Category Archives: not mere Christianity

Group identity should never involve the sacrifice of the individual’s truth

Have identity politics gone too far? Rowan Williams is, very properly, making use of his last months in office by saying what he wants to be heard to say, rather than being driven by topics on which others want his to speak. This weekend, he wanted to say that ‘identity politics’ have gone too far. That is to say, if I understand rightly, that people have become so involved in campaigning for the rights of women, black people and LGBT people that they will put those rights forward at the expense of everything else. The overwhelming drive for these things has now passed the point of championing the disadvantaged and now is putting individuals before the greater good of the whole.
I would reply that, as far as I can see that is precisely what Jesus always did. When he found himself with a load of hungry disciples, and one women, Martha, was struggling to get the meal together for them, and her sister was selfishly and most improperly sitting with the men, learning, Jesus championed Mary, the improper learner, and let the good of the group go hang. When a woman with a reputation turned up and anointed his feet, a woman touching a man in public, damaging his good name, and that of his whole movement, Jesus let the movement be damaged. When he was touched by an unclean woman, he made no attempt to hide the fact, and, and, and…
I cannot think of one single time when Jesus in fact put the good of the group before the good of the individual. It seems that each time he had a choice, he went for the individual. It is true that these were individuals, they were not ‘movements’. There is however a reason for movements,and why there are gay pride marches, and not straight marches. It is, generally, that those who have power already do not need to protest.

There are of course exceptions, exceptions where whites and men (who look like the majority) protest. They are generally those who feel disadvantaged, those who have lost a power they used to have. Both the white urban poor become BNP, and those who believe women cannot be priests, and that they contaminate male priests just by being ordained, they both protest. I think that generally the difference between them and ‘rights’ voices is this: the voices of feminists, gay and civil rights are asking for inclusion on strictly equal terms. The voices of those who have had and are losing power are asking for others to be excluded. ‘Don’t have blacks as equal members of society, don’t have women in this or that position of power.’ They are not asking ‘Allow me to be all I can be.’
And that is the thing, isn’t it? Jesus’s overriding concern seems to be that each person should be all they can be; forgiven, healed, learning, acting in love. You might call this ‘the individual’s truth’, their being what they are called to be, and not impeded because they upset others. I cannot imagine any circumstance in which he would ask a person to stand back from office because it would upset others. Instead he asked others to do as he did: to further the individual, and to allow the group to support and care for those who were in any way hurt.
At the same time, I do not think that Jesus’s gospel is very individualistic. He has his ‘twelve’ who are his ‘new Israel’. He is envisaging a new community, living together, holding both truth and possessions as a common good, but not at expense of the individuals within it, rather, through their fulfilment. Group identity should never involve the sacrifice of the individual’s truth.


A wandering Aramean…

I am leaving Genesis, not because it does not still have plenty to challenge, enthral, exasperate and delight, but because there s still a heck of a lot of the Hebrew Scriptures needing some kind of an over-view.
The end of Genesis explains that the Hebrews fled famine in Egypt, where they ended up in the kind of slavery. They were rescued by a great leader, a man with an Egyptian name, Moses.
He took them over a sea, a sea of reeds, into the wilderness, and there, they wandered. It is commonly claimed that one of the most reliably ancient parts of the New Testament is the song of Miriam after the sea-crossing, and readers with a taste for my fiction will find my take on it here.
What we have in the four books (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are the ‘takes’ of various sections of the later Israelites and Jews on what appears to be this very ancient tradition of their peoples, encapsulated thus.
‘‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut.26. 5b-9)
Another ancient tradition is that while they were in the wilderness, the people of Israel got a set of laws from Yahweh. The different sections of the tradition have different ‘takes’ on the contents of the law. The tradition of our ‘Ten Commandments’ given at ‘Sinai’ appears to be (and not my caution here) appears to be among the later traditions.
But I do not write this because I particularly detest the ten commandments. Will they ever set one on fire? No. Will they tend to lead to a sane society? Yes. They seem to me a pretty sensible set of rules. It must be admitted that they are expressed negatively but what they teach is good sense. Be honest, be true, be kind to those of your family and to your god. What’s not to like?

The long journey to understanding

The story of Jacob is every bit as beautifully written as that of Abraham, and even more subtly. Jacob is the younger of a pair of twins, and he deeply resents the fact that his brother is to inherit. With the help of his mother, he cheats his brother out of his inheritance. His brother is furious and Jacob runs for his life. Alone and sad, he lies down to sleep. He dreams that he is next to a ladder, and angels are climbing up and down it, to where God (and once again, it is God) is enjoying the cool of the roof of the world, just like a rich town dweller with his summer room on the roof of the house to catch the breezes. Jacob is comforted to know that this world connects with God’s. He goes on his way to find his uncle, where the trickster is tricked. He works for seven years to earn the woman he loves, and finds he has been married to her sister. It takes another seven years to earn his true love, and then he finds that being married to sisters, jealous and competitive, is not all it is cracked up to be.
When he has worked his way to a fine family, and is rich in flocks and herds, he sets off home. He is almost there, very near the place of his dream of ladder and angels, when he hears his brother, the brother he wronged, is coming looking for him. He trusts in his brother’s mercy to women and children, and also in his brother’s desire to break Jacob’s neck before wrecking vengeance on anybody else.
Once again, he is alone and afraid, just much older and with more to lose. He goes into the wadi. It is night. A stranger comes and wrestles with him. The stranger can hardly get the better of Jacob, until he puts out Jacob’s hip. Dawn is coming, and beginning to guess who the stranger is, Jacob demands his name, and a blessing from him. He gets the blessing, but rather than telling his own name, the stranger re-names Jacob ‘Israel’ which means ‘Strives with God’. Then the stranger goes, and Jacob calls the place ‘The face of God’ for he knows with whom he has fought.
See how Jacob’s understanding of God has grown: no longer a rich man sitting on his roof enjoying the air, now he is a person who is in the depths of a ravine, wrestling in the water and mud. It is a huge leap in understanding. Yet the most astonishing thing, the apex of the story is still to come.
The wronged brother Esau arrives. He is a much bigger man than Jacob has given him credit for being. Jacob starts off with propitiatory bowing, but Esau, the disinherited, wronged Esau, falls on his neck, weeping and embracing him. And then Jacob , who has spend the night with God, who glimpsed the face of God in the half light before dawn, Jacob says to the brother he has wronged: ‘Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.’
Each time I get to this point I sit back and consider how astonishing this insight is. I suppose it is not so very old. Depending on which theory you follow, it might belong to about the time of the Buddha, of Confucius, of the wonderful religious and creative flowering that still amazes with its depth and insight. It strikes me that this particular story equals most others. It is a deep creative story of a man learning to see ever deeper where he may find God: close to earth, in a desperate struggle in its darkest places, where he finds a God he can neither beat or be beaten by, and then, not in the faces of those who have wronged him, but in a harder place, the hardest place. He sees God is the person he has wronged. And this is the part of the Bible I am so often told is full of a God of wrath.


No more meaningless sacrifice

And now the terrible story of the ‘akedah’ the binding of Isaac. I’ve linked to it so you can read it, but I will briefly re-tell it so we are all on the same page, as ‘twere. God (it is not Yahweh here, this is not a Yahwehist story at all) commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain top and Abraham sets out to do it. He travels two days, and then leaves the servants and the donkey and he and his son set off for the final climb. Isaac sees there is no sheep. ‘God will provide the sacrifice,’ says Abraham, to whom God gave Isaac. It is only when Isaac is bound ready for sacrifice that God stops Abraham, and points him to a ram caught in a thicket. God does not in fact wish Isaac sacrificed.

It is a terrible story, wonderfully well told. It must be said at once that from quite an early period the people of Israel came to realise that child sacrifice was an abomination, demanded by the Gods of Canaan and abhorred by Yahweh. The Bible as we now have it is loud in condemnation of the idea.

The Rabbis, who made such a thoughtful set of reflections on their traditions, often suggested that Isaac was an adult at the time, and that he consented to the whole thing. It was not a helpless child, horrendously bound and in terror, but an adult, submitting to what he thought was the will of God. It only helps a bit.
Let us concede that Isaac is adult, and that he consents, and that God never intended to go through with the sacrifice. Because he has not withheld ‘his only son’ Abraham is blessed. It is still horrible.

I think it is horrible for this reason: the sacrifice is meaningless. It is only designed to do one thing: to prove that Abraham is willing to give up everything for God. And I do not believe that is how God works.

Oh yes, I do believe that we should always and in all things put God first. But I do not believe he ever would and ever will put us through surrendering things which impoverish us without enriching others. He might well ask us to give up our lives, if by risking them we can save another. He would never ask us to give up a bar of chocolate just to show we loved him more than chocolate. He is not so needy.

Moreover, I believe that thinking God would do such a thing, ask us to give up things just to prove we put him first, leads to a simply terrible view of vocation, in which God asks people to do things which are death to them as people. I believe God only calls us to do things which, however costly they may be, lead to our ultimate health.

I think the story of the akedah only gets it right to a point: because we may have to give up everything, and God does indeed expect us to be ready to do that, but never, ever just to prove we will.


Founding father

Abraham’s stories are the first in the Bible which are presented as belonging specifically to the journey of faith of the people of Israel. Muslims and Christians also claim him as their founding father.
His story is essentially very simple, although one can see the swirls and eddies of different versions of it in the texts we now have. Yahweh promised him that if he left Tehran and settled in the land promised to him, more-or-less in modern Israel/Palestine, he would be made the father of a great nation. He was a nomad already, and he set off. He adored his wife, but she had no children. Instead, she gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, and with her he became the father of Ishmael. You don’t think that relationship is likely to work out, do you?
Sarah was past the menopause when mysterious strangers arrive in the wilderness and tell Abraham that Sarah will have a child. Sequestered like a good wife, Sarah hears them, and laughs. Nine months later her only child, her son Isaac (Laughter) is born.
Sarah cannot keep Hagar properly in her place, and Ishmael stands to inherit alongside Isaac. It is in fact when she sees the children playing as equals that Sarah snaps, and demands that Hagar is driven into the desert to care for her son with just a jar of water. When, water exhausted, Hagar sits down far enough away from her son that she does not have to watch his death, an angel comes to her, and shows her an oasis. She and Ishmael are saved. Muslims trace their descent from Ishmael, and I rather wish Christians could, too. There is no doubt the Biblical writers see just how far beyond the pale Sarah’s jealousy is.
The next story is, to me anyhow, just about the nastiest in the Bible. But I think it deserves a blog of its own.


Faith: ways of creating

So, I sit lightly to the Bible – I am most definitely not going to believe something just because it happens to be written there. I am however equally certainly going to give it an attentive hearing, for there are the most amazing things in the Bible. Anybody who knows some of the really astonishing ideas in it is going to give a fair hearing to the rest.
Of all of it, the Hebrew Scriptures are probably the least known and the most understood; that is to say, the writings of the peoples of Judah and Israel, which was the Bible to Jesus, and which we also know as the Old Testament.
I cannot give a full, proper introduction to them; for one thing, to do so would be a full book in itself, and for another I am not qualified so to do. What I can do is to offer a taster, and to blow away some misconceptions. So here goes (and apologies to theologically qualified readers who know this like the backs of their own hands).
The Hebrew Scriptures were not written in the order we now have them. A lot of them were written down either in the time the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, or in the time afterwards when many returned to Jerusalem, or in the time when the Persians were the overlords of the country.
Probable exceptions to this include some of the stories about the Exodus, some of the stories about King David, some of the history of his successors, and some of the so-called prophets, who were active in Israel and Judah before they fell.
I think it is possibly easier for my readers if I tackle the bible in the order we now have it.
So – the story starts with an account of the creation. This was almost certainly written in and/or after the Exile. It looks as if the writers know the Babylonian creations myths, in which one God (Marduk) battles the Chaos Monster to create order and the world. I say writers, because the English translations partially hide the two names given for God: Elohim (God) and Yahweh (translated is the LORD). Here, as in many other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, original texts have been put together later to make the work we now have.
What both writers have in common is a desire to show God as creating the world, and the world being good. It is not a matter of Good and Bad battling it out, and Good coming off best: the whole thing is a carefully constructed whole. Interesting.
But as so often with the Bible, not a unanimous verdict: in other places (eg Isaiah 51:9–10) there are traces of a creation in which God hacks the Chaos Monster Rahab to pieces and makes order that way.
Welcome to the world where the Bible argues with itself, and produces insight that way.
Next time? The surprisingly sophisticated theology of the Patriarch stories.


Living Faith – the Word

This is the start of my occasional series on ‘mere Christianity’.

So let us start with the word of God, oh, better idea; let us start with the Word of God.

For us, the really sacred figure is Jesus of Nazareth, whom his follower came to believe was the Anointed of God, in Greek (the language in which the New Testament is written) ‘the Christ’. Jesus is how we see God – he is, if you like, the window through we look when we are trying to see into the big deep mysterious house we call ‘God’ – a house which sometimes seems utterly familiar, like a place we have always known, and sometime so strange we doubt the evidence before us. This is something I want to come back to, but for now, keep with the image of Christ as a window. Jesus is astonishing (something else to come back to) but he, we believe, is uniquely the best way of seeing and understanding God. The very beginning of John’s gospel, one of five early accounts of Jesus and by far the most poetic, calls him ‘the Word of God’, the logos, the root which gives us logic, and all the ‘ology’ word-ends. It is as though God speaks, and what he speaks is not a sound, but a person.

If Jesus is uniquely the best way of understanding God, it follows that the Bible can only be a second-best way of seeing God. It is not, and it cannot be, the Word of God. It is Jesus who (according to John) was ‘next to God, and was God’. The Bible may be jolly interesting, but it is not and never has been ‘next to God’ or, of one prefers the more sedate translation, ‘with God’. The Bible is words, not the Word.

It follows that liberal Christians tend to sit a heap lighter to the Bible than atheists (no names, no pack drill) think they should.