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.

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.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

a convincing believer is hard to find

Flannery O'Connor: two images

As part of my freelance writing ‘career’ I’ve been reading some interesting bits and pieces, including Flannery O’Connor’s famous story ‘A good man is hard to find’, first read several years ago.

Attuned as I currently am to religious thoughts and references, I can’t pass this story by without comment. The Christian aspect of the story would no doubt have struck me when I originally read it, but I would’ve dismissed it in concerning myself with the realism or otherwise of its more grisly aspects.

Now it’s more obvious to me that the Christian message, albeit muted, is central.

O’Connor was a devout catholic. The famous story has a simple enough plot. A family of six – grandmother, father, mother and three kids – are on holiday. On the insistence of the grandmother, they take a detour down a dirt road to visit a house the grandmother remembers from years before. They have an accident, and the car flips over. They’re all unhurt, and while they’re recovering, a car comes along and stops. Out steps The Misfit, an escapee from a local penitentiary, about whom there has been news on the radio. He’s accompanied by two other men. They’re all armed. At a signal from The Misfit, his accomplices lead members of the family away into the bushes and shoot them. Finally, only the grandmother, who has been talkative throughout, remains. She asks him to pray, and tries to connect with him, but just when she thinks she has made a breakthrough, he shoots her. His last words, the last words of the story, are ‘aint no pleasure at all’, or something like that (sadly I don’t have a copy of the text).

O’Connor is a subtle and complex writer, who uses humour and irony to great effect, yet, though the grandmother (she’s never named, and this I think gives her a deliberately archetypal quality) is often undercut and portrayed as flawed and even occasionally silly, she’s essentially a symbol of Christian grace in the story. She’s serene, optimistic and kindly, unlike her tetchy, morose and sometimes cruel son Bailey. The Misfit, an even sketchier character, is also a symbol – of those who can’t or won’t or have trouble accepting the message of Jesus. In the confrontation between these two central characters, the grandmother speaks to The Misfit of Jesus, and here’s a part of his response:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness…”

“If I’d been there, I would’ve known, wouldn’t be like I am now.”

The capitalizations are O’Connor’s of course.

The Misfit may have been a victim of injustice – he certainly believes himself to have been, though this part of the story is a bit weak. He says he doesn’t know what he did wrong, what he has been punished for in being sent to the penitentiary – and in this, he compares himself to Jesus. The question I would ask is how could this be – how would he not know of the charges against him, after presumably having gone through a trial and a sentencing process? O’Connor apparently glides over this in order to maintain the comparison with Jesus, but also to provide The Misfit with some justification for his negativity. Of course the author can also absolve herself of responsibility by claiming that the obfuscation is entirely The Misfit’s own, but this greatly weakens the Jesus comparison.

In any case, The Misfit’s lines here are, to me, at least, tediously familiar. Add a generous load of slickness, glibness and self-confidence, and you have here the sort of sermon we’ve been hearing since the days of Paul of Tarsus, Christianity’s inventor.

The Misfit is clearly saying that, if Jesus raised people from the dead (that’s to say, if he was indeed a supernatural being, or the son of Yahweh), then he must be followed, worshipped and so forth, and if he didn’t – or you can’t bring yourself to believe it, which amounts to the same thing – then morality is meaningless, and you may as well do as you like, regardless of the feelings of others. It’s much as the gospels say – Jesus is the light, the saviour, while modern sermons or glosses hail him as our great moral guide, our collective conscience, etc etc. It also lines up with the hoary old argument, massively discredited by the evidence, that if Yahweh didn’t exist, anything would be possible.

It’s a singularly unconvincing, not to say absurd, argument. There’s no evidence, outside the New Testament, that Jesus even existed let alone performed supernatural acts, and there’s no reason to assume that such acts, however conceived, would make the slightest difference to our complex moral being, a moral being formed largely by the process of evolutionary adaptation long long before Jesus was ever thought of (and I’ve just begun a series of posts on the psychology of morality on my other blog).

The Misfit blames his moral failings on his uncertainty about Jesus’s claims to be this great moral saviour, and this encourages us to think likewise. We know nothing about the man’s background or whether his incarceration was justified – such detailed knowledge would detract from the good versus evil simplification of the story. O’Connor doesn’t use the word ‘evil’ in the story, but the word ‘good’ is frequently used. The evil in the story, of course, hardly needs to be named, but it is, nonetheless, a manipulated evil. The Misfit’s two accomplices are rarely mentioned by critics, but together they shoot dead five people, including a babe in arms. Are they also escapees from the penitentiary? Are they mere weaklings under the bizarre control of The Misfit? Are they Satan’s minions? The more I reflect upon these elements, the more dissatisfied and irritated I become, frankly. We’re not permitted much of an insight into the motives behind these extremely violent acts, and we’re certainly encouraged into a sense of horror at the advent of something like pure, unadulterated evil, which strikes this family down as swiftly and ‘naturally’ as an ‘act of god’. It’s a disappointing end to a story of an ordinary, and ordinarily dysfunctional, family, a family sketched out with great psychological acumen. But such are the distortions and limitations of religious belief.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

the death puzzlement - vale poppy

this particular dog isn't dead, yet

Recently Sarah's much beloved little dog, Poppy, was killed, apparently while trying to cross the impossible Port Road, apparently while trying to get back to my place, for the second time in a couple of months. We buried her here in the back garden, under a willowy gum.

It was an absurd death. There was no need for her to put herself in such danger. Of course she didn't realise the risk she was running. There was no need to try to get back here, when there was plenty of food and love and comfort in her new home. She didn't understand any of that, she was just a dog, a slightly confused, nervous, excitable dog.

We had a little ceremony, and each of us said a few words, each of us being myself, Sarah, her daughter Catherine, and two of Sarah's grand-daughters, Isabelle and Courtney. We were all upset of course, and we spoke sadly and fondly of our memories of Poppy. But little 4-year-old Courtney took a different tack, saying that she shouldn't have gone off on the road like that, where it wasn't safe, like a poor little lamb to be hit by a car, why did she do that? And when we'd all said our piece, Courtney piped up again, saying she shouldn't have runned away like that, making Nanny all sad, we didn't want that to happen...

It’s a fairly basic question – why should Poppy have to die like that, when everything was all hunky dory? Why? Adults tend not to ask those questions, or just grow tired of them, perhaps because the puzzle of death has become familiar to them, even monotonous, though of course they’re no closer to solving it. Children can refresh our sense of wonder at this as with so much else. At the same time, we can feel the pain of the question in a way that a four-year-old can’t, because they haven’t yet understood its unanswerability, and all that this implies.

And so to religion. It seems to me that one of the primary purposes of religion is to provide an answer to the death question, though the religious solution always teeters on the brink of being more absurd than the dilemma it intends to solve. In Eugene Peterson’s chatty and cheery version of the New Testament, The Message, Paul writes somewhere of the temporary nature of the body, such an insignificant thing in comparison to the eternal soul. It’s hard to know whether he or someone else got the ball rolling on this, but the battle over the soul became an obsession with the catholic church for many centuries. It’s a compelling idea, even today. I’ve just listened to killers describing how they watched their victims die, how they felt they actually saw the soul leaving the body. Even seeing the body of a dog, as I have recently, especially a dog that remains undamaged, utterly intact, but lifeless, tempts a person to think along those well-worn tracks. The body really does suddenly look like nothing more than a casing for a ‘spirit’, now fled.

It’s an understandable but essentially naïve view. In order to render it coherent, we have to come up with answers to all sorts of questions that impose themselves. What is this ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ made of? Where does it go? If it is ‘insubstantial’, and thus has essence or existence without substance, what could this possibly mean? Do all living creatures have souls that survive their bodily life? Dogs and cats? Crustaceans? Ants? Unicellular organisms? If only humans have souls, how does that fit with the evidence from evolutionary biology, which classes us as a higher primate, sharing most of our DNA with chimpanzees? If the soul does exist, how do we know that it ascends to heaven or descends to hell, and doesn’t inhabit a succession of bodies as the reincarnationists believe? Whose theory of the soul is correct?

The soul, it seems to me, was put forward as a way of accounting for an observable phenomenon, and more importantly, as an attempt to cheat death of its finality, but I’m afraid I’m with Steven Pinker – the soul has become a casualty of our more sophisticated understanding of human nature. Of course, die-hards will continue to believe in it, and they’ll probably always be in the majority, but they can be discounted as irrelevant by smug secularists like me.

This still, of course, leaves the puzzlement, and the sense of extreme disquiet that the notion of the soul was intended to assuage. That’s the bitter pill of secularism, you might say. And there’s no relief from it. It’s hard, but we might take comfort from Paul’s words as translated in the KJV: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Coming to a real understanding of death - and maybe this is impossible, but surely we can improve on fantasies of a dubiously blissful eternal life - coming to a real understanding of death, especially an understanding of what really does live on, is perhaps an unending process, a process that grows as we grow, matures as we mature. Perhaps we might end up coming to terms at least with the fact that we'll never come to terms with death, our own or those around us, making some sort of peace with that.

Or maybe it's something simpler than that, a matter of letting go, and being grateful.

PS - I had many religious conversations with Poppy before her sudden death, and I have to say she was pretty savage, as only Poppy could be, on Judaeo-Christianity. She was particularly incensed at the way old Yahweh ethnically cleansed her ancestors, the Caninites. Onya, Pop.