Shuck and Jive

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Conversations with Bob: Back to Bob

Hi Bob,

You wrote quite a bit. I am not sure I can address all of it. Here are some thoughts under various headings:

Personal and Impersonal

I think God is both and God is neither. Whatever we say God is, God is not. Tillich called God the "Ground of All Being." God is beyond all names that can be named. When human beings think of God in personal terms, that is fine, as long as we know what we are doing. We are using finite language to describe the ineffable. We relate with one another on personal terms so it is understandable that we would create language in order to relate with God on personal terms as well.

I am not so good about talking about what God is. I can talk about what I think God is not. Yes, I agree the Bible uses stories in which God is personified. But even there, not all images are personal. "God is love. Those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them." (I John 4:16b) God is Spirit. God is wind, breath. God is light. God is mystery. I think the ancient Hebrews were correct not to pronounce YHWH out of respect for our ignorance of God's name.

On the other hand, I do not think of God as an impersonal force. Sometimes I think of God as a Lure, to use John Cobb's term. God is that which invites us to make a choice for good, for life, and compassion. Don Cupitt does away with the term God altogether and substitutes "Life." Think how often we use the word
Life to speak about things we might have once reserved for God. That's Life. Get a Life. Live your Life. Love Life. Life happens. He has a marvelous book entitled Life, Life in which he explores this further. John Dominic Crossan called God the Heart of the Universe.

Of course for Christianity, we think of God-revealed as a person, Jesus the Messiah. Yet, Jesus spoke rarely about God. Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God. Then again, maybe that is what he meant by God. What is it? A mustard seed. A woman searching for a lost coin. A woman sneaking leaven into 50 pounds of flour until it is all leavened. An invitation to an older brother to welcome a younger one as the father loves them both.

God is beyond personal. There is a real danger of reducing God to a person. That danger comes in a way in which we think of this person acting in the world. Why didn't this person save my baby? Why did this person allow torture and suffering and so forth? The answer to that is that there is a limit to the metaphor of person when applied to God. The metaphor of God as person can work in a limited context. It can be fine in certain forms of prayer or conversations with God or of feeling loved by someone. It is wonderful in terms of telling stories. But to think of God solely or even primarily as person leaves us with many problems, such as when is this person going to "come back?"

Science, History, Theology

I am not sure I am disagreeing with you about science. As I said, "Modern history and science are products of the Enlightenment. The only way these disciplines can function is that they operate from the assumption that there is consistency in the way things happen." Since you mentioned the Jesus Seminar, here is a quote from Perry Kea, one of the Fellows from an article entitled: The Road to the Jesus Seminar.

The quest for the historical Jesus was a product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in eighteenth-century Europe and North America that promoted reason as the sole standard for establishing matters of truth. The ramifications were enormous. The political underpinnings of the American and French revolutions were established by Enlightenment figures (for example, Locke and Voltaire). The scientific method was born out of the Enlightenment. The privileging of reason over other modes of knowledge (such as tradition) meant that history was brought "down to earth" so to speak. The reasons why things happened in the past had to be sought within the space-time continuum of human life without appeals to divine agency. Just as the scientist could not appeal to supernatural forces to explain natural events, so the Enlightenment historian could not claim that historical events happened because "God so willed it."
I am not sure if I can think of one event in nature or in history, that a modern scientist or historian, given the definition from Kea above, would attribute to divine agency. If so, I would say that such a person has departed from history and science and is now doing theology.

Regarding Jesus being raised from the dead. We have stories. An historian is going to ask, "What is the most likely reason that Paul said what he said in I Corinthians 15?" or "Why do Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John include empty tomb narratives?" An historian would seek what resurrection meant in that time period. But an historian would say, "I don't know why these stories are there and these claims were made" long before (if ever) saying that the body of Jesus was raised by an act of divine agency. As an act of faith, an historian could say that God raised Jesus from the dead. At that point the historian becomes a theologian.

Of course, I am not ruling out the possibility that yes certainly God could have raised this one body from the dead. Yes, it is possible that the rapture scenario I outlined could happen and that I am Jesus's secretary. Yes, it is possible that at midnight tonight the Earth will change directions on its axis. Yes, it is possible that Muhammed received revelations and that every word in the Qur'an is the literal, actual word of God. Yes, it is possible that every where the Buddha stepped a lotus flower bloomed. Yes, it is possible that Noah built an ark and squeezed all the animals on before a big flood. Yes, it is possible that Utnapishtim did it again (or did it first) as recorded in Gilgamesh. Do you get my drift?

But are any of those scenarios probable? No. There are far more probable historical reasons why those stories exist (including the empty tomb narratives in the Gospels), than to take them at face value describing an event that happened.

I think we waste a great deal of time and miss the point of these stories entirely when we insist that they are historical. Marcus Borg often says to his students, "You can believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead or not. Now, what does that affirmation

Maybe you and I are not in disagreement on this after all.

Jesus and Eschatology

There certainly is disagreement within historical Jesus scholarship whether or not Jesus was apocalyptic. James Tabor, Paula Frederickson, Bart Ehrman, are but a few who disagree with the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar on that. I myself am still open. However, none of these scholars as I read them think of Jesus talking about himself as coming back. There is a great deal of debate regarding the phrase Son of Man. We can talk more on that, too.

Thanks for your thoughts regarding the return of Jesus. I think there are periods when there is an increase in awareness. Karen Armstrong speaks of a first axial age, from about 800BCE to 200CE or perhaps a little later. During this time the Hebrew prophets conceived of God in terms of justice and compassion. The Buddha appeared, Jesus and Paul and his followers. There was a heightened level of consciousness. God moved from being tribal to universal.

We may be in the midst of another axial age. We may be entering a time of heightened awareness. No, it is not human will, but it is an openness by humanity to the Ground of Being, the Heart of the Universe, the Divine Mystery, the Nameless Name, God, the Cosmic Christ. It is an awareness--a heightened consciousness--regarding who we are as human beings and how we can relate to one another and with Earth.

I agree completely with you about the state of Earth and humanity's slowness regarding ecological awareness. Yet, I can do nothing but put my trust in humanity raising its awareness. I see signs that we are ever so slowly. The alternative is not a supernatural savior who will come and save us from our troubles. The alternative is the end of the human experiment.

What can we do to raise our awareness and the awareness of those over whom we have influence? Now that would be a good question for the church to address.

In Christ,

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