A Deep God?

Source: Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, Being Catholic: How We Believe, Practice, and Think (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006) 185.

“There are many ways to see God in creation. Everything that is is somehow created to reflect God. We can see the power of God in the thunderstorm and the immensity of God in the sky and the sea. A cat helping her kittens shows us something about God’s tenderness. The seemingly endless variety of plants is an indication of the generosity of God who was not content to create just a few species, but thousands and thousands for our use and enjoyment. When we enter the realm of the human, the images of God are even more varied. Tall people and short people, creative people and plodding people, people with gifts of affectivity and people with gifts of logic and mental discipline, people who talk and laugh a lot and people who are quiet and reserved–all of them reflect something about God.”

I like this quote because it says that God displays his attributes through all of creation. And it also states that all sorts of people–even the socially awkward–play a role in communicating who God is.

I’m not in the mood to answer a bunch of counter-arguments. “What about hurricanes, which take away people’s lives and homes? Do they communicate a loving God?” Good questions, but I don’t want to deal with them right now. I just want to relax and appreciate how nature communicates God.

God is deep? There are plenty of passages that suggest that God’s thoughts are deep. There have been times when I have felt this way, and times when I have not.

Let’s start with the times when I’ve not. I already know a lot about Christian doctrine, and, to be honest, I don’t find it all that deep, compelling, and profound. Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and those who continue in sin and don’t accept his sacrifice are going to hell. Also, God is three persons in one being, a “mystery” known as the trinity. Maybe I’d appreciate Christ’s sacrifice more if it were not so abstract to me, but, as an idea, I have a hard time perceiving its depth. And people act like the trinity is some big-time mystery, but I don’t understand why. A family has many members, and yet it is one family. There are all sorts of collective unities, so why can’t God be such?

What makes matters worse is when fundamentalists and evangelicals proclaim these ideas as if they’re the sum-total of the universe. Okay, so I’ve learned the substitutionary atonement. I know the right way to live. Is there anything else to learn?

And so there’s a part of me that looks at the depth and the variety of nature, and feels that Christianity doesn’t match them at all.

Yet, I’ve also had times when I’m reading the Bible, and layer upon layer of meaning emerges. I realize that I have many unanswered questions–about the text, about how God relates to real life, etc., etc. It’s weird how I can read the Bible again and again, and something new always jumps out at me (or at least usually does). And I’ve had quiet times in which I’ve felt that I could go on for another hour, as if it would take a long time to exhaust the dimensions of the text. In those cases, God does appear deep.

On some level, my God is definable–almost to the level of a caricature. Yet, there’s so much that I don’t understand about him–when I look at the Bible, or nature, or life. My God is too small, yet he’s somehow big.

Published in: on November 30, 2008 at 1:26 am  Comments (2)  

Thoughts About Star Trek: The Motion Picture

I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture a few nights ago because Stephen Collins was on it, and I wanted to see if he was anything like Eric Camden on 7th Heaven. Catherine Hicks was on Star Trek IV, and she definitely acted like Annie Camden, in the sense that she was rather feisty and strong in her convictions.

Stephen Collins wasn’t like Eric Camden on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but he was more like the role he played on one episode of the Waltons: stiff, rather formal, not much voice inflection or ability to connect with people. On the audio commentary and the documentary, however, he was much more like Eric Camden: real, thoughtful, likable, ability to connect with people, open, somewhat mesmerizing, etc.

I wish that he commented more on the religious dimensions of the plot, but many of his comments were about the technical aspects of the film. I appreciated one thing he said about the role of actors. For one scene, he said, he was told to look at the screen ahead and act like he was seeing the most beautiful thing that one could behold. In reality, howevr, he was looking at a big fat “X.” Collins then remarked that actors are paid to exercise their imaginations.

Regarding the religious dimensions, he made a statement near the end of the movie about his character’s assimilation with the V’Ger space vessel. In the movie, Collins’ character, Decker, merges with a NASA space probe that had attained knowledge and consciousness. It was pure logic, so it had a lot of loneliness and inner emptiness. But Collins gave it a human dimension, and it became an omniscient, omnipresent being after their merging.

Collins said that he would have liked to do what Decker did: to leave everything behind and become part of something larger than himself. Nowadays, he said, he’d be less willing to do that, since he has a family that he doesn’t want to leave behind. But he said he would have been more willing to undertake such an endeavor in his younger years. Collins also said that, around the time of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he started to practice meditation, which was a way for him to transcend himself and nature. That corresponded with something I read in wikipedia: that he’s a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, a New Age technique.

While I was listening to the audio commentary, I was reading Book II of the Christ Clones trilogy, which touched a lot on New Age religion. In the book, the Antichrist and his associates maintain that the world is entering a new era, in which people are advancing in their human capabilities. They are on the verge of being able to read one another’s thoughts and feelings, which could lead to mutual understanding. And the Antichrist said that religion must go out the door, since it has led to a lot of division and bloodshed. For him, people must learn to appreciate the “god within.”

The part about mutual understanding somewhat appealed to me, probably because I find that I am often misunderstood. But I doubt that people would necessarily like me or sympathize with me if they could read my thoughts and feelings, even if they were to discover that I’m not really that different from them. I know people who love to critique and psychologically analyze others. They claim to understand people’s insecurities, yet they don’t necessarily sympathize with or like those people.

When Psalm 139 says that God knows us intimately, does that mean that he sympathizes with us? Or does he know us as a distant judge, one who knows our number, even as he critiques us?

There are aspects of the Christ Clones model that resonate with me, but I can’t imagine myself ditching God in favor of a nebulous “god within.” Even if we understand each other and solve the world’s problems, there will still be an emptiness or feeling of disconnection that only God can fill (in my opinion). So many religions try to deal with human alienation. Buddhism attributes it to human attachment. Gnosticism stated that we are actually divine sparks trapped in an alien world. The ones who deny human alienation seem to be atheists, who believe that this world actually can meet people’s needs. Maybe that’s because they see this world as all there is, so they think it has to meet our inner desires.

I didn’t entirely identify with Stephen Collins’ religion. I can identify with going beyond myself, but not really with transcending nature and becoming an omnipresent, omniscient being. Does that mean that I want to be a servant of a higher power for all eternity? I’m not sure. I don’t know what I want.

That brings me to a key message in Star Trek: The Motion Picture: V’Ger was looking for his creator, who could explain to it the purpose for its existence. And V’Ger wanted physical contact with the one who had made him. That’s one reason many of us search for God: we want to know our purpose. And if my purpose is to serve a higher power, then that’s fine with me. I’d be acting according to who I am, as God made me.

My problem is that Christianity often requires me to be something I naturally am not–a happy, happy social extrovert. I wonder what my purpose is in light of how God made me: an insecure introvert who struggles socially.

Anyway, these are my ramblings for the day.

Published in: on November 28, 2008 at 9:19 pm  Comments (7)  

Thanksgiving 2008

It’s Thanksgiving today, and we just had our big meal. Now, we’re preparing ourselves for the best part of the holiday–leftovers for the weekend after Thanksgiving!

Most of my family and friends at the dinner didn’t think the football games were that much count. I did get to see Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s husband, who plays for the Dallas Cowboys. He had his helmet on, though.

UPDATE: Actually, he plays for the team that was opposing the Dallas Cowboys. I forget what they’re called.

In terms of the meaning of Thanksgiving, I read a lot of editorials saying that we should be thankful despite our hard times. That’s a lesson I should follow, whatever my hard times may be. As Paul said, be thankful in every circumstance (which doesn’t mean be thankful for every circumstance).

My brother finally mastered one side of the rubic’s cube. He’s the one with the engineering degree! I asked him which would come first: the Republicans coming back into power, or him mastering the entire Rubic’s cube. He said he could master the cube with the help of the Internet, but he’s not too sure about the Republicans getting power back anytime soon.

Tomorrow, I’m going to blog some on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I watched last night. Stay tuned!

Published in: on November 27, 2008 at 11:48 pm  Comments (4)  

An Open CGI

I’m home in Indiana right now, and one of my traditions when I’m here is to peruse old issues of the Journal. The Journal is a newspaper that has articles by various people in the Armstrongite movement, though I believe that others have contributed to it as well. I vaguely recall reading an article by James Tabor in it.

One article in the June 30 edition concerned the Church of God (International) in Jamaica, which is headed by Ian Boyne. Although the Armstrongite movement is dying throughout the world, the CGI is growing exponentially in Jamaica. Its praise and worship is lively, meaning that it doesn’t just focus on standing up and singing the same old Dwight Armstrong hymns over and over. And the preaching is dynamic, leading Garner Ted Armstrong to comment in 1987 that it was among the best preaching he had ever heard. As someone who once attended an Adventist church that is predominantly Caribbean, I am not surprised.

What did surprise me, however, was how open the CGI in Jamaica is to hearing different ideas. A seminary student who believed Christians didn’t have to keep the Sabbath was given an hour to present his position to the church. Mondays are set aside for people who want to criticize something they disagreed with in the weekly sermon. And those who express disagreement are not disfellowshipped.

I already knew that Ian Boyne wasn’t one to shy away from the outside world. I read a long time ago that he visited seminaries and universities and explained to their students the Armstrongite positions on various religious questions. But I had no idea that he allowed people with different beliefs to come to CGI to present their ideas.

I somewhat admire the security that such an approach projects. CGI Caribbean is not afraid to be challenged. It doesn’t have the attitude of “don’t read this” or “don’t listen to him” that has afflicted many Armstrongite churches.

It reminds me of some of my own experiences. I’ve attended Sabbatarian churches that love to discuss stuff–with anyone who wants to discuss it. And they’ll go around the clock if necessary! When someone from the cultish International Churches of Christ was trying to recruit me at DePauw, my dad recommended that we invite him to our church. And a church my family attended met in someone’s home for a Bible study one Saturday, when some Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked at the door. Our host let them in, took them downstairs, and–SURPRISE–there was a Bible study group going on! The Jehovah’s Witnesses started to feel uncomfortable, and they soon left.

One reservation I have about Boynes‘ approach is that there needs to be caution. Some of these cultists will take over the show, if you let them! There was a reason that Paul and Ignatius told churches to obey the church authorities and not to tolerate heresy. Personally, I think Ignatius can get pretty authoritarian, but I can appreciate that he saw some need to create and enforce boundaries.

But, to his credit, Ian Boyne probably does things in an orderly manner. From what I read, he has a Sabbath service once every week, and he hashes out the controversial issues outside of the main service. The service is a place for the church to celebrate its common beliefs in a state of unity, but time outside of the service is set aside for the controversial stuff. That probably keeps things from becoming a free-for-all.

Published in: on November 26, 2008 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Another Nullified Law

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 487.

“How great a reverence was felt for Judah may be seen from the fact that, on his death, no less honors were paid to his body than had been shown by his grandfather, Judah I. In direct opposition to the Law, a descendant of Aaron was compelled to take charge of his corpse; it being alleged that it was permissible in this instance to lay aside the holy character of his priesthood.”

I chose to write on this quote rather than one on Origen’s Hexapla because I don’t have a lot of time. I have to leave at 7:15.

What has intrigued me about Graetz is that he points out examples in which rabbis and Jewish leaders simply disregarded the Torah. At least that’s how Graetz portrays it. He hardly ever cites his sources, so I don’t know if the Jewish leaders said a law could be disobeyed, or instead looked for exegetical ways to circumvent the law.

Graetz said that Jochanan nullified a certain law about adultery in the first century C.E., when adultery was rampant (see An Adulterous Generation–Even According to the Mishnah). That checks, sort of. Mishnah Sotah indeed says that Jochanan nullified that law, yet it cites Hosea 4:14 as a proof-text. But Jochanan still nullified the law. At the same time, Hillel introduced the prosbul to circumvent the land Sabbath. For some reason, he felt that he couldn’t simply declare the law null-and-void. He saw a need to bypass it legally.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 11:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why Mess with It?

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 126.

“But of course every finite being will come up against external causes that will limit its freedom. Ideally one will want to reduce the number of those freedom-limiting encounters and to reduce the impact that they have when they occur. One way of achieving this is to reduce one’s reliance on external goods. If one’s happiness depends solely on one’s virtue, as Stoicism argues that it should, then one will become immune to a whole range of external causes that would otherwise create adverse affects, such as the thief who takes your wallet, for instance.”

I read this quote as if it offers an explanation for Stoic asceticism. Maybe I’m reading too much into it–I don’t know. I interpreted it to mean that, if one doesn’t have too many external goods to worry about, then one won’t become overly attached to them, and there won’t be any disappointments when they end up being unreliable.

That could be, but it sounds rather escapist. Shouldn’t a strong Stoic be able to enjoy the world’s goods, without going berserk if they end up disappointing him? Paul said in Philippians 4:11-13 that he learned to be content with much and with little, since Christ is the source of his strength in both situations. Paul didn’t have to possess much or little to be content.

Paul here says that it’s possible for a Christian to have much, but there are other places in the New Testament and early Christian literature that are more anti-wealth. Jesus often warns against trusting the riches of this world, encouraging his disciples to look for treasures in heaven instead (e.g., Matthew 6:19-21). He also exhorts them to sell their possessions and give alms (Luke 12:33).

Similarly, in Barnabas and Clement, there is a sense that believers should give away their riches. The Shepherd of Hermas, however, doesn’t seem to oppose wealth, but it recognizes that preoccupation with riches can divert one’s attention from spiritual pursuits. Under this rationale, a rich Christian can keep on being rich, as long as he spends time with God and gives some of his wealth to the needy.

Somehow, we need to find a way to appreciate the good things that we have, without becoming overly attached to them, selfish, and less focused on more important things. Some Stoics seem to have assumed that it’s best to bypass that whole dilemma. And maybe that’s all right. Different people have different vulnerabilities to temptation.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Prophecy-After-the-Fact

Source: J.J. Collins, “The Sibylline Oracles,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 374.

“The assumption of Geffcken and Rzach that the conquest of Mesopotamia could only be prophesied after the fact is not justified. The Parthians were a menance to Roman power in the East in the first century B.C.E. and their subjection might well be prophesied by any one sympathetic to Rome.”

This quote interested me because it talks about prophecy-after-the-fact–”prophecy” that “predicts” events that already occurred. Liberal scholars believe that chapters of Daniel fit into this category: events that were occurring in the second century B.C.E. were said to be prophesied centuries before by an earlier figure, Daniel.

According to Collins here, the prediction of the Sibylline Oracles that Mesopotamia (Parthia) would fall was not prophecy after the fact. It could have been wishful thinking, like the false prophets telling Ahab that he would win the battle, or those who told Judah that Babylon wouldn’t conquer her, notwithstanding her sins.

It could have been a realistic forecast of what would happen, based on the situation at the time. Some have asserted that there are biblical prophecies that fall into this category. I read a liberal Christian article a while back, and it tried to explain away the prophecies that did not come to pass. For instance, Ezekiel predicted that Tyre and Egypt would be destroyed by Babylon, but that didn’t exactly happen. The author of the article states that the prophet was interpreting the events of his time in light of his knowledge of God’s will–how he believed God would act. He was like a religious pundit, commenting on world events.

I have a hard time seeing all of the biblical prophecies as statements of what was likely to happen, for there are some of them that are out-of-the-ordinary. When Isaiah said that Syria and Israel would fall rather than conquer Judah, that looked pretty unlikely! Isaiah even had to give Ahaz a sign–his prophecy looked that unbelievable! But prophecy isn’t always a prediction based on where the trends seem to be going, for God can work in unexpected ways.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 10:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Legalistic Christians?

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 473.

“[According to the Mishna, t]he discharge of certain duties secures the enjoyment of reward on earth and in the world to come; such are the veneration of parents, charity, timely attendance at the school, hospitality, and endowment of (indigent) brides, the accompanying of corpses to the grave, devout prayer, peace-making, and especially the pursuit of religious studies (Talmud Torah)…The most heinous and atrocious sins are expiated by death, and lesser ones by repentance and the Day of Atonement, while pardon was obtained for sins of negligence by sacrifice.”

What must one do to be saved–to be forgiven of sins, to receive acceptance from God, and to enter the good afterlife? Many Christians believe that this is the crucial issue that separates Christianity from Judaism and Islam. For them, Christians hold fast to justification by faith through grace alone, whereas other religions embrace some form of salvation by works. At a Jewish institution, a colleague of mine wrote a paper that contrasted the Mishnah with Tertullian, and he argued that Christians are grace-centered, whereas Jews focus more on the nuts-and-bolts of halakah.

To my surprise, the student’s professor responded that Tertullian was actually quite legalistic. This somewhat undermined my colleagues stereotype of Christianity, but I can actually see the professor’s point as I read through Christian literature. Look at all the good deeds in Graetz’s quote that the Mishnah treats as a path to eternal life. A Christian wouldn’t agree with that sort of “salvation by works” mindset, would he?

Not so fast! Barnabas 14:20 says, “Thou shalt also labour with thy hands to give to the poor, that thy sins may be forgiven thee.”

(This is according to the translation in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. The version on BibleWorks does not have that. It numbers the chapters and the verses differently, and it has, “Thou shalt remember the day of judgment, night and day. Thou shalt seek out every day the faces of the saints, either by word examining them, and going to exhort them, and meditating how to save a soul by the word, or by thy hands thou shalt labor for the redemption of thy sins.” So I don’t know if there are different manuscripts at work, or what.)

II Clement 16:4 (in the BibleWorks version) says that almsgiving lessens the burden of sin. These Christian writings are consistent with the deutero-canonical documents, which state that giving alms performs an atoning function (Sirach 3:30; Tobit 12:9). And, to the Protestants who will say, “That’s one reason we don’t like the apocrypha–it promotes salvation by works,” take a look at what Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:27: “atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged” (NRSV). I do believe that Daniel is part of the Protestant canon.

Something else to note is that Origen, like the Mishnah, believed that a person’s death could atone for his sins (or at least certain ones). I remember reading this in Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus.

Don’t get me wrong. The early Christians and the church fathers firmly believed that Christ atoned for people’s sins, and they held fast to the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. In terms of atonement, they wouldn’t view almsgiving as an alternative to Jesus Christ.

But they saw atonement differently from a lot of contemporary evangelicals. For the ancient Christians, people needed forgiveness even after they embraced Jesus Christ at baptism.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 4:58 am  Comments (2)  

Principle-Centered

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 114-122.

In this post, I’m not going to comment on a specific quote, but I’ll touch on the gist of what I read today. For the Stoics, we shouldn’t base our emotions on things or events, since they’re not good or evil in themselves. What gets us into trouble is our reaction to them. And the higher our expectations, the greater our disappointments, as far as the Stoics are concerned.

But there were Stoics who still believed that there is some place for joy, as long as it’s all about virtue, the only true good. For Stoics, people should be happy that they are virtuous people, not that things are going their way in terms of externals.

Here are some reactions:

1. How’s this compare with the Bible? I think there are plenty of places in the Bible about being content in any circumstance, and of placing our hope in something other than the things of this world. What interests me is that the Bible does not really harp on the dangers of resting our identity on something other than God. It may talk about that indirectly. For example, if the Psalmist is continually hunted, he’s going to trust in God rather than people. But the Bible doesn’t really read like an evangelical tract, which says that we should root our self-esteem in God’s love for us rather than externals. And the same goes for early Christian literature. Their focus is more on God, personal morality, and reward and punishment.

I would conclude from this that the ancients didn’t think like American evangelicals, until I encounter Stoicism and Buddhism, beliefs which preceded and existed at the same time as early Christianity. These mindsets emphasize the necessity of not becoming too attached to people, events, and things, since they can easily let us down. They remind me of a typical evangelical sermon that says “people will let you down,” only they lack the hope that “God will never let you down.” It’s still interesting that non-Christian belief systems sound more like contemporary American evangelicalism than does early Christianity.

2. Should I get my hopes up? Joel Osteen says “yes,” since that’s what faith is all about. Others say “no,” since having high expectations is a path to disappointment. Can I walk in hope without setting myself up for a let-down?

3. Focusing on virtue for our happiness is an idea that I’ve heard from a couple of sources. First, when I was at DePauw, I read Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for a class, and he stressed the importance of being “principle-centered” rather than basing our emotions on things around us. I agree with being centered on something that transcends the ups and downs of everyday life. And, indeed, I tried being “principle-centered” for about a week, until I found that people got to me, often negatively.

Second, I know a lady at AA who continually says, “If you want self-esteem, do esteemable things.” I can see her point. Maybe I would feel better about myself if I spent time serving others, rather than expecting others to make me happy. I think back to my experience at DePauw, when I had a scholarship that required me to do community service. I was in the dumps in those days, as I often am now. But it wasn’t as bad.

At the same time, Christianity teaches us not to be proud of our good works. But maybe that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel good about them. Rather, they can be opportunities to express faith in Christ.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 4:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Sibylline Oracles, Apocalypse, Flood

Source: J.J. Collins, “The Sibylline Oracles,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 363.

“This passage refers to a conflagration, followed by a resurrection of the dead and a judgment. Even if this passage was part of the original oracle, that oracle was not necessarily Jewish. The ideas of conflagration and resurrection could be derived from Persian religion…Even the reference to the Flood in vs. 53 is not necessarily Jewish, since both the Greeks and Macedonians had traditions of a great Deluge. The description of the four empires itself contains nothing which is specifically Jewish. The oracle evidently looks forward to the fall of Macedonia, but is not motivated by any specifically Jewish grievance.”

Collins is talking about Sibylline Oracle 4. The Sibylline Oracles have a lot of layers, as you can see: pagan, Jewish, and Christian. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what’s what. Collins states in a footnote that some believe the phrase “Son of God” in the Oracles is a Jewish reference to the Temple rather than a Christian reference to Jesus. That strikes me as somewhat of a stretch, but it gives you a taste of the different ideas about this book.

People other than Jews and Christians had hope that a deity would end the present era of oppression and wickedness and inaugurate a new age of righteousness and peace. There are scholars who argue that the Jews borrowed such an idea from the Zoroastrians. Maybe. I don’t know. Who says an idea has to be original to be right? Hope may very well be a part of the human condition, meaning it’s not just a Jewish and Christian thing.

Collins’ statement about the Flood is intriguing. I once had a professor who said that all these legends about the Flood were about a bunch of local floods, not a giant, cataclysmic inundation. I have a hard time believing that, since the legends often describe only a few survivors. We’re dealing with more than the Nile flooding Egypt, since lots of people survived that!

Interestingly, two Columbia professors argue that there was a huge flood in the eastern hemisphere 7,600 years ago (see here). According to them, survivors managed to escape it and carried with them a memory of the great deluge, which made its way into their myths, legends, and religious traditions. The date doesn’t exactly match Archbishop Usher’s biblical chronology, but it acknowledges that something had to be behind all those flood stories.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 3:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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