Monthly Archives: July 2011

Social Penance: The Church Accountable?

Torture is part of the Christian past. From a Catholic point of view, the church does indeed have penance to do for the Inquisition. But how? I propose that the way to do penance for the Inquisition is to speak out and resist torture as it is practiced now…. Confession of our sin would require not simply the admission that torture has been done in our name, but the confession that only God is God, and not any nation-state that claims to save us from evil. Christians worship a God who was tortured to death by the empire; it is this God who saves by saying no to violence on the cross. Our penance, then, would take the form of resisting the idolatry of nation and state and its attendant violence. Catholicism should be particularly equipped for this, since it is a worldwide church that transgresses the artificial boundaries of all nation-states.- William T. Cavanaugh, How to Do Penance for the Inquisition

This quote comes from an essay Cavanaugh wrote in the aftermath of a book about the torture of the Pinochet regime and the church’s eventual resistance to such practices.  Questioners at lectures often asked him how a Catholic of all people could write a book against torture.  And while the conventional narrative of the Inquisition is often distorted, it is true that torture figures into Christian history.

I buy into Cavanaugh’s notion of penance and corporate responsibility.  I know that in our fiercely individualistic culture that’s a notion often rejected.  But I accept it, because history and tradition are a huge part of what makes us into the individuals we are.  So I take the idea of social penance seriously.

Which makes me wonder how the church should publicly react to actions carried out by those who claim to be Christians, but are clearly not Christian actions.  Lump into this category the Norway killer, Fred Phelps, Scott Roeder, etc.  How accountable should the church be for these kinds of actions/people?  What form could such an accountability take?


St. Paul and Allah

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.

-Acts 17:16ff, NIV

I’m really torn on the Yahweh/Allah question.  I think both perspectives make strong points.  Here are a few of my thoughts.

  1. Arabic-speaking Christians use Allah in place of the English term “God.”  I don’t think that’s significant, and it’s why I tried in my prior post to distinguish not between God and Allah, but between the God of the Christian scriptures and the God of the Qur’an.  You could just as easily say the Allah of the New Testament and the Allah of the Qur’an.  Common names don’t mean common referent.
  2. If I grant that Muslims and Christians express faith in the same God, I do not therefore mean that I believe Muslims and Christians are equally saved by their faith.  The deity may be the same, but the nature of the faith is radically different.  Here is where I think a belief in the incarnation and atonement are of most central concern.
  3. The passage above seems to make a strong case for viewing the Muslim faith as directing itself toward the God of Jesus, Joseph and Abraham.  Paul seems to make the same assumption about the pagan idols in Athens.  According to Peter Kreeft, the Unknown God has its roots in Socratic belief, as Socrates reasoned that behind the gods stood an inscrutable, unknowable god who granted them all meaning.  Paul seems to grant the legitimacy of this concept (and to grant that their poets, in writing about their own gods, were unintentionally writing about the True God), but to attempt to persuade them into a fuller understanding.
  4. In 1965 the Catholic Church issued a document affirming that all three of the world’s monotheistic faiths worshiped the same God.  Pope John Paul II affirmed this statement in 2000.  Pope Benedict XVI (who, unlike JPII, is a theologian and not a philosopher by training) has made reference to this, even while making very sharp and unpopular criticisms of global Islam and highlighting differences between Christian and Muslims faith and worship.
  5. According to Volf, this isn’t a merely academic topic, but makes a huge difference in how Christians (and those influenced by Christian cultures) and Muslims will interact in the future.  He says, “In a sense, hatred needs to emphasize difference so it can appropriately latch itself onto the object of our hatred. Violence needs difference so it can unleash itself. That’s why Jews were called vermin in the Holocaust. That’s why Tutsis were called cockroaches in Rwanda. Emphasizing difference precedes violence. We need to see each other as alien in order to unleash our hatred in violence.”

Yahweh and/or Allah

In his book Allah: A Christian Response, Miroslav Volf argues that the God of the Quran and the God of the Old and New Testaments can be fairly understood as the same being.  He argues this by demonstrating that, while there are differences in emphasis, the Quran and the Christian scriptures ascribe the same character to God.  Further, all the things that Islam rejects about the trinity are also rejected by orthodox Christian formulations of the trinity.

What do you think?  Are the God of the Christian scriptures and the God of the Quran the same?  What would it mean for Christian/Muslim relations to say that they are?  Or to say that they are not?

Good Without God: The Real Debate(s)

The whole atheist-Christian “can morality exist without God” debate is a mess, because there are actually three debates going on and being endlessly conflated with one another.  So, following atheist philosopher Peter Singer’s lines of division, here is what’s really going on.

1. Are atheists bad people compared with theists?  This is where arguments like, “Stalin was an atheist,” and “atheism has led to more mass murders in the 20th century than x” come in.  It is also where arguments like, “I am an atheist and I’m a decent chap” and “Christians do awful things sometimes” come in.

2. Do people need an authority figure (such as God) to force them to be good?  This is where arguments like, “Are you telling me that if you stopped believing in God, you would be out raping and pillaging” fit.

3. Do people need an objective reference point (such as God) to understand what is good?  This is, I think, the main Christian contention, that without something ultimately more real than nature, humans are just sophisticated animals who act for their own gain, and “morality” comes down to, “Let’s agree not to kill each other so that we can get some other stuff done.”  If this is the case, deviating from the agreement not to kill each other might be tactically unwise, but isn’t wrong in an ultimate sense.  Yet many of us feel intuitively and existentially that murder is not just inexpedient, but wrong all the way through.

Each of these subjects is a distinct line of argument.  I think atheists actually have very good resources for answering each of these, but I very rarely see them deploy these resources.  Rather, what I see looks more like a shell game, where anytime a question becomes too hard to answer, the atheist in question defers to an easy answer to one of the other two questions.

So this isn’t an argument, just an appeal to keep our arguments neat and orderly, as they should be.

A Christian Blogging Manifesto

In the preface to his book Allah: A Christian Response, Miroslav Volf puts forward several caveats about how he intends, as a Christian, to write about Islam.  As I read the caveats, I felt a great deal of resonance with the way I have tried to write about the great variety of non-Christian beliefs I have engaged through the years.  So I have adapted Volf’s list to create my own Christian blogging manifesto.

  1. I write as a committed Christian who embraces classical expressions of the Christian faith, including the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, justification by grace, and so forth. I take this to be part of the normative Christian tradition, in which I happily stand.  I offer here a Christian perspective, a Christian response to competing ideologies, whether theistic or atheistic.
  2. I write both as a Christian and for Christians.  I don’t write from some neutral perspective, from some vantage point suspended above Christianity and other beliefs (and non-beliefs); that would be disingenuous.  And I don’t write for non-believers, telling them what to believe and how to lead their lives; that would be condescending.
  3. I write as a Christian, but I write in the presence of non-believers.  They are more than welcome to look over my shoulder, and I am interested in hearing where they agree and disagree with me or where they feel understood or misunderstood.  After all, this blog is about them, their gods (or lack of gods), their beliefs and practices, and their place in Christian understanding.
  4. I write for Christians, but at the same time this blog is an open invitation to others to think along with me and, if so moved, to reexamine their own stances toward the God of Jesus Christ, in the light of what I have written.
  5. There are many kinds of non-believers (many kinds of atheists; many kinds of Muslims; etc) just as there are many kinds of Christians.  I attempt to write from the mainstream, classical expression of Christianity, and where I differ from the mainstream (as in radical nonviolence) I attempt to make clear that I represent a minority voice, why the mainstream believes as it does, and why I respectfully disagree.  Likewise, I believe that a mainstream can often be identified among non-Christian groups, and I will attempt to genuinely and fairly represent that mainstream, by relying on reputable and respected thinkers among those groups, and to identify when I am building on a minority position among some group.
  6. As I write about Christians and non-Christians, I seek to be truthful and charitable. To love my neighbor as myself means to speak as well of them as I would wish them to speak of me.

I think it’s a good manifesto, and a good thing for Christians to sign onto in general.  What do you think?  If you’re a Christian blogger, would you modify any part of it to fit your own Christian blogging?  If you’re a non-believer, how do you feel about interacting a blogger who fits this profile?  To all my readers, do you feel that this fairly represents the way I interact on here?  Where do I fall short of my ideals?

The Political Meaning of Resurrection

Death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant; resurrection does not make a covenant with death, it overthrows it. The resurrection, in the full Jewish and early Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter. That is why resurrection has always had an inescapable political meaning; that is why the Sadducees in the first century, and the Enlightenment in our own day, have opposed it so strongly. No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the church’s social preaching tries to base itself on Jesus’ teaching, detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection (or when, for that matter, the resurrection is affirmed simply as an example of a supernatural ‘happy ending’ which guarantees post-mortem bliss).

– N. T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God

Defending the Resurrection

The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, inded, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself.- N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (italics original)

N. T. Wright’s magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God is nearly a decade old now, and stands unparalleled as a defense of the historicity of the resurrection.  Some of the book is heavy lifting, academically speaking, focusing on the methodology of historical interpretation itself. (To be honest, I don’t even know a good book to nominate for second place, since every apologetic work I’ve read succumbs to the same errors of historical method Wright critiques in his work.)

It has been a long time since I’ve read the book, but here are a couple of methodological points that have stuck with me.

  1. Scientific approaches to history are always insufficient for historical understanding.  You cannot study some instances of history (say, cargo cults), deduce certain principles, and then apply those principles to other instances in history (say, Second-Temple Judaism).  That is not historical study, that is taking an unlikely anthropological assumption (all people must always do what some people have in fact done) and branding it like a blunt instrument.
  2. The New Testament does not necessarily stand as evidence that anything it claims in fact happened.  But it does stand as data in need of interpreting.  There may be historical reasons to doubt the truth of Mark’s account of Jesus’ doings, but the historian still has to explain why Mark would write such a gospel.

Taking this second point in particular, N. T. Wright spends several hundred pages exhaustively analyzing the two primary cultures out of which the gospel story arose: Judaism and Greek and Roman paganism.  He is looking at their beliefs about death, the afterlife, the soul, etc., to see what might have prompted the early Christians to believe that Jesus was resurrected.  Was the resurrection something that was long-anticipated?  Did it have echoes with Old-Testament or intertestamental imagery?  Was it a natural hope for a messianic group to entertain in the wake of their leader’s death?

And the answers are no, no, no.  The first Christians grew up in a culture (in terms of literature, religious liturgy, common superstition and artwork) that did not think in terms of bodily resurrection, except for some branches of Judaism, who expected a general resurrection of all people at the end of time.  As far as we can tell, the story of Jesus’ resurrection was entirely novel, and while it fits with many aspects of Old Testament belief, it was not the obvious direction in which the Old Testament scriptures pointed.

Now, perhaps there are some sources that existed at the time but no longer exist, that would make the story of Jesus’ resurrection more anticipated, but that’s guesswork, not history.  When you begin to make up hypothetical sources to avoid drawing a certain conclusion, you’ve left the field of history entirely.

So the early Christians came to believe Jesus was raised from the dead, or at the very least managed to convince others that he was, whether they believed so or not.  What made them come to believe that, or (and this is even more difficult to explain) what made them think this was a story others would come to believe?  Not only did they realize it was implausible, but such a story was not even on their radar.  Something had to convince them that “resurrection” was a thing you could tell a story about.

Toward the end of his book, Wright summarizes his argument like this:

  1. To sum up where we have got to so far: the world of second-Temple Judaism supplied the concept of resurrection, but the striking and consistent Christian mutations within the Jewish resurrection belief rule out any possibility that the belief could have generated spontaneously from within its Jewish context. When we ask the early Christians themselves what had occasioned this belief, their answers home in on two things: stories about Jesus’ tomb being empty, and stories about him appearing to people, alive again.
  2. Neither the empty tomb by itself, however, nor the appearances by themselves, could have generated the early Christian belief. The empty tomb alone would be a puzzle and a tragedy. Sighting of an apparently alive Jesus, by themselves, would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well enough known in the ancient world.
  3. However, an empty tomb and appearances of a living Jesus, taken together, would have presented a powerful reason for the emergence of the belief.
  4. The meaning of resurrection within second-Temple Judaism make it impossible to conceive of this reshaped resurrection belief emerging without it being known that a body had disappeared, and that the person had been discovered to be thoroughly alive again.
  5. The other explanations sometimes offered for the emergence of the belief do not possess the same explanatory power.
  6. It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.
  7. This leaves us with the last and more important question: what explanation can be given for these two phenomena? Is there an alternative to the explanation given by the early Christians themselves?

There are alternative explanations, of course.  The disciples were intentionally deceiving others, or hallucinated, or used Jesus’ resurrection as a metaphor for some spiritual insight.  Jesus was a hypnotist, or did not actually die on the cross, or never actually existed.  The more I study the actual context of the New Testament and the cultural milieu out of which it originated, the more implausible these kinds of accounts become.

Because it is simply not enough to say, “Resurrections don’t happen normally, so I don’t need to disprove this one in particular.”  It is equally true that movements like the early Christians don’t spring up everyday with ideas as radical as the resurrection story was, and that movement and its beliefs are something that cannot be safely ignored by anyone who cares about the god question.  Whether you believe in the resurrection of actively disbelieve it, you have to explain how the early Christian movement did come into existence, if not by being convinced through the resurrection of the son of God.