Tuesday, 25 October 2016

We Know Dylan Lays Tefillin, but did Jesus?

The short answer is: yes. In case you’re asking “what is laying tefillin?”, I’ll explain super-briefly: Tefillin, or “phylacteries”, are small boxes containing scripture that are worn on the forehead between the eyes and on one arm close to the heart. They are usually worn only during prayer, but some wear them during Torah study. To do so has long been considered a fulfillment of the mitzvah (commandment) in Deuteronomy 11:18, to “bind the commandments on your arm and between your eyes” (though there are now and have always been Jews who interpreted that verse symbolically). 

In Jesus’ time the pharisees wore Tefillin, and other Jewish sects may also have. Jesus criticized them for wearing ostentatious Tefillin (). Did Jesus himself lay tefillin, though? Well, he did wear Tzitzit (ritual fringes with a similar purpose to tefillin but kept on all day), keep kosher, and observe the Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. He encouraged other Jews to follow the laws of Temple sacrifices, revered the Temple, studied Torah, and kept the Sabbath. He also said that he had come to fulfill, not abolish, the Torah and admonished his disciples that those who did not affirm even the minor mitzvot of the Torah would be “least in the Kingdom of God”. So it seems pretty likely he would have laid Tefillin. This is even more likely if one accepts the recent scholarly argument that Jesus was in fact a Pharisee himself, based on the fact that he is identified as a “Judean” in the Gospel of John, and “Judean” does not just refer to those who lived in Judah, but those who held the Judean leaders to be authorities and followed their customs (as the gospels of John, Matthew and Luke clearly depict Jesus doing). Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees is an insider’s rebuke, his frustration that of frustrated love and disappointed hope. 

Gentile Christianity has long depicted Jesus as abolishing or replacing the Torah, relying on a carefully crafted and complex exegesis of the New Testament which, although understandable and not without basis, ignores several clear passages and narrative elements and creates tensions and contradictions in both Christian theology and practice. This rejection stems more from the the alienation and hostility that set in between Judaism and Gentile Christianity in the centuries following the deaths of the apostles (most of whom were observant Jews like Jesus, including Paul) rather than sound readings of the New Testament and Torah.  

To say that Jesus abolished Judaism is like saying that Jimi Hendrix abolished the electric guitar. Jesus showed us what Judaism could do, just as Hendrix, l’havdil,  showed us what the guitar could do. Jesus criticised aspects of the Jewish practice of his time, while affirming or refining others. That makes him a genius of the interpretation and implementation of Judaism in the world, not it’s destroyer. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Some Thoughts on Christianity and Canada

One might be tempted to view Canadian society as a once Christian culture that has ceased to be one. Certainly it’s true that the original Europeans who came to Aboriginal Canada -first as visitors, then as neighbours, and then as conquerors through war, trade, and outright theft- were predominantly British and French Protestants and Catholics. As Canada formed as a country immigration was mostly from Western Europe and Scandinavia. Despite the use of cheap imported Asian labour in British Columbia, Canada’s infamously racist immigration policies generally excluded or limited non-Europeans (and Jews). 

As a result of the origins of Canada and its immigration policies, most immigrants came from countries where Christianity was overwhelmingly the major religious influence, though by the 19th century Europe and Canada had already shifted significantly towards secularism. This was the case until after WW2, when immigration policies began to shift, though they were not thoroughly overhauled until the first Trudeau government attempted to purge Canadian immigration policies of racism in the 1970s. 

Since the 1970s Canada has become much more multi-cultural and secular. Laws which were influenced by Christianity (mostly in its 19th century Anglican and Reformed versions)- like Sunday restrictions on business, the recital of the Lord’s Prayer in schools, restrictive abortion laws, and laws criminalizing homosexuality, have been taken off the books. Other religions- Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others- have taken a much more public role in Canadian cultural life and have successfully fought for equal religious rights.  

Considering all of this, are we not seeing a decline in Christian influence in Canadian society? I would concede that in some ways this is true. Certainly Church attendance and the profession of Christian belief have steadily fallen in polls of Canadians, and the government no longer legislates certain Christian religious values (like the opposition to euthanasia and abortion) or certain Christian religious practices (like the Sabbath or reciting the Lords Prayer). Yet from another perspective, the reality is more complicated. 

Looking Again At Where We Came From

From the very beginning, I would argue, Canadian culture was not a Christian ethical paradise but was in fact a war between Christian and non-Christian principles. To take one glaring and grievous example, look at the relations between the early settlers and Indigenous peoples. 

On the positive side, Europeans certainly had things to teach and share with Indigenous peoples, something often forgotten when one is mourning the destructive behaviours that came to dominate European relations with Canada’s First Nations. More specifically for our purposes, Europeans had the Gospel to share. There are examples, particularly in the early stages of contact or in the efforts of truly saintly missionaries, of the gospel being effectively shared with First Nations peoples, and of great Indigenous Christians like Kateri Tekakwitha. 

That said, the negative behaviour of European colonialists towards Indigenous peoples, so egregious that it can only be called a kind of anti-missionary activity contrary to the great commission and the sharing of the gospel, can hardly be ignored. These behaviours included denigrating Indigenous culture in ignorant ways; forcing them to entirely give up their own folkways, the good along with the bad; stealing their land through violence or trickery; exploiting them for mercenary or political purposes; relocating them to unfertile backwaters; murdering, assaulting or raping them; and finally the well known horrors of the Residential school system, many of which were shamefully run by the Anglican or Catholic Church. 
In light of these historical facts the majority of European Christian behaviour towards First Nations peoples can hardly be called Christian at all. 

There were, of course, exceptions. Some Christians stood up for the rights of First Nations peoples, publicized their plight, and tried to share the true gospel with them not only in word but in deed. In this first example, then, we see that the early Canadian colonialists can hardly be said to have been embodying Christian ethics in their treatment of the Indigenous peoples. More accurately the majority of their behaviour was non-Christian, with a small minority acting in a truly Christian manner. 

World War 1

World War 1 was a war without purpose aiming to settle relatively petty disputes between the great European powers, at the cost of millions of lives. The aftermath in Europe was cynicism, despair, and the humiliation of Germany which laid the seeds for the madness of WW2. Yet all of the countries fighting each other claimed to be Christian. This was no less true of Canada.  

Canada sent over a million troops to fight in WW1 and lost sixty-one thousand soldiers, with one hundred and seventy-two thousand wounded and uncountable numbers scarred psychically. When one considers Jesus’ strong condemnation of violence, and the great retiscence to go to war expressed by official Catholic teaching and great Protestant theologians like John Calvin, not to mention the historic peace Churches like the Quakers and Anabaptists and their strong pointing to Jesus’ nonviolent teachings, how can the behaviour of Canada’s wartime leaders be considered Christian? Sending young Christian boys to kill other Christian boys in Europe over the Kingdoms of this world? Hardly.

Here as well we see that their were in fact Canadian Christians who opposed the war effort, including of course the Mennonites, Quakers, Doukhabors and Hutterites, and also renegade preachers like the Methodist JS Woodworth, but these were a small minority. 

The Holocaust

Canada’s record in the Holocaust is mixed. On the one hand, if ever a war was righteous, the war to stop the Nazis was surely that. On the other hand, even while Canada joined the Allies to defeat Germany, the Canadian government refused to give any but very small numbers of Jews refuge in Canada, thus aiding and abetting the torture and death of millions in Europe who could have been saved. To betray God’s chosen people, Jesus’ flesh and blood, the “elder brother” of the Christian Church in such a way is a stain upon the history of “Christian” Canada which cannot in any way be justified. Again there is a also a counter story of small numbers of Canadian Christians working to bring in Jews and aid their survival and protection in Europe, but the Canadian majority utterly failed to uphold Christian principles. 

Modern Times 

Considering what we have reviewed above, how can a simplistic narrative of Canada’s past “Christianity” be embraced? It seems a more accurate narrative would either pit Christian virtues against sin fighting it out in Canadian culture at large, or more starkly paint a picture of true Christians fighting against those only Christian in name. Which is correct is for God to judge. 

Coming to the present day, we must concede, as I wrote above that Canadians attend Church less, that less Canadians claim to be Christians, and that the government no longer legislates Christian religious practices and some Christian values (e.g. opposition to abortion). 

On the other hand, one could argue that the numbers of faithful Christians attempting to embody Christian virtues in Canadian society may not have changed much. What may have changed is the numbers claiming to be Christian for reasons other than a true obedient faith, i.e. nominal Christians. Also, while the government has stopped legislating certain Christian values like opposition to abortion, one could argue that the government has in fact made strides in legislating other Christian values of great importance- values like human rights, the reduction of violence, the protection of children, and the distribution of food, medicine, and resources to all. Many Canadians cherish these values while being unaware of their roots in the Christian tradition. On the whole things may not have changed that much- in the past Canadian culture was shaped by a minority of Christians trying to inject Gospel values into the culture and spread true Christianity, while a majority too often supported non-Christian values. In the present that is still the case. Christendom is in fact not a thing of the past- it has never existed, and is still an aspiration.  

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Victor Hugo's Favourite Name For God

‘Oh, you who are! ‘Ecclesiastes names you Almighty, the Maccabees name you Creator, the Epistle to the Ephesians names you Freedom, Baruch names you Immensity, the Psalms name you Wisdom and Truth, John names you Light, the Book of Kings names you Lord, Exodus names you Providence. Leviticus, Sanctity. Esdras, Justice. Creation names you God. Mankind names you Father. But Solomon names you Mercy, and of all your names this is the most beautiful.’

-Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Irony of Assurance

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the doctrine of assurance and it's importance. I understand the brilliance of the psychology of justification and sanctification: that it is when we are assured of God's love for us that we can face our sin and fearlessly pursue our sanctification out of returning love alone. I understand the centrality of this spiritual process in the Protestant understandings of Christianity and indeed wherever Orthodox Christianity is found in any time or denominational place. 

Yet I am reminded of the Jewish Hasidic master the Baal Shem Tov, who said to God "I do not care for your world to come, I only want you!" This would be my advice to those who doubt their own assurance. Follow God anyway! Follow Christ  anyway! If you say to Jesus, "Saved or not, I will exalt you. Justified or not, I will celebrate the Word made flesh!" If you say, "I will follow you, whether you accept me or no", then How could you not be among God's beloved children? 

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Barth on Matthew 25: The Sheep and The Goats

“The issue will be decided by the attitude and conduct of the community to Him while he is still hidden. Then it will be known what the community will be which will stand at his right hand in the future. But where is he hidden now? With God, at the right hand of the Father? In His word and sacraments? In the mystery of His spirit, which bloweth where it listeth? All this is true enough, but it is presupposed by this parable, and the further point is made, on which everything depends, that He is no less present, though hidden, in all who are now hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison. Wherever in this present time between the resurrection and the parousia one of these is waiting for help (for food, drink, lodging, clothes, a visit, assistance), Jesus is Himself waiting. Wherever help is granted or denied, it is granted or denied to Jesus Himself. For these are the least of his brethren. They represent the world for which he died and rose again, with which he has made himself supremely one, and declared Himself in solidarity. It is for them that He sits at the right hand of the Father, so that no one can know Him in His majesty, or honor and love Him as the Son of God, unless he shows concern for these the least of his brethren. No one can call God His father in Christ’s name unless he treats these as the least of his brethren. This is the test which at the last judgement will decide concerning the true community which will inherit the kingdom: whether in this time of God’s mercy and patience, this time of its mission, it has been the community which has succored its Lord by giving unqualified succor to them in this needy world…...It is to be noted, however, that the righteous and therefore the justified at the last judgement do not know with whom they really have to do when they act with simple humanity (v.37 f.): “When saw thee an hungered, and fed thee….?" They had helped the least of His brethren, they had helped the world in its misery for its own sake. They had no ulterior motive.” (Church Dogmatics III.2.47)   

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Five Ways That Atheists Advance The Kingdom of God

Decoupling government and religion

The separation of Church and State is rightly, and even necessarily, a fundamental principle in democratic and pluralistic societies. This is one of the rare things that Christopher Hitchens and, say, Menno Simons would agree on. The anabaptists broke with those of their time by insisting that religion should be totally voluntary and not enforced by the state. Other Christians only joined with them en masse after decades of inter-sectarian violence led Christian refugees who had fled to the American colonies to agree and include religious freedom in the American constitution. Surprisingly philosophes of the Enlightenment like Voltaire and Montesquieu did not call for total freedom of religion (though Diderot did). It was left to Pierre Bayle, a Protestant, and John Locke, a heterodox Christian, to provide philosophical-political justifications for “religious toleration”. In any case, I think it true that in our times the vanguard fighting for thorough separation of church and state, particularly in the United States, have been atheists. For those of us who reject dominionist fantasies of Christendom and recognize the fundamentally non-coercive and countercultural form of cruciform witness, their work can only be seen as a blessing. The fact is that the farther away from each other the “throne and the altar” are (in Diderot’s language), the more clearly visible the “altar” is. I think it axiomatic that the further away from government Christianity moves, the higher its profile among seekers of truth will become. One need look no further than the current Republican presidential campaign.    

Decoupling schools and religion

My argument here is similar to the one above, so I’ll state it briefly. The disappearance of Christianity from public schools may lead to lower numbers of nominal Christians, but I think it’s unlikely to lead to lower membership in the “invisible church”. What it will likely do is remove the sense of compulsion and oppression that many students feel when they do not believe (yet) in Christianity yet are forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer or take part in other Christian “rituals”. Free of compulsion or aversion, and not seeing Christianity as interwoven with “the establishment” they may, as above, be able to see it more easily.

Not letting us forget

Atheists are vociferous critics of Christianity. Granted much of their criticism is based on urban myths, misinformation, or outright slander, the inescapable truth is that the bulk of their criticism remains deserved. Christians going about their month praying, volunteering at the Church, or working with communities of service or justice seeking can forget the past misdeeds of the Church. Yet credible Christian witness in our time demands that the Church remembers, understands, repents of, and makes amends for, the suffering it has caused and the damage it has done to humanity and to God’s kingdom.

Putting up awful statues

Many Christians reacted with fear and anger to the erection of a 9 foot tall, one ton bronze statue statue of Baphomet by the Satanic Temple in Detroit last year. Even James Martin, S.J., the popular Jesuit writer known for his soft spoken, nuanced moderation, expressed consternation and warned of toying with dark forces beyond our understanding. The tall goat-headed statue, which combines a kind of animal sagaciousness with svelte muscularity, is flagged disturbingly by two children looking up to him with earnest receptivity. The addition of the children was meant to show, says the Temple, that “there is nothing to be afraid of”, yet to an unindoctrinated eye the fact of the children’s monotonal open-ness in the presence of a winged, goat-headed giant just comes off as creepy, suggesting brainwashing or sedation.

In any case the folks who put up this statue are not really Satanists. They don’t believe in a personal Satan, but rather see Satan as a literary symbol embodying a mixture of secular humanist ideals and softcore new age spirituality (“the embrace of opposites….as above so below”). I don’t think the statue or it’s followers are likely to unleash a fury reminiscent of the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark on Detroit any time soon. I think in the long run their obsession with such things as moving the statue 900 miles (1,450km) south-west to erect it opposite a Ten Commandments monument outside Oklahoma City's Capitol Building is bound to backfire. As it happens, the skirmish between Satanist, secularist, and atheist groups on one hand and Christians on the other has led to Oklahoma's Supreme Court ruling that the use of state property to benefit a religion is banned under the state constitution, and as a result the fate of both the Satanist statue and the Ten Commandments monument that originally inspired it may be the same: their removal from State property. This development would show the true nature of this type of Satanism: it is primarily a rebellion not against Christianity, but against Christendom. In this sense the Satanists may be doing Christians a favor. Once they have succeeded in using the secularist principles of the US constitution to dethrone Christianity from its union with the State, secularism-mascarading-as-satanism will vanish like a fire set to put out a fire. Even better, the Satanists will have done the Kingdom of God a favour by cutting more of its ties with the Kingdom of the World. Satan is, after all, merely one of God’s employees.

Being decent and sometimes heroic human beings

Only the most insular of Christians would imagine that goodness, decency and heroism are confined to their co-religionists, or, say, to believers in God in some form. To start, Atheist religions like Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism prove this wrong- but even among those with no religion, examples can be found of people living self-sacrificial lives, fighting for the causes of justice and love, or engaging in everyday acts of kindness or bravery.

We should not only be grateful to these people and celebrate their goodness, we should make common cause with them. Whether you view these people as acting on the image of God within, or as recipients of God’s “common grace”, it amounts to the same thing: God has scattered his goodness in the rocky soil of the world. As the great German pastor and theologian Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919), mentor to Karl Barth, put it while talking about God’s movements beyond the Church:”God is weaving his design in the warp and weft of the world…..Where will the kingdom of God come from? Is not the entire history of the world a fulfillment of the promise? Are not bonds loosed, chains broken asunder? Who would have thought, for example, that new paths could open up for women as they have for men? Jesus lives, and he conquers more and more, although too many of us are unaware that he is behind it all (Everyone Belongs to God).”  

Friday, 18 March 2016

"Feuerbach doesn't imagine the possibility of an existence beyond this one, by which I mean a reality embracing this one but exceeding it, the way, for example, this world embraces and exceeds Soapy’s understanding of it. Soapy might be a victim of ideological conflict right along with the rest of us, if things get out of hand. She would no doubt make some feline appraisal of the situation, which would have nothing to do with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, or the Manhattan Project. The inadequacy of her concepts would have nothing to do with the reality of the situation."

"That's a drastic way of putting it, and not a very precise one. I don't wish to suggest a reality that is simply an enlarged or extrapolated version of this reality. If you think how a thing we call a stone differs from a thing we call a dream- the degrees of unlikeness within the reality we know are very extreme, and I what I wish to suggest is a much more absolute unlikeness, with which we exist, though our human circumstances create in us a radically limited and peculiar notion of existence. "

-The Reverend John Ames to his son, Marilynne Robinson, "Gilead"