Monday, June 27, 2022

To Be Continued....

This is as good a place to start as any. Although I won't start there, after all.  Then again, I will.  You'll see.

When I was in seminary, there came a point where our professors (the older ones, who'd served in churches.  The younger ones were by and large academicians; committed to the cause of training us for parish ministry, but not exactly coming from that background themselves.) became very concerned with us maintaining some sense of Jesus as "different."  By that I mean the emphasis of our education was on historical fact (the history of Israel, the fact there is no "Red Sea" in Egypt a la Cecil DeMille's portrayal, or the one in Exodus, for that matter) and putting Jesus of Nazareth in historical and physical (i.e., social, human) context.  We also learned a great deal about sophia, or wisdom; which actually makes a significant appearance in the Hebrew Scriptures, almost a person of the Trinity, so to speak.  Radical monotheism has a hard time staying radically monotheistic.  This puts their concern in context, for the moment.  Did we understand, they wondered, Jesus as a religious figure, not just as a philosopher?

I should point out my NT professor made much of the similiarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Greek Cynics, a comparison I still think is overwrought.  Not because similiarities are not there (Jesus is not sui generis in his teachings, nor are they so radically separate from Greek or Roman thought as to have come from outside human culture.  If they were, how would we understand them?  But that's a epistemological question for another time.), but because I know enough about the Greek Cynics to think the comparisons were superficial, not fundamental. (I haven't encountered much about those comparisons since.  I think it was a "new idea" that never really took root, for what that's worth.)  Still, we focused on the wisdom of the sayings of Jesus, especially the idea that the first of all will be last and servant of all; of the basiliea tou theou as what I came to call "a race to the bottom."

That idea is actually harmonious (at the very least!) with Isaiah's vision of the holy mountain to which all the world would be drawn.  Some Christians later turned that into an apocalyptic vision of a world converted to Christ and God in a religious rapture (not to be confused with the Rapture of millennial apocalyptic readings).  But to the Hebrews it meant simply if they followed the wisdom of Mosaic law (and not for purposes of pleasing God and so getting the winning pull on the cosmic slot machine), their life would be so good other "nations" (not in our post-19th century "nation-state" sense) would be drawn to Israel to learn the secret of their happiness.  Which secret was simply the Mosaic law, summed up by Micah as:  "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."  That last one sounds "religious" to our ears, but if you couple it with Matthew's parable of the sheep and the goats ("Lord, when did we see you?"), you don't have to invest it with profoundly religious baggage and requirements like "denying and disrespecting Christ" because you don't give everyone you know a Christmas card.

This is where we start to make the turn from "religion" to "wisdom."

We have to recognize that wisdom is fundamentally a religious concept; but not "religious" in our modern sense of the word (by "modern" I mean basically since the Protestant Reformation.  I'm going to try to develop these points but, if I don't, it's because this is a a blog post, not an essay scrupulously examined for publication in a journal.  I.e., I'm lazy and I'm not getting paid for this, and almost no one reads it, so I'm pleasing myself, primarily.  And don't discount my laziness....).  Socrates was said to be the wisest man in Athens.  But the record we have of that comes from Plato, who tells us it was the statement of the Delphic Oracle; who was a priest of Apollo, and presumed to speak for the god.

So Socrates' wisdom was affirmed by religion.

The Hebrews, quite separately from the Greeks, considered wisdom a helpmate of God, even, eventually, the shaping force of Creation.  John's gospel consciously echoes this in the "Hymn to Creation" that opens that gospel, where the Logos, identified with Jesus, is the shaping factor of Creation, through which everything that was created, was created.  Logos for the Greeks, by that time, was synonymous with "wisdom."  Indeed, in the Greek conception of creation and the nature of reality (the Creation stories in Genesis are also about the nature of reality; that's what creation stories are for), logos is the force that keeps chaos at bay, however temporarily.  For the Hebrews, wisdom is Sophia, a female figure who offers guidance to humanity.  Indeed, Mosaic law is not meant to be a set of decrees, restrictions, and punishments, but a way of implementing wisdom at the basic level, so that wisdom among the people, in their daily activities, can thrive.  It is the answer to Tolstoy's question:  "How should we then live?"  Which is really the first and most important question for any society, for any people.

Isaiah's holy mountain is a vision for how we should all live, without or without fealty to the God of Abraham, with or without the laws of Moses (which were meant for the children of Abraham, the heirs to the covenant; not to all persons on earth).  The basileia tou theou is about the same thing:  how we should live.  It's simplicity and direction don't require religious faith as we understand it today.  It just requires recognizing the wisdom that foregoing judgment takes you out of the circle of judgment (what goes around comes around), and by being servant of all you will be first of all, because the most equitable system of social order is not democracy, but servanthood.  Walking humbly with your God, if you prefer.

So does this mean we toss out 2000 years of Christianity, burn down the mission and the churches, and abandon religion altogether?  Hardly.  It means we reimagne and understand anew that religion actually is, because we've built an edifice and a superstructure we can't maintain anymore, and we need the wisdom of the Hebrews and the Gospels now more than ever.

And any wisdom from the other world religions would be welcome, too.  Not because we should all be religious; but because we can, and should all, be wise.

You know, if I go on with this here, this is going to splinter and crack.  Blog posts really can't carry that much weight.  What I'm proposing, in brief, is a re-definition of religion and what we consider "religious."  I am not criticizing religious practices, especially in Christian churches.  Far from it.  I still prefer the liturgical worship of very traditional Christianity, because for me it emphasizes the very things I'm talking about:  the experience of God and of fellow worshipers working on a common goal (leitourgia, the "work of the people.).  But the fundament of that experience and work, and of our praxis as believers, should be the pursuit of wisdom, not the pursuit of whatever "religion" tells us is important.  Understanding Matthew 25 is a step on the road of wisdom.  Worrying about "denying and disrespecting Christ" in whom you send what kind of Christmas cards to is, in my humble opinion, the work of "religion."  And we really don't need anymore of that.


  1. "So does this mean we toss out 2000 years of Christianity, burn down the mission and the churches, and abandon religion altogether? Hardly. It means we reimagne and understand anew that religion actually is, because we've built an edifice and a superstructure we can't maintain anymore, and we need the wisdom of the Hebrews and the Gospels now more than ever."

    I ran into this recently, on the steady decline of faith in America, and this quote seems at least a little related.
    What makes it better than most articles, is that it provides links to a number of different surveys that ask some more nuanced questions about people's faith. Are you an atheist, do you have some belief in god, do you affiliate with a particular faith, do you attend religious services. Too often these surveys are used to draw conclusions much bigger than they support. What I like about the survey is it breaks down belief by a number of categories, so you can see the change in different groups. That liberals had a much bigger loss than conservatives isn't surprising, but I would not have guessed that rural had a bigger loss than urban or that women have had a bigger drop than men.

    More interesting are the distinctions in the linked articles on non-belief, belief of any kind, affiliation and attendance. The belief of any kind I would sort of categorize as a general belief in a higher power. I've heard at least one clergy refer a bit disdainfully to this group as not really having anything at all. From my background I am much more sympathetic to this group, having seen the transformative result that even a bare belief in a power greater than yourself can have in changing lives, rescuing people from the depths of addiction and returning them to beloved members of their communities. Recently I was talking with one of my daughters, she wants to get back to regular singing and we were talking about church choirs. She believes in god and would even describe herself as Christian but sees little need for a regular church structure, denomination or more. She might end up back with some relation to a church, but it will because they have a good choir (I have sung with any number of people that never missed choir but also never came to a service where we didn't sing). As for myself, how would I answer if I was surveyed about affiliation? I was an active Lutheran and even attended services at our old church when I was back to see my daughter before graduation. It was confirmation Sunday and they were also recognizing all the graduating high school seniors. They had a blessing for them with all the families up front. Given the fracturing during the pandemic, a group of church ladies got together and made each senior a fleece blanket in the school colors of the college they will be attending. The pastor choked up as she spoke about the seniors, and the church wanted them to have something in their dorms to remind them that they were loved by the congregation. It was very moving and a small symbol of the power of community. I have been attending a local Unitarian church with the lovely spouse (she was raised Unitarian, and after almost 3 decades of attending churches that were more to my leaning, we have decided this will be our family home where she feels most comfortable). I sing in the Unitarian choir, but have also been attending choir rehearsals at the local Congregational Church (UCC) and singing occasionally at their services, the high holy days like Easter which I miss from the Unitarians (to add to the fun, the Unitarian reverend was a member of the same congregational church when she decided to attend seminary and the two churches have even run some religious youth programs together) . So, for affiliation am I Lutheran, Unitarian or Congregationalist? Does it deeply matter? When you look at attendance, all three are growing grayer and losing members.

  2. Not in the link, but I saw elsewhere that there is a growing number of Evangelicals that don't attend church. Calling yourself Evangelical for a growing number of people seems to be related to indicating connection to conservative politics (anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+, etc.), but it doesn't translate to actually attending services. It actually helps explain when one group of surveys shows growth of the Evangelicals while mainline denominations are shrinking, but surveys of attendance show Evangelicals are also losing members like the mainline protestant churches. Affiliated but not attending. What does that ultimately mean? It's all complicated.

    So to bring it back to the quote from the post. I agree strongly with the ideas. Let's not abandon what is good and inspiring, but we do need to desperately reimagine a community that reflects the complications only barely scratched at above. I am looking forward to the next posts.