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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Creator's Rights

One of the most common complaints conservative people in general have against progressives in general is our "bleeding heart." We fixate on peace and love, fail to comprehend the depth of human hatreds and depravity, and try to domesticate the wrathful God of the ancients into a Santa Claus. In extreme cases, they accuse us of hiding our own deep hatreds and enmities behind a cloak of sanctimonious moral superiority.

Naturally, these criticisms are simplistic (I might add that my characterization of them is simplistic too. Touche!). There are fundamental issues at stake here, even if people on either side don't always articulate them clearly. I would like to introduce some clarity by taking another look at the question of what God's justice/judgment is. There are other paths to the fundamental issues, but I think this one gets us there faster.

To start, let's consider the question, "What rights over us does God have by virtue of having created us?" An orthodox Christian person might want to frame the question more pointedly: "What rights does an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, infinite and perfect being have over something he has made?" (Note: use of the masculine pronoun for God is a compromise with Christian tradition. Female readers feel free to be suitably outraged.) A typical starting place is the apostle Paul's paraphrase of Isaiah 29:16, "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" (Romans 9:20). The context of Paul's paraphrase explains why this is a good place to start. Paul is in the middle of explaining how God's election of some and rejection of others is part of his plan for salvation. He imagines someone objecting that it is not fair for God to condemn us if he is involved in "hardening" those he rejects. Paul's answer is that God has the right to decide whom to save and whom to condemn. In Paul's mind the justice of God's election is unimpeachable, because all are worthy of condemnation due to sin. We can't complain if God only chooses to save some because our own attitudes and actions show that we are haters of God and the human race. "What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath -- prepared for destruction?" (9:22).

Paul assumes there is only one right answer: So what? What's your problem? As sinners vs. a holy God, we have no grounds for complaint. But behind this lies another, more fundamental distinction that many orthodox believers discern in this text: As creatures vs. our creator, we have no grounds for complaint. The potter analogy lends itself to this extended application. And, in fact, I intend to take it that way for now (even though I think in Paul's argument human sinfulness is the issue, not creatureliness), because I think a thorough examination of it will impact the way we think of our standing as sinners before God as well.

So, are we going to cross this line in the sand? Do we dare to actually try to answer the question, or shall we do what is expected of us, swallow our scruples/objections and bow the knee to divine/apostolic authority? Who are we, indeed! Of course, we have an acute interest in this question, being the objects of God's supposed sovereign choices to save or condemn. We're a bit different from a pot, after all. We're sentient. We think. We have feelings. We suffer. We love and hate. We bear God's image. Ane we're totally at God's mercy. Do those facts change God's rights and obligations towards us at all?

Yep, and we all know it. Here are a few things to admit: First, a creator's superiority in power, wisdom, knowledge or perfection relative to his creatures has nothing to do with whether he is justified in doing A or B with them. Second, for a creator to make a sentient being, inflict pain on that being without just cause, and not recompense that being for its sufferings is evil. Third, an absolutely unlimited creator never has sufficient cause to inflict pain on one of his creations, for he can always accomplish his purpose adequately some other way.

Now, since the Bible is full of God inflicting pain on human beings, we can only conclude that God, as presented by the Biblical authors, is limited or limits himself in his dealings with us.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The author of the book of Hebrews gives his take on serious Bible study when he says, "Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." This statement comes at the end of a passage in which he criticizes his audience for failing to advance far enough in the Christian faith to be able to teach anyone. In fact, he says they need to be taught the elementary truths of the faith all over again. He uses the contrast between milk and solid food as an analogy for the difference between a mature and skilled handler of the faith and an initiate. The study of the Bible forms a large part of what the author considers "solid food," as he just interrupted a detailed discussion of the story of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 to make this criticism. It is very interesting that he regards Bible study as a potentially "stretching" exercise. Obviously, an infant's digestive system can't handle a steak dinner. Likewise, the author suggests, it takes a contracted period of living with Christian faith before one can fully profit from Bible study. It takes awhile for Christians to be able to properly distinguish good from evil.

Now, the way the author applies this approach to handling the Bible fits in with an approach to the Bible he shared with Jewish and early Christian interpreters. Not only did they approach the Bible as the very word of God, but they believed that every detail of that word potentially held tremendous significance and had to be attended to very carefully to discover the depths of the message God had to convey. Another common belief they shared was a tendency to regard the "heroes" of the faith as models for behavior in every detail of the activities recorded about them in the Bible. Of course, the stories in the Hebrew Bible do not always depict the "heroes" of the faith in a positive light. To the author of Hebrews, the mature handler of the Bible is able to glean from careful attention to the details of the text the clues necessary to show how an apparently bad example set by a "hero" is actually a good example. This is what he means by distinguishing good from evil. The rabbis whose ideas are preserved in the Mishnah were skilled at this, as were the authors of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books. If you want a fuller exposition, see James Kugel's The Bible As It Was. For a quick example, consider the author of Hebrew's comment on Moses' decision to flee from Egypt after it was discovered that he had murdered another Egyptian to stop him from harming an Israelite. According to Exodus 2:14-15, Moses became afraid when he found out that his deed had beome public knowledge. Pharaoh tried to kill him, but he fled to Midian. What role his fear had to play in this flight is not specified in the text, but the natural interpretation of the text is that Moses fled because he was afraid for his life. The author of Hebrews does not accept this interpretation (Hebrews 11:27). Apparently, he regarded it as a shameful blot on Moses' character that he would run from Pharaoh out of fear. He's not the only one to dodge the natural interpretation of Exodus 2:14 either. In Acts 7:23-29, Stephen's speech implies that Moses left Egypt because he realized that the Israelites were not willing to let him lead them out of Egypt.

Whatever the merits of these interpretations of Exodus 2:14-15, I think the author of Hebrews is right about the nature of Bible study. Distinguishing good and evil in the Bible is not always easy. It takes training. It is not that people are ignorant of what is basically good and evil; it is recognizing specific examples of each in particular situations. I had an epiphany of sorts about this during a study of Exodus 32:1-14, the story of the golden calf. While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai with the Lord, the people lose patience and incite Aaron to manufacture an idol which they then worship. The Israelites had just entered into a covenant with the Lord, and its first stipulation was that they would worship him alone. God was about to send Moses down the mountain with the tablets holding the Ten Commandments when he informs Moses that the people have fallen into idolatry. Then the Lord says, "I have seen these people, ... and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone, so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." (Exodus 32:9-10) What is one to make of this?

First, it's a word directly from the Lord, not from a spokesperson or someone disguising himself as God. Second, it contains a direct command to Moses: Leave me alone. Don't argue, plead, beg, remonstrate, etc. There is nothing in the form of the command or the context to suggest that this is different from the Lord giving a command to the Israelites; he speaks as divine Master to human servant and expects obedience. Third, it appeals to Moses' vanity or self-interest. Finally, it nullifies the promises the Lord made to the Israelites through Moses. This last point is the stickiest, because technically, a nation formed from Moses could be considered Israel genetically (but not, as the Lord hints, spiritually. Moses' descendants wouldn't be so stiff-necked), for whatever that's worth. It wasn't worth much to Moses, because he immediately pleads for the Lord to reconsider.

Moses disobeys the Lord's command, and is not punished, threatened with punishment, rebuked, or even subtly criticized by the narrator. In fact, he's rewarded with a vision of God's glory (Exodus 33:12-23). He argues with God about the wisdom of his stated plan and wins the argument. What's going on here? To a reader of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, it's clear that the stated plan to destroy the entire nation, except for Moses, does not fit with God's intention for Israel. It cuts against the grain of his own self-description: "The Lord, The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7). So, does idolatry make God so angry that he loses control of himself? Is God pleased with Moses because he talked him out of doing something that would have embarassed him in front of the whole universe?

I'm inclined to think that the command is a test of Moses' fitness as a mediator. To acquiesce in the Lord's command would have been a failure, a sin. This raises a huge question about the ethical character of the Lord's words. Many people view the Lord's words as a legitimate pronouncement of judgment. Had he been determined to do so, the Lord would have been within his rights to destroy all the Israelites, regardless of what Moses had to say about it. If this were so, Moses sinned when he refused to leave God alone. Look, you can argue until you're blue in the face about God's freedom to do as he pleases. The problem is that God COMMANDS Moses to keep quiet. The only circumstances under which one can disobey a command from a legitimate authority without blame is when the command itself is illegitimate. Moses was right not to leave God alone because God's stated plan was wrong, wrong, wrong!

Here's the rub: God himself gives an immoral command to Moses. Moses is left to decide whether to obey. This was my epiphany. If God can give immoral commands to test someone, what prevents Biblical authors from attempting to deceive us or incite us to do evil? Christians should not expect to close an argument about the truth of a Biblical text because the Biblical author said it was so, or about the goodness of a Biblical command because the Biblical author told us to do it. Distinguishing good from evil in the Bible is not a matter of figuring out how things we suspect are wrong are really right. It is being able to stand up for what is right even when pressured to support the wrong by friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, governing authorities, Biblical authors, and even God himself.

What is this site all about?

It is about Christianity. I am a Christian. Not a very good one, maybe. Certainly not orthodox. Still, I believe in one, true God, who revealed himself to Israel and came in the person of Jesus Christ to save us from our sins. I believe Christianity is uniquely true. I believe in the kingdom of God, present and coming.

It is radical, in the classic sense. In the author's opinion, the current Christian orthodoxies are untenable. Most Christians already implicitly acknowledge this by failing to live consistently orthodox Christian lives. I don't mean Christians are sinners; I mean that they develop rationalizations to explain why they do not have to obey clear commands, even of Jesus himself, while claiming to still believe in the "authority" or "inerrancy" of the Bible. Typically, these rationalizations are meant to ease a conflict between the apparent meaning of the Bible and contemporary Christian convictions. The solution, however, is not to adjust orthodoxy, because orthodoxy in all its forms is itself unacceptably sub-Christian, as the changes in Christian convictions attest. The needed remedy is to dig out the foundations and rebuild from the ground up.

It is about the meaning and application of the Bible. I am a Protestant Christian. I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I believe God meets Christians in the hearing of the preached word. I don't believe this in the orthodox way. I think teachings about the "authority," "infallibility," and "inerrancy" of the Bible found in orthodox Christian churches are demonstrably false.

It is modernist. I believe in the Enlightenment. I believe in modern science. I believe in modern ideas such as the equality of all before the law and human rights. I believe all these things because they are inherently good and because some of the Biblical writers, in their better moments, anticipate or lay groundwork for them.

It is NOT about politics, conservative, liberal, or otherwise. It is NOT about church politics, either. It is NOT primarily about attacking orthodoxy, although some of that is unavoidable. It is NOT a series of scholarly articles. I am a Christian layperson. Although I did get seminary degrees and pastor a church for awhile, I am not a professional theologian or Biblical scholar.

It is a place for people who are struggling with some of the ugly implications of orthodoxy to find an alternative way to read and apply the core Christian teachings. If it helps someone to become a better follower of Jesus, praise God!