Religion or belief
In Part I, I laid out a problem—really a faith challenge—presented to me by the parable of the weeds in the wheat field, as told and interpreted in the book of Matthew (13:24-30, 36-43). The significance of this parable for me is that it sets up an irresolvable contrast between the Jesus of Christian theology and Yeshua, the unknown yet world-changing peasant teacher and healer of Roman-occupied first century C.E. Galilee.
It would be easier if I could frame this as an either/or choice and pick between the Christian Jesus and the historical Yeshua. That is not possible. The two are inseparable. Inseparable in part because we know of Yeshua only because of Jesus.
Jesus has been the focus of two thousand years of worship, thought, writing, art, governance and warfare. Our current so-called “culture wars” in America are most commonly understood as forcing the (false) choice between Jesus and Yeshua. We are told that we must accept the “official” Jesus of institutional church belief (but which of the thousands of competing, contentious churches?). Or that we must reject theological notions altogether and consider Yeshua, if we consider him at all, as just a man.
The cognitive and visceral reality of humankind is that we cannot make such choices. Those like myself who were born into Christianity have it as our “native language,” whether or not we still consider ourselves to be Christians. Those not so born have had their lives and cultures influenced by the dominance of Christianity as a political ideology on this planet. And those who style themselves “new atheists” define themselves by rejection of the caricature of Christianity which they use as their straw man.
More basically, what we know of Yeshua is known solely through the sacred stories of first century people, who had seen in what they thought they knew of him a fulfillment of religious and political hopes. Whether we look at the Jesus of Christian sources or the “reconstructed” Yeshua of historical Jesus studies, we do not know—in the modern sense of “know empirically”—who he actually was, what he actually said, or what he actually meant. We can only know how people have understood and described their experience of him.
Time for a confession: that does not concern me.
He is a world-changing mystery. For me he is not, first of all, the Jesus of orthodox doctrine. He is the Yeshua who so profoundly moved, challenged and healed the people who crossed his path. I cannot expunge my native language and do not want to. Yet its boundaries and definitions are too narrow for this man whom I’ve known inwardly since childhood. Uncomfortable with “Christianity,” I nonetheless persist in reaching for Yeshua. Very deep within me I acknowledge the personal authority of this man to teach me how I ought to live my live.
It was in this awkward posture, following Yeshua yet baulking at Christian orthodoxy, that I listened to that lesson and novice Lutheran sermon back in July. As I listened, I already knew both the text from Matthew and the historical context which biblical scholars have reconstructed for it. What I did not yet have was James Carse’s illumination of why I am uncomfortable, and of why it is an essential act of faith to remain attentively within this discomfort.
In The Religious Case Against Belief (2008), Carse analyses the error he sees in most of our arguments over religion. Through compassionate yet incisive examination, he reveals that “what is currently criticized as religion is, in fact, the territory of belief” (book jacket). The distinction, as he defines it, is enlightening.
Belief systems are “comprehensive networks of tenets that reach into every area of thought and action” (32). They claim to define all that needs to be known, they mark the boundary beyond which orthodox thinking must not go, and they name anything and anyone beyond that boundary as enemy.
Religions may produce belief systems, yet “they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox” (36). Unlike the Roman civitas, a society ruled by law and structured by clear lines of authority, a religion is a communitas stretching across time and space, a “spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” Unified, Carse writes, by “the desire…to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together” (84).
While belief systems want only unambiguous answers, the very essence of religions is the continued expansion of the “discursive context,” that process by which communitas perpetually revisits its deepest questions and reinterprets its irresolvable mysteries. What is more, being “able to interpret [religions] ‘properly’ does not require us to get at the very essence of each but to succeed in taking our place in the discursive contexts surrounding them” (100-01).
In this light, Carse writes that sacred texts “demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be.” What counts is the sincere expansion of the dialogues among members of the communitas. “Moreover, there is nothing particularly rational in these extended dialogues. They explain nothing. Their power lies chiefly in the interpreter’s skill at provocation” (199).
That term “provocation” wakes me up. Yeshua, as he reinterpreted the scriptures his listeners all knew from hearing them read each week in synagogue, provoked them to reconsider what was the spirit of the text. Matthew did the same for his contemporaries. Rather than declare that the text means “this and this only,” the rabbinic approach of Yeshua and Matthew was to say, “Look beneath and beyond the boundaries of what you think you know about this. Open yourself to hear new meanings.”
Carse points out that while belief systems are characterized by boundaries, religions are characterized by horizons. However much members of communitas may help each other to extend their “common field of vision,” they always acknowledge that there is more to their mystery than they can possible know beyond the horizon. (107)
Furthermore, Carse notes that religious vision does “not restrict itself to a belief system but that belief systems always fall within the scope of poetic horizons. For this reason, horizons and belief systems are not opposites. They occur simultaneously…. Visionaries…do not destroy the walls, but show the openings through them. They do not promise what believers will see, only that the walls do not contain the horizon” (83).
In Part III, I will share some of the alternative approaches to the parable of the weeds which the openings Carse refers to make available to us, first some from contemporary biblical scholars, and then some from my own ponderings.
[To be continued]