March 31, 2004
Batter my heart, three-person'd God!

When I blogged Mark 7 I purposely hadn't looked at GG's posts on it yet. He points out some further weirdness with the first story, and makes this observation about the second:

How uncharacteristic of Jesus! We have instances in the Hebrew Bible of God changing His mind, as in the negotiations for any righteous men in Sodom. And here, we have Jesus changing His mind, as well. Says Mark, copied by Matthew, ignored by Luke and John.

Why the Jahwist author of the Hebrew Bible and the author of Mark need to anthropomorphize God, we don't know. Jesus came precisely because we cannot bargain with God.

I made this same point some months ago to Telford. He had sent me the first chapter of his book-in-progress about the Lord's Prayer, because it includes me and the arguments we used to have about the character of God. Telford, in the chapter, said that if I think God would better do things differently I should pray to him to do so, and gave both the story from Mark and GG's example of Sodom as models.

But, I said, how is that supposed to work? How can I expect God to change his mind? Presumably, God knows better than I do; he's perfect, and he doesn't change. Why should he listen to me?

Telford's response was very interesting, though, to my mind, very weird. It's the way the Trinity works, he said. He pointed to Romans 8:26: "for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered." So when I -- or Lot, or the Gentile woman, or whoever -- make intercessory prayers it's really the indwelling Spirit that is beseeching the Father. In other words, it's God talking to himself.

I don't know if it's particularly comforting about God's character that he sounds like he has multiple-personality disorder. But I can see, having just reread the chapter as I was thinking about this, how it works within Telford's concept of what Jesus was doing. He likes to portray Jesus as our representative, our advocate -- God healing the breach between himself and humanity by becoming one of us and, in effect, arguing our cause to himself. Yet humans aren't passive in this. Jesus showed us how to pray, the thinking goes, and the Spirit guides us in our own attempts.

This all raises an even larger issue about the nature of God. When Jews and Christians were contrasting themselves with the pagans around them, they emphasized God's singularity (he's the only god) and his eternal and unchanging nature, in contrast to fickle (and sometimes mortal) pagan gods. But there's a limit to how far Christianity goes with this.

Back in this post, Rob wondered why, once redeemed, all people won't be identical. After all, if they're all perfect and perfection is singular, why would they be different? Here and elsewhere, Rob seems to be thinking in terms that aren't really Christian so much as Upanishadic. There's a nice summary of this philosophy here:

But the Upanishadic Hindus began to think of the world as illusion (maya ); reality (Sat ) was rather to be sought in the unchanging and unitary principle of the universe, whether that be Rita, Brahman, or Atman. The material world, on the other hand, was a place fragmented and constantly changing; this changing aspect of the universe came to be called samsara.

As the article goes on to say, the goal of transcending samsara was brought to its apotheosis in offshoot philosophies such as Buddhism. Buddhists go so far as to say that even self is an illusion; as I understand it, enlightenment comes with realizing that your seemingly separate self is actually one with the infinite.

Although Christians also believe in a unitary and unchanging God, their vision of God's relationship to samsara has traditionally been very different. Samsara isn't an illusion or an accident; God made the universe that way on purpose, and he acts through it. Telford has told me that theologians believe that even if the Fall hadn't happened, the outline of Christian history with its beginning, middle and end would still have been followed, and humanity still would have grown and changed. And even at the end of the world we will still be multiple, as God is multiple himself. Rather than each person achieving a separate divinity and thus becoming all the same, the Body of Christ achieves it collectively, with each person making up a part of the whole, as the persons of the Trinity do.

I can see the Biblical basis for this. Even before Jesus, I don't know if any religion had a more linear or historical view of time than Judaism; and Christianity only added to it with its vision of the end of days. This stands in stark contrast the the Upanishadic view in which time is cyclical and ahistorical. It's also true that the creation story in Genesis has a tree of immortality, but humans haven't eaten in yet. Humans weren't created immortal; even before the Fall there seem to be goals they have yet to attain. And the writings of Paul in particular about the Body of Christ also fit with that idea of how to achieve unity.

In his book, Telford also uses this line of thinking to address the other point I mentioned in my Mark 7 post: the continuity between the Old Testament and the New. He writes:

Holladay notices a profound transformation in the way Jesus uses the Psalter. "Although he made use of at least one of the psalms of lament -- perhaps more -- astonishingly, he does not take on any of the spirit of 'us against them' with which those psalms are filled". This contrasts sharply with the "us versus them" interpretation of the psalms and other holy texts that arose as early as the psalms themselves, dominated among Jesus' contemporaries, the Essenes, and resounds down to this day among cultists, jihadis, Crusaders, anti-Semites, and ethnic tribalists. Why the difference? Because Jesus is both 'us' and 'them', a sinless Son who sides with sinners, a holy one who becomes a curse, an exiled son of Israel in the land of promise, the Son of a Father who refuses to abandon the abandoned. God's mercy to the unrighteous and undeserving does not limit or compromise God's righteousness, but defines it...

The incarnation and atonement of the Son achieve the Fatherhood of God over all his children as the climax of the story of God's creation, redemption, and communion with the world ... Through it Deuteronomy's "hate your enemies" gives way to Matthew's "love you enemies." Incarnation and atonement do not change God between Deuteronomy and Matthew; rather, what we see earlier is only the beginning of a process that is being perfected in what we see later. Jesus' career ushers in the "end-times" or the resolution of the story.

As I imagine Camassia reading this chapter, I already hear her objecting that basic issues remain unaddressed. What about the incompleteness of this supposed divine achievement? What about its lateness in time? What about those who remain excluded from the divine fellowship? Is all this ultimately just a sentimental euphemism for saving some and damning others? Does it really fully exonerate God's character?

Well, he's right about that. And as I said in the previous post, this "fulfillment" of the OT often looks more like "completely refuting it for no apparent reason." The Upanishadic view in many ways is easier to grasp, which is why I still have Buddhism as a Plan B in the back of my mind if the Christian experiment falls through. But I've resisted (sometimes rudely, for which I apologize) attempts to get Upanishadic with Jesus because I understand Telford's point that you can't really make sense of the Bible or Christian tradition from that perspective. The Gnostics came the closest to that, but if, unlike them, you actually have those Eastern traditions available to you, I don't see why you shouldn't just follow them. Really, they present a more complete picture of this philosophy, because you have to throw out so much of Christianity to make it work. (This is perhaps why Jeremy keeps quoting Zen and Sufi sources in his study of the Gospel of Thomas.) It makes more sense to me to be a Hindu who reveres Jesus than a Christian trying to see the world through a Upanishadic filter.

So I still struggle to understand God in the distinctly Western way that Christians have generally understood him. I don't know if I'll ever succeed, but I'm not giving up yet.

Posted by Camassia at March 31, 2004 10:58 AM | TrackBack
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