Thursday, January 24, 2013

Man becoming God is an Old Idea

In an essay for the Springfield News-Leader (January 11, 2013) Pastor Mark Kiser blames all societal ills on the fact that people have tried to divorce themselves “from the influence and loving arms of a gracious God, Jesus Christ” (Mark Kiser article). Kiser is the President of “Reclaiming Missouri for Christ,” although I was unable to identify the church of which he is pastor.
       In early Christian texts Jesus is presented as a Jewish man to whom were attributed mighty works, wonders, and signs (Acts 2:22); he lived and died in Palestine in the early years of the first century A. D. His preferred term for himself was “son of man,” but his followers in the latter half of the first century described him as “God’s Anointed” and “Son of God,” a title given to other Greco-Roman “sons of God”—but his earliest followers did not make him God, nor did he claim to be God. Early Christian texts in the latter half of the first century, however, describe four different ways that the followers of Jesus thought he had become a “son of God”: at his birth (Matthew, Luke), at his baptism (Mark), at his resurrection (Paul). In John, however, Jesus was always the pre-existent son of God, and the only one of his kind.
       Kiser’s description of Jesus as God is not consistent with early Christian faith or even Christian orthodoxy. Not even the prologue to the Gospel of John, the Christ hymn of Philippians; and the Trinitarian Creeds of the 4th century (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed), which describe a very close relationship between God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit (i.e., three persons in One) go as far as Pastor Kiser and actually turn Jesus into God. Tertullian, a late 2nd century churchman and author, who was the most precise of early Christian writers in his description of the Trinity, insisted on a clear distinction between God and the son, something the later creeds obscure. The earliest Christians worshipped Yahweh the God of Hebrew faith, and regarded Jesus who, as God’s Anointed, was believed to have played a special role in the divine economy. Nevertheless, at the end of the first century there are clear indications that the role of Jesus was becoming far more important in Christian faith. For example, Pliny the Younger, a Roman special commissioner to Pontus-Bithynia, reported that Christians in Bithynia had admitted meeting on certain days at daybreak to chant a hymn “to Christ as to a God.” And the outburst of Thomas in John 20:28 seems to elevate the role of the resurrected Christ to a position assuming the role of deity.
       Pastor Kiser raises an interesting question. Can humans become divine, and receive worship as a God? The answer is yes they can—and they have done so. It was a common feature of Pagan antiquity to believe that human beings of great accomplishments had a God for a father and a human for a mother, and they as “sons of God” developed cult followings. For example, Theagenes was only a Greek athlete of legendary prowess, but according to the Greek Historian Pausanias, by the 2nd century cult centers existed across Greece where Theagenes received divine honors, and sacrifice was rendered to him as to a God.        
        In Greco-Roman antiquity anyone who knew Homer’s writings knew the Gods often came to earth in the disguise of humans. So for example, Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Gods (Hermes and Zeus) at Lystra (Acts 14:8-18), and Paul was mistaken for a God at Malta when the viper bite him but did not kill him (Acts 28:1-6). The Roman Centurion, Cornelius, began to worship Peter as a God at Caesarea (Acts 10:23-26). Likely, the Christ Hymn of Philippians (2:5-11) should be understood in such a context (see particularly, Phil 2:5-8): Christ Jesus as a pre-existent divine figure does not become human but rather merely assumes the disguise of a human being.
       It is apparently an easy matter even for people even in the modern world to believe that humans can become divine. Until the end of World War II the Japanese emperor Hirohito was believed to be divine and worshipped as such—he did not renounce his divinity until 1946. There are other examples.
       Dethroning the traditional God of Jewish and Christian faith and replacing God with Jesus, as Pastor Kiser has done, is not unprecedented, however. In the ancient world Zeus was believed to have dethroned his father Cronus, thereby becoming the Lord of the Universe—just as Cronus himself at an earlier time had dethroned his father Uranus.
       Can humans become Gods? The evidence seems to suggest that whatever you are able to convince people to believe will become their reality.

A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on January 19, 2013:

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Friday, January 11, 2013

What does God Expect of ME? - My Answer

I raised this question in a blog entitled “The God Question” (July 9, 2012). Recently my good friend Buddy Shurden, an eminent Baptist historian and educator being disappointed that I did not answer the question “What does God expect of us?” asked for an answer—to put all my cards face up on the table, as it were. I am not certain that my answer will work for anyone else—as I said in the July 9 blog, everyone must answer the question for himself/herself, and this answer is how I am making sense of life.
     I previously published my take on this topic in an essay entitled “Out of the Enchanted Forest. Christian Faith in an Age of Reason,” published in When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journeys (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge: 2008), 13-24. When I wrote the longer essay, I did so from the perspective of a Baptist “Christian” who was trying to make sense of religious traditions that had nourished his personal thinking—in other words it reflected my views as someone who continued inside the community of faith. Looking back over that essay today, I find little reason to change it.
       In this blog, however, I am writing a shorter essay from the perspective of a 21st century human being who, although an heir of the 4th century Christian creeds and canon, finds himself today principally indebted to the 18th century Enlightenment and modern scientific thought. My formal education in the Western academic tradition from the earliest years has been thoroughly secular, principally drawing on logic, critical methodology, and human reason to answer questions that before the 18th century were the strict purview of religion. In this brief essay I set out five very personal conclusions about how I see my place in the world.
     One: I believe in God—although I admit I have no personal knowledge of God. I only know what others have written or told me. I hold this belief only because I cannot explain why it is that there is nothing at all, or as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it in his Introduction to Metaphysics: the fundamental question of metaphysics is “Why are there existing things rather than nothing?” I hasten to add, however, I did not come to this observation through metaphysical philosophy or prayer, but rather through general reading, observation, and personal pondering. The universe exists and because neither scientists nor religionists can adequately explain why that is so brings me to a belief in God.
       Two: No matter what “they” tell us, no one knows, or can know, the mind of God. Even Paul and Isaiah shared that thought (1 Cor 2:16 = Isaiah 40:13 LXX). God’s ways have always been inscrutable (Rom 11:33-34; similar to 2nd Baruch [Syriac] 8:14)—as even the most pious believer should know simply by reading the weather report every day, if by nothing more. Hence the answer to the question is this: I have no idea what it is that God expects of humankind in general or me in particular! I cannot read the minds of human beings who are close to me—much less the mind of God. I cannot take religious professionals seriously when they purport to know the mind of God and tell me what God expects of me—they disagree. Living by the pronouncements of others is at bottom surrendering self-determination for voluntary servitude. Religious professionals are usually well meaning, but claim to know more than is humanly possible.
        Three: I alone am responsible for making my way in an increasingly complex world, and for my personal integrity in making decisions in a world of dirty shades of grey. For a thoughtful person an ethical decision in the modern world can be both “right” and “wrong” simultaneously. So I am often called upon to choose between the “lesser” of what I consider two immoral options—and in such a situation I must accept the responsibility for doing harm while aiming to act in love.
       Four: All ethical decisions are by definition situational! This means that right and wrong take their character from the situation—there are no absolute rights or wrongs. In some cases an act usually judged right in one situation is completely wrong in another. I would describe my rule of thumb for decision-making and ethical action as a beneficent or empathetic humanism, informed in particular by the best in the Judeo-Christian tradition broadly conceived—meaning that the tradition is both broader and longer than the 4th century canon and Christian orthodoxy.
     Five: I am hopeful that my physical death will not result in an ultimate loss of personal consciousness. Hope is not the same thing as faith, confidence, and certitude, as Paul noted: “Now hope that is seen is not hope—for who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25). So like everyone else I am waiting to see if my hope is realized. From my perspective, however, God shows an apparent disinterest in the world, as I have blogged numerous times, specifically with reference to natural disasters, and disease. See for example “Does God Control the Wind,” Blog May 19, 2011. I do not live in fear of God in the present or in fear of personal judgment in the future. In spite of compelling evidence to the contrary (disease and natural disasters) I continue to hope that God, who may or may not be in control of the considerable powers of the universe, will in the divine economy not consign my consciousness to oblivion.
     Buddy how have you answered the question?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University