Friday, February 22, 2013

Allegory and Compassion

Karen Armstrong has been going around for a few years now claiming that St. Augustine said, "
If a Biblical pasage seems to teach hate and violence, you must give it an allegorical interpretation and make it speak charity, even if this distorts the meaning of the original author." Now, Armstrong is notorious for misquoting ancient theologians to support her theme but it doesn't matter. I did verify that Augustine supported the idea of allegorical interpretation and that he generally supported a peaceful interpretation of Christianity. So, close enough.

What Armstrong really misses is that St. Augustine would have been the 1% of his day. There was no Occupy movement then, there was no protesting against the 1%, it was just the way it had always been and it was assumed it would always be. Besides, the 99% couldn't read. Augustine would have had no idea that one day people like me and Armstrong would be reading him. He was addressing other Christian leaders and I doubt he intended for them to say that they were distorting the original authors.

What's important is, we can read now. Armstrong claims to be addressing the rest of us, but when she gets slippery with facts, she does us all a disservice. More important is that I have never heard this from any minister or pastor. I suspect that people like Greg Boyd, from last week's blog are aware of what St. Augustine said and thought and wrote. If Boyd is not aware of it, then he is a poor theologian. If he is, but thinks it means he should lie to his parish and provide them with an interpretation that distorts the original authors without telling them, then he is deluded. If he thinks he can come up with an interpretation that is peaceful and compassionate but stays true to the original authors, then he is crazy.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Defending the faith

I don’t shake my fist at the radio as much as I use to. Partly because I’m listening to Podcasts so I can turn off what I’m listening to at anytime. If it is the person doing the show that bothers me, I can email or comment on the show and get some satisfaction. The ones that still disturb me are the commenters. They are harder to reach, too anonymous, and they are legion. Particularly the ones that repeat the mantra, “you won that debate because you were debating a fundamentalist who doesn’t represent the true interpretation of the Bible.”

So here I’ll straighten this out, once and for all.

To get us all on the same page, I’ll refer to a debate about the slaughtering of the Amalekites featuring one of the podcasters at Reasonable Doubts. These guys are good. They take on respected theologians and support their arguments with data. The debate actually was aired on UK radio on a show called “Unbelievable”. Also a great show with a balanced approached. The Reasonable Doubts podcast included the follow-up comments read on on-air and some summary by the atheist debater, Justin Sheiber.

Here’s an important point: the only reason that people like Justin Scheiber make logical arguments against God is that there are people out there making illogical arguments for God. These arguments cause problems for individuals, governments and cultures. It is usually a fundamentalist/inerrant type of believer that agrees to engage in these debates, but it wouldn’t matter. They just happen to be the types who would try to defend obviously abhorrent actions of God. It is not the fault or the problem of those making the logical argument that other, more liberal debaters, don’t step up.

It wouldn’t matter partly because the believers are already arguing amongst themselves. It is very common to hear the kind of follow-up emails, tweets and letters that came to the “Unbelievable” show after the debate about the Amalekites. Those listeners were hoping for something better, but instead they got a guy who came out and said he believed the Bible as history from the get go. I can feel for them and I cringed right along with them.

What most of them did not supply is a counter argument; most simply said that the guy on their side, the believer side, presented a poor argument. I agree with that too. They then go on to say there are better arguments. I felt that way once. I attempted to develop that counter argument. I’m now convinced there isn’t one. Justin is right, it’s sick. If you are worshiping a being that directed those actions, there’s something wrong with you. If you worship that being because of other things it did, and you just didn’t know about these parts, that’s excusable, unless you are reading this, then you are no longer off the hook. If you are trying to compartmentalize these actions or hoping that someone can explain them or justify them, stop it.
One of the comments after the show did supply a pastor and even a specific sermon and book that just came out. This is where you can find an example of Christians arguing amongst themselves. I looked up an earlier book of his, “Letters from a Skeptic” and perused the comments on Most of the negative comments attacked his theology. That is, they were happy that the skeptic in the book was convinced by the letters that Boyd addressed modern theological questions, but they didn’t like that he redefined God to do it. And, as this reader review points out, the so-called skeptic was very open to deistic ideas in the first place, and he had a weak scientific background, so the entire exercise has very little value.

So the question is, do we have a new emerging theology? Is there one that can reconcile the God who commands armies to the one who loves all his children? People clinging to the old agree that this theology is new one and they say it does not speak to the all-knowing all-powerful God that they know. This is as much a split as was Christianity from Judaism or Protestantism from Catholicism. The new does not seek the blessing of the old. It criticizes it just as Jesus criticized the Pharisees and Luther criticized the Popes. It posts its theses in public and invites you to read the scripture yourself and decide. And just like Luther and Christ, it claims the connection to the same old scriptures. It just knows them better and understands God better and is giving a better, more modern interpretation, or so they say.

If the emerging theology did not claim to be connected to the original story of the creation of the universe it could not make any claims about the uniqueness of Jesus. At the very least, it would have to disclaim the genealogy in the gospels that connects them. It would then need to provide reasons for disclaiming that and not other claims and the whole mess would start to crumble. Everybody knows this is happening.

To prevent the house of cards from falling, some have pointed to the fundamental cornerstones and said you must believe these or you’re out. They have returned to the repetitive claims of the end of times. Others are attempting to build new structures and scaffolding to hold up the old. Neither will allow the teachings of Jesus to compete in the full marketplace of ideas, because that would make the pastors and theologians redundant. That would require they support their philosophy with logic and that sounds like work.

It is possible that we, the skeptics, the a-theologians, could just stand on the sidelines and watch the two teams continue to carry off their wounded players. The danger is, in this world of modern warfare, allowing such battles to escalate could lead to unthinkable consequences. The fundamentalists are making themselves the easier target, but if they win, it is doubtful that we would have a just and peaceful world, unless you consider a world where women are not allowed to choose their careers and homosexuals are considered mentally ill a just world.

For the moment, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable alliance with the emerging liberal theology. They don’t seem to want to debate, at least not often, and we have no reason to force them into the open. If they, on occasion, speak out against the Westboro Baptists of the world, we acknowledge that. If they are offering classes on the true history of the church, that’s great. The good news, when they are ready to engage us, their lines of reasoning are nothing new.

The comment about Greg Boyd that was read on “Unbelievable” said this is the best reconciliation of OT and NT he has ever heard. If it is, then we don’t have much to worry about. I have examined many sermons, blogs and books like this and find this one a little better for its cleverness and the use of a new analogy. All of them are pretty much the same. I was unfamiliar with Boyd specifically, but a quick check shows he has a couple best sellers, a successful church, and he was a classmate of Bart Ehrmann.

In the recommended sermon Boyd begins by explaining that he will not be preaching dogma, that it will be opinion, and you can wrestle with it as you please. He opens with Colossians 2:16-17, where Paul talks of the shadows of the old laws. He relates this to the Jungian view of the shadow self, although he doesn’t mention Jung and I think he does a poor job of explaining the archetype.  When discussing the OT, he is completely open about how abhorrent the behavior is and berates a current pastor for suggesting the use of imprecatory prayer (Psalm 109) to wish death on Obama. He describes his own journey of attempting to reconcile this schizophrenic God who saves with one hand and smites with the other.

As an analogy for how God acted, he tells how missionaries today need to act. If they go to a village that is performing female genital mutilation as part of their rituals and traditions they can’t simply say to stop it in the name of God. If they were to do that, it is doubtful they would be welcomed to stay. Missionaries today need to gain trust over a matter of years and hope their teachings about the ways of Christ will lead to them choosing to treat their young women better.

The irony here, not mentioned of course, is that this is a modern phenomena required due to missionaries not having the force of a military to back them up and enforce God’s will. Christianity is being forced into taking these steps toward competing in the marketplace of ideas because it is losing its power. In a remote village, they can still control the information they are using to discern the quality of their ideas. As modern ideas spread, this will be increasingly difficult. Greg Boyd is seeing that trend and applying what he sees as sophisticated arguments to the bigger questions that educated American church goers are asking. I’m sure he believes he can head off this drive toward a world where books are considered special based on their quality, instead of their being in the liturgy.

He applies this missionary analogy to the OT God. God was the enlightened American (these are my sarcastic words, not his), going into the poor village and seemingly condoning abuse of women, but he did it only to gain their trust. As Boyd says, “God enters us” as we are, at whatever stage of development we are, “and slowly transforms us”. Today, we should only judge those missionaries on the results of their work. If in the end, the villagers stop their ritual circumcisions, we should not look back and berate them for not producing those results quicker. For God, we should judge him through the lens of the sacrificed Christ, hanging on the cross.

He goes on to use more metaphorical language about crosses and humble missionaries and weaves in some standard crapola about free will, but I want to review up to here. I’m not sure if I’ll go into more detail in the future or not. First, he has the balls to open with a statement about how new his ideas are. He wants to say that you, the person who has given up their Sunday morning to come listen to him, is special. You have made the right choice about church. You’ve come to the smart, cutting edge place and are about to hear something that very few others have heard. IMHO, what he says in this sermon is no better than any old church or for that matter a late night TV infomercial.

This is why people write comments like they do about debates with fundamentalists. They are parroting these opening lines even though they don’t really understand the arguments. They were told their knowledge is special and they never checked it out. They can’t repeat the logic because it doesn’t follow in a logical manner. But they are convinced that Greg Boyd gets it and could explain it. They think they just need to study some more, then they’ll be able to talk like Greg. Meanwhile, they'll just suggest you listen to his sermons. I wish more would do that study because in the process they would find out how full of it he is.

The second thing he does is classic emerging church manipulation. He admits the bad stuff is bad. He admits he spent years trying to figure it out and couldn’t. He engages your intellect, the part of you that has logically determined that there is something wrong here. He also knows you are sitting there in his church. You must want this to work. You want the good things about Jesus that you’ve heard about. You don’t want to be told to simply believe it and it will all work out. You want a mechanism. He provides the missionary work analogy; he provides the powerful images of a crucified Jesus; he calls the OT stories that you don’t like “a negative contrast”; he says they point to the “real” God in Jesus just like a shadow points to the real thing. Each step seems to have some logic to it but none is any better than the speculation of a third century Origen trying figure out what the gospels mean with little knowledge of the context of the history of the first century.

At the end, he blasts the congregation with a list of scriptures that seem to be as good as any scholarly footnote that would prove that Jesus is the “real” God. He focuses on the latter half Colossians chapter 2 where Paul says “These (the laws) are a shadow of the things there were to come;” and makes this rather bizarre statement, “The portrait of the law giving God is wrapped up with the nationalism which is what the violence is all about, so if one of them is the shadow, they’re all a shadow.” He gives you permission to dismiss anything you don’t like. His cadence quickens as he rattles off chapter and verse:

Jesus says, If you see me, then you see the father, don’t look anywhere but the father. This appears to be some paraphrasing around John 14:19 or so.
Matthew 11:27 No one knows the father except for the son
John 14:6 I am The way, I am The truth; and Greg emphasizes “The” and pauses to point out the singular is used here
Hebrews 1:3, the son is the one and only radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his very essence
John 1:17 The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth was given through Jesus Chirst.
Greg used “but” in this one, which seems to be a KJV invention. Other interpretations use a semicolon or comma indicating these are two separate functions, not one negating the other.
1 Timothy 2:15 There’s one mediator between God and humanity and it is Jesus
He also says, “There’s one word between God and humanity, it’s Jesus.” I couldn’t find a separate passage for this one. I guess he was elaborating on the one above. Later in 1 Timothy there are instructions for women to learn in quietness and full submission, which seems more “law-giver” to me, but whatever.
He finishes with, “One saivour, one revealer.” This could be the classic John 3:16, but hard sayin’.

He keeps repeating “Do you believe that or not” after each one. This is a very old technique used by preachers for centuries. It is semi-hypnotic. Then he gives the answer, just in case you don’t feel like thinking for yourself, if we believe those passages, then there is no way to look at the OT except as a shadow.

Of course, there are many scriptural references that claim the Old Testament God is the one and only “real” God. Greg Boyd does not mention those in this sermon.
Deuteronomy 4:35
Deuteronomy 4:39
Deuteronomy 32:39
2 Samuel 22:32
1 Chronicles 17:20
Psalm 18:31
Isaiah 44:8
There are also passages that say faith is the only way to God, or you can’t get to God without works, or that the end times are near, or just about anything else you might want to say is true.

After that, he practically admits that his “shadow” metaphor is a trick. He says he couldn’t figure out how to reconcile these passages, then he gave up, and click, the shadow. But he’s already drawn you in with an hour of Christian symbolism combined with pseudo-psychology and rapid repetition, so you’re left hoping that you’ll find time to read the book when it comes out and hammer through the details for yourself. He has convinced himself that this trick works and he is so energetic, animated and entertaining it just must be true. Plus he says he has an open door policy. Email him any time and he will consider your question. He must be right if he is so confident. Right?