Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath
The Blog of Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis
Hi James,I agree wholeheartedly. Furthermore, Montoya would address liberals in exactly the same way. Indeed, if one takes a long hard look at the Jesuses liberals have come up with, the Jesus fundamentalists come up with almost looks good by comparison.Neither camp should be allowed to determine what the Bible says. Neither camp should be allowed to trademark and define terms in the debate. For example, inerrancy language, and the concept of being born again (John 3), are not the property of fundamentalists. Arguably, the sermons on the new birth in John 3 by Martin Luther bear more weight and are worthy of more consideration than that of a certain kind of revival preaching.Arguably, the Bible has always been read by believers, long before fundamentalism and anti-fundamentalism were ever invented, along the lines Zwingli sketched out in the 16th century:“It is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness, it is its own interpreter and enlightens the human soul with all salvation and all grace, makes it confident in God, humbles it, so that it abandons and throws away its pretensions, and places itself in God's hands.”The focus of inerrancy language in reference to Scripture properly understood has been and remains that indicated by Zwingli.It misconstrues matters gravely when Zwingli's language is defined in pseudo-rationalistic terms, not his. To suggest otherwise is to fall into the same hole "fundamentalists" fall into, those who think they have to reconcile all the numbers in the Bible before it can be described as inerrant.Indeed, as Inigo Montoya once said: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I certainly agree. As Inigo Montoya often says, whenever you point a sword at someone else, you have four swords pointing back at you…
John, you old one-trick pony, you keep desperately trying to indict some liberal bogeyman. But there is a big difference. "Liberals" in the general sense you define them don't pretend to have a direct line to god, they don't pretend to know the only way and the perfect theology, don't pretend they are the only ones that will go to heaven while everyone else fries for eternity, don't try to censor anyone else's behavior, don't try to teach crackpot beliefs like creationism that fly in the face of rational knowledge.And no, the Jesus of fundamentalists is a million times worse. Liberal Jesus doesn't start wars and foment hatred.Concern troll fundies who come on the site are so similar. You throw around names and textbook phrases Zwinglian pseudo-rationalism, but you continue to espouse anti-intellectualism. SO how about that Italian soccer team? Sure did a number on the US yesterday, although they cheated because they got a goal from a kid from New Jersey.
Talon,Actually, I have three or four tricks I do well, but the anti-liberal one is the trick I have most fun with on these threads. That's because of people like you, who are so piously offended by any suggestion of parity between liberals and anti-liberals. But, as long as you keeping talking Italian soccer, I promise to pray on your behalf, that you will be spared hell-fire. In fact, I will follow you to hell to keep the conversation going. I have my priorities too.For the rest, no, I do not have a particular liberal bogeyman in mind. I have many! Scads.I have in mind the ridiculous Jesuses foisted upon us by Enlightenment authors such as Thomas Jefferson and Ernst Renan. I have in mind the Jesuses of more recent scholars like Harnack and Ritschl, and those more unlikely still presented to us by Morton Smith, Crossan, and Borg.Now I admit Borg is well worth reading. But then, so is Joseph Ratzinger, and so is N. T. Wright. Speaking of bogeyman, who are, really, the fundamentalists of whom you speak? If you mean scholars who belong to ETS, there are excellent, excellent NT scholars among them, Michael Bird, for example, whose scholarship on Jesus I highly recommend.Name your bogeymen, please. I have named mine.
love the post, love the comments!! :)The spooky thing is I have just written an article on that very subject for a denominational magazine. Will it offend anyone if I take that as divine confirmation of my topic choice?to the fundies and liberals: a plague on both your houses! and pax vobiscum.
John, did you just lump N T Wright in with Marcus Borg! He He He.
“It is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness, it is its own interpreter and enlightens the human soul with all salvation and all grace, makes it confident in God, humbles it, so that it abandons and throws away its pretensions, and places itself in God's hands.”Certain? Cannot err? Clear? Own interpreter? Exactly how is this any less fundamentalist than the utterings of your average Bible-thumper?
Scott,In fact, I was suggesting that Jesus as understood by Borg, Wright, and Ratzinger are all worth taking a look at. But at some point, this Jesus is either extraordinarily real to you, such that you have to relate the risen Christ to the earthly Jesus – something all three of the above authors strive to do – or he is not real to you, just another dead guy.If the risen Christ is extraordinarily real to you, almost by definition, I submit, you are going to be a Bible-thumper of one kind or another.At the very least, the words of others who have had the same experience of the risen Christ, only more so perhaps, will be of great interest to you. No wonder the New Testament is of great interest to those who have had an experience of the risen Christ.For the rest, thank you for sticking up for evangelicals and fundamentalists. If the Reformer of Zurich had a view of scripture not unlike the one evangelicals have, it is just one step further to concede that they have Augustine and Aquinas on their side, too. Thumpers one and all. Lord, I want to be in that number.The alternative, the thought of a John Shelby Spong, is destined to have a very short shelf life. It's hard to even keep track of the various Jesuses of Mr. Spong. Last time I checked, his Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. I love it. He missed his calling, which is Hollywood.
Now Inigo just needs to make an argument to that effect. I think it becomes clear even after a small amount of interaction between a conservative (like, say, me) and a liberal (like Dr McGrath) who is taking the Bible seriously and who takes it as an authority to which he must submit, and who comes to the text with preconceived ideas, who uses the Bible when convenient and discard other parts when it makes him uncomfy.Peace,Rhology
John,Please enlighten me on some of the major differences and similarities you see between the "liberal" and the "fundamentalist" Jesus. Thanks!
Rhology, you do the very same thing, precisely because you are determined to view the Bible as an authority which addresses you with a unified voice to which you must submit. Your unwillingness to admit that the Bible did not protect rape victims in any modern sense of that terminology, nor did it prohibit rape (as opposed to merely recompensing the victim's father), is a case in point. So in my view, neither of us is "doing what the Bible says", because there is no unified "what the Bible says". What differs between us, then, is that I'm acknowledging this state of affairs. And I'm doing so because I've studied the Bible carefully and been compelled by the Bible's own evidence to reach this conclusion.And so, I submit to you that I'm the one who accepts the Bible's own authority, which demands of me that I not squeeze it into a procrustean bed or ride roughshod over its diversity.
John, As Jim indicates in his comment, above, accepting Jesus as something more than "just another dead guy" does not have to lead to viewing the Bible as "its own interpreter." Some, like Rhology, want to make accepting the Bible as "authoritative" a prerequisite to being a serious Christian. I'll leave it to you to comment, or not, on this view. i guess the question is: Can a person honestly conclude after studying the Bible at a very high academic level that it is not "authoritative" in the sense that Rhology and – as I read him – Zwingli do? Or, is this wanton self-delusion? Poor scholarship? A false trilemma (not a big Lewis fan either)?My own studies – such as they are – have led me to rejection of the religious claims of Christianity. Jim, highly trained and well read, on the other hand seems to have landed in the dreaded Liberal Christian camp. While I don't agree with Jim's ultimate conclusions I respect his knowledge, insights and piano playing. :)My mea culpa would be that I have a lot of trouble understanding a view that sees the Bible as without fault and trustworthy. On the other hand, I have been gained a greater understanding of a number of aspects of Bible study that I had once considered simply crazy. So, who knows?
Scott,As far as I have observed, anyone appreciates music is not far from the kingdom of God. I suspect the real problem for you in any case is that the kingdom of God would seem to be already inhabited by people you love to hate. I certainly think it is so inhabited, by people I love to hate as well. So that's a problem we share. It's just not a deal-breaker for me. On the contrary, on my better days, it is actually a deal-maker.I imagine fundamentalist claptrap has left you with a sour taste in your mouth such that you are blinded you to the possibility of reading a psalm, for example, 8, 19, 23, 104, 121, 130, and 139, and hearing the music. Or hearing the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 with an open heart such that you hear the siren song contained therein. Or the love chapter in Paul, 1 Corinthians 13. If you love music, I simply suggest you take in Genesis 1 for example as music. If you really love music, you know that music is not devoid of truth either. Music has reasons of its own, to which the savage beast is not attuned, until perchance he is soothed thereby. The lion sleeps tonight.Is music its own interpreter? It is: which is just another way of saying that you get it or you don't, and what knowledge of music theory one has is completely and utterly irrelevant. Follow? You don't need a high falutin' scholar to parse a piece of jazz for you, do you? That's because jazz, properly understood, is its own interpreter.Obviously that is hyperbole. But it contains a great truth. Zwingli was fighting against people (the Roman Catholic hierarchy) who claimed that they were the interpreters of the Bible. All genuine interpretation had to pass their inspection. Zwingli replied: not at all. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker all understand the Bible better than you, Mr. Pope.Surely you will agree that Zwingli was right. As both liberals and fundamentalists demonstrate, unfortunately, not all candlestick makers are created equal. Not all are equally proficient at keeping on track in their reading of scripture.
Michael,Here are a couple of examples of differences and similarities. Many liberal Jesuses put him at radical odds with his Jewish contemporaries. Many fundamentalist Jesuses are just as wrong on this point. Every serious student of the Gospels and the world from which they sprang knows very well that Jesus and the Pharisees were at loggerheads precisely because they agreed on many fundamentals and were competing for the loyalties of the same religiously awake people.That is an example of an error in perspective to which liberals and fundamentalists have both been subject.A difference: liberal Jesuses, with a few exceptions, have de-eschatologized him. It is too much of an embarassment to them that Jesus may have thought that the kingdom of God was about to come and in fact he was its inaugurator. Fundamentalists are fine with all of that, thought they squirm to the extent that they realize that Jesus did not, as he himself is reported to have said, know the day or the hour. They squirm also because many seem to think they do know the day and the hour. What nonsense, but it sells books. Fundamentalists are probably right in any case to think of Jesus as someone who already in his lifetime, was hailed as a prophet and considered as important among his followers as the Teacher of Righteousness was among the Qumran sectarians. Furthermore, an excellent case can be made that Jesus himself thought of himself as the eschatological Son of Man and Servant of the Lord of which earlier prophets had spoken. Another example: was Jesus a faith-healer? Well, of course he was. If he wasn't, why would the Gospels go on and on about it? But liberals struggle with healing and miracles and so are apt to downplay or gloss over these aspects in their portrayals of Jesus.Just examples. I hope they help. James McGrath, BTW, could add many more examples we would both agree on, I'm sure. I'm thinking he would agree with at least the thrust of the examples I've already given.
John, I think I realize that Jesus was thought to be a healer and an exorcist, but that doesn't mean he actually had supernatural power to heal and threw real demons out of anybody. Because demons don't exist. SO in that sense the stories represent the beliefs of the people of the day, but those ideas do not correspond to reality.Do you think demons inhabit people?I agree with you that Jesus focus was about eschatology and liberals who de-emphasize that get it wrong. And maybe Jesus did see himself as special or prophetic in some way. But not because he was actually the son of god. At some point, logic points to the fact that yes, he was a popular teacher who had an impact on his followers, but the fact is that the kingdom he predicted never came and (sadly) never will. Oh, and that red card on the american was bogus. It was a shame that a game can be so dictated by the officials.
Talon,I hate that when refs end up determining the outcome of games. But that is one way in which soccer mimics life. Refs have a lot of power, and they don't always use it well. I think it is very implausible to suggest, as you seem to do, that Jesus never really healed anybody. *That* has an implausible ring to it, historically speaking.But perhaps you simply want to believe that the healing he accomplished was all by the power of suggestion. That too, would be profoundly inaccurate, from a purely historical point of view.Put it this way: faith, hope, and love are all forms of suggestion. They are for you no less than they are for me. You know this instinctively, unless you have never fallen in love. Unless you have never cared or hoped or trusted in anyone or anything.But faith, hope, and love are *more than* suggestion. At least, most of us believe that they are. Unless we are solipsists or the like. It is natural to assume that Jesus healed, as do faith-healers the world over, on the basis of *more than* suggestion. If that is all faith-healers do, tap into the benefits of an attitude of trust, they would simply be equal to our highly paid doctors who dispense sugar pills since they have an on average rate of success of 30%, only marginally less than the success rate of most very expensive medicines.Instead, when Jesus healed a "leper," he reinserted an individual into a narrative identity that embraced the God of Israel, a community, and a larger horizon of hope. This is healing on a deeper level than a sugar pill or the power of suggestion by itself could ever hope to accomplish.With the demon-possessed, the level of healing an exorcist can provide is even deeper. As for whether there really are demons or not, the question, strictly speaking, can be left open. I would note that their existence is phenomenologically plausible. That is, when you see someone frothing at the mouth and speaking in a voice that is not his and at war with (the rest of) his entire being, it is a plain sense interpretation to speak of demons.I have seen these things on occasion. BTW, the progressive modern solution to this kind of ailment, to heavily medicate these people for the rest of their lives, is not necessarily an improvement to fully contextualized exorcism (exorcism in a modern Western society is almost doomed to failure because the support structures and control beliefs that favor it success are missing).
Talon,I think the fundamental differences we have regard two matters. Correct me if I'm wrong.(1) First of all, some of us believe we have had a taste of the kingdom of God through the risen Christ, the beloved community of which we have become a part, through the disciplines of prayer and the confirmation that derives from acting on one's faith in acts of mercy and seeing how that can make all the difference. That makes your observation that the kingdom of God has never come ring hollow to us. But, since, you have not tasted this kingdom, it stands to reason that we differ here.(2) Furthermore, some of us have experienced God's presence very directly, or so it has seemed to us, on one or more specific occasions in our lives. I teach confirmation class for 7th and 8th graders. Each of them is assigned a mentor, but they are just average Janes and Joes of the congregation. When asked to describe one or two experiences in their lives in which their faith made all the difference, well, the narratives that one hears are instructive. Maybe it's true that all the warnings people receive in dreams are a bunch of hooey. Maybe it's true that all the chance encounters that people recount are just that, encounters that changed everything according to what they came to understand as a plan. I've noticed that a number of atheists among my friends also believe instinctively that all things work together for the good somehow – they even put it that way sometimes. But for them, that is a completely groundless thing to say, whereas a theist at least has grounds for saying it. Furthermore, maybe there isn't anything like a "nousphere," of which Einstein spoke, that somehow connect the minds and thoughts of people over distances. Interesting what that scientist believed in. Maybe it's true that Christopher Reeve illuded himself, or made it all up, when he said that he had a near-death experience in which he saw himself below himself go dead, and then revive again. Afterward, he became a theist (a Unitarian, to be sure, not my first choice, but that's just me). Do you really blame someone who has experienced a mind-body disjunction if she or he comes to believe in God? I think that would be almost cruel on your part if you did.In short, there really are a number of experiences that people commonly have that induce them to believe in God and the supernatural in some sense of that word. Indeed, prayer to an unknown God is so much of an anthropological constant that some biologists consider it an evolutionary adaptation to the real world. Pretty much on a par with altruism and cooperation, two other evolutionary adaptations to the world biologists like to research.So then, does the beauty, order, and shape of life, natural and social, for all of its messiness and tragedies, nonetheless set you praying? In a time of crisis or great joy, do you not find it spontaneous to speak to an Other? It was and is spontaneous for human beings generally, for perhaps countless millennia.Now perhaps none of all this means anything to you. The whole idea of having a narrative identity that stretches back to Abraham and Sarah, includes Jesus and Paul, and includes people you pray with and struggle with, maybe that all leaves you cold. Perhaps your narrative identity as a soccer fan is sufficient for you. All I can say is: it isn't for most people. At the very least, this provides an "in" for religion. Quite apart from the truth question, atheism is a sad, sad thing in comparison. That being so, Pascal's wager ought to look pretty good to even the most hard-bitten unbeliever. At least on a good-bad day.
John,If Zwingli's comments on self-interpretation were a reaction to Roman Catholic tyranny then it is an understandable bit of rhetoric. If you had placed it explicitly in that context it would not come across as a plea for strict scriptural self-interpretation.I am afraid you have misjudged my reasons for disbelief. I do not disavow a creator, etc, because I find some Christians to be hypocrites or jerks. Heck, I am not that thrilled with Richard Dawkins at times. On the contrary, I left the faith when forced to examine the scriptures for what they are instead of how they support my beliefs. It was a long and sometimes painful process reconstructing notions of right, wrong and meaning. It is a journey that continues for me. While it is true that I express annoyance at evangelical claims, it is because so many of them are demonstrably false and yet they continue to express them as if there has never been any sort of refutation. People still think that "Liar, Lunatic, Lord" and Paschal's Wager are really good arguments. No wonder Bart Ehrman is annoyed!Ah, music. I do enjoy music although you blew your argument when you brought in jazz. I don't care for jazz. That whole trope was pretty over the top.
Thanks, Scott, for the conversation.I am shocked, of course, that jazz does not speak to you. Inerrancy language and things like "scripture is its own interpreter" make sense until they are interpreted rationalistically. It sounds to me that you still live in a rationalistic world, full of certainty about things that are not certain at all (such as, claims x and y are "demonstrably false"). From where I sit, that is the underlying problem, not whether you are an evangelical or an ex-evangelical.Pascal's Wager makes a lot of sense to someone like Pascal, not surprisingly. A cognitively oriented person if there ever was one, he needed something like the wager to risk his life for Someone he could not understand as he might one of his mathematical equations.Perhaps you are a less needy person than Pascal was. Frankly, however, as Ernst Becker demonstrated long ago, most of us have such needs. They are virtually hard-wired into us.If you find something or someone you are willing to risk your life for that you can process fully from a rational point of view, let me know. Somehow I think that is truly comparable to waiting for Godot.
John,You are right that a persons personal experience of spirituality is hard to argue against. In fact I consider it probably the best (only?) reason to believe. The paradox is that it completely inadequate for convincing others to believe. I do not consider my self in anyway mentally ill but I have experienced an occasional "waking dream" in which the dream state continues after I wake up. I continue to act as if the dream were still occurring for 30 seconds to a minute until I realize that there could not be a giant red wasp on my pillow. (before I go back to sleep, I check under my pillow just to be sure, of course) So your inward experience with the Divine is cast against my own experience of the Mind capable of crossing supposed boundaries between the real and the imaginary.Ah, the Kingdom of God. If I understand him correctly, N T Wright argues that the Kingdom of God was ushered in by Jesus' resurrection (funny that Paul was still looking for it). I do not know if you are arguing this when you talk of "a taste of the kingdom of God". Please forgive those of us who are not already "convicted" but we do expect a lot more from God's sovereign reign than a warm fuzzy feeling and a parking space in front of Starbucks. It has been 2000 years!! We have been through holocausts, famines, and eight years of the Bush administration. The term Kingdom implies that the King is in charge and ultimately responsible. I know few evangelicals who would argue that the Medieval Catholic Church that spawned the Reformation was God's viceregent on earth and yet that was the situation that was allowed to pesist for a thousand years. Frankly, if this is God's Kingdom, many of us are not that impressed. Consider the magnitude of the claims; God is the ruler of the universe; the Holy Spirit will among you; walking on water; healing the sick; judging the wicked. Heck yes I expect more from Christians. I expect them to be different and better. Otherwise what is the point. The same goes for God. I expect even more from him but I don't see any evidence of his "stuff." Mankind continues to scratch and claw forward, every advance easily attributable to even his limited resourcefulness. I am more of a fundamentalist than Jim. If you make a claim then I expect it to prove true in it's fundamentals. Otherwise I discount it. I don't make it my life's journey to find an interpretation against which it might kinda still be true. Of course, Jim is coming from a position of having experienced something spiritual. I have no argument that has proven effective against such an experience. Same goes for you. All I ask is that you examine the Bible with the same presupositions and (in its most positive sense) skepticism that you would employ regarding the claims of Buddhism or Islam.
The reason, of course, that Christianity was successful in the Roman Empire is that Christians really were different, quantifiably, than their pagan peers. Rodney Stark argues along these lines in his blockbuster work, The Rise of Christianity. BTW, Stark is not liked by fundamentalists, because he shows that the same sociology underlies all religions.In the same way, the acceptance of Christianity makes a black-and-white difference in the lives of many today. As you are willing to admit, I think, your rationalism is hardly going to make a dent in those with this kind of experience. It's not just the experience of hearing a voice at an opportune time, a voice you are sure cannot be yours. The range of experiences that end up supporting a commitment to Christianity is wide and deep.Furthermore, if your life is a given a positive shape and you taste and see that the Lord is good in worship and in the daily fabric of one's life, it's just not particularly disconcerting to endure 8 years of Clinton or 8 years of Bush – which gets your goat is a function of highly debatable political preferences. That you chalk up Bush in the same category as medieval popes and the Holocaust bespeaks a curious lack of objectivity. The Holocaust is another matter. On a purely existential plane, I'm not sure I could be a believer if I hadn't read Holocaust survivors as diverse as Frankl and Wiesel, and in particular, spoken with and queried Holocaust survivors about their faith. Since they whose faith however tried continue to believe, and they do, I would feel like a coward if I chose unbelief on the very same basis. I really don't have a negative attitude toward Islam or Buddhism. Which is not to say that I understand them to be equally viable alternatives over against Christianity. I am absolutely convinced that God is at work among Moslems and Buddhists. Of course my criterion of judgment is emic within my system, etic with respect to theirs.For example. While a pastor in Sicily, I was involved in migrant ministry and became close friends with Senegalese Muslims. The integrity of their life and their generosity put Christians to shame, and other Muslims to shame, from Tunisia and Morocco who harbored racist attitudes toward them (the Moroccans would not even eat at the same table with the Senegalese until they resigned themselves to my example). While visiting with the Senegalese, they showed me videos of their imam speaking to huge Billy Graham style audiences. The version of Islam they adhere to is a holiness movement based on the need for repentance. Practical consequences? One of them is their iman's approach to inter-religious conflict. In that part of Senegal, there had been examples of Moslems wreaking violence on Christians and vice-versa. The iman decreed that every first-born son of a Muslim family be given a Christian name. The Christians, amazingly, reciprocated. Each first-born son of a Christian family is given the name of Muhammed.It's not surprising, is it, that Muslims and Christians live in peace in that neck of the woods. Moslems do not cotton to the idea of killing boys whose name is that of the Prophet. Nor do Christians get much pleasure out of killing boys named Peter. My Muslim friends, who explained all of this with care, see God (Allah) at work in this. As a Christian, I see God at work in this.I'm sure you have a better explanation which, if accepted by my Moslem friends, would turn them into unbelievers, or faux believers, of which the world is full. But that's a problem. Anti-religionists are in a double-bind. If they look at things objectively, they realize that the spread of their gospel might actually make matters worse, not better.
John, if you want to count personal experience as proof of God, then you have to count everyone's, including Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, etc.If you want to say that healing is not limited to Jesus, fine, but then what makes his healings special?We get the idea today that Jesus had miraculous powers, but others of his time were said to have the same gifts.
Talon,It's not so much that *I want* personal experiences to count for something. First of all, they just do, for everyone I know. I assume your personal experiences count for you as well.I don't see why, as a believer, I have to deny that God has given powers of healing to others besides Jesus. Maybe it's true that Honi the Circle-Maker we learn about from the Talmud was a fraud, and the rabbis and everyone else were snookered by him. It's possible, but I prefer to think that God gave Honi the power to be an instrument of healing in some cases. Really, there is nothing ridiculous about so thinking. It is in fact suspect to suggest that these stories were simply made up. Ever talk to medical missionaries? They often have stories to tell. They have had to adjust their complete skepticism towards non-Western forms of healing in many instances. Another example: just because we can't explain how acupuncture works, doesn't mean it doesn't.In any case: you're right. That Jesus healed is not a sufficient reason to believe in him as your Savior. To reach that conclusion, you have to buy into the notion of a wounded Healer, that, at the center of the universe, there is suffering love, that, when all is said and done, such love conquers, despite all odds, and therefore, there really is a God in the specifically Christian sense of the term. You have to be able to read 1 Corinthians 13, and think, "Holy Batman! This is somehow true in a way that nothing I've read anywhere else [including in the Quran or a part of the Pali canon] is true. And to think the nasty Paul wrote it!"Then you start to believe in miracles, that someone like Paul, who really was a tough nut, wrote that.
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