Sunday, 24 June 2012

Miracles Part 1

Lately it seems that a lot of conversations I have come around to the subject of miracles, and in particular Jesus' miracles, so I thought I'd write a short series of posts on the subject.


For a lot of my Christian friends, Jesus' miracles are one of the most important pieces of evidence of his divinity.  His miracles are seen as showing the power of God expressed through him, and vindicate his claim to divinity as well as the reality of God.  For them, without the miracles there is no Christianity.

Paradoxically, these same miracles are one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many of my atheist friends.  One of the reasons they reject religion in general and Christianity in particular is that they find the idea of miracles impossible to believe. 

As Crossan and Reed say, impossibility battles with uniqueness.  Both parties accept that miracles are highly improbable and that it would take something extraordinarily special to make one happen.  For the atheist, this will never happen.  For the Christian, it occurred in the person of Jesus and this makes him different to the rest of us.

Personally, I tend to be agnostic about this debate.  On the one hand, I accept John Dickson's argument that whether we believe in Jesus' miracles or not is a question of philosophy, not of evidence.  I don't see any a priori reason why miracles should not occur or why God should not show himself to us in this way.  On the other hand, since I am not a believer in Biblical inerrancy I wouldn't be shocked to discover that various miracles described in the Bible didn't actually occur.

For me all this is, however, beside the point.  Even assuming that Jesus' miracles are actual historical events, I don't think either Jesus or his followers intended them to be evidence of God's power.  In this introductory post I'm going to tell you why I don't think that, and then in later posts I'll tell you what I think they are instead.

So here's 3 reasons I don't think the miracles are evidence of God's power.

1. Neither Jesus nor his audience thought so.
In John 6, after the story of the feeding of the 5,000, the crowds catch up with Jesus again and a conversation ensues which includes the following.

30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

This is typical of the kind of elliptical conversations you find in John's gospel, but it highlights two things.  Firstly, these people have seen him miraculously feed 5,000 people, but they don't regard this as a sign that he is the Messiah.  Secondly, Jesus suggests that his presence among them is itself the sign, not any particular deed he does for them. 

The passage at the start of Matthew 16 is much more direct.

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ 3 and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

In Matthew this question follows not one but two miraculous feedings, as well as a series of healings.  Once again, Jesus' questioners did not take these events as "signs from heaven" and Jesus doesn't say "I just fed 9,000 people, what more do you want?" Instead he says that their need for a sign is evidence of their wickedness.  There is much debate about the meaning of the "sign of Jonah" and it quite possibly refers to the Resurrection, which I will talk about another time.  However, in this context, it seems to me to most logically refer to Jonah's mission to the people of Nineveh.  He says that the Pharisees and Sadducees should be able to understand the "signs of the times" - that is they should be able to see what is going on around them and know the Kingdom of God is at hand.  The sign of Jonah, then, could be simply a call to repentance like Jonah's - "Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!" (Jonah 3:4)

2. The miracles don't show a very powerful God.
If you look at the miracles Jesus performed, they are pretty minor as displays of power.  He heals sick people.  He brings food out of nowhere.  He turns water into wine.  He changes the local weather.  He casts out a few demons.  He catches some fish. 

Of course apart from catching fish, you or I couldn't do any of these - I can't even catch fish.  Yet if you put them beside the Old Testament miracles there is a remarkable difference.  Yahweh creates the entire world and all the species in it.  He frees the people of Israel from the hands of Pharoah.  He defeats the Canaanites and the Philistines in battle.  Yet Jesus is unable (or unwilling) to free the people from their Roman oppressors, or even to save himself from them.  This is why he was so harshly mocked during the crucifixion, as recorded in Matthew 27.

39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him."

3. God didn't need to be "proved".
The miracles as "proofs" of God's existence and power represent a particular post-Enlightenment apologetic strategy.  The growth of rationalism and the idea that the universe is governed by immutable laws of nature meant that for many philosophers of the modern age, God was seen as unnecessary, or else only necessary to set the whole thing in motion at the beginning.  Miracles, in this case, were seen as evidence that God not only existed, but actively intervened in his world.

In the first century, such an apologetic was totally unnecessary.  No-one in the ancient world doubted that there was a God or gods, and that it or they were active in the world.  The early Christians were not persecuted for belief but for unbelief, for a refusal to worship the ancient gods because of an exclusive fidelity to this one "Christ".  The only debate about the gods was about their nature and identity, not about their existence or their power.

(The story continues herehere and here.)

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Queensland's Budget Crisis?

So apparently the Queensland Government's budget is in crisis, and without drastic action we will all be ruined.  It must be so because Peter Costello says so.

Soon after its election the new Queensland Government appointed Costello, long-serving treasurer in the Howard government, to head a commission of audit into the Queensland budget.  Its interim report suggests that the government needs to save 25 to 30 billion dollars over a five year period to regain its AAA credit rating from Standard and Poors.

Should we believe them?  Well, I'm no economist but I have my doubts.  For a start, why did the government appoint a veteran Liberal politician, and one notorious for his fiscal conservatism and love of surpluses, instead of, say, a distinguished economist?  Why does new Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls look so much like Costello's little brother at the press conference to launch the report?



Secondly, the report includes a set of forward estimates from Queensland Treasury which suggests that in the absence of any policy change the state fiscal balance, after peaking at a deficit of $9.5b in 2012-13, will gradually recover until the deficit is less than $1b in 2015-16.  In other words, Treasury believes things are pretty much going to plan.

Costello and his colleagues disagree.  Using their own assumptions, they project that it will take perhaps four or five years longer to get back onto balance.  The difference centres around how realistic assumptions are about public sector wages growth, growth in revenue, and capital expenditure.

Prediction is extraordinarily difficult, especially when it concerns the future.  Nonetheless, both Treasury and the auditors agree that the state is moving back towards balance - they just disagree on how quickly.  So why the alarm?  The issue seems to centre around the recovery of Queensland's AAA credit rating.  This begs the question as to why Standard and Poors should be allowed to set Queensland's econmic policy.  Part of the reason is that the better our credit rating, the less our borrowing cost.  Apparently at our current level of debt our AA+ rating means we pay about $100m a year more in interest than we would with a AAA.

Still it does seem we need to think about some other things.  Government budgets are supposed to act counter-cyclically.  This means that when economic conditions get worse, governments spend more and take less in tax, running a surplus to fill the gap in private sector spending.  When the economy recovers, this situation will right itself - government revenue will bounce back as people start to pay more tax again, and it will be able to cut back on spending as less is needed.

One of the arts of economic policy is the management of deficit reduction.  Reduce it too slowly and you end up fuelling inflation.  Reduce it too quickly and you end up prolonging the recession by removing investment while it is still needed. 

Costello, however, is noted for a blindness on this subject, a belief that budgets should be balanced no matter what.  He got away with this during his time as Australia's Treasurer because he never had to face a recession.  His Labor successors were confronted with one almost as soon as they were elected, and deficits suddenly blossomed around the country.  Costello wants us to get back to balanced budgets as soon as possible.  However, his justification for this is a little alarming.  Our revenues will not recover as fast as Treasury thinks, he says, therefore we should make cuts.  In other words, in the face of continued poor economic conditions we should cut expenditure or raise taxes more rapidly.  The experience of earlier recessions suggests this is most likely to delay the economic recovery and hence become self-fulfilling.

I suspect, however, that this is beside the point.  The audit is not primarily an economic exercise, it is a political one.  It aims to create space for the government to do two things.  The first is to pursue its small government strategy by cutting public service numbers.  Don't be fooled by talk of only cutting "backroom" staff and leaving "front-line" staff untouched. If you have less people, you will get less work done.

But this is not the real punchline of this huge political joke.  Here it is.

"It will require careful utilisation of the balance sheet and utilising the proceeds of asset sales to reduce debt."

Did I just hear you say "asset sales", Mr Costello?  The previous Labor government decided to sell assets to reduce its deficit.  They now have seven members in the State parliament.  The LNP gleefuly got stuck into them and vowed they would not do the same thing.  This was barely ever credible from a conservative party, and it has taken them less than three months to start singing a different tune.  The unionists who turned against Labor in disgust will be feeling profoundly depressed.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Red Army

For my 50th birthday my in-laws gave me a copy of The Folio Book of Historical Mysteries, edited by Ian Pindar.  I've been reading it in bits and pieces over the past few months.  Like most anthologies it mixes the brilliant with the pedestrian.  Predictably there were articles about whether the Turin Shroud was real, whether Shakespeare really wrote his own plays, the identity of Jack the Ripper and the "real" story behind the murder of JFK.  Along with this were some surprises.  Who would have thought there was an actual historical event behind the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, or that the characters in The Three Musketeers were based on real people?  And I had certainly never heard of the fabulous Voynich Manuscript, a beautiful, elaborate book probably dating from the later 15th century written in a completely incomprehensible "language".

Amidst all these gems and rocks are two little tales about the fall of imperial Russia.  The first is rather well known.  Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, along with his family and other household members, were executed by the Red Army in July 1917, sending shockwaves through the royal houses of Europe, most of whom were related to the Tsar in some way.

Then early in 1920 a young woman was rescued from a canal in Berlin where she had apparently attempted suicide.  She refused to say who she was and was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she stayed for a number of years, remaining unidentified.  During this time one of her fellow inmates noticed a marked similarity to the youngest Russian princess, Anastasia. 

Thus began a 60-year saga, still unresoved at her death, over whether this woman who came to call herself Anna Anderson was in fact Anastasia, miraculously escaped from the assassination of the rest of her family.  Various Romanov cousins and former friends and servants visited her and either confirmed or denied that she was or could be the lost princess.  The woman herself at times seemed to claim she was, at other times denied it, and more often than not refused to answer any questions.  In her favour was a certain physical resemblance and a similar age.  Against was her lack of royal airs and graces and the fact that she didn't speak Russian, although her carers claimed she spoke it in her sleep.  Muddying the water was her lifelong mental illness which made most of her statements unreliable.  The inherent unlikelihood of her story didn't prevent the publication of numerous books, regular magazine articles and two Hollywood films.

It was only after her death that DNA evidence conclusively showed that Anna was not a Romanov, and was almost certainly a working class Polish woman called Franziska Schanzkowska.  The romance was bulldozed by prosaic fact.  The Red Army had been as efficient as one would expect.  Still, you wonder if the story would have been much better had Anna turned out to be the heir to the Russian throne.  A poor, erratic woman with a chronic mental illness could hardly have been a great advertisement for restoring the hereditary Russian monarchy.

Anastasia, but not Franziska, would undoubtedly have seen the Amber Room, pictured here in glorious facsimile.  This remarkable artefact was presented to Peter the Great by the Prussian King Friedrich Willhelm in 1716 and installed in a ballroom in the Catherine Place at St Petersburg.  It consisted, apparently, of a series of elaborately ornate removable panels made entirely of amber which lined the walls of a palace ballroom.  This gaudy and absurdly expensive work of art quite possibly says everything you need to know about the Russian aristocracy, dancing happily in a room worth millions of roubles while their peasants froze to death.

Nonetheless the room was better treated by the Red Army than its occupants.  After the revolution the Catherine Palace was turned into a museum and the room was left intact for people to visit, no doubt as a reminder of the gap between rich and poor that the Bolsheviks were supposed to be closing.  However, in 1941 the Germans took St Petersburg, then renamed Leningrad as saints of the revolution replaced those of the opium of the people.  As part of their looting of the city they packed the panels and associated artworks in crates and shipped them back to Konigsberg in East Prussia. 

In 1945 it was apparently still there when the Red Army took Konigsberg in their turn.  However, it never made it back to Russia.  There are two theories about why.  One is that in the course of the initial invasion the room was either destroyed by fire or stolen by Red Army officers and sold piece by piece for their own profit.  The other is that the Nazis managed to hide it somewhere, and it is still hidden to this day.  The first official Russian investigator to arrive on the scene a few months later concluded that the room had been destroyed.  However, he recanted in the face of a later investigation which claimed it was probably still hidden somewhere in Germany, and the way was opened for decades of treasure hunting which is still going on to this day.

For Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, who wrote the article I read, the jury is still out to some extent because they were unable, even after the collapse of the USSR, to secure the release of the official archive.  However, they conclude that the original investigator was right and the Amber Room was destroyed in the fire that destroyed the Konigsberg Palace in April 1945.  However it was not acceptable to show the Red Army as having wantonly destroyed a Russian national treasure or, worse still, stolen it for their own profit.  Knowing the political climate in post-war USSR, it is not hard to imagine the investigator saying whatever he needed to stay out of the gulag.  Much safer to blame the Nazis, even if it did lead to the Stasi wasting millions on a wild goose chase.

It's hard to know what to make of all this, really.  By all accounts the Romanovs were well past their use-by date.  The romance of finding a last surviving link to the glories of Imperial Russia in the person of a lost princess, or a lost treasure, turns out to be no more than fantasy.  The harsh reality is that both were destroyed by the Red Army.  The fading glories of a romantic past were not left to fade gracefully, or preserved as monuments to a bygone age.  They were brutally rubbed out by a bunch of clumsy thugs.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Transit of Venus

Twice in every 100-odd years, Venus passes directly between the earth and the sun.  For a few hours, if there are no clouds, earth-bound mortals can see her shadow as it crosses the face of the sun and then disappears.  It happened today amidst much fanfare and astronomical excitement.

This means it's a good day for a post on Shirley Hazzard's wonderful novel, The Transit of VenusExpatriate Aussie novelist Hazzard is not prolific by any means but what her work lacks in quantity it makes up in quality and The Transit of Venus is her masterwork.

Published in 1980, it follows the lives and loves of Australian sisters Caroline and Grace Bell from their arrival in the UK after World War 2.  It is a lyrical, elliptical novel, moments of sly humour mingled with an all-pervading sense of tragedy.  Her characterisation is beautifully nuanced, you feel passionate love or scorn for each of her creations. Venus remains hidden for long, dreary years, reveals herself in a blinding moment of glory, then just as quickly disappears.

Grace has her story and her moment of love as do other less important characters, but Caro provides the backbone of the tale.  Early on she is courted by the astronomer Ted Tice, who introduces her to the concept of the Transit and asks her to marry him.  She refuses but his love burns on a slow flame throughout the book, surviving decades of sympathetic but firm rejection and his own companionable but passionless marriage.

Meanwhile Caro plunges into an illicit affair with the playwright Paul Ivory.  There is nothing good about this relationship and it is hard to see why the otherwise brilliant and clear-sighted Caro persists with its routine of secret liaisons in seedy locations, long unexplained silences and general air of emotional poverty. 

Finally Venus has her moment.  Caro discovers some very ugly truths about Paul.  Simultaneously, she discovers that Ted has known these same truths for years, but has kept them to himself instead of using them to thwart his rival.  Her view of him is turned on its head, she sees depths of nobility and self-restraint that she never noticed.  Love blossoms and the pair prepare to abandon everything else in their lives for the sake of that love.

In a sense this is where the story ends, but through the book Hazzard has laid a trail of clues which are stitched together in a final, seemingly inconsequential scene.  If you have been reading carefully it is a glimpse of ultimate tragedy that takes your breath away and makes you want to weep.

This is a profoundly pessimistic book just as Jane Eyre is a profoundly optimistic one.  For Charlotte Bronte love can triumph.  If only the hero and heroine are prepared to suffer enough they can be happy in the end.  For Hazzard you will certainly suffer for love, but its triumph will be random and elusive.  For Bronte as for Hazzard, love strikes unexpectedly and we can't control it, but once it has struck it will stay and is ours to wrestle with.  For Hazzard it is just a brief moment of glory, no more connected to us than the movement of the planets.  All your life beforehand is waiting for it to strike, all your life after is mourning - if you survive.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

More Lives of Jesus 6: Rudolf Bultmann

I know I promised to review some more recent Lives of Jesus and I've been doing that, but late last year I picked up a copy of Rudolf Bultmann's Jesus and the Word in a second hand shop.  Since Bultmann has made a couple of cameos in these reviews, I thought I'd tell you a little more about what he says.

Jesus and the Word was first published in German in 1926, and translated into English in 1934.  Bultmann had yet to embark on the project of "demythologising" Christianity which was to make him famous or notorious throughout the Christian world, depending on your viewpoint.  Here in this book we can see the beginnings of that theology and understand both its strength and its weakness.

One thing this book shows is how little the study of the Gospels has changed over the past century.  Bultmann has a lot in common with the present day fellows of the Jesus Seminar.  Like them, he sees the Gospels as layered texts, some parts recording the actual words of Jesus, others later embellishments by the early Christians.  Furthermore he agrees with them that the Synoptic gospels contain most of this early material. 

However, he does rely on a slightly different method to them, attempting to identify the sayings that could have originated in the original Aramaic-speaking Christian community and eliminate those which have an obvious Hellenistic flavour.  This means that, unlike the Jesus Seminar, he sees Jesus as fundamentally connected to his Jewish roots, and his ideas as a development of the Jewish thought of his day - in some respects he echoes and agrees with the views common in his time and place, while in others he radically departs from them.

Bultmann is also quite pessimistic about the prospect of knowing anything much about Jesus as a person.

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation.  No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.  But how far that community preserved an objectively true picture of him and his message is another question.  For those whose interest is in the personality of Jesus this situation is depressing or destructive; for our purpose it has no particular significance.  It is precisely this complex of ideas in the oldest layer of the synoptic tradition which is the object of our consideration.  It meets us as a fragment of tradition coming to us from the past, and in the examination of it we seek the encounter with history.  By the tradition Jesus is named as bearer of the message; according to overwhelming probability he really was.  Should it prove otherwise, that does not change in any way what is said in the record.

So, a "Life of Jesus" in Bultmann's eyes is an impossibility.  We have no way of knowing even simple biographical details about Jesus with any certainty, never mind any insight into his psychology or emotional life.  Nor do his deeds rate very highly in Butmann's view.  He dismisses Jesus' miracles in a few sentences. 

What remains is Jesus as a teacher.  What is important about Jesus is his words or, if you like, his Word.  This is what holds Bultmann's attention for the bulk of this book, after the rest has been dismissed in a brief introduction.  So what is it, in Bultmann's view, that Jesus taught?

The first part of this message is of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Butmann is rather vague about the meaning of this term, but he is clear that the implication of its imminence is that his hearers must repent.  The Kingdom is upon them, and God demands decision of them - will they obey God and enter the Kingdom, or will they refuse and be destroyed?  There is no middle ground for Jesus, no room for prevarication, now is the time for decision. 

What do they have to decide?  Bultmann is clear that Jesus stands firmly in the Jewish tradition.  He accepts without question the authority of the Law and the Prophets, and the value of the temple worship and the Jewish cult.  Bultmann is also clear that "one should not...designate the Jewish ethic as an ethic of works and contrast it with an ethic of intention".  The Jews understood that motive was important, that they would follow the law because they wanted to obey God.  Nor did the Jews do this out of any sense that to do so would bring them some sort of reward, or that the law was intrinsically good or helpful.  Obedience was necessary for its own sake, even if the purpose of the laws made no sense to them.

Jesus' difference from the scribes is precisely this - that for them the law was unintelligible and needed to simply be followed blindly.  All commands were equal, as coming from God, and all must be equally obeyed.  For Jesus, on the other hand, one law can be set against another, and it should be clear to his hearers which has priority.  Thus, for instance, Jesus contrasts Moses' rules about divorce with the description in Genesis - "the two shall become one flesh" - to demonstrate that divorce is not God's original intention, only an allowance for their weakness.  The laws about the Sabbath are turned on their head by the question, "ought a man to do good or evil on the Sabbath? save a life, or kill?".  The laws on purification are nullified by the statement "There is nothing which comes into a man from without which defiles him; it is what comes out of a man which defiles him". 

This leads to what Bultmann calls the "radical conception" of obedience.

What God's will is, is not stated by an external authority, so that the content of the command is a matter of indifference, but man is entrusted and expected to see for himself what God commands.  God's requirements are intrinsically intelligible....For so long as obedience is only subjection to an authority which man does not understand, it is no true obedience; something in man still stands outside and does not submit....Radical obedience exists only when a man inwardly assents to what is required of him, when the thing commanded is seen as intrinsically God's command; when the whole man stands behind what he does; or better, when the whole man is in what he does, when he is not doing something obediently but is essentially obedient.

So then, who is this God we are to obey?  Once again Bultmann starts with the basic Jewish conception of God - that God is both remote and near.  He is remote, in that he is not part of the cosmos, or resident in it, or a creature like the others we see.  Yet he is near, because everything depends on him.  He then explains how Jesus used this concept.

For him God is not an object of thought, of speculation; he does not press into service the concept of God in order to understand the world and comprehend it as a unity.  Therefore God is to him neither a metaphysical entity nor a cosmic power nor a law of the universe, but a personal Will, holy and gracious Will.  Jesus speaks of God only to affirm that man is claimed by the will of God and determined in his present existence through God's demand....

Hence we circle back to the starting point - the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we have to choose - bow to his will and enter the Kingdom, or reject it and be rejected in turn.

The beauty of Bultmann's view of Jesus is its simplicity.  By abstracting Jesus' sayings and focusing on them, he gets in a few short pages to the heart of his message and his purpose, and the radical challenge he presents to us.  In the process he strips away much of our own theology, inspired and guided as it is by Greek modes of thought that were unknown to Jesus.  He rules out of court our metaphyical speculations, our humanistic desire for self-realisation, our legalistic desire for self-justification.  All of these things, he says, need to be removed so that we can hear the voice of Jesus calling us to repentance.

I feel a little presumptuous in offering criticism of one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century.  Still, it seems to me that the simplicity of Bultmann's analysis is to some extent illusory.  For instance, he has chosen to accept the teachings passed on by the first Christians and recorded in the Gospels, but to ignore his deeds - both the miraculous and the everyday.  Yet if we can rely on the first Christians to faithfully record Jesus' teachings, why can we not rely on them to record his deeds?  Are these deeds not also an important part of his teaching?  Even leaving aside the miracles which Bultmann finds untenable, surely Jesus' baptism by John,  the "triumphal entry", the cleansing of the temple and of course his crucifixion are key clues to his message and intent?  Bultmann, just as much as his successors, is a prisoner to his assumptions and his methods.

Nonetheless, the message of Jesus can stand on its own, and Bultmann's formulation of it challenges us.  It gave him courage to oppose the mythology and terrors of the Nazis, and enabled him to remain faithful in the midst of post-war disillusionment.  Jesus still calls us to repent, and our need for such repentance is as fresh as ever.