Epistle to Sunny

Sunny- (I’m including this to everyone but it’s really just meant for her eyes; but it is very, very long and filled with religious talk so consider yourself warned.) ;-D

 I find this kind of conversation is best had in person, so that we may hear each other’s voices and see our faces; electronic text is cold and haughty, and emoticons are stupid. It is easy to sound snarky and flip but so very difficult to convey subtle ideas when one is typing into a laptop. It doesn’t help that my verbose meanderings drip pretension but that is my flaw and not a sign of condescension. The more clipped and edited our culture demands our language become, the more florid and rococo my prose grows; I am an idiot, but I face the crowd smiling. 
What I am getting at is that I know that some of things I wrote may have sounded provocative, but no offense was meant. I certainly never shy away from a theological conversation, although I do understand why it makes many people uncomfortable. The subject is as personal as it is universal; we all have a relationship with God but every one is as unique as DNA. Unlike our DNA, however, our relationships with God evolve over the course of our lives. This is why I believe honest and open discussion about the subject is so important because the better we understand our neighbor’s views of God the better our own perspective becomes. The truth is rude, lies are polite; when people try to speak truthfully to each other about this subject it often turns into a shouting match. I am not shouting. I am speaking in a voice so low that it is almost a whisper. Or better yet, think of this as a letter written by hand on paper from an old friend. I am certainly not trying to win an argument; I am having a discussion and explaining my beliefs.
 
I found your characterization of my views as ‘orthodox’ to be delightful. I’ve never been called ‘orthodox’ by anyone. I am not anti-religion, but I don’t subscribe to any particular creed, including the Nicean one. I hold the Gospels to contain the Word of God as spoken by Jesus; but that doesn’t mean that I think the Gospels are somehow perfectly infallible accounts. Luke 1:1 makes it clear that these were not firsthand accounts as well as to give some indication of the agenda of the writers.   
 
When Augustus finally rid himself of the Triumverate one of the first things he did was to burn the histories and prophesies he didn’t care for. He engaged in an act of censorship so complete that he deformed our understanding of the classical world; only the writings he approved survived so that we don’t even know what was lost. Occasional scraps that offer tantalizing clues exist, but Caesar understood how to ultimately silence those whom he disagreed with. It would be like if the only books that survived the 20th Century were Ann Coulter’s, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly’s. There’s something else about Caesar that is relevant to this conversation; one of his many titles was that of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. 
 
Nearly two hundred and fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, which was forty years after Christ walked the Earth, the Emperor Constantine switched Rome from the worship of the person of the Emperor and Jupiter Optimus Maximus to the person of Jesus Christ and God the Father. One of my most fundamental disagreements with Christian Fundamentalists (as well as the Catholics and others) is their attitude towards women. Constantine converted the Empire because of the influence of his mother, Saint Helena. The church spread throughout Roman society because of the influence of women; women who became Christians would raise their children and influence their husbands into the faith. A most fascinating contemporary document describing the early Church is a correspondence between Pliny the Elder and the Emperor Trajan; Pliny describes ‘two female slaves who were called deaconesses’. Beyond this, remember who went and witnessed the empty tomb while all of the men were denying and hiding. Then ask why the Catholics won’t even allow ordination of women to be discussed or why SBC Christian bookstores hid a copy of ‘Gospel Today’ behind the counter like it was ‘Hustler’ because the cover story was about women pastors. On this matter, I am not in the least bit orthodox.      
 
The century after Constantine created the Holy Roman Empire was very turbulent but shaped Christianity for millenia to come. During this time the canon of the Old and New Testament was established and heresies were stamped out very much in a fashion similar to an earlier Pontifex Maximus who had done something similar around the time of the birth of Jesus. This period culminated with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by St Cyril, an act that effectively lobotomized Europe, marking the end of Classical Civilization and the beginning of the Dark Ages. (I am admittedly obsessed with the subject; and am working on a painting depicting the murder of Hypatia by Cyril and his mob and the destruction of the Musaem. I’ve spent years working on the sketches. But I digress.
 
I show parts of ‘Gladiator’ to students when we’re discussing Rome because the visual depictions of the city and the games are stunningly accurate. I make it very clear that the plot of ‘Gladiator’ is like if a movie about America today was made two thousand years from now in which George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Batman team up to fight Hitler and the Joker. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is even worse. While I think that the pop fictional speculations about this period are complete nonsense the idea that the texts and practice of Christianity suffered distortion during this period is not. The change in the status of women is proof of this. One of the very real reasons for the establishment of an orthodox text was to establish the temporal power of the Bishop of Rome, who cultivated the pretention that he was the Heir of Peter. The Papacy and the Bible are inextricably linked in their creation; to have a Bible there had to be a Pope, and to have a Pope there had to be a Bible. It is a great irony that so many who reject the Pope regard the Bible as literally true, and that those who accept the Pope as infallible have such flexibility regarding the Bible. They are two sides of the same coin that use circular logic to argue for their own single truth.
 
The Ark of the Covenant held the stones Moses brought down from the mountain where he spoke to God. We’ve seen ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, and the truth is that the Ark did look something like that. There’s even convincing speculation that, based on the materials and instructions for construction in the Bible, the object would have produced an electrical effect much like a battery (It was on Mythbusters!), which would have contributed to the awe such an object would create. But as magnificent as the object itself was, its importance was trivial compared to what it contained. I think that the Church is a lot like the Ark of the Covenant, and by Church, I mean all of them across time. The Church and the Bible carry the Good News Jesus brought across time and space to us. The Church and the Bible are not the Good News themselves; they are not worthy of our veneration and worship, only the Messenger of the Good News is. They contain something priceless to all humanity and so should be regarded with care and respect but they should not be confused with what is actually Divine, no matter how pretty and gilded they are.
 
God is far more subtle than any of us can individually imagine. That’s one of the reasons I don’t find evolution or the ancient age of the universe to be theologically disturbing in the least. I once watched a documentary on chickens (it was more intersting than it sounds) and one of the ideas discussed was that the chicken could be a direct descendant of the Tyrannosaur. As the piece went on showing chickens cramped together in cages being grown as food for us I imagined God and Gabriel sitting in a Jurrasic jungle watching a baby T Rex chasing one of our tiny mammal forebears, and God saying to Garbriel, ‘wait until you see how that eventually turns out.’ The other reason I embrace poor beleagured Charles Darwin is because in Eden God tasked humanity with naming all the creatures and Darwin made more progress on that job than anyone who has ever lived. While these things overturn a literal reading of Genesis and much of the Old Testament, they do not touch a word of the Good News.
 
In 2000, I found myself standing in St Peter’s. The Pope had declared it a Jubilee year, so I walked through the Porta Sancta. I walked through all the Holy Doors that day without plan. I found myself walking with a backpack full of water through Rome making a pilgrimage without even consciously deciding to do so but it changed me nonetheless. I stood under Trajan’s Arch which commemorated the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple. It has the earliest known depiction of a Menorah, which is in a bag of loot a Roman soldier is carrying off. The arch stands overlooking the ruins of the Senate and Palatine Hill and it is very near to the Colosseum where so many were murdered for entertainment. Tucked behind this is an ancient basillica where the chains that held St Peter are kept. Hours later, when I was standing in his tomb, I tried to keep from giggling when I noticed the markers on the floor showing how much smaller other major houses of worship are compared to St Peters. It was later, when I was sitting in a cafe outside the Pantheon, that it all hit me. Agrippa, who had been one of the few trusted close friends of Augustus, had built the original Pantheon before Christ was born as a monument to all the gods of Rome. It has been a church for fourteen hundred years. I daydreamed myself deep into thought and I imagined explaining to Augustus that one of his governors was executing God Incarnate, and that someday his palace and the Forum would be stripped to build a tomb not for Christ, but for the fisherman friend of the Messiah. The reality of it all staggered me.
 
 Jesus did not convert the Disciples by pulling out a Torah and showing them how He fulfilled prophesy. His words were convincing enough for them to leave their former lives behind and follow Him to wherever that may lead, including being crucified upside down by Nero. The Pharisees who knew the books of prophesy better than anyone else around had Him killed. Faith in Jesus does not require belief in Old Testament prophets. Luke states in the preamble to his Gospel that he is trying to establish that the life of Christ fulfilled prophesy; I am not accusing the Apostles of lying, but they were trying to start a revolutionary movement and it would be a mistake to ignore their agenda when reading what they wrote. The Gospels tell different parts of one story. Not one of them is complete without the others. Last January I wrote about the Parable of the Sower and it more fully explains what I mean by this. Interpreting a teacher who teaches in parables literally is missing the point. Fundamentalists who spend their time focusing on prophesies and ancient hygine laws while ignoring the meaning of the Good Samaritain are confused, to say the least.
The earliest books of the Old Testament have duplication running through them; there are two accounts of the Creation in Genesis that differ, and the other Pentateuch books also appear to have been assembled from seperate earlier texts. This, along with the four different Gospel accounts makes it impossible for there to be a single correct interpretation of the Bible. I am familiar with the arguments literalists use to justify their position; I reject them because they are circular and require believing that the Bible is a magic book written by the Hand of God. I reject them because these arguments allow men to believe that they know God’s Will and this sort of certainty has wrought more misery upon humanity than doubt ever has. I reject these arguments because they build a wall between man and God that keeps man in darkness and suffering. Jesus repeatedly exhorts us to think for ourselves, to stay awake, and to obey His commandment of compassion; furthermore, He tells us that we see through a glass darkly and cannot know the full mind of God; literalists insist they are the only ones who see clearly and that they alone speak God’s words.
Some years ago I wrote a monologue called ‘Ironic Doubt is a Pillar of My Faith’ because I realized it was doubt that led me to faith. As a child I believed in the literal interpretations I was given in Sunday School until I angered my teachers with questions. I spent years searching and finding that the greater the certainty religious authorities insisted they had regarding their teachings the more flawed their theology was. Paradoxes are created in the presence of absolutes; the more insistent the absolute, the greater the paradox is. The fundamentalist literalist position is full of paradox because of it’s assertion of absolute finality in it’s interpretation. Truth is not a simple object that can be contained in a prison of belief; it is a living thing that can only be experienced through the risky freedom of faith. 
Sunny, I know this was long and wordy, but I lack the wit to explain myself in bumpersticker slogans. I worry about large groups of people believing the end of history is immenent because such thinking can lead to all sorts of tragedy; cults such as the Branch Davidians are one example. Preachers who build expectations for apocalypse are not tending to the needs of their flock; they are making them anxious and prone to stampede. Telling people that the end of the world is coming may be good for the collection plate but it’s not good for spiritual health. Perhaps Jesus will appear in the sky 900 ft tall and naked with the host of Heaven behind Him one fine day, but whether or not I believe that makes no difference to Jesus or myself. If it happens, then I will deal with that reality, but until then I will simply try to toil in the fields of the Lord as Jesus commanded us to. Jesus is far more concerned with how we treat the least among us than with how stringently we keep the Law. Mat 12:7 ‘If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.’      

2 Responses to “Epistle to Sunny”

  1. I’m a fly on the wall in this conversation, but if I may be so bold as to add my buzz: this post is precisely as long and exactly as short as it needs to be. Excellent. Thank you.

  2. No, no. Thank you.
    -WD

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