Monthly Archives: May 2009

God and Fundamentalism

Scriptural texts can be “God’s word” and simultaneously metaphorical, analogical, and/or allegorical – and therefore require critical tools to delineate metaphorically-intended from literally-intended texts. The argument that those who worship the biblical God must take all scripture literally is unnecessarily restrictive. It restricts:

1) God. It restricts God from “writing” or “inspiring” poetic, allegorical, non-literal texts. “For God to be God, God must be a literalist”, or something like that, seems to be the thinking here. Theoretically God can communicate as easily through metaphor as through literalness. It is up to the reader – armed with current critical data – to decide the specific nature of a particular text.

2) It restricts theologians who employ the critical interpretive tools disallowed them by the literalist imperative. Modern theology without critical apparatuses is no longer theology but blind speculation pre-determined by sectarian bias.

3) It restricts Christians. The literalist imperative stamps all non-literalist Christians as fakes, which is an extremely skewed, inaccurate, and harshly judgmental scenario. It arrogantly evaluates for Christians how they **must** view the Bible, whereas in historical actuality Christians have always developed and applied their own adaptations in reading and interpreting  scripture.

This practice goes back even to New Testament times and the Patristic age. Yes, some Christians were and are fundamentalists, but many are non-literalists, and this perspective itself has biblical precedent. Not only does scripture advise the reader to “test the text” and “the word of those who purportedly speak the word of God”.  From the Psalms where the Psalmist tells Yahweh that He has broken His covenant; to the Book of Job where Job wrestles with God’s word and eventually with God “Him”self; to Jesus’ agony in the garden and his “lama sabachtani” on the cross, the Bible – even when viewed as “God’s word” – is itself replete with examples of questioning God and “His” word.

The literalist argument as usually phrased seems to ignore the advances into, and the acceptance of, critical biblical schoalarship in mainline congregations. Or rather: the argument disparages modern biblical literacy, claiming that its acceptance is a token of unfaithfulness to the word of the deity whom Christians worship. The argument consigns all Christians to a fundamentalist backwater, on the pain of heresy. It makes the phrase, “enlightened Christian,” an oxymoron. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, it narrowly defines God as a heavenly fundamentalist, whose word can be properly understoond only by earthly fundamentalists.

Granted, as early as New Testament and Patristic times scripture was viewed allegorically. Truly critical studies are a relatively recent invention, going back only just a bit before the Enlightenment.

Allegorical and literal interpretion always coexisted in Christianity, but it was only with the dawn of critical scholarship and critical historical studies and methods that the Church (as well as society in general) had an objective “scientific” means of understanding scripture. Considering the relative recentness of modern critical studies, it is safe to say that these Enlightenment-based disciplines have been, and remain, the primary means of nurturing Christianity’s age-old process of adaption and renewal.  It is critical understanding, not biblical literalism, that has brought the Church into the era of modernity, and it is critical understanding that will nourish the Church’s future.

Science vs. Religion?

Modern religious faith, informed by critical biblical scholarship and historical studies, is more than able to fill the gaps that science can’t. Science as science has nothing whatsoever to say about most nonmaterial religious claims and it is as capable of assessing ethical issues as is a pair of calipers. These categories are truth-assessments, not (quantifiable) fact-assessments.

Nor is science aided by dupes among the “new” atheists. There is very little that Dawkins, Dennet, Shermer, Hitchens, Harris, Blackmore et al say that is not a knee-jerk reaction to popular notions about religion – Western religion at that, narrowly defined. While they quite rightly critique the flaws in the Abrahamic faiths, they show little sign of realizing that these flaws themselves are mostly archaic hangovers from religion’s pre-Enlightenment era. Theology long ago dealt with and responded to the objections that the “new” atheists, claiming science as their springboard, fling at popular religion.

We may or may not agree with theology’s responses.  But the point is that the “new” atheists are mostly sparring against straw men in the guise of giant windmills.   Doing so, they are guilty of keeping the debate on a primitive, combative literalist-popularist level. They also seem to be generally, blissfully, unaware of the vast sea of non-Western spirituality. Instead they beat the dead horse of pre-Enlightenment, popular Western-Abrahamic/monotheistic, Supernatural Theistic faith, without exhibiting the slightest awareness of the many other religious alternatives, or offering their readers multiple-choice options in this regard. This is either inexcusable ignorance, or it is conscious deception. In either case, it’s just plain wrong. Example:  most of their criticism targets the Abrahamic notion of a creator deity, whereas in actuality there are many spiritual traditions that propose a NON-creator deity. Once the idea of a creator deity is removed, so is 90% of “new” atheist angst over the subject.

Moreover, faith – of which in the West there are at least four varying types – is (contrary to popular reports) is not always or necessarily the core of spirituality. The core of spirituality is the anchoring of self in Spirit (God, the Sacred, the Holy, the Divine) rather than in culture, church, state, political orientation, scripture, science, opinion, government, or any other human category. “New” atheists seem to be unaware that there are at least seven different types of atheism – in which a substantial number of believers also participate in (Relative Atheism, for example). Too many atheists seem to operate from an elitist ghetto whose prime motto might be phrased,  “(Enlightened) Us against (unenlightened) Them.”

No intelligent discussion or honest debate can occur when “objective, science-based” atheists are as introverted, inbred and parochial as their counterparts in archaic, popular religion. They pride themselves on their high education, but their talk is mostly as unwashed, arrogant, and misguided as their religious polar opposites. Again, “real,” core religion is not about faith or belief. We all know people who believe all, or most, of the “right” things, but who are still jerks.  Belief – or unbelief – is peripheral and tangential to the actual, critical, concrete issue, namely: the condition, the state, of the self relative to its spiritual transformation. Even atheist Sam Harris acknowledges this when he recommends meditation as a means of transcending the normative egoic self. So does Michael Shermer when he says “I think of myself as a spiritual person.” So does Susan Blackmore – sort of – when she admits that Buddhism is a system that has an inherent mechanism for transcending its own “memes.”

The “science vs. religion” gambit is a ploy consciously indulged in by all too many atheists for the purpose of lobbing pot-shots at their religious opponents. “Science-based, objective, educated” atheists should know better and reform their behavior accordingly. They should do their homework before shooting from the hip. So should religionists.  Only when that day comes will the discussion have a chance of reaching a mature, responsible, adult level.

Ebionitism’s Dual Christologies

It is frequently claimed that the earliest christology was “adoptionist,” the theological claim that ontologically (by nature)  Jesus was nothing but human, nothing but “mere man.”   This ancient “reductionist-humanistic” concept did, however, allow for an exalted view of Jesus as Messiah, great high priest, the “Prophet like Moses,” and other Jewish-Messianic affirmations.  It also permitted Jesus to be a risen prophet, one whom God raised up from the grave as a seal of approval.  Moreover, it allowed this risen Jesus to be an angelic being, glorified and exalted into heaven and standing at God’s right hand, carrying God’s name in him, and waiting fto carry out a “second coming” in which he will judge the world.  This adoptionist Jesus – properly understood not as a god or God, but as God’s agent – may even be addressed in the Maranatha prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

But all of these glorious affirmations still pertain to the monotheistic, Jewish Jesus, a man, a prophet, a righteous Israelite rewarded by God.  God’s reward, as mentioned, was to raise Jesus into heaven.  This heavenly reward is necessarily an aspect of adoptionism.  Clearly, a risen Messiah to whom one can pray has par excellence been adopted (as “Son”) by God.  Yet Ebionites and other early Jewish Christians believed that Jesus’ adoption by God began even earlier, in his earthly life, before his death and resurrection.

It was claimed that Jesus, a devout Israelite, excelled all others in piety, obedience and righteousness (as reflected in Luke 2:51-52), so that, by the time he was baptized by John in the Jordan, Jesus had reached the pinnacle of holiness, and so was “ripe for adoption.”  Indeed, say  Jewish Christian sources, it was at his baptism that Jesus was “officially” adopted as God’s son: the heavens opened, the holy Spirit descended on Jesus “like a dove,” and God’s voice proclaimed him “Son.”  This early Jewish christological understanding extends even into the canonical Gospels and the Pauline writings.

It is generally maintained among scholars that this “low” adoptionist christology characterised only the early, “Jewish” period of church formation.  So-called “higher” christologies which made more explict divine claims for Jesus, are held to be much later developments in the tradition.  The idea is that the “Jewishness” of low/adoptionist christology indicates its plausibility, because notions of higher christology had not yet had time to evolve.

Adoptionist christology, it is claimed, is in keeping with Jewish perspectives about prophets, inspired or” holy”people, and the monotheistic/singular-unitary nature of God.  Higher christology, it is claimed, is the product of later theological reflection and possible importation of pagan, Hellenistic ideas about god-men and demigods. 

However, some expressions of early Jewish christology actually contain both “high” and “low” concepts about Jesus.

For the Ebionites, Jesus was the adopted son of God, the Prophet like Moses, whose righteousness caused God to embrace him in a filial relationship at his baptism and then to “set the seal” on the act by raising Jesus from the dead.  For the Ebionites, Jesus was the Messiah in the sense of carrying out messianic goals during his ministry.  (Interestingly, they also held that messiahship is potentially everyone’s birthright, maintaining that all Ebionites, and those who enter that fold, are oiled with the same messianic chrism that anointed Jesus.  Adherents can, like Jesus, perform the messianic task.)

Thus far, Ebionitism qualifies as a typically “low” christology.  However, Ebionites also claimed a kind of “high” christology, because they involved their Christ in the field or schema of heavenly pre-existence. Ebionites typically claimed that Jesus, the wholly human but divinely-adopted prophet also embodied God’s holy Spirit.

To return to the baptism scene: Ebionites claimed that the “Spirit Like A Dove” that descended on Jesus was a type of pre-existent, heavenly “Christ” sent down to abide in Jesus.

This spirit was thought to be more or less interchangeable with the Adam Kadmon, or heavenly primal Adam; Yahoel, God’s chief assisting angel; Metatron, the Angel of the Throne; and the Standing One or heavenly Son of Man.

For the Ebionites, Jesus was a man adopted and risen to heaven by God. But he was also the embodiment on earth – or if the term may be used – the incarnation of a pre-existent celestial being.  The Ebionite Jesus thus carries in him the dual dignity 1) of a righteous human being and 2) the numinous character who incarnates a revealing tutelary spirit, who is pre-existent and closely related to God.

To reiterate:  Ebionitism claims a dual christological significance to Jesus’ baptismal adoption, an adoption that   simultanesously consists of:

granting to Jesus a filial relationship to God

– and –

the entering into Jesus of a pre-existent celestial tutelary spirit, perceived, conceptualized and symbolized as a dovelike spirit.

The Ebionite Christ thus exemplifies a synthesis of both “low” and “high” christologies, because:

on the one hand he is the obedient-and-rewarded prophet,

and on the other hand he is the recipient of a pre-existent, heavenly being.

It is therefore possible to think that the Ebionite Jesus speaks in two voices: one, the voice of the Jesus “the carpenter’s son,” the obedient-but-transformed/adopted human mystic, “Jesus the Galilean”;  the other, the self-revealing, incarnating Spirit, or Adam Kadmon, primal Son of Man, holy angel.

This christological paradigm  is worked out in Islam by the separation of the the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) personal voice from the Voice of God speaking through him.  The New Testament does not often or obviously separate the two voices, but a close reading will find them implicit in many texts, most pointedly in John’s Gospel.

John’s Jesus, embodying the Spirit and will of the Father and being the vehicle for the Logos’ incarnation, speaks with the Voice of the Divine, such as in the “I am” statements.  Many of the Johannine Jesus’ statements can be read as self-revelations of the Spirit incarnate in him (“I come from the Father and return to the Father; I know the hidden things of God; before Abraham came to be, I am,” etc.).  Here – theoretically at least -is the incarnate heavenly Spirit speaking through Jesus.

At other times John’s Jesus looks more like a human mystic reflecting on and talking about what it is like to incarnate God’s spirit and to be filially united with that God and his spiritt (“the Father and I are one; when you see me, you see the Father; I am a man who hears and obeys the word of God;  the Father is greater than I; I can do nothing of my own will, only by God’s will,” etc.  Here – theoretically –  Jesus the Galilean mystic is speaking about himself.

These  considerations indicate that the dichotomy between high-late and low-early christologies is at least partially dissolved in Ebionitism’s combination of the two.  For a fascinating discussion of the possible “two voices” of Jesus, the reader is referred to Stevan L. Davies’ book, Jesus the Healer (Continuum Publishing Company, NY 1995,  especially pp. 151-169).