Sunday, February 22, 2015

Society’s Benefits not open to All

I recently had a complete knee replacement at Mercy Orthopedic Hospital and it appears that Hillary is absolutely correct, for even surgery "took a village."  In my case the surgeon, Dr. Richard Seagrave and anesthesiologist, Dr. David Delahay required the assistance of PA Kevin Kluthe and PA Rick Richards, who monitored the depth of my "sleep"—an important task since two main risks of major surgery are blood clots and infection.
            Once out of surgery (around one hour) a vast cadre of professional nurses, rehabilitation therapists, and volunteers took over my care.  They formed the point of a spear of the most serious service-minded people I have ever met.  For example, upon leaving the room after performing some assistive task (taking blood, giving pills, etc.), they all would invariably turn and ask, "May I help you with something else?"  Let me put it this way: once the catheter was removed, my walker and I always had an escort to the restroom.
            I received pastoral visits from ministers at opposite ends of the theological spectrum in an overtly Roman Catholic hospital (religious pictures and slogans in the halls, and a crucifix on every wall): the hospital chaplain, Rodney Weaver (a former Navy chaplain) endorsed for the military by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and the Rev. Dr. Roger Ray (a former Disciples of Christ minister), pastor of a  non-orthodox church of progressive religious faith (Community Christian Church).
            The point of these musings about my surgery is that contemporary America is a highly technical and well-educated society that on the whole is compassionate, and for all our problems, generally tolerant of the religious views of others.  In many ways we seem to be an inclusive society, but in truth we have yet to achieve that increasingly elusive goal. The opportunities of our great society are easily open to the upper rungs of the economic ladder, but only in a limited way to the labor class; and the opportunities available to the lower and impoverished class are severely limited.  This increasing gap between the highest and lowest levels of society means that the lowest levels have fewer opportunities for good health, higher education, and economic advancement. As an economic group their prospects for the future are bleak.
            Federal and State legislatures would do well to bear in mind this dangerous economic gap when making laws negatively affecting the economic prospects of the poorest.  People in this country are raised on the ideas of equality and opportunity, and on a belief that they can improve their situation, yet the economic imbalance separating the lowest rungs on the economic ladder from the highest is large and not decreasing.  Our economic pyramid is very wide at the bottom leading the lower and impoverished classes to become continuing sources of protest, and a growing gap could conceivably lead to revolution (the French Revolution of 1788 that was begun by the starving French peasantry comes to mind).
            We have made some positive strides, particularly in religious tolerance, as suggested by the fact that I could on the same day in a Catholic hospital receive pastoral visits from its (Baptist) hospital chaplain and a progressive Christian pastor.  But candidly I did wonder where the rabbi and the imam were.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Distinguishes the Bible from other Collections of Holy Writ?

The term "Holy Writ" refers to Scriptures used by a religious community.  The term is figurative and claims a special religious authority for the Scriptures.  Any collection so designated would be considered authoritative for faith and practice by the community using the collection.  Any collection of literature purporting to give the reader clarity of insight into the divine will and/or that serves as a guide for life in this world or for a world to come is Holy Writ.  The only thing distinguishing the Bible from other collections of "Holy Writ" is its content, but not the claim that it is exclusive.  Each collection is touted as an exclusive authority from God, or at least its adherents think so.
            Authoritative religious texts are often supported by claims of special origin.  For example, the Bible is the Word of God because it is thought to be inspired (2 Timothy 3:15-16).  The Book of Mormon, the sacred Scripture of the Latter Day Saints, was written on golden tablets, and their hidden location was revealed to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni.  The Jewish Torah is written by God himself and given to Moses (Deuteronomy 9:9-10; 10:1-5), or it came from God to Moses through the agency of angels (Galatians 3:19; Acts 7:38; Hebrews 2:2; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15.5.3)
            In the contemporary world a number of Holy Scriptures are imbued with the same authority as the Bible.  A few of those collections that currently compete with the Bible are the Rig-Veda (Hindu), the Avesta (Zoroastrianism), the Qu'ran (Islam), Tao Te Ching (Taoism), Tripitakas (Buddhism).
            The existence of multiple sets of Scripture claimed as exclusive religious authority does not necessarily disprove the claim that "my Scripture is true but others are not," since that claim only represents "my" opinion.  Multiple sets of authoritative Holy Scripture, however, do raise theoretical questions about one's own religion, in light of the fact that others claim the same exclusive authority for their Scripture.
  1. Multiple sets of Holy Scripture refute the claim of uniqueness for any one set.  Although each set may be unique in content, no test exists to demonstrate that its content is "revealed truth." True, some sets of Holy Scripture may be more ethical, or more historical, or more rational, or more ancient than is the case with others, which by comparison may seem more harsh or unreasonable in their religious instruction.  These features, however, are not measuring the mysterious, innate, but ultimately vaporous, quality "sacred revelation," claimed somehow to reside in all Holy Writings.  In other words content alone is not what transforms narrative into revealed truth.
  2. Multiple sets of Holy Scripture raise the question of the "there-ness" of all Gods.  Gods are not "mortal beings" like humans, and do not exist in space and time.  Gods are immortal/eternal we claim; they are not limited by time and do not exist in space.  Nevertheless we think of them as "there" somewhere, but do not define "there" as a place within the physical universe, but "there" as a "spiritual" dimension apart from the physical universe.  Competing sets of Holy Scripture challenge the "there-ness" of any God in the following way: If the innate essence of revelation or holiness claimed for any set of Holy Writings cannot be quantified or identified in its particulars, but is merely due to individual or group opinion, then God becomes an unnecessary postulate.  Gods may be "there," but our Scriptures are not due to them.
  3. Multiple sets of Holy Scripture argue against the idea that one God is responsible for the multiple sets of Holy Scripture with their contradictory revelations.  The exclusive claims made for each set renders that idea impossible, as is suggested by the difficulty later Gentile Jesus followers had with the Jewish Scriptures.  They inherited the Jewish Scriptures as divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:15-16), but the church held a different faith than that of the Israelites and the later Jews.  They resolved the disconnect between the old faiths and the new faith by prophetic interpretation of the Old Testament, which allowed them to disregard its literal understanding in favor of a figurative understanding.  Thus they were able to claim the revelation of one God behind what they saw as an outdated Old Testament and their new books of faith.  Not all embraced that solution, however, and Marcion, for example, rejected the Old Testament as Scripture.  Many critical scholars have long recognized that the adoption of the Jewish Scriptures as part of a Christian canon is an artifice.  Hence, multiple sets of Holy Scripture imply multiple Gods.
  4. One's affirmation of the religious truth of any set of Holy Scripture is generally due to geographical happenstance, and cultural conditioning.  Had I been reared in Greek culture rather than the Bible belt, I would probably have been baptized Greek Orthodox, and my Scriptures would have been a modern Greek translation of the ancient Greek Septuagint (which is different from the Hebrew).  Had I been reared in ancient Persia, I would no doubt have been Zoroastrian and the Avesta my Holy Scriptures.  Had I been born in Cairo, I would surely have been Muslim and the Koran my Holy Scriptures.  In the absence of any critical thinking skills I would have held to the truth of each of those Scriptures as avowedly as I affirmed the Bible in my youth.  In short, our belief in the inspiration and authority of any set of Scriptures is the result of cultural conditioning and what we are taught.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
(This ends the short series on the Bible as the Word of God)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What inherently accords the Bible the Sacred Status of Word of God?

If I was correct that the phrase "Word of God" is heightened language to express the opinion of an individual or a community about a particular collection of books, then it follows that the sacredness of the books does not derive from their essential nature, but derives from what people think about the books. In other words: like beauty the Bible's character as "Word of God" lies in the eye of the beholder!  Let's take the one poetic term that seems to undergird and support the other figurative terms.  The claim that the Bible (whichever version) is inspired by God seems to be the principal claim and other descriptions are derivative from it.
            Divine inspiration of individuals was a common idea in Graeco-Roman antiquity; the inspired ecstatic utterances of certain figures were commonly treated as oracles (i.e., utterances of the God).  The God spoke through an inspired host.  One of the best known oracular sanctuaries was the shrine of the God Apollo, located at Delphi in central Greece, where individuals throughout the ancient world would go for answers to personal, political, and religious questions.  A priestess known as the Pythia received the questions.  She was believed to be possessed by the God when she spoke the oracle, and her reply was considered "the Word of the God."
            This situation was similar to that of the ancient prophets of Israel; the words they spoke at the Lord's behest were treated as the Words of Yahweh, the God of Israel (for example, Jeremiah 1:1-10).  Both situations are likely part of the deep historical background behind the modern appellation "Word of God" applied to the Bible.  The legendary story of the translation of the Bible into Greek clearly reinforces the idea of the Bible's inspiration: the translators who were put in separate cubicles make exactly the same translation from Hebrew into Greek without consulting the work of one another.
            The Roman state consulted the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of ancient Greek oracles, which had been gathered from women thought to be inspired by the God.  The books were brought out and consulted for guidance at times of national crisis.  Some of the books show the influence of Jewish and Christian thought.
            The need for a "word from God" in the Jewish, Christian, and ancient Roman traditions originates in the human psyche where a similar need for divine guidance was felt in facing the uncertainties of life.  The shift from the oracular utterance to the written word is likely occasioned by skepticism and the decline of oracular centers in the ancient world.  Plutarch, a priest of the God Apollo at Delphi (late first century CE), for example, has two essays on the decline of oracles.  With the loss of confidence that the Gods were continuing to speak audibly through inspired individuals, divine authority is transferred to the written collections of what had once been thought a living word from God.
            The early Christians treated the Jewish Bible like prophetic oracles that proved the truth of Christianity.  They did not use the literal sense of the statements in the Bible as word from God, but insisted that the Bible's oracles were veiled prophecies attesting to Christ (viz., Galatians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Romans 10:5-11): they argued that the truth of the "Christ centered nature" of the Jewish Bible was clear to anyone who read it with the eyes of faith (viz., 2 Corinthians 3:13-16, 4:3-6).  For Christians the words of the Jewish Bible in a literal sense already by the time of Paul had generally ceased to be meaningful for the Christian experience (1 Corinthians 9:9-12; Galatians 4:22-31), and hence the eventual development of a new set of holy books for Christian communities that became the authority for interpreting the old "obsolete" Jewish books.
            These three ancient religious collections constitute the traditional remains of two different religious communities, which extend from the Israelite Exodus to the writing of 2 Peter.  They reveal different social, cultural, ethical, and religious traditions covering around 1200 years.  The Jewish Bible is a library of traditional writings of the ancient Israelites containing among other things the history of the people told from a religious perspective, along with its ancient laws, prophetic literature, hymnbook, wisdom literature, etc., from the 13th century BCE to roughly 400 BCE (second temple period).  The Apocrypha consists of additional Jewish religious texts written between 300 BCE to 70 CE.  The New Testament (50 CE to early second century) contains among other things stories, personal correspondence and theological essays.
            These collections are quite diverse and clearly primitive.  How can one today recognize a valid Word of God within them?  Indeed, how would anyone know a word of God if they saw it?  The texts are written in different social contexts at different times, and thereby contain the seeds of their own irrelevancy.  To maintain relevance the ethical and religious values of each book must constantly be prioritized and re-interpreted for every new generation.  However, some instructions in the books are clearly not the words of an ethical God (for example, Deut 17:2-5; 21:18-21; 1 Tim 2:8-15).  If there was once a justification for such advice, no justification can be offered for such practices in modern society.  In short, the Bible is out-of-date as a book for faith and practice—at least in part.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University