Sci-Fi Christianity, Part III: (Re-)Making Ourselves

For the preceding post in this series, click here.

I’m a fan of the cyberpunk genre. I grew up playing the Shadowrun tabletop roleplaying game, which probably is what started my love for the genre–it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started reading the progenitors and great writers of this brand of sci-fi (Stephenson, Gibson and Morgan, for instance).

One of the key aspects of the genre is cyberware (and/or bioware and/or nanotech)–the ability for humans to replace or supplement their physical bodies to achieve superhuman abilities through technology.

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you know that we’re there in real life–or very close to. Les Baugh, Neil Harbisson and the number of patients with installed brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are proof of this. On the biological side, CRISPR may allow us to undo some of the infelicities of genetic processes, essentially eliminating some genetic disorders or diseases.

So far, these technologies are concerned with restoring lost faculties, but is perfectly conceivable that there will be some willing to lose their meatbody (to use the cyberpunk nomenclature) arm to replace it with one that can perform at a much higher level than the one with which nature provided our subject–and without the constant need to prevent muscle atrophy.

To be clear, these technologies are in their infancy, and we really don’t know yet how far we’ll be able to go in synching man and machine–without sufficient neurological feedback, a cybernetic arm is as much a liability as an asset. Imagine not being able to gauge how hard you’re gripping something when you want to hold that ceramic coffee mug.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the technology described in cyberpunk fiction becomes available. Since we’re in a realm of speculation here, let’s assume that such technology becomes available at a price point that a majority of people can afford it if they want to. Can you imagine the person who treats body modification in the same way he might have treated souping up a street racer or a mudding truck? If the technology is there, it seems rather inevitable to me.

From a Christian perspective, how do we address this potential? How can our theology and desire to follow Christ inform our response?

Well, that depends on the theology, I suppose. The easiest argument, one I expect to be made by many, is that voluntary body modification is an abomination; a rejection of being made “in the image of God” and a rejection of the principle that “our body is a temple.”

But let’s think about those ideas, starting with the latter. Paul’s exhortation that we should view our bodies as the temples of the Lord (in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20) is used as an argument for sexual purity. Leaving the specific context aside for a moment, let’s think about the metaphysical and theological meaning of the statement itself. When we incorporate the sweep of the Gospels, Christ’s reference to his own body as the Temple and his death and resurrection in John 2:21-22, and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the major thrust of such a metaphor is that God enters into us through the Holy Spirit. One valid interpretation of this, yes, is to say that we ought to keep God’s new Temple beautiful and pure just as the Jews did for the Temple in Jerusalem. But isn’t it more important that the statement reminds us that God is always with us, always seeking relationship with us, and is not in some distant place to which we must walk though valleys and over broken hills to commune with? At the end of the day, these interpretations should probably be considered “both/and” rather than “either/or,” but this still leaves us with the necessity of determining the details of how our individual temples to God ought to be kept.

That Genesis tells us that we are made “in the image of God” might provide some interpretative assistance, but we must unlock the secret of this enigma as well. How are we in the image of God? First, we must accept that we are in the image of God in some form, but certainly not in degree. With this understanding, it seems foolish to believe that our being in God’s image is somehow related to our physical form–are we saying that the infinite, sovereign God is shaped like us but moreso? Or bigger?

No, we must look to something more existential to properly understand this question. Is it that we are able to think on a higher level than the rest of Creation? That we may philosophize and theologize? Perhaps, but we must approach such a conclusion with some trepidation, for those abilities ultimately remind us of our finitude and God’s infinitude.

As Paul Tilich writes, “Our power of being is limited. We are a mixture of being and nonbeing. This is precisely what is meant when we say that we are finite. It is man in his finitude who asks the question of being. He who is infinite does not ask the question of being for, as infinite, he has the complete power of being. He is identical with it; he is God” Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, pp. 11-12.

So what must it be, then? It is our power to create, I would argue. We, like God, make meaning in Creation, particularly through the creation of narratives that define us and our world. Unlike God, we do not do so ex nihilo, but by recombining the things that are in new and unforeseen ways. That is a difference in degree but not kind.

This minor power of creation, coupled with freedom of the will, forms the basis of the need for God’s action in us through Jesus Christ–so that we might be both free and independent and good. But that is a discussion for another time.

We already spend most of our time creating identify for ourselves: every time you tell a story about something that happened to you, you are using that story to create some idea about who you are for others to absorb. If you don’t believe that, think about the last story you told a friend about something that happened to you and honestly count the number of ways you might have “massaged” the truth a little to get across a certain point.

We already use much of our technology in the quest to find or make meaning and identity. What are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but media for the construction of identity.

“Look at what I had for lunch today, and what that says about me.”

“Look at what I tweet about.”

“Look at what I like.”

“Look at me.”

That being the case, isn’t control over our bodies simply another form of self-creation? How we choose (or choose not) to modify our bodies with the technology we have available to us is not, I think, an issue of categorical morality.

That does not relieve us of moral responsibility. The questions of intent and consequence, common to all moral questions in Christianity, remain to confront us in relation to any particular choice about body modification. Just as there are good and bad reasons to get a tattoo, or to have elective surgery, or to wear makeup, the morality of a choice to augment human capabilities through advanced technology is a highly contextual calculus.

We must walk a fine line here. Jesus came to us as a human, so we must see that embodiment and incarnation constitute important aspects of God’s Creation. At the same time, we must not distort such an idea into the belief that there is only one right way to be an embodied human being–that there is only one type of body that is good.

The theology (at least in very simplified form as argued above) of human enhancement reminds us that morality–that sin–is not composed of easy categories, of boxes into which a particular action does or does not fit. We ought, then, to look at sin as a state of being, of disassociation from the right relationships with our neighbors, with ourselves, with God, with Creation. We enter into sin not because we have crossed some clear demarcation but because we have stopped considering our intentions towards ourselves and all other beings and have avoided concern about the consequences on Creation (and all that is within it) of our actions. Yes, the state of sin leads to hurtful actions and destructive or antisocial behavior, but let’s look past the symptoms to the disease.

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part II: Mind Uploading and Mind/Body Dualism

For the previous post in this series, click here.

If you’ve read the second post in my sci-fi example of worldbuilding (to which I’ll likely return in the near future) or my highly-critical post of a certain brand of materialist science, you know that I’m highly skeptical of ideas about the “Singularity” and particulary prophecy about the future potential of uploading minds into computers to achieve digital immortality. Yesterday, as I binge-watched the released episodes of the second season of Westworld with some friends, I was reminded of this issue (though, if you’re as interested in both technology and sci-fi as much as I am, it’s an idea that’s never too far from hand). I think also of Altered Carbon (both the book and the Netflix show, but especially the book, to which I’ll return shortly).

For a short recap, here are my condensed criticisms of mind uploading as touted by Ray Kurtzweil and others.

First, we simply do not understand consciousness well enough to make such far-fetched claims with anything but wild speculation. The Kurtzweil paradigm assumes a materialist basis–that the mind is merely an emergent function of its underlying physical parts (i.e. the brain). This approach allows us to assume that replicating the (arguably) underlying material components of consciousness will lead to a replication of the consciouness itself.

To be sure, there are some scientific studies that, taken uncritically, might lead one to such a belief. In particular, Google has been working on “mind-reading” technology, which uses high-resolution brain-mapping to predict what a person is thinking about in more-or-less real time. Google has been experimenting with reading mental images and unvocalized commands. In the realm of images, Google’s development allows a sophisticated system to make guesses with high accuracy about what image a person is holding in his mind by looking at those brain scans. In command inputs, Google’s AlterEgo prototype allows someone to command Alexa or Siri without any physical or verbal component–with 92 percent accuracy (which is far better than the accuracy I get when trying to speak to either).

But when we look closer, these technologies are far more primitive than we might expect. For the image-reading programs to work, they must be extensively trained–by looking at particular pre-selected images. The brain scans of activity when looking at these photos are then used in a sophisticated game of “match” when trying to predict which image(s) the subject is thinking on. With AlterEgo, the system actually reads electric signals to muscles generated when a person mentally (but not physically) says certain words.

When it comes down to it, these devices are using highly-impressive algorithms, artificial intelligences (though not the sci-fi kind) and neural networks to read physical corrolaries to thought to deduce the thoughts themselves. I do not mean to sound like this is not amazing research and development, but it is not true “mind-reading” and it does not require an understanding of the dynamics between brain and mind. Nor does it offer any special insight into that relationship.

And that leads to my second criticism: We just don’t understand enough about the relationship between brain and mind to have any authority whatsoever to predict what is and isn’t possible in regards to mind uploading. It has been definitively established, I think, and cannot be questioned that chemical states in the brain influence experienced consciousness–my own journey with depression is a constant personal reminder of this. But there’s also a number of scientific studies that show that this is a two-way street–the action of the mind also affects the physical brain. Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain presents some evidence of this, as does the entire field of cognitive psychology. There’s nothing wrong with Kurzweil and his fellows speculating, of course, but a line is crossed when such speculation is offered as having been established on an indisputable and fully-understood foundation. Current science simply isn’t equipped to prove or disprove mind uploading theory.

Which conveniently leads to my third–and most important–criticism: we’re dealing with issues of consciousness here. Even without the kink in the hose caused by the thought of consciousness transfer, we already have no means by which to verify consciousness. We can test for the “symptoms” of consciousness–a la the Turing test–but we cannot definitively establish that any person or thing is or is not possessed of independent essence and consciousness. We do–and must, I think–for means of living life well and maintaining some semblance of sanity assume the full consciousness of other human beings (and probably also animals), reject solipsistic ideas and treat questions of what is “real” and what “actually exists” as fodder for creative fiction but not the sort of thing that should actually keep us up at night.

But when it comes to transferring consciousnesses as predicted by projections of mind uploading, we have no means by which to verify that such a transaction has been successful. I’m reminded of China Mieville’s Kraken, where a character and fan of Star Trek is haunted by the ghosts of all the times he’s killed himself using teleportation magic in imitation of the show. The difference is that we would never know if our “mind uploading” is just murder followed by the creation of very good imposters. That alone should be enough to keep us wary.

But this post is not (merely) an opportunity for me to rehash my criticisms of the idea of mind uploading, but to use this idea (in its many forms) to discuss mind/body dualism in Christianity.

Mind/body dualism is the idea that the mind and body are independent of one another but linked together somehow–they are not the same substance or material. In other words, the death of the body does not necessarily mean the death of the mind. This is in contrast to materialism, which is a form of monism (assertion that there is only one type of substance, material or essence) and the idea that the mind is merely an artifact of the activity of the physical brain.

For a quick example of mind/body dualism, let’s look at the novel version of Altered Carbon. In that novel, the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, previously served as an Envoy, a political/espionage/military operator tasked with handling senstive missions for the UN (which is hinted at being responsible for human government across planets). Note that the TV show alters what an “Envoy” is substantially. Because the fastest way to travel is to have your mind uploaded and sent as pure information before being downloaded into a new “sleeve” (slang for both “natural” and artificial bodies), part of Envoy training includes a number of mental adaptations and cognitive trainings desgined to make the Envoy especially effective no matter what sort of sleeve he is in. Though this does not necessitate belief in mind/body dualism, it certainly suggests such–it goes unquestioned that the uploading and downloading of minds creates an absolute continuity of consciousness and being–even being downloaded from an old backup means only a loss of recent memories, not a loss of self. If you would like to look at this approach in all of its terror and nuance, consider the effect on selfhood of dementia, Alzheimer’s or amnesia. For our purposes, however, Altered Carbon seems to treat the mind and body as separate–the mind can be separated from the body and rejoined to a new body and, because the mind half of the equation is the true self, the download to the new sleeve simple incarnates the mind again.

As a side note, Altered Carbon (both show and book) deals somewhat with Christian views on mind uploading and “resleeving”–though the book really only treats a conservative view that mind uploading (though apparently permitted by God under the laws of the universe) somehow condemns the person uploaded and downloaded to hell (regardless of their own intent or say in the matter).

The idea of dualism between mind and body is deeply entrenched in Christian thought, but I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that it is necessary to the faith. In the Old Testament, the Jews speak of “going down to Sheol”–a very depressive and Mesopotamian-style view of the afterlife as existing as a shadow of the living self that, at least in certain references, may be intended only as metaphor. Elsewhere, there are indications that an afterlife does await at least those who are righteous.

Certainly, in the time of Jesus the Sadducees taught that there was no afterlife, and some Biblical scholars assert that the idea of an afterlife developed mostly in the folk practice of Judaism rather than through the “official” theologies of the faith. I don’t find the Scriptures particularly determinative on this front–again we reference the Sadducees, but Jesus also points to the Scriptures as evidence that they are mistaken in the denial of the afterlife.

On the other hand, Jesus does not talk about heaven in the colloquial sense we tend to think of it in in modern American Christianity–as the place you go to experience the afterlife. Jesus talks about the Resurrection, and many passages seem to indicate that that Resurrection would be bodily and incarnate. At least some of the medieval theologians believed the Resurrection to be bodily on a restored Earth–if you look at the marginal illustrations in certain manuscripts, you’ll see wolves coughing up limbs so that they may be reunited with their owners in the Resurrection. If I am not mistaken, a large part of the Christian practice of burial (aside from being at least partially inherited from Jewish practice) is based on belief in the bodily Resurrection–or at least doubt about the ability to be resurrected if your body had been utterly destroyed.

Much of our dualistic (as in mind/body duality; dualism can mean a number of other very different things in religion) thought comes from the writings of Paul (here, for expedience in argument, I’m using “Paul” to mean the collective writers of the Pauline Epistles). There is much scholarship on Paul’s background in Platonic philosophy (i.e., the philosophies expounded upon by Plato) and the extent to which it influences his theology. I’ll just make a few points about this.

Platonic philosophy is staunchly dualistic; it posits a realm of the “Forms” where the perfect version (or Form) of each thing that exists in the perceivable (embodied) world resides. Everything that we experience around us is an imperfect instantiation (incarnation, we might say) of a perfect Form. The chair you’re sitting in right now; it’s an emanation many times removed from the perfect Chair that exists in the realm of the Forms. Perhaps the most famous explanation of this idea is in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul tells us that “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” If this doesn’t line up well with the Allegory of the Cave, I don’t know what does.

Elsewhere, Paul makes much about the difference between flesh (often categorized as weak and sinful) and spirit (desiring to be more righteous but constantly tempted by the desires of the flesh). In Romans 8:1-4, Paul writes, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 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.”

Paul’s words in Romans mirror at least some statements made by Jesus. In Matthew 26:41, in scolding the disciples for falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemen, Jesus tells them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Of course, the language above in context is not just about the disciples, for Jesus himself immediately goes away again and asks the Father to spare him from the suffering to come–it seems reasonable to assert here that Jesus is struggling with the temptation of his own Incarnation here, as he does before he begins his ministry.

As I said above, my own experiences have given me intuition that there is a divide (but also a dialectic relationship) between mind and body. And we’ve all, I think, had experiences of being young and hormonal–feeling the tug of fleshly desires against our better judgment. At the end of the day, it’s not a difficult argument to make that Christianity assumes mind/body dualism, with its focus on the perceivable world and the unseen God. Of course, there are monist (though not necessarily materialist, though there could be, I suppose) Christians–as a footnote, John Milton was one such. He believed that spirit was a more refined version of the same material substance all around us. To what extent that view is a matter of semantics, I am unsure.

Why does all of this matter? Admittedly, for the most part, much of the monist versus dualist debate regarding mind and body may be fodder for the theologians and not much more. At the same time, though, there are very complex issues surrounding one’s stance on such a matter, and some of these may affect ideas that directly impact how your order yourself on your journey to follow Jesus.

Here’s the rub: I think it’s far easier to make a mind/body dualism argument for Christianity (and existence in general)–this matches with my understanding of scripture, of Jesus, of my own experiences, and of church tradition. The existence of mind/body dualism should tell us that there is some important to that split and that both mind and body are valuable. We must remember, that, even as Jesus talks about the difference between the flesh and the spirit, he himself Incarnated as an embodied spirit in flesh as the crux (forgive the pun, reader and God) of God’s redemptive plan–a combination of flesh and spirit that God viewed as somehow fundamental to God’s plan.

And yet, there is a strong temptation to belittle the flesh and laud only the spirit. When we think of the physical world as a fallen, sinful, irredeemable place and only the spiritual having value, we are forgetting that God created the physical world, too, and called it “good,” that God created first bodies into which God’s spirit was breathed to create humans, that our goal in sanctification is not to mortify or disavow our flesh in embracing spirit, but to bring the spiritual heaven into being as an embodied physical heaven through our following of Christ.

Failing to do so leads to a failure to be proper stewards for the Earth as we’ve been called to, leads us to ignore the different experiences of embodiment humans because of perceived racial divides instead of celebrating that diversity as purposeful and meaningful but in need of greater justice, leads us to take a Gnostic approach that rejects the world instead of trying to heal it.

Yes, sometimes we may need our spirit to overcome our flesh, the mind to be over matter. But the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship between mind and body, spirit and flesh, just as the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship with each other, with God, and with all creation.

Let me attempt to bring this back to mind uploading. To really work in a meaningful way as the singularists seem to argue, mind uploading requires a dualist approach when it comes to mind and body. A monist, materialist, approach dehumanizes saying that destroying you and booting up a program that operates convincingly as you is just as good. The dualist approach, however, would say that the digital uploading and downloading of consciousness (assuming for the sake of argument that we could be sure of consciousness) is the severing of the bond between the mind and one body and the instantiation of the mind in another body, with the continuity of the existence of the mind providing the philosophical bridge that overcomes the third criticism I voiced above.

Even in such a situation, many dangers lie in even a dualistic mind uploading paradigm. We would risk seeing our bodies as fungible, seeing them as useful only for their functionality instead of what they mean as part of who we are. We would risk seeing all physical things as subordinate and relatively unimportant compared to ephemeral data–and this dehumanizes as well. We would forget to see the value of protecting things as they are–of healing what is–rather than simply replacing it. This is a direction modern society already pushes us; mind uploading technology would simple urge us farther down the path.

So, the mind uploading idea–especially in speculative fiction where it is usually accompanied by appropriate dystopic ideas and (often) a cyberpunk aesthetic–reminds us that we need both flesh and spirit, and we need to paradoxically hold the value of each in tension.

Christian Marriage, Part III: The Great Metaphor

For the previous post in this series, click here.

In the two previous posts in this series, I’ve discussed Jesus’s hard saying in Matthew 22:30 (Part I) and an argument that broken marriages in the Bible often serve as a metaphor for resistible grace (Part II). Now, it’s time to turn to the higher level, more abstract and theological/metaphysical. I’ve been looking forward to this.

The Primacy of Love and Relationship

Here, I’m going to make the argument that the marriage metaphor as applied to God and the believer (or more generally to God and the Church) turns on its head many of the things we’re often raised to believe about God’s nature. At its simplest, the metaphor reminds us that God’s primary concerns–regarding Creation as a whole and each of us individually, is love and relationship.

You might think, then, “How is that different from what I’ve thought about the issue my whole life?” And in truth, maybe it’s not. If so, maybe you’ve already been to where I’m going now. However, for many fellow Christians I meet, there is a core assumption of Christianity that the role of the human is merely to worship and obey. Admittedly, I’m in Texas, where, as one pastor friend puts it, “We’re all closet Baptists in some way.”

The truth is, however, denominational aspersions aside, most Christians are taught that worship and obedience is humankind’s primary place in the universe. I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Benjamin Corey called Unafraid, detailing his journey away from fear-based theology to love-based theology and everything that goes along with that (I’ll review this when I’m finished with it). The focus on worship and obedience is greatly tied up with the image of the angry God, the entirely unworthy human, and the fear of Hell as an eternal punishment for even slight offense.

I am not arguing that we should not worship or obey God. The preface of the Eucharistic Prayer in most Christian denominations includes language similar to, “It is just and right to give praise to the Lord.” Rightly so, for our God is greatly worthy of worship and praise for all that God has done in Creation and for us. Likewise, Jesus tells us that we must keep his commandments (revealed to be “Love each other as I have loved you” a few verses later). John 15:10. We are told in the Sermon on the Mount to strive to “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Also in the Sermon, Jesus tells us to “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16. Both of these things should be important parts of the life of a Christian.

But they are not the prime focus of the Christian. One reason for this is a simple matter of causation–loving God and being in relationship with God necessarily leads to worshipping and obeying God. But worshipping and obeying God does not necessarily lead to loving God.

Additionally, let’s think about the nature of a God who created us simply to worship God. The word, “megalomania” comes to mind, and that clearly is not our God. Paul tells us that “love is not proud.” If God is love, God is not proud.

God is complete in and of God’s self (one of the reasons that God telling Moses to refer to God as “I am” or “I am that I am” is such a telling revelation). Because God is complete, God does not need anything from humans–especially worship. But that does not mean that God cannot desire, and in God’s desire for relationship lies the foundation of all Creation.

We can take a step back and see that relationship is a fundamental concern of God’s by examining God’s own nature (to the extent that such is scrutable to human minds). Here we find the mystery of the Trinity: one God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all consubstantial but distinct from one another. Theologians refer to the relational movement of the persons of the Trinity around one another perichoreia, a Greek word that translates to “to dance around.”

If relationship is fundamental to God, and God created humans to be in relationship with them, then we ought to search for a good understanding of what that relationship should look like. Here enters the power of the marriage metaphor.

Independence as Fundamental to Relationship

To be meaningful, a relationship cannot be coerced but must be freely entered into of one’s own accord. This is true in human marriage, but also in the relationship with God. God is not interested in the mere appearance of relationship (which is what we might have when worship and obedience are focused on above love), but true relationship, which requires love freely given.

I need not repeat the arguments I made in Part II of this series here except to say that the image of dysfunctional marriage in the Bible as a metaphor for voluntarily turning away from God establishes that humans have the ability to do so–they have free will and are not directly controlled or determined by God. This is logically fundamental to the existence of a real relationship between God and God’s created. By contrast, then, the positive image of the marriage relationship requires both the existence of free choice in both partners and love between them freely chosen.

The Trinity exhibits this dynamic even between its Persons. As G.K. Chesteron writes in Orthodoxy:

“It is written, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemene. In a garden Satan tempted man; and in a garden God tempted God.”

In Gethsemene, Jesus prays, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but Yours be done.” Luke 22:42. In this short statement, Jesus asserts both some independence from and yet an obedience to or oneness with the Father. On some level, there is a mystery to this that human minds cannot entangle, but I believe that, without having to delve into Trinitarian conundrums, we can take this as a statement that meaningful relationship requires independence.

Independence and Unity

If good and righteous marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between God and human, what can we glean from the mortal analogue that is helpful? The most successful (and by that word I mean committed, happy, sacrificial and unified) human marriages I have seen hold in careful tension the importance of acknowledging and protecting the individuality of each spouse while operating in the firm belief that, joined together, the spouses are something entirely different and somehow better than either of them alone.

Paul treats with marriage in Ephesians 5:22-30, where he writes:

“Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the chuch, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church–for we are members of his body.”

Admittedly, there are a few issues here. Clearly, Paul had never encountered anyone with anorexia nervosa or body dismorphia. Second, he’s really mixing his metaphors between marriage and body/head (elaborated on further elsewhere). Perhaps most important for our purposes, his view of marriage seems to be well entrenched in the social hangups and cultural constructs of his day. Certainly, K and I purposefully omitted any reference to her obiesence from our wedding vows, as we believed (and still do) that equality between us is fundamental to our marriage.

Nevertheless, I think that there’s a good argument here that Paul is being revolutionary in his description of the marriage relationship for the context within which he’s writing. While he does not seek to abolish female servitude within the marriage relationship, he does make clear that, despite the lack of authoritative equiality wihtin the marriage, there does exist an equality of mutual obligations of one spouse to the other and the primacy of sacrificial love to the relationship.

Even if Paul’s words do not go far enough in dealing with equality in human marriage, they nevertheless work quite well for the metaphor of marriage between God and believer, where there can never be authoritative equality between God and human. Still, according to Paul’s description (taken as metaphor), out of love for us, God condescends to us (in the truest sense of the word) to be in mutuality with us if not purest equality.

We should also note that Paul makes the point that love (and sacrificial love at that) is the focal point and highest foundation of the marriage relationship. In Part I of this series, we discussed the arranged marriage system of Biblical Jewish culture. In arranged marriage systems, ancient and modern, the first concern in arranging  amarriage is the prosperity and socioeconomic well-being of the couple to be married. Surely, the parents want there to be a loving relationship between the spouses, but this seems to take a backseat to the foregoing concern. For Paul, though, love should come first, presumably even in the context of Jewish arranged marriage in the 1st Century CE.

Conclusion

So, if my arguments are correct, what we should glean from the marriage metaphor in the greater sense is the following: (1) that God’s first concern is relationship with the created and that this is especially true for humanity; (2) that such a relationship accentuates and affirms the independence and individuality of humans rather than telling humans to diminish themselves and wholly hide behind Christ to be shielded from judgment (though the injunction to strive to become more Christlike and to pursue santification remains as it always has with the only change that we should expect santification to change the individual into who God created him or her to be rather than pushing us into unoriginal and uninspiring conformity with all humans); (3) that love, as claimed throughout the Gospels, is both the foundation and goal of this relationship; and (4) that we should take from the marriage metaphor that our relationship to God is meant to uplift and celebrate humans just as we uplift and celebrate God.

In some sense, there is nothing whatsoever radical in these points. But at the same time, I think it’s clear that this metaphor calls us away from framing the relationship of the believer to God in terms of monarchy, fealty, obedience and faceless subservience. I would argue that this understanding calls us to a sort of humanist Christianity, by which I mean an envisioning of Christianity that celebrates humans as God’s good creation just as we seek to follow Christ to leave the stain of sin behind and worship and praise the Lord our God for the sacrificial love that God first showed us before we ever understood anything about our existence. In this formulation, God retains God’s rightful place at the center of our lives, as desire and focal point of truth, as the greatest relationship available to us in all existence, while giving us a positive view of ourselves rather than seeking the diminution of the value of humans to accentuate God’s holiness and worthiness above all else.

 

 

 

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part I: Inverse Xenotheology, or, Anticipating First Contact

Okay, I have to admit here that the title is a little bit of a stretch, and I’m using it more because there are so few opportunities to (seriously) write words like “xenotheology” in non-fiction work.

“Xenotheology” is the word for the burgeoning (yet speculative and perhaps still a little premature) field of the study of alien religious systems and theologies. By the inverse of xenotheology, I mean to look at the repercussions in Christian theology that might result in the instance that we make contact with other intelligent lifeforms in the universe (or multiverse, if the physicists are right). See; the title’s a stretch.

Nevertheless, I continue. I read an article this morning that piqued my interest and spurred me to write this post; you can find it here. In the article, scientists at NASA discuss the ways in which an ancient but advanced civilization might be detectable millions of years down the line–what they call the “Silurian Hypothesis” after Doctor Who (sounds like the name of a “Big Bang Theory” episode). That, of course, got me thinking about the Fermi equation, and the likelihood of eventually encountering some alien species. And that (again, of course, because most things do) got me thinking about Christian theology.

To be fair, there are plenty of scientists (and speculative fiction writers) who believe that if we find other intelligent life “out there,” we still might not be able to communicate with or understand them. Their existential position (as a perceptual framework or paradigm for understanding existence as a whole) might be so different from ours that there are so few common points that real communication might be difficult at best. How could that be, you ask? That’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of this thought–the whole point is that their understanding of existence would be so different from ours that we could not readily conceive of it (nor them of ours)!

This in and of itself would beg a deep theological question: if Christianity is the true faith, how could it be applicable and accurate to something so radically differently situated from us? I say this without intending to devalue other religions, which I do believe have valuable things to offer the seeker of truth while maintaining that the person (divine and human) of Jesus Christ gives us the most truthful understanding of God and the cosmos. A troubling prospect, indeed; a seed of doubt that, by its very nature, could not be resolved by human minds. Is that an insurmountable issue? Of course not, there are many existential questions that we humans are incapable of resolving without divine revelation–the problem of evil and suffering, for existence. Becuase of all of this, I can only point out the question without offering any potential resolution except to say that it, like many other things, must be a matter of faith.

Lesser (in terms of difficulty in resolving, at least) existential questions follow. In such a situation, we would have to work out a new understanding of the relationship of Scriptures and Jesus to our suddenly-expanded reality. Here are a few scary (and, thankfully, improper) resolutions: (1) Christianity is proof that God favors humanity, allowing for crusades and persecution of alien species, or at least latent and continuing racism. While we no longer live in a society of monolithic religion, it is possible that Judaism and Islam could reach the same conclusion (because of human nature, not because of the nature of those religions, just as with Christianity), resulting in a hostile stance for humanity as a whole. I think it’s more likely, though, that some maintain such a belief privately, resulting in continuing issues of race (though in a slightly-new context) for centuries or millenia to come. (2) The “baby with the bathwater” approach: Scripture doesn’t tell us about aliens and neither does Jesus, so none of it must be true. This, of course, is a logical fallacy–there are plenty of things Jesus doesn’t talk about (molecular biology, cars, computers, black holes, particle physics, string theory) that nevertheless exist and that have not (at least when intellectual rigor and honesty is employed) destroyed the plausibility of Christian belief, despite how much the Enlightenment (and modern materialists) may have attempted such. (3) Christianity is supplanted by alien religion (assuming we could understand it) under the idea that a culture more advanced than us technologically must be more advanced than us spiritually–one only needs to read the Old Testament and look at the world around us to know that people generally have not changed much, if at all, in their nature because of technology. There are more possibilities than could be recounted here; I’ll leave you to your imagination.

Additionally, there’s the possibility that an alien culture that is like us enough that we can relate to them has had their own revelations from God that mirror those from our own Scriptures and the Incarnation. If that were the case, the type of thought I’m concerned with in this post might be moot.

However, my understanding of God sees great purpose in God’s remaining often hidden from us and not directly revealing the nature of all existence to us in some undeniable way. This makes room for faith, and it is possible that some of life’s ambiguity is necessary for our free will to exist in the way that allows for meaningful relationship with God and for following Jesus on the path of sanctification. That’s a topic for another time.

I think it more likely that we find alien religion much like we find other human religions–not devoid of some existential truth and not without some ability to point the seeker to the reality of the Creator, but mixed in with misunderstandings and fallacies that result in a system of belief that misses more than it gets right. Again, being subject to human failings in interpretation, I certainly wouldn’t say that Christianity has everything right–far from it. But, God’s revelation through the Incarnation lays bear more existential truth and gives us more to work with in the search for capital “T” Truth than any other system of belief or understanding of God known to man.

Rather than revel in the negative possibilities (which doesn’t seem very Christian at all, does it?) perhaps we should discuss theological principles that might need adjustment to conform our understand of God and the meaning of Scriptures and Jesus in light of new experience.

The most fundamental question of all would be to decide whether Christianity retains applicability given the existence of other intelligent lifeforms. I think most Christians would unhesitatingly answer, “Yes.” If we believe that the God’s revelation through Christ is True, no new understanding of our universe should change that. The second question, then, is whether Christianity should be viewed as applicable to aliens. Again, if we believe that Jesus, as He claims to be, is “the way, the truth and the life,” we must answer this question affirmatively. Which means that we must come to an understanding of God’s salvific work in Jesus (and God’s overall Great Plan for existence) that applies equally to all sentient beings capable of understanding (I’m willing to believe and hope that my pet, Berwyn, is an innocent subject to Grace despite how frequently he’s a “bad little dog.”).

These questions answered, we must look to ways in which Biblical interpretation must change to account for the new situation. I’m going to argue that some (admittedly more progressive) interpretations of the faith would not have to change at all.

In light of the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrials, we would do well not to interpret the story of Creation literally. Instead, we should seek to understand what early Genesis tells us about the existential condition of sentient beings (I use this phrase as a more-expansive variant of “the human condition”), the foundation upon which God’s plan for all Creation builds. As we would by necessity need to presume that Christ had a hand in creating all alien species as well (following the beginning of the Gospel of John), we would need to accept that the metaphors contained within Genesis are equally applicable to aliens and that, likewise, the path to salvation is open to them.

Alongside this, we ought to be less concerned with historicity in the Bible and more concerned with what the Bible tells us about the existential condition, as the latter will be far more universally applicable than the former. The ancient context of the writings will continue to be an important interpretive tool, but even this is entirely separable from historicity.

We would also have to find ways in which the experiences of alien cultures and beings help us to better understand Jesus and Scriptures–otherwise, we prove ourselves hypocrites in the belief that there is divine revelation (however difficult to discern) through existential experience.

Certain things might need to be interpreted more generously than current trends allow. If there are species that are not biologically binary (as in, distinctly “male” and “female”), then our understanding of sex and gender ought to expand. Otherwise, we might have to exclude entire species as “against the law of God.” In such a light, finding that homosexuality, transgendered people and other non-cisgendered folk are somehow abhorrent to God seems downright foolish.

We would also have to find a new humility–if we find that the Incarnation is not a common feature somewhere within the religions of all alien societies, we will have to sort out why God chose to condescend to humanity and not some other species in a way that impresses upon us the need to “make disciples” while not becoming self-righteously arrogant or assuming that our species has some special favor from God. This, I think, would be a great struggle but a fascinating aspect of the path of santification.

There are many more (and more specific) aspects of Christian theology that will need re-evaluation (as they perenially do anyway) to account for such a new discovery, and this post is admittedly a stream-of-conciousness response to something I came across this morning, so I must admit that this post is a collection of initial impressions–not a researched and long-considered topic like some of my other posts.

Still, I find it interesting (though this could be my own bias), that it appears that a more liberal/progressive theology is already better situated to account for the existence of other intelligent life in the universe than a more conservative theology. That by itself cannot be considered proof of the superiority of one interpretation over the other, but it is something worth pondering.

Christian Marriage, Part 2: (Broken) Marriage as Metaphor for Resistible Grace

For the first post in this series, click here.

I’ve decided that it’s best to examine marriage as spiritual and metaphysical metaphor by breaking it down into several different “sub-metaphors.” In this article, I’ll talk about the image of the marriage–particularly the faithful husband and unfaithful wife–as a metaphor for the idea of resistible grace, with apologies to my female readers that I cannot write the above simply as “faithful spouse and unfaithful spouse.” The writers of the Bible were entirely (as far as I know) men, and the men of the Biblical era apparently had a lot of angst about what their wives were doing when they weren’t around. Maybe if they’d treated their wives as equals they wouldn’t have had to have been so worried, but I digress.

Resistible and irresistible grace. The Arminian view and the Calvinist view. In a nutshell, the question is whether man has the ability to resist God’s salvific grace. Under the Arminian view, grace is a gift freely offered by God, but it must be accepted by man, who has the option to refuse it if he will. Under the Calvinist view, God’s grace cannot be resisted; those whom God wills to save are saved and those who God decides not to save are damned, regardless of human action.

Arminianism runs the risk of becoming Pelagianism, a heresy in which salvation is worked out by the sinner himself rather than being received as a gift from God; but Calvinism envisions an arbitrary God whose sovereignty is not matched by God’s love, who is sometimes indifferent to God’s creation, who has left little of meaning in the lives and choices of man.

I think that the Calvinist view sets up an incorrect view of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, assuming that they are a zero-sum game. A God who is sovereign over all things may choose to forbear God’s sovereignty to allow free will to man–even in the matter of accepting grace.

There is a greater justice in this than in predestined salvation–the consequences for a particular person are based on the choice that person has made. This seems in line with what I’ll describe elsewhere as “natural justice.” More important, for a God whose desire is to be in relationship with the beings God has created, those creatures must be fully independent of God–without this, there can be no meaningful relationship. We’ll discuss that more fully in Part 3 of this series.

To take things a step further, I’ll admit that I believe that God never revokes the opportunity to accept grace from any person–before or after death. Once, I would have called myself a soteriological universalist (believing that all people will ultimately be saved). Without denying that possibility (and actively hoping for it), my time reading Barth has lead me to become an inclusivist–I believe that God’s love for us means that grace is offered to all, but that no one is forced to accept it, and perhaps some never will. I do not pretend to understand the details or mechanics of this–that is well beyond the scope of human knowledge. But I believe this firmly based upon my understanding of the nature and person of God through Jesus Christ. Let those who disagree say what they will–I’ve heard it all before.

Now, with all of this lead-in, let’s look at the ways the Scriptures appear to point to the existence of resistible grace in the relationship with God. In the Old Testament, we’ll look to the Book of Hosea; in the New, we’ll look to the marriage-feast parables of Jesus Christ.

It is potentially unfair to call the connection between human marriage and the relationship of man to God a metaphor in the Book of Hosea; it’s more of an analogy, really, given that the comparison is set up so intentionally and explicitly.

Here, God explicitly commands Hosea to marry the promiscuous and unfaithful woman Gomer as a symbol of the faithlessness of Israel to God. This may seem a surprising command, but in the context of the Old Testament prophets, we commonly specific action intentionally taken as a symbol of either what is currently happening or what is to come. Jeremiah is ordered to purchase a new linen garment, bury it under a rock and then go back and uncover it to show that it has been ruined as a symbol of impending ruin upon Judah and Israel. Jeremiah 13. Jeremiah also wears an ox-yoke as a similar symbol. Ezekiel eats a scroll and lays on his side for three-hundred, ninety days as a symbol for the years Israel has defied God. Isaiah walks barefoot and naked as a symbol of impending Assyrian captivity.

But Hosea’s prophetic action in some ways seems especially harsh–particularly if we look to the names he gives his poor children by Gomer: Jezreel (after the breaking of the Kingdom of Israel in the Jezreel Valley), Lo-Ruhamah (“unloved” to show that God will not show love to Israel) and Lo-Ammi (“not my people,” to signify a rejection of Israel by God). Nevertheless, God promises restoration and blessing on the Israelites in Hosea 1:10-11 and commands Hosea to go after Gomer and to accept her back into his home in spite of her faithlessness.

If we are to follow Barth (and more recently, Bejamin Corey, who advocates the same interpretive hermaneutic in his book Unafraid), and use Jesus as the lens through which we interpret the action in Hosea, I think the result is that we see the condemnation of Israel by God as the human side of working through the story–an attempt at theodicy to explain why bad things (like the Assyrian destruction of the nation of Isreal and the Babylonian captivity from Judah) have happened to God’s favored people (this in Hosea 2>9-13). Allowing them to portray these events as punishment for their faithlessness allows them to call these events righteous and just retribution from God without demeaning God’s character (at least, so the argument goes).

But when we read God’s words about restoring Israel (as God has commanded Hosea to restore Gomer), we see part of the text that conforms closely with the understanding of Christ advocated through the Gospels. In Hosea 2:14-20, God says,

“‘Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. In that day,’ declares the LORD, ‘you will call me “my husband”; you will no longer call me “my master.” I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will there names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with beasts of the field, the birds in teh sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.'”

Such density of meaning and metaphor in this passage! First, some linguistics: the word for “master” in this passage is “baali” or “ba’ally.” As we noted in the first post in this series, the word Baal (strictly defined as “lord”) is sometimes translated as “husband” in the Old Testament. The more common word for husband is used in the above passage for the word that is translated as “husband.” This linguistic playfulness accentuates the metaphor in Hosea–God by using “baali” refers simultaneously to the unfaithfulness of the Israelites in turning away from God toward pagan deities (or, perhaps more importantly, misunderstanding the nature of God and the nature of the relationship God wants with creation) and also addressing the divine marriage relationship in contract to the traditional social concept of marriage of the Israelites–God’s statement seems to indicate love and mutuality rather than patriarchy and mere obedience.

Second, some geography (and more linguisitcs): “Achor” means trouble. The Valley of Achor is where the Israelites (led by Joshua) stone Achan son of Zerah for violating the command of God and keeping spoils from the conquering of the Canaanites. Joshua 7. So there, too, we see the reconciliation of God’s people to God despite their past transgressions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but God then commands (in Hosea 3) Hosea to go back to Gomer and “Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”

Which leads us to the argument that this image provides support for resistible grace. Note how God says that God will woo back Isreal–not with force, not with fear, not with majestic display. With tenderness and kindness. With gifts freely offered. By showing Israel the splendor of right relationship with God, but not forcing it upon them. We Christians often talk of God continuing to pursue us when we flee from God into selfishness, and we have good cause to do so. We would also do well to remember here that God is calling us back to a relationship that uplifts us, not one that denigrates us into mindless obedience. (To be clear, an obedience to what is true and good is somethign God wants from us, and, I think the natural consequence of falling in love with and seekign relationship with God, but this kind of loving obedience is different from the obligatory and feudal obedience preached by many Christians).

Now, let’s turn to some of the words of Jesus (and a few about Jesus). John the Baptist describes himself as the friend of the bridegroom who makes the way for the bridegroom, who is of course Jesus. John 3:39. In this statement, we see the marriage metaphor clearly conveyed from the Old Testament to the New. Jesus Himself does this when He tells the disciples: “‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.'” Matthew 9:15, c.f. Luke 5:34-5.

Jesus’s words above use the continuing adaptation of the marriage metaphor employed by the Savior throughout the Gospels: we are here described as the guests to the wedding rather than the bride.

I’ll treat two of Jesus’s parables here. The first is the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 24:36-51). This parable appropriately follows the statement that none but the Father knows the day or hour of Judgment. The virgins are a greeting party for the coming bridegroom (but none seems to be the bride, mind you). We are told that five virgins are wise and five are foolish. The wise take extra oil with their lamps as they wait for the bridegroom, but the foolish do not. All fall asleep while waiting. Upon waiting the foolish find that they have run out of lamp oil and must go to get more–during which time (of course) the bridegroom arrives and they miss it, ultimately finding themselves locked out of the wedding banquet! The wise, the parable reminds us, keep seeking for the coming bridegroom and make sure that they are not distracted in the search.

The common thread between this parable and the next is the concern over who makes it into the wedding feast and who does not. Here, those who have–not out of malicious intent but out of lack of discipline and preparation–fail to be ready at the appointed time are left outside the festivities (which seems a ready metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven). If this seems a harsh warning, I agree. But it is perhaps softened both by the fact that it is related to the preceeding passage (where the warning is to always prepare oneself for the end rather than planning on an expected timing) and by the message in the next parable.

That parable is the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, which appears in Matthew 22:1-14 (in the same [artificial] Chapter as Jesus’s saying that we looked at in Part 1 of this series). The same parable appears in Luke 14:16-24.

In Matthew’s version, Jesus begins by saying explicitly that, “‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.” Then we are told that those the king invites to the banquet refuse to come, in Luke’s version giving excuses about their worldly concerns that prevent them from attending.  In Matthew, those invited even go so far as to kill the king’s servants (for which their city is burnt and the murderers destroyed!).

Then the king (or owner of the house in Luke) sends servants to collect any they can to come. In Luke, the house owner tells the servants to “compel” those in the streets and alleys (and then further afield) to attend, whereas in Matthew they are merely invited. Matthew further tells us that the servants “gathered all…they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Matthew contains the additional (and odd) part of the story where a man not wearing wedding clothes is thrown out of the banquet and “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” and ends with the phrase statement, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

There is some difficulty in interpreting this parable because the two accounts of it vary in some important respects. Luke presents an overall “softer” version of the parable–there is no punishment for those who refuse to come (and neither do they do violence to the servants), there is no guest who is cast out, and we are told at the conclusion not that few are chosen, but that those who were invited (I think it’s safe to read this as “originally invited”) will get a taste of the banquet. Which version are we to believe is the more accurate to Jesus’s words?

At first blush, especially considering Jesus’s closing in Matthew, this parable appears to support election, not resistible grace. Not so with Luke’s version, which seems to favor an Armenian interpretation. I would argue that both, ultimately, require a belief that humans have choice in responding to or refusing God’s gifts (including the salvific gift).

Putting the passage in Luke in context, we find that it follows Jesus’s dining with a Pharisee and thus should probably be read as a condemnation of those who believe that they are holy and righteous but who do not actually respond to God when invited.

The passage in Matthew comes between the Parable of the Tenants and the question about paying the tax to Caesar. The former is likewise a condemnation of the Pharisees and the latter an (intellectual) attack on Jesus by the Pharisees.

And here, we see the common core of the passages–a dire warning to those of us who believe that we are righteous through our upholding of God’s ordinances but who refuse to follow the spirit and intent of God’s commands–loving one another. Put another way, taking this metaphor to its logical conclusion, those who do not love have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. This, I think, requires an understanding of free choice in responding to Grace for there to be any justice in condemning such people.

Thus, we see resistible grace as a foundational aspect of the marriage metaphor in both the Old and New Testaments. We’ll carry this understanding into Part 3 as we look to the metaphysical meanings found in the marriage metaphor for the relationship between believer and God.

For the next post in this series, click here.

 

Christian Marriage, Part I: Matthew 22:30

Introduction

Recently, a friend of mine who is a retired Methodist pastor asked me to teach his Sunday-school class for a few sessions. I was, of course, flattered and immediately said yes. I haven’t had a chance to do much teaching about Christianity in the “real” world lately and–as I imagine you might suspect–teaching about my faith is one of my favorite things to do.

Then my friend told me that the subject would be “marriage.” K and I will have been married twelve years in June, and we’ve been together seventeen, but all of the members of this particular Sunday-school class have been married far longer, and some have been married longer than I’ve been alive. It felt like a trap, though I’m sure it was not meant as such.

Despite the danger, I wanted to teach too much to back out. Besides, it’s often a good idea to get outside of your comfort zone a little–the best learning is done there. Nevertheless, I needed to sidestep the pitfall of trying to give marriage advice to people who know far better than I.

So, I decided that, while I’d sure teach about Christian ideas of marriage, I’d do so from a theological perspective rather than a practical one. More in my area of knowledge and safer. This led me to the topic we’ll discuss today: one of Jesus’s hard sayings in Matthew 22:30 (also Mark 12:25 and Luke 20:34-35, so it’s pretty clear that the authors of the Gospels thought that this saying was important).

N.B.: Because this has turned out to be a relatively long post, I’ve tried to insert section headings for ease of navigation and so that you, dear reader, can read or skip as much as you want. Trust me, I won’t be offended: I’ll never know what you picked to do. Unless you tell me, in which case I’ll do my best not to be offended.

Matthew 22:23-30

In Matthew 22:23-30, the Sadducees have come to Jesus to test him, and they present him with a hypothetical problem to solve (flashbacks of law school immediately followed). Specifically, they tell him of a woman who was married and widowed without a child, so her husband’s brother married her, but then he died, so the next brother in line married her, but then he died, and so on and so forth until the woman had been married to seven brothers before she died herself. The problem the Sadducees pose, then, is who will she be married to in the afterlife?

Jesus says, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead–have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Matthew 22-29-32.

Whoa! I enjoy being married. I love my wife. When we got married, we intentionally left out the “’til death do us part” language of our vows–we didn’t think that just this life would be enough for us. I want to be connected to her eternally. So what do I do with what Jesus says here?

Research. That’s what I do. And think. Because something’s going on here, and I’m quite sure that Jesus is not telling us that we will not be with those we love in the Kingdom of Heaven. This lead me to identify a problem, a relatively obvious one when you think about it. Our modern Western idea of marriage is not like the idea of Jewish marriage in the first century C.E. To impose our idea of marriage on this statement is to immediately miss the point.

Instead, I came to understand that Jesus is making a point about social justice. Let’s walk through it together:

Context

First, let’s but things in context–geographically, historically and literarily. As you might have seen in my posts about my profound learning experience with Dr. John A. “Jack” Beck, it has been ingrained on my mind now that, when I look at the Scriptures I ask: “Where are we when this takes place?”

Geography

In this instance, that question proved immediately helpful. In Matthew 21:23, we are told that “Jesus entered the temple courts.” So that means that Jesus is on the Temple Mount when speaking with the Sadducees. I soon learned that even that was not enough specificity for this passage of the Gospel. Matthew doesn’t tell us where on the Temple Mount Jesus is more than that he’s there somewhere, so I needed to do some research to see if I could find some information to make a better supposition about where specifically Jesus might have been.

First, let’s talk about the geography of the Temple Mount itself. I recommend Googling to find a picture because one will be helpful, but I’ll try to do a good job describing with words.

Imagine a rectangle (Josephus described the mount as a square a furlong on a side, but I don’t think that’s quite right–it’s possible though that I am mistaken. For sake of argument, bear with me.) with the longer sides oriented roughly north-south. That’s the Temple Mount. The place now known as the Western Wall or the “Wailing” Wall is a part of the north west segment of the entire western wall.  The entrance to the top of the Temple Mount was made via ramps up from doorways in the southern wall–these doorways are now sealed up, but you can see parts of them. There was also a bridge entryway on the southern part of the western wall, connected to Herod’s Stoa on the south end of the Temple Mount. The impressive archway of the bridge and stairs of this entrance have since been destroyed, but you can find both pictures showing where the supports of the arch can been seen in the wall even today and diagrams showing what it would have looked like in the past.

Let’s return to Herod’s Stoa. While his lineage is a little complex, Herod was considered to be a Gentile. Therefore, he could not travel further than the Court of the Gentiles in on the Temple Mount. The Court of the Gentiles is essentially the area of the Temple Mount outside of the walled-in Temple complex proper. Herod built the Stoa as an elaborate three-aisled arched and columned basilica where Herod could stay in luxury while looking out at the Temple–and reminding Israel who was in charge.

On the (outside of) the eastern wall of the Temple Mount with another set of gates was a colonnade or cloistered area known as Solomon’s Porch, so named because it was believed that that part of the Temple area had been built in Solomon’s time (I have not done any research to determine the likelihood that that belief was true).

Near the middle of the Temple Mount itself is the Temple complex, facing (very) roughly east-west). Think of the Temple complex as two compartments, with the entrance into the first compartment from the eastern outer wall of the complex and entrance into the second (western) compartment–where the Temple istelf was–only through the first compartment. The first compartment is known as the Court of the Women (because it was the closest to the Temple women could get). The second compartment, the courtyard around the Temple proper, was known as the Court of Israel.

You’ll notice that I’ve bolded four places around the Temple Mount–the Courts of the Gentiles, Women and Israel and Solomon’s Porch. The scholarship I reviewed indicated that these four locations were the places where Jesus taught when he taught at the Temple. That’s a pretty easy statement to make since, combined, that covers pretty much everywhere but inside the Temple.

With this in mind, let’s look at some textual evidence. As I mentioned above, Matthew tells us that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” That rules out Solomon’s Porch, I think, as the location for this saying. But we can go farther than that.

The day before this confrontation with the Saduccees, Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple. All the texts I looked at stated that the moneychangers would have been located in the Court of the Gentiles. I see no reason to argue with that. When Matthew relates Jesus this previous event, he tells us again (before, really) that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” I think the connection there makes it quite likely that Matthew 22:23-32 also takes place in the Court of the Gentiles.

There’s a logic to this as well. Given that Jesus has come for Jews and Gentiles (although that’s only made explicit later), he would have wanted to teach in as public a place as possible most of the time (though how many Gentiles actually came to the Court of the Gentiles is hard to say). More important, I think, is that the Pharisees and Saducees would have wanted to challenge Jesus in as public a forum as possible–again making the Court of the Gentiles the likeliest place for this scene.

If I had to bet, I’d say Jesus was in the Court of the Gentiles, but there’s no proving that. On other grounds, I think it’s very likely that Jesus was not in the Court of Isreal. Why? Because I think it was important to him (as I’ll argue below) that women be present to hear the words he speaks in this passage.

That’s the geography. Now, let’s talk about the historical context of Jewish marriage in which Jesus’s statement is made.

An Etymological Aside

One of the most surprising things I discovered in my research is a relatively minor etymological note, but one that immediately impressed me. The word baal (sometimes written and pronounced “ba’al“) is sometimes used for the word “husband.” The word itself is most often translated as “lord” or “master” and, when discussed in the OT, usually refers to pagan gods, who are called baals just as we would name our God by saying “the Lord.” There were many baals (though they’re often only referred to as baal): Baal Hadad of Tyre, Baal Hamon, and as a title for the Canaanite god El, just to name a few. Indeed, the probable etymology of the word is from the Mesopotamian god Belu and there’s no question that, whenever used by the Old Testament authors, the connotation of paganism was attached, intentionally or not.

Baal is translated as “husband” in Genesis 20:3; Exodus 21:3 and 22 Deuteronomy 22:22 and 24:4; 2 Samuel 11:36; Joel 1:8; Proverbs 12:4 and 31:11, 23 and 28 and Esther 1:17 and 20. It is by far not the most common word used for husband in OT Hebrew (that is “‘iysh” or, properly, אִישׁ, Strong’s H376). There’s not enough here to make a true argument that the use of the word means anything more than when we refer to a mortal “lord” as opposed to “the Lord” in English, but it is interesting to me.

Historical Context of Marriage

Etymological notes aside, let’s talk about the social culture of marriage. Jewish marriages were (and sometimes still are, though much less often, I think) arranged by the parents and particularly the father. Most of the usages in the Old Testament of the word “marriage” are in the context of a woman being “given” or “taken” in marriage. It’s easier, in fact, to refer to the times when the Hebrew equivalents of the English word are not used in that context–1 Kings 11:2 (“enter into marriage”) and Dan 2:43 (“they will mix with one another in marriage”).

As with many–perhaps most–premodern societies,  marriages were not arranged for love but for the maintenance or creation of economic, political or social ties between families. For farming families, marriage helped consolidate interests between families for farming larger areas cooperatively, a palpable benefit for surviving in hard times. For the elite, as we’re perhaps more familiar in the Western medieval context, marriages were about determination of succession, alliances and control of territory.

As evidence of this, the Old Testament has some relatively complex rules on where and how land can and cannot pass as a result of marriage and children–land cannot be transferred by marriage between the twelve tribes, for instance.

The marriage itself was not just an agreement between spouses, as we tend to think in the modern world–it was a contract between families with much more at stake than how the couple got along.

To marry a woman, a man would give her father a mohar (typically defined as a “bride-price” or “dowry”). We see this in Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:17, 1 Samuel 18:25 and it is the basis of Jacob’s work contract for the hands of Rachel and Leah. Socially, though, this was not considered the “sale” of a woman but was meant to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of a productive member (through marriage). There was some expectation that a father would set aside some or most of the mohar for his daughter’s future, but there was no strict rule requiring this and a second gift was made by the groom to the bride.

Let’s talk specifically about Levirate marriage, since that’s the situation that the Sadducees are refering to in questioning Jesus.

Levirate marriage (which is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10) was the practice where, if a man was married but died leaving a widow and no children, the deceased man’s brother was expected to marry the widow. The first child between the two would be deemed to be the child of the dead man, ostensibly assuring the descent of the man’s name and property. Despite the focus on “protecting the dead man’s name,” the practice was likely meant to be a social protection for women–now outside of their father’s house and without a husband or male children, the widow might be left without social protection or anyone to provide for her. Being a childless widow could be a precarious social position indeed.

If the stories of Ruth and of Onan and Tamar are to be taken as exemplars, it seems that it was more common for women to pursue the idea of Levirate marriage–and for men to sometimes resist it.

Under Mosaic law, women were expected to be absolutely subordinate to men. A man could divorce his wife, but not the other way around. A man could have multiple wives, but a woman could have only one husband (both Josephus and Justin Martyr–who wrote well after Jesus–described the existence of the practice contemporary to their writings). Under Levitical law, a husband had the power of life and death over a woman who committed adultery (as we see Jesus confront even in his time).

There is evidence that women purchased or sold land or otherwise participated in commercial enterprise, so (as always) we need to understand that there was some nuance and complexity to the social status of women but, for the most part, women were subjected to the will and whim of men and were used in marriage as a tool for the management of property and other “masculine” concerns. Women simply did not have the rights or freedoms that, in modern culture, we believe that they are entitled to (and Jesus, as I’m going to argue, would agree).

Literary Context

In the passage before the Saduccees test Jesus on the subject of marriage in the great hereafter, the Pharisees have tested him on whether taxes should be paid to Caesar. He tells them to “…give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22:22. In other words, he turns the Pharisee’s question back upon itself by telling them, “you’re asking questions about money and power, but those are not the concerns of God. We’re talking about something much more important.” His Kingdom is not in contention with the petty kingdoms of man.

After the confrontation we’re discussing, Jesus gives the Great Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39.

It is significant that the exhange with the Sadducees occurs bookended by these two statements.

Interpretation

One of the commentaries I looked at mentioned (and astutely, I think) that, for the Sadducees at least, this confrontation really isn’t about marriage. The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife (or angels for that matter), so what they’re doing is asking a question that they believe is logically unanswerable so that they can say, “Aha! Can’t figure that one out, can you? See, there is no afterlife, because it wouldn’t make sense!”

This is almost certainly the Sadducees’ goal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that Jesus is talking about. If it were, he would only have needed to (after noting that they misunderstand the Scriptures) make the statement that God is the God of the living and not the dead–that assertion alone is enough to confound the Sadducees’ purpose.

Yes, the statement about marriage at the resurrection reinforces Jesus’s retort above, but it also does more.

Coming on the heels of the Pharisees’ question about money and taxes, Jesus is telling the Sadducees the same thing he told the Pharisees. Given the social background of Jewish marriage, what the Sadducees are asking, in a sense, is “who will own this woman in the afterlife?” or, to put it in a slightly more sympathetic light, “who will have rights over this woman in the afterlife.”

Jesus’s response says, “Asking that question shows your complete lack of understanding–you’re concerned about power and status in the world and thereby missing all of the important things with which God and the Scriptures are concerned.”

Jesus’s life itself is grand statement that the things that we humans chase so lustily after–fame, wealth and power–are not the more important things of God–relationship, love, creation, meaning. It stands to reason that his responses to doubters carry the same truth underneath them.

And with the Great Commandment(s) following after this passage, we certainly cannot read Jesus’s statement that people do not marry in the afterlife to mean the same thing as “people do not love” in the afterlife. The argument could be made (drawing twistedly on C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I think) that the kind of love in the Great Commandment does not include eros/romantic love but only agape/unselfish love, but the use of marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between the believer and God (or the Church and Jesus) so profoundly throughout the Bible (this is the topic of the next part in this series) seems to indicate otherwise.

Conclusion

What we’re left, then, is a promise of a more socially just existence in the resurrection–the artificial human socioeconomic and political construct of marriage will be replaced by natural and divine relationship that is about those involved and not about power and wealth and land in the world. I can’t help but imagine that there were women in the crowd who heard Jesus make the statement and thought “Thank God!” not because they did not want to love and be loved but because they wanted to be equal–something the old system of Jewish marriage did not allow them.

P.S. – I do not mean any of the above analysis to be a disparagement against modern Jewish marriage practice. Until only recently in our history, Christian marriages were also arranged primarily for economic and political purposes. Even more important, it is my understanding that ideas about Jewish marriage have evolved through the ages so that modern Jewish marriages are every bit as concerned with love, respect and equality within a marriage as Christian ones are (ignoring entirely those fundamental and “evangelical” Christian sects that still maintain that a woman should be subservient in all things.

Topics Coming Up:

The next topic I’ll discuss in this series will be about marriage as metaphor for relationships with God–we’ll start with Scriptures and move into theology and metaphysics.

At some point in this series I’ll return to the two creation stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis and what they might mean for God’s original intent for the values that a marriage ought to uphold.

While my stance that homosexuality is not a sin and that the love between people of the same sex (or gender identity for that matter) should be viewed (from a theological perspective) no differently from that of a heterosexual couple has been discussed on the blog previously and should be relatively well-known by my readers by known, this series is probably a good place to include some comments on that front as well, so look for that in the near future.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Pilgrimage, Day 13: Reflections

For the previous entry, click here.

Today will be the last post journaling my pilgrimage to the Holy Land; early tomorrow morning, we set off for Tel Aviv to return home. This is an amazing place, and there’s still much more to see, but I’m ready to come home. The pace of our touring has driven me to the point of exhaustion, and my brain is supersaturated with new knowledge and ideas. Even today, a scheduled half-day on our agenda, seemed a chore.

I am sure that there will be a number of posts in the near future that are more theologically focused and that draw on the many things I’ve learned on this journey. For now, I’ll share some general reflections on the trip as a whole (after a brief run-down of the day’s sites).

We started the morning early as usual, traveling to the Mount of Olives and working our way down to the Church of All Nations (at traditional Gethsemane). Along the way, we discussed the reason for Jesus sending the disciples to fetch a donkey only when he’d already ascended the Mount of Olives and was ready to descend into Jerusalem, the course of Jesus’s movements through the Old City during Passion Week (while overlooking the city–this made things very easy to follow) and generally discussing the Crucifixion and Resurrection. After lunch, we went to the Garden Tomb (very unlikely to actually have much to do with the Passion, though there’s some evidence that the stoning of Saint Steven occurred there) to celebrate Communion. While the rest of our group took the bus back to the south side of the Old City to the hotel, K and I decided to walk through the nearby Damascus Gate and through the Muslim Quarter back to the hotel (she had not yet been that way). As has been the case with all of our experiences, all of the people we met along the way were friendly and warm.

Before we left, while working on the preparatory materials, I posted about my struggle with my position on the historicity of many Biblical events. I’d like to follow up on that now.

I’ve never really doubted the historicity of Jesus Christ, his ministry, death and resurrection (though I’d still be a Christian if I did, because there is something eternally True about who Christ is and what the Incarnation means for existence and about the nature of God even if the events described did not actually happen). It’s mostly been parts of the Old Testament that I see as more metaphorical or literary than historical.

The first comment I have on the subject after my experiences here is that visiting the places I’ve now been, seeing the things that I’ve seen, and knowing the things I now know, I feel an added realism and gravity to many Biblical events–they seem less distant, abstract and simply allegorical (even if I didn’t consciously think of them as abstract or merely allegorical) than before.

That said, I’m not sure that my overall position on historicity has changed. One reason for this my fundamental approach to scripture. As I’ve said before, I follow Barth in seeing the person of Jesus as the essential revelation of Christianity, the lens through which anything else in our faith must be viewed. This causes some immediate conundrums (conundra?) that must be resolved in reading the Old Testament, which will discuss momentarily. Secondly, I tend to see a greater emphasis on the human side of scripture than to look for a heavier divine hand in the text’s creation. This is a fundamental point on which I disagree with Dr. Beck, who by my understanding (based on hearing him speak for two weeks and fully admitting that I might have misunderstood, so if you’re interest in his ideas, I recommend skipping my opinion and going direct to the source) favors a reading of scripture that emphasizes God’s direct hand in the events described, sees a greater level of divine guidance in the writing of scripture than I, and looks more to divine providence in the outcomes of events described than I tend to attribute to them. Before I give an example of our differences, I would like to reaffirm that Dr. Beck makes some very strong arguments for his position that are well worth considering whether you end up agreeing with all of them or not–certainly you’ll find some that make perfect sense. His books are readily found on Amazon under “John A. Beck.”

By way of illustration, let’s look at the Book of Joshua–something we were confronted with in our visit to Jericho yesterday. When considering Joshua, Jack tends to take the position that the story as written follows–at least in the fundamentals–actual historical events. He is careful to look at the archeological and scientific evidence very objectively, I think, but (as is mine), his fundamental conclusions are influenced by his starting theology (as all interpretive acts are).

From the get-go, I am admittedly biased against the Book of Joshua. It is a book of the Bible in which God apparently condones killing and the removal of people from ancestral lands by force. This does not comport with my understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and therefore does not comport with my understanding of the Triune God. As such, I am inclined to believe that much of the “God told us to take this land from the Canaanites” reflects the broader theology about how gods worked at the time.

There is, however, a hitch to this. In Joshua 5:13-15 (an amazingly tightly written piece of scripture, I might add), before the siege of Jericho, Joshua encounters an angel who describes himself (itself?) as “the commander of the army of the Lord.” The angel is holding out a sword to Joshua, drawing on the ancient Egyptian motif of the “presentation of the sword” in which a deity presents the leader of an army with his sword as an endorsement of and prediction of victory for an upcoming battle, an example of which can be seen at the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (there relating to victory over the mysterious “Sea Peoples”). But when Joshua asks whose side the angel is one, the angel simply says, “No.” This is typically translated as “neither,” but the simple negative is more accurate. When we look at the pieces together–that the angel, not Joshua, is the commander of the army of the Lord, that the angel (and therefore God) is not on either side of the battle and that the fall of Jericho initially occurs without bloodshed (for God causes the wall of the city to fall without an assault), we see something pointing toward the message of Jesus: God’s victories are not achieved through the perpetration of violence. And then the next sentence, in echo of similar statements made about the Moabite god Chemosh, the Joshua tells his men that “the city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord” (through complete destruction, returning us to a narrative that runs counter to the teachings and example of the Messiah. (Thanks is owed to Dr. John Harmon for pointing out to me this passage in Joshua and the ancient Egyptian practice it plays off of).

If the archeology were heavily in favor of the Joshua narrative, I admit that I would have to incorporate the likely historicity of Joshua into my theology, however much might have to change to do so. Currently, it is not. At Tel Es-Sultan, there is not sufficient evidence of the events described in the Bible ever having occurred, though Kathleen Kenyon’s modification of some of her early analysis leaves the possibility open. The next city Joshua attacks, Ai, also remains problematic historically and archeologically. The very name “Ai” means “the ruin;” thus the site of the city is most likely Et-Tell (Khirbet Haijah), whose name means the same thing.

The archeology at Ai shows that the city was occupied starting around 3100 BCE that was violently destroyed around 2400 BCE. Those Biblical chronologies offered by scholars who affirm the historicity of the conquest of Joshua place the conquest sometime after 1445 BCE and probably around 1400 BCE. Et-Tell was not resettled until Iron Age 1 (roughly 1300 BCE to 1000 BCE) and, even then, was probably settled peacefully. There are some scholarly opinions that the Biblical story has confused the conquering of Bethel with Ai; the two cities are only about 3 km apart. This is possible, but the uncertain archeology is further troubled by the fact that the beginning of the Book of Judges gives a different story about the Jews coming into Canaan.

The beginning of Judges, following on the heels of the Book of Joshua, describes a more gradual settling of Canaan by the Jews (lead by Caleb, as the book opens with the phrase “After the death of Joshua…”). Here, the Jews make incremental gains against the indigenous peoples, first settling the Negev Desert and only later capturing the hill country of Judah. Jerusalem is the first named city to be captured by the Jews, and though Jericho is mentioned (it is the “City of Palms” in Judges 1:16), it follows upon the mention of a gift of springs by Caleb to Aksah and Othniel. The spring at Jericho may be the link between paragraphs.

Current archeology sees the Israelites beginning to define themselves as a people relatively peacefully within Canaan and then eventually absorbing the Canaanites. Overall, though, the proper historical understanding of the Book of Joshua and the description of the Israelite conquering of Canaan is–while highly questionable–unresolved. Thus, it remains open to interpretation.

As mentioned, above, starting from different theological positions–each resulting from a prioritization of certain aspects of God over others–different results may be reached by reasonable people.

And so, I remain skeptical as to the historicity of certain events described in the Old Testament, though I do believe that the events described by the Bible do more accurately reflect historical events from the time of David onward.

I am completely convinced by Dr. Beck that an understanding of the geography of the Bible provides an invaluable interpretive tool in pursuing the meaning of any particular piece of scripture–regardless of historicity. Here, I continue to have some issues that I have not settled on an answer to, yet.

Why is the geography of the Bible so important. I don’t think that this is a mere artifact of the human influence on the writing of scripture–too often do the geographic details tie events together in ways that add to narrative complexity and create new skeins of interrelatedness for such a simple answer to be sufficient, I think. As I’ve said in other posts, I often find the “poetic” truth of the Bible to be one of its most convincing and convicting aspects–the geography of the Holy Land adds to the depth of this poetry in ways I cannot ignore.

As I noted earlier in this journey, standing in places where Jesus stood (or at least very nearby) and seeing the sites of many Biblical events (most of which I believe are historical, some of which I carry my doubts about) added a gravity and sense of realism (not historical but existentially tangible) to my relationship with Biblical events that lacked before I came here. That alone was worth the trip. The tools taught by Dr. Beck also would have been sufficient in isolation to make the travel well worth it. Being here has undoubtedly changed me, but I have yet to discover all the subtle ways that it has.

I also commented on previous entries how unsettled I have been by the conflict that bubbles in this land, occasionally erupting to the surface like some angry volcano. I still cannot say that I understand the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian dynamic, but I must admit that, by knee-jerk reaction, this trip has given me far more sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis. But that must remain a personal observation–I remain too out of my depth to attempt any objective evaluation or to offer any solution. The current sociopolitical climate does, however, accentuate the need for Jesus in our lives to draw us away from conflict and toward love and mutual respect.

I feel that I must end this post with thanks to Dr. Jack Beck. It has been a true pleasure to hear him teach and preach and to be in fellowship with him these past two weeks. His passion is infectious, his faith inspiring, his knowledge daunting.

Pilgrimage, Day 12: The Lost

For the previous entry, click here.

Today, we had the good fortune (or perhaps divine grace) to travel parts of the West Bank that are often inaccessible to Westerners for security concerns. Specifically, we were able to travel in and through the area around Nablus, a city where bullet holes in many buildings, the proximity of aggressive Israeli settlements and the presence of Palestinian banners of a distinctly militant nature are a constant reminder of the tension in the region that regularly spills into violence. The most experienced of our group members who travel frequently in Israel said they had not been able to visit the region for the past several years (not that there was constant violence, but the timing never worked out).

That’s a shame, because the modern city of Nablus (from Greek Neopolis) contains several essential Old and New Testament sites. First among these is the town of Shechem. Shechem makes an early appearance in Scripture: in Genesis 12:6, God appears to Abram and told Abram that his children would be given that land, confirming God’s first covenant with Abram. In response, Abram builds an altar to the Lord there.

Jacob builds his well in Israel at Sychar, only a stone’s throw away from the site of Shechem. To this we’ll return for the most important episode that takes place here.

Later, in Joshua 24, Joshua assembles the tribes of Israel at Shechem to renew the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The split between Israel to the north and Judah to the south also occurs at Shechem, when the Israelites rebel against Rehoboam after he listens to his friends instead of his elders.

Before we discuss Shechem’s most important event, we need to understand something about the Samaritans. Fortunately, we were able to do just that today.

Although the Samaritans appear frequently in the New Testament, only about 840 of them remain today. Where do they come from, and why is there so much animosity between them and the Jews in the Gospels?

When the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, they did not take all of the Jews; some remained in the land of Israel. This caused a fundamental rift between those who went into captivity and those who did not. First, let us remember that in the 6th century, deities were largely thought of as localized. Those who remained in the land assumed that Yahweh remained with them and that the captive Israelites had been removed from God’s presence. Following the vision of Ezekiel (and the maintenance of their Israelite heritage during the captivity), the captive Israelites tended to see God as leaving Israel and traveling with them, leaving behind the land. The extent to which either group realized that God could be in both places simultaneously is unclear.

The return of the captive Israelites brought the brewing conflict to a head. In addition to this theological dispute, the two groups conflicted over the ownership of the land, as captive families returned to find ancestral lands occupied. Further, the captive Israelites distrusted the native Israelites for intermarrying with other local peoples who were pagan; they believed that such associated diluted the purity (of thought if not ethnically) of the natives. For their part, the natives asserted that the captivity had corrupted the Israelites who left by exposing them to Babylonian religion and culture. Both parties believed (and continue to believe) that they are the “true” Israelites and that the other group has been corrupted away from true faith.

When the returning captives began to rebuild the Temple, they refused to allow the native Israelites to take part. Correspondingly, the nascent Samaritans moved their site of worship to Mt. Gerizim, claiming that it was the original place Joshua had determined the Temple should be upon coming into the land. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), Mt. Gerizim overlooks Shechem. The area became known as Samaria.

Not only did we visit Mt. Gerizim this morning (where the ruins of a Byzantine church stand over the likely location of the Samaritan Temple (which was destroyed by the Hasmonean rulers), but we were able to enter into the current Samaritan worship space (and outdoor Temple in Nablus) and to converse with a Samaritan whose father is the second-highest priest in the religion.

There are “Five Ones” that define Samaritan belief. One God; one book (the Pentateuch); one prophet (Moses); one Temple (Mt. Gerizim); one afterlife (resurrection and paradise).

It was into this land, at Jacob’s Well in Samaria, that Jesus came. John 4:4 states that Jesus had to go through Samaria (he is going back to Galilee from Jerusalem). Geographically, this is patently untrue–it would have been easier and faster for Jesus either travel west to the “International” or “Coastal” highway along Israel’s coastal plain or to travel east from Jerusalem to the “King’s Highway” in the Transjordan Highlands. He goes north along the “ridge route” through Samaria for some other purpose. Resting at Jacob’s Well, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman. After a bit of rather confrontational interaction (she is surprised that a Jew would talk to her at all and is therefore suspicious), the woman believes Jesus to be a prophet and tests him by asking whether the Temple or Mt. Gerizim is the proper place to worship. Jesus answers by telling her, “Woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come (emphasis mine) when worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24).

Sarcastically, the woman responds by saying that the Messiah is coming and will explain everything. Jesus responds by telling her that he is the Messiah. He has gone specifically to that well for that woman in particular and to show that his salvation (while it may come from the Jews) is not only for the Jews. The only other time that Jesus states specifically that he is the Messiah is to Peter near Caesarea Philippi–once for the Jews, and once for the Gentiles (at least as Jews would have considered the Samaritans). This mirrors the “feeding of the thousands” stories, where one feeding miracle is done for Gentiles and one for the Jews.

At the site of Jacob’s Well, I decided not to drink the water from the well. On the one hand, I was turned off by how commercial the site seemed (you could drink from the well for free, but you had to pay if you wanted to take some of the water with you). On the other hand, I believe Jesus when he told the Samaritan woman that “he who drinks from this (Jacob’s) well will be thirsty again, but he who drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” The well, then, seemed unnecessary.

After lunch, we visited Tel es-Sultan, the site of the earliest Jericho settlement. Dr. Beck shared some interesting insights with us (as he shared most of the information above with us), but I remain unconvinced about the historicity of the Joshua narrative. I’ll discuss why sometime soon.

We ended the afternoon in the Judean wilderness, getting a feel for the desolation meant in the wilderness stories in the New Testament. This terrain is different from the wasteland closer to the Jordan Rift Valley. We reviewed the story of the Good Samaritan and Psalm 23 before having some individual quiet time. Powerful stuff.

All along the way today, my heart broke for some of the living conditions of the Palestinian people. The factional strife, arguments over the rightful ownership of the land, and willingness to resort to violence to achieve some abstract ideological victory remains strong in this land, in some way unchanged since Jesus’s day.

Thank God for our Savior.

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Pilgrimage, Day 11: Dead Things

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Today’s missive will likely be relatively short on account of exhaustion. We started the morning at 5:00 a.m. to be on the bus early so that we might beat both other visitors and the heat to Masada.

If you’re not familiar, Masada (“the fortress”) is another palace-fortress built by Herod the Great, this one on a mountaintop overlooking the western edge of the Dead Sea. In ancient times, at least, the point on the Dead Sea that Masada guarded allowed passage to the eastern side and to the (formerly Moabite) city of Bab edh-Dhra. As a side note, some scholars believe that Bab Edh-Dhra is a candidate for the ancient city of Sodom, but the historical details of the city (size, period active, time and nature of demise) do not seem to fit very well.

Masada, even in ruins, is impressive. In addition to the fortifications, Herod built not one, but two palaces atop the plateau. The first, the Western Palace, was nice enough, but Herod wanted to build a “hanging” palace that occupies the very edge of the habitable space on the mountain. He did this and, like the Herodium, then had a personal palace and one for guests. The fortress also boasted a swimming pool (because why not?), a tannery, a Roman-style bathhouse, several dovecotes and cisterns for over one million gallons of water. Herod’s goal was to build a palace-fortress that would be siege-proof. Only a winding footpath–called the Snake Path for its serpentine nature–wide enough for two at a time made its way up the mountain to the fortress. Storehouses were built that could hold years of supplies–grain, oil and other foodstuffs and goods. Soil was brought up the mountain so that additional food could be farmed to extend the fortification’s rations.

But Herod isn’t really the center of the story here. During the Revolt of the Jews against Roman occupation in 66 C.E., the Sicarii captured the fortress (how remains a mystery). The wilderness stronghold (little grows near the Dead Sea and even today only sporadic and artificially-irrigated date palm farms can be found) became the fortress of last refuge for many Jews, not all of them Sicarii or even rebels.

In 72 CE, the Romans laid siege to Masada, perhaps bringing as many as 9,000 fighting men (and maybe 15,000 people total) against 960 defenders. The Romans first built eight forts at the base of the mountain and an encircling wall to prevent any escape. Then, over several long months, the Roman forces built a dirt ramp up to the fortress’s western wall. They attacked with a metal-clad siege tower, battering rams and ballistae supported by auxiliary archers and legionaries. The defenders fought bravely and fiercely to repel the Romans, but the attackers managed to achieve a break in the wall. Strangely, they then pulled back, waiting for the next day to launch a new assault.

The defenders knew that they were done. Rather than become subject to the Romans (through surrender or capture), they elected to take their own lives. But since Judaism forbids suicide, the men killed their wives and children and then drew lots to determine who would slay whom, repeating the process until one man was assigned to kill the remaining nine, set fire to the buildings, and then kill himself. And that’s exactly what they did.

To this day, Masada remains a warning used to teach children about the consequences of allowing Europeans and Westerners to come into their country to assert control. “Masada shall never fall again” is the preferred slogan, often used by the IDF.

Though we ascended by cable car, a number of us decided that we would walk back down the Snake Path. This was a mistake, one my knees have so far not let me forget. The Fitbit says I traveled 9 miles and 60 floors over the course of the day today. Much of this was the Snake Path.

After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, a wilderness spring in the Wadi Arugot to which David fled from Saul. We went on a hike through and up the spring’s stream to get a feel for oasis geography as set against the geography of the rest of the Judean wilderness.

We followed the hike (and accompanying lecture) with a quick bite to eat and a short drive to Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran, and current scholarship links the Dead Sea Scrolls to a radical Jewish sect in existence around the period from 1st Century B.C.E. To 1st Century C.E. called the Essenes, who are believed to have copied or created the scrolls at Qumran before hiding them in the nearby hills. The ruins there are a minor interest, but probably would not be either a national park or a tourist stop if it were not for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The day ended with a trip to a (very commercial) nearby beach on the Dead Sea for a quick float. I opted not to participate in this given the very abbreviated time available to change, float, rinse off, shower off and then change clothes to be ready to leave.

Tomorrow, we will (depending upon safety and stability in the region), head toward Nablus and Shechem in Palestine-held territory before another hike of the wilderness and a visit to Jericho.

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Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

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In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

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