Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reflection Sunday 9.30.12 (Jesus Corner)

Hola! Sorry I've been a little absent - it turns out that when you spend 45 hours a week thinking, reading, and writing, you have less energy to do more of that in your spare time. Who knew? Plus, last weekend was our school retreat, which was great, but also has put me in catch up mode since then (hopefully should be back on track by tomorrow!).

Anyways, I just wanted to hop on here and reflect a little bit about this last week. You should know  that I'm taking 3 classes that are designed to be taken together: Christian Thought and Culture 1 (kind of a history of Christian philosophy), Church History 1, and Old Testament Foundations. I'm really appreciating the different texts that each class presents each week, because they all seem to be riffs on a central theme. Last week, the theme that overwhelmed me throughout the readings and lectures is the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian God in the context from which worship emerged.

See, gigantic nerd that I am, I'd studied ancient Near Eastern religions enough to understand the basics. I saw that there was a pantheon of gods that were highly correlated to natural elements and understood that there was a proscribed method and rationale behind each god's worship. What I had failed to fully think through was the moral or ethical outcomes from that kind of system.

In this cosmology, humans were formed to inhabit preexisting cities by gods who wanted them as slave labor to execute the less fun aspects of their bureaucratic functions. In fact, these gods don't usually create humans at all, because that's not within their set power (i.e. over fertility, the sun, the underworld, etc.). These gods are totally limited in their scope of power and their expectation from humanity is nothing more or less than provision for the gods' needs. The god requires food and to be put to bed and a house to live in on earth. The god does not give a flying flip what humans do to each other, for the most part, so long as it doesn't interfere with worship. It makes sense, then, that the ancient world did not see ethics in terms of right or wrong as we would define it. Rather, they saw ethics in terms of order and disorder; order is right, disorder is wrong. There is no sense of morality outside of these bounds.

It's not surprising, perhaps, that around the world this explanation became unsatisfying, and we see the beginnings of modern religion emerging, with concepts of a supreme god or a universal spirit behind many of them. What continued to set the Hebrew God apart from others, though, was that He was good. He was good and worship of Him absolutely required goodness towards Himself and fellow humans. He cared deeply about daily life, not because it affected His well being, but because as a good Being, He demanded His followers to behave in a good way towards Himself and others. The elements of ancient religion remained, but sacrifice was meant to be an outward expression of the heart, not food for Him to literally eat. This was a profoundly new idea about God, and one that may surprise those who have been inclined to think of "the Old Testament God" as a purely malevolent force. I totally understand that there are passages in the OT that clash with our modern sensibility - but I would also encourage us to remember that a) we would not have that sensibility without the Judeo-Christian worldview of right/wrong that comes into Western thought and b) that the authors of the text describe this God as good, holy, and merciful over and over again. With that in mind, it's an interesting exercise rereading the OT with this lens.

The Christian worldview kicks things up a notch. Jesus goes so far as to identify Himself with those that the Romans would have classified as weak and contemptible - "For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothe me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me... Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." When great epidemics hit the Roman empire, even the great physicians like Galen fled to spare their own health; Christians inexplicably stayed to care for the sick. This was truly puzzling to the pagan worldview, which saw no correlation between their actions towards each other and their standing before their gods. Likewise, women flocked to the church, not because they were dumb, as some Roman commentators speculated, but because they were respected members of liturgical life in the early church (something we seriously need to reclaim, but that's another day's soapbox), because "there is neither male nor female" before God, and because they were spared the common practices of consummated marriages before they hit puberty, arbitrary divorces, forced remarriages, abortions that killed mother along with child as often as not, and infanticide for their daughters or sickly boys.

I guess the short way to say all of this is that I have been struck by how much it affects our actions to worship a God who has created mankind in His image and who values our behavior towards each other. It's also challenging me anew to think about how I treat my neighbor and how we as a church have gotten sidetracked from the Golden Rule in too many situations. We're not perfect - we will never act with complete righteousness towards others. But praise God that our Father cares about our relationships with each other as an overflowing of our relationship with Him.  As Rodney Stark put it, "The issue is spectacle - for the throngs of the stadia, watching people torn and devoured by beasts or killed in armed combat was the ultimate spectator sport, worthy of a boy's birthday treat. It is difficult to imagine the emotional life of such people... What Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity. In this sense, virtue was its own reward." (pp.214-215)

Here's a couple of the books I've been reading from this week:

The Didache - early Christian catechism
The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark
Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan

What does it mean to view our treatment of others as part of our relationship with God?

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