Friday, June 26, 2015

The Sibyl’s Wish: A Mythical Encounter

T. S. Elliott begins his famous poem "The Wasteland" (1922) with an epigraph from the Satiricon of Petronius (first century CE):
I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar and when the boys said to her, "Sibyl, what do you want?"  She replied, "I want to die." (The Satiricon 48:8)
For the rest of the story we must look to the Roman poet Ovid in his poem Metamorphoses (first century CE), collections of tales from classical and near eastern myth and legend.  He tells a story about the famous Sibyl of Cumae (Greek colony on the eastern coast of Italy).  The Sibyl, a prophetess who channeled the oracles of the God, was offered eternal, endless life by the Greek God Apollo if she would consent to sacrifice her virgin "modesty" and make love with Apollo.  She pointed to a mound of sand and asked for "as many years of life as there were sand-grains in the pile."  But she forgot to ask that for those years she would be perpetually young.  Through 700 years of life she continued to shrink and fade away until the time would come some 300 years in the future that she, a tiny thing, consumed by age, would shrink to a feather's weight—and at the end she would only be known by her voice (Metamorphoses xiv. 130-153).

            Of course it is only a mythical account; the God Phoebus Apollo and the Sibyl did not actually have such a conversation or liaison, and the Sibyl did not live for 1000 years.  Such mythical stories do not inform us about ancient history, although they may serve a didactic purpose.  In this case the "moral" of the account is perhaps something like: be careful what you wish; for your wish may be granted.  So we may benefit from mythical narratives as long as we do not insist on their historicity—that is, as long as we recognize them for what they are: made up stories.  If we insist that a mythical account is really history, we confuse two very distinct types of narrative, and what is worse we mislead people about past history.

            Much of the biblical narrative is mired in myth (stories about Gods in a time and place not recognizable as our own).  For example, Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus by John (1:9-11) is mythical (viz. the heavens open up, Spirit descends on Jesus, and a voice from heaven: "my beloved son").  And so is the story about the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) of Jesus (his garments became glistening intensely white as no fuller on earth could bleach them; Jesus was joined on the mountain by the dead heroes of Jewish faith, Elijah and Moses; a voice comes out of a cloud overshadowing them: "my beloved son").
There are other definitions of myth, and no one definition satisfies all. Here are a few others:
Myth is "a story that interprets natural events in terms of the supernatural."  "Myth is a means by which a people legitimizes a secular ideology by projecting social patterns onto the supernatural realm."  "Myth is a narrative expression of an idea foundational to human existence which can be known, experienced, and appropriated repeatedly by means of recitation and ritual."  Myth is "a traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people."
The early Greeks used the term in a neutral way as simply stories about the Gods; later, however, the stories about the Gods were recognized as fictional.  Plato, for example, describes some stories from the past as true, but others are fictitious (ψεῦδος), and those in Homer and Hesiod in particular "taken as a whole are false (ψεῦδος), but there is truth in them also" (Republic, 377A).  Hence Plato refers to myth (μύθος) as something not wholly lacking in truth, but for the most part [it is] fictional (J. A. Cuddon, Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 525).  And for that reason in The Republic (Plato's description of the ideal state) Plato (5th/4th century BCE) virtually banned telling children the stories of Greek poets, like those in Homer and Hesiod and others who told "false" stories about the Gods.  The reason is that such stories misrepresent the Gods (Republic 377A-383E), in spite of the little truth in them.

            Is there harm, do you suppose, in telling children mythical Bible stories and letting them think they are historical narrative?  I have in mind such stories as narratives portraying God ordering the complete annihilation of a people (the Amalikites: 1 Samuel 15:1-35), or a story that portrays God attempting to kill Moses, after sending him to tell Pharaoh to release the Israelites (Exodus 4:24-26), or a narrative about Baalam's talking ass (Numbers 22:15-35), or the sun standing still at Joshua's command while the Israelites took vengeance on their enemies (Joshua 10:12-14), or Jesus' bodily ascent into the clouds of heaven (Luke 24:36-42; Acts 1:6-11).

            How do you suppose an average adult in the United States reads the stories in the Bible—as history or fiction?
[My thanks to Charles W. Hedrick, Jr. who put me into this blog]
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Does God have a Character Flaw?

From my very earliest memory in Sunday school I learned that the Bible teaches that "God is Love."  For example, in First John 4:8, 16 the writer describes the essence of God's character as love.  Imagine my surprise one morning recently when in Baptist Bible study we stumbled across another facet of God's character: God also hates, and even bears a grudge.  The prophet Malachi "quotes" God as saying: "I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated; I have laid waste his hill country and left his inheritance to jackals of the desert" (Malachi 1:3; Romans 9:13).  And apparently God continues to bear a grudge against them, for Malachi adds: they are a "people with whom the Lord is angry forever" (Malachi 1:4).
            Why would God hate Esau and treat his inheritance so cruelly?  Recall that Esau had sold his right of primogeniture (rights of the first born, Deut 21:15-17) to his brother Jacob (Genesis 25:29-34); Esau's poor judgment in selling his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) for a little bread and a bowl of lentils may have been the cause of God's hatred of Esau and might explain why his descendants (the Edomites, Genesis 36:9, 43) were later conquered by the Israelites (2 Chronicles 25:11-25; 2 Samuel 8:12-14).  At any rate the descendants of Jacob, the Israelites (Genesis 32:28), were ascendant over the Edomites because it was what God wanted (2 Chronicles 25:20) because God favored Jacob's descendants (Genesis 32:28), and bore a grudge against Esau's descendants.
            I can understand God being irritated at Esau for his poor judgment, but it seems an insufficient reason to hate him and bear a grudge against his descendants.  Hate seems to have been another character trait of God as understood in the Jewish Bible, for Esau is not all that God hates.  Job thought God hated him as well (Job 16:9), and even the Israelites at one point thought God hated them (Deuteronomy 1:27).  And John did portray God claiming to hate the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6), as God also did the Ephraimites (Hosea 9:15).
            God also hates human character flaws: robbery (Isaiah 61:8), evil in the heart, and false oaths (Zechariah 8:17).  A list of other human character flaws that God hates appears in Proverbs 6:16-19 (haughty eyes, lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run to evil, bearing false witness, and the one who sows discord), including certain Judean feasts and celebrations (Isaiah 1:14; Amos 5:21), along with evildoers (Psalm 5:5), and idol worship (Psalm 31:6; Jeremiah 44:4).
            In the Baptist tradition I have always been told that "God loves the sinner but hates the sin."  But that really does not appear to be the case in the Bible.  God also seems to hate those who do the "sin" (i. e., whatever God may happen to disapprove of).  It is true that the Deuteronomist claimed that God hated every abominable thing (again, what God disapproves of, Deuteronomy 12:31), but it also seems to be the case that God hates those that perpetuate abominations, as those, for example, in Proverbs 6:16-19.
            Unless a person holds the view that the Bible is literally the words of God or words inspired by God in some way, one might recognize that describing God as "hating" is a quite primitive anthropomorphic description of God—that is, the attribution of human characteristics to God.  In other words the biblical writers were describing God in their own image as if God were only a bigger and more powerful human being—something the Greeks and Romans suggested by the physical size of their statuary representations of the Gods, and their descriptions of the reprehensible behavior of the Olympians.  The Biblical writers simply transferred human characteristics to God—including gender.  However, God as spirit (John 4:24) does not have gender (i.e., God is neither he nor she), and God therefore does not experience human emotions—either those we consider positive or negative.  God, if God there be, is not of the human tribe, but rather wholly other.
And if God does not hate, neither does God love.
In truth, each of us invents God in a way that satisfies us.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, June 1, 2015

Is it Possible to be Spiritual without being Religious?

Clearly the answer to my question depends on what one means by spiritual and religious.  In contemporary Christianity the question has become important as the numbers of those associated with the "church alumni association" continue to rise.  In a 1999 Gallup poll three in ten Americans claimed that they were spiritual but not religious.  They were asked "do you think of spirituality more in a personal and individual sense or more in terms of organized religion and church doctrine?"  Almost three-quarters picked the personal and individual response.  In a January 2002 poll 50% described themselves as religious, while 33% claimed to be spiritual but not religious.  A poll conducted by Newsweek and Beliefnet in 2005 reported a lower percentage (24%) claiming to be spiritual.  In the Gallup poll when they defined spirituality they did it without any reference to God or a higher authority.  Among other things answers that defined being spiritual were having calmness in one's life and living in a way that is pleasing to oneself.
            The words religious and spiritual are used in the New Testament and suggest something other than simply "organized religion" (religious) and "personal and individual attitudes" (spiritual).  The words religion and religious are rare in the New Testament, but in Greek antiquity their cognates are fairly common.  In general, being religious is showing devotion to a transcendent power through cultic practice, which corresponds somewhat to the idea of "organized religion," although modern Christian "cultic" practice and what occurred in ancient Greek and Roman temples is quite different.
            In the New Testament the term "religious" appears only once; it is used of persons who are able to control their tongues (in Greek antiquity it carries the idea of "god fearing" or "pious").  Those who cannot control their tongues have a worthless religion (James 1:26; compare 3:1-12).  That is to say, what they do in their formal worship in showing devotion to a transcendent power is worthless unless they look after orphans and widows in their affliction and keep themselves from the negative influences of the world (James 1:27).  Hence, a religious person is someone whose worship is defined in terms of what we might call service to others; in James it is regarded as the only kind of cultic practice that is "pure and undefiled."
            The specific term "spiritual" with reference to certain people is used primarily in the letters of Paul.  The specific term "spiritual" is used to characterize the nature of the abilities with which God endows certain persons (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28-31).  These abilities are given mystically through a divine spirit, and are considered mystically endowed gifts.  They were not natural abilities with which a person is endowed at birth, which can be developed through one's own human powers.  Paul thought of himself as a source of certain spiritual gifts that he could impart to others (Romans 1:11).  Hence he was a spiritual person and apparently not the only one (1 Corinthians 2:12-3:3).  Others also thought of themselves as "spiritual" (1 Corinthians 14:37).  A spiritual person was endowed with a spiritual gift for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7), and hence was a helper of others through their spiritual gifts (Romans 1:11; 1 Corinthians 9:11; Galatians 6:1).
            People in the 21st century who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious would not have been understood by a follower of Jesus in the first century, since in the ancient idiom both terms are closely related.  It may also be true that many today who describe themselves as religious would not be understood by followers of Jesus in the first century for the same reason.  The term "spiritual" in the sense of the answers given to the pollsters in 2003 and later seem to suggest the idea of having no involvement with anything relating to transcendent power, mysticism, or being a source of aid to others.  In today's vernacular to be "spiritual" apparently means being wrapped up in oneself.  It does not even suggest such things as meditation, mystical trance, contemplation, or thinking about matters beyond one's own self, something Paul would clearly not have understood (Romans 8:6-7).

Can one be spiritual without being religious?  Like so many other things in life, it depends on how one defines the terms.  How do you define the terms "religious" and "spiritual"?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University