Saturday, April 26, 2014

Down the Rabbit Hole: Pondering Confessions and Questions

           Religious beliefs help us to order our lives and our world.  They inform us about our place in the universe and provide us a rationale for being and living, and consolation in dying.  Sometimes, however, certain beliefs, prime directives really, in our traditional belief systems clash with personal experience, rational thought, or reason, which produces a crisis of personal faith.  What does one do then?

           Sunday morning in Baptist Bible study this subject was broached when one of the fellows said "there are some things that I just take 'on faith,'" which I understood to mean that some things just don't seem to make sense for whatever reason, and so he just accepted them without question.  After a moment I raised this question: why do we do that—accept things "on faith" without question?  Shouldn't we challenge what we don't understand? The reaction from the class was defensive.  We were, after all, talking about Baptist confessional beliefs.

           Confessions are not offers to dialogue, but statements demanding acceptance.  And some beliefs are so basic to faith that even their challenge threatens to undermine "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), and shakes the very foundations of a faith that gives meaning and order to life.  What was an academic question for me, whose answer, I hoped, might lead to a better understanding of how we think about faith was seen by the class as an assault on faith, or so it seemed.

           Religious confessions are holy things; for the confessor they are the very essence of absolute truth, and we defer to them as we do not to other secular beliefs we hold.  Secular beliefs we change quite frequently, but in the face of a threat to religious belief we sense the shifting of tectonic plates beneath our feet.  But the fact is that religious beliefs do change.  What was gospel truth yesterday and today, tomorrow may very well be consigned to the dust bin of discarded religious belief.

           There are numerous examples of Christian "believers" who questioned beliefs and refused to take things "on faith."  For example, that was precisely the case with Job.  His friends told him that he was suffering because of his sins (the common view of Mediterranean antiquity).  That answer was not satisfying to Job.  He was willing to admit that he may have sinned, but what he was suffering was out of all proportion to whatever sins he may have committed.  He kept wrestling with a faith that affirmed: "sin always results in suffering; Job is suffering; therefore Job is a sinner."  Job could not let the matter drop until he became convinced that God was powerful enough to do whatever God wanted—but Job never admitted that what he was suffering was the result of his sins (and of course the reader knows from reading the prologue to the poem, Job was right).  In short Job never accepted the premise of his friends, even though he lost his one-sided argument with God.  Because we have read the book, we know that Job's friends wanted him to confess something that was not true.

            Here is another belief that was "gospel truth" in the Christian church.  From the second century to the sixteenth century the standard view of the cosmos was that the earth was the center of the universe.  A Polish scientist and churchman Nikolas Copernicus, however, in the early part of the sixteenth century proved that our solar system was heliocentric—meaning that the earth and all the planets in our solar system revolved around the sun.  Fearing the inevitable conflict between his book and the church, Copernicus did not allow his book to be published until his death. At the end of the sixteenth century Giordano Bruno, a Monk-philosopher, believed Copernicus was right. Bruno was taken to court and given a chance to recant his heresy of the earth revolving around the sun.  He refused to recant and was burned at the stake as a heretic.  Later Galileo Galilei, an Italian astronomer of the 17th century, was placed under house arrest by church authorities for agreeing with Copernicus.  In the end, however, he perjured himself and recanted.  The church was mistaken, the confession was wrong, and eventually was quietly changed.  Today we all know that the earth is a planet in an out of the way solar system at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy—and it circles around our sun.  The religious belief that was once "gospel truth" for over a thousand years was replaced by a secular truth.

            In short, confessions of faith are absolute truths only for those who accept them as such.  Faith, however, may not demand that I confess things I find questionable or untrue; for confessions do not originate in the mind of God; they are human formulations that are changed by vote, synod action, or simply quietly over time.  The Christian church is a conservative institution with a vested interest in its survival with the least amount of change.  Some things, however, will always be in need of change—and change begins with questions.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Romancing the Gospels

Reality, that is to say the way things are "out there all around us," is not directly apprehended by the mind.  Things "out there" are communicated to the mind indirectly through the senses (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling).  The mind processes what information the senses provide and deduces the situation "out there" from the received data. Thus, the reality that each individual perceives "out there" in society and nature is unique to the individual.

Narratives also reflect "narrative realism," which is the reality effect authors produce for the reader, whether they intend it or not.  At least five kinds of narrative realism have been used in Western literature; they are: fantasy realism, mythical realism, romantic realism, fictional realism, and historical realism.

Romantic realism describes the activities of superhuman beings in a supernatural world.  It portrays characters like us, only much better than we are in every way, in a space similar to ours, in a time of marvels.  [Hedrick, "Realism in Western Narrative," JBL 126.2 (2007): 352-53]

Romantic realism portrays a world in which the ordinary rules of nature are suspended and the extraordinary regularly occurs.  The early Christian gospels portray a narrative realism that is akin to the King Arthur legends and Harry Potter tales, and hence fit better into the category of romantic realism than into the category of historical realism.  Historical realism portrays what has actually happened in common space and time, as it can be reconstructed on the basis of empirical evidence.  The subject of history is real people and actual events portrayed in terms of natural cause and effect.

That the early Christian gospels correspond to a realism best described as romantic implies that their realism is due to how the evangelists perceived reality or chose to portray it, which is the case with any author.  The circumstances of Jesus' career, however, are not necessarily identical with the evangelists' perceptions of it.  For example, Mark, Matthew, and Luke portray Jesus performing exorcisms, but John does not perceive Jesus as an exorcist, and has no exorcisms.  It is true that historical narrative is whatever we say it is, but that statement is actually a caveat, a warning to historians that they should not be overly confident in their reconstruction of history, since it is only a reconstruction, whether others agree with it even it in part.

The early Christian gospels are not "history" in the sense of what was actually lived; they are only particular reconstructions of history.  History itself is the aggregate of the lived past; that is to say, history is comprised of all the billions of things that have ever happened in the past, significant and insignificant, public and private, natural and arranged, remembered and forgotten, personal and impersonal, seemly and unseemly, etc.  Narratives about the lived past (or selected aspects of it), on the other hand, are attempts at reconstructing the lived past—never in its aggregate totality but in what the historian considers the more significant moments of aspects of it.  Hence history is different from historical narrative.  The reality that was the moment as it was actually lived can never be recaptured, but its scattered bones (individual artifacts and memories) can be gathered, catalogued, and analyzed.  From these vestiges of the past the historian aims to revive a given "lived moment" by making connections between the bits of data and imagining how things might have played themselves out given the data at the historian's disposal.  Thus the historian attempts to codify the lived past into a reconstructed historical narrative.  But a reconstructed historical narrative is no more "history" than a corpse is a human being.

            Thinking of history as lived past and historical narrative as later reconstruction may actually free us from the idea that Jesus' "lived past" is what the evangelists said it was.  The widely differing reconstructions of Jesus by modern scholars graphically illustrate the shortcomings of the early Christian gospels as historical sources.  It is not simply a case of one is right and the others wrong; but that the sources themselves are simply flawed and cannot be trusted. [From the epilogue: Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, Cascade Books, forthcoming].

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Who Decides What is True Christianity?

In a Springfield News-Leader "Voice of the Day" editorial Rev. Michael Haynes, Director of the Greene County Baptist Association criticized Rev. Dr. Roger Ray, the pastor of Community Christian Church (Feb 3, 2014).  Community Christian Church is a progressive Christian community ( ).  Mr. Haynes said of Mr. Ray: "Ray is not a Christian"; Ray should "stop the charade and not call himself a Christian"; and Ray should "stop making Jesus into whomever he wants him to be."  What follows is a slightly longer version of my submission to the News-Leader on February 4, 2014, which has yet to be printed.

Dear Brother Haynes, it seems unfair of you to judge Brother Ray's Christianity, or lack thereof, by the Baptist Faith and Message Statement, a statement that likely represents what you conceive as "true Christianity."  Christianity has always been a "Big Tent" religion, encompassing very divergent views.  There never has been one true view of Christian faith—not even from the beginning.  What much later became the so-called "orthodox" view in the fourth century came about with the political assistance of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, aided by a self-appointed orthodoxy's aggressiveness, in stamping out their competition.

            There was no dominant view of Christianity until the fourth century and also no Christian Bible (Hebrew Scriptures plus New Testament) until the fourth century.  In short there were no agreed-upon standards that could be used to judge another's beliefs.  In the second century there were charismatic teachers with divergent views.  Paul, for example, had to argue his positions against those with whom he disagreed.  The early post-resurrection- belief followers of Jesus used only the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as their Scriptures.  The writing of the New Testament texts was yet years in the future—some were not written until the second century.  Not until the Fourth century did it become possible to cite New Testament texts and church creeds as authoritative proofs of what some regarded as true faith.  Before that, each group promoted its own version of faith as the true faith, as is still the case.

            In this early period before the Constantine-led suppression of the diversity of beliefs about Jesus there were numbers of ways of interpreting Jesus.  In the end-of-the-first-century canonical gospels clearly he was regarded as the divine Son of God.  But oddly those words, as such, are never found as an admission on Jesus' own lips; the title is bestowed on him by others.  And only once does Jesus accept the title messiah ("anointed" Mark 14:61-62).  In the passages parallel to Mark he avoids such an admission.  In Romans 1:3-4, a pre-Pauline confession or hymn, Jesus was not presented as divine, but he was by nature essentially a human being, appointed or adopted for a special purpose.  Others believed that Jesus was not human after all, but rather he was completely divine, and only seemed to be human (cf. Phil 2:9-11 and John 1:1-2, 14).  Jesus' humanity, including what he said and did, essentially disappears in the later ecclesiastical creeds.  Still other groups regarded Jesus as a human being who came to be inhabited at his baptism by a divine spirit—"the Christ," or believed that he was the natural born son of Mary and Joseph, a human being like the rest of us except that he was better.  Throughout the first and second centuries the historical man Jesus became an originating principle for a variety of ways of understanding him and his role in faith.

With such diversity in the early days how does anyone have the authority to rule that any of Jesus' followers is misguided when it appears that the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) turns out to be only a statement of one's personal belief?  On one occasion, Jesus' disciples censured a stranger for exorcizing demons in Jesus' name.  Jesus said they should let him alone…  "For he that is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38-41; compare John 10:16).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University