Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Embracing A World Full Of Sin And Death

I suppose some of the ideas for this post have been floating around the vast empty space of my skull for a while, needing only to find one another in the void to coalesce in to something useful, perhaps even meaningful. There are three sources of attraction, as it were, that pulled these disparate ideas together. First is this reflection on Matthew 2 by Pastor Dan at Street Prophets. Historically referred to as The Slaughter of the Innocents, we have here the most remarkable incident in the Christmas narratives, far too often glossed over as we get all sentimental about a baby lying in a feeding trough, being visited by dirty, smelly shepherds. PD does not spend a lot of time reflecting on the uses of Exodus Matthew's author was relying upon, the parallelism of Joseph's flight to Egypt with another Joseph's flight, or the slaughter of Nazarene baby boys paralleling the Passover. That kind of theological insight in important to understanding the overall thrust of Matthew's Gospel account, and considered in more detail, but in another post. For our purposes, the point is, as PD says:
So you have rulers, repression, asylum seekers, and politically motivated violence - all in 23 verses - all right in the middle of the infancy narrative. Following that, Matthew goes into a depiction of John the Baptist, who his readers would have surely known was executed by Herod Antipas, Herod the Great's son and Archelaus' brother.


Do you think Matthew might have been trying to send us a message? Do you think he might have been excruciatingly aware of the backdrop against which Jesus' life, death and ongoing ministry played out?

Yes, yes he was.

We tend to want to escape from the brutal realities of the world at Christmas; what else are holidays for, but escape? Yet, a careful examination of the traditional Feast Day calendar has the feast of St. Stephen the Martyr (as depicted in the Book of Acts) on December 26, followed by the Feast of the Slaughter of the Innocents. Keeping a close eye on this calendar shows that, even if for all practical purposes the church has been negligent in keeping its members aware of the hazards of faith and life in a world full of sin, we are still reminded that such exist, if we but pay attention.

The second force of attraction pulling together my scattered thoughts was the comment thread on this post over at ER's place. Further down, specifically here and here is a discussion of the faith-arc of Bart Dehrman, someone of whom I have not heard, who has gone from "Christian Agnostic" to atheist over the course of his life. In a passage quoted here, we have Dehrman speaking of his own decision to reject belief in God:
"For Ehrman, the dark sparkling bubbles cascaded out of him while teaching a class at Rutgers University on "The Problem of Suffering in Biblical Traditions." It was the mid-1980s, the Ethiopian famine was in full swing. Starving infants, mass death. Ehrman came to believe that not only was there no evidence of Jesus being divine, but neither was there a God paying attention.

"I just began to lose it," Ehrman says now, in a conversation that stretches from late afternoon into the evening. "It wasn't for lack of trying. But I just couldn't believe there was a God in charge of this mess . . . It was so emotionally charged. This whole business of 'the Bible is your life, and anyone who doesn't believe it is going to roast in hell.' "

He kept teaching, moving to Chapel Hill, kept hanging on to the shreds of belief, but the dark bubbles fled upward. He was a successful author, voted one of the most popular professors on campus, but he awoke one morning seven years ago and found the remnants of faith gone. No bubbles at all. He was soon to marry for the second time and his kids were grown. He stopped going to church.

"I would love for him to be there with me, and sometimes wish it was something we share," says Ehrman's wife, Sarah Beckwith, a professor of medieval literature at Duke University, and an Episcopalian. "But I respect the integrity of decisions he's made, even if I reject the logic by which he reached them."

"Bart was, like a lot of people who were converted to fundamental evangelicalism, converted to the certainty of it all, of having all the answers," says Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and a friend of three decades. "When he found out they were lying to him, he just didn't want anything to do with it.

While it seems clear that a gifted, intelligent, and wise man was earnest in his desire to hold together the various strands of faith in the face of facts that put it all in to question, he ended up surrendering, in what seems to me to be a decision based as much in compassion for his fellow human beings as it is in an intellectual refusal to countenance bad ideas that deny the facts of a suffering world around us.

So, we have the first two strands. Finally, there are the words to this song:
Here's to the babies in a brand new world
Here's to the beauty of the stars
Here's to the travellers on the open road
Here's to the dreamers in the bars

Here's to the teachers in the crowded rooms
Here's to the workers in the fields
Here's to the preachers of the sacred words
Here's to the drivers at the wheel

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin, let the day begin

Here's to the winners of the human race
Here's to the losers in the game
Here's to the soldiers of the bitter war
Here's to the wall that bears their names

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin, let the day begin, let the day start

Here's to the doctors and their healing work
Here's to the loved ones in their care
Here's to the strangers on the streets tonight
Here's to the lonely everywhere

Here's to the wisdom from the mouths of babes
Here's to the lions in the cage
Here's to the struggles of the silent war
Here's to the closing of the age.

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin, let the day begin, let the day start

The biggest challenges to my own faith were always the negating force of the world in which we live. How can one accept the goodness of God, the existence of such a being, when parents willingly dispose of their children? How can one quote this or that verse from the Bible about God protecting us, even wanting us to thrive and prosper, when whole populations disappear under the guns and knives and gas chambers of those bent on forming the world in their own image? It just seems easier to surrender to the world, to say that such belief is nothing but childish nonsense, the province of those so psychologically weak they would prefer the fantasy of some Divine guiding principle than the burden and dignity of freedom.

I have come close several times in my life to embracing this position. It would seem almost inhumane of me not to do so. Yet, it is the words of this song, "Let The Day Begin" by The Call (which I highlighted last week), that encapsulate why I cannot. It is also the gritty realism of the Scriptures, the refusal to create rosy pictures of butterflies and rainbows and the power of positive thinking, that, when considered in and for itself, remind me that the kind of shallow certitude promoted by some branches of Christianity isn't the sum total of the faith. Indeed, the words to this song, with their wide-open embrace of the world, from preachers of the sacred word to dreamers in bars, from Vietnam Vets to the winners of the human race, are the epitome of what the Christian story is really about.

When people mindlessly spout "John 3:16!", they forget that God loved this world full of sin and death, murder, genocide, bigotry, and mindless slaughter so much. It isn't some ideal world. It isn't the comfy world of the fading bourgeoisie of the North Atlantic nations that God loved or loves. Indeed, Jesus was born, lived, and died a member of an occupied people, despised then and now for their seeming diffidence, their difference from others, their refusal to be like other people, to get with the program, to play the game. Jesus life was surrounded by a level of violence not necessarily tolerated today, but certainly familiar nonetheless. The horrors of the modern age have certainly added efficiency to our penchant for intra-species slaughter, but the basis for it, and its reality, is a constant not just in human history, but in the sacred narratives of Christian Scripture.

If God so loved the world which would send the final prophet of Jesus' arrival and ministry to the ignominy of having his head literally on a platter for the wife of the reigning Quisling monarch of Judea; sit back in seeming silence as parents mourned the deaths of their young sons; disappear completely from the scene as the one who declared himself the bearer of the message of God's Immanent Kingdom hung in agony on a Roman cross - if, indeed, this final image is the embodiment of God's love, embracing even death and the godforsakeness far too many human beings experience, then maybe, just maybe, there is more to the story than a cursory examination based upon certain assertions would indicate.

There is no answer, finally, to the conundrum of evil. That it is should be clear. Why it is, if God exists, is a God of love and justice (notice I didn't say omniscience and omnipotence), is the open question, the bleeding wound that no faith can ultimately answer. The embrace of this world by God, taking the wounded world as an object of deep love, something for which we are called to work, perhaps even to heal a bit - it seems to me that such a God is worthy of praise. Much more so than any other God of whom I can think.

I no longer wrestle with ultimate questions for which there are no answers. I much prefer considering that God's love, as mysterious as it is, is enough for me to respond in kind. No, it might not make any sense. Few things that are worthwhile do, however.

Virtual Tin Cup

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