Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Mystical Jewish Jesus

The mystical traits ascribed to the earthly Jesus as well as those ascribed to the heavenly Jesus are deeply based in Jewish mysticism.  As NT scholar Marcus J. Borg has observed, Jesus was a Jewish mystic immersed in the stream of Jewish mystical tradition.  It is especially important to know that describing Jewish mysticism, and placing Jesus within it, means not only describing “Old Testament” Judaism, but also – and most importantly – describing Second Temple (or “intertestamental”) Judaism.  The Jesus movement was born into that timeframe, not into “Old Testament” or “Bible” times.  It inherited Judaism’s mystical ideals, terms, and practices as developed up to the point of John the Baptizer’s innovations,  and up to  its inception in Jesus’ mystical experience.  But the intertestamental period flourished with new ideas beyond those found in the Torah and Prophets.  Jesus and the early Jewish sectarian movement that formed around him adopted and adapted features of this “modern Judaism” (i.e., “modern” relative to all that had gone before), giving new life and expression to the experiential knowledge of the spirit .

So when discussing Christian origins it must always be borne in mind that Jesus and the Judaism of his day were no longer “Old Testament” categories, but rather very new and interesting ideational and cultural phenomena.  Therefore, it is not always correct to judge by “Old Testament” or Torah standards what Jesus might plausibly have said or done, for the reason that he was acting as a denizen of the Second Temple period, not of the ancient Judaistic time period.  This fact has huge repercussions for biblical scholarship, because now any study of Jesus and his times is obliged to factor-in Second Temple phenomena – for example,  the Dead Sea Scrolls, or reports about religious figures who were Jesus’ contemporaries.  Pauline and Johannine studies are illuminated by the mystical beliefs and practices not just of ancient Judaism, but (crucially) by Second Temple thaumaturgy, “ascent,” magic, angelomorphology, prayer and meditation.

The Jesus that scholarship seeks is a Second Temple Jewish mystic, the threads of whose work can be at least partially glimpsed in the fabric of Second Temple esotericism.

“The Lord’s” Prayer?

The Our Father (or Pater Noster) is almost universally ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth as its originator, initiator, and “first-sayer.”  It certainly contains much of his teaching as described directly in the Gospels and mostly implicitly in some of the Epistles and other NT (New Testament) writings.  Thus, it is preeminently the Lord’s prayer.

However, inasmuch as it mentions the coming of God’s kingdom, the necessity for being supplied with food daily, and inasmuch as it does not mention Jesus at all – neither as recipient of the prayer nor as its mediator or facilitator – the argument can be made that the prayer – in its “primal Jewishness” – may have antedated Jesus.  This is not necessarily the case, but there is NT evidence that the prayer did not originate with Jesus, but rather with John the Baptizer.  The claim is found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, vss. 1-4.

A disciple asks Jesus to teach the disciples to pray, as John taught his disciples.  Jesus replies in the words familiar to us.  What is astonishing about this episode is:

1)  That even Jesus’ own disciples recognize that John the Baptizer was a great spiritual figure.

2)  That Jesus, because he is thought to be able to quote John, is thus thought to have been familiar personally with John – and his manner of prayer.

3)   That since Jesus is thought to have been familiar with John, this could imply that it was known that Jesus had once been John’s disciple “when John was baptizing.” This would certainly explain how Jesus came to be baptized by John in that crucial, “primal” event which initiated Jesus’ career as a holy person in Israel.  John as Jesus’ mentor, of course, is an unfamiliar notion in popular Christianity, since Jesus, as the ontological Son of God, is held to know all things and is perfectly holy, and thus never had any reason for recourse to John and his “baptism for the remission of sins.”

Interestingly, there is historical support for John’s influence:  probably from the general time of his and Jesus’ ministries, he was held in high regard by non-Christian groups.  One we know of, and which survives today (barely, because of the Bush administration’s recent devastation of Iraq), is called Mandean, its followers Mandeans.  Into the present day, they revere John as the true Messiah and regard him as one of their saint-heroes.  Perhaps some of John’s followers entered the “Mandean stream” at an early date and imparted their Baptizer-lore into some extant Mandean-Gnostic school or group?

4)  Without argumentation, excuses, or debate, Jesus immediately cites the Baptizer’s prayer, citing its words not as Jesus’ own, but as another’s prayer-mode – apparently just as worthy, authentic, valid, edifying and efficacious as Jesus’ very own prayer-mode.  Again, this is astonishing in a New Testament book that in most other places (e.g., Luke, Chapters 1-through-2 entire) takes pains to make Jesus the uniquely-begotten Messiah.

5)   One can easily imagine the prayer’s stress on…

… /quick forgiveness / “daily” food / urgent hope for the Kingdom’s arrival /  within John’s desert ministry, where he and his followers (plausibly including Jesus himself) /  lived a marginal wilderness-desert existence / treated one another other as “God’s separate people” through a prototype of “Christian love”/ and eagerly searched for signs of the Kingdom’s advent / …

… originating with the Baptizer, and being reverently absorbed by his unusually talented young disciple from the Galilee, later to be cited by the Galilean when asked how the Baptizer taught him to pray.

The Lord’s Prayer is but one of a surprising number of ambiguities in New Testament literature and early Christian history.  This example happens to illustrate the great reverence in which John was held in the earliest times, and it associates Jesus’ ministry and message with John’s in ways uncomfortable and inconvenient to consensus/traditionalchristology.

Faith: its Meaning in a Secular World

The so-called New Atheism, and its most popular, public promoters (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Susan Blackmore and others), all seem to agree on one point.  Religion, they claim, is faith; and faith is intellectual agreement to any number of unproven (and mostly ludicrous beliefs).

It is unfortunate for the New Atheists that their religious vocabulary – and implictly their religious knowledge – is so limited.  In this, the blame is mostly theirs, but not entirely.  Western culture is immersed in uncritical, popular notions about religion, and as partakers in Western culture, the New Atheists are also immersed.  However, especially since they claim to be reason-and-fact-driven, they have a self-imposed duty to present their conclusions only after adequate research and self-education.  In this they have failed.  Their main claim – phrased in terms of reductionism’s “nothing but” terms – that religion is nothing but faith / and faith is nothing but ludicrous intellectual assent, is itself “nothing but” a testable claim – a claim that fails the test.  Take, for example, their primary definition of religion as “faith,” “belief,” “intellectual assent to unproven and usually ludicrous” propositions.  There are two problems with this.

First, as with the popular understanding of religion, the New Atheists identify religion narrowly with Christianity, and even more narrowly, with popular Christianity, and even more narrowly, with fundamentalist Christianity.  However, based on their claims to scientific objectivity, they should know better than to do this.  Religion, a world-wide phenomenon, is obviously – and demonstrably -a  much broader category than mere Christianity.

Second, again sharing a popular understanding, the New Atheists seem primarily to identify religion simply-and-only-as faith – faith as an irrational, intellectual belief in absurd things.

However, even a minimal amount of research reveals that religion – even Christian religion – cannot be reduced to the New Atheists’ two prime categories.  Take the “Faith issue,” for example.  New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg has isolated at least four separate types of “faith” pre-embedded in Christianity and “available for public viewing,” which the New Atheists either ignore or are blissfully unaware of:

1)  Faith as Assensus:  faith as belief in a truth claim (vs. doubt or disbelief).  This is the New Atheists’ only definition, as we have seen.  However, they seem unaware that this kind of faith – “propositional” faith, belief as a “head” matter – is very recent to Christianity, resulting  1)  from the Protestant Reformation’s competing denominations needing to declare what they “believed” in opposition to what other congregations “believed,” and  2)  from the Enlightenment’s insistence that factualness equals truth.  In the Enlightenment sense, truth is (only) that which can be verified (measured, quantified) as factual.  Since the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean belief in “iffy” propositions, whether biblical (a six-day literal creation) or cosmological (the earth is flat and the center of the universe).  After the Enlightenment, religious belief – “faith” – has been secularly defined as believing in notions contrary to evidence –  contrary to what reasonable people and institutions know. This of course is the New Atheists’ primary definition of faith – one they frequently cast against people of faith.

Borg comments:

That Christian faith is about belief is a rather odd notion, when you think about it.  It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads – as if “believing the right things” is what God is most looking for, as if having “correct beliefs” will save us…  Moreover, faith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless.  You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage…and miserable…  Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power…  [Faith is] not very much about believing.  Instead, faith is about the relationshiop of the self at its deepest level to God.

Obviously, even when considering “faith as belief,” the New Atheists are unaware of the relative youth of this faith-category in Christianity, and they uncritically assume the reductionistic secular “Enlightenment” perspective on faith.  It is very important to keep present in the mind’s eye the simple fact that reductionism, rationalism, and materialism are not givens.  They are philosophies, and the New Atheists need to remember this, just as Christians need to remember that religion is not a source of scientific knowledge and does not consist of simple intellectual assent.

2)  Faith as Fiducia:  radical trust (vs. suspicion, mistrust, anxiety).  Sometimes described  (e.g., by Soren Kierkegaard) as a state of a person being “immersed and floating in an ocean of radical trust,” Fiducia is faith as a metaphorical sea – trust in god as an infinite ocean in which one – unless one thrashes around, struggles, and “sinks” – exists in an almost womblike environment, unified with Spirit.  This type of faith is a perceiving – a seeing – and an experiencing of Being as cosmic generosity.  Its prime attribute is serenity derived from trust. Its opposite is anxiety, as Borg says:  Little faith [i.e., little Fiducia] and anxiety go together.  If you are anxious, you [may] have little faith.

Faith as Fiducia – as radical trust, immersion/union with Spirit – is seldom if ever considered in the New Atheism’s faith definition.  It needs to be added into the mix if objective discussion is the goal.

3.  Faith as Fidelitas:  “Heart-allegiance”, paying attention to one’s personal immersion in, and relationship to, the Spirit (vs. idolatry, adultery, unfaithfulness).  Borg:

Faith as fidelitas does not mean faithfulness to statements about God, whether biblical, credal, or doctrinal.  Rather, it means faithfulness to the God to whom the Bible and creeds and doctrines point.  Fidelitas refers to a radical centering in God.  Its opposite is not doubt or disbelief, [but rather] infidelity, being unfaithful to our relationship with God…centering in something finite rather than on the sacred, who is infinite and beyond all images…  Fidelitas means loving God and loving your neighbor and being faithful, above all, to these two great relationships.

One is, again, struck with the paucity of attention given by the New Atheists to “faith as Fidelitas,” especially where that kind of faith creates and supports “neighborly/brotherly-sisterly love” and imitation of the divine Compassion.  Dawkins et al are only too happy to excoriate bad religionist behavior based on “religious beliefs,” but are frquently  uncritically selective in editing-out the beneficial social implications of Fidelitas-faith.

4.  Faith as Visio:  Seeing/perceiving/experiencing life as gracious (vs. seeing life as hostile, “stingy”;  vs. being excessively self-preoccupied and defensive).  Faith, as Visio, goes beyond faith as belief-Assensus and faith as radical trust-Fidelitas:  it is direct experience of spiritual grace and sacred graciousness.  According to Borg, Visio

…leads to the kind of life that we see in Jesus…  Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.

To some, this way of seeing may seem naively optimistic.  But… [t]he point is not that reality is simply “nice,” or that one can demonstrate that it is gracious.  Rather, the point is that how we see reality matters, for how we see “what is” profoundly affects how we experience and live our lives.

Borg comments that Visio leads back to Fidelitas and Fiducia, and Fidelitas and Fiducia lead back to AssensusThat is, Visio – as the direct experiencing of divine grace and graciousness – creates and then nourishes the other three types (by degrees, somewhat less experiential) of Christian faith-types.

If the New Atheists should ever become more concerned with authentic dialogue than with narrow-minded attack, they might acknowledge that there is more than one definition, type and function Christian “faith.”  And Christians, too, might re-familiarize themselves with their religion’s rich supply of faith-categories, dropping the narrow, popular focus on “faith as intellectual assent.”  If this could be made a reality, both parties would have educated themselves more fully about faith, and about faiths generally, and could therefore move the discussion forward into non-Christian religions and their faith-definitions.  If that ever happens, real discussion – and even some surprising compromises from both sides – might develop – to the world’s edification and humankind’s benefit.

Marcus J. Borg citations are from his book:

The Heart of Christianity:  Rediscovering a Life of Faith. Harper: San Francisco: 2003, pp. 26, 28-37.

Intelligent Design: More Bad News

(Please note: in the following article, the uncapitalized term “his” is applied to god and to the creator, with no chauvinism implied.  The present writer is simply too lazy to police the text to insure that a more precise but lengthy string of pronouns (“He/She/It”) be regularly employed!  Thanks for your indulgence.)

One fatal problem with Intelligent Design and its incestuous bedfellow, “Scientific Creationism,” is that they depend upon supernatural theism.  Supernatural theism posits a creator-god “out there,” who is responsive to prayer and who (sometimes) intervenes in the world in answer to prayer, or to reward or punish humankind

Supernatural theism’s god is on the way to the trash heap, for understandable reasons.

First, the modern mind has difficulty in accepting a god who is by nature separate from the human heart and human experience, and who must therefore be petitioned “from afar.”

Second, the notion of divine intervention is fraught with rather nasty problems, not least of which is the problem of explaining all of the non-interventions.  A god who is both totally compassionate and all-powerful should be expected to always intervene.  (Or, better yet, to have designed a world so flawlessly that intervention is never necessary.)

Third, the idea that god is, or must be, a creator, automatically makes god responsible for his creation – for the invention, the regulation, the ultimate outcome – of the world he created.  This last point is especially troublesome because it demands an explanation for the existence and the persistence of evil (as well as the creator’s passivity and non-intervention) in a universe supposedly created and regulated by a good and omnipotent god.

The blanket theological term for such explanations is theodicy.  A theodicy is a model whereby the “good” creator’s passivity, non-intervention, and failure to regulate the world is given a (putative) explanation.  In the present writer’s view, theodicy amounts to little else than making excuses for an inept Creator:  it’s an attempt to excuse the inexcusable.  It is no compliment to the Creator that his creatures, in order to support their belief in that Creator, must invent systems that (purportely) excuse his (mis)behavior.  This is where Intelligent Design promoters miss the point.

There is, they say, evidence for a Designer.  But from what we have considered so far, the Designer can only be excused by resort to theodicy, which is to say that – if such a being truly exists – “There is a Creator, but he’s mean, incompetent, indifferent, cruel, senile – and we need to make up excuses for all of that.”   Establishing a Creator’s existence (and I don’t see how this could ever be accomplished) would only establish the existence of a being who is powerful – but inimical to the welfare and survival of sentient beings.  This would be the worst news possible vis a vis the question of god’s existence.  ID promoters seem blissfully ignorant of what they are trying to do, namely, prove the existence of this deity who either does not care about, or who actively opposes, sentient creatures.  “The Creator exists!” they proclaim, failing to finish the sentence with (the logically-demanded) whisper, “… but he’s a monster.”  Of course, their agenda does not permit, encourage, or necessitate that they go so far.  It is enough (for their narrow interests) that they are able to sneak ID into public school curriculi wherever they can, replacing science with an ancient creation myth.  And it is just this particular myth – not philosophical god-concepts or non-Christian theological categories – that IDers promote.

“Biblical Inerrancy” is the IDers’ guiding tenet and true motivator.  Bound by their reactive (reactive against Enlightenment principles) sectarianism, IDers take the Genesis account of cosmic and human origins literally.  This explains, and constitutes, their real objection to public school science courses.  There is a plethora of religious world-and-humankind origin narratives to choose from, but IDers’ select-out only one, namely, the biblical account.  To supplant science with a 4,000 year old origins-myth is absurd on the face of it… yet this is exactly what IDers seek to do.

In any debate with IDers and/or Creationists, the two points under consideration ought to be relentlessly brought forward:  1)  a Creator requires a theodicy – and this is bad news for any Designer or Creator theory; and 2) IDers’ special pleading for the biblical – as opposed to all other – creators, reveals their shoddy motives in a clear light.

Application of these two principles will aid in pulling (at least, the aggressive, activist kind of) fundamentalists’ feet to the fire… treatment they deserve for attempting to turn our democracy into a theocracy.  After all, the law allows them to infect their children with the doctrines of biblical literalism in the home, in church, in religious schools and retreat camps, through books, media and music.  What the law should never permit, however, is the introduction of their religious toxins into public troughs.  As famed social critic Gore Vidal said of fundamentalists:  that they, with the rest of us, enjoy the right and the privilege of free speech…  But, on the other hand, we, as a democratic people, must not allow them to foist their superstitions on public society and its institutions.