Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Pistévomen eis éna Theón

I am challenged to say if I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the mocking way of anti-Christians and atheists.   To which the short answer is, I don't know, I wasn't there, I can't help feel it's none of my business.  It has little to do with why I believe that what Jesus said was true and why I think his public ministry was the greatest unfolding of the inspiration of God of which I'm aware.

I was raised a Catholic and was, from my early childhood,  quite taken with reading on the topic of religion.  I didn't, in the way of the time, memorize, verbatim, the Baltimore Catechism but I could paraphrase its answers to its endless questions pretty accurately.  In my adolescence I came to doubt and for several decades described myself as an agnostic.  A good part of that was that I held the stupid, unrealistic view of what constituted "knowledge" that I've come in the past two decades to realize is a false and phony pose of modernism but which has nothing to do with how ideas are held to be known in real life even by those most wedded to that notion of objective, impersonal knowledge.  It's amazing to me now how long I fell for that crap when my own experience, if observed closely and honestly would have told me otherwise.

In that period in the spiritual desert I still retained my interest in religion, reading a lot about Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, especially in its agnostic Theravada form.  I flirted with the quasi-Christian cultures of Unitarianism and the local, decidedly, in that period, non-Christian Quaker meeting, though I never committed to them.  In time I have become especially unattracted to Unitarianism, at least as it was presented by its formal writers.  I did like the early, decidedly Christian Universalist writers up to the period when they started dissolving into a Unitarian mush*. My gradual disillusionment with Buddhism came on the issue of justice, which I've written about recently, my disillusionment with Unitarianism is, I think, related to my gradual distrust of the "enlightenment" and modernism [See note].

Oddly, or so it seems to me now, my renewal of faith in Christianity followed on my reading of stuff from The Jesus Seminar - which I've pretty much got no use for, anymore - especially John Dominic Crossan.  Especially his book The Historical Jesus from the early 1990s.   Though my view of Jesus and what he said is definitely different from Crossan's and I think a lot of his conclusions are probably wrong, that book had as profound an influence in leading me back to Christianity as anything I read that turned me to agnosticism.  I can't remember if reading a closer, critical**, study of the words of Jesus was instrumental in taking a closer look at agnosticism and the theory of knowledge my agnosticism was based in,  I really don't remember.   That was a far longer and less formal process.  I know my reading of the great Quaker physicist  Arthur Stanley Eddington on the philosophy of physics had a huge impact on what I came to believe in that regard.  I think it might have been what shook loose my rigid, irrational belief in the possibility of objectively knowing something and forced me to confront the fact that, in the end, we choose what we believe, even those things we claim as knowledge.

I think the most important thing is how closely what we believe in strongly enough so it has a consistent effect on our actions is consistent with doing to others what we would have them do to us. That is the basis of my Christianity, how we treat the least among us, how we treat our enemies, those unrelated or unconnected to us, the alien among us, etc.  I do think that when Jesus gave his New Commandment to his followers, that they were to love each other as he loved them, it meant even more than that, I believe when he gave his indirectly stated Commandment to do to the Least Among Us what we would do to God, it is him speaking as the actual incarnation of God as the Holy Ghost who said it.  How that came to happen, through his own incarnation or as a matter of adoption, I don't know and I don't claim to know.  I do know that I believe it and I hope that, as I work at it, I'll get better at acting that way.  It's hardly a finished thing, it's hardly done.  If I'll become an orthodox Catholic or Christian, I don't know.

I will add that I've also been reading a lot from the early, pre-Augustinian theologians and find a lot in them that I think was buried in the West by Augustine and those influenced by him.  Gregory of Nyssa, especially, and especially his relationship of universal salvation as the ultimate summation of the Creation which is good and the place of Christ in that idea the universe is what I'm in the middle of now.  I doubt I'll live to get through all of that, those guys wrote an awful lot and a lot of it isn't easy going.   While I'm sort of dubious about the project of squaring the Hebrew revelation of the prophets and Jesus with classical Greek philosophy, I can understand why it was necessary for people who lived in what was still, largely, a pagan world  It is far more in Gregory's insights into the scriptures, themselves, that I'm finding it worthwhile.  I will admit it was his abolitionism - gotten from his sister, The Teacher, St. Macrina the Younger - was what first attracted me to him.  Also his great respect for her and her superior knowledge which he didn't hesitate to acknowledge. I get the feeling from reading him that he considered her greater than his scholarly brother Basil or their friend, the great theologian Gregory of Nazianzus   For someone living in the 4th century, he is astonishingly radical.   If by their fruits you are to judge the teaching authority of someone speaking in the name of Jesus, I think Gregory's are especially good.

Probably not the answer you wanted but it's the one you're getting.   I can say that when I listen to the Sixth Regard, Par Lui tout a été fait, I believe entirely and without reservation.

*  I've told the story of the old lady I knew who was raised in a Universalist Church but who left it when those amalgamated themselves to the Unitarians.   She was an active member of a United Church of Christ congregation when I knew her.

Note:  I wrote this comment earlier today at RMJ's blog

Unfortunately, it wasn't only Republicans who gave up on good will and morality. Liberals did to an extent that it was destructive of liberalism. I would guess that easily a third to a half of those who identify as liberals would more honestly qualify as libertarians. It takes more than a mere and vague sense of niceness, such as is sometimes found among college faculty, to carry off liberal government.

The undermining of morality is one of the most enduring programs of modernism. I know it might seem like beating a horse I shot a long time ago but I do attribute a lot of that to the framing of Darwinism, natural selection does not produce kindness or generosity or even a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of the weaker, the more unfortunate, the more disadvantaged. The Social Darwinist economics of which AynRand is merely a more ruthless expression is, in fact, and by Darwin's own definition, the same thing as natural selection. This is the real message of William Jennings Bryan in his undelivered final argument in the Scopes Trial. I have sometimes wished I could find out what Scopes would have thought of that later in his life after he converted to Catholicism, something left out of the plays and movies that inform most people's would-be knowledge of that trial.


  1. Well, the original Hebrew of Isaiah is "young girl," meaning a new generation, that the Messiah would come in the future, and Israel would still be around. It's a message from the Babylonian Exile, in other words, not a prophecy aimed at Bethlehem in a year certain.

    Matthew picks it up because he's (probably more than one author, actually, but tradition) grabbing at every scriptural source he can to legitimate the claims of Christians about Jesus of Nazareth. The interesting issue is how the nativity stories actually elevate women: Gabriel comes to Mary in Luke (Joseph is invisible there, and silent in both gospels), and in both Jesus is human because of Mary, but of God because of God. I should explore how Augustine buried that sometimes (if he did).

    We really need to ponder Sojourner Truth's words that "Man had nothin' to do with it!", regarding the nativity.

    Is it critical that Jesus's mother be a virgin? It is if you think original sin is procreated by procreation. If you don't think that, then the virginity of Mary becomes rather superfluous, and besides: her virginity is a Catholic doctrine, not a Christian one. Yes, most Christians accept Matthew's "virgin" (from the KJV, a bad translation and a word with a different meaning in the 17th century than it has in the 21st), but only Catholics have a doctrine that she stayed "pure" the rest of her life.

    The bigger problem is that: who does sin enter us? Or: is "original sin" really all that important a concept? As you say, reconciling Hebraic thought to Hellenistic, seems less and less useful an effort (a project of modern Continental philosophy, interestingly enough; or at least made more possible because of it).

    1. I think it's something I'll continue to table, though the history of the idea is interesting.

      I will admit that a lot of the stuff in even the Cappadocians doesn't seem to me to be especially relevant to what seems important, though it obviously was to people at the time. I do wonder how much of that came from their continuing interaction with the still living pagan philosophical tradition and their need to have philosophical credibility with people trained in that tradition.

      Those people, right on the edge of the end of the persecution and the domination of Christianity are interesting in that light. The family of Gregory was the first generation to come after the end of the persecution, his grandparents had experienced it, St. Macrina the Elder and her husband had. I'm not sure about his, Macrina the Younger and Basil's parents.

      I'm not entirely sure that any of that really matters. Jesus didn't seem to be all that concerned about whether or not virginity was that big an issue. Today's lectionary has his remarks about prostitutes and tax collectors entering in the kingdom.

      So much I wish I'd done decades ago but I got hoodwinked by the 18th century.

  2. Christianity has decided the fundamentals are: baptism in the name of the Trinity (Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit); communion as a sacrament; and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (what that means is, really, up to the individual).

    The rest is negotiable, or negligible, depending on your point of view. So arguments about virgin births and moving stars are all really beside the point; but the unknowing like to think that is the stone we all stumble over (what the stone is varying, of course).

    I agree with you: it has much more to do with action than with idea, with behavior than intent, activity over ideology. "Atheists" who want to argue, want to argue ideology, which they think is theology.

    It's so irrelevant it seems almost more polite to ignore them.