The Lord’s Prayer

 Bible  Comments Off on The Lord’s Prayer
Oct 222015


Prayer is a difficult subject that a great many people have written about over centuries, if not millennia. The Lord’s Prayer is in many ways the centerpiece of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon has what is called a chiastic structure. Chiasmus was a common literary and storytelling device in the ancient Hebrew world. Sometimes it is no more than the simple symmetric reversal of words and ideas, as in the verse from the Sermon: “But many that are first shall be last and the last shall be first.” ( Matthew 7:6) which is not only a theological statement, but a linguistic one as well. Structurally chiasmus involves building a narrative in order of components (A. B.C.D.E. . . etc), then reversing the order (. . .E’D’C’B’A’), sometimes with a key component in the middle. Here is the chiastic structure of the Sermon:

A. 5:1-2—Audience
B.5:3-12—Wisdom: Beatitudes
C.5:13-16—Worthless Cast Out
D 5:17-32—Thesis: Came to Fulfill the Law
E. 5:33-37—Oaths
F. 5:38-42—Retaliation
G.5:43-48—Treasuring God
H. 6:1-4—Sacrificial Giving

6:5-15—Lord’s Prayer

H’ 6:16-18—Sacrificial Fasting
G’6:19-34—Treasuring God
F’ 7:1-6—Retaliation
E’ 7:7-11—Prayers
D’ 7:12-14—Claim: Love Fulfills the Law
C’ 7:15-23—Worthless Cast Out
B’ 7:24-27—Wisdom: Building a House
A’ 7:28-29—Audience

You can see that the Lord’s Prayer is central, that is, the focus of the whole “sermon.”

Here is a link to an excellent linguistic analysis of the whole Sermon (from which I took the chiastic structure)   I can’t say that I agree with the theological points all of the time, but the linguistic analysis is very useful. It’s very technical, though. To understand it your Biblical Greek needs to be good.

The Lord’s Prayer has, for centuries, been a liturgical prayer, that is, recited word for word. Being raised Presbyterian, I am not big on rote prayers. The Lord’s Prayer is the only one we recite with any regularity, and usually only after a much longer extemporaneous prayer. Protestants in general (excepting some groups such as Episcopalians) avoid liturgical prayers. The Lord’s Prayer has this status because of the preceding statement (which I am translating loosely to capture the essence):

Therefore, you ought to pray in this manner . . . (Matthew 6:9a).

I interpret this to mean, “pray according to this model,” rather than “pray using these exact words.” Maybe that’s the Presbyterian in me. Liturgical prayer can easily become mindless if you are not paying attention to what you are reciting. First let me say a few words about the Prayer in English as I learnt it:

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

The last line in bold (the doxology) is not in the the text of the Sermon on the Mount, but is common for Protestants to recite. The “debts/debtors” bit is Presbyterian/Reformed; otherwise it is usually recited as “trespasses/those who trespass against us” in other Protestant denominations. Way too sibilant with all those snaky “s’s” for us, not to mention the vague meaning.

Note the archaic tone of the language. “Thou/thy/thine” were normal 2nd person, singular, familiar in the 17th century, but are now obsolete in everyday language. The old distinction of thou/you in English roughly matches the tu/vous distinction in French. “Thou” is singular AND informal. You would use it for close friends and family only. You would use “you” for superiors and in formal situations. So it is of particular note that the Prayer uses “thy” and “thine” for God. This is highly unusual. It suggests an intimacy with God as with one’s earthly father. In fact it is perhaps an even closer relationship than with one’s father whom one might refer to as “you” under normal circumstances. But this is purely a matter of translation; the distinction does not exist in Biblical Greek. Pronouns were either singular or plural with no formality or honorific implied. Nowadays the persistence of 17th century English has more to do with ritualized tone then meaning. It sounds more “prayer-like” with the archaic diction.

Short formulaic prayers of this sort were (and are) quite common in Jewish tradition, and one can find parallels to almost all the phrases in the Lord’s Prayer in other formulaic Jewish prayers. So you could consider it as intended to be recited verbatim. Whether this is the case or not, is of no importance to my discussion. Rather, I want to talk about it as a model for prayer in general.

Simply put, it starts off with name and address – God/heaven. This is followed by a wish that God’s name always be treated with respect. In the Hebraic tradition names were extremely important, and not to be used lightly. A person’s name and power were deeply intertwined. When a person did something life changing, such as Jacob wrestling an angel, he/she was granted a new name to reflect this fact. Jacob’s name became called Israel – which sounds and looks like the Hebrew for “the man who wrestles God.” The fact that the ancient Hebrews even knew God’s “real” name – YHWH – was of immense importance. It was so holy that it could not be uttered aloud. To do so would be to invoke God’s awesome power, which it’s best not to do. It must be kept holy (“may your name be hallowed”).

“Thy kingdom come” has been interpreted in many ways. “Kingdom” here is the same as “authority” or “rule,” but it is not clear what the petition implies. It could be a specific desire for the world to end and for God to come to rule on earth, or it could be a more general desire for the world to be more Godly. “Thy will be done,” is more or less the same as far as I can tell. “On earth as it is in heaven” literally says in Greek, “as in heaven, so on earth.” That is, it is obvious that God rules in heaven, let it be the same on earth, OR “let earth be like heaven.”

“Give us this day our daily bread” is literally “give us today adequate sustenance.” The emphasis is on today – not tomorrow. “Daily bread” signifies basic food, although the Greek is not entirely clear. It implies necessities rather than excess or extravagance.  “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” hinges on the word “as.” It could be paraphrased, “forgive us in the same measure as we forgive others.” Thus, the more we forgive, the more we are forgiven. The word “debt” here has the general implication of “wrongs.”

“Lead us not into temptation” has caused problems because it appears to contradict this (James 1:14):

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.

But most commentators suggest that it is parallel to James, meaning, “don’t let us be carried away by our own desires,” because the next phrase “but deliver us from evil,” can be seen as saying the same thing in different words. The word “evil” here may also be translated, “the evil one” (i.e. Satan), but the meaning is the same.

So the model is something like:

Address God personally.
Praise him.
Confess that he is in control (and that is good).
Ask for no more than bare necessities.
Ask for forgiveness.
Ask to be kept safe.

Pure simplicity. Elsewhere in the Sermon Jesus talks about avoiding ostentation and extravagance in prayer. Just be simple and quiet about it. Most importantly, don’t spend all your time pleading for this and that. It’s wasted effort. And for crying out loud, stop worrying. If you can do something about a problem, then do it. If you can’t, accept it.  C.S. Lewis was once asked if he thought he could change God’s mind by praying. He replied that he did not pray to change God’s mind, but his own.  That seems to me to be the essence of the Lord’s Prayer.

To be continued . . .

The Sermon on the Mount

 Bible  Comments Off on The Sermon on the Mount
Oct 212015


I use a fairly orthodox Protestant approach to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chpts 5 to 7), and I take it very seriously indeed. It’s a mightily significant yardstick. Great spiritual leaders from St Francis to Dietrich Bonhoeffer have made it the centerpiece of their Christianity. We do well to follow in their footsteps. In fact my suggestion is that we take the Sermon on the Mount as our principal exposition of the Christian life, as many others have done, and measure all our actions and beliefs against it. It becomes, thus, our lens through which we see the rest of the Bible and the world.

I have already said in past posts that I doubt that the Sermon on the Mount is in any sense a transcription of an actual sermon by Jesus, so it is reasonable to ask why I want to elevate it to such a high status. At heart I really don’t have much to do but fall back on faith. When I read the Sermon on the Mount I keep feeling over and over that I have hit the mother lode. This is the spiritual direction that excites my passions. It moves me on so many levels. It also challenges me in ways that few other texts do. But, obviously, that is insufficient. More to the point is that I recognize the deeper Learning II values here that make sense of much of the rest of scripture. (see )

The core principles of the Sermon on the Mount (following its basic outline) can be summarized as follows:

1.The values of culture have everything backwards. This is the central message of the passage known as The Beatitudes. The poor, the bereaved, the oppressed, etc. are the lucky ones.

2.  The Law and Ten Commandments are to be followed according to their underlying spirit. In many ways Jesus requires stricter adherence to the basic principles.

3. Likewise, the intention behind personal spiritual acts is of vital importance. If they are done publicly to garner favor, they have no spiritual value.

4. Do not rely on material things for happiness and security. Rely only on spiritual things.

5. Do not judge others.

6. Seek holiness in all things.

Without stretching our minds and spirits too much we can see that #6 summarizes it all. The whole piece represents a series of examples to help clarify this major point. Go read the whole sermon right now. It will do you good. Here’s a link if you don’t have a bible to hand

I will have much more to say about the Sermon on the Mount’s values in future posts, of course. For now though I just want to think about the historical legitimacy of this passage in Matthew. After all, if it is to be our spiritual yardstick we ought to be sure that it comes directly from Jesus and is not just some latter-day pious concoction. Here we have a small problem to resolve.

I have no doubt that the Sermon in its current form is not an accurate representation of a specific sermon that Jesus delivered. Ancient historians had a different approach to their source material than we do in the modern world. They frequently added speeches to their histories to add color and realism. No one treated these speeches as verbatim documents, but they were expected to convey the flavor and essence of the original moment.

I don’t want to go into a lot of academic detail about the authenticity of the sayings in the Sermon. It gets unnecessarily technical for our purposes. Here are the essentials. While the Sermon may be a literary liberty on the gospel author’s part, it appears to contain a series of points that are self consistent and that follow the tenor of sayings of Jesus found in other documents that are generally agreed to be authentic. Jesus was in the business of uprooting the status quo of religion and of daily life. If that is not certain, then nothing is. Therefore, purported sayings of his that are contrarian or counter-cultural are likely to be authentic. Likewise Jesus was seemingly very single-mindedly focused on God’s love and our need to depend on it totally rather than on legalism and formal institutions.

Also from a strictly linguistic vantage, the sayings of the Sermon have the air of authenticity. We imagine that the things that Jesus preached circulated in oral tradition for some time before they were written down. To remain current in oral usage a saying has to be memorable, obviously. It cannot, therefore, be long-winded, high flown, and convoluted. It must be short, pithy, and to the point, preferably with some twist to it that catches the attention. The Sermon is replete with such sayings:

You are the salt of the earth (5:13)

Whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also (5:39)

If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles (5:41)

No one can serve two masters (6:24)

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged (7:1)

By their fruits you will know them (7:20)

We know these are memorable because they have become proverbial for us! We remember them. We talk about “going the extra mile” or being “the salt of the earth” or “turning the other cheek.” Ancient disciples would have remembered them too, and passed them on to other people. Unfortunately in the process of time they have lost some of their pithiness. That’s the unfortunate problem of being so spot on target.

Ultimately, therefore, I am going to accept the Sermon of the Mount as a generally accurate exposition of the heart of the teachings of Jesus. As such I am going to take it as literally as I can. My actions, my faith, my religion either measure up to it, or they do not. Whether I can ever achieve complete success in this regard is highly questionable, but that is beside the point. The precepts of the Sermon are my goal, and that is enough. Throughout history people have tried to water down the Sermon, saying that it is deliberately hyperbolic or not meant to be taken literally, and the like. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Take it at face value. If you fail, just accept that you are human (and keep trying).

This general principle provides me with a critical spiritual tool. It prevents me from hunting and pecking through the Bible to find verses that support my prejudices. It especially prevents me from falling back on Hebrew Bible legalism and moralism when I feel the need. Yet it does not invalidate the Hebrew Bible. It still allows me to see the Bible holistically. Thus, if someone comes to me and asks if the Bible has any teaching on tattoos, I don’t immediately turn to Leviticus and offer a condemnation. But I do take note of the fact that the old Law seems to be opposed to tattoos. My first stop, though, is the Sermon. I peruse it carefully for clues as to how to proceed. I note that there is no direct reference to tattoos, but there are references to ostentation and humility that may help us. The Beatitudes teach us the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Is a tattoo a sign of meekness? The Sermon also teaches us to avoid materialism and ostentation. Where would a tattoo fit in such a worldview? I’m not saying the answer here is clear cut. But I think we have some pretty good guidance for going back to Leviticus and figuring out what the intention of the original law was.

It is exceptionally common to find people trying to weasel out of the lessons of the Sermon. Yes, we need to bring the full box of linguistic, historical, and anthropological tools to bear in finding the original meaning of the various passages. But we should not do so simply because we find the goals hard (or impossible) to attain. That they are difficult is the whole point. I love the statement by G.K. Chesterton that I quote all the time:

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

It seems to me that much of the history of the church has been spent in undoing what Jesus taught. He was quite explicit and quite ruthless in his demands. If we don’t like them we should say so and give up. We should not try to twist his words to our liking. That may ease our consciences a little, but it won’t alter what Jesus truly demands of us.

Next I want to spend a few posts talking about the specifics of the Sermon. First . . . The Lord’s Prayer.

Morality and the Old Law

 Bible  Comments Off on Morality and the Old Law
Oct 202015


I get quite disturbed when I see demonstrations outside U.S. prisons on the eve of executions with various groups of people who identify as Christians both opposing and supporting the death penalty. Something is out of whack about this. What troubles me most is when I see people who claim to be Christians showing their support for capital punishment by waving signs that say “an eye for an eye.” What disturbs me is not just that they are vocally in favor of the death penalty, which it seems to me every Christian should oppose on all kinds of grounds, but that they are using the Hebrew Bible to support their position. Much of what is in the Hebrew Bible is quite explicitly superseded by the Greek Bible. Using the Hebrew Bible to support a supposedly Christian position is a dubious practice at best, and, more often than not, is completely misguided.

Let’s begin quite simply with “an eye for an eye.” The original formulation comes from Exodus 21:23-25:

23 But if any harm follows, then you must take life for life,

24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

25 burning for burning, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise.

This is what we call retributive justice. There’s a simple air of fairness about it, but in light of my discussions here, especially of grace, we have to acknowledge that it falls short of Christian ideals. Grace trumps revenge. Unconditional love outweighs the simple desire to get even. Love and grace call forth higher ideals from us than old fashioned notions of the punishment fitting the crime. Jesus himself makes this clear in a passage in Matthew that is part of what is now conventionally known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-39):

38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’

39 But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.

If you follow the old retributive law you cannot be legally faulted. But Jesus is asking us to be much better than that. Simply put, if you demand an eye for an eye you are not following Jesus. You cannot stick to Hebrew Bible codes of conduct and claim to be a Christian. Evangelical “Christians” often miss this key point.

Let me not be misunderstood here, though. I do not believe that Jesus preached the abandonment of the Law of the Hebrew Bible whatsoever. If anything, his interpretation of the Law at times was more stringent than that of any strict legalist. Nor do I believe that the old Law, as such, was entirely wrongheaded. People need guidelines. The main point is that Jesus put a new set of guidelines in place, and if we insist on going back to the old ones we are also turning our backs on Jesus.

One way to think about the progression from the principles of the Hebrew Bible to those of the Greek Bible is in terms of a maturing or a deepening of spiritual vision. The old Law is largely fair and even handed, it spells out rights and wrongs in excruciating detail, and it strives towards creating and maintaining a society that functions well. To some extent it is a hodge-podge of regulations put together over time. It can, at one and the same time, be extremely harsh and tenderly humane. It suits the legalistic and moralistic mind, yet it has a soft center.

The Law’s high degree of specificity makes it an example of what the anthropologist, and one of my spiritual mentors, Gregory Bateson calls Learning I. It is like a complex dictionary of right and wrong. When a situation occurs and you don’t know how to deal with it, you look it up in the Law, where, it is to be hoped, some guidance will be available to you. So, for example, the law tells me what the penalty is if I am fighting with another man and in the process injure a pregnant woman so she gives birth prematurely, but the baby is fine (Exodus 21:22). Learning I is an entirely mechanistic process without any thinking involved. The model is mindless rote learning. Under Learning I you painstakingly memorize the fact that a carnivore is an animal that eats meat, that a herbivore eats vegetation, and that a piscivore eats fish. When you come across the word “voracious” you have to look it up too, because you have failed to draw the conclusion from the other words that the root –vore means “eater,” so “voracious” means “eats a lot.” You are just learning the meaning of each individual word, one at a time. You are going to have to look up “insectivore” and “omnivore” as well under Learning I.

Learning I legalism requires that every time a new situation arises you need to look up the applicable rule. If the precise rule does not exist you have to go to a legal expert to adjudicate the case. The old Law ranges over all manner of practices including the details of sacrificing various animals, how to maintain public health standards, dealings with foreigners, the treatment of slaves, acceptable bodily adornment, food regulations and taboos, the minutiae of worship, and many, many more subjects. Penalties for wrong behavior are also spelled out in excruciating detail.

As a not completely irrelevant aside, I have to say that by modern standards the old Law could get very harsh with its penalties. The death penalty appears for most cases of homicide, as to be expected (although, rather intriguingly, God does not condemn Cain, the first murderer, to death – and there are a number of escape clauses for killers). But the death penalty is also advocated for a whole slew of misdeeds such as, working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), a woman practicing sorcery (Exodus 22:18), making sacrifices to alien gods (Exodus 22:20), cursing your parents (Leviticus 20:9), taking advantage of orphans and widows (Exodus 22:23-24), and contempt of court (Deuteronomy 17:12) to name a few. On these grounds alone, the thinking Christian ought to see that the old Law is obsolete. Running to the mall on Sunday morning to gun down (or stone) all the store clerks because they have profaned the Sabbath would not be pleasing to God, I suspect. We would also likely have a severe decline in population if we killed every disobedient child (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

Nowadays pious moralists hunt and peck their way through the Law finding scriptural justification for their pet peeves. Some people are really down on tattoos and bring up Leviticus 19:28 for support:

Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am the LORD.

The second phrase here seems to be saying that God does not like tattoos, so the moralists have their scriptural justification. But if they are going to be consistent, these same moralists need to be burning witches and stoning blasphemers. They can also sell their daughters into slavery, but must avoid eating lobster. I’m quite fond of the many websites that make fun of the hunt-and-peck legalists (although I wish the website designers would consider the moral implications of plagiarism a little more). They usually contain statements close to the following (which I have deliberately re-worded to avoid plagiarizing others):

Lord, I understand that I should not have physical contact with a menstruating woman (Leviticus 15:19). Should I just ask all the women I meet if they are menstruating to avoid any problems?

Lord my neighbor shaves every day in clear opposition to your word (Leviticus 19:27). What penalty should I exact on him?

The point is well taken. You cannot just use the Law as a personal gold mine of moral principles to be brought out arbitrarily when you don’t like something. This principle applies as much to orthodox Jews as to Christians. You have to have a consistent stance in relation to the entire Law as a single entity. The two extremes – simple acceptance or simple rejection – have little to offer the thinking Christian. Simple acceptance is clearly out of the question. Not even the most rigidly orthodox of Jews does that. I’m even given to wonder if there was ever a period in history when the Law as a whole was followed rigidly and literally.

Outright rejection of the Law cannot be our position for several reasons. Jesus on many occasions, including in the Sermon on the Mount, upholds the basic tenets of the Law. If we are to follow Jesus we must accept this fact. As always we have to be careful about the historical legitimacy of the gospels, and I most certainly do not accept the Sermon on the Mount as a verbatim transcription of an actual sermon by Jesus. It’s much more likely to be an artistic construction of Matthew’s. But there are just too many references in the gospels to Jesus affirming key principles of the Law to be able to discount them all. We have to reckon with the Law at some level. What is more, much of the Law resonates with a Christian perspective. Leviticus 19:18 sounds pretty familiar:

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

So what are we going to do? One solution from the Greek Bible itself is to follow the guidance of Paul to the people of Galatia. The Galatian church had been founded by Paul himself, but apparently got caught up in a number of disputes concerning some basic theological issues. Prime of these was whether Gentile Christians needed to follow the Law. Paul makes an important statement about the Law’s role in the Christian’s life (Galatians 3:23-25):

23 Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed.

24 So that the law was our caretaker until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.

25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a caretaker

The word translated as “caretaker” here is an interesting one, with a curious history. The original Greek word that Paul uses is paidagōgos, which eventually gives us the English word “pedagogue.” But the original word did not mean a teacher, but, rather, referred to the slave who accompanied children to and from school. It literally translates as “one who leads children.” For me this metaphor is right on the money, and brings me back to Bateson’s notions of education. The slave who took the children to school made sure they got there safely, and also made sure that they did not get up to any mischief along the way. Without such a trustworthy guide children are likely to stray from the goals that adults know are good for them, but which they shirk from themselves because they are not mature enough to understand what is in their best interests. The Law, like the slave, is an unbending guide and disciplinarian that leads people who are spiritually immature in the right direction. But children eventually grow up and no longer need a guide to take them in the right direction. I am reminded of a famous passage from Paul’s first letter to Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:11-12):

11 When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.

12 At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

The Law was not wrong or misguided, any more than the slave who took the children to school was wrong. The Law was put in place to move people in the right paths until they were capable of finding their way by themselves. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus treats his disciples as people on the verge of spiritual maturity. They can put aside the letter of the Law because they can now see where it was leading them, and can begin to chart their own courses without it. Jesus is not dispensing with the Law at all: far from it. Rather, he is giving us a much more mature version of it for us to take and use as our spiritual guide. But it’s not just a more complex legal code; it’s a qualitatively completely different entity.

In Bateson’s terms I would describe this transition from the old Law to Jesus’ new precepts as the movement from Learning I to Learning II (also called deutero-learning). Learning I, as we have seen, is, at heart, the state of being told what to do, and what things mean, without any need for deeper comprehension. Learning II, by contrast, involves understanding the principles that are the foundations of the facts we learn under Learning I. Here’s a little example from mathematics. Bateson asks us what the sum of the first two odd number is. We do the math:

1 + 3 = 4

Then he asks us what the sum of the first three odd numbers is. We do the math again:

1 + 3 + 5 = 9

He keeps this up for a while, and for simplicity’s sake I’ll show the next few equations in the sequence:

1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16

1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 = 25

1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 + 11 = 36

The mathematically challenged may end up doing this forever without seeing that there is a rule hidden in the sequence. They stay at the level of Learning I. Those with more insight will eventually notice that the results of each set of additions are a sequence of squares thus:

4 = 22   (sum of the first 2 odd numbers)

9 = 32 (sum of the first 3 odd numbers)

16 = 42   (sum of the first 4 odd numbers)

25 = 52   (sum of the first 5 odd numbers)

36 = 62   (sum of the first 6 odd numbers)

The rule that we can infer from this sequence is that the sum of the first n odd numbers is n2. Once I have figured out the rule I can easily calculate any sum of odds. Ask me the sum of the first 25 odd numbers and I will immediately tell you 625 (because I also know through Learning II an easy way of squaring numbers ending in 5 in my head). Learning II provides us with a deeper understanding of a system of knowledge by uncovering its operating principles. We become liberated from the childish limitations of Learning I. We no longer need to learn individual things painstakingly by rote.

I think of the principles established in the Sermon on the Mount as Learning II in relation to the old Law, which is Learning I. Jesus is getting underneath the specifics of the old Law to discover the working principles. Elsewhere in Matthew he is reported as saying the following (Matthew 22:34-40):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,

35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

37 He said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

38 This is the greatest and first commandment.

39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This is pure Learning II. If you love God and fellow humans unconditionally, everything else follows. The Law becomes superfluous because it represents no more than a long list of instances of how to love God or your fellows. If you have the basic principle down cold, you don’t need the list.

What’s even more impressive about Learning II is that it helps us in the interpretation of Learning I facts. As I have already said, I do not believe that Jesus intended to abandon the Law at all. But he was concerned with overly legalistic interpretations that defied the underlying point. The Sabbath law is a great example. The law really has two allied components.

  1. Honor God on the Sabbath.
  2. Do not work on the Sabbath.

The Learning I style legalist wants to know the precise definition of “work” so as to obey the letter of the law in a mechanical way. So the priesthood sets about defining precise acts that are “work” and those that are not. Before long you have become enslaved to the technicalities. What is even worse is that it is perfectly possible to misinterpret the intention of the original law by heaping up Learning I rules that end up negating the purpose of the law in the first place (created by legalists who are missing the point because they cannot flip into Learning II to figure out what is going on). When Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath, he was not doing so in opposition to the Sabbath law as such. He was opposing wrongheaded legalist interpretations that were leading people astray.

If the priestly legalistic interpretations of “work” on the Sabbath end up making the Sabbath oppressive to us, then something is radically wrong. Sure we have to keep the day holy, but we also have to have a day of genuine rest. It mustn’t be more real work than a regular weekday. So if you are hungry on the Sabbath it ought to be all right to go into a field and pick corn (Mark 2:23-28). Picking corn is technically “work” but it is in the service of a basic human need. God does not want us to go hungry on the Sabbath. Nor does he want the sick to have to wait for the Sabbath to be over to be healed because doctors, or healers, should not work on the Sabbath (John 5:1-15). We’ve got to get it straight, via Learning II, what the Sabbath is really about, and not get mired in a bunch of irrelevant details.

The principles in Matthew that Jesus lays out for the Pharisee lawyer are all you need to know to flip you into Learning II.

  1. Love God unconditionally.
  2. Love fellow humans unconditionally.

We could even get logically fancy and say that #2 is contained in #1. Loving our fellow humans is one of the ways we express our love for God. A Pharisee is chosen as the foil here, being the archetype of the Learning I style legalist/moralist.

In some ways, therefore, even the Sermon on the Mount can be considered logically superfluous. It’s all commentary on the basic premise that we should love God and one another will all our hearts. It spells out a few details, but we need to be very careful that we do not ossify them into Learning I precepts. So . . . on to the Sermon on the Mount.

To be continued . . .


 Bible, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality  Comments Off on Atheism
Oct 182015


I finished my last post with these words:

It makes perfect sense to me to deny the existence of specific manifestations of the spiritual such as a god with a long white beard sitting on a throne in the sky, or one who hurls thunderbolts from mountaintops. It makes precious little sense to me to deny the existence of a god (or the spiritual) altogether. This leads me to my next topic . . . atheism.

So here we are. Why do some people deny the existence of a deity or deities? You undoubtedly know my answer if you have paid attention to previous posts. Belief  or lack of belief in a deity is an act of faith. Let me be crystal clear here. I am not talking about a specific deity at this moment; I am saying that the belief that no deity exists is as much an act of faith as believing that one (or more) exists. In formal terms atheism can be defined as asserting that the statement, “at least one deity exists” is false. Some people call this “strong” atheism. I’d be surprised if many people hold this point of view. When I listen to the assertions of people who claim to be atheists, they are usually not making such a strong claim. Typically they are asserting that they do not believe in a specific deity such as God as presented in the Bible, or some other sacred book. To assert that no deity whatsoever, of any type (recorded or unrecorded), exists takes a really strong faith I would think.

Lack of belief in, say, the Greco-Roman pantheon is not hard. We have alternative ideas about what causes thunderbolts or storms that are more believable than the notion that gods make them. There is some evidence that ancient people were skeptical too. But I doubt that strong atheism existed in the ancient world. That is, the gang that hung out on Mt Olympus may have seemed a bit far-fetched to some people, but that would not have ruled out having shrines to household gods etc. – much more down-to-earth spirits with more local and personal concerns.

In the mainstream in the West rejection of a deity normally means the rejection of the deity associated with the related triad of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sometimes called the “faiths of Abraham,” or the “faiths of the book,” because the stories of Abraham in the Torah are common to all three. Many people, religious and secular, treat the deity in all three faiths as equivalent. For me the enormous, perhaps insuperable, problem is sorting out who or what this deity is. In chapter 1 of Genesis he is ordering the entire universe, but in chapter 3 he is strolling in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day and chatting with Adam and Eve. Sometimes the deity in the Bible and the Qur’an is loving, sometimes brutal – sometimes quite human-like, sometimes transcendent. The question of who or what this God is has kept theologians thinking and writing for centuries; I have no good answers either.

I have relatively trivial answers. As I have said before, you can replace the word “God” with the word “Love” (upper case optional), and see where you get. I often use this as a litmus test. “In the beginning was Love” sounds all right. That is, before anything else came into existence Love was around. Love is eternal. Love is creative, and so on . . . Where it gets problematic is the part in Exodus which states that Love killed all the Egyptian firstborn (but spared the Hebrews the same fate), and all the other parts where Love is demanding mass slaughter. Then I apply my rules of interpretation and say that the passages like these that sound wrong are spurious. But this exercise does not help a whole lot because I have replaced one word that is very difficult to nail down with another that is equally difficult to nail down.

There is some benefit to replacing “God” with “Love.” I am sure more people will admit to experiencing Love than to experiencing God – even atheists !! But Love is a deeply multifaceted and abstract notion. There are different Greek words translated into English as “love” in the Greek Bible. The most commonly discussed one is agape which is not sexual love (eros), but something more akin to “compassion.” In the KJV of 1 Corinthians 13, agape is translated as “charity” because, I suspect, the Jacobean translators wanted to make it clear that Paul was talking about something a lot broader than sexual love. We might now call it “Christian love.”

What many people who call themselves atheists want is some reason to believe in something god-like because the stories in the Bible are not terribly convincing to them, and because they have not experienced anything like a feeling of a divine presence. I have, hence I am not an atheist. I use the equation God=Love to get people to think outside the tiny box that Christians and others have a terrible habit of putting God in, by making them understand that they can relate to the notion of a godhead if they break free of the images created by 2,000 years of church history. Our culture has changed unbelievably in that time, but the image of God lags behind because the Bible, and like texts, are relatively fixed. You can update the translations a little, but you cannot update the stories to any great extent. All you can do is interpret the stories with a more contemporary slant.

I would argue that many contemporary atheists are “weak” atheists, that is, they acknowledge the existence of spiritual things in their lives, but have no evidence that allows them to equate these “things” with the existence of a deity. But nor do they have any evidence that God does not exist. Frequently in this context strong atheists assert that the burden of proof rests on the theists, because the claim that God exists is a bolder claim than that God does not exist. I’ve already dispensed with the futility of seeking proof in any field, including science (, so that argument won’t fly. I also don’t think that the claim that God exists is any stronger or weaker than the counter-claim that he does not exist. In essence I think that most weak atheists simply say (not always in words) “not believing in God works for me,” just as theists say “believing in God works for me.” Impasse.

What comes as a shock to many people is that there are some religions where believing in a deity is not necessary. Hinduism, for example, allows a wide range of beliefs. In the words of R.C. Zaehner, “it is perfectly possible to be a good Hindu whether one’s personal views incline toward monism, monotheism, polytheism, or even atheism.” There is a significant minority of Quakers who are atheists. Even within mainstream Protestantism, notably Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism, there is a movement opposed to conventional notions of God.

Bishop John Robinson wrote several notable books, the most famous being Honest to God (1963) which sparked the so-called “God is dead” debate, and which almost got him slung out of the Church of England. He attempted to synthesize the work of the theologians Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both well known in theological circles but with views largely unknown to the people in the pew. The book proved contentious because it called on Christians to view God as the “Ground of Being” rather than as a supernatural being “out there.” God was “in here.” Such ideas make the God=Love equation make more sense, although it has to be broadened to God=Being. Existence itself is the essence of the divine. This is not exactly atheism in the classic sense, but it is straining the definition of a deity well beyond conventional limits.

Going back to my last post on spirituality for a minute, where I talked about people who were “spiritual but not religious,” I would say that Robinson was “religious but not theistic.” We, therefore, have an interesting triad: God, religion, and spirituality. I’d say that some people work with all three happily enough. Combinations of two out of three are quite common. Religion plus spirituality minus God are obviously the bases of some forms of Hinduism as well as the theologies of Tillich and Robinson. One without the other two can work, but it’s tough. Obviously it’s possible to have spirituality without God or religion. I’ll leave you to puzzle through all the combinations. I would argue, however, that it is not possible to be human and have none of them.

To be continued . . .


 Spirituality  Comments Off on Spirituality
Oct 172015


I often hear people say “I am spiritual, but not religious” (currently enshrined in the acronym SBNR). There is something very troubling to me about this statement. I understand what they are saying, I think. I think that statement could be paraphrased as “I have a spiritual side but I don’t like organized religion.” That’s all right. Even though I am an ordained pastor, I don’t like organized religion all that much myself. The rules and dogma of organized religion have a nasty habit of taking over, and the spiritual gets pushed aside. Recently a survey found that 53% of US citizens polled said that you cannot be moral without religion. That claim was the whole point of my last post, namely, to talk about the common misconception that religion is primarily about morality. It is not; it is about spirituality, with morality only a secondary issue.

When I was a pastor I frequently wondered why people go to church. I even more frequently asked myself why it is that people do NOT go to church. Of course, the answer to both questions is not simple, but it is the second one that I dwelt on most often because of my professional commitment to small church growth. I wanted people to come to church. Although it may seem like a truism, it’s fairly obvious that people choose not to go to church because they have something better to do; something else matters more to them than what they think they can get out of church. What counts as “something better” may be nothing more complicated than sleeping late on a Sunday morning. Maybe the kids have a soccer game. In my experience just about anything can count as being more worthwhile than church attendance. That tells you something. The church is, more often than not, failing to satisfy people’s needs.

You might say that people don’t always know what’s good for them. Certainly. Going to the mall instead of going to church does not mean that shopping is better for you, even though it feels better at the time. It takes a long time for people to realize that school is good for them (some never realize). I suspect that a lot of 5 year olds would not go to school if they had a choice. In many parts of the world, for much of history, people did not have a choice about going to church either. Now that they have a choice, they don’t go. What bothers me is that I suspect that people do want something that the church might give them, but the church is failing to offer it. A great many churches are not offering enough in the way of spirituality; in some cases they are not offering it at all. Instead they offer a lot about morality, and people don’t want to hear it. Sometimes it is questionable morality anyway. A lot of the time church is little more than empty ritual (buttressed by threats of damnation).

Clearly the Western world is hungry for spirituality. If people say “I am spiritual but not religious,” they are picking up on something that the mainstream churches, especially the Protestant ones, are missing out on. Religion is about spirituality. If the general public thinks the opposite, there’s something radically wrong with the church. If a church service is not at heart a spiritual experience, that church is not doing its job. It’s impossible to be spiritual and yet not be religious: they are one and the same thing. What these people are really saying is “I am spiritual and the church isn’t.” We ought to be able to do something about that.

There are also many, many people who think that the religious and the scientific are opposites. They too are wrong. Among other things, a great many famous scientists were deeply religious. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are the first who spring to mind. They saw no conflict. Even Charles Darwin was a religious man, although he did see a conflict – not in his own mind, but in the minds of many others with vested interests of dubious merit. In very simplistic terms I would assert that religion is about the spiritual, and science is about the material – and you CAN have both !!

I’m going to begin a discussion here which I have no doubt will continue in future posts. It has to do with what the spiritual is, and what the material is. For centuries people have thought of humans as having two parts: a material part and a non-material part. This is variously described as mind and body, or spirit and body, or soul and body etc. There are immense problems here which I am going to simplify by asking two questions (a) are there in fact two parts? (b) if there are two parts, how do they interact? If you think there is only one part, you are a monist. If you think there are two parts, you are a dualist. Dualism is easy in that it puts the material and the spiritual into different boxes, but difficult in that you have to figure out how the two work together. Many (most?) people are (closet) dualists because they see that humans have a material side and spiritual side, and don’t bother to figure out how they link up. That’s very comfortable, but does not satisfy me because I like to think.

A great many contemporary scientists are monists of various stripes. I’m inclined in that direction myself, although, theologically and philosophically, dualism has an appeal as well. The real problem is that some ardent monists are rather dreary. They tend to downplay the spiritual or even argue that it does not exist; they believe it’s simply an illusion conjured up by people who don’t think enough about the issue. For them a person is just a very complicated machine. In time, they argue, we will be able to build a machine that has ALL the capacities of a human. Will we? I am skeptical. Sure, we can build a computer that is competent enough to challenge a grandmaster at chess. But do these computers get angry when they lose? Could we ever build a computer that will be upset when it loses or overjoyed when it wins? We can build one that says “I am mad,” or “I am thrilled,” but is it really? Or are these just programmed words devoid of emotion? How would we know? For that matter, how do we know when someone else is really happy or just pretending? Can we build a computer that is deceitful or forgetful or loving or spiteful or irrational or mentally ill? Can we build a computer that dreams or gets drunk or hallucinates? Ardent monists are hopeful; I am skeptical. It all comes down to faith – yet again. The radical monist starts from the belief that humans are pulpy, squishy machines, and works from there. Their starting point is an act of faith.

Meanwhile the rest of us don’t have that kind of faith. What happens to me when I am writing and get swept along by thoughts that just come to me? The Greeks would have called this my Muse in action – something non-material that takes over my brain and fingers. This phenomenon is impossible to explain in ordinary language. How, then do you begin to describe such actions in monist terms? How do you begin to describe imagination or creativity or the like in materialist terms? I suppose it’s easy enough to reduce the concept of love to hormones and whatnot if you care to, and have little imagination or experience. That’s not good enough for me, though, when it comes to sheer imagination itself. Nowadays I sometimes read something I published a long time ago and find myself absorbed by my words as if someone else wrote them. This is not just faulty memory. It’s an acknowledgement that there is something outside of me that is sometimes (not always)motivating me. You can call it God, or spirit, or what you will. I don’t see how you can reduce that feeling to material causes.

You will note in this discussion that my descriptions are, at best, inadequate. I have to rely on you, the reader, to have experienced something similar to understand what I am trying to convey. But an ardent clinical monist could say (on faith), that I am just delusional. Freud at the beginning of Civilization and Its Discontents says that some people have spoken of spiritual experiences as an “oceanic feeling” which he dismisses as nonsense because he has not experienced such a thing. I’d say that’s a pretty poor argument – “the spiritual does not exist because I have not experienced it.” Pretty narcissistic, if you ask me. Such “arguments” can also fall back on the objective/subjective pseudo-distinction, saying that material things are objectively verifiable and the spiritual is purely subjective experience. However, I have already dispensed with that line of reasoning and shown that at rock bottom both statements are built on faith Anyway, simply asserting that they are mere delusions does not explain them. How do you explain such delusions using a materialist outlook?

In any case, I am skirting around the nature of the spiritual. That’s because the term is broad and vague, and is not easily pinned down. Christopher Hitchens, a controversial atheist author, once said, “Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.” That’s a fair starting point. When we love deeply, or cry at a piece of music, or are enraptured by a new and wondrous taste, when we are moved by a story, we are experiencing the spiritual. The term is better exemplified than defined.

What I want to do is to avoid making sharp distinction, as Hitchens does, between the material and the spiritual. I’m trying to be a monist of sorts. Gregory Bateson may have cut to the core of the problem when he asserted in Mind and Nature that all natural systems, whether it be individuals, or groups of people, or organs, or suns, or galaxies or whatever, have minds that are not reducible to their material parts. Sentience exists at various levels of material complexity, and is qualitatively different at each level (although each level may influence others). Sentience cannot exist without the material, but neither can the material exist in organized form without sentience. They are two sides of the same coin. Denying the existence of the spiritual makes no more sense than denying the existence of the material (which it is quite possible to do). It makes perfect sense to me to deny the existence of specific manifestations of the spiritual such as a god with a long white beard sitting on a throne in the sky, or one who hurls thunderbolts from mountaintops. It makes precious little sense to me to deny the existence of a god (or the spiritual) altogether. This leads me to my next topic . . . atheism.


To be continued . . .


 Bible, Religion  Comments Off on Morality
Oct 152015

10 command

The Western world has often confused religion and morality. There is no question that the two can be deeply intertwined. In the Christian tradition we can go further and say that morality is a central issue (but not necessarily THE central issue). This state of affairs was directly inherited from Judaism. You cannot read very far into the Hebrew Bible without coming across blatant references to people doing good things and getting rewarded, and others doing bad things and getting punished – the latter being the overwhelming favorite in the stories. The earth sins and God sends a flood, king David sins and his sons rebel and die, Israel sins and is destroyed by Assyria. Meanwhile, Abraham is obedient to God and he becomes father of a mighty nation, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship idols and they are saved from the fiery furnace, the Israelites in Egypt are faithful and are delivered from bondage and death.

Classic Judaism is a religion of moral action. The law codifies the things that are right and the things that are wrong. The Ten Commandments enshrine the central tenets of this law. The histories dwell on a single principle: when the people (most notably the kings) do the right thing, they prosper; when they do the wrong thing, they are punished. No text could be more blatantly moralistic than the Hebrew Bible. When modern Christians get overtly moralistic they almost always turn to the Hebrew Bible for support, not the words of Jesus.

From the gospels we get the sense that Jesus was deeply loyal to Judaism, but he was very much opposed to legalistic and mechanistic interpretations of the law and, hence, of morality. He broke the letter of the law constantly because he wanted his followers to see that the spirit of the law, the deeper message, was more important. If someone is lying bleeding by the side of the road, you don’t worry about whether touching him will make you unclean (according to the letter of the law); you help him. Thereby Jesus did not soften the morality of the law and the Ten Commandments at all. If anything he made them more stringent. He not only condemned murder, for example, he also condemned anger, murder’s precursor. He condemned lustful thoughts, a vengeful mentality, a greedy heart, a calculating mind. He sought for purity of motives in his disciples.

Paul transformed the new form of Judaism ushered in by Jesus in a number of different ways. But none is more important for our current discussion than his notion of grace. The old Judaic law of sacrifice set up an endless cycle of sin and redemption. For every sinful action there was a sacrifice that would act as compensation, and restore the sinner to God’s grace. Here’s a classic example (Leviticus 6:1-7):

1 The LORD said to Moses,

2 “If any one sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor

3 or has found what was lost and lied about it, swearing falsely–in any of all the things which men do and sin therein,

4 when one has sinned and become guilty, he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by oppression, or the deposit which was committed to him, or the lost thing which he found,

5 or anything about which he has sworn falsely; he shall restore it in full, and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs, on the day of his guilt offering.

6 And he shall bring to the priest his guilt offering to the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued by you at the price for a guilt offering;

7 and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things which one may do and thereby become guilty.”

There are a number of important moral components here. If you steal something, for example, you must pay it back in full as a simple matter of course. It was not yours to begin with, so it should return to its rightful owner. But the law also recognizes that theft is hurtful in itself. So the thief must further compensate the person he has robbed with an additional 20% of what he took to make up for his “pain and suffering.” But even that is not enough. God is offended by the act too. So the thief must take an unblemished ram to the priest to be sacrificed. Only then is his guilt expunged. The victim is happy, God is happy, the sinner is happy. If he robs again, he goes through the whole process again.

Paul and John changed all of that theologically. Both of them argue that Jesus’ death on the cross ended the old cycle of sin and repentance, then start again. Jesus had to be like the guilt-offering ram of old: perfect, spotless, blameless. His was a substitutionary death: for us, the real sinners. In line with the sacrificial acts of the day, his death had to be bloody and public. John’s gospel underscores this point by claiming, perhaps in contradiction to historical fact, that Jesus died at the same time that the lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover meal. In Mark and the synoptic gospels, Jesus eats the Passover meal on the Thursday night before his death, and is crucified on the Friday. The author of John’s gospel (written quite a bit later than the others, and with a very definite theological slant that the others lack), wants the point to be as clear as crystal. So while all the innocent lambs bleed on the temple altar, Jesus – the lamb of God – bleeds for us on the cross. He pays the price for our sin.

Unlike the Passover lambs, though, his sacrifice has to be made ONCE only. This perfect sacrifice ends the cycle of sin and redemption. Here we have a critical point of Pauline theology. Unfortunately so much of the history of Christianity, and so much of modern practice fails to grasp the full implications of this awe-inspiring component of our faith. There’s a bit in it that people just don’t get. Even early Christians struggled with it because it defies our normal sensibilities. Unconditional love does not require any payback. The sacrifice on the cross was an act of unconditional love. We did nothing in the past to deserve it, and we can do nothing in the future to pay it back. To even try to earn the reward, or to try to pay it back, misses the point completely. It is unconditional.

Unconditional love (or unconditional anything) is a hard concept for us to get our minds around. The idea of something for nothing just does not seem right. We have so many people in our lives whom we must constantly work to please, and so many people whom we help because they please us. When a popup window on my computer announces I have won a free dinner for two, or a new computer, I know there is a catch. Nothing is free. No stranger is about to buy me a computer for nothing. Why would someone love me unless I did something to deserve it? Surely if our sins are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus we have to do something to earn it. Paul emphatically denies this. In his letter to the church at Ephesus (Ephesians 2:8-9) he writes:

8. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God,

 9. not because of works, lest any man should boast.

This may be one of the most important statements in the whole Bible. As a Presbyterian, and good Calvinist, I take this statement very seriously. But Paul certainly wavered on the issue from time to time, and others in the early church had real trouble with the doctrine (and supposed “Christians” still do). One point should be made clear, though. Paul is not saying that Christians should ignore moral teaching and imperatives. He is constantly exhorting his flock to good works. What he is saying in Ephesians is that good works don’t earn you God’s grace.

The doctrine of grace also seems to be inherent directly in the teachings of Jesus, although here we run up against the question of the validity of our source materials. We cannot always be sure that the sayings attributed to Jesus are authentic. With that caveat in mind I am willing to accept that Jesus sometimes taught, via parables, that God rewards people who in a conventional sense have not earned these rewards through their works. A classic case would be the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). He runs off with his inheritance and squanders it on wine, women, and song. When he is penniless and starving he returns to his father who does not rebuke him, but instead dresses him in fine clothes and throws a gigantic party for him. Similar themes are echoed in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

The trouble with the doctrine of grace freely given out of the boundless wellspring of God’s unconditional love is that it just does not sit well with hopeless moralists – and the church seems to be full of them now, and perhaps always has been. These moralists keep wanting to inject a doctrine of good works where it simply does not belong. The epistle of James, for example, struggles with the question of good works among the Christian community. This famous passage says it all (James 2:14-18):

14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him?

15 And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food,

16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled;” and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it?

17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.

18 Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

However, this passage is not as problematic for me as it is for some theologians. I don’t think that the author is saying that faith (or salvation) is the reward for good works. He’s saying that faith (or grace) is not faith unless good works proceed from it. That seems fair enough to me. I am freely forgiven my sins by God through his grace and because of the sacrifice on the cross by Jesus. My response is not just one of selfish joy and jubilation. In return for the grace I have received I seek to live the rest of my life on this model of unconditional love for others. One of Jesus’ parables, the Parable of the Wicked Servant, points unequivocally in this direction (Matthew 18:23-35). The wicked servant gets forgiven a huge debt by his creditor for no reason other than the creditor’s generosity of heart, but then turns around and fails to forgive one of his own debtors who owes him a paltry sum. The servant is subsequently punished for failing to show the (undeserved) mercy that was shown to him.

In social scientific terms we would call “good works” the dependent variable. Good works stem from faith and grace, and not the other way round. The flow of causation is one way. It is not possible to receive salvation through grace yet not do good works. But it is possible to behave well and yet not achieve grace. Christianity, therefore, is concerned with good works only as a by-product of something else. It is not concerned with good works in and of themselves. That is, morality is of only secondary interest. It is not irrelevant, but it is not the primary concern. Faith and grace and love, by contrast, are core principles. I could add other abstractions to that list such as beauty and truth, but my main point is that spiritual values are what matter most. Christianity should be about spiritual training, and all the other stuff, such as being kind to people or visiting prisons or feeding the hungry should grow out of what you become when you have properly trained your spirit. Furthermore, as I hear way too much of these days, you should not be dipping into the Bible, especially the front bit, to figure out what is right or wrong. If you live in faith under God’s grace you KNOW what you should be doing. You don’t need a rule book; everything you need is inside you. In addition, you should not be judging others. Concentrate on your own spirit.

Spirituality next . . .

Bible (2)

 Bible  Comments Off on Bible (2)
Oct 132015


Last time I wrote a (very) little about the history of the construction of the Bible as we have it today. Now I want to talk about language and translation. English-speaking Christians (and non-Christians) almost always rely on translations from the original languages of the Bible and frequently fall into error by so doing. When I studied theology I was required to be fluent in Biblical Greek and conversant with classical Hebrew. 5 of my 13 finals used strictly Greek and Hebrew texts, and, in addition, I had to do a 3-hour exam in translation of Greek Bible texts. I also had an 8-week study of key words such as σάρχ (sarx), ψυχή (psyche), πνευμα (pneuma), σώμα (soma), usually translated as “flesh,” “soul,” “spirit,” and “body,” trying to figure out what the Greek words actually referred to in their original context as opposed to what they mean now (in English).

Sadly, the study of classical Greek and Hebrew is diminishing in importance at universities and seminaries these days. Whereas 40 years ago I had to have a good command of these languages when studying the Bible, when I sat the examinations for ordination in the Presbyterian church 20 years ago, I was not required to be conversant in Hebrew or Greek to take the paper in Biblical exegesis. Even so, I did an analysis of some Hebrew verses, but based on the examiners’ comments on my essay I suspect they could not read Hebrew. This state of affairs is, frankly, a disgrace.

I am a great believer in going to the original languages rather than relying on translations for several reasons. First, no translation can be fully accurate; all translations are, to a degree, interpretations. Anyone who has studied a second language understands this point. Chinese students sometimes read Shakespeare in translation. What do you suppose they make of this?

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

This rough translation is almost nonsense in Chinese.


Words such as “soft” and “breaks” cannot be translated directly into Chinese because they are not to be taken literally. Otherwise you get the image that Romeo sees something soft and all of a sudden the light breaks the window. Also, the connotations of “east” and “sun” are completely different in Chinese and English because of different cultural expectations.

Second, words used 2,000 or more years ago cannot always be reliably translated for a number of different reasons. In some cases we simply do not know the meanings and cannot guess with any degree of accuracy. Take this well known phrase in Genesis 1:2 — wə-hā-’ā-reṣ hā-yə-ṯāh   ṯō-hū wā-ḇō-hū, commonly translated as something like “and the earth was without form and void.” The key words here are “ṯō-hū” and “ḇō-hū” given the meanings “without form” and “void.” But these translations are nothing but  educated guesses. They are rare words in the Bible; ḇō-hū occurs only 3 times and in no case is the meaning clear. So, what does it mean to say that before the earth was created it was formless and empty? Did it exist at all? Scholars have debated this for centuries. Did God create an orderly world out of a chaotic mess? Or was there nothing, and he created it from scratch? Which one it was makes a big difference in interpretation.

Many words in the original languages are ambiguous. The words usually translated as “spirit” – ruach – in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek – have the meanings “spirit” and “wind.” Sometimes the meaning is clear from context, but not always. In the second half of Genesis 1:2 it says that God’s ruach moved over the face of the waters. Was it his spirit or his wind? Or both? The ambiguity in Hebrew (which actually makes sense) is lost in translation because in English you have to pick one over the other.

We don’t have native speakers around now to help us out with such problems. We have to rely on etymology and comparative studies. But these tools can fail us. The English word “glamour” comes from Scots, ultimately from the Latin grammatica. The Scots means “magic” and the original Latin means “learning” (including occult arts). This means that the modern words “glamour” and “grammar” are etymologically related, but knowing this does not help us in understanding contemporary meanings. A “glamour girl” is not a witch, but you could make that mistake if you were reading a 21st century English text in the 41st century, relying only on etymology to supply meaning.

Thus, if you rely on English translations of the Bible you can fall into all kinds of errors, especially if you rely on translations that are centuries old, such as the King James Bible. Let’s take the first part of a famous verse, John 3:16, “God so loved the world . . .” In contemporary English it sounds as if “God loved the world so much . . .” But a Jacobean reader would not have read like that. That reader would have seen it as “God loved the world in this way . . .” (the correct translation of the Greek) where “so” is equivalent to “thus.”

You also have to contend with the biases of the translators. The Greek word porneia is usually translated as “fornication,” which has a very specific meaning in English (sex outside of marriage). Paul uses it in lists of sins to be condemned along with robbery, adultery etc. Now, to be clear, I have no doubt that Paul opposed fornication; he was not happy with sex in general. But he does not mean “fornication” when he uses the Greek porneia (from which we get “pornography”). Porneia in Greek means having sex with prostitutes. The translators translated porneia as “fornication” for their own reasons; they knew what the Greek actually meant.

Then there are cultural allusions that we miss entirely. Psalm 23 tells us that “The Lord is my shepherd.” For us this conjures up an image of someone meek and kind looking after us. But this is not the ancient Hebraic image. Think of the story of David and Goliath. David was a shepherd boy who refused to put on battle armor to fight the giant, not because he was not a warrior but because he was small. He was perfectly capable of killing or chasing off lions when they threatened the sheep. He was fierce. He was a killer, equally capable of killing lions and his own sheep when the family needed meat. So, a shepherd is certainly your defender, but he is not weak.

My main point, therefore, is that translations are unreliable at best. When we get down to serious Bible study it is imperative that we go back to the original languages. And let us also remember that we don’t have copies of the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of copies . . . and, as such, there are many places where we have variants of the same text. There are occasions where the differences in the text make a big difference. Once again, therefore, we have to be leery of claiming that the “THE BIBLE says . . .”

To be continued . . .

Bible (1)

 Bible  Comments Off on Bible (1)
Oct 112015


I’ve been circling around some key issues having to do with religious thought, scientific thought, spirituality, materialism and so forth for some time now. I will home in on them shortly, but I want to talk about the Bible as a text for a moment before doing that. I’m going to take two posts on this issue: first, on the selection of the books of the Bible, and second, on issues concerned with translation.

Like it or not we have to treat the Bible now as a whole work, although different branches of Christianity have somewhat different ideas as to what books constitute the Bible. To be sure we can situate individual books in their cultural contexts, but we also need to understand that later parts of the Bible constantly refer to earlier parts. Great chunks of the gospels, for example, refer to Hebrew prophecy, history, and law. So we must sometimes see the Bible in its totality. By the same token, we also need to see the books of the Bible in their totality. It is extremely common in churches and Bible study groups to take small parts of particular books and dissect them without reference to the rest of the book. That’s really the essence of writing a sermon. You pick a passage, read it, then analyze its content in various ways.

When growing up this was how I heard and understood the Bible. When I was about 17 I read Mark’s gospel through from beginning to end in one sitting. I was floored. I’d never done anything like that before. I was amazed, first, by how short it was. It got from Jesus’ baptism to the Easter story in a flash it seems. Yet it also seemed reasonably coherent, and even though I knew all the pieces, I’d never appreciated them as a single narrative before. I read the other gospels in the same manner shortly thereafter, then pledged to read the whole Bible from start to finish. Reading the whole Bible took some years to complete at first try because I did not know what I was doing. The generally narrative parts moved along fairly easily, but books such as Psalms and Proverbs took some effort. Paul’s epistles were a real challenge because I was not used to thinking theologically or philosophically. Some books, such as the Song of Songs and Revelation, I had no clue what to do with. Since then I have read the whole Bible at least three times – the last time rearranging them in terms of the order in which they were written, rather than following the traditional order. That way actually makes a whole lot more sense than the traditional order because you get to see how themes shift as historical contexts shift. You do, however, markedly change the nature of what the Bible is and has been for hundreds of years. Still, out of it all comes a sense of a unified whole – sort of.

As we all know, the Bible has two major sections: the Hebrew bit and the Greek bit, which used to be referred to as the Old Testament and the New Testament respectively. Now it’s commoner to refer to them as the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Bible. The Hebrew Bible comes down to us from Rabbinic Judaism. I’ll oversimplify for brevity’s sake. You can look up the details if you are interested. The Rabbinic Hebrew Bible, also known by the Hebrew acronym, Tanakh, consists of the Torah (first five books), which Jews generally consider to be the most central, the Prophets (what we would now call histories and prophecies), and the Writings (the rest). There are other Hebrew canons, including the Ethiopian canon and the Samaritan canon, which differ from the Rabbinic canon in significant ways, but it is the Rabbinic canon that Christianity inherited, and it did so for theological reasons.

The Greek canon took a long time to come together. Early versions of the Greek canon were being promulgated in the 3rd century and still being fought over in the 17th century. The Protestant canon, which is the one I use, got fixed in the 17th century using 4 principles:

  1. Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted as canon by Jewish authorities (for the Hebrew Bible).
  3. Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord’s Supper (their weekly worship services).
  4. Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.

Number 4 is the stickiest one for me, although the other 3 are problematic too. Number 4 is saying something rather circular – we accept certain books because they are consistent with certain other books which we accept. What’s wrong with the ones you didn’t accept? And why did some books get rejected even though they meet all 4 criteria? What it all comes down to is that the Bible canon as we have it now is to a degree arbitrary. That’s why my rules of interpretation are important. They help us sift through the rubble to find the parts that are central and which lead us to a coherent message. So, yes, we must treat the Bible as a whole work now, because various parts are interrelated, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But we must also see that the whole was stitched together from disparate parts which were chosen by people and not by God.

The intriguing part to me is that throughout history the canon has been seen as uneven, with some parts treated as more especially sacred than others. In the case of the Tanakh, for example, the Torah is held by Jews to be of much more importance than the Writings. Why this should be I will discuss at greater length in later posts. But why, for example, is the Song of Songs included at all in the Bible? It seems to me to be nothing more than a love poem, and a rather lurid one at that. I’ve never heard it read in church, and I know I would be hard pressed to deliver a sermon on any of its contents. Is it anything other than tradition that keeps it there? How does it contribute to our understanding of the Bible as a whole?

What I am getting at is that we have come to accept the Bible as a whole work, but we have to be careful. The unity is rather fragile and often rests on historical tradition (the essence of the first 3 points I cited). What we cannot do is treat the Bible as if it were THE BIBLE (in capital letters). There are, and have been, many Bibles, and it is a hard task to find the core that supplies us with the necessary unity. That will be one of my ongoing themes.

To be continued . . .




There Are No Right Answers

 Religion, science  Comments Off on There Are No Right Answers
Oct 092015


I teach several classes of English as a Foreign Language (ESL) at a university in China. It pays the bills but I also learn a lot about Chinese culture in the process. This morning we were discussing life stages – infancy, childhood, adolescence etc. – as part of an exercise in their textbook. The book had a blank chart in it with the stages down the left side and blank boxes down the right side for the students to fill in concerning the ages for each life stage. I let them discuss the chart for a few minutes among themselves, then I asked for their results. Most of them put in 0 to 3 yrs for infancy. So I said, “That’s interesting. I went to infant school in England when I was 4 until I was nearly 6, so I would classify an infant as 0 to 5 yrs.” At that point several students started erasing their answers and writing in MY answer. “No, no, no, no, no,” I said, “MY answer is not the RIGHT answer. There are no right answers.” I perhaps should have said there are MANY right answers – because, of course, there are also (many) wrong answers. If you say an infant is anyone from 0 to 50 yrs, you are wrong.

Chinese students are trained to think that the teacher is always right, and if they disagree with the teacher, they are wrong. There is no wiggle room, and this fact is reinforced by endless tests in which there is only one answer that is right, and this is the answer they have been taught previously by their teacher. Independent thinking is anathema. So as not to be too hard on the Chinese, let me also say that I have encountered this mentality in the U.S. and the U.K. plenty of times as well, but it is not necessarily the norm in Western universities. However, my Chinese students were bewildered by what I was saying, and simply could not grasp the notion that they could say one thing and I could say another (conflicting) thing, and we could both be right (within our respective contexts). Tough sledding for an anthropologist accustomed to dealing with cultures with wildly differing values, yet perfectly functional within themselves.

This blog is rather like my attempt with my students to convince them that there can be many right answers. It is exceedingly frustrating to me to have to talk to people (or listen to commentary) about issues that are not black and white, when there is a relentless drive to make them black and white. I’ve already demonstrated, I hope, that opposing religion and science, or faith and facts, or objectivity and subjectivity etc. is a fool’s errand. There is a gigantic grey area in between black and white where something resembling the truth lies. The problem is that a lot of people – including my Chinese students – are troubled by grey areas. Grey areas make you think, and thinking is scary. What if you are wrong? Well . . . sometimes you are when you think. That’s the price of admission. You have to be willing to accept that. Scientists accept it every day.

On my other blog I recently celebrated the birthday of Niels Bohr, one of my great intellectual heroes. Bohr proposed a model of the atom that countered the current planetary model and was a huge step forward in the development of quantum mechanics. It was an insane time in nuclear physics. Barely one model came along and another superseded it. Bohr’s got superseded within a few years. It stimulated others to go further. All he did was shrug and say “break out the champagne and give my idea a quiet burial.” As it happens he was not completely wrong, nor completely right. He’d penetrated a complex subject.

He then developed the concept of complementarity – the idea that one “thing” could be described in two different, mutually exclusive, ways depending on how you look at it. The key question was, “Is light a wave or a particle?” Sometimes it acts like a wave, sometimes it acts like a particle. They seem to be mutually exclusive descriptions. Which one is it? Well . . . it turns out that light can be BOTH. It all depends on how you observe it. That’s the essence of complementarity. You can eat your cake and still have it. That principle is now enshrined in science of all places.

So how about a religious view of the world and a scientific view? I see no reason why we can’t have both, even though they may appear to be mutually exclusive. Complementarity allows me to propose that idea. But before we get to that point we need to define a little better what a “religious” view and a “scientific” view are. It’s not going to be easy or straightforward. No black and white. Hold on tight.

To be continued . . .

Evolution (2)

 science, Spirituality  Comments Off on Evolution (2)
Oct 062015


This is Part 2 of a two part series. Part 1 is here:

To sum up the state of play so far, I am saying that both a radical evolutionist and a radical creationist stance are perfectly defensible on logical and moral grounds as long as they stick to their respective rule books. Being a strict evolutionist does not require a descent into moral chaos. You can hold that humans are the result of millions of random genetic mutations, and yet still argue for sharing, kindness, generosity, and all the rest of it. These can be seen as perfectly rational, evolutionarily sound ways to survive and prosper in the world. Or you can adopt a creationist perspective and see the world as the outgrowth of the direct purpose of a loving creator God. From there you can also build a social world that is sharing, kind, and loving. If you try to straddle the two worldviews, all you get is a muddle.

At first blush the evolutionists would appear to hold the best hand, by far. Creationists have to cling to some rather far-fetched premises to buttress their worldview. Young earth creationists have it worst of all. They have to build a system of belief on the premise that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old. To do so requires dismantling just about all of modern physics, not to mention chemistry and biology. Such a stance, if you know exactly what you are buying into, takes a great deal of courage. I add the little caveat (in italics) there, because I am sure that many fundamental Christians have not thought through the scientific implications of their beliefs. But the intellectual leaders of these movements know exactly what they are doing and what problems have to be overcome.

But secular evolutionists do not get off the hook just because they can resort to natural processes and do not have to bring God into any of their equations. Teleology does not go away that easily. Certainly random mutation plus natural selection are powerful explanatory tools. Look at the enormous variety in pedigree dogs from toy poodles to salukis (Darwin looked at pigeons). They are the end product of conscious breeding (that is, non-natural selection) over a relatively short span of time. Breeders see the traits they want in certain dogs and select them over several generations. It is not that difficult, therefore, to imagine nature (that is, the environment) doing the same thing, only taking a little bit longer, and with more “mistakes” along the way. It is even possible to imagine such processes ultimately creating sufficient differences between populations of animals that they separate enough to become different species. The problem area is the evolution of complex organs.

Evolutionary biology has trouble explaining how something as complex as a mammalian eye can have evolved purely through random mutation. Now, as always, let me make my position clear here. I am NOT saying that a random process cannot produce ordered complexity per se. Of course it can. But the physiology of complex organs needs careful discussion (and, as ever, my own discussion is necessarily brief, therefore simplistic). An eye has several parts that work together to make the whole thing function. It has, at minimum, a light sensitive area (the retina), a lens to focus light, and muscles to operate the focusing process. The evolutionary biologist when challenged on such organs will say something to the effect that we know of creatures with simple light sensitive patches of skin. That part of the organ evolved first, then the other pieces evolved later. Sounds good. But there’s a catch. Did the lens evolve next as a useless extra (with no muscles to focus it), or did the muscles evolve next waiting a few millenia for the lens to evolve so they had something to do? When you have interlocking pieces of that order they have to co-evolve to be functional. Random mutation cannot accomplish such a feat (as it is currently theorized). The development of two specialized and genetically very distinct anatomical components which must work together for the whole to work cannot be the end product of random mutation. Biology these days has to resort to some form of teleology, with a certain optimism (i.e. faith) that one day a solution will be found.

Unfortunately, biologists get irrationally rabid about the problem of complex organs. They are so intent on defeating creationists that they run to extraordinary lengths of philosophically tortured reasoning to salvage their ultimate tenet of faith – non-natural causes played no part in the origin of humans. Here they are over-playing their current hand. Natural science, as its name suggests, has every right to claim that its turf is natural processes only. It can also try its hardest to explain everything in terms of natural processes. But even if they can explain everything in terms of natural processes (which they cannot), this does not mean that they are right. Furthermore, they have no right to condemn those who argue for non-natural explanations of things even if they disagree with them. Both sides have a legitimate complaint only if one side invades the other’s territory. Thus, when creationists talk about creation “science” they are opening themselves up to (legitimate) attack from natural scientists. If they stick to creation theology they are on solid ground. If they argue that creation should be in science text books, they are overstepping their boundaries. Likewise I don’t expect to have to cede equal time to biologists in my pulpit.

So . . . where are we? On the horns of a nasty dilemma, I am afraid. You cannot be a loyal Christian and accept classic evolutionary biology. But you cannot live in the modern world while rejecting natural science out of hand. My hope is that a new brand of science will emerge in the twenty-first century. Right now what I am arguing is that the thinking Christian and the thinking natural scientist have large areas where discourse is impossible because they are arguing from incompatible premises. I have no sympathy whatsoever for young earth creationists, and likewise, I have no desire at all to side with natural scientists who cannot accept the existence of the spiritual. What I am looking for is a form of science that can find room for both the physical and the spiritual.

Historically there have been many attempts to move in the direction of uniting the scientific and the spiritual. One of the most famous is Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy. Steiner, following a path blazed by German philosophers, believed that it is possible to extend science into the spiritual realm. In some ways Steiner was a classic animist, believing that living things have both material components and spiritual components. Compare a living fox to a dead fox and you understand the spiritual component. Both appear to have the same material content, but the living one appears to have something more: something non-material. Steiner believed that one could use precise reasoning and careful experimentation to explore the non-material realm, and that in so doing our knowledge of the world would be greatly expanded. The agenda of Steiner and others is now included in what is sometimes called holistic science.

One of the major tenets of holistic science is that the whole is not explicable in terms of the sum of its parts. Most cultural anthropologists, myself included, accept this premise as a major ground rule of our discipline. The workings of a culture, or any other complex social institution, are not explicable simply in terms of the workings of the individuals who constitute it. By the same tenet, the behavior of an individual is not reducible to the physical behavior of atoms in the individual’s neural system. Otherwise the outbreak of war or the development of a new artistic movement could be explained in terms of particle physics. A variety of fields from complexity theory to chaos theory have amply shown that actions on such macro levels cannot be reduced to the workings of the laws of physics.

Put simply, cultures do things that simple aggregates of individuals cannot. Culture can make demands and provoke behaviors that transcend the needs and desires of the individuals within it. If you like, there is a level of consciousness in culture that is higher than the consciousness of the individuals in it. The great French sociologist Émile Durkheim equated that consciousness with God. When we experience that higher order of consciousness within ourselves, according to Durkheim, we are experiencing what we call “God.” Freud famously made the argument that culture can enforce behaviors on individuals that none of them wishes as individuals. Both were making the claim that culture is sui generis, that is, that it exists as an entity independent of individuals. Spooky.

The idea that there are higher and lower orders of physical organization, and that different kinds of consciousness (sometimes referred to as “mind”) can reside at these various levels of organization is just beginning to gain a foothold in academe. My intellectual and spiritual mentor, Gregory Bateson, pioneered such analysis of mind within systems of varying degrees of complexity (see Mind and Nature). For Bateson mind (of some order or other) is inherent in any system. So, my kidneys have a “mind” and, as such, “know” how to do things. They know how to filter impurities from my “system.” But even though they are my kidneys (they are a part of “me”), I do not know how to do what they know how to do. Their level of organization is different from mine, and, therefore, their level of mind is different from mine.

I have to admit that the terminology in such discussions can end up being vague or confusing or both. Talking about mind or consciousness or spirit or whatever is not always terribly enlightening, but I think the confusion tends to arise from the paucity of language we have to describe these phenomena resulting from the fact that they have not received enough attention as yet from the intellectual community.

What I am hoping for, as a thinking Christian, is that holistic science will eventually provide a resolution of the dilemma I set. That is, I am hoping that at some stage in the not too distant future the life sciences will develop in such a way that they embrace rather than exclude consciousness (or whatever you want to call it). I believe that one of the principal reasons that the majority of natural scientists are reluctant to rethink their basic premises in order to let consciousness into their descriptions of the world is that they are afraid of the lunatic fringe (as they conceive it). They see fundamental Christians (or, maybe, any Christian) and homeopaths and crystal gazers and spoon benders and their ilk as charlatans to be exposed, or deluded fools to be enlightened. What utter arrogance. Sure, there are con artists in the world – including in the scientific world. While I do not doubt for one minute that natural science is very powerful, I am given to doubt very seriously that it has the capacity to explain the world completely.

In short I am saying that neither the creationist approach with its denial of the bulk of modern science nor the strictly mechanistic and reductionistic theories of contemporary biology satisfy me. Nor am I interested in some unthinking combination of the two. They are oil and water. What I am seeking is a world of science that has room to be more skeptical and more open-minded than it currently is. I am seeking a religion that is the same.

To be continued . . .