Saturday, August 31, 2013

Revelation and Meaning

I was taught in my youth that the Bible is "the inspired word of God," yet no one ever explained to me how that came to be.  The early followers of Jesus regarded their Holy Scriptures, the Jewish Bible, to be inspired—an idea that they inherited from their roots in Judaism.  These "sacred writings" they regarded as "full of the breath of God," i.e., they were "inspired" (2 Timothy 3:15-16).  In a similar way, I suppose, to God's fashioning Adam from the dust and "breathing on his face a breath of life" so that Adam became a living being (Genesis 2:7 Septuagint translation). By the 4th century it is clear that Christian churches had extended this character of "holy inspiration" to the new covenant books as well.
            Inspiration is not a physical feature of a piece of literature that can be investigated—like its language, handwriting, historical context and character, human author, manuscript tradition, etc.  So how is one able to validate the truth of the assertion that "divinity" lies somehow or in some way in its words?  Divine inspiration is an extraordinarily high value to place on any product of human effort, unless, of course, it was written by God, as the Ten Commandments were described (Deuteronomy 10:1-2).  Nevertheless, we do regard the work of some authors as "inspired," usually suggesting by that appellation that their writings contribute to our better nature and motivate us for the good.  The validation of its inspiration lies in the effect that it has on us, and in its longevity as an exceptional text.  We really don't say of a writer who writes exceptional literature (like for example, a Shakespeare or a Wallace Stevens) that the hand of God is on him, or that God's breath inspires him.  His or her literary greatness we know to be derived from the powers of human imagination, creativity, and careful observation of the world.  By this standard there is much in the Bible that could be regarded as "inspired," the twenty-third psalm for example, or 1 Corinthians 13.  On the other hand, there is much in the Bible that is depressing, such as 1 Samuel 15 or 1 Timothy 2:8-15.  Only a blind true believer would affirm the "greatness" of these latter texts.   The truth is that declaring any text "inspired" is merely an opinion—even if it is a consensus view.
            Readers of biblical texts, somewhat carelessly in my opinion, like to describe the "meaning" of a given text, as though their interpretation of the text takes precedence over other readings of that text—other readings are wrong, in other words.  Truth be told, however, there are always several meanings that can be and are given to various texts—frequently there are as many meanings as there are readers.  "Meaning," like revelation is neither a physical feature of a text, nor is it some particular abstract value concealed in some way within a text, so that readers must search it out.  The "meaning" of a text is a reader's response to a text.  As such it is an abstraction evoked in the mind of the reader in the intersection between what the text says and what the reader brings to the text.  Texts say things and readers, if gracious, confer meaning upon them.
            Texts are derived out of an author's world; the author has compressed into the text his or her experience, imagination, and creativity.  Generally, however, texts carry along unintended baggage of which even the author is unaware, and for this reason sometimes authors can learn much about himself/herself and his/her craft from a perceptive reader's review.  Readers, on the other hand, live within a world of their own making; hence their world is different from the world of the text.  Readers approach texts from the perspective of their own world and experience, and bring along with them baggage of which they are unaware.  Hence the "meaning" that a particular reader creates in this nexus between the text and the reader belongs to that particular reader.  No reading of a text can ever exhaust the potential of a text to assist new readers in the creation of new meanings.

Here is an example using a parable-like story I created for illustrating some of these ideas for my students at Missouri State University.  What do you make of it?
A certain man received a letter from the IRS.  He took it to his accountant to review in order to reply to the IRS.  The accountant, however, was arrested three days later for embezzling funds from his employers, and the man was left to solve the problem for himself.  Because he was late in replying to the IRS, he had to pay a large sum in interest and penalties.  The lesson of this parable will be on the next exam.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jesus People, Mystery Religions, and Nascent Christianity #3

This is the third essay in a trilogy on the term "mystery" in early Christianity.  My contention is that early followers of Jesus applied the term to aspects of their belief system that they could not understand rationally—i.e., it was something they believed even though it seemed contrary to reason.  Instead of revising their belief to accord with reason, they admitted cognitive dissonance and branded it as a "mystery," which allowed them reasonably to continue affirming a belief they could not understand rationally.  They trusted that these acknowledged disconnects between reason and faith would be worked out in the Divine economy.  In the modern Christian church the term mystery, as far as I know, is not extensively used.  One notable exception is the "mystery of the Mass"—the moment at which the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ.
These several uses of the term mystery, surveyed in the previous two blogs, raise the question whether or not nascent Christianity of the Pauline type should be regarded as a mystery religions cult—not in the sense of dependence on one of the ancient cults of the Greco-Roman world, but in the sense of a parallel development.  In other words, the spirit of the age evoked these religions of personal salvation and also led to the transformation of the early Jesus people into a nascent Christianity of the Pauline type.  At least one highly respected New Testament Scholar thought of the "religious history of the Mediterranean world in the early imperial period as 'the age of mysteries'" (Shirley Jackson Case, The Social Origins of Christianity [1923], 113).
            The mystery religions cults were rather diverse in their public celebrations, sacred objects, and theological content.  So they had a public face as well as a hidden secret side.  Although different, they did have several things in common.  They were all voluntary associations in which people must choose to present themselves as initiates.  At the heart of the cult was a private mystery rite, a secret not to be divulged to anyone.  In the mystery rite the individual was brought into a close personal relationship with the deity.  The myth behind the rite and the rite itself consisted of things said to the individual, or things performed in the presence of the individual, or in things done to the individual.  Since these rites were secret and not divulged, scholars are left to guess from clues here and there as to the content and meaning of the different secret rites.  Participation in the mystery granted individuals redemption from the evils of the earthly life and the assurance of a blessed immortality, i.e., the expectation of eternal life. Usually a sacred meal was celebrated by those initiated into the mystery cults.  The goal of the initiation rite was not to impart a particular body of knowledge, but rather to produce a certain experience in the individual that resulted in a particular state of mind—about the God, life, and the hereafter.  Some scholars describe the rite of initiation as "an extraordinary experience that could be described as death and rebirth" (Marvin Meyer, "Mystery Religions" Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible [1992]).
            Meyer finds several close similarities between the nascent Christianity of the first century and the mystery religions. Like the mystery religions, followers of the Christ voluntarily associated themselves together in the early Pauline communities, which also were communities of redemption and salvation.  In the community they experienced baptism, a ceremonial ritual (Rom 6:1-11), in which the initiate is baptized "into Christ's death" and with Christ experienced death and rebirth.  Another rite was the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:17-31), which commemorated the death of Christ.  "By eating of the bread and drinking of the new wine [i. e., his body, his blood] in the Eucharist Christians participated in the death of Christ, and assimilated the saving power of the Cross into their lives" (Meyer gives a number of other parallels).  The "myth" behind both these rituals is, of course, the mystery of Christ (1 Timothy 3:16): that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:17-19, Galatians 6:14). Christ is described by Paul as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), and Paul writes: "We proclaim in a mystery a hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification" (1 Corinthians 2:7; cf. Romans 16:25).  It is difficult to make detailed comparisons between nascent Christianity and the Greco-Roman mysteries, however, because there is little extant first-hand information on the mysteries (see Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook [1987]).
            These parallels are well known, but generally scholars exclude Christianity from consideration as a Greco-Roman mystery religion with the argument that the "mystery" in Christianity is an "open" secret—in spite of the fact that nascent Christianity uses similar language, concepts, and rites, and shares similar objectives with the mystery religions.  Nascent Christianity of the Pauline type evolved out of the early Jesus people into a religion of personal salvation, clearly a type of mystery religion.  It managed to survive into modernity by evolving again into an institutional creedal religion, which enjoyed the political patronage of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century.  The institutionalized religion seems a far cry from the earlier Pauline mysteries.  Paul regarded himself and the initiates in his gatherings as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1).
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mystery, Reason, and Faith #2

Early Christians struggled to understand their faith rationally.  This essay continues the essay of July 27, 2013.
The mystery of all things united in Christ.  Some Pauline disciples believed that "in the fullness of time" God intended to gather into Christ the sum total of everything in heaven and on earth (Eph 1:9-10)—i.e., all things and all beings.  Christ becomes a receptacle for everything in the universe in the fullness of time so as to establish a kind of cosmic harmony and unity—just as it all had begun in Christ (Col 1:16-17; cf. Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6).
The very concept is breathtaking, albeit a bit strange—all things are united in Christ and nothing exists outside him.  Christ in a sense becomes "the all in all" of the universe, i.e., its plenitude.  With the universe gathered "in Christ," it would be sanctified—ie. e., made holy.  The distance between the sacred and profane would be overcome, and the profane transformed into the sacred.  At the same time, it was clearly an odd idea for those who lived in the first century—hence their description of it as mystery.  But it is even odder for those of us who live in the 21st century.  How exactly can such a concept be understood in the modern scientific age?  The universe is clearly expanding rather than contracting—and what exactly do you suppose "sanctified matter" might be anyway?
The mystery of lawlessness already at work.  In 2 Thess 2:1-12 the author corrects a misapprehension that the day of the Lord had already come.  The assertion is that it cannot have come, since it must first be preceded by "the rebellion" and by the appearance of the "man of lawlessness."  The mystery lies in the fact that already "lawlessness" is at work—although the lawless one has not yet been revealed.  In other words, there is an established timetable for the coming of the day of the Lord, and the mystery is that the scheme has been partially breached or compromised.  How can that be?  How explain that lawlessness is already at work even though "what restrains" (2 Thess 2:7) is still in place and the man of lawlessness has not yet appeared?  This kind of thinking is called apocalyptic eschatology, a kind of thinking in which imagined schemes are devised to account for what will transpire at the end time (cf. 2 Esdras 6:1-34).  Such thinking imposes a fictive plot on history that never happens.  On the other hand, Christianity was clearly more successful with its fictive plot on time separating a pagan time-frame from a Christian time-frame by Before the Common Era and Anno Domine.
The mystery of Christ.  The "Christ event" is by far the most perplexing of these mysteries.  This mystery, more than anything, revealed the difficulty that later followers of Jesus had with the most basic concept of their faith (1 Timothy 3:16).  They preached the mystery of Christ (Col 4:2-4)—that is, how could it be that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19)?  How could it be that all the treasures of wisdom had come to be in Christ (Col 2:1-3)?  How could the gospel of a crucified Jewish teacher be the wisdom of God destined from the ages to bring about human glorification (1 Cor 2:7)?
The early followers of Jesus did not settle the questions evoked by these mysteries—in fact, they never even really grappled with them.  They contented themselves with the idea that the solutions to these mysteries reside in the mind of God, and naturally remain incomprehensible to the human mind (Rom 11:33).  There was a surprising lack of curiosity or inquisitiveness on their part that apparently resulted in a reluctance to pursue them.  Certainly part of this mind-set was due to the idea that they regarded their teaching as absolutely true, but principally it was because they considered inquisitiveness (ἐκζητήση) a negative attribute.  The word appears in the New Testament where it is translated as "speculations" (ἐκζητήσεις).  Inquisitiveness also carries with it the idea of getting to the bottom of things—or making an investigation.  Hence there existed a kind of early anti-intellectualism on the part of the early Christians.  They simply ignored these issues, until much later when the diversity in the church forced later leaders to address them.  The mystery of Christ was eventually directly addressed in the councils of the fourth century, but never really resolved.  It was simply glossed over by adoption of an arbitrary scheme (the doctrine of the Trinity) at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Mystery is a puzzle to be deciphered.  The word "mystery" is used only three times in the canonical gospels, and all in the same parallel context (Mark 4:11-12 = Matt 13:11, 13 = Luke 8:10).  The word does not indicate a divine mystery, as it appears elsewhere.  In the gospels a mystery is a deliberate strategy used by Jesus to present information about the kingdom of God in oblique language in order to obfuscate the understanding of the masses.  In the Apocalypse, on the other hand, it is generally used almost as the equivalent of a "puzzle" (Rev 1:20; 17:5, 7) to be solved.  In Rev 10:7, on the other hand, it is a divine mystery that would be accomplished at the trumpet call of the seventh angel.  This obscure reference to the "mystery of God" is not really made clear to the reader, but it is clearly a divine secret about to be unveiled.
Should Christianity be understood as one of the mystery religions that emerged about the same time it did?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University