Tuesday, March 30, 2010

History vs. Theology

"One man's theology is another man's belly laugh."

- from Robert Heinlein's The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

- from George Orwell's 1984

Clearly as a Christian I don't really subscribe to SF writer Heinlein's anti-religious bias, but the quote above from his alter-ego Lazarus Long does raise a point about the discipline of theology that I rather do embrace - which is simply that theology (the word literally broken down and translated from its root syllables simply means "talk about God") is fundamentally speculative in its nature and therefore as a source of "truth" is entirely subjective.

Now that the 40 days of Lent are over, I have returned to posting entries to my blog, and of late the issue I have been wrestling with (as my last entry from February indicates) is the age-old dichotomy between faith and reason. We are currently at the dawn of what many in the intellectual community are now calling the "post-modern" age, which in very over-simplified terms simply means that reason - the rational approach to thought and to truth, which has dominated scientific and philosophical dialogue and inquiry in Western civilization since about the 17th century - has gone right out of fashion. It has become the vogue in certain circles these days to suggest that there is "no privileged language" no "grand narrative" for describing reality - not even the language or "narrative" of science.

I am among those who see this development as a serious problem with the potential of undermining our whole civilization, and of very possibly opening the floodgates to any one of an assortment of Orwellian tyrannies either political or religious. It is the nature of totalitarian or theocratic societies - be this the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the Islamic theocracy in contemporary Iran - to re-define truth and reality in terms congenial to the powers that be, even if contrary to self-evident facts. Such societies often even re-write history, "doctor up" records, and deconstruct language to propogate their totalistic world-view and suit their monopoly on power. This was precisely the theme of George Orwell's seminal novel of totalitarian political dystopia, 1984 - first published in England after World War II. Orwell once remarked that "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history" and in fact our own generation seems given to taking a flying leap from the rational, and to an endorsement of the intellectual suicide of rejecting long accepted notions of fact or of evidence as a foundation for arriving at answers about the nature of reality. A new age of pre-modern superstition threatens to undermine the modern "Age of Reason" of four centuries standing. A new pre-modernism which in the current post-modern climate now enjoys an intellectual currency that would have been laughed out of court in any serious academic circles just a few decades ago.

It's true that since the 60's (a time when modern reason still reigned supreme without a serious rival in the intellectual and academic world) we have already seen the re-emergence and widespread popularity of ancient pagan folk beliefs such as witchcraft and tribal shamanism, astrology etc. and beginning in the 70's the rise of the biblical fundamentalism of the Religious Right that has held a chillingly dominant role in American political discourse for the last 30 years. Meantime, and especially since the 1980's, in the Near East the rise of radical fundamentalist Islam with its wholesale militant rejection of Western modernity threatens the peace of the whole world, and is also actually undermining the fabric of Arabic and Islamic culture itself into the bargain. Yet in this climate and in some very intellectually sophisticated circles one increasingly hears these days about the invalidity of "foundationalism." The notion of any concrete factual or evidentiary basis for any particular belief system is being debunked and discredited. I am fundamentally at odds with this tendency, and at least where the discipline of theology is concerned, this puts me in an increasingly isolated position vis a vis any view of mine having credibility in the current religious intellectual environment.

For the above reasons I am renewing seriously my life-long interest in the the discipline of history. To my way of thinking, even speaking as a Christian of an affirmatively orthodox creedal faith, history has considerable advantages over theology. Christian theology strikes me as largely being a very human attempt to make sense out of the purportedly historical events upon which our faith actually rests. All of it seems to be essentially a body of formulas and abstract human constructs designed to interpret - as best we may - the meaning of reported events surrounding one enigmatic historical figure whom we believe to have been the personal entry of God into our physical human universe. Most of the major doctrines and traditional practices of our faith derive from the attempt of a human institution called "the Church" to try to explain the apostolic testimony and documentary evidence concerning this man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the events surrounding his story and the nature of the message he proclaimed. Even the Trinity - the most central doctrine of our faith - was itself a human formulation, formally asserted only after centuries of debate, by a Church Council of Bishops at Nicea in the fourth century. The Creed that summarizes our basic beliefs is itself a formula articulated by this same Council.

As I see it the weakness of theology is that it is an essentially speculative and subjective kind of discipline, whereas history at least attempts - admittedly not always perfectly or successfully - to employ a more scientific approach, dealing squarely and objectively with documentary evidence, testimony and other kinds of factual source material such as might be available to empirical investigation. Of course witnesses do lie and documents can certainly be manipulated or unreliably recorded - but they can also be compared with other sources of testimony and other sources of evidence such that it is possible to arrive at some reasonably valid conclusions about what the truth might be. Truth derived from sources other than the mere say-so of a human institutional heirarchy intent on self-maintenance and power.

Not to be misunderstood - I am not debunking ecclesiastical authority wholesale. I recognize that Christianity without the Church is impossible, that the very sources of our belief would not themselves exist apart from the maintenance and dissemination thereof by the Church. Moreover, Christian faith and practice is not by its nature individualistic but is intelligible only within the context of a faith-community characterized by certain presumably shared values, such as grace and mercy, and distinct traditional practices, such as Baptism and the Eucharist. But this institution is not without limits, especially as since over the centuries the Church - "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" has becomed divided and sub-divided into innumerable denominations, each propogating its own distinctive "angle" on the ancient message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has become all but impossible then to adjudicate between all the competing truth-claims that are dogmatically advanced, and therefore once again, exploring the historical validity of such claims becomes far more helpful than mere theological assertions.

When I speak of history in connection with Jesus Christ and the Christian faith I do not necessarily associate myself with those New Testament historians - such as the theological liberals connected with the "Jesus Seminar" for instance - who speak of the so-called "Jesus of History" as over against the "Christ of Faith." This approach (which I want to make very clear that I emphatically disagree with and which I think is correctly regarded as heresy by orthodox Christians) suggests that the "Jesus of History" was in reality little more than a very spiritually enlightened human being and not "God incarnate" in any meaningful sense, and that the "Christ of Faith" was essentially a theological construct of the early Church (especially the Apostle Paul) that emerged only years after the death of Jesus. The problem with this whole line of thought is that the vision of Jesus produced, as was trenchantly observed by C.S. Lewis decades ago, is essentially un-historical. All of these "Jesuses" of history (and there are many such) - Jesus the Jewish reformer, Jesus the anti-Roman revolutionary, Jesus the Essene monk, Jesus the Gnostic etc. ad nuseam - are all themselves speculative constructs with no historical foundation.

The only substantive empirical evidence we actually have that this man Jesus ever actually existed - apart from the witness of the Church itself, and a few references in passing by the Jewish-Roman historian Jospehus - is the New Testament. Indeed, the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John constitute the only historical primary sources concerning Jesus known to exist and are therefore the only basis upon which any substantive claims can be made concerning him. It has long been my position that either these sources are reliable testimony, or they are not - we are left with no other foundation.

The difficulty many people seem to have with accepting the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular, as a reliable historical basis for Christian belief would seem to be largely the supernatural content (the resurrection of Jesus, miracles etc.) I find it interesting that in this new "post-modern" age which selectively abandons science (except where useful to its agendas) and has become so amenable to the superstitiously supernatural in so many other areas, there remains still a very "modernist" doubt about the Gospel accounts. Yet, absent the supernatural events, these narratives are certainly no less reliable than many other historical documents of classical antiquity that are generally accepted in the academic world as reasonably valid historical sources. Moreover, if God - whose existence cannot be empirically proved or disproved - is assumed arguendo to exist, why wouldn't the miracles affirmatively reported then be possible? As I see it, either the writers of these first century documents provided a truthful account of the events recorded or they are lying. Obviously I am pre-disposed to think they were being truthful. Perhaps it takes a "leap of faith" to accept that they are honest historical accounts - miracles and all - but it is not an unreasonable leap, whereas to speculatively assume other things about Jesus that have no substantive historical warrant at all is, to my way of thinking, thoroughly unreasonable.

I should point out that when I speak of the Gospels as "reliable" testimony, I am by no means advancing a fundamentalist claim of textual inerrancy. There are inconsistencies in the accounts provided, as there are in all ancient historical documentation. For instance, one has but to lay the four resurrection narratives in the Gospels side by side to see the variations in the details of the story that is told, yet it remains essentially the same story. Any lawyer, police investigator, or journalist, knows that the testimony of multiple witnesses to the same events is always going to have broad variation - indeed if the testimony offered is too tightly consistent one to another this usually suggests collusion which signals them that people are probably lying about something. To my way of thinking, the very inconsistency of detail that can be found in these accounts advances the claim that the writings were not collusive and likely a quite honest account.

My point in all of the above has simply been to suggest that Christianity is ultimately a faith that is not grounded in theological speculation or even ecclesiastical assertions, but in historical claims about historical events. Theological speculation or assertion of either the liberal or orthodox variety that fails to examine the historical sources as historical sources is, in my opinion at least, probably moving in the wrong direction in that it is moving in a direction away from reason.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Faith and Reason

This is an excerpt of my last reply to a group of theologically minded friends re an on-going conversation/dispute we have been engaged in. I post this here because I think it provides fair insight into just how I think about these kinds of questions:

OK here's the thing - I accept the notion that it is possible to believe a thing without proof, but I categorically reject the notion that it is possible to know a thing without proof.

There simply is no way to prove a proposition like the existence of God, or the physical resurrection of a dead man - these are supernatural faith assertions. The first words of our creed are "We believe" and not, "We know." What I call "dogmatism" is the insistence that people must accept as certain particular propositions that cannot be proved with evidence that any reasonable man can accept.

I left evangelicalism and joined the Episcopal Church (and resigned the professional ministry as a consequence of this decision) precisely because I no longer had any stomach for the sort of myopic and uncritical dogmatism that seems to characterize most popular American evangelical thinking. Yet at the same time I still wanted to remain a believing and practicing Christian of robust orthodox faith. However, I did not want to trade one form of fundamentalism for another. I did not want to substitute the provincialist biblical fundamentalism of the conservative-evangelicals that I had outgrown, for the more sophisticated "ecclesiological fundamentalism" increasinlgy prevalent in certain liturgical circles these days. If I had wanted to do that I would have - to use a phrase Frank Valdez likes - "swum the Tiber" and become a Roman Catholic.

I am attracted to the eucharistic and incarnational theology of Anglo-Catholicism and consider it far more spiritually mature and intellectually tenable than the culturally accommodationist folk-theology of the evangelicals - which is why I am an Anglican. But I refuse to absolutize any of it - I see this as a form of intellectual suicide that I am unwilling to commit. More importantly, like my friend Bruce Wright, I don't want to make the spiritual and moral mistake of closing myself off to the belief that God can and does work outside these presuppositional constructs of "truth" that human beings have erected.

One final thought - It is interesting to me that all you guys seem really into the whole "modernity vs. post-modernity" controversy that seems to have taken the theological world by storm these days. Participants in this controversy seem to equate "modernity" with entirely negative historical/cultural developments like market-capitalism and the nation-state and are therefore dismissive of it for these reasons (and the modern Market and State do seem to be good things for Christians to be somewhat dismissive about - I don't much like 'em either! lol!) however, when I think of "modernity" I am inclined only to connect it with the development of a way of thinking - specifically what Thomas Paine, writing at the end of the 18th century, called "The Age of Reason." Frankly I have a lot of respect for "Reason" as over against mere authority.

Personally I never gave much thought to the whole "modern vs. post-modern" thing until some of you guys started inundating me with it. Until very recently I just accepted the idea that faith and reason could be reconciled based on the fact that they asked and answered different questions. Faith addresses itself to questions that reason cannot answer and therefore does not ask. For me it's always been that simple - I have never felt compelled to create a whole new school of thought about a very old question!


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Gospel? A denunciation of Patriotism - among other things

"And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come."

- The Gospel According to Matthew 24: 14

I have been reflecting a good deal on this lately and so today's entry is going to dwell on this issue:

I think that one of the major issues I have with American conservative-evangelical Christianity, and by extension to this, why I see no problem with reconciling my own very progressive, and sometimes even "radical" politics with a very orthodox and traditional affirmation of Christian truth, is because I am truly convinced that the evangelical movement in America has completely reified the meaning of "the Gospel" to mean something it was never historically understood to mean before relatively modern times. Moreover, in even more recent times, the American political movement generically referred to as "the Religious Right," seems to have so co-opted the perception of an overwhelming majority of evangelicals, that it has become almost impossible to distinguish this type of Christianity from values associated with the American political conservatism. In particular the notion that patriotic nationalism and Christianity have anything remotely to do with one another.

It is helpful to point out that N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham (England) and one of the worlds leading biblical scholars - and probably the worlds top academic expert on the literature associated with the Apostle Paul - points out that Paul's use of the word "Gospel" (i.e. "Good News") esp. in his letter to the Romans, has been completely mis-understood and mis-applied by modern evangelicals. Bishop Wright points out that Paul borrows his use of the term in his letters to the churches directly from the widely recognized Roman proclamation of the time "Caesar is Lord" - this was the "Gospel" of the Roman State. What Paul suggests is that the good news or "Gospel" of the Church of Jesus Christ is the proclamation "Jesus is Lord." This new gospel presented a radical challenge to Roman state authority. It was this suggestion that the "Christos" (the "anointed" King) was elevated above Caesar by the early Christian communities that occasioned the several persecutions suffered by the Christians at the hands of the Roman government.

In short, the "Good News" was not an individualistic Gospel of personal salvation - it was the Gospel of the "Kingdom of God." Throughout the Four canonical Gospels, the central message of all Jesus' teaching and conversation seems to be preoccupied largely with this subject of the "Kingdom," relatively little is said regarding the salvation of individuals, and when the matter is addressed at all, it is directly in connection with the Kingdom, is understood as entirely a divine supernatural work of the Spirit, and not related at all to an instantaneous personal decision or "prayer of faith". Nowhere is the personal decision act of "accepting Christ as personal savior" even explicitly taught in the New Testament. Even the phrase "you must be born again" (in John's Gospel) is in the original Greek text in fact rendered more accurately as, "you must be born from above" and is directly linked with the practice of ceremonial baptism ("born of water and the spirit"). Calls to "Repent" as recorded in the Luke-Acts chronicle of the early Church are always associated with baptisms.

The early Christians understood "the ecclesia" - the Church - as the in-breaking of the Kingdom into the present age of the world, and that the age would end with the second advent when the King would return to personally inaugurate the Kingdom. It was precisely this claim to Kingship for Jesus on the part of the followers of "the Christ" that persuaded the Roman governor to grant the Jewish San Hedrin Council's petition to execute him - even though the Jewish "beef" was in fact blasephemy (not a capital offense under Roman law). The Roman legal justification for crucifying Jesus of Nazareth was high treason, which is why the sign Pilate had placed on the cross of the condemned was "King of the Jews". More than one early church father of the 2nd and 3rd centuries made it quite clear in his writings that their existed "no concord between Christ and Caesar." Polycarp was executed for refusing "to swear by the genius of Caesar" - he was but one of thousands of martyrs who would suffer death for no other crime than the simple act of rejecting the Lordship of Caesars Kingdom for that of the Christ.

What I am arguing is that modern evangelical Christianity, especially as widely understood and practiced by contemporary evangelical Protestants of several denominations (or so-called "non-denominational" churches) has transformed the Gospel message into a primarily private and individualistic matter of personal salvation and a view of "the Kingdom" as an exclusively future eschatalogical event with little or no reference to the universal Church. When I speak of "the Church" I am not really speaking of an institutional heirarchy per se - though clearly, it has institutional expression and as such is a visible phenomenon - but of the Eucharistic Community. The community that celebrates the "body and blood" of the coming King and is the visible embassy of the Kingdom in the world (and in this regard I do not advance the claim of any particular denominational entity as constituting the Church merely in itself - in the Anglican tradition we practice open communion, which means the sacrament is available to all baptized Christians). Secular political institutions such as national governments - with their use of war, force and violence as basic instruments of policy - are understood by many theologians and biblical scholars, such as Bishop Wright referenced above, as a manifestation of the Satanically dominated kosmos ("the world") of this present age. As such our loyalty and allegiance to the divine global institution of the Church - and by extension the coming Kingdom of God - must supercede any loyalty and allegiance to a national entity. Indeed with this understanding of the Gospel in view, nationalism becomes in fact, a form of idolatry. This is why personally I even object to national emblems on parish altars, and will refuse to stand for the flag if it is carried in processional during a church service on so-called "national days." There is no compromise possible in my view - we are either Americans first, or we are Christians first - we cannot be both! "There is no concord between Christ and Caesar."

The modern American gospel seems to be "the Market is Lord" and this culture of consumerism is rather obviously in direct defiance of everything the Gospel of the Kingdom that our Lord Jesus taught stands for. A Kingdom in which "it would be harder for a rich man to enter...than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle", a Kingdom in which "the life of a man would not consist in the abundance of his possessions" etc. The contemporary evangelical Gospel of being "saved" or "born again" understood as an entirely personalistic and individual "crisis experience" involving a "decision" unwittingly plays conveniently into this Market-driven modern cultural context. Christianity becomes a private matter distinct from the sector of public or community life and is thereby open to being transformed into a market commodity. Churches become businesses where a product called "religion" is sold rather like the sacrificial doves in the Temple marketplace whose tables our Lord Jesus overturned in his day.

All the above said, I do not disparage the personal dimension of salvation, nor do I consider it unimportant. Individual persons are "saved," they do experience "the new birth" etc. Scripture clearly affirms this. But they do so only in the context of the sacramental Christ-community called the Church, and they do so not as a result of a personal decision of "accepting Jesus" (after the manner of a Billy Graham crusade) but entirely as a supernatural work of God's grace - "lest any man should boast" (Paul). Personal salvation and redemption is but an underlying component of the Gospel, which is as Paul plainly stated it, and the early Church clearly understood it, "Jesus is Lord."

I also do not disparage the requirement - as plainly affirmed by Paul in Romans 13 (and reiterated by Peter in 1 Peter 2) - "to submit to the governing authorities." However this admonition too is broadly mis-understood by contemporary Christians to mean something it does not. Christians are admonished to "live at peace with all men" and it is always been part of the Christian tradition to respect the rule of law. But only so long as the rule of law of a given Nation-State is not in violation of the law of God. Indeed one advantage the United States has - historically at least - enjoyed above many other nations, is that in our civic republican tradition the law is elevated above "the State," and even the State is regarded as accountable to it. This idea is actually directly inherited from the English tradition (and has a thoroughly Christian basis and heritage) that even the King himself is subject to the rule of law (its worth pointing out that in medieval England most written law-codes were largely Church canon law). That the only sovereignty that is absolute is the sovereignty of God - and by extension the sovereignty of the law. On this very basis the English Parliament actually ordered the execution of Charles I in 1649.

However, what happens when even the State forgets the law and acts lawlessly? Or - what happens when the very law propounded by the State calls upon Christians to act against their Spirit-directed conscience (such as for instance on the matter of participation - or endorsement - of imperialistic wars, or assent to State policies that sanction slavery, race prejudice or the forceful dispossession of indiginous peoples, or allow the economic violence of social injustice to the poor for the sake of pretecting the private profit of corporations as over against the public interest and the public welfare) well in Acts 5, we are told that "we ought to obey God rather than men." Clearly, non-violent Civil Disobedience to the State is firmly recognized in the New Testament, in fact both Gandhi (who it must be said did not profess to be a Christian) and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a Baptist Minister) openly claimed they had derived their use of this political and revolutionary tactic directly from the Christian tradition.

I have come to recognize that the proclamation "Jesus is Lord" is not merely a privatistic spiritual claim applicable to the personal lives of individual Christians, it is indeed a radical political claim that calls for the prophetic confrontation of all violence and injustice (legal, social or economic) even if on perpetrated on the part of the secular State. The only patriotism applicable to Christians is the patriotism of the Kingdom of God, any other is a compromise of the Gospel.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the Union

This evening Barack Obama, the President of the United States, will read his first "State of the Union" address to Congress (and to the American people). Hopefully he will level with us and admit -as Gerald Ford did back in the mid-70's - that "the state of the union is not good" (I'm actually old enough to clearly recall hearing this speech) but likely since our new President has proven himself a consummate master at the art of ecquivocation we will be told something other than the unvarnished truth. Some of the measures that he is expected to propose as a solution to our current economic dilemmas resemble those taken by Herbert Hoover after the Great Crash of 1929, and as my entry below implies, it is my expectation they will have similar results. A band-aid is inappropriate when major surgery is required, but there are few politicians in either major party who have any stomach for the kind of surgery necessary, indeed they would regard even the mere proposal thereof as politically inexpedient to their careers.

I voted for Obama - mostly as a vote against the conservatives (whom I really strongly oppose) rather than as a vote for the candidate himself - but like many I had indulged high hopes that an African-American running on a platform of "change" would actually bring at least some component of genuine progressive thinking to the office. I have been disappointed so far - he has proven himself as merely a progressive liberal by rhetoric, but a pragmatic Centrist by policy, and fundamentally conducts himself no differently than any other Washington politician. The Right has made a sensational rhetorical game out of attacking Obama as a "socialist" and a man who keeps company with "radicals" etc. and has won quite a few converts among a disaffected and not very well informed population - but the truth is there is little substantive difference between either of the major parties in terms of the actual conduct of policy. Both Democrats and Republicans remain equally committed to upholding the existing status quo - in spite of the fact that the evidence - to those who really care to take a good hard look - is that the present way of doing the peoples business in the Republic is failing, and that genuinely progressive alternatives are needed. The people voted for "change" because that is what, deep down, the people really want and need - we haven't seen any!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blog format has changed

As of todays date I am altering the format of excaliburs word - this site will no longer be a public forum on public policy & faith, but has been converted to a personal electronic journal which will include commentary on current affairs and issues. However, this journal will continue to be available for public comment.

2009 has been a stressful year - last February, my desperate financial circumstances in the wake of an extended layoff from my last job made it necessary to re-locate from Tampa and move in with my recently widowed aunt and two twentysomething cousins here in Pinellas Park. My aunts house is comfortable, but family circumstances here make it a three-ring circus most of the time, and the adjustment has been difficult for one like me who is accustomed to the serenity of living alone. It now appears that I am facing a possible layoff from my current job as a civilian staff member with the Police Dept. (I work in an office that handles fund-raising for Police-related public charities such as the Police Athletic League). I started in this position last March and have almost a year of service, but our productivity numbers in our office have dipped precipitously due to the impact of the economic recession on charitable donations.

With reference to the recession - in the opinion of economists we are currently experiencing a "recovery" in terms of most of the major indicators upon which these things are measured, although it has not impacted unemployment which remains at record lows not matched since the 70's - and not exceeded since the Great Depression of the 30's. However many of the economists have suggested that this is really a short-lived psuedo-recovery that will be followed up by a second recession likely more devastating than the one from which we are now recovering.

Personally, I am inclined to agree with this Cassandra prognosis, as I'm aware the long-term cause of the crisis itself was the multi-dimensional failure of the finance-capital system of Wall Street, and is a demonstration to me that the American-style de-regulated brand of corporation capitalism is a non-viable system given to repeated cycles of instability. Moreover, economies today are no longer "national" economies, but we now live in an interdependent global economy in which trans-national actors (such as transnational corporations) have a more significant impact on economic events than do the policies of individual nation-states. What the present occupant of the White House does, or does not do, has only a marginal impact on an interconnected global system. The USA has only a minimal production basis for its economy today and is dependent on off-shore production from industrial contractors in other nations (especially China), what was once the center of US economic strength has now been sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed. We are now but a consumer market for mostly foreign produced goods - and as the economic system proceeds to unravel, even our viability in this regard will rapidly disintegrate. In short, I'm not sanguine about our future.