Chapter 8: Finding Meaning and New Abilities in a Life With Disability

In about 2003, especially in the summers, I was able to return to some of my reading. My brother Richard had recommended to me a book on philosophy that I bought and read: Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff. I also purchased and read two other books: The Evolution of God by Robert Wright and The Case for God by Karen Armstrong.

Wright opens his book discussing some primitive rituals filled with superstition, much of which would be quite contrary to today’s civilized politeness. In fact, he notes that the Bible even documents such primitive rituals. For example, he cites 1 Samuel 28:15. The context of that is provided in 1 Samue28: 3-19: Samuel has died and the Philistines set up military camp against Israel. In fear, Saul asks the Lord what he should do, “God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.” So he locates a woman who can contacts spirits. She who brings up the spirit of Samuel. She describes to Saul what she is able to see: “an old man wrapped in a robe.” Saul recognizes the description as fitting Samuel. Presumably through the medium, Samuel demands of Saul, “why have you disturbed me to bring me up?” Saul tells the spirit that the Lord will not hear him or respond to him, and Samuel responds, “Why consult me when the Lord has departed from you and is become your adversary?” He then tells Saul that the Lord has taken the kingship from him and given it to David.

Wright next cites Genesis 6:1 – 4, in which the “sons of God” take notice of and admire the “daughters of men.”… “The sons of God used to cohabitate with the daughters of men, who bore them children, those mighty manifold who made a name.”

Many of the Bible stories bear remarkable similarity to stories of certain pagan religions and cultures of that region. For example, Wright tells of another story of the great flood: “The great god Enlil (himself a sometimes sex addict) once ordered up an epic flood, like the biblical flood that Noah would later survive; but, whereas Noah’s God uses the flood to punish people for wickedness, Enlil’s motive was less exalted: humanity had been noisy while he was trying to sleep, so he decided to extinguish it.”

Nor is monotheism exclusive to the early record of Jewish society. The Egyptian god,”…Aten, at the height of his power, stood alone in the divine firmament, a clear foreshadowing of the Hebrew God, Yahweh.” Wright, notes that Akhenaten extended the notion of that divine power to all humankind.

In his fifth chapter of The Evolution of God, entitled “Polytheism, the Religion of Ancient Israel,” Wright explores the origins of Abrahamic monotheism. He begins his discussion, “If you’ve read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end.” In the creation story of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, Wright makes reference to allusions to several gods: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ (Genesis 1:26 –7). And, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:22). And, feeling threatened by the construction of the Tower of Babel which is intended to reach to heaven, God says, “Come let us go down, and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7).

Although some Jewish and Christian scholars assert that references in the Old Testament to heavenly hosts or other supernatural beings do not refer to gods, Wright counters that Psalms 82 clearly shows that they were gods and not angels: The revered King James Version, unapologetically provides, “God standeth within the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.” Other major versions are as clear.
As to the early history of the Jews and of their history, Wright notes that excavations of areas that the Bible reports were conquered by Israelites show no evidence to confirm those claims. “In fact, it looks more and more as if the Israelites were Canaanites.”

One scholar, Finkelstein, goes so far as to state that there is no evidence of a mass exodus of Jews from Egypt. Wright says of the stories, that they were written several centuries after the events described, and were even later being edited. This past year, I happen to be at a memorial service for a brother-in-law’s mother, where I happen to meet the husband of one of her grandchildren who is a scholar. He said he was intending to go to Egypt to do archaeological studies, concerning Jewish history there. I remarked to him that I understood there was no archaeological evidence to substantiate that the Jews were ever in bondage in Egypt. He acknowledged that was true. I did not pursue the matter further, so I do not know what he hoped to find there in his archaeological quest. However, I took his acknowledgment as some evidence of the reliability of the above statements.
Further, Wright says, “If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a God in evolution, a God whose character changes radically from beginning to end.”

Wright also acknowledges the Greek influence upon the gospel of John by its use of “logos,” or in English, “the Word:” “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” In Greek thought, the logos had a specific reference: relating to its own notion of the ideal in the world above this physical one, of which its reference on earth are mere reflections. Implicit in both concepts of the “ideal” and “Logos” was the notion of corruption on earth in the reflection. That idea, was itself a bifurcation of the experience of “this world” and a separate world of the “spiritual and the ideal:” the “plan of God” imposed upon this corrupt world. Wright describes the practical meaning of “Logos:” “all the logos does is create situations in which ever larger circles of moral inclusion make rational sense;…”

As to the reliable biblical claims of Jesus, Wright notes the ironic rule for evaluating those Bible’s claims as historical: “The less sense a claim makes, the more likely it is to be true.” That rings similar to Schillebeeckx’s principal of critically examining the biblical story of Jesus: the likelihood that a fact which was included in the story of Jesus that would have been an embarrassment to the early Christians is one indication that it is likely true. In fact, Wright adopts that critical tool. He notes that in the Hebrew the word “Messiah” meant “to apply oil” to or to anoint. The Greek word for the concept of Messiah is “Christos.” In either language, it is evident that both words, Messiah and Christos are faith statements, i.e., statements of the meaning of the life of the historical Jesus. When the above concepts are applied to the texts of the Gospels that are available to us, the reasonable conclusion should be, Wright argues, that the death of Jesus should have been a devastating blow for any disciple who had been claiming that he was the Messiah. Indeed, the gospel of Mark does not conclude with any notion of Christ’s victory over death, but with his final words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many commentators have shown that Psalm 22:18 begins with the same words and suggest that Jesus was merely citing that Psalm in an excruciating circumstance. Nonetheless, as presented in Mark, it is a very dark conclusion for a gospel, meaning “good news.” The book of Acts states that 40 days after he appeared to Mary Magdalena, Christ ascended into the heavens, much as the Jewish scriptures, or Christian Old Testament, told of Enoch, Elijah, and Isaiah. While a mighty story, not unique in the Jewish scriptures, as we will later see concerning faith names referring to him and to Caesar.

In his chapter titled “How Jesus Became Savior,” Wright notes:

This Christian notion of salvation was a watershed in the evolution of the Abrahamic god – or, at least, in the non-Jewish lineage of that evolution. In both its Christian and Muslim forms, it would prove influential in ways both fortunate and unfortunate. Believing that heaven awaits you shortly after death makes death a less harrowing prospect. And this, in turn, can make dying in a holy war a more attractive prospect, a fact that has shaped history and even today shapes headlines.

As a precursor to the Jesus of the Nicene Creed, Wright notes that Osiris, a major God in Egypt for thousands of years, bears “a striking resemblance” to that Jesus.

Wright notes that Jesus never directly refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” Nor does he claim, specifically, that he will return. Indeed, at least a couple references to Jesus in the New Testament following the crucifixion show that followers were confounded by events that were reported as witnessed. Luke 24:6 – 9 tells us that several days after Jesus was killed, his mother and Mary Magdalena went to his tomb and found it empty. They were “perplexed.” Two mysterious men appeared to them to ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember how we told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.

Luke also tells us that after the crucifixion two men were walking to Emmaus when joined by a mysterious man. If these men were familiar with Jesus, they would, you would think, recognize him in the flesh; but they did not recognize this man who joined them. After walking and talking on the road, they sat to eat together. It was not until the man broke bread that they recognized him as Jesus, and then only because of the manner in which he broke the bread and gave it to them.

Wright notes that the first literature in the New Testament to refer to an afterlife as immediate reward for being good on earth appears only after Paul’s ministry, that being in the book of Luke, which was written about 80 or 90 CE. In that account, Jesus tells the “confessing” criminal beside him that because of his faith, that very day he would be with Jesus in “paradise.”

Islam and the Koran are also addressed by Wright in a chapter titled, Well, Aren’t We Special? Judaism, Christianity and Islam share “the God of Abraham.” Wright notes that all three of these religions tend to be exclusivist religions. “The consistent moral of the story of the Abrahamic religions is that any given book of scripture can be put to a wide variety of uses. He concludes that chapter with a section titled The Future of God. In it, he compares Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.

Unlike Constantine, Ashoka insisted on respecting other religions in the Empire; he never demanded conversion. . . . Whereas Christianity and Islam were both enlisted in Imperial holy war, Ashoka renounced conquest, horrified by the event that had preceded and triggered his conversion to Buddhism – his own bloody conquest of a neighboring region. “The most important conquest . . . is moral conquest.’ . . .”

As I had noted earlier, Alfred North Whitehead tells us that because Christ followers believed that Jesus had promised that while some of those hearing him yet lived, he would return in all his glory; and that for that reason they did not withhold giving lavishly to those in need, since they would have no need of it in the time to come. Wright tells us that “by the time Luke was written, more than a decade after Paul’s death, that expectation was no longer operative.” Luke then asserts that the kingdom “is not coming with things that can be observed… The kingdom of God is within you.”

I next read Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God. She has some interesting chapters in the book, including God, Reason, Faith, Silence, Faith and Reason, Science and Religion, Scientific Religion, and Enlightenment. In her chapter on atheism, she describes the progression through organized Christianity to the protest against that by claims of atheism:

The evangelicals brought natural theology, hitherto a minority pursuit, into the mainstream. Even though they continued to insist on the transcendence of God, they believed, paradoxically, that He could be known through science as a matter of common sense. Wary of learned experts, they wanted a plain-speaking religion with no abstruse theological flights of fancy. They read the Scriptures with an unprecedented literalism, because this seems more rational than the older allegorical exegesis. Like scientific discourse, religious language must be unequivocal, clear, and transparent.

This literalism of the Bible conflicted with the scientific knowledge of the time. The fundamentalist Christian who took the Bible literally, therefore separated the spiritual from the “mundane physical.”
. . . They wanted a rationalized God who shared their own moral standards and behaved like a good evangelical. . . . Interestingly, He shared their enthusiasm for the virtues that ensured success in the marketplace: thrift, sobriety, self-discipline, diligence, and temperance. This God was clearly in danger of becoming an idol.
. . . In America, Protestantism empowered the people against the establishment, and this tendency still continues, so that today it is difficult to find a popular movement in the United States that is not associated with religion in some way.…

By contrast, a new type of atheism has emerged in Europe that was different from the scientism of Diderot and d’Holbach.

Armstrong notes that theology advanced in Germany promoted the skills of historical – critical methodology as applied to the Bible. That is not entirely a new treatment of Christian Scriptures. In the first century or two of Christianity, there were those who warned that not all Scripture was to be taken literally because some of it conflicted with the observable world and their own life experiences. Will Durrant noted in his Story of Civilization that before the Council of Nicaea, an Orthodox Christian doctrine became fixed, there were a number of church leaders who counsel that some of the stories in the Bible must be taken metaphorically and not literally. Karen Armstrong writes ithat St. Augustine said as much: if the reader found that a segment of Scripture contradicted that which was clearly observed, the reader must find an allegorical interpretation of that passage. It is literalism, and not metaphorical interpretation, that is the modern construct of Scripture. Over the years I have appreciated John Wesley’s notion that truth can best be accessed not only through Scriptures and Christian tradition, but also through reason and experience. It really isn’t so new when one looks at the larger view of the history of Christianity, after all.

Science had once been a branch of philosophy, but now it rejects any notion that is not quantifiable and observable, objective, and measurable. Applying that same standard to philosophical inquiry, the “positivists” demanded that “truth” conform to their own standards as applied to the physical world. Elsewhere, Armstrong has asserted that modern atheism does not exclude notions of the sacred. Whether through Armstrong, other readings, or examples of those about me or those loved ones in my family, I have come to the conclusion that atheism might be nothing more than a rejection of another’s assertion that God must be such and such. Jesus, in his own teachings, has told us not to worry about others or the manner in which they approach the truth. Rather, “By their fruits you will know them.”

Many Christians claim as authority for Christianity that no other religion claims that humans were raised from the dead, and that Christianity’s claim for Jesus is unique. They make similar unique claims for his sacrificial death for our salvation.

Other Christians, without detracting from their faith, note that these claims were not unique in history. Borg and Crossan, in their book, The First Paul, note that the same claims were earlier made by the Romans for Augustus, as

. . . Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God. He was Lord, Liberator, Redeemer and Savior of the World – not just of Italy or the Mediterranean, mind you, but of the entire inhabited earth. Words like “justice” and “peace,” “epiphany” and “gospel,” “grace” and “salvation” were already associated with him. Even “sin” and “atonement” were connected to him as well.

Borg and Crossan call this “Roman imperial theology,” which Paul turned on its head and then applied to Jesus.

In Greek mythology, Dyonisis was a god and Son of God, was killed, resurrected from the dead and was celebrated by drunken rites in which the people drank his blood and ate his flesh. The early Christian fathers claimed the similarity of these stories to those about Christ was the work of the Devil to mislead people. (See Will Durant, Story of Civilization.)

As many Christians who take the Bible is literally true, if you can’t believe it is true, then you cannot be a good Christian. There is some legitimacy to that question. Pilate asked him, “What is truth? Is truth confined to a literal reading of the narrative of the New Testament stories?

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