Archive for product of his time

2014 Lent 33

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by timtrue

Ivan_Akimov_Saturn

Mark 10:32-45

We are products of our time.

And our time is called postmodern.

By this term pundits mean a lot of things, surely.  But for my purposes today I want to focus on relativism.

Now, for the record, I’m not a relativist.  I believe in absolute truth–or in the possibility of it anyway.

But whether people can arrive at absolute truth in this lifetime, well, that’s another story.

That’s why I can argue with the apostle Paul, for instance.  His words that make up the authoritative word of God are nevertheless a man’s words.  Perhaps they reflect his take on absolute truth.  But there’s got to be room for disagreement.  Otherwise we’d have to make room for slavery.

Even in our postmodern, relativistic culture, it’s pretty much seen that slavery is absolutely wrong; and so here we find something of an absolute truth of postmodernism.

So I’m not a relativist.

But also, there’s this: to say, “Everything is relative,” is in fact an absolute statement.  Yet a true relativist must be able to say this statement in order to be a relativist.  Otherwise he allows for the possibility of the absolute.  He can’t really say, “Everything is relative, except, for, um, well, that statement I just said.”  Neither can he say, “Almost everything is relative,” for the almost allows for the possibility of something, even one thing, indeed to be absolute, which breaks down relativism.

So, in the end, the relativist is trapped.  And I hate being trapped.  So I’m not a relativist.

Nevertheless, relativism is all around me.  So it affects my thinking.

To be sure, it affects how I think about time.

But it’s not just me (or I, if you want to use the correct grammar here; but who really talks like that?).

Any casual moviegoer has viewed movies that play with time.  A film story starts in the present in a confused sort of jumble; it becomes clear for the audience only after a series of flashbacks, only after playing with time.

Or listen to classical music composed in the last hundred years.  Lots of it is riddled with tempo (i. e., time) changes–four-four to five-four to seven-four to eleven-four back to four-four is not unheard of.

Anyway, this is my personal context for approaching today’s passage in Mark, which relates the story where Jesus predicts his own death to his disciples.

But surely, my postmodern-induced mind says, these words were written a full generation after Jesus’s own death.  So when these words were penned, it was more of how Mark remembered Jesus and not necessarily his actual wording, right?  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  It’d be awesome if Jesus really could predict minute details about the future when he walked the earth as a man.  But wouldn’t that destroy the great theological truth known by theologians as the hypostatic union?

(Don’t ask.  It’s a rabbit trail.  But that’s where my mind wants to go.  Then it questions whether even the hypostatic union ought to be seen as doctrine in the first place.  Which brings up questions about relativism and absolute truth–not to mention whether such questioning makes me a heretic.  And so we’ve come full circle.)

It’s my personal context for approaching other stories too, like the one I read yesterday claiming that Jesus actually said the words, “My wife.”  (See http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/harvard-journal-says-gospel-of-jesus-wife-is-ancient-not-a-modern-forgery/2014/04/10/7b172910-c0f7-11e3-bcec-b71ee10e9bc3_story.html for more detail.)

A lot of hoopla has been raised over this one.  There’s investigation, presently, as to whether this so-called gospel of Jesus’s wife might be a forgery–a thoroughly postmodern response, by the way.  So far, though, it’s looking pretty bona fide, as far as being an ancient document anyway.

But I’m still skeptical.  Call it being a product of my time if you will.  But Paul slips into a first-person section in Romans, remember?  He says something like: Wretched man that I am!  The very things I want to do, I don’t; and the very things I don’t want to do I end up doing.

Gobs of good Christian people use this passage to say how even the great apostle Paul had his struggles with personal sin, and so he can readily relate to us.  But a good percentage of New Testament scholars disagree.  This isn’t a confession from Paul.  Rather it’s a figure of speech making the “I” of the passage representative.  So “wretched man that I am” really means “wretched people we all are!”

I happen to agree with these scholars.  And, for the record, I happened to agree with them long before I heard anything about the gospel of Jesus’s wife.

So now, of course, affected by postmodern thought as I’ve been, I have no problem if someone wrote down in the ancient past that Jesus once said, “My wife.”  For one thing, he may never have actually said these words; perhaps they were merely written down a generation or two later by someone remembering it that way.  But, also, even if he did say them, he very well could have been employing a figure of speech, like Paul does: “My wife” could have been a way of saying, “If I were married, as many of you are, then this is what I would do.”

My immediate point is, don’t jump ship just because of some suggestive discovery.  Don’t follow conspiracy theories about Jesus Christ having sired some sort of superhuman race that quietly sits and waits in dark corners of European villages to usher in an apocalypse.  But neither should you walk away from the Christian faith because another debunking has been suggested.

Rather, wait it out.  You might even find that the wait is enjoyable.  And in the mean time, speculate on the ramifications: If Jesus actually were married at one point in the ancient past, how would this affect Christianity today?

But my larger point is that we are products of our time.  That’s a fact, a cultural doctrine, perhaps even an absolute truth.  The best way to deal with this fact is not to pretend we’re not, as some of my friends try to do; but to acknowledge it and then to seek to understand our cultural context better, so that we may respond with wisdom to and in our time and place.

2014 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2014 by timtrue

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I Corinthians 10:14–11:1

Whoa!  Got some feedback to that last one–my last Lenten post, that is (cf. “2014 Lent 22”)!  Some readers hated it.  Others loved it–picked up a few new followers, in fact.  So I went back over it to see if I could discern why the controversy.

My thinking is that it’s the last line.  There I said something like, “So yeah, Paul, I know you’re the writer of sacred scriptures and all, but in this case reason and experience must rule the day for me.”

So my thinking is that maybe this sounds like I’ve just elevated my own reason and experience over scripture in the authority department.  Is that it?  Am I actually suggesting that, even though the scriptures are authoritative for me, my reasoning capabilities and personal experiences are nevertheless somehow more authoritative?

No.  That’s not what I am suggesting.  My heart beats a certain way; my mind follows the laws of logic as I know them.  But I am just one person, extremely limited, who is keenly aware that individuals are almost always poor assessors of self.

So I offer a clarification.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians to address division in their congregation.  In his letter, he brings up some causes for division revolving around the matter of liberty.  How much liberty should a believer in Christ be allowed?  Should a believer in Christ have to follow the Jewish custom of circumcision, for instance?  No!  What about Jewish dietary laws?  Are Christ-believers allowed to eat ham and shellfish?  Sure!  So, what about matters of sexuality?

Here Paul seems to waffle a bit.  He argues that marriage isn’t really that good–and by implication neither is family–that such relationships burden the Christ-believer with unneccessities (my cool new word, by the way).  But, for the sake of controlling lusts, marriage is allowable.  But when a man sleeps with his stepmother, that’s going way too far!

But Paul also believes that the end of the world is near, perhaps to come even in his lifetime.  In other words, he has an apocalyptic worldview.  In this scenario (indeed, just watch an episode or two of The Walking Dead), marriage and family certainly would be a burden.

But we’re not facing an imminent apocalypse.  Or even if we are, we don’t know it and therefore shouldn’t live like it.  Jesus himself says, when charging folks to remember Lot’s wife, that in the days of Noah, right up until the very day of the flood, they were eating, drinking, living, carrying on business, and marrying and being given in marriage.  Even before a worldwide cataclysm, people were carrying on life as normal.

Now Paul says not to since the world’s about to end.

I resisted this idea a little.  It was just a few posts ago if you want to see, something like “2014 Lent 18.”  Point is, I argued with the apostle.  And it felt good to do so.  After all, he and Jesus are making contrary points here; they can’t both be right.

But that post generated little response.

So why now, when I disagree with a method Paul uses to argue a point do I sense such resistance?

Paul makes a great point in I Corinthians 10:14: “Flee from the worship of idols.”  I totally agree, 100%.  Any time something becomes more important to me than God, it’s ugly.  But getting to this point Paul says we shouldn’t eat meat sacrificed to idols if doing so would cause someone to stumble in his or her faith.  Huh?  He also uses fear tactics in his argument:

“Remember all those Israelites who died in the wilderness after God delivered them from Egypt?  Well, they died because of God’s judgment.  Do you want to die under God’s judgment too?  I didn’t think so.  Therefore flee from idols.”

So my point yesterday was not that I disagree with a great truth, but that I disagree with Paul’s methods to get us there.

We are so far removed from Paul that we don’t even really know what meat sacrificed to idols looks like.  So we have no problem with his statement about that.  Why then can’t we remove ourselves from using fear tactics in our moral teachings?  In judgment, he says, “Twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”  This is a huge number.  Certainly, I’m not about to make a brazen statement about Hurricane Katrina, for instance, being a demonstration of God’s judgment.  But isn’t that the idea behind what Paul does in chapter 10:1-13?

So here’s another statement that some of my readership might disagree with: Paul was a product of his times.  My reason strongly suggests this anyway.

Yes, he wrote a good chunk of our sacred scriptures.  And yes, there are many moral truths from his writings that transcend cultural contexts and are thus broadly applicable.  But he also shows some inconsistencies, such as vilifying pagans in one breath and then condoning their actions in the next (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-2), not to mention that bit above where he disagrees with Jesus.

So I’m learning to argue with Paul.

He’s used to it.  He himself was raised in a tradition that values discussion and debate.  Indeed, arguments continue to this day between Rabbis and the Torah.  It’s part of Midrash.  So what if I come along and question Paul’s methods?  According to Paul himself, I have liberty to do so.  Why then should the concluding statement of Saturday’s post be so rankling for you?

Interestingly enough, Paul ends today’s reading with another timeless charge: “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”

No argument there.

Nevertheless, I have taken upon myself a serious discipline this Lent to give substantial consideration to a passage of scripture daily as evidenced by my writing about it.  And this daily consideration includes engaging Paul in argument.  Following his charge, then, I am thus arguing with him for the glory of God.  That’s how I see it anyway.  For the remaining skeptics, however, I offer this: at the last day, after all the arguing and wrestling and rankling is over, I will say, eagerly, “Not my will, Jesus, but yours.”

Now, how in the cosmos is that putting my reason and experience’s authority above that of the scriptures?