Monday, April 13, 2009

Inside and outside

It is all too easy to feel like an outsider in a strange context. This is partly the problem Paul had in writing to the Romans and trying to get them to be true to the Shema (as Mark Nanos interprets Paul's reference in Romans 3:27). But consider - if Paul thought that the Gentiles were being grafted into Israel and Israel as represented by the established Diaspora communities within the structure of the Empire wanted no such thing - then there would be sharp resistance. All three Abrahamic faiths have put up boundaries of confession or exclusivity. Allowing the Oneness of God in our collective hearts is therefore very difficult for us. It is more than an intellectual or even political problem. The action called for is difficult and that's without even considering the influence of secularism - which itself has much to commend it for its honest skepticism. I wonder how a unifying voice can be heard.

I hear people like Rachel Barenblatt through her poetry and personal experience. I find Irshad Manji works perceptively for Islam and I am looking forward to April Deconick for early Christian history. Among recent scholars, I enjoy James McGrath for his questioning.

If there is a unity - and this I believe, for I believe that the light is good (Genesis 1:4) and that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), and that our agreement on this alone would be some measure of unity in faith - but if there is such unity, it cannot call for a conversion between 'religions' or even for a conversion to 'religion'. Even for Christians, conversion is not equivalent to fulfilling the great commission and thereby 'making disciples', whatever the head counters think.

Rather I think it may be expressible by negatives: turning away from those things that damage others, turning away from fear and defensive positions. Such acts are hard enough. If, on the other hand, there is only competition for scarce resources and a lack of real creativity, then we have only a limited transience to celebrate and we can look forward to more self-protection at all costs, war and destruction. Should we then conclude that "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" is the only sensible response to the real?

That is why the negative approach is simplest to say. The positive approach cannot be known unless the barriers are down. Limited resources and fear are both barriers but they are not the most powerful. Among the powerful is the need to be right and to be inside rather than outside. Is it also deceptive? Can we in fact be right and continue hurting others by our insecurity? Can we be inside through accepting a confession of faith and yet still know within us a noisy chaos?

John did not write, God so loved the church... (John 3:16) nor did Jesus in John's gospel limit himself to Israel as he did in the synoptic gospels. But there is no mention of Christianity as a religion. Believing that God is love does not require you to be a Christian. Salvation and joy are not exclusive to Christianity. Paul is not remotely happy with such a possibility (Galatians 2:18) nor is he necessarily exclusive as the fundamentalists say over the definition of who is a 'brother' (Romans 14:15).

Religions have gathered (pace Hebrews) and enforced gathering and confession because of fear and through violence. Even translations are molded to subdue the people to the powers that be. Translations often without warning substitute a word or phrase that interprets what the translator thinks the word should say - not what it does say. (Try it, you will soon see what I mean - there is no substitute for training the ear than conducting a choir or learning to play a stringed instrument in an orchestra.)

I am biased of course. I do not think I could know these things for myself except through the Anointing I have come to know through the word and life of Jesus. I also note that others like the Sufi who seem to record a similar experience (see my post here) are often persecuted for incarnationalism. I must remain critical within my own tradition. My voice is one in many, whether of many or not I do not know.

Reference: Mark Nanos, The Mystery of Romans (1996) P183ff

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