Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Notes for young philosphers IIC: a dialogue with Matthew continued - the Old vs the New Testaments

Back into the fray again on the nature of Christianity now that school musicals are successfully over! 

This post is a response to a comment from Matthew (highlighed in sections below for ease of referral) in our ongoing dialogue on the nature of Christianity and the demands of morality.  In case anyone else wants to jump in, previous exchanges and the full comments can be found here (Part I), here (Part IIA), and here (Part IIB).

 1. Regarding the character of Jesus, I don't agree that your stories support your point. Certainly people are intimidated by him, but I would interpret that more as their legitimate fear of the supernatural than as an aspect of his personality. Is the story in John 6 not Jesus declaring himself the Son of God and most of his disciples disagreeing and leaving for something less controversial.

I do agree that there was a legitimate fear of the supernatural working at some points, though some seemed to be completely blind to it. But the John 6 story is about his demand that they eat his flesh, something realized in the Last Supper and for us in the Eucharist, when the bread and wine become truly the body and blood of Jesus at the Mass. The point is that his demands and teachings were often hard to understand, intimidating to be asked to comply with, and often seemed quite harsh.

2. And how can you say the Old Testament god has the same personality as Jesus? The Old testament was full of plagues and famines and holy wars and smiting

The catholic view is that ‘the New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New’. In essence, the Old Testament prepares the people for the New, and we can only really understand the Old Testament properly except in the light of the New.

One effect of this is that we need to be a bit careful – references to God’s wrath and so forth in the Old Testament often anthropomorphize God and shouldn’t be taken too literally. All the same, the lesson we should draw from the plagues, famines and smiting and so forth was that there are real consequences to rejecting God’s ways. Indeed, one possible interpretation of global warning (that I favour) is that it is a similar reaping of the consequences of modern worship of the idols of consumerism and self-indulgence, and could be legitimately written up in exactly the same way as some of those OT consequences of sin stories....

It is also important to realize though that the Old Testament also teaches that God always has plenty of compassion - where compassion is warranted.

Consider for example the story of Jonas. He was sent to warn the people of Ninevah that they were going to be destroyed for their sins. As these people were enemies of the Jews, and the Jews were God’s chosen people, he tried to avoid giving them the message, thought they should be treated like the outcasts of Jesus’ day were treated by the elite, and left to die. When he finally was forced to deliver the message, he sat around waiting to enjoy the coming smiting. Except that the people of Nineveh repented and did penance, and so God, much to Jonah’s disgust, spared them.

By contrast, consider the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. When Abraham learnt of God’s plan to destroy the city, he tried to bargain God out of it, getting him to agree to spare it if he could find even ten righteous men there. But in fact the people of Sodom proved to be totally evil and so were destroyed.

The moral is, it's not a one way street, God calls and we must respond or take the consequences.

3. I'm not saying he was some beatific, emotionless machine, but he was certainly compassionate and caring! …., and then Jesus came along with his God-given message of "disregard that!" and started preaching forgiveness and love thy neighbour, socialising with the outcasts of Jewish society, and washing people's feet...

Can you cite a passage where Jesus says ‘disregard all that’? Because my read of the New Testament is that Jesus actually generally demands an even higher standard of Christians than the Old Law, as the sermon on the Mount makes clear – instead of an eye for an eye, we have to forgive; instead of allowing people to move on from failed marriages for example, he says there shall be no divorce.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus lacked compassion and caring!

Of course he was compassionate. But is Jesus’ approach any different to that attributed to God in the Old Testament? I don’t think so. He socialized with sinners, as Luke tells us, because the healthy don’t need the physician, only the sick do. He washed the disciples’ feet despite Peter’s protestations to teach his priests and bishops them the necessity of an attitude of humble service.

Most importantly, he didn’t say ‘Go and continue to sin’, he said ‘Go and sin no more’. And he repeatedly warned of the consequences of failing to obey that injunction. Take a look for example at the story of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16, or at the parable of the wedding feast (Mt 22), which tells of those thrown out into the outer darkness. At Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17;Matt. 25:41; Matt. 25; Mark 9:47-48; 2 Thess. 1:6-9; Jude 6-7 ; Rev. 14; and Rev. 20:10.

4. What's your actual position on who's going to hell then? You've given a whole lot of different perspectives and ideas, but is there one in particular that you believe?

As to who is saved and who will end up in hell, I don’t think I’ve arrived at a firm position as yet. I’m still listening to the arguments.

But I think our starting point has to be to take seriously Jesus’ repeated warnings that getting into heaven is actually quite hard: many are called few are chosen; eye of the needle and all that. And we have to take seriously the injunctions about the necessity of repentance and baptism, of eating Christ’s body.

I’m inclined to take some comfort in the notion of ‘invincible ignorance’ – that if you truly haven’t had a chance to know the fullness of the faith through no fault of your own, but truly seek to the best of your ability to know God and do his will, God may be gracious and merciful even in the case of the unbaptised. And in our day and age, I suspect many people brought up even in Christian countries, as nominal Christians or in various denominations, probably do suffer from invincible ignorance in some respects. Still, heaven is a gift God offers us, not an entitlement, so I'm not one hundred percent sold on this.

I also think that without the graces that come from the sacraments and teachings of the catholic church, especially the Eucharist and confession of sins, it is pretty hard (though clearly not impossible) to be a consistently righteous person and get to heaven.  From that stems the duty to evangelise and pray for the conversion of friends, family and indeed everyone as much as we can!

And I’m pretty convinced that those who explicitly reject God because they hate the idea that there is someone superior to themselves to whom they owe worship, or because they just want to indulge their own vices, will go to hell. Because I think we all instinctively sense that justice will ultimately prevail.

One of Richard Dawkins’ more bizarre arguments in my opinion, is the idea that man’s ‘sense of God’, pretty much universal to every era and culture, could have evolved in the absence of a corresponding reality behind it. Because evolution just doesn’t work that way as far as I can understand it. We developed eyes because there was something to see and it was useful for us to be able to do so. We developed ears because there was something to hear. We don’t develop senses or organs to do things without their being some real behind them. I think the universality of the idea of justice, of God, of the natural law reflects an objective reality that we all have the ability, to greater or lesser degrees, to find for ourselves, and we are accountable for whether or not we do so.

5. I disagree, trying to improve oneself and trying to achieve perfection are not at all the same thing! I'll always have flaws, and there'll always be things about me and things I've done that I'm not proud of. On the other hand, I did oversimplify things as far as morals go, and you've done a good job of giving a basic illustration of the dilemmas of modern ethics. I can't really say much more than I have about how I try to act; I suppose I'll have to give that some thought...

I think we have some definitional issues to deal with here on what perfection means.

First, being perfect doesn’t mean that we haven’t done things in the past that we are ashamed of. Many of the Church’s greatest saints – starting with St Peter and St Mary Magdalene – committed great sins. The point is that they were sorry for what they had done, begged forgiveness, picked themselves up and then did better. More, for most of us, Jesus talks about forgiving people for their sins seventy times seven for a reason!

Secondly, it doesn’t mean we are without flaws. Flaws are inherent in the nature of the (fallen) human condition. Striving for perfection just commits us to attempting to overcome those flaws as much as possible – to conquer our tempers or whatever our particular problems are. Perfection means achieving the best possible with what we have been given as a starting point, so that ‘grace perfects nature’; it doesn’t mean a totally different creatures is created.

And really I think true perfection can only be achieved in heaven – where we will automatically do the right thing automatically with complete ease. Still, the path to perfection now means constantly struggling to do the right thing, something that at first is very hard, but becomes easier as we form good habits, and as grace ‘enlarges our hearts’.

But let’s come back to this, and eventually to a particular topic like abortion or homosexuality (both could be good discussions!) when we’ve finished working through the above…

No comments: