Monday, December 02, 2013

It's coming on Christmas....

So let's talk about Easter; and Christology...

I spent too much time at Salon over the holiday.  All I can say about this: Thanksgiving is for Sociopaths is: If everyone's a sociopath, is anyone a sociopath?

This is more fun, if only because it ties in with my previous posts about Xmas and how we took Christ out of it completely.  (I think the Industrial Revolution and the Romantics are more intertwined with the social changes that finally ran through America around mid-19th century, but that's an even longer story.)

But then Salon decided to jump Christmas and go straight to Easter.

First, the comments range from this:

Only an indoctrinated low wit (moron) believes anything about the supernatural, rising from the dead, answered prayers, transubstantiation, or any other religious "ideas".  Anyone who is willingly a christian (or any other religtard), after reasoned consideration of the evidence is beneath pity/contempt.  Absolute delusional insanity.  Might've had some evolutionary value five thousand years ago (doubtful) but to now profess one's "belief" in any of the obvious lies & delusions that are religion is inexcusable.  Only a true lack of intelligence.

To this:

 In THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, Joseph Campbell posits that, "all myths are true.".   So what difference does it make if a person believes religious parables literally or figuratively, none.  Greek deities and mythological figures such as Oedipus speak to us all these centuries later, in terms of the psychological implications of the human condition that are not explainable by science. I think it's "primitive" to try to debunk literal belief in scriptures or deities, in fact it's laughable. Does an autopsy reveal a soul? Does that mean you don't have one? Just go with it. You might learn something.
With apologies to Billy Moyers, but I can't take seriously anybody who takes Joseph Campbell seriously.

There was one comment available earlier (now buried in the landslide; what is it about religion?) which refuted the idea of a physical resurrection entirely, because it required a suspension of the laws of physics.  True enough; but then give me evidence of individual love; or of beauty; or even of true compassion (define it, first!).  Oh, never mind.  The article itself (excerpt, actually, from a book) is about what one would expect from an English teacher trying to examine scripture.  As one of the more astute commentators says:

don't see a whole lot of "navigating" between "the perils of realism and fundamentalism" in this post/excerpt; it comes across more as a literary analysis in which the Christian religious writings are treated as if they were historical, and follows through thereby.

If you limit yourself to religious texts and don't balk at all the supernatural occurrences, I suppose this is the kind of thing you create.  Not particularly interesting to me; I'd like to see more "realism" and less "fundamentalism" in my historical analyses.

But then, this is not really an "historical analysis."  And it prompts me to defend Dom Crossan, something I never thought I'd do when I was in seminary:

 It was unusual for the bodies of executed men to be buried with respect, however. Soldiers often just tossed the remains into shallow graves or burial ditches, where wild dogs fed on whatever was left. This might have happened to Jesus, as John Dominic Crossan has argued — not, in my view, persuasively. The public would surely have been outraged by such crassness, as Jesus had attracted a sincere (if rather small) following, especially among Galilean pilgrims; with so many visitors in Jerusalem for the Temple celebrations, Pilate would not have wished to unsettle this group, however small by comparison with the others. A discreet burial for Jesus was politically astute as well as in keeping with Jewish customs, and the archaeological as well as written evidence suggests that such burials did occasionally take place after an execution.
The basis of Crossan's historical argument is that the public wasn't paying attention; that Mark's version (the earliest of the four canonical versions) is closest to history, and Jesus was dispatched by Pilate with hardly a second thought.  It is only nearly a century later that the wealthy and educated (probably through Paul's efforts, as Luke makes clear with Lydia, the "dealer in purple cloth."  Purple was exclusive to royalty.  Luke's inclusion of her may well reflect Luke's community, not the original followers of Jesus of Nazareth.) joined the "Jesus movement."  He traveled among shepherds and prostitutes and beggars and fishermen; nobody with the money or influence to buy a tomb.  Joseph of Arimethea shows up in the last gospel:  John's (also last in terms of chronology).  This rather argues against the historical accuracy of Joseph as a follower of Jesus.  The crowd scenes of Luke and John are an interpretation nearly a century after the death of the Messiah, a death that occurred to another itinerant preacher in Judea, where they were (as Crossan meticulously points out) as thick as fleas and common as dirt.

Here, for example, is what Crossan says about crucifixion in the first century C.E.:

We know from Josephus that thousands of Jewish victims were crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem in the first common era century, from "two thousand" by Varus in 4. B.C.E., according to Jewish "five hundred or more a day" by Titus in 70 C.E., according to Jewish War....  Yet only one crucified skeleton has so far been found in that area from that or any other period.....(citations omitted).  John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.  New York:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, p. 391.

Crossan goes on to discuss this one skeleton, reburied in an ossuary box, indicating both wealth and power, "not to save his life but at least to regain his body for proper burial."  The normal custom, more likely, was that the soldiers conducted burial to be sure the crucified were actually dead (and not just faint).  That Jesus should have been properly buried, argues Crossan, was a given for the gospel writers; that he actually was, is far less certain.

We can go round and round with this.  Parini seems to want to presume the authenticity of Joseph of Arimathea for the same reason, Crossan would say, the gospel writers did:  it makes for a more comforting story.  However, a great deal of scholarship is actually involved with simply removing the inevitable anachronistic tendencies of the passage of time.  What we consider "crass" today would have been of no interest at all to Pilate.  And, of course, who we consider important today was insignificant to Rome, except as much as Pilate saw Jesus as a threat to Roman stability during the Jewish Passover, always a testy time for Rome in Judea.  We think the crucifixion important (and we name it as the only one in history!) because it is important to us.  In the end, Brueghel was probably closer to the truth, as Auden pointed out.*

Still, Parini makes an interesting point (though I think he dodges it a bit):

Huge questions confront anyone thinking about Jesus. Did he really rise from the dead? Was there an actual Resurrection? If so, what would that look like? A large number of Christians throughout history have imagined a resuscitation, refusing to countenance the slightest hint that the Resurrection should be regarded as something beyond human understanding. I myself would argue this: life and death are mysterious, at best, and the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one, perilously thin. Jesus rose from the dead, the scriptures say. I see no reason to doubt this. And yet a literalistic belief in the Resurrection cannot be, as many fundamentalist churches insist, the only important part of the “good news” of Christianity. The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment. Nowhere more so than here does it matter that we find a proper balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.
This comes after noting the huge differences in the gospel stories about the resurrected Jesus.   Mark, originally, doesn't have one at all.  His gospel ends with the terrified disciples fleeing from the empty tomb (which is more narratively satisfying, too, than an empty ditch).  Matthew has a risen Jesus who simply gives his disciples a last lesson.  He expands on the Markan story, but only slightly.  Luke includes special material with the appearance at Emmaus and later to the disciples where Jesus asks for food.  John again picks up on Luke's story (as he did with the anointing story), and expands on Jesus' appearances and his ability to eat.  But Jesus vanishes from Emmaus, and rises into heaven at the beginning of Acts (he only "parts" from them in the gospel); and in John's gospel Jesus appears in a locked room, but he has hands that are wounded, and he seems to hang around for quite a while before going on his way.  Parini, and this is another criticism I have, lumps all these stories together by preferring the Johannine version (the only gospel in which Jesus is ever called "Rabbouni").  What fascinates me is the varied tellings of the tale; the attempt to state Jesus was raised from the dead, but without a body; although, at the same time, with a body.  It is this indeterminate state that I find the most compelling part of the resurrection story.  Not because this makes the gospel true, in an historical or even empirical sense; but because it makes the gospels human.

My New Testament seminary professor pointed out that what we knew of the resurrection was that something happened; that people had an experience of Jesus after his crucifixion which they could neither deny nor fully explain.  It's been pointed out (it is in comments at Salon) that townspeople "saw" the dead from the ship involved in the "perfect storm" walking the streets after their disappearance.  Crossan mentions such facts in his scholarship.  Such emotional states are undoubtedly true; but how many of them lead to a world-spanning religion?  If you want to say that is merely proof of delusion, I challenge you to find another delusion that has been as powerful for as many centuries.  Paul, after all, had an experience of the risen Christ, and he had neither met the man while alive, nor had any reason to miss him in death.

I think Parini is closer to the truth when he revels in mystery (a term he never defines, but should):

 The fundamentalist view of the cross, with its emphasis on the sacrificial or “substitutionary” aspect of the Crucifixion, evolved in the Middle Ages and solidified with Martin Luther’s insistence on the single, simple, and stable meaning of scripture; the text of the Bible itself became a mighty fortress that resists symbolic interpretations. (I would note that early in his career Luther was much more amenable to symbolic readings of scriptural passages.) To many, the idea of Christ as sacrificial lamb becomes the whole of the Christian message, to the disparagement of every other reading, leading to an exclusionary view of salvation.
We are, interestingly, closer to Pope Francis I here, and this explains the interest in the Pope among so many groups who are neither inclined to be charitable to the Roman church nor to Christianity in general.  Most people associate this "substitutionary" sacrifice theology with soteriology, and soteriology with Christianity, as if all that matter was "salvation."  Pope Francis restores the balance with his emphasis on caring for the poor.  Please note it is not an emphasis on "works;" that would be the error of the cardinal, in the story told by Francis' almoner. It is not works that matter; what matters is caring. As the almoner notes: "being an almoner has to cost you."  Works cost nothing. It is not works that faith requires, but action; the action of making yourself truly vulnerable, because you trust in God, and in God's creation.

Would atheists teach as much?  I rather think not.

The Pope reminds me of the stories of St. Patrick, who didn't preach to the people of Ireland; he cared for them.  It was his action, not his words, that moved them to conversion.  Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said:  "Preach the gospel ceaselessly.  Use words, if necessary."  Faith is, in the final analysis, an experience.  As Wittgenstein (again!?) said:  "Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it."  He was referring to "consciousness of sin," and salvation through faith (which is not necessarily the substitutional salvation); but it could as well be said of the experience of the resurrection; and experience people have been claiming for themselves since Paul.

If, in 2000 years, people are still experiencing the presence of those poor sailors caught in that "perfect storm," we can talk again.

*I don't agree with Horton's reading of the poem there, but it is an interesting one.

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