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Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

So it is that in the quest for ‘God’ – or for any other meanings to explain our multiple predicaments – the arts discharge a major role (wittingly or not) deploying metaphor with which to do so.  “A poem, a play, or indeed a great painting has the power to change our perception in ways that we may not be able to explain logically but that seem incontestably true” (Karen Armstrong. The case for God.  London, 2009 p17).  In fulfilling this mission, artists can draw upon vast stores of symbols, each embodying its own meanings.  This happens on many different levels and intensity of emphasis.

I’m aware, of course, that large landscapes of philosophical enquiry into these phenomena have already been explored, most notably in France where semiology and connected ideas have long predominated in the academy.

We don’t need semiotics, however, to tell us that religions, always striving but chronically unable to achieve total connectivity with ‘God’ through art and language (See Quest for God 1-3), have particular need for analogy, metaphor, simile and symbolism to fall back on. An observable fact in the world today is that so many people refuse to believe this.

Yet it is obvious.  Religious discourse – scripture, elucidation and commentary – is saturated with metaphor.  As an example I have used before, let’s stipulate that when Christians talk of the ‘Lamb of God’, they are not referring to an actual sheep. They mean a person who has been, and is, treated symbolically as a sheep (Isaiah 53:5).  Similes abound in the Bible: “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness” (Psalm 102:6).  Like other poetry, word pictures like these blur the line between the real and the analogous.  Under pressure by science and technology, with its hunger for precision and realism, the modern age has largely – but not altogether – lost sight of this principle.

Literalism or ultra-realism in religion is, at best, an irritant; at its worst, it can be a curse.  According to Keith Ward, fundamentally “it is a rather modern movement that only really began to exist after the rise of science in the sixteenth century” (What the Bible really teaches (2004) p100).  It’s a frame of mind, or paradigm that holds onto the idea, based on the certainty allegedly achievable by scientific enquiry, that the more realistic something is, the closer it is to its truth or actuality.  It’s a way of seeing that privileges the logos (enthralled by facts and predominantly masculine) over the mythos (more obeisant to emotions and predominantly feminine).

Failure to recognise symbolism for what it is can be highly misleading.  It’s fundamentalists’ biblical literalism that sends explorers up Mount Ararat looking for the remains of Noah’s ark, or arranges museum displays that show human beings anachronistically cohabiting with dinosaurs.

Previous generations have had comparatively little problem in recognising the ambiguity and nuance inherent in metaphor and symbolism. In Judaism, this willingness to tease out multiple meanings is a familiar and fruitful approach called midrash.  It is a stance that is not just permissible but essential.  How can we evaluate the various meanings sure to be found contained within a given piece of scripture if we insist that there is always only one?

Fundamentalists abhor the appearance of ambiguity in all this (hence their insistence that the Bible nowhere errs).  They fail to see that contesting literalism does not mean diluting the message.  Reinterpretation of the ancient texts and recognising the layers of symbolism in them is a never-ending exercise of testing of our assumptions and perspectives about “God”. It is not damaging the inherent meaning of the material, but the opposite.

Nevertheless, as theologians have long recognised, there are serious problems with this approach. [To be continued]

 

 

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Thirty or forty years ago, I recall, there was much anguished talk in the Church of England about Christian unity – or lack of it – and the perceived need for determined ecumenicalism to tackle the problem with ‘solutions’; much more so than nowadays. Thank God. (more…)

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All the great religions emphasise this or that feature of the human predicament.  Each claims to be better than the others in being able to respond to the relevant questions we might have about our plight.  Not only positively: whatever each faith system most condemns thereby confirms what this unique selling point, or USP, really is in each case.

To me, an ordinary ‘man in the pew’ looking at all three of the Peoples of the Book, there seem to be many examples of this.  Judaism for example, in its essence is all about the Law.  It is the medium through which the contract with God is continuously validated, celebrated and complied with.  Islam, as its very name proclaims, is all about ‘submission’ to the One.  And Christianity?  At its core, this third member of the Abrahamic family is focused on the individual, and her/his relationship with God, with others and with oneself.

Positive affirmations of each of these emphases throng the scriptures.  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write these words down, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27) or “The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip.” (Psalm 37:31)  According to the Holy Qur’an, “The true religion with God is Islam… So if they dispute with thee, say ‘I have surrended my will to God…'” (Sura 3:19)  “This was the true light that enlightens every person by his coming into the world” (John 1:19).  This can only be a selection of all the texts available.

The relevant negatives work to reinforce all these first principles.  Judaism’s scriptures set out a range of historical facts, exclamations and meditations upon the Law, and the perils of transgressing it, in an arc stretching from Exodus to Job.  For Islam, the world is an arena of constant struggle against non-believers who do not submit to God: “As for those who disbelieve in God’s signs, for them awaits a terrible chastisement; God is All-mighty, Vengeful. (Sura 3:4).

To err is human

For Christians, it is the same, but worse.  We want to be blessed, but we also want to continue being human.  That doesn’t always work.

A key negative text must be John 8:1-11 where a mob is assembling to stone a woman to death, but whose individuals’ lynching spasms are highlighted and then stopped by Jesus’ invocation of individual responsibility over against the fatal human impulse to surrender it in favour of the collective.
Here, I think, is located the essential difference between Christianity and its sibling faiths.  In meditating on the essential – and essentially difficult – requirement to relate to “God”, Judaism uses a contractual model of promises and reciprocal responsibilities summed up by the divine statement “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you… ” (Jeremiah 7:23).  Islam opts for submission, an extremity of obedience, conformity and trust.

Christianity is at once the most outré and the most insinuating of this range of I-Thou possibilities.  It is also the most demanding.  We Christians continuallycry out for divine recognition and ultimate acceptance of that core component of our relationship with all that is, seen and unseen: our consciousness of our own humanity, different in each case, each person, but in the end a shared predicament.

In seeking closer union with “God”, we nevertheless insist on preserving and restating our human condition as individuals even as we relate – always imperfectly – to the divine.

The genius of our founder St Paul was to perceive that Jesus came into our world, not as a prophet sent from “God” but as an archetype of the divine; at the same time, being so essentially human over against “God” that execution as a criminal comes to be seen as a tragic inevitability. God joined us, and we killed God.

The message of the Cross

This is the message of the cross.   We cannot avoid seeing it as an extreme enactment of our propensity as humans to screw things up, as it were.  The Death on the Cross is the ultimate demonstration of the cental charge against humans; that we don’t stop ourselves torturing and killing each other even when we come to see that we are thereby torturing and killing ourselves and, by the same token, “God” who inheres in us and whom we thus continuously betray.

This fatal tendency the church labels as “sin”.  The only way out of it is through grace, freely given, and the Cross and Passion are the signs of this, present in our world even while we make it hell.   Christianity’s uniqueness and special message is that we should accept that, rather than ‘finalising’ some sort of deal with “God”, contractual or submissive,  this psychodrama has to play out every day of our lives, and in anything we do.

It is as if there is an ever-present mismatch, an abraisiveness, between how we strive to relate to the divine and our insistence on being human.  We insist, because we want the human condition to be sanctified despite the hell, the sin, the betrayal of the God-given best in us.

Every time we say mass,  we are pounding on God’s gates as it were and shouting about how much we need this.  It is a state of permanent tension. “Love ” is the word we use to describe the possibility of getting out from under this.  And this is what Christianity  is all about.

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Islamic tiles

Throughout history, each generation has revisited and reshaped the “God” concept in continual attempts to get answers to humankind’s great questions.  Religions are nothing more or less than constructs designed to provide persuasive answers to those questions.  The answers are based on scripture, dogma and revelation.  This approach systematises our encounter with the divine,  but not always as we would wish that to be. (more…)

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Tranquility

Last week I came across a copy of R C Zaehner’s translations of Hindu scriptures, bought it and have since been discovering all sort of gems, like this stanza (The Bhagavad-Gita, 4:39):

A man of faith, intent on wisdom,
His senses all restrained, will wisdom win;
And, wisdom won, he’ll come right soon
To perfect peace.

This is almost completely paralleled in the Bible, in the lovely text, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26:3). The nearest equivalent I can find in the Arberry transcription of the Holy Qu’ran is “And God summons to the Abode of Peace, and He guides whomsoever He will to a straight path… “(Sura 10:25).

To complete a quartet of such insights, let us end with a slightly different perspective, a Stoic text written by an emperor:

“Nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul”  (Marcus Aurelius  Meditations 4:3)

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My recent reading is bringing home to me what I should have realised long ago; that successive attempts to ‘define God’ or ‘prove’ that God exists, or do the opposite, are pursued only by people whose mindsets are steeped in the materialism and individualism typical of Western culture.  Were it not for the rise of radical Islam since 2001, this essentially sterile debate would have run out years ago, for want of fuel and under pressure from new concerns and ideas. (more…)

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I’ve always had the fixed idea that Martin Luther was anti-Jewish, and there is plenty of evidence out there that he was.  So it’s with some surprise that, simply by dipping into his Table Talk (1566), I’ve come across the following anecdote of him showing a different side:

Luther via Wilipedia

“That the Jews have better Teachers and Writers of the Holy Scriptures than the Gentiles.

When I read in the Psalter, said Luther, I do much admire that David had such a spirit.  Oh, what high enlightened people were among the Jews!  This David was a married man; he was a king, a soldier, and a preacher; he was busy in temporal affairs, yet nevertheless he wrote such an excellent surpassing book.  The New Testament was written also by men that were Jews, and the Apostles themselves were Jews: God would signify thereby that we should adore his Word, we should preciously esteem thereof, reverence, and love the same.”

Source: Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext06/tlhr10h.htm

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