Jesus, who initiated humankind into that consciousness of God as our Abba, Father, of Whom we are “children” in that consciousness, has also been hailed “Very God”, although also ”very man” in the Christian tradition. How are we to interpret this apparently contradictory belief, which to “orthodox” Christians is a defining truth of Christianity, acceptance of which is a necessary condition of “salvation”?
I must first testify that when I had that religious experience as a sixteen year old, recounted in my above posting “A Personal Testimony”, an experience that continued in that raw form for many years onwards, the belief in the Incarnation, that the Jesus taught me as Son of God is also God, was unknown to me. I was surprised, when I attended a class on doctrines sometime later, to learn that the Christ I believed for my salvation “was also God”. So, in my own experience, belief in the literal Incarnation of God in Jesus was not necessary for initiation into “sonship” of God. This seemed to be so, also, in other cases arguably more significant than mine. The first female Methodist minister of Singapore, after her stint at theological college and ordination as minister, asked within my hearing “How can Jesus be God?” And I heard a prominent American missionary Methodist minister illustrating the doctrine that Jesus is God only in terms of “God is like Jesus”. As regards ”the fruit of the Spirit”, very few I know exhibit it more than the late Reverent Gunnar Teilman.
But, of course, that does not mean the doctrine is wrong, for it needs only be that our gracious God would dispense even with true belief in order to save. So, we have still to ask what might the truth be .
We must first guard against the idolatory of thinking of a man as God, without appreciating the qualifications of that within the entire tradition of belief. I remember an occasion in Singapore when the major religions were represented at a national service of mourning after a Silk-air crash. Various invocations were sounded, and then came the Christian’s turn. But all the archbishop said was “Lord Jesus”. I remember the let-down! We were so brought down to earth again!
The Christian belief that Jesus is God must be thought in its rightful context, ie. in its place within the religious experiences that inaugurated Christianity and the attempted understanding of them the doctrinal formula of “the Holy Trinity” was meant to capture. Stephen, at the point of martyrdom, said he saw Jesus, resurrected, and seated (as a distinct individual) at the right hand of God, and this was heard by Saul, then his persecutor, who soon became Paul, the first great Christian missionary and theologian, who bequeathed to posterity writings that became much of the New Testament. In his letters to various churches, Jesus was mostly distinguished from ”God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, who will eventually be “all in all” when Jesus will have gathered all under Himself and then presented it all “to the Father”. This was despite Paul’s quoting with approval, in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, the saying that it was “not thought robbery to claim for Jesus equality with God”. But whatever the “equality” Paul agreed to, he was not saying Jesus is divine in being identical with God. Only distinct beings can be equal. At all events, there was the ambivalence between the notion of a resurrected and glorified Jesus, hailed as “Lord”, yet subordinate to God the Father, and that of Him as being God’s equal. It has been said that it would be idolatory for the early Christians and Paul to do the sort of homage to their “Lord Jesus” that was tantamount to worship had He not been divine. And if divine, He must also be thought to be identical with God, since being monotheists, they could not entertain the notion of more than one divine being. But it is a moot point that the homage they paid to Jesus was “worship”, rather than their receiving the bread and wine, “body and blood” of their risen Lord”, in solidarity with Him and signifying their being incorporated into His “body” as members of the new Israel He instituted. With Him they became ”the Vine”, traditional symbol of “children of the Most High”, but all directed in worship , not of Jesus, but of His “Father, the Husbandman”. Now, all this might seem to outsiders as worship of one Jesus, recently crucified under Pontius Pilate, as it did to the Roman governor of Bithynia, Pliny, who in AD 112 wrote to the Emperor Trajan complaining of the activities of Christians in those terms. But, surely, precisely because they were strict monotheists, they themselves could not have seen their reverence for their Lord and Master as worship of One other than the Father in Heaven. They would have recalled that it had been His Abba Whom he had been teaching them to worship andpray to, say in “the Lord’s prayer”, and how He had denied repeatedly the very charge of blasphemy. And they surely did not have the philosophic sophistication to be capable of mooting the “paradox” or “mystery” of how the conception of divine “transcendence” might allow for the contradiction of His being man and also God Whom He himself worshipped and prayed to, of how God could have been Jesus of Nazareth living and dying, and yet through it all remaining all the while still God – ( this is the “mystery” of divine transcendence purported by HD Lewis in defence of the Incarnation, in an essay entitled “The Person of Christ”).
I hope the brief indications above suffice to show how shallow and misleading is the simple, childhood prayer “Thank you, Jesus”, taught at “Sunday School”. You don’t think God when thinking a kind, bearded, Galilean youth. The “lordship of Jesus” is inseparable in meaning from whatever His being the Christ or Messiah means, interpreting the life He lived and the death He died, based upon the experiences of all that, and the Resurrection experiences. It involves wondering and meditating with our early informants on “those things that had occurred amongst them” involving Jesus and the impact He made on their consciousness, especially the seeming encounter with a loving “Abba” God He initiated them into, an experience that seemed to them impossible to separate from His teaching and lordship over them.
But just as it can be idolatrous to just “pray to Jesus”, even the doctrinal formula of the Holy Trinity we recite in church can be an idol also, if we “worship” it, rather than meditate our way behind it into the experience it is meant to capture. Key to it all is, of course, the apparently contradictory claim that the Person of Jesus is “Very God, and Very Man.” What had been the “mystery” of this Person and what the nature of the impact He made on the experiences of the early Christians that seemed to the formulators of the Creed to call for nothing less than this “paradox” for enshrining it in church doctrine?
That He was “Very Man” we cannot doubt. For it must have been as human that He could have so impressed His first followers that they felt they could only call Him, in the words the author of John’s Gospel put into the lips of Thomas, “my lord and my God”. This is a point HD Lewis might consider. He proffers his case for Jesus’ divinity, in the essay ”The Person of Christ”, by showing how uniquely good the records show His person, as seen in His living and dying, to have been, and how unclassifiable He would be if not hailed God incarnate. But then it must be only as man that He could have thus impressed, for such goodness would only be something to be expected of a “God incarnate”. And it cannot be gainsaid that Jesus thought himself human even if at a later point in his ministry he identified himself with the pre-existed “messiah” of some Jewish expectancy. Once someone called him “good master” and he replied “Why call me good? Only God is good”. Another time, he refuted the charge of blasphemy levelled by Jews who sought His death, in the words “Isn’t it written in the scriptures that ‘ye are gods’?”, implying that He claimed to be nothing beyond what the accusers by their scriptures must accept as proper to man. Another charge of blasphemy tried on Him was His “saying God was his Father”. Now, this need not be seen as a claim to divinity, but only of familiarity and personal with God, deemed disrespectful by His accusers. This claim to familiarity we can readily admit He did make, for what distinguished His apprehension of God is that God is ”Abba Father”, and it wasn’t “blasphemy”. At this point in his life, however, it was as man or representative man that God was Abba to Him, the doctrine of His ”divine Sonship to the Father” being a later theologised development occurring most prominently in John’s Gospel, a heavily theologically interpretive work written about a century after the events of His life. Even at His baptism by John the baptist, when He had that experience which impressed upon Him His calling to be Messiah, His understanding of being God’s “beloved Son” could only be by reference to Scriptures, where God calls Israel and the lord’s anointed king “my son”, and where “prophecy”, it seemed, was that “a root of Jesse”, another of David’s line, therefore only man, was to to rule as Messiah (but not, in Jesus’ mind, as the conquering Messiah popularly hoped for by many, but as that “suffering Servant” described in pseudo-Isaiah as one ”who sacrificed his life for many”, in whom God “is well pleased” (Is 53). The latter clause was significantly quoted in the latter half of that ”voice from Heaven” spoken to Jesus in order to signify the proper Messiah He was to be.) Also, in many places in the Gospels where Jesus called Himself “Son of Man”, if He meant anything more than just saying He was man, it was only by reference to the Book of Daniel where one ”like a son of man”, representing “children of the Most High (ie., Israel)”, would present himself “to the Ancient of Days”. Therefore, it all signifies that Jesus, the Son of Man, was human, as indeed the term itself implies in Hebrew. It was never thought that Messiah was God. That claiming to be representive of ”the children of the Most High” as “Son of Man” before God He had made claim to some exalted status and power is possible, and there are indications of His claiming some kind of ultimate judiciary power “dividing the sheep from the goat” and saying to some, to be left “in outer darkness”, that “I know you not”, even in the earlier Gospels before John. But with His poetic cast of mind, it is arguable that He could not have read the apocalyptic book of Daniel, and other literature of that genre, and used their characteristic fantastic imagery and visions, too literally. He taught in parables, and it is a moot issue whether those depictions of end days and of Himself as judge, etc., were meant, like all parables, only to make a point, say as regards sincerity of heart and commitment, like all his direct decrying of hypocrisy, and not to make factual claims and predictions about His own person. Anyhow, his person, as depicted there, was at most only an exalted being and not divine. Even had He claimed divinity, it would not follow that He was right. The ascription of sinlessness to him never included omniscience. He did not know our science, for instance, and he had certainly been wrong about the authorship of Exodus, ascribing the Pentateuch to Moses’s authorship which would have to mean Moses wrote of his own death.
We might also recall St Paul’s depicting Him, additionally to his other characterising of Him, as the ideal “Man from Heaven”, the “second Adam”, as contrasted to the fallen “first Adam” (probably having in mind the Platonic belief in perfect “forms” of which earthly beings and things are imperfect copies). But Man in that sense is distinct from the transcendent Form of the Good, the Platonic counterpart of supremacy and divinity. And we saw, in those other depictions of Paul’s, ambivalence in his seeming to ascribe to Jesus divine attributes (equality with God) and also mere exalted “lordship” in ultimate subjection to “God, the Father”. (We might also observe here that as human and “representative man” who “rose from the dead”, He could constitute evidence of humankind’s survival of physical death. As divine, this evidential value would be moot, for it could be said that it had to be divinity that enabled the resurrection. So there would be this advantage of rejecting belief in the deity of Jesus.)
But what then is tradition saying about the Christian experience of God by the Apostle’s Creed that contains the key term “Very God and Very Man” ascribed to Jesus? John Hicks has reminded us that what enabled that formula to be sensible despite seeming to state, in CH Dodd’s word, “the unthinkable”(ie. how the same being and centre of consciousness could be both God and man) was the Grecian philosophic distinction between “substance” and “accident”. This enabled the claim that Jesus was in essence divine, “of one substance with the Father”, even though also of the substance of manhood, both clothed in the “accident” of God and manhood combined. But, as Hicks points out, such talk is universally agreed to be meaningless today, and so we puzzle with Dodd as to how unthinkable is the literal identity of Jesus with God. So, too, the author of John’s Gospel, probably also under Greek influence, was able to, after identifying Jesus with Logos and God, to prove it only by illustrating how identical His thinking and living had been to the Father’s mind and will so as to render Him in essence God, or, as the Creed says, “true God from true God”. But for us today, who cannot make sense of that Greek philosophical talk, such a conception can only mean either the abandonment of monotheism, ie. implying that two Gods exist (three, if the “holy ghost” is likewise distinct), or the unthinkable identification of man and God in one being and consciousness. HD Lewis would take the latter course. Despite his warning us not to “fall over the precipice” in not heeding the limits to theological thinking and conceptualising, resulting in doctrinal and “Trinitarian” elaborations that trivialise rather than help our understanding of “the great mysteries of Godliness”, he nonetheless seems himself to fall over in affirming that God had remained distinctly God, worshipped and prayed to by Jesus, and yet was also Jesus, ie. in effect telling us to think the unthinkable. Lewis, though, has himself been in the forefront pointing the need to think our way behind doctrines in order to appreciate the experiences they capture, so let us heed this call and ask what had experientially necessitated that ascription of divine “substance identity” to Jesus. Bear in mind that when that ascription of identity was originally proffered, it wasn’t unthinkable, enabled by then current conceptions. We adhere better to tradition, therefore, not to feel compelled today to think the unthinkable about it.
Let us first set aside a circular argument “fundamentalist” Christians have been wont to present on such issues. They say “it’s in the Bible”. Now, we saw that scriptures aren’t clear on the purported divinity of Jesus. In any case, one cannot quote scriptures to support scriptures. The King James version has a verse in the second epistle to Timothy reading “All scriptures are given by inspiration of God and are profitable…” but the translation from Greek should be “All inspired scriptures are profitable….”, and it after all referred only to “the Law and the Prophets”, the “scriptures” of the early Christians. Another reference in the second epistle of Peter seems to indicate that Pauline writings were being regarded as equally authoritative with inspired scriptures? Well, Second Timothy, where that verse about the “inspiration of scriptures” occurs, is a late writing that isn’t really by Paul. At all events, the argument would only bring the issue further back – what scriptures vouch for that epistle? Even if the ”inspiration of God” were vouched, the conclusion would not follow that inspired scriptures were ”verbally inspired and infallible”, whatever this can be made to mean. It might still be that our wise Creator, who made us to be persons, did not “inspire” scriptures in such mode as to deny us, assumimg this were possible, the responsibility for intelligent discernment of “revelation”. And we saw that scriptures are, in any case, not clear-cut about the mode of Jesus’ exalted status.
HD Lewis puts forward an impressive case for accepting the traditional belief in Christ’s divinity in his essay ”The Person of Jesus”, where he paints a composite rendering of a Jesus “portrait” that brings out His manysided “uniqueness”, comprising perfections devotional, moral, artistic, exact sensitivity in response to varieties of specific human situations and encounters, etc. Even Martin Buber, a Jew who was not Christian, admitted he could find no human classification befitting Him. Lewis says we should respond, after prayerfully meditating the evidence of His person, in the only way open to us in view of the facts, and like Thomas, “be overcome in His presence” calling Him “my Lord and my God”. Note that Lewis’s case does not rest on any purported Jesus’s own claim to divinity, nor yet the resurrection and the nativity stories. The resurrection, whatever its nature, would be neither here nor there as regards the issue, for it would at most show that “God raised Him from death” just as others had been claimed to be so raised. And the nativity stories just cannot be taken neat (in any case, they wouldn’t necessarily indicate divinity), although surely based upon some kernal of truth around which legends had surely been spun, as they were wont to over such impressive persons as Jesus. Lewis asks “What censor was that?” which purportedly brought Mary and Joseph from Galilee to Bethlehem. Well, that would not be the only instance of legend being spun in order to fulfil a purported messianic prophecy, in this case about his being born “in the city of David”. Another regards the “prophecy” that “out of Egypt I will call my son”. Now, this was only a reference to the Israelites’ being led by Moses out of Egypt, but which was reinterpreted as prophesying the messiah. And so the story had to grow of the infant Jesus’ escaping Herod’s persecution by being brought to Egypt, and then back from there fulfilling that prophecy. So, also, as regards the “virgin birth” and all those about angels appearing and speaking. A mistranslation into Greek of an Old Testament purported “prophecy” read “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” The correct translation should be “a young woman shall conceive…”. Historically, the reference was probably to the Persian king, Cyrus, who was to let the Jews exiled in Babylon to return home. Another motive had been the belief in the genetic transmission of “original sin”. And so, Jesus, being “without sin”, had to be “born of a virgin”. Today we know that mothers too play a role in genetic transmission, and so the virgin birth would be pointless in this regard! And, after all, for the sake of internal consistency of Christian beliefs, surely primitive doctrines that presuppose literal collective responsibility for moral wrongs must be revised in order to tally with belief in freewill and individual responsibility. And that nullifies the need to postulate the virgin birth in order not to implicate Jesus in “Adam’s sin”. (I stress all this, with the additional agenda of reassuring those, such as the Oxford trained literature teacher of my son’s, who on superficial readings of the Gospels feel it’s all like fairy tale. One should read the scriptures informedly, discriminating the varieties of literary genres they are composed of and their purports, distinguishing factual claims from fiction.) The first proclaimers of the “good news” of Christ, as recorded in the beginning chapters of “Acts of the Apostles”, made no mention of nativity stories. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had been available for their learning the stories from, including during the earliest days after the resurrection, and had they so learnt, shouldn’t they not have been impressed and included them in their cases for proclaiming “the risen” Jesus as sent of God to be Lord and Saviour of all? Also, with those nativity experiences, Mary herself should have been so impressed as not to suspect that Jesus was insane at one point early in His ministry. Noteworthy, too, is that Mark, the earliest Gospel, mentions no nativity stories even though the author was likely the John Mark who would have much of his information firsthand from the mouth of Peter. And the author of John’s Gospel, writing late in the first century AD, would have heard them and should have included them in his Gospel had he thought them important (as he surely would, if they were literally true, since his aim was to prove Jesus was the Logos made flesh). So, too, Paul in all his authentic epistles makes no mention of nativity stories, nor did writers of the rest of the New Testament other than Luke and Matthew, who probably got them from a common source.
In light of all the above, how should we see the experience of the early Christians which the doctrinal formula of the Holy Trinity with its assertion of the Incarnation was meant to capture? We must again stress that nothing so “paradoxical”, “mysterious”, contradictory or “unthinkable” as claiming black is white, or man is also God, was ever intended by that creed. We saw that Greek thinking in terms of substance and accidents had enabled the formula ascribing “very God and very man” to one and the same being to be sensible. And even though, as HD Lewis maintained, experiences of being “overcome” in Jesus’ presence and addressing Him ”my Lord and my God” had occurred from “the beginning” and not after a period of devotional development, His disciples and close associates, being monotheistic Jews, could not have meant, by that address, that the human Lord of their encounter, however elevated or “deified”, was strictly and literally God. For that would have to mean in their minds that Jesus was God other than His own ”Abba, Father”, ie. two Gods. They were not tutored in Greek philosophy to have the sophistication of the later formulators of the Apostles’ Creed in order to conceive how two or three persons could also be one. True, so impressive of divinity had been their encounters with Him, especially post-resurrection, and not only the resurrection appearances but also their subsequent ongoing “personal” experience of being “in Christ”, that their paying homage to Him, especially in “the breaking of bread”, had seemed to onlookers, like Pliny, to be worshipping Jesus “as a god”. And we need not doubt that they themselves, seeing Him from the far side of the resurrection, thought Him a being of some exalted status, such as the expected Messiah had been thought by many to be, even to have pre-existed His advent. Stephen “saw” Jesus “seated at the right hand of God (not himself God, be it noted)”. But for all that veneration of Jesus as “Lord”, they seemed to need to still maintain the distinction between Him and ”God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. So, John had Jesus saying to Mary, who was about to touch him at that resurrection appearance, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father and your Father, my God and your God”. And this was despite his recording of Thomas’ addressing Him “My Lord and my God”. From this we might gather that John meant, by saying “what the Word (Christ) was, God was” (Chapter One, verse one: New English Bible translation), that Jesus was “divine”, not as being God Himself, but only as true Son of God. John said He was God’s “only begotten Son”, but being begotten of God would not mean being identical with Him. Now, our Creed was enabled by Greek ”substance” thought to render that “divinity” to mean being”of one substance with the Father”. And it is a moot point whether John himself thought Greek enough to imply that. Even when it developed into that Creed, there was the alternative, contesting view that Christ was only “of like substance”, rather than “one substance” with God, the Father, and this would have been close enough for John, who was careful, being Hebrew, not to have in mind any other God, however venerable the lordship of Christ.
At all events, to represent the apostles and early Christians as claiming that God is strictly and literally identical with Jesus, but at the same time also the God He worshipped and called His “Abba”, would be to make them say “the unthinkable”, which even the formulators of the Creed, with their Greek background, did not. HD Lewis’ point may be argued that because the early Christians were strict monotheists, unless they thought Jesus strictly identical with God, their veneration of Jesus would be tantamount to idolatry. But did they have the philosophical sophistication for them to appreciate Lewis’ point that the conception of ”divine transcendence” should allow for human wonderment beyond the limits of intelligent speculation and thus give sense to the purported ”mystery of Incarnation” that asserts Jesus was both man and God? Short of having that, they would, by so regarding Jesus, in effect be thinking nonsense. Even if divine inspiration and revelation is claimed for the thinking, that could not be what was revealed, unless we take revelation to be God’s putting persons in a sort of trance and they then record “communications” they don’t understand. But such a view no thinking person accepts today. And it would defeat the point of revelation, for nothing meaningful to humans would be revealed that way and, therefore, there would be no revelation to man. One must carefully distinguish paradox and mystery from plain contradiction. God’s “eternity” is mystery, for even as we can’t fathom its meaning, we can imagine eons of time, on which basis to “suspend judgement” as to what His eternity might mean. The question how an all-good God and Creator is compatible with evil in His creation is ultimately mystery, for we have some inkling as to how evil in our experiences might sometimes be necessary for some good, on which basis, we suspend judgment and develop faith that from God’s viewpoint, some similar justification exists of evil. And what initially appears paradoxical we expect to be eventually explained, like we know when it’s true that the “slow and steady” would win, and when a “faint-hearted” would lose, even though the proverbial pair is contradictory at face value. A contradiction, say that a man is man and therefore not God, and yet also God, and therefore not man, is just a jumble of words that say nothing. If divine revelation involves the human receiver’s responsible response, how could it be that anyone could claim something so unintelligible to be its content?
HD Lewis thinks that the uniqueness of Jesus constrained the first persons who encountered Him to so conclude. But might not the following be a more plausible alternative account of the meaning they discerned? That the “Lord” they encountered seemed to them extraordinary and exalted, as the expected Messiah was popularly thought by some, we needn’t dispute. But note that the standard description of that was “God raised Him from the dead” or “God has highly exalted Him” and “He sitteth at the right hand of the Father”. If the mode of their encountering Him constrained them to recall the titles,”Son of Man” or “Son of God”, and ascribe them to Him, the exaltedness they thought of Him could only be in terms of that apocalyptic figure “like unto a son of man” in the book of Daniel, representing “children of the Most High”, otherwise addressed in Psalms as “Israel, My son”. This son would eventually be presented to God, ”the Ancient of Days”, and therefore, if taken to be “divine”, he could not be so taken in the sense of strict identity with God. It must be experientially true that in those encounters, the apostles and others felt themselves ”in God’s presence”, and hardly able to make any due discrimination whilst “seeing” Jesus in His numinous intensity. So, perhaps, although John could be expected, true to his intent in writing his Gospel, to put in his own perceptions recording it, Thomas did address Jesus in those very words “My Lord and my God”. On subsequent reflection, though, they would have to duly discriminate, and, like Paul, place God appropriately as “Father of our Lord”, to Whom Jesus would have to present all after He had gathered all under Himself, so that “God will be all in all”. All this was despite their addressing Jesus as “Lord”; therefore this address did not imply, in their mind, His being identical with God.
Now, in light of all we have said, wouldn’t the so-called orthodox adherence in our time to the Apostles’ Creed, which involves asserting the unthinkable not originally intended by the Creed, be really unorthodox, and unnecessarily alienating other views concerning the Person of Jesus? Wouldn’t Christendom have been less divided throughout the centuries without all the alleging of ”heresies” and persecutions, and, notably, might not Islam (Mohammed was influenced by a “heretical” branch of early Christianity) have developed, with due qualifications, to be a branch of a greater Christianity? We noted that HD Lewis warns against our not seeing when interpreting should stop and reverential agnosticism adopted when theologising. Shouldn’t we stop at this point with the first people who encountered Christ, and merely acknowledge the impression of the entire event centred on Him, focusing their finding themselves overwhelmed ”in God’s presence” where in their personal experiences they could hardly distinguish seeing Jesus from experiencing God? Elevated and empowered we might claim Him to be in view of some of His apparent own claims and along with some Messianic expectations, and seeing Him from the far side of the resurrection. And so we could say with Paul that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”. But we must also remember with Paul that ultimately all that was to be for ”the glory of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus”, Who was to be ”all in all”.
In reflecting through all this, it must be borne in mind also, that a literal reading of the traditional Creed is open to the danger of rendering the concept of God so particularistic that He cannot be God, the “all in all”, but only a basically Hebrew God. If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is given an interpretation which ties it so particularistically to Hebrew history and culture that it could not be appreciated without reference to that culture, then God could not be God of all cultures, especially in times past when cross-cultural communication was scarce. Our worry today in this regard concerns the possibility of extraterrestrial civilisations of persons existing, which we cannot have contact with, with innumerable galaxies continually receding and distancing from us. Surely, God our Creator is also theirs, and loves them too?
HD Lewis says that those who shy from asserting the strict identity of Jesus with God should, for clarity and integrity, cease partaking in the eucharist. He thinks we should not “prevaricate”, and want to feel its blessing and comfort but yet confuse by rejecting its meaning. But my impression has been that the average Christian, even a “fundamentalist” such as I was when I first believed, takes Holy Communion whilst acknowledging Jesus as “Son of God” without asking or feeling the need to ask what that means. He quotes John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” and takes that “by faith”. He prays to God “through Jesus Christ, our Lord” without really studying the meaning of the ritual. He would be surprised like I was by the theology that Jesus is “very man and very God”. He recites the Apostles’ Creed in church but hardly reflects its meaning. Indeed, the new Methodist Hymnal contains a modernised Creed used interchangeably with the Nicene Creed which plainly says Christ was “Jesus incarnate” rather than God incarnate. Presumably, this is deliberate, in order to accomodate viewpoints such as advocated here. And why not? God is Whom we all want to worship via the context and experiences of the great revelatory event, labelled by theologians today “the Christ event”, which involved the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the majesty and experiential “mystery” of which event and of His person we acknowledge, whilst refraining from thinking the unthinkable by a creed that wasn’t unthinkable within its original cultural context. And we can, in some sense, say with Paul that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself”, for Paul is clear as to the ultimate supremacy and distinctiveness of God,”the Father of our Lord” who is ”all in all”. All this I recall as I take Holy Communion, and remain “grafted” (Paul’s metaphor) in that great fellowship and “body” headed by our Lord Jesus. Am I not still Christian through all this?
Dodd, despite saying the identification of Jesus with God is ”unthinkable”, nonetheless points out that Christians don’t think Christ as someone read of in ancient writings but as contemporary Lord and Master, experienced somewhat like the apostles and Paul’s experience of Him as a constant companion and guide who had said “Lo, I am with you always”. Paul could testify that “thrice I had asked Him to remove a thorn in my flesh” but He had replied instead, ”My grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness”. Does the understanding of Christ we proffer undermine this Christian experience? We first note that even the resurrection appearances of Jesus within that symbolic period of forty days were not ordinary material presences, however “bodily” they seemed. He appeared and disappeared through closed doors, vanished instantaneously when recognised, ascended into clouds. At all events, after the forty days, experiences of Christ were more like the vision Stephen had when he “saw the heavens open and the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God”. Even Paul, who claimed apostleship for having witnessed the resurrected Jesus, based that only on hearing a voice whilst being blinded by a great light on the Damascus Road. And in his letters, he interchangeably wrote of “Christ in you” and “your bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost”, in one place actually asserting “the Lord is the Spirit”, seemingly identifying Christ with the holy spirit of God. Now, that the Christ event has the significance of ”Emmanuel, God-with-us” we can affirm, and we may in the same vein say that Christ is “with us always” as the Spirit of God experienced by Godfearing peoples everywhere in all ages, or as the Spirit of, as affirmed in the first letter to Timothy, ”the Man Christ Jesus, the Mediator between God and Man”, continually still mediating us with His Abba. We may also say, with the author of the letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus is the ideal “High Priest” who once and for all paid the “sacrifice” to bring us all through “the veil” to the holy presence of God, Who continually prays and pleads on our behalf. We may say that without going beyond where these authors themselves did not, ie. to think the unthinkable, and say that as High Priest and Mediator He is also God with Whom He mediates.
Within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the contradiction of seeking salvation for oneself in a quest towards what would amount to the annihilation of the self in identification with Ultimate Reality seems to be acknowledged. Within each has developed a major “bhakti” or “devotional” wing where the Ultimate is worshipped and adored in some form of its manifestation, with the implication that the worshipper remains distinct as self. So, the Absolute, “Brahman”, is worshipped in its incarnation in Vishnu or Shiva, etc., and hymns of praise are sung in worship, and prayers recited. And Buddhism has developed into its “larger vehicle” and in some variety of that form has spread across Asia into China, Korea and Japan, with devotees worshipping and making supplications to Heavenly Buddhas and Buddhisattvas, who had merited so much goodness as to be able to confer it on their devotees, and would so confer, being full of grace and mercy, and bring them upon death to their heavens wherein conditions are most favourable for achieving Nirvana. Nirvana too has undergone transformation, and become in the East the Absolute, the numerous Buddhas being its manifestations. So, in worshipping a Buddha, one worships ‘Transcendent Being” or “God”?
In China, Taoism too has tempered its quest for seeming individual effacement in merging along with the Tao, especially when cross-fertilized with the coming of larger vehicle Buddhism. But even before that, Confucianism (Moism, also, in its own way) had balanced that escape tendency with its affirmation of personality and interpersonal relations with its overarching principle of “Ren”, or human-heartedness, to be practised with due reverence towards Heaven, conceived, if not yet as personal, as ultimate cosmic purposive Force with consciousness sufficient to endorse rightness and punish injustice.
It has been the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition that asserts uncompromisingly the human person as a distinct being. As HD Lewis points out, that has been the import of the creation stories compiled in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. We are not to be identified with God; we are neither emanations from nor destined to be absorbed into Him. In the latter conception, we eventually cease to be, and only He would exist. He made us, and so we are distinct from Him as creatures must be from their Creator. And there can be no escape from our creatureliness; escaping the constraints inherent in our selfhood would be self-defeating - we cannot cross over into the consciousness of other persons to know them and God, as God knows. The only route for us to relate to the world, other persons and God, and avoid the unrelieved loneliness that our finite state can imprison us within, is the way He has arranged for us. We have to, from within the only mode of experience we are capable of, so sensitise ourselves, by careful attending, education and training, to the “revelatory” inroads which things, other persons and God make upon our consciousness, and then, through equally careful responding, impacting the consciousness of our fellow humans (not God, for He knows us directly, as we know ourselves, without the mediation of impressions) in order for them to also know and understand us.
“No man is an island”. If we are to be sensitized to the realities each of us is confronted with, rather than remain imprisoned within our own warped imaginings within our “romanticised”, unreal world (wherein we become lunatic centres of our nightmarish presumptions), we have, in our age and cultural clime, to get ourselves educated and initiated into the multi-cultural human consciousness that comprises the human mind today. For the “Spirit of Truth” must have been “revealing” Itself all through the ages, from within the variegated world cultures and sub-cultures, and It should not begin “from square one” at teaching the lazy soul who will not “seek” in order to “find”. How would that teaching be possible, in any case, within each person’s limited lifetime? In past times, and even some remote places today, where inhabitants of culturally primitive and secluded peoples and tribes could have only the resources available within their domains, the Spirit of Truth would have to do with “revealing” only that they could be sensitized to, and being gracious would appreciate that level of “salvation” their worship in culturally infant modes enabled. But where opportunities have arisen for cross-cultural fertilisation, one should expect peoples to “seek” and “find” across boundaries. This is surely the justification for purportedly higher cultures to “spread the good news” even if at risk of “cultural colonising”.
Now, it is indeed “cultural colonising” in the bad sense when purportedly “higher cultures” transmit also the bad and untrue. During my many years at teacher education, I had had to contend with bad psychology and philosophy, such as behaviourist and materialist conceptions of mind, and I had often wondered if teachers would have done better, with their own commonsense understanding of their pupils as persons, had they not been required to attend “teacher training” where they had to pass exams by ticking so-called “objective test” questions on Skinnerian psychology, not unlike those rats and pigeons of Skinner’s experiments picking and opening doors to cheese! What appreciation of and respect for other persons as minds would that training effect? And we have noted that even within established religious traditions there had been the leads through blind alleys of seeking salvation in what amounts to self-annihilation.
Nevertheless, such blind alleys are byways along the path to truth, and could be taken as a temporary diversion, but only by those already along the true path, lifted above the instinctive and unreflective mindedness of primitive living, and engaged somewhat in what has been called “the Great Conversation” of humankind. This conversation must finally reach the level of wonder about Ultimate Reality indicated in my first four postings, especially the third and fourth. It must rise above mere trainings in the physical and human sciences, and their utilities, to include education about them and in the arts, and how all these cohere, enlightening us about humans and their physical and social environments, reaching out eventually to the asking and answering of ultimate questions. Such is the “liberal education” that might eventually bring the person out of himself and his imprisonment within untruthful or less than truthful grasps of other persons and things. He thus perceives the objective worlds of his experiences justly, and is enabled to truly relate and come to terms with other persons and the world - the only effective relief from that solitude mentioned above, and one that preserves his personal identity whilst bringing him into healthy commerce with others.
Such an education must eventually bring the person up to the level of wonder about ultimate issues, the precincts of metaphysics and the great world religions. Initiation into this universal human consciousness, participating in and through all its levels and their multiple facets, eventually involving pondering over ultimate issues, all along taking cognisance of the contributions of cultures across the world, is what our becoming as human and rational beings must mean, in our age and clime. To evade this and not face up to the claims on our due attention would be to remain fenced-up from the objective worlds and their rightful demands on us, an evasion that imprisons within ourselves.
Now, into this human consciousness has entered the prophetic awareness of the ”living God” of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, worshipping Whom the self would preserve, indeed enhance its identity and distinctiveness, in a precious, potentially interpersonal relationship. We may presume that, having pondered, even if only subconsciously, on those ultimate issues of Reality, and having entered into the religious consciousness we delineated, the prophets had found themselves sensitised, in a variety of life situations, to what seemed “the mighty hand of the living God” making inroads and leaving “messages” in those situations. They had felt left with no choice but to declare, as said in the Old Testament book of Daniel, that “the Most High is sovereign in the kingdom of man”, despite seeming personal and national disasters they had suffered, which had turned out, for them, to be precisely those occasions for discerning the love and graciousness of the living God of their deliverance. And so they saw that God is not only just, but also compassionate and merciful. Their sense of justice was still confused with their animal crave for vengeance, and so they were too prone to interpret personal, national and natural disasters as enactments of divine punishment and justice. But they were also acutely sensitised to a God who must also be love, as God’s nature must surely exceed supremely any known goodness in man, such as the prophet Hosea’s finding himself still loving his adulterous wife. So Hosea was enabled to discern that God must surely be supremely loving and forgiving, and His lovingkindness must endure forever. So also, it is asked in the Book of Isaiah, “Can a mother abandon her sucking child?” Likewise, God, only supremely so.
So into the stream of human consciousness has entered this prophetic awareness that, far from Ultimate Reality being only a vague be-all, He is personal Deity who relates to humans in judgment, mercy and love. And it behoves us all, if we are to “become” as humans at all, to engage in this consciousness that is among those that define us as human, conversing with the prophets and testing out their insights, including crucially trying ourselves to relive their experiences within our own life situations. Whilst so doing, we might bear in mind that even idealist philosophies, in their regard of Reality as the One, “Brahman” or Mind, and also Taoism, would not say the Ultimate is utterly inanimate and oblivious. Mind must be somewhat conscious and has volition. The Tao also, for it is surely a force for justice, besides its “acting by inaction”. Confucians, we have noted, have somewhat similar awareness to the prophets’, although not so fully rounded, with their perception of “Heaven” as having mandatory power, and willing the right, and accordingly conferring or withdrawing its “mandate”. Even so-claimed “atheistic Buddhism” depicts Nirvana as ”fullness” and ”bliss”, and bliss is experienced, implying an experiential centre of consciousness. It would seem, therefore, that there has been a universal tendency not to see Ultimate Reality as blind and oblivious, and the prophets had blown this insight to fullness in seeing God as “Heavenly Father”. And we have seen that larger vehicle Buddhism and devotional Hinduism have come quite near prophetic religions in singing hymns of praise to divine incarnations, and heavenly manifestations of Buddhahood, full of grace and mercy.
Then why am I Christian (whilst appreciating, in the prophets and other religious traditions, those insights delineated above as to personality of Ultimate Reality and its call to us for worship)? Before Jesus, and even after Him, prophets had failed to reconcile, for the human consciousness, divine justice (which they with the rest of humankind thought in terms of punishment by inflicting pain), with the infinite love, mercy and forgiveness they rightly perceived in God. Jesus did that, and therefore, as He claimed, came to “fulfil the law and the prophets”. He did that by, as CH Dodd put it, “speaking the Word (of God) and being it”. And so, as Austin Farrer ponted out, John in his Gospel begins by boldly identifying Jesus with what “the Word (or Mind) of God” was, and then through the rest of his Gospel depicts His life as enshrining all that He preaches, and so provides proofs for His authentic “Sonship” with “the Father”. What is this “Mind of God”? It is, as John says in his first letter in the New Testament, that God is not just loving but is love. Far from requiring vengeance against the sinner, He, as St Paul says, “justifies the ungodly” and “whilst we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. Revenge isn’t justice, and the pain of punishment inflicted on the sinner alienates rather than reconciles (unless well-handled towards some useful end, which we will see below). It is to bring the sinner out of his self-imprisonment, and to acknowledge other persons, and the supreme Person, God, and achieve the healthy personal relationship with other persons under God, the supreme Person, “in the bond of love”, that the work of salvation effected by Jesus Christ is all about.
Jesus modelled His life on “the suffering Servant” depicted especially in Isaiah 53, with which the unknown so-called second Isaiah sought to explain the pains the Jews, “people of God”, had suffered. His suffering was the way of bringing reconciliation of persons with the Holy God, and thus with one another. Somehow, the suffering, sacrificially borne by Israel, would serve to expiate sin and present the sinner in true personal relation with the Holy God. So, “surely, He has borne our grief”. “He was wounded for our transgression and the chastisement of our peace was upon Him”. We must not make a travesty of this, as many “evangelical” preachers have, today as in the past. It cannot be as if God were blood thirsty for vengeance and so, in that sense, ”without shedding of blood, there can be no remission of sin”. What justice are we talking about if we represent Jesus as being literally tortured on our behalf, assuming the torture were really required by justice for our sins? Surely, justice would require “individual responsibility”, and no one else other than the sinner himself can “pay the price of sin”? The insight Jesus brought into the world is that justice is not vengeance, and does not require the pain of punishment. A wall had collapsed and some people were killed. His disciples, assuming the olden conception of justise, asked whose sins was that punishment for, the victims’ or their ancestors’. Jesus brushed aside that question as irrelevant, and said the incident was an occasion for us to “manifest the love of God”. Israel’s sufferings were not due to their sins, as many past prophets had misinterpreted, but might serve a pedagogical purpose, as that insightful prophet saw, depicting the “suffering servant”. If the suffering borne as punishment could serve to correct the sinner, and if it were possible that another, out of love and grace, could bear that for him and still achieve the same, then Jesus would so bear, like that “suffering servant”.
HD Lewis tried to indicate what it might have been. When a little boy, he was with his father, a Presbyterian minister, visiting a disturbed woman, who thumped at his chest, agitated and exclaiming “Why me, why me?!” Then the woman calmed down. And when Lewis and dad were on the way home, Lewis looked up, and saw tears streaming down father’s face. “The chastisement of her peace was upon him”, Lewis wrote. And so, also, a woman I knew, her husband stricken down by stroke at 40, who was his nurse and “lifeline” all the while until he died at seventy five, had also to be beaten by him ever so often. Once, he was sitting in bed (his legs remained atrophied all his life) and, demanding repeatedly that she stood with her back close enough for him to punch, punched her repeatedly, each punch landing with a deep thud making her to fall a few steps forward panting, but only for her to back up to him again to punch, for he shouted repeatedly “Come again!”, until he was satiated. Days after that, whenever briefly free from nursing him and caring for their many children, she was seen rubbing her painful back, as far as could be reached herself, with some leftover cheap medicated oil still available at home. Another time, she had filled up a bowl with hot soup and brought it to him in bed. He took it and poured it on her. And so it went on throughout his entire life, and I have not yet mentioned the psychological onslaught of a lifetime of nagging, nay scoldings and insults.”The chastisement of his peace was upon (her)”, assuming her patient and loving bearing of it all did go someway to soften him towards his soul-making and salvation. And, indeed, there also were periods of his better moods in his relations with her and their children, when he seemed remorseful, even prayerful.
If Jesus had to bear all the suffering just so that, among other insidious agenda His enemies had, Pilate could placate the Zadducees, whose power conferred by Rome depended on that tight balance of goodwill with Rome Jesus’s teachings and followings threatened to upset, and just so that “the law”, which the Pharisees interpreted in their great details of the letter, would not be undermined and their prestige as their interpreters and teachers usurped, or the extremism and violence the zealots, such as Judas Iscariot, wanted would not be thwarted, He bore it all, rather than deviate and compromise, and thus blur that unique consciousness of God no one else before and after Him could open up for humankind. God is “Abba, Father”, and not, despite the prophetic insights of a God of love, nonetheless the remote promulgator of the law, the exact compliance with which, on pains of personal and national disasters as punishment for failure, laid the hope of mediation between man and Him. Once, the Jewish religious authorities wanted to stone Jesus for claiming “God was His Father”.
The Psalmist, for instance, had asked that God would bless His own and curse their enemies. Jesus said “love your enemies”, for God is your heavenly Father who seeks the lost sheep until He finds it, and rushes out to embrace the prodigal son even before he reaches home. And so, even on the cross, we are told, He told the thief “today you will be with me in paradise”, and prayed “Father, forgive them (who prosecuted and judged me unjustly, and those who carried out the orders, and nailed me here to die this cruel death) for they know not what they did.” He had said before all this, that “God sends the rain to refresh both the just and unjust”, and who pays the labourer the same whether he had started early or late. For justice and restitution is bringing the sinner to see his wrong and repent, and to bring himself to positively right the wrong, and seek reconciliation, rather than adding to the suffering of humankind through causing the sinner pain, as “payment for crimes” which is no real payment at all.
The pain of punishment is in itself no payment for crimes. But it connects with justice in its possible function as a teaching aid, say to impress on the sinner the distinction between evil and good in the only way he can appreciate at the moment before he develops towards seeing the intrinsic evil of sin and the intrinsic worth of good. And so we saw in a previous posting that whilst there might arguably be a “purgatory”, there cannot rationally and morally be everlasting hell. So, then, since the suffering of punishment serves only to correct the offender, and justice does not require it in itself, it becomes no longer unjust if such suffering is borne vicariously, not by the sinner himself, but by some other, provided it achieves the same effect, in some circumstances even more effectively.
And so Jesus, functioning within that cultural setting (where, in order to effectively live out “the Word” of such a God as His “Abba”, He had to “fulfil” the “prophecy” His contemporaries had assumed about the “Messianic” onslaught on Jerusalem and the Temple), approached Jerusalem riding in upon an ass “as it had been prophesied”, thus performing an “acted parable”, like prophets were wont to do in that culture’s great tradition. Thus “suddenly appearing in His temple” as “prophesied”, He cleansed and reclaimed it from usurpers for His Heavenly Abba as “a place of prayer for all the nations”. He was not quite the sort of worldly Messiah the Jews had been expecting, but neither could He repudiate the role and title without compromising His mission and its new and unique consciousness of God as Father. So, He could not deny it when asked by Pilate if He was “the king of the Jews”, and not to do so was technically treason, providing the legality for imposing the only penalty for that, ie the Roman cross. Even before that, when being judged by His own kind, He could not, for the same reason, deny the so-charged “blasphemy” of His calling God His Father. He could have swayed a little, and still seemed to most to be still remaining largely within the correct stream, as worshipper of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But had He done that, He would have betrayed that initiative for knowing the true God that was His mission to bestow to humankind, and subsequent humanity would be deprived the participation in that consciousness of God, and the relation to Him as Abba. We today have probably become too used to His conception of the loving God to appreciate fully the extent of the initiation He had brought within the human consciousness. A cousin of mine once protested, when asked, that he was not a Christian even though he believed in God. I suspect he did not know how much his idea of God owed to Christ’s understanding and teaching!
Indeed, so new was His revelation of God that even His immediate learners and Paul, and those of the schools they gathered, had not totally learnt of Him, and so we noted in a former posting how Jewish “apocalyptic” literature, with their fantastic imageries of end things and the “grand assize” that brings about eternal punishment on those who know not God, continued to influence their interpreting of their Lord’s teachings. Thankfully, we have their due correctives in the best of their writings, especially the later Paul’s. And in Islam there has seemed to be much reversal to the old Jewish conception, despite the Koran’s revering of Jesus as a great prophet .
I quoted above CH Dodd’s “Jesus spoke the Word (of God) and was the Word”. Fulfilling this, He remained true to His revelation of the Word, and lived it. Not only was He not swayed, on pain of the cruellest dying the human imagination had ever created, from His presenting His Abba to humankind, He went willingly and sacrificially through it all, living out that divine fatherly loving which would take whatever it cost to impress human awareness and bring man within that consciousness of God, thus enabling them to truly relate with Him as “children of God”. His Abba would not withdraw rain from the evil if that would not heal, indeed He would bear whatever it would take, climbing mountains and falling down ravines, or dying of thirst amidst desert sands, just so that that one lost sheep could be rescued. And so Jesus enacted in life this love of God, bearing the worst man’s misunderstandings and evil motives could inflict on Him, just so that that healing and reconciling love, bringing about true restitution, justice and peace, might be demonstrated, and just so that, perhaps having seen that uncomplaining, unvengeful and still loving acceptance of the worst torture man’s hatred could inflict, evil hearts might soften, and like the Roman centurian in command of His crucifixion, be moved to exclaim “Surely, this is the Son of God”.
As that knowing and relating to God as Abba is made possible for us through participation in that unique God-consciousness enacted in the living and dying of Jesus, we have in all this an important, if not the meaning of the saying “He died (and lived) for us”. Had He not lived the life and died the death, that ‘gift” to humankind of that truthful knowing and personal relating with God would not have been. As it turned out, what theologians have termed “the Christ event” indeed occurred, irreversibly, in human history, behoving all humankind to become “grafted into” it (using Paul’s metaphor) and share that experience. And so that “sacrifice” was divinely accepted. Immediately following it was the affirmation of the Resurrection and Pentecost, giving rise to the “body” or commonwealth of so-grafted “children of God”.
In that eventuality that “eye had not seen, nor ear heard, neither had it entered the mind of man, the things that God has prepared for them who love Him” (a saying Paul approvingly quoted), justice will be very clearly reconcilable with mercy. For punishment and the pain it inflicts will no longer be needed as an aid for moral developing, since all will have developed, God’s being there “all in all”. “The lion” will then be able to “lay down by the lamb”, as all evils will be acknowledged, remorsefully so by those responsible, and due restitution and just differentiation volunteered. Peace and goodwill will prevail, as persons, still finite and having their distinct existences, and therefore remaining in being, and lovable by God and other persons, unite in the “bond of love” under our loving God.
We may discern, in the variegated religious experiences of mankind across the diverse cultures and sub-cultures of the world, two main ways humankind has sought salvation by, which we may see as basically the seeking to be saved from the sort of “condemnation of sin and death” I tried to depict in my preceding two postings. We discuss here one of the ways, and leave the other for the next posting.
One way is the individual soul’s seeking relief from that loneliness of “condemnation”, either already realised or the potentiality of its being realised, through escape from and rejection of that condition of his finitude. He seeks relief through withdrawal, rejecting the realities out there he fails or is unwilling to comprehend and come to terms with, like Pilate’s asking “What is truth?” (except that Pilate was content to there remain, oblivious of the hell he was in!). He seeks to escape by piling mountain upon mountain like the Titans, or build the Tower of Babel, craving to rise above and beyond his finitude and merge with the Infinite. It’s like this old colleague of mine, brought up to pray, just as I was, in the context of being told stories of God’s appearing in visions and the likes, as if despite our finitude we were able when rightly disposed to have a direct “I-Thou” encounter with the Infinite. So, he wondered once to me whether when he prayed, he was “imagining it all up”. Well, of course he was imagining if he thought that when praying, he was talking to God in direct “face-to-face” relation. Even when we relate with our fellow-humans, who like ourselves have physical bodies, it cannot be direct mind-to-mind encounter, for we get to know one another’s minds through the mediation of their behaviour as manifested by their bodily movements, however “intimate” the relationships seem. As finite beings, we can know God only as He makes inroads into the finite consciousness He has endowed us and as we train ourselves at devotional practices and worship to sensitise ourselves to His “messages” so initiated. And those rare cases of visions, voices and dreams “evangelical” preachers like to select for emphasis are surely only psychic phenomena occurring within our finite, natural awareness of things, even though rare. To be sure, God might communicate that way for people so psychically inclined, and such persons would still need to interpret rightly the messages thus conveyed. It would not be a relief of such persons from their finitude and its potential loneliness. In my very young days, after the conversion experience I had which I described in my “Testimony” posting, I spent many hours at prayer wanting to experience God the way of vision and miracles stressed by “evangelical” preachers, who were my “gurus”. Nothing happened in that way (for being psychic isn’t my “gift”). The thinking back on that had been one of the considerations that drove me away from the faith some years later, as related in my “Testimony” posting. I thought that, if I had tried so hard to meet God and nothing of that sort occurred, so surely there was no God? A very close friend of mine did tell of such “supernatural” encounters of trance states and hearing voices. One night he had one of those experiences during a church meeting and the pastor wisely sent him to our psychiatric hospital. Years later, he told me how a voice told him to jump from a high building, and then at the brink of it, not to jump. One night some two years later, he did jump. Also, another former colleague of mine, who had no religious affiliation, told me of his “out of the body” experiences, as if there was virtue in itself to be “out of the body”. He would regularly induce himself to “get out”, as if the state of finite bodily existence were one it was needful to escape from. But the truth must, of course, be that, however the “out of the body” experiences felt to him, he hadn’t been literally out of the body but he had had psychic experiences he had misinterpreted to be his being out of his body. They had also been natural experiences, like being in a trance and seeing visions, that called for proper and truthful interpreting and sensitising to.
This tendency of humans towards withdrawal and escape from, rather than acceptance of their finite status, we may also discern in those quest for mystical experiences within the world religions, which crave for the absorption of one into some “whole” regarded as ultimate, true Reality. This has occurred even within Christianity and Islam that worship God as personal and “wholly other” (as Martin Buber describe Him), even though their mystics mostly fall short of claiming total identification with God at their mystical experiences, a claim that would strain their belief in a personal God. However, this escapist tendency became writ large as major and definitive doctrines in classical Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, the soul quests for release, from being perpetually caught in the cycle of reincarnations within this realm of its existence believed to be illusory, towards realising its true being in identification with Brahman, the universal mind and true reality. In Buddhism also, the person seeks escape from the cycle of unending rebirths within this unreal and inferior realm in order to find release in Nirvana, the “Void” that negates all illusion and so is true Being, fullness and “bliss”. This tendency is less clearly defined in Taoism, which advocates also withdrawal from over involvement and action, in order to let go and realise our true being within the natural flow of the Tao, the unseen, unspoken and eternal. The West too has had her “Idealisms”, stemming importantly from Plato who, as HD Lewis points out, had small regard for the particular, such beings as the family and children and such things as poetry and the arts, preferring the generality and universality of concepts and ideas. Those he took to comprise the true Realities, particular entities in our world deriving whatever significance they have through “participation” with them. Plato’s quest is to climb tediously up and out the cave, where we are kept prisoners amongst only the unreality of shadows and particulars, in order to emerge into the sunlight of universal meanings which he literally takes to be real, eventually to attain the vision of the Good, the ultimate Universal, and there realise our true being. We might simplify and say that the idealist tradition in the West thus initiated culiminates in the philosophy of TH Green and others around the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century, which sees the individual mind as only some particular manifestation of the one true universal Mind. The quest is thus to negate the illusory self and realize one’s true identity by returning to whence one came in reunification with the One.
Now, as HD Lewis has so succinctly and repeatedly brought out through numerous publications, this repudiation of our status as finite beings, who exist only as distinct subjects of our own experiences and must become, in only the mode we are capable of becoming, as we sensitise ourselves and try as truthfully as we can to interpret the impressions the external world of persons and things make on us, would result only in the annihilation of ourselves. Take the famous Hindu analogy, that we are as individual souls to be as rivers flowing into the sea, as we aim to disappear into the vast ocean of the One. Well, then, would we still be? Would not it be that only Being exists, a Reality with no other individual existing? So, it would all turn out to result in not salvation for the votary but his annihilation. If in the end, all found their destiny in identification with Brahman, or were absorbed into Nirvana, or the mystic became united in the All-in-All, how could there be “the Beatific Vision” ? No distinctive self would be there to see it, or enjoy the “bliss” and “fullness” of Nirvana.
It is such internal contradictions of faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism that have rendered them unsustainable in their purity. And so, in Buddhism, Nirvana is not mere emptiness but also fullness, indeed blissful (implying the votary still exists as individuated enough to experience bliss). In the posting that follows, I shall indicate how Hinduism and Buddhism had had to deviate into modes that address truly the individual soul’s quest for relief from that solitariness that is foreign to his God-endowed destiny as a social being. And so, too, in the Chinese tradition, Taoism had to be balanced by the Confucian stress on good interpersonal relations under a Cosmic Being on the side of justice and benevolence. And we shall try to observe how it could be claimed that the Judaeo-Islamic tradition, culminating most definitively in Christianity, fulfils this human quest most satisfactorily.
We were born, “thrown” into the world, as Heidegger said, and we have to come to terms somehow or other visavis the realities we encounter. We are given to do so from only our point of view as centres of consciousness, interpreting the impressions of things that impinge on our consciousness. How we so interpret is, therefore, crucial in determining how successful, or otherwise, we are at understanding and relating to those realities.
Now, all this means there are, broadly speaking , two directions we could go in response to the realities impinging upon our consciousness. One is to be uncareful, care insufficiently or mistakenly about, or totally reject the claims of reality impinging on our consciousness for due attention. The other is to accord due respect for reality, seeking more and more to come to terms with the truth of things, by which means we grow along the path of “becoming” and “soul-making”, continually to actualise our status as “children of God” in right relationship visavis the world, other persons and God. (“The whole of creation groans for the manifestation of the sons of God” , yearns St Paul.)
The former way is the way of “hell” and “death”. It is a condition of unrelieved loneliness and imprisonment within our own awareness of only those fantasies and half-truths we spin in our misunderstandings and misappropriations of other persons and the world. In such a state, even though we may seem to ourselves to be relating well, we are in fact dealing only with the phantoms our own warped imaginings. It’s like struggling and sweating in disturbed sleep, unable to wake up from those nightmares, even if for the time being the fever is kept down by the panadol of superficial “socialising” and the like. We have not been made destined to such solitude. That solitariness ill-suits our nature seems confirmed by the fact that persons who had tried to live alone had literally gone mad. On the contrary, “man is a social animal” (Aristotle), a “being-with-others-in-the-world” (Heidegger). The viability of his existence and “being” depends crucially upon his “becoming” as such.
His experience of persons and things being essentially interpretive, it is a cognitive process, thereby involving his intention to learn and understand. This in turn involves voluntariness and freewill. Thus, should he not choose the path of progress towards coming to terms with reality, socially and otherwise, and continually so to improve, he would be responsible, morally and otherwise, for the state of isolation and solitude he abandons himself to. So this state of “hell” or “living death” is not inherited and due to any “original sin” visiting subsequent generations through no choice of their own. (The “orthodox” doctrine of “original sin” that can be transmitted must, of course, be abandoned if we rightly uphold in our day individual responsibility as against the “herd” responsibility believed by peoples, though not all, of yesteryears. And “fundamentalists” who want still to hold that belief must see that it would make it hard for them to hold their even more “fundamental” belief about Jesus’ being “without sin”. They think that because of “the virgin birth”, “original sin” wasn’t transmitted to Jesus. But that is based on faulty physiology, for we know for a fact that women play a crucial role also at genetic inheritance!)
That being the condition of our existence, there lies before us a crucial choice, either 1) to accept with gratitude and reverence this gift of life, and to tread the “narrow way (because uphill and difficult, with comparatively few thereon)” and join with those who take Plato’s challenge to laborously climb up and out the cave of darkness and shadows into the sunlight of understanding, painstakingly interpreting aright, often failing and then being corrected, those items that continually impress on our consciousness by the social and natural worlds without; or 2) to reject, with conscious intention or by implication, this gift of life, through deliberate denial of, or being careless and lazy about our obligations as choosers, morally or otherwise, to understand and relate visavis other persons and the world.
Our status as finite beings is such that we are initially confined within our own consciousness as centres of experience, and the external world of things and persons are “revealed”, and can relate to us, and we relate to them only as we sensitise ourselves, and respond adequately to the impact they make on our awareness. And as “social beings” our proper “becoming” as persons must be most importantly in our sentisizing and response to other persons for our relief from the loneliness that is our initial lot. Our failure in this regard, especially when it pertains to recognising and submitting to the moral rights of others, is tantamount to repudiating our natural status as potentially social beings and alienating ourselves from the community of persons. For by repudiating especially their moral claims on us, we disregard the truth that, as Kant put it, “we are members of the kingdom of ends” where justice and love should prevail amongst persons in mutual respect as ends, no one being treated and used only as means for anyone else’s selfish aims. And, supremely important, in thus repudiating them, we too reject their, and by implication also our own status as “children of God”, thus disobeying the “commandment” to “love our neighbours”. All this, therefore, become “sin”, as it amounts to the choice to reject the gift of life and alienate ourselves from our neighbours and God (for “how can we love God whom we cannot see when we don’t love our neighbour we can?”: Letter of James ) And we have not yet mentioned our proneness to ignore the claims of Ultimate Reality or God on our attention, morally and otherwise, and the supreme importance of our becoming sensitized and maintaining a personal relationship to God in due worship and religious practice.
Now, despite such responses we are called upon to make being a matter of individual choice and reponsibility, there is also such a phenomenon as “moral clime” that could either be conducive or an impediment to the individual’s choosing appropriately. And on this, we may discern a sense to the ancient belief of “original sin” and its consequences being “passed on to inflict the fourth and fifth generations”, as thinkers like HD Lewis and CH Dodd observed. Wrongful choices, deliberate or through uncaringness and neglect, for which individuals are responsible, may accumulate and infect a whole societal environment within which persons have to live and interrelate. And through cultural transmission, succeeding generations could inherit and suffer the consequent obstacles to healthy living, especially maintaining interpersonal understanding and relations, of such social contamination. Consider how isolated and “forsaken” an individual can feel where he has to choose and act in good moral and other practice in an environment, say where the ingrained, unquestioned yardstick as to life’s meaning and goal has long been selfish materialistic pragmatism. His rightful perspective and quest in life, the very formula for healthy relationships, etc, becomes within that cultural milieu the cause of his unmerited solitariness and feeling “forsaken”, even though, like Jesus, he is in that predicament surely not forsaken by his God (even if it felt so). He has therefore constantly to plead not to be “led into the temptation” of compromise, even if that social clime hasn’t pulled him totally down with it.
That degree of non-being we confine ourselves in, through repudiating the rightful claims of the world, God and other persons, including moral claims, on our attention and fulfilment of them, is in truth “hellish” if only we know. Take, for instance, that smug one who thinks he is lord over all around him because he presumes to judge (“judge not that ye be not judged”) absolutely other persons’ actions, intentions and motives, not reverencing them as centres of consciousness whose points of view and experience we do not experience first-hand and therefore should respect and distance ourselves from (taking off our shoes in respect of the “holy ground” of other persons, as HD Lewis put it). He, in his dreamworld, thinks he has “sized up” everybody else he nags at. In truth, however, he lives in the nightmare he has created for himself, relating, not with the true other persons, but with concoctions of his own creation, tolerated if not hated, rather than related viavis all others. The otherness of other persons, as experiencers of their own awareness he cannnot experience at first hand, he has failed to acknowledge and respect. There is therefore no true relationship between him and others in the real world. He is thus the centre of his own, fantastic nightmare universe, and doomed to remain so as long as he resists the divine call to ”deny” this unreal “self” of his in order to “save his life” by seeking and realizing “the truth” of things, “the truth that would set him free”.
Religions address man, given the condition of his existence, either to accept it and its challenge to progress towards actualising his ideal being, or to remain within the cave of misunderstandings or downright ignorance, sinking deeper and deeper. For there can be no standing still; each time he repudiates an opportunity to understand and progress, he thereby increases his accumulation of irresponsibility and sinfulness. I shall, in the next posting, discuss the ways of “salvation” some major religions and Christianity offer.
When I and my friends, who had a “religious experience” in our latter teens and early twenties, were taught what we had been “saved” from, and why we had to “go into all the worlds and preach the good news to every person”, this is the kind of things our mentors said. That preacher, whom I said I had responded to in my “Testimony” posting, told us all, very young, to close our eyes and imagine what it would be like to hold a finger in fire for five seconds. Then he said “Imagine what it would be like to be whole bodily emersed in fire for all eternity!” That was why we had to “receive the Lord Jesus and be saved”. This is a crude picture of the “orthodox” Christian (also Islamic and Jewish) belief in “hell-fire”.
Now, this doctrine might well be the highest obstacle to belief in the loving, good and all-wise God Christians, also Jews and Muslims preach. Everlasting torture, “burning and never being burnt”, and basically for the “sin of Adam” which all inherited due to no choice of their own (the doctrine of original sin)? What justice and love is that?
I recall a past pastor of the church I attend, preaching what amounted to this, that at “the last days”, people would be “raised from the dead bodily”, the majority, as they would be non-Christians, being so raised so that they could be cast into hell and burn for all eternity (only physical bodies could suffer burns)! Even a bin Laden could not be that imaginatively evil! That Sunday, being “Holy Communion” Sunday for Methodists, I found myself disabled from partaking Holy Communion.
Even St Augustine,who thought he had to accept what he thought was Scriptural teaching on that theme, tried to make a non “scriptural” exception, saying that God would make the flames of hell less furious for babies (who nonetheless were sinners for having inherited “original sin”) who had died!
What loving and just God would send people to such “hell” through no fault of their own (Adam’s choice), or, even if for their own “sins”, send them to such everlasting torture? Even asuming that the pain inflicted on sinners does compensate for their sins, for what sins should we be so disproportionally punished (He “remembers that we are but dust”)?
First, let’s be reminded that “Gehenna”, a name for hell, was an area near Jerusalem, that had become a refuse dump where ”fire and worms” burned perpetually. Second, that the belief that “Satan” existed as evil as opposed to good and God, and who would be “cast into the lake of fire with his angels”, wasn’t originally Hebrew, but came from Persia and Zoroastrianism, with their belief that evil and good are opposing and balanced forces in the present age, even though good would triumph eventually. Such a belief strains Hebrew , also Christian and Islamic monotheism, that God is one and omnipotent, and that He is “above all, and in all”. (Consider all those stories of exorcism, where the devil seems often quite a force for God to deal with!) Satan, in the book of Job in Hebrew Scriptures, or the Christians’ Old Testament, is God’s emissary, sent “from the presence of God” to test Job!
No doubt, the notion of justice as “an eye for en eye” (which Jesus transcended, saying we should “love our enemies” instead) has had an “orthodox” history, and so , also, that unrepented opponents of “the faith” would be sent to burn in hell. But we must beware of people of old “making God in their own image”, who were at such stage of moral and cognitive development where they could not distinguish justice from thirst for revenge, or thought that there was some intrinsic connection between evil and pain such that evil could be righted by the pain suffered by those responsible. Today, with our better enlightened moral understanding (which Christians surely should ascribe to Divine revelation, for “every perfect gift comes from above, the father of light”), shouldn’t we distinguish justice from vengeance? And if so, then we realize that the pain inflicted on the “guilty” as punishment, that might assuage our thirst for revenge, isn’t relevant at all to our aim, for the sake of justice, to right any wrong the guilty person committed. The pain would only worsen the wrong, as it would add to the amount of pain that is suffered in the world. As they say, “Two wrongs do not make a right”. I don’t see what the claim could mean, that somehow pain has some intrinsic relation to wrongs committed, such that it is fitting to inflict it on those responsible for wrongs done. The claim seems to be only an attempt to rationalise a stubborn adherence to past thinking. The only relevance to justice, of making rule-offenders to suffer as punishment, must be that it is instrumental towards teaching and reforming the offender or sinner. The pain inflicted might serve, say to help the yet-to-mature learner to distinguish between right from wrong in the only way he can at his developmental stage, ie. associating wrong with suffering.The intention is that the person will, from that provisional distinction between pain and evil impressed on him, go on to learn and eventually acknowledge the intrinsic evil of wrong, and put right as best he can his past wrongs, thus contributing to the eventual state of justice, whatever that must involve. But that would at most admit of a sort of temporary “purgatory” in the after-life where a process of “soul-making” and correction occurs, as believed by Roman Catholic Christians, and not everlasting hell for those unfit or could not be fitted for “heaven”, as also believed by orthodox Catholics, and by fundamentalist Christians.
Indeed, most “fundamentalist” Christians would reject that literal description of hell. Crudely speaking, “souls” can’t literally burn; and even with a “resurrected physical body”, physical bodies can’t literally burn and yet never be burnt! One fundamentalist preacher said to us, explaining “heaven and hell”, that heaven is where God is, and hell is where He is not. Now, as it will be clear from my following discussion, I can well go along with this saying, so long as it is left to remain general, and not be substantively detailed along so-called “orthodox” lines again, even if without literal fire.
From what, then, should we be “saved”?
We might note first, that “fundamentalist”, “Bible-believing” Christians should learn, as I have, from such Bible scholars as CH Dodd, that the biblical teaching of ”condemnation for sin” is not static “word of God” but underwent developmental change even within the same “Sciptures”. The earlier apostolic writings, even Paul’s in his early days, taught that the last judgement, and Jesus’ “second coming to judge the quick and the ressurrected dead” was at hand, when eventually, the majority of mankind whoever lived but who are “unsaved” will “be thrown into the lake of fire”. The early Christians thought that that would literally happpen in their lifetime. But that did not happen. There had to be a reinterpretation of “the words of the Lord”. Now, St John of the Gospel of John, whether John the disciple or another John (John was a very common name), writing at about the close of the first century AD, represents a significant stage, if not the culmination of that reinterpretation. In the Gospel of John, Chapter Three, after saying that “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world by Him would be saved”, goes on to explain the nature of that “condemnation”, saying ”this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and man loves darkness rather than light “. In other words, it is the self-condemnation of staying oneself within the “darkness”, and not acknowledging one’s “darkness”and come into the light. And that “condemnation” is “everlasting”, as long as our decision to stay in the darkness, and not come into the light persists, our loving God being indefinitely patient, whilst respecting the freewill He has endowed us. And as regards the early belief in “the second coming of Christ” to bring about “the last judgement” that will culminate in the greater part of humanity who are “unsaved” being resurrected only to be “cast into the lake of fire”, John in his famous story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead brings out a revised interpretation. When Jesus came to the aid of Martha,whose brother, Lazarus, had died, Jesus reassured her that “your brother will rise again”. Martha, of course, thought He meant the crude, literal resurrection of all at the last judgement, and she said so: “I know that he will rise again at the last day”. But Jesus corrected her, proclaiming “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whoever believes and lives in me shall never die, but is passed from death unto life”. In other words, John is saying that “the last judgment” , and its promise to the “saved” of resurrection to life, isn’t a thing yet to come, but is already come for those who respond to and believe in Christ . And this reading of John is in accord with the thrust of the message of his Gospel, that the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus confront humankind with a choice crucial for their salvation and life eternal, therefore comprising a crucial judgmental event for humankind. So John prefaces his description of the passion of Jesus with his Gospel’s thematic proclamation , put into the mouth of Jesus, “Now is the judgment of this world”. CH Dodd, from whom I learnt most of this, says John means by it ”the Last Judgment”. Now, what we must see in all this, that pertains to our discussion of “hell”, is that John’s Jesus, by whom mankind is already resurrected and favourably judged should they choose to be so by their response, has nothing to say about hell for those who don’t respond. In the sequel to that encounter of Jesus by Martha, Lazarus would have merely remained entombed had he not responded to Jesus’ call to “come forth”.
Dodd also notices such a shift of interpretation even within the writings of one man, Paul. In his letters to the Thessalonian Christians, early in his ministry, Paul writes of the “second coming of Christ” and “the last judgement” in the crude way we indicated above, ending it all saying “those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from His presence”. But, in his later writings to other churches, he develops a more mature understanding of the last things. So, in his letter to the Roman Christians, his most mature theological statement, instead of ruling the vast majority of humans who ever lived and will live to “everlasting destruction” because they know not God and refuse Christ, he now is prepared to concede that those who live outside “the Law” ( of God) will be judged in accordance with how they respond to “the law written within their hearts”. (Romans 2:14) Elsewhere, in later letters (especially those to the Corinthians and that to the Ephesians), he contemplates such an eventuality as Christ’s having gathered together all under Him, and then presenting everything to the Father of all, so that “God will be all in all”. And so he quotes with approval the saying that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”. “Every knee and tongue” of those who lived and will live! So, also, there is in these later thoughts no mention of hell.
Now, thus far we have pointed out revisions towards better understanding of without doubt “inspired”, but only initial sayings that stood to be corrected by further “inspiration”, within Scriptures. But even had there been no such revision, we would still have to be intelligent and autonomous at using our divinely endowed minds at reading, and taking responsibility for our understanding of “inspired” writings. (We have been called to be “sons”, not “slaves”. “Hasn’t it been written of old that you are gods?” asked Jesus. Also, He asked, “Can’t you on your own discern that which is good?’) And once we so dare, we straightaway see the contradiction, between 1) what we learn, surely rightly, from Jesus, of God’s being the good shepherd relentlessly and painstakingly seeking the lost sheep until He finds it, or the loving father rushing out to embrace the prodigal son even before he reaches home, and Jesus’ own praying on the cross for forgiveness of His enemies “for they know not what they do”, and 2) all that depiction of vengeance and hell. Indeed, when we obey Jesus and “love God with all our minds”, we can’t help seeing that the belief in that sort of hell would pose the greatest “problem of evil” for the Christian ( Jew and Muslim too, and the like). How could that conceivably be reconciled with the even more “fundamental” tenet that God is all-just, all-wise, all-loving and all-powerful? And our God-endowed moral sense should point out for us which horn of the dilemma to take, and which to reject as being due to human limitations of moral and cognitive development. Such awareness explains why it had taken so long for the book of “Revelation”, in the New Testament of the Bible, to be accepted as Scripture (it was long disputed and was among the latest to be accepted), and even Martin Luther, centuries later, rejected it as inauthentic. The reason must be that such depicting in “Revelation” as of Jesus mounted on a great white horse riding against his enemies with their blood coming up to touch the bridle, or his telling the “lukewarm” church that he would “spew thee out of my mouth”, isn’t consistent with the Jesus of the Gospels, who loved His enemies and prayed, even on the cross, that those who crucified Him should be forgiven. CH Dodd pointed out that “Revelation” is really a Jewish “apocalytic” document given a Christian sugar-coating. A genre had developed in late Hebrew writings, using fantastic and exaggerated imagery in order to satisfy the Hebrew craving for final compensation by God for all their past sufferings when evil seemed to triumph and God’s “promise” of deliverance seemed long postponed. That sort of imagery of the last days of reckoning even Jesus seemed to have used, maybe in order to communicate with His contemporaries about things beyond their natural experiences in the idiom they were accustomed to. Remember that Jesus had that poetic cast of mind, and we may wonder how literally we should take His “apocalytic” sayings. And never forget that we do not have the verbatim report of His sayings, but only sayings of those who remembered and reported. The reporters might have coloured His sayings with their own literal takings of those things.
So, affirmatively, what then is “salvation”? We may take it from that saying of the fundamentalist Christian preacher’s mentioned above, that “hell is where God is not”. Even without hell-fire in this picture, it cannot be taken literally, as that preacher must agree. For he would also say that “God is everywhere” as Scriptures contain such sayings as “even should I descend into hell, God is there”. So, also, Paul quotes with approval the saying that God is He “in whom we live and move and have our being” and this must be so too even in “hell”! So, if hell is where God is not, that state of being and experience must be a subjective one, God’s seeming absence being a subjective experiential state felt by oneself only, even though the loving God is still present, nay, especially present, to plead and woo the unrepentant sinner (recall the parable of the good shepherd who persistently seeks out the lost sheep until he finds it.)
This tallies with John’s account of Jesus’ saying, further explaining the notion of “condemnation” in the same text referred above, that “he that believes not is condemned already”. So, even whilst seeming still alive and living, one is already in the state of “condemnation” for not appropriating for oneself the “heavenly” blessings that come from repentance and coming to terms with the “truth” about oneself, the world, other persons and God. That is “the truth that sets us free” from the illusion stemming from self-centrednes, and from the “living death” of enclosing oneself within a world of one’s own selfish making, where the right perspective of oneself in due relatedness to others, and God, is not maintained, where one is thereby not related to God and other persons “in the bond of love” for which we have been created. Such is the self-imposed “penalty of sin” from which we all need to be saved, for as St Augustine profoundly says, addressing his Maker, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts will not rest till they rest in Thee”.
This indication of the condition ”salvation” is to save us from, as contrasted with what it emphatically is not, I hope to more fully discuss in the next posting.
At about age 15, I attended a series of Christian evangelistic services where I heard, somewhat crudely but forcefully presented, arguments for God’s existence modelled on Aquinas’ proofs that there there must have been a first cause to account for the existence of things, and that “design” in the universe implies a designer. These were told in the context of readings and relatings of biblical passages, mostly from the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Pauline letters, which brought alive for me things said to us children by our Christian parents and such persons as church “Sunday School” teachers.
As I sat through the first one or two services, it seemed that I was being initiated into what I acutely felt was an entirely new outlook on things and life, that came with absolute conviction that God not only existed but was indeed my “Heavenly Father”. I felt, as I heard scriptures quoted and sung, and prayers said, what seemed to me later (when I learned of John Wesley’s “heart-warming experience” as he heard read in church that preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans) to be experiences similar to Wesley’s “I felt my heart strangely warmed; I felt I did trust in Christ…” When it was recited that we had to be “born again” and become “new creatures in Christ”, I felt that had happened to me. Recalling, in later years when I read CS Lewis, the experience I had been initiated into, I felt I could empathise with his being “surprised by joy” at his conversion to Christianity. What had entered my life could well be described as joy. Those heart-warming experiences and finding life “full of joy” persisted over the years through constant acute renewalsof them at prayers and devotional readings of scriptures when again and again “I felt my heart strangely warmed” to passages read, which seemed to stand out from the pages signalling they were meant specially for me to note. The most impressive of such experiences I felt at a nightly personal devotion, soon after my conversion, when my heart “strangely warmed” at reading for the first time Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 12:1,3 which I now quote from memory, “I beseech you … bethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove that which is good and acceptable to God”.
Those arguments for God’s existence, as I came later to see as I read philosophy, were invalid as proofs, but they did usher me into an awareness that did feel like what some theologians seem to be bringing out describing ”an encounter experience” , or Austin Farrer when he said he could not be persuaded by arguments that God Whom he “had conversed with most of his life” did not exist. It seems to me now that HD Lewis is right in saying that purported proofs of God’s existence, such as Thomas Aquinas’ “five ways”, crude versions of which that preacher presented, have had their real significance by facing the pre-believer in religion with ultimate questions such as how things that exist came to be, and ushering him into the unique religious consciousness I tried to describe in my earlier posting. As Lewis says, it is not a conviction arrived at as the conclusive step of arguments, but one ” leap of thought” into a dimension of awareness involving the whole of one’s being in “seeing God” in a “personal relationship”. It could be that I wrongly thought, with that preacher, that those “proofs” were valid and that helped me on, but the experience I was initiated into was real. Taught and eventually accepting that those arguments were flawed, I remained, although intellectually somehow confused, staunchly within the religious awareness, finding it did not make a difference to belief and commitment. The explanation must be, as HD Lewis points out, that behind the facade of argumentation, those arguments impressed with the puzzle how anything could have become without ultimate transcendent, purposive Reality to account for it, contemplating which, within a devotional attitude involving my total self , I was initiated into a unique experiential dimension the reality of which no clever reasoning could negate. And, as HD Lewis also points out, this consciousness needs no philosophic sophistication to acquire, indeed such intellectualism could be more of an obstacle. My illiterate mother, whom I found every morning over several years kneeling at prayer at 5.30 am when I awoke to let her prepare me for lower primary school, was without doubt on to something real. For such like herself, only to hear such sayings as the first verse of Genesis that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” would already settle that ultimate question for them. This is as religion should be, if every soul ever born is a target of divine love and care. Unaware of the nature of the movement of thought happening within them, they find themselves “within the faith” and holding simple converse with God.
Like aesthetic experience, religious experience too has its ebb and flow, and when one does not maintain appropriate attending and sentisizing, or is subsequently deterred by flaws in one’s initial beliefs, one can slip back into the religious counterpart of a philistinism about art where even one’s previous acute consciousness of “spiritual things” is given a reinterpretation in terms of the pedestrian and mundane, somewhat like this former colleague of mine, who, proud of his first class degree in maths and because of that, was dismissive of music as “nonsense” and “alot of noise”. Or it is like someone, previously morally conscious and impressed by the imperative of the moral “ought” and its “call to duty”, losing that unique sensitivity, and now dismisses morals as mere social conventions followed for only pragmatic ends, after reading that sort of social science. Aberrations that desensitize one religiously might take the form of mishandlings of flaws amongst the teachings that initiated one into the faith, and also faulty teachings received subsequent to that. Some such desensitising I have much experienced through the many years following the religious “encounter” related above.
It did not happen till some three years after obtaining my first degree. even though I was exposed to philosophic anti-theistic arguments (our teachers were young and taught only one side of the story) all through my undergraduate years and even a couple of years or so as a post-graduate and tutor in philosophy. The arguments sounded “academic” and could not affect the reality of a perspective in which I had remained more or less sensitised. I participated, though, in academic discussions which seemed more a game of wit, and in the process thought out crude versions of important replies theistic philosophers had given to those arguments, which I later read, but which our teachers seemed not aware of. But a combination of such factors, which I indicated above could cause religious desensitizing, led subsequently to my shift, which lasted a good few years, away from that religious consciousness. An event happened that made me take philosophy more seriously than before, something the sort of Christian ”orthodoxy” that had been the social context and teachings that effected my youthful initiation into the faith ill-prepared me for. This occurred at a time when I had already become somewhat careless at maintaining the life of commitment and devotion necessary for keeping religion alive.
An earthquate resulted in some thirty thousand people trapped underneath concrete rubble, and I felt, if they were “born-again Christians”, whether they could still feel the “heart-warming ” peace many with me had testified to. More importantly, I felt the impact in real life of “the problem of pain”, that an “all-good God would if He could, and an Almighty God could, alleviate suffering and evil in the world. As I now reflect, had I been still religiously sensitized and thus could not doubt the loving God I was continuing to “encounter”, I would just have to take the suffering and evil in the world that seemed irreconcilable with God’s omnipotence and love as a mystery calling for faith that from God’s perspective they must be necessary for some ultimate good. For, as Austin Farrer maintained, how could one disbelieve God with whom one was in converse? True, if the concept of God were internally contradictory, then He could not be, however real He seemed, and the encounter experience of Him must be illusory. But, his ways are not our ways neither his thoughts ours, and, as I later realised, even within our experience, much pain and evil are explanable in terms of the goods they are necessary to bring about, and those could be the basis of our faith that some such explanation there must be, in the perspective of His ways and thoughts, of the remaining evil and pain. And as regards whether the “encounter experience” could still be had by those crushed beneath rubble, I now realize I could not know before I experience it; for Jesus writhing on the cross could still call Him “my God” and “Father”, asking for His forgiveness for his enemies and committing his spirit into His hands. And my late sister, dying of cancer and deciding to forgo further treatment in order not to prolong the suffering and to die dehydrated in a week could still say to me, when I tried to dissuade her, “I am going to gloryland”. So, too, my former wife, dying of cancer also, in much pain, especially every time I half-hourly turned her over to push in her bed pan, could stop me in the process of one of those painful turnings in order to fix her eyes on a makeshift altar on the wall before her, saying with a glowing smile, “I see a statute of Our Lady”. She told Sister Maria, who had attended to her for some two years and who saw her daily for some two months before her death, “She was beautiful”, and to all of us “I am no longer afraid”. She also said to those who saw her the day before her death, “I am going to where Jesus is”, and to me that night “I am going to be with God”.
To be sure, when crushed or undergoing acute pain and distress, there could not be any “heart-warming” or such clapping for joy we hear at present-day youth “prayer and praise” worship, but aren’t these only surface trappings that might, when situations are conducive, accompany the experience, and should not be confused with it? I remember becoming confused as a young adult when I had exhilarated feeling, somewhat similar to that felt when I sang and heard “gospel songs” in church, as I listened to Julie Andrews in “the Sound of Music”; similarly, when in the library I browsed an old English translation of another book, in the sort of English I read in the authorised version of the Bible, I was confused by the same sombre, devotional feeling it engendered. I realized much later as I matured more and reflected, that the deep awakening to God must not be confused with its accompaniment in feeling under usual, conducive conditions. It is essentially cognitive, what in more sophisticated terms HD Lewis calls “a leap of thought” into acknowledgement of God, and our finitude before Him in adoration and worship, and all else seen in their proper perspective of createdness and creatureliness. Reality is thus “wonderful”, and the wonder may under conducive circumstances produce euphoria, perhaps even “speaking in tongues”, etc, not too unlike what some drugs might also enable. But Joy must be distinguished from euphoria, and so its serious, underlying confidence and “blessed assurance”, “resting” in that understanding that “God is all in all”, must have been behind the courage and hymn-singing with which the Christian martyrs went to the lions and flames of Nero and the likes.
My being desensitized from religion, related above, might have been avoided, I now think, had that preacher and those in his circle of “evangelists” and church elders, who with him tried to teach and ground me in the faith, given me a better religious education, including a more informed and educated understanding of the Bible. For then, such distinctions as those indicated above would have been made clear. The deficiencies in their teachings included giving a very simplistic account of divine revelation and inspiration of scriptures, and of Bible passages and the doctrines purportedly compatible with them but which just could not stand up to intelligent and informed scrutiny. To an already much religiously desentisized me, having been distracted by other concerns and probably subconsciously wanting not to believe so as to justify the distractions, I was prepared to “throw the baby away with the bathwater”. It was some years later when I realized that God in His grace would allow Himself to be “revealed” even in terms of simplistic, even contradictory teachings, and taught by somewhat ignorant minds. Prophets could nonetheless be “broken vessels”. The experience of God they advocated could still be basically genuine, like my baby grandson really had me when he lunged forward for my grasp, despite that he was totally ignorant as to what “grandfather” meant. But, of course, just as we would worry should he remain thus unknowing all his life, so my mistake in my religious experience had been to confuse the genuineness of it with those simplistic teachings that first helped me towards God, and so I remained intellectually stunted in the faith, for years staunchly holding on and even trying to philosophically defend those teachings. And then, when those teachings came to be doubted, I doubted the experience also. I must hasten to add that however better informed and religiously educated one became, one would remain still “seeing through the glass darkly” the “great mysteries of Godliness”, and so there can be no room on this matter for snobbery.
I had been taught to be “a person of only one book, ie. the Bible” but I was to find that unless the several sorts of writings, their differring historical and social contexts and significance, and the developing various stages of inspired but still human understandings and insights they represent, which had been compiled into the library called the Bible, were properly understood, readings of much of them would cause one to hold beliefs that would seriously undermine the maintenance of the religious sensitivity of the thinking person we all more or less would or should grow to become. Examples of such beliefs I hope will be given in my later postings where some key doctrines I plan to discuss.
What needs pointing out now is that the sort of uneducated reading and preaching of scriptures, however well-meant, would unnecessarily place obstacles in the path towards the cultivating and maintenance of religious and Christian sensitivity of many. Many would identify those simplistic teachings with Christianity and, dismissing it entirely, deny themselves the opportunity to “come and see” and “taste” if “the Lord is good”. Properly read and understood, we have collected in the Bible, in different literary genres, a variety of renderings that authentically and believably convey to us the developing of man’s insightful responses, intrepretings and understanding of divine incursions into man’s consciousness through some ten or so centuries of a very vast and representational segment of human history. Living ourselves into this consciousness, or making it alive for ourselves, we may find ourselves initiated into and participating in that sensitivity that enables the dawning for us of “things of the spirit”. In my experience, such education, which has enabled a more informed and intelligent pondering on the ultimate issues of reality, has played a crucial role in my becoming somehow re-sensitized to God, and my maintenance of that, somehow.
We noted in my first post that both secularists and believers in transnatural transcendent Reality involve “faith” and ultimate commitment. There can be no proof in our usual sense for one or the other position, for within our natural experience we reason and explain events and things in terms of how they cohere and “link”, and even ”brute facts” are reasonably accepted on the basis of past experiences of phenomena of the sort, comprising too a sort of natural regularity. But when we ask the ultimate question of the whole of the reality of our experience whether or not it’s just a fact “unlinked”, there can of course be no explanatory regularity of that order we can be aware of. Some thinkers would want to say that the question is therefore meaningless, its having a function only as regards events and things in the natural world. But how can they be sure that the sort of reasoning and explaining has no analogous function when referred to the whole of reality as we know it? This retort may already be too much a concession, for the question whether reality does have an ultimate cause surely is sensible in itself, independently of what sense it has within our natural experience. Indeed, it is intrinsically reasonable to ask if things exist caused or uncaused, etc, and it is this that has impelled us to seek explanations and answers for events and things occurring within our experience.
Now that it is reasonable, and therefore as rational beings we are impelled, to ask of reality whether it came to be “out of the blue” or if there is an ultimate Ground of things, and since there can be no proof one way or the other of the sort we know, how do we decide what the truth of the matter is? That there is the truth of things there can be no doubt, and just as all ultimate points at reasoning are there just to be discerned by those who have the capacity to do so, such as our seeing the link between premises and conclusions of arguments or the validity of the law of contradiction, we can only, as HD Lewis put it, “cultivate a way of looking” which enables us to take the “leap of thought” necessary to grasp it.
There are the preliminaries to the sort of leap or intuition which the initiates would need to undergo before being enabled for the seeing. “Eyes” need to “open”, and “ears hear”. Such wonderment about the oddity HD Lewis brought us to notice, mentioned in my first posting, of a spontaneous, chanced beginning of things, also of the alternative of an infinite regress of causal links, and of such seeming divine “leadings” and “miracles” in the religious experiences of mankind, and those too within individual persons’ life stories in those traditions, might also serve to put the initiate into the special mental frame and mood for the insight.
If indeed there exists the ultimate Ground of things in terms of which all is to be explained and nothing is in the end random and chanced, how else can we finite mortals discern it than by responding to such “intimations”, if there are such, reaching us from beyond our normal ken? There can be no crossing over to see as God. But do we not feel, when we do give ourselves the chance , in contemplation and meditation, after going through such preliminaries to the insight as suggested above, not only the factual (though not logical) impossibility of the secularist account of reality, but, affirmatively, the factual (not logical) necessity of there being an ultimate Ground and explanation of all being? Logically speaking, odd things can happen, but has this really happened, that everything has come to be as a happy or unhappy chance? Can we really believe that, once we face it as a real life issue, and not only as a point of academic debate? Do not we feel “drawn” in fact to expect and seek an explanation of it all?
It may be that, as CH Dodd pointed out about that encounter in the Gospel of John, only when the blind man’s eyes had been opened by Jesus that he was enabled to discern, and answer his doubting enquirers that “if this Man (Jesus) were not from God, He could not have done this thing (healed his blindness)”. And don’t ask him further how and why, he pleaded, for all he knew was “Once I was blind, but now I see”.
This basically cognitive assent is nevertheless a leap of thought involving the total living self, and, as HD Lewis pointed out, it should not be confused with other discernments of ultimate truths in our experience of things, even though we could well remain at only that level in our enquiry, taking it as a mere compelling stance as regards ultimate issues . In the latter case, although it could be an important preliminary of religious experience, it could not have the unique significance as its crucial beginning. This experience (if indeed “religious”, and if there really are such experiences and not just any experience religiously interpreted) must be unique, like aesthetic or moral awareness. And then it would have the compellingness of a distinct dimension of the reality humankind must come to terms with, much like the dimensions of art and morals. Initiation into this special mode of experience and submitting ourselves to all it requires of us, in its call to an unique sort of life commitment, must involve, in Newman’s words, “true” and not just “notional” assent.
That indeed such a distinct dimension of reality exists for us to initiate ourselves into is in the end a matter for our “learning through experience”, despite the preliminary reasonings and events that lead to it. Like aesthetic awareness, although like horses we may be dragged to its waters, we must ourselves drink in order to appreciate. In the end, it can only be a matter of our responding to the invitation of St John to “come and see”. And along with John, as with a host of others in that tradition and others, it may come to be that what we do find when we “see” is, like aesthetic and moral awareness, not fantasy but a real dimension of truth, except that this one sets all other facets of the realities we are confronted with in their real, true light. As Huston Smith has it, describing the religious course he taught undergraduates, he has been exposing students to”another world to live in”, a world from which their world is seen in its true light. This is probably the consciousness Wordsworth seemed to have been on the verge of crossing into, where at his aesthetic appreciation of nature he had often felt “a spirit in the woods” and “intimations of immortality” beyond “the passion” “the sounding cataracts” had often “haunted” him with. Accordingly, he in later life returned to his Anglican faith.
Once thus religiously awakened, many have claimed to find the unique consciousness superimposing itself and adding its hue and significance to other events and encounters in life, especially to those that seem to be only surprising, coincidental happenings to the religiously un-initiated. The initiated are convinced they are divine intrusions in their life events, as they discern them to be continuous with similar happenings writ large within the various histories and traditions of mankind. As HD Lewis said, we are not left alone in a cultural void to enter within the religious conscousness, but to do so through living committed lives within a shared, ongoing religious tradition. To them who thus “see”, and have not allowed themselves subsequently to lose that sensitivity, nothing can take away the conviction that come by so personal an “encounter”. So, as Austin Farrer said in a published sermon, it was too late for sceptics to reason with him, who had spent a lifetime “conversing with Him”, that God did not exist. This initiation must be what John meant saying we must be ”born again”, and Paul, saying we become ”new creatures in Christ”.
And it has been the case that events in the initiate’s life experiences and those writ large within cultures and traditions have varied, ranging from impingement of seeming impersonal or less personal transcendent Reality to what can only be felt as the “living God” engaging him “in judgement, forgiveness and love.” The variations can be reasonably interpreted in terms of different stages or degrees of perfection in individual or cultural responses to divine initiatives. We may thus reason that, personality being a greater perfection, if the religious intuition is into a Reality that explains all there is, that Reality must be perfect and, therefore, better captured by experiences of a personal ”living God”.
Also, we have to agree with HD Lewis and others that, as we are being initiated into awareness of transcendent Reality that has to be all-explaining, He must be seen to be perfect in all ways and also self-explaining. Anything less than perfect in His attributes would need explaining. And He must transcend any being or envisaged “chain of being”, for in terms of Him all that exist other than Himself is to be explained. And He Himself must exist necessarily or is “self-explanatory”. All this explains the term “transcendent” as ascribed to ultimate Reality. The self-explanatory Reality in Whose terms all else is explained must “transcend” all, for if He were a part of all, He too would need explaining, and so the child, told that God made the world, would be right to ask “Who made God?”