New Testament Christians

New Testament Christians.

I didn’t know there was such a thing.

Certainly, there were many Christians from my youth, and many still today, who largely ignore the bulk of what we call the Old Testament—I myself find it a difficult read—but I didn’t realize that some make a point to ‘unhinge’ their Christianity from that treasure of the Christian Bible.

It would be wrong of me to simplify these persons’ beliefs and then cast these arguments aside as naive or misinformed, but I do want to make clear my own position.

First, let me say that the Old Testament has never been the focus of any worthy effort at scholarship in my own studies. I know the books of Genesis, Isaiah, the Psalms, and Jeremiah reasonably well, and I listened over the years to all the Old Testament readings that are included in my Church’s lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days, but that isn’t saying all that much, I know.

If that is an admission of ignorance, so be it. There is quite a lot I do not know.

I hold to the belief, however, that our study of the Old Testament can only help us better understand who is Jesus and why He was sent to us. To turn away from the lessons and wisdom of the Old Testament reminds me—sadly so—of efforts to ‘clean up’ the New Testament. We can’t take it upon ourselves to ridicule, disown, nullify, or shove aside those portion of Scripture that we dislike. Jesus Himself said some hard things, things we may not think are very inclusive or compassionate today or, we might say, even practical in a fallen world, but I don’t think that Christ’s philosophy, His teachings, His example, can be easily excised from His purpose. And that is to save us. He means for none of us to be misdirected or to be lost.

And as He told us—tells us—our lives are made of struggle. That we wrestle with Scripture—turn it over in our minds, question it, make demands of it—is to be expected and I don’t think that ignorance in this is a wise practice.

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Religion and Stamps—Nazi Germany

One of my interests is philately—stamp collecting—and though it is not one of my specific collecting themes, I take note of religious expression on stamps. While it will not likely surprise anyone to hear that few communist nations printed postage stamps with religious themes, it may surprise some to hear that Hitler’s Germany printed none at all in its twelve years of existence. The Nazi regime was not friendly to traditional Catholic or Lutheran churches, but the churches did continue to celebrate religious services. Religious expression in the public sphere was, over time, channeled into the nationalist and German folk activities of the Nazi Party.  Jews, of course, were terrorized, imprisoned, and murdered, as were many Jehovah Witness members.

I found only one example of a stamp used by the Nazis that was imprinted with the word ‘Weihnachten’ (Christmas.) The stamps themselves were Italian, leftover from when the Italians were allied to Germany, I suppose, or of no real use because of the lira`s devaluation. The imprint ‘Weihnachten 1944’ was placed on some 25,000 stamps as gifts for German troops fighting on Rhodes and perhaps in the areas around the island. These imprinted stamps allowed troops to contact family and friends at home.

West Germany, in contrast, began producing its own stamps in 1949 and issued a stamp in 1952 honoring Martin Luther and the Lutheran World Federation assembly held in Hanover that year. Other stamps followed which displayed religious themes, such as a stamp issued in 1954 marking the 500-year anniversary of the Gutenberg Bible.

Prophecy and Revelation after Christ (I)

This post is really a continuation of the previous post Does God Speak to Us Today? Here, I thought I would start a discussion of religious faiths that may stem from the Judeo-Christian, but are informed by prophets and revelation that appear after Christ.

I can’t name them all—probably an impossible task—but I will try to cover the best known of these faiths. Islam, without doubt, is the most popular of these. The Islamic faithful number almost two billion souls and is the fastest growing of today’s religious traditions among what are often called the ‘great religions.’¹

Islam is an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion just as are Judaism and Christianity. That there has been such fierce antagonism between these three over a number of centuries always surprises me, though I suppose it is not theology that divides them as much as politics in its various forms.

Like Christianity, Islam holds that the time of prophecy has ended. For Islam, Muhammad (Muhammad ibn ʿAbdullāh) is the “Seal of the Prophets.” That is, he is the last prophet. The Qur’ân, Islam’s holy book, was revealed to Muhammad by God through the angel Gabriel (Jibril) and the Islamic faithful understand it to be the only scripture protected by God from any distortion or corruption.²

Furthermore, Islamic scholars argue against any truly meaningful translation of the Qur’ân. The text, they argue, was transmitted in Arabic and must remain so, unfortunately out of the reach of speakers of other languages, even Islamic followers. Still, memorizing and reciting the Qur’ân, as if it were a kind of music, is highly encouraged.³

As I understand it, revelation has not stopped in Islam, although it is of a different order or kind than what one might call specifically ‘divine revelation.’ Divine revelation, the highest form, addresses itself to liturgical and eschatological issues. It answers our questions regarding God’s purpose for creating mankind, and acts as a guide for following the correct way. Divine revelation ended with Muhammad. It is formed distinctly by words, words as could be published in a book.

Revelation of a different order is disclosed to an individual’s heart, so to speak, or to his reason. That is, he ‘hears’ the word of God in some other fashion. This second, lower form might be described as hearing the word as if ‘from behind a veil.’

 

 

Footnote 1. Far be it for me to label any of the religious traditions as anything less than great (in their own way), but I suspect the label ‘great religions’ simply applies to great numbers of faithful. The familiar list includes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

This list, however, can be expanded easily enough to include the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, Chinese traditional religion, Sikhism, Bahai, Neo-Paganism, Jainism, Shinto, Unitarian-Universalism, and certainly more.

Footnote 2. In truth, various codices were created by Muhammad’s companions after his death and there are small differences among them. The Caliph Uthman established a standard version, now known as Uthman’s codex, and it is widely considered the archetype of the Qur’ân we know today.

Footnote 3. I can’t help but compare this to the Roman Catholic Mass celebrated in Latin rather than the vernacular. Translations from the Latin were always made available, of course, but one must realize that the majority of the Catholic faithful followed the Mass as a kind of holy pantomime. I’ve experienced the Latin Mass and found it strangely compelling, involving in a way not dependent on language.

As for translating Holy Scripture, I’m always a little taken back by those English speakers who hold to the King James Bible as if it were the Word of God, as first presented, and not a step away from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek.

Does God Speak to Us Today?

I don’t think there is any doubt that God speaks to us today through Holy Scripture, but this question seems posed, in modern times, to ask a different question entirely. One might better ask, Does God speak to us today in ways outside of our reading and recitation of Scripture?

Even this may not be the best way of putting forward the question, one which I now understand is somewhat controversial in some circles.

Let’s begin, then, with common ground. Can we agree that God, perhaps in the form of the Holy Spirit, still acts upon us today? Do we agree that God both hears and answers our prayers?

If we answer affirmatively to these questions, as I think we must, then the blessings God bestows upon us, the baptism we receive into the Faith, certainly communicates—initiates—a vital, experiential change in us.

This action of God fills us, and moves us, in a way beyond words. We are reached in a way outside the reading of Scripture, but never outside its teachings. It bears repeating and some explication: We are not moved to any true understanding of God—necessary for our salvation—that is not found in His Holy Word. Biblical scholars discuss Scripture endlessly, but we know that the message of the Bible is clear and undisputed: It is by God’s grace alone that we are saved. It is an undeserved, unmerited gift.

As for the ‘miraculous’ gifts of the Holy Spirit which many Charismatic Christians believe are available to us today—those that Paul tells us will be discontinued—I have no personal experience in a Christian context.¹ They are, to be clear, the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and miraculous knowledge. I refrain from making further comment now, but I do hope to explore this topic in a bit more detail in the near future.

I might add here, however, something about a misconception I encountered in my recent reading. I found a certain mistrust of what Roman Catholics and others call lectio divina. The apparent belief was that such readings of Scripture might distort His Holy Word. This misunderstanding arises, I believe, from confusing this form of Bible study with the experience of Christian mystics. (Another good topic for discussion.)

The listening to God in lectio divina does not describe His literal voice speaking to us, or any knowledge new to man, but a deepening of the individual’s understanding of what is before him in Scripture.

We should allow ourselves to become women and men who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19:12); the “faint murmuring sound” which is God’s word for us, God’s voice touching our hearts. This gentle listening is an ‘at[t]unement’ to the presence of God in that special part of God’s creation which is the Scriptures.

Quoted from ACCEPTING THE EMBRACE of GOD: THE ANCIENT ART of LECTIO DIVINA
by Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B.

From here.

Footnote 1: In my study of anthropology, I was an observer to a variety of religious ceremonies, rites, and practices, not all Christian. One of these included the speaking of tongues.

An Atheist Walks into a Coffee Bar

I read today something about how unprepared many religious are in the face of arguments from atheists. I was surprised, to be quite honest.

There is no argument for an atheist.

Atheists look for what they call facts. We religious move in a world of both fact and faith.

The religious worldview, we understand—its cosmology, for that matter—is just as satisfying to the attuned intellect as is mathematics, to give just one example.

I remember how fascinated I was when I learned about non-Euclidean geometry. There existed a ‘world’ where axioms were established that were different than for the ‘real’ Euclidean view. Mathematicians can compare the two systems, but they cannot reconcile them without acknowledging their essential, existential differences. And reconciliation here means simply that both sides can see from where the other stands.

This is where the religious find themselves with atheists. Both groups will continue to talk past each other until they acknowledge that their belief systems stem from different ‘worlds.’ Remarkably civil conversations can follow from this.

And when the two bid each other goodbye, one might wish the other God’s blessing. The other might answer with ‘Live long and prosper.’

Both are lovely.

Can God Lift a Stone…

Sometimes one hears the question asked: Can God lift a stone that is too heavy for Him?

It’s meant as a provocative question, I suppose, or a test of logic. In essence, the problem is one of language alone, but the question does tells us something about the omnipotence of God.

God, we understand, is all-powerful. In a simple way, we say that He can do anything. But this isn’t true. Instead, we must realize that God is all-powerful—yes—but He can do only what matches His nature.

As an example, as God is all-loving, He cannot commit an evil act. Again, He is limited by His nature. We may blame Him for many things, but we see Creation through the rather distorting and exceedingly inadequate lense of Man. It is our faith that allows us to see a hint of what are God’s purposes and ends. As mortals, in a fallen world, this is what sustains us—our faith and trust in God.

As for the initial question posed: Can God lift a stone that is too heavy for him? I would ask you to show me that stone. Or—to make matters easier, perhaps—show me a stone that weighs the square root of negative two pounds?

Mary’s Virginity

I worry sometimes that feminist theorists see Mary’s virginity as connected in an essential way to her being without sin. This would be truly unfortunate.

While sexual relations may not be essential to marriage, many cultures see this coupling as the consummation of marriage. I would assume that most consider sexual relations an expectation of marriage and one of its great joys. Marriage within the Church gives this physical act of love and sharing its wholehearted blessing and helps bind man and wife in its wisdom. Marriage obligations are not meant to weigh on a couple’s shoulders, but to free them to be genuine and true.

Mary’s continued virginity in marriage is not meant as a guide for all of us. Far from it. The conception of children is God’s allowing us to take part in His creation. It is a wondrous thing, a holy thing.

But Mary’s continued virginity is instructive in a way of life that lifts us up from the realm of our limited senses, up from temporal things and fleeting pleasures.

In our struggle against the temptations of sin, we have to arm ourselves with a strength that might be considered dispassionate, indifferent. Perhaps. But I think it goes beyond that. It is a certainty that we are destined for something more than the illusionary desires of one moment in time.

Mary’s example is not meant as a censure of physical pleasure or our natural desire for intimacy. Moreover, it is not a model for obedience to anyone but God. In her life with Joseph, there is no doubt in my mind that the two of them reached decisions for their family through mutual respect and consensus.

And remember who it was who instructed Jesus to perform His first miracle. It was Mary, one of scripture’s many powerful women.