Sunday, December 23, 2007

Long theology post

Joseph Campbell, who wrote extensively about the power of myth, said that both atheists and fundamentalists make the same mistake about the things they read in sacred books. Atheists read something like the book of Jonah, for example, and say, it couldn't have happened like that, and therefore it's a lie. Fundamentalists read it and say it's true, so it actually happened exactly like that. Both misunderstand what sort of literature they are reading. It's not history and it's not science. It's symbolism, metaphor, myth. And so it is neither factual nor a lie, neither literally true nor literally mistaken. It's meant to speak to the spirit and not the intellect.

The Bible is a record of how the spirit spoke to men (and perhaps women) in ages past, written down as best they understood it. There is change and development and contradiction in it because people's experience of God changed and developed and improved (and at times, no doubt, regressed.)

God moved people of old and spoke to them in ways they were ready for. In the end of the Bible, we are clearly shown that in times past, God spoke through the prophets, but now His spirit dwells within us, and not in a chosen people or a tent or a sacred building or a collection of old writings. Jesus didn't leave a manuscript, he left a bunch of people who had experienced God in Him. Emmanuel means God with us. Not God up in the sky or God in a book or God in only one person. God with us.

Paul stumbled upon an incredible idea for an ancient Jew: that God cares just as much about Gentiles as he does about Jews. That was a complete overthrow of the entire Old Testament. Paul read the OT in a radically new way, turning the meaning of stories on their head. The story of Sarah and Hagar (mothers of Isaac and Ishmael) is presented in such a way as to make Hagar (mother of the enemies of Israel) stand for Israel, and Sarah (mother of Israel) represent Gentiles (Gentile believers in Christ.) It was, I believe, an authentic spiritual insight, it was God's word to Paul and to us through him. But that doesn't make his opinions about women speaking in church or covering their heads equally significant to us today. It's not. It doesn't make his request for his cloak and his scrolls the word of God. It doesn't make his own admittedly subjective opinion about divorce and remarriage binding on everyone in the world.

The Bible is a record of how people were moved and inspired by God. But the Word of God is living--it's not a book. It can best be seen in a person, Jesus Christ. But even He was limited by the time and culture in which He lived. In fact, He doesn't seem to have even seen beyond the nation of Israel in what He said and taught. So in that sense, Paul went beyond Him.

That process should continue. God didn't stop moving people to new depth of insight in 66 AD. That's one excellent point that Catholicism makes. God continues to move people to see the gospel in new and more mature ways. There's no reason to think that the oldest form of Christianity is the best--living things grow and develop.

Yet in many ways Catholicism has also missed what the spirit is saying to people today. The idea that because having as many children as possible was once the moral and unselfish thing to do, it still is today, is simply wrong, in my opinion. The belief that individual human babies were in sperm led to condemning condoms and masturbation (condemnation that all Protestants accepted as well until maybe 1940 or so)--but now that we know otherwise, it's just silly to try to pretend otherwise. The belief that loving homosexual relationships are evil is no longer tenable. (And if the Catholic church isn't living proof of what happens when you try to suppress people's sexuality, I don't know what is.)

Catholicism teaches me that my ultimate responsibility is to follow my own conscience. Commonsense and some attempt at spiritual maturity teach me that I can't believe things that I don't believe. So I'm stuck with what my own spirit suggests to me is in accord with the spirit of God. Some of it is derived from things in the Bible, and some of it is not. It's Catholic, but not necessarily what the Pope teaches. Confusing and even chaotic, but it's the best I can do.

I would say that God is being revealed progressively through human history. God is able to be revealed more and more in and through us.

This is an experience I had several years ago. I was starting to lose my faith in God as I had imagined Him, and I was starting to suspect that what we call "God" is not exactly a free-standing entity. And this alarmed and disturbed me. So as I struggled with the idea that God didn't really exist in the way I had supposed, I (somewhat contradictorily) addressed this question to God: "God, are you separate from me?" The answer I thought was the "right" (orthodox) answer was, "Of course!" But that's not how it went. As I asked that question, I clearly and immediately "heard" this response: "Do you want Me to be?"

That's quite a question. Do I want to be separated from God? Gee, that can't be good. Then why do I want God to be separate from me? Why do I want God to be separate from humanity? Suppose God's one and only dwelling place is human beings, humanity, us? Jesus certainly hinted as much, with all that talk about what you do to the least, you do to Him, and how you keep the law is to love your neighbor.

If I think about most of the things that God is credited for, such as providing food, saving people from death, bringing people back to life, forgiving sins, etc. turn out, on closer inspection to nearly always come by way of human hands. Even in the Bible! God hardly ever smites people himself--he gets some people to do all the smiting. He doesn't mete out his own justice--he sends people to do it. Even the most supernatural of events, such as water from a stone or children raised from death, require a human intermediary. In the NT, every single "divine" thing that Jesus did, he also told his disciples to do, including forgiving sins and laying down his life for others.

The project that I think humanity is at work on is becoming One, by which I mean feeling and acting for each person as we feel for those nearest and dearest to us. In tribal societies, this is a reality--what is good for the tribe actually compellingly feels to be what's good. In organized religion and nationalism, we see this sense of identification and willingness to live and die for others expanded to a much larger group. But this enlargement comes at the cost of a strong sense of Us vs. Them, and often involves a stronger sense of alienation and disregard for all those on the outside of the circle.

Hence, while it's noble for a man to die for his comrades or for the abstraction of his country (more noble than for him to refuse to serve), his nobility is played out on the field of engaging in large-scale murder of "the enemy." Further enlargement of one's identification and loyalty beyond family and tribe has turned into a greater evil, in that much more hatred and destruction can now be guiltlessly done in the name of God and country. But that sense of the nobility of stepping beyond self to unity with a greater whole is real. It's just that until, in really practical terms, this identification is with all humans, or even, as the Tibetans believe, all sentient creatures, there is always an Us vs. Them that poisons the Oneness.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

That they all may be One, as thou Father in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.

Non-believers are often much better at sensing this and responding to it than believers, who are taught to divide humanity into "saved" and "unsaved," perhaps the most pernicious division of all. Believers are incapable of sincere, single-minded response to the needs of others, because they always have a sense of "ought" and a sense of their own goodness and a sense that their kindness is somehow a bribe or a message that might bring this lost soul to God--and unbelievers feel the hidden message behind all the things that Christians might do for them. On the other hand, a complete reprobate might stop and help his neighbor change a tire without any hidden subliminal message. They feel a connectedness, a sense of mutual responsibility and interdependence, rather than a "moral obligation." These are the folks who will say, Lord when did we see thee hungry and feed thee? And Jesus will say, Whatever you did for the least person, you did for me. Because the dwelling place of God is with mankind. Emmanuel, God with us.

(copied and saved from 2 discussion board posts I made.)

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