Wednesday, February 13, 2019

To Whom Do We Apologize?

So this popped up in my statistics as a post of sudden interest to the few who come here, although it's almost 14 (!) years old now.  It caused me to re-read it and to consider the statements in it and think "Huh.  That's interesting.  Sounds like seminary-speak.  Don't speak seminary-speak anymore."  My first reaction, in other words, is to reject it because it is far too narrow and rigid.  And I think that; this is largely the language either of opposition for fundamentalist literalism, or a submission to scientific naturalism.

These days I reject either extreme, and find myself less interested in apologetics for Christian metaphysics (a product of its age, and something of a tradition which has lost its life; we need not take down Christianity with it, or replace it with something more acceptable or "common sense.") than I am in Tolstoy's question "How should we then live?".  Which is to say much of what that post dwells on:  the nature of miracles as recorded in the gospels, the nature of Christ (God?  Man?  both and a little bit of neither?), church dogma, even the Resurrection itself, are more in the nature of what Wittgenstein called things talked about in one "language game" that make no sense in another.  Let me illustrate with a simple illustration.  I say I love my wife.  You say, "Prove it."  How would I do so?  What does the statement even mean to you?  It means everything to me, it seems to be an expression of my very being.  To you it may be immaterial, sentimental, even embarrassing, an expression of emotion (or merely a statement, merely words?).  My love for my wife is completely subjective and personal; does she even understand what I mean?  Do I?  I love my daughter, too, but how do I explain that statement?  I didn't love my wife at first sight, but I've loved my daughter from the moment of her birth.  Does that make sense?  Can I explain it, defend it, justify it?  How?  Could my statements be considered legendary?  After all, it is not "objectively and neutrally ascertainable historical fact" (and the gospels contain four different stories of the Resurrection; it certainly fits those terms, even in the records we have).

Does this mean my claims of love are not "true"?

Let's return to the miracles.  Even the gospels contend about them.  Mark has fewer than Matthew or Luke; John has radically different ones, and fewer (the wedding at Cana, the resurrection of Lazarus).  The synoptics call them "acts of power" (dunamis, transliterated from the Greek), John calls them "signs" (semeia, again from the Greek).  Scholarship tells us the literature of that age is full of claims of miracles, usually portrayed as dunamis.  John is radical in his re-description, and emphasizes that it is better to believe without seeing, than to believe because you see, or think these "signs" are proof, or even measures of truth.  It is in John's gospel that Pilate asks his famous question; it doesn't appear in the other three.  Perhaps Pilate is being cynically philosophical; or perhaps he sincerely doesn't know how to adjudicate the case before him, because he has no access to the truth Jesus presents.  Are those truths, then, not true?  And which matters more:  what Jesus said, or who Jesus was?

This split goes back to Paul, who didn't have the gospels to preach from or to write about.  He taught who Jesus was; but is that still our primary concern?  (And I don't mean to reduce Paul's letters to such a simplistic dichotomy, except arguendo for the moment,)  Questions of "truth" and "verification" and "Evidence" are of no interest to me, because they are not, as Tillich described them (cribbing Kierkegaard), matters of  "ultimate concern."  Do I need an apologetic for the miracles or the Resurrection in order to discuss Christianity?  Or should the focus be more in accord with the teachings of the prophets, and the line from them to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth?

Isaiah's vision of the holy mountain is a place which, in the fullness of time, will be a draw to all nations (read:  people, not nation-states) because it will offer a better way of life, a guide to living that everyone will want to share (but not be required to).  Micah's reduction of the requirements of the God of Abraham to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, comes after God (as God frequently does in the words of the prophets) has rejected the empty gestures and hollow rituals which are not bad in themselves, but are hollow because the children of Abraham have reduced them to shams, as bargaining chips whereby they think they purchase God's favor while doing whatever it is they want to do.  God does not punish Israel because it is immoral or even unfaithful; God just leaves them to their own devices because they have turned their backs on God, because they have chosen to ignore God's wisdom, God's sophia, God's guidance on "how should we then live?".  When Peter refuses to eat with those who don't keep the dietary laws of Moses, God's vision to Peter tells him not to put form in front of substance.  God never demands adherence to rules when such adherence is meant simply to maintain God's favor.  As Jesus succinctly puts it to his critics:  were people made for the Sabbath, or the Sabbath made for people?  Every time we reduce God's teachings to rules and regulations, or doctrines or dogma which must be established first before we can settle the question of how life should be conducted, we are trying to remake people for the Sabbath, rather than recognizing what the Sabbath does for people.

That, too, can be a reductio argument which condemns those who keep the Sabbath very carefully, mindful of what effort is, or is not, labor.  Jesus' point was not to condemn methods of observing the Sabbath; he was pointing out the error of judgment.  In Micah's terms you can't do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God if you're stopping to point out how somebody else is doing it wrong.  In Isaiah's visionary terms, who wants to come to a holy mountain full of scolds, or, in our terms, full of arguments over what the meaning or reality of a miracle is?  Which matters more:  treating each other as the Christ, in terms of the Matthean parable?  Or arguing over who is right about the nature of the stories of miracles in the gospels?

(Which is not to say I'd object to planting some trees in concrete.  One answer never fits all.)

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