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.

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.


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