Friday, February 27, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 2/25 Post

Interesting insights, Rami!

I am particularly taken with the rabbinic insistence that fasting be tied to providing food for the poor. Quite a number of Christians now make the same connection. For example, a number of Christians of my acquaintance fast on Fridays throughout Lent and donate the money they would have spent on food to help feed the hungry.

Such practices make sense to me. At the very least, they actually feed someone who needs food. They also help the one fasting to remember all spiritual practices have something more than personal benefit or even transformation in view. In the end, spiritual disciplines must not only strengthen our bond with God but also with our "neighbor."

I like your question: "...who are the hypocrites?" Traditional Christian interpretation often assumes Jesus meant some of the Pharisees. Personally, though, I think both of us may be tempted to make a mistake when we ask the question--the mistake of assuming that first century documents ever tell the whole story. My guess is that Jesus had in mind people he knew or encountered, people whose personal practice departed from the norm of first century Jewish life with regard to fasting.

I don't know that I would say fasting's primary purpose is help one "get right with God." Fasting, like any spiritual disciple, may clear or refocus one's mind, freeing it from many distractions, so that it may better apprehend the truth about one's self and the presence of God. As I've noted, this should always lead the individual to better align with the purposes of God, not the least of which is to minister to others. Like any spiritual discipline, fasting is not an end in itself, but a means toward an desirable end.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 2/18 Post

As you said, Mike, fasting was common in Jesus’ day, but Jesus’ teaching is a bit confusing to me.

First of all, who are the “hypocrites”? The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursday, the weekdays when the Torah is read in the synagogue, but there is no outward sign for these fasts. If the disfigured face Jesus is referring to means a face unwashed accompanied by hair unoiled, the prohibition against washing and anointing is only found in regard to Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year, and one on which all Jews fast. Could Jesus be downplaying Yom Kippur? And since the prohibition of washing and oiling one’s hair was applicable to everyone, are all Jews hypocrites?

It may be that Jesus is attacking fasting in general, though he himself fasted for forty days (Matthew 4:1-2). In the Gospel According to Mark (2: 18-20 NRSV) Jesus abolishes all fasting for his followers as long as he is alive: “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? … The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” It sounds like Jesus is abolishing fasting as a practice with the exception of a fast on the day of his death. It is possible to read the text as meaning an annual fast on Good Friday or just a fast for his followers on the first Good Friday. According to the Didache (8:1) the early Christians followed the Pharisaic custom of fasting twice weekly, but did so on Wednesday and Friday to avoid being mistaken for Jews, but I couldn't find anything about fasting on Good Friday.

Your understanding of fasting as a means of shifting one’s focus from self to God makes sense, though the rabbis frowned on private fasting (Taanit 11a) as a way of repentance, and focused the meaning of fast days on the needs of the poor. Those who fast are obligated to give charity to the poor so that the poor would have enough money to eat well when the fast is over (Sanhedrin 35a).

It seems to me that Jesus is balancing his political teachings regarding justice to the poor with inward–focused practices bringing one closer to God. If so Jesus’ take on this particular practice is a departure from the rabbis who taught that fasting is not about getting right with God, but about doing right by the poor: “The merit of the fast day is in the amount of charity given to the poor” (Berachot 6b).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mike: Matthew 6:16-18

"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truely I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your heavenly Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18) (NRSV)

We move into a series of sayings on fasting, treasure, and allegiance. Let's take up fasting in this post.

Fasting was an acceptable act of piety in Jesus' day. To the best of my knowledge, he had no issue with fasting per se. He was less enthralled with what he felt to be a self-defeating form of public fasting. Perhaps with a bit of exaggeration, Jesus paints a picture of someone who alerts others that he or she is fasting by assuming a gloomy look or decorating their face with ashes, paint or such. I don't believe Jesus cared one way or the other about the use of ashes or other facial decoration. His question was: For whom or for what reason are you fasting?

His targets fasted in order to get public credit for the act. More subtly, they fasted in order to gain a kind of power over those who observed them. In such cases, fasting became not a tool for spiritual liberation but a means of binding oneself even more tightly to the "normal" human game of social manipulation.

Jesus opted for private fasting. While one might well go out in public while fasting, one's appearance and behavior ought to give no clue that one was fasting. To Jesus way of thinking, fasting was meant to be a tool that might free us to better experience or focus on God.

That's the point of the language about God seeing what is done in secret and rewarding us. The reward is not something postponed until some judgment day, but instead comes in bits and pieces, and occasional transcendent moments, as we experience liberation from preoccupation with self coupled with a sharp awareness of the reality/presence of God.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 2/11 Post

This was very helpful. Let me just clarify my thoughts a bit, and then I want to go more deeply into the issue of the nondual.

I didn’t mean to say that the dualism of God versus the Devil that seems to haunt much of Christianity came directly from Zoroastrianism. You are right that Zoroastrian ideas entered Judaism during the Babylonian exile in the latter decades of the sixth century BCE. I just meant that there seems to be a parallel view between Christian and Zoroastrian dualism.

Dualism is the great error of the western religious traditions. The pitting of God against some form of personified evil lends itself to identifying one’s enemies as being against God. The terms we use for those we oppose make this all too clear: heretics, infidels, unbelievers, etc. If God is battling with the Devil, and we are on the side of God, it just stands to reason that those who stand against us stand against God.

The idea of unbelief is so ingrained in our culture that even President Obama used it in his inaugural address speaking of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and unbelievers. There are no unbelievers, only people who believe differently.

We might sum up the entire history of Abrahamic religion as: My God is bigger/truer than your god, and I can prove it by killing more of you than you can kill of us. Body count as religious proof¬¬–text is a horrible legacy. I’m exaggerating of course, but not by much.

The solution though is not less religion but better religion. And by better I mean religion rooted in a nondual understanding of reality. Nondualism as I would define it here is the belief that all things are manifestations of a singular reality I call God. This is not the same as saying there is one God, for one only makes sense in opposition to many. The One and the many is subsumed into the larger whole that is the nondual singularity.

When Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. The one who abides in me while I abide in him bears much fruit,” (John 15:5) he is speaking in nondual metaphor. There is a clear distinction between vine and branches, and yet both are part of a single living system. We are in God and God is in us, just as the wave is in the ocean and the ocean in the wave. Similarly the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) says, “the eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me,” again speaking to a nondual understanding of reality. Every religion has this insight, though in the west it is limited to mystics.

In nondualism good and evil are both aspects of the singular reality, God. To limit God to the good alone is to define God down from the all to the less than all. Seen this way temptation and resisting temptation is all a part of God.

Mike: Response to Rami's 2/10 Post

Thank you for pointing to the affinity between the morning liturgy of the Authorized Jewish Prayer Book and the Lord's Prayer passage. Like you, I find it rather striking.

That being said, let's take up your various comments relative to Jesus and Christianity's understanding of the devil, evil, and the like.

The Greek term in question may be translated either as "the evil one" or "evil." Even in the other passage you mention (Matthew 13:19), the Greek term might be rendered either as "the evil one" or "the enemy."

More importantly, any account of Jesus' concept of the devil or evil should take the rest of his teachings into account. For example, Jesus made it clear he thought our greatest danger came from within ourselves. Even the classic accounts of the temptations in the wilderness do not require us to posit a literal devil with a capital "D." The account itself leaves it to the reader to decide if the conflict takes place between two individuals facing each other in the desert, or within the mind and heart of Jesus. Given the teaching I mentioned first, I believe the latter most likely. If this is the case, I tend to think Jesus' concept fits within the broad scope of first century Jewish thought, even as we've found considerable continuity between Jesus and first century Jewish teachers with regard to other matters.

You're quite correct that the Satan plays a relatively minor role in the Hebrew Bible, though Job does take up a good bit of space, and the story itself certainly exercised considerable influence on both Jewish and Christian imagination. The influence of Persian Zoroastrianism, insofar as I can tell, found its way into Jewish thought during the exile. Quite a few years had passed, of course, and Judaism (for the most part) had resolved the matter along the lines you suggest. Again, it seems to me Jesus's concept is congruent with this resolution.

That being said, I see little evidence that the writers of the gospels opted for Persian dualism. They used the language of the day, language that later readers took either literally or as metaphor. Such are the limits of language.

Certainly, formal Christian thought rather consistently rejected the dualism you posit, insisting on the unity of God and the role of God as creator of all. Evil, sin, and even a literal Satan (in those cases where a writer so believed) were the consequences of free will abused. Even so, evil is not free of God in Christian thought; God shall take even its worst consequences and bring forth something new and good that otherwise would not have been.

Having said all of the above, like you I know any number of American Christians who function as dualists. The reasons, I think, lie within American history and culture, ranging from the influence of revivialism as developed since the Second Great Awakening, premillenial dispensationalism, and popular fiction. Dualism is one of the great temptations which beset each generation of Christians. Properly understood, though, neither the New Testament or historical Christian thought endorses it.

The matter probably merits additional conversation over Mexican food!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 2/9 Post

Two things strike me in this passage, Mike. First is its affinity with Jewish liturgy, and second its departure from Jewish psychology.

The similarity is found in the morning liturgy of the Authorized Jewish Prayer Book:

And may it be thy will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, to make us familiar with thy Law, and to make us cleave to thy commandments. O lead us not into the power of sin, or of transgression or iniquity, or of temptation, or of scorn: let not the evil inclination have sway over us: keep us far from a bad man and a bad companion: make us cleave to the good inclination and to good works: subdue our inclination so that it may submit itself unto thee; and let us obtain this day, and every day, grace, favor and mercy in your eyes, and in the eyes of all who behold us; and bestow loving-kindnesses upon us. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who bestows loving-kindnesses upon thy people Israel.

Both Jesus and Jewish liturgy worry that God might lead us to sin or times of moral testing. I take this metaphorically. When I say that God is testing me I mean that life is presenting me with challenges that force me to make difficult choices. I don’t imagine that God is consciously doing this. This is simply the nature of reality, and, since for me God is reality, it is the will of God.

What is more interesting to me is Jesus’ use of “the evil one” verses the rabbis’ use of the “evil inclination.” If my memory is correct, the Greek for “evil one” is masculine suggesting that Jesus is talking about Satan or the Devil. Jesus uses the same term in the Parable of the Sower where “the evil one” steals what has been sown (Matthew 13:19).

It seems that Jesus believes in an independent Devil working in opposition to Kingdom people, while the rabbis saw evil more as an aspect of human psychology: “the imagination of the human heart is evil from its youth (Genesis 8:21), and “every imagination of the thought of the human heart is only evil” (Genesis 6:5). “Imagination” here means selfish fantasies that excuse exploitative and harmful behavior. The rabbis believed that the human capacity for such thinking develops around puberty (youth).

Satan is nearly absent from the Hebrew Bible, and by the time of Jesus most rabbis understand Satan to be a metaphor for the evil inclination. In this way they reject any independent source of evil at war with God. This is probably one of the major differences between Judaism and many forms of Christianity.

The Christian position posits Satan as the prince of this world, and in this way mimics Persian Zoroastrianism which pits Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light, against Angra Mainyu, the Lord of Darkness. While Ahura Mazda is destined to triumph, humans must choose sides. Substitute Jesus for Ahura Mazda and Satan for Angra Mainyu and I know lots of Christians who would assent to this belief.

Judaism is too monotheistic for this. We prefer Isaiah 45:2 where God admits that good and evil are both of God. For us evil is a psychological phenomenon fully within our power to control: “sin lurks at the door, and desires you, and you shall rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Or as the second century rabbi Simon Ben Zoma taught, “Who is strong? One who controls the evil inclination” (Pirke Avot 4:2).

I find it odd that the Jewish writers of the Gospels would have opted for Persian dualism over Isaiah’s biblically normative monotheism. Their decision had huge consequences for Christian belief through the centuries. As far as I know no other religious tradition is as concerned with the Devil as is Christianity at least in its western forms.

Thoughts on this?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mike: Matthew 6:13

Let's move on to the next passage: "And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one." (Matthew 6:13) (NRSV). Many of us memorized the KJV version: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The NIV splits the difference: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
Translation is a bit of art. Each version represents a faithful attempt to render the Greek in English.

That being said, what might Jesus have in mind? Start with "the time of trial." Most Christian commentators, myself included, interpret the petition in terms of proper humility. A follower of Jesus recognizes his or her limits. We do not seek tests of faithfulness, mostly because we admit our strength inadequate to ensure we will make the right choices.

In the gospels, Peter serves as the model of a follower who long failed to recognize his own weakness. Peter rashly declares he will be faithful to Jesus regardless of circumstances, only to betray Jesus three times before the dawn of the next day. In the setting of the last supper, Peter seems to crave to be tested. He is convinced of his unbreakable integrity. Peter's humilating defeat by the fireside is traumatic not least because it destroys his inflated sense of his own invincibility. Lesson one: Do not seek to be tested.

The petition, however, suggests that God indeed may test us, even as Jesus was tested in the wilderness. A wise person asks God not to do so, even as she or he recognizes God is free to impose such testing for God's own reasons. The gospel model of this approach is the prayer of Jesus in the garden: "Let this cup pass from my lips; nonetheless, not my will but your will be done." The petition holds the potential to renovate our mindset, so that we increasingly trust the loving God will not place us in any situation beyond his power to see us through (even if we should die in the process).

"Rescue us from the evil one" is a perfectly fine translation, but I rather prefer the KJV: "And deliver us from evil." We speak such a petition because we increasingly sense the scope of the opposition, the weight of that which would separate us from God. Evil as embodied in human institutions, ways of thinking, unwritten codes, and daily practice wields enormous power. By the time most of us become able to think abstractly, we are so entangled by such evil as to make it practically impossible to escape on our own. Through the petition, we ask for God's ongoing intervention on our behalf.

Keep in mind, of course, that all of the above applies not only to the individual but to groups as well. In the case of Christians, we pray the petition on behalf not only of ourselves but for the entire Body of Christ. Personally, I pray the petition on behalf of all humanity.

We pray the petition continually, recognizing that even the light we are given today burns only through that portion of the darkness nearest us. We shall need yet more light if we are to walk very far.