the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

some big old issues touched upon: contra Mark Bahnisch

some optimist's view of the past and future of religion

The comments thread on the Larvatus Prodeo critique of The God Delusion is too large to adequately cover here, so I've chosen to focus on the blog's principal contributor, Mark Bahnisch, a writer I usually find quite stimulating (in passing I note that Shaun Cronin has written another post contra Dawkins on the blog, but I doubt if I'll have time to analyse it).

In Mark's first comment, he describes Dawkins as 'a very bad advocate for atheism' and claims that there are many better. Unfortunately he provides no names of these better advocates, nor does he give any coherent examples of Dawkins' poor advocacy. Further down in the thread he repeats the same assertion but again provides no names of better advocates, nor does he give examples of faulty logic or bad argument, he merely complains about Dawkins' arrogance on a video he once watched.

In this first comment Mark follows up his contemptuous remarks about Dawkins with a paragraph I can only describe as extraordinary:

I have no idea why he would think that the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are of any interest whatsoever in this context. People get taught the holes in them in first year philosophy, or at least they did when I was doing first year philosophy. To “disprove” them is easy work, but proves nothing other than they’re weak arguments.

Does Mark really have no idea why a book devoted to arguing against the existence of God should bother with any of the historical arguments for the existence of God? Or is he just being preposterous for the sake of being preposterous?

As to the quality of these pro-God arguments, Mark contradicts himself badly through the use of quotation marks. He tells us [again without showing us] that the arguments are weak and full of holes, and that to 'disprove' them is easy work, but his use of quotation marks strongly suggests that the arguments haven't been disproved at all [otherwise why on earth would he use them?]. So maybe he doesn't believe they're all such weak arguments?

And what do you know – further down in the thread, Mark refers to the ontological argument as 'the hardest to refute', and points out that 'There are a lot of Wittgenstein’s disciples from Cambridge who claim it’s valid'. Presumably these were disciples who'd failed first year philosophy courses.

Having myself read a book of collected writings, from Anselm on down, on the ontological argument, I personally find Dawkins' commentary on it to be just about spot on. It's no more than a language trick, as Schopenhauer noted long ago, and it's hardly surprising that the language philosophers of the fifties got themselves entangled in it.

Mark claims that the philosophical arguments for God's existence are old hat and that it's unlikely anyone would use them nowadays. This may be true for the ontological argument [leaving aside a few weird Wittgensteinians], but my current reading – The God Factor: 40 scientists and academics explain why they believe in God – indicates that many of those old arguments are still trotted out.

By far the most common one is the argument from design. Clearly this is influenced by current trends, but the fact is that the argument from design, once called the teleological argument, is the oldest of all the theist arguments, going back at least as far as Aristotle.

The cosmological argument is also still used by educated Christians, though it's often confused with the teleological argument – the idea of a designer being confused with, or supplementing, the more narrow idea of a cause. The arguments may be weak but they're still employed, especially, it seems, by well-educated, science-trained Christians, who are clearly wanting a more rational argument to support the faith they've largely – indeed almost universally – inherited from their parents. It's only to be expected that Dawkins would address those arguments, though Mark Bahnisch, of all people, would surely forgive him for not spending too much time on them, and for treating them quite scathingly.

On a couple of occasions, Mark talks about Dawkins being dogmatic about matters of which he knows little, but he gves no examples of this dogmatism. He may be talking about Dawkins' scathing remarks about theology, which I'll deal with in another post.

Mark accuses Dawkins of alienating liberal Christians by polarizing the debate, and insufficiently acknowledging, for example, pro-scientific pronouncements emanating from the Catholic hierarchy.

This leads into a larger debate, of course, about the compatibility or otherwise of religious faith and scientific knowledge. Mark appears to be sympathetic to the Catholic Church's official position on this matter, whereas I suspect that their position is more politically expedient than philosophical. Again, though, this is a subject for another day.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

delusions of grandeur? dawkins' critics - larvatus prodeo (part one)

The God Delusion has not surprisingly received a lot of critical attention of late, much of it adverse. Instead of commenting on the threads of other blog posts [I always seem to arrive at these posts too late anyway] I've decided to tackle them on my own blog. Let then come to me, ho ho.

The first critique I looked at was on Larvatus Prodeo, where Shaun Cronin complained that Dawkins, in pointing out that much 'religious art' in earlier centuries was simply art commissioned by the richest patron in the neighbourhood, the [Catholic] Church, wasn't prepared to allow religion any positive role whatever, either in the arts or society. Cronin went on to cite the religious inspiration behind blues music, of which he's clearly a fan, as just such a positive influence.

Cronin accepts that the religious feelings of Michelangelo or Son House [a blues artist apparently] and the great work these artists created, at least partly because of these feelings, can in no way support the case for the existence of deities, but he's clearly miffed by Dawkins' dismissiveness – unlike me, who didn't notice it.

This is because I read Dawkins' point as nothing more than that Michelangelo and Raphael were creatures of their time, religious in an age when everyone was religious, circumscribed [without feeling themselves so circumscribed] by the inspirational subject matter available to that age, and funded by the Church as the great power of the age.

I think, on reflection, Dawkins was wrong in saying that the fact that Michelangelo and Raphael were Christians was 'almost [note the weasel word] incidental' to their art, but I also think that in admiring the works of these artists and their contemporaries we admire much more than the beauty of religion. These works are monuments not only to God, but to humanity, and to the individual artists themselves. Religiosity, humanism and egotism, and nobody knows in what proportion. The non-believer will tend to look back at these works and minimize the religious element, because that doesn't speak so much to her, but she'll find the work no less beautiful for that.

Later, in the comments thread, Cronin describes Dawkins supposed dismissiveness as bone-headed and simplistic, but I cannot agree. Dawkins often condenses his argument, which might make him seem insensitive to the finer feelings often engendered by religion, but his point, that religious art was, during the renaissance, the only art game in town, is a basically sound one. And he wasn't writing about blues. Katz, a little further down in the thread, expands on this, in terms of the cultural bonds that inevitably produced these types of representations, in a superb rebuttal of Cronin's critique.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Peterson's Paul: Romans 2 - yahweh goes global

new look yahweh emerges, embarks on western tour

I've decided to start all my posts with a quote, at least until I get bored with it. This one comes from Jamie Whyte, author of Crimes against logic: The moment someone declares some opinion to be a matter of faith you know what to think of it.

I've taken a look at the first chapter of Romans, so now it's onto chapter 2. Over Christmas, my step-daughter Rachel reminded me again of Luther's commentary on Romans, as if I'd be interested. However, some recently read remarks by Dawkins on Luther's rabid anti-Semitism and his animadversions against the life of reason have perversely piqued my interest, so I might just look it up.

Meanwhile, back to The Message. Romans 2 starts with some sensible advice, of the 'judge not lest you be judged' variety. Having calmed down from having slagged off at the Ephesians [or whoever], he then warns his Romans against passing judgment – something which, apparently, only Yahweh and Paul are allowed to do with impunity.

After all his judgmental, indeed condemnatory remarks of chapter 1, Paul informs his readers that judgmental talk is used to conceal their own faults. Peterson's Paul writes:

You didn't think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he's such a nice God, he'd let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he's not soft.

Here we have again Paul reinventing Yahweh, presumably in his own image. I can't imagine anyone who has read the old testament [with open eyes] describing the god therein as kind. He just isn't. But Yahweh in the hands of Paul is kind, but not soft.

It's not, of course, much of a stretch. Yahweh does have moments of kindness – think of the even bigger family he gave to Job to make up for the family he slaughtered – but he could never be described as soft, so Paul's confident assertions about him are generally plausible.

Paul then goes on to talk about the final 'fiery and righteous' judgment, and takes the standard line that if you're with Yahweh you'll be fine, but if you're an independent, it's fire for you. He also claims, without much explanation, that turning your back on Yahweh means taking the path of least resistance. And the rhetoric blows on – you get splinters if you go against the grain [which presumably is the same as taking the path of least resistance, that's to say denying Yahweh, which makes no sense, but who cares?]

Peterson's Paul seems not to be clearly distinguishing, as we go along, between following Yahweh and doing the right thing. He no doubt believes they're identical activities, and anybody who thinks any of yahweh's acts of genocide and random cruelty are wrong is trying to get her own way, going against the grain, and taking the path of least resistance. And she's going to burn in hell forever. Paul's message here is illogical as well as immoral, but we're not meant to look too closely, we're meant to be swept away by the rhetoric.

Paul is of course addressing the already Yahweh-fearing. Very few of his audience would've questioned the god's morality. However, he's trying to extend his message beyond the Jews, claiming – he always of course speaks for Yahweh – that the god's indifferent to whether or not you're a Jew, just as long as you obey his commandments. This is really the creation of Christianity by Paul we're reading about, a religion no longer bound by the tribe but open to all. All you need to do is throw away your mind and follow Yahweh [who henceforth should be known simply as God, and is no longer the jealous tyrant of the OT but someone who so loved the world that he gave his only son, etc].

Next, though, Paul starts making concessions. 'If you sin without knowing what you're doing, God takes that into account', he writes. And what follows soon afterwards is probably quite important for Christian or Pauline theology:

When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God's law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God's yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God's yes and no will become public knowledge on the day god makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message of God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ takes into account all these differences.

I'm guessing this is important because it expresses a surprising sympathy for those who've never heard of God's law and hints that you might just able to be 'saved' by works and lifestyle rather than through knowledge and acceptance of God. This has of course always been the most contentious of all theological issues.

Of course Paul's argument here, if it can be called such, is hopelessly weak. The obvious rejoinder is that outsiders follow God's law by instinct because God, or Yahweh or whoever, is an invention, as is his law. God's law is a human construct derived from human instincts, and so people will follow these so-called laws whether they've heard of them or not. The laws are true in that they were created with an eye to social survival and harmony, God being just an add-on.

The rest of chapter 2 seeks to undermine Jewish pride of place in a universalizing religion based on Judaism, so naturally it would have been highly controversial, and offensive to some Jews then and today. Circumcision in particular is focused on. Paul's view is that it's great if you follow God's law, but if you don't it's even worse than not being circumcised. This is of course illogical: Why would a circumcised person who doesn't follow God's law be worse than an uncircumcised person who doesn't follow God's law? I understand of course what Paul's driving at but it's still illogical, unless of course this is still a god who favours Jews, and who therefore considers their disobedience more heinous than that of non-Jews. Poor Yahweh, it's hard to get accustomed to impartial universality.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

a much needed break: on incompatibilism and insignificance

religion's first and last argument

I’m at Victor Harbour, near the beach. Yesterday morning I was walking back from the beach with four-year-old Courtney. She was sulking about something, so I distracted her by pointing out to her a large ant, of a species she’d probably never encountered before. "Oh yeah," she said, "I’ll kill it,’ and before I could say anything more, she'd crushed it with her thong.
As ants to wanton girls are we to nature, I might add.
As I've already argued, religion is about protection more than about morality or anything else. Protection from the arbitariness of a nature indifferent to our sufferings and achievements, our complexity, our striving, our pride and our humility.
It's been claimed that 99% of all the species that have ever existed on our planet are now extinct. The skeptic in me questions such a claim; it sounds too much like a figure plucked out of the air. Still, if it's anywhere near the truth, the implications of such a claim ought to be disturbing for those interested in the preservation of humanity - i.e. humans. We look destined to be snuffed out as a species as surely as we're snuffed out as individuals.
Looked at this way, it's hard not to be sympathetic to the religious view. Indeed it might seem an eminently rational view when you consider the alternative – that we''re ultimately as insignificant as the ant under Courtney's thong.
Ego is not a dirty word.
Human egotism drives religion as surely as it drives environmentalism. Environmentalists by and large like to say they're concerned for the survival of our planet, but I don't believe them, because it seems to me that our planet is very far from being in imminent danger. I expect it to outlast the human species by a long long way, though of course it will finally cease to exist, along with our familiar sun and less familiar galaxy. Global warming doesn't threaten the planet, which has experienced far worse than a slight change in temperature. Global warming merely threatens species, and mass extinctions in the past have always been followed, generally with spectacular speed, by mass speciation. Environmentalists are interested not in the preservation of the planet but in the preservation of a particular expression of the planet, its here-and-now expression, one of a myriad of expressions, but the one that contains us.
In the end it's always about us.
Humanism is a term I only really became aware of through so-called anti-humanist writings. Humanism apparently had a religious cast – with humanity rather than gods like Yahweh placed at the centre. It was depicted as arrogant, deluded, falsely rationalist, naïve. I recognized the force of the claims, but it also seemed painfully obvious just from the term itself, that for a human to seriously adopt an anti-humanist position would be self defeating. I noted that later critics of humanism avoided the anti-humanist term, thus reducing humanism to a movement rather than something so complex as a perspective on the world shared by members of the same species.
Speciesism is a term used by environmentalists and some philosophers too, but I can't take the term too seriously, though I do have sympathy with the idea of the expanding circle. My view is that, as we become more sophisticated and knowledgable, we'll tend to use our greater knowledge and understanding to enhance our environment, to promote our survival and thriving. That means preserving as many species as we can (always, of course, for their own sake), expanding our sympathy for other species as we understand them better, respecting the planet and so forth.
Religion is by its nature obscurantist to a degree. Religious thinkers often talk about spirituality and meaning in ways that obscure the human interest at the heart of religious belief. For spirituality, in essence, is about a transcendence of material, contingent existence, and meaning, too, is about seeking to provide a place for we humans beyond that of simply enriching or comforting a merely material, contingent existence. Those gods and mythologies, taboos and rituals are all about us. And I think I can understand the dissatisfaction the religious feel for the attitude of such scientific thinkers as Robert Atkins, who delight in our increasing knowledge, and increasingly sophisticated knowledge, of our increasingly insignificant place in the cosmos. I can also understand their disinterest in the attitude of such resolute secularists as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, for whom death can only be transcended through genetic continuity and cultural transmission.
Still, this obscurantism can be particularly devious in the hands of sophisticated exponents of religious thought, who are able, in their groping humility, to make the pronouncements of secularists seem smug, naïve and empty. For example, I once heard the oh-so-humbly spiritual John Carroll referring to Bernard Crick [presumably he meant Francis Crick, the geneticist], who, according to Carroll, claimed that the soul would soon be reduced to a ganglion of neurons. I don't particularly trust Carroll, who is innocent of science, on the Crick quote, but it's clear to me that the soul, as a concept, is incapable of such reduction, for the soul is a product of the human ego not of human knowledge. As long as there are such spiritual promoters as John Carroll around, we secularists will have a lean time of it.
However, as with the invention of the soul which I dealt with in an earlier post, the various religious inventions, designed largely to protect or save us from our own contingency, have to contend with scientific explanations designed less for our comfort than for the satisfaction of a larger need to comprehend and know.
I've never believed that the scientific worldview and the religious worldview are compatible. Many secularists are compatibilists, as are many believers. The official line of the catholic church is compatibilist, but I'm not sure that this line is as coherent as it is politically expedient. I hope to explore this matter further.
Meanwhile, I recognize that the greatest challenge for the secularist, recognized by Pascal centuries ago, is the matter of the insignificance, in the grand scheme of things, of the miracle of life in general, and human life in particular.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Peterson’s Paul: Romans 1 24-32. Or, Paul scrapes the bottom of the barrel

two more hellbound cuties smearing each other in filth

So God said, in effect, "If that's what you want, that's what you get." It wasn't long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!
Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn't know how to be human either—women didn't know how to be women, men didn't know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.
Since they didn't bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose. And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. And it's not as if they don't know better. They know perfectly well they're spitting in God's face. And they don't care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!

This is one of the least pleasant passages in the NT, and one that provides much comfort to many an intolerant modern commentator. Peterson goes as far as having Paul put words in yahweh’s mouth, condemning and dismissing ‘them’. As to who ‘they’ are, some commentators describe them vaguely as the pagans of his time, while others are more specific, mentioning Ephesians and other cultural groups. It doesn’t matter much, the diatribe is familiar and tedious, in Christian and many other contexts. The impurity of the other is emphasized, especially sexual impurity. The conservative obsession with the value of purity should be recalled here – ‘smeared with filth, filthy inside and out’ is a phrase designed to physically revolt the reader. This is apparently what happens to you if you worship any other god than Yahweh.

God is love of course and if you don’t know the right god you are incapable of love – Peterson promotes in his translation the idea that men going with men and women going with women is defilement and abuse and cannot contain any element of love – another triumph of bigotry over evidence. Not that Peterson goes against the spirit of Paul’s message here.

It’s an important passage in the history of Christian intolerance – the only categorical mention (and condemnation) of female homosexuality in the bible, making it pretty easy to blame Paul for the anti-gay element in conservative Christianity (though his attitudes would of course have been standard for the time). It seems to put sexual license at the forefront of a more general degradation, which Paul goes on to describe in one of his most embarrassing outbursts of hate-filled rhetoric, a passage hardly worthy of comment, except to say that it’s very human – we’ve all of us had these feelings of annihilating anger against those we’ve decided are our enemies. Maybe that’s what made the Romans burn Carthage to the ground. It’s certainly what inspired the Nazis towards their Final Solution. So many of our worst behaviours begin with rhetoric, falling in love with our own rage. The important thing is to get over it, to get outside of our ranting heads and actually observe others.

I'm having problems posting pics at the moment, the toolbar has disappeared.

Also, I'm disappointed at the lack of secular commentary on Romans. I often check to see what others have said about particularly stinky passages, but mostly I find Christian commentators either explaining away or expanding on their own intolerance.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Peterson's Paul: Romans 1:18-23

buy your figurine here, folks, to warm your heart in hell

But God's angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn't treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.

I'll do this like an explication de texte. Around the middle of the first chapter of Romans comes a complete turnaround, with Paul launching an attack, in the name of his invention, on whatever he happens to abhor or fear. Of course the attack is launched in the name of yahweh – Paul presents himself as merely the messenger.
There seems nothing objectionable in the first sentence because the observation is vague and general, and it could easily escape our attention that Paul is telling us when and why yahweh is angry, that he seems privy to the most extraordinary knowledge of the god’s innermost feelings. After all, what good and moral god wouldn’t be angry at his creation’s wrongdoings? Yet the ‘shroud over truth’ seems to refer to a denial of yahweh, for Paul next makes a common-place and common-sense claim for the god’s obvious existence.

Apparently, yahweh’s existence is so obvious that anyone denying it is either a fool or a charlatan. These sorts of remarks are made in lieu of proof – anyone actually requiring proof of yahweh’s existence beyond this isn’t worth bothering about and is eternally outcast.

It’s an argument with some appeal, and I’ve had it used upon me: take a look at the world, look at its depth and complexity, see how, as a whole, it’s beyond our limited comprehension – no don’t try to separate bits out and comprehensively explain or analyse them, just recognize and be awed by the mysterious complexity of the totality. It’s clearly god’s handiwork.

Whether we’re inclined to agree or not, it’s certainly obvious to Paul, and probably obvious to his contemporaries in an age more prone to religious awe than our own.

This is why Paul’s next criticism is not of unbelievers but of those who don’t believe in the right way ‘refusing to worship [yahweh]’and buying cheap figurines instead. Now, presumably those who bought cheap figurines were thereby engaging in worship of some sort, whether of yahweh or some other god or gods we don’t know, Peterson’s text doesn’t enlighten us. In any case what are we to make of Paul’s accusation that these figurine-buyers ‘pretended to know it all’, presumably as opposed to the believers in the true, unable-to-be represented-by-figurines god, who either really did know it all, or, Socrates-like, knew only that they knew nothing? How does Paul know that these figurine-buyers are only pretending to know it all if he himself is just a know-nothing messenger? The fact of the matter is that throughout this text Paul really is claiming to know better than anyone else, to be the one who is truly literate regarding life and this is what marks him out as a cult leader.

The overall point to make with this passage is that Paul is distinguishing between what we would call pseudo-knowledge, or just plain ignorance, which he associates with the figurine buyers, and true knowledge, which he associates with those he considers to be worshipping the 'right' god in the ''right'' way. He doesn't of course present any real argument or evidence beyond this. Maybe there's some justification in the old testament, but that too would be just a matter of taking someone's word for it. Do it right or you'll go under.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Peterson's Paul: Romans 1:1-17

Remrandt paints himself as Paul. Just another mystery

Now on to Paul of Tarsus, the inventor of Christianity and its first and greatest spruiker. I don't personally see Paul as much of a philosopher; he was more of a rhetorician. He didn't so much argue as persuade, cajole, and occasionally thunder.

Years ago, as a young rebellious wannabe intellectual, I devoured Nietzsche's The Antichrist, and needless to say, I revelled in the lashing of Christianity... ''the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick brute-man.. the Christian". Of course Nietzsche, the wannabe pitiless Hyperborean, has the air of a naked emperor these days, but youthful influences die hard, and I'm only now trying to break the spell of his excoriating critique of Paul.

As I think I wrote earlier, Paul's letters to the Romans, the first in the order of works attributed to him in the new testament, have been collectively described as 'the premier document of Christian theology', and I have to say, after reading them in Eugene Peterson's suspect and probably softened version, I at least don't feel any great animus toward the man, but it's now time to subject his writings, which I hear are very much in vogue theologically, to a closer scrutiny.

At the very beginning of Romans, Paul, whose indefatigable travels we’ve already read about in ‘the Acts of the Apostles’, describes himself as ‘authorized as an apostle to proclaim God’s words and acts’. This is an important claim, considering how much Paul speaks for his god in the letters/sermons that follow. In other versions [I’m principally following The Message, probably a bad idea], he is ‘called’, but there’s no doubt that something official is intended. In Acts, eleven apostles are mentioned, and maybe Paul, who is certainly the central figure in that book, should be added to them, but the names of the apostles in Matthew, Mark and Luke are all slightly different. It seems likely that Paul was a latecomer who quickly became an organizing principal.

Jesus is mentioned in the very first verse, and his godliness is ‘established’ in 1:4, though we immediately run into a problem that has never been fully resolved. Jesus is claimed as a descendant of David, a Jewish chieftain raised, in the old testament, to a much higher status than he ever seems to have attained historically (in fact, as with Jesus himself, there is no extra-Biblical evidence of David’s existence). This descent was, of course, claimed for every Jewish messianic figure, and they were, unsurprisingly, a bit thicker on the ground during the oppressive Roman occupation. The difficulty for Paul was to promote this new religion abroad with Jesus as its centerpiece, while also holding on to as much of his Jewish constituency as possible. Thus we have a figure who, as the son of god, clearly can have no attachment to David, certainly not through the male line – but still the claim must be made. This is partly resolved – but really only obscured – by the idea of the duality of Jesus, god and man. As Peterson’s Paul writes: ‘His descent from David roots him in history; his unique identity as Son of God was shown by the Spirit when Jesus was raised from the dead, setting him apart as the Messiah, our Master’. The trouble is, the fleshly side of Jesus is, understandably, far more associated with Mary, whose physical relationship with the child of god can’t be spirited away, and no amount of fake genealogizing will convince anyone of Mary’s high-born ancestry – and presumably the patrilineal connection is all that matters anyway.

Let’s leave aside this conundrum though – there will be plenty of them – and return to Paul’s high-spirited message, ‘this extraordinary message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.

The exuberant tone shouldn’t be allowed to mask the content here. It’s the kind of content that Nietzsche railed against – enslavement to the Master, worship, toeing the line for the reward of immortality in some other place, hatred of reality [from which we need to be rescued] and so forth. To be fair, though, real life for the Jews in Palestine in Paul’s time wasn’t much chop, and just about the only thing to get enthusiastic about was a future world of rewards and privilege, proof against the humiliations of the present. Such hopes were particularly pertinent to the Jews, so naturally Paul was keen to woo them before other peoples, though this had the tricky effect of placing the Jews in what seems to have been a privileged position. But much more will be said about this later – remembering, of course, the complicated role of the Jews in the crucifixion, as told by the gospellers.

What Paul is celebrating in these early verses is a community of faith, the ‘rescued’ who are ‘in right standing before God’. What this means precisely is unclear, but the KJV puts it this way: ‘the just shall live by faith’. As is common throughout both testaments, being just or virtuous is simply associated with belief in a particular deity, though this is often contradicted by other biblical passages. And the question of whether ‘righteousness’ is a matter of faith or works is no small one. The Catholic cult tortured and burned a great many ‘heretics’ who opposed the orthodox view on these matters. In this passage, Paul is very much on the side of faith rather than works, but we’ll see if he manages to remain consistent on the matter.