Monday, August 14, 2017

The Making of Poems and Parables

The Poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) concludes his comments on analogy in poetry with this statement: "Thus poetry becomes and is a transcendent analogue composed of the particulars of reality, created by the poet's sense of the world, that is to say his attitude, as he intervenes and interposes the appearances of that sense."1 Thus poetic truth (which the poem is) as seen by the poet is an agreement with a particular aspect of reality viewed through the poet's imagination.2 In short the poem is a description of some aspect of reality as the poet himself/herself imagines it.
 
            Stevens draws on (but misquotes) an example from the Gospel of Matthew describing Matthew's imagination at work.3 Jesus went about cities and villages teaching and preaching, and "when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they…were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd" (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34; and compare Matt 26:31 and Mark 14:26; Zech 13:7). Here is how Stevens describes Matthew's imagination working on particular aspects of reality:
 
There came into Matthew's mind in respect to Jesus going about, teaching and preaching, the thought that Jesus was a shepherd and immediately the multitudes scattered abroad and sheep having that particular in common became interchangeable. The image is an elaboration of the particular of the shepherd.4
 
Actually, in this case Matthew took the image from Mark 6:34 and Zech 13:7 (compare Matt 26:31) and applied it to Jesus. Still Stevens' description of the way image making is done is accurate, as his other examples in the chapter show.
 
            Jesus made his parables in much the same way as Stevens describes a poet making poems. The parables in the gospels, if they originated with Jesus, "are the creative inventions of the mind of Jesus…" and fragments of his fictional view of reality.5 His reality was first-century life in Judean villages, and he invented the plots for these brief narratives by applying his imagination to particular aspects of that reality.
 
As a whole, the stories suggest that Jesus was a shrewd observer of life about him, but the information for inventing realistic characters in his stories would not have come only from his imagination. His stories arose from a blending of creative imagination with shrewd observation of everyday [village] life in Roman Palestine.6
 
His stories are notable for their secularity and realism. In short Jesus saw and described things as they are. Few of the stories have what may be described as religious motifs,7 and they also sport a goodly number of flawed characters. Nevertheless, the narrative voice of the stories neither commends nor condemns the actions of Jesus' invented characters. The stories conclude but the complications that are raised for readers are not resolved, and that feature appears to be deliberately designed into Jesus' narratives.
 
            The stories reflect a kind of moral ambiguity. When read closely as creative fictions against their background in Palestinian village life, they raise perplexing moral/ethical questions but offer no solutions. They do not even hint at a preferred solution, but interpreters, beginning with the gospel writers themselves, have regularly turned them "into stories about Christian theology, social justice, religious morals, and metaphors for the reign of God."8
 
            One can never be certain about such things, but judging from the nature of his oral compositions, as they have come down to us, it appears that Jesus did not turn to God to inspire his imagination, but rather he turned to the reality of the Palestinian world.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1"The Effects of Analogy" in The Necessary Angel. Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, 1951), 130.
2Necessary Angel, 54.
3Necessary Angel, 113
4Necessary Angel, 128-29.
5Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions, xv.
6Hedrick, "Survivors of the Crucifixion" in Zimmermann, Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu, 176.
7Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 128-29.
8"Survivors of the Crucifixion," 172-73.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

On Giving up Traditional Religious Faith

Suppose you have given up traditional faith in God and have come to the conclusion that the Judean man Jesus was only a man, about whom little historical information is known for certain. You no longer believe in life after death, but think that everything ends in the grave, and the church is simply a social organization, rather than a spiritual organism. Would such a change in perspective really matter?
 
            The Bible has very little to say positively regarding such a turn of affairs. It does make a serious threat, however: If Christians commit apostasy, it is impossible to restore them again to faith (Heb 6:1-8), or so the author of Hebrews thought. Later church leaders had different views on that issue, however.
 
            The closest thing to a "positive" word for someone who has given up traditional faith is likely found in Ecclesiastes. The writer of Ecclesiastes (calling himself, "Koheleth"; perhaps, the "Gatherer") gathered his own random reflections on the utter weariness of life, which he found as bitterly disappointing at best, into the book Ecclesiastes (from its Greek title ekklesiastes, "one who calls an assembly"). "Everything," Koheleth declared at the beginning of his collection, "is an ephemeral vapor" (1:2).
 
            The central theme of the sage's reflections is that life is transitory—like a momentary breath (1:2-11). He finds that there is a weary sameness to life (3:15); it passes like a shadow (6:12). Being governed by chance, as it is (9:11-12), life is unfair: the righteous perish early and the wicked live out long lives (7:15).
 
            The author does believe in God (5:18; 3:13; 8:15), but thinks that the life the Creator has bestowed on his creatures is an "unhappy business" (1:13). Human beings are like the beasts of the field; both return to dust (3:18-20; see also 9:10), and there is no certainty about the fate of the human spirit (3:21-22). The writer is candid; his views reflect the honest ponderings of a man who sees life from a rational perspective rather than through the eyes of faith. He struggles with the question: what is the point of life—and finds no satisfactory answer. His quest for answers brings him to the edge of despair, and his solution was to take pleasure in the simple things of life, like eating, drinking, and work (2:24; see also similar statements at 2:10; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7, 9; 10:19).
 
            The precept of traditional religion with which the text ends (12:13-14) surely does not reflect Koheleth's views as such a sentiment violates the norm of the work as a whole. Koheleth ponders the dichotomy between the inequities of life, and the failure of traditional religion to cope successfully with that reality. In the final analysis, however, he gives up neither on God nor life, and continues pondering the human situation.1
 
            Could you learn to live without God and the comforts of traditional religion, as Koheleth has apparently managed to do? He found that honest transparency as an observer of life was preferred to embracing the answers of an inadequate traditional religion—even though by so doing he marginalized himself from the "righteous" (5:1-2; 9:1-6).
 
            If your fateful change of mind happened in one moment of time, the day following would nevertheless find the sun shining just as bright, birdsong just as sweet, and the world still filled with all the vibrant wonders of life. At least that was the experience of the poet Wallace Stevens. He began in Pennsylvania apparently as a traditional Lutheran2 but ended life as a poet who thought poetry, "an exceeding music" that "must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns."3 He was regarded as a "poet of reality," who through imagination peered into the figurations of what seemed to be, in order to see "things as they are." Here is a quote from one of his poems4 seemingly reflecting a positive response to a profound shift in thought:
 
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You…You said
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree at night began to change
*****
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.
 
In Stevens' case giving up traditional faith brought a renewed sense of the wonder of the universe. A literary critic once wrote of Stevens: In the end Stevens' subject was "living without God and finding it good."5

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1In this description I have freely "borrowed" from my own description of Ecclesiastes found in The Wisdom of Jesus, 69-72.
 
2In 1953 he described himself as a "dried up Presbyterian," who was not an atheist, but he certainly no longer believed in the same God in whom he had believed as a boy: Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), letter 808 and 875.
 
3From "The Man with the Blue Guitar," Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1961), 167.
 
4Stevens, "On the Road Home," Collected Poems, 203-204.
 
5Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (1960), 127.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Armageddon and the Apocalypse

Modern day "prophets" are continuously warning us that Armageddon1 or the Apocalypse2 or the Day of the Lord is near. They claim to know "the signs of the times," and describe certain historical events as harbingers of the end—precursors to the day of the Lord. They base their dire predictions on what they regard as ancient biblical prophecies that have predicted certain events in our day, which they think will trigger an end-time scenario. They hope to persuade us through fear, and entangle us in their webs of misinformation.
 
            "Prophets" have been predicting the end of the world from Judeo-Christian texts at least since the Isaiah Apocalypse (24-27), and there is no lack of such people in the public media today. When their prophecies fail, as they inevitably must, they recalibrate the time of the end, and then these also fail. Eventually these self-styled "prophets" pass from public view—only to be replaced by other such "prophets."
 
            In the New Testament the "book ends" of end-time speculations are provided by the earliest writer (Paul) and the latest writer (the author of Second Peter). The end-time in Second Peter (middle second century) is generic—a simple prediction that the world will end at some unspecified future time, and includes an encouragement to live holy and godly lives, but with few specifics as to what that lifestyle includes (2 Pet 3:1-14).
 
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Pet 3:8).
 
The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up (2 Pet 3:10).
 
Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these [events], be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pet 3:14).
 
Paul, on the other hand, imagines that the end of the world is actually happening in his own day in the middle first century (1 Cor 7:26, 29; 1 Cor 10:11). In the face of this present crisis he attempts a bit of social engineering in the daily lives of his readers. For example, here is his rule in all the churches: in view of the fact that the end of the world is now happening, people should remain in the social circumstances in which they find themselves (1 Cor 7:17, 20). Hence, if one is a slave, "never mind" (1 Cor 7:21).3 If circumcised, don't try to remove the marks of circumcision; if not circumcised, don't seek circumcision (7:18). If unmarried, or a widow, one should stay single (7:8). If married, a wife should not separate from her husband, and if she does she should remain single; and for the husband—no divorces (7:11-13). If one is living with a "virgin"4 either marry her or not, it makes no difference (7:36-38), but he preferred that people remain single as he was (1 Cor 7:8).
 
            There have been many attempts to predict the precise time of the end, and such attempts have always been able to attract a gullible audience for their nonsense. What usually happens is that the predictions fail, and then the "prophet" recalibrates the time of the end, which also fails in its turn. This, for example, was what happened in the case of the early nineteenth-century end-time "prophet," William Miller, leader of the Millerites, who predicted the return of Christ in 1843 or 1844.5
 
            If one gets hooked in the nets of these admittedly charismatic figures, prepare to be disappointed—as all have been through the years. People simply cannot predict the future and that statement includes even the authors of the biblical texts. Believing the predictions of modern day "prophets" will not make them come true—as the uniform experience of history proves.6 The fact that none of these prophetic figures through history have been correct is the one certain datum of such speculations about the end.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1Armageddon; see Revelation 16:12-16. The word appears only once in the Bible.
 
2Apocalypse is a disclosure or revelation. As used of the end, it is the uncovering of the secrets of the end of the world.
 
3Paul, however, violates his rule, and concedes that if slaves have the opportunity to secure freedom, they should seize it.
 
4"Virgin" (Parthenos; παρθένος) in this passage (1 Cor 7:36-40) is usually translated "betrothed." James Moffat, however, translates it "a maid who is a spiritual bride."
 
5https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Miller_(preacher).
 
6See John R. Hall, Apocalypse. From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (2009), 147-56.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

On Becoming God

An odd but well-known locution used by Paul throughout his letters is "in Christ." Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the most influential New Testament Scholar of the twentieth century, described this expression as denoting an individual's mystical relationship to Christ, from which the actual life of the believer is lived not out of himself but out of Christ. He continues: "It makes no difference whether Paul speaks of the believer's being in Christ or Christ's being in the believer."1 Perhaps Bultmann is correct, but that may not be the case. It seems to me that the linguistic contexts of antiquity out of which these two different locutions are driven are very different.
 
            Readers will be most familiar with the expression of Christ being in the believer: for example: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20; compare, Rom 8:9-11; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 13:5). The language of these expressions finds its natural locus in the well-known context of spirit and demonic possession in the ancient world: for example, Mark 9:25-27; Luke 8:26-33; Matt 12:43-45a=Luke11:24-26; Luke 22:3.
 
            On the other hand, the language of the believer "being in Christ" is different; for example, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away behold, the new has come" (2 Cor 5:17; Rom 16:7; 2 Cor 12:2; 1 Thess 4:16). The natural location of these kinds of expressions is found in a mystic encounter whereby the believer seeks to become one with deity, or to become deity; that is to say it is the process of deification or divinization; for example, Corpus Hermeticum I.25-26 describes the process of deification, or divinization:
 
The human being rushes up through the cosmic framework…And then stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework the human enters the region of the Ogdoad [the eighth sphere]; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.
 
This experience is a "birth of mind," of which the teacher claims: "we have been divinized by this birth" (CH XIII. 10; see similar statements in CH IV.6; X.24-25; XI.20; XII.1, 14). In a hymn Trismegistus (Thrice Great Power) praises the god Asclepius: "We rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body" (Asclepius 41; see also 6, 22).2
 
            A final example comes from the Neoplatonic philosopher, Plotinus (A.D. 204-70): The soul holds an "intent towards that unity to which all souls should move and the divine souls always move , divine in virtue of that movement; for to be a god is to be integral with the Supreme" (Ennead VI. 8).3
 
            Paul seems to share such a view and puts it this way in 1 Cor 6:17: "But the person joined to the Lord becomes one spirit." Many translators add the words "with him" to the end of the sentence, but the words are lacking in the Greek. The inclusion of a clarifying "with him" in the translation suggests a dualism whereby the person and the Lord retain their individual identities in the unity, but Paul only says the two become one spirit.  The same is true of the previous verse (1 Cor 6:16): whoever joins with the prostitute becomes one body." It is no longer he and she sharing one body, they are one body. Other arguments about unity seem to support this idea. For example, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female "are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28; see also 1 Cor 10:16-17; 12:12-13).
 
            While Paul does not explicitly say that "becoming one spirit" with the Lord is essentially becoming divine, he nevertheless uses the language of deification and it could easily have been understood in that way by his contemporaries. The author of Second Peter, on the other hand, has no hesitation and described people who shared his faith (2 Pet 1:1) as having "come to share in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). One who has come to share in the divine nature has essentially become divine himself—or so it would seem. At least that is how the Christian experience is understood by the Orthodox Church of today, where deification or theosis is the aim of the Christian life:
 
[Saint] Basil described man as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius…said that God became man that man might become god…Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, 'deification' or 'divinization.' For Orthodoxy man's salvation and redemption means his deification.4
 
Does sharing the divine nature make one divine?
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1 Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (1951), 1.328
2 Quotations from the Hermetica are from Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica. The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation with notes and introduction (1992). The dates of CH are given as A. D. 2-5.
3 Translation by Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus, The Enneads (1991).
4 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (1963).

Monday, June 19, 2017

Are there Degrees of Spirituality?

This is not a question that I can answer. In my view a person's spirituality is an inner attitude; it is not a foreign supplemental addition to oneself. One can evaluate spirituality in terms of exterior social behavior after defining what is meant by "religious," but that is not quite the same thing as studying a mental state or stance toward something. The inner mental state or stance of spirituality is never available for direct study; instead, only the stated claims of those polled about spirituality may be analyzed.
 
            The Apostle Paul, however, thought there were degrees to spirituality, and from the perspective of nascent Christianity he described the scale this way:
 
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as fleshly, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not still of the flesh and behaving just like ordinary people? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not just ordinary people? (1 Cor 3:1-4)
 
The degree scale that Paul establishes is at its lowest end "ordinary fleshly people" (or babes in Christ) and at its highest end "spiritual people." I suppose that the designations fleshly/spiritual would come together at the midpoint halfway through the scale. Paul is able to distinguish these two extremes, however, only in terms of human behaviors and he gives his readers an example.  Ordinary fleshly people act jealously and create strife (1 Cor 3:3). Presumably the spiritual people at the upper end of the scale would act just the opposite; that is, spiritual people would be characterized by trust and they would create harmony. But perhaps we should use his words as to how spiritual people behave:
 
The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal 5:22-23 RSV)
 
On the other hand, the behaviors to which the flesh (what Paul regards as human lower nature) leads are:
 
fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissention, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and such things." (Gal 5:19-21 RSV
 
            Does "spirituality," however defined, improve the species Homo sapiens?  Again, it is not a question that can be answered for two reasons: 1. It will depend on how you define "improvement." For example, some may think spiritual improvement means being less formally "religious" (however defined), since they might regard religiosity as a holdover from the superstitious period of humanity's primitive past; and 2. Since "spirituality" is a personal attitude (that is, how one regards oneself or how one is regarded by others), we can never analyze the degree of one's spirituality directly. We can only know how we regard ourselves and what we claim about someone else—and our self claims and what others claim about us may disagree.
 
            Suppose, however, "spirituality" were defined in terms of stated concepts of the Divine—that is to say how has the species Homo sapiens described the Gods it serves? Have concepts of God evolved or devolved? My theory is that spiritual people are more apt to conceive a more ethically respectable God; spiritual people would scarcely serve a flawed Deity. The more ethically their Gods behave; the keener must be the spiritual sense of those believing in such Gods.
 
            I do see specific indicators of gradual change in the representation of Deity by the species Homo sapiens. The overlapping changes are not uniform throughout the world and have been occurring over millions of years.
 
1.   The ascription of Divinity to the primal forces of nature (Primitive period).
2.   Polytheism and anthropomorphism (Classical Greek and Roman period).
3.   Monotheism and Spirit (Judeo-Christian period).
4.   Panentheism: God is in everything and everything is in God (Post-Enlightenment).
 
Whether this represents an evolution that makes our species more spiritual or whether it is a devolution that makes our species less spiritual, is a subjective judgment, however, and will be answered according to one's personal faith.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, June 5, 2017

From the Jesus Tradition: On Becoming and Being Human

All of us are special, even those of us who are not. We belong to the animal species Homo sapiens (intelligent man), a thinking animal, capable of abstract thought, and logical analysis. Anthropologists tell us there have been several iterations of the genus Homo that preceded our species, apparently without our mental capability and potential; here are the names of those closest to us in the genus Homo: heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, erectus, floresiensis.1 They are now extinct.
 
            As a species of the animal kingdom, our kind (Homo sapiens) often exhibits an insensitive brutish behavior that unfortunately reflects a destructive aspect of our nature. Nevertheless, the higher aspects of our nature enable us to contribute to the enhancement of civilization and life in community through the arts, philosophy, science, etc. This dissonance in the nature of the species Homo sapiens between the lower and higher aspects of our nature, or perhaps better: between the animalistic and the humanistic aspects of our nature, raises the following question: what is the quintessential characteristic of human nature? That is to say: what is best in the nature of our species?
 
            I suggest that what is best in our nature is a kind of liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of other human beings without regard for personal benefit or personal cost. In a sense it is a self-denying love for other members of our species of whatever ethnic background.
 
            This kind of love is first met in the ancient world in the Jesus tradition. The Israelite tradition of "love your neighbor as yourself" (Deut 15:1-3) is essentially a tribal ethic, since a neighbor was one of your own tribe; that is to say, your fellow Israelite. And love was also extended to the stranger sojourning in the Israelite community (Lev 19:33-34), a custom grounded in the hospitality codes of the ancient near east.
 
            Through the Jesus tradition love for the neighbor passes over into the Christian communities (Rom 13:8-10) where the neighbor is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background but fellow Christians in the community (as in Rom 15:1-2; Gal 5:15-15). James 2:1-13, however, does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings of whatever ethnic background because concern and care is extended to any poor shabbily dressed person who wanders into a Christian assembly. So it is not necessarily at bottom a religious community ethic, but seems grounded in a kind of humanitarian concern for other human beings.
 
            One of the clearer expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love as a quality in human life is found in 1 Cor 13:1-13. In this chapter love is not motivated by religious belief or empowered by divine sanction. Here love has more value than religious acts and knowledge (13:1-2) and other forms of charity (13:3). It puts others before self (13:4-7), and epitomizes what it means to be a mature human being (13:11-12). Hence, love has greater value than even religious faith or hope (13:13). There is no mention in the chapter of God or Christ, but love is apparently an altruistic human response to the human other. For these reasons some scholars of the Jesus tradition do not regard the chapter as composed by Paul but as borrowed from the Greco-Roman tradition.
 
            The clearest expression of an altruistic unconditional love is the challenge of Jesus to "love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44). Matthew and Luke each try to domesticate the saying by suggesting practical actions one can perform that do not involve one actually loving an enemy—that is to say: do favors for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers (Luke 6:27-31; Matt 5:43-44); all of which one can do without actually loving the enemy.
 
            When our behavior displays altruistic love, we are quintessentially human; when our behavior is brutish and uncaring, we are marginally human. Being human is not an accident of birth, but a matter of behavior.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1Richard Potts and Christopher Sloan, What does it mean to be Human? (Washington: National Geographic, 2010), 32-33.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Did Paul believe in the Christian Heaven?

Fortunately we do not have to wonder about the uncertainties of what Paul may have believed; his views can be described from what he himself wrote. How Paul used the word "heaven" (ouranos) shows that he clearly understood heaven as the divine realm, the abode of God, Christ, and the angels (Rom 1:18; 10:6; 1 Cor 8:5; 15:47; Gal 1:8; 1 Thess 1:10; 4:16). The view as expressed in these passages is identical to that of the ancient Greek world where heaven, and/or Mount Olympus, was seen as the abode of the Gods.1 In Paul's view this heavenly abiding place of the divine appears to have been permeable (2 Cor 12:2), so perhaps its nether regions were open to visitation by other travelers on heavenly journeys as well as Paul.2
 
            Paul described those who shared his religious views as citizens of the commonwealth of heaven (Phil 3:20-21), which is their transcendental home in the heavens (2 Cor 5:1-4) where they would always be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Thess 4:16-17). With respect to the sovereign rule of God, in five instances the concept appears to be something that is realized in the future (1 Cor 6:9; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:2; 1 Thess 2:12), but in two instances it appears to be something one can experience in the present (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20).
 
            One way Paul may have differed from contemporary views of the Christian heaven is the state in which the departed soul would experience heaven. The Christian view of heaven today seems to be more Greek than that hope anticipated by Paul. Today, in general, Christian churches tend to think of a person's soul in terms of the disembodied state; the soul is the essential spiritual essence of a person that remains after the body has been discarded. This is essentially the ancient Greek concept.3 Paul, however, being Hebrew, was more influenced by the Hebrew myth of the first human being (Adam), who was created as a unified living being (Gen 2:7), and hence for Paul a disembodied soul was apparently a strange concept. In Paul's view a person was essentially a living being, and not an embodied spirit/soul. He argued that the dead will again be embodied with an imperishable "spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:35-50; 1 Cor 5:1-5), and, I suppose, in that state the believer would experience heaven.
 
            Another concept in Paul, strange to Christian ears today is Paul's association of the hereafter with the liberation of the physical creation from its futility (Rom 8:20) and bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), perhaps occasioned mythically by God cursing the ground when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden (Gen 3:17). Romans 8:19-23 reflects a kind of restoration or renewal of the physical universe to its original "very good" state (Gen 1:31). The idea of a "new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65:17) is shared by other early Christians (2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). Paul, however, has specifically associated this restoration of the physical universe with believers awaiting the "redemption of their bodies" (Rom 8:22-23) as the universe awaited its renewal. I am not at all sure, however, what role a restored physical universe would play in the completely spiritual reality of heaven. But Paul dies not elaborate.
 
            In sum, Paul anticipates that after death the believer will be with the Lord in heaven; nevertheless that experience does not appear to be identical with contemporary ideas of the blessed state of the Christian heaven.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1 Helmut Traub, TDNT, 5:500 [497-502].
2 James D. Tabor, Heaven, "Ascent to," ABD, 2:91-94.
3 Christopher Rowe, OCD, 1428.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Did Jesus Believe in the Christian Heaven?

As most of you likely know, I cannot read minds—much less the mental state of paper characters invented by the minds of others, that is to say, the synoptic evangelists of whom virtually nothing certain is known. Here is a prolegomenon addressing the question in the title. The Greek word for heaven (ouranos, οὐρανός) according to the lexicographers is used three ways in the New Testament: 1. referring to a part of the ancient universe, hence firmament or sky; 2. referring to a transcendental abode, hence not part of the universe; 3. as a circumlocution for God, hence neither of the first two.
 
            I limit my inquiry to the testimony of the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical Gospel Q. In Mark there are 17 uses of ouranos. I would describe the uses of ouranos in Mark (readers may disagree): firmament or sky (1:10-11; 4:32; 6:41; 7:34; 13:25 [twice]; 13:27; 13:31); as a circumlocution for God (8:11; 11:30-31); as a transcendental abode (10:21; 11:25; 12:25; 13:32; 14:62). Such is the evidence in Mark.
 
            The question now becomes do the five "heaven-is-a-transcendental-abode" sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark survive the scalpel of critical scholarship. The report of the Jesus Seminar published in The Five Gospels (abbreviated here as FG) is the most critical sifting of the Jesus tradition to date. All but one of these sayings attributed to Jesus by Mark are colored gray, meaning that in the judgment of the seminar Jesus did not say this, but the ideas expressed are (may be) close to his own (FG, pp. 36-37). The saying rendered black is Mark 14:62 meaning Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective of a later strand of the Jesus tradition. To see their rationale, look up the sayings in The Five Gospels. Hence, the sayings on heaven as a transcendental abode in the Gospel of Mark appear to be a later Christian tradition attributed to Jesus. Apparently Jesus himself did not share the view of an ultimate heavenly abode affirmed by the later tradition. Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Mark's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
 
            The hypothetical early Christian gospel Q (Quelle, source), which no longer exists but is reconstructed by scholars from close verbal parallels between Matthew and Luke, is thought to be earlier than Mark. It is dated by some as early as 50 CE. Reconstructions of Q include seven sayings on heaven, four of which appear to be referring to heaven as a transcendental abode: Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:23; 15:17. One saying can either be a transcendental abode or a circumlocution for God (Luke 10:15). One refers to heaven as part of the firmament (Luke 16:17), and the last is a circumlocution (Luke 17:29). Such is the evidence from the hypothetical early Christian sayings gospel Q.
 
            Critical scholars regard four of these Q sayings as highly questionable (i.e., colored gray): Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:33; 16:17; and three of them were definitely not spoken by Jesus (i.e., colored black; Luke 10:15; 15:17; 17:29). Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Q's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
 
            When the earliest sources about Jesus (Mark and Q) are read critically it appears that Jesus did not share the later Christian hope of heaven as a transcendental abode to which the Christian soul journeys after death. He did, however, anticipate the imminent coming of what he called the "sovereign rule of God" (Mark: 10:14, 23, 25; Q: Matt 6:10a/Luke 11:2b; Matt 12:28/Luke 11:20) All of these sayings, when evaluated critically, are affirmed as originating with Jesus.
 
            On the basis of the passages I have listed just above, the sovereign rule of God does not appear to be a transcendent abode (readers may disagree), but rather a domain, in the sense of God's sphere of influence over human life—or do you read them differently?
 
            It is a naïve mistake to assume that what the church believes is what Jesus believed. Basically people must decide if they will live by the uncritical faith that the New Testament gospels are historically correct in all particulars, or live by reason and logic and make use of the results of 250 years of critical studies of the Bible. Critical scholars are not always right—true enough! But neither are they always wrong. One must look at the evidence and make informed judgments.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Will the Jesus Tradition remain Relevant?

A good friend suggested that I owe an explanation to people of progressive religious faith as to why I still concern myself with the Jesus traditions in light of my published views that the Jesus tradition is historically unreliable, and traditional Christianity is based on mythology. He was thinking like a progressive pastor, preacher, and prophet of social justice; I, on the other hand, am a retired academic and a historian of Christian origins. Our perspectives are quite different. Critiquing the Jesus tradition is something I do professionally, and my friend is a practitioner of a new form of traditional faith based on social justice.
 
            The explanation he asked of me is nothing less than describing what the Jesus tradition contributes to contemporary human life; that is, what in the Jesus traditions might be embraced by people of progressive religious faith and what should be consigned to the bulging trash bins of dead religions.  Fortunately he asked me to address the entire spectrum of the Jesus traditions; that is, to address not only what originated with the historical Jesus, but also what others have found of value in the Jesus traditions. In his challenge all of the Jesus tradition is given an equal weight.
 
            Here are two reasons for my continuing interest in the Jesus tradition, and why I think it will continue to remain relevant. These two reasons only scratch the surface. Judging from the pervasive influence of Christianity and the iconic status of the Bible in contemporary American culture, it is obvious that the Jesus traditions remain relevant in 21st century America. Hence, the critical study of the Jesus tradition (what I do) will remain a legitimate public service until it happens that traditional Christianity and the Bible lose their influence in modern society.  For the foreseeable future, however, there remains a need for critics of the Jesus tradition to separate beliefs about Jesus from the probable views of Jesus in order to call into question illegitimate uses of the Jesus tradition.
 
            A second reason relates to early Christian ethical values. Early Christian writers have preserved certain ethical concepts, which have inspired much that is beneficial in Western civilization. One such concept is a liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love, which has embedded itself in Western culture. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of others, without regard either for personal benefit or personal cost.
 
            The Jesus traditions have brought over from the ancient Israelite tradition the idea of loving one's neighbor (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31). In the Israelite tradition the neighbor was not one's fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather one's fellow Israelite (Deut 15:1-3); that is to say, their neighbors were of their own tribe.  Love was also extended to those sojourning among the Israelites; that is to say, to the stranger in their midst (Lev 19:33-34). In the Hebrew Bible love for neighbor appears in Torah as a commandment of God—hence it is a religious ethic of the Israelite community, which through Jesus passed into early Christian communities. Paul, for example, writes:
 
Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. All the commandments are summed up in this sentence: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)
 
In this statement "neighbor" is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather a religious community ethic—love for your fellow Christian (as in Romans 15:1-2; Gal 5:13-15). Nevertheless, James 2:1-13 does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings.
 
            One of the clearest expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love is found 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Love in this passage does not appear to be a Christian attribute, which is motivated by religious belief and empowered by divine sanction; rather it is a nakedly human quality. There is no mention in this chapter of theology or Christology; neither God nor Christ is mentioned as motivating or enabling the act of loving.
 
            One hard saying unique to Jesus in antiquity unquestionably illustrates an altruistic unconditional love; Jesus said "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44b). The literary context in which this saying is found struggles against the concept of "loving enemies" by offering lesser actions that involve minimum risk, which can be done without actually expressing concrete love for the enemy. In my view the world would be more impoverished without the concept of unconditional love, and it is precisely the Jesus tradition that has imported this concept into Western culture.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, April 10, 2017

Pondering Divination and Prophecy #2

It is surprising to note that the authors of the Bible in the main shared so much of the ancient pagan ideas about divination and prophecy (see "Wry Thoughts about Religion" 3/28/17). The fact that the texts have so much in common with pagan thinking should not be surprising, however, since the authors themselves even in their thinking were products of ancient pagan culture. The term "pagan" describes the religions and culture of the ancient world. It was used in the later Christian period to describe the last vestiges of ancient culture that survived in the byways of the countryside ("pagan" was adapted from the Latin word paganus meaning "a peasant who lives in the villages of the countryside," where the old ways still existed.
 
            The Israelites clearly believed that their God (Yahweh), like the pagan gods of antiquity, chose certain people to be a channel for his revelations (Deut 18:17-18), but on the other hand diviners, soothsayers, augurs, sorcerers, wizards, charmers, mediums, and necromancers were forbidden in Israel (Deut 18:10-12)—nevertheless such things still occurred, as when Saul consulted the medium of Endor to resuscitate the prophet Samuel from death (1 Sam 28:3-25).
 
            The literary prophets of Israel's history were believed to write "words of God." While there is an element of futurity in their prophecies, the prophecies concerned the near future in general detail on matters relating to the Israelites and their welfare. Some of their prophecies did not come true—as, for example, the prophecy that there would always be a descendant of David ruling Israel (2 Sam 7:1-7; Jer 33:17-18). Today, however, Israel is no longer a monarchy, and its leaders do not claim descent from David! Here is a second failed prophecy: Ezekiel prophesied that the ancient city of Tyre would be utterly destroyed and no longer inhabited (Ezek 26:17-21), but today Tyre is a thriving city in Lebanon.
 
            Early Christians co-opted some of the "Old Testament" prophecies to prove that the founding events of their faith had been foreseen by the prophets. For example, they took over a prophecy that Isaiah made to King Ahaz of Judah during a political crises of the eighth century BCE. The birth of a peasant child, Isaiah said, prophesied the survival of the Kingdom of Judah (Isa 7:1-17). The prophecy came true; Judah did survive. Matthew, however, took over one verse out of context (Isa 7:14) claiming that the prophecy related to the birth of Jesus the Anointed (Matt 1:18-23).
 
            Divination also occurs in the biblical texts by means of all the usual pagan methods, as Cicero described them: dreams (Matt 1:20; 2:12-13, 19, 22); signs and wonders (Acts 4:30; 2:43; Heb 2:4; 2 Cor 12:12; Rom 15:19); portents (Dan 5:5-31; Joel 2:30-31; Isa 13:9-11; 20:2-3; 8:18; Mark 13:24-27; Rev 12:1; 15:1); marvels (Exod 34:10; John 7:21); signs (John2:1-11; Judg 6:37-40; Matt 24:29-30) omens (Sir 34:5; Macc 5:4); apparitions (2 Macc 5:1-4); wandering stars (Matt 2:2, 9-10); prodigies (13:1-9, 11-18).
 
            Those who think the Bible establishes the true contours of what is real when it describes divination and prophecy should think again. The Bible simply provides more examples of what occurred in paganism. One definite difference between the Bible and the views of paganism, however, is the Bible's understanding of Fate. In the Bible Fate is not an impersonal force that determines human destiny, rather Yahweh himself predetermines both chance and outcomes: thus human destiny lies in God's hands (Pss 16:5; 31:15; Prov 16:33; Eccl 3:11, 15; 7:13; 8:17; 1 Sam 16:14; 1 Kgs 22:22; Rom 9:18; 2 Thess 2:11). Nevertheless some of the biblical writers are aware of Fate as an impersonal force determining human destiny (Isa 47:13; Jer 10:2; Ezek 21:21; Matt 2:2), and astrologers read the heavens to determine Fate on earth (Dan 2:27; 4:7; 5:7. 11).
 
            Cicero regarded divination as superstition, "widespread among the nations" and it "has taken advantage of human weakness to cast its spell over the mind of almost every other person"; Cicero quickly added, however, "I want it distinctly understood that the destruction of superstition does not mean the destruction of religion" (Div. II.lxxii.148). I am inclined to agree with him.
 
            The truth is: there is no fixed inevitable future, which pre-exists in the foreknowledge of God. The only future we will ever know ahead of time is what rushes into the present in the next second. The future is always in a state of becoming; beyond that it exists only as an uncertain contingency of plans, fears, and hopes in the human mind.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University