Archive for July, 2008
Recently, a discovery was made that may, in a way, turn out to rival the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in its significance for the history of Christianity. That discovery has been popularly dubbed ‘the Gabriel Stone’, and it just may turn out to have roughly the same effect on liberal religion departments that another, much larger stone had on the dinosaurs: extinction. My fingers are crossed.
Let me back up though. In 1985, a group of about 150 self-proclaimed religious scholars assembled with the intent of analyzing the earliest Christian writings to uncover the historical Jesus. Among the members of the Jesus Seminar, many of them seem to (quite unashamedly) believe that God doesn’t intervene in the world, and some are skeptical of even the existence of God. Inevitably then, the picture they paint of the true, historical Jesus is quite different from the Jesus one encounters in the New Testament. For a good explanation and defense of this position on Jesus, just download Thomas Sheehan’s Historical Jesus class from the Stanford iTunes U page. It’s free. Anyway:
At the heart of the Jesus Seminar’s picture of the historical Jesus is the belief that Jesus did not think of himself as the divinely-ordained Messiah, did not see his death as playing a saving role for humanity, and did not think of himself as divine in any sense. This picture of Jesus is largely supported, so says the Jesus Seminar, by the fact that there was absolutely no belief during Jesus’ day in a dying messiah, a resurrection of a single person, or a messiah whose death would bring about the salvation of the world. And, since these ideas didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, they must be inventions of the early church. So reasons the Jesus seminar. That’s important for the rest of this, so you might want to reread it to get it at the front of your mind. This ‘liberal’ (what a dumb term) picture of Jesus has nearly completely taken over university religious departments.
Well, enter the Gabriel Stone. Recently Israeli-Swedish artifacts collector, David Jeselsohn, had a piece of his private home collection examined by a scholar of ancient Judaism. What they discovered may start a revolution in religious thought, and one that may utterly destroy the Jesus Seminar’s conception of Jesus, along with the current picure of Jesus fed to most every student of religion in secular (and most ‘religious’) universities. Why?
Well, the Gabriel Stone, basically a large sheet of rock with several columns of Hebrew writing on it, documents a prophecy supposedly spoken by the angel Gabriel to an ambiguous Messianic figure who is facing execution. Now, execution would surely be taken as special kind of slap in the face by any messiah figure, since the messiah was supposed to be the one who would defeat the evil powers of the world (esp. the ones ruling over Israel) and establish Israel as God’s shining kingdom. Execution for Messiah by pagan authorities just isn’t normally thought of as part of the program. And this is the exact point made by most ‘liberal’ Jesus scholars who say that, since no one before Jesus believed that Messiah would die at the hands of his enemies, then the Christian idea that Jesus (the Messiah) was executed by Rome and later Resurrected by God must just be a story the early church made up. For the longest time, Christian scholars haven’t had much to say back either. Largely they’ve admitted that this was a new idea that began with Jesus. The Gabriel Stone, however, has something shocking to say here.
So far, having been dated around the late first century b.c.e. – just before Jesus – the prophecy of the angel Gabriel to the soon-to-die messiah includes the following (translated) statements:
In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice
In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.
It should be noted that the term live is spelled oddly, but Israel Knohl, professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, affirms that the spelling is in line with the era in which it was written. If this translation is accurate though (and it seems that no scholar has strongly contested the translation) the implications are massive. No longer can the same arguments be made that the Resurrection of Jesus didn’t take place, or that Jesus was a failed Messiah, and that the church made it all up. Why? Because those arguments are based on the idea that no one could have taken a dying Messiah seriously in the first century (including Jesus). If the Gabriel Stone is deemed authentic though, we now have irrefutable evidence that there did exist in ancient Judaism the idea that Messiah would suffer, die, and be vindicated (in three days!), and that this sequence of events would contribute to the salvation of Israel and the world.
The Jesus of the earliest Christian scriptures, then, will be found squarely rooted in the Judaism of his day, and can no longer be dismissed as a wishful fabrication of his first, broken-hearted followers, and so many who have (maybe honorably) lost their faith in the shadow of skepticism will be able to follow Jesus, the Messiah, with solid intellectual conscience.
So, I hope it’s legit. Even though, if the stone turns out to be a fake, it doesn’t hurt Christianity’s orthodox conception of Christ. It has been shown, very powerfully, by authors like N.T. Wright and Gary Habermas that the Jesus of scripture is not at all a fanciful fabrication of the early church, but is historically defensible.
Behold it in the pallid face of Stanley Kubrick, who was rocking the faux-hawk sixty years ago.
Nothing new under the sun, right?
Recently, and I’m not quite sure why, I’ve been drawn to thinking about animals and what our relationships with them should look like. I think it started with some questions I have about what exactly a self is, and whether a self should be considered a different thing from a soul or a mind, or if they should be taken as different words for the same thing. I haven’t really gotten to an answer on that yet, but those questions led me to think about animal treatment because it seems to me extremely plausible (if not quite probable) that selves, souls, and minds are the same thing. If that turns out to be the case, then one of the main distinctions commonly made (by Christians) between humans and other animals falls apart, and anything with the capacity for emotion, creative thinking, reason, choice, self-awareness, etc. should be granted whatever respect goes along with having what Christians call a soul, and that would probably include most of the animal kingdom.
The second strand of thought that converged with this one was my thinking about the soul itself from a biblical standpoint. It’s just not clear to me that the biblical concept of a soul is a floaty, immaterial self that inhabits the body, and which is transported into the direct presence of God when it’s separated from the body, where it waits for the recreation of the body, so it can reinhabit it. That’s the idea of the soul most commonly drawn from the New Testament (especially Paul’s writings), but it seems hard to reconcile with the Old Testament concept of a person, which seems to be materialistic – i.e. you are your body. In the OT, the word most often taken (by us) to mean ‘soul’ is simply ‘breath’ in Hebrew, and the OT often speaks of animals having the same breath in them that we do (Gen. 1:30). What’s more, if these two pictures of the self – the (seeming) NT concept of a body inhabited by a soul, and the (seeming) OT concept of a very special, complex, completely material creation – can be reconciled, it’s not clear that the final picture will look a lot like our (seeming) NT body+soul combo.
The significance of all this can be seen this way. Whenever I get in a conversation with a Christian about animal treatment, inevitably the point will be made that humans have souls, and (insert whatever other animal you want here) do not, and so they do not deserve the same sort of respect that we do. Most often this line of reasoning is an attempt to justify the belief that humans have something like a license to kill animals for the sake of convenience or personal comfort. I can kill a spider because it unnerves me (even though it isn’t poisonous). I can flush a goldfish because I’m tired of it. I can hit a possum because it’s in the road (or because it will be funny to some people). I can have my cat put to sleep because it claws me (or the furniture).
All of these lines of reasoning seem to fall apart if it turns out that souls, selves, and minds, are all the same thing. And the fact that we don’t know that they’re not the same thing is just as deadly to these conversations. Why? Well imagine this: you are hunting with a friend (for food). During a slow hour, your friend strolls off into the woods to relieve himself. While he’s gone, you notice a rustling in the brush that sounds very much like a boar – just the thing you’re hunting for that day. You think it’s probably a boar, but you know that there’s also a chance it’s your friend. Do you shoot?
Of course not. And notice this, you refrain from shooting into the bush (killing the cat, flushing the fish, etc.) not because you know it isn’t your friend (doesn’t have a soul), but because you don’t know what’s in there. This line of reasoning (as I’ve tried to show in parentheses) greatly illumines the question of animal treatment. It’s not because we know exactly what an animal self is that we treat it respect, but because we don’t know.
But maybe you think you do know. And maybe you think the bible gives you that knowledge. The bible never says any animal other than a human has a soul, granted, but here are some things to consider, when thinking about animals from a biblical perspective.
1. The bible never says animals don’t have ‘souls’ either. The text is simply silent on the issue.
2. Though humans certainly seem to uniquely be bearers of God’s image, this is probably irrelevant to the question of souls or selves. The imago dei (image of God) should most naturally be understood as authority and excellence over creation. We are to picture God to the rest of creation as rulers and superiors. There is no connection I see in the bible between our authority over creation and any metaphysical difference between us and animals. Taking the image of God to mean ‘has a soul’ doesn’t even make sense anyway unless you say God also has a soul, but what could that mean?
3. The bible wasn’t addressed to animals to answer their questions about life and existence, but was addressed to humans, concerning humans’ relationship to God and one another. Would we expect such a book to address the question of animal existence?
4. The one time a biblical author does seem to address the question of animal existence, he seems to do so agnostically – admitting he doesn’t know if they persist after death. (Ecclesiastes 3:21)
5. Jacob, at his death, spoke what may be considered a curse upon two of his sons, mentioning mistreatment of an animal among their offenses. Gen. 49:5-6
6. The ‘Noaic’ covanent that God made after the flood was made with all living animals. Gen. 9:8-17
7. The biblical concept of heaven is (at least partly) materialistic. There will be a new heavens and earth where we will live out real lives (much like our lives now) in material bodies. Jesus speaks of eating and drinking in the kingdom of heaven. In light of this picture of heaven as this-world-renewed, it seems totally reasonable to think there will be animals there, just as here.
I’ve been looking pretty intensely at a few different graduate schools lately. The one’s I’m most interested in I’ve contacted, hoping to talk to someone who could give me a feel for the school to find out if it’s the right place for me, and I for it. At the top of my list of questions is whether or not I, coming from a school that lacks SACS accreditation, have any chance of getting it. And, at the top of my list of schools is Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. I got an email from the director of the M.A. program there a day or so ago regarding this issue, and he said that he is in talks with the admissions department right now about it and it will be a few days before I get an answer.
This is a pretty big deal to me. I really would like to go there. Gonzaga is a Catholic (Jesuit) school, so there will be a real concern to integrate philosophy and discipleship, which is a serious plus for me. The department is also strong in continental philosophy, which I would like to concentrate in, and seems to have a topical structure to a lot of the classes – systematic investigations of important concepts like happiness, death, art, etc. So, bottom line, I really like the school and would like to get in. If you’d like that too, please ask God to work something out, or provide an alternative. I’d appreciate it muchly. And I’ll let you guys know what comes of it.
So this is the fifth day in California so far, and it’s pretty warm out here. At least during the day it is. We’re free this (and every) weekend, and I think we might make a trip into L.A. to show Paul Hollywood and see Hancock. Interesting note on Hancock, by the way: our first night here we crashed with the guy who mixed the sound effects for the movie (an spider-man, and some other biggies). His technical title is ‘foley mixer’ (I’m sure Josh will know all about it).
Other than leading worship in the evenings, our time is totally free. Today that meant me finishing a book (‘The Meaning of Jesus’ by Borg and Wright), eating two burritos for lunch, playing nine holes of frizbee golf (finished two-under), reading articles on Cracked.com, and now writing this while Chuck and Paul play texas hold em online. This is pretty relaxing so far, but I think it might get a little old soon.
Time here has been nice so far (as you could probably tell) but it’s also been a bit discouraging. I feel very disconnected from the spirit of the rest of the camp. Worship and the speaker really embody typical, conservative, pop-christianity. That certainly has it’s virtues, but I still feel very uncomfortable where talk of following the Christ is very casual and totally personalistic. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel much of an urge to jump in wielding my ideas against theirs, so that is a plus, but now the problem is that I feel an obligation to participate in the life of the community, and I can’t do that without involving my beliefs and spirituality. I’ve tried to do this some, but those attempts have been equally discouraging.
Yesterday on a bus-ride to the beach (which is nowhere near as nice as Alabama’s beaches) I sat next to the camp speaker. He’s a really nice, late-twenties guy attending Fuller Seminary. During conversation about our educations, it came out that I am a theology/bible major. Later during the conversation about his specific foci at seminary, I asked what his theological education would be. As it turns out, his degree (an M.Div. I believe) requires only one class in theology proper, which can be fulfilled by taking either a ‘foundations of theology’ class, or a church history class, the latter of which is his choice. When I asked more about that, he said that he ‘felt’ that the study of theology is a dangerous thing, and not for everyone. Aside from the fact that he said this so casually to a person whom he knows to have devoted several years to theological study, I was totally appalled almost to the point of disorientation that a person could simultaneously devote his time and energies to speaking of God, and also consider the study of God unworthy of equal time and energy, still more to think of studying God as a dangerous, or foolish task!
I didn’t say anything to him on this, partly because I knew that he knew I must think differently (since he knew I am a theo student) and partly because he made his remark as with an air of piety, as if to suggest that his self-willed ignorance of God is somehow a service to Him. I just don’t think I have the tact and wit to maneuver through a conversation where so much is at stake without the conversation turning hostile.
Anyway, I didn’t intend to go into all that, but at least it makes this post substantive. Main point: please pray for me that I would have the strength to clench my jaw when I need to, and the cleverness to shed some light where that is possible. And, if you get free time, give me a call!
Love you guys. Hope all is well there.