:16 as a prophecy of Jesus' crucifixion?  Could the Psalmist in the days of the Hebrew Bible have been saying that his enemies were piercing his hands and his feet?  Why would the enemies do that?  Were they trying to immobilize the Psalmist by wounding his hands and his feet, since the hands and the feet are important body parts in terms of performing the necessary tasks of life? 

On Isaiah 53, sure, Israel was not blameless, like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.  Perhaps one could say that Israel was righteous in comparison with the other nations; Balaam in Numbers 23:10 seems to call Israel righteous, though God often expresses a different opinion within the Pentateuch!  Or maybe some of Israel's suffering in exile was considered to be undeserved on her part, since Isaiah 40:2 says that she was punished double for her sins.  But these points would probably come across as a stretch to people within my Bible study group, if not convoluted.  They don't entirely satisfy me, to be honest!  On the first point, Isaiah 53 does not present the Suffering Servant as righteous in comparison with others, but as blameless, period!  On the second point, within Second Isaiah, even after Israel has suffered double for her sins, she is still criticized by God.  That tells me that, on some level, the Suffering Servant is distinct from Israel.  Maybe he was a person or a community during the time of the Babylonian exile who was encouraging Israel to return from exile and got punished by the Babylonian authorities as a result.  Isaiah 40-55 is about the Babylonian exile, after all.

In any case, I'm not an agnostic missionary out to challenge other people's faith.  But if I can encourage people to wrestle with issues and to realize that there are different ways to see things, then I feel that I'm doing something good. 

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