Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Chosen People

Folks skeptical of the claims of Christianity, or preceding that, Judaism, complain that it seems unsupportable to them that God would be so unfair as to select one people to reveal Himself too.  It just feels wrong, as if millions of others are being condemned to a horrible eternal fate for no reason that can be considered remotely fair.

Christians of the soul-winning persuasion have encouraged this line of thinking, for the good reason of encouraging each other to evangelism in difficult, dangerous, and discouraging places, but mostly to the detriment of of evangelism in general.  At least, in the last century people in the west have claimed it is an obstacle to their embracing belief - it may just be a good rationalisation to hand.  Yet rationalisations are at least rational and deserve an answer, even if they are secretly not the real reason.

I recommend to such people some of the writings of CS Lewis, especially in God In The Dock.  In brief, his claim is that God revealed some of Himself, even much of Himself, to the other peoples of the world as well, as St Paul also hints.  They are not 100% wrong.  Indeed, it would be hard to be 100% wrong about anything in eternal truth - even the demons believe in one God, and tremble. (Epistle of James).  As a metaphor, God gave all the peoples of the earth pictures.  To the Jews he allowed no pictures, but He gave them the captions.

But I have a greater complaint of the skeptics.  The adherents of other religions do not object to this claim of exclusivity anywhere near so much.  They agree with it, in a sense, except that they believe their beliefs are the exclusively correct ones.  Even the supposedly flexible areas, such as China with its Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist mix has the core belief that this very flexibility, whether one calls it fuzziness or accommodation, is itself the key factor.  And socially insisting on such is quite an interesting dogma, when one comes to it.

The main group of people who object to this claim of exclusivity, and are quite sure that their more modern understanding is superior, are northwest Europeans or their descendants, living in the last 100 years, who value skepticism and doubt and are proud of taking religious matters on personal experience rather than from authority, and have left the Jewish or Christian faith of their parents.

That seems an even narrower group for a Chosen People, I think.


james said...

"As a metaphor, God gave all the peoples of the earth pictures. To the Jews he allowed no pictures, but He gave them the captions." The Pilgrim's Regress?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

No, it's my own. I did get from Lewis the idea of God giving pictures to the other tribes, but the captions part is mine.

james said...

I'm mistaking your ideas for Lewis'...

The skeptics remind me a little of someone trying to break up a domestic dispute.

Sam L. said...

Gave them the captions: Phrase, Great Turn of, one (1) each!

Anonymous said...

Nope! If it isn't part of official Christian canon, it's heresy and may you burn in hell! Verily, did Jesus not say, "Gather the letters of my apostles and bundle them together with the Old Testament, bind them into a book, slap a crucifix on the front of it and put it in hotel room drawers"?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Are you suggesting the Epistles are not a legitimate part of the NT?

Anonymous said...

To suggest the epistles are not a legitimate part of the NT is like suggesting that Saif al-Islam Gadaffi wasn't a legitimate part of Muammar Gadaffi's government. The NT *itself* has no divine legitimacy-- you can't find any passage where Jesus himself endorses it in any way whatsoever. The epistles have value on their own, just like this blog has value on its own-- in both cases, we should judge them by their merit, not by how fervently their author argued for his own greatness (Luke 9:46-48)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

What then, does have divine legitimacy? Do you have an expectation that if there were to be NT scriptures, Jesus would have to have told us about them in advance?

Anonymous said...

I'd say the words of Christ and descriptions of his actions have divine legitimacy. In other words, the gospel. The rest of the new testament is just the private laundry of individual churches, and has no business being quoted as if co-equal with Jesus' own words. (Well, there's also the book of Revelation. Don't do LSD, kids, someone might canonize your ravings on it and this could lead to a lot of crappy movies)

It's Christianity. Not Paulianity.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You didn't answer my second and third questions.

The Epistles were written before the Gospels. Some Epistles, and all the Gospels, have an apostolic origin. They are thus the words of those He personally trained for three years. Additionally, the Apostles seem to have clearly signed off on Paul's doctrine and ministry, so you're going to have a hard time keeping that out.

To take the view that those who knew Jesus personally, were personally instructed by Him, came from the same culture and received the Holy Spirit understood the words of Jesus less well than you do in the 21st C would necessitate believing that Jesus wasn't a very good teacher and the Holy Spirit isn't an especially valuable aid to understanding Him. Is that really what you meant to say, that we read His words today and understand them better than Christians of the 1st C?

The idea that Christ's Gospel got taken over by Paul and changed was common in Higher Criticism in the 19th C, BTW, gradually fading out of seminaries in the 20th. That's not a proof or disproof of the idea, but might give you an idea of where you got it from. It was fashionable in fairly recent times but could not stand the weight of inquiry, even among skeptics.

It is not alarming or novel to most of us here, but carries rather a whiff of nostalgia - a set of ideas that some older Congregationalist pastors still believed when we went through confirmation classes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pointer to Higher Criticism-- I will definitely have to look that up :)

"Is that really what you meant to say, that we read His words today and understand them better than Christians of the 1st C?"

I'm not exactly saying that, I'm just saying it's not the other way around-- the apostles are not *necessarily* better at understanding Jesus' words than we are. Compare the situation with the teachings of the ancient scientists. Today a student can, in a few years, completely master Euclidean geometry or Newtonian physics to a level far beyond what all but the most brilliant of Euclid's and Newton's predecessors could hope to do. This is because of modern innovations in mathematical notation etc. Similarly you and I are privy to info the apostles lacked, for example, we know that Christ's return happens at least 2000 years after his death, which gives us some insight which the apostles couldn't possibly have had. Likewise we've had thousands of years of theological innovations, etc. If I wanted to know what God thought about, say, smartphones, better to consult a contemporary prophet, rather than the letters of Paul.

Re: your second and third questions:

"Do you have an expectation that if there were to be NT scriptures, Jesus would have to have told us about them in advance?"

If Jesus meant for an official canon to be created by man, He would have suggested as much, yes.

I'm afraid I couldn't find your third question.

"To take the view that those who knew Jesus personally..."

Wait a second, I thought we were ALL supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Do you hold that the Apostles speaking to Jesus in person was more intrinsically valuable than us speaking to him through prayer? (This question is not rhetorical)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

If the Apostles are not necessarily better at understanding Jesus's words than we are, then he could not have been a good teacher. I don't see how we get around that. Science and technology comparisons aren't especially relevant. In fact, it seems almost bizarre to think so. We read secular ancient philosophers today and find them valuable for more than historical curiosity, because we do not especially advance in such topics.

I don't see that we necessarily "advance" in art, or literature, or philosophy. People find and explore some new things, but Homer, Plato, and Rembrandt remain as valuable as they were centuries ago. Da Vinci would be a good example. We might marvel at his cleverness in science at being ahead of his time, but we no longer go to him for scientific knowledge. We might yet go to him for instruction in art, however, because that is an entirely different kind of knowledge.

When you say that the canon was "created by man" you are rather begging the question. As we know absolutely nothing about him except what people wrote, I am not sure what method of understanding him you are expecting should have happened instead.

More fundamentally, what is your basis for such an opinion? I don't see how you get beyond "Well, it just feels like it should be that way," no matter how you put it. You are taking a position that is radically different from the virtual entirety of Christian teaching over the centuries. I would think you would have to muster a fairly powerful set of arguments to be persuasive.

As to knowing Christ in prayer, such knowledge has consistently been subject to confirmation by other believers, sometimes over long periods of time. Anything less than that, and my psychotic patients (I have two at the moment who believe they are prophets) are on equal footing.

karrde said...

On the whole Chosen People front, I am reminded of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.

"Couldn't You choose someone else, every once in a while?"

The title of Chosen People can be a source of either pride or humility. It is worth remembering that several times, the Prophets reminded Israel that they were not Chosen because of any special trait they had.

The question is, "Who did the Choosing?" and "What does the Choice mean?"

@Anonymous, I'd like to pick at one of your off-hand examples.

How is Jesus opinion of smartphones different from His opinion towards non-smartphones? Or land-line telephones? Or telegraphs? Or semaphore messaging? Or letter-writing? Or face-to-face conversation?

With the exception of the last, each of these was an invention that changed common cultural modes of communication. None of them changed the moral content of communication. People can still use them for good or evil purposes.

I study Scripture (and other Christian authors from the history of the church) not to know what Jesus would say about the latest cool toy. I study them to know the moral code Jesus promulgated, and to help myself apply it to my use of smartphones (and cars, motorcycles, guns, writing computer code, shopping, voting, etc.).