Saturday, June 25, 2016

Learning to live without Gods

Believing in greater than human spirit entities and being superstitious are two sides of the same coin: one cannot exist without the other!  Superstition and religious faith are, in short, opposite ends of a spectrum that meet in the middle.  What some define as faith, others describe as superstition, which dictionaries define as:
1a: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation; 1b: an abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition; 2: a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.
Until the Renaissance of the 17th century and the Enlightenment of the 18th century, a common person would not have been prepared to live without recourse to God and other spiritual/mythical entities to explain self and the world.  The Western world was dominated by the thinking of the Medieval Catholic Church. Until the Enlightenment no rationale existed that permitted an average human being even to conceive of such a possibility.
With the dawning of the "Age of Reason" in the 18th century the church's hegemony over human thinking was finally broken, and human reason became a serious competitor to religious faith as a way of organizing one's life and understanding of the world.  Human reason and religious faith/superstition have since been competitors for primacy in the human mind.
Theoretically, people today can learn to live without recourse to God. Since everything we think we know about God, we learned from someone else.  Therefore we can simply continue learning, for since the time of the Enlightenment people have come up with answers to questions that were once the exclusive prerogative of the church to answer.
For example, science has developed a theory for the origin of the universe; it is described as "the Big Bang"—think of the explosion of a dense cosmic egg the size of a tiny mathematical decimal point containing all matter and energy in the universe.  Such an event is at least as plausible as the poetic explanation found in the biblical creation myth (Genesis 1).
Science, through the diligence of Mr. Darwin, has given to posterity a plausible theory for the origin and development of the human species, which is, again, at least as plausible as the mythical story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:4-24).  In his theory human beings are classified as evolving mammals (at our present stage we are homo sapiens; intelligent man), rather than being created at one instant in the image of God (Genesis 1:26).
The natural world has in the main already been de-divinized (or better, naturalized) to some extent. In the Western world we are more conditioned to seek answers from biologists and meteorologists (who use satellite imagery) to explain anomalies in nature than to consider that matters out of the ordinary are caused by spirit entities of various sorts.  For example, we follow television weather reports and consult our weather apps.  With such assets for resources praying about the weather becomes a "hail-Mary pass," rather than our first resort.
The most difficult adjustment in the shift from faith to reason, however, has been the persistence of the idea that an invisible spirit world "exists" parallel to the world of matter.  All of the spirit entities in current fashion (they do change with time and from religion to religion) reside in the spirit world, but because the borders between the material and spirit world are thought to be permeable to these entities, they can emerge in the material world at any time either to do good or evil in accord with their nature, and then they return to the spirit world until their next trip to the material world.
I personally have never experienced the "visit" of a spirit entity—whether the night demon Lilith (Isaiah 34:14), or a satyr (Isaiah 34:14), or a spirit that causes muteness or deafness (Mark 9:25), or a spirit causing jealousy (Numbers 5:14), or an evil spirit from the Lord (1 Samuel 16:14), or an angel (Matthew 4:11), or a spirit causing infirmity (Luke 13:11), or any of those other spirit "critters" that all religions seem to number among their pantheons of good and evil spirits to explain things they don't understand.  I have always been told about demon possession, but have never actually known for certain that a demon caused the reaction (Mark 5:1-5)—how could one possibly know for certain?  Is it a demon that causes obscene language suddenly to erupt from an individual, or is it an aspect of Tourette's syndrome—specifically coprolalia?
Personally, I look to natural causation in order to explain such things—if you don't "believe" in invisible spirits, how could they possibly affect you?  They are after all invisible and are not even "there" in the way we usually think of things being "there."  Physical scientists also deal with unseen things, quarks for example, but a quark even though unseen is still material, while demons and Gods are really not part of the physical cosmos—unless you believe they are.
Will human beings ever learn to live without recourse to the Gods?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Religious Experience in Acts

The author of the Book of Acts (scholars call the author "Luke") portrays in novelistic-like narrative his impressions of early Christian religious experience.  The author wants you to think that this description of religious faith in Acts is the normative way Christians should experience God. In the main he does not portray their experience of God as ecstatic,* although he does use the word "ecstasy" (in Greek, ekstasis) a number of times (3:10 [amazement], 10:10 [trance], 11:5 [trance], 22:17 [trance]) to describe certain ecstatic experiences. Ecstatic experiences in Acts, however, are something out of the ordinary, rather than routine or typical.
The normative religious experience in Acts is also not mystical** for God is described as the Creator, "who made the world and everything in it," the "Lord of Heaven and Earth," "who does not live in shrines made by man" (17:24). Nevertheless, "God is not far from each one of us" (17:27-28), for the earth is his footstool—although his throne is in heaven (7:49).  Compare the following references that suggest God's ascendant position in the universe (2:33; 7:32-34; 7:55-56). Christians in Acts do not have "a direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence," and must therefore reach out to God through prayer in order to overcome the distance that separates them (see, for example, 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 10:4; 12:5, 12; 22:17).
From my perspective the normative religious experience in Acts is best described as "charismatic," a word that does not appear in the New Testament. A charisma (Greek, charisma [χάρισμα]) is usually translated by the English word "gift." Charisma does not appear in Acts, but a synonym does. In Acts the gift (dōrea) of God (2:38) is the Holy Spirit/Spirit (5:32)  who fills (4:31, 9:17, 13:9) and empowers (1:8) Christians for mighty works, wonders, and signs (2:43, 4:30, 5:12, 6:8); the Spirit enables them to prophesy, see visions, and have dreams (2:16-18, 10:9-19, 11:4-5, 12:6-11); empowers them to perform healings and drive out evil spirits (8:6-8, 14:8-10, 16:16-18, 19:11-12), to raise the dead (9:36-41), and miraculously be understood to speakers of a different language (2:7-8); to speak with tongues and prophesy (19:6, compare 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). The Holy Spirit is given spontaneously (2:4, 10:44-48) or by the laying on of the hands of those who have received the Spirit (8:14-18, 9:17, 19:1-6). The Holy Spirit only comes to those who obey God (5:32), who have been saved by believing in Jesus Christ (2:38, 5:30-32, 13:29-39) and in his resurrection (16:28-31, 17:2-4). Salvation brings with it the forgiveness of sins (2:37-38, 10:43, 26:18) and the empowerment by the Holy Spirit to perform these evidences of the Spirit. Such was the normative religious experience in Acts.
Fast forward to the present day: except for one segment of Christianity's very wide tent this kind of religious experience is no longer experienced as normative among those churches emerging from the Reformation of the 16th century. For these churches the charismatic evidences of the Spirit in Acts are a thing of the distant past, relegated to what they call the "Apostolic Age." Nevertheless, among churches described under the broad rubric "Pentecostal" (deriving from Acts 2:1-21) the evidences of Holy Spirit possession found in Acts are very much alive.
In an odd turn of events, however, the Holy Spirit/Spirit does not empower anyone in the final third of the book (19:21-28:30). In these final chapters the tone of the writing is different and the Spirit's role is basically reduced to that of advisor to Paul (Spirit is only mentioned seven times: 19:21, 20:22, 20:23, 20:27, 21:4, 21:11, 28:25), and the one clear allusion to an act by the Spirit refers to an event that had happened much earlier (20:27), and which is not even described in the Book of Acts. These latter references to the Spirit correspond generally to the way the Spirit is usually regarded in the churches of "main-stream" Protestantism—reduced to an idea and only having as much power as a person allows the idea to have over him or her.
How do you see your own religious experience in the light of the charismatic experience in the Book of Acts? Or put another way: is there any such thing as a normative religious experience?
Do you suppose there is an illegitimate religious experience?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*Ecstatic religious experience: an intense "state in which the mind is carried as it were from the body; a state in which the functions of the senses are suspended by the contemplation of some extraordinary or supernatural object. It is a kind of 'out of this world rapture…'" Harkness, Mysticism (1973), 32.
**Mystical religious experience: "The type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God, on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense and living stage." Harkness, Mysticism. 20.