Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil

I've been reading quite a bit of early church history of late, particularly that history which surrounds Marcion. For those unfamiliar with him, sources tell us he was a Christian who made considerable money in the shipping industry (he lived on the coast of the Black Sea), and decided to give that up for some kind of career in missions. He moved to Rome and made a sizeable donation to the church there, before gaining an audience with some of the church leaders, during which he shared his opinions on matters theological.

Here is where it all went wrong for Marcion. His opinions (a word which comes close to the meaning of "heresy") were not well received. His donation was returned to him, and he left the church in Rome in order to forge his own path; indeed, his own church. From what we can gather, the Marcionite church was a serious rival to the proto-orthodox Church, and there is evidence to suggest it lasted right up until the tenth century.

I must confess, I have sympathy for Marcion. I have done for quite some time. That is not to say I agree with his opinions, or with his methods. Marcion was convinced that the Old Testament God was different to the God revealed by Jesus. The Old Testament God, so his story went, was a God of pure righteousness. He was not an evil God. He was simply legalistic to a fault. The Father to whom Jesus referred, however, was a God of love, of forgiveness, of peace. He was the unknown God who suddenly became known through the Christian gospel. For Marcion, then, the Old Testament was not a foreshadowing of Christ but the antithesis to Christ.

In fact, Marcion's major work (which is lost to us) was titled Antithesis. In it he contrasted the Old with the New. For example, in the Old, the sun is stopped so that Joshua could slay his enemies; in the New, Christ tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger. And, in the Old, the prophet Moses stretches out his hand so that many will be killed in war; in the New, the prophet Christ's hands are stretched out on the cross so that many will be saved.

As I said, the church rejected Marcion's notion of there being two Gods, and continued to believe that the Scriptures of the Jews belonged also to Christianity; in many cases, in fact, that the Scriptures of the Jews belonged exclusively to Christianity, since by their rejection of Jesus as Messiah the Jews forfeited their claim on the Scriptures.

There were (and are) good reasons for the Church to affirm the continuity between Old and New. Marcion could only avoid these reasons by writing off three of our four gospels as corrupt and heavily editing the gospel of Luke, ridding it of what he deemed Jewish interpolations. Along with Luke's gospel Marcion included ten of Paul's letters in his canon of Scripture. For Marcion, Paul was the only faithful apostle, since the apostle to the Gentiles was the only one who discerned the radical newness of Christianity, a newness which made a clean break with the past.

Marcion, it should be noted, was not necessarily anti-Semitic; or, at least, he was no more anti-Semitic than his orthodox opponents, and perhaps a good deal less. His issue was that he was unable to reconcile the gospel of Christ with the Old Testament. As the title of his work indicates, he could only see contradiction between the two. Here is where my sympathies with Marcion lie. I think the Old Testament is far more a problem for Christians than is generally acknowledged. One only has to go through the lectionary and notice what is not included in order to discover the unacknowledged problems that the Old Testament throws up for the Church. Our canon includes the Old Testament (though even here, this is no agreement regarding the books which comprise the OT), but I do not think we use it as a measure. Rather, our use of the Old Testament reveals that something else is measuring the Old Testament, something which dictates that certain portions of it are ignored. At this point the Church is more or less Marcionite in its practice, without fully subscribing to all that Marcion believed.

There is a good reason why the Church has adopted a subtle form of Marcion's techniques. Marcion, like most interpreters today, found no use for allegory. He read the Old Testament at face value, and in much of it he could find nothing of edification. One of the reasons the early Church was able to adopt the Old Testament as its Scripture was precisely because the Church's interpreters had the method of allegory in their hermeneutical arsenal. The early Church was not oblivious to the problems which Marcion raised. Rather, through the method of allegory, the Church was able to find use for those passages which Marcion rejected. Nowadays, however, this option is more or less unavailable to us (though there have been recent attempts to revive allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament - for example, Douglas Earl's work on Joshua). 

I may be overstating the case, but it is not wholly unreasonable to claim that the early Church was Marcionite when the Old Testament was approached literally. Only when the text could be approached using a different sense was the Church able to avoid Marcion's ideas. But where does that leave us today, we who are the heirs of literalists?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Remembering Rightly, or The Legacy of Chavez

During his account of Hugo Chavez's presidency, journalist Rory O'Carroll describes a personal encounter of his with el comandante. The location was a coastal village, the occasion a taping of Alo Presidente, Chavez's weekly show which seemed to last about a week.

O'Carroll was permitted to ask a question of Chavez. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, his question was as pointed as it could be: Are you not concerned that you are turning into a caudillo (an old-school military dictator), given that you are changing the constitution so that the president can serve as many terms as he likes (provided he receives the majority of votes, of course)?

Unsurprisingly, Chavez did not take kindly to the question. His answer, however, was really quite brilliant. He focussed on the fact that Carroll was working for The Guardian, a British newspaper. Which is to say, he focussed on who was asking the question rather than the question itself. This, he repeatedly stated, is a question asked in ignorance: in ignorance of both European history and Latin American history.

I won't go into the nitty gritty, but Chavez's main argument was that Britain is still under a monarchy! Nobody even elects its kings and queens! Talk about your caudillismo! He went on to list all the countries in Europe where the political leader has no restrictions on terms (there are quite a few). Indeed, the prime minster of Britain is one example.

O'Carroll paints Chavez as a ranting lunatic during this episode, but when you watch the video on YouTube (with the help of an expert translator) you see that O'Carroll is being disingenuous.

One thing that struck me about the whole thing was Chavez's desire to describe an alternative history to the dominant versions found in the West. In the West we are taught that Columbus "discovered" America. Chavez scoffs at our arrogance. In the United States of America Columbus Day is celebrated, with seemingly little conciousness of the greed and violence which marked his life (made all the worse on account of the Christian faith which he professed). Even a superficial glance at the history should be enough to judge Columbus a tyrant, a hypocrite, and instigator of one of the darkest moments in European history. That he and Martin Luther King both have days named after them tells you something of the confusion which besets American society.

For all of Chavez's faults (and he had many, it seems), his version of history at least approaches the truth. Rather than celebrate Columbus Day, Venezuelans, at the behest of Chavez, celebrate Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). In 2004, a statue of Columbus which stood in Caracas was toppled. What for Europeans might be a statue symbolising our enterprising, adventurous spirit, was for the people of Latin America a symbol of oppression and tyranny.

An Irish person should be especially sympathetic which this aspect of Chavez's project. Could you imagine if we had a statue of Cromwell looking down on us in Dublin city, with our close neighbours celebrating Cromwell Day?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Theology and Evolution Part 2

Van Den Brink begins his article "Are We Special? Evolution and Human Dignity" with a brief anecdote. A few years ago he was invited to exchange letters with a creationist, with the back-and-forth correspondence published in a Christian newspaper. Many letters were sent to the editor in response to this correspondence, with the overwhelming majority of them being critical of van den Brink's side of the story. Van den Brink mentions one critic in particular, a farmer from a rural area to whom van den Brink made a personal phone call. Van den Brink found his letter-to-the-editor so harsh that he was "curious to know what was behind his rage." When van den Brink got around to asking the farmer to satisfy his curiosity, the farmer replied:

"I just don’t want to stem from the apes!"

As van den Brink correctly points out, this is far from the only concern which Christians have with evolution. The issues of biblical authority and salvation history also weigh heavily on the minds of those who cannot accept evolution, to the point where its scientific credentials become irrelevant. Yet can den Brink is also correct in claiming that the issue of human dignity is a major factor in Christian rejection of evolution, one which must be addressed by those who seek to reconcile evolution with the Christian doctrine of imago dei (image of God).

Indeed, it is the precise meaning of imago dei that occupies most of van den Brink's thought in this essay. He rejects two Christian interpretations of this concept. The first is the classical interpretation, which locates the imago dei in humans in their rational capabilities. For most Christian theologians up until quite recently, these rational capabilities signify the soul, and so it is the human soul that is primarily the image of God within us. What of the body? For Gregory of Nyssa, for example, it is the "image of the image." That is to say, it is the image of the soul, which is the image of God.

Why does van den Brink reject this interpretation of the imago dei? He rejects it first of all because it is an inadequate interpretation of the biblical text, and reflects more the philosophical climate of antiquity than anything else. Second, he cites recent studies which demonstrate the humans are not as biologically unique as we once thought. Humans do not have an exclusive claim on rationality, language, morality, or emotions. Our substantial properties therefore do not set us apart from all else in creation. To look for the image of God in our unique capabilities is for this reason to look in the wrong place, for we are far less unique in this way than we would like to think.

The second interpretation of the imago dei is a reaction to the classical interpretation. Rather than limiting the image of God to "unique" humans, this interpretation breaks the boundaries between humanity and the rest of creation by attributing the image of God to all animals. One proponent of this view, David Cunningham, says that the Bible never denies the imago dei to animals, so there is room for such an interpretation. This is especially the case, argues Cunningham, when passages such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1 are considered: creation proclaims and demonstrates the glory and power of the divine.

Van den Brink, while affirming some of what this interpretation of the imago dei has to offer, ultimately rejects it. Scripture, he claims, does in fact use the concept of imago dei was a way to distinguish human beings from other animals. That being said, he does not think that denying animals the imago dei belittles them.

Having rejected these two interpretations of the image of God, van den Brink is back to his original problem: how can we think about human beings as images of God alongside the evolutionary theory?

Rather than set aside human uniqueness, van den Brink locates it elsewhere. Since it is not found in "superficial appeals to empirical characteristics", then, where is it to be found? Van den brink uses a combination of modern biblical scholarship and systematic theology to locate the imago dei in the human's God-given functions and relationships. "Understood in this way," van den Brink claims, "the image of God is not a substantial quality, but an ethical challenge; it doesn’t lie somewhere behind us, but is rather situated ahead of us." No other animal has been given such an enormous challenge, therefore human uniqueness is located within the responsibility which has been placed on human beings by God.

The relational element in the imago dei derives from our being addressed by God and from our prayer to God. (Though van den Brink doesn't mention it here, the incarnation surely plays a crucial role in defining human uniqueness: God, after all, became a human being, not a crocodile or an elephant.)

I am left with one main question after reading van den Brink's proposal: why humans? Why were human beings given the enormous ethical challenge which he invokes? Why were human beings addressed by God and established in a covenant relationship with him? It is this "why?" which makes the classical concept of the imago dei intelligible. For the ancients, there must have been some natural property belonging to humans which made them fit for the functions and relationships which van den Brink mentions. While I remain hesitant to dispense with a couple of thousand years of Christian theological tradition, I can nevertheless see the hubris which quietly lurks behind the "why humans?" question. We want to somehow merit God's election of us as his partners. Such hubris, however, was something which Israel was explicitly warned against. Why Israel? God reminds them that it was not because of any natural properties which they possessed, but because of his love alone. I cannot help but think that the "why humans?" question receives a similar answer. Indeed van den Brink closes his argument with something to that effect:

...we do not need some other, empirically based unique-making faculty or attribute to warrant human dignity - not even, I would suggest, the faculty of having a soul which was supernaturally implanted in us by God, since who we are as human beings is not circumscribed by how we emerged. If we were only special in God’s eyes and because of our God-given tasks and relationships we would still be special, and special enough to have inviolable rights.

I am aware that this article does not address all the concerns which a Christian might have in the face of evolutionary theory. But at the very least it demonstrates Christians need not fear evolution. God uses all sorts of people and things to lead us into a more faithful understanding of his character and purposes. There is no a priori reason, therefore, that he cannot so use Darwin. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Theology and Evolution Part 1

During my theological studies in Belfast I was part of a "fellowship group" in the college. This was a group of about 10 or 12 people who met up every week for one hour. We took turns leading the group. You could basically do what you like, with the only stated stipulation being that it had to be either "social" or "devotional".

For one of my "devotional" slots, I decided to go for a slightly risky option and showed the group a video chat between Thomas O'Loughlin and Conor Cunningham. This wasn't a risky option because they are both from the Republic of Ireland, but because they were discussing the relationship between theology and evolution. (Or maybe it was a bit of both.)

Reactions to the video were mixed. Some thought that the two theologians gave a good account of the compatibility between "science" and "religion." Others thought that their embrace of evolutionary theory was incompatible with fundamental theological convictions derived from scripture. Others thought that the whole discussion was a bit pointless and simply kept silent.

From my own interactions with Christians, I would guess that the majority think that evolution is antithetical to the Christian account of creation. But of this majority, I would say that many have not seriously engaged with Christians who think otherwise. For the majority of the majority, that evolution is contradictory to the gospel is axiomatic, therefore there is no perceived need to delve deeper into the matter. When the topic comes up, you state your position matter-of-factly, point out that evolution is "just a theory" and that you've "never seen a monkey give birth to a human," and with that a potentially interesting conversation is killed before it can even get started.

I must confess, however, that I have not read too much on the matter. My only firm "conviction" at the moment is that evolution (like predestination) is not something which the creeds pronounce upon (though it is something which the "anti-rational, anti-science" Roman Catholic Church has addressed, and in a positive manner at that). If evolution is perceived to be incompatible with Christian theological convictions, then, this perception is an interpretation of what Christian theology does and does not permit one to think; in other words, it is not a first principle, and ought not to be treated as such.

With this conviction in place, then, I will discuss in another post a recent article by Gijsbert van den Brink titled "Are We Still Special? Evolution and Human Dignity", which is an attempt by a Christian theologian to think of humans as images of God post-Darwin.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Christian Boards

I have recently read through the blurbs on board members in a couple of Christian organisations. Small sample-size I know, but it is quite remarkable how eager the writers of these things are to point out the success which the board members have enjoyed in their professional lives. The hidden message appears to be: these people are clearly not poor, therefore they can be trusted to be on a board.

For Christians, while the poor will always be among us, it seems that they will have a difficult time getting onto our boards.

What a great reversal of the gospel's great reversal.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Boyhood Review (spoilers)

I've been working my way through the Oscar nominees for Best Picture these past few weeks. Last night came the turn of Boyhood, Richard Linklater's drama about growing up which was filmed over the course of twelve years. It begins with a boy of six and ends with the same boy at eighteen. In between we are treated to a two-and-a-half-hour version of these twelve years, during which the boy's single mother begins and ends some very bad relationships, while his biological father shows up on screen sporadically for some bonding time. The boy himself passes through some of the stages of childhood, like moving house and beginning at a new school and getting bullied and getting dodgy hair cuts.

If this all sounds a bit mundane then, well, it is. I will lay my cards on the table immediately and say that I did not enjoy this film. Its novel technique masks fundamental flaws, and it will almost certainly only be remembered for its twelve year production than for its interesting characters and ideas.

The boy of Boyhood is entirely unrelatable. Not once does he cry, he barely laughs, and seems to have nothing of that childhood innocence and vulnerability that quickly deserts us. In Linklater's version of boyhood, boy's don't cry. How utterly extraordinary and silly. One of the only times we see a reaction from Mason (the boy) is when his step-father forces him to get his hair cut. Indeed Mason's hair is probably his most interesting characteristic; it seems to be the only thing about him that has personality and life.

He says very little throughout the film, and when he does say something Linklater's dialogue is so contrived and bland that it is almost impossible for me, having just seen the film, to quote a single sentence of Mason's, or to tell you what Mason thinks about anything. Does he love his mother? I don't know. Nobody knows. Does he have a good relationship with his older sister? We can't say. What about his biological father? Again, we're given nothing really concrete. Does he have any friends, or childhood sweethearts? It would appear not.

Of course Mason's childhood wasn't exactly ideal. His mother is pathologically drawn to alcoholic men. This, at least, should make for interesting drama, but the relationship between mother and alcoholic man is given no air time, so the whole episode feels like a box for Linklater to tick rather than a genuine experience in Mason's life that requires exploration and reflection. Mason asks no questions about why his step-father does what he does. He shows no defiance, no hurt, no pain. We are left to think that growing up with an abusive step-father is a minor inconvenience. Nor do we see any confrontation between Mason's real father and his horrible step-fathers. Surely his father would hear about what was happening to his children and ex-wife? A dramatic punch up between the two fathers would have been silly, but at least it would have demonstrated that someone cared about something that happened.

Yet Linklater quickly moves us from one moment in Mason's life to the next, and there is no real sense that any of the previous moments matter, or have any relation to the present moment. This gets to the heart of the films ideology, which is revealed by an attractive girl who Mason meets ON HIS FIRST DAY OF COLLEGE. Come on. Up to this point, the film was at least plausible in the sense that it was as mundane of most of life. But on Mason's first day of college he discovers that his roomie is a quirky guy with big hair and a love of adventure. Within two minutes Mason is invited to go camping with this guy, his girlfriend, and their friend. (Why was this friend going in the first place? Talk about your third wheel.) It just so happens that the friend is an attractive girl. Because life is just that kind. (This reminded me of the end of (500) Days of Summer, when Gordon-Levitt manages to get over his relationship with Summer by meeting an attractive girl called Autumn. Really.) Mason is also given a pot cookie, just to complete his college experience.

Anyway, the film ends with this random girl telling Mason her philosophy on life, in what feels like a prequel to Linklater's Before Sunrise. She says that while most people go on about "seizing the moment," what really matters is that the moment seizes us. Mason adds to this by saying something to the effect of "all there is is now" or something like that. To get theological for one moment, Walter Brueggemann calls this the "eternal now." This is the philosophy of empires, who cannot imagine a future that is radically different from the present and who ignore the lessons of history. In other terms, this is the philosophy of a particularly western mind, a mind which thinks that the present is all that matters because the present is the time of consumption. This "letting the moment seize us" philosophy is all well and good when you're on a picturesque hill top conversing with a pretty lady. Who wouldn't want such a moment to seize them? But what will Mason do when the moments turn against him? What will he do when moments of sickness come? Linklater had this kid for twelve years, but he never gave him agency. That is to say, he never turned him into a person who could act as a moral agent. Will he act with virtue or vice? We don't know.

What we do know is that Mason's father claims to have paid no attention to Mason's soul. This is revealed during the films one and only treatment of Christianity (one would have thought it would have come up more, especially in Texas). Mason goes to his step-mother's (?) parents house. They are simple country folk, and they give Mason a bible and a gun for his birthday, which is pretty funny. Mason asks his father if he was baptised, and his father laughs at the thought, telling Mason that he couldn't have cared less about his son's soul. The same could be said of Linklater, who pays no attention to any religious or moral questions which Mason may or may not have had. Is Mason's mother an atheist? If so this would have been an interesting avenue to explore, and surely Mason would have wondered at an early age why other children prayed and went to church and he didn't. Princeses Rojas gives us a brief and wonderful scene involving a child of atheist parents conversing with a child of Evangelical parents. Boyhood gives us nothing of the sort. No interesting interactions, no conflicting worldviews, no genuine difference. Linklater´s world is the worst form of the liberal dream, where the only real tension is if we will get what we want and become whatever we want to become.

Perhaps it´s better he kept it this neat and tidy, because his one foray into foreign territory in the form of a Latino tradesman was a disaster. While working on the pipes around Mason´s house, unnamed Latino is told my Mason´s mother that he is smart and that he should go to night classes. That´s it. A passing remark. Years later, unnamed Latino meets Mason and his family in a restaurant. He approaches Mason´s mother and tells her that she changed his life! He is now assistant manager of the restaurant and about to get a degree. And to think that Linklater had about six years to rethink this plot point. I just can´t believe that any intelligent person would have no misgivings about the white woman saves poor Latino trope that Linklater dishes out.

In the end, I was unmoved by this movie. My reaction to it mirrored Mason´s reaction to life. Indifference. And apart from a couple of nice shots (one was, I think, in Austin, when Mason went to a concert with his girlfriend) there wasn´t even much that was aesthetically pleasing about the film. I would be lying if I said this didn´t make me think of the condition of my own soul, since so many who have seen this film have enjoyed it and found in it a wonderful portrayal of childhood. The only conclusion I can draw for now is the well worn cliche that the same thing can be seen in entirely different ways. Except for that dress, which is blue and black.