I guest posted on Homebrewed Christianity yesterday, responding to this post on liberal vs. progressive Christians. Feel free to stop by:
I’ve heard it before. “I was doing such-and-such and worried about my finances, and all of a sudden I heard a word from the Lord, ‘Everything will be ok. Go check the mailbox.’” And of course, everything was ok, because $x was there, and why tell the story otherwise… [more here]
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
(Mark 3:20-35 ESV)
Jesus is essentially saying, “if I am the satan (the adversary) and I am casting out demons, then good news, folks, the satan’s kingdom is gonna fall!!! But no, really, if you want to destroy the satan’s kingdom, then you first have to bind up the satan, and then destroy his house.” In other words, Jesus has bound the satan and that’s why he’s cleaning house.
A couple of existential observations. Notably, in the First Testament, the three times the satan is mentioned he is at least twice a prosecuting attorney for God, most memorably in the prologue to Job. With this in mind, it is fascinating, to see Jesus claim that the satan is bound, and then proclaim the forgivness of sins (nothing to do with the cross) over the children of man.
Nevertheless, we know that in the period between the Testaments, that the character of the satan grew in stature and power into the figure we encounter in canonical and non-canonical apocalyptic literature. But here too, the satan is never simply “Satan” as many often imagined, but the satan is connected with the evil political powers of the day (see here for an example).
With the large accusatory Temple scene in Mark 11-12, we know that Jesus is attacking the corrupt powers (especially the scribes, see 12.28-40) of Jerusalem leadership. With these three points in mind, I submit the following as a clue to the existential concerns of the text. First, Jesus is calling out the scribes and other Jerusalem leadership for perpetuating evils, oppression, etc. These evils are built on the premise that they run the system which negotiates sin and retribution between God and the masses. Jesus, having bound the satan, is cleaning house with the forgiveness of sins, emptying the power of the corrupt leadership.
The existential concern is behind the premise that people need forgiveness of sins in order to be right with God. With the existential crisis being that the people have no control over their own destiny, the forgiveness of sins meets crisis in several concerns. First, it is identity with the people of God, a sense of belonging with the other righteous. Second, the cost for peasants to have to participate in the sacrificial culture is an economic strain. The forgiveness of sins, reduces this burden. Finally, corrupt leadership tries to answer the the existential crisis, where they have no control over their own destinies, to try to control the destinies of others. In some ways, the forgiveness of sin breaks their power to control the destinies of the people.
A good existential reading then will first focus on the identity, the economics, and oppression, before making too much of what “blaspheming the holy spirit” might mean.
Are there existential concerns that I missed?
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. - Henry David Thoreau
Yes, but can’t you see what your looking at first?
Indeed, we cannot even begin to consider the world in which we live without the conceptions. The conceptions, the ontologies, the faith claims, they make our understanding of the world and our communication efficient. We cannot adequately describe our experience, it’s too vast for words. But for the sake of everything good and decent, can we at least look at how our experiences become our conceptions. Let’s look at first, and then “see.” Because, sometimes, in spite of Thoreau, it is what you look at that is important.
Case in point: 2012 election. What is important? Let’s speculate that it’s the on-the-ground experience of millions of Americans. Therefore, the policies that affect change on the people’s lives are the important politics. But every day, Obama is a Muslim, Romney is greedy, the Democrats are commies, the Republicans hate poor people. These are ontological claims, conceptions of our world, that are at best irrelevant. Distractions from what is important, making us blind to what we look at, and only emphasizing what we see.
The same happens with faith claims about God, even if those faith claims are quoted word-for-word from the Bible. The words are far from the core, yet they point to the core. But the core is the experience and context that produced the words. To fetischize the faith claim before the core, is to “see” what your not looking at. To read Christ into Isaiah 9.6 (“For to us a child is born…”) before placing it in the context of Northern Kingdom/Assyrian conflict is to quit reading and and to insert one’s own message into the text. There’s no reason to shut our brains off and quit reading the text in order to defend our deeply held theological notions. The Bible is a text that behaves like a text, because that’s what texts do. So look at the text and let’s see what we can make of it?
Looking at the Gospel text for this weekend again. I’ve highlighted what I believe to be helpful in determining the existential concern:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:1-17 ESV)
Remember from last week how the gospel writer was defining the identity of the community. Here too, it is the same thing. The Kingdom of God, the Spirit of God, and the Son of Man are all traditions within Second Temple Judaism. A community of Christ believers within Judaism are in the midst of a conflict with other Judeans (Jews). Much of the Gospel is redefining the Gospel-communities identity in light of this conflict with the other Judeans. Nicodemus serves as the perfect character who is transcending the boundaries of the two Judeanisms. There’s a good deal more to be said about Nicodemus, so read a commentary or two.
But I find this statement of Jesus’ in line with the proposal of this blog: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things.” If you don’t understand anthropology, how can you understand theology? If you don’t understand earthly existence, then how will you comprehend heavenly existence through the conceptions Jesus will teach?
But when you look at what Jesus has said just previous to this claim–be born again/from above, kingdom of God, Spirit, etc– it sounds as if he is already talking about heavenly things. But then Jesus gives us the metaphor of the wind, taking us into the existential experience of feeling the wind blow. It exists, but its origin and its destination is unknown. But it is experienced as a part of existence. In other words, this new growing Jesus movement within Judeanism is claiming validity through their experience of the Spirit. It is not defined here, but it is experienced, as an earthly thing, and for all practical purposes it is real for the community.
If you can’t understand that communities have real religious experiences, how can you honestly engage in theology?
In Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable, he harps on a point he always has, but here on the Road to Emmaus story (Lk. 24.13-35). Crossan claims that the story is not historical fact, but a parable about Jesus. Like parables,
“Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.“
Read Crossan to understand the logic of his argument. Not really my concern.
This claim may turn away many Christians, and most will never take the time to consider his methods or logic. The same happened to Bultmann. In fact, some may say that Crossan, as a leading figure of the Jesus seminar, is one of the bearers of Bultmann’s torch. In source and form criticism, perhaps. But in the back of my mind, I hear Bultmann possibly saying, “Meh. Who cares if it’s historical?”
Several points. I think an honest response in a spirit of truth might ponder, could Luke’s original audience have understood it as a parable? Let’s assume that Luke is performed before an urban audience of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Would they necessarily have to believe that this is an actual event that took place? Or could they have interpreted as a parable about Jesus, about themselves having to recognize the risen Christ, especially in the breaking of the bread (v.30-31)? I cannot answer definitively, but I am strongly inclined to say it’s a possibility that if it were a parable, the audience would have had the cultural and contextual clues to understand it as such.
This goes along with what I’ve been saying: you choose to read it as ontological. You choose to read it as historical fact. The text does not always or necessarily force such a reading upon you. You could read it as a parable. That is a valid reading of it. And you could do an existential reading of it (for another day).
This also brings up another one of my pet peeves, one layered with irony. I’ve read it in comments and articles on Bultmann here and there that the members of the Jesus seminar are the ones to continue Bultmann’s legacy. But Bultmann was so vehemently against the liberal theologians of his day, for they were trying to show the Bible to be historically unreliable when there was not enough evidence to do so. Likewise, he stood against the apologists of his day as well, for they too did not have enough evidence. Those who continue Bultmann’s legacy are scholars who show how the text answered the existential concerns of its original audience. Sure some of the Jesus Seminar people do this, but I could never see Bultmann casting a ballot for the historical reliability of the text.
What do you think?
How’s my German?
Originally for this blog, I’ve argued that Bible readers who read with ‘faith’ ought to consider the existential crises that provided the impetus for the composition of the sacred text before they consider theological/doctrinal statements. I called these “existential crises.” But admittedly this has been a working term. Bultmann identified the crisis as: Humans cannot control their own destiny.
Typically, there is one existential crisis in existential philosophy, although it’s stated in different ways–usually with consideration of ‘Die Angst.’ From this point on I will attempt to only discuss this phenomenon of experience with the term “crisis.” Secondary items, such as subsistence or identity, I will refer to as “existential concerns.” Clearly, the experience of hunger is contingent upon the human existential crisis. Therefore it is a secondary concern.
You can now see the updated version of my blog’s proposal to the right.
Having finished Bultmann’s “Modern Interpretation and Existential Philosophy,” I think we could do with revising this blog’s proposal. Then we shall look at some more exegetical examples. Any passages you are interested in?
Part 6/6 of a series…
The judgment that man’s existence can be analyzed without taking into account his relation with God may be called an existential decision, but the elimination is not a matter of subjective preference; it is grounded in the existential insight that the idea of God is not at our disposal when we construct a theory of man’s existence. Moreover, the judgment points to the idea of absolute freedom, whether this idea be accepted as true or rejected as absurd. We can also put it this way: that the elimination of man’s relation with God is the expression of my personal knowledge of myself, the acknowledgment that I cannot find God by looking at or into myself. Thus, this elimination itself gives to the analysis of existence its neutrality. In the fact that existentialist philosophy does not take into account the relation between man and God, the confession is implied that I cannot speak of God as my God by looking into myself. My personal relation with God can be made really by God only, by the acting God who meets me in His Word.
A counter question we may ask to Bultmann is: do we have an idea of an “other” at our disposal, such as the idea of my wife or my mother? If so, what is different in the distance between my experience of God and my conceptions of God?
I would venture a guess that while an “other” is not fully at our disposal, their participation within the same boundaries of existence with our selves, the objectification of the “other” is made plausible. On the other hand, where Bultmann and Barth might agree, is that God is wholly other. One cannot objectify God, one cannot know God as one knows an object, one cannot simply love God as one loves one’s family. I will admit this is a bit of theology I am uncomfortable with, but I will leave my critiques of Bultmann for later.
Suffice it to say, though, thinking in this way lends itself to an existential analysis, and therefore it is beneficial to think in this way, if we must.
An existential analysis limits itself to the experiences within the self, and therefore all conceptions of the divine must be left to the side. Religious/spiritual experience, however, is available inasmuch as one experiences it. But to name that experience is to limit it with our conceptions, leaving it to the realm of faith rather than the realm of experience.
But notice, Bultmann does not simply speak of religious/spiritual experience, but as “man’s relation with God.” It is a relative/relational experience, that may fail to be captured by conceptions. Only in the experience of the relationship can God ever be true.
And, at least for Bultmann, this “acting” God enters into such a relationship in God’s Word. Therefore, it is not the ontological truths of God’s Word that are important, but the experience of the acting God in relation to the Word. What then is this Word?
Part 5/6 in a series…
To be sure, philosophical analysis presupposes the judgment that it is possible to analyze human existence without reflection on the relation between man and God. But to understand human existence in relation to God can only mean to understand my personal existence, and philosophical analysis does not claim to instruct me about my personal self-understanding. The purely formal analysis of existence does not take into account the relation between man and God, because it does not take into account the concrete events of the personal life, the concrete encounters which constitute personal existence. If it is true that the revelation of God is realized only in the concrete events of life here and now, and that the analysis of existence is confined to man’s temporal life with its series of here and now, then this analysis unveils a sphere which faith alone can understand as the sphere of the relation between man and God.
It would be nice to know what Bultmann means by faith alone, because this is a slight departure from the existential analysis, however true it may be. Still, if we take any of the common definitions of faith–belief in, allegiance to, or trust– we are still left with the “sphere of the relation between God and man.” Here, since “faith” must “understand” the sphere, the sphere is a conception post-existence. It can very well be a sphere in which humans may exist, but is only a sphere that is later reflected upon through faith, and perhaps by only faith.
Take for example the famous “Footprints” poem. The narrator’s existence experienced difficult times. Upon further reflection, “the Lord” is inserted into the narrative of existence, presumably by faith, and no one can empirically verify or disprove the accuracy of the insertion. But clearly, the narrator is looking back (historically) to analyze existence. This gives birth to “the Lord” in existence, but it is therefore a conception applied after the experienced event. For this reason, an existential analysis has no conception of God at its disposal: an analysis of human existence prior to conceptions.