Monday, January 24, 2011

2 popular distortions of authentic Christianity: Dumping the Non-Essential

"The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Galileo

"The Greatest Commandment in the law is this, 'Hear O' Israel the Lord our God is one Lord, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength'; and the second is like unto it - thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." - Jesus of Nazareth

"One commandment I give to you, that you Love one another..." - Jesus of Nazareth

It's been some while now since I have posted an article here, but the writing fit has taken hold again in light of recent conversations, and facebook or email debates. The issue that has me, in Hawthorne's phrase, "seizing the public by the button" is the matter of certain fundamentalist distortions of the Christian faith that provide ammunition to skeptics and rational critics of orthodox Christianity, present a false picture of authentic New Testament Christianity to ordinary non-believers, and burden genuine - but often theologically unsophisticated - Christian disciples with a load of hogswallow unnecessary for them to bear.

Two issues in particular it is my hope to debunk as being a valid component of "essential" Christian teaching:
1. A Scientific Creationist interpretation of the book of Genesis.
2. That the Scriptures are a prescriptive handbook of moral "rules" for modern living.

When the Roman Catholic Church placed Galileo on trial for heresy in the year 1600 - for asserting the Copernican theory of a Helio-centric Solar System as over against the offical Ptolemaic Geo-centric model formally asserted by the Church - it is attributed to him that he made the remark "Holy Scripture tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." He made a point which even the Protestant reformers of his time, such as John Calvin and Martin Luther had already understood rather well, which was that it was the purpose of Scripture to infallibly reveal the will of God in "all things necessary to salvation" (as affirmed in both the 39 Articles of Faith of the Church of England, 1578 and in 16th century Lutheran confessions) and in "all matters of faith and practice" (Westminster Confession, 1647) and not to be used as source for scientific truth. Unlike some of their Catholic counterparts whose hands were tied by conformity to the official dogma of their Church, the theologians of the Reformation were remarkably open to the discoveries of the modern science of their day, and not of a mind to view ancient sacred literature outside of its own historical frame of reference.

The key to understanding Genesis without either undermining ones faith in biblical authority and veracity, and at the same time without committing the intellectual suicide of abandoning rational evidence and scientific fact wholesale, is summed up in one word - Cosmology. "Cosmology" refers to the basic model of the universe generally accepted by the learned of a particular time. Our modern cosmology is informed by the advanced evidence gathering technology now available to us, such as observatory and radio telescopes, satellites, imagery analysis etc. We pretty much know that our solar system is but a small and insignificant component of a vast universe so incomprehensibly large as to be beyond our ability to measure its limits, and that its age is measured in multiple billions of years. But at the time the book of Genesis was originally written, its Hebrew authors understood the universe in terms of a very different cosmology based on far more limited knowledge of the facts. The cosmology accepted by the writers of the Old Testament was a flat earth and a dome sky, this was as true and factually obvious to them as our modern picture of the universe is to us. The author of Genesis was therefore being completely truthful when he wrote the account of Creation, as he merely acted according to the best information he had available. Whoever wrote Genesis (authorship is traditionally attributed to Moses but this is historically unlikely - it was quite common for editorial compilers of ancient texts to attribute authorship to a hero of the past) was not present when the events about which he writes occurred, but very likely reduced to written form a received oral tradition handed down through generations, and consistent with the accepted cosmological model of the time.

Virtually all contemporary Old Testament scholars - including even very conservative ones of good academic reputation - generally recognize that the "Creation Epic" in Genesis (Gen. chapters 1 - 11 - including not only the Creation story, but the story of Noah and the Flood, and of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel) was likely not written to be interpreted as a literal historical account, but as a narrative - a story with a central theme - this narrative having as its intention the revealing of certain theological truths: namely, that the universe was created by God, that God then created human beings, but that human beings through sin had repeatedly fallen and rebelled against God and were therefore in need of either judgment or of redemption and deliverence. According to most conservative Old Testament scholarship, only after Genesis 12:1 - the call of Araham - does Scripture begin to submit itself to empirical historical analysis. Recognizing the Creation-story in Genesis as a non-historical epic narrative need not undermine our faith in biblical authority.

The second major stumbling block to genuine Christian faith within the popular "folk theology" of American conservative Christianity is the notion that moral instructions given in New Testament Scripture are applicable to a modern cultural context. That the New Testament is somehow a "rule book" which "good" Christians are obliged to follow to authentically practice their faith. Most Christians who have any sort of mature understanding of the Bible are aware that the 612 ordinances of the ancient Old Testament Hebrew law-code "The Law of Moses" are not applicable to New Testament Gentile Christians. How many times have we heard the expression (paraphrasing from the Apostle Paul), "We are not under 'the law,' we are under grace." However it seems when it comes to the instructions given in the letters of the Apostle Paul to various early New Testament Christian church-communities we Christians are in danger of erecting our very own New Testament "Law of Paul." This Pauline legalism has reached a point where some have even politicized it, and seek to erect within our pluralistic Republic a theocratic commonwealth mandating these moral rules as the law of the land.

The problem here is that a "rule-ethic" inherited from our Puritan forbears has displaced what some New Testament scholars refer to as the "Love-Ethic" of Christ. The New Testament is - like the Old Testament creation story - also a "narrative." Although in this case I think it is certainly OK for people of faith to assume that this narrative - being based as it is on direct testimonial accounts of actual observers and particpants to that which is recorded - does have a solid historical foundation. This narrative has for its theme the Gospel (i.e. Good News) of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation in His name and the coming Kingdom of God under His rule. However, the specific moral instructions that Paul gives to churches really must be seen in light of what is called cultural relativism - that is to say that they are relative to the cultural context of the time in which they are given and are not really to be interpreted as applicable to our modern cultural setting. For example, in Pauls day - and according to the sort of instruction he gives - women were regarded as subordinate to men, and slavery was considered a justifiable practice as long as "slaves were treated well" - it seems doubtful to me that such standards could be taken seriously by any reasonable person in a modern setting.

In asserting the "cultural relativism" in Paul, I am not asserting moral relativism. I am certainly among those Christians who believe that we live in a moral universe where their exists a definite standard of right and wrong. My argument however is that right and wrong for Christians is not defined by prescriptive sets of rules that must be changed and adapted to different cultural circumstances. Rules change from place to place and generation to generation and it makes no sense to be locked into a particular legalistic and Puritannical model of morality that is founded upon a 2,000 year old set of local church regulations from Greece and Asia Minor. Right and wrong for Christians has always been defined by one principle Love. Specifically self-sacrificial love as modeled for us in Christ's atonement on the cross. How the "love-ethic" of Christ is applied in terms of actual practice may change according to the particular situation that requires it, but in essence it is always about seeking the highest welfare of its object and is always the opposite of selfishness.

This "Love-Ethic" is the central theme of the whole New Testament narrative - and authentic Christianity is best understood by getting a grip on this idea and what it means. Jesus' account of the final judgment given in chapter 25 of Matthews Gospel articulates with great clarity upon what basis the true spiritual status of the "sheep" and "goats" is to be evaluated - compassion - which is none other than love in action. Those who are among the elect are proved to have been compassionate "to the least of these" the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, whereas those who "go away to judgment" (separated from the Kingdom of God - which is what the word "Hell" really and simply means) are those who have been proved to have failed in this area. When Jesus was pointedly asked, "What is the Greatest Commandment in the Law" he offered that there were really two, which were so comingled together that to do the one was to do the other, and that together they summed up the whole meaning and spirit of the law - and flatly trumped a too Pharisee-like preoccupation with the letter of it:
" shall love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."