Thursday, January 15, 2009

Inspiration, Toleration, Meditation

1. Yehoshua Amir, "Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in the Writings of Philo," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 435.

"Here, apparently following the practice of the Delphic oracle of his time, [Philo] makes a sharp distinction between the soothsayer who, in the grip of the god, can only utter incomprehensible sounds, and the insightful prophet, who, using his reason to the fullest, 'critically judges' these sounds and extracts a reasonable meaning from them."

Philo's view of inspiration seems to be that God gives the prophet something, and the prophet does something with what God has given him when he communicates it to others. It reminds me of the view that God put the thoughts in the biblical authors minds, and they expressed those thoughts in their own words. "The Bible is thought inspired, not word inspired," a Seventh-Day Adventist I knew once said in his church's Sabbath School class. And he was expressing SDA doctrine, not just his own opinion! Such a view would explain why there is diversity of language throughout the Bible.

Some have problems with this idea. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a theology class taught by Neil Gillman, and he was discussing the various ideas about divine revelation. For him, anything other than divine dictation made the Bible a solely human product. After all, if God gives the prophet an idea, and the prophet expresses it in his own words, then the prophet is adding his interpretation to the message as he writes or speaks it. Once you add that sort of subjectivity to the prophetic process, you don't really know what's from God! All you hear is God's message as it is filtered through the prophet's personal interpretation, which goes into the words and phrases that he chooses.

I guess this is the question about divine inspiration: Where does the divine begin, and where does the human element enter the picture? And people approach this subject in different ways. At DePauw, theologians told me that we read the Bible to see a pattern of what God is like. I guess what they mean is that we have to look at all of the portrayals of God and see what they have in common. Paul Hanson of Harvard does something like this in A People Called, and the message he sees in the Bible's diverse writings is God's commitment to social justice. For Hanson (as I understood him), the parts of the Bible that are "conservative" reflect their ancient Near Eastern context, whereas the liberating aspects are divinely-inspired. Jon Levenson calls this idea sola liberatia.

In the Bible itself, God speaks to human beings, and they write down or speak what God said to them. It's dictation. How that jibes with the diversity in the Bible, I do not know.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 829.

"...Tertullian [(second-third centuries C.E.)] enthusiastically and triumphantly repels the attacks of the heathens upon the new religion, and demands for it legal toleration and equal rights with other sects of the Roman empire. It is the first plea for religious liberty, as an inalienable right which God has given to every man, and which the civil government in its own interest should not only tolerate but respect and protect."

When I was at DePauw, I took a class called "Foundations of Western Civilization," which covered the Reformation. In one of our books, I read about a few thinkers around the time of the Reformation who believed in religious toleration. They were sick of all the religious wars, and they concluded that life would be better if people could practice their religion freely. As far as my history book was concerned, that idea was pretty revolutionary for that period! Luther and Calvin didn't hold it.

In a Christianity class I took at DePauw, we were studying the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. "They had to get this question figured out, since Constantine had become a Christian, and he wanted to know which viewpoint he should enforce," my professor said. I guess that's how it was in those days! People weren't allowed to believe whatever they wanted about God. Faith was enforced by the state. Christians like to talk about the people who gave their lives for their belief in Christ's divinity, but I wouldn't be surprised if Arians also died at the hands of the state.

In light of all this, I'm surprised to encounter a third century figure who believed in religious toleration. Of course, he held this view when Christianity was a minority, persecuted religion, so maybe his commitment to it isn't that surprising after all!

Some like to talk about how tolerant pagan societies were. "Polytheism is tolerant, while monotheism is intolerant," I once heard a professor say. Granted, monotheism can be pretty intolerant, but it was polytheism that threw Christians to the lions. It reminds me of political correctness today: it upholds tolerance and diversity, except for those outside of a particular norm.

I was watching the Message today, a 1976 movie about the early history of Islam. There's a scene in which the pagan leader of Mecca is talking to Muhammad and his crew, and someone asks him (the Meccan leader) if he believes in the one true God and Muhammad, God's prophet. The African Muslim, Bilal, then says that we cannot force people to believe in God, since faith must come in God's own time. The Meccan then confesses his belief in Allah and Muhammad.

I'm not sure if this accords with the Koran. The Koran is like Christianity in that it says one must either believe a certain way or spend eternity in hell. That's even communicated in the Message, in a battle scene. The Muslim army shouts to the Meccans, "Our dead soldiers are in paradise. Your dead soldiers are in hell!" So much for God's own time! If one doesn't believe a certain way before death, then one goes to hell. It's not as if a person has oodles of time, in that scenario, since people don't know when they will die. As evangelicals like to say, "If you were to get hit by a car tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?"

One thing I somewhat like about Islam, though, is its focus on good works. I have a hard time choosing what to believe, but I can choose what I do. I can decide to act concretely in light of the notion that there is a God who cares about what I do and will judge me in the last day. On the other hand, in those days, belief mattered! If the Meccans were going to dump idolatry and all of the business that Mecca received from it, then they had better have some conviction that they were doing the right thing! They couldn't have a "Well, there may be one God" mindset, since lots of money was at stake.

A final point for this category: When I was at DePauw, a professor told me about a priest in the 1960's who said that Jesus didn't force people to accept his religion. I think this was part of Vatican II, which embraced religious liberty and toleration. Was the priest correct? Yes, in a sense. I mean, Jesus didn't have the political authority to force anyone to believe anything. He had to persuade people--through arguments, miracles, etc. At the same time, he did believe that the cosmic ruler of the universe punished those who didn't embrace Jesus and his message, so he didn't exactly think that God ran the world with a cosmic First Amendment.

3. "The Law," A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 125.

"So God says to the Israelites, 'I created within you the evil yetzer, but I created the Law as a medicine. As long as you occupy yourselves with the Law, the yetzer will not rule over you. But if you do not occupy yourselves with the Torah, then you will be delivered into the power of the yetzer, and all its activity will be against you.' (Sifre Deut., 'Ekeb, 45, f. 82b (R.T. p. 182; Hd. p. 103).)"

What is it about the Jewish law that undermines a person's evil inclination? I have a hard time believing that laws about rituals and damages and slavery and divorce can make a person less evil--unless they relate to God's holiness, or justice, or kind treatment of slaves and the wife who is put away. But I'm not sure if Jewish literature focuses as much on the latter. The Mishnah and (as far as I can see) the Talmud concentrate instead on how to keep the Law, not so much the Law's meaning (though maybe the midrash touches on some of this). At the same time, there is a strong moral component of the Law, which the rabbis do acknowledge. Don't kill, don't commit adultery, don't steal, etc. These restrain human beings from harming others.

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