Saturday, October 9, 2010

What's Next?

We will be pushing on into and through the "New Testament" for the next meeting . . .  I encourage you to read that section, and also Borg's section on the "Old" Testament if you haven't done that yet.   The "New" is based on the "Old" and so it's important to have an idea of the major stories and themes of the Hebrew Scriptures if we are to grapple with Christianity well.

When we finish the Borg book . . . what next?  Here's a book just out that strikes my fancy:  see what you think!  Krasny, who seems to have lots of good credentials, is neither in the new atheism camp nor the believing camp . . .  but tries to understand both in his own spiritual journey.  You can see the Table of Contents, the Index (quite extensive), and read the first chapter at Amazon.

Anarchy and ChristianityAnother possibility:  Anarchy and Christianity, by Jacques Ellul.  Recommended by Mick:   

A book recommended by Brian:  God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome then and Now.  This expands what Borg said talking about God and Caesar.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sacred "treasure" always in earthen vessels

Quaker writer Parker Palmer talks about an image that St. Paul used 2000 years ago when he said, "We have this treasure [the sacred, the presence of God, the Spirit, an experience with the Holy . . . or whatever else one may call it] in earthen vessels."  Frail, transitory "vessels" that "hold" the Holy -- be they words or metaphors or rituals, religions -- are not what is Holy, sacred.  They are important, but they are not the Holy.

Our religions -- our sacred texts, our traditions, our ways of "understanding" God . . .  these are always incomplete, flawed, misleading, and subject to all sorts of abuse.  But they are what we have.  

Palmer writes,
"Every container we create to hold the sacred treasure is earthen, finite, limited and flawed -- and is it never to be confused with the treasure itself lest we confuse God's power with our own.  These containers include everything from the words and propositions that constitute our theologies and creeds, to the forms our worship takes . . . "

"If our containers prove too crimped and cramped to hold the treasure well, if they domesticate the sacred and keep us from having a live encounter with it . . . then our containers must be smashed and discarded so we can create a larger and more life-giving vessel in which to hold the treasure."

He tells of an old Celtic story about a monk who died and was interred in the monastery wall.  Three days later, the monks head noises coming from inside the crypt.  When they removed the stone they found their brother alive.  He was full of wonderment, saying, "Oh, brothers, I've been there!  I've seen it! And it's nothing at all like the way our theology says it is!"  So they put him back in the wall and sealed the crypt again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Borg Approaches Planet Earth

Chapter Four: Creation

Having laid the foundation of how he invites us to "see" the Bible (or, rather, see God through the lens of the biblical stories), Borg addresses the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians have called the "Old Testament."   First up:  the "creation stories" that are at the heart of the creationism/evolution battles that mar our time.

There are, so most scholars the last 100 years would say, are at least TWO creation stories in Genesis --  one from a "J" school, another from the "P" school of thought.  One very important word comes up here:  "myth."  In ordinary language if we say something is a "myth," we mean that it is false -- period.  The goal is to sort out "myth" from "fact," and there is nothing redeeming about "myth."

But in the world of religion -- this should be no surprise -- folks use that word in a very different way.  "Myth" on the lips of theologians means a sacred story -- non-literal language, metaphor, that is relating the spiritual and material realms.  Myth in religion is a good thing;  it is not pretending to be a literal description of the world.  It is only through myth -- metaphor -- that we can access the sacred.

Thus, the myths of Genesis are attempts to assign meaning to the world, to human nature, to God.  We see in the simple stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, something of ourselves:  we know fear, we know jealousy, we know how easy it is to do things we know we should not.  We long for "paradise" where all is well, where you can have an evening stroll with God; yet we know the pain of having lost Eden.  The myths of Genesis reflect us -- and can help us grapple with the great questions of life.  "Grapple" does not mean that we find "the answer," though. It is a lifelong search, the joy being in the journey rather than in arriving at the destination.  For Jews and for Christians the sacred stories -- sacred because over the centuries people came to call them that -- impart to them the Holy.  In them they sense God's presence -- not completely, nor in any finality, but in the present.

Chapter Five: The Pentateuch

With the 12th Chapter of Genesis begins the story of the Hebrew people, the story of Abraham and Sarah.  There follows stories about "the patriarchs:"  Abraham and Sarah's children and grandchildren . . . winding up down in Egypt.  Genesis closes with the Hebrew people in Egypt doing pretty well; Exodus picks up a century and more later, the Hebrew people now enslaved by Pharaoh.  Then comes in about the 13th century BCE Charleton Heston (Moses) leading them out, through the Red Sea, and on into the Promised Land.  Unfortunately the Promised Land was already inhabited, and so the need (ordered by God, say the stories) to do battle.  Battle they do -- here we find those stories of slaughtering women and children, and men too that embarrass us.  Surely, we say, this was not God's doing, but the doing of humankind who in the telling of their tales of conquest added the blessing of God.

Along way -- through Moses "the lawgiver" -- comes "the law" in the form of the 10 Commandments that are still proudly displayed in courtrooms across the nation. (That one about keeping the Sabbath, though, we have quietly dismissed even in the Bible Belt.  Go figure.)  In addition to those 10 laws there are 603 other rules, mostly in the book of Leviticus.  Things like taking your unruly son to the elders of town to be stoned.

Borg raises the question about the historicity of the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their offspring -- this stuff did happen a LONG time ago, after all, and these are the only records we have of them.  He concludes, as we should expect given what he said in the first three chapters, that it really doesn't matter if they are historical figures.  History is not the point; meaning is.  The question to ask is not "Are these real people in history . . . can we trust the factuality of the stories?"  The questions to ask instead are, "Why did Israel tell these stories?  And why did she tell them this way?"

The overarching theme of the Abraham stories is that of "promise and fulfillment." The repeated barrenness of the Matriarchs intensifies this -- even when fulfillment looks to be impossible, God comes through for the Hebrew nation.

The fulfillment theme carries through the Joseph stories, and pre-eminently in the story of Exodus, "Israel's Primal Narrative."  The story of slaves being freed from bondage -- the "meta story" that God frees people -- is rehearsed over and over again in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the Psalms.  The Exodus in many ways created the Hebrew nation, and gave it its identity:  "We are the people that God by his great love and mercy and power brought us up out of the bondage of Egypt, and gave us a Land."

"The Covenant" is another key concept in the Pentateuch:  a "contract," or "agreement" between God and the Hebrews that God would be their God -- doing the things Gods do, like protection and provision and fertility -- if they would do their part: obey the laws of God, and serve God -- "Yahweh" -- alone.  There was one other aspect to this Covenant that emerged over the centuries, though:  this was a "everlasting" covenant.  As the prophets were to say later, after Israel had repeatedly failed on their side of the bargain, Yahweh would continue to be their God, no matter what.  Yahweh would continue to love them, calling them back, accepting them back again and again.  This is the grace of God that is made so clear in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St. Paul.

Chapter 6:  The Prophets

Here come the preachers: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and so on.  These were not primarily interested in foretelling the future; they were interested in speaking for God ("Thus says the Lord . . . ") to the present situation:  they called the kings and queens to be fair, to be just -- to treat the poor with equity.  They told the same thing to the rich.   They dared to say that what was important in religion is not the ritual -- animal sacrifices in this case -- but being just.  "What does God require?" asked Micah.  "To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."

The prophets, while critical of the status quo, including the political and religious establishment, were always prophets of hope:  God will not forsake us, they said. If we will return, God will greet us with open arms.  Jesus in his "Parable of the Prodigal Son" uses this same proclamation of hope.

Chapter 7: Wisdom Literature

Here we have the poetry of the Bible: the Psalms, especially.  Even the "literalists" have to see the metaphor that is at every turn: The Lord is my shepherd . . .

The book of Proverbs is a book, well, of proverbs on how to live.  Not a lot of "religion" here, but a lot of good advice.

Ecclesiastes is always a challenge -- everything is but vanity, says the writer.  It all comes to naught in the end.  So "eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart!"

The story of Job absolutely denies that suffering is caused by sin.  Absolutely denies it.  Period.