Introduction Chapter 1: In Praise of Maria: a memoir


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The invention of the term “Judeo-Christian tradition” in the 1890s has been mostly an obstacle to understanding Jewish tradition(s), Christian tradition(s) and the relation between Jews and Christians. The inventors of the term Judeo-Christian were not seeking understanding of the two religions. Arthur Cohen, who tracked the rise of the term, writes: “European intellectuals came to regard Judaism and Christianity as essentially similar – similar not with respect to truth, but rather with respect to untruth which they shared.”clxiii

The one element for which the “Judeo-Christian tradition” received some credit was for emphasizing the individual. Ironically, late twentieth-century writers attacked the “Judeo-Christian tradition” precisely on this point. Contemporary attacks of environmentalists on the “Judeo-Christian tradition” may be accurate insofar as they refer to a nineteenth century ideology, but they do not have much to say about the actual histories of either Jewish or Christian religions.

On some points of history and tradition, Jews and Christians do agree. But the term “Judeo-Christian tradition” hides the difference of approach that each religion takes. Judaism is a religion of ritual, law and tradition; it is for the most part closer to Islam than to Christianity. Christianity did not totally reject ritual, law, and tradition, but it is suspicious of ritual, critical of law, and rebellious against tradition. Christianity stakes its claim on belief in the Savior, on a proclamation that history has been fulfilled by the appearance of the God-man. The Jesus movement that evolved into the Christian religion radically shifted the emphasis from commandments given by God to a faith in God that is centered on the death-resurrection of Jesus.

The death of Jesus plays such a central role in Christianity that Christians have often been accused of glorifying suffering and being obsessed with death.clxiv The Jesus movement did not begin with death but with the announcement “He is risen.” However, Christianity has found it difficult to keep death and resurrection together. Historically, the figure of the risen Christ on the cross gave way to the crucifix with its portrayal of Jesus’ agony. Extreme practices of asceticism sprang from the belief that “Christ died for your sins.” Modern critics of Christianity accuse it of promising a reward in the next life as a way of justifying oppression and suffering in this life. Nietzsche was not praising Christianity when he wrote, “He who has a why to life can bear almost any how.”clxv

One thing that Christians and non-Christians might agree upon is that Christianity has produced intricate and comprehensive systems of thought (theology). From Origen and Augustine in the early church to Karl Barth and Karl Rahner in the twentieth century, Christians have elaborated world views of impressive complexity and depth. Arising within the philosophical context of Hellenistic culture, Christian writers could not avoid developing their own philosophy, opposing but at the same time absorbing, the currents of thought that were present at one of the world’s busiest crossroads. The tireless disciple, Paul, made disparaging comments about philosophy and its “unknown God.” (Acts 17:23). Paul would probably be surprised to know that the “Pauline philosophy” has been endlessly discussed for two millennia.

Both the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament are centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus. The account of Jesus’ life is in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Letters of Paul theorize on Jesus as the second Adam and the one who redeems the whole cosmos. The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, presents a Jesus with divine qualities. Attempts to separate the history and theology in the New Testament can never be fully successful. The writings are testimonies, faith-based reports of historical events. Christianity spread across much of Asia, Africa and Europe, able to appeal both to the simple folk who could grasp the “good news” that Jesus saves, and to sophisticated thinkers, who were looking for a system of profound ideas.

On one side, the Christian church was thought to be a burial society, one of many associations in Rome that provided a social unit more inclusive than the family yet smaller than the city.clxvi Christianity got much of its power by appealing to the dispossessed and by taking care of the widows and the orphans. At the same time, Christianity could present itself as an alternative to the world views of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neo-platonism and every other school of thought. Although Tertullian in the West saw no connection between Athens and Jerusalem, the Greek Fathers of the Church showed that the Christian message was more than compatible with philosophical concepts.

In Christianity, as in Judaism, there is a dialectical relation between belief and ritual. Jewish religion moves from ritual to implied beliefs. In contrast, Christianity largely moves from beliefs to ritual. Rather than examine in this chapter the rituals surrounding death, mourning and afterlife, it makes more sense to follow the doctrinal beliefs, noticing their effect upon ritual. Vincent of Lerins, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church, stated the principle, which is still repeated in Catholic liturgical writing today: “The rule of prayer is the rule of what is to be believed.” Nevertheless, throughout most of Christian history the beliefs have had the primacy.

Christian beliefs offer great comfort to many people. The way of salvation is clear. One’s sufferings can be “offered up” and can be borne with as participation in the sufferings of Christ. (Col. 1:24). On the other side of death is the stern judgment of God but also the intercession of the company of saints. What awaits the Christian who has faith in God and Christ is eternal happiness. Other religions have tried to give some explanation of death; Christianity is different. “The gospel of the Cross preaches salvation in death. Here complete impotence becomes the utmost development of power: absolute disaster becomes salvation; and thus what the mystery religions dare not speak of, nor mourn, is changed to highest bliss. Death annihilates death.”clxvii

This startling paradox – complete impotence as power – has had earth-shaking consequences for individuals and societies. Christian doctrine can be a strong force for good, liberating the aspirations of people who have been dismissed as powerless. Unfortunately, the same ideas can be repressive when used as elaborate justifications for suffering. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said that in her experience with the dying, she found that ninety-five percent of Christians seemed to be wracked with fear and guilt rather than finding hope and support. (She said the other five percent seemed to die with an attitude similar to that of atheists).clxviii Anyone can dispute her unscientific findings but it is likely that she is pinpointing the inadequacies of Christian education and a Christian discipline of life. That is, the complicated beliefs of Christianity need to be connected to the experiences of ordinary life. Otherwise, when death is imminent, the Christian may know only enough theology to feel guilty and fearful.

Death in the Christian Worldview

The Christian is asked to put his or her death into a cosmic perspective. Death is said to be a punishment for sin. Either death was not part of the original plan or else it would not have been experienced as painful and fear-inducing. Sin came into the world through the first parents who were banished from the Garden of Eden. Ever since then, the human race has been in search of a new paradise and is burdened by the faults and failures of its ancestors. The doctrine of “original sin” is strongly criticized by non-Christians; it can be the source of a negative and pessimistic attitude to bodily life. It can also be a realistic acknowledgment that each person’s freedom is constrained by the limits that are present from the time of his or her birth. In the Christian belief system, this sinful condition is overcome by the death of Jesus which provides the grace of redemption.

What complicates Christian belief is that the death of the Christ, God’s anointed, was to be the end of history. The earliest stratum of the New Testament indicates an expectation that the world is very soon coming to an end. The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the restitution of the whole cosmos. In the first and second centuries, the community prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus,” with the expectation of the final appearance of the Christ as judge of the whole world. But by the end of the second century, if not earlier, it was apparent that the end was not arriving. Tertullian, writing at the end of the second century, cites a prayer that includes a petition for the delay of the end.clxix Like Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity had to settle into the flow of ordinary history. Unlike Judaism, Christianity has had a more severe tension between a world redeemed by the death-resurrection of Jesus and a world that clearly has a long way to go before peace reigns and justice is secure.

The unresolved tension in Christianity is manifest in its use of the term revelation (apocalypse). The term is Greek in origin; it means the unveiling of something that has been secret. The term made its way into Christianity through apocalyptic writing at a time when Jewish religion was deeply affected by Hellenistic culture. In this apocalyptic literature, there are sharp divisions between good and evil, this world and another world, body and spirit. Within the literature of the New Testament apocalyptic elements are present in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Paul occasionally uses the term apocalypse but without any special emphasis.

The energy behind the use of the term revelation or apocalypse came from the last book of the New Testament. Called the Revelation of John or simply Revelation, the book uses the word revelation only once at its beginning, but the whole book is a vision of the end and the final destruction of evil forces by the Christ. The inclusion of this book in the Christian canon was at first disputed but the book gave consolation to Christians of the first three centuries during times of persecution. While intellectual leaders, including Origen, Jerome, and Augustine, interpreted the book allegorically, playing down its predictive character, the book continues to be central for many Christians.

Liberal theology and church officials eventually adopted the term revelation for what has been deposited in the past by God and handed on by authoritative officials to the Christian faithful. But the more marginal Christian sects continue to use “revelation” as predictive of the future. This deep gap has remained throughout Christian history and shows no signs of being overcome. The result is that Christians look to the past for the truth and they may also look to the future in hope, but the present remains a problem. How does the “word of God” speak to the experience of ordinary Christians today?

In the Catholic tradition, the answer is largely to be found in the sacramental rites. The sacraments, as delineated in the Roman Catholic Church, include Baptism and Confirmation to enter the community, confession of personal sin, and a final anointing of the sick and dying. The central act is the Eucharist (the Mass) which looks to the Last Supper of Jesus and looks forward to the Second Coming of the Christ and is celebrated as a daily prayer of thanksgiving. In the Protestant tradition, the sacraments are not generally so prominent or numerous. The word of God comes mainly through preaching. The ancient texts of the Bible are to come alive in the preached message of today.

Catholics and Protestants differ in their rituals surrounding death. For Catholics the burial Mass is central, along with music and prayers which are largely medieval in origin. The priest usually leads the prayer at the wake, the funeral mass, and the burial site. These days a family member may give the eulogy but that speech is usually relegated to the end of the service. The priest is still likely to deliver the main talk (homily) after the liturgical readings.clxx

Protestant services are usually simpler ceremonies. More attention is given to the eulogy and the reading of the scriptures. At the time of the Reformation, the anointing of the dying was one of the sacramental practices that were criticized as an inauthentic development. It is not a practice sanctioned by the Christian Bible. It found its way into Christian practice from the Jewish religion and other religions present at the birth of Christianity. When the Puritans came to seventeenth-century Massachusetts, it was to set up a society free of priests and sacraments. However, they quickly adopted ritual practices surrounding death, a tendency that made them vulnerable to the charge of Catholicizing or Judaizing the pure Christian faith.clxxi

Christianity demands faith but in practice faith slides into beliefs. The two terms are often used interchangeably but “faith” as it emerged in the Hebrew Bible refers to openness and to trust. Faith means to “believe in” God as Creator and Redeemer of all. The act of “believing in” finds expression in formulated beliefs. A complex system of these beliefs, derived from the Bible and church teachings, may overwhelm rather than express the attitude of trust in and openness to God. Perhaps when many Christians come to die, they suddenly realize that they have a whole system of beliefs but it may not give much support to what or to whom they believe in.

Christianity has been the source of profound speculation that has produced works of complexity and insight. But the mystical side of the religion arose from quiet contemplation and can be startling close to agnosticism. For the mystics, God is not found along the route of the rational faculty. Faith, hope and love are the main ways of attachment to the divine. Karl Rahner was the most profound thinker and prolific theologian in the Roman Catholic Church of the twentieth century. Yet, in his works on prayer, Rahner is often shocking in his stark description of the Christian’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways. Christianity is, according to Rahner, “a religion which sets man face to face with the Incomprehensible which pervades and encompasses his existence....”clxxii “The Christian has fewer ultimate answers which he could throw off with a ‘now the matter’s clear’ than anyone else.”clxxiii

Christian beliefs offer a partial and changeable picture of what Christianity is. Some beliefs are more central and fixed than others but even the most important beliefs (Trinity, Incarnation) are subject to development, that is, reform. Protestant tradition keeps close to the scriptural sources but interpretations will always vary. Catholic tradition defines certain doctrines as necessary and true, but at most these doctrines are a fence around faith, “protocols against idolatry.”clxxiv

Most often the doctrines are formulated as negatives or, where the doctrines are intended to be positive, they are stated as double negatives. On the question of whether God is alive, Thomas Aquinas agrees with Maimonides that God is not dead.clxxv Thomas begins the Summa Theologia by saying that “since we cannot know what God is but only what God is not, let us proceed to examine the ways that God does not exist.”clxxvi The vast treatise that follows, instead of being an explanation of God, is an exploration of all that is not God. Thomas is not far from the fourteenth-century mystic, Meister Eckhart, who noted that while a doctrine may be true it is likely to leave out as much truth as it includes.clxxvii

From the beginning of Christianity there have been intense debates and disputes over matters of doctrine. The defining of doctrines regarding Jesus in relation to God provided a stable basis for the Church’s survival. But insistence on formulas could obscure recognition that other views might include the truth. Unlike Judaism, minority reports were not recorded at Christian councils. The term heresy, which had begun by simply meaning a sect, came to mean error. The condemnation of heretics might drive their views out of official belief but often the ideas lived on because they had a partial truth not included in official teaching. For example, in trying to reconcile divine power and human freedom, no formula is completely successful. What is called heretical may be a valid representation of an aspect of human experience.

In 553 C.E., the Second Council of Constantinople said that “whosoever shall support the mythical doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul and consequent wonderful opinion of its return, let him be anathema.”clxxviii It is understandable why the Council condemned belief in the reincarnation of the soul. The belief seems to run directly contrary to belief in the resurrection of Jesus and those redeemed by him. Nevertheless, belief in reincarnation among Christians has never entirely disappeared and is probably stronger today than it has ever been. Perhaps reincarnation needs to be looked at again in official circles – at least as a possibility for some people. If people are judged on how well they have lived their lives, what can one say of the millions who die as infants?clxxix Is it possible that Christian belief would be more intelligible if reincarnation were left open as a possibility for lives prematurely aborted? Humans can only guess at what deaths are premature but that there are such cases seems plausible.

Christian doctrines are not a series of truths handed down from heaven. They are a kaleidoscope of interrelated statements interpretive of Christian experience. They make the case for living and dying according to a pattern of activities that praise God and serve one’s neighbor. The lynchpin, at least in official teaching, is the death-resurrection of Jesus. Belief in the last things, that is, judgment, heaven and hell, follows upon belief that Jesus’ death-resurrection is the center of human history and the revelation of its meaning.

The term Christ is what gives Christianity its unity and Christian theology its conceptual strength. From the later Pauline writings to the mysticism/science of Teilhard de Chardin, Christ is a term that comprehends all time and place, the basis on which the world was created and the judge of the world on its last day. At the same time, the term refers to an indelible image of an itinerant preacher put to death on a hill outside Jerusalem near the year 30 C.E. Not surprisingly, Christianity has a difficult time holding together such a complex belief.

Insofar as Jesus was a Jew, he unites Jews and Christians. Insofar as he was proclaimed the Christ, he divides Judaism and Christianity. The Greek term, Christ, was a translation of the Hebrew term, Messiah. From the beginning, however, the two terms diverged in meaning. The Christ was said to fulfill the Jewish hopes for a Messiah – but not in the way that Jews had expected. “Christ” quickly acquired a philosophical meaning associated with God’s Son in a way that was unknown to the Hebrew scripture.

The danger, already present in the New Testament, was that Jesus, who died and was raised from the dead, could almost disappear, absorbed into the meaning that “Christ” took on. The not entirely successful resolution of this problem was to use the liturgical formula “Jesus Christ” as a name. Although the term Jesus retained a sure reference to an historical person, “Christ” became used as a surname, instead of as a term that would connect the story of Jesus to his Jewish ancestry and to present and future Christian experience. In Christian speech, “Christ” is most often the name of someone, and, when used alone, a name often interchanged with God.

The Christian doctrine of resurrection is difficult to make sense of when it is seen as a spectacular feat by one man, but it would not be so surprising if the man is God. The Christian apologetic quickly jumps into trying to prove the divinity of Jesus Christ. If instead, the Christian wishes to get intelligible connections to the past and the future, the resurrection would be understood as Jesus becoming the Christ, a process that continues until the last day. “For the Catholic tradition the resurrection is a cosmic event, it means that Christ is present to the whole world whether believers are present or not. The resurrection meant not just that a church was founded, it meant that the world was different.”clxxx

“Resurrection is an assertion about God before it is a puzzling reported fact about Jesus.”clxxxi The Christian who is to die with the hope of resurrection needs more support than belief in a puzzling fact about the past. Resurrection, or some sign of the beginning of resurrection, has to be experienced in the present, particularly in the communal effort to resist injustice. “No community can credibly speak of the resurrection unless it has placed itself in the situations of the struggle for justice and truth in human affairs.”clxxxii

Here is where Christianity badly needs to re-conceive its relation to Judaism, a change that has begun but has a long way to go. Resurrection could be a bridge to unite Jews and Christians, instead of the dividing line it has been. Jews sometimes joke that it is the newspaper that separates them from Christianity. The Jew reads the newspaper and asks, “Is this a redeemed world?”clxxxiii It is possible, however, that with some moves on both sides, Jews and Christians could give the same answer to the question, “Is the world redeemed?” Both Jews and Christians could reply: “Partly.” For both religions, God’s grace, forgiveness, and transformation are present in the world but the world is not (fully) redeemed until the messianic age arrives, or in the Christian formulation, until the entire body of Christ is formed.

For Christians to keep their exalted meaning of “Christ” concretized and realistic, they need to situate Jesus in his Jewish milieu and the Jewish beliefs of the time. Gerard Sloyan, referring to Jesus’ resurrection, writes: “He was for the Jews who first believed in him, the ‘first fruits’ of a harvest of all the dead. If you had the faith of the Pharisees, his appearance would have startled you, but it would not have surprised you. You would have been stunned chiefly that he was alone. That he was risen in the body was something that ultimately you could cope with.”clxxxiv

Despite the terrible portrait of the Pharisees in the New Testament, it is the pharisaic doctrine of resurrection that Christians borrowed and still use. And the Pharisees would have had good reason to be surprised that Jesus was alone. Resurrection is ultimately about community, history, and the cosmos. To be consistent with itself Christianity has to articulate an answer to what the Pharisees expected.

For the individual Christian, the doctrine of resurrection is, as it is in Judaism, an affirmation of bodily life. Of course, it is impossible to imagine life beyond death with fleshly desires and pleasures. Nevertheless, resurrection is a powerful symbol of trust in the body, community, history, and earthly life. As a doctrine, it can only be cast as a negation, or more exactly a double negative, that is, a denial of those who deny the value of bodily life. Karl Rahner writes that resurrection tells us two things that death is not. The doctrine denies that “we change horses and ride on.” It also denies that “with death everything is over.”clxxxv

In the history of Christianity, a belief in the immortality of the soul has been more dominant than belief in the resurrection of the body (or person). Similar to Jewish history, the two appeared at almost the same time, although the resurrection of Jesus gave a single, clear focus at the start of Christianity. Nonetheless, Greek ideas of the soul were in the air and were quickly absorbed into Christian belief.clxxxvi

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