Saturday, May 18, 2019

Of Superstition and Religion

Adapted from the Introduction to Unmasking Biblical Faiths, pages 4-6.*

Is there a qualitative difference between superstition and religion? Perhaps, there is, but you will be the arbiter. Today superstition is defined several ways: as “a belief, conception, act, or practice resulting from ignorance; as unreasoning fear of the unknown or mysterious scrupulosity; as trust in magic or chance”; or as “a belief affording the relief of an anxiety by means of an irrational notion.”

Superstition (Greek: deisidaimonia; Latin: superstitio) in the Greco-Roman period, however, is defined somewhat differently; it is “a free citizen’s forgetting his dignity by throwing himself into the servitude of deities conceived as tyrants…Thus the superstitious were supposed to submit themselves to exaggerated rituals, to adhere in credulous fashion to prophecies and to allow themselves to be abused by charlatans.” Plutarch in contrasting the atheist and superstitious person wrote:

Superstition…is an emotional idea, and an assumption productive of a fear which utterly humbles and crushes a man, for he thinks that there are gods, but that they are the cause of pain and injury. In fact, the atheist, apparently, is unmoved regarding the Divinity, whereas the superstitious man is moved as he ought not to be, and his mind is thus perverted.

Cicero contrasted religion and superstition in this way: superstition “implies a groundless fear of the gods,” and religion “consists in piously worshipping them.” In the Roman period superstition (superstitio) also came to have the idea of “bad religion,” a label by which a dominant religious group might libel a minority religious group.

The term superstition (deisidaimonia) appears only twice in the New Testament (Acts 17:22; 25:19) and to judge from Greek lexicons it is a general term for religion or excessive religious scrupulosity, which generally agrees with the judgments of Greco-Roman writers. On the other hand, religious belief by modern definition is generally seen as something quite similar to superstition, differing only in a negative evaluation given to the latter and a positive evaluation given to the former. Today faith is generally defined as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” or “a firm or unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof.” Judging from their definitions, faith and superstition actually seem to function in a similar manner. What I conclude from the shades of meaning accorded the word superstition is that superstition and faith are not two qualitatively different kinds of belief. Rather they reflect a range of similar attitudes best represented by a spectrum with superstition at one end and religious belief at the other end. They presumably meet somewhere around the middle, depending on who is describing the middle point. In short, what some define as acceptable religious belief, others will define as unacceptable superstition.

The modern definition of superstition casts doubt on much of what one finds in the Bible. For example, much of what one finds in the Bible demands a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a twenty-first- century person. Educated persons will recognize that certain narratives reflect physical impossibilities and hence clash with the way things usually work in the world. For example, in the cycle of stories about the acts of Elisha in 2 Kings (chapters 2–13) one finds among other stories of the same sort the story of an iron ax-head that floated after falling into the Jordan River (6:1–7). Elisha, described as “the man of God,” supposedly caused the ax-head to rise to the surface by tossing a stick into the water. The claim that the ax-head floated violates the buoyancy principle of Archimedes of Syracuse (third century BCE) that states, an object will float if its weight is equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces. The weight of an iron ax-head is not equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces and hence it will not float. And common sense tells us that a stick tossed into the water would have no influence on what is essentially a law of modern physics. In order to think that the narrative describes something that actually happened, readers must suspend disbelief. A true believer in biblical “miracles,” however, will claim an exception to the laws of physics by arguing that God intervenes into the way things usually work in the world to accomplish God’s desired ends, and hence this incident actually occurred. Should one describe the belief that the ax-head actually floated as superstition?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Charles W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019. See pages 4-6 of the introduction for the documentations to this segment.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Do Gods have Souls?

I don’t know much about God, or Gods in general; I only know what I have read and what others are happy to tell me. But I began wondering a day or so ago about the following question: do Gods have souls? The question is fraught with difficulties—defining God and defining the soul being the biggest two. Some Christian readers may even think it a silly question because the Bible describes God as spirit (John 4:24). Is it possible for spirits to have souls? In the Christian West we popularly think of ourselves as “having” souls; that is to say, an eternal immaterial aspect of a human being that leaves the material body on death. But God in the Judeo-Christian tradition does not have a material body, so how could God have a soul? Spirits (if spirits there be) have neither shape nor distinguishing form. So how can invisible spirit be indwelled by a shapeless, formless soul? The Bible says that we human beings are created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:6); so if we have a soul wouldn’t it logically follow that God, our prototype, also has a soul? Perhaps we do not have (as we think) souls (psyche) in the Greek sense:

In Homer the psyche is what leaves the body on death (i.e. life, or breath?) but also an insubstantial image of the dead person existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body (and perhaps entering another) is well established by the 5th century B.C.E.1

Like God, soul is also a slippery concept. We human beings don’t all agree that there is an eternal immaterial aspect of the human being that leaves the body on death. There most certainly is, however, an animating principle in all living beings, which the authors of Genesis recognized as appertaining to Adam (Gen 2:7): “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (which is translated in the RSV as “being”).2 Adam was created a living soul (psyche is the Greek word; nephesh is the Hebrew word). So perhaps we do not “have” soul; we are soul; that is, we are simply animated matter having no eternal aspect and when our matter loses its animation (i.e., dies) our matter returns to the dust from whence it came—at least that appears to be the Hebrew concept.

There is a third way of thinking about “soul” that I want to consider in connection with the question do Gods have souls. Soul by this third (dictionary) definition is “a strong positive feeling (as of intense sensitivity and emotional fervor) conveyed especially by black American performers,”3 particularly in “soul music,” which “is characterized by intensity of feelings and earthiness.”4 Soul by this last definition suggests, among other things, the capability of being touched to the core, among other things, by tragedies of the human condition. Does God in Western religious traditions evince such a capability? We find a few such moments in his youth during the Israelite phase of his maturation process into Christianity. Since his conversion to Christianity, however, some of his earliest votaries have been far more optimistic as to God’s ability to be deeply touched by the tragedies of the human condition; nevertheless, before his conversion, God’s behavior as depicted in the Old Testament was scarcely up to Christian standards.

If God is spirit, one can only wonder how spirits possess the capability of “feeling” deeply about anything. Feeling is one of the basic physical senses, which comes to be applied to one’s emotional demeanor. One can also wonder how it comes about that soul can be so intimately associated with spirit. At least two authors in the New Testament find spirit and soul to be two different immaterial aspects of the human constitution (1 Thess 5:23; Hebrews 4:12).

Truth be told: we humans invent our Gods;5 given that, why should we not, if we chose, conceive of a Great Eternal Invisible Spirit with soul in spite of Western religious traditions? The prospect of a soulless God is a terrifying thought.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Christopher Rowe, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), 1428.
2In the Greek translation of the Bible (the Septuagint) psyche translates the Hebrew nephesh, which is rendered as “being” in the RSV.
3Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul.”
4Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul music.”
5Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion: “God does not Exist,” May 17, 2016.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Historical Levels in the Gospels

Most people who read the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) assume that they reflect a single level of historical activity; that is, the average reader generally assumes the gospels reflect eyewitness reports about the sayings and doings of Jesus. Hence they pay close attention to what Jesus said and did in the particular gospel they are reading. Nevertheless a simple comparison of the differences between these three gospels reveals that they are scarcely synonymous reports. Their conflicts cannot reasonably be resolved by searching the narrated events about Jesus to achieve an explanation that allows all the reports to be “correct.” For example, one cannot convincingly argue that their differences can be explained on the basis that no two eye witnesses see or hear exactly the same thing. The differences and contradictions range from minor to dramatic disagreements in extensive detail (compare, for example, the disagreements in their accounts of the first Easter morning, Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28:1-8; Luke 24:1-12).

There are actually multi-historical levels at play in the gospels. Level one consists of narratives about the sayings and doings of Jesus. Theoretically these took place during the career of Jesus around 26-36 CE. Level two is the later historical level of the individual gospel writer and that writer’s distinctive narrative and theological views about the events surrounding the career of Jesus. Around 70 CE Mark (the earliest gospel writer) in constructing his* narrative relied on oral reports about Jesus’ activities. Mark decided the precise wording of his narrative, what stories to use among those that came his way, the sequence of events in the narrative, and the form and content of the sayings of Jesus. Hence, the gospel represents Mark’s distinctive view of what Jesus said and did some forty years or so earlier. Mark’s account is colored by his personal theology and theological prejudices. He knew no historical outline of the public career of Jesus but imposed his own plan on the disassociated reports of which he was informed. Level three is located in the later time periods of Matthew and Luke (twenty to thirty years or so after Mark). These two writers used and edited several sets of earlier, apparently written, sources: Mark, Q, M and L, as well as oral tradition.

Here is a case on point from Baptist Bible study several weeks ago. Mark narrates two miracle stories (7:25-37: the healing of a deaf mute and the Syrophoenician Woman) that cast Jesus in a poor light. When Jesus heals the deaf mute, rather than healing with a word, he utilizes what appear to be magical gestures—“he put his finger into his ears and spat and touched his tongue, and looking up into heaven he sighed and said to him ‘Ephpatha,’ that is be opened” (Mark 7:33-34). Luke does not use this story and Matthew replaces it with a general story of his own composition (lacking specifics) of Jesus healing multitudes rather than a specific deaf mute (Matt 15:29-31).

Luke does not use Mark’s story about the Syrophoenician woman in which Jesus tells her: “Let the children first be fed for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). The statement reflects negatively on Jesus by suggesting that he had a prejudicial preference for Israelites and harbored a negative attitude toward this Gentile woman, only healing her daughter because of her witty retort (Mark 7:29). Matthew, on the other hand, includes the story, including part of Jesus’ offensive statement to the woman in Mark (Matt 15:26). Matthew also puts another offensive saying on Jesus’ lips: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). This statement has the effect of showing Jesus won over by the woman’s intense supplication to him (Matt 15:22) and hence in Matthew Jesus praises her great faith (Matt 15:28), neither of which appear in Mark’s story. One can only wonder why Matthew decided to use the story but double down on the negative attitudes reflected by Jesus that offend later Christian sensitivities. Luke, on the other hand, reflects the mission of Jesus as clearly including Gentiles (Luke 2:32; 4:25-27), and his second book (Acts) features Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13; Gal 2:8-9; Rom 1:5). This may help explain why Luke does not use Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman.

There is a fourth historical level that is only accessible to readers of Greek who have some knowledge of textual criticism. Virtually all of our New Testament manuscripts are third century and later. Later copyists made changes as seemed to them theologically right, or to correct a perceived error in the text, or for other reasons. For example, Mark 1:2 is wrong in how he introduces a particular quotation (Mark 1:2-3). He writes: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” The quotation, however, is a composite of Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3 and some later copyists catching the error changed the text to read: “As it is written in the prophets.”

            If you want to know what is actually going on in a gospel, purchase a Synopsis of the Four Gospels** and always read one gospel in the light of the other four. From my perspective the canonical gospels give us more reliable information about the origins of the early Christian movements in general, than about the historical Jesus in particular.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*The male pronoun is used only for convenience. For my argument that the Gospel of Mark may possibly have had a female author see: Hedrick, “Narrator and Story in the Gospel of Mark: Hermeneia and Paradosis,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 14.3 (1987), 239-258, particularly the section on the gender of narrators (253-57).

**Available in English text only or in Greek-English from the United Bible Societies edited by Kurt Aland.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Rethinking “Evil”

I'll be the "meet the author" guest at Barnes & Noble in Springfield, Missouri on Saturday, April 13 from 1-4pm. The Bookstore is featuring my new book: Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. If you happen to be in or around Springfield at that time drop in and check out the book - and take a few minutes for a chat.

The word "evil" has its roots in the Middle Ages (Middle English, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic).* Hence it appears to be a relatively late word in the family of languages that translators have chosen, along with its later associated ideas, to use in translating much earlier Greek texts. As used in English today, the word "evil" is a sinister word with supernatural associations. We generally reserve its use in the human community for the most "profound immorality and wickedness," and/or to describe an abstract supernatural force, which is the matrix of all wicked acts that are counter to all that is "good" or "right" in human life. Basically the word "evil" or its cognate in another language, in a secular context seems to mean "well beyond the limits of acceptable conduct."

I began this brief study by looking at value-laden language in English. There appear to be five sets of contrasting moral expressions in English. The expressions contrast human behavior in terms of positive and negative behaviors. The contrasts, as I describe them here, are what I gather to be polar opposites. As we use them in the Western world, each contrast arises out of a different context and each contrasting term carries a different significance deriving from the context in which it arises.

            The five sets and, in my view, the contexts from which each derives are as follows:
good/evil: religious or secular contexts based upon personal views;
good/bad: social contexts based upon particular community values;
right/wrong: social contexts based upon particular community values;
moral/immoral: social contexts based upon particular community customs;
legal/illegal: legal contexts based upon particular law codes.

The first contrast on this list (good versus evil) might be considered an abstraction and hence a basis for the other contrasts, which are then regarded as specific instances of good versus evil in the human community. At least I found the paired contrast between "good" and "evil" has appeared more often in the New Testament texts. When I checked the contrasting pairings of good versus evil in the New Testament, however, I discovered that it was apparently the translator's call whether or not to render certain Greek words by the English word "evil," for in the pairings of good versus evil other words are sometimes contrasted with good. In the contrasting pairings of good versus evil two Greek words (kakos and ponēros) are generally translated by the English word evil; sometimes the Greek words are translated as bad, wrong, or harm. In the pairings good or right is used to translate the Greek words kalos and agathos.**

One significant deviation from the usual contrast is the use of the Greek word phaulos for the negative value in the contrast of good and evil; phaulos is translated by the word "evil" in 2 Cor 5:10, but in Rom 9:11 it is translated as "bad." This latter Greek word in the lexicon has the following semantic value: "ranging in meaning from 'easy, light, simple' to 'common, bad'" (Danker/Bauer, 1050)—evil is not given in the lexicon as one of the translation possibilities for phaulos. In other words, in every instance where "evil" appears as a translation of the paired opposites the underlying Greek word might just as easily have been translated throughout as bad or wrong, or perhaps by harm.

To judge from the pairings of good versus evil, New Testament writers do not seem to conceive of "evil" in the abstract (i.e., disassociated from any specific instance of harm) as readers might think or as translators seem to suggest when they translate kakos or ponēros as "evil." If the evidence justifies this conclusion, one may reasonably therefore argue that the New Testament does not recognize the idea of an abstract principle of evil in the universe.***

Satan, for example, is portrayed in the New Testament as a kind of wicked actor who does bad things to people. The only passage that gives Satan a comprehensive role is Rev 12:9, where Satan is described as the "deceiver of the whole world." Nevertheless, Satan is not described as an abstract principle, but an individual actor. Even a passage like Eph 6:12 ("…against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places") is likewise particular rather than abstract.

So how does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See Webster's Third New International Dictionary, s.v. "evil."

**These are the passages I checked in the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament that contrast good versus evil: Rom 3:8, 7:21, 9:11, 12:21, 13:3, 16:19; 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 5:14; 1 Pet 3:11, 17; Matt 7:11, 7:17-18, 12:34-35, 20:15; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9, 11:13.

***See also: "What should be done about Evil in the World," Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, March 13, 2013; and "Does God Collude with Satan," Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, June 20, 2018.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Posthumous Appearances of Jesus

Over the past year or so I have received numerous queries about 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, specifically as to the statement in 1 Cor15:6 where Paul reports that Jesus had “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have fallen asleep.” The issue seems to be that appearances to single individuals (like Cephas, James, Mary, Paul, etc.) might seem less convincing than appearances to groups since one person is more prone to hallucinations, or simply being mistaken (as Mary initially was, John 20:14-15). The appearance to multiple individuals at one and the same time, my questioners felt, increased the probability that there was actually something out there to be seen because groups of people would be less subject to the charge of hallucination (“perceptions of objects with no reality”). As one person put it: an appearance by Jesus “to groups of people at once makes it more real, since hallucination is a private event.”1

This raises the question of what exactly was seen by those who claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus—if anything. An appearance of Jesus is not unique; for example, through the years many have also claimed to have seen an “apparition” (appearance) of Mary, Jesus’ Mother.2 One reasonable way to think about these posthumous appearances is as follows. If something registers upon the retina of the eye then one is seeing something “physical.” Hence, it is not a hallucination. There was something “there.” It would have been something like what occurred in Matt 28:9, where the women took hold of Jesus’ feet—they not only saw but they physically grasped his feet.

If there is no impression on the retina of the eye at the moment of the putative “seeing,” then it is a hallucination. One might argue, however, that it was a “spirit body” (whatever that might be; see 1 Cor 15:44, 50). If it was a “spirit,” however, then there was no actual “thing” out there to be seen, since spirits are invisible (God is spirit [John 4:24] and is represented as an invisible deity in the Christian Scriptures [Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27]). Yet if there was no actual physical “thing” out there, how does that differ from a hallucination? In that case it must be a mental event. I suppose one might think of it as a vision (something seen in a dream, trance, or experienced during ecstasy), but that is also a mental event. I personally would say the same thing about ghosts or phantoms, which at the very least are not physical, and since they do not physically exist how could they register on the retina?

Ophthalmologists recognize two kinds of afterimages. “An afterimage is an image that continues to appear in one’s vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased.”3 The two types are: physiological, or pathological. A physiological afterimage refers to an afterimage that continues after exposure to the original physical image has ceased. Pathological afterimages are of two types: illusory and hallucinatory. An illusory afterimage is “the distorted perception of a real external stimulus.”4 A hallucinatory afterimage is “the projection of an already-encoded visual memory and is similar to a complex visual hallucination: the creation of a formed visual image where none exists.”5

The difficulty with thinking that groups are not subject to the charge of “hallucination” is that hallucinations are also group events. Such an event is called “mass hysteria.”6

So what can reasonably be said about the posthumous resurrection appearances of Jesus: Depending on your point of view, they are as likely or unlikely as the reported apparitions of Mary.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For reported group appearances see: Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20:19-23, 26-29; 21:1-14; Acts 1:6-11.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fundamentalism and its Rhetoric of Fiction

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Rhetoric: the art of speaking or writing effectively.
Fiction: something invented or feigned by the imagination.
Fundamentalism: A movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teachings.*

One of the so-called “fundamentals of the faith” of Fundamentalism is that the Bible is “The Word of God.” Here are two articles from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).** 

Article I: We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God…
Article X: We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God, can be ascertained with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original…

Fundamentalists who work with the original languages of the Bible, however, know that justifying this confessional tenet is an uphill battle for several reasons. We do not possess a single “autographic” text (i.e., the original author’s copy of the manuscript). The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date for the most part from the middle ages.

There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament writings. The earliest are in fragmentary condition and date from the third century and later. There are only a few fragments surviving from the second century. Complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from the fourth century and later. None of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. Standardization does not begin until the 19th century with the science of textual criticism. Textual critics have established a more or less agreed upon standardized text of the New Testament—not with prayer but with hard-nosed scientific observations.*** While most papyrus and vellum manuscripts date from the third century and later, all of the New Testament, except for Second Peter and perhaps Acts, are thought to have been composed in the first century.

The fundamentalist “fictional rhetoric” is that somehow God has protected the readings of the original author’s personal copy (which has ceased to exist) through the vicissitudes of the historical evolution of copying the manuscripts. Further, fundamentalists confidently assert that the readings of the non-existent autographic versions “can be ascertained with great accuracy” from the some 5000 extant manuscripts. We do not, however, have a single copy of any autographic text in either Hebrew Bible or New Testament. And if we did how would we recognize it as an original author’s copy? The truth, no doubt disturbing to many, is that the Bible is not inerrant. It is a flawed human product; it constitutes Man’s word about God, as well as many other things. And as an afterthought: if there are no autographic copies how can we verify that the later copies and translations “faithfully represent the original”?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*these are dictionary definitions.
**https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
***This paragraph touches only on the tip of the iceberg; see the Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:393-435: “Textual Criticism (OT and NT).” These two articles will give readers a good idea of the complexity of the situation text critics face in reconstructing what they regard as the “earliest recoverable form” of New Testament texts (which is not the same as the autographic copy).

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Christian Arrogance and a Rhetoric of Fiction

A braggart is defined by the dictionary as “a loud arrogant boaster.” Hence people who boast do so to give others a high opinion of themselves or of their accomplishments. Arrogance is defined as “a feeling or impression of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or presumptuous claims.”

In the New Testament boasting and bragging arise from arrogance (Greek, alazoneia) and are regarded as evil (James 4:16). In addition arrogance is associated with access to excessive resources that support life (literally translated, “arrogance of life”). Such arrogance is “not of the Father,” but “of the world” (1 John 2:16). Arrogant boasting (alazones) is thought to be characteristic of people who have merely a “form of religion” but who actually deny its power (2 Tim 3:5). Boasting (Rom 1:30) is further described as a characteristic of “wicked people who suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Hence arrogance and boasting are not simple boorish behaviors, but rather they are included among an impressive array of negative behaviors condemned in biblical texts (Rom 1:28-31) that are characteristic behaviors of people whom God rejects (Rom 1:28).

Further, arrogance is associated in the New Testament with hubris (hubris), extreme pride or arrogance (Romans 1:30; hubris is translated in this verse as “insolent”). Aristotle defines hubris as doing and saying things at which the victim incurs shame, not in order that one may achieve anything other than what is done, but in order to get pleasure from it (Fisher, “hubris,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 732-33). Instances of hubris in the ancient world were believed to draw retributive punishment from the ancient Greek Gods.

Imagine my surprise to learn that boasting is attributed to Yahweh, the God of ancient Israel, who was fond of saying: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5; 43:11, 44:6, 44:8, 45:6, 45:21; compare Deuteronomy 4:35). Of course there were/are many Gods to be found in the ancient world but Yahweh was a jealous God and tolerated no rivals (Exodus 20:3, 5; 34:14). In Christianity the early Christ cults also tolerated no rivals to Jesus the anointed of the Lord: Luke writes: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Apparently, if one’s own God boasts, one tends to hear it as a positive statement of fact and not negatively as a boast. And if the boast concerns a tenet of one’s own religious belief, it is heard as a justification of the rightness of one’s religious belief. Thus, these two “brags” suggest that in the Bible some boasts are “good” while others are “bad”—even though arrogance and boasting as such are condemned in the New Testament.

Even the Apostle Paul boasted. For example, he boasted about some of his converts (2 Corinthians 7:14; 8:24; 9:1-3); he boasted about his own authority (2 Corinthians 10:8); and he boasted about his independence in not taking support from the Jesus gathering at Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:7-11). He boasted even when he knew that some would regard such speech as irrational discourse (2 Corinthians 11:16-33 and 12:1-10).

I am particularly interested in the claims of exclusivity in early Christianity as reflected in Acts 4:12—that there is no other way of salvation except through Jesus. Such an exclusive claim in effect completely dismisses the value of every other religion as meaningless.

What is it that allows people to gloss over disconnects like this (arrogance and boasting are acceptable in some cases but severely condemned generally) in the Bible and not even notice them. There could be many reasons, but they are basically overlooked because we are not taught to read the Bible critically. We have been misled by an effective rhetoric of fiction that touts the Bible as the “Word of God,” a claim that discourages readers from reading these ancient texts in a discriminating way.*

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See “Wry Thoughts about Religion” Jan 26, 2015: “When did the Bible become the Word of God?” and Jan 12, 2015: “What does the Term “Word of God” as applied to the Bible signify?”

Friday, February 15, 2019

How do I describe myself?

How do I describe myself if I come to regard aspects of the fundamentals of the Christian faith inherited from the orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries as mythical constructs defying reason? Those fundamentals of faith, as formulated by Christian conservatism in the twentieth century, are belief in the:

  • Inerrancy of the Bible
  • Literal nature of the biblical accounts—the miracles of Jesus and the Genesis account of creation
  • Virgin Birth of Christ
  • Bodily resurrection and the physical return of Christ
  • Substitutionary atonement of Christ on the Cross (i.e., Jesus died for me)

On the other hand, one may still share many other ethical and religious concepts from the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, questioning any of these particular “fundamentals” is certain to compromise one’s relationship with traditional Christianity in the twenty-first century in one way or another.

            The church through the years has evolved certain terms for those it regards as being outside the household of faith. In antiquity orthodox Christianity regarded those outside the church as pagans; that is, they were non-believers or “civilians” who had “not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan” (Fox, Pagans and Christians, 30-31). Today a pagan is thought to be one who has little or no religion or an irreligious or hedonistic person, neither of which may fairly describe you.

            Another term used by the church through the years is heretic. The term describes someone who holds a religious opinion contrary to church dogma, or who dissents from some accepted belief or doctrine (see Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 4/26/2018). So a heretic might be regarded as an errant member of the faith community, who nevertheless still identifies with the faith community, but whose views are rejected by the faith community.

            Another term used by the church to describe those outside the household of faith is apostate. An apostate is one who has renounced a particular religious faith (Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates”). Hence apostates by their own deliberate decision are no longer members of the household of faith; they have completely given up the faith.

            The question is: should one simply accept any of these church terms as a self designation, or should one find other ways to describe oneself if one questions the “fundamentals” of the faith? There are other terms that one might use without becoming too specific: for example, free thinker, seeker, atheist, agnostic, etc. These terms might even be used of oneself even while participating in a Christian community of faith, if the community is tolerant of diversity to some extent.

            What later became Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries was in earlier centuries a “big tent religion,” meaning that in earlier centuries it was characterized by diverse views and theologies. There was no successful standardization of the faith until the fourth and fifth centuries, when it became Christianity. Jesus, to judge by the early Christian gospels, was not a Christian and hence did not share the so-called fundamentals of the faith drafted by conservative Christianity in the twentieth century. Jesus was a Judean man whose religion must be understood in contrast to the Judean temple cult of the first third of the first century. It was only later in the faith of the Church that he was made into a dying and rising God.

            The temptation for many is to react negatively against the church, when they discover its “feet of clay,” but the truth is that most of us reared in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries in America have learned religion either directly or indirectly through the cultural influence of the church. We are, therefore, in a distant sense “Christians” by cultural tradition. And, truth be told, we still find some redeeming social and religious value in the Christian Church when considering all its manifestations and history.

            In describing oneself one should not hesitate to draw upon one’s roots in the traditional church if some aspect of church history, faith, and ethics allows an accurate statement of where one is religiously. For example, I might call myself Baptist by conscience, Jesusite1 by religious tradition, critic of religious convention by training, skeptic by confession, humanist by disposition, reason’s servant by profession.2 How would you describe yourself?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Compare the designation “Jesuit,” (i.e., one who is a member of the Society of Jesus in the Catholic tradition).
2See Hedrick, “Who am I,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 6/26/13.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Mr. Trump's Wall

               This essay appeared on the Opinion Page of the Springfield News-Leader on February 8, 2019

I seldom stray into politics but it seems clear to me that walls have held a fascination for some recent poets and presidents—or perhaps it was simply the situation in which each found himself that raised an interest in walls. Everyone of a certain age will recall the Berlin Wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Berlin was in what was then East Germany controlled by Russia after WWII. The Russians built the wall to isolate the French, British, and American sectors of West Berlin. The wall made it an island of Western culture and democracy in the midst of Eastern totalitarianism. The allies supplied the citizens of West Berlin through an airlift running around the clock. The Russian purpose in building the wall was to force the allies out of Berlin, but it also stopped the free exchange of ideas and passage between East and West Berlin. In 1987 a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, delivered a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near Checkpoint Charlie in the American Sector; it contained this famous line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Mr. Reagan, apparently, saw the Berlin wall as highly effective, but ideologically negative. Two years later the citizens of Berlin, both East and West, tore it down. In this case, to quote a line from Robert Frost: “Good Fences did not make good neighbors”—which begs the question do good fences ever make good neighbors?

            Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” begins this way:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.*

The poet, at that time, was a farmer in New England and every spring he and his neighbor walked the stone wall separating their properties in order to mend it. Frost doesn’t see a need to have a wall because his neighbor’s land is “all pine” and his is “apple orchard” and he opines “My apple trees will never get across/and eat the cones under his pines,” but his neighbor rather stodgily replies “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost, exasperated, wants to get his neighbor to think about the function of the wall: “Why do [walls] make good neighbors? Isn’t it/Where there are cows? But here there are no cows./Before I built a wall I’d like to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.” But his neighbor woodenly says it again: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Mr. Frost, apparently, regarded his shared wall as unnecessary, while his neighbor regarded it as an ideological necessity.

What about Mr. Trump’s wall? He regards it as absolutely necessary for he finds an immigration crisis on our admittedly porous southern border, which is aggravated by illegal drugs pouring in from Mexican cartels. In his view only a wall can effectively resolve the crisis. There is no denying the problems on our southern border, but closing off the border with Mexico with a wall will send an inflammatory symbolical signal to the world exactly opposite to that of the Statue of Liberty on our eastern shore. The Liberty statue once symbolized new beginnings for white Europeans in the 1800s and later. On its base one finds these words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” The signal that Mr. Trump’s southern border wall will project to the world is otherwise, however. It will say: Stay away we don’t want you brown-skinned people here. Over time his wall will come to symbolize intolerance, bigotry, and racism. Eventually it will take its place among some of the darkest moments in the history of our democratic republic: the internment of Japanese-American citizens and Alaska natives during WWII, and the internment of American Indians during the 1800s. Ms. Pelosi may not be far wrong when she calls Mr. Trump’s wall “immoral.” At least it must be admitted that Mr. Trump’s wall does not seem inspired by the better angels of our nature.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Edward C. Latham, ed., The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1967), 33-34.

Monday, January 21, 2019

CHRISTIAN FAITH VERSUS HUMAN REASON

Science is not religion’s natural enemy, but scientific thought is clearly the chief enemy to any religious faith that rejects the moderating role of human reason in every area of life—including religion. In long term if Christianity is to survive in the modern world it must begin its many confessions with the dictum: “Faith may not require me to believe what I find to be patently false.” The struggle in the first century between competing factions tracing their origins in various ways to Jesus of Nazareth has remained typical of Christian faith through the intervening centuries: each first-century group was searching for what made sense from their inherited traditions.

In spite of the orthodox creeds that have largely typified modern Christianity since the fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era, that situation has not changed. In every generation it has been necessary for people of faith to search for new ways to make sense of their faith. The standard creeds of the church are not a once and for all time statement of faith, but merely one ancient attempt to clarify faith at a particular point in time. The problem has always been how to keep faith with the ancient traditions while keeping pace with the acquisition of human knowledge.

            Today the Bible is a major obstacle to resolving the tensions between faith and reason. In American religion the Bible has become for many a religious icon—a sacred object of veneration. Icons are not considered a fit subject for criticism, although up to a point they may be gently analyzed. In the popular conservative mind the Bible constitutes the ultimate revelation of God to humankind: that is to say, it is meant to be studied and its moral teaching and religious principles implemented in life throughout society. Reason on the other hand is naturally curious about all things. In the spirit of the Renaissance, reason’s scientific spirit considers everything subject to criticism, analysis, and challenge; nothing is exempt—and particularly not the Bible.

Since the Enlightenment (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) human reason has applied itself to the Bible. This period began the modern critical study of the Bible, and the results of more than three hundred years of biblical criticism have demonstrated beyond question that the Bible is a human product with a past. The Bible’s rediscovery as a text subject to the vicissitudes of human history has clearly undermined faith in the Bible as an iconic object.

            The Bible was the one anchor of certainty left to the church after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. No longer did the protesting churches have a Pope speaking truth from God in the areas of faith and morals. The watchword of the Protestant Reformation was sola scriptura. “Scripture alone” was the guide for religious faith and practice among the reformers. The Roman Catholic Church subordinated the Bible to the church, noting that the church had produced the Bible, and thus the church has sole authority to interpret it. The protestant reformers, on the other hand, subordinated the church to the Bible and made “Scripture alone” the authority for the church. The spirit of the Enlightenment, however, subordinated the church, the Bible, and religion in general to human reason and in so doing discredited both church and Bible as the authoritative source of the voice of God in the modern world. Human beings were left to face God and the world alone without the security net of either church or Bible. Since the enlightenment, reason has increasingly trumped revelation.

            With only human reason and ancient tradition as general guides, followers of Jesus today are left to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling” (as Paul put it in Phil 2:12). At some point those who think for themselves will be confronted by the clash between reason and traditional Christian faith. At that point will begin the restructuring of their faith, because reason is a bully and will not allow a rational person mindlessly to repeat ancient confessions that make little sense in the modern world.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Revised from the final “Postscript” in Charles W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest? American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 80-81. This book is a compilation of Hedrick’s revised newspaper articles that were published 1986-2006. For more information and to read an excerpt from the book, go to: http://wipfandstock.com/house-of-faith-or-enchanted-forest.html.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

What happens to an aging Academic and Religion Scholar?

Academics are not necessarily scholars and scholars are not necessarily academics: Academics basically pass on a body of knowledge; scholars, on the other hand, aim to modify and/or expand the traditional body of critical knowledge to be passed on to each generation.

If fortunate, s/he gets to retire, but then is faced with “what next?” Perhaps s/he will teach another year or two as a faculty adjunct, attend a few more professional conferences, write another article or two, perhaps post a blog, and then, time running out, write a final book—but what then? Advanced old age, arthritis, aches and pains are fast catching up; imperceptibly s/he slows down, strength is not what it once was, balance is awful. Children want mom and dad nearer to them for their/our sake and that of the grandchildren. S/He resists. But finally faces reality: future days are limited.

            S/He looks around; the family home needs repair and paint, neglected for the pursuit of scholarship (Alles für die Wissenschaft, right? ); dozens of boxes filled with various stages of research, half finished articles, books completed or begun, and forty or fifty years of living in the same location, a scholar’s library of books lining every available wall in the house, its value now diminished in the digital age—but surrender the books? An incredible thought!

            S/He begins dumping boxes of files, resolving only to preserve photographs that may have historical value—professional ideas consigned to the ages in that which s/he has published. Each dumped file a creative process, either completed and published or paused, representing months of work around the world in conferences, museums, libraries, on ancient archaeological sites. Each dumped file is one piece of the movement toward achieving the goal of reducing the carbon footprint and facilitating the move nearer children, but it comes at the cost of obliterating who s/he was: a scholar.

            Unfortunately this scenario, or something similar, is the way of all flesh: you can’t keep things forever, and you cannot take them with you. There is a proverb, probably traditional, that the evangelist John appropriates to conclude Jesus’ address to Peter in John 21:18; the proverb succinctly summarizes the plaintive situation of those of us who live into advanced old age:

When you were young, you dressed yourself and walked where you wished; but when you become old you will stretch out your hands and another will dress you and take you where you do not want to go.

Alas, obsolescence is the way of the world: things eventually wear out, become ineffectual, and pass into oblivion—museums and libraries, on the other hand, are our ways of ensuring that we never completely forget, a way of ensuring immortality for some. Recognizing the way of the world for what it is should bring us neither to the edge of despair nor resigned acceptance, but it should disturb us enough to “rage rage against the dying of the light”—evoking for good or ill lines by Dylan Thomas:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.*

Rather they begin filling new collections of boxes. That is the way of the human spirit.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1934-52 (New York: New Directions, 1957), 128.