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“Grand Scale Culture Wars” – Part 5 – Knowledge via Revelation and Authority

April 5, 2016

Conflict gets our attention! It’s proven over and over. A current example is American media jumping on every thrust and parry of our presidential primary race.  They, spurred on by us, especially love featuring the purposely pugilistic Donald Trump.

An ancient example is all the “fights” in the Gospels of the New Testament: Jesus vs. demons; Jesus vs. Pharisees; disciples vs. outsiders and sometimes each other; Jesus vs. “the Temple”; Jesus vs. Pilate; Pilate vs. “the Jews”, etc., etc.

We “hate” our continual fights, but we can’t stop loving them either.  We spoke of St. Paul in the last segment, Part 4. He portrays the grandest of all conflicts: those in the heavenlies, in which God has taken on and defeated human-enslaving powers of darkness through the death and raising of Christ.

Paul was no stranger to more earthly conflict.  His inner conflict turned him from persecutor to promoter. (Luke says Jesus gave Paul a livestock analogy: he was “kicking against the goads” prior to reversal of belief.)  He barely survived Jewish mobs and municipal or regional authorities.  He had conflict with his own colleagues – sometimes Peter but especially James, then the top Jerusalem leader. (This was purportedly the brother of Jesus, though Paul never makes it clear he believed he was).  No question Paul’s inner and outer world was filled with intense conflicts.

As his revelations occurred and he developed his unique theology, it’s no stretch to imagine Paul projected the earlier phases of this out upon the heavenly panorama as conceived in his day.  (Not saying none of this originated with God….  It’s not easy to determine either way, particularly if we seek to mediate naturalism and supernaturalism.) As commonly imagined in his day, “heavenly places” were filled with an array of spiritual powers battling God for prizes on earth.  At stake: nothing less than the future of Israel and the world.  Our own souls could be saved in the process.

Also germane is that Paul’s likely “hometown”, Tarsus, was a crossroad mixing Jewish, Greek, Persian and Roman cultures.    He’d no doubt been exposed to everything from mystery religions to Greek philosophy to Persian dualism and concepts of Zoroaster. His predominant input, it appears, was a serious youthful education in Pharisaic Judaism.  Doing what limited psychoanalysis of Paul we can, it makes sense he’d try to reconcile the tensions of these often-conflicting views of the world… views which clearly had battled within him.  We get this from his adult self-descriptions as well as inferences from the little we know of his childhood and youth.

It’s quite possible that his evident knowledge of various perspectives and where he was apparently born reflects a “mixed-marriage”.  Perhaps a Jewish mother and Gentile father.  (Intermarriage seems to have been relatively rare, but clearly did happen… the Herodian family, for example, was mixed; additionally, Tarsus was far north of Palestine, relatively restricting the Jewish marriage pool.) Paul never refers to either of his parents.  Perhaps this is why.  It may have been shameful to part of him, tensions arising because of that other part. And it’s clear Paul was passionately emotional.)  

Regardless of possible mixed ethnicity for Paul himself, he clearly had picked up affinity for both the personal and the conceptual side of his comingled Jewish and Gentile/pagan home milieu.  So add to his internal personal conflicts that he had interpersonal or social conflicts to resolve, to the extent he could.

His high energy and ambition to make an impact drove him relentlessly… with the result that his revelations did bring resolution! Via his visionary experiences, Jews and Gentiles were both invited to join in the one “body of Christ”.  Only faith required… no “works of the law” (Torah)!  Gentiles could enter as easily as Jews.  Ethnic, cultural, class and even gender boundaries were broken down in unity.

The Jerusalem “Church” leaders were not on this “page”! (See Galatians 1 and 2, and 2 Corinthians 11, from Paul himself; then compare Acts for basic confirmation of this, but from a differing later perspective… one which minimizes the conflicts, per Luke’s agenda.)  The page these “founding fathers” were still reading was ambivalent about inclusion of Gentiles… open but not exactly welcoming.  Their own “risen Jesus” visions had not made clear how God would create Gentile legitimacy in participating in a “new covenant” – one still with Israel.  Hebrew Scriptures, to which both Paul and they consistently looked, did not say much about this either.  After all, most Messiah references and implications of a new covenant were actually quite vague, interpreted various ways in this “intertestamental” period.

Apparently Jesus hadn’t clarified the murky problem of Gentile inclusion or a mission to them. The Gospels themselves indicate ambiguity.  Acts, in a dubious description, seeks to show gradual clarification, though not by Jesus directly. Let’s remember that we have multiple indications that Paul and the Jerusalem Jesus-followers shared the belief that Jesus’ “appearance” in glory and triumph was very soon to come.  Coming to believe that Jesus was Messiah and soon to appear was Paul’s basic “conversion” (within Judaism, not to Christianity, which didn’t yet exist).  But with Paul’s background and overriding interests, his vision of Jesus’ role was different than those who’d experienced earlier “appearances” of Jesus.

These appearances were not specified by Paul, nor directly by any Jerusalem leaders, as Jesus presenting himself bodily.  There also were not claims (except by Luke, writing much later) of an “ascension” before which Jesus supposedly walked bodily around Jerusalem or Galilee.  (The problem of conflicting Gospel accounts on where he supposedly went, aside for now.)  So the common claim of orthodoxy that only the “resurrection” can explain the restored faith of the Apostles/disciples can be valid.  However, that need not also require (or substantiate) a bodily resuscitation of Jesus. Visionary experiences suffice quite adequately.  This may have included corporate (experienced together) ones, as Paul refers to (1 Cor. 15)… not an unheard-of occurrence, and not the same as hallucinations.

So we find, among the earliest Jesus-followers, a critical difference of approach involving religious/ethnic boundaries surrounding what Jesus was claimed to have accomplished and his ongoing promise.  In it are the roots of major conflict between the authority of James and Paul.  (Peter, as a co-leader and missionary we’ll tie in loosely with James.)  Paul, on the other hand, was not an official co-leader but at least partially endorsed at first and later tolerated… we often forget that it appears his direct contact with James was very minimal. His time was quite limited with Peter as well, from all we can tell.

This particular “apostolic” conflict was not an intentional or significant part of the narrative drama of what became the New Testament. Nor does this canon (collection of books) seek to feature “intramural” Christian and Jewish-Christian conflicts, though they show through frequently.  The key points in this post are these:

  1. That revelation is central for the most influential NT author, Paul. In it we see the psychological and spiritual power of his own resolution of inner conflict. (However, only partially explained, if he even understood it deeply himself.)
  2. How Paul’s vision of the resolution of a cosmic conflict that (purportedly) affects us all inspires the core of the “Gospel message”. This is the part of “The Gospel” that has come down most powerfully in much, if not most of the Christian Church. In the process, it has supported and carried along earlier forms of supernaturalism shared by Hebrew, Persian, Greco/Roman and pagan religions… and still-to-this-day, most forms of Christianity.  

We will later deal further with how revelation, particularly that of Paul, codifies “Truth” when combined with concepts of authority.  That is, authority as authorization of revelation as well as tradition. This is a big part of a supernatural worldview… pivotal in it.  Such a worldview can coexist, in the same person, alongside a mostly-naturalist one.  The points of conflict or tension are rarely thought through.  The result is a sloppy and pliable view of God, often with an emotional price to pay.  (There’s always an intellectual price.)  Usually, in this view, God is “sovereign”, imposing his will by interventions in the natural systems of the world, using miracles and divine judgment (on both persons and nations).

How closely does this kind of “supernaturalism” fit either what you’ve believed or how you’ve understood the teaching of churches you’ve attended?

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