Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Problem of Metaphysics in Theology

This is not the best place to enter the issue, but it came up in the lectionary Sunday. And this will probably convince someone somewhere that I am a raving "liberal" theologian, if only because I don't take whatever the traditional explanation for this would be, as the best explanation possible:

Mark 6:1-13
6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.

6:2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house."

6:5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

6:6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

6:7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

6:8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;

6:9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

6:10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.

6:11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them."

6:12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

6:13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
The Hellenistic concept of the divine was one of perfection in power, if not in attitude. Greek Gods were all-powerful, and the only check on their actions was either Zeus (most powerful of all), or their own whims. There really isn't a lot of petty distinction among the Greek myths as to what god has what magical ability, although none of them have the power of creation, and there are other limits. They are, pretty much, superhumans; which means no human ability, or lack of it, is in any way a check on what power they do have. Which gets us to the Christian conception of the "Almighty."

Christians attached to the concepts of the God of Abraham the Greek idea of perfection. (This introduces a whole set of problems, which Charles Hartshorne says have to be resolved by rejiggering the idea of "perfection." But we'll leave that alone.) Basically, per Plato and Socrates (this argument figures strongly, IIRC, in Socrates' argument about immortality in the Phaedo, IIRC; and, of course, in book 10 of The Republic), perfection cannot be changed, because any change would be diminishment (later, after Aristotle is rediscovered, we get the immutability of God in the unmoved mover, but that's another argument). Now, part of the problem is, perfection is immutable, and God is perfect, but Hebrew scriptures are full of examples of God deciding to take another course: from the bargaining with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah to the opening of Job, to the testimony of the prophets. God relents, redecides, listens to arguments and pleas, and otherwise changes things. God, as my Hebrew Scriptures professor liked to reminds us, is active in human history. Unmoved movers cannot, by definition, be active; and Plato's "good" merely draws us to it; it doesn't get its hands dirty in the illusory realm we live in.

Perfection is immutable because any change from perfection is imperfection; it's going backwards, in brief, and that cannot be allowed. Change would mean perfection allowed imperfection into its makeup, and that would be a logical impossibility (to the Greek mind, anyway). So we're stuck with a static God, or an imperfect God. This is partly where the Manichee heresy came from, by the way; and is the central source of the problem of theodicy and free will. But, again, I digress.

So if God is perfect, and Creator, God is also all powerful. So what's going on there in Mark 6:13? Sounds like a bad plot point from a "Star Trek" episode. "Who Mourns for Adonais," indeed? Unless we believe, we will not see? And yet, it is actually a very subtle point of theology, one that John makes great use of in his gospel, where these "deeds of power" are semeia, signs, a notion much loved by the medieval mind because they are both real, and point to a more real (dare I say "ultimate," and invoke Plato again?) reality. John uses the idea to indicate that those who look for signs (like Thomas, at the end of his gospel) are blessed, but more blesed are those who hear and believe. Jesus, after all, is the Logos, not the semeia! In John's theology, it is the logos (a very Greek idea, btw, but not so far from Hebraic thought after all) that is real, not the signs that point to it. John wants us to see past the signs to the reality.

But Mark's crowd can't seem to get that far. One almost imagines Jesus finding all his flint and tinder are wet, and he can't even get a spark. One can see him walking away, amazed that their unbelief is so profound it blocks even his ability to show them a sign. This is, by the way, very close to modern NT scholars understanding of the miracles. Those who don't reject them outright and absolutely (and that number is actually quite small; even my NT professor said he couldn't establish them as a historian, leaving himself the confessional out of professing them as a Christian) argue they were works of power because Jesus broke down social walls and made lepers and whores and beggars and other outcasts acceptable, simply by acknowledging them (I think, by the way, this is a rather weak and thoroughly Western way of seeing these stories, but that, too, is another matter.). Which is pretty close to what Mark is saying here. Those who have ears had better listen! But if they don't, well....they won't even see the presence of God if it slaps them in the face.


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