Karen Armstrong Explains It All To You

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You all may remember from previous posts (or maybe this came up in a discussion) that I am a huge fan of Karen Armstrong and find her ideas about religion to be refreshing, inspiring, and closer to truth than anything else I’ve encountered so far. I actually think that she and Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, a highly inflammatory book about Why (Organized) Religion Is Bad, are coming from exactly the same place, notwithstanding that she denounces some of his ideas in this interview, which is a MUST READ. Where Armstrong and Harris differ is that he says we have to scrap these old books, and she says we have to become educated enough to read and use them wisely. He’s cynical about the capability of humans to do that, while she’s hopeful. But their understandings about values and the need for the spiritual are precisely the same (as each other, and as mine). Hers is obviously the more publicly palatable position, but I read them as much more similar than do the critics. In any case, just a little light reading for your Tuesday morning. 🙂

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36 Responses to “Karen Armstrong Explains It All To You”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Interesting stuff (though as you’d assume, we have some vastly different conclusions).

    I like her answers concerning a “personal God,” but my biggest point of contention would probably be describing Jesus as one who simply “went around doing good and being compassionate.” This reaches back to my discussion of Jesus as being a political figure, not just someone who says to play nice.

    At the seminar I attended, Hauerwas likewise criticized the popular talk today of “having a personal relationship with Jesus” as sentimentality (warm & cuddly), then said, “Listen to what he asks of you, then ask, ‘do I really WANT a relationship with him?!'” The latter doesn’t gibe with someone who just went around doing good and being compassionate.

    As I’ve told you before, what consumes me religiously is the unique person of Jesus, who I just don’t see as just another person like the rest. There is some resonance between the messages of different religions (and their texts), but Jesus is a very unique figure. From my vantage point.

    Thanks for the link.

  2. David Says:

    Al:

    I’m not sure that Karen Armstrong would really disagree with you. I don’t think she would describe Jesus as someone who “simply went around doing good and being compassionate,” although she might describe him as someone who “profoundly went around doing good and being compassionate.”

    I am always struck by the extent to which people tend to think that living a life of compassion is easy, simple, common, or mundane. I suppose the reasons are at least twofold: First, we hear the golden rule stated so often that we no longer understand what it really means in terms of the practical realities of everyday life. Second, and more important, I think many westerners have no idea what truly religious people mean when they talk about “compassion.”

    The Latin etymology of the word “compassion” is “to suffer with” or “to bear a burden with,” which is a far cry from just being nice and doing good. The Buddhist term that is translated as “compassion” (“upaya” in sanskrit) is also often translated as “skillful means.” The concept of skillful means recognizes that sometimes being nice and doing good are not the best medicine–sometimes they can do more harm than good. If the truly compassionate person is “suffering with” me, then she knows when kindness would just enable the problems at the root of my suffering, rather than solving those problems. In the new testament, we see Jesus being very kind and patient with the poor and disabled, but being far more rude and abrupt with the pharisees and the money-changers. Some might say that the latter were simply bad people who were more deserving of harsh words than the former, but a more Buddhist reading of those stories is that all of those people were suffering in different ways, so they each needed different medicine. This relates to Al’s comment that most people would not really want to have a personal relationship with Jesus–sometimes acts of a truly compassionate person are anything but nice and pleasant; sometimes only a rather abrupt intervention will prevent us from causing more suffering to ourselves and those around us.

    Another aspect of the concept of skillful means in the Buddhist tradition involves something Sandi mentioned in her original post about a mytho-poetic reading of scripture. In Buddhism, it is said that there are different scriptures for different types of people. There is a Buddhist parable about a sermon the Buddha delivered shortly before he died, during which every person in attendance heard a totally different sermon, each tailored to that person’s abilities and situation. The point is that scripture operates on many levels. Anyone who has studied scripture (or any literary work) for a long period of time will admit to having read a single passage at different times and getting very different things out of it. So, it’s not so much that a literal reading is wrong and a mytho-poetic reading is right; it’s more that literal readings are wrong insofar as they tend to be fixed, and mytho-poetic readings tend to be preferable because they are elastic. Scripture is a tool–a useful article designed to help humans achieve their potential. As such, it is more like a focused mirror than an instruction book: it helps us when it shines a light on the dark areas of our own mind and world, but it isn’t so helpful when it merely tells us what to do and think and say. When scripture becomes fixed and rigid, it is stripped of much of its pedagogical and medicinal properties, and it becomes little more than a clumsy set of instructions that don’t always work when followed.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, David.

    You’re right that Armstrong didn’t say “simply” went around doing good and being compassionate, but she didn’t make much of an argument for “profoundly” either. I think most readers would hear it as “simply,” but that’s just my guess.

    I agree wholeheartedly that true compassion is hard, complex, uncommon, and noteworthy. And I would just add that it wasn’t compassion itself that made his execution seem necessary to the powers that existed at the time, but his very real threat to their power (although it is true that it seems his threat stemmed from this heroic virtue of compassion). That’s been my argument on the “seminar breakdown” post: that Jesus was a political figure and not just a superbly nice guy.

    Thanks for your great insight.

  4. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Somebody call me when there’s a hit movie called “The Compassion of the Christ.”

    David’s etymological point also calls my attention to something I always try to remember, and occasionally try to remind others of. Jesus didn’t just die for us, he lived for us; and the former is not more important than the latter. His sacrifice of himself didn’t happen just at his death; it happened every day of his life. That kind of daily pouring out of oneself is tough. Compassion ain’t for sissies.

    When scripture becomes fixed and rigid, it is stripped of much of its pedagogical and medicinal properties, and it becomes little more than a clumsy set of instructions that don’t always work when followed.

    Kinda sounds like a constitution.

    Jesus was a political figure and not just a superbly nice guy.

    Yoder has taught you well, young Jedi.

  5. Capt MidKnight Says:

    When scripture becomes fixed and rigid, it is stripped of much of its pedagogical and medicinal properties, and it becomes little more than a clumsy set of instructions that don’t always work when followed.

    Juvenal_Urbino said:

    Kinda sounds like a constitution.

    A constitution (our constitution) never was or ever claimed to be more than the theories and guesses and eventually the most workable compromises of a group of remarkably brave and talented, but also self interested and sometimes bigoted men. They gave us their best efforts in their day and tried to build in a mechanism for change since they probably sensed that the world would change in ways they couldn’t even imagine in 1776. That it is still in operation after 217 years is a tribute to their genius.

    Scripture, at least the scriptures understood and acknowledged by Christians, claims to have a higher origin and authority than our constitution which draws it’s authority from “the consent of the governed.” If scripture does, in fact, originate from a higher authority than the mind of man, then it couldn’t be subject to amendments or referendums or “the consent of the governed.” It would be, by definition, “fixed and rigid,” as far as those governed by it were concerned – subject to change only by the same authority that issued it.

    On the other hand, if what we call “scripture” is simply and ultimately the work of a bunch of really smart, deep thinkers who, through their own efforts at enlightenment, conjured all this up a couple of thousand years ago in China and India and Greece and Palestine, and is only useful if it remains flexible and fluid so as to suit each new generation – or, alternately, when a few in each generation manage to become enlightened enough to pass the secrets down to the rest of us – it ceases to interest me much.

    As for Jesus, I thought his message was that he came from heaven to buy me back from my slave owner and give me my freedom – something I was unable to do for myself – and show me how to live according to this higher authority (God’s will). If I am mistaken and he didn’t come from heaven and his message simply is “If you will live by my example, you will have a better life here on earth and be a better citizen and a much nicer and more compassionate person, and a blessing to your fellow man,” then his message has no force of authority on me at all.

    Nothing against Ms. Armstrong or Mr Hauerwas or whoever else might have turned out the latest book on the subject, but if the bottom line is that all this “scripture” they are talking about – be it the Bible or the Koran or whatever books go along with Budda or Confucius – is just the crowning efforts of the best and brightest of the Class of 500BCE, then they are all more or less worthless to me and to vast majority of humanity, past, present, and future. Most of them would say, along with me

    If all you have to offer is the wisdom of other men, I’ll make it up for myself, thank you. Unless you are more powerful than me and threaten to injure or kill me if I don’t follow your thinking, then leave me the hell alone. Who’s to say that your ideas are any better than mine?

    So tell me, which are these “scriptures” we keep talking about? Something with enough higher authority behind them that it would be dangerous for me to ignore them (Heb 10:31) – or just the best efforts and distilled wisdom of men who, in the final analysis, are just like me?

    Jesus was a political figure and not just a superbly nice guy.

    I would have thought Jesus would have been the least political figure in the story, although different factions did try to drag him into political issues. If he was a political figure, his followers seemed to have missed the point.

  6. Al Sturgeon Says:

    uCap’n wrote: “I would have thought Jesus would have been the least political figure in the story, although different factions did try to drag him into political issues. If he was a political figure, his followers seemed to have missed the point.”

    I respond: As I mentioned in my dialogue with Duane, at this point in my developing theology I believe that Jesus came and established a very real kingdom with himself as the very real king (which makes him most political). I think his kingdom is “not of this world” in that it doesn’t use the ways of this world (including military armies to promote its cause as well as the machinery of nationalism irt geographic boundaries, ete.), but it is very much “in this world.” In fact, his subjects are “resident aliens” in every nation on earth.

    As a result, its my growing belief that it is too simplistic to reduce Jesus to…
    * someone who went around being good to people (though he did)
    * someone who came and paid off a debt and went back home (though true)
    * someone who taught people a way of life (though vitally important)

    All of these (combined, even) fail to capture the big picture that would get a man executed. He threatened the “powers that be” with a kingdom that forces one to pledge allegiance to another power (plus, often sought to take away the poor people on which the oppressors received their wealth). As a result, history tells of martyrs, martyrs everywhere. And when you are executed by “powers” for allegiance to another king, you die a political death.

    Now you said that if he was political that his followers seemed to have missed the point. I think this is a valid discussion to have in America – the Tonto Principle as Hauerwas puts it. When talk arises of what “we” ought to do about aggression in the world, etc. the “we” is most often America instead of Christians. What would happen if the political “we” shifted in the minds of Christians from “you and I in America” to the we of “the Christian in Basra and I?”

    That Jesus seems apolitical today leaves us to be more interested in selling capitalism/republicanism than the kingdom of God (since Jesus in our minds didn’t concern himself with such things).

    All this is new to me (and maybe more than just me), but it might sound like I’m coming around to promoting a theocracy. Instead, I’m coming to promote Church. I’m just starting to understand why we have trouble with “church discipline.” We don’t see it as anything more than a volunteer organization within a democratic form of government (as opposed to an established kingdom that transcends national governments).

    Notice the end of the Matthew 18 instructions on church discipline is to treat someone as a pagan or tax collector (which is odd since Jesus hung out with tax collectors). I think that means that if you don’t follow the path of love/compassion/reconciliation laid out by the King, then you can’t be considered part of this kingdom anymore!

    I know I’m getting all Catholic on us, but I don’t think this requires a worldwide hierarchy with a guy wearing a funny hat in Rome. I would like to suggest that the catholic (little “c”) message of the Restoration Movement and its inclusion of local congregation autonomy can mesh into this concept.

    Okay, I’ve taken this discussion in all sorts of new directions. But maybe my explanation helps clarify the use of the word “political” a little bit, and if so, I’m thankful for people like Yoder & Hauerwas who, instead of making up personal opinions, are trying to look honestly at what Jesus said and do their best to consider that message fully.

  7. Sandi Says:

    I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I find the whole idea that there has to be a physical threat in order for people to be good profoundly sad. It reeks of the egotism that Armstrong was saying we have to let go of in order to be truly spiritual/religious. And it misses the point that she was making — that morality is about human compassion and maximizing happiness, not about reluctantly acting a certain way because you’re afraid of physical pain.

    I just don’t understand why there needs to be something outside of one’s own conscience compelling moral behavior on pain of death. I never have. I am honest and compassionate because those are the right things to be … because that’s how I would want people to be to me … and I don’t need any other reason, eternal or otherwise. My morality is real because it comes from my sincere desire to be a good person — I am not dissembling before others for social approbation or before a higher power for an expected eternal reward. Sorry for the back-patting, but I just think that acting the way you’re supposed to because of fear rather than out of sincerity represents a low level of moral development that humanity has to get beyond. See Kohlberg’s theories of moral development, summarized at http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/kohlberg.html

    I have struggled with the thought that maybe the ability to “be good” is in some measure biologically based and thus that some, perhaps most, human beings are not capable of it. That would be really unfortunate.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    but if the bottom line is that all this “scripture” they are talking about – be it the Bible or the Koran or whatever books go along with Budda or Confucius – is just the crowning efforts of the best and brightest of the Class of 500BCE, then they are all more or less worthless to me and to vast majority of humanity, past, present, and future.

    This is false on its face, Cap’n. Buddhist, Confucian, and other scriptures have been of tremendous worth to vast numbers of humanity. How do we know that? Because vast numbers of humanity have demonstrated it in their lives and in the fact that they’ve kept these scriptures alive for thousands of years. People don’t bother copying and passing down writings that are of no value to their lives. They certainly don’t treat them as scripture.

    These texts have survived and thrived despite the fact that they make no claim to anything like the current Christian notion of “inspiration” (much less “inerrancy”) and are not considered so “inspired” by their readers.

    If texts written in 500 BCE and treasured ever since as tremendous aids to living and making sense of the world around us — treasured even by billions of people today, in a world radically changed, and in places culturally, linguistically, and physically remote from the texts’ origins — are of no value whatsoever in one’s eyes, the most likely culprit is one’s own perceptiveness.

    It’s empirically false to say such texts are worthless (even “more or less” worthless) to the “vast majority of humanity” simply because they make no claim to [frankly unbiblical] Christian notions of inspiration.

  9. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Sandi said…
    I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I find the whole idea that there has to be a physical threat in order for people to be good profoundly sad. It reeks of the egotism that Armstrong was saying we have to let go of in order to be truly spiritual/religious. And it misses the point that she was making — that morality is about human compassion and maximizing happiness, not about reluctantly acting a certain way because you’re afraid of physical pain

    No, Sandi, it doesn’t sound condescending, because you have it exactly right – it IS profoundly sad.
    I hope I didn’t sound too angry or harsh – I can get grouchy at 1:00am – and I appreciate more than you know the fact that there are some people like you who are internally motivated to do what is right.

    My morality is real because it comes from my sincere desire to be a good person.

    I like to think I am also motivated by some higher standard than basic Darwinian self interest, but the profoundly sad truth is that most people aren’t. They weren’t in Noah’s day or Abraham or Budda’s time or Jeremiah’s or Socrates’ or Jesus’ and they aren’t now.

    To make matters worse, even those who ARE internally motivated to be a “good person” and serve a higher purpose can’t agree on what that means. Many of the folks who are cutting off people’s heads and blowing up children in the streets are self motivated and serving their higher purpose with as clear a conscious as any of us.

    Also, I don’t mean to suggest that Christianity should be coercive, either mentally or physically. That was tried for many centuries by the Catholic Church – think Crusades, the Inquisition and other happy times – with horrendous results. By the same token, forcing people to act for the common good by fear of punishment may benefit society as a whole, but doesn’t generally change the individual. Remove the threat and everybody will revert their own convictions. Some’s internal convictions will move them to do what we see as good, selfless, and compassionate, but most won’t. As Mark Twain observed:

    When in doubt, tell the truth. This will gratify some people and astonish all the rest.

    Ideally, our motivation to follow Jesus SHOULD come from within – from the purest of motives – but most of us poor sinful souls just can’t start from that place. The important thing is to start, from wherever you are. Starting from a position of self interest as in I want my sins to be forgiven and to avoid the wrath of God may not be the highest or purest motivation, but it’s perfectly legitimate (Prov 1:7) Most of the early Christians started from exactly that place. The goal is to move on, as the old C of C song says, towards “Less of self and more of thee.”

    ALL of this presupposes some standard higher than man. No matter how internally motivated you are personally to do what is “Right” or “Good,” there will always be those who have very different definitions of those terms. If it ultimately comes down to a choice between men’s definitions, why shouldn’t I pick mine over yours, which brings me back to my original question:

    Exactly what are these “scriptures” Armstrong and the rest of us keep talking about? When I know their origins, I’ll know better what weight to give the things they say and the claims they make.

    Al,
    I’m probably using the term “Political” differently than you are. I certainly believe that Christ has a Kingdom here on Earth, so if the interaction of that Kingdom with the others here constitutes “politics” then you’re right.

    As always, he who gets to define the terms wins the argument.

    .

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Cap’n…

    As I did with Duane, I’ll apologize for the little vocabulary game, but I think it makes my argument in some manner. Our (at the very least, American version of) modern-day Christianity doesn’t behave much like a kingdom with a king. I think this is why our impression of Jesus is so predictably apolitical that we think I’m redefining the word when I use it in relation to him.

    (And [smile], I’m not really trying to win the argument so much, so my semantics seeks less to be able to say I’m right with vocabulary tricks, and more to make a potentially monumental point with HUGE implications in regard to how we approach religion/politics.)

  11. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Al said:
    Our (at the very least, American version of) modern-day Christianity doesn’t behave much like a kingdom with a king.

    What changes would you view as movement in the right direction?

  12. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Sometimes I hate blogger. I just typed a long response to you, Cap’n, and when I tried to publish it, it ate it alive.

    Sigh…

    Lots of ways come to mind. Let me try shorter versions:

    #1: Practice church discipline. Not hit squads, but demand that people calling themselves Christians do what the King says & reconcile with their brother/sister. Love one another is not a suggestion for disciples.

    #2: Have real stances on the issues of the day bigger than “we’re against abortion.” For instance, we will adopt any child that is in danger of abortion. And we will financially support any mother considering abortion because she can’t afford it. Publicize it.

    #3: Make marriage serious. When a couple declares marriage from within the kingdom, speak the vows publicly with the full understanding that the church is truly a witness, one that takes responsibility for the fidelity proclaimed.

    #4: Use the money reportedly “given back to God” for kingdom purposes as opposed to using them primarily for our own comforts and purposes.

    #5: Make church membership actually mean something beyond a listing in a church directory and a hope you might get involved someday (or the hope that the leaders might eventually learn your name). This is a kingdom, not a club, for Pete’s sake!

    I could list a bunch, but those are a few examples. Much of it has to do with the fact that America values privacy and rights and the freedom to do as you wish. All of these things are nonexistent in a kingdom. All of them exist in spades in a local church.

    But let me say, I think the response we received from churches following Katrina was a powerful example of the kingdom of God at work, and in comparison to the federal government (e.g. FEMA) and capitalism (e.g. insurance industry), everyone could see the dramatic difference in the kingdom of God and the powers of this particular part of the world.

    I just have to be honest enough to admit, however, that Katrina was abnormal for most churches. People are hurting all the time and all around, but churches typically spend mounds of money on real estate that is unused 95% of the time. It is primarily seen as a nice place to go on major holidays and a very nice place to have a wedding (how quaint!), but not a kingdom headquarters that either threatens the powers of the world nor offers true salvation from the powers of the world. Surely not both.

    Just some thoughts, and I sure hope they publish this time!

  13. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Here’s a quote from the 2nd century where a pagan reflects on “Christians”…

    “…though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour there is more like that of transients; they take full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland a foreign country.”

  14. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Golly, Al. You really have been reading Hauerwas. 🙂

    Much of it has to do with the fact that America values privacy and rights and the freedom to do as you wish. All of these things are nonexistent in a kingdom.

    Only if the king says so. There’s nothing in the notion of a kingdom that inherently precludes the existence of privacy and rights and freedom. (Except as these things stand against the king, of course, to whom the rules don’t apply.)

    I’m all for churches being more disciplined communities, but I think Hauerwas gets carried away; he ends up, IMHO, valuing Church more than he values people. That strikes me as wholly inconsistent with the Sermon and numerous other passages.

  15. Capt MidKnight Says:

    As usual, I stand corrected. I overstated the case.

    There’s a long series of flying jokes where the pilot of an airliner panics and yells out some things over the public address system that the Co-pilot is forced to explain as “What the Captain REALLY meant was …” as in “Oh no! The master warning light is on. We’re all going to die!” What the Captain really meant was “We’re experiencing some technical difficulties.”

    Certainly, the fact that all those teachings have been preserved over the centuries shows that they have been of great benefit to large numbers in muddling through their existence here on earth. I was wrong to speak for those.

    The fact remains, however, that there have been – and still are – multitudes of others who take just the position that I stated in my 1:00am funk. They reject the idea of doing what someone else thinks is good or right, no matter who it might be, in favor of their own ideas. Today is a lot like the situation in Israel during the time of the Judges when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

    What the Captain should have said was…

    If the possibility that any of these messages – or scriptures – is from a higher authority (Al’s King, for instance, or Allah) is removed, then I or anyone else would be free to pick and choose among them as systems of ethics or even “cherry pick” from several and come up with a new system that suits me better, and would place little or no pressure on me to change what I’ve already decided is my preferred lifestyle. None of them would have any claim on my allegiance beyond the testimony of a string of satisfied customers back through the ages. If I, as an individual, felt the need or internal motivation to improve myself and follow the Golden or Silver rule, I could do so. If, on the other hand, I decided that I preferred to “Do unto others before they can do unto me” I could do that too.

    All this brings me back to the importance of the source of any of these scriptures. One that claimed to come from Al’s “King” – someone who might have the authority and ability to affect me personally – would obviously have to be looked at differently from one coming from a very wise and good man who is, however, 2,000 years dead and lacks the same capability. I might, in the end wind up rejecting either one or both, but the consequences of rejecting Al’s King, if he turned out to be real, would be far different than rejecting a good and wise, but powerless sage.

    Al,
    I can’t quibble with any of your ideas for making the church more like a Kingdom. Be careful, though that you haven’t “Stopped preaching and gone to meddling.”

  16. Al Sturgeon Says:

    As to meddling, Cap’n, I like Jeff Walling’s little statement, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to step on your toes today. I’m going for your throat!”
    🙂

    And Juvenal, I sure have been reading a lot of Hauerwas. Shoot me down. It’s a personal problem of mine to get going in a new thought direction and becoming obsessive/compulsive. I’ve been serious in saying that I’m not necessarily concluding everything I’m saying here – more fleshing it out by discussion. I hope everyone will actually believe me in that.

    Funny that we were taught that the Church “was” people on the Joy Bus, but Hauerwas does seem to approach it more as institution. Still, he generally makes a lot of sense when he’s talking. More than anything, I respect his (seeming) ability to approach things from entirely different directions than everyone else. Well, more impressed than respect I guess. Maybe we could reform the institution w/o forgetting the most important thing of all (that I think you describe the best): that all people matter to God. Maybe we could help reform the institution to actually see that as central.

    And point well taken on the king/kingdom, though I’d still argue that there are a lot less rights/freedom/privacy in the descriptions of the kingdom of God than are practiced in the American churches.

    Still thinking out loud…

  17. juvenal_urbino Says:

    One that claimed to come from Al’s “King” – someone who might have the authority and ability to affect me personally – would obviously have to be looked at differently from one coming from a very wise and good man who is, however, 2,000 years dead and lacks the same capability.

    Okay. But I think the people who look at things that way are going to be disappointed with the available selection of religious texts that claim to come straight from the top, so to speak. Let’s hypothesize one of these people and give him a name: Kenny.

    In the NT, there’s only one document that makes the claim Kenny’s looking for, and even it doesn’t quite make it: Revelation. Kenny won’t read the gospels. He won’t read the epistles. The Acts of the Apostles, neither.

    In the OT, I haven’t checked quite as closely, but the only ones that come to mind as Kenny-approved are the Prophets. Sections of some of the Pentateuch books claim to be direct revelations from God*, but, to the best of my recollection, none of Genesis. None of the wisdom literature makes it into Kenny’s canon. (Of course, a lot of it isn’t noticeably in the Christian canon, either, so that wouldn’t really be a barrier to his being a churchgoer.) None of the histories make it, either.

    So, all Kenny’s going to accept from the Christian canon is parts of the OT and the whole of John’s apocalypse. Personally, I don’t like Kenny’s chances of becoming a Jesus-follower.

    OTOH, he probably will read the entire Quran.

    [*Strictly speaking, even these sections of the Pentateuch don’t claim it.]

  18. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Thinking out loud is good, Al. Proceed apace.

    I think Hauerwas is instructive, too, much the same way Yoder is (though to a considerably lesser degree, in my own experience). However, both are making particular arguments for particular points of view, and they’re making them very strongly — making extensive claims for their points of view — and they should be read as such — i.e., critically. With Hauerwas, especially, keep one hand on your wallet (so to speak).

    And point well taken on the king/kingdom, though I’d still argue that there are a lot less rights/freedom/privacy in the descriptions of the kingdom of God than are practiced in the American churches.

    Probably so. But it’s a rather fundamental mistake, is it not, to equate the Kingdom with the church? I see where Hauerwas is coming from (church is to seek to emulate/model Kingdom, etc.), and I can see its utility, but again, I think it ultimately falls short because the church, despite its best efforts at emulation, is not the Kingdom. It is fallen, just as everything in this world is. As a fallen, all too fallible, often petty, human institution, some privacy, rights, and freedoms for the people within it are appropriate. I don’t necessarily disagree that the pendulum has swung too far in that direction, but neither am I comfortable with where Hauerwas seems to want to swing it.

    Maybe I underestimate the church’s Kingdom-emulation potential. From where I sit, though, it looks to me like he overestimates it.

  19. Capt MidKnight Says:

    As to meddling, Cap’n, I like Jeff Walling’s little statement, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to step on your toes today. I’m going for your throat!”
    🙂

    I love it!
    Ocean Springs Church of Christ – Enter at your own risk!

    Juvenal:
    Two questions.

    When did this mistaken idea that the Jewish and Christian scriptures actually claimed divine origins begin?

    What would have been Kenny’s experience if he had been born in 4BCE, was a citizen of Jerusalem or Antioch or Corinth at the time of Jesus’ death and became exposed to the new sect called Christians through the preaching of Peter or Paul? Would he have been taught that Jesus was the latest and greatest Jewish Rabbi and philosopher or the risen Son of God?

    Since Kenny and most of his generation of Christians plus a couple more to follow would, in all probability live their entire life without ever seeing or reading a single line of what we today call the New Testament, unless they happened to be present at the reading of some apostle’s letter or other, what they were taught by these early preachers must have formed their entire theology. No wonder new converts becoming followers of individual preachers was a recurring problem.

    As you said earlier about compassion, Kenny’s job in the early years of the Christian movement wasn’t for sissies.

  20. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’m not sure I see your overall point, Cap. Maybe it’s the hour.

    To address your specific questions:

    When did this mistaken idea that the Jewish and Christian scriptures actually claimed divine origins begin?

    I don’t know. It’s an interesting historical question, but does it matter to our current discussion? The scriptures themselves don’t make the claim. They don’t even claim to be scripture. Those are claims we make for those texts; not because the texts need it, but because we do.

    What would have been Kenny’s experience if he had been . . . exposed to the new sect called Christians through the preaching of Peter or Paul? Would he have been taught that Jesus was the latest and greatest Jewish Rabbi and philosopher or the risen Son of God?

    Judging by the NT documents, Peter or Paul would have told Kenny Jesus was the risen son of God. Judging by those same documents, Kenny’s exposure to Peter or Paul would have been extremely limited, they would not have been the only seemingly authoritative voices he heard, nor would all those voices have been in agreement. Adding the witness of contemporary extra-biblical sources, Kenny may well have heard an extraordinary variety of messages about who and what Jesus was, as well as on most other topics we know Paul or Peter addressed.

  21. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Probably is the hour.

    Those are claims we make for those texts; not because the texts need it, but because we do.

    Well, since Peter and Paul certainly make claims for divine origins for their teachings very early on, am I left with Peter the charlatan and co-conspirator? Or with Paul maybe like the John Travolta character in the movie Phenomenon, seeing lights and hearing voices because of a brain tumor or some such malady?

    Do you think we need to make these claims for the text because we aren’t tough enough to face the fact that we are alone and on our own in the universe, and we need myths and “scriptures” to help us believe otherwise?

    I have a book in my library, written by a Physicist named Steven Weinberg titled The First Three Minutes. I enjoyed it very much – what I could understand given my mathematically challenged condition. Weinberg spends 154 pages impressing me with what modern theoretical physics can decipher about the nature of the universe, and then makes a statement which I hadn’t expected to hear from a scientist. He says:
    The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. He then says that, at least he gets some consolation from the research itself, and then ends with this statement:
    The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce , and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

    That has always struck me as very sad. Such a massive intellect to devote so much effort and come to so depressing a conclusion.

    As for what that may have to do with the discussion at hand, if research or higher criticism, in the end, proposes to leave me with only the best that man’s wisdom has to offer, and then a small crowd and a quick service at the end, I might as well indulge myself in harmless little fantasies like divine based Christianity, especially since most of the more common “earthly pleasures” would be unavailable for enjoyment, myself being a somewhat seasoned citizen, and having been saddled with a repressive fundamentalist conscience from an early age.

    Al,
    Is there any way to turn this thing off at midnight? There ought to be some law against posting anything I write after 12:00am. I promise to keep quiet until I can come up with a happy thought, for a change.

  22. Al Sturgeon Says:

    No, and I wouldn’t want to. I appreciate you guys burning the midnight oil so I can have something to read first thing in the morning!
    🙂

  23. Terry Austin Says:

    I appreciate you guys burning the midnight oil so I can have something to read first thing in the morning!

    You mean, reading something other than how badly the Dogsandwich is pounding the Big Owls in the standings, right?

  24. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Exactly.

    Jerk.
    🙂

  25. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Well, since Peter and Paul certainly make claims for divine origins for their teachings very early on

    Paul claims to have had a revelation at one point in his life. Although he briefly discusses that experience, none of the NT documents attributed to him equate their content with the content of that revelation.

    As for Peter, I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

    Regarding the rest of your comment, I just don’t have time to respond right now, but ISTM you’re linking several things together that need not be linked.

  26. Capt MidKnight Says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Paul did claim, as an apostle, the authority to give commands in Jesus’(God’s) name. Other times, he admits that he has no direct word from God on a subject, but then goes on and gives his opinion “as one who can be trusted,” or words to that effect. As for his claimed divine encounters, if they didn’t provide direct material for his teaching, they still formed a large part of his bona fides as an apostle. If there was no divine component in early Christianity, then the kindest thing we can say about Paul is that he was deluded. The same with Peter, who was in it from the beginning and claimed to be an eyewitness to supernatural things. All the original group. We’re looking at either people telling the truth, perpetrating a fraud, or misleading themselves and others.

    I know that there’s nothing new about any of these points, that smarter folks than any of us have hashed them over and over, and that there are a great many on both sides who remain convinced that their position is cast iron, mortal lock certain. In such cases, the discussion usually winds up in a tightening spiral with no end in sight. It’s probably time to bail on it and go on to happier and more productive things.

    I’m finally getting started on self publishing my Civil War manuscript. Now there’s a brighter subject – war, death, destruction, and bigotry on both sides. Gotta do something with that retirement money.

  27. juvenal_urbino Says:

    If there was no divine component in early Christianity

    This is one of the things I was referring to as being unncessarily linked in your posts. Nobody has said there was no divine component in early Christianity (Armstrong strikes me as agnostic on the subject). All I’ve talked about is the texts we claim as our scriptures. Those don’t claim to come straight from the top. Paul’s claim of divine authority to teach is a long way from a claim that every word he says/writes is direct from God.

    Does Paul claim that the Jesus he teaches/writes about is divine? Yes. But claiming that the subject of one’s teachings speaks with the voice of God, and claiming that for ones’ teachings themselves are two quite different things.

    All I’m saying is that if you’re operating on a standard that says either a religious text claims to be sourced directly from a divinity, or it has little value/authority, you’re eliminating most of the Christian canon. Our texts simply don’t make that claim.

    As a side point, they also don’t claim to be inerrant or even scripture.

    One needn’t apply higher criticism (for which I’m completely untrained) or research or anything highfalutin’ to see that. One need only read the texts without reading into them; let them speak for themselves. Not make claims for them they don’t make for themselves. Or, as the saying goes, speak where the bible speaks, and be silent where it is silent.

    Do you think we need to make these claims for the text because we aren’t tough enough to face the fact that we are alone and on our own in the universe, and we need myths and “scriptures” to help us believe otherwise?

    Yes and no. Your question assumes I’m saying much more than I am. The fact that our scriptures don’t claim to be inspired in the way we’d like them to be in no way implies that we are alone in the universe. Just because we don’t have any faxes from God doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. Nor does it render the content of our scriptures meaningless or useless or illusory.

    What it does mean is that we don’t get to take the shortcut of claiming to know with absolute certainty everything we really need to know in religious matters. It means we still have to seek God’s face if we want to see it; scripture is an aid to that journey, but not a substitute, and not a guarantee of success. It means we still have to do the hard work of figuring out what is the best thing to do in the situations that confront us in our lives, just as Jesus/Matthew taught us to do in the Sermon; scripture will give us tremendously powerful insights and principles to use, but it won’t always spoonfeed us the answers. It means we still have to be humble about our knowledge, recognizing that it’s partial and fallible, and that we would be wise to, as our scriptures teach us, be quick to hear and slow to speak.

    And yes, many of us aren’t strong enough to face up to that. Or we simply prefer not to when a convenient escape hatch is available. We all want certainty. We crave it. That’s human nature. But we quickly realize we will never reach it on our own, so we manufacture it and slip it into our scriptures while nobody — especially ourselves — is looking.

    ~~

    Congratulations on finishing your manuscript. That’s a major accomplishment.

  28. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Congratulations on finishing your manuscript. That’s a major accomplishment.

    I’ve been incredibly luck to have a situation, both personal and professional, that has allowed me to research and write about some things and “chase rabbits” just because they interested me, without being under any time or monetary pressure. The research is fun, while the writing and manuscript preparation is a little more like work.

    I’ve found that I really like the idea of adding some tiny bits to history that have been there all along, but nobody else took the time to find.
    If anybody actually reads it and likes it, that’s a nice bonus.

  29. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Hey Cap’n, right now I’m semi-handling four days of the week when I’d prefer somewhere between one and zero.

    Would you want to take a day each week and offer us a little of your research fun in history?

    (Sorry everyone for doing business on the comment board!)

  30. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Top notch idea, Al.

  31. Capt MidKnight Says:

    It’s an interesting idea, but I have a hard time seeing how it would work. I’m interested in many fields of history, but as for actual research, mine is pretty limited to a couple of subjects. Trust me, very few things are more boring than some history geek droning on about his obscure research project or book to a group of people who know little about it and care even less. The Civil War – or military history in general – offers almost endless topics, and Juvenal and I dipped a toe or two in that one a few posts ago. Old West history is another area with a lot of followers, but I guarantee I would burn everybody out on Depression Era Gangsters in about three paragraph.

    If you’ve got any ideas on how it might work and be interesting for the group, however, let me know off blog. I think you have my Email.

    This isn’t a No – more of a HUH?

  32. Capt MidKnight Says:

    1. juvenal_urbino said…
    Top notch idea, Al.

    Yeah.
    Probably thinking “Maybe then he’ll stop wearing me out with all that ditsy Theo-babble”

    Don’t get your hopes up. Dumb can be cured, but C of C Redneck goes clear to the bone. :]

  33. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Nope. I just think it’s a good idea. Fer instance, I happen to know at least one reader here has an interest in Depression Era gangsters. As for the Civil War, I’ve dabbled in some of Shelby Foote’s history (Stars in Their Courses and The Beleaguered City), which is why I got your reference to McClellan a while back.

    History is full of interesting little stories. So I say throw some out there. You never know what might strike a chord.

  34. Capt MidKnight Says:

    As for the Civil War, I’ve dabbled in some of Shelby Foote’s history (Stars in Their Courses and The Beleaguered City), which is why I got your reference to McClellan a while back.

    Knew you had good taste. IMHO Foote is the best, most readable of the famous Civil War historians. He’s fun to read because he started out writing fiction.
    If you can make it through his three volume “Civil War: A Narrative,” you’ll know more about the subject than most of the college professors who teach it.

    Who knows? Maybe we’ll try something.

  35. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Yea! I’ll send you an invitation to join this esteemed panel, Cap’n. As you can tell, we don’t follow a schedule rigidly, but do you want to take Thursdays in theory (then actually post when the feeling hits ya)?

    If so, I’ll call Thursdays a day for “history,” and as Juvenal said, just throw an interesting story out there, short or long, your complete freedom. The count is up to three that will be interested.

  36. A Free Spirit Says:

    Really interesting! Armstrong’s particular theory comes through in her introduction to A Case for God. In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing. Take, for example, “God is love.” I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence. Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love. I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms. I’ve just posted a critique (http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/a-case-for-god/).

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