Unraveling the Complications of Things

Lately I have been reading Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” I find it to be a humble and well-reasoned work of fine theology. Just the other day, I thought about a certain passage, in light of the non-ending of the world that was just witnessed on May 21. For those who might have spent the better part of a month either out in a boat in the North Atlantic or frolicking on a beach with pina coladas in Bora Bora, and who thereby might somehow have missed the much-fanfared non-Rapture, here is what happened. One Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” (an event anticipated mostly by evangelical Protestants; believers will be bodily caught up to Heaven and non-believers will face terrible tribulations before the Last Judgment), for May 21. He did this based on his own calculations that the Rapture should happen exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s Flood. Setting aside for a moment the fact that not even the Bible purports to be exact about when the Flood occurred, and setting aside for a moment the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any prediction of 7,000 years involved, many of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and spent most of their savings traveling to proclaim this Rapture, so that more might be saved. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that of the end of the world, “no one will know the day or hour,” and it will come “like a thief in the night”; but never mind. The reason I’m writing about it relates to the central premise that Camping’s followers (and others) espoused: Christian believers will be “saved,” non-Christian believers (or non-believers in general) will not be saved.

Presumably, some of the folks advocating this model include Jews among the unsaved non-believers. In any case, the deplorable ways in which so many Christians have treated Jews — even coining the degrading epithet “Christ-killers” — are not secret. Nor is it secret that even today, some Christians look unfavorably upon Jews, or at least consider them part of the unsaved group. So, the passage that I came across in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” talks a bit about the origin of this tragic animosity: the misperception that “the Jews” demanded Jesus’ death. Even on the face of it, it is a ridiculous statement: all of Christ’s original disciples were Jews, and Christ in his human nature was himself a Jew. Benedict notes that the Gospels do not indict “the Jews” as a whole, but imply that persons in power desired Jesus’ death. That said, he then notes the verse that probably takes the lion’s share of blame for historical Christian animosity to Jews: Matt 27:25, which states that the crowd shouted, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Of this “blood be upon us” statement, Benedict offers a theological reinterpretation. He reminds us, “the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all….These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

While this interpretation comes from Benedict, its spirit is inspired by a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, which describes the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. Of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., Nostra Aetate says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men…Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture…The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims….Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

After a section discussing that it is from the Jewish faith that the Christian faith sprang, Nostra Aetate states, “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Nostra Aetate (personally, I like it very much), one must be struck by Benedict’s interpretation of what Christ’s blood signifies, and how incompatible that is with any poorly-reasoned theology that damns all unbelievers with black-and-white simplicity. At the very least, one must acknowledge a proper humility that we are bound to leave these things in the hands of God, who is the only Judge of anyone. In the words of Lao Tzu, “We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Chi Rho

Chi rho — with the “ch” in chi pronounced as it is in “Bach” — are the Greek letters that have served as the sign for “Christ” since the early years of Christianity. They are the first two letters in the Greek “Christos,” and they look like an English x and p, respectively. But who or what is the entity the Chi Rho stands for? Christian understanding of Christ’s nature has never been a straightforward road — nor should we expect it to have been, given the depth of the issues that become apparent as soon as one looks even a little closely.

The area of theology that deals with the nature of Christ is called Christology, and the christological disagreements (some more major than others) that existed right from the inception of Christianity are so numerous that it is impossible to raise them all here. The primary disagreements surrounded the question of whether Christ was fully God incarnate with only the outward appearance of humanity; whether he was God incarnate with both true divine and true human natures in the same body; or whether he was a subordinate, semi-human semi-deity whom God created and endowed with special attributes. It fell to two main Ecumenical Councils to hash out these questions: first Nicea and then, to address further christological questions that followed from the Nicean decision, Chalcedon.

In the year 325 Emperor Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity, wearied of all the arguing and called the Council of Nicea to work it all out, hoping that everyone would then quiet down and be satisfied. The council, drawing on years of theological work, determined that Christ was of “same substance” (homoousios) with the Creator, rather than “like substance” (homoiousios). Both views had many advocates, and these advocates themselves differed with respect to the details of Christ’s nature, and how Christ would thus relate to the Creator. The strongest defender of the Nicean “one substance” view at that time was Athanasius, while the strongest proponent for the “like substance” view was Arius.

Though it may sound trivial and overly speculative to the point of meaninglessness, the “substance” debate gets to the heart of the identity of the Creator and the role of Christ, which in turn is a matter at the heart of Christianity. The “high Christology” of John’s Gospel contributed to the co-identification of Christ’s nature with the Creator, particularly John 1 with its statement that all things were created through the Word (Logos: reason, word, logic) that then came down and became flesh among us in Christ. Other statements in John that are attributed to Christ, such as “I and the Father are one,” also contributed to the Nicean understanding. Other words and actions of Christ, however, particularly in the other Gospels, give a strong impression of Christ’s true humanity: Jesus prays to God, gets hungry and thirsty, weeps, feels physical pain, and experiences the desire to be alone and to remove himself for a time from the throngs. These facts contributed to the Arian view that Christ was not of one nature with the Creator but rather a subordinate, created being who at some point became endowed by God with suprahuman characteristics and purposes. In the Arian view, Christ did not eternally exist with God before time; in the Nicean view, since Christ is a same-substance manifestation of God (a hypostasis), he did eternally exist with God before time.

The attraction of the Arian view is immediately apparent. It contains no paradoxes and no mind-bending issues involving the relationship between God and Christ as co-equal Persons sharing one substance. (And this is not even to raise the matter of the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity!). The Arian view at first glance is simpler and more common-sense to us. And it certainly resolves the question of how Jesus could have been praying to God if he had any divine nature. But it does not take into account major statements in John’s Gospel, such as those mentioned above. Now from a strict historian’s perspective, this is no problem at all: the different portrayals of Christ simply illustrate different understandings of Christ among early Christians who wrote the New Testament. This is well and good and no doubt accurate. But from the perspective of a Christian theologian or laity, how these different portrayals coalesce to form an overarching image of Christ matters a great deal. To the theologian or laity, the ultimate nature of who Christ was or is becomes a central matter. The New Testament portrayals of Christ are the basic documents such a person has to construct his or her own answer to the question: “Who was this man?”

Where the Arian view runs into real difficulty is the question of human salvation through redemption from sin and the consequent assurance of eternal life. The Gospels and many epistles in the New Testament (from Paul and otherwise) identify these things as wrapped up in Christ’s purpose on Earth, to one or another degree of emphasis depending on the text. How is Christ’s birth, suffering, death, and resurrection redemptive or salvific on a global and eternal scale if he is only human? Or even if he is semi-divine, adopted in some special way by God to perform an extraordinary purpose? How is his life redemptive and salvific for the human species for all time if he is anything less than fully divine? No entity, it was argued, who is not God could accomplish — could have the right to accomplish — such a feat. When followed through to its end, the Arian view seemed to raise more problems and inconsistencies than it solved. So Nicea determined that Christ was of one substance with God: he became fully incarnate as a human, but he was the Word, the Logos, who from the beginning was begotten from the Creator and not made.

But christological analysis did not end at Nicea. After that council, people continued to examine the further consequences of the Nicean decision. If Christ was of one nature with the Creator, how could he have been praying to that Creator in the Gospels? Would he not then have been praying to himself? If he was of one nature with the Creator, how did he appear genuinely to feel most of the things that humans feel, both physically and emotionally? The danger of glossing over these human traits became apparent as an unintended consequence of Nicea. A school of thought gained strength in Antioch that did not deny Christ’s divine nature, but most emphasized his human nature and the importance of clearly distinguishing the two Persons, the Creator and the Christ, even if one allowed that they shared the same substance. The Antiochene school sought to avert any simple blurring of the Christ and the Creator that failed to note any distinction between the two. On the other hand, Alexandria, a competing theological center, produced some theologians who emphasized Christ’s divine nature almost at the expense of his human one (sometimes inadvertently so). A growing group that came to be known as Monophysites (from “one nature/body”) asserted that Christ had only one true nature — that of God. At most, the divine Logos took up residence in Jesus’ human flesh, but the two were not inherently connected or inseparable in the person of Jesus.

The Council of Chalcedon of 451 was convened to form a definitive position on these christological issues, and to answer the Monophysite contention that Christ had only one nature. Chalcedon re-affirmed Nicea but went further in detail, asserting that Christ indeed had two natures, one divine and one human, and that each of these natures was “full.” That is, neither the divine nor the human nature in Christ was adulterated or incomplete; both cohered together in his Person. The natures were not commingled — Christ was not some divine-human hybrid or demigod. Each nature existed in itself, full on its own, not watered down — yet in his Person completely inseparable, indivisible, inextricable. Christ would not be Christ without the divine nature, and Christ would not be Christ without the human nature. Thus the Second Person of the Trinity became Jesus Christ at the incarnation, within a woman of ordinary rank, in a tiny and powerless country that had been subsumed into the Roman Empire. Before this incarnation, the same Word was still the Second Person of the Trinity, and had eternally been so.

The Nicean and Chalcedonian formulations allow both for the necessity of Christ’s fully divine nature in his redemptive activity, and for his clearly human traits. The christology put forth by these councils contended that in one man dwelt God-nature and human-nature each full in itself, yet in that man inseparable from one another. This, it was determined, is the entity behind the Chi Rho.

What does all this matter to a Christian going about his or her life, trying to live by Christ’s admonishment that the two greatest Commandments are to love God and love your neighbor? Perhaps, not much. Certainly, not every Christian embraces the christology of Nicea and Chalcedon. But perhaps, we could take more seriously the divine mandate to honor, respect, and love one another if we saw in our own species the potential that our Creator has always seen.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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* For a comprehensive but clearly-written overview of the major developments in historical theology, I recommend to interested readers A Short History of Christian Doctrine by Bernhard Lohse, translated by F. Ernest Stoeffler.

Born in the Garden of Eden

The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of humankind (incidentally, the term “Fall” is never used in the biblical account) can be interpreted in many different ways by its religious inheritors. In the world of Christian interpretation, there are some that take this story only at its most literal face value. Adam and Eve were two historical individuals who ate a fruit [not necessarily an apple, since the Hebrew word pri can mean any fruit] because they were tempted by the serpent [not necessarily the devil, since the serpent might represent any tempting, deceptive impulse], and were kicked out of a real geographical Eden for violating God’s one command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Other Christians see this story as metaphor, a lesson on why life can be so far from the ideal world we are all capable of imagining. In classical Christian theology, it is a story (metaphor or otherwise) that details the arrival of imperfection and sin into the human experience, and explains why such things afflict all of us.

The Eden story seeks to provide the answer to some of life’s most troublesome realities: why childbirth, a joyous event, comes accompanied with unparalleled physical pain, and why a man can work in his fields until he has no skin left on his fingers and no sweat left in his body and the earth might still not yield enough to live on. And why even if it does, that yield cannot ever come forth without hard, physical dedication. In short, the Eden story recognizes that this world and that human life are imperfect, and seeks to tell us why. That, at least, is something on which both literalists and non-literalists can agree. Beyond that, literalists often believe the story is a straightforward one about how two people disobeyed God by giving in to greed and temptation, lost out on Paradise, and thereby doomed the rest of us to sin and the school of hard knocks. Non-literalists often believe the story is a quaint, perhaps somewhat embarrassing tale of origins that observes (1) life’s a bitch, and (2) why it’s a bitch.

To my mind, the essence of the story is neither of these. The Eden story is a sophisticated and multi-layered coming-of-age tale, a commentary on the point in time (and maybe that point could be a process over thousands of years) when humans came to know good and bad, truth and deception. That is to say, the point in time when humans became sentient as a species. When humans gained a knowledge and capability they had not had before: the knowledge that it is possible to deceive and to cause gratuitous harm with aforethought for one’s own gain, or worse, pleasure. The serpent, which I take to represent all those capabilities we have and wish we didn’t, tempted Adam and Eve — the prototypical humans — to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, even though God had warned them not to. And they did. The serpent’s “promise”? That they would become like gods, that they would become wise.

This is a story in which God finds out that Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree when God goes for a stroll one evening to enjoy the cool part of the day. This is not a literal story and it was never intended to be, to my mind. God had told the humans they could eat of any tree except the forbidden one, for the day they ate of that one, they would surely die. It seems to me that they did die when they ate of the Tree, but not by a stopping of the heart. What died was the creature — the species — they had been before gaining such knowledge.

The Garden of Eden is a story that describes the loss of innocence; I believe, the loss of innocence as a species. Innocence is not the quality of being good all the time (any parent of a child can tell you that). Innocence is the state of not knowing — of not being capable of hurting someone or something as a result of deliberately intending to do so. And the innocent being is not capable of that because the innocent being does not even know such a thing is possible; such a being cannot think of doing that because that awareness does not yet exist within its mind. It is not yet wired for it. Most animals are innocent in this way: they might cause harm or kill, but they do so either to eat or to defend themselves, their group, or by extension their home territory. They do not cause hurt out of malice, deception, or for kicks.

Some of us are still in Eden, in a way. Among humans, innocence still lives — in very young children. This does not mean young children are always paragons of behavior. But it means that very young children do not think to themselves: “I want to hurt mommy’s/daddy’s/my friend’s feelings, so I will do x-y-z and hurt their feelings that way.” A very young child might do or say something that does hurt someone else, but they are not doing so in a knowing fashion, or for pleasure, or for some selfish gain. They are going on what they want or feel in the moment, without aforethought. I say “very young children” because eventually, children do get to an age — biologically, get to a point in their brain’s wiring — where hurting someone else because they want to, or because it benefits them in some way, becomes possible. At that point, they are no longer in Eden. Even if, hypothetically, they never intentionally hurt another being, they are aware that such a capability exists and that there are people who do it. That is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.

In that sense, it seems to me that the Eden story not only tells of a species’ development from innocence to knowledge of good and bad, but also of each individual within that species. Very young children are innocent, and it is our job to teach them how to treat other living beings in preparation for the time when they grow older. That job is a sacred responsibility. It is all the more sacred because another quality of the innocence of a young child is the implicit trust that child has. Children have a capacity for trust that humbles us. You could tell a small child the sky is blue because God colored it that way with God’s Crayola marker, and that small child could very well believe you. At night when I give my child her allergy medicine, it strikes me how completely she trusts that what I am giving her will cause her no harm. She has no apparatus for doubting that, and the sweetness of that trust speaks to me.

All of this, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he told the disciples not to prevent parents from bringing their little children to him. As recorded in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples thought the children would bother him, but Jesus’ response was emphatically the opposite. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me; do not stop them, for to these belongs the Kingdom of God. Very truly I tell you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it.” Then Jesus gathered the children into his arms and blessed them.

Knowledge of good and bad, in addition to all of the above, also extends to the awareness that bad things happen in the world. My young daughter accidentally caught sight of a photo of the Polish plane after it had crashed to the ground, and she said with furrowed brow: “Oh, the plane fell out of the sky! Oh, the plane is sad.” Then, after thinking another moment, she brightened up: “Slinky can help! Yeah, Slinky can help get the plane off the ground.” No knowledge of the tragedy involved — and at her age, I intend to keep it that way. Hers was a lack of knowledge of the scale of what had gone wrong, and hers was a sweet and simple desire to help, and then happily going to read her bedtime story with us. That is innocence, and I will preserve that for her as long as possible — even while teaching her how we as humans should behave in the world outside of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

A Hijacked God

This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest American Lutheran body and member of the Lutheran World Federation, rewrote its policy. Under the old policy, openly gay persons could be ordained to ministry, but could only serve if they remained celibate — if they refused all possibility of love in a committed relationship. After years of review, countless meetings of task forces and councils, and collected input from congregations across the country (including dissenting input), the new policy states that gay ministers will now be permitted the same rights to human companionship — to love — as heterosexuals, provided that their relationship is monogamous and committed. Their committed partners will be entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of married clergy because in most states, gay people do not have the right to marry. For those who would like to read the news release, here is a link: http://bit.ly/anmgiZ

The above is a contentious issue for many people, but basic human decency and humility — respect and love for other human beings as beings created in the image of God — should endure regardless of ideological and theological disputes. I think of this particularly after hearing not for the first time about the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist church based in Topeka, which pickets (among other things) the funerals of our soldiers killed in the line of duty. This church is open about its hatred for gay people, and proclaims that God purposefully causes our soldiers to die as punishment for America’s “tolerance” of homosexuality. They appear at soldiers’ funerals (gay or not) holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God is Your Enemy,” and “God Hates You.” For a recent article on a late soldier’s father’s efforts to fight them, click here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36449471/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts//

I will grant no further space to this “church.” They may be particularly radical, yet they are certainly not the only people who hold such signs or chant such slogans of hatred. But the issue here is not where one stands with regard to homosexuality or even gay people in ministry. The issue is how we conduct ourselves in relation to our fellow humans. I cannot help noticing that many people who quote the Bible the loudest are often using it to keep at bay some kind of “other” — mostly people who are different in some way from themselves. And the person doing the quoting is always so thoroughly convinced that God is on their side, and that God is against the other guy. It seems to me that this constitutes a hijacking of God. Why do people always quote the Bible to disenfranchise some other group (gays, women, African-Americans, Jews, etc.), but never themselves? How is it that the target is always somebody else and never oneself?

We so easily hijack God to glorify ourselves and make less of others. We can pick an issue, find a quote in the Bible, and then beat everybody over the head with it — oblivious to the amount of pain we may cause another human being — because after all, God is on our side and that justifies everything. Never mind that Jesus identified the greatest commandment as: “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength,” and the second one as: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If we are to take the Bible seriously, is it not imperative to give these words, identified as the greatest commandments, more than casual lip service? Nor can one claim that these are only New Testament ordinances. Jesus quoted those words from Deuteronomy, after all. Other words attributed to Jesus that are often passed over: “Judge not, lest you be judged,” and “The measure you give is the measure you get.”

If love is the greatest commandment, how does it serve love to denigrate and to inflict pain with our words upon fellow human beings, who are as much God’s children as ourselves? Does God love only some of us? Does God think only some of us worthy of being treated with respect and compassion? On the surface, few people of faith would agree with such statements. But when it comes to the crucible of practice, many of us behave as if the answer to those questions is yes. If we’re going to quote the Bible, we are then obliged to be aware of the Bible as a whole, not just whatever verse(s) we are currently inclined to use to make other people look bad. The Bible is not a weapon to be wielded against God’s other children. This is a dishonor.

I also notice that many people who quote Leviticus on the matter of homosexuality fail to quote Leviticus on anything else — like the prohibition on wearing clothes made from two different fabrics. You mean we can’t wear our cotton/polyester blends? You can also forget about shellfish, and don’t even think about those nice ham or bologna sandwiches for lunch. This is not to say anything against Leviticus per se or the practice of keeping kosher; I love the Hebrew Bible. But it is to say that we cannot divorce Leviticus’ one ordinance concerning homosexuality from the myriad ordinances among which it appears. Leviticus does nothing to single out its words on homosexuality as any more important than any of the other things that surround it. Yet most people who cite the verse on homosexuality neglect to observe most of the other rules in the same book.

A discussion of what may be the reasons for many of the Levitical ordinances would lead us astray for this particular post. But it is certainly true, and overtly stated in the text, that the Levitical regulations are concerned with ritual purity and the need at the time for the Israelites as a fledgling people to separate themselves from other Canaanites.

But one glaring fact remains. We are mortals. We are finite in our understanding of the universe and of God. We are the created, and cannot hope to penetrate the depths of the mind of the Creator. We may only fling our arms wide open to that Creator’s mercy and love. Lest I be judged by the same harsh measure that I might give to someone else — I prefer to err on the side of love, which is the only thing we know for certain pleases God.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Fall-Guy for the Weather?

Today where I live, the weather could hardly be more pleasant. The air is warm but not humid, and an agreeable breeze keeps the warmth from turning into heat. It is hard not to think of ancient Near Eastern weather gods on a day like today. More on this in a moment.

In the modern Western world, many of us will actually thank God (most likely, a God in a monotheistic religion) for such an unusually perfect day. Others will simply admire it and be glad at the felicitous combination of atmospheric forces that produced these conditions. There is nothing wrong per se in being grateful to God for fantastic weather. But then that does generate a quandary of its own. Do we believe that God specifically creates the weather for each day everywhere? If so, what are we saying about hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, overabundance of rain?

Most compassionate people in our society (myself included), after hurricane Katrina and the indiscriminate suffering it inflicted, reject the notion that God purposefully generates weather. In the aftermath of Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin threw a match into a powder keg with the statement that the hurricane could have been God’s punishment for the city’s sins. [The topic of “retribution theology” is one unto itself, and will be the subject of its own blog post eventually]. Mayor Nagin was not the only person to hold such a view, but most people — quite sensibly — pointed to the federal government as the primary cause of the scale of that city’s suffering. The existence of such fierce weather and the devastation it can wreak raised the question among many people of faith: what do we think about such things?

Ancient societies had their own answers, which we would largely (and I think rightly) reject today. In Greece, you could either thank or blame Zeus for your weather; in Rome, Jupiter, Zeus’ equivalent. In the ancient Near East, depending on where and when one lived, the fall-guy for the weather was either Baal, Hadad, Enlil, or — in ancient Israel — Yahweh. Who, judging by certain storm-god imagery attributed to him in the Bible, absorbed in popular culture some of the weather-god language formerly assigned to Baal. It is also worth noting here that at least one biblical author disagreed with thinking of Yahweh as a storm god similar to Baal: the writer of 1 Kings 19, who described Elijah hiding in a cave sulking on Mt Horeb. Elijah witnesses first a powerful wind breaking the rocks apart, then an earthquake, then a fire; but the writer states clearly that Yahweh was not present in these forces. Elijah then hears a gentle whisper, and Elijah comes out to talk with God, for it was in the whisper that Yahweh could be found. Legendary biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross observed that this passage (among other things) likely represents a protest against the sometimes-identification of Yahweh with Baal.

In ancient societies, many people believed that if the weather was good, the gods were pleased with the city/country. If the weather was bad, the gods were either displeased or were having a battle amongst themselves — in Greece the gods seem to have been especially cranky. We find another sort of answer in Job, however. In the concluding chapters of that book, we hear Job railing at God for an often patently unjust universe, accusing God of being derelict in his duties to maintain the balance of justice (duties commonly expected of deities in the ancient Near East). With audacity that we can only admire, Job demands an answer. He gets one, but not any that he expected.

God’s response to Job, basically, is that Job as a human doesn’t know squat about the universe. In a response that must have sent Job diving for cover under the nearest palm tree, God delivers a litany of the things Job can’t even begin to understand: the stars, the oceans, the wind, the animals in the great deep, the way justice works, the universe in general…. basically, everything. Here, I believe, is our connection with the weather. God states that he has tamed, with a ring through the nose, the great beasts that symbolized Chaos: Leviathan and Behemoth. Under the purview of God, these Chaos creatures now play and skip like frolicking and perhaps not always well-behaved animals; they do not, as they did in primordial times, rule the cosmos with freakish destruction.

The implication may be that God has to a large degree tamed and controlled Chaos; but God has not killed it. Chaos is restrained, but it is a restrained power. In modern times, when we see a hurricane swirling in grandeur on a satellite image, we cannot help feeling a shiver of admiration, of pure respect at a force of nature so untouchable in its raw power. We are fascinated and attracted by it. It is chaos, it is formed by our Earth’s complicated and wonderful atmosphere and all the raw forces that move that atmosphere.

I would think that the same holds true for gorgeous, perfect days such as the one I am now experiencing where I live. It is a product of the unpredictable movement of atmospheric components. Does this mean God had nothing to do with it, even indirectly? Since I believe God created all the components of the Universe, my answer to that is probably no. And I will still thank God for this delectable day, in the same way that I thank God for any other blessing I detect in my life.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010