Everyone is invited to join in at Merthyr Explorers on 25th May.
Merthyr Road Uniting Church, 52 Merthyr Rd, New Farm.
10 am for morning tea (a few contributions to this will be welcome)
10:30 we begin our exploring of the topic.
A donation of $5 towards costs is appreciated as we do pay for the cleaning and give a donation to Merthyr Road Uniting Church each year for the use of the facilities.
We are moving into workshop/discussion groups this time and the following from Rev Dr Cliff Hospital is the background to the discussion. The focus is on Part B of this material, so a pre-reading of that is essential. Part A is for those who have the time and want to explore the way we interpret scripture.
Resurrection: Further Thoughts
Part A: Interpreting Scripture
It might be helpful to set a wider context for the discussion I initiated last month. Initially I think it is worthwhile to consider somewhat systematically the understanding of interpreting scripture that is the basis of my presentation; I didn’t want to make it the foreground, since that would have undercut the flow of my discussion of the issue, so I just mentioned some of the points in passing. But if one of the major issues for contemporary Christian thinking is about how to understand the role of the Bible in developing an authentically Christian life, then laying out some principles appears to be in order.
The first point to make is that not all Christians give primacy to the Bible as authoritative in Christian life. This is a peculiarly Protestant emphasis, developed initially by Luther due to his distress at what he saw happening in the church of Rome. In his training of Augustinian priests, he was assigned the task of teaching the Bible, and it was his reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans that set him off. The position of Rome was that the church was the central authority. It alone, through its recognized scholars, was able to develop the basic intellectual underpinnings of the church’s life. This did not mean that the Bible had no place in the Catholic scenario. It rather meant that the Bible had to be interpreted and supplemented by appropriate experts. To just allow anyone to read the Bible and try their own interpretation—a heretic is, literally, one which chooses (to make his or her own interpretation)–would lead to the dangerous loss of unity in the church. This position also has the effect of implying that one’s salvation depends on believing the right thing, and this tended to be taken up by the Protestants. And if on the Catholic side, to believe the wrong thing could mean that one would be subject to the Inquisition and its barbarism, on the Protestant side, it could mean being subject to a heresy trial and defrocked. But what was crucial for Luther was that he saw the evident corruption in the church as due to loss of the central vision of the gospel, which was in turn a loss of the prime authority of the Scriptures.
Second, it is important to emphasize that most of the major religious groups that we call world religions developed what Christians have called a canon of Scripture, a people’s body of shared texts accepted as authoritative for the community. And this development was a long process. In the case of the Christian Bible it was complicated by the fact that it involved assuming the Hebrew Bible, which was a compilation texts accepted as authoritative by the Jews (and a selection of its own documents was then added by the church). But it wasn’t mainly the Hebrew Bible that was used; it had been translated into Greek, in a text known as the Septuagint, in which form it was used by many Greek-speaking Jews living outside of the land of Judea, scattered across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. But these two texts were not identical in their arrangement. The Septuagint followed the order of books found in the Christian Bible: beginning with the Pentateuch, followed by a set of historical books, then a set of poetic and wisdom books, and finally a long series of proclamations by a class of religious specialists called prophets. In the Hebrew version, known by the acronym Tanakh, there are three sections: Torah (identical with the Pentateuch), Neviim (the books of the prophets), and Ketuvim (“writings,” a kind of grab bag of all the rest: historical books, psalms, proverbs, etc.). That the Septuagint followed a roughly historical trajectory from the creation, to the formation of the covenant with Abraham, and through the history of the people of Israel from the Exodus to the events to which the prophets were responding, meant that the expectations of the prophets could be seen by Christians as leading directly into the event of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, as recorded in the New Testament (better: “new covenant”). This could also be given an interpretation of a progressive revelation, with the laws of Moses seen as being refined and improved by the ideas of the prophets (some early modern critical scholars saw the prophets as inaugurating a stage of “ethical monotheism”), and then leading into the full revelation in Jesus Christ.
The order in the Tanakh leads to a different scenario: the foundation is the Torah (and this is reflected in the fact that today in Jewish synagogue services, these five books are read through every year; the other books of the Tanakh are not part of the synagogue ritual); and this is followed by the Prophets, who are understood as God’s messengers conveying God’s judgment on the people for their lack of faithfulness to the laws of the Torah. The other writings are rather in the background, providing context to Torah and Ketuvim.
I present this sketch just to make the point that how the scriptures are read can be affected by what appear to be rather small matters. But add this point: that the compilation of the specifically Christian texts which resulted in an agreement on what comprised the New Testament took several centuries. And there were always people around who objected to certain books: Luther famously called the letter of James “an epistle of straw;” and many scholars over the centuries thought that Revelation was too bizarrely crazy to be of help. (And, of course, the obsession among fundamentalists over the last couple of centuries with using the symbolism to explain current events, to the extent that Revelation is arguably their most important book, gives some support to scholarly caution.) But as well, the investigation of other early Christian texts that were not accepted in the canon has led scholars to the conclusion that there was originally a much wider range of interpretations in the church of the significance of the life of Jesus. Feminists have noted the extent to which the materials we have reflect a patriarchal culture; other texts make greater use of female symbolism.
Beyond these two points—the extent to which the Scriptures are the primary authority in a religious community’s life, and the complexity of the socio-political background to the formation of an agreed upon text—it is worthwhile to think a bit about how the texts have been used. At a popular level, one can reasonably assume, people did not discriminate; they just accepted what they heard or read. Fundamentalists reflect a more articulated stage, beyond mere acceptance, in which people say something like: the Bible is the word of God. God is truth, God cannot tell a lie, so the Bible must be true—literally accurate. How can I then decide that some bits—the story of the creation of the world, Noah’s ark, the tower of Babel—are not historically accurate?
At the level of sophisticated thinkers it has long been accepted that not every verse is equally true, equally authoritative. The way in which some texts are accorded greater weight than others is perhaps demonstrated most clearly by the traditional position of the Jewish rabbis, the descendants of the Pharisees in the period following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and the major leaders of the Jewish communities across the world for the last two thousand years. They distinguished between two different kinds of material: halakhah, “walking” and aggadah, “narration.” The former was the term used to refer to the 613 laws included in the Torah whereby the people were to guide their life. This was clearly central to, normative in, the life of the community. The other material is very wide ranging—psalms, used in the worship of God; traditional history—including a fair batch of stories of community heroes, such as the patriarchs, military leaders, kings (in many ways these are like Norse sagas, or the epics of Greeks, Romans and Hindus, or the indigenous Australians’ stories of the Dreaming); the utterances made by prophets to the community in judgment and encouragement; wisdom literature such as Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes–more general thinking about the nature of human life. Although this material was often very interesting and provided illustrations of how the community understood the nature of the good life, it was not central. What was central for the rabbis was the community’s faithfulness to their covenant with God in adhering to the injunctions and prohibitions of halakhah.
Another set of contrasts then comes into play with respect to following these laws: Mishnah and Midrash. The laws as presented in the Pentateuch are scattered unsystematically throughout these five books. Mishnahs were books that were developed to organize materials into various general topics. The most famous of these, by Rabbi Judah, c. 200 CE, contained six large sections, which included: agriculture; the Sabbath and the festivals; women–marriage and divorce; damages–property, inheritance; sacred things–the temple, etc.; and ritual purity. Midrash, meaning “inquiry, investigation” is the kind of thinking that Christians have called “exegesis” or more broadly, “interpretation.” One of my Jewish teachers at Harvard said that the source of midrash is an irritant—e.g., lack of clarity, an apparent disagreement between two different laws, or a situation in which the commentator finds the ethical principles expressed no longer acceptable (a classic example is story of the binding of Isaac, in which God asks Abraham to build a sacrificial altar and then kill his son). But more extensively midrashes are commentaries in which it is acknowledged that the written torah needs to be reinterpreted to deal with new and different circumstances.
This leads us to another pair: written torah and oral torah. There is a nice little story that makes the point. Moses is taken in a kind of time-warp to the academy of the great rabbi, Akiba, in the second century CE. He is quite mystified. The rabbinic students argue vociferously with one another, and Moses has no idea what they are talking about: all these new words, all these situations that he doesn’t understand at all. Then at the end of the session, he is somewhat gratified, but still quite mystified, to hear Rabbi Akiba say: “This law was given to Moses at Mount Sinai.”
The point that is being made, somewhat paradoxically, is that the laws stay the same, and at the same time are continually changing. Or to put it slightly differently: there is no written torah without oral torah. Halakha, walking, is a short-cut for acting in the way God has mandated for the community (“walk in the way of the Lord”). At any point in the life of the community, the commandment to action comes via the judgment of the great rabbis who are committed to a rigorous process of determining what a particular law involves at that specific time.
What this process clearly involves is a determination of what is central to the life of the Jewish community, and a process of contemporization in which the implications of a particular law are for the individual and community.
This clearly articulated process provides a good way of looking at how Christians look at the Scriptures. Against the background of the Jewish community, Christians are focussed on the gospel, the good news of God’s reign—a vision of the world as God intends it for us in the realization of our full humanity–as mediated via the life and teaching and death of Jesus. As Luther said, the central principle of interpretation for Christians is that it is Christo-centric. He appears to have read this mainly via Paul. I would argue that it is best to understand it via three major presentations: that of the Pauline letters, that of the synoptic gospels, and that of the gospel of John. From the interplay of these, one can discern a core vision, but it is fairly complicated for these presentations involve different approaches. Paul uses a rhetorical style of argument which presents his understanding of the life and death of Jesus–sometimes rather simply, but often in a highly complex intellectual tour de force; sometimes in response to questions and problems that are evident in particular communities, but at other times, a more general discussion for the church as a whole. In the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke– the basic mode is the telling of the story of the life of Jesus with the central values mediated via Jesus’ teaching, in short aphoristic statements and via parables—both types of which have the effect of tossing the hearer beyond conventional thinking, providing another perspective best described as living in the context of God’s grace; and via his healings which are implicitly understood as mediated by, and signs of, God’s grace. In John, usually accepted as rather later than the synoptics, the same mode of a combination of teaching and healing is in place, but the wider theological frame is different in that Jesus is understood via a kind of “high” theology, as the incarnation of the divine logos or word and hence as none other than God–his miracles, or signs, and his death, as a manifestation of the divine doxa, glory. (The different theological frame is also reflected in the fact that Jesus speaks in a vocabulary that has little in common with the discourse of the Synoptics’ Jesus.)
These three basic corpuses are supplemented by other books, mainly letters from, or attributed to, other apostles—and, of course, the book of Revelation (apocalupsis), part of a series of texts referred to as apocalyptic literature (the gospels of Mark and Matthew each have a mini-apocalypse, in the form of statements by Jesus during the last week of his life indicating future devastations, but also giving assurance of the ultimate triumph of good over evil). Revelation presents a similar picture but in an extensive exercise of the imagination, in which the history of the times is presented via vivid coded imagery, along with the assurance of the final triumphant consummation of all in God. In the context of the New Testament, most scholars would emphasize that this speculative piece needs to be understood within the framework of the dominant vision of God’s grace.
One might say that in both the Jewish and the Christian communities the formation and interpretation of scripture involve an exploration of the central values of the community. In the Jewish case, the exploration of the covenant relationship is focussed on the halakhic materials in the Torah and their application in the life of the community. In the Christian case, the exploration is more of a new perspective on human life, Gentile as well as Jewish, and an extrapolation from that perspective–of the immense, unfathomed, unconfined grace of God–of the appropriate actions, centred on love for all people, commitment to the well-being of all, within the community and beyond. All mediated by the person of Jesus.
Because the basic Christian vision is exploratory and speculative—as is evident from the different overall perspectives of the three basic corpuses—the ongoing rethinking of that vision in terms of new philosophical thinking in new intellectual environments is not a particular problem.
However, the new circumstances occasioned by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment do impinge on this process in three major contexts. First the view of the world, and the way in which human values are projected symbolically into the universe; the person who is critically aware of this process may still use the naturally felt power of the symbolism, but is now inevitably aware that the symbols are symbols, the myths are myths. Second, the socio-political setting has changed radically since the time of the Bible, and it is therefore necessary to rethink how the gospel values are to be applied in new socio-political contexts (this is particularly significant in relation to the treatment of women and slaves, different ethnic and/or racial identities, sexual orientation, perceived sexual identity, and such issues as abortion). Third, there are situations where the modern scientific view of the universe makes it impossible to accept what has generally been accepted as fact—resurrection, ascension, heaven and hell as locations, angels and demons and their interactions with humanity.
The implications of these factors need to be ongoingly addressed, in detail.
Part B: A Few additional Points to Consider
I did not explore as fully as I might have the place of the problem of death in Paul and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I pointed to the way in which the argument in 1 Corinthians, that because Jesus died and was raised, we shall be raised, moves to one in Colossians that because in baptism we have with Christ died to the old life and risen to the new life, we must live as those who are dead to sin and alive to God. But I did not consider that still behind both of these is the Genesis view that death is a product of human sinfulness, and the resurrection is the mark of the defeat of the last enemy, death. Gerard Manley Hopkins gives an updated version of this. In the last section of exploring the “Heraclitean fire,” nature’s bonfire burns on, and the marvel of humanity is quenched, “in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark/ Drowned.” “O pity and indignation!” That we, precious beings that we are, go in death into oblivion, is an assault on all our sensibilities. As a result we need the (comfort of) the Resurrection.
It has often seemed to me rather strange that Genesis, and Paul, massively intelligent as he was, following suit, should be persuaded that death was a punishment for sin. Surely it must be obvious that death is a universal throughout all living beings! But, of course, there is this point, that as far as we can tell, although some other beings, as part of their success at survival, instinctively respond to the threat of death with fear, and fight or flight strategies, they do not have the highly articulated self-awareness that results in a unique sense of our mortality. For us, uniquely, death is indeed the last enemy.
So any other ways in which we interpret the implications of the idea of the Resurrection must take this reality into consideration. More than I have laid out, I think.
However, there is another take on death which is worth considering.
There is a magnificent little poem, “Yaksha,” written by the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, as a kind of poetic commentary on another poem, one of the most celebrated in Sanskrit literature, Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, “The Cloud Messenger.” In Meghaduta, a Yaksha, a low-level divinity, is dispatched to earth, and here on earth he pines for his beloved back in the heavenly Yaksha city of Alaka. He writes beautiful, touching poems, expressing his longing for her, and asks a cloud to carry them to her. Tagore in his poem suggests that the Yaksha’s condition is preferable to that of his wife, of whom he says:
The poet has given her pining no language,
Her love no pilgrimage–
For her the unspeaking Yaksha city
Is a meaningless prison of riches.
Permanent flowers, eternal moonlight–
Mortal existence knows no grief as great as this:
Never to awake from dreams.
On the other hand:
God has granted that the Yaksha may pound her door
He longs to sweep the beloved
Away on the surging stream of his heart,
Away from the motionless mounts of heaven
Into the light of this many-coloured, shadow-dappled
In his commentary on the poem, the translator, William Radice, notes Tagore’s idea “that the Yaksha’s state of imperfect yearning for perfection is preferable to the perfection itself.”
[Joy and pain each] need the other. Hence the paradox that the immortal Beloved/Alaka ideal, which ought to be unalloyed joy, would actually be more unbearable than mortality, since it lacks the power to express itself through pain and yearning. And hence Tagore’s yearning…. And hence Tagore’s dualism; for perfection unable to enter into a relationship with imperfection would be torment indeed…. The Yaksha is advantaged by his very mortality: his freedom to yearn is a gift from God.
What Tagore is doing in this poem is picking up on a theme which is quite common in the polytheistic traditions of India, that one of the major differences between the gods and human beings is that the former do not know death, and live in perpetually pleasant, paradisal conditions. We human beings long for such conditions, but they are really only paradisal to us in our imagination and our longing, against the background of the painfulness and mortality of our condition. To live in such conditions perpetually, with no other possibility, would not be what we imagine it. We long for a condition where “sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” and where there are no more tears, but to be unable to know sorrow and sighing and tears means that the unalloyed joy would, in fact, be terribly superficial. So, says Tagore, the human condition is in fact preferable to that of the gods! Love, joy, pain and mortality all go together, none is what it is without the others. But further, pain and death are fully as much part of the wonder of who we are as human beings, as love and joy!
One final piece for consideration.
I have recently been writing a bit of poetry. One poem, perhaps part of a series on various parts of our human bodies, is called “Skin.” But I begin it with a piece on “brain”:
In the evolution of humankind
from humanoid to
full-blown homo sapiens
it is the massive brain,
together with its protective skull
and its mysterious product,
that has claimed distinctive dominance.
And justifiably so.
For via its almost infinite network
(Who can count?)
of electrical impulses
the human mind-brain
created the universe—
allowed the universe to blossom
at least to some extent—
and to experience wonder
As succinctly as I could put it, this takes some unpacking, and I will not try to explicate it. However, I have been taken with the fact that in our evolution, in the finding of a niche in the competitive and cooperative venture that is life on earth, we rather puny creatures developed brains that are able to comprehend the structures whereby the physical universe evolves, and eventually evolved us. (At least, some of us have had the intellectual capacities to see these structures, basically mathematical, and to transmit their insights to others.) And much of the way life has changed for us, for the better, over the last few centuries, has been a result of the extrapolation of these insights.
But one of the things that has intrigued me from when I was about six or seven, is that there are limits to our understanding. I realized one afternoon, mind-wandering while I was trying to take a nap—which I could not do in those days of early childhood—that I could not comprehend that the world, spatially, could come to an end. When I tried to think of that, there was always something beyond!–or that is does not come to an end. Later, I would extrapolate to say that we both can and cannot contemplate infinity. Similarly, eternity. (I love the line from the hymn: “E’en eternity’s too short to extol thee.”)
All of which is to say, that while I cannot comprehend Paul’s spiritual bodies, or think of singing God’s praises or enjoying the bliss of heaven in some non-physical body—aesthetics is so tied up with our physicality—I cannot assert that there is nothing beyond death. I said that on such matters we are inevitably agnostic. But there is a further point: that being agnostic is not just a fact; acknowledging our agnosticism is an appropriate humility in the face of mystery.