Saturday, August 13, 2022

Responses to the Biblical Proposition: "God"

In biblical texts there are accounts of different responses to divinity. In this essay the divine is considered a proposition that individuals affirm, or not. The content of the proposition (what or who God is) differs from person to person; for people respond differently to the proposition “God,” because they conceive God differently. In general, we gather our ideas of divinity from our culture, engagement in society, religious gatherings, parents, and our own personal thought.1

I realize that people who believe firmly in God would state the title differently. Some might entitle the essay “Experiences of God found in the Bible.” My title and way of focusing the essay is necessary to maintain objectivity, for if there is no God, then claims to experience God, must arise from within the individuals who make such claims.

            In the Bible there are very few personal testimonies about experiencing God made by those individuals who had the experience. A personal testimony is made by the person who claims the experience. In such cases the identity of the claimant must be known, for the claim to be personal testimony. All other claims are secondary or tertiary. A secondary level of testimony is when a given writer claims an experience with the divine on someone else’s behalf. For example, the author of Acts, regarded as Luke by critical New Testament scholarship, records three accounts of Paul’s religious experience (Acts 9:1-19; Acts 22:4-16; 26:9-18) and another of Stephen (Acts 7:55-56). Paul also describes religious experiences on the part of Peter and others (1 Cor 15:5-7). A tertiary level of testimony is when a writer of unknown identity claims a religious experience on someone else’s behalf; for example, Mark makes a claim for Jesus (Mark 1:9-11); the author of the book of Job records the religious experience of Eliphaz (Job 4:12-17); the author of First Kings records a religious experience of Elijah (1 Kgs 19:9-18). There is less chance of accuracy in secondary claims of experience with the divine, since such claims can be made to serve the interests of the writer.2 Tertiary claims of experiencing the divine are reliably open to charges of being fictionalized.

Here are three personal testimonies of experiencing the divine. Isaiah claimed a personal experience with God when he “saw” the Lord “high and lifted up” (Isa 6:1-3). This distant, holy, yet forgiving Lord (6:4-7), called on Isaiah to proclaim a harsh message to the people of Judah (6:8-13). Did Isaiah “see,” these things in the sense that the images were registered on the retina of his eyes (i.e., there was actually something physically there to see), or did he imagine the entire experience (i.e., it only happened in his mind), or did he “create” the account out of his religious faith?

John, the author of the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse), describes a psychedelic-like3 experience when he was enraptured “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10). He heard behind him a voice “loud like a trumpet” (1:10). What he “saw” was the resurrected Lord presented in rather bizarre images (Rev 1:12-19). The rest of the book of Revelation constitutes other things John sees: “what is, and what is to take place hereafter” (1:19), which John wrote down in obedience to the command to “write” (1:19). Once again, a reader must decide if this experience was registered on the retina of John’s eyes, or were produced by his imagination, or created out of his system of religious beliefs.

Paul does not describe the actual moment of his encounter with the divine but alludes to aspects of it (Gal 1:11-17; 1 Cor 15:8). The elements of the event were:  God revealed God’s son to Paul to preach among the Gentiles (Gal 1:16; 1 Cor 15:8) and Jesus Christ himself revealed to Paul the gospel he preached (Gal 1:11-12).4

None of these experiences with the divine should be regarded as normative for one’s own experience. There is no such thing as a normative religious experience because people have different ideas about God.5 Gods conceived differently, “interact” differently, with those who conceive them.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The Bible is not listed here because it is something we learn about and are taught by our parents and the culture in which we live.

2As in the case of Luke’s description of Paul’s experience: see Hedrick, “Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the Three Reports in Acts,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981): 415-32.

3Imitating the effects of psychedelic drugs such as distorted or bizarre images or sounds.

4It is unclear to me whether Paul’s confidence that God set him apart before he was born and called him through grace was part of the divine encounter or is simply a part of Paul’s personal faith.

5http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=normative+religious+experience

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Is Jaywalking a Sin against God?

Jaywalking is the act of pedestrians walking in or crossing a roadway that has traffic, other than at a suitable crossing point, or otherwise in disregard of traffic rules.1

In 2015 I published a blog entitled “What is sin?”2 In the essay I surveyed acts and attitudes in the Bible that were specifically described by Greek and Hebrew words that Bible translators rendered by the English word “sin.” What I discovered was surprising to me. There are very few acts and attitudes in the Bible specifically designated as sin. That made me wonder at the arrogance of contemporary religious leaders who impose on their flocks an expanded and rather modern list of sins. How does anyone know what offends God?

            Some of the early writers of the New Testament encouraged those who shared their faith to present themselves to the Graeco-Roman religious pubic and the civil authorities as positively as possible (1 Thess 4:10-12; 1 Tim 2:2-3; Tit 3:1-2; 1 Pet 2:12-14), so that there would be no cause for criticism of the faith. Paul shared this view, except that he raised the significance of public image by incorporating it into his theological system as a religious obligation. Whether he did or not depends on whether you think Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7, which sets forth theological reasons for the Christian’s obedience to the civil authority and the state.3

            The author of Romans 13:1-7 argues that Christians should be subject to the authority of the state, apparently any state, that is the governing authority under which the Christian lives.4 With respect to civil laws (which would include jaywalking) this passage asserts three things.

  1. All governing authority is instituted by God (Rom 13:1-2).
  2. Civil servants are God’s servants and instituted by God for the purpose of governing the state (Rom 13:4, 6).
  3. If one rebels against civil authority, one will incur God’s judgment (13:2), for God punishes the law breaker though the civil authority (Rom 13:4).

In other words, civil laws are God’s laws. Therefore, one would have to conclude that the author of Romans 13:1-7 might have understood jaywalking to be a sin against God, for jaywalking defies laws instituted by the civil authorities, who are God’s servants for the good of the state.

            Such reasoning seems patently absurd to me. While it is plausible that God may have endorsed the concept of governing authority in general, it is absurd to think that God endorses every government. For that would make God responsible for approving repressive, incompetent, and inhumane regimes. Further, it is rather obvious that civil servants are not God’s servants but are appointed to their positions by flawed leaders, who (at bottom) have their own or party interests at heart. Consider only our democratic system of government. How many elected officials in congress think of themselves as “servants of God” and consider themselves “appointed by God” to the task of governing?

            But, perhaps, I am simply too disillusioned from following the news closely these past ten years or so. I find it difficult to think of jaywalking as a sin that offends God. If God “thinks” about jaywalking at all, God would likely consider it as most of us do, foolhardy and an unnecessary risk (unless the streets were empty of traffic and the jaywalker had looked both ways to determine their emptiness). Would this hold true, do you suppose, about all minor infractions of the civil code?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaywalking#United_States

2 http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=what+is+sin

3Romans 13:1-7 is likely an interpolation into the letter and not by Paul: for the argument, see Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2010), 253-54.

4The major governing authority in the first century CE Mediterranean area was the Roman State.