Thursday, December 31, 2015

A New Year’s Introspection

When I was younger, I perceived my future bright with prospects and promise.  On waxing old and being full of days, however, I have discovered my interests now are more about retrospect than prospect.  We elderly live in another country, and even though like Moses we may be permitted to view the prospects of the New Year's promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4), we are fated to remain in the land of Moab, in our own country and time (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).  In the late autumn of life and with the onrush of winter our vengeful enemy, time, has taken a terrible toll: sagging skin, thinning hair, a diminishing of the life force, failing eyesight, lapsing memory, other assorted aches and pains, and physical impairments.  Few of us octogenarians are like Moses, of whom it was fabled: "his eye was not dimmed, nor his natural force abated" (Deuteronomy 34:7). But we elderly have "eternity in our minds" (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and seem to think we should live forever.
            I prefer to think of aging and our eventual physical demise as the natural course of things.  A prime axiom of the universe is obsolescence—things just wear out, become obsolete, and disappear.  Or put another way, they die out, and pass out of existence.  We instinctively know it is true—whether of nations, neighborhoods, sump pumps, or, alas, of people.  Such is the way of all life and things in the universe as we know it.
            I could, of course, be wrong. Paul turned what in my view is a natural occurrence into a theological dogma.  Based on the Hebrew myth of creation, he argued that because the first human being sinned (Genesis 2:17) the human potential for death entered the world and passed onto all human beings, in that all have sinned (Rom 5:12, 17; 1 Corinthians 15:21).  Apparently Adam's sin even affected the universe, as it too is under bondage to decay (Romans 8:20-23) and obsolescence (1 Corinthians 7:31).  So, in part, Paul and I are of the same mind—except that he thinks theologically, and my statements are made on the basis of observable evidence. It must be said that the universe is expanding at a rapid rate and shows little sign of diminishing energy.
The Psalmist seems to regard a limited life span as a natural phenomenon:
The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Ps 90:10 RSV)
There is no talk here of our lifespan being reduced by God's judgment because of sin.  The situation seems to be that the Psalmist has observed only the natural way of life in the universe. The human lifespan is only so long because of the prime axiom of the universe.  It is likewise the view of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes 1:1), who philosophizes about those things he "has seen under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:17; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 7; 5:13: 6:1; 7:15; 8:9, 17; 9:11, 13; 10:5).  There is no appeal here to divine revelation, rather Kohleth appeals to human experience in a similar way that proverbs appeal to human wisdom.
            For those who have lived into their yellow leaf the New Year is not about resolutions but rather reminiscences.  We in the twilight of life are poised on the threshold of life's greatest adventure, and what matters now is not the coming year and its prospects, but what lies behind along with our regrets and personal satisfactions.  Perhaps that is why I don't have a "bucket list."  These days I think about those things I have left undone, the roads never taken, the questions never asked, the books never read, old friends with whom I have lost contact, the essays never finished.  Have I left a deep enough footprint in the sand that the first high tide will not erase?  I suppose in long term it does not matter. Very few things endure the ravages of time.
            Is there a lesson in all this introspection?  In the last chapter of Ecclesiastes (12:1-14) a later editor has concluded: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13 RSV).  I prefer thinking on the views of the principal author of the text: these I regard as the "intellectually honest ponderings of a man who looked at the world primarily from a rational perspective rather than through the eyes of faith. He struggled with the question: what is the point of life—and found no satisfactory answer."  But the point is he continued struggling with the questions, and in the final analysis gave up neither on life nor God.  His struggles with the dichotomy between the answers of traditional religion, and what he sees going on in the world around him have led him to be satisfied with the simple pleasures of life (2:24; 10:19).
            So the New Year comes! Yet this first day of a New Year, after all the fuss, is just another day in the succession of many others.  Those of us fortunate enough to see its dawning should rejoice and be glad in it (Ps 118:24).  Koheleth would appreciate that sentiment; he thought of life as a great gift—hope is only for the living.  Or as he put it: "a living dog is better than a dead lion" (Ecclesiastes 9:4).
For my tribe, you elderly: may your New Year's Day be full of happy memories that bring smiles to your face, rather than blushes to your cheeks.  For those who are younger: may your new country be full of bright prospects.
Charles W. Hedrick
Quotation from Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 72.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


               Christmas in America has something for virtually everyone—even Scrooges and Crachits.  Ancient customs (Christian and non-Christian) and modern secular traditions have become so intermingled that it is difficult to distinguish the individual trees from the Christmas forest.  Christmas in the marketplace now begins before Thanksgiving and ends sometime after the beginning of the New Year (or whenever you take down the tree).  Merchants capitalize on every aspect of Christmas from Rudolph to the crèche, and entertain our shopping with both secular and religious Christmas music. Marketing at Christmas is highly successful, and we all have the mood to be separated from our money—gift giving and/or donating to obscure charities (after a second trip to the wassail bowl, perhaps). Commercialism is not all bad, however.  In many ways, what is good for the marketplace is good for the country, and what is good for the country generally translates into chickens in our Christmas pots.
               True, the season has deep religious roots—a lot of different ones, in fact.  We are reminded of a Judean lad born in Bethlehem.  But before Christians started celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th (in the 4th century!), the Roman Empire had long celebrated Saturnalia, an agricultural festival incorporating many of the same customs we still observe today at Christmas.  Saturn was a venerable deity in Italy fabled to have reigned during a period of peace and happiness.  December 25th was also celebrated both as the birth of the Unconquerable Sun and Mithras, the Persian deity of light.  The ancient Jewish Feast of Hanukkah (the festival of lights) celebrating the rededication of the temple and Judean political independence also falls in December.  The customs and symbols of these non-Christian festivals have merged with the Christian, and we Americans celebrate them all during the winter solstice season with lights, candles, gift giving, family gatherings, shopping, evergreen trees, and garnishes of holly and mistletoe.  Somehow it all seems to make sense—even to largely Christian America.  There is something distinctly egalitarian and democratic in our celebration.  The "huddled masses," the "wretched refuse" from foreign shores, brought their religious customs with them, and we later generations have woven them all together (menorah, piñata, wassail bowl, parties, Santa Claus, Saint Nikolas, babe in Bethlehem, Christmas tree, midnight Mass, and yule log) into one textured tapestry of solstice traditions.
               I like the diversity.  The commercialism enriches the complexity of the season.  But it is difficult to know if it all truly fits together.  What meaning do we find in the collage and clash of our Christmas customs?
               We make little distinction between the secular and the religious.  We enjoy the secular festivities of the season, the cycle of parties and receptions, the tinsel and colored lights, foodstuffs and spirits; with equal gusto we sing "White Christmas," "Have a Happy Jolly Christmas" and "Little Town of Bethlehem." Yet lurking in the back of many minds is the sobering claim that some 2000 years ago the secular was invaded by the holy, and recalling that often occasions a momentary reflective pause in the festivities.
               Making sense of the diverse symbols and customs, and finding a comprehensive reason for the Christmas season is challenging.  Of course, some people have all the answers and dismiss the significance of everything except the lights at the end of their own myopic tunnels.  I, however, try to embrace all the diversity of the season.
               In reflective moments I see the American winter solstice season symbolizing a primal search for stability, happiness, and security in the world.  Faced by the uncertainty of our future, these traditions, as different as they are, serve to anchor the spirit.  We return to them annually because of the emotional comfort they bring.  They nourish a deep-seated hope in Western culture, best expressed for me by the ancient Israelite longing for the advent of an ideal ruler, whose eternal reign will be characterized by peace, justice, and righteousness (Isaiah 9:7).  All people of good will (Luke 2:13-14) share such a hope, and celebrating it in an American Christmas seems appropriate for a nation of immigrants.
Charles W. Hedrick
This essay appeared in the Springfield News-Leader sometime before 2006 and was later published in Hedrick, House of Faith and Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Cascade, 2009), 70-71. It appears here in revised form.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Is the Trinity found in John’s Gospel?

             For the first essay on the Trinity see "Is the Holy Spirit Part of a Trinity?" Nov 26, 2015.            
            Toward the end of the first century the situation is remarkably different from what I found in the letters of Paul at the middle of the century.  Around the end of the century, the Gospel of John makes a definite advance in defining the relationship between Jesus and God, but there is no stated concept of a Triune God—i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons conceptualized as One God.  Conceptualizing and describing a divine Trinity requires abstract logical thinking and systematic description, which are not found in John.
            In John God is understood as spirit (John 4:24), which seems to describe God's nature or character (spirit; not the spirit, which indicates identity).  Jesus is presented as God's "son" (1:49; 5:18; 10:36; 11:27; 19:7; 20:31).  The son (1:14), was "with God" and "was God" (1:1-2, 18), and came forth from God, having been sent here by God (8:42).  He became flesh (1:14; not quite the same as being born a human being). The essential identity of God and Jesus is made certain by the confession of Thomas: "My Lord and my God" (20:28).  Other less certain clues appear in John reflecting an identity (10:30; 17:11, 21-22). The unity is apparently primordial (17:24). No attempt is made by the writer, however, to explain how that unity/identity could be so.  In John there seems to be a duality of two distinct personae conceived as One God.
            How the holy spirit should be conceived in relation to the divine Duality, however, is complicated, and unclear.  At the beginning of Jesus' public life, John the baptizer testifies that he saw the spirit descend and remain (1:32) on Jesus, who as a result baptizes with (in?) the holy spirit (1:33).  The descending spirit must also be holy, for the "Father" is holy (17:11) and is apparently the source of the holy spirit with which Jesus baptizes. The spirit is thus involved in the activities of Jesus (3:3-8; 4:23-24; 6:63), and God is not stingy in giving the spirit (3:34).
            On one occasion, however, surprisingly an intrusive explanatory voice interrupts the narrative, asserting that there was no spirit yet, for Jesus had not yet been "glorified" (7:39) ("glorification" is a cryptic allusion to the crucifixion/resurrection, 12:23-24, 27-33; 17:1-5).  Hence 7:39 clearly contradicts 1:32-33, for spirit remains with Jesus through his career enabling his words (6:63), making true worship possible (4:23-24), and generating new birth (3:3-8). Opposed to this idea that the spirit is active in the public life of Jesus is the surprising statement at the end of the Gospel that the holy spirit is finally given (20:22-23).
            Before the crucifixion, Jesus tells his followers that he is going to the one who sent him (16:7) and at his departure the paraclete (16:4b-11) will come to them. The meaning of this word is unclear and translations vary.  Immediately following this statement his followers learn that another figure is also coming to them: the spirit of truth (16:13).  The temptation is to harmonize and read the paraclete and the spirit of truth as one and the same, but the figures have different functions: paraclete (16:8-11); spirit of truth (16:13-14).  Nevertheless the two figures are awkwardly identified as one and the same at (14:16-17)—how seriously should one regard the reference to "another paraclete" (14:16)?  Should one consider the spirit of truth as an additional (second) paraclete?
            The holy spirit is awkwardly identified as the paraclete in 14:25-26, almost as an afterthought.  Its appearance in 14:26 seems like an intrusion into the sentence, similar to the explanatory observation at 7:39 (among many others).  All three figures paraclete, spirit of truth (i.e., paraclete #2?), and holy spirit have different functions, but they all come to replace Jesus, the son (14:25-26, 16:7-8, 16:12-13).  This/these figures are not clearly identified as one with Jesus in the same sense that Jesus was identified with God; rather they are cast as performing Jesus' role in the community after he is gone. The language the writer of John employs to describe Jesus in relation to them puts a certain distance between Jesus, the paraclete, and the spirit of truth.  John 14:25-26: "paraclete, whom the father will send in my [Jesus'] name; he will remind you all I have said"; 16:14: "He [spirit of truth] will glorify me"; 16:7: "I will send him [paraclete] to you. . ." This language, carefully distinguishing between Jesus and the figure(s) who replace him, does not encourage a reader to sense a close unity or union between the son and his replacement(s).
            There are no Trinitarian formulae in John, the closest statement to such an idea being John 1:32-34, and John does not seem to be aware of the later theological concept Father, Son, Holy Spirit—three figures in one Godhead.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University