Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Redemption, Jews, and Jesus

The Bible says that God produced the Jewish People -- a story which suggests (by its context) that God intends them to play a role in the redemption of the world, our release from the harmful consequences of the 'Knowledge of Good and Evil.' Clearly they have served this purpose in the past, and continue to produce good insights and inspirations. But equally clearly, their existence as a nation-state seems to have always provided bad examples of what human beings everywhere keep doing wrong. Their main contribution so far has been this seductive and problematic anthology itself, full of stories about God and their encounters with that often-enigmatic Being.

Without the Bible, of course, we might have little reason to consider mortality, oppression, or lack of contact with God to be problematic. Unpleasant, perhaps, but not surprising. The Eden story, whether or not we take the Christian view of it -- implies that things haven't always been this way, that our current unsatisfactory state isn't a given -- and may somehow be overcome. For the Jews, exile from Israel became a metaphor for the human condition. For Roman converts to Christianity, however, the offer of a new God-appointed ruler returning from Heaven to set all things right would have been more appealing. And so Christianity needed an explanation, other than Israelite sin, for why so much of the world needed fixing -- and the notion that humanity had inherited a sinful nature certainly fit most people's observations.

In theory, Jewish and Christian interpretations of our needs seem radically different. As to what people mean by them, maybe not so much. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi re 'what we seek': "We want to be attuned to God, experience a closeness to Him/Her, collaborate with His/Her entelechy as it unfolds His/Her design, become one-d with others who mind as we do, become aligned toward oneness and organicity, to receive the revelation of planetary telepathy with all the other sentient beings who form His/Her embodiment, to be instruments, limbs of God. Our questions are not so much what can we say about God's existence or the nature of His/Her being. Beyond all definitions we are challenged by the ground of our being that lives and breathes, thinks and feels in us." Both Judaism and Christianity can stretch to accommodate a wide range of understandings.

But our Bibles present a diverse set of books, the Hebrew scriptures being mostly unconcerned about death or resurrection, the Christian writings obsessed with them. Whatever ancient Hebrews believed about death and life beyond it, they didn't see much need to explain. They might even have practiced 'ancestor worship,' which would have been a family affair of little concern to the centralized religious establishment, so far as it didn't lead to calling in professional mediums (disapproved as potential rivals to the state cult's prophets, as the story of Saul suggests.) By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had come to believe in a general resurrection as described in the Book of Daniel, where martyrs would be singled out for posthumous rewards. At least some of their spiritual descendants, the rebbes of the Hasidic movement, included reincarnation among their doctrines... perhaps from some ancient tradition, but who could say for sure? The matter was relatively irrelevant to regulating a functioning theocracy.

Paul, however, in the first writings of the Christian 'New Testament', goes so far as to say, "If Christ is not raised from the dead, then all your faith is in vain." To anyone who values Jesus chiefly for his ethical teachings, such a stance seems perverse -- yet there it is, quite early in our traditions. Of course, for those teachings to be normative to anyone who didn't feel their intuitive force, God needed to  vindicate and thereby endorse the teacher, who had died so wretchedly. Nobody before Jesus expected a Messiah to die and be resurrected; and suddenly it becomes [for standard-brand Christian believers] 'foretold by the prophets.' NT Wright argues that it became doctrine by observation. That is, a dead Messiah could neither rule Israel nor conquer the goyim; once Jesus was alive and well again, his supporters could only conclude that God had returned him to life for that very purpose.

When? "Soon", we are repeatedly told. The Christian Bible is radically mistaken -- or people are mistaken in how we interpret it.

This again seems merely to illustrate how the Bible works. 'Inspiration' is not meant to be understood as rendering anybody whatsoever 'infallible.' Some things people can know intuitively, and not be mistaken -- but as with any source of truth, one needs to reach one's own understanding.

We are told -- with various explanations -- that Jesus' death saves us from our sins -- but supposedly, only if we believe it does. Little of this doctrine coheres with the nature of God as Jesus describes Him. A loving Father who does only good to his children, whether these belong to 'the Just' or 'the Unjust', can hardly be planning eternal punishment for any of them who fail to swallow some absurdity.

What we get are explanations that make sense in the ways people were thinking at the time. Jesus' Judean contemporaries considered "Sin" important because that was their best explanation for why Israel, having been liberated from Egypt by God Himself, was now being oppressed by unclean pagan foreigners.

A secular observer would say that Rome had a larger army, supported by plunder and tribute from rich neighboring countries -- and that agricultural civilizations had always included oppression, had always been ruled by elites taking a big cut from the crops of subsistence farmers -- if they didn't simply foreclose on  them and put them to work on their own land as slaves and casual laborers, as had already happened in Italy and was now happening, under Roman-style commercial practices, in Judea.

Though free from the evils of monarchy, the far-from-ideal institutions of ancient Israel had been constantly threatened by neighboring pagan kingdoms. Only continual miraculous intervention could have maintained their existence under tribal organization and ad hoc charismatic leadership. God might conceivably have provided such help -- but if the people no longer expected that level of protection, was it their fault for lacking 'faith'? -- or did it show that God had never intended that state of affairs to go on forever?

Even an ideal human government could hardly guarantee faith, enlightenment, or closeness to God among a people. A nation of saints might do without a government entirely -- or easily agree on whatever arrangement met the needs of a time. But no one knows what conditions would produce such a nation: wise and enlightened laws and rulers, prosperity, a way of life in which children could grow up happy and bright, yet somehow remain pious.

Yet Jesus' first and central proclamation was that something called 'The Kingdom of God' [This can also be translated as 'The Reign of God'] was either arriving or already, in some sense here. It was either 'within you' or 'among you' or both.

Meaning little to us, that phrase would have spoken eloquently to 1st Century Jews, suggesting the return of God's favor and intervention, deliverance from foreign oppressors, all the blessings their scriptures promised if they could keep to God's covenant with their nation. There were several occasions when popular prophets of the time led crowds out into 'the wilderness,' to cross back into The Promised Land, in one symbolic way or another -- and every time, the Romans suppressed such ceremonies violently. If there was to be a kingdom of Judea, they wanted emphatically to choose who'd be in charge and where the taxes would go.  

However many insights and misapprehensions Jesus' words have generated since then, neither he nor his hearers would have thought he was talking about a kingdom in the sky for dead people. He was saying that God, having seemingly abandoned Hsr people to slavery and their own devices, was now actively engaged with them and the world; as I now consider his sayings and parables, these are saying what that looks like in practice, what we need to do to join in that interaction.