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James P. Carse taught at New York University for thirty years as the Professor of the History and Literature of Religion, and Director of the Religious Studies Program. He retired from the University in 1996. He is a writer and an artist, and lives in New York City and Massachusetts.
What follows are excerpts from Carse’s 1985 book, The Silence of God: Meditations on Prayer (pagination from the 1995 paperback edition).
No doubt many persons would argue that God has never ceased to speak, that the word of God as recorded in scripture is a Living Word….
Consider two questions in response to this objection: (1) If God is still speaking through scripture, how do we recognize that voice as the voice of God? (2) If it is the voice of God we are hearing in scripture, how do we respond to it?
(1) To begin at the most obvious and rudimentary level, we contend with the fact that the scriptures were written in a given time and place and in the vernacular of its authors…. None of them claims to have been directly or even indirectly inspired.
Even if we insist that these men were mere amanuenses of God, accurately transcribing the communicated messages, it is still the case that they wrote in a natural language, with all the terminological and conceptual limitations that means.
It is almost as though God is therefore limited to the vernacular idiosyncrasies of a few speakers of Hebrew or Greek or [Aramaic]. The question here is not whether God is capable of such self-limitation, but whether we can know when we are reading the words of God and when we are reading the words of Matthew and of Paul.
The simplest way out of this apparent dilemma is to say that everything contained in the Bible, as it stands on the page, is what God is saying…. Any attempt to alter the words of the Bible is an attempt to change God’s own words and distort the truth. This is certainly one way of resolving the question as to whether God is still speaking in the scriptures, but it is a way that raises a blizzard of questions.
What do we do, for example, with the discrepancies found among various texts? If we do not understand Greek, can we then not understand God? If we translate the Bible into other languages, which translations may we trust? Are some more inspired than others? How can we tell?
Perhaps the most serious question of all, concerning this simplistic approach to scripture, is whether it does not presuppose one or another catalogue of theological affirmations that have been assembled independently of any reading of the biblical text whatsoever.
I am certain that [those who take this approach] share a wide range of beliefs on topics as diverse as homosexuality, church polity, pacifism, [etc.]—all of which have fragmentary or inconsistent biblical support if they have any at all. It is difficult to suppress the thought that they built their theological tower with a single language so they would not have to be confused by the many voices of scripture. (11-13)
I do not mean these questions to be impious. On the contrary, I am only recalling an issue that rises repeatedly in the scripture itself. Consider, for example, how many persons are described as having heard the words of Jesus with their own ears—without hearing the voice of God in his voice. Indeed, not even Jesus’ own disciples seem to have heard it….
What advantage do we have over these disciples? We have the words of Jesus, from his native Aramaic first into Greek and now into English, on the written page. The disciples heard the words of Jesus from Jesus himself, in their own native tongue. But if they could not hear what God was saying through these words, how can we be sure of interpreting them correctly?
These questions do not seem to me to be a challenge to the claim that the Bible has a divine origin. I should rather argue that the impossibility of arriving at a definitive interpretation of scripture is precisely what makes it scripture. The best we can do is to come to sacred writings from within our own human limitations, our own vernacular and conceptual biases. When we quote them we give them a meaning that is our own—not God’s.
To know that god means is to know God. And in the words of a fifteenth-century rabbi, Joseph Albo, “If I knew Him I would be Him.” Albo was attacking the presumption that anyone has the final word on the meaning of the scripture. (14)
(2) So far I have discussed the matter of God’s silence in what we can consider epistemological terms: How can we know that the speaker of these words is God?… There is another question that must be raised against the claim that God is still speaking in scriptures: If we have been persuaded that this is the speaking of God, what do we do about it?
It is obvious enough that any persons certain they have been addressed by God will respond to that address with the deepest possible seriousness. The may feel it necessary to change their lives to conform to the message of the Living Word; or they may feel it necessary to change the lives of others.
We can confidently expect that whoever receives a communication from God will regard that communication as true, and urgent, and uncompromising. In short, whoever has heard the speaking of God will thereby feel authorized to speak for God. What else could you do if you had heard God speak?…
The history of attempts to speak for God is notorious. One could reasonably argue that acting as though one had the authority of the divine is itself the very source of evil. We very seriously misunderstand the nature of evil if we think that persons act out of true malice. Virtually all evil is done in the interest of the good.
If I have the word of God, straight from God, I certainly know what is good for your life, regardless of any opinions you might have concerning your life. It may even be that according to the word of the Lord as I have it your life is to be decisively altered—or even ended altogether…. (15)
There are other reasons that the recurrence of evil in history for insisting on the silence of God. If we were to gather in one place all those persons who claim to have received direct communications from God, we would be struck by the variety and the contradictory content of those various revelations.
We can easily imagine the difficulty, nay, the impossibility, of getting such recipients of God’s revealed word as Muhammed, Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, and Father Divine to set down a text acceptable to each. (16)
I [cannot] help wondering why it is that those who seek after the Truth find themselves in essential harmony, even unity, with other seekers; but those who have the Truth seem to have a bottomless enmity for those who do not have it, or have another truth. Why is it that our acknowledged ignorance unites us, and the acknowledged possession of the Truth divides us?…
I [wonder] also whether there is a principle here that has a larger purchase. Can it be that it is what we lack, and not what we possess, that constitutes the basis for community?
It seems to me that I am closer to those with whom I share an unfulfilled dream than I am to those with whom I share a realized dream. I have much more in common with persons I stand together with at the beginning of a journey than with those with whom I stand at its conclusion… Even if we share a rich past, what holds our communal bonds in place is the unfulfilled future for which that past is prelude. (18-19)
What I am suggesting is that the silence of God does not necessarily mean that God is absent; what it does mean is that we cannot present ourselves to each other as God. Whatever other mode our speaking may take with each other, it may not take the mode of absolute truth, of divine authority.
If I speak to you with the authority of God, I violate the limitations of our humanity in two ways: I regard myself as something considerably more than human, and I regard you as something considerably less than human. I see myself as above error—and you helplessly caught in it. Because of God’s silence I can speak to you only as the person I am, and therefore can in no way determine how you are to respond, meaning that you will answer only as the person you are.
Significantly, scripture itself returns us repeatedly to the limits of our humanity. Jesus’ only direct statements about truth are directed not at his teaching, but at his person: I am the truth.
At Jesus’ trial, Pilate pauses during the proceedings to ask his prisoner a direct, perhaps even personal question: “What is truth?” [John 18: 38] Here was a remarkable opportunity. If ever there was a moment for standing before the world, and pointing out the path history would take, this was it. Here was God getting the ear of Caesar.
But how did Jesus respond to this opportunity? Incredibly, he said nothing at all. Instead, he turned away in silence and went directly to his death. He followed his heart. He did not arrange the world for us; he died for us.
He did not assume that he had taken our journey for us and concluded it in a way that made it forever unnecessary for us to take it on our own. He did not therefore give us a truth by which we might accordingly organize the world; he asked only that we follow him and die his death.
The point is clear and compelling. If Jesus did not arrange the world according to the truth as he knew it—and if there is any truth at all one should think that it would be fully known to the Son of God—why should we? There is a deep and tragic human tendency to think that one does not dies for the truth; one kills for the truth.
I do not know the man I quoted above as saying that we should adapt the world to the Bible and not the Bible to the world, but there was an anger and an arrogance in his voice that seemed ready to declare a holy war against those who place the world before the Bible. This was a man who wants the ear of Caesar, even wants to be Caesar, maybe more.
The question here is really one of intention. What is it we mean to accomplish by quoting scripture as truth, or by proclaiming truth in some other form?… We may intend simply to represent God’s intentions. But we do not know God’s intentions. To know God is to be God.
I suggested earlier that it is the Bible’s character as a provocatively varied and most human collection of writings that elevates it to the status of scripture. It begs for interpretation but defies any final, definitive interpretation. Analogous to the eternal Tao that cannot be spoken, this is the word of God that cannot be spoken as the Word of God.
The Bible is the work of persons as real and as flawed as we are—fully human but only human. Therefore, when we repeat their words we do so as the real and flawed persons we are, fully human but only human.
They wrote these words on the assumption that it was they and not God speaking. When we repeat them we can do so only on the assumption that it is we and not God speaking. In sum, to quote scripture is to declare the silence of God. (21-23)
Note: This post has also been published on Quaker Universalist Conversations.
James P. Carse —from Carse’s website
The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Vienna), 1563 —from PainterLog.com – Themed Paintings: The Tower of Babel
Christ before Pilate – Tintoretto. Artist: Tintoretto. Start Date: 1566. Completion Date:1567. Style: Mannerism (Late Renaissance) —from WikiPaintings Visual Art Encyclopedia
I have for several years been practicing a rather threadbare, in some ways malnourished religion—more by necessity than choice, though the choices are obvious to me.
I wrote that first sentence on Wednesday, March 31st of this year, shortly after I received confirmation that I could move my mother from hospital, where she had come through the crisis of a major systemic infection, into a new skilled nursing facility (SNF), where staff were better equipped than in her old one to care for her at her suddenly more advanced stage of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Monday of that week, staff at her previous SNF had told me, to their own dismay, that they could not manage her new occasional combativeness and escape-seeking behavior. As I wrote at the time, through those next two horrifying days of searching, my practice was reduced to the bare discipline of stopping myself, over and over again, to say, “Keep me in your living present.”
Five months later, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I could say that this sentence—deceptively simple and ambiguous—almost sums up my whole faith and practice:
Keep me in your living present.
Two weeks ago, I read Chris Hedges’ review of a book by Bart D. Ehrman called God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer in the Spring 2008 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin (78-82). Because Hedges articulates so well an understanding which has matured in my own awareness, I will be quoting him here at some length.
Evil is not a problem. Evil is a mystery. Bart Ehrman in his book God’s Problem cannot reconcile a belief in God with this mystery and the cold reality of the morally neutral universe we inhabit…. [He] remains trapped within the simpleminded belief that religious faith, to have legitimacy, means there has to be something logical and ultimately just about human existence….
There is strong desire on the part of many in the human species to believe that human suffering and deprivation is ultimately meaningful, that it has a purpose, that our lives make sense…. (78)
This powerful human desire, however, should not be confused with the reality of the transcendent. God answered Moses’ request for revelation with the words: “I AM WHO I AM.” This phrase is probably more accurately translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”
God is not a being. God is an experience. God is a verb, not a noun. God comes to us in the profound flashes of insight that cut through the darkness, in the hope that permits human beings to cope with inevitable pain, despair, and suffering. God comes in the healing solidarity of love and self-sacrifice. But God and the vagaries of human existence, including suffering, are beyond our capacity to explain or understand. (80)
I am grateful that, sometime in my thirties, I began to see the fallaciousness of this human expectation, this self-injuring enterprise we attempt of testing God against the so-called “problem of evil.”
Put simply: we suffer because we know we are mortal. We suffer because we are able to cling in memory to past pains and losses, and we are able to fear in imagination those yet to come.
Yet mortality itself—including its pain and loss, but also its awe and joy—is not a punishment. It is simply a fact.
The salutary response to suffering is not to resist those memories or fears but simply to experience them, to take note of them—and then to remain in the present. The present is the only place where we can act for ourselves and for each other.
And the present is where the something more enters into human consciousness.
Hedges writes of the various unqualifiable, transcendent forces which enter into human life: “love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil, and the reality of death.” Then he writes of what I have very clumsily called the something more.
God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe.
Religion is our finite, flawed, and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence, the struggle to acknowledge the infinite, need not even be attributed to an external being called God. The belief in a personal God can, in fact, be antireligious. Religion is about the human need for the sacred. God is, as Thomas Aquinas writes, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence. (80)
THAT which works upon us and through us. Yes.
Hedges cautions us that
God is a human concept that arises from this impulse and the reality of the transcendent. Our idea of God includes human prejudice, tribal and national self-exaltation, morally indefensible edicts, naked bigotry, and absurd formulas to get God to work on our behalf….
Ehrman correctly challenges these very imperfect and flawed human descriptions of God and the vain attempts to make sense of suffering. But he mistakes the characteristics human beings have invented for God with the reality of God…. These are inadequate attempts by human beings to explain why we suffer. But the inherent flaws in these numerous explanations do not finally invalidate God. They only expose those who write and think about God as human. (80)
The title of Hedge’s review is “A Hollow Agnosticism.” For several decades after I dropped out of Lutheran seminary, if I had to put a label on my faith and practice, I said agnostic. This is not a true label.
Look at that contrast in Aquinas: religion as “the human need for the sacred” versus God as “the power that allows us to be ourselves.”
I’ve written previously (see my “Weeds” series) about James Carse’s reclaiming of the term “religion.” Religion is the mystery which binds a community gathered by a shared seeking after the sacred, not the believe systems used by some to draw boundaries around what one ought or ought not to consider sacred.
I now understand that my supposed agnosticism was about not knowing which belief system I could or should confess, not about questioning the reality of God.
THAT I do know.
I share with the Hebrews the awareness that the experience of YHWH is at once too personal and too complexly beyond the reach of human concept to name. I share with the first Quakers that awareness which they feared conventional Christianity had forgotten: THAT cannot be contained in a name or a liturgy or a theology.
When my heart and mind are in distress from caring for and grieving over my mother, my father, my family and friends, my work, my beautiful, suffering world, when I manage to stop and to center down and to listen, I do not get solutions.
I get the present moment.
Last Sunday, Mom was back in hospital following another mini-stroke and a recurrence of the systemic infection. Angry, fighting the nurses, insisting upon leaving. Mid-afternoon, when I first arrived in her room, for the first time in my experience she did not recognize who I am.
Knowing what I know about Alzheimer’s, I simply said “That’s okay” and sat with her, allowing silence.
“This isn’t a pleasant experience, is it?” I said.
“No, it’s not,” she replied, still glaring.
“We can get rid of that!” she said with annoyance, pointing to the huge old Zenith TV mounted on the wall near the ceiling.
“Okay. What else do you want to get rid of?”
“That.” She pointed to the nursing supply cabinet on the wall. “And that,” pointing to the nurse’s whiteboard.
“What do you want to keep?”
“The cross,” said this ancient Lutheran, indicating the crucifix in this Roman Catholic hospital room.
Several times she repeated these statements about “getting rid of” things in the room. Eventually, I came to suspect that in imagination she was sorting and jettisoning her own things.
I retold for her the story from four years ago, when she systematically divided up her life’s accumulation of furniture and effects among her children and step-children, in the process of leaving her home. She smiled at the memory of having been able to direct this gifting herself.
I told her of my own recent inclination to purge our numerous storage spaces of stuff we brought to this city ten years ago and have not looked at since.
She nodded, but then she said, “It’s dangerous just to get rid of things. You have to look at each one first and remember what you enjoyed about it.”
I marveled in silence, seeing once more the well-remembered wisdom of this woman, which is so much deeper than the dementia.
Several times during this strange conversation, she asked me, “Are you happy with the new?”
“New what?” I wondered the first time, but I simply said, “Yes.” The second time I said, “I’m not sure yet.”
By now Mom was profoundly peaceful. It felt as if we were in a gathered meeting for worship. For long moments we just smiled, eye to eye.
“It’s good to know where we’re going.”
“Yes.” I didn’t ask or interpret.
“This is nice.”
“Well, it’s been a good visit. I’ll see you when you come again.”
Keep me in your living present.
And so it is.
Wilderness and cultivation
“Religion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry.” (Carse, 111)
The first draft of “Weeds” was one long post. It began with my reaction to Matthew’s version of the weeds in the field parable, proceeded immediately with those insights from James Carse which now comprise the second half of Part II, and continued with an exploration of some recent biblical scholarship on the parables of Jesus. Then I got stuck.
Eventually, inner light showed me that I was not being honest with myself or my audience. Reading Carse has led me to significant faith openings. However, in the first draft I was slipping into an academic argument to mask my discomfort with the core metaphor of the parable: the sorting of the “good seeds” from the “weeds.”
Matthew told his first century audience that Jesus had explained his parable secretly to his disciples as an allegory. The good seed, Matthew wrote, are “those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs.” The weeds are “progeny of the evil one,” they are “subverters of the Law” who will be thrown “into the fiery furnace…[where they] will weep and grind their teeth” (Matt. 13:36-43).
By the definitions of almost every Christian belief system, I am one of the subverters of the Law. I am an unrepentant homosexual man, in a lifelong marriage with the man I love. I believe that people of any religion who aspire to follow the Golden Rule are walking in Heaven’s domain. I acknowledge Yeshua as my spiritual master, yet I am agnostic about the divine nature ascribed to him or its significance for humankind.
In particular, I struggle with the Christian doctrine of atonement which argues that G-d requires a sacrifice for human sin which only Jesus’ death can satisfy. What seems far more salutary to me is Yeshua’s incarnation, his having lived a life which fulfilled the divine longing for “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6a; Matt. 9:13b). His having done so empowers and challenges us to do the same, for he showed that it is humanly possible.
Nonetheless, voicing my doubts publicly is daunting. I cannot affirm yet fear to deny what I was brought up to believe. That fear is part of the syntax of the “native religion” I was given as I first began to fit religious experience into images and concepts and words. Respect for and fear of divine and human authority are empowered and constrained by that syntax.
Or, at least, that is the case until I walk out into the wilderness on my own, without language, to discover divine love hidden there. Then fear becomes awe.
I discover that, despite my fallibility and ego-centeredness, G-d does not wish to destroy me. I was born mortal and finite, so death, suffering and unknowing are merely conditions of existence, not punishments. Instead, horror and amazement, loss and comfort, are all mingled in a living, challenging whole larger than any individual or communitas can know.
Most importantly, I find that I want to bless, rather than curse, as much as I can bless.
Having acknowledged these doubts and fears, I can return to what opened for me in reading James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief. Once he has established his paradigm of contrasting belief systems and their boundaries with religions and their horizons, Carse argues that the latter are not primarily authoritative systems of doctrinal knowledge. Instead, he writes,
…we must integrate the factor of unknowability into each of our conceptions of religion. This can have a strong effect on our thinking in general: reflecting on the remarkable way the great religions seem to develop an awareness of the unknown keen enough to hold its most ardent followers in a state of wonder, we may begin to acquire the art of seeing the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties. This is not just to develop a new intellectual talent, but to enter into a new mode of being, a “higher ignorance.” (3)
This speaks to my condition.
Higher ignorance does not wholly silence my fear over not being able to live within the walls of orthodox belief. Nonetheless, it assures me that the Divine Unknown of which I am in awe extends beyond those walls and on beyond the horizon.
Higher ignorance tells me that I must take the risk of listening to Yeshua directly. Not clothed in the language of formal Christianity, but naked and exposed in the wilderness, where he knows how to survive.
It was in this mode of being that I listened to the parable of the weeds back in July. I set aside for the moment—because I resist it—Matthew’s allegorical interpretation, yet the story itself remained in inner vision before me.
The first opening I was shown I owe in part to Richard Q. Ford and his 1997 book, The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening. As other contemporary scholars have done, Ford too tries the experiment of temporarily setting aside traditional Christian interpretations of the parables. He wonders, instead, what the slaves, hired laborers, landless peasants and newly urbanized villagers of Yeshua’s historical audience might have heard in those parabolic stories—both what they might have recognized and what might have puzzled them.
Ford’s pivotal insight is that the traditional interpreters—including the Gospel editors themselves—”regularly assume that the economically superior figure represents some aspect of divine intent” (3).
By agreeing with the Gospel editors to establish the economically powerful character as a figure for God, listeners tend to construct black and white patterns of inclusion and exclusion. The superior becomes the source of all resolution while the subordinate remains the repository of all difficulty; the more powerful is revered and the weaker is shouldered with the blame. This bias, steadfastly resisting all evidence of weakness in the superior and strength in the subordinate, has endured for twenty centuries.
Yet if Jesus is the creator of these parables, if his attitude is aptly caught in the aphorism, “Blessed are the destitute,” and if there is historical accuracy in the accounts of his presence among social outcasts, then it would be curious indeed if his imagination excluded representations of God ever from being found among the economically oppressed, preferring instead to locate that presence exclusively among the powerful. (4)
Ford leads me to ask several questions.
What if, instead of Yeshua meaning his parables as answers, he means them as questions? What if, instead of an allegorical “explanation” of G-d’s relationship with “good” or “evil” people, the parable of the weeds is a metaphorical “word problem” about a landowner, his slaves, a suspected yet unidentified enemy, and the dilemma of how to salvage a contaminated crop? What if, instead of saying that the Kingdom is like this person, Yeshua is saying that the Kingdom is like this situation?
In that case, both his first audience and every subsequent audience would be confronted with an insoluble yet compelling mystery: What in the world is it about the Kingdom which Yeshua hints at in the situation of this parable?
One thing Ford’s perspective suggests to me is that the alleged enemy and the slaves are people with their own needs and motives, as important to them as the landowner’s are to him. If we forego the tradition that the owner stands for G-d, we then have to wonder what injury the supposed enemy felt needed to be avenged so subversively. We have to wonder how the slaves feel about this trick played on the man who commands their lives because of their impoverishment and captivity.
Such wondering doesn’t tell me what Yeshua meant by the parable. It does open out the story’s horizon, though. There are other things going on here besides the landowner’s concern about his crop—or G-d’s alleged concern about who might not be “good seed.”
Once I considered Ford’s opening during worship, another occurred to me, one which drew my attention away from concern over how “right belief” relates to being “good seed,” and back to the all-inclusive embrace of Yeshua’s outstretched arms.
The labeling of certain plants as “weeds” is a phenomenon of agriculture. To borrow Carse’s paradigm, cultivated land is a purposefully ordered system. It has carefully drawn boundaries, both its geographical ones and those which define what is “crop” and what is “weed.” Its happier purpose is to feed people. Its secondary purpose—which may or may not involve exploitation of agrarian workers—is to earn a living for those who farm it, or a profit for those who own it, perhaps in absentia.
From the perspective of civitas, that is all there is to it. Anything which disrupts these orderly purposes, anything which creeps in from beyond the boundaries, is a toxic weed, an enemy, an evil.
From the perspective of nature, however, a plant is only a “weed” because human beings name it so when it interferes with the purposes of cultivation. Otherwise, it is simply a hardy plant, earning survival, as any other does, by scattering its seeds wherever it can—including in the best wheat fields. Only in the human agenda does it get labeled “evil.”
Again, this doesn’t tell me what Yeshua meant, yet it opens the story’s horizon even further.
Human community has learned to depend upon the orderedness of cultivation for survival, comfort and prosperity. Just so we have learned to depend upon the orderedness of our beliefs, especially those which speak to the moral and spiritual health of the community. In both cases, natural human intelligence and imagination have created artifices by which we can nurture and sustain that community.
Nonetheless, G-d’s world is not wholly contained within such boundaries. A plant which is not cultivated is not therefore “evil.” The rest of nature, the wilderness parts which seem to be of no use to civitas—or even seem to threaten the temporal borders of civitas—are part of the awe-inspiring mystery around which religious communitas gathers.
Perhaps I am a weed. Even so, I grow from a seed G-d planted, and I grow because of G-d’s light.
On that July Sunday, what I noticed was that Yeshua’s parable focuses upon how we are not to try to determine which are weeds and which, wheat. How we are to nurture the growth of every plant in the field. How it isn’t our business to pluck out those whom we don’t believe should be in the Kingdom.
Perhaps I am a weed.
And so it is.
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]
The parable of the weeds in the field
In a July post on Walhydra’s Porch, I built a story around the troublesome contrast between a new Lutheran pastor’s doctrinally correct sermon and the palpable, all-inclusive embrace of an image of Jesus which spreads its arms over the sanctuary where the sermon was preached.
Since then I have read a remarkable new book by James P. Carse called The Religious Case Against Belief (2008). Carse’s valuable central distinctions are reflected in the contrast I just mentioned. Reading him has not resolved my discomfort with that July sermon or the gospel lesson upon which it was based, yet it has given me new ways to open out and explore that discomfort.
[Jesus] spun out another parable for them:
Heaven’s imperial rule is like someone who sowed good seed in his field. And while everyone was asleep, his enemy came and scattered weed seed around in his wheat and stole away. And when the crop sprouted and produced heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner’s slaves came and asked him, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then why are there weeds everywhere?” He replied to them, “Some enemy has done this.”
The slaves said to him, “Do you want us then to go and pull the weeds?” He replied, “No, otherwise you’ll root out the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to burn, but gather the wheat into my granary’.”
(The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
It was not actually this parable itself which troubled me. Or, rather, the parable troubled me in the way that parables are meant to do, as a deliberately puzzling story, devoid of context or particularity, designed to draw its hearers into a perpetual debate over its meanings.
What troubled me that Sunday, as it always does, was the second half of the lesson, the allegorical interpretation which the author/editor of Matthew contrives to have Jesus share privately with his disciples as an “explanation” of the parable:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him with this request: “Explain the parable of the weeds in the field to us.”
This was his response: “The one who ‘sows the good seed’ is the son of Adam; ‘the field’ is the world; and ‘the good seed’ are those to whom Heaven’s domain belongs, but ‘the weeds’ represent progeny of the evil one. ‘The enemy’ who sows (the weeds) is the devil, and ‘the harvest’ is the end of the present age; ‘the harvesters’ are the heavenly messengers.
“Just as the weeds are gathered and destroyed by fire—that’s how it will be at the end of the age. The son of Adam will send his messengers and they will gather all the snares and the subverters of the Law out of his domain and throw them into the fiery furnace. People in that place will weep and grind their teeth. Then those who are vindicated will be radiant like the sun in my Father’s domain.
“Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
For most of my adult life, I have resisted Matthew’s portrayal of a Jesus who would cast out some and vindicate others. A Jesus who would instruct the crowds only in parables, yet give his privileged disciples in private “the secrets of Heaven’s imperial rule” (Matt. 13:10-11). Or, more accurately, I have resisted the way institutional Christianity has interpreted and applied Jesus’ words about “sorting out” over the millennia.
I understand now that Matthew was writing in a historical context, interpreting Hebrew scriptures in a way he hoped would minister to his little congregation of proto-Christian Jews. In the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they had been expelled from the synagogue (Matt. 5:11) over the debate as to who was the true Israel. Was it the rabbinic Jews, the Pharisees, who valued the continuing revelation available through the study of scripture? Or was it those like Matthew’s group, who saw a special role for Jesus as bearer of a unique revelation, the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophetic tradition?
In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006), Karen Armstrong writes that the Pharisees believed
the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law…. [The] essence of the Torah was not the letter of the law but its spirit…, summed up in the Golden Rule” (453).
One can see how such a transformation of Judaism from a temple-centered religion to one of attentiveness to daily life, contemplation and communal generosity would have been salutary to Jews of the post-Jerusalem Diaspora. Ironically, one can also see how similar the values of rabbinic Judaism, as described by Armstrong, are to those taught by Jesus.
Armstrong adds this:
In Rabbinic Judaism, study was as important as meditation in other traditions. It was a spiritual quest: the word for study, darash, meant “to search,” “to go in pursuit of.” It led not to an intellectual grasp of somebody else’s ideas, but to a new insight. So rabbinic midrash (“exegesis”) could go further than the original text, discover what it did not say, and find an entirely fresh interpretation….
Scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation. This dynamic vision could set the world afire.
There were, therefore, no “orthodox” beliefs. Nobody—not even the voice of God himself—could tell a Jew what to think…. (455)
When they spoke of God’s presence on earth, they were careful to distinguish those traits of God that he had allowed us to see from the divine mystery that would always be inaccessible to us…. [The] reality they experienced did not correspond to the essence of the Godhead. No theology could be definitive…. God had, as it were, adapted himself to each person “according to the comprehension of each.” What we call “God” was not the same for everybody. (456)
Meanwhile, in the midst of the Diaspora communities were smaller groups of Jews like those for whom Matthew wrote. Probably for a variety of reasons, these people had been overmastered by the stories and personal witness shared with them by those of the previous generation who had known or heard of a teacher and healer named Yeshua or Yehoshua (Hebrew for Joshua, meaning “the Lord is salvation”; translated into Greek as Iesous, Latin Jesus). For these Jews, Yeshua was a profoundly compelling mashiah (“anointed one”; translated into Greek as christos).
While both Temple ritual and the study of Torah (“the Law”) had been ongoing traditions, Yeshua was the contemporary incarnation of a counterforce in the history of Judaism: the disruptive intrusions of the prophets. These were spirit-filled men who confronted the people when their ritual practice or argument of the Law had become superficially pious behavior, masking their real abuse and neglect of their neighbors.
The prophets had the role of calling people out from such unreflective, habit-bound practice of outward forms, calling them back to a life in which the reality of the mysterious and awesome YHWH (“G-d”) breathed in and through them, even without forms.
For Jews like those in Matthew’s congregation, Yeshua was a man in whom this Spirit (Hebrew ruach, “breath”) walked with unbounded clarity and compassion, yet also with a fierce, unflinching judgment. When he spoke in confrontation, whether gently or with anger, it was not with condemnation or malice, but with that same spiritual clarity.
Look. This is how things really are in G-d’s world. The Law is not commandments, rules to follow. It is—couched in human words and images—simply a description of how we live spontaneously whenever we let ourselves be led by G-d’s Spirit. When we, even for a moment, find ourselves together in the already present Kingdom. “Mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a).
Imagine, then, a synagogue of Greek-speaking post-Jerusalem Jews, taking refuge in the hope and experience of G-d’s presence in their midst as they hear and interpret their scriptures. Imagine the ferment stirred by those among them who responded with enthusiasm (Greek entheos “possessed”; en– “in” + theos “god”) to the stories of this new prophet, Yeshua. Imagine the distress, uncertainty and conflict at this disruption of a recently regained sense of spiritual security in those communities.
However the conflicts played out across the Diaspora, in various places the rabbinic Jews forced out the Yeshua-followers. And scholars like Matthew, ministering to their expelled fellows, created their own midrash, reinterpreting Hebrew scriptures to place Yeshua in the center of expectations for a new mashiah. It was an effort to assure continuity between the Judaism they knew and this new revelation. It was also an effort to persuade those still in synagogue with their own scriptures.
Yet the hurt of expulsion vibrates through the text. The Pharisees and scholars are recast by Matthew as the “villains” who rejected Yeshua. Whatever actual dealings Yeshua had with such people during his life, Matthew tells us of them through the perspective of one who was expelled from synagogue. When he does his own rabbinic interpretation of Yeshua’s words, when he portrays Yeshua as doing such interpretation, how do we know whether we are hearing Yeshua in his own context or Matthew in his?
Wait, though. Even as I write this, I can recognize the temptation to use this “historical Jesus” perspective on Matthew as a dodge, a way to avoid having to consider the possibility that Yeshua did warn, both directly and in parable, of a sorting out of “weeds” from “wheat” in the community of humankind.
Whatever I may want him to have “really meant,” it is clear that Yeshua voiced scrupulous judgment and gave compassionate yet unwavering warnings to those whom he met personally. I must do as Armstrong says those first century Jews did. I must confront the text, open myself to it, and apply it to my own situation.
In Part II of this series, I will describe how my reading of James Carse has contributed to this process.
[To be continued]