What Jesus’ Fulfillment of Prophecies Tells us about Biblical Literalism

As my dear readers have come to understand, one of my biggest assertions in my theology is against any purely literal or uncomplicated reading of the Biblical text. In this post, I want to demonstrate how a number of interpretations of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic scripture requires the insertion of metaphor and a rejection of purely literal reading.

This is, of course, not to say that there aren’t parts of the Bible that are intended to be taken literally. There are. But determining which scriptures those are is not a matter of blind acceptance; it is a matter of using all the analytical tools God has given us to separate the wheat from the dross. That extremely complex and difficult task is a discussion for another time (and a long one at that). For now, I just want to look at how certain prophecies generally (but not universally) accepted by Christians as applying to Jesus require us to leave behind the literal meaning of the text or, more commonly, to allow one of Chesterton’s “furious paradoxes” in seeing both an immediate (more literal)  prophecy and one (more metaphorical) that looks toward fulfillment in Jesus.

Let’s start with Isaiah 7:13-17. Verse fourteen is often translated “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” It’s rather easy to see how this might be applied–retrospectively–to be a prophecy of Jesus. But that requires ignoring the context. The word often translated as “virgin” does not necessarily mean “virgin;” it could also fairly be translated to indicate a “newly married woman” or a “young woman (of marriageable age).”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary I happen to have at hand at the moment of writing states that calling the (soon-to-be-born-in-Isaiah) child “Immanuel” should not be equated with a claim that the child so-named is God in human form as we believe Jesus would later be. Instead, the commentary argues that the prophecy simply means that the coming of the king of Assyria would occur before a child to be born to a woman present at the time the prophecy is uttered reaches the “age of accountability” (held by Jewish custom to be 13 but not explicitly named in the Bible).

Indeed, Ahaz calls upon Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (against Isaiah’s warnings) for assistance; Tiglath-Pileser captures Galilea and later Samaria for himself. Jerusalem itself is besieged by Sennecharib in 701 BCE (though Hezekiah is king at this time).

So, on a literal reading of the prophecy, we should only apply it to 8th Century Israel and Judah, not to the coming of Christ seven centuries later. But the metaphor still seems so clear as to be unavoidable. That’s the problem with well-constructed prophecy, isn’t it? It seems in retrospect so easy to find a successful prediction and yet we like to think of that link as inevitable. Which makes it suspicious and susceptible to reasonable questioning, as the human predilection for inserting patterns into chaos is well documented.

Much ink has been spilt on the topic of the Christianization of Old Testament scriptures like this one, and I’ll defer to the scholars on that discussion. For this post, I’ll limit the topic to the fact that, right or wrong, to see Isaiah 7:13-17 as a prediction of the Messiah requires us to leave the literal text behind. I don’t at all believe that that is wrong, but I do think we need to acknowledge what we’re doing when we make that argument.

Likewise, Isaiah 9:1-7 (From verse 6):

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary again warns: “Christians have used some aspects of the passage to help them understand the significance of Christ, but the passage as a whole does not directly apply to Christ and the NT does not so apply it.”

While conceding that “Verse 7 does express what Christ will yet do,” the commentary goes on to describe how the passage represents an imminent deliverance from Assyria of the Israelite people by Yahweh.

Again, it is easy to see, looking back from the Gospels, how readily this passage might be applied to Jesus as the Messiah, but that is an ex post facto interpolation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God didn’t intend for Isaiah’s prophecy to have both an immediate meaning and a cosmic one–I think that’s a fair interpretation for the Christian to make. But, in doing so, we must maintain the honest position that neither Isaiah 7 and 9 do not prove the coming of Christ through Old Testament prophecies.

Rather, we ought to formulate the statement as something like: “As a believer in Jesus as the Son of God and in the Gospel message, I believe that the God, speaking through the prophets in the Old Testament, gave the Israelites double-pronged prophecies that had immediate and literal importance to the hearers while also containing a metaphorical cosmic prediction of God’s action through Jesus Christ, though the prophets and hearers of the time would not have considered or looked for this second, metaphorical meaning.”

Again, the specifics of our interpretation of these passages are not the point of my thoughts here. We’re instead focusing on the need to resort to metaphor and non-literal thinking to make the popular Christian interpretation of these scriptures the least bit functional.

Some more examples:

Isaiah 52-53: Like Isaiah 7 and 9, there is a very strong metaphorical relationship between this text and the life of Jesus Christ. But we must also conveniently overlook some inconsistencies between the description of the “suffering servant” and Jesus or again assume that this text had both a more immediate interpretation and more metaphorical applicability to Jesus.

Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” This cannot be a literal reference to Jesus if you are a Trinitarian Christian, as such an interpretation would result in the heresy of “adoptionism.”

Zechariah 12:10: The passage about “the one they have pierced” and those that follow certainly seem to have correspondence with the Crucifixion–you might have read this passage during Good Friday services. As I have above, I’m not asserting that this passage doesn’t have anything to do with the Gospels. However, if we look at the first verses of Chapter 12, I think we have to consider that this passage is not literally referring to Jesus’ on the Cross and that our (probably correct) temptation to read that relationship relies on a metaphorical relationship.

As I’ve tried to indicate in the preceding paragraphs, I’m going to accept the applicability of the Old Testament passages cited above to Jesus. There are many more examples to be given, but I’m going to try to keep this post short(ish).

To accept that we should assign Christian meaning to those OT scriptures and maintain some semblance of logic and intellectual honesty, we must acknowledge that metaphor is sometimes required in the “proper” interpretation of the scriptures.

If we do that, we cannot hold both that these passages point to the Messiah and that the Bible should only be read literally and without layers of indirect meaning and complex interpretation. Interesting, n’est pas?

Holy Week

(An opening note: I’ve started writing this post, veered off onto various tangents–later deleted–and then restarted several times. Being “stuck” on a post of this nature, or having to repeatedly reset my thoughts, is atypical of my experience in the time I’ve been running this blog. The thoughts that follow should probably be treated as musings, as me thinking to myself on paper as you observe, rather than the sort of pointed and organized theological assertions I tend to make. This may be–and I hope that it is–a result of what theological understanding I have being overwhelmed by the reality and the mystery of the Holy Week. I also hope that you find something of value to ruminate upon, meditate upon, or at least mull over during the coming Easter weekend.)

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’re probably already familiar with Dr. John (Jack) A. Beck. He is a scholar of Biblical geography and was our guide during our two weeks in Israel last year. If you want to (re-)read about that, my journal of my experiences along the way starts here.

Sunday night, Jack came to our church to preach in the morning for Palm Sunday and to give a lecture about what the geography of Jesus’ route into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday tells us about the Gospel text. As expected, it was an eye-opening lecture. I’ll include a short summary, but I’d invite you to take the time to watch it here. Then consider watching some of Dr. Beck’s other work or buying some of his books.

I’m going to unabashedly ride on Dr. Beck’s coattails here, thinking about the Holy Week in light of the picture he paints of the thoughtful fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy involved in Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

TL;DW

If you don’t have time or inclination to watch Dr. Beck’s lecture, here’s the short of it: the choices Jesus makes in approaching Israel from the east, through the Judean wilderness, entering Bethpage on a donkey (procured after he’s already walked up the Mount of Olives rather than before) and proceeding from Bethpage to the Gihon Spring are all conscious fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

The response of the (probably mostly Galilean) crowds to throw down their cloaks and wave palm branches was an explicit recognition of Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of those prophecies.

Enacting Prophecy
If your first response to the argument Dr. Beck makes is to have some doubt about the Messiah because he actively orchestrated the fulfillment of the prophecies, you’re not alone.

I had written a rather long response to this issue, but I’ve cut it from this post in the interest of focus. Maybe it will pop up in a post of its own sometime in the future, but for now, I’m going to settle with saying this:

Jesus taking measures to enact the Old Testament prophecies in his entrance to Jerusalem is just another of his claims to be the Messiah. When you look at it this way, it’s not very different from any other time he claims that he is the Messiah. You’re still left with the choice of whether to believe he is or is not, and we are ultimately given enough on which to base a strong conviction of the answer without being able to definitively and unequivocally prove it to anyone–in no small part due to the fact that none of us were personally there to witness. It’s a matter of faith for a reason.

I’m proceeding in this post based upon the importance of Jesus consciously choosing to fulfill the prophecies about which Jack Beck speaks in his lecture.

A Point of No Return

I don’t know to what extent the human aspect of Jesus had access to divine foresight; that is certainly a part of the mystery that Jesus was wholly human and wholly divine. But it wouldn’t take divine foresight to see what was likely to follow if Jesus made the claim to be the Messiah by so publicly fulfilling the messianic and prophetic expectations of the Jews gathered in and around Jerusalem for Passover.

The Biblical text tells us that he expected what followed–he predicts his impending death three times before he actually makes his grand entrance into Jerusalem according to the Gospels.

The Pharisees and religious authorities commonly asked Jesus the authority by which he spoke and did what he did. They were already looking for a way to be rid of this thorn in their side. The same goes for the political authorities (who sometimes were also religious authorities). Jesus’s declaration to be the Messiah create an alternative to their authority in maintaining control over the Jewish people. Look at history–those in authority are often willing to kill for far less.

So there’s every indication that Jesus knew what his entrance into Jerusalem in the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies would cause to happen. Certainly, once the palm fronds came out, it would have been clear that there was no going back.

A Declaration of War
As Jack Beck points out in his lecture, the palm fronds procured by the bystanders witnessing Jesus’ arrival into the city have historical roots. This is a reference to the Book of Maccabees, wherein the Jews retake Jerusalem from the Seleucids, celebrating their victory with palm fronds. The crowd’s use of the vegetation shows us several important things.

First, they were familiar enough with messianic prophecy from the Old Testament to recognize the claim that Jesus was making when he entered Bethpage on a donkey. Second, they expected their Messiah to bring them military revolution in which they would retake Jerusalem from the foreign powers who once again dominated it. Third, they expected this victory to be achieved solely (or at least almost solely) by God’s action through the messiah.

You might ask why I make the third argument. It’s simple, really. The Galileans gathered for Passover who witnessed Jesus coming into the city gathered palm fronds, not weapons. We know of the existence in the decades after Jesus’ death of violent dissidents who would eventually be instigators of the Jewish Revolt (the Sicarii or Zealots), but there’s not evidence of their existence before the procuratorship of Felix in the 50’s A.D. (from Josephus). Neverthless, we’re not told of a rash of violence, an uprising by the Jews or a widespread suppression by the Romans in response to Palm Sunday (and the Gospels seem to indicate a noticeable lack thereof–see the section on Pilate below). The use of the palm fronds also indicates timing–the Jews participating here are acting as if the victory is already won (if we stretch the metaphor to Maccabees to near-direct analogy).

We’re told in Mark that the priests began to look for a way to kill Jesus not upon his Passover entrance into the city, but upon his “attack” on the moneychangers at the Temple. This doesn’t seem exactly right to me. If the “rustic” Galileans understood the message Jesus was sending on Palm Sunday sufficiently to behave as they did, surely the educated priests took note as well.

And if all of them understood this, certainly the disciples did, too. When they were told that they should go fetch a donkey in Bethpage for Jesus to ride, they must have understood that this was it–Jesus’ big declaration of his Messiahhood.

We don’t really get any indication about how the disciples felt about all of this. We know that Jesus had told them three times to expect his impending death upon the entrance to Jerusalem and we know that fear later overtakes Peter and the other disciples upon Jesus’ arrest. But we’re not told about how they feel upon the entry to Jerusalem, knowing that Jesus’ action in fulfillment of the prophecies means that something big is about to happen.

This, ultimately, I think, is fitting. As I’ve argued in other posts, Erich Auerbach argues in Mimesis that the “Biblical style” of narrative forces us to engage with the text, to think about it in various contexts, to really wrestle with the ambiguous possibilities. This instance is a perfect example.

If words described the feelings of the disciples upon the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, we would quickly read those words and move on, taking them for granted. Feelings may be described, yes, but they’re at their most powerful when experienced. The gap in knowledge here forces us to insert our own humanity into the text to understand the humanity of the disciples in that moment–to try to feel what they felt.

Imagine how torn you would have been. You’ve been traveling with a man who claims to be the Messiah for several years. You have heard him teach amazing things and bring the Gospel of hope to a broken world. You have seen him do the miraculous, proving that he is truly “God with us,” both in those wondrous events and in the mundane ways in which he speaks and lives.

And now, all of the hopes and doubts you’ve developed in those years rush together in a maelstrom of emotion. The liberation Jesus has promised is finally at hand! The people outside of Jerusalem are recognizing Jesus as the Messiah! But Jesus has told you that this means the end for his physical time on earth. And, understanding the revolutionary tone that has arisen when the palm fronds came out, you know there’s about to be trouble. Is Jesus going to overthrow Roman occupation? Is he going to be killed by the Romans? Is the Day of Judgment at hand? Is Jesus really who he says he is? This combination of excitement and fear must have been swirling about in the minds of the twelve (and Jesus’ other followers).

Perhaps this thought grasps me because all Christians have some experience of this moment, I think. When they are deciding whether to believe in Jesus, they are at the precipice of fear, doubt and hope–between conviction that the Gospel promises are true and the hopelessness of deciding that Jesus was only a deluded man who made outrageous claims and died for nothing. And, I think it’s fair to say, that experience is not just a one-time thing in the life of the Christian. Until the Second Coming, we are all (metaphorically) in this middle place at the beginning of Holy Week–in possession of some evidence that Jesus is who he says he is but yet without the undeniable proof that the Gospel is Truth. Faith, especially when reasonable, is a difficult thing, and I empathize.

Pontius Pilate
Jack’s talk also has me thinking about Pontius Pilate’s position in the Passion. When the palm fronds came out on Jesus’ entrance to the city, surely someone informed Pilate what that symbolized. We know (and Jack shows this in his talk) that later Roman coins would mock the defeat of the first-century Jewish revolts by showing palm trees next to Roman soldiers or the goddess Nike, so we know that, at some point, the Romans understood the symbolism. I think it’s reasonable to believe that Pilate understood it at the time.

At this point in Roman history, and given Pilate’s position in Judea, I think that his primary concern would have been over physical and political revolt against Roman occupation. I don’t think he would have much cared about an internal religious dispute in Judaism if it didn’t affect Roman rule.

This certainly seems to play out in the Gospels, where the synoptics indicate that Pilate finds no reason to put Jesus to death beyond the urging of the Jewish priests. There, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews,” Jesus replies with some variation of “You have said so.” (emphasis mine, of course). If you’ve been left wondering about this exchange and why Pilate accepts that answer, I think Jack’s analysis of the entrance into Jerusalem helps fill in the gaps.

When those welcoming Jesus waved palm fronds, this would have been cause for some alarm among Roman leadership–the symbolism certainly seemed a prelude to revolt. But when the days followed with no revolt, or even the intimation of preparations for a revolt, I think the Romans would have lost concern quickly. Jesus’ actions with the moneychangers in the Temple would likely have reinforced Pilate’s idea (assuming he heard about this event) that the dispute of Jesus indicated an internal religious struggle with little bearing outside the Jewish community.

When Pilate questions Jesus, who responds without an assertion to rulership or right thereof, without threat of uprising or violence, without opposition to the power of Rome, I think that would have sealed the matter for the Roman. We’re told in Luke that Pilate tries to pass off Jesus to Herod. This would have been a shrewd political move, I think–it allows Pilate to claim that he’s made some effort to allow the Jews reasonable autonomy and to distance himself from the whole affair (which he seems to understand that no good can come of). Unfortunately (for Pilate), it doesn’t work; Herod passes the buck right back to the Roman governor.

John gives us even more information–here Jesus responds directly to Pilate’s key concern, saying “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This statement gives Pilate an explanation to why no uprising manifested after Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, as well as giving some assurance that there’s no threat to Roman rule from the “Jesus dilemma.”

Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify Jesus at the behest of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin (after his attempt to escape the situation by pitting Jesus against Barrabas) is characterized as a further political calculation. Jesus has already told him that Jesus’ followers hold beliefs that make a present uprising against Rome unlikely because they see nothing to be gained from such a worldly revolt. On the other hand, the magnates of Jewish society in Jerusalem have worked themselves into a froth over Jesus’ presence and claims–not doing something about Jesus likely would cause unrest. For the practitioner of realpolitik, the choice is a simple one.

Thus, we’re again given ambiguity, this time in the person of Pontius Pilate. In John, we’re given the image of an almost nihilistic powermonger (“What is truth?” he asks in response to Jesus’ claim to have brought the Truth to Earth). In the synoptics, we get the characterization of a man who bears no ill-will to Jesus but who is subject to sociopolitical forces beyond even his control. One invites derision; the other sympathy.  Some early Christians must have agreed, as apocryphal texts make some attempts to rehabilitate the image of Pilate.

JudasBetrayer or Loyal Follower?
I cannot remember where, but somewhere in my reading I’ve picked up on the interesting argument that Judas’ actions seem to indicate that his “betrayal” of Jesus was a matter of following instructions rather than truly betraying Jesus. To preface, I want to say that I have not done enough research to evaluate the credibility or weight of evidence in this argument; I present it here as nothing more than intriguing supposition. The argument goes something like this:

Iscariot should be taken to indicate relationship to the Sicarii (rather than the more commonly-accepted “from Kerioth”). As noted above, Josephus indicates the first appearance of the Sicarii in the 50’s A.D., so this is a somewhat problematic move, but one I’m not entirely willing to completely brush aside if we are focused on narrative meaning rather than historicity. In a similar vein, it has been argued that the use of the Pharisees in the Gospels reflects more on the time of the writing of the Gospels (when the Pharisees had become dominant after the fall of the Temple) rather than as an indicator of their position at Jesus’ time, when the Sadducees had greater power. If that assertion is true, and if a similar move is being made by the Gospel-writers here to use the idea of the later-formed Sicarii to make anachronistic–but effective–commentary about the relationship of those in favor of temporal, violent revolt with the way offered by Christ, then it is feasible (if unlikely), that Judas’ name as given in the Gospels was meant to tie him to the idea of violent revolt.

Accepting this as true for the sake of argument (as the line of thinking I’m describing does), the argument then proceeds to draw an analogy between Judas hanging himself in the account of Matthew with the loyal soldier committing suicide to die along with his beloved leader.

These ideas are then used to retroactively argue that Judas had been instructed by Jesus to give his location to the priests (something that the Gospels give no indication of) and that Jesus selected Judas because Jesus knew Judas would see the task through.

This idea came back to me as I thought about the argument that Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem–or at least the response thereto–could be viewed as a declaration of war. But the argument that Judas had some allegiance to those elements of Jewish society in favor of violent revolt against the Romans could just as easily cut the other way–we could imagine that he would be in high spirits as the palm fronds waved in remembrance of the Maccabean victory and all that it symbolized but that, when no uprising manifested and he began to understand that Jesus’ revolution and kingdom were not temporal, he became disillusioned and betrayed his master.

To be clear, there a number of elements of the Gospels that actively undercut the idea of Judas as “loyal servant” in the “betrayal” of Jesus. John disparages Judas’ nature as the disciples’ treasurer and Luke says that “the devil made him do it.” At the end of the day, there must remain some uncertainty about whether Judas was a scapegoat added to Jesus’ passion. I think he serves that function for us regardless of historicity or authorial intent–by focusing on demonizing Judas’ behavior toward Jesus, we can conveniently turn our thoughts away from scrutinizing our own failures in our walk. Even more, demonizing Judas ignores much of what Jesus had to say about forgiveness.

We don’t need some convoluted argument about Judas’ intent to reach that conclusion, even if petty greed seems an poor motivation for Judas’ actions as is commonly put forth.

I’d also note that the “grave betrayal” is that Judas told the priests where to find Jesus–but there’s no indication that Jesus was hiding and there’s every indication he expected to be arrested as part of those things which needed to happen.

Gethsemene
That brings us to the Garden of Gethsemene. This short scene in the Gospels carries so much meaning with it! I am especially moved by Chesterton’s description of the action between the Father and Son in Gethsemene as “God tempting God.” This accentuates the idea that, through Jesus, God has come to Earth to suffer everything man has suffered (and worse) in a demonstration of God’s justice; that it is human to not want to sacrifice, but divine to do so anyway; to give us some glimpse of the perichoresis of the Trinity.

In light of Jack’s analysis of the import of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, this scene in Gethsemene takes on new meaning for me. Jesus has already set in motion the claim and events that will lead to his crucifixion, and only after doing so does he ask for the “cup to be removed” from him. Jesus is asking for the miraculous and divine intervention of the Father, I think, not simply for some other way for things to work out.

To see even Jesus in this position carries great comfort to me, for some reason. I understand that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and that I am (only) fully human, but I nevertheless find this acknowledgement of human emotion to be another of God’s kindnesses. Here there is a permission to feel without guilt while Jesus’ example simultaneously calls us to the righteous path in spite of those feelings.

Conclusion
If you happen to be Catholic, I invite you to submit the task of reading all of these thoughts to your priest as an acceptable form of penance if future need arises. If you are of a Protestant persuasion, then consider the fact you’ve survived all the way through as a further demonstration of God’s inexhaustible grace.

Either way, I thank you for giving me the time to ramble as I have, and I wish you a Happy Easter filled with the profundity and comfort of the reality of God’s work for us through Jesus Christ. He is Risen, indeed!

Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.

Eucatastrophe

In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!

 

 

Voter Fraud is Real! (But Not Where You Think)

I came into the office this morning to begin knocking out my Friday tasks to find an article from the New York Times (click here) detailing voter fraud at the 2019 UMC General Conference.

So far, four fraudulent votes–all against full inclusion–have been discovered. They originate from discrepancies between who voted and who was actually a delegate from the South Congo Conference. One, Phillipe Kasap Kachez, was not a delegate and resides in Brussels but voted as a delegate from South Congo. When asked why, he said that his father–UMC Bishop Kasap Owan–asked him to attend and vote against inclusion (the NYT article contains more direct language but, as the origin of the quotation is questionable, I have not included it).

There was a call from the floor of GC expressing concern about fraudulent voting and asking for investigation. I’m not sure what, if anything, came from the referral to the Ethics Committee that followed. While GC is not in session, the Ethics Committee does not have jurisdiction to investigate, nor are there provisions within the Book of Discipline for dealing with fraudulent or unethical activity in the polity’s legislative process.

Except for cases where clergypersons orchestrated the fraud, I’m not interested in finding a way to punish those who fraudulently participated. I find no utility in that effort. I am, however interested in the truth of what happened and why. Certainly, most of the supporters of the (Modified) Traditional Plan acted and comported themselves in good faith and with honest intent. I may find that intent misguided at best, but I’ve no reason to doubt their sincerity of belief or commitment to following the Book of Discipline in how resolution is reached.

There are those on the conservative side who have been maneuvering politically and playing Machiavellian games to further their goals. That’s not against the letter of the rules (and so not actionable in any way), but it is against the spirit of them. There have been progressives doing the same thing, I’m sure, but my bias prevents me from picking up on that to the same extent.

What the NYT has revealed, however, is on another level. The willingness to commit violations of the trust and fellowship established by the UMC in order to win an issue that they’re afraid they can’t win by honest means is deplorable and should be denounced by all members of the Church, regardless of position on homosexuality or the Traditional Plan versus the One Church Plan.

The NYT reports a 54-vote margin on “the vote against gay clergy and same-sex marriage.” I’m not sure which specific vote this refers to, but the margin between most of the votes was similar. Four fraudulent votes are not enough to change the result by the numbers, but they are enough to throw the whole process into question. It remains to be discovered if more fraudulent activity will be brought to light, but this news does not bode well. The votes also raise the specter of other fraudulent or nefarious activity behind the scenes that may have influenced voting in ways other than improperly cast votes.

I favor removal from office for any bishop shown to have participated in such a breach of trust of the polity. Again, this is not a matter of punishment, per se. With the issue already as divisive as it is, it becomes even more important to protect the integrity of the process by which we reach a decision. Anyone who can be shown to have willfully violated that process should be removed from participation to protect the process itself.

Additionally, we must proceed with caution. These allegations, and those that follow (if any), cannot be fairly imputed to the entirety of the conservative or “traditional” position. It is important that we identify who was involved so that we can protect and respect the integrity of those who were not.

I am curious to see how the leaders of the conservative wing of the UMC respond to this revelation. The bishops have already hired an outside consulting firm (which makes it sound excitingly like Sherlock Holmes, but don’t get your hopes up) to investigate the affairs at General Conference.

The 2019 General Conference, it seems, has created more problems than it has solved.

Morality and God’s Choice, Part II: Job

(This is the 11th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge. Please continue to repost, link, and send your friends my way!)

For the previous post in this series, please click here.

The Book of Job is my favorite book in the Old Testament. There are some passages in the OT I like more (Jeremiah 31:31 and its surrounds, for instance), but taken as a whole, Job is where it’s at for me. The book gives an answer to the problem of theodicy that remains relevant today, along with shooting down some still-espoused misconceptions about how God works that plague simplistic theologies.

And it’s important to note here that I think that the Book of Job’s primary task is theodical. This is tangential to, but inextricably linked with questions of morality–specifically, the morality of God. Put simply, is a God who allows bad things to happen to good people a good and just God? That’s the question the Book of Job seeks to answer (or, as we’ll see, show us is simply beyond human ability to fully grasp).

When we look to the framework of the Book of Job, we’re reminded that we must view the question asked, broad and expansive as it may be unto itself, as a limited (and somewhat problematic) one when it comes to questions about God’s morality.

Remember that Job’s affair begins when “the Satan” (which should be properly read as a job title akin to “the accuser” rather than a personal name) presents himself (itself?) to the Lord and, sua sponte, God boasts about Job’s faithfulness. The Satan argues that Job is only loyal to God because he is well-blessed with life’s joys and comforts; at this God turns Job over to the Satan to be tested.

If we read this exchange literally, God does not come off in a great light. Instead, God is allowing suffering simply to win a bet, so to speak. But if we read it mythopoeically, which I think we must, the dialogue is simply a personification of an existential question–why does God allow bad things to happen to God people? Or, perhaps, what is the meaning of suffering?

That the angels present themselves to the Lord in the beginning of this text seems (to me, at least) to intimate some throwback to an earlier way of thinking, when Yahweh was viewed as a god in the pantheon of El rather than the supreme being God’s self, part of a “divine court” (in the monarchical sense of the term rather than the legal sense). If that is true (and I don’t have sufficient information to be sure), then: (1) it indicates an older origin for the Book of Job than when it was written down (already probable) and (2) it reinforces the idea that we should view the framework of Job as a mythological set-up for a theological investigation rather than a literal telling of what God did to Job (who himself, admittedly, probably never existed–but that’s not the point). This is all to say that the Book of Job only works as satisfying analysis of theodicy as allegory; taken literally, the Book of Job just makes a jerk of God.

I also want to point out the strangeness of Job’s reward at the end of the Book. Job’s old things are not restored to him; they are replaced. He is given a new family to compensate for the one taken from him, not given his formerly-living loved-ones back. This may have something to do with common afterlife beliefs (or a lack thereof) in the time that Job was originally created (or when it was recorded), but I have not done the research to make any useful comment on that, except to say that the history and nature of Jewish belief in an afterlife and/or resurrection is extremely complex, rich and varied, even today. It is well documented that the Sadducees in Jesus’s time appear not to have believed in an afterlife, but whether this could be fairly extended backward in time to the Book of Job is outside the realm of my own current scholarship.

It is tempting to read the Book of Job as concerning God’s sovereignty. After all, God’s appearance at the end of the text might be irreverently summed up as God asking Job, “Who the f*** are you to question me?” That line always brings a smile to my face, particularly when uncensored in teaching about this text. It certainly wakes up those who were drifting. Here’s a taste from the text itself:

“Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone–while the morning stars sand together and all the angels shouted for joy?'”

That question (whether or not using my paraphrase)–what authority or basis does Job have to question God–isn’t really about God’s sovereignty (though that follows later). Because of the mighty acts described, it’s tempting to think that God is comparing God’s power to Job’s, but a closer reading reveals that God is making the rhetorical point that Job lacks the comprehension and understanding necessary to make sense of the answer to Job’s question.

Early in the text, there is a strong focus on Job not sinning by what he says about God. In particular, I love the advice he gets from his wife: “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9). The implication is that, if Job says that God does not have the right to treat him as God has, that Job will be speaking a lie and defying God and thus be subject to divine punishment.

Job walks a fine line in his responses, one that is important for us to consider carefully. Repeatedly, Job calls God “Almighty.” He acknowledges God’s power directly (30:18) and God’s omnipotence (“Does he not see my ways and count my every step?” 31:4).

He says, “…how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God? Though they wished to dispute with him, they could not answer one time out of a thousand. His wisdom is profound, his power vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?” (9:2b-4).

And, “How can I then dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him? Though I were innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead with my Judge for mercy. Even if I summoned him and he responded, I do not believe he would give me a hearing. He would crush me with a storm, and multiply my wounds for no reason. He would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery. If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty! If it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him? Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me; if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty” (9:14-20).

Throughout the Book, Job never questions God’s sovereignty. In fact, it is part of the basis of his desire to question God: because God has the power to do things differently, to choose not to afflict Job, Job can ask why God has chosen to do so as a moral question. He cannot oppose the answer, but he can ask why.

This in essence, gets right to the heart of–and then past–Divine Command Theory. Job’s position, essentially, is to acknowledge that no one can oppose the will of God and that God, as sovereign over all things, has the authority to establish what is and is not “righteous.” But this does not answer the question of whether God plays by God’s own rules or exempts God’s self from them.

The answer the Book of Job gives is a complex one. Job’s “friends” (Bildad, Zophar and Elihu) repeatedly reshift the blame back to Job or his family. Surely, Job’s suffering is the result of some secret sin he has committed and not confessed. But the narrator tells us that Job is “blameless,” Job repeats this assertion, and even God confirms it in the conclusion of the story, so the friends’ argument fails absolutely.

This kind of ad hominem attack to “save” God’s righteousness from human inquiry is still a common retort in questions of God’s morality–it is easy to blame the complainant’s own unrighteousness as the reason for his suffering. The best part about it: rejection of this argument requires the assertion (as Job makes) that one is without fault and absolutely righteous. For those of us who are not literary figures but actual people, this approach simply isn’t tenable.

But the ad hominem attack is as much a logical fallacy when made on God’s behalf as it is in any other circumstance. Even God decries its use, commanding at the end of the text tat the friends make sacrifices and ask for Job’s intercession with God for forgiveness for not “speaking the truth” about God.

So the Book develops this tensive relationship between fundamental ideas: no one has the authority to try to judge God, but God also rejects that God needs to be protected from moral scrutiny by humans. This is the first of the reasons that this series is titled “Morality and God’s Choice;” it seems that God has made God’s self available to moral questioning–or at least asking why–even though God has no duty to–and man has no authority to–do so.

This paradoxical relationship plays out in what I would call the two answers that God gives to Job in response to his questions. In the first answer, Chapters 38 and 39, God gives the answer I first described above–that Job lacks understanding sufficient to grasp why God allows the good to suffer. In the second answer, Chapters 40 and 41, God exerts God’s authority–the same authority Job’s been asserting throughout that makes God ultimately immune from the judgment of mortals.

But God’s words in Job are just part of the whole argument made by the Book’s writers. God’s rejection of the arguments of Job’s friends is an admission that bad things happen to good people–something experience readily confirms. This in and of itself sets up (or rather acknowledges) the complexity of the question of God’s morality–how do we parse out the morality of God allowing certain things to happen and when God actively wills certain things?

Here’s where the order of God’s two answers becomes important, because it changes the intent and meaning of God’s insistence on God’s authority from a rejection of questioning to a reassurance made to creation. When God begins by explaining that Job can’t understand the complexities of the moral questions he is asked, God finishes by explaining that God is, in fact, in control of all things and, therefore, Job’s faith that God is Good (the real reason he is blameless, I would argue) is well placed.

So, we can summarize the thrust of the argument in the Book of Job as asserting that God, ultimately, is both all-powerful and good. Not because God has to be good, but because God chooses to be. It may sometimes be difficult for us to see or understand that, but this is an important aspect of our faith in God, and a reason that Paul relates faith, hope and love so closely. Our faith in God is in–and borne out by–God’s love for us, without which we could have no existential hope.

I would argue that we see God personally rejecting divine command theory through the narrative of Job; that this twists the expectations set up by the literal reading of the story is, in my mind, ironic, poetic and funny.

As a conclusion, I’m going to repeat the ideas that will carry us forward in this series. First, God does not need to rely on God’s sovereignty to protect God’s self from moral questioning, because God is good by all measures and therefore needs no defense. Second, there is, impliedly at least, some righteousness in asking God why–so long as we accept the limits of our understanding. We see this not only in the allegory of Job, but also with Jacob wrestling with God. There is relationship here, an honest desire to be closer to (and or blessed by) God, and this presents a rival source of righteousness to blind and unquestioning obedience.

As we move onward, we’ll look at how we might see how God’s actual morality and justice, not just by fiat but by conscientious and loving Will in action, reveal themselves. We’ll look at what the Incarnation says about God’s morality. And we’ll look at what God’s choices mean for us in the way we consider the morality, justice and righteousness to which we are called in Christ.

 

 

Heartbreak and Hope

I have waited several days to write this post in hopes that that would give my emotions and chance to settle so that I could write from a place of reason, reflection and respect rather than one based upon frustration and anger. Even now, I’m not sure the extent to which that’s actually possible, but I’ve decided not to wait and to do my best.

A short summary of events for those who were unable to get the play-by-play: On Sunday, the delegates ranked each petition submitted to the Conference by “high priority” or “low priority,” creating a ranked list that established the order in which petitions (or bundles of petitions in the case of the plans) would be reviewed. The highest priority issue for the delegates: pensions. Not whether we could keep the Church together, but whether we’d protect the retirement funds of those who decide to leave. Not a good sign. The Traditional Plan ranked next, followed by two “disaffiliation plans” (read: exit plans), only then followed by the One Church Plan.

On Monday, to satisfy procedural requirements that all petitions first pass through a Legislative Committee, the entire body of the General Conference met as that Legislative Committee to determine what the delegates would actually vote on come Tuesday. The Traditional Plan was relatively quickly passed on to the general body by a vote of 461 to 359. The two disaffiliation plans were sent onward. By vote of 436 to 386 (about 53% to 47%), the One Church Plan was kept from moving forward.

The UMC’s Judicial Council (the church law version of a Supreme Court) determined that a number of provisions in the Traditional Plan violated the UMC constitution (to be fair, there were several provisions in the One Church Plan also found to be unconstitutional). Many efforts were made to amend the Traditional Plan at the conference to pass constitutional muster, but it doesn’t seem that this was effective. Those parts of the plan that are constitutional will (most likely) become church law, for the time being.

The more punitive of the “exit plans” was also passed, one which would extensively reduce the resources of any church that decided to leave. I have heard both that the exit plans were submitted so that the Weslayan Covenant Association members and others could leave the UMC if they didn’t like the result at GC and as a measure to undermine the will of progressives to fight by making it easy for them to leave. I think both were true and, when the very-well-organized conservatives saw how things were going with the Traditional Plan early in the conference, they reasoned that they might be able to take control of the church as a whole and keep the majority of the resources for themselves when progressives left as they were urged to. This is, of course, speculation.

I watched the vast majority of the General Conference 2019 as it happened. I hoped and prayed for a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit to change the trajectory of the conference. While I’m extremely unhappy with the result of the Conference, I know that God often surprises us and moves in ways we do not expect. I remain faithful that what is true and right will prevail in the end and I, for one, remain committed to the United Methodist Church and for advocating that the UMC become a place of inclusion and not rejection, an arm of the greater catholic church that spreads the love of God through Jesus Christ in a manner that accurately reflects that love instead of relying on ignorance and human stubbornness to suborn holy scripture for the isolation and judgment of others.

In the meantime, I am embarrassed to be a United Methodist. I am embarrassed that, any time I want to discuss my faith with others and reveal my denominational affiliation, I must overcome a presumption of bigotry. I am embarrassed that this General Conference did more to support the stereotype of Christians as dogmatic, unthinking zealots who care more about their own feigned self-righteousness than anything else it might have accomplished. I am embarrassed that a very slim majority has overshadowed the fast-growing minority to the greater populace.

My personal experience of the General Conference returned me to my teenage years. I spent a long time in high school and college wondering if I really was a Christian, because those who taught me in Sunday School told me that I had to believe particular things that I could not to be a Christian. The loudest voices among the traditionalists on the floor of conference essentially argued that one must believe that homosexuality is a sin to belong in the United Methodist Church, perhaps even to call yourself a Christian. Others were smarter than to say such things aloud, but I wonder whether they’re thinking them. Still, such sentiments cannot be fairly imputed to all traditionalists or conservatives, and we did hear speeches on the floor of the Conference from conservatives willing to maintain unity with progressives and willing to hold to their beliefs while showing grace to those who disagree. I very much appreciated that kind of honesty and humility.

The speeches from the floor of the Conference did much to reveal the nature of the two sides of the homosexuality issue. The progressives came willing to compromise, saying, “Let’s use the One Church Plan to continue to live in productive fellowship despite our theological differences, because that diversity should not be viewed as blessing and not a curse.” The conservatives came saying, “We are right, you are wrong, and there’s no room for discussion.” In my mind, that behavior demonstrates the flaws in the conservative position as much the lack of careful consideration and reason in their theology. The progressives made arguments for unity; where they provided support for the reasonableness of their position, they pleaded only for understanding sufficient enough to acknowledge the slimmest possibility that their theology could be right, just enough to live in fellowship with them. These arguments were varied and drew upon scripture, logic, experience and tradition. The conservatives only brought the refrain, “the Bible says homosexuality is wrong and that’s all there is to it; we cannot allow impurity into our church.” Get in line, or get out.

That the conservatives had the presumption to make the General Conference a zero-sum game and then to complain that we’re collectively right back where we started before the GC despite all of the effort and resources put into the Commission on a Way Forward and the Special Session of the General Conference, frankly, appalls me. I just cannot find sympathy for those who refuse any resolution but their own way and then complain that they didn’t get everything they wanted–even when, on paper at least, they did.

Likewise, I find some irony in conservatives complaining that they have been called hypocrites by those who believe that Traditional Plan and the values that accompany it are immoral when the thrust of their action and exclusivity is based on their precept that homosexuality is immoral. They want to play the righteousness card for themselves, but they don’t like it when others want to play it against them. This, I think, is the microcosm of making personal holiness the linchpin of one’s faith, the very reason we are warned not to judge, lest ye be judged. I have things to write about this specifically, but I think they’re better saved for another post.

But this is a good time to temper things a little bit in fairness. As I mentioned above, not all conservatives are unreasonable, and it’s unfair to demonize them on any personal level, particularly as a generality. It is one thing to say that they have been lead into hypocrisy and away from what Jesus calls us to by well-intentioned misguidedness; it is another to say that they are evil. I do not believe the latter. To my mind, their dilemma is a failure of understanding, not a matter of malice. This is why I remain willing to be in fellowship with conservatives just as I vehemently oppose their values on this topic. There is far more that we agree about than that we don’t, I think, and I can’t think of a single traditionalist with whom I’m familiar about whom I would not readily say that they genuinely want to walk closer to Christ–and many of them do a better job of it in practice than I do. As much as I’m heartbroken by the feeling that they’ve by and large told even I–who is not part of the LGBTQ community directly but who believes strongly in its inclusion within the Church–am also unwelcome, I’m not interested in giving up on them or our relationship. And I still don’t think that some form of schism leaves us “better off.”

I also want to say that there were people on both sides who behaved badly. And there were people on both sides who set amazing and especially-Christian examples of respect and love for those who disagree with them. Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of the General Conference was that there was not more of that to be found.

Despite the great harm that was suffered by the LGBTQ community and its supporters at the General Conference, I did manage to find some hope. I’d refer you to two high points directly:

JJ Warren Speaks From the Floor
Adam Hamilton Speaks Against the Traditional Plan

The presence of so many rainbow-stole-wearing supporters of full inclusion at the conference brought great joy to my heart. As Rev. Hamilton opined, the conservative approach to General Conference has inspired and mobilized both progressives and centrists who had not previously been active in their support of full inclusion. This gives me hope.

Additionally, as I argued in my post, The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy, the passage of the Traditional Plan will not accomplish what the conservatives wanted to accomplish–at least not fully. In very conservative conferences such as the one to which I belong (the Texas Annual Conference), unless the entire TP is struck down by the Judicial Council, there will be increased opportunities to marginalize and punish members of the UMC who are also members of the LGBTQ community (particularly if they’re also clergy or want to become clergy) as well as their supporters. But in those annual conferences already committed not to play the conservatives’ inquisitorial games, the passage of the Traditional Plan won’t change that.

The numbers from GC are also inspiring. The margins by which votes for the Traditional Plan and Exit Plans passed (and conversely, by which the OCP failed) were far narrower than expected. Traditional wisdom (at least in my part of the country) would be that the vote should have been about two-thirds to one-third. The Good New Network, the WCA and other conservative organizations within the UMC are well-funded and highly mobilized. The numbers from GC2019 show a very different story. To be fair, the voting numbers alone remain somewhat opaque–it’s impossible to parse out who voted against the Traditional Plan or for the One Church Plan because they are progressives in favor of full inclusion, because they are conservatives who value unity more than passing “their” plan (as if there is no diversity amongst the conservatives at all), or for some other reason. But that combined will is a voice that must be respected. Even with passing the Traditional Plan, if the conservatives do not realize that the tide is changing, and faster than they would like to think, there will be some rude awakenings in the near future.

I’ll conclude with this: a friend of mine who is not a Christian asked me this week why it was so important that we don’t split when there’s clearly so much disagreement within the church. I told him that part of our core witness as Christians is that God, the Creator of all things, is fundamentally about love and relationship. If we cannot demonstrate love and relationship between Christians in our own denomination, who can we convince those who are not believers of the truth we know but fail to practice?

 

The End of the Beginning

(This is the 9th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge. Please continue to repost, link, and send your friends my way!)

(The picture above is graciously provided by K, who is attending the Called General Conference as a witness for full inclusion.)

Today the Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church begins to determine the fate of the denomination. Many of us have waited with bated breath to see if these events will unfurl with justice and unity or unravel into division and fractiousness. After nearly fifty years of debate since the institution of anti-homosexual language into the first UMC Book of Discipline (by amendment from a layperson from the floor of the conference, against the advice of the committee who had prepared the language for the BoD) in 1972, there finally seems to be a move toward resolution of the issue.

But this is not the first time such a resolution has been broached–the General Conference established in 1988 a “Committee to Study Homosexuality” (which included no person who identified as belonging to the LGTBQ community) to report to the General Conference in 1992. The report included agreement by the Committee on four points: (1) the seven references to homosexuality in the Bible are artifacts of ancient culture and not definitive expressions of the will of God; (2) Homosexuality is a normal sexual variation which can be expressed in a healthy way; (3) the Church should affirm committed and monogamous homosexual relationships; (4) God’s grace is visible in the life of lesbian and gay Christians.

The majority report from the Committee stated the following:

“The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of all homosexual practice.

The same year that this Committee reported, the General Conference voted 3 to 1 to affirm the language: “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Since 1972, but particularly in the years since the 2016 General Conference, both conservatives and progressives have been maneuvering for advantage in the moment that is now, finally, at hand. Some of the loudest voices on the conservative side, such as Reverend Rob Renfroe at The Woodlands UMC, have long been advocates of a church split. Members of the Weslayan Covenant Association, the Good News Network and other conservative organizations have spent as much time pushing for a “graceful exit strategy” as for their conservative position; this is my mind has always been a strategy to make it easier for progressives to leave rather than advocate for justice rather than a real measure of grace. As one of the speakers at the last Texas Annual Conference argued (in paraphrase): “When your marriage is in trouble, you don’t begin the conversation with: ‘here’s our divorce plan if we can’t work things out, now let’s talk about the issue.'”

Unless some unforeseen and unlikely change happens over the next few days, the choice really comes down to the One Church Plan and the “Modified” Traditional Plan.

Under the One Church Plan, annual conferences will be able to decide whether they want to allow LGBTQ clergy, each pastor will be able to decide whether to perform LGBTQ marriages, and each congregation will be able to decide whether to host LGBTQ marriages in their facilities while, at the same time, no clergyperson may be forced to go against his or her conscience and perform a ceremony they do not want to perform.

Under the Traditional Plan, we maintain the status quo except to spend more time, energy and money on church trials for those who advocate for full inclusion.

I have written about both plans on this blog and rehashing them is not the point of this post.

Instead, I want to remind readers that the next few days, regardless of what happens, are not the end of the matter, but another beginning.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that, through both human agency and the movement of the Holy Spirit, the One Church Plan will pass. It is not a panacea and does not give the LGTBQ community the vindication and respect they are owed, but it is a step in the right direction that helps to maintain the unity of the UMC.

Regardless of the result, some congregations will leave the Church. At least some of those who remain will view the events of this Called General Conference as a “loss” for their “side.” There will be hurt feelings, fear, disappointment, anger–and another General Conference in 2020 where, depending upon what happens in the next few days, there may be an attempt to undo what happens in this Called Conference and/or a need to find a way to allow the exit of some congregations without the decades of litigation that have followed the split of other denominations.

Regardless of result, there will be an increased need for Christians of all theologies within the UMC to do what all Christians are called to do–to love their neighbors, to show grace to others, and to be agents of peace and reconciliation, not causes of discord nor gloaters in some imagined “victory.”

As such, no one should view the next few days as the end of anything, only another step in the path. For those who, like myself, are progressives with theologies of full inclusion, there will be a very difficult line to walk if the One Church Plan passes. We will need to continue to advocate for the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters within the Church while showing grace to conservatives and ensuring that they remain welcome and valued members of the UMC. We are much more than our positions on homosexuality and related issues, and the people involved in this debate, regardless of position, are well-meaning with the intention of seeking after Christ in a genuine and faithful manner. There is much good done in the name of Christ by the conservatives, even if I wholeheartedly believe that their actions regarding human sexuality have been misguided at best. I am proud to call them my brothers and sisters in Christ.

How do we progressives walk this fine line of the One Church Plan passes? I must admit that I do not know. But I do know that we must seize opportunities for reconciliation, healing, and increased respect and understanding between the conservatives and the progressives in the wake of the Called Conference. Even as we wait for events to unfold over the next few days, we must remember that our work is far from done and that there will be much of great import to do in the days that follow as we try to bring the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to Earth.

Accounting for Respect

(This is the 8th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge to myself. We’ve hit over 200 followers in total, but the goal is to have 200 followers through Wordpress subscribers–there are currently 147).

It has recently struck me that we talk about respect as a currency. We do certain things to “pay our respects,” and we talk about those to whom “respect is owed.” We talk about respect being “earned, not given.” Several sci-fi settings I’m aware of–the Eclipse Phase RPG and even The Orville TV show–discuss the use of reputation as a form of currency in a semi-or-fully-post-scarcity economy.

1 Timothy 6:10 tells us that “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Out of curiosity, I went to Strong’s Concordance to look up the word use for “love of money.” It’s philargyria, which comes from a root indicating “avarice” or “avariciousness.” Avariciousness can be applied to more than just money–it applies to the “miserly hoarding of wealth” in a general sense. Greed. This is what I expected to find; it’s axiomatic that it’s the feeling, the obsession and the behavior, rather than the object, that causes the problem.

And here’s where my concern comes in: should respect be something that we commoditize? In other posts (like this one), I’ve talked about the societal tendency (at least in Western cultures) to value people in a capitalistic way–a person is only worth what they produce for consumption or what they generate in terms of income. This, I think, is why stay-at-home parents face a stigma despite the fact that managing a household and rearing children is as or more difficult than many jobs for which people get paid (which, ironically, includes both household management and child-rearing!).

These issues (assigning capitalistic value to a person and commoditizing respect) are related, perhaps symptoms of the same malady, but they’re different things. The previous post referred to above deals with the problem of how we assign value to other people. This post is about the problem of seeing reputation as a form of currency.

As is often the case on this blog, the topic is complex and filled with nuance. In her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict drew a distinction between “guilt” cultures and “shame” cultures, with an assertion that Christian societies were mostly “guilt” cultures (with notable exceptions) and a focus on Japanese culture as a “shame” culture. These assignments are, of course, debatable, and further categories (“fear” culture and the “shame” culture is now sometimes discussed as the “honor-shame” culture) have since been developed. We can also talk about “face” as an aspect of honor-shame cultures and we can debate whether the part of the United States we think of as “the South” is (or formerly was) an honor-type culture where the rest of the country may be something else.

The basic premise of this anthropological view of cultures is that guilt cultures rely on the concepts of justice and punishment (temporal or spiritual) as the enforcer of societal norms and the honor-shame culture relies on the judgment of other by society as the enforcer of norms.

This post is not about an anthropological dissection of social constructs; it is a reflection on the consequences of assigning value to reputation. In my own studies (and I’m accepting this as generally true for sake of discussion), I’ve read writers who argue that many agriculturally-based societies tend to be honor societies (pointing to the agriculturally-dominated economy of the antebellum “South” as an example). I’d like to use this idea to give some form to my thoughts. The argument goes that honor societies (here sometimes contrasted with law societies) use a person’s reputation as a regulatory structure in place of reliance on a legal code. The Southern gentlemen who disavowed a business agreement after the fact would suffer economic consequences for his actions (others would be unwilling to deal with him in the future); this cause-and-effect serves to enforce expectations and provide the predictability and stability that an economy needs to thrive.

It also meant that challenges to a person’s sense of honor unrelated to business dealings had to be vigorously defended, lest an affair unrelated to one’s livelihood bleed over into economic ruin. Hence dueling, honor killings, and all other manner of senseless activities that occupy the fringes of some honor/shame societies, historical and present. It seems especially true that women tend to suffer most from honor-based cultures. I would argue that this is strongly related to the preservation of property rights–both the intense focus on the maintenance of virginity and the use of honor killings as a consequence for premarital sex or adultery stem in great part from controlling who might inherit a family’s property and economic wealth.

That writes large one problem with commoditized reputation: it gives incentive to do things which may be immoral to protect a source of wealth and livelihood. But it also–as with all forms of wealth–has a disproportionate effect, because those will little economic power to begin with are disincentivized to participate in the system. This, in turn, means that those with wealth, reputation and the power that goes along with both being to see those without wealth or reputation as inherently immoral or amoral (though the reliance on this system of honor means that morality is not typically the first motivating factor for anyone). This gives those with power freedom to further exploit and oppress those without by viewing them as morally bankrupt. As Shakespeare’s Apothecary says, “My poverty, but not my will, consents.” Come to think of it, Romeo & Juliet is an excellent example of a contemporary critique of Renaissance European honor culture, given that the crux of the play hangs on the tensive nature of the relationship between love as moral motivator and honor as destroyer of that which love builds up.

Likewise, the Renaissance historian, philosopher and (in my opinion, at least) funny-man, Francesco Guicciardini gave this advice (paraphrased): If you want to ingratiate yourself with someone, do not do a favor for them, ask them for a favor. People would much rather feel that someone is indebted to them than that they are indebted to another, and this creates a bond between you that invites them to return to you to call in that reciprocal favor. The context of the time–Guicciardini was friends with Machievelli and a product of the same tumultuous political systems (and experiments) of early sixteenth century Italy–jibes well with this sort of thinking. But, of course, it is based upon a background of often life-or-death political competitions and the assumption that every man’s ambition should be the accumulation of social, political and economic power. This is the very thing Scripture warns us about, because it skews what is truly important in favor of what is, fleeting, ultimately disappointing and often self-destructive.

And that’s the problem with our tendency to make a commodity of respect and reputation. Our reputations are inextricably bound up in the web of relationships we have with others, our “social networks.” When our focus is on leveraging those relationships–which is really a matter of exploiting the people on the other end of them–we’ve lost sight of the types of relationships we should have with others. Respect merely becomes a currency we cash in for personal benefit. Such an approach removes even the possibility that our relationships are about mutual admiration and celebration of the uniqueness and sacred worth of others.

When we look to the example of Jesus, we see someone who looks past reputation to acknowledge the value of the person. He dines with the sinners and bears harsh words to the Pharisees, whose power and reputations allow them to reject and exploit those “beneath” them.

What would it look like if we viewed respect as something that ought to be shown to every person simply because they, too, are a child of God? What would happen if we stopped talking about “earning respect” and removed our respect for each other as a commodity to be traded for personal benefit? I think we’d have brought the Kingdom of Heaven just a little closer to Earth.

Morality and God’s Choice, Part I: Divine Command Theory

(This is the 7th of 17 posts in my self-imposed “200 for 200” challenge. Send your friends my way!)

In thinking about the conflict over sexuality in the United Methodist Church–and the impending General Conference later this month, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about morality in general. This is in great part because many conservatives within the Church have made the sexuality issue one of morality in that they say that they cannot be in fellowship with those who support the “immoral” practice of homosexuality.

With that background, I’m not actually interested in discussing (in this post, at least), the sexuality issues before the UMC–there’s plenty of discussion to be had on that topic, which I’ve written on in the past and will continue to do. Here, though, I’d like to talk more generally about morality.

The Source–and What Does That Mean?

Most Christians will tell you that God is the source of all morality. I would agree; if God is the Creator of all that is, then it necessarily follows that morality in any absolute sense flows from God and God’s creation. For many, though, that’s the end of the analysis–or rather, the analysis goes like this: all morality comes from God, the Bible is God’s word, therefore the Bible contains the black-and-white guidelines to all moral questions.

If only things were so simple! I’ll be talking about the interpretive issues in such an approach in much greater detail next week in a special post. For now, let’s combine a  logical/philosophical approach with Scripture and see where that leads us.

I’ve written elsewhere a little about Divine Command Theory, the theory that underlies what I’ll call the “Simple Approach” to Christian morality. For convenience, the short definition of the Divine Command Theory is the idea that something is morally good if God commands it because God commanded it.

This is not really a statement of morality, though. It relies on the premise that the created has no right to question the Creator. That may be true, but it is a statement of power and authority one over the other, not one of morality.

Here is probably a good place for a quick break to talk about terminology. I’m going to have to use my own definitions to avoid the sort of circular logic I see in dictionary definitions of the terms that I’ll use. When speaking of “morality,” I mean those thoughts and actions that are “right” or “good”: for now let’s say that this means those thoughts and actions that are beneficial to others and not injurious (we’ll look at a more Biblical definition later). When speaking of “justice,” I’m going to use a common-sense definition of “equity and fairness.”

With this terminology, I’m going to ask a series of related questions:
(1) If morality comes from God, can God be moral?
(2) If the answer to (1) is “yes,” is God moral?
(3) If God is the source of morality, has morality become independent enough of God that humans could evaluate the morality of God’s action?
(4) If the answer to (3) is “yes,” what should our evaluation be?
(5) In light of the answers to the above, how do we determine what God has determined is moral and what is not moral?

Moral action requires free will–without the ability to choose one’s actions, there can be no praise or condemnation for actions taken, because the actor could not have done differently. With this in mind, going to offer two possibilities that comport with Divine Command Theory:

Divine Command Theory, Option 1 – Morality is Mandatory
In this possibility, we accept that Divine Command Theory is an existential truth, a law of reality that simply is, whether God wills it or not.

This approach is on its face unacceptable, for two reasons. The first is the logical necessity of will and causation in moral culpability. In this formulation, God’s action by necessity is moral; there is no possibility of immoral action. This removes any meaning of the word “morality” from God’s action–the terms simply stops making logical sense because there is no alternative and therefore there can be no distinction between moral and immoral.

The second is that such a statement undermines God’s sovereignty (the whole point of the Divine Command Theory in the first place). If God cannot act in a way that is immoral, than God is not impassible and some external force has a power over God, which seriously injures the commonly-accepted idea that the definition of God in the monotheistic sense implies that there is no higher power. Certainly, in the usual Christian understanding, such an admission is extremely problematic.

To be fair, though, I don’t think that the above is the intent of anyone making an argument for Divine Command Theory, so let’s dismiss this out of hand.

Divine Command Theory, Option 2 – Essential Nature
We might be able to salvage the argument made in Option 1 if, instead of saying that Divine Command Theory is a truth of reality that stands above God, we argue that Divine Command Theory is true because morality is simply part of the essential nature of God, therefore it follows that everything that God does is moral and the Theory holds.

Ultimately, though, we are faced with the same dilemma. If God is unable to self-determine whether or not God is moral, we have problem with God’s sovereignty. This is a distinction without a difference from Option 1–we’ve simply moved the mandatory nature of Divine Command Theory from the external to the internal. But, in either place, the claim that Divine Command Theory is inherently true raises the same challenge to God’s sovereignty by placing some restriction on the free and unfettered will of God to determine reality, internal or external.

Divine Command Theory, Option 3 – God is in Control
Under this formulation, Divine Command Theory is a result of God’s choice to create in such a way that Divine Command Theory is a fact of reality. This preserves God’s sovereignty in that it is the will of God that determines the existential fact of Divine Command Theory.

On its face, this option is logically consistent; it allows Divine Command Theory to be true while maintaining God’s sovereignty and God’s place as the arbiter of morality. For these reasons, if we rely solely upon our philosophical approach, we must admit the possibility that Divine Command Theory is true under this statement of it.

But there are consequences (as always). If this statement of Divine Command Theory is true, what does it say about the character and nature of God? Under this formulation, God has chosen amorality for God’s self. God would be amoral because it would be logically inconsistent to say that God acted or commanded immorally if it is necessarily true that God’s action or command is moral. Without a choice between the moral and the immoral, there cannot be a determination of morality because there are is no meaningful difference or alternative. As we stated above, it is the use of the will to choose between alternatives that makes moral responsibility possible.

The only choice between alternatives that God could be said to have made under this ideology is that God chose arbitrarily to be counted as moral. This choice is not so much a choice about moral action but a choice to be unaccountable to anyone (or anything) for moral judgment. God would stand above any concept of morality.

Again, there is no logical problem with such a reality, but there are some practical and Scriptural problems.

In general, the Christian understanding of God includes an acknowledgment that God is good. It is tempting here to use John 3:16 as a Scriptural support for this idea. For now, though, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and temper that understanding by reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:44-46, Jesus calls for his followers to love not just those who love them (which even the tax collectors do!) but to love their enemies. For Jesus, love alone is not the factor that determines morality–the choice to love those who may be difficult to love is a sign of morality.

That passage in Matthew in and of itself provides some basis for a Biblical definition of morality. In the last sentence of Chapter 5, Jesus tells us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sidestepping any trinitarian dilemmas there, is that a meaningful statement if we are to understand that God has chosen to be above any human concept of morality?

Likewise, what do we do with Jesus’ statement in Luke 18:19 that “No one is good–except God alone.” Admittedly, that statement could be true under the Divine Command Theory, because God could have decided that God is “moral” and no created thing is (because, of course, no created thing is God) in establishing DCT as a fact of reality. But think about what it says about the nature of God if that’s the way we read the statement. It becomes a reminder only of God’s sovereignty, empty of the hope that lies in a knowledge of God’s goodness.

To take a broader approach, can Divine Command Theory co-exist with most (perhaps all) of our theories of atonement in Christ? If as we trinitarians believe, Jesus Christ is God, and if God is necessarily moral and unable to be questioned on a moral basis by humans, do Jesus’ deeds really count for much as a poultice for the many misdeeds of humanity? If Jesus was incapable of immorality (whether by necessity or by will exercised at the time of Creation), could Jesus be the resolution of Adam’s Fall?

If God so ordered all Creation such that God could never be immoral, would God be just? From a standpoint of pure power, the answer is “yes,” because no created being has the power to question God.  But, from a human perspective (insufficient for a real determination of reality as that is) would God’s judgment of the created be just when God refuses to allow judgment of God’s action by the created?

I have referenced elsewhere the following quotation from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, but it bears repeating here. The character Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw says:

“For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour–you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. ”

Finkle-McGraw goes on to state that that’s not a terribly fair approach to apply to humans, who might earnestly believe the values they espouse but prove through human frailty to fail to meet their own values in their actions. For God, though, there is no such caveat. Regardless of the question of God’s morality, if God were to issue a moral command to humanity that God refused to follow God’s self, there would be an argument against God’s justice there. And we return to the point here, I think: if God chooses to be morally unquestionable by the created, then God has prioritized power and authority over goodness. God would be entitled to do such a thing (how could we resist it?), but is that the God of the Gospels? That’s a question we’ll try to answer in this series.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at Job and God’s response to just this situation–being questioned by the created.

Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message

(This is the 6th of seventeen posts in my 200 for 200 goal. We’re currently at 140 followers, so please continue to send your friends my way!)

(P.P.S. it seems: While I haven’t been as good as I’d like to be about keeping my New Year’s resolution to write for at least an hour every day–life has a habit of intervening–I have been busy at work, though the lack of posts on the blog doesn’t seem to indicate that. Have faith and bear with me–there is much more to come, and soon!)

To be honest, I’ve pulled a little bit of a fast one on the title of the post in a blatant attempt to get your attention. I’m not going to deny that the message of Jesus is sometimes apocalyptic, nor am I going to overturn everything you thought you knew.

The word “apocalyptic” can mean a number of things, particularly the common/colloquial idea of “end times” and/or a style of revelatory writing and narrative (often, but not necessarily coinciding with the subject of the Second Coming or the Day of Judgment).  There are certainly times when Jesus speaks apocalyptically in both senses of the word: much of Matthew 24 and 25 contains apocalyptic speech in the sense that it offers revelatory information in the prophetic mode and that it discusses an end times. My NIV translation of Matthew 24 gives it the heading, “The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times,” and later, before the start of verse 36, “The Day and Hour Unknown.” Matthew 25 contains the Parable of the Ten Virgins–which we can certainly read as about those who wait patiently for the kind of apocalyptic salvation common to first-century belief in ancient Judea–and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, perhaps one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.

As an aside, there is some interesting scholarship about the origins of some of the parables above in relation to the various source theories of the gospel texts. I’ll leave that to those better versed in such things.

So, by the title of this post, I do not mean to intimate that Jesus never spoke apocalyptically (regardless of sense of the word you want to use), that it is not possible to read Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, or to read themes of judgment out of Jesus’ ministry. None of these things would be correct in light of scripture.

However (perhaps in typical Methodist “both/and” fashion), I do want to nuance and complicate things a little and to challenge the proposition of some scholars (particularly Bart Ehrman, I think) that Jesus should be read only (maybe it’s more fair to say “primarily”) as an apocalyptic prophet who is simply repeating cultural ideas of the time.

Thus, we arrive at the title of the post: I want to offer a reading of certain scriptures (and I want to be careful to be clear here that this is not intended as a full synthesis of the Gospels and I am intentionally leaving intact the tension between my offered reading and those of Jesus’ sayings that are staunchly apocalyptic) that turns the standard idea of the apocalyptic on its head. Or, at the very least, points out a different but defensible interpretation.

Given the semiotic flexibility of the word “apocalyptic” (as mentioned above), I think it’s only right that I define specifically what I mean when I say “anti-apocalyptic.” For purposes of this post (title included), I use the term “anti-apocalyptic” to mean “something other than the idea that the world is a lost cause that must be suffered through with patience until some external eucatastrophe restores justice by punishing the oppressors and evildoers and rewarding those who have faithfully suffered.”

Let’s look at Luke 17:20-21 (NIV): “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,” or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” The NIV includes a footnote that “in your midst” might also be translated as “within you.” Other translations also choose “within you”.

I do not claim to be a scholar of Koiné Greek–it’s something that I’d like to pick up some time, but this has not yet come to fruition. However, based on what understanding I do have–and particularly a reliance on Strong’s (the word “entos,” which is the Greek word we’re talking about is G1787)–“inside of you” (“sy entos“) seems to be the better translation.

I have seen it argued that “in your midst” is the better translation, but only to the result that the argument becomes “the Holy Spirit dwells within your soul,” which seems to me to be a distinction without a difference–unless we try to parse out “having” a soul as somehow different from “being a soul,” as if a soul is an attachment to one’s essence. We wouldn’t be the first to go there, of course–Egyptian and Zoroastrian religion (among others) have a complex relationship between different parts of the soul and the existential being of the individual. This, however, seems to become pure metaphysical speculation.

But I digress. As an existential theologian, I’ve argued on this blog (and in my first theology book, when I get around to finishing it and publishing it one way or another; for now, see this post) that the process of sanctification–of participation in the Kingdom of God–is a matter of an internal change of self and perception so that one adopts a “map” of right relationships that approaches the map God would have us see. If this is true, that the process of sanctification is one of gradual inward change and enlightenment spurred on by the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, then it seems almost axiomatic that the Kingdom of God is within us all along–even if that does sound a little afternoon-school-special-y. Don’t worry, this isn’t another digression; this is the beginning of the argument I’m trying to make.

Paul’s language about the Holy Spirit seems to indicate an understanding of sanctification similar to what I have described above, with the Holy Spirit as the believer’s guide on the path to Christ-likeness. Let’s look at Romans 8:

In 8:4, Paul writes “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Here, the Holy Spirit serves as the impetus that drives us toward righteousness, sanctification. In the words that follow, Paul argues that those who “live in the flesh” rather than the Spirit “are hostile to God” (8:7), and that only belongs to Christ if one “has the Spirit of God” living in him or has “the Spirit of Christ” (8:9). For Paul, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the Christian’s life.

Soon thereafter he writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” (8:14-15, abridged). The guidance of the Holy Spirit brings about the right relationship with God as well as righteousness. This corresponds, I think, with the way I’ve described sanctification both here and elsewhere on the blog.

We should also note that Paul holds the same tension between inward sanctification through the Holy Spirit and the apocalyptic. Later in Romans 8, 8:20-21 to be specific, he writes: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and the glory of the children of God.” The rest of the passage focuses on patience in the face of suffering as we “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23b). Romans 8 ends with some comments about predestination that we won’t address here–though my post series “Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will” somewhat addresses the topic. Likewise, I think it’s fair to read some conflict between belief and works righteousness in Paul’s words here, though that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, Paul also explicitly links the Holy Spirit to sanctification in describing the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit” in Galatians 5. The Fruits are qualities of character of both Christ and the one who has become Christ-like (through sanctification).

Jesus Himself alludes to the Holy Spirit as the driver of sanctification in John 16:13: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” I would argue that the understanding of truth is the understanding of the right relationships with God, self, others and creation, which itself causes the inner change that we call “sanctification.”

Here’s what I see as the fundamental dissonance between the interior view of a sanctification and the exterior or apocalyptic view–the apocalyptic view tends to draw our focus away from what we can do in the here and now to make the world we live in a better place–to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth bit by bit rather than waiting for some supernal (and divinely unilateral) invasion. An eschatological view that only looks for that promised eucatastrophe allows us to ignore present suffering we could do something about. When we see sanctification as a process of change within ourselves that draws us to be more compassionate and Christlike, it is inevitable that we will be drawn to serve the least and the lost and–thereby–to participate in some foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

It is true that I’m an idealist; but I’m also enough of a realist to see that our opportunities to enact change in the world are small and localized. We humans, without God, are unable to erase all of the evil and suffering out there (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway). In light of that, we do need to have some idea of an “apocalyptic” intervention in which God sets all things right and fully and finally remedies the fallenness of man. I make no claim to know what that will look like (or be like, for that matter), but in light of the interior idea of sanctification, I have some confidence (though of course, not complete surety) in arguing that it won’t look like a literal fulfillment of the apocalyptic (in the narrative style, I mean here) images in the Book of Revelations.

We Methodists (and I’m sure we’re not alone) like to say that “the Kingdom of Heaven is a future promise and a present reality.” Perhaps this post just brings us full circle on this saying. I think it’s certainly possible to view the “traditionally apocalyptic” sayings of Jesus as indicating the future promise and those passages I have described as “anti-apocalyptic” as indicating the present reality. The two categories are not mutually exclusive, after all.

As this post draws to a close, this is what I mean to say: Although Jesus does sometimes speak of a time when, by God’s intervention, all wrongs will be rectified and Creation will be restored to what it has always been meant to be, that doesn’t mean that all there is for us to do on earth in the meantime is to wait and patiently suffer through the injustice of the world. Jesus also calls us to present participation in the Kingdom of God, both by exploring it within ourselves (through the process of sanctification) and then by pouring out that discovery into the world. Spoiler alert: Jesus also tells us exactly how to do this: clothe the needy, feed the hungry, visit those who are in prison, tend the sick, pursue justice in our society. Our guiding principles are simple in their utterance and infinitely complex in the doing: love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself (and all people are your neighbors) and strive that it might be “on earth as it is in Heaven.”