Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pope Benedict on Jesus and Spong critique

Thoughts for the thinking theologian and thinking laity
with a comment by Paschal Baute at the end.

Pope Benedict XVI and Captain Robert Fitzroy of The Beagle

By Bishop John Spong

I want to return this week to the book Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI. I do this because I was so shocked atthe indefensible conclusions revealed in this book that I began to wonder what happens in the minds of people who, like the Pope, continue to articulate a point of view as dated, unsubstantiated and out of touch with contemporary biblical scholarship as that which is found in this book. The Pope is not alone.

Evangelical fundamentalists seem equally capable of closing their minds to reality sufficiently to allow them to continue to parrot nonsensical religious and biblical ignorance as if it is still relevant to current debates. One thinks of such issues as evolution or homosexuality, two places where religious ignorance and current scholarship collide.

Something seems to happen to the minds of these people that enables them to filter out anything that does not fit into their version of truth. For example, in this book the Pope seems to pretend that the 40-70 year period that separated the life o Jesus from the writings of the gospels did not affect the historicity of the people's memory of Jesus. He avoids taking into account the fact that the gospels were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke, and a language that brings with it dualistic concepts about which Jesus would have had no experience or understanding. He seems to be unaware that the narratives of Jesus' miraculous birth were a late developing tradition, entering the Christian tradition only in the 9th decade.

Nor does he face the fact that Matthew based that narrative on a mistranslation of his proof text in Isaiah. Matthew renders Isaiah 7:14, "Behold a virgin shall conceive," when what Isaiah wrote in Hebrew was: "Behold a woman is with child." Surely one recognizes that the two are not the same. This fact was pointed out to Christians in the early years of the second century by a Jew named Trypho in his famous dialogue with Justin Martyr. Obviously Christians from that day to this, including Benedict XVI, have not been willing to let reality stand in the way of their developing doctrines, so this knowledge was first ignored and then repressed.

The Pope avoids dealing with the obvious fact that the early Christians wrapped the Hebrew Scriptures around Jesus as the only way they could make sense out of the power of their experience with him. He continues, without credibility, to apply the convoluted and discredited idea that the prophets magically revealed God's divine plan and that Jesus simply acted that plan out in some literal and robotic way. With seriousness he advocates the idea that the scriptures reveal that Jesus appointed Peter to be the first Pope, when every historian knows that the institution of the papacy developed much later and that Rome won out in a competition with other great centers of the ancient world, not finally achieving its preeminence as the center of institutional Christianity until the Roman Emperor was defeated by the Barbarians. The papacy then moved into the power vacuum that remained. He does not see that between Mark, written in the early 70's of the first century, and John, written in the late 90's, the Jesus story grew substantially. In Mark Jesus became God-filled when infused by the Holy Spirit at his baptism; in Matthew and Luke it wa when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of his virgin mother, in John Jesus was defined as the enfleshment of the Word of God that was present as part of who God is at the dawn of creation.

The Pope does not appear to notice the difference in the portrait of the dying Jesus, who in the earliest gospel cries out in human despair: "My God, why have you forsaken me?" and the calm, resolutel victorious, divine figure who in the later gospels dies not in anguish, but in total control, saying: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," or "It is finished," that is, "My work is completed." Even the resurrection of Jesus moves from being
symbolized in the earliest gospel (Mark) not by an appearance of the raised Jesus, but by an empty tomb that could not contain him, to the portrait in the last gospel (John) of a resuscitated body capable of being handled and felt, indeed so physical that Thomas could actually touch the wounds in his hands and feet.

Those who treat the Bible as the inerrant "word of God" cannot face the fact that both Matthew and Luke copied extensively from Mark, and in that process felt no compunction whatsoever about deleting from, adding to, changing and even correcting Mark whenever it suited their purposes. One does not correct or delete from a source that one believes is the dictated word of God. Clearly, however, that is what Matthew and Luke actually did since they had not been introduced to the inerrancy claim. That was a much later development in history.

There is something so irrational about these claims and so circular about the arguments developed to sustain these claims that it is not surprising that anger arises whenever facts appear that contradict them. Yet, apparently educated people like the Pope or Pat Robertson, who owns a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Yale University, continue to promote these ideas as if they were still believable, but no one should take these claims seriously.

part 2 , concluded, with a comment by Paschal Baute, at the end.

Pope Benedict XVI and Captain Robert Fitzroy of The Beagle, by Bishop John Spong

As I was contemplating these issues in wonderment, I also happened to be reading the diary of Robert Fitzroy, the captain of HMS The Beagle when that small ship made its five-year trip around the world carrying a passenger named Charles Robert Darwin and including history-shattering stops in the Galapagos Islands. Reading that diary brought me a new insight into how it is that educated people can so easily close their minds to new insights.

Robert Fitzroy, himself a competent scientist by the standards of his day, was privy both to Darwin's discoveries and to his developing theories. He was, however, also a traditional man of faith, steeped in the Christianity current in England in the 1830's. Fitzroy could not view the growing data that Darwin was accumulating except through the lens of a literal Bible. He could not think outside the box of his deep conviction that the Bible was the revealed word of God and the final source of all truth. It was, therefore, his task when writing his journal to
> harmonize these data with his biblical lens. His words were convoluted and his reasoning skewed because his mind could not admit anything as fact that did not fit within his frame of reference.

By reading Fitzroy's journal, I was finally able to understand how a learned man like the Pope could have written this book Jesus of Nazareth. Both the Pope and Robert Fitzroy viewed their subject matter through a presupposition that neither allowed nor admitted any challenging reality. One does not seek to discover truth if one believes he or she already possesses it. If all else fails, truth that is inconvenient and does not fit must be either ignored or suppressed. That is what Benedict XVI does in his book and what fundamentalists do every day. That is almost inevitable if one begins with the idea that ultimate truth is or can be a human possession. Such an idea, rooted in fear, transforms the desire to educate into the need topropagandize, producing the closed religious mind that cannot accept an idea that falls outside its religious filter.
That is the concept which permeates the Pope's book. Everywhere there is the assumption that the Christian faith as understood and taught today by the Roman Catholic Church is not only absolutely true, but that it can be validated in every detail of the Bible. That faith, he believes, was anticipated in the Hebrew Scriptures, revealed in all its fullness in the gospels and has developed in a consistent way through the ages into the doctrines, dogmas and creeds of his Church. The Pope simply cannot ask the scriptures the scholar's question about the original meaning of a text. He insists that scripture alone can be used to
> interpret scripture. Since ideas cannot develop slowly through time the later gospels can never contradict the earlier ones, they simply spell out what the earlier writers did not themselves fully understand. Such argumentation has appeal only so long as one is convinced that truth has been fully revealed in the scriptures as the church interprets them and that no new knowledge can ever challenge or contradict that revealed truth.

That explains why the Pope and Protestant fundamentalists feel free to condemn to purgatory or hell anyone who disagrees with their guiding view of reality. That is why the Church throughout its history has, with easy conscience, burned heretics at the stake. That is why biblical scholarship can be ignored and even repressed in both Catholic and Protestant traditions. That is why interfaith
cooperation will never be possible within that world view.

This concept works until a thinking world no longer affirms that religious view of reality and when fewer and fewer people are able to live in this fantasy land of pretending. Then the religious worldsplits, as it is doing today, into two mutually
exclusive camps. On one side are the Catholic and
Protestant fundamentalists clinging steadfastly to their dated conceptions, and on the other is the Church Alumni Association, made up of those who can
no longer twist their minds into 1st Century pretzels in order to continue to be believers. Since I cannot live in either of those warring camps I continue to seek to translate the religious experience of yesterday into the 21st Century. It is sometimes a lonely place for a Christian to dwell.

My thanks go to Captain Fitzroy for helping me to understand the mentality of the religiously certain. That insight has also helped me to understand and even to appreciate why my publisher, Harper-Collins,has decided to promote the upcoming release of the paperback version of my book Jesus for the Non-Religious as an alternative to the Pope's book Jesus of Nazareth. "The Pope," says the promotional blurb on the new paperback's cover, "describes the
ancient traditional Jesus. John Shelby Spong brings us a Jesus by whom modern people can be inspired." I hope they are correct.

Source ARCC. Katholica

Comment by Paschal Baute:
Spong does not go far enough to spell out the harm and alienation in a faith inspired by the traditional concepts of Christianity as here illustrated by Pope Benedict.

These concepts lead to a close-minded and blind faith, to power, domination, division and violence. Recent writing by Marcus Borg (Jesus), Dominic Crossen (God and Empire ), Depak Chopra, (The Third Jesus), the writings of Walter Wink and Ched Myers, and particularly Michael Rivage Seul, (The Emperor’s God) all support the view that traditional Christianity blindly supports Empire and all the accompanying characteristics of political domination including violence. The Catholic faith easily lent itself to the Crusades, the Inquisition, to the burning of heretics and persecution of the Jews, and unquestioned loyalty for the sake of religious empire.

In the past century, the Germany of the 1930s, with some 40 million Lutherans and 20 million Catholics, that is basically a Christian nation, was little and weak to recognize the dangers of empire in the development of the Nazi culture. Just as there is little today in a traditional faith to recognize the dangers of American empire and its justification of violence.

It is fundamentalist Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic and fundamentalist Muslim faith, all blind to their own idolatry that support violence in today’s world.

The best current book that I know is The Emperor’s God, by Michael Rivage Seul, which I have reviewed on this list. It is being published nationally, but I still have a couple of copies of his first edition, to send free for the sake of a few dollars shipping. More later.

Paschal Baute
4080 Lofgren Ct.
Lexington, Ky
tel (859) 293 - 5302