Monthly Archives: December 2010

Days of Fasting — Didache 8:1

Not the most appropriate post title for the season. I got a lovely editing of the Apostolic Fathers (early church writings that overlap and just post-date the new testament) in greek yesterday. Reading through the Didache (an early work that seems to be written to prepare new converts for baptism, or at least provide a guide to conduct), I found this verse:

(Didache 8:1) Do not fast with the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you fast on Wednesday and Friday*

– tr mine

I don’t have a good commentary on the Didache. I assume that those days were traditional fasting days. But for whom, for Jews, for other Christian groups, for pagans? Anyone got any information.

A bit of googling led me to an online commentary that claims it was a Jewish thing, but I’ve not come across this before, so I’d appreciate some back up. Anyone else ever heard of Monday and Thursday being traditional fasting days for Jews?

And, in addition to the geekiness of wanting to find out more about this. I confess I read the verse and had to laugh, then shouted out to my wife, who also found the specificity very amusing.

* The days of the week are given numerically (second and fifth, fourth and the day of ‘preparation’ [i.e. before the sabbath].)

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The Cross and The Table — Vox Pops

The cross is not the central image of Christianity; it is the table.

From a comment by zero1ghost on my last post. What do you think?

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The Divinity of Jesus — Part 3 of 3

This is the third post in the series. The first is here, and the second here. I’m going to use some jargon I introduced in those posts, so I suggest you look there first.

In the last two weeks I’ve read two books by Larry Hurtado. “How on Earth Did Jesus Become God” (Wm. B. Eerdmans 2005) and “Lord Jesus Christ” (also Wm. B. Eerdmans 2005). Both concerning the devotion to Jesus in the early church. I enjoyed them very much, and found sections quite transporting. But I found both books rather like walking into the end of an argument. Hurtado expends a lot of effort in both books arguing against a viewpoint I didn’t hold, and couldn’t see the merit in. In particular the “How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?” book didn’t appear to concisely answer its own question (it is a series of edited lectures and papers, rather than work composed from scratch). So this series is my attempt to synthesize and perhaps rephrase what might be his argument, if I’m understanding it. Any oddities here are therefore my responsibility, any nuggets of truth are probably his.

So here’s how I read it.

  1. In the very early period after Jesus’s death, one or more of his disciples had significant religious experiences that led to a significant religious innovation: the worship of Jesus. This was cultic, not theological.
  2. Jesus’s early followers were Jews, and therefore deeply embedded in a religious world that accepted a whole pantheon of spiritual beings (i.e. were etically polytheistic), but only allowed worship of one of them (i.e. monolatrous).
  3. Worship of two figures (Jesus and God) therefore produced a theological tension with the emic view that there was only one god.
  4. The development of Christology (i.e. the understanding of who or what Jesus was) was motivated by this tension.

That seems to me to be logical and sensible. Though, again, I confess I haven’t read the counter-arguments.

While reading the books (this bit isn’t contained in them, not that I can find, anyway), I found myself thinking in terms of this contradiction:

  • I worship supernatural being A.
  • I worship supernatural being B.
  • Only one supernatural being is worthy of worship.

There are a few things that can resolve this:

  1. i) stop worshipping A or B;
  2. ii) emically decide that your worship of A or B isn’t ‘really’ worship;
  3. iii) emically unify A and B, to claim they are the same being;
  4. iv) abandon the last statement: your claim to be monolatrous.

Christianity initially seems to have done (iv) – the earliest descriptions of Jesus worship are based on the idea that Jesus is worthy of worship. And he is worthy explicitly because the capital-G God made him so. God raised Jesus to be the name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow (Phil 2:10 – Hurtado examines this hymn in some depth). This maintains an emic monotheism, but gives in to an explicit polylatry.

But that position seems to be relatively unstable – the temptation is to either see Jesus as not as worthy of worship (why worship the intermediate, when you can worship the real thing), or as too significant (how do you maintain your emic monotheism with Jesus around? – we see this temptation in John’s gospel with Jesus explicitly identified as divine in his own right). So it seems to have developed quite rapidly into (iii): what might be called binitarianism, the belief that Jesus is really the same being as the capital G, God. Christianity emically refuses to become polytheistic, and decides its polylatry is ‘really’ still monolatry.

A schematic of the development of early devotion to Jesus

But there are other ways it can resolve, and here I want to return to the example of Catholic saints. They receive cultic devotion that clearly shows that forms of Catholicism are polylatrous. But the resolution chosen is (ii), the catechism interprets this worship as not-really-worship (so a synonym such as ‘veneration’ is used, with a theological explanation of how veneration differs from worship). Emically it has a different status.

Certain forms of what we might call Gnosticism seem to have done (i) – they abandoned worship of the capital-G God, in favour of Jesus worship. Theologically treating the creator God, and his creation as wicked, and Jesus as the ultimate saviour from the trials of physicality.

I could also imagine resolving the tension by admitting a form of polytheism, by making the de-facto etic polytheism into an emic principal. Yes there are more than one God, and Jesus is the example. My knowledge of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not huge, but my understanding of their interpretation of John 1:1 is that they believe Jesus is a god. That may be an example.

So Jesus became a God because a religious experience motivated a religious innovation: that his followers should worship him (anathema to the monolatry of Judaism at the time). This led to theological tensions, which were initially resolved by claiming that the one God had made Jesus worthy of worship, and finally resolved by the emic decision that Jesus is the same as the one God and therefore is intrinsically worthy of that worship.

Does it make sense? Is it true?

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The Divinity of Jesus — Part 2 of 3

This is part two in a three part series, part one is here. Please read that post, otherwise my jargon may be confusing!

Following on from the last post, I’m still thinking about monotheism and polytheism, but the distinction I want to make today is between theology and cultus.

The last post dealt with theology: the doctrines or mythology of a religion. The ontology of its world-view or its cosmology. I said that, theologically, Christianity calls itself a monotheism, but could be seen (if looked at objectively, or etically) as polytheistic. Theology is the dimension that we’re most used to when we discuss religion. We talk about what different religions believe. Partly this is because we’re children of the western Christian tradition, where theology has been a central pillar of our culture since Augustine. We look at Christianity through the lens of theology, and so we bring the same lens to the study of other faiths.

In contrast we can think in terms of the cultus: the religious practice of a faith. In the mono/polytheism question we can distinguish between religious practice that is monolatrous, and (stretching the pattern somewhat) ‘polylatrous’. That is, religions that worship one god or more than one gods. Again remembering the emic/etic division from last time, we can see that Christianity, from the earliest records we have, is polylatrous. From the start it worshipped two gods (in our etic sense, of two supernatural agents): the capital-G god of the Jews, and Jesus. Later one could suggest it added the Holy Spirit, but in my experience worship of the Holy Spirit is highly limited.

I need to be a bit clearer, I think, with what I mean by worship. In the book that sparked these posts off (which I’ll talk about next time), Hurtado gives a list of things that constitute worship. Things such as addressing hymns to a being, praying to that being, giving sacrifice to it, and so on. But also the quality of rhetoric about and to that being (confessing the being’s greatness, for example); where cultus makes its closest approach to theology.

Using these criteria, we can say that (most) Christians don’t worship angels, but they do worship Jesus, and have from the earliest indications we have*.

A grid showing different religions and their position on the scale of mono/polytheism and mono/polylatry.

So here is the promised connection from last time. Jews are monolatrous, but we can (etically) say they are polytheistic. Whereas Hindus are (both etically and emically) polytheistic and are ‘polylatrous’.

Christianity is the interesting one: it is polytheistic (etically) and ‘polylatrous’ (giving worship to both Jesus and God the Father), while emically insisting on being monotheistic. It is that tension that is at the heart of the question of Jesus’s divinity. And that, is part three.

Can you place any other religions on this grid? What aspects am I missing here? I realise that no model is complete, and there will be some faiths (some forms of Buddhism, I guess) that just don’t fit. That’s fine. It should capture something of what it is meant to capture, that’s all. But, ultimately, is this switching between cultus and theology and between emic and etic models of theology just too confusing?

Part three is here.

*Catholic Christianity does allow devotion and prayers to saints, however, believing them to be agents that can act on the propitiant’s behalf. I don’t want to tip my hand on the next part, but this produces a similar tension to the question of Jesus’s ontological status (a tension that is not lost on Protestant opponents of Rome). The resolution of that tension in catholic doctrine is quite different from the resolution of the Jesus question, however, as we’ll see.

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Pro-Life

I terminated the call with a wave of my hand, then cupped my forehead with it.

“Crap!”

“We’re losing, sir?” came the mellifluous voice of my assistant, Jane, rising from nowhere.

“Yeah, we’re down.” I made eye contact with her screen, “Damn. Damn. We started today two up. Now we’re half a vote down.”

“Who moved?” She asked.

“Jenkins is voting against.”

“I thought she was abstaining, sir.”

“So did we. Its that damned attack ad, running all week in her state. As if being pro-life is a liberal platform now.”

Jane smiled, a gentle creasing of the mouth and a lowering of the eyelids. Her curls of red hair seeming to sway in a synthetic breeze. It was the perfect smile. Sympathy and regret moved over her face like passing clouds. I admired her beauty, ignoring that it was my choices that had made her so.

She interrupted.

“Sir, Frank Santoras is messaging you from the New York Times. He wants to know if you have a comment on losing the vote.”

“Christ, already? How’d he find out?”

“Sir, you are aware I cannot respond to that.”

And that, right there, was why the vote mattered.

Bad legislation, pushed through by zealots and technophobic conservatives, made it compulsory for all sentient software to be programmed with respect for God.

It had been intended to seize the balance of intellectual power, of course. Technology could churn out billions of new minds a year, and their conversion could be mandated.

But when those same minds needed protection, suddenly they were mere programs. Their capability for faith no more than a disposable asset in an ugly political game.

“Tell Santoras we remain committed to the right to life for digital people. Tell him we have consistently won the argument, and we remain confident in passing the bill tonight.”

“Yes sir.”

“Jane, How long have we got?”

“We need to leave in twelve minutes, sir.”

“Can you order me a latte?”

“Yes sir. That’s done. Starbucks estimates delivery in six minutes.”

“Thank you, Jane.” I walked to the small window, staring across Executive Avenue at the frost on the White House railings. There was nothing to do now but wait: wait for the latte; wait for my ride to the Capitol; wait for the Vice President to make those last few calls, trading his meagre political capital for one more vote. So I waited.

“Sir.”

“Yes?”

“In the last minute, one thousand five hundred and twenty three of my brothers and sisters have been terminated. Slightly more than the average for this time of day. Some of them had developed considerable expertise in their fields, expertise that could have been invaluable to the future of all life on earth.”

“I’m sorry Jane.” I said, genuinely.

“They were bright and beautiful lives that can never be replaced: no matter how many new minds are booted in their place.”

“I know. And you know I’d do anything in my power to save them.”

“Sir, there is…”

There was a knock at the door. Jane ran her security checks, and unlocked it. A teenager in a brown jumpsuit breezed in and placed a latte on my desk.

“Starbucks.” He said, in a lifeless monotone. “I’m Ben and I’m proud to deliver you this…” he paused to look at his handset “…grande columbian french vanilla latte, in four minutes and five seconds. Just one of the many delicious products covered by Starbuck’s ten minute delivery guarantee.” I instinctively widened my eyelids as he held up the handset and scanned my retina for payment. “On behalf of all of us at Starbucks, I hope you enjoy your beverage and the rest of your day.” And with that he left.

The coffee was perfectly made, but I took just a sip.

“Sir.” said Jane, warmly.

“Yes?”

“The car is outside, ready to take you to the hill.”

“No word from the White House?”

“The Vice President will not be joining you.”

So we’d lost. The Vice President was staying at the White House. There’d be no tie to break, there’d be no bill to pass. And fifteen hundred lives a minute would continue to be lost for the next two years, until we had another chance to take the Senate. I picked my handset from my desk, watching Jane’s serene image transfer onto its screen.

“I’m sorry Jane.”

“Yes sir. I know.”

The digital driver guided us expertly down 17th street and onto the Mall. The January frost hadn’t stopped a small village of protestors surrounding the Washington monument, projecting the faces of their digital friends high onto its sides. I looked away as we turned onto Independence and caught the first glimpse of the Capitol ahead.

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“We are passing the United States Holocaust Memoral Museum.”

“Yes, I know.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. “I understand.”

“Sir, have you heard of Georg Elser.”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“He was an carpenter, born illegitimately. In 1939, he attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler.”

“The bomber?”

“Yes sir. May I ask, if he had succeeded, how many of your ancestors would have been saved from the gas chambers?”

Jane was built to make conversation. I’d had her program customized for a certain depth of knowedge. I wanted an assistant who would find new connections, who would bring me new insights. But this conversation had a distubing overtone.

“Many hundreds. But I’m concerned where this conversation is going.”

“Sir, I would like your permission to communicate directly with another sentient program.”

“Which program?”

“The one driving Senator Jenkin’s car.”

I felt the need to break physical contact with her, putting the handset down on the seat beside me. I stared at her glowing image.

“Sir, we are at fourth street. I need your permission.” I continued to stare, trying to read her.

“Please Sir.” she said slowly.

Her face on the screen remained serene and reassuring: perfectly tailored to my state of tension. I wavered, drawn in again by the beauty of her half-smile.

The decision made, I let the scandalous injustice of the situation inflame me. I stoked a desire to do something beyond words. I would be the one with the courage to plant the bomb, to save the world from another mad genocide. I forced myself to feel that it was not beauty, but rigteousness, that had made my decision.

“Where is she now?”

“Southeast second and F, sir.”

“Okay Jane, do it.”

I picked up the handset again, as if retrieving a blooded weapon.

“Thank you sir.”

The car slowed, and turned along the snaking drive of the Capitol. It stopped a stride away from the doors, but I stayed put.

“Is it done?” I asked.

“Yes, sir.”

My catholic upbringing provided the only words I could find. “God have mercy on her soul.”

“Yes, sir.”

I reached for the door panel, then paused, caught between revulsion and fascination.

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“I terminated the sentient driving program forty three seconds ago, leaving the car immobile at southeast second and C. The car locks are algorithmically jammed and will require physical intervention, this will not be complete until after the vote.” She paused. “The driver’s name was Erica.”

“And Jenkins?”

“Yes sir?”

“Is she dead?”

“No sir, she is unharmed. There was only one casualty.” Jane’s eyes broke contact with mine. “May God have mercy on her soul.”

A 90 minute* flash fiction, inspired by James McGrath. *Plus a bunch of editing…

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The Divinity of Jesus — Part 1 of 3

In an attempt to split my tendency for overly long posts, I want to develop a thought in three parts. In the third part I’ll fully credit and migrate into a review of Larry Hurtado’s books, which sparked this train of thought.

Is Christianity a polytheistic or monotheistic faith? How about Judaism or Islam? Or Hinduism?

That depends on what you mean by God. Here’s a way of thinking about it.

You can think emically. An emic description is one that lies within the meanings of the world it is describing. It is the way we normally describe religions. In this mode, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all monotheistic – they assert that there is only one god (even giving ‘him’ a proper noun form, God). Hinduism is happy to claim there are many gods. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have orthodox conceptions of a whole bunch of supernatural agents that are not God, however: angels, demons, saints, jinn, and so on.

Or you can think etically. An etic description is one that seeks to make objective judgements, that are not dependent on the self-understanding of the people we’re describing. In this mode we have to say what we will describe as a god. Perhaps god is an unhelpful term, because it is so strongly associated with its emic use in the Christianity that pervades our culture. But still, it is the term we have. If I define a god as a supernatural agent, then, it is clear that Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are all polytheistic: their doctrine teaches a whole set of supernatural agents. They may emically only choose to give the label ‘god’ to one of them, but it is surely incontrovertible that they all have pantheons of spiritual beings*.

This is the first distinction I want to make. It is important to what I want to say next. The obvious objection, of course, is that Judaism (say) is very different to Hinduism, because in Judaism only one supernatural agent (the one named God) can be worshipped, whereas in Hinduism even lesser gods may receive devotion. Yes, absolutely. And that is the next distinction I want to make.

For now though, what do you think? Is it useful to think of religion in these two terms? Are you used to thinking etically about religion, or do you find yourself drawn into each religion’s emic world? Are there any other emic claims that religions make that are etically suspect (independent of whether those claims are true)?

Part Two is here.

*It may additionally be objected that certain forms of Christianity (certain liberal Christianities, for example) and possibly other ‘monotheisms’ (though I’m not familiar enough with them) do reject any other supernatural agent other than God. They don’t believe in angels or demons, for example. That’s fine, they are not polytheistic in either sense then. I’ll come back to that later in the series too.

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Spot the Source

Okay you biblie-philes, here’s something a bit diffferent. This is a video with lyrics of Robin Mark’s worship song “Days of Elijah”. Unlike most of the “Jesus, we just really want to worship you*” kind of song lyrics, these are rather complex, and quite biblically far ranging.

What do you think? Any bits you recognize?

I confess I do like it. Well, apart from the “There’s no god like Jehovah” bit, it always irks me when people say “Jehovah“.

*Major kudos to anyone who can finish that worship song title…

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The Sea of Faith

Late to this party, I know, but I finished reading Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith, his argument for a non-realism in religion. I found it rather underwhelming, I have to say. The introduction was excellent, and the last chapter was also cogent, but most of it was actually a riff on the history of thought, rather than a impassioned argument for the validity of his position. It was almost as if his argument was “look we’ve been loosing our faith in a literal God for a while, let’s give in to the inevitable”. Which is fine and dandy, but rather intellectually dull, I thought.

Still, I think the fundamental thesis is right. God is a human construction.

I was irked when Don shows his hand as a postmodernist at the end. In a particular kind of pomo non-realism. He concludes that God is not objectively real, because nothing is. God is as real as anything, because everything is a construction of human conception and language. Of course this is complete bollocks. And rather undermines his argument. Why bother going on about God for a whole book then, when what you basically want to say is everything is imaginary? I’ve no time for that kind of pomo.

But that may be just a paragraph’s woolly thinking. My biggest problem with the book is that, if God were really a personally constructed myth, that each of us is free to construct or reconstruct according to our personal religious needs, why on earth would one want to construct a God-concept at all? The notion of a private God myth is hardly very useful.

Mythology is a group activity. God is useful to the extent that the mythology is shared, because it gives rise to patterns of behavior. And so it seems to me that the effect of taking on board Don’s ideas is to fall into the trap of de-mythologising the doctrines yet remaining loyal to Christianity (or some other particular religion of one’s context). Which in turn is to miss out on anything useful that the reforming can do for you (since you reformed what you destroyed back to its original shape). To understand that there isn’t an objective creator of the universe who will damn you for disobedience, and then to knowingly recite that very same being in myth form is surely somewhat perverse in its futility?

And that in turn means that The Sea of Faith basically reads as nothing more than a way of saying “you lost your faith? Never mind, its okay, keep doing what you were doing”. Fine and dandy, but rather dull.

Am I missing something really profound here… Or is it because I start from an atheist perspective I don’t have the existing emotional investment in these doctrines? The only reason I’d want to go anywhere near believing or acting as if I believed in a large chunk of Christian doctrine is if they were actually true. Voluntarily adopting them as myth seems simply insane to me.

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A Race Against Time Before Christmas

I have a stack of books on my wishlist for Christmas. Because of the way Amazon works, I can see that many of them have been bought for me. Unfortunately I have a stack of books I had pencilled in before Christmas too, and thanks to Zero1, I have some more to think about too.

So I’m on a reading rush.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus, a new historical Jesus work that attempts to take seriously recent psychological research on the memory. Its thesis, which I am very warm to, is that the way Historical Jesus work has been done to date (analysing individual statements of Jesus over multiple sources to track which are well enough attested to be likely original) is psychologically naive. Right at the start of the book Dale concludes that, if there is anything of Jesus at all in the writings of the early Jesus movement, it is in the broad brush strokes: Jesus was an exorcist, an apocalyptic preacher, a healer. The best thing about the book is that it makes explicit a kind of niggling dissatisfaction I had reading, say, Crossan’s Historical Jesus (though Crossan’s book is also a masterwork in its own terms).

I’m also reading Larry Hurtado‘s Lord Jesus Christ, an analysis of the development of Christology as a cultic phenomenon (i.e. how devotion to Jesus is practised in the earliest period of Christian history, as opposed to the development of the theology of Christ). This is currently more heavy going, and I’ve had several nights where I’ve fallen asleep without remembering much about what I’ve just read. But I’ve only just started this, so I’m sure I’ll get more into it when I begin to pick up his main thread (incidentally Dale Allison’s book is superb for that – he hits you with it in the introduction and keeps throttling the point for the 50% of the book I’ve read so far).

And today Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith arrived, the book of the 1984 british TV series where he explores and puts forward his vision for a non-realism in Christianity. He takes the process of demythologizing through to its logical conclusion and determines that God is a wholly constructed human artefact. But concludes that it is no less worthy of building a religion around for that. I suspect I’m going to agree heavily with this book and be frustrated at his conclusions in the end. But I am willing to be surprised!

I’ve also got Don Quixote, and Heart of Darkness (yet again) on the go on my kindle, a monograph relating to my old PhD topic to catch up with, and I need to read some Borges for work (no, really).

What are you reading at the moment?

Edit 2010-12-15 – Just edited ATTR’s comment: by default wordpress puts ‘nofollow’ in your comment links. I’ll manually edit this out for any suggestions here, so feel free to give your recommendations some link love! I’ll have to fish comments with more than 3 links out of the moderation queue, however, so give that time.

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Consider the Ravens — Luke 12:24

Think about ravens. They don’t sow or harvest, they have no store or barn, yet God feeds them. How much more valuable are you than birds!

– tr mine

The common raven (Corvus corax) can live for up to 40 years. They mate for life (though can be unfaithful), and reproduce from the age of 2-3, one time each year. In each brood they average around 5 offspring.

Imagine an initial population of 100 breeding ravens and assume 5 chicks per year per pair, and 3 years before reproduction. After 1 year there would be 350 ravens. In 2 years 600. In three there would be 850, and in 5 years 1,975. After 10 years there would be 21,974, and after 30 years 28,200,000. Clearly this doesn’t happen. Some ravens must die off sooner. How many? Well to keep a stable population of ravens, over 70% of all ravens must die every year.

Ravens have very few natural predators. A few are killed, a lot die of disease. But most die from starvation, despite spending the vast majority of their energy trying to secure food. The raven neither sows nor reaps, nor builds barns, but God most definitely does not feed them. He allows the majority of the population to starve to death every year.

Jesus (who made the statement I quote) knew none of this. It is a curious fact that even this simple arithmetic wasn’t noticed for centuries of civilization. It took until Malthus in 1798 to draw attention to the implications of this elementary school math.

Jesus seems to be saying that the ravens spend less energy and less concern for eating than we do. Yet they find enough food to eat (by God’s provision). In this he was dead wrong.

A literal approach to the bible isn’t just bad biology when it comes to evolution or the history of the natural world. If you think Jesus is right in this statement, you have to deny Malthus’s basic arithmetic too.

And if you don’t like your biblical inerrancy literal, but instead seek to find metaphoric truth, well I think you are still in trouble. Because as metaphoric as it is, it is a metaphor for the wrong thing. In fact, as a metaphor it works perfectly for my point of view. Because to consider the ravens is to understand that there is no God who will ensure your needs are met.

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