Saturday, July 27, 2013

Faith, Reason, and Mystery #1

            The term "mystery" as used positively in the New Testament relates to a cognitive dissonance—that is, to the disconnect between faith and reason.  Positively used, it describes the incomprehensible working of divine power, which the early followers of Jesus struggled to understand rationally.  At least six issues perplexed them; oddly some of these same issues remain rational problems to the modern Christian mind.
The mystery of the failure of the Jewish mission: Paul was perplexed about the failure of the Jewish mission.  Why hadn't the Jewish people as a group embraced the "good news" about Jesus that Paul preached?  In Paul's view it had always been God's plan (Rom 9:1-5) to save the world through the sacrifice of Jesus.  Why didn't the Jewish people understood the Scripture, their own holy books, which early followers of Jesus believed "testified of Jesus" (John 5:39)?  That "a hardening had come upon Israel" until the proper number of Gentile had "come in" was a "mystery" according to Paul (Rom 11:25-29).  Paul appealed to the Jewish Scripture showing that this "hardening" had always been part of God's plan (Rom 11:8; Deut 29:3-4; Isa 6:9-10).
            The mystery that gentiles are heirs of the promise of Christ: After Paul's day the historical situation changed and a new problem was created by the failure of the Jewish mission.  At this later point Judaism and the church were recognized essentially as two different religions.  From the later perspective the question became: how is it that Gentiles (of which the church was then mostly comprised) are also heirs of the promise of Christ (Eph 3:3-6)?  They had come to recognize that the inclusion of the Gentiles was a promise made to Israel in the new covenant spoken of by Jeremiah (Heb 8:8-13; Jer 31:31-34).
Today the church no longer considers either of these a "mystery." From the perspective of history it is clear that by the middle first century the movement represented by Paul had already turned the corner.  Judaism and the early followers of Jesus actually represented two distinct social and religious groups, and Paul was too close to the situation to recognize it.
            The mystery of the spirit body: Paul also considered the resurrection of the believer, which involved the transformation of the physical body into a "spirit body," a mystery (1 Cor 15:51-52).  How could such a thing as the transformation of a physical body into spirit body occur?  How could the perishable become imperishable in "the twinkling of an eye"?  He never answers the question "how," but simply calls it a mystery—signaling by this term that it was something he did not understand.  His arguments for understanding the resurrection as a spiritual experience (1 Cor 15:35-50) are analogies rather than substantive logical arguments.  What he clearly does understand, however, is that the fleshly, physical, and perishable "cannot inherit the kingdom of God," which is innately imperishable and spiritual (1 Cor 15:44, 50). Later Pauline disciples reinterpreted his idea of the spirit body by arguing for the ascent of the spirit or the soul apart from the body (Treatise on the Resurrection 45:14-46:2; 47:30-48:6; 49:9-16) rather than for a "spirit" body.  Why should a spirit need "embodiment" anyway?
            The resurrection still remains a mystery to the Christian mind.   In an age of reason and scientific thinking a resurrection in whatever form is a problem for many.  But many modern believers persist in believing in the resurrection of the physical body and simply ignore Paul's view, arguing instead that the resurrection will be physical (i.e., the resuscitation of the natural body), a view that is encouraged in the gospels (Matt 28:9; John 20:17; 21:12-13; Luke 24:30) and 2 Clement (9:5).
Here is a curiosity question:  Do you "believe" anything that you would consider a mystery?
(End of the first installment—three more early Christian mysteries to come)
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


When suffering comes, as it will to all of us, we usually wonder why we have been singled out for such experiences.  The classic work on human suffering and religious faith still remains the Book of Job.  The characters in this ancient drama provide several perplexing answers to the question: why me, God?  The protagonist in the book (Job) is extolled by God as the quintessential "righteous man" (Job 1:8), but in the prose prologue (1:1-2:13) Job is afflicted with unimaginable suffering, caused by Satan with the expressed permission of God.  Satan wants to test Job's faith: "Take away Job's blessings," Satan urges God, "and Job will curse you" (Job 1:9-11).   Job is completely unaware of this dialogue between God and Satan.
Job's three friends in the central poetic section, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, tell Job that his suffering is due to his sins.  Such is the general view of antiquity: sin causes suffering; Job is suffering; therefore, Job is a sinner (Job 4:7; 8:1-6; 11:4-6).  Job rejects their views as "windy words," and calls them "miserable comforters" (Job 16:2-3).  Job admits he may have sinned, but continues to insist that his suffering is out of proportion to whatever his guilt may be (Job 6:24-30; 9:20-21; 10:5-7; 12:4; 13:2-5; 16;2-3; 19:4; 23:3-7; 27:2-6). The chapters by Elihu (32:6-37:24) are a later addition to the book, but Elihu adds a further reason for human suffering: God refines or disciplines the human being through suffering (Job 36:8-12).
In God's response (Job 38:1-43:6) he does not answer Job's questions (Job 23:3-7; 6:24-25), but simply intimidates Job with his awesome power and superior knowledge (chapters 38-41), but the reader of the book, having read the prologue, knows that Job is suffering because of the capricious backroom bargain struck between God and Satan (Job 2:1-6), which is not something God is apparently willing to admit.  In the end Job simply capitulates (Job 40:1-5), accepting that he will never know why he is suffering (Job 42:1-6).  The book as a whole affirms that "no theoretical solution to the problem of suffering is possible" (Eissfeldt, Old Testament Introduction, 457).
It is perplexing to me that sufferers persist in thinking that they have been singled out to suffer by an invisible power for some particular reason.  As we are taught in public school curricula (perhaps not in faith-based schools), the universe for all its regularity is still full of randomness.  For example, a desiccated brown leaf falls in front of you as you walk into the back yard.  It is not an unusual event—in a sense it is a non-event, meaningless, unless you assign some significance to it.  Another example: even though your car is the only one in the lot to suffer the indignity of bird droppings, few of us would ask "why me, God?" but would shrug it off as the random act it is.  In spite of the regularity of the universe (meaning: things usually work that way) deviations from regularity in the physical world do not have religious significance, unless we decide that they do.
Many think, however, that God micromanages the universe, and is therefore responsible for every-day tiny details, such as thinning your hair and clogging your shower drain (cf. Matt 10:30).  They will imbue with religious significance even the most banal events in the most insignificant pedestrian day.  Hair loss, however, is a perfectly natural occurrence—your thinning hair is likely due to genetics or perhaps a diet deficiency.  The truth is we live in a dangerous universe and are subject to any number of debilitating diseases.  The state of our health depends on our genetics, our physical condition, our diet, the quality of our medical care, and, unfortunately, on our ability to pay for medical services.  "Mother Nature" is the more likely cause of your suffering—another is the lack of progressive health and human welfare programs in your community, for which our political leaders share the heaviest load of blame.  
            People who suffer do not turn to God for help with their physical pain.  Physicians do the better job of helping us manage our physical pain.  God, on the other hand, perhaps does better with helping us manage our mental and emotional suffering—although some illnesses in this area require medication and God is reduced to playing a supportive role.  Many testify that faith in God brings spiritual comfort and emotional peace in their suffering.  Such faith in many ways is a spiritual elixir bringing palliative psychological and emotional comfort to the sufferer.  Such "spiritual therapy" cannot be measured in a test tube, but for believers what it produces is just as real as aspirin for a headache.
            The "why me?" question, however, completely stumps true believers, even though they may find spiritual strength to bear the indignities of severe disease.  The answer of the author of Job is surprising: people suffer and there is no theoretical explanation.  In the prose epilogue God chides Job's three friends for not telling the truth about God with their orthodox answers (Job 42:7-9), but God commended Job for "speaking of me what is right" (Job 42:7).  Job never learned why he was suffering, but he refused to accept the easy orthodox counsel of his friends.  The only thing of which he seemed sure was that God was not punishing him because of his sins.
What should be said about other reasons given by religious people for their suffering—testing, discipline, personal growth toward spiritual maturity etc.?  These answers raise the question: what kind of God, do you suppose, would do such unconscionable things to people in the name of improving them?  As Job said to Zophar: "Your maxims are proverbs of ashes" (Job 13:12)—or as we might say: "your truths are bywords of baloney."
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University