Friday, October 16, 2009

Philip Clayton on emergence and "open panentheism"

Clayton's latest book "Adventures In the Spirit" is another on my wish list. I read a lot of reviews on it and what he is proposing as a scientist and theologian is a series of challenges to Christianity, starting with a new understanding of how God works in the world. The old micro-manager God of supernatural theism that is becoming difficult to maintain for some is rejected in favor of a more dynamic God who has poured himself out through all of creation in a participatory, sacrificial mode.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

JD Crossan On Divine Punishment

"When empires clashed along a north-south axis between the Nile Delta and whoever controlled the Anatolian Plateau or the Mesopotamian Plain, tiny Israel was there in the middle. When the axis of empire changed to an east-west direction and the clash was between Persians and Greeks or Parthians and Romans, little Israel was still right there in the middle. So here is the geopolitical truth. If the people of Israel had all been saints and had spent their lives on their knees praying, the only difference would have been death kneeling down rather than standing up.
I consider it bad or even obscene theology to tell such people that invasion (or...any other disaster) is a divine punishment for sin. Nothing they could ever have done or not done would have changed a destiny of oppression - by imperialism marching north and south or east and west. Their Promised Land was simply the cockpit of empire...Divine justice as distributive and/or retributive is the first biblical ambiguity to be considered...Both strands are there from Genesis to Revelation. On the other hand, is there any evidence - apart from biblical assertions and human fears - that God ever punishes anyone? There is terribly clear evidence of human consequences, but unless one equates human consequences with divine punishments - which I, for one, do not - is there any similar evidence for divine punishments?"
-John Dominic Crossan, "God and Empire"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 3

After dealing with the traditional Augustinian-Lutheran (mis)interpretations of Paul, Eisenbaum moves to modern interpreters of the early, mid, and late 20th century. Both Leo Baeck (1873-1956) and Martin Buber (1878) were Jewish theologians who in their own ways saw Jewish strains of thought in Paul but critiqued him as a syncretist (for lack of a better category, 'Romanticism' and of course Hellenism). That is, they basically both agree with Augustinian-Lutheran interpretations of justification by faith but found the doctrine misguided, creating adherents of the religion who are "hopelessly passive and incapable of living ethical lives." Other Jewish scholars basically agreed and drove home the view that Paul founded a new religion called Christianity. Joseph Klausner bluntly wrote: "[Paul] made Christianity a religious system different from both Judaism and paganism, a system mediating between Judaism and paganism but with an inclination toward paganism." These Jewish scholars attempted to offer a fresh take on Paul through a distinctly Jewish lens, but ended up just playing into the historical Christian-Jewish polemic.

Post-Holocaust however, a small group of Protestant theologians and scholars recognized the need to seriously reevaluate Christian anti-Judaism and the beginnings of the New Perspective on Paul was in place. The most serious NPP scholarship emerged only in the last 40 years. James D.G. Dunn supposedly first coined the phrase "new perspective on Paul" and wrote: "Paul's doctrine of justification by faith should not be understood primarily as an exposition of the individual's relation to God, but primarily in the context of Paul the Jew wrestling with the question of how Jews and Gentiles stand in relation to each other within the covenant purpose of God now that it has reached its climax in Jesus Christ."

There are three initial key concepts NPP scholars emphasize. The first two, that Paul's writings were to very specific groups of Gentiles (though Paul wrote as a committed Jew), and his teachings about Jewish law were about "how Torah is and is not applicable to Gentiles...God does not require the same things of all people at all times." For instance, Pamela paraphrases the always confusing 1 Corinthians 7:19 under this new understanding of Paul: "When Jews are circumcised and Gentiles remain uncircumcised, both are following the will of God, so neither group can claim superiority by virtue of the practice (or non-practice) of circumcision." The third important NPP concept is undoing centuries of misconstruals of Judaism. The post-reformation understanding that Christianity is all about "spirit, grace, and love" and that Judaism is one of law where salvation is earned, good works are proudly accumulated, and God's grace is non-existent is a deep misunderstanding of Palestinian Judaism. "This characterization of Judaism is a gross distortion, both in general terms and in the first century...grace plays a critical role in the Jewish concept of God and God's relationship to Israel, God's chosen people." This last insight was forcefully put forward by E.P. Sanders who is the final modern theologian Pamela is concerned with.

Sanders wrote in the late 70's and is enormously influential to the NPP. Israel's relationship to God is one built on covenant - which involve commandments, but are viewed as a privilege to participate in because in God's grace he chose Israel to be his people on earth doing his work in the world. In this light, commandments in Torah (circumcision for instance) are not works going toward personal salvation, but "Israel's response to God's gracious initiative on Israel's behalf." Performing the commandments in Torah cannot earn one's way into the covenantal relationship that already exists. These are not duties - these are blessings, privileges, responses to God's enormous grace for covenanting a truly unique, special relationship with Israel. Whatever "salvation" meant to Jews like Paul, it certainly wasn't earned but freely given by God as a grace - a gift - to Israel. Covenant, covenant, covenant.

In the end, Sanders still saw Paul as distinct from Judaism because of his mystical encounter with Jesus on Damascus road - Sanders bought the conversion myth. Nevertheless, his work inspired many more great works as his insights into first century Palestinian Judaism are widely respected.

Up next will be rooting us as readers in late Second Temple Jewish thought in order to more fully comprehend Paul's letters.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Floating On A Sea Of Faith

The brilliant Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was doing his work at a time when modern historiography was just beginning to make a mark on the Christian church. He was very critical of what we would today call modernism - indeed, he is an important precursor to post-modern philosophy and for many of us, an intellectual godfather of emergence Christianity.

History as a modern scientific discipline is the opposite of faith in Kierkegaard's view, because he recognized that historical research is at best only able to represent an "approximation".

"It is impossible in the case of historical problems to reach an objective decision so certain that no doubt could disturb it. This also serves to show that the problem ought to be put subjectively, and that it is precisely a misunderstanding to seek an objective assurance, thereby avoiding the risk in which passion chooses and continues to live, reaffirming its choice."

For Kierkegaard, faith is a "passion" and could therefore never rely on the approximations of historical criticism. Passion includes the suffering of uncertainty and that is where faith must reside. The nature of faith rejects the necessity for secure, objective 'knowledge' - faith is a miracle. To demand that we 'know' for sure is a rejection of faith itself.

"...belief is not a form of knowledge, but a free act, an expression of the will."

Faith is a huge risk because it is the only foundation upon which the Christian stands - and it is a foundation built on the absolute necessity of uncertainty. He puts it like this:

"Spiritual existence, especially the religious, is not easy; the believer continually lies out on the deep, has 70,000 fathoms of water beneath him. However long he lies out there, this still does not mean that he will gradually end up lying and relaxing onshore. He can become more calm, more experienced, find a confidence that loves jest and a cheerful temperament-but until the very last he lies out on 70,000 fathoms of water."

(thanks to Dale Martin's book Sex and the Single Savior for inspiring this post)

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Rise of Christianity (by Rodney Stark): Part 2 of 3

I, along with most scholars of the NT I am familiar with, do probably disagree with his assertion that Christianity mainly attracted mid/upper class citizens and was very quickly made up of a majority of well off, educated converts. Even if mid/upper class citizens were dominantly drawn in, there are a number of problems with Stark’s conclusion. First, literacy was limited to no more than 10% of the population, even upper class citizens were often lacking, so an upper class citizen does not necessarily equal high education – this isn’t explicit in his argument, but it could lead to confusion and we know that early Christians were pretty poor at even copying down their own sacred texts until the fourth century when professional scribes took up the task more often. Second, due to efficient but oppressive Roman imperial policy, there really wasn’t a middle class. 95% of the population was made up of the “peasant” or lower class with no real middle and then a sudden bubble of wealth at the top, especially in the top 1%. Third, authentic writings of Paul (“Not many of you were wise by worldly standards” Paul writes) as well as writings of Origen and Celsus (writing much later than Paul) confirm early Christians were not very well educated and likely were not predominately made up of the mid/upper class.

Stark contends that new religious cults (breakaway religions) tend to draw in more educated, upper class converts while new religious sects (extensions of religions) tend to draw in a broader mix. He then uses this theory to claim Christianity was a middle/upper class movement because immediately after the resurrection it became a Christian cult (even if Paul didn’t think of it this way - what a strange, ignorant thing for Stark to conclude), not the Jewish sect of Jesus. His basis for this, that the resurrection sparked drastically different theological conclusions from Jewish thought, just shows a lack of understanding of resurrection theology and Paul himself as completely based within traditional Jewish thought. Certainly, Jewish Christianity was new, but it was not a cult until much later after Paul had died and Greek thought got the best of the movement.

Despite major Jewish/Christian conflicts arising at least by the writing of Luke in the 70’s (as evidenced by the author’s anti-Jewish re-writings of Markan material continued into Acts), I would contend it wasn’t until near the end of the first century that Christianity became so consciously distinct from Judaism that it became a cult and not just the Messianic Jewish sect of Jesus and Paul (for better or worse, it’s debatable I think). This is in part as it incorporated more Greek thought into the faith than either Paul or Jesus. Paul’s biggest group of converts, “the God-Fearers” (who were the primary people he focused on converting when he went to synagogues - he wasn't called to the Jews but to the Greeks) were probably the earliest converts and need not be associated with upper class citizens. They were truly Greek (avoiding the full implications of the Law), but attracted to Jewish ethics and monotheism – a hybrid that Paul was able to communicate to perfectly. Hellenized Jewish converts probably came later, although they were in a similar religious situation as the God-Fearers. Early Christianity certainly had wealthier members (like Nicodemus) and without them the movement wouldn’t have succeeded (on this much I agree with Stark – the upper class was essential to the success of early Christianity), but they were not the majority in the first century.

Following this is Stark’s lengthy chapter on why the mission to the Jews didn’t actually fail (despite what is claimed in the NT) but continued on in to the fourth century. The cultural continuity Christianity offered to Hellenized Jews was easier to swallow than for the Gentiles who didn’t connect with the Jewish ideas as well. This is key and I think I agree with him for the most part on this point – the rise of Christianity spread quickly to the Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora, who because of Paul’s ability to put Greek clothes on a Jewish message, resonated for obvious reasons. The ethnic requirements of the Law had become a burden in a Hellenistic context for these Jews and they became discontented, another ripe ingredient for conversion to new religious movements. Additionally, the earliest Jewish Christians had pre-existing relationships with these Hellenized Jews – and Stark contends that social movements grow much faster when spreading through existing social networks. The assertion in the NT that the mission to the Jews had failed may have been true at the time if I am correct that the earliest converts came mainly from the peasant class and “the God-Fearers”, and it was only a number of decades after Paul died in the 60’s that the Hellenized Jews began to latch onto Christianity in mass numbers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 2

This post concerns just chapter 3 of Eisenbaum's book. The chapter is titled "How Paul Became A Christian"...just a tad provocative - and like the title of the book wasn't enough to stir things up.

In order to see Paul's Jewish identity more clearly, there needs to be a retracing of the traditional Christian lens used to understand Paul. Christianity's image of Paul - "who he was and what he did, believed, and preached developed over time through the accumulation of recounted memories and the subsequent writings of some very influential Christians of the first four centuries, who, in some cases devoted countless hours to studying Paul's letters so as to write commentaries and treatises on them and to preach on them to their communities."

Paul is absolutely critical to the development of Christianity from very early on. Over half of the NT canon is concerned with Paul, and this is significant. "Jesus may be the core of the Christian message, but Paul became the key to unlocking that message." Paul's life became the paradigm for Christian life early on. Paul's letters were gathered into collected volumes as early as the turn of the 2nd century indicating his importance to the development of Christianity fairly quickly. These collected volumes of Pauline letters were not actually standardized though and contained different versions and different actual collections. While the four gospels were in circulation around the same time to some extent, even these varied in content and in which gospels (including non-canonical gospels) were being read by various communities. Not until the 4th century was our NT canonized. All of this added up to difficulties for the early developing church. The Pastoral epistles were likely written much later to counter disagreeable aspects of Paul's circulating letters, especially in regards to the role of women. Different Christian communities definitely had differing views on the role of women, not much different than today's church environment. Debates about the "real" Paul have been raging ever since over this issue.

Eisenbaum has the following to say about the image of Paul the convert: "If Christian tradition were solely dependent on the undisputed Pauline letters, it is difficult to imagine how the image of Paul the convert could have been constructed in the first place. Paul does not use the language of conversion of himself in his undisputed writings. He never even uses the language of repentance in reference to himself. Paul only uses such language to coax his Gentile followers to repentance. To be sure Paul refers to his having persecuted the church prior to his encounter with the risen Jesus. But this appears to be his only prior behavior of which Paul feels shame. In all of his autobiographical reflections, Paul portrays himself as sinless." Contrast Philippians 3:6 and 2 Corinthians 11:22-23 with 1 Timothy 1:12-16 and this stark contrast between the Pastorals and the undisputed letters of Paul becomes clear. Eisenbaum concludes that this image of Paul the quintessential convert is not rooted in Paul's letters but in other sources.

Next up, Augustine and Luther's interpretations on Paul and how they changed everything for Christianity. Both of these men resonated with Paul because of (mis)perceived shared experiences. For Augustine, "Paul's religious transformation was perceived to have involved the discovery of what was essentially wrong with Judaism. Embracing Jesus meant embracing Christianity, and embracing Christianity necessitated [rejecting Judaism]". Luther's contribution to the traditional understanding of Paul is of course mainly due to his formulation of justification by faith through grace. This became the core of the gospel with Luther, and it came through his fearful, troubled conscience. At the time, Christianity taught judgment occurred on the basis of good works. Righteousness was not imputed upon faith in Christ and was therefore not the whole story. Faith only provided the basic foundation for justification through a life lived righteously. Luther, on the other hand, taught that righteousness was already received/imputed through faith and righteous living was impossible because living is itself hopelessly sinful. The law (Mosaic or any other kind of law) was not designed as a guide for living a Godly life, but only to show this truth - the sinfulness of mankind and the need for grace which can only be had through faith in Christ. "Human beings cannot draw themselves near to God, but God reaches out to human beings. This is evident through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God, through Jesus Christ, makes righteous the one who has faith."

As Catholics and Lutherans came together and reconciled this doctrine of justification in 1999 through the 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification', the doctrine has become absolutely central to Paul's message. Eisenbaum closes with another heavy statement: " the 20th century another trajectory of interpretation began to emerge...Paul did not reject his Jewish identity because Judaism was a religion of works, and...justification by faith is not the gospel Paul preached."

There it is, the two most important ideas Eisenbaum sets out to prove: Paul lived and died a Jew, and the traditional understanding of salvation through the Reformation's understanding is not in the text. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Rise of Christianity (by Rodney Stark): Part 1

I read this book a few months ago and never got around to posting it on here. I put together a lot of my thoughts in an e-mail to some friends and will be posting it in three parts over the coming week or two. Here's the first part:

Having just finished Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity”, I wanted to forward my thoughts to some friends as some of you have likely heard of this book. With a subtitle like “How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries”, as well as noticing it in many bibliographies in books I have read and enjoyed (A People’s History of Christianity by DB Bass, The First Paul by JD Crossan/M. Borg, etc), I knew this was a must read. The book is almost 15 years old, and while I have some concerns, am curious to know how some of his findings have stood the test of time, and to see another sociologist engage his work, Stark has made a deep contribution to studies in early Christianity.

A small concern I have of his work is, despite his continuing disbelief in Christianity (he’s back and forth he recently hinted), he is still a deep apologist for it and the sources he uses seem to land often on the quite conservative side of the aisle. Additionally, he is not a theologian or technically trained historian and sometimes this shows, for better or worse. Still, some of the material in this book need not rely so exclusively on conservative hermeneutics and textual criticism to be extremely relevant and fair – as should be evidenced by the fact that Borg/Crossan use some material from this book from time to time. Indeed, many of
Stark’s conclusions based on particular social science methods fly in the face of traditional views…which leads me to the first chapter.

Chapter 1 tracks the rise of Christianity numerically based on the best growth models a religious sociologist can come up with – the result is pretty impressive. Despite Acts 21:20 claiming that by around 50 CE there were “many thousands” of Christians in Jerusalem,
Stark writes, “These are not statistics” but they are hyperbole, like many ancient writers tended to do in order to convey a point. If there had been many thousands of Christians in just Jerusalem at 50CE, it would have been declared the first Christian city. Stark’s growth model of 40% per decade (based partially on Mormon growth rates – one of the fastest growing religious movements) suggests that there were in fact only about 1,400 Christians in the whole Roman empire at that time (.0017% of the population). By the time of Constantine, constant exponential growth had lead to almost 34 million Christians, making up 56.5% of the empire – and at least partly as a response to this shift, Constantine converted and an already faltering paganism went into an exponential decline.

He continues to discuss social theories about religious conversion and studies he has conducted over the years with other sociologists to uncover some basic principles about the process. At the core is an open network theory of conversion for all religious conversions. One of the major ways in which Christianity exploded so fast was it’s ability to remain a relational community without closing themselves off to outsiders – even viewing Christian/pagan inter-marriages as a good way to gain new converts (indeed, this did work
Stark contends). Women, the dominant gender in the early church for a variety of reasons soon be discussed, would marry pagan men who would most often follow her lead to Christianity.

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 1

I picked up this book two weeks ago and am slowly making my way through it on the side of my school work. For someone like myself who is so interested in New Testament studies and particularly books about early Christianity, the historical Jesus, and the new perspective on Paul, a book like this is a treat to sit down and read in between my textbooks for HSU courses. It is a popular level book, but Pamela does uses some scholarly jargon from time to time and her writing, while clear, can be a bit involved and wordy. I've read three of Bart Ehrman's books before reading this one and he's got an accessible writing style for the popular level reader that few, including Eisenbaum, can match. Still, so far my feelings are that people need to read this book as I think it advances the discussion on Paul in new ways.

The new perspective on Paul (NPP) is first and foremost about Paul's Jewishness. To separate him from this deeply rooted identity is to misunderstand Paul, and therefore most of the New Testament. Interpretation of key doctrines like justification are significantly impacted by this re-reading of Paul through a first century Palestinian Jewish lens. Paul lived and died a Jew - a Jew who believed that Jesus was indeed the messiah, but he did not think of himself as launching a new religion but rather continuing on in Judaism as writers like Eisenbaum, NT Wright, Marcus Borg, JD Crossan, Scot McKnight, Bart Ehrman, and EP Sanders have all made the case for. It should be obvious that though these authors all belong in the NPP camp, that doesn't mean they all agree. The NPP provides a new foundation to jump off of for all of these scholars, but they still end up in different places.

For Eisenbaum, Paul is ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally, and theologically Jewish and she wants to encourage both Jews and Christians to embrace Paul under a different light. For the former, he is not the anti-Jewish heretic some have made him out to be, and for the latter he is not the idealized Christian convert who started Christianity. To take Paul's Judaism seriously is more than just paying lip-service to this fact (a clear criticism of her NPP contemporaries) and it means putting him in the context of a Hellenistic Jew from the Greco-Roman era who speaks Greek and is influenced by Greek thought and culture. Putting Paul in this context will show that the long history of Christian anti-Judaism based on poor interpretations of Paul's letters and missionary work is misguided. She makes the claim that the Pharisaic Judaism that Paul comes from would have been very familiar with Paul's claims - a belief in a messianic savior figure and the general resurrection of the dead are very Jewish ideas and not so heretical.

Eisenbaum's study of Paul relies on the seven undisputed letters of Paul, rejecting 1/2 Timothy, Titus (the pastorals), Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians on the basis of internal and external evidence showing them to be almost certainly the products of later Christians writing pseudonymously in Paul's name. This is common amongst New Testament scholars today and the evidence is quite convincing. Acts is also viewed as historically problematic as there are multiple contradictions between it and Paul's own accounts of his journey's - this is also the view of the majority of NT scholars today. There are interpretive ambiguities she highlights and what look like contradictions within the same undisputed letters that highlight the need for more sensitivity to Paul's context.

That's a quick introduction to the book that takes us through a summary of the first couple chapters. More to come.