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.