Category Archives: Theology

“I’m not a scientist, man”

Galileo by Giusto SustermansEver since the Roman Inquisition decreed that Galileo was “vehemently suspect of heresy” for suggesting the sun stood still while the earth revolved around it, the interplay of science and religious belief has been problematic for the church.  In the ensuing centuries as the age of reason, of enlightenment, and of rationalism dominated western thought, church folk could either accept or reject scientific data, and Christians inexorably moved into one of two camps.

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of “liberal Protestantism” which freely embraced science and empiricism … faith seeking understanding.  Scripture was subjected to scientific and historical analysis, the so-called “historical critical method.”  For this camp, it was “both-and.”

For others, the dilemma was easily solved: If science contradicted traditional, Biblical understanding, science must be rejected.  For this camp, it was “either-or.”

The Presbyterians in the 1920s served as proxy for the whole of Christendom in the so-called “Fundamentalist-Modernist” controversy.  Presbyterian scholars chafed under imposed dogmatic “fundamentals.” Emanating from Auburn University, theologians circulated a document proclaiming the freedom of conscience and the right of dissent—the so-called “Auburn Affirmation.”  A commission was formed, and the 1927 Presbyterian General Assembly adopted the commission’s progressive report; the modernists had prevailed and the fundamentalists had lost.

    But the rift in Christianity wasn’t healed, and the two camps grew further apart.  Historian David Hollinger suggests using the terminology “ecumenical” for the progressives and “evangelical” for the conservatives.  The terms imply an outward versus insular attitude.  In the Church of England decision this week to preclude female bishops, the “evangelical” camp prevailed.  In the recent legislative wrangling within the modern-day Presbyterian Church over LGBT ordination, the evangelicals lost; this was also the recent experience of the Episcopal Church, the Lutherans of the ELCA, and the United Church of Christ.  All these “ecumenical” denominations have endorsed gay clergy.  Meanwhile, evangelical Christianity continues to loudly defend its non-scientific worldview.

This is the religious background to the political point of this post.

In the last generation, the United States has witnessed the rise of the religious right.  More than that, evangelical religionists have come to occupy a dominant position within the Republican party.  When presumably intelligent and educated Senator Marco Rubio visited Iowa this week, he professed ignorance when asked a simple scientific question about the age of the earth:

“I’m not a scientist, man … It’s one of the great mysteries …  It is a dispute among theologians.”

Nobel prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman responds,  “What about the geologists?”

Here is the profoundly frightening part.  By wedding itself to the evangelicals, the Republican party has embraced ignorance, and Marco Rubio is constrained to play dumb for fear of alienating the Iowa base.  Krugman puts it this way:

Reading Mr. Rubio’s interview is like driving through a deeply eroded canyon; all at once, you can clearly see what lies below the superficial landscape. Like striated rock beds that speak of deep time, his inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over his political party.

Evolution versus creationism and global warming are obvious public policy issues affected by Republican know-nothingism.  Less obvious is economic theory: austerity versus stimulus during a down economy or the lack of evidence to support supply-side, trickle down policies.  As with their evangelical religionist cronies, the Republican preference is for dogma over empiricism.

Lest we dismiss Krugman as just another liberal Democrat, consider the sentiments of Ross Douthat, one of the handful of Republican commentators willing to acknowledge the emperor wears no clothes.

The fact that the “conservatives vs. science” framework is frequently unfair doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist, or that Republican politicians should just get a free pass for tiptoeing around it. No matter how you spin it, Rubio’s bets-hedging non-answer isn’t exactly a great indicator about the state of the party he might aspire to lead … it’s still neither politically helpful nor intellectually healthy for a minority political party to pick pointless fights with the nation’s scientific and technical elite.

So much for the vacuous impact on public policy wrought by the marriage of evangelicals and politicians.  What about the impact on religious institutions?  On religion itself?  Evangelicals love to beat their chest and point to declining membership in the ecumenical denominations in a post-Christian America.  But it is not just the old mainline denominations—it is Christianity and religion in general.  We have previously posted about this issue and quoted a review of the recent book American Grace which:

makes the case that the alliance of religion with conservative politics is driving young adults away from religion …. Among the conclusions [of a major survey] is this one: “The association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.”

And Douthat the Republican agrees:

the goal of Christianity is supposed to be the conversion of every human heart — yes, scientists and intellectuals included — and the central claim of Christianity is that the faith offers, not a particular political agenda or an economic program, but the true story of the world entire. The more Christians convince themselves that their faith’s core is identical with the modern innovation of fundamentalism, and in direct conflict with the best available modern biology and geology, the less attainable that goal and the less tenable that central claim.

Why did Paul persecute the early church?

When I wrote my historical novel about Paul the apostle (A Wretched Man),  I wrestled with some thorny historical questions, including this one.  Last month, I was asked to read and review Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist I once again encountered the question, and I found Ehrman’s answer to be less than convincing.

First, some background.  Paul twice mentioned his role as persecutor but without any details.  As with much of his writing, Paul assumed his listeners already knew the story so he didn’t elaborate.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Cor 15:9 (NRSV)

In the most autobiographical of his writings, Paul speaks to the Galatians,

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. Gal 1:13 (NRSV)

In neither instance, does Paul offer a clue as to what he did, exactly, or why he did it.

the-stoning-of-stephen-by-rembrandt-1625Of course, the Acts of the Apostles goes into much greater detail: Jerusalem persecution, stoning of Stephen, sent to Damascus by the High Priest to arrest the followers of Jesus, etc.

The common assumption is that Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus because they claimed he was the long-expected messiah.  Does that really make sense? Why would such a claim have been offensive to Paul or the Hebrew populace? While that may have been the reason why the Romans and their puppets, the High Priest and his crowd, feared Jesus and caused his execution, that hardly explains why Paul and the populace would have persecuted his followers after his death.

Ehrman initially agrees,

There was nothing blasphemous about calling a Jewish teacher the messiah. That happened on and off throughout the history of Judaism, and it still happens in our day. In itself, the claim that someone is the messiah is not blasphemous or, necessarily, problematic (though it may strike outsiders—and usually does—as a bit crazed).

This statement strikes me as eminently reasonable and debunks the traditional assumption that the early church was persecuted because they claimed Jesus had been the messiah. There has to be more to it.

Ehrman’s response is that the claim that Jesus was the crucified messiah is what greatly offended Paul and the others, because no strain of traditional Jewish messianic expectations suggested a crucified messiah.  While that may well be true, I fail to see the offense.  Here is where I part with Ehrman.  If anything, such a claim would only make its proponents sound even crazier but hardly blasphemous to the point of widespread persecution and arrest.

Back to Stephen.

What did Stephen do or say that caused his arrest and execution?  Why did they “stir up the people against him”?  Because he spoke “blasphemous words against God and Moses,” “against this holy place and the law,” and because he said that Jesus would “destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed down.”

No where was there any complaint that he claimed Jesus was the messiah, crucified or not.  The charges against him were that he denied the basic tenets of Hebrew religion … adherence to the law of Moses and temple sacrifice.  In Stephen’s long speech to the Sanhedrin, he concluded,

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears … You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

There could be no greater offense than to question circumcision and failure to keep the law.  Stephen challenged the basic Hebrew self-understanding and thus their standing before God.  To a devout Pharisee, zealous for the law, as Paul claimed to be, this was the crux of the matter.  This would also tie in closely with Paul’s Damascus road experience, in which his life took a 180 degree turn away from zealotry for the law to his law-free gospel message.  Furthermore, it also ties in with the ongoing conflict between Paul and the “mother church” back in Jerusalem over the requirements of circumcision and dietary niceties.

That’s my answer, Professor Ehrman’s opinion notwithstanding, and that was also the answer I proposed in the Wretched Man novel.

Interpreting Paul the apostle

Paul is such fun.

While his preeminent importance in the development of normative Christian doctrine is indisputable, his writings are enigmatic at best and indecipherable at worst.  What is the heart of Paul?  Does Paul reveal himself in Galatians 3:28, the so-called “Christian magna carta” –no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—or in other writings that seemingly support slavery and the subjugation of women?

Paul also finds himself plopped down in the midst of 21st century debates over gays.  Again, the question arises whether he was the great inclusivist who encouraged Gentile participation in the early church without precondition, without the proper male genitalia, against the wishes of church leaders, and contrary to scripture and centuries of tradition, or was he the greatest gay-basher in history?  Though his “vice lists” have been dubiously translated to include homosexuality, his ranting in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans may be the favorite “clobber passage” of modern gay-bashers.

they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

How do modern exegetes unpack these harsh words?  Yes, this passage is about idolatry, first and foremost.  The evils of homosexual behavior are his assumption not his point.  Yes, Paul’s words must be viewed from the cultural perspective of the 1st century Greco-Roman world, and yes, Paul must be understood as a Jew learned in the law to include the Levitical abominations.  These influences certainly colored his perception, and it is unfair to ask a 21st century question of this 1st century man.  He simply would have harbored a radically different understanding of human sexuality than we do today.

But, we can go further.  What was Paul’s central theme of his letter to the Romans?  Grace.  That humankind is made right with God through God’s own offer of welcome and not through human effort, achievement, or merit—“works of the law” in Pauline terms.  Trust God and rely upon that promise (faith).  Paul works this out as he wrestles with the premise of Hebrew religion that Jews are God’s chosen over against his view that Gentiles should also be included.  Justification by grace through faith and not by works is the simplified summary.  So, if these are Paul’s themes in his letter to the Romans, where do his introductory remarks (quoted above) fit in?

Paul is setting a trap.  He is speaking to Jewish listeners, and he gets them nodding as he recites their cultural stereotypes about the unclean gentiles.  But wait, he suggests as chapter two unfolds, aren’t we Jews also guilty of breaking the rules?  How are we different?  Don’t we also depend upon God’s grace?  And then Paul is off and running with his interplay of the themes of grace, faith, works, Jew and Gentile, etc. throughout the remainder of his letter to the Romans.

In doing research for my current book project about the history of the movement for full inclusion of gays in the life of the church, I came across a succinct version of this exegesis, which came in a 1977 Presbyterian debate.  George Edwards of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a member of a Presbyterian Task Force on homosexuality, spoke these words:

Paul says here that “God gave them up to dishonorable passions”.  Is this, then, Paul’s theology?  Of course not!  God never gave anybody up!  What kind of theology would that be?  Paul is here using a rhetorical device to get his legalistic reader all worked up in self-righteous frenzy before he hits him over the head with his own inadequacy and dependency on God’s grace.**

Perhaps we can take meaning from this passage of Paul after all.  Perhaps it is a clobber passage that offers an analogy for our current debate, but no, not to strike gays but to slam the “self-righteous frenzy” of 21st century legalists and to point them, and all of us, toward our inadequacies and dependency on God’s grace.

Paul, you sly fox.  What a wretched man you are.  Sounds like a good book title.

 

**Quoted in Chris Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988) p. 164.