Livy writes that religions and festivals were created to give the people something to do when not at war or working in the field. My reasons for faith involve a story, perhaps unusually long rather than notably unusual, and intervention by Christ Jesus in my life from February 3, 2003 to its zenith on December 31, 2008 when He reached in my soul and fixed some things, followed by a gradually decreasing interaction to the point where my soul now longs for His presence in its dark night. Long story short, I realize that I am worthless in His sight. The details involve the loss (rapid early cataracts) and restoration of my sight and other parallels to St. Paul’s experiences that are not lost on me.
Holding only a BS in Electrical Engineering, I am perhaps best described as an old fool from Rural Jefferson Parish Louisiana now living in Texas with an annoying habit of studying ancient literature, and everything else. That’s one of the changes Jesus made – he changed my study channel from Technical to Broadband as it were, and I began to gain fluency in various English translations of the Biblical Text, period writings, and other things that I never dared hope to be able to comprehend, such as N. T. Wright’s ‘Of Christian Origins and the question of god (sic)’ series. Suffice it to say that the 1966 Jerusalem Bible with its use of YHWH and of course Tolkien’s translation of Jonah is my favorite, but I’ve studied several translations including the King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Douay Rheims translation of the Vulgate, the Orthodox Study version including the Septuagint, Benyamim Tsedaka’s Samaritan Torah in parallel with the 1917 Tanakh Torah, the 1982 Tanakh, and George Lamsa’s version of the Peshitta. Add to that the Didache, the works of Charlesworth and Pritchard, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Julius Caesar, Arian, the Nag Hammadi Library, Mesopotamian literature such as the myths of Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and of course Louis Ginzberg’s “Legends of the Jews”, as well as the pyramid texts, the papyrus of Ani, the Greek Magical papyri and demotic spells, the Qur’an, the book of Mormon, Malleus Maleficarum, and the enormously helpful JPS publication “Outside the Bible” the three volumes of which include most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a copious wealth of second temple period literature including the book of Jubilees, and one gets the picture of my new channel. I have studied through only three of my twenty-two volumes of the Babylonian Talmud (Jacob Neusner’s translation), and am at present working my way through his translation of the Mishnah. All of that, and more, and not a soul to discuss it with.
What I find in all that study is simple, much like Kugel writes in his The Great Shift Encountering God in Biblical Times: we distance ourselves from the divine. My view is that we do this to put ourselves in control and avoid His will, not that He is controlling us, far from it. We worship rules and doctrines and laws, not YHWH, and admit neither the Holy Spirit nor the Son of the living God. We systematize theology to predict nay control God and fail to hear Isaiah that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Many insist on literal readings of texts that cannot be but tales, and others seek to bind the world by texts that were but the seed planted by inspiration, not the elaboration of the Kingdom. Some Evangelicals bring no glad tidings, and seek to impose their versions of the Torah on the people without even giving them the chance to say Amen or reject the proposition.
“The greatest cause of all iniquity is found in overmuch prosperity”, a phrase written by Philo of Alexandria quoting an unnamed man’s wisdom, rings with truthful clarity and increasing volume as we face the challenges of Christianity in this time. In our prosperity and desire to maintain status and power, we have, in large measure, forgotten the extraordinary good news that we are offered citizenship in the Kingdom of God if we will accept that offer through Christ Jesus and live as if we were in that Kingdom. Citizens of the Kingdom are the earthly manifestation of the suffering servant of Isaiah led by the son of man sitting on the right hand of YHWH as written in Daniel. We are not the accusers but those seeking to help people realize their potentials, accepting even embracing their imperfections as we see ourselves, also imperfect sinners, in the mirror more clearly than do others see themselves, also knowing that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways, fearing to judge others as imperfect by the same standards with which we embrace the truth of our own sinful ways.
It has been said that the church is under relentless attack and that it’s worth fighting for, and I agree. I also agree with N. T. Wright that the so called Enlightenment was no such thing, and I personally have a very low opinion of Martin Luther, having read his disgusting polemics on the Jewish people which stop short of the Nazi plan only on the point of outright murder. Christianity is not about perfection in the now, no, it is about the ascent through toils and travails, through persecution and suffering, to be one with our Lord. It is not about the filioque clause or the nature of Christ Jesus but is about aspiring to be the life of Christ Jesus through his body and life blood given for us, the Passover sacrifice, the new akedah where the willing Jesus is sacrificed for us, and we are held to be righteous for this.
I find semina verbi as far back as 2,500 BCE in Egyptian Pyramid texts, in the weighing of the heart against the feather of Ma’at, the symbol of truth, living the right life, justice, equity and our notion of hell being manifested therein by Ammit, the eater of souls who fail the test. Our God puts his thumb on those scales giving weight to the feather of Ma’at, saying “pass over this sinner for the sake of my Son”.
It is not that Christians alone receive this, nor that those who have not understood yet pass the test without God’s thumb are not saved, I’m sure they are and He may well put his thumb on the scales for others; I dare not limit God’s mercy. No, it is that we’ve been given the job of proclaiming this truth to the world and helping everyone who accepts it put their thumb on the scales for all of humanity. It is here that we fail, that we rely on tradition and systematic theology more than on love, on our ways and not His ways, and through which we seek to contain and control the Holy Spirit of God.
It is not that there are no rules, it is that mercy should be our guide, that we should break down the walls of traditions and our own incredibly lengthy set of rules and regulations. Only the love of God and the self-sacrificing love of each other should compel, and the commandments of Moses written in stone, those ten items, should guide.
We cannot roll back the damage done to the Jewish People, women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other groups viciously attacked and blamed for all sorts of things by our forefathers. We can, however, change our ways, repent our folly. Only then, when people are free to be whom they are, can we begin the ascent to the Kingdom. Closets for prayer are a good thing; closets to hide one’s true self are anathema.
Perhaps, like Gideon, we fleece the Lord, looking for it to be wet one day and dry on another day. The fleece I find is afire but is not consumed. Will no one else turn aside and look at this great sight?