Tuesday, May 31, 2005

a quickening . . .

Martha Graham performing some of her own work at Mili Studio

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening
that is translated into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.

If you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium
and be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is;
nor how valuable it is;
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly,
to keep the channel open.

You do not have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly
to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased.
There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction;
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive than the others.

Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille

Sunday, May 29, 2005

apologetics: ¿a polemic?

In 1998, a debate on the resurrection was held in Chicago between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, moderated by William F. Buckley. It was published some time later by Baker Books Press and the resulting volume contained some appendixes, responses to the debate from a few distinguished scholars in the field. The following is one of those appendixes (chapter 7, titled What Do Stories About Resurrection(s) Prove?). It is in my opinion a very well constructed and thought out response from Robert J. Miller. While the debate itself was interesting enough, this essay is the real gem in the book, getting right down to the heart of the function of apologetics in general.

The debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan is about the historical accuracy of the resurrection stories in the Gospels. Craig maintains that these stories are evidence that the resurrection is literally true (that is, that Jesus' corpse came back to life and left the tomb). Crossan believes in Jesus' resurrection, but believes that the Gospel stories do not provide evidence that the resurrection is historically true in the literal sense.

I agree with Crossan. However, instead of responding directly to Craig's argument, I will step back from it and analyze its format, message, and audience. I take this approach because Craig's message about the resurrection and the way he communicates it to his audience are similar in some very important ways to the message of the Gospels and the way they convey it to their audience. Understanding Craig's method and message can thus clarify our understanding of the meaning of the resurrection stories in the Gospels.

In the first part of my essay I analyze Craig's attempt to persuade us that Jesus' resurrection is a historical fact. I pay special attention to how and for whom this kind of persuasion works. Then I will use these insights to analyze the resurrection stories in the Gospel of Matthew. My aim is to discern what Matthew thought he was doing in telling these stories in just the way he did and how his audience understood them.

Apologetics and Outsiders

Craig's central thesis is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a fact that can be demonstrated by historical evidence and sound reasoning. According to Craig, we don't really need faith to affirm the resurrection; we need only think clearly and objectively about the evidence and draw unbiased conclusions. Craig's argument is an apology for Jesus' resurrection. The term apology here has nothing to do with saying that one is sorry. In the sense the term has here, an apology is a rational defense for a certain belief. In general, an apology for the resurrection is an argument that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, though Craig's apology goes beyond this. He not only argues that belief in the resurrection is a rational option, he argues that it is the only reasonable option, and thus it would be irrational not to believe in it.

Craig presents his apology in a debate with Crossan, which is confusing since Crossan also believes in the resurrection. Two people cannot debate an issue on which they agree. Craig's argument appears to be designed for a debate with someone other than Crossan, someone who does not believe in the resurrection. 1 That is how apologies in general seem to work: they seem to be addressed to outsiders (those who do not share the belief being defended). They look like attempts to persuade others to change their minds and adopt new beliefs. But is this understanding accurate? Are apologies really meant for outsiders? This is an extremely important question. The way we anwer it determines how we approach the whole issue of the historical accuracy of the Gospel stories.

For whom are apologies really intended? In this case, the Craig-Crossan debate took place at Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. What percentage of that audience was non-Christian? How many of the listeners were outsiders in the sense that they did not share the belief that Craig defended? And what percentage of the readers of this book published by Baker Book House will be non-Christian? The answer to all these questions is the same: very, very few, if any at all.

In the few cases when outsiders do read or listen to apologies, they seldom take them seriously (i.e., in the spirit in which they present themselves). Outsiders approach apologies with caution, for the simple reason that apologies ask them to change their beliefs. Most outsiders assume that apologies are greatly biased, that they tell only one side of the story. Outsiders read apologies more often out of curiosity or out of a desire to figure out how to refute them than out of a willingness to give up their own beliefs. 2 (You can check this by asking whether in reading literature from the Hare Krishna movement you would seriously open your heart and mind to the possibility that Krishna is the Supreme Lord of the Universe.)

An Apology for Islam

We can get a feel for how outsiders regard apologetics by briefly considering an apology for a religion other than Christianity. Islam is an interesting case for Christians to consider because both Christians and Muslims believe that their religions originated through the direct intervention of God, through a divine miracle that is unparalleled and unsurpassable. Both believe that God had intervened at various times in the past to reveal his will for humanity, but that those revelations were provisional and incomplete. Both Christians and Muslims believe that God finally intervened with a perfect revelation that gives us everything we need to know to do his will and find salvation. For Christians, this miracle of perfect revelation is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For Muslims, this miracle is the Qur'an revealed through the prophet Muhammad.

Muslim apologists maintain that unbiased consideration of the evidence confirms the belief that Islam was established by God through the miracle of the Qur'an. Although this miracle was not in itself public (there was nothing to see), reason can nonetheless confirm it by assesing its effects. That is, the divine origin of the Qur'an is the only rational explanation for a number of otherwise inexplicable realities.

First, the Qur'an is completely inerrant. It contains no contradictions and no errors of any kind, not even scientific ones. In fact, some of its descriptions of natural phenomena are consistent with scientific discoveries made centuries after Muhammad.

Second, the Qur'an is unsurpassed in the beauty of its poetry and the grandeur of its language (which can be fully appreciated only in Arabic). The Qur'an even challenges those who do not believe in its divine origin to create a chapter, or even one verse, that compares with it. The Qur'an is a literary masterpiece, yet Muhammad was uneducated and illiterate.

Third, the Qur'an has great spiritual power. It had a profound effect on those who first heard it, moving them deeply and leading many to immediately convert to Islam.

Fourth, the Qur'an's sublime monotheism and its elevated moral teaching were far ahead of the time and place of its earthly origin. Seveth-century Arabia was a place of deeply rooted polytheism and of rampant violence, widespread vice, and harsh social oppresion. The Qur'an's uncompromising monotheism and its demand for social justice and strict personal morality were utterly foreign to its environment.

Finally, Muhammed never wavered in his claim that the Qur'an was from God and not from him. This claim reflects his sincere belief, for Muhammad was neither a liar nor a megalomaniac nor delusional. He was famous for his honesty; even his enemies admired his integrity. far from being a megalomaniac, his lifestyle was modest and unassuming, and he drew a strict distinction between the times he was relaying revelation and the times he was expressing his own thoughts. Neither was Muhammad delusional. His enormous successes as a social reformer and as a political and military leader amply demonstrate his keen grasp of reality.

Further evidence for the divine origin of Islam is the speed at which it grew in a time and place that were hostile to it. Nothing in the culture of seventh-century Arabia favored Islam's monotheism or its elevated and demanding morality. In fact, there were powerful religious, economic, social, and political forces arrayed against it. Muhammad's first followers in Mecca were cruelly persecuted, and his fledgling community in Medina was attacked by vastly superior military forces. Islam not only survived, but spread so rapidly that by the time of Muhammad's death just two years after his return to Mecca, virtually all of Arabia had embraced Islam.

Please bear in mind that all this is merely the rough sketch of an apology for Islam. A muslim scholar of Islam (which I am not) could present these ideas and others with much more force and eloquence. Yet even if this apology were laid out with far greater skill than I can manage, how convincing do you think it would be to Christians? How many Christians would it convince that Islam is the religion God intends for all humanity? How seriously does it make you question your beliefs?

Muslim apologists maintain that the Qur'an would not be so inerrant, profound, beautiful, and compelling if God were not its author, and that Islam would not have been accepted by so many so quickly unless it were divinely guided. Muslims find this line of argument utterly convincing. Non-Muslims, however, will not be persuaded, even if they do not know how to explain the admirable qualities of the Qur'an or the impressive growth of early Islam. They will assume that even if they themselves do not know how to refute the apology, there are experts who do. Similarly, many readers of this book are confident that even if they personally cannot answer Crossan's arguments, surely someone like Craig can.

Outsiders seldom read apologies and seldom take them seriously when they do. As for the few non-Christians who do read an apology like Craig's and do give it serious consideration, how many are actually persuaded by it? Again the answer is very, very few, if any at all.3

Looking at the Resurrection from the Outside

Having considered how an apology for some other religion looks to us (for the sake of the argument I am assuming that my readers are Christian), we can round out the process with a "thought experiment." Imagine that you are not a Christian, but that you've come across Craig's apology for the literal historicity of Jesus' resurrection. For whetever reason, you take it seriously and decide to make a careful study of the relevant Gospel stories. As you read the stories about the empty tomb and the appearances, you notice again and again how different they are from Gospel to Gospel. So you construct charts that lay out the similarities and differences.

figure 1
Empty Tomb Stories

Timesunrisebefore dawndaybreakstill dark
Persons involvedMary Magdalene,
Mary James' mother,
Mary Magdalene,
the other Mary
Mary Magdalene,
Mary James' mother,
Joanna, other women
Mary Magdalene
Position of stonestone already moved awaystone rolled away by an angel during an earthquakestone already rolled awaystone already rolled away
Figures at the tomba young man sitting inside the tomban angel sitting on the stone outside the tombno one at first, then two mentwo angels sitting inside the tomb
Message"Tell the disciples to go to Galilee""Tell the disciples to go to Galilee""Remember that Jesus told you all this would happen"
Reactionfearfear and great joy
Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, but recognizes him when he says her name
Responsethe women tell no onethe women tell other disciplesthe women tell the apostles (Peter comes to the tomb and sees the linen wrappings)Mary tells the other disciples

figure 2
Easter Appearance Stories

Persons involvedthe women who came to the tomb
two disciples
Simonthe Eleven and others
Placebetween the tomb and hideouton the road to Emmaus?a room in Jerusalem
a room in Jerusalem
?fear; they mistake Jesus for a ghost; "they believe for joy"

?Jesus invites them to touch him; he eats fish
Jesus shows them his hands and side
Message"Tell the disciples to go to Galilee"
(Jesus interprets scripture)?
(Jesus interprets scripture and commissions them to preach repentance and forgiveness in his name)
(conferral of the Holy Spirit and authority to forgive and retain sins)
they recognize him as he breaks bread; he vanishes; they return to Jerusalem?Jesus leads them to Bethany and ascends into heaven (end of Gospel)

figure 3
Post-Easter Appearance Stories

Matt. 28:16-20
John 20:26-29
John 21
Acts 1:1-11
one week later
some time later
over a forty day period
Persons involvedthe Elevendisciples
(including Thomas)
seven disciplesthe apostles
Placea mountain in Galilee
a room in Jerusalem
the Sea of Tiberias
Reactionsome worship him; some don't

Jesus invites Thomas to touch him

Messagethe Great Commission
blessing on those who believe without seeing
"feed my lambs (to Peter)"; discussion of the fate of the beloved disciple

Conclusion(end of Gospel)
(end of Gospel)Jesus ascends into heaven

It is natural for outsiders to focus on differences and the historical problems they create. But what about insiders? Do they grow skeptical when they reflect on all the differences among the resurrection stories? A few might begin to have some doubts, but the vast majority of insiders are not bothered by the disparities. Insiders seldom notice them; if they do, they do not regard them as real inconsistencies. In fact, some apologists even flip these differences over to increase insiders' confidence in the historical reliability of the stories. They do this by arguing that, even with all the disparities, the versions all still agree that some followers of Jesus found his tomb empty.

The point I want to make is that while insiders and outsiders may read the same stories, they will use very different standards in evaluating their historical reliability. Imagine that another religion had a story of how God had worked mighty miracles that demonstrated the truth of that religion. Imagine also that there were several versions of this story and that these versions had numerous discrepancies, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Wouldn't you, a Christian and thus an outsider to this religion, point to those disparities as evidence for the unreliability of the stories? People are naturally more charitably inclined to their own stories than they are to those of outsiders.

To consider a specific example, how many non-Mormons take seriously the story about Joseph Smith discovering the golden tablets that contained the Book of Mormon and deciphering them with spectacles made of stone? Non-Mormons find this story unbelievable if not mildly amusing. But most Mormons find it easy to believe, and those few with doubts can overcome them by strengthening their faith through prayer. Why should non-Mormons find the story hard to believe? After all, it is no more implausible than dozens of stories in the Bible (for example, Jonah and the whale) that many Christians believe with no difficulty at all. The difference has very little to do with the stories themselves and a great deal to do with whether one approaches them as an insider or an outsider. To put it a bit crudely perhaps, stories about our miracles are easy to believe because they're true; stories about their miracles are easy to dismiss because they are far-fetched and fictitious.

Why Doesn't Apologetics Succeed

Why is it that very few, if any, outsiders will be persuaded by Craig's apology? From the way he presents it, we get the impression the he thinks that nobody who is informed, rational, and sincere could disagree with it. So why doesn't it work? There are really only two alternatives: the apology fails to convince either because it is unpersuasive, or because outsiders miss the truth, usually by reasoning incorrectly and drawing the wrong conclusion, or by seeing the truth but not accepting it. In other words, there is a defect either in the apology or in the "apologee," and, since few apologists present an argument they believe is defective, they are more or less forced to blame the apologee for failing to see, or to admit, the truth. 4

The problem with blaming the apologee is that not only is that self-serving, it is also gratuitous. What evidence is there that the apologee is not smart enough to follow the apologist's reasoning, or not sincere enough to want to know the truth, or not honest enough to admit it? The only answer the apologist gives is that if the apologee were really rational and well intentioned, he would agree with the apologist. Needless to say, most people are not impressed by this line of reasoning.

I used to think this way myself when I was a fervent believer in the power of apologetics. I was a philosophy major at a Catholic college. I was utterly convinced not only that Christianity was the one true religion that God intended for all humanity, but also that the Catholic Church was the one true church that Christ intended for all Christians. From my study of Thomas Aquinas and modern Christian apologists, I clearly saw that the central truths of Christianity (and of catholicism) could be grasped by reason if only one was sincerely seeking God's truth, was humble enough to accept it, and took the time to inform oneself and follow the arguments.

All of this made perfect sense to me, and none of my teachers or fellow students (all of whom were catholics) gave me any reason to question it. I tried out various apologetic arguments on my like-minded friends, who found them quite convincing. Occasionally they suggested improvements in my arguments, but none of us doubted the effectiveness of apologetics. The only real puzzle in my mind was this: since the truths of Christianity and Catholicism are so evident, why are they not more universally recognized? I concluded that those outside my religion or my church just did not know or did not understand these apologetic arguments, or that they were not completely sincere about seeking the truth. It amazes me now that I believed this without any feelings of superiority or smugness. I was sincerely grateful to God for the blessing of having been raised in the Christian religion and the one true church, and I prayed for the wisdom and the courage to be able to help others to see the truth as clearly as I did.

This mind-set held together until I went to graduate school at secular universities and got to know people who had different religions. For the first time in my life, I got to know people who took other religions as seriously as I took mine. I knew these people were well educated and highly rational, and I could tell from our conversations that they were sincere. A few were people of great goodness and spiritual depth. Yet none of them was persuaded by my apologetics. It took several years, but gradually I accepted the fact that informed, intelligent, sincere, and spiritual people are almost never persuaded by apologetics to change their core beliefs. Looking back, I can now see that a big reason for this is that most apologists use assumptions that only insiders take for granted. It is usually only from an outsider's perspective that one can see how problematic these assumptions really are.

In summary, apologies almost never reach outsiders. When they do, they are almost never taken seriously; when they are, they are almost never persuasive. So if the purpose of apologetics is to convince outsiders to adopt new beliefs, then apologetics are almost always abject failures. They fail, not because their authors are inept (like Craig, many of them are intelligent and capable writers), but because it is practically impossible to argue people into giving up their religious beliefs and adopting new ones.

However, there is another, more promising way to evaluate the apologetic genre. We can determine its audience, not by whom it seems to be aimed at, but by who actually reads it. And we can determine its purpose, not by what the author seems to intend, but by how it actually functions. If we proceed like this, we reach two important findings: (1) the audience for an apology is insiders; (2) its function is to support what the audience already believes.

This is nothing new to apologists, who know full well that their audiences are insiders. (Why else would Craig speak at Moody Memorial Church or write for Baker Book House?) So why do apologists write as though they were addressing outsiders? They do that, not because they are mistaken about their audience, but because that is the convention of the apologetic genre. An apt comparison is the genre of the open letter. An open letter may begin, "To the President of the United States," but both author and readers understand that the real audience is the general public. Readers don't think they are reading the president's mail. Everyone knows the difference between an open letter and a personal letter that is leaked to the press. The general public knows the letter is intended for them, even though it is addressed to the president. Every genre has its own conventions. Authors of fables write about talking animals because that is how fables go, not because anyone thinks that animals really talk.

Aquaintance with the conventions of apologetics makes a difference because it helps us understand what Craig's writing is really about. Since it is meant for insiders, even though it seems to be addressed to outsiders, we have to distinguish its message (that is, its message to its real audience) from its content. It's content is an argument aimed at convincing outsiders that they should believe in the resurrection literally because that is the rational thing to do; indeed, to do otherwise would be irrational. But the message to the real audience is that their belief in Jesus is far more than wishful thinking; it is founded on solid evidence and can be defended by someone with impressive academic credentials against an eloquent detractor. (There is, then, a mismatch in the Crossan-Craig debate. Crossan does not deny the resurrection, though he does deny that the Gospel stories about it are literally true - a position Craig ridicules as "Peter Pan theology.")

The Audience of the Gospels

It should now be clear that in order to understand what a text is really about, we need to take into account who its audience is and how it functions for that audience. Only after we figure out these elements can we make an informed judgment about what the message of the text is. Let's look, as an example, at the resurrection stories in the Gospels.5 Who is the audience for these stories? What did their authors think they were doing in writing what they did? And how did these stories function for their audience?

Craig treats the Gospel stories as literal accounts of what really happened. For him these are stories about how faith in the resurrection got started: the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was raised because some of them had actually seen him in his physical body after his death. Craig argues that if people today properly understand these stories, they will conclude that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and from this they will conclude that Jesus is God. Craig folds these Gospel stories into his own argument, which seems aimed at outsiders but is actually for believers. Craig's argument thus appears to be intended to induce faith, but it actually functions to confirm the faith of those who already believe.

We need to ask: Who is the audience of the Gospels? For whom did the Evangelists write? The answer is clear: the Gospels were written for Christians. They presuppose that their audiences already believe in Jesus. Although a few outsiders may read the Gospels, it is most unlikely that any of them will come to believe in Jesus by reading that text. That is especially so in the case of the resurrection stories. How likely is it that a Jew or a pagan would read one of these stories and then conclude that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead and that therefore he is God? No, the resurrection stories presume a friendly audience, people who already believe that Jesus has risen. The stories presuppose and build on that belief in order to teach about the meaning of Jesus' resurrection and its implications for the Christian life.

The Resurrection of the Righteous Jews

To get specific about what the Evangelists are trying to communicate in the resurrection stories, we need to focus on one specific Gospel as an example. Any one will do, but Matthew is especially appropriate because some features unique to this Gospel give us strong clues as to its author's intentions.

A fascinating peculiarity of Matthew is that he tells of other resurrections in addition to Jesus'. According to Matthew, many righteous Jews were raised from the dead along with Jesus. At the very moment that Jesus died,

the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matt.27:51-53 NSRV)

What should we make of this strange story? Did it really happen? And what does it mean?

We need to take a close look at this brief account because it can tell us a great deal about what Matthew thought he was writing and what his audience thought they were reading. The first question we have to tackle is whether the story is historical.

To put it bluntly, there is no good reason to think that this event really happened. For it is mentioned nowhere else - not in another Gospel, not in any other Christian writing, not in the writings of Josephus (a well-informed and meticulous Jewish historian of the time). In most cases it is invalid to conclude that an event did not happen because it is mentioned in only one source -- after all, lots of things occur that are not recorded even once. But this story is a very special exception because it narrates what by any measure has to be the most amazing event of all time: large numbers of dead people coming to life and appearing to large numbers of witnesses. It is inconceivable that an event so sensational and of such magnitude would not be noticed by the historians of the day. It's especially inconceivable that no other Christian source would mention it.6 The people who had left their tombs on Easter would have been hugely famous among Christians. A few lucky disciples could claim to have seen the risen Jesus, but these people were even more privileged: they had been raised from the dead along with Jesus. Yet their story left no trace anywhere outside these three short verses in Matthew.

Unless one is committed to belief in the literal historicity of every passage in the Bible, there is no basis for taking Matthew 27:51-53 to be the report of an actual event. Does this mean that Matthew was misinformed or that he was lying? Not at all. Matthew never intended this account to be taken literally. He assumed that his audience would take it symbolically and understand its message accordingly.

What is that message? Two features of this brief narrative furnish clues that would have been clear to Matthew's readers: the earthquake and the way that Matthew characterizes those who rise. Both features told Matthew's readers that the death/resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in salvation history, the event that ushers in the time time of the fulfilment of God's plans for humanity. This account has the same message as do twelve others in which Matthew interrupts the Gospel narrative to tell the readers that a certain event fulfils what was foretold by the prophets - that God's promises to Israel are coming true in Jesus, that Jesus (in his birth, life, death, and resurrection) is the culmination of Israel's hopes and of God's plans for his people.

One feature in 27:51-53 that conveys Matthew's message is how he describes those who are raised from the dead: he calles them "holy ones" or "saints" (hagioi in Greek). This designation is important because early Christians and most Jews believed that those who had lived in obedience to God's will would be raised from the dead on the Last Day. Matthew 27:51-53 thus sends the message that Jesus' death and resurrection were the beginning of the End, the apocalyptic turning point in salvation history. 7

The earthquake is the other feature that conveys Matthew's message. Earthquakes are one of the disasters that prophetic and apocalyptic writings associate with the arrival of the End. These cataclysmic events are used to symbolize the enormous importance and consequences of God's intervention in our history. (We still use this imagery in much the same way today when we speak of an "earth-shaking" event. Everyone knows we we are not referring to a literal earthquake.) Matthew's mention of an earthquake also helps him explain how the tombs were opened. He uses this symbol again at the scene on Easter morning (28:2), even though he does not need it to explain how Jesus' tomb was opened. As Matthew tells it, an angel rolled away the stone, but Matthew adds the earthquake nonetheless, thereby linking Jesus' resurrection with those in 27:51-53. Jesus' tomb was already empty, so the earthquake was doubly unnecessary here. Its sole function in 28:2 is as an apocalyptic symbol.

Biblical authors intentionally used disasters like earthquakes as symbols. This can be seen clearly in Acts 2, where Luke tells the story of the first Pentecost. People are amazed that they each hear the apostles' preaching in their own language (Acts 2:5-12). Peter explains that what is happening is fulfilling the prophecy of Joel. Peter then quotes a long passage from Joel, part of which reads: "I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day" (Acts 2:19-20 NRSV, quoting Joel 2:30-31). Note that Peter claims that Joel's prophecy is being fulfilled in the events of Pentecost, not that it will be fulfilled at some future date. Obviously, Peter was not asserting that the moon was literally turning into blood as he spoke, or that the sun was being darkened by actual smoke. Peter assumed that his audience would understand these apocalyptic descriptions symbolically, and Luke expects his readers to do so as well.

Historians have no real choice but to conclude that the resurrections mentioned in Matthew 27:51-53 did not really happen. Of course, there are some Christians who reason that since everything in the Bible is historically true, this story must be historically true as well. Laypersons are free to believe anything they want, but historians are not free to claim that something happened simply because they want it to be so - just as juries are not free to reach any verdict they want. Historians and juries must be guided by evidence. And in this case there is no objective evidence for the historicity of the event. Except for those already committed to literalism, very, very few biblical scholars would argue that Matthew 27:51-53 is historical. (It would be interesting to learn Craig's position on this and his reasons for it.)

To sum up, we can reach the same conclusion on the historicity of Matthew 27:51-53 from two directions. On the one hand, we have no objective basis for claiming that the event really happened. On the other hand, we have strong clues from the way Matthew writes the story that he never intended it to be taken literally.

What Did Matthew Think He Was Writing?

If Matthew can create historical fiction like the resurrection of the righteous Jews, what does that mean for the other stories in his Gospel? Perhaps Matthew 27:51-53 is an anomaly, a passage where Matthew proceeds in a way totally unlike the way he writes in the rest of his Gospel. If so, it can tell us nothing about the Evangelists' overall perspective on the kind of truth they intended to communicate. But since there is no good reason to regard Matthew as an anomaly, we have to assume that it can help us understand Matthew's (and other Evangelists') perspective on the historical value of the stories in the Gospel.

To gauge how Matthew regarded the historicity of the events he narrates, we have to keep in mind that Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources. Sometimes he virtually copies from Mark, sometimes he paraphrases. Sometimes he abbreviates Mark's narrative, deleting nonessential detail while retaining the substance of the story. At other times, though, Matthew deliberately alters Mark. He does not simply reword the account, but he changes its content in such a way as to alter Mark's meaning - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot; sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously.

An unusually clear clear example is the way in which Matthew 20:20-23 alters Mark 10:35-40. Mark tells of Jesus teaching his disciples that he will be put to death in Jerusalem (Mark 10:33-34). James and John the approach Jesus with the request that he grant them the places of highest honor when he comes into his glory. Because they had just heard Jesus' prediction of his passion, their request appears incredibly crass and shows that James and John totally failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus' teaching. When Matthew tells this story, he has the mother of James and John make the brazen request on behalf of her sons (Matt. 20:20). Why did Matthew make this change? Did he think that Mark was historically wrong at this point and that he had the real story of what had actually happened? There is not the slightest indication that Matthew made this change to set the record straight. Mark has a number of other scenes in which the disciples act stupidly or selfishly, and each time Matthew alters the scene in such a way that the disciples act wisely and behave as role models for Christians (cf., e.g., the disciples' response to Jesus in Mark 6:51-52 and in Matt. 14:32-33). In the present scene Matthew's small but significant modification enables him to retain the valuable lesson the scene teaches but without besmirching the reputaion of the two famous apostles.

There are dozens and dozens of places where Matthew alters Mark. Careful analysis of these changes (a process called redaction criticism) helps us to understand the messages Matthew is communicating through his distinctive version of the words and deeds of Jesus. These changes show beyond the shadow of a doubt that Matthew felt free to change Mark's story when he did not agree with some aspect of its message. These changes show either that Matthew did not regard Mark's Gospel as a literal report of actual events or that he did not care one way or the other. For Matthew (and, by extrapolation, all the Evangelists), facts were far less important than the meanings the expressed. After all, the facts could be changed to enhance the message.

Turning to the Easter stories, we can see how Matthew has altered Mark's version of the scene at the empty tomb. Two women (not three, as in Mark) go to see the tomb (not to annoint the body) before sunrise (not after). As they arrive, there is an earthquake, during which and angel rolls away the stone, terrifying the guards. (In Mark the women find the stone already rolled away when they arrive; Mark mentions neither an earthquake, nor an angel, nor guards.) Matthew's angel speaks to the women from outside the tomb; in Mark a young man speaks to them after they step inside. The scene in Matthew concludes when the women, instead of fleeing in fear and telling no one (as in Mark), depart in fear and great joy" and tell the disciples.

Matthew does not think mark was misinformed. He is not setting the record straight. It is not a question of whether Matthewis right and Mark is wrong or vice versa. Matthew obviously does not think that Mark gave a literal report of an actual event, and there's no good reason for us to think that Matthew considered his own version to be a literal report either.

Matthew did not write his own account to prove that Jesus' resurrection is a fact of history. Did Matthew believe that there was a historical kernel to his story that was literally true - that Jesus had in fact been buried, that people knew where, and that some women had discovered the tomb to be empty? We really don't know, and there is no way of telling from the Gospel he wrote some fifty years after Jesus' death. All we know is that Matthew inherited this story from Mark and felt free to alter it considerably in order to proclaim his faith in Jesus' resurrection. And that, it seems to me, is the key: faith. The Evangelists are interested in faith far more than in facts. We also know that they felt free to invent "facts" by creating stories out of whole cloth if this would enhance their proclamation of faith.

Can Fiction Express Truth?

Our consideration of the story about the earthquake and the rising of the Jewish saints in Matthew 27:51-53 leads to the conclusion that it is not the report of an actual event, that Matthew did not intend it to be, and that his ancient audience understood that. So is the story false? That depends on the precise meaning of the question. If it means, "Is the story a fiction, a narrative of an event that did not in fact happen?" the answer is "Yes, it is false." But if the question means, "Is what the author intends to communicate false?" then we have to ask a more basic question: Is Matthew's message false simply because the story he used to convey it is not historical? Matthew's meaning is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the turning point in savation history, God's decisive intervention in human affairs. Are we guilty of what Craig derisively calls Peter Pan theology if we profess the truth of Matthew's message and acknowledge that Matthew 27:52-53 is not historical?

Well, millions of Christians believe Matthew's message without actually knowing the story of Matthew 27:51-53. (In my long experience as a Bible teacher, many Christians are surprised when they encounter this story. Even those well acquainted with the Bible say thing like, "I don't remember reading this before.") This was all the more so in the first century, when very few Christians had access to Matthew's Gospel. Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the other New testament authors surely agreed with Matthew that Jesus' death and resurrection were God's decisive act in salvation history, even though nothing indicates that they knew the story related in Matthew 27:51-53.

Another way of getting at the issue is to ask, Which came first, the story or the belief in its message? Does Matthew's story provide the basis for the belief that Jesus' death and resurrection are the dicisive event in salvation history, or does the story express this belief? In other words, what caused what? Did the story give rise to the belief, or did the belief give rise to the story? In light of our historical considerations, the answer is clear: the story presumes and expresses the belief in its message. Matthew (or someone in his tradition) created the story to express faith in the supreme spiritual importance of Jesus' death and resurrection. The story is addressed to an audience that believes in Jesus and so understands and believes its message.

Considering the matter from another direction also shows that the story presupposed, rather than gave rise to, faith in Jesus. At the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Jesus was a very controversial figure. Most Jews rejected the claim that he was the Messiah, a few accepted it (i.e., the Christian Jews, or Jewish Christians - either label will do), but nobody was neutral about Jesus. How could one be? There is no middle ground. It is inconceivable that a serious Jew could have said, "Maybe Jesus is the Messiah, and maybe he isn't; either way is all right with me." Because of the polarized religious situation, Jews who were not followers of Jesus were hostile toward what they thought he stood for and toward his disciples, whose movement posed a threat to Judaism. Now what are the realistic chances that someone like this would read or hear the story in Matthew 27:51-53 and as a result conclude that Jesus must have been the one through whom God had decisively intervened in human history? The odds of that happening are even lower than the ods that any reader will be converted to Islam by reading the Muslim apologetic that I so clumsily outlined above. 8 Mathew's story would simply not persuade outsiders. They would understand its message, but they would reject it on the spot because they would have no prior belief in Jesus. In fact, Matthew 28:11-15 explains why many of those who knew Jesus' tomb was empty did not believe in his resurrection.

What Does an Empty Tomb Prove?

Try to see the situation from a Jewish perspective. Matthew 28:11-15 reflects Matthew's bitter animosity toward the Jewish leaders, to who he here imputes corrupt and deceitful motives. But if we step back from Matthew's extremely one-sided perspective, we realize that all that most Jews knew was that followers of Jesus claimed that he had risen from the dead. To get some idea of how this must have sounded to Jews of the time, imagine our response to reports bu some members of a cult that their recently deceased leader (whom they had buried) had risen. Their reports that his grave was empty would hardly persuade many. Even if it was confirmed that the grave where they claim he was buried was empty, what would that prove? Nothing. We would conclude either that they had removed the body or that he was never buried there in the first place. Suppose they told stories of seeing angels at the empty grave or of the grave being opened by an earthquake. Suppose that they claimed that our leaders were involved in a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the resurrection of their master. Suppose they told of having seen him alive, of having spoken and eaten with him. And (though I can't imagine how this would come about in our society) suppose that some of these witnesses were willing to die for their belief in their leader.

What would we make of such people and their belief in their messiah? Probably something similar to what ancient people made of the earliest Christians. (As a thought experiment, ask yourself what it would take to convince you that this cult leader had truly risen from the dead.)

Empty tombs don't prove anything, except to insiders. Nor do reports of appearances of risen leaders. In the Gospels the risen Jesus appears only to those who already believe in him. Those who see him after his resurrection are those who followed him during his lifetime. John's Gospel originally ended with a blessing for those who believe in Jesus without needing to see him firsthand. 9 The implication was that it took little faith to believe when one had actually seen the risen Lord. Matthew, however, does not agree. At the very end of Matthew's Gospel is a fascinating and unexpected statement. He reports that even some of the apostles who saw the risen Jesus in person had their doubts. Just before Jesus sent forth the Eleven with the Great Commission, they prostrated themselves before Jesus, "but some doubted" (Matt. 28:17). This Gospel thus closes with a cryptic admission that even some of these ultimate insiders were not convinced by a face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord. Matthew's abrupt comment comes as a complete surpise, and its precise meaning is puzzling. But this much at least is clear: Whatever else the Gospels may teach about the resurrection, faith in the risen Jesus requires more than stories about him - no matter how convincing these stories may be to insiders.

Robert J. Miller is associate professor or religion and philosophy at Midway College in Midway, Kentucky.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Socrates' prayer

This passage is the conclusion to the Phaedrus of Plato. It's one of the most charming, most complete prayers ever uttered.

Socrates: Shouldn't we first offer a prayer?

Phaedrus: Of course.

Socrates: Dear Pan, and all you other gods who live here, grant that I may become beautiful within, and that whatever outward things I have may be in harmony with the spirit inside me. May I understand that it is only the wise who are rich, and may I have only as much money as a temperate person needs. -- Is there anything else that we can ask for, Phaedrus? For me, that prayer is enough.

Phaedrus: Make it a prayer for me too, since friends have all things in common.

Socrates: Let's be going.

some more WmCWms . . .

There is a woman in our town
walks rapidly, flat bellied

in worn slacks upon the street
where I saw her.

Neither short
nor tall, nor old nor young
. . face would attract no

adolescent. Grey eyes looked
straight before her.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Her
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . hair
was gathered simply behind the
ears under a shapeless hat.

. . . . . hips were narrow, her
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .legs
thin and straight. She stopped

me in my tracks -- until I saw
. . . disappear in the crowd.

An inconspicuous decoration
made of sombre cloth,
I think to be a flower, was
pinned flat to her
. . . . . . . . . .right

breast -- any woman might have
done the same to
say she was a woman and warn
us of her mood. Otherwise

she was dressed in male attire,
as much as to say to hell

with you. Her
. . . . . . . . . . . expression was
seious, her
. . . . . . . . feet were small.

And she was gone!

.. . . if I ever see you again
as I have sought you
daily without success

I'll speak to you, alas
too late! ask,
What are you doing on the

streets of Paterson? a
thousand questions:
Are you married? Have you any

children? And most important,
your NAME! which
of course she may not

give me -- though
I cannot conceive it
in such a lonely and

intelligent woman

William Carlos Williams
from Paterson:
Book Five (1958)

Monday, May 23, 2005

woman is the nigger of the world

The following is an excerpt from Book II (1948) of William Carlos Williams' poetic masterpiece, Paterson:

My attitude toward woman's wretched position in society and my ideas about all the changes necessary there, were interesting to you, weren't they, in so far as they made for literature? That my particular emotional orientation, in wrenching myself free from patterned stardardized feminine feelings enabled me to do some passably good work with poetry -- that was all fine, wasn't it -- something for you to sit up and take notice of! And you saw in one of my first letters to you (the one you had wanted to make use of, then, in the Introduction to your Paterson) an indication that my thoughts were to be taken seriously, because that too could be turned by you into literature, as something disconnected from life.

But when my actual personal life crept in, stamped all over with the very same attitudes and sensibilities and preoccupations that you found quite admirable as literature -- that was an entirely different matter, wasn't it? No longer admirable, but, on the contrary, deplorable, annoying, stupid, or in some way unpardonable; because those very ideas and feelings which make one a writer with some kind of new vision, are often the very same ones which, in living itself, make one clumsy, awkward, absurd, ungrateful, confidential where most people are reticent, and reticent where one should be confidential, and which cause one, all too often, to step on the toes of other people's sensitive egos as a result of one's stumbling earnestness or honesty carried too far. And that they are the very same ones -- that's important, something to be remembered at all times, especially by writers like yourself who are so sheltered from life in the raw by the glass-walled conditions of their own safe lives.

Only my writing (when I write) is myself: only that is the real me in any essential way. Not because I bring to literature and to life two different inconsistent sets of values, as you do. No, I don't do that; and I feel that when anyone does do it, literature is turned into just so much intellectual excrement fit for the same stinking hole as any other kind.

But in writing (as in all forms of creative art) one derives one's unity of being and one's freedom to be one's self, from one's relationship to those particular externals (language, clay, paints, et cetera) over which one has complete control and the shaping of which lies entirely in one's own power; whereas in living, one's shaping of the externals involved there (of one's friendships, the structure of society, et cetera) is no longer entirely within one's own power but requires the cooperation and the understanding and the humanity of others in order to bring out what is best and most real in one's self.

That's why all that fine talk of yours about woman's need to "sail free in her own element" as a poet, becomes nothing but empty rhetoric in the light of your behavior towards me. No woman will ever be able to do that, completely, until she is able first to "sail free in her own element" in living itself -- which means in her relationships with men even before she can do so in her relationships with other women. The members of any underprivileged class distrust and hate the "outsider" who is one of them, and women therefore -- women in general -- will never be content with their lot until the light seeps down on them, not from one of their own, but from the eyes of changed male attitudes toward them -- so that in the meantime, the problems and awareness of a woman like myself are looked upon even more unsympathetically by other women than by men.

And that, my dear doctor, is another reason why I needed of you a very different kind of friendship from the one you offered me.

I still don't know of course the specific thing that caused the cooling of your friendliness toward me. But I do know that if you were going to bother with me at all, there were only two things for you to have considered: (1) that I was, as I still am, a woman dying of loneliness -- yes, really dying of it almost in the same way that people die slowly of cancer or consumption or any other such disease (and with all my efficiency in the practical world continually undermined by that loneliness); and (2) that I needed desperately, and still do, some ways and means of leading a writer's life, either by securing some sort of writer's job (or any other job having to do with my cultural interests) or else through some kind of literary journalism such as the book reviews -- because only in work and jobs of that kind, can I turn into assets what are liabilities for me in jobs of a different kind.

Those were the two problems of mine that you continually and almost deliberately placed in the background of your attempts to help me. And yet they were, and remain, much greater than whether or not I get my poetry published. I didn't need the publication of my poetry with your name lent to it, in order to go on writing poetry, half as much as I needed your friendship in other ways (the very ways you ignored) in order to write it. I couldn't, for that reason, have brought the kind of responsiveness and appreciation that you expected of me (not with any real honesty) to the kind of help from you which I needed so much less than the kind you withheld.

Your whole relationship with me amounted to pretty much the same thing as your trying to come to the aid of a patient suffering from pneumonia by handing her a box of aspirin or Grove's cold pills and a glass of hot lemonade. I couldn't tell you that outright. And how were you, a man of letters, to have realized it, when the imagination, so quick to assert itself most powerfully in the creation of a piece of literature, seems to have no power at all in enabling writers in your circumstances to fully understand the maladjustment and impotencies of a woman in my position?

When you wrote to me up in W. about that possible censor job, it seemed a very simple matter to you, didn't it, for me to make all the necessary inquiries about the job, arrange for the necessary interviews, start work (if I was hired) with all the necessary living conditions for holding down such a job, and thus find my life all straightened out in its practical aspects, at least -- as if by magic?

But it's never so simple as that to get on one's feet even in the most ordinary practical ways, for anyone on my side of the railroad tracks -- which isn't your side, nor the side of your great admirer Miss Fleming, nor even the side of those well cared for people like S.T. and S.S. who've spent most of their lives with some Clara or some Jeanne to look after them even when they themselves have been flat broke.

A completely down and out person with months of stripped, bare hardship behind him needs all kinds of things to even get himself in shape for looking for a respectable, important white-collar job. And when he needs ample funds for eating and sleeping and keeping up appearances (especially the latter) while going around for various interviews involved. And even if and when a job of that kind is obtained, he still needs the eating and the sleeping and the carfares and the keeping up of appearances and what not, waiting for his first pay check and even perhaps for the second pay check since the first one might have to go almost entirely for back rent or something else of that sort.

And all that takes a hell of a lot of money (especially for a woman) -- a lot more than ten dollars or twenty five dollars. Or else it takes the kind of very close friends at whose apartment one is quite welcome to stay for a month or two, and whose typewriter one can use in getting off some of the required letters asking for interviews, and whose electric iron one can use in keeping one's clothes pressed, et cetera -- the kind of close friends that I don't have and never have had, for reasons which you know.

Naturally, I couldn't turn to you, a stranger, for any such practical help on so large a scale; and it was stupid of me to have minimized the extent of help I needed when I asked you for that first money order that got stolen and later for the second twenty five dollars -- stupid because it was misleading. But the different kind of help I asked for, finally (and which you placed in the background) would have been an adequate substitute, because I could have carried out those plans which I mentioned to you in the late fall (the book reviews, supplemented by almost any kind of part-time job, and later some articles, and maybe a month at Yaddo this summer) without what it takes to get on one's feet in other very different ways. And then, eventually, the very fact that my name had appeared here and there in the book review sections of a few publications (I'd prefer not to use poetry that way) would have enabled me to obtain certain kinds of jobs (such as an O.W.I. job for instance) without all that red tape which affects only obscure, unknown people.

The anger and the indignation which I feel towards you now has served to pierce through the rough ice of that congealment which my creative faculties began to suffer from as a result of that last note from you. I find myself thinking and feeling in terms of poetry again. But over and against that is the fact that I'm even more lacking in anchorage of any kind than when I first got to know you. My loneliness is a million fathoms deeper, and my physical energies even more seriously sapped by it; and my economic situation is naturally worse, with living costs so terribly high now, and with my contact with your friend Miss X having come off so badly.

However, she may have had another reason for paying no attention to that note of mine -- perhaps the reason of having found out that your friendliness toward me had cooled -- which would have made a difference to her, I suppose, since she is such a great "admirer" of yours. But I don't know. That I'm in the dark about, too; and when I went up to the "Times" last week, to try, on my own, to get some of ther fiction reviews (the "Times" publishes so many of those), nothing came of that either. And it's writing that I want to do -- not operating a machine or a lathe, because with literature more and more tied up with the social problems and social progress (for me, in my way of thinking) any contribution I might be able to make to the welfare of humanity (in war-time or peace-time) would have to be as a writer, not as a factory worker.

When I was very young, ridiculously young (of school-girl age) for a critical role, with my mind not at all developed and all my ideas in a state of first-week embryonic formlessness, I was able to obtain book-reviews from any number of magazines without any difficulty -- and all of them books by writers of accepted importance (such as Cummings, Babette Deutsch, H.D.) whereas now when my ideas have matured, and when I really have something to say, I can get no work of that kind at all. And why is that? It's because in all those intervening years, I have been forced, as a woman not content with woman's position in the world, to do a lot of pioneer living which writers of your sex and with your particular social background do not have thrust upon them, and which the members of my own sex frown upon (for reasons I've already referred to) -- so that at the very moment when I wanted to return to writing from living (with my ideas clarified and enriched by living) there I was (and still am) -- because of that living -- completely in exile socially.

I glossed over and treated very lightly (in my first conversation with you) those literary activities of my early girlhood, because the work itself was not much better than that which any talented college freshman or precocious prep-school senior contributes to her school paper. But, after all, that work, instead of appearing in a school paper where it belonged, was taken so seriously by editors of the acceptably important literary publications of that time, that I was able to average as much as $15 a week, very easily, from it. And I go into that now and stress it here; because you can better imagine, in the light of that, just how I feel in realizing that on the basis of just a few superficials (such as posessing a lot of appealingly youthful sex-appeal and getting in with the right set) I was able to maintain my personal identity as a writer in my relationship to the world, whereas now I am cut off from doing so because it was necessary for me in my living, to strip myself of those superficials.

You've never had to live, Dr. P -- not in any of the by-ways and dark underground passages where life so often has to be tested. The very circumstances of your birth and social background provided you with an escape from life in the raw; and you confuse that protection from life with an inability to live -- and are thus able to regard literature as nothing more than a desperate last extremity resulting from that illusionary inability to live. (I've been looking at some of your autobiographical works, as this indicates.)

But living (unsafe living, I mean) isn't something one just sits back and decides about. It happens to one, in a small way, like measles; or in a big way, like a leaking boat or an earthquake. Or else it doesn't happen. And when it does, then one must bring, as I must, one's life to literature; and when it doesn't then one brings to life (as you do) purely literary sympathies and understandings, the insights and humanity of words on paper only -- and also, alas, the ego of the literary man which most likely played an important part in the change of your attitude toward me. That literary man's ego wanted to help me in such a way, I think, that my own achievments might serve as a flower in his buttonhole, if that kind of help had been enough to make me bloom.

But I have no blossoms to bring to any man in the way of either love or friendship. That's one of the reasons why I didn't want that introduction to my poems. And I'm not wanting to be nasty or sarcastic in the last lines of this letter. On the contrary a feeling of profound sadness has replaced now the anger and the indignation with which I started to write all this. I wanted your friendship more than I ever wanted anything else (yes, more, and I've wanted other things badly). I wanted it desperately, not because I have a single thing with which to adorn any man's pride -- but just because I haven't.

Yes, the anger which I imagined myself to feel on all the previous pages, was false. I am too unhappy and too lonely to be angry; and if some of the things to which I have called your attention here should cause any change of heart in you regarding me, that would be just about the only thing I can conceive of as occuring in my life right now.

La votre

P.S. That I'm back here at 21 Pine Street causes me to add that that mystery as to who forged the "Cress" on the money order and also took one of Brown's checks (though his was not cashed, and therefore replaced later) never did get cleared up. And the janitor who was here at the time, is dead now. I don't think it was he took any of the money. But still I was rather glad that the postoffice didn't follow it through because just in case Bob did have something to do with it, he would have gotten into serious trouble -- which I shouldn't have welcomed, because he was one of those miserably underpaid negroes and an awful decent human being in lots of ways. But now I wish it had been followed through after he died (which was over two months ago) because the crooks may have been those low vile upstate farm people whose year-round exploitation of down and out farm help ought to be brought to light in some fashion, and because if they did steal the money order and were arrested for it, that in itself would have brought the attention of the proper authorities all their other illegal activities as well: And yet that kind of justice doesn't interest me greatly. What's at the root of this or that crime or antisocial act, both psychologically and environmentally, always interests me more. But as I make that last statement, I'm reminded of how much I'd like to do a lot of things with people in some prose -- some stories, maybe a novel. I can't tell you how much I want the living which I need in order to write. And I simply can't achieve them entirely alone. I don't even posess a typewriter now, nor have even a rented one -- and I can't think properly except on a typewriter. But that of course is the least of my problems -- the typewriter; at least the easiest to do something about.


* * *

Dear P.:

This is the simplest, most outright letter I've ever written to you; and you ought to read it all the way through, and carefully, because it's about you, as a writer, and about the ideas regarding women that you expressed in your article on A.N., and because in regard to myself, it contains certain information which I did not think it necessary to give you before, and which I do think now you ought to have. And if my anger in the beginning makes you too angry to go on from there -- well, that anger of mine isn't there in the last part, now as I attach this post-script.


And if you don't feel like reading it even for those reasons, will you then do so, please, merely out of fairness to me -- much time and much thought and much unhappiness having gone into those pages.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

fragments from Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart said: We should contrive not to need to pray to God, asking for his grace and divine goodness . . . but take it without asking . . .

Meister Eckhart said: I shall never pray that God give me himself. I shall pray that he make me pure, for if I am pure, God must give himself and dwell in me, because it is his peculiar nature to do so.

What is truth? Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep to the truth and let God go.

Speaking of knowledge and love: knowledge is better than love but the two together are better than one of them, for knowledge really contains love. Love may be fooled by goodness, depending on it, so that when I love I hang on to the gate, blind to the truth about my acquaintance. Even a stone has love - for the ground! if I depend on goodness, which is God's first proffer, and accept God only as he is good to me, I am content with the gate but I do not get to God. Thus knowledge is better, for it leads love. Love has to do with desire and purpose, whereas knowledge is no particular thought, but rather, it peels off all [coverings] and is disinterested and runs naked to God, until it touches him and grasps him.

In limpid souls God beholds his own image; he rests in them and they in him.
As I have often said, I like best those things in which I see most clearly the likeness of God. Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.


Meister Eckhart's good friends bade him, "since you are going to leave us, give us one last word."

"I will give you," he replied, "a rule which is the stronghold of all I have ever said, in which are lodged all the truths to be discussed or put into practice."

It often happens that what seems trivial to us is more important to God than what we think important. Therefore, we ought to take everything God puts on us evenly, not comparing and wondering which is more important, or higher, or best. We ought simply to follow where God leads, that is, to do what we are most inclined to do, to go where we are repeatedly admonished to go - to where we feel most drawn. If we do that, God gives us his greatest in our least and never fails.

Now, some people despise the little things of life. It is their mistake, for they thus prevent themselves from getting God's greatness out of these little things. God is every way, evenly in all ways, to him who has the eyes to see. But sometimes it is hard to know whether one's inclinations come from God or not, but that can be decided this way: if you find yourself possesed of a knowledge or intimation of God's will, which you obey before everything else, because you feel urged to obey it and the urge is frequent, then you may know that it is from God.

Some people want to recognize God in some pleasant enlightenment -- and then they get pleasure and enlightenment but not God. Somewhere it is written that God shines in the darkness where every now and then we get a glimpse of him. More often, God is where his light is least apparent. Therefore we ought to expect God in all manners and all things evenly.

Someone may now say: I should be glad to look for God evenly in all shapes and things, but my mind does not always work the same way -- and then, not as well with this as with that. To which I reply: That is too bad! All paths lead to God and he is on them all evenly, to him who knows. I am well aware that a person may get more out of one technique than another but it is not best so. God responds to all techniques evenly to a knowing man. Such and such may be the way, but it is not God.

But even if God is in all ways and all things evenly, do I not still need a special way to get to him? Let us see. Whatever the way that leads you most frequently to awareness of God, follow that way; and if another way appears, different from the first, and you quit the first and take the second, and the second works, it is all right. It would be nobler and better, however, to achieve rest and security through evenness, by which one might take God and enjoy him in any manner, in any thing, and not have to delay and hunt around for your special way: that has been my joy! To this end all kinds of activities may contribute and any work may be a help; but if it does not, let it go!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Exclusivity and Particularity

The following passage is John Dominic Crossan's response to a collection of articles in which exclusivity is seen as the principal obstacle to earnest and useful ecumenical dialogue.

Several of the authors spoke of the imperial exclusivity so characteristic of Christianity. For José Ignacio Cabezón, "What Buddhists find objectionable is (a) the Christian characterization of the deity whose manifestation Jesus is said to be, and (b) the claim that Jesus is unique in being such a manifestation". For Bokin Kim, "most Christians hold to an exclusive view of Christ that claims his uniqueness". For Rita Gross, "the exclusive claims made on behalf of Jesus by Christians appalled me even as a teenager, and my repugnance for exclusive truth claims on the part of religions - any religion - has not diminished since. Thus, part of my journey is working out both a theory and a praxis of religious pluralism that is neither relativistic nor universalistic, that encourages both commitment to one tradition and appreciation of other traditions." I myself find such exclusivistic claims by Christianity, or any other religion, insulting in theory and lethal in practice, objectionable in history and obscene in theology. They are implicitly genocidal even if political impotence limits the divine ethnic cleansing they imagine. But how, as Gross repeats, does one establish "a position that is neither relativistic, not exclusivistic"? My own answer is particularity, but I must explain that in terms of my understanding of Trinity, divinity, and particularity.

Trinity seems a particularly and peculiarly Christian understanding of God, but my proposal is that the structure of the Holy is Trinitarian in all religions that I know about and even in all those I can imagine. I speak very deliberately about the Holy (not about God) as the infinite mystery that surrounds and supports, fascinates and terrifies us. It is that against which we interact as meaning-seeking beings. Be it absolute open meaninglessness or absolute univocal meaning, our interaction with it does not seem to be an option but a necessity. And my point is that the Holy is Trinitarian in structure. It is not just on the one hand that religion is Trinitarian in structure. But it is not on the other hand that the Holy in itself and apart from us is Trinitarian in structure. It is, I propose, that the Holy in itself as seen by us across the spectrum of world religious experience is Trinitarian in structure. That trinity involve, first, ultimate metaphor, that foundational image that imagines the Holy as, for example, power, person, state, or order, as nature, god/goddess, nirvana, or mandate of heaven. It involves, second, material manifestation, some physical object in which that metaphorical vision is peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely incarnated, some person, place or thing, some individual or collectivity, some cave or shrine or temple, some clearing in the forest or tree in the desert where the ultimate referent is encountered and experienced. It involves, finally, preliminary preparation, for there must be at least one believer to begin with and eventually more to end with, But, as there are always nonbelievers as well, some prior affinity must exist, as it were, between this metaphor rather than that, this manifestation rather than that, and this believer rather than that. For me, therefore, all faith and all religion, not just my own Christianity, is Trinitarian in structure and that structure seems to inhere in the Holy itself, at least insofar as we can see it. For me, therefore, Christianity and Buddhism differ most profoundly on their ultimate metaphor for the Holy: it is person (God) for the former but state (nirvana) for the latter. In Christianity, of course, our ultimate metaphor is rather overinvested: it it person; and that person is parent; and that parent is father. But I leave those specifications aside for the moment.

Divinity is the term I use for any material manifestation. By calling such manifestations divine I mean precicely that a religion's ultimate metaphor is experienced by believers as peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely present in that physical phenomenon. In that sense I understand both Christ and the Buddha to be divine in exactly the same way - that is, as incarnations of the Holy but within different ultimate metaphors. Christ did not have a monopoly on the Kingdom of God but invited others to enter it just as he had done. So just as there is the Buddha and the bodhisattva, there is also the Christ and the 'Christisattva'. And just as the Buddha does not negate the bodhisattva, so neither does the 'Christisattva' negate the Christ. It is, in all cases, a question of lived lives and, sometimes, however unfortunately, of accepted martyrdoms. But those last words emphasize a crucial difference between the Christ and the Buddha, and José Ignacio Cabezón underlined it in his article: "Unlike Jesus, the Buddha was not a peasant; his followers seem to have been principally middle- and upper-middle-class men and women, as was his principal audience; and his criticisms were primarily directed at the Brahminical religious beliefs and practices prevalent in his day, not at the social structures that marginalized and oppressed men and women in Ancient India . . . The Buddha opened up the religious life (and therefore the possibility of salvation) to members of society that that hitherto been denied it: members of the lowest castes and women especially . . . Nonetheless, as a program of social reform, Jesus' must be recognized as being the more radical and far reaching, and this no doubt is why the Christian tradition to this day, even when impeded by its own institutional forms, has been at the forefront of social transformation." In this response I focus only on exclusivity and particularity, but this is another major focus for Buddhist-Christian discussion. It is a question of the divergent social class of the Christ and the Buddha. It is the difference between justice and compassion. It is the question of suffering outside the palace created from inside the palace itself. But, for here and now. I leave those questions aside to return to those terms I used twice already, "peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely present," terms that I sum up by the word particularity.

Particularity is, for me, the most universal aspect of our humanity. It is what rules us whenever we touch on anything most precious, personal, or profound. Examples may help. Suppose I awoke tomorrow morning beside my wife Sarah and announced, "If I had not met you, fallen in love with you, and married you, I would have met, loved, and married someone else and be waking up next to them this morning." That is, of course, a very bad way to start the day. But it is both absolutely true and absolutely inhuman. If it is true, then why is it most imprudent to start the day with this announcement? Particularity is the answer. One experiences and must experience a beloved spouse as "peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely" destined for that relationship and not as an interchangeable cog in a relational machine. As with human love, so is it also - and even more profoundly - with divine faith. It must be experienced as "peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely" right, true, valid, and correct. In anything that is of supreme importance to us, be it spouse or family, hobby or passion, job or profession, language or country, there is an inevitable slippage from a to the. But out of the corner of our minds we recognize that a has become the, and we know that this is perfectly human and presents no problem - unless it is taken literally and the equally relative absolutes of others are negated. So it is, also or especially, with one's faith or one's religion. It must be experienced as a manifestation of the Holy, but we must never forget or deny that it is actually a manifestation for me and for us. To be human is to live in a as the; to be inhuman is to deny that necessary slippage.

John Dominic Crossan
DePaul University

To The States

To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist
     much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward
     resumes its liberty.

-- Walt Whitman

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

on "Christian" art . . .

I found the following paragraph in the introduction to the Oxford History of Christianity recently:

Christianity is a religion of the word -- the 'Word made Flesh', the word preached, the word written to record the story of God's intervention in history. Every story needs a picture. Pope Gregory the Great defined the role of the artist thus: 'painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read'. Augustine had gone further in praise of music: written words are in themselves inadequate -- 'language is too poor to speak of God . . . yet you do not like to be silent. What is left for you but to sing in jubilation'. The visual artist as well as the musician is entitled to the benefit of the Augustinian argument. Words constitute a record exerting a long-term pressure: a work of art has an instantaneous impact. It bridges the gap between cultures with a simple gesture with an immediacy denied to translations of the record. Whatever the culture from which it derives, a great work of art is a potential source of spiritual insight, falling short of words in the power of syllogistic argument and even in the ability to suggest the content of the imagination's inward eye, but far superior in the evocative power to haunt and illuminate. Wassily Kandinsky, the pioneer of abstract painting, who published a study of The Spiritual in Art in 1912, spoke of art as resembling religion in taking what is known and transforming it, showing it 'in new perspectives and in a blinding light'. Some of the masterpieces of painting and sculpture in the Christian tradition have been produced by artists whose status as believers is doubtful. In Kandinsky's view of the breakthrough to spiritual perception, this is no paradox. 'It is safer to turn to geniuses without faith than to believers without talent' (blogger's emphasis), said the French Dominican Marie-Alain Couturier -- an aphorism which he tested by persuading Matisse, Braque, Chagall, and other great names of the day to do work for the church of Assy in the French Alps. Couturier was not subordinating religious considerations to élitism; to him, 'all great art is spiritual since the genius of the artist lies in the depths, the secret inner being from whence faith also springs'. Jacques Maritain has drawn out a further implication of the supposition of the unity of all spiritual experience. To the Christian who wishes his art to reflect his religious convictions he says: keep this desire out of the forefront of the mind, and simply 'strive to make a work of beauty in which your entire heart lies.' (blogger's emphasis)

John McManners

Huxley on silence

The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire -- we hold history's record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence. That most popular and influential of all recent inventions, the radio is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the eardrums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but usually create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas. And where, as in most countries, the broadcasting stations support themselves by selling time to advertisers, the noise is carried from the ear, through the realms of phantasy, knowledge and feeling to the ego's core of wish and desire. Spoken or printed, broadcast over the ether or on wood-pulp, all advertising copy has but one purpose -- to prevent the will from ever achieving silence. Desirelessness is the condition of deliverance and illumination. The condition of an expanding and technologically progressive system of mass production is universal craving. Advertising is the organized effort to extend and intensify the workings of that force, which (as all the saints and teachers of all the higher religions have always taught) is the principal cause of suffering and wrong-doing and the greatest obstacle between the human soul and its Divine Ground.

— from Silence, Liberty, and Peace
Aldous Huxley

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

explanatory note

The purpose of this blog will be to archive and possibly comment on some passages that have touched me in some profound way or another. Some will be complete pieces and others will be fragmentary.