Sunday, 29 July 2012

Miracles Part 3

In my first post on Jesus' miracles I summarised my reasons for not seeing the miracles as demonstrations of power, and in the second I commented on the way the miracle stories are bound by the culture and world view of their original authors and hearers. 

The starting point for this one is the theory of some New Testament scholars that among the original sources for the gospels were a "sayings gospel" and a "signs gospel".  If they existed (and their existence is merely an hypothesis, no copies exist), then the first was a collection of the sayings or teachings of Jesus, and the second of deeds attributed to him.  Within this framework, Jesus' acts are not defined by whether or not they require supernatural power, but simply by the fact that he did them.

No doubt Jesus did many things - getting dressed, washing his hair, going to the toilet, ordinary everyday things of which we have no record because they were not worth recording.  The deeds we have in the gospels were recorded because they had significance.  But why?  What is it about these collections of deeds which made people want to remember them when so much else was forgotten?  I think people remembered the deeds which illustrated his message.  His signs are teaching incidents, illustrations and enacted examples of his teachings.

A good example of this is the story of the calling of Jesus' first disciples found in Luke 5.

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

It's not entirely clear that this is a miracle in the normal sense of the term.  People catch fish all the time.  Yet Jesus, a carpenter, has succeeded where professional fishermen failed and Simon's response indicates that something remarkable has taken place.  However, the point of the story comes at the end when Jesus says to Simon and his companions, "Don't be afraid, from now on you will fish for people."  That this is the important part of the story is shown by the fact that it is the only part which appears in the much shorter counterpart stories in Matthew and Mark.  This is a story about the calling of the first disciples, their change from fishermen to proclaimers of the Kingdom.  The story of the catch of fish tells what sort of mission they will have - it will be abundant, so much so that they will not be able to contain it and it will endanger their very lives.

You see the same pattern in the story of the cleansing of the temple in Mark 11, which I have written about in some detail in another post.  Here, Jesus' disruption of the market in sacrificial animals is a prelude to a formal lesson in which he first quotes Isaiah 56 to show that all people, not just Jews, have a place in God's coming kingdom, and then quotes Jeremiah 7 to illustrate how the current temple authorities have betrayed this ideal by putting their faith in the temple itself, not in God.  This was not a politically savvy message - it was the temple authorities who were politically savvy, compromising with the Herods and the Romans to preserve the temple worship while jealously guarding the temple for themselves and their inner circle.  Jesus' kingdom will contain no such compromise, even if it requires the destruction of the temple itself.

I could keep piling up examples but I'd just like to talk about one more - the story of the healing of the paralytic told in Mark 2 and abbreviated in Matthew 11.  Here is Matthew's version which retains the most important elements while editing out some of the incidental details.

2 Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7 Then the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

The main teaching of this story is found in the central statement of Jesus - "the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins".  This statement is framed and supported by his first and last statements; "your sins are forgiven" and "get up, take your mat and go home", and by the two contrasting responses of his hearers; "this fellow is blaspheming" and "they were filled with awe and they praised God".

To understand how these statements relate to each other, keep in mind what I said in Part 2 about the world view of Jesus' contemporaries.  The man's paralysis was not understood as unlucky, or as a result of the action of bacteria or trauma.  It was understood as a result of sin, as a punishment.  He was inhabited by a spirit of paralysis as result of a wrong committed by himself or a member of his family in this highly collectivist culture. 

Hence, forgiveness and cure are closely related, and Jesus' opening and closing statements thematically mirror one another.  When Jesus opens by telling the man his sins are forgiven, the obvious reaction is that anyone can say that - if they are game - but is it really true?  The closing statement provides the proof - the man is indeed able to walk, the power of the paralytic spirit is broken, he is forgiven.

This story has a wider significance.  A paralytic was excluded from the innermost areas of the temple because he was unclean - only "whole", unblemished men and animals were allowed there.  This man was far from friendless, but he was excluded from the inner circle of God's favoured people.  Jesus changes all that.  The forgiveness of his sins/healing doesn't only relieve him physically, it restores him to the community of the faithful, it makes him a full member of God's people.

In Part 1 I referred to Crossan and Reed's view about how these stories would be seen in the first century.  In that context, the miracles themselves were not necessarily either convincing or surprising.  Miracle stories were told about plenty of public figures.  What was convincing was the message.  This was a kingdom for outsiders.  People who previously had no hope of God's favour, who were on the bottom of the pile, could now be admitted to God's closest counsels, could be brought into the inner circle, could be as important as priests and kings.  Is it any wonder that in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul describes the early church in the following terms?

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

(Final episode in this series is here.)

Friday, 27 July 2012

Queensland's Budget Crisis in Housing

I mentioned previously that I am very skeptical about the Queensland Government's supposed budget crisis.  I believe it has been greatly exaggerated by the Newman LNP Government as an overarching story to justify cuts which are essentially ideological. 

Recent events in the housing portfolio, dear to my own heart, have confirmed this suspicion.  New housing minister Bruce Flegg, who has no history of involvement in housing issues, started his tenure by announcing that (shock! horror!) Queensland's public housing system is losing $2m per week, and is struggling to cope with the demand for housing from low income tenants.  He proceeded to float a number of ideas for "improving" the system, most of which involved moving tenants on from their housing in some form.  He advocated alternatives including shorter leases, compulsory transfers and asking single tenants in large housing to share if they are not willing to move. Then this week he has announced, without warning, that he is discontinuing funding for the Tenant Advice and Advocacy Services (TAASQ), which provide free advice and support on tenancy law issues.

So a little background on housing policy.  The Queensland Department of Housing, which manages a little over 50,000 dwellings which are rented to low income tenants, does indeed run at a loss.  This is not new - people involved in housing policy have been writing and talking about financial viability problems in the public housing system for the past 30 years. 

The reason for this financial issue is not hard to find.  The housing has to be acquired and maintained at market prices and staff have to be paid full award wages to manage it.  However, the system is specifically set up to house people on lower incomes, and the income profile of public housing tenants has got lower and lower over the past three decades as governments target their housing more tightly to high need households.  Because the rent they pay is geared to their income, it is well short of market rent and so the system runs at a loss. 

The way this is played out in practice is that the rent is able to cover the basics - staff wages and overheads, day to day maintenance, rates and insurance.  However, the depreciation of the buildings is not fully funded, and so as houses and units get old and run down there is no money in the system to replace them.  They can only be replaced by selling other buildings, or by the government putting in extra money.

Of course this is only a problem is you think it is.  If you look at public housing as a closed financial system, then yes it runs at a loss and will eventually cannibalise itself, selling houses to fund the operation until there are none left.  Hence, the system is not financially viable.  But who said it should be?  Who said it was a commercial operation which had to meet its own costs?  In fact, this plainly is not the intention of any government.  The system is intended to support low income people who can't afford market rents.  The loss the system makes is the subsidy needed to provide people with limited resources the opportunity for decent, secure housing.  This is a legitimate - indeed essential - service for a government to provide and it comes cheap at $2m per week for 50,000 households.

But Dr Flegg has a classic case of Dunning and Kruger syndrome - he doesn't know enough to understand the depth of his ignorance.  So he has proposed a range of measures which frighten the socks off public housing tenants but which will have little impact on the finances of the system.  Like the Coalition members who ran the state for decades up to 1989, he wants to make the system more punitive and push out tenants who are not in "genuine need".  This will, in fact, make the losses greater because those with more capacity to pay rent will be moved out of the system, while simultaneously reducing the quality of life of the tenants it is supposed to help.  Everyone will lose.  It is a classic conservative party approach to welfare, focusing on rationing and the deserving poor and demonising those who are seen to be greedy or underserving. 

Which brings me to TAASQ.  Dr Flegg has indicated that given the financial crisis facing public housing, he can no longer afford to fund this service because he needs to direct all available funds towards housing people.  Dr Flegg either doesn't know, or doesn't care, that TAASQ is not funded out of the public housing budget.  It is funded almost entirely from the interest on bond money held by the Residential Tenancies Authority - that is, from private sector tenants' own money.  It enables disadvantaged tenants who are not able to assert their own rights in disputes with their landlords to get free help.  It helps prevent many of them from becoming homeless.  It is a crucial service, especially given the vast majority of disadvantaged tenants are not, in fact, in public housing but struggling to pay rent in the overheated private rental market.

This is the money Dr Flegg wants to appropriate to help prop up the public housing system.  It won't go far and it certainly won't solve the core problem.  The core problem is that politicians (and Labor ones are not much better than LNP ones on this matter) want to have their cake and eat it.  They want a system geared to housing the most disadvantaged households in the State, and they don't want to pay a cent for it.  Does this strike you as good financial management?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Refugee Queue

The management of News Ltd's flagship The Australian assures us that they don't have a political agenda, they just report the news as they see it.  If that's the case, then they see things in a slightly odd way.  Or perhaps it's better to say they see some things, but not others.

For the past two Saturdays The Weekend Australian has featured pretty much identical cover stories about the refugee issue.  Yesterday's was entitled Too Poor for a Boat, Family Stuck in Asylum Void, and features the story of Burmese Chin refugee Ngun Tin Tial and her family, stuck in Kuala Lumpur after fleeing persecution in their homeland and living in legal limbo, earning a meagre living in the grey economy.  They would like to come to Australia and have got some way along the application process.  However, the wait is long, and apparently being made longer by the fact that when Australia accepts boat arrivals, these are counted towards our overall refugee and humanitatian quota of 13,000 refugees, reducing the number that will be settled from offshore.  An illicit boat trip is not an option for them, because there's no way they can rustle up the required $32,000.

"This is not fair," she said. "Of course we don't have that sort of money." Even if a processing centre were opened in Indonesia, the family wouldn't have the means to get there: too far, too expensive. They can only wait and hope. "It's extremely hard and difficult for my family," Ngun Tin Tial added, her voice breaking. "It's so difficult I can't speak."

The author, Sian Powell, continues:

The family's plight seems unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Today The Weekend Australian reveals that Australia's entire offshore humanitarian program could be wiped out this financial year if asylum-seeker boats continued to arrive at their present rate.

Interestingly, last weekend's cover featured the same story from a different place, this time the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.  Abdikadir Omar has been a refugee since he was 11 after fleeing Somalia following the execution of his parents.  The story doesn't say how old he is but he now has a wife and three young children, all born in Dadaab.  He too would like to come to Australia, as would many others of the 460,000 people who live in this dangerous and impoverished place of refuge.  But - well, you guessed it.

His hopes, and those of a generation of displaced people in camps around the world, are being crushed by a gross distortion in Australia's humanitarian program, caused by the flood of asylum-seeker boats. People such as Mr Omar in Kenya's giant Dadaab camp do not have the money or access to people-smugglers and their boats. He has no choice but to apply through proper channels for the fast-shrinking number of humanitarian places being offered to those who do not arrive in Australia by boat.

Author Cameron Stewart provides us with more data.

Since 1996 Australia has capped its total humanitarian intake at about 13,000 by linking its onshore intake, which includes asylum-seeker boat arrivals, with its offshore intake, which includes both the refugee and special humanitarian category....

The number of special offshore humanitarian visas issued each year has fallen from 5183 in 2006-07, when boat arrivals were in single figures each year, to barely 800 in 2011-12 and is likely to vanish this financial year, amid the current surge in asylum-seekers.

I feel extremely sad for both families, and hope that they both make it to Australia soon.  They are ordinary, decent and hardworking people who have suffered too much already.  The way their stories are reported, on the other hand, makes my blood boil.  They imply that these poor and genuine refugees are being made to suffer by wealthier and less needy people jumping the queue by making the unauthorised boat trip to Australia.

So, to set the record straight, first of all while it is true that those who arrive on boats are a little better off than those who can't afford to do so, a person who can scrape together $5-10,000 for a rickety boat trip would not fit most people's criteria for "rich".  Genuinely rich people don't need to do that, they can come to Australia by plane, with a visa, if they promise to bring at least half a million dollars with them.  If they are not that well off, they can come as skilled migrants or, failing that, come as students and get the skills here, then apply to stay.  They don't even have to be refugees to do that.  Failing all else, they can fly in as tourists and then apply for asylum before their visas run out.  Coming on an unauthorised boat without a visa is the resort of only the most desperate.  They are not the poorest of the poor, but they are not far from it.

Secondly, there is no iron law of mathematics that says that if boat arrivals go up, offshore numbers must go down.  There is nothing sacred or absolute about the quota, nothing that prevents us from taking more people, and from decoupling the offshore quota from onshore arrivals.  This way, Ngun Tin Tial and Abdikadir Omar need not be played off against the Afghanis, Sri Lankans and Iraqis who make it here by boat.

Of course there are budget implications but these are also a matter of choice. According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre it costs about  $11,000 per person to settle someone in the community.  If we settle 13,000 people per year, this will cost us $143m.  Of course we wouldn't want these costs to blow out, would we?  On the other hand, it costs $137,000 per person per year to keep someone in immigration detention.  At that price the costs of detention rapidly wipe out the budget for resettlement.  This is the tragedy of our current approach - our budget for humanitarian resettlement is not being wiped out by alternative humanitarian aid for those in slightly less need, it is being wiped out by the cost of treating people inhumanely.  For every family we refrain from sending to detention when they pull up at the dock on Christmas Island, we can afford to settle the entire Tial and Omar families and their favourite cousins and have plenty of change to pay for the increased boat arrivals which will supposedly come on the back of our becoming more humane.

One final point while we're talking numbers.  Cameron Stewart seems not to have noticed the other incredibly large number he put in his article - the 460,000 people currently resident in the Dadaab refugee camp - and the mathematical relationship between this and Australia's 13,000 humanitarian quota.  I can quote even bigger numbers of you like - the UNHCR currently has 10.5 million refugees on its register worldwide.  Irrespective of what happens about unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia  Sian Powell and Cameron Stewart will still be able to find any number of people like Ngun Tin Tial and Abdikadir Omar stuck in refugee limbo.  It is a sign of how truly insular we have become that we are able to see this is a problem of border protection.

* Photos of Ngun Tin Tial and her adopted sons, and Abdikadir Omar and family, taken from The Australian.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Evolving in Monkey Town

Having had a rave about the seeming inhumanity of one of our favourite worship songs, perhaps now is as good a time as any to post my review of Rachel Held Evans' Evolving in Monkey Town.  I enjoy Evans' blog, with its combination of deep compassion and theological challenge, and wanted to read more.

In many ways Evans' spiritual journey has been like my own, from fundamentalism to a more liberal view of Christianity.  However, she was more deeply immersed in fundamentalism than I was, and has taken 20 fewer years to travel the path.  Perhaps this shows that she's smarter than me - she certainly writes better!

Evans grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, venue of the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in 1925 in which school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution in his science class, contrary to Tennessee statute.  She went to fundamentalist Christian schools before attending Bryan University, named after William Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist lawyer and politician who acted as prosecutor in the Scopes trial.  This is the heart of the American bible belt and she grew up surrounded by characters who seem like cliches from a satire on fundamentalism.  For me the most memorable is "June the Ten Commandments lady" who among other far-right political activities advocates the use of the Ten Commandments as the basis for American law.  This doesn't stop her from removing offending images from public places in the dead of night, contrary to the eighth commandment.

While most of the Tennessee fundamentalists looked sideways at June, the "mainstream" was not all that far to the left - biblical inerrancy, a six day creation taught as science in schools, salvation by grace, eternal damnation for all but believing Christians.  The specialty of Bryan College was fundamentalist apologetics, influenced by the philosophical and theological ideas of men like Francis Schaeffer and the biblical historicism of Josh McDowell.  Young Bryan College students were taught that their faith was based on unshakeable intellectual foundations.

Young Rachel Held excelled in this world.  She describes her deliberate, calculated strategy to win the Best Christian Attitude Award at school, planning acts of kindness with the aim of amassing maximum points, only to relax once scoring for the award was closed.  She remained an overachiever at high school and university - class president, youth group leader, spokeswoman for young fundamentalism, passionate evangelist frustrated by the fact that all her associates were already converted. 

What caused the collapse of this impressive card house was not so much growing intellectual maturity as a blinding flash of emotional intelligence.  Before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, US television networks showed graphic footage of a Taliban execution, a young woman put on show trial and shot for the supposed murder of her husband.  Evans found herself burning with anger, not against the Taliban but against God.  Her unassailable, perfect religion taught her that this woman, after being victimised and executed in her life, would suffer the torments of hell because she was a Muslim.  How could God perpetrate such an injustice?

The collapse was rapid and catastrophic.  For a woman of such keen emotional intelligence, living in a tight-knit fundamentalist community, questioning fundamentalist Christianity was equivalent to questioning her entire identity and the value of her entire network of relationships.  Behind the theological doubts and questions there lies a story of visceral despair, of tears and depression, of kind but baffled parents, offended peers and long-suffering husband forced to live through the storm.  Yet she also discovered that she was not alone, that she was not the first to ask these questions and that there was life after fundamentalism.

For a woman of 30, as for a man of 50, this can hardly be the end of the journey but Evans lights a viable path from fundamentalism to the main stream of Christianity, with its more inclusive outlook, respect for other faiths, humility before legitimate doubts and questions, and concern for human suffering and injustice.  The path is not an easy one because a fundamentalist grounding does not prepare you well for a life of uncertainty.  Yet Evans shows, at least so far, that it is possible.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Mystery of the Cross

A while ago I had a rant at the songs showcased at last year's TWIST event, including their focus on the bleeding Jesus.  The issue came up for me again recently in my own church.  Normally when I'm playing music in church I choose what we sing, but a couple of weeks ago I was helping someone else out and they chose a song by Pat Sczebel called Jesus Thank You, the first verse of which goes:

The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend
The agonies of Calvary
You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son
Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me

A polite but pointed discussion ensued.  I find the third line shocking.  It portrays God the Father as a filicide, a killer of his own child, a cold and calculating psychopath who sacrifices his own child in order to satisfy some kind of cosmic scheme of his own devising.

My two fellow musicans, who are both highly intelligent and educated people who have thought deeply about theological issues, justified the line theologically - to summarise, for forgiveness to come about, the price of justice needs to be paid.  But of course my problem was not so much theological as emotional.  I was struck forcefully, and not for the first time, with the horror of the concept.

Since then I've been wondering why it is that we are able to talk dispassionately about this subject, why the horror of it is not more apparent.  I've concluded that perhaps we are desensitised to it.  Familiarity does not exactly breed contempt - Christians like my two friends are very reverent about the cross - but it breeds a certain unreality.  Theological formulations stand between us and the blood and agony of crucifixion.  We talk of the body and blood of Christ, but without fully realising it we are thinking about bread and wine.

Of course it is one thing to say that Jesus died for us, and quite another to say that God killed him.  This brings us back to another version of the classic problem of the three-legged stool.  Christians conceive of God as having three key attributes.  He is seen as perfectly loving, perfectly just, and all-powerful.  In the light of our suffering (and Jesus' as well) it is virtually impossible to assert that all these things are true.  If God is indeed all-powerful and loving, why did he not arrange the universe so that such suffering would be unnecessary?  Is it not a failure of love for him to allow us to go astray, when he certainly could have prevented it, and then to punish us afterwards? 

There is, of course, another way to look at it, and it is the way Paul does in the rather more ancient song he quotes in Philippians 2.

...have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This is not the severe, just God who crushes his son to satisfy his own immovable justice.  This is a God who somehow gives up any claim to divinity and allows himself to be taken to the cross.  In this view, God the Father does not kill Jesus, he is killed by human beings.  In the face of this trial he does not abandon his mission and his obedience to the call, but prefers death, and this obedient death is somehow redemptive for us.

I don't claim to understand how this works.  What I am saying is that if Jesus is our picture of God, then this is a very different God to the all-powerful, all-wise supreme being bequeathed to us by the marriage of theology with neo-platonism.  Rather than crushing his son in our place, he takes our place.  He becomes like us and experiences our frailty, not as a pretence but for real, to the point of torture and death.  The cross then becomes a symbol not of God's justice satisfied, but of God's love fulfilled in the face of our own injustice.  God didn't kill Jesus, we did.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Miracles Part 2

Speaking of reading ancient texts through modern eyes, that's the subject of my second post on miracles.

For the past two centuries, people in Western countries have primarily seen the world through a "scientific" mindset strongly influenced by the Enlightenment.  We see the things that take place around us as products of impersonal natural forces, and when something takes place our first reaction is to seek a natural cause.  This makes it very difficult for us to believe in miracles, because we believe that they are not a "normal" part of the cosmos.  The natural is everyday, the supernatural is extraordinary.

This mindset was behind the blossoming of the "rationalist" lives of Jesus which began to be written in the 18th and 19th centures, and which are still influential today.  These sought to explain Jesus' miracles in rational, scientific terms.  The feeding of the 5,000 was explained as an event in which Jesus shamed the rich into sharing their food with the poor.  Jesus' healings were seen as illustrations of psychosomatic action or as uses of little known Egyptian medicine, his casting out demons as creative psychiatric interventions.

These are genuine attempts to reconcile the stories of the gospels with a scientific view of the world.  Unfortunately they require huge leaps of the imagination.  You have to interpolate events and motives into the gospel text which are simply not there. 

Yet the bigger problem with this approach is that you lose most of the meaning of the events themselves.  To illustrate what I mean, let me start with the most straightforward example I can think of - Jesus' ascension.  Here is how the story is told in Acts 1.

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Jesus had been with his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection, and this is the final event of his life on earth.  Both the story and its meaning are quite unambiguous - he has been taken up into the sky right in front of their eyes, eventually disappearing into a cloud.  The exchange with the two men dressed in white (presumably angels) makes it clear that he has gone into heaven.

It is difficult to make sense of this story in the light of modern science.  We know that the universe, while not infinite, is so vast that it may as well be.  We also know that our planet is one of billions, located in the outer reaches of an ordinary galaxy surrounded by unimaginable distances of empty space.  Where could Jesus possibly be going?  The harder you try for  rationalistic, modern explanation of this story, the more absurd it will become.

This problem did not exist for first century readers.  People in the first century (and up until the 16th) mostly saw the earth as the centre of the universe, surrounded by varying numbers of concentric spheres on which rotated the various heavenly bodies - the moon, sun, stars and planets.  One common view held that there were seven of these spheres, the seventh and highest of which was the home of God or the gods - that is, Heaven as we tend to think of it.  In between this were other levels which could be seen in various ways - for instance in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about being taken up into the "third heaven", which he also refers to as "paradise", where he "heard inexpressible things".

Within this worldview it is easy to see where Jesus is going - up to heaven to be with his Father.  It is not far away and he will certainly get there if he keeps going.  A first century reader would have had no trouble reading the story literally.  For a 21st century reader to do so, we either need to turn it into nonsense, or to overturn everything we have learned about the nature of the universe.

Now to something a little more subtle, which affects almost all of the miracle stories.  Our understanding of the universe means we see phenomena such as illness or the weather as a result of natural, scientifically explicable processes.  Illnesses are caused by microbes, the weather by changes in air pressure and moisture content.  For Jesus to interfere in these is to go against the processes of nature, to intervene in and disrupt the natural order.  Hence the rationalists' desire to explain the miracles within the scheme of natural causes.

To understand these stories in their first century context you need forget all this.  Intervention from God, angels or spirits was normal and natural.  To understand the first century mental world you need to see spirits everywhere and in everything.  If you were ill, it was most likely that you were being oppressed by an evil spirit, perhaps because some sin in your life had allowed it entry.  Even the weather was controlled by spirits, angels stationed at the four points of the compass responsible for controlling the four winds.

Hence Jesus' miracles can be seen as exercising control over this spirit world.  This makes sense of many stories that seem strange to us.  For instance, in Mark 2 we have the story of the lame man lowered through the ceiling in front of Jesus.  Instead of healing him, Jesus says "your sins are forgiven".  When the teachers of the law complain, Jesus then orders the man to get up and walk, saying "I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins."  We typically see this simply as a demonstration of power, but the connection is more intimate and logical than that.  For the man to be healed, his sins have to be forgiven so that the evil influence can be removed and he can walk again.  His ability to walk is a direct result of Jesus' act in forgiving his sins.

I have previously written about the healing of the Centurion's servant in Luke 7.  Here a direct link is drawn between the Centurion's ability to command soldiers and Jesus' ability to command the spirits which cause illness.  Even the story of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4 can be seen from this point of view.  When Jesus says "Quiet! Be still!" he is not speaking to empty air, he is addressing the powerful spirits which control the winds - and even they have to obey him.

I need not pile up examples - I'm sure you get the point.  The difficulty here is that as people of the 21st century, if we want to read these as literal historical events, we have to give up a lot of their meaning.  Their full meaning is only revealed when we enter into the first century mindset, when we forget what we know about medicine, cosmology, climatology, psychology and any other area of knowledge, and see the world through first century eyes.  This is the task of hermeneutics - we need to take two jouneys through time - one back to the first century, then another back to the 21st bearing the first century meaning of the story so we can see what it says to us now.

(The story continues here and here.)

Thursday, 5 July 2012


Apologies for my short absence.  I've been busy with work, it being the end of the financial year and all, and not much spare time to write down the thoughts clattering around my head. 

Anyway, in between other things I've been gradually working my way through Eusebius' History of the Church.  Eusebius has been called the "father of church history" and this work, which first appeared early in the 4th century, is the earliest surviving attempt at a comprehensive account of the first three centuries of Christianity.

I say "attempt" because the work is hardly comprehensive.  In the first place, it is almost entirely a history of the Greek-speaking church of the Eastern mediterranean, with occasional insertions of events from the West, especially Rome.  Yet for me this was the least puzzling thing about it.  As a 21st century reader it is easy to see what it lacks as a work of history.

For a start there is no real sense of development.  We know that the church started in Judea and gradually spread out through the Roman world over the first two centuries.  Yet we hear virtually nothing of this.  There are no missionary tales, no accounts of the arrival of the faith in new places, no sense of sequence.  It is like the empire-wide church sprang up fully formed.

The same goes for its intellectual development.  The church somehow moved from the fragmentary foundational teachings of Jesus and the apostles to a fully fledged, complex theology stated in terms compatible with Greek philosophy.  How did it get there?  What arguments took place along the way and how were they resolved?  Once again, there is no sense of this progression in Eusebius.  He does indeed mention a large number of heretics, but he neither explains their ideas nor refutes them.  Instead he simply slanders them, accusing them of pride, rebellion and misplaced ambition before describing how the authorised bishops of their day overcame them.

All of which illustrates the folly of trying to read an ancient text from a modern point of view.  Eusebius had other things on his mind than satisfying my curiosity.

The first clue is in the stories of martyrdom that make up a large proportion of this work.  Drawn from many sources, they have a distinctive structure, in which innocent and courageous Christians confess their faith before hostile Roman officials, maintaining their confession in the face of horrifically inventive tortures before finally losing their lives and as he says, "gaining their reward". 

Although his retelling of those stories is fairly formulaic, this is no mere academic interest.  This history was written in the reign of Constantine, at the dawn of lasting peace between the church and the empire.  Eusebius' flattery of Constantine seems nauseating until you consider that his predecessors, Diocletian and his associates, mounted the most comprehensive persecution of the church's entire history in a final attempt to wipe out what they considered a pernicious and atheistic faith.  Eusebius tells us nothing of what happened to him in this time, but however he came through it must have been terrifying.  He had no way of knowing that such persecution would not recur after Constantine passed on.

The second clue is in the structure of the history itself.  Although it is easy for us to skip these bits, the framework round which the book is built is the succession of Roman emperors and alongside it, the succesive bishops of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome traced meticulously from their Apostolic founders to his own day.  Eusebius makes sure that there is a clear and unbroken succession in all three sees back to (respectively) James, Thomas and Peter.

The final clue is right at the beginning of the book.  His starting point is not Jesus' birth in Bethlehem or his crucifixion in Jerusalem, but his eternal pre-existence with the Father.  From here Eusebius briefly discusses his role in the creation of the world as presented in John's Gospel and attributes to him various appearances of the Lord in the Old Testament, including those to Abraham and Moses.  His most recent appearance in the first century was thus his final and definitive appearance, but not his only one. 

Eusebius lived in a highly conservative and rigidly heirarchical society.  New ideas were not merely seen as frivolous and ephemeral but as positively dangerous, leading to the disintegration of society and the overthrow of the established order.  Popular and rapidly spreading new ideas like Christianity, which demanded exclusive allegiance from their followers, were especially dangerous.  Hence the centuries of intermittent persecution, especially vicious when the empire saw itself under threat.

Eusebius' answer to this, his strategy for steering away from further persecution which must have seemed such a real possibility in his day, was to demonstrate that Christianity was not a new idea at all.  Its heirarchy stretched back (with a little creative chronology) to the time of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.  It was a successful, effective heirarchy with proven ability to control deviants within the church - hence it was not important what the heretics taught, only that their teaching was suppressed.  Its antecedents reached all the way back to Abraham, further than the history of Rome itself and sharing its origins with Judaism, an exclusive faith licensed by the Empire.

It was not simply that Eusebius was uninterested in the development of the Church or the evolution of its ideas.  It was that he saw the knowledge of these things as positively dangerous to himself and his fellow believers. If they were to survive, continuity and ancient origins must be emphasised, development and change must be kept out of sight.  The stakes for an apologetic strategy can hardly ever have been higher.  If a few facts got twisted along the way, that was a small price to pay.