I recently read a review by Chris Smart on the Solas blog of the book, Strange Rites, by Tara Isabella Burton, published by Public Affairs, New York 2020. My thoughts come third hand, but I found enough meat to chew on (hopefully) in the review to warrant some attention.
The author of the book is an American, though she establishes some objective distance through her Oxford education in the UK. Only about five percent (5%) of people in the UK attend church on Sundays, and the trend in the US is moving in that same direction.
Into the vacuum that is growing with nones in the US are rushing other objects of our religious impulses. This seems to be the focus of the book, analyzing the places religious impulses are taking modern Americans as they drift away from Christianity.
If Protestantism that has dominated the religious landscape in the US in the past is a religion of the printed book, the new spiritual movements in the US are “religions of the Internet”. That remark certainly doesn’t surprise me, though I had not thought of it that way.
The Internet is larger than life in our world. It has replaced encyclopedias and asking our parents (or even your doctors) for information. It eats up our spare time more completely than the television did in my youth and the radio did in my father’s youth.
The Internet is everywhere. It never leaves our sides. We turn to it feverishly at all hours of the day and night. We can’t wait to communicate with it, and we constantly check it for validation through its communication with us.
Chris Smart, summarizing Burton’s observations, describes our preoccupation with the Internet as a search for transcendence in which people are “looking to create meaning, purpose and community through new rituals”. Those “modern rituals” are exploited and perpetuated by big business.
Some of the largest big businesses are the purveyors of community and connectivity on the Internet. They help to lead people with the breadcrumbs of their own preferences to tribes that are personally tailored for them. Our new temples are the echo chambers of our own inclinations and the tribes to which they tend to lead.
I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.
Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.
Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:
Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.
Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.
Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.
Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:
“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”
The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!
The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.
The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.
Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:
Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.
While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.
Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.
If you read through the Torah, you will find verses that seem morally repugnant to our modern sensibilities. For instance, the death penalty is applied for what seem to us like minor offenses. Israelites were allowed to keep slaves. The Mosaic Law is also clearly paternalistic, subjecting women to second class citizenship.
This is just a start. Skeptics like to point these things out as they criticize the Bible. They claim that Scripture is full of immoral ideas. Christians try to find explanations that soften the criticism, claiming that we need to understand the cultural context and what was actually meant. Skeptics claim Christians twist the plain meaning of the text to avoid obvious conclusions.
We have to admit by our modern standards the Torah contains some instructions that are morally distasteful. We could try to explain them away. We could take the view that our modern morality is wrong. We could take the view that the Bible is simply written by Ancient Near Eastern men, that there is no God, and that the Bible is unreliable as a moral code.
Most of the these options assume that the Mosaic Law is/was meant to be a perfect and universal statement of God’s moral code. Perhaps, though the Torah was never meant to be a perfect, universal moral law to be applied to all people in all times.
The video describes some subtle and some not-so-subtle clues that support this view in various places. One such clue is the way Jesus viewed and applied the Law.
In Matthew 19, for instance, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus with a question on divorce. They referenced the Law of Moses, which allowed men to divorce and send their wives away and asked Jesus who would be a man’s wife in heaven if he divorced and remarried several times. Jesus responded, to their chagrin, that Moses allowed men to divorce their wives only because of the hardness of their hearts, adding, “but from the beginning it was not so”. (Matt. 19:8)
Jesus is saying, here, that God only allowed divorce in the Mosaic Law because the people were stiff-necked and stubborn (hard of heart). Perhaps, God allowed it because the people of Israel were not in a cultural, moral or psychological position to receive the full instruction of God at the time.
We don’t know for sure, but the interesting point is the way Jesus viewed the Mosaic Law as a kind of “compromise between God and Israel”. God apparently softened and calibrated the provisions of the Law to accommodate the cultural norms, attitudes and expectations of the people at the time.
The statement by Jesus suggests that the people were not open to what God intended from the beginning, so God revised the terms for them. Why would God do that?
Scripture has an arc to it. From the creation of the world, to Adam and Eve, to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the first Temple, and second Temple and forward to Jesus and beyond, Scripture has a progression. There is a “sweep” to Scripture that is as important to recognize as any particular passages.
Thus, I believe the video is correct that the Mosaic Law is not meant as a legislative moral code to be applied to all people at all times. The Law was given to a particular people in a particular time, but it fits into the progression of revelation of God who is working with people to reveal Himself in ways that they can understand and in ways that are are able (or willing) to receive.
And this is key: God is doing these things while protecting the character of free agency He gave to people created in His image. His overarching purposes require that we be allowed to engage Him and participate in this progression on our own accord using the agency He gave us.
As I have often speculated, this is because God is love, and God desires a reciprocal, loving relationship with us. Love does not coerce. Love does not demand or impose itself uninvited. Love requires freedom both ways in the relationship.
Some of the passages that are most repulsive to us may be nothing more than the Ancient Near perspective of people through whom God was revealing Himself. These passages are colored by their limited understanding at the time and the limits of God’s revelation to them bounded by that understanding.
The descriptions of God’s wrath, jealousy and harsh dealings, are the descriptions of people who lived in a harsh world filled with arbitrary and capricious gods. God was distinguishing Himself to these people in the midst of the world as they knew it, and He could only take them so far in their understanding.
He also engages with these people in the context of covenant relationship. The relationship comes first. God engaged people in a two-way commitment, which is the context in which God is acting in the history of people who have, in turn, engaged Him.
One key to God’s character in this relationship is His faithfulness to the promises He makes. No matter how wicked, evil and determined the people are to walk in their own ways, God never abandons them. Though he warns them and even metes out judgment on them, as they understand it, God is always ready and quick to receive them back if/when they turn back to Him.
The way Jesus viewed the Mosaic Law is instructive and provides key information about the covenant relationship between God and man. We tend to read the Mosaic Law like a prescriptive code laying down universal rules for all time and all people, but that isn’t the way Jesus viewed it.
“How can you say your religion is right and everyone else has it wrong?” This is a common challenge to Christianity and to all religions that claim to have exclusive truth. All of the world religions make exclusive truth claims, and that fact is a common object of complaint.
A commitment to a set of exclusive religious principles is especially anathema in a post-modern world. It’s the cardinal sin of post-modernism. In such a world, it seems crude and out of step to believe, let alone admit that you believe, that some religious and philosophical assertions are true and others aren’t.
It’s much more acceptable to say that I can have “my belief”, and you can have “your belief”. We would quickly add, “What’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.” We believe with religious truth that people should be able to have their preferred spiritual cake and eat it too.
We do this with ethics also. People sometimes conflate religious or spiritual truth with ethics, but that’s another topic maybe for another time.
In the western, post-modern world, it’s ok for me to believe in chakras, or karma, or queer theory or a particular gender identity (even if my gender identity is unique to me), or aliens and whatever ethical construct goes with those things. It doesn’t need to be internally cohesive. It doesn’t really matter what a person believes, as long as she doesn’t claim it to be universal or exclusive. Claims of universality and exclusivity though, are not tolerated.
Notice, however, that even this “tolerant” position can’t escape the charge of being an exclusive truth claim. The very claim that no one can make exclusive truth claims is an exclusive truth claim. The person who says exclusive truth claims are not valid is making that claim against all people who believe that exclusive truth claims are valid.
I believe that people who are making the claim that religious people (especially) should not make excusive truth claims are doing so in response to the fanatical, self-righteous, judgmental and militant tendency of some people who make exclusive truth claims. Much tension in the world, cruelties perpetrated against other people and even wars are the result of exclusive religious truth claims. We can’t deny it.
So what do we do? Following are some thoughts on the subject of truth claims, with some additional comments on the subject of tolerance and respect.
I watched the Chapelstreet church service today and listened to the sermon by Jeff Frazier in Batavia, IL. It was just what I needed to hear. Not that it tills new ground; it covers familiar ground from a new angle. It avoids the ruts of old, tired ways of thinking and finds fresh new ground (for me) from which to approach how we see Jesus.
The sermon today was inspired by Matthew 9:9-13.[i] You can read it in full at the endnote below. In summary, Jesus called Matthew from the tax booth where he was sitting to follow him, and Matthew responded by following him. That was the extent of the initial story
Then Scripture jumps to another scene: Jesus reclining at a table with “many tax collectors and sinners”. We are left to draw our own conclusions about what happened in the interim. It could be that Matthew invited all his friends, who were naturally other tax collectors and “sinners”, to met Jesus who had just connected with him.
The focus of the new scene, though, isn’t on Matthew anymore. The focus shifts to the Pharisees who ask the disciples why Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners”.
Before I describe how Jesus responded to them, I want to focus on the fact that the people who had a problem with Jesus were the religious people. Jesus was hanging around with all the wrong people according to the religious insiders of his day.
It isn’t a new thing to realize Jesus defied categorization; he shattered expectations and common ways of thinking. He challenged everyone he met to see the world differently, but we sometimes forget the radicalness of Jesus in our routine orthodoxy.
I dare say, if we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus!
Back to the story: in First Century Judea, tax collectors were traitors and sell-outs. They were Hebrews who collected taxes for the Romans and used the authority of the Roman occupiers of the Hebrew Promised Land to accumulate wealth for themselves. They were hated by good Jews. They were outsiders in their own community.
As outsiders, they naturally associated with other outsiders (“sinners”). Thus, for Jesus to establish a relationship with Matthew – and worse than that: to “hang out” with other tax collectors and “sinners” – was scandalous. It was unthinkable!
When Jesus heard the Pharisees challenge the disciples to explain why Jesus was associating with “such people”, Jesus famously responded:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
This is a familiar passage to us, but I think the application of the message is sometimes lost on us today. I think we can fall into the trap of the Pharisees in our thinking without even realizing it. Thus, we need to be challenged to see things from a different angle, just as Jesus challenged the Pharisees in the first century.
Again, these are not new thoughts, but the the change of perspective (for me) comes courtesy of Paul G. Hiebert. Born to missionary parents in India, he became “arguably, the world’s leading missiological anthropologist”.[ii]
When he moved back to the west, he wrestled with questions like these: What does it mean for an illiterate, Hindu peasant to know Jesus? How much of their old life and traditions must be left behind?
Having observed missionaries in India, he concluded that the western mission movement was importing too many western traditions and thoughts. He saw the need for thinking outside the western box – like Jesus encouraged the followers of his day to think outside the box…. or rather, outside the circle, as we will see.