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The Fog of History and the Birth of Christianity – Part 1

April 28, 2017

We have a lot of dramatic and culture-creating stories from the life of Jesus and early Christianity. But we have very little established history.

Of course a great many people, both Christians and others, believe that the New Testament contains historical accounts of the founding of Christianity.  We do have a few snippets that can be regarded, in the view of most historians, as having almost certainly happened: Jesus living (even this is disputed by a few historians), gaining a following and being crucified. James, probably a blood brother of Jesus, but not the Apostle James, becoming the main early leader.  (This was perhaps after a brief period in which Peter or someone else may have led.)

This group was a Jesus-as-Messiah Jewish sect in Jerusalem initially.  We also know that “Saint” Paul, soon after Jesus’ death, first opposed and then aligned (at least partially) with this sect and became our earliest written source.  His accounts deal mainly with the Jewish-Gentile form of Jesus-following given his operating almost exclusively outside of Jerusalem and Israel.

But… how and why did this off-shoot of Judaism take hold relatively quickly and grow rapidly, gradually breaking off as a separate religion? (It’s a misconception that it right away was a separate religion apart from other varieties of Judaism.)

Many entire books have been written on how it all happened.  Just one example of such informative work is From Jesus to Christ by Paula Fredriksen, pictured.

Now, some calendar stuff we do know. If you are a church-goer, you may recall that 50 days after Jewish Passover (between what is now Good Friday and Easter) is Pentecost.  Even if not, you’ve probably heard of “The Day of Pentecost”. Certainly of Pentecostals, who take their name from the Jewish celebration and the famous first Pentecost after the crucifixion of Jesus, according to Acts of the Apostles.

Without going into the specific theology involved, the events of that Pentecost as reported by Luke in Acts represent the miraculous “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit. This is essentially what launched the Christian Church in Luke’s telling.  It also serves to let him, and Christians since, tie the story of victory through Jesus back to Hebrew Scripture and Judaism and validate the new direction with a powerful blessing and action of God, so claimed. But is it historical? If something powerful happened that day, was it as described?

In the Empire setting, the sect-becoming-a-religion needed ancient roots which Luke knew both Jews and pagans would expect.

Luke also knew the power and importance of a supernatural story.  And this is a dramatic one for sure! You should read the brief story in the first part of chapter 2 unless the specifics are fresh in your mind.  Read the lead-up in chapter one while you’re at it.

Luke has carefully thought through how he would present the birth of Christianity.  As mentioned,  some of what he had to show was its connection to Judaism — essentially the extension of it — plus the boost of miracles.  This was to prove something he could pull off well enough to give the new faith a founding story that has worked for “faith” and church-building purposes…. However, that began to change about 2 1/2 centuries ago.

Scholars began to look more analytically and historically at Luke’s work in both his books, at the other Gospels, and at the rest of the Bible. More on one of the holes in the embellished part of Luke’s “history” that is not commonly noticed in part 2 coming soon.  And, with that, why so many modern believers struggle with the historical reliability of the Bible still claimed in a majority of Christian churches.

Read more…


Does Employment Affect Spirituality?

April 25, 2017

Did you finish figuring out what you were best suited to do before more-or-less locking into a career or type of job? Did you complete the process of learning the job options in your preferred career area and gaining the qualifications?

If you are not in the right line of work, are you more spiritual or less as a result? That is, more engaged with your spirituality? Most of us probably are more engaged if dissatisfied, out of work or under-employed.  Either we’re blaming God or seeking some special guidance, maybe even a “miracle”! But we may be more positively engaged if we have satisfying work, feel we are contributing.

What about while preparing for the job market… for a career? Do we tend to approach that with a view toward our spiritual beliefs and practices? Or does it seem irrelevant?

It is clearly relevant for some…. people interested in church ministry or other religiously-oriented jobs.  But what about the rest of us? A good chance we give it little thought.  My contention is that we should. And more than just passing thought.  There are more tie-ins between our “spirits” and our work than we generally realize.  That goes whether you consider “spirit” in a loose and broad way (like “team spirit”) or believe you have a spirit that is distinct from your body or even your “soul”.

I am gearing up to begin a series of posts on career development, an area of increased focus for me, and in which I find a great need among particularly young adults, but also young teens, beginning to make choices, on up to people of retirement age.  There are few good structures or processes in the US (or most countries, to my knowledge) to help guide the “novice” adult toward finding and entering the work area and setting that’s most fitting for her or him…. What is likely to bring both strong success and satisfaction.  It’s not hard to be more likely to than the haphazard or poorly informed way most people, even with a college education, get into jobs.

Almost any systematic focus on exploring oneself and the career options most likely to fit well will bring some benefit.  The key is systematic… and sustained over a good period of time, in most cases.  There are people who, from an early age, have a clear sense of their passion and their natural abilities line up well so that entering a career involving that is a “no-brainer”.  All goes pretty well, though often with some barriers to overcome.  But people who are that lucky are a small minority.  I’d guess less than 10%, maybe well less.

So it is for the other 90% or more who struggle and often fail to get into a suitable and satisfying career (many surveys show the dismal numbers) that I begin this focus.  As I plan out this series, which will be the basic outline and content of a book I intend to publish in a few months, I would love to get your input….

What situation are you in regarding work or career? What would you like guidance on? Do you know where to find it?

Do you know or sense, personally, a “calling” that you would or might consider “spiritual”? 

What have you learned that you’d like to pass on to other seekers or dissatisfied workers? What you share with us here will be a big help in making what I design and share more suited to my audience and more on target.  Thanks!

Earth Day, Science Marches and Christianity

April 22, 2017

Today I hope you’re at least hearing and seeing a lot about “Marches for Science” and other commemorations of Earth Day.  Better yet, have participated in one, which I confess I’ve not been able to.  Would have loved to.

Science and theology, together, are at the top of my interest list.  These days most people think of them separately or discuss the conflicts between “science and religion”.  And not without basis.  In the day of Isaac Newton (pictured) theology was still “queen of the sciences”.  Most top scientists were also churchmen (virtually no women yet).  They weren’t necessarily bucking the Church, either, though sometimes major conflicts arose.

Over the course of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, specific points of conflict (as Galileo experienced, building on Copernicus, who was a better “politician”) morphed into what we might think of as one giant point of conflict.  It’s still with us in a variety of ways.  Hopefully, today marks a new level of consciousness which will lead toward increasing resolution and greater collaboration between science and religion (including its political expression).

I can’t go into detail in a short blog post, but I want to feature another little-known scientist-theologian of the 20th Century to highlight the core of this conflict… one of “paradigms”.  (This term was popularized just around a half-century ago, mainly through Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, and hardly needs defining now.)  The person is Alfred North Whitehead.  “Scientist” mainly as a mathematician of some notoriety, working with Bertrand Russell.  He understood well both Einstein’s relativity and budding “quantum mechanics” in his working days of the early to mid 20th Century, first in England and then the US.  But he turned to philosophy, having had a solid foundation in Christian theology in his youth.

220px-Alfred_North_Whitehead (2)

A. N. Whitehead, Father of Process Thought in British/American form

The result? “Process” philosophy and theology.  It’s too much to cover, here, even the basics of the approach, which I’ve done before on this blog.  For my purposes now, I’ll say that Whitehead has been that rare kind of intellectual who devoted himself to understanding and integrating data coming from all kinds of sources.  Here, I mean “data” as not just objective measures but information impressed upon us in what might be called “intuitive” ways and abstract thought experiments.

So you can see, in that statement, how he was addressing the gap that had developed, and bothered Whitehead perhaps more than most thinkers, between “objective” science and “subjective” religion (or even non-religious philosophy).  Objective had come to be valued much higher than subjective.  The subjective was rightly seen, though in a distorted manner, as ephemeral, flighty, undependable.  Also not “practical”.  The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution had pushed us to prioritize the practical… material results.  Of course Christianity, by the 20th Century, had already begun its serious counter-attack, or at least self-defense.  This was basically “fundamentalism” and a doubling down on pre-scientific orthodoxy.

But science was certainly not slowed down much, if any.   So many Christians merely compartmentalized the findings and work of science separately from the beliefs and traditions of their religion (mostly Christian, in the West).  They particularly did so if they worked in science.  And a disproportionate number of scientists were or became atheists.

Now, shelves and shelves of books have been written on “science and religion” since the early days of Whitehead and a parallel track of “process” via the Catholic paleontologist-theologian, Teilhard de Chardin.  So why do I feature Whitehead and his accomplishments, built upon by many other philosophers and theologians?  Because his understanding of reality was applied particularly to one general line of Christian faith, akin to “old-line liberalism” and growing out of it primarily, yet differing from it significantly.

And that view, Process theology (in a single term), I would contend along with many of my Process friends, is a very “practical” one.  It happens also to be an inwardly satisfying and intellectually sturdy way to approach oneself and the world.  I should add “God” in as well, but I do it last because the way Whitehead and Process have understood God is a good distance from the traditional or dogmatically orthodox view.

And the “clincher”: that understanding of God-in-process, as a primarily relational being, not only allows for but elevates the importance of science and particularly the earth sciences, on this Earth Day and day of Marches of Science.

Christian History: Facing the Appalling

April 19, 2017

I’m much less “orthodox” or traditional in Christian belief than Christianity Today magazine, considering myself a simple Jesus-follower with more universal views.  So I seldom read something there I take real encouragement from.  But I just did!

I’m not familiar with the author, Andrew Wilson, but he’s British, so that may be part of the reason….  Even when relatively conservative, Brits tend to have a bit more nuanced and reasoned (?) view of the Bible and the Church than American Evangelicals.  It’s encouraging that Wilson is facing the implications of the many dark aspects of Church history and reflecting seriously on them.  He’s not justifying things inexcusable in any day and age. I don’t find that often among Christian authors and leaders.  Not as represented in Christianity Today, particularly.  And that resource is actually more moderate and thoughtful than a great deal of the American church world.

I won’t recount what Wilson says specifically in the article, titled “The Strange Encouragement of the Church’s Appalling History”.  I’ll stay with just the positive factor of his taking a serious and thoughtful look at Christian history without excusing or rationalizing atrocities committed in the name of God and under Church authority.  He notes the inconsistencies between “biblical principles” (my quotes) and the actions of even many beloved leaders who went along with conventions of the day such as slavery and other kinds of degradation and abuse.

He seems to be grappling, without spelling it out, with what may have been wrong with “orthodoxy” itself.  With aspects of theology that have been carried over to this day.  The ones that play into the human imperfections that get exaggerated particularly when people are “in power”. Kudos, Mr. Wilson! I hope your reflection keeps you open to continuing modifications of how you understand and express the “good news” of God and of Jesus.  And that it prompts others of a generally traditional view of God, the Bible, and the Christian Church to do the same.  In the process, I hope they realize orthodox beliefs only became orthodox gradually, have always been evolving and will continue to do so, hopefully at a picked-up pace.

For those who “fall off the log” on the other side… remaining ignorant or forgetting that Christian faith, through many church or other organizations, has prompted untold amounts of compassionate and wonderful things, I also have a word.  Wouldn’t it be proper to withhold negative opinions and comments about the dark side of Christian history until you have taken a serious look at the good as well?  If you still want, as I often do, to remind about the negatives, the failures, you may at least be more fair and place things in better context.

Easter Brings Discussions of Jesus Broader than Just Resurrection

April 15, 2017

Did you ever wonder why it’s “news” that the Pope celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday? Or that Christians all over the world were commemorating Jesus’ Resurrection? Oh, well… understanding that one is out of my field of studies, I presume.

My headline points out that, as seasonal creatures, we naturally tend to cycle what’s on our minds in parallel with our cultural and/or religious celebrations.  Whether you’re religious, spiritual-but-not-religious or non-religious and non-spiritual in your interests, you may encounter extra articles, radio or TV pieces and such that deal with Jesus around now.  I hope you take time to read some of them.  Fascinating stuff.

Fascinating on more than one level.  Some of them deal with the question of the existence of an actual historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ.  This makes it fascinating in terms of a puzzle of history.  And a revelation of the difficulties of finding any “objective” history from ancient times or even perhaps today.    

One good article by a solid biblical scholar is in The GuardianAnother, which I’ve commented on under the article, interacting with other commenters, is by psychologist and former Evangelical Christian, Valerie Tarico, found here.  They come from differing perspectives and both cite relevant modern experts and ancient documents, or the interesting lack of them.  Neither is technical nor hard to read so I recommend them both for a broad audience.

Another level of fascination brought out by informed discussions on Jesus and very early Christianity is “watching” the formation of the world’s largest religion (though we are missing much more of the story than the parts we do have).  There are so, so many lessons applicable to today’s situation both in the Middle East, here in America, and everywhere else.  Issues of cultural and ethnic tensions and how they sometimes are transcended, sometimes remain tense for incredibly long periods.  Issues of how the seemingly necessary “myths” of life’s meaning, spiritual “reality”, our destiny and such things are developed and sometimes changed rapidly.

I’ll expand briefly on just the matter about myth-making.  This comes up quickly and often emotionally in discussions of what is historical or not, from Jesus’ very existence, to what he said and did, to how Christianity was actually founded and by whom.  It’s right that it should come up.  Believers (all types of Christians, not just “born again” or literalist types) need to much better understand the reality and process of myth-making in general and in the founding of their faith in particular.   And non-believers or doubters with nagging questions often need to be much better informed on myth-making as well, and on what does stand on solid historical ground regarding Jesus and his early followers, even when much of it cannot be pinned down with specificity.

My own fascination may exist because of an early and quite long education in the Bible and Christian faith followed by a long widely-searching period and then much more study in both formal and self-guided modes in particularly New Testament and related texts and the subject of “Christian origins”.  This last phase has included exploration of the process of myth-making and its relation to cultural and/or nationalistic issues.  I will say categorically,

It is impossible to very deeply understand even one’s own culture–its values, memes, sense of place in the world–overall what drives it, without some examination of the mythology behind it.  This is particularly true for “Christian America”.

The scholar I’ve encountered who has developed the most (in my exposure in English language work) on myth-making within Christianity is Burton Mack (“Who Wrote the New Testament”, “The Christian Myth”, etc.)  He has developed “Social Interest Theory” along with anthropologist Jonathan Z Smith in a lot of detail.  It has strong explanatory power… a key test of the validity and usefulness of any systematic theory.  Some of his work is fairly technical, some of it not.  So I recommend some exploration of him to readers all along the scale of education on religion or Christianity and its formation.

But there are a whole lot of other authors who have made important contributions to this area.  Too many to begin naming them here.  But I do encourage you to look into any author’s credentials and try to identify his or her perspective (religious commitment and in what setting, an anti-religious sentiment, etc.).  This almost inevitably coincides, to varying degrees, with intellectual bias and with reasons a person researches and writes on a given topic.

Pope Francis Acting as a Spiritual Leader Should

April 11, 2017

I’m a progressive Christian. Not a Catholic. But I like a number of things about Pope Francis.  His stand on preserving the earth (so our children and grandchildren survive).  Also his support of immigrants and their needs.

You take your allies where you can get them.  The Pope’s concerns are worldwide, not just in relation to the United States, nor just the Americas.  But his perspective is quite clearly different from that of many in this country (USA) – all the way to the top, our current president.   Note the statement of one US bishop, as quoted by the Washington Post:

“‘The pope makes it a lot easier for me to be a bishop because he’s very clear in his teaching, and [on] this one in particular, he’s trying to awaken the conscience of the citizens of the world,’ Cupich said.”

I don’t agree with the Roman Catholic claim to be the earthly organization representing Christ.  In general, I perceive that organizations are not very good at discerning and applying spiritual realities, whether the words of Christ, the rest of the Bible or holy books of other religions.  But we need them.  And we can celebrate when a leader of one is as courageous and clearly driven by love more than by power, as is this Pope.

I highly recommend the article from which I quoted above, found here.  It also discusses Catholics who differ with Pope Francis on the immigration issue, both here and in other nations, so more than just a “feel good” piece.  Yet it is an uplifting story of the care and courage of a religious leader which we seldom see, whether you agree with him on his exact approach and positions or not.

It is not and should not be only political leaders who exert influence on the matters we elect them to administer.  Francis seeks to improve the immigration problem by encouraging us to love and to serve – attitudes and actions that counter the fear and possessiveness driving much of the reaction to migration, whether it’s legal or illegal.

My Theology Lets me Imagine a Nation of California – Part 2

April 8, 2017

Would a California Nation be “solid as a rock”, like the massive granite, Half Dome? (In Yosemite, California, as pictured.)  I happen to think it would.  I gave a few of the reasons in Part 1.

But let me repeat that I’m not saying it’s necessarily a wise or practical thing to move in that direction.  However, it’s fairly likely that a proposition about it will be on our 2018 California ballot. So I’m featuring the idea to stimulate some thinking about it on a spiritual basis.  (For now, I’m merging the concepts of “religious” and “spiritual”, though I do think there are important separate usages of the terms.)

A key reason for encouraging deeper thought is that recent US elections, beyond just fall of 2016, indicate many people use shallow religious reasons or alliances for voting as they do.  We might say they are quasi-religious reasons in that they seem actually more cultural or economic with a mere veneer of the religious.  This is somewhat the case world-wide, but the USA is more deeply religious than Europe or much of the Western World.  For this and other reasons there is a stronger and more direct effect of religion in our politics than in many countries.

For California voters or US or foreign onlookers who consider themselves Christian (broadly defined, not just “born again” or Evangelical), let’s look at teachings of Jesus and Paul, particularly.  Are there any which might guide throwing our support, or not, to some form of Calexit? I think there are some principles which apply, though neither of these leaders spoke very specifically about political organization, and voting was nearly unknown or irrelevant to their audiences at the time.

Of course, both Jesus and Paul spoke a lot about kingdoms… of this world and of another place and order entirely.  I see both men as operating, in somewhat different ways, within the apocalyptic prophet “movement” of ancient (or “Second Temple”) Judaism.  To oversimplify significantly, they were expecting the direct intervention of God to establish the “Kingdom of God”, both on earth and in heaven …. So a form of theocracy.  With Paul, unlike with Jesus, who remained culturally Jewish all his life, one could say that apocalyptic views that were basically Jewish had become “Christian”.  Paul had incorporated Gentiles, seriously tweaked Pharisaic Jewish theology, and broadened outreach.  The result was that the Jewish Jesus-following sect was universalized as Christianity was “founded.”

I should insert here that my own brand of Jesus-following does not expect any “supernatural” (i.e., miraculous) intervention to establish a Utopian “kingdom” although I believe God has been and will always exert loving influence toward improvements in human governance.  

My explanation of “apocalyptic” in the thinking of Jesus and Paul is important on two counts: First, that it is often overlooked or downplayed in interpreting the Gospels and Paul’s writings, leading to distortions of New Testament theology.  Second, that this is a key example of why it is complex and tricky to apply their teachings to situations within any political structure, and especially to those within a modern democracy.

The distortions produced include seeing Jesus too far removed from political/prophetic involvement.  Contrary to this view, his execution was clearly by Rome (not the Jews) as a threatening figure in terms of political stability.  Although he was not fomenting armed resistance, it was resistance none the less.

As to distortions of Paul, his generally accepting or passive stance toward governing authorities, based largely on Romans 13, can’t (or shouldn’t) be easily translated over to contemporary times.  If one is, as was Paul, expecting the very-soon appearing of Christ and “final judgment”, one tends to be less concerned about challenging or improving political conditions.  So with that super-brief treatment of Paul’s politics, let’s say his input toward a California-US divorce is tough to determine and would perhaps be neutral.

So what about the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels? (The Gospels cannot be taken to consistently reflect what he actually said or did, according to most biblical scholars and serious students of the New Testament, but we’ll set that matter aside for now and take things as expressed.) What that he is storied as saying might apply to the issue of California exiting the United States?

Again, nothing seems to apply directly.  Much of the reason is this: The political situation of the Israel of Jesus’ time was quite different than ours.  For centuries, the civil governance of the nation had been interwoven with its religion. “Judges” and then Kings had autocratic authority over much, but a great deal of economic and social life was governed by Torah (the legal part of the Hebrew Bible) and administered by the tribal/familial line of priests.  By the time we get to the first century, the “second” Temple of the post-Babylonian Exile period, upgraded magnificently by Herod the Great, was more than a place of animal sacrifice and worship.  Much more.  It was effectively the center of economic activity, record-keeping and administration of much of what made both Judea and Galilee tick. (These were the major regions often referred to in the New Testament).

Again, much of civil as well as religious governance was with the High Priest and administrative, functional layers of priests, under the control of first King Herod (or his sons, Herod Antipas, “that fox”, or Archelaus, by Jesus’ time) and then the Roman local governance.  The latter is seen famously (if in some distortion in the Gospels) in Pilate.  The Romans had been wise enough, since taking direct control of the region in 63 BCE, to allow the Jews their religion and cultural practices and much of their own economic governance.  However, it was always under the oppressive taxation and tight anti-insurgency control of Rome and its vast military.

So one can easily imagine the high level of corruption, particularly because King Herod and his family were inter-married with Roman Gentiles.  As half-Jews, the line was not fully accepted as legitimate kings, nor of course the Romans as legitimate overlords, being non-Jewish and “heathens”.  So the Temple represented and actually was the center of a highly oppressive and corrupt system in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

This is the important context for the well-remembered scene, known even by non Bible readers, in which Jesus “cleanses the Temple”.  At the least, this was brief and purely symbolic… a prophetic gesture calling leadership to account for the systemic corruption that clearly broke the spirit of Torah, if not often its letter as well.  At the most, it may have led, perhaps unintentionally by Jesus, to a serious riot or violent protest involving many people and leading to Jesus’ arrest and charge of sedition. (See my posts here and here for more.)

Whatever exactly happened, it seems clear that an important, probably pivotal incident of challenge for a more just and fair economy and implementation of laws took place.  In it, we find a model that is at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity – the tradition of prophets (and earlier, legislators) who call for economic justice and the opportunity for all to thrive.  In my view, elements of this tradition are reflected in the US historically in both conservative and liberal parties and wings of parties, the balance and specific features varying over time.

So how does this relate to theological applications in a possible Calexit? And do Jesus’ teachings give any further guidance?

In my mind one connection is this: If California, as a state, seems clearly to express more of the positive elements of governance expressed by Jesus and elsewhere in the Bible (and the better periods and aspects of Christian history) than does the USA as whole, then Calexit is at least worth examining.

As to anything else specific to be gleaned from Jesus, I would cite his teachings of forgiveness and servant leadership.  Sure, these are generally taken, as they may have mainly been intended, for personal conduct more than civil governance.  But do things need to be fully reversed when “scaled up”? Does a nation absolutely need to use coercion on a broad scale, either internally or internationally, to generally provide for peace and a just set of economic policies? I think not.  At least not in the extreme fashion seen in both the military of the US and in our run-away practices of imprisonment.

Finally, does not Jesus’ call to provide for “the least” (or “underprivileged”, less able) among us apply to some extent, at minimum, to policies of civil government? (Some of this was included in the civil law of Torah in things like gleaning laws, Jubilee, etc.)  I say “some extent” as a word to my more conservative friends who believe the private sector alone is responsible for this social function.  I think it’s abundantly clear that Americans have long treated this as a matter of degree, not an either-or, despite rhetoric from large elements within conservatism.    

So, if the US as a whole should distance itself further and further from sensible policies of social welfare (which appears right now to be happening), and California continues to support and promote such things, this may add justification, on a theological basis, for Calexit.  Similarly with respect to the use of science in critical areas like climate change and ecological civilization.  Of course, science was not a developed area of study apart from theology in biblical times.  But the issue is, to me, more one of submission to the serious pursuit of truth versus denying reality for the sake of short-term aims.

I have not sought, even for myself, to fully develop a wholistic rationale (theological and otherwise) for evaluating a possible exit of California from the Union, but these are some of my early thoughts.

Your thoughts on the subject, whether you’re from California or not, are welcomed!