Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Merry kitschmas

Not sure what the true meaning of Christmas is? Try this.
Photo credit: Fer Jimenez on Flickr.

Friday, 11 December 2009

God is a drunkard

When we praise God, according to Dionysius, we start with names taken from the highest, most divine things: oneness, threeness, goodness, beauty. But there aren't very many of them, and the more you think about them, the more you realise that, well, when it comes to trying to say everything there is to say about God, they just don't quite do it. So you move down to the next level of existence, where there are more names, and try those: God is a father, God is a King, God is Lord, God is a shepherd, God is a servant. You could go on like this for a fair old while, but eventually you realise that it's still not quite enough. So you go on speaking, praising God with ever more words, widening the net of your praise until it takes in the whole of creation, and you realise that to name God, to fully describe him, you'd have to use every word there is; you'd have to find him in every single created thing: God is a duck-billed platypus; God is a pencil; God is a supernova; God is a whale. But you can't just use the things that are obviously cool, or beautiful, or nice: everything in the whole of creation reflects God in some way, and if you want to do the job of naming God thoroughly, you have to go to less respectable places. Dionysius says that God gets enraged, God swears; God grieves; God sleeps and wakes; God dresses himself up in fancy clothes; God is a drunkard; God is hungover.

Uncomfortable, isn't it? But here's the thing: if you can't see something of God even in drunkenness, you're not looking hard enough. If you're satisfied to go to church and sing the same five songs every week, about how God is Father, King, Shepherd, and all those other cliches, you're not worshipping hard enough. If you really want to know who God is, says Dionysius, you have to find him everywhere. Everywhere.

This, it strikes me, is one of the best arguments for conservationism, and for preserving minority cultures and languages. The last Dodo dies, and you lose an irreplaceable opportunity for understanding who God is. The last Gaelic speaker dies; and you will never be able to see God through the eyes of a native speaker of Gaelic. But it's also an encouragement to welcome change and encourage innovation: a new breed of dog means a new name for God; the ipod is born, and with it another insight into the Creator of all things. God is everywhere: high culture, low culture, endangered animals, invasive species. If you can't see him, you're probably not looking hard enough. God is a drunkard.

Photo credit: sarasco on Flickr.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Meet the Zealots

The Zealots, also known as 'Galileans' or 'patriots' were an extreme Jewish political group at the time of Jesus. They were, basically, terrorists of: living in a land to which they believed they had ancestral rights, they saw the Romans as oppressors. They hated the Jews who collaborated with the Romans (especially the Sadducees) and thought that the only way to win back freedom was through violence. One group, the Sicarrii or assassins, carried daggers around under their cloaks, and used them to murder collaborators, especially during religious festivals when crowds of people made it easy to murder individuals unnoticed. Sound familiar?

The Zealots originated about AD 6, when the Romans started ruling Judea and demanded that everyone register to pay taxes. A group of radical Pharisees refused to register, and, led by Judas the Galilean, began a series of revolts and acts of violence, culminating in the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70 AD, which was the trigger for the Romans' destruction of the temple. Because of the threat from the Zealots, the Romans ruled Judea all the more harshly and were particularly vigilant at festivals: it's possible that they were expecting a Zealot revolt on the passover festival during which Jesus was crucified.

The Zealots were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, and thought that the Last Days, where God would come and kick the Romans' asses and re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation, were near. They weren't afraid to die, and many of them were killed by the Romans, often by crucifixion. Jesus' disciple, Simon, was a Zealot, and throughout the Gospels you can see Jesus engaging with the Zealot's ideas. Sometimes he challenges them: love your enemies he says; if a soldier forces you to carry something one mile; carry it two. My kingdom is not of this world. But there's a definite Zealot tinge in other places: Jesus comes not to bring peace but a sword, and his birth, not the Emperor's, is gospel good news; he is Lord, not Caesar.
Photo credit: Kaptain Kobold on Flickr

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

History and historiography

There's no such thing as 'what the text says'; or if there is, we'll never get to it (sorry if you're a biblical literalist, but them's the apples). Every time we read a text, what we get is 'what the text says when filtered through my unique way of seeing the world.' We can never pretend to be any old person reading a text because we will always be ourselves. This afternoon I started reading some Etienne Gilson, and my reading was affected by a combination of sleepiness+too much coffee, some conversations I've had about Gilson, knowing that he's a Catholic, the fact that the book was in a font I associate with other books (makes a surprising difference, I think), and all the other things that have happened to me, that I'm feeling, who I am, etc. etc. etc. Complex, no?

Anyway, to the point. Morwenna Ludlow has written a book about books that people have written about the works of Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Church Fathers (e.g. old dead guy, theologically influential) who was involved with formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, and in it she looks at the question of what affects the way we read particular texts. She concludes that one of the key things that affects the way someone reads the Fathers is their understanding of the overall shape of Christian history, and she identifies three main models:

1) The 'static' model of Christian history thinks that theology and the Church are basically unchanging, and insofar as Christian doctrine has developed, it's just the working out of the logical implications of the original message: so you won't find the doctrine of the Trinity as such in the New Testament, but if you read it right it's obviously implied, it just took people a while to figure it out. People who have this view tend to think that one particular Christian tradition (e.g. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy) is more right than all the others, and that the role of theology is just to keep people sticking to the party line, the original gospel. They tend not to like the idea that anyone might introduce 'new' ideas into the Church.

2) The 'reformatory' model agrees with the static model that Jesus' original message was wicked cool and complete, but thinks that somewhere along the way, the Church screwed it up and the message got lost, so now we need to 'recover' the original gospel message. Protestantism is the classic example of this (Jesus was great, Paul was greater, James was maybe a bit iffy and it mostly went downhill from there until Luther rose up to challenge the naughty Catholics and restore to the Church all the goodness that had been lost). But you find it elsewhere too: some feminist theologians argue that Jesus was pro-women, but the Church has slowly and systematically misogynised his original message, and so we need to recover the original, feminist, gospel.

3) The 'adaptive' model thinks that Christianity, the church and theology have changed over time, but, well, it's complicated. Some changes were good, some were bad, and some were indifferent. Some people think that, overall, there's a general good development (some changes weren't great, but overall the Church is getting better all the time), either because the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church or because they have a sort of 'evolutionary' idea of history, where progress rules and history is moving inexorably towards its final perfection. Some people think that we win some, we lose some, and overall there's no movement, just more or successful attempts to be the Church God intended us to be.

Ludlow says that these three models make important differences to the way we read theological texts because they shape the way we think about doctrinal authority. If you have a genuinely static view of Christian history, you won't bother reading old theology because it'll be basically the same as new theology, right? If you hold the reformatory view, you might think that old theology is useful because it's closer to the original source of the gospels, or because you want to paint yourself as part of a long tradition in the Church of people who resisted the Bad Developments. If you think that doctrine develops over time, and does so for the better, old theology is only really useful for showing how we got where we are now.

Ludlow suggests that the most productive model for reading old theology is the adaptive model which doesn't think there's been an overall improvement or degeneration in theology through history, because this model means that, at any point in the history of the Church, people might have had great ideas which might be useful for us, now. On this view also, old theologians aren't authoritative because they represent a particular tradition or because they belong to some theological 'golden age' but only insofar as their ideas are good.