Monday, 31 October 2011

In the Beginning 2

It's been a while since I posted on this subject (here). I had an appeal hearing over my sick benefit - which I won - but I got extremely stressed over it. Any time that happens, my CFS gets the better of me, and I find stuff like academic commentaries too much to handle. However, I'm more or less coping now.

I got as far as the third day, when God gathers the water together, leaving the dry land. There's no creation ex nihilo in this; we read that into the text from later tradition. As I mentioned before, creation out of nothing is a later idea; as far as I'm aware it's first mentioned by Tertullian, a century and a half or so after the Crucifixion. He rejects it; creation is from matter, which is assumed to be pre-existent.

There's a problem here; the church likes to claim that its ideas are based on the Bible, then it imposes its own ideas on the text. In one way, that's valid, or we'd still be stuck with a 1st Century mode of thought. On the other hand, I'm not comfortable with claims that those ideas are in the text. They're not; they're interpretations. When it comes to creation, science, of course, maintains that it wasn't ex nihilo. It was from whatever was there before the Big Bang, and being no sort of physicist (my background is in geology, biology and theology), I'm not going to attempt to describe it. Contra Tertullian, it wasn't matter. However, it was matter's precursor, so he wasn't far wrong.

What we have is a description of God bringing order out of chaos. First he divides the waters,  then he gathers together the waters below, and limits their extent. Something like the world we know appears, but it's still lifeless. There's light and darkness, but no sun, moon or stars.

But we haven't finished with the third day yet. Immediately after separating land and sea, God calls vegetation into exisence. Once again, he's not creating it out of nothing.

Genesis 1:11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so.

The author's interest is in fruit trees and seed bearing plants; that is, plants which are useful for agriculture. The land is empowered to 'bring them forth' in a way which sounds very much like spontaneous generation. This is a very old idea; maggots, for instance, were believed to be generated in meat. This, of course, is the generation of the organic from the inorganic, but the difference is only one of degree, and I'm not sure whether people would have been aware of it when Genesis was written.

On the fourth day, we return to the heavens.

Genesis 1:14-19 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

It's a long and elaborate description, suggesting that the 'lights' have a particular importance to the author. Sun and moon, of course, were important deities in the region; the difference here is that they are now created objects, and are not explicitly named, perhaps to avoid identification with their respective deities. Their purpose is to 'rule' over day and night, to divide them, and to give light. Once again, God is separating what had been confused, bringing order out of chaos. The lights are for 'seasons, days and years'; not hours, as these are a human invention which may not yet have raised its head, but the obvious, natural divisions of time. And, they are for 'signs'. The calendar is set by reference to the heavenly bodies; passover, for instance, takes place at the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

They can also be signs of other things. Matthew uses a star as a sign of Jesus' coming; Josephus mentions a 'star shaped like a sword' as one of the portents which presaged the outbreak of the First Revolt. Astrology may be seen as rather dodgy nowadays, but at the time, it was taken for granted.

The whole scenario is clearly geocentric. The heavenly bodies are there to serve earthly purposes. The ancients, or at least the educated minority, weren't as ignorant as often supposed; Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth, accurately, around 200 BC, which rather gives the lie to the idea that they all thought it was flat. The heliocentric theory, which says that the Earth revolves around the sun, was first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd Century BC, but nobody believed him. Geocentricity, the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe, was taken for granted until the early 16th Century, when Copernicus used observations of the movements of the planets to demonstrate mathematically that they orbit the Sun.

It's not surprising that the people who actually wrote Genesis would have taken a geocentric universe for granted; everyone did back then. The question is, what do we do with it now? Any 'literal' interpretatin goes out of the window once we start looking at the text seriously; not even the most extreme fundamentalist argues that the Earth is the centre of the universe. Tentatively, a theological geocentricity might be possible. Deuteronomy 7 maintains that God chose the Israelites, the weakest of peoples, because he loved them. Perhaps we could argue that he chose this insignificant planet as the centre of the cosmic drama, the bearer of his image, no less, because he, somehow, loved it? However, there's a gamble involved. If we then discover life elsewhere in the universe, we could be in trouble. Theologies are relative; they're produced by specific communities, in their specific times, places and cultures. None of them is ever fully satisfactory; no mere human can comprehend God in his fulness, after all. The trouble is, we then absolutise them, claim they apply universally, and, if we can, try to impose them on everyone. How exactly would we cope theologically with extraterrestrial life, I wonder? Is the alien in his flying saucer also made in God's image? Is a dalek of the Devil, or is he capable of redemption? Do bug-eyed monsters have souls? One day, we might seriously be looking for answers to qustions like this. It's possible that geocentricity in any form may prove to be mere hubris.

I think that's enough for one post; more later.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Who's the king of the castle?

We believe - formally at any rate - in a God who's omnipotent, onmiscient, and all the rest. He's the biggest the strongest, the king of the ubercastle. Yet we hear that it's possible for the human will to trump God's. God wills our salvation, yet we can resist it, and go marching off obstinately into hell. It's never made a lot of sense to me; I could easily have been a Calvinist - which at least makes logical sense - except I can't stomach a God who acts like a bigger and better version of Adolf Eichmann, sending people off to the eternal gas chambers.

Once you have the idea that God 'can't' do X, it's not a big step to say he 'can't' do Y either, and before long we have a God who can't do very much at all. Seriously, I've listened to preachers - fortunately not Methodist ones - who seemed to think that God couldn't do anything for us unless he was assisted by our faith. No salvation without our faith, no healing without our faith, and so on. It gets very Deuteronomic; if things aren't working out for you, it's your fault for not having faith.

That's a blatant example, but we meet a subtler one the whole time. All possibility of salvation ends if we die in our sins. Death is bigger than God. That's not what Paul thought, though, is it? I detest proof texts; you can prove anything by quoting half a dozen words out of context, buttressed by 'The Bible says'. Trouble is, what it says in one place, it often unsays in another. You want to promote infanticide? You'll find a nice quote in Psalm 137:9. But Paul undoubtedly does say 'The last enemy to be destroyed is death.' (1 Corinthians 15:25-26), so at least he thinks God is the stronger of the two. But if death can die, what price mercy after death? An omnipotent God surely isn't going to be beaten by the mere ending of bodily life.

I'm not going to pretend I know what happens after death; only God and the dead can answer that one. But all Christians agree that there's hope (one of the very few things they do all agree on!), and we may be mistaken in putting limits on that hope. I don't know whether everyone ends up being 'saved' or not, but if they are, that seems to me to make a lot more sense that the God who wants to save them all, but simply can't manage it.

Monday, 17 October 2011

God's will and ours

In Wesley's day, the dominant Protestant theology was Calvinism. Calvin didn't invent the idea of predestination; he inherited it from Augustine. Calvinists did, however, put a new emphasis on it. There was nothing good in humanity; we were, in Cranmer's phrase, 'vile earth and miserable sinners', totally dependent on God's grace for salvation. that grace was irresistible; if God had decided you were to be saved, you would infallibly be saved; if he had decided you were to be damned, you knew where you were going. Naturally; it wasn't God's fault if you went to hell; it was because of your own wretched sins, even if God had predestined them.

It doesn't add up. I get a picture of God sitting there in eternity, tossing dice. If he gets six sixes in a row, the soul goes to heaven. If he doesn't, it's fuel for the eternal fires somewhere down below.

The Wesleys were born into a world which was beginning to change; they lived through the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, and John was still alive when the Bastille fell. At the same time, they also saw Britain's last civil war, the Jacobite 'intestine jar' in 1745. Populations were beginning to shift; new mines were opened, and communities sprang up around them. Centres of industry began to grow. The Anglican parish system was unable to adapt, and people were living beyond the reach of the church. They were still essentially Christian, and with a bit of reading between the lines, it sounds as though some of them were going in real fear of hell fire. Not for the last time, it looked as though to be poor was, in many cases, to be damned as well.

The Wesleys and their friends found a practical answer; they went and preached to communities like the Kingswood miners, near Bristol, and they flocked to hear them. The theological answer came later, encapsulated in Wesley's 'alls'. All men (sic) need to be saved: All men can be saved: All men can know they are saved: All men can be saved to the uttermost. They only go back about a century, but they do sum up his message. God offered his free grace to everyone, and it was up to us whether we accepted it or not. Grace was resistable, and if we were sinful enough to do so, off we went to the eternal fires.

That's all right if everyone is, more or less, a believer. If anyone scoffs at the message, it's clearly because they choose to reject it. However, what of the person who's born in a village in Saudi Arabia, becomes a devout Muslim, and never meets a Christian? Or the one born to militant atheists, who never knowingly meets a Christian socially, and only encounters Jehovah's Witness types on the doorstep? They've never heard the message in any meaningful sense, so how can they be said to have rejected it? In a world which is essentially non-Christian, we're in trouble again.

I remember a particularly daft fundamentalist pastor who insisted that Methodists were hypocrites. He had all sorts of excuses for this claim, but the one that struck me was that we'd bury a 'sinner', who might not have gone to church, might have spent their evenings in the pub, and, horror of horrors, might even not have been officially married to their spouse (I've got particularly strong views on the latter nonsense, but that's a subject for another post), and we wouldn't mention at any point that they were going to hell. Well, how could we say that? I think most people can see that any such stuff would be fundamentally wrong.

I wonder how many Methodist preachers ever mention hell at all in their sermons? I remember one from years ago, with a habit of striking a pose and punching his Bible with vast emphasis whenever he wanted to condemn something he tought was terribly sinful. He did this in every sermon, and managed to look extremely silly in the process. But he was an exception. Hell has effectively disappeared from British Methodism, and no loss either in my view. I read my Bible, and it seems to me that judgement is followed by mercy. God gets terribly upset at the Israelites because they won't stop bowing down to the Baals, and sends them all off into exile. Then he calms down, and raises up Cyrus to let them go home again. Perhaps there's mercy for us after all, even after we die in our sins. If not, Heaven's going to be pretty empty.

That brings me back to grace. It's hard to see how a miserable human can resist God's mercy indefinitely, but maybe we can square the circle and suggest that he has eternity to work with. Death may be the last enemy, but he goes down before the divine legions in the end. Our obstinacy is merely human, and thus limited; God's patience is infinite.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Height of Goliath

When I was a kid, I was a militant atheist. I got bullied and bored at Sundays School, found the stories I was told somewhat implausible - even at that age I knew that people don't really walk on water - and when I was six I told my mother I didn't believe in God. So that was the end of religion, for many years.

One of the stories I objected to was that of David and Goliath. Come off it, people don't really grow to six cubits and a span, or about nine feet nine inches (1 Samuel 17:4). I've occasionally heard fundamentalist preachers tying themselves in knots with dubious attempts to convince congregations that this was possible, but one of the advantages of being a Methodist is that people are far too sensible to take any notice of the nonsense they hear from preachers. I am a preacher, so I can say what I like about them!

Then there's a different story in 2 Samuel 21:19, where Goliath is killed by a man named Elhanan. There's no detail, it contradicts the well-known, romantic version of his demise, and anyway we all know that the Bible can't possibly contradict itself, or the sky will fall. So it gets ignored.

I never took much notice of the tale till I got a copy of 'The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible' (Abegg, Flint & Ulrich, 1999). It gives a translation of the Biblical material from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Hebrew manuscripts traditionally used as the basis for our translations are medieval; the earliest complete copy of the Old Testament is 9th Century. The DSS are from around the 1st or 2nd Century BC, and get us far closer to the 'original' text. It gives Goliath's height as 'Four cubits and a span' or about six feet nine inches. This is massive, especially for a time when people were far less well-nourished than today, but not beyond reasonable bounds. Men of similar size are reported from the ancient world; according to the Historia Augusta, for instance, the Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax was well over eight feet high. It's not a reliable source, but no doubt he was extremely large. When 'Little John's grave' at Hathersage in the Peak district, was opened in 1784, they apparently found a human thigh bone 32 inches long, which would make the occupant at least seven feet tall. I say nothing about the historicity of the Goliath story.

Of course, the Hebrew wasn't the only version of the Hebrew Scriptures circulating in the ancient world. There's also the Septuagint, a Greek version produced some time after Alexander conquered the world, or at least the bit of it known to the Greeks. The earliest manuscripts, from the 2nd or 3rd Century AD, make Goliath four cubits and a span, the same as the DSS. Manuscripts from a little later make him five cubits, and medival ones, six cubits and a span. You couldn't have a better example of copyists 'improving' a text.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Why nobody really takes every word of the Bible literally

Good post here from Randall Rauser. I've met a good many people over the years who honestly thought they belived every word of the Bible literally, but I doubt whether I'll ever come across anyone who really does. How do they manage to kid themselves?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Changing the church, or changing ourselves

This post with its quote from his - um - holiness annoyed me this morning. I've heard the like so often, from conservatives on both Catholic and Protestant wings of the church. As John Donne said though, no man [add women here] is an island. We're designed to work in community, and the church is precisely that; a community of people trying to follow Jesus together. We work out our salvation in fear and trembling together (Philippians 2:12; I don't like quoting little out-of-context snippets, but Paul uses the plural 'you', and illustrates the point perfectly. The Philippians were advised to do exactly what I'm describing).

So it's not a matter of retreating into my closet or wherever, and trying to change me, or even trying to get God to change me. It's a question of advancing - or not - together, with the community's support, and their wisdom to keep us on the straight and narrow. Individualism is a modern invention, it destroys community, and it paralyses the church. Everything is narrowed down to me and my Jesus, me and my salvation, and there's no concept of church or community at all. It challenges nothing, changes nothing, and that, of course, is the point when we hear rubbish like this from church leaders. It prevents any challenge to them and their ideas. If you persist, you probably find - as I have - that there's something wrong with you, not them. In their own opinion anyway.

Surely Wesley had it right in emphasising both faith and works. It's in our deeds, in changing the church, and building it anew for this generation, not the last, that we're changed ouselves. Together, not separately, we become - perhaps - more what God intended us to be. You can keep the Beatific Vision; I'd rather feed the hungry, and try to make the church something people are going to want to belong to. It's not either/or, it's both/and. You won't change on your own, and we won't build the church unless we change, together. Even the pillar saints were still part of a community; the emperor himself visited St Simeon Stylites, and apparently went away most impressed.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Martyn Atkins podcast

I don't usually watch podcasts much as I find it far easier to absorb the written word. This one Methodist Preacher has posted from Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the Methodist Church, is worth watching, though, as it pretty much sums up where my church is trying to be.