Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
January 26, 2003
Questions were submitted anonymously via e-mail or note card and read by a designated reader during services. The chaplain had to answer the questions without having seen them before.
Remarks in brackets are editorial comments that did not occur during the service, but serve to supplement or correct things said in the original answer.
The title of this sermon is called “Faith Questions” because what we’re doing here tonight is answering questions of faith that have been posed on the topic of faith, religion, or ethics, or whatever. But also, the title is a statement: Faith questions. That is, we do not have an active and living faith that doesn’t ever ask any questions. We don’t just sit here and take wholesale this block of knowledge and say “Yeah that’s it and that’s faith.” It’s about living it and experiencing it and asking the tough questions that we don’t know the answers to or that have confounded us. That’s all a part of faith. There’s a tendency to think that you’re losing faith if you ask questions. On the contrary, we can only gain faith. So in that spirit, let us move to the first question…
I. 5 O’CLOCK SERVICE
Q: If a winning lottery ticket is placed in the offering plate, do we use the proceeds, given that The United Methodist Church is against gambling? Why or why not?
A: Well, that’s an interesting question. The United Methodist Church is concerned about gambling for the purposes that it becomes a destructive habit for a great many people. They are concerned about gambling because it is often viewed as a quick fix for public deficits. A state will often–rather than embrace fiscal responsibility–will actually encourage other people to be fiscally irresponsible.
The United Methodist Church is concerned about gambling not because games of chance are necessarily or intrinsically evil. There are rituals in the Old Testament where when they are deciding what to do they will cast lots or roll bones, or other sorts of ancient and mysterious rituals for the purpose of religious discernment. So it’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with games of chance. There are all kinds of board games where you have to roll dice, and the Methodist church isn’t against those.
It’s against gambling because it is putting a tremendous amount of faith in games of chance, in random numbers, and encouraging people not to be industrious, not to profit from the sweat of their own brow, and not to put their hopes in their own self-improvement, but to put their hopes in chance and in randomness. And that’s that problem that The United Methodist Church has with gambling. In that it encourages a certain type of behavior and often takes advantage of the very people who can afford to gamble the least. State sponsored gambling has all these–the New York State Lotto used to be something like “Just a dollar and a dream” as though you walk in with that dollar and you walk out a millionaire.
And people who need money who are constantly worried about money would play this game under the idea that sooner or later it would pay off for them. I myself have been in supermarkets, visiting a friend of mine who worked at the service counter, and would watch as people would come in and buy $50, $100, $150 dollars worth of Lotto tickets. And they didn’t look like the kind of people who could afford to spend $150 on Lotto tickets, but they had been encouraged to put their faith in games of chance. And that’s the view The United Methodist Church has against it.
If we were to get one in the offering plate, I suppose we would take the money. We would need it. But we would donate the money to those who were in the most need, put it into programs that would help improve people’s situations rather than increase their dependence. Again, you’re not going to get thrown out of The United Methodist Church for playing the Lotto. But on the whole, Methodism does not want us to put our faith in games of chance and seeks to discourage those who want us to put our faith in them.
Q: Can a Christian believe in war? For example, does a Christian have to be against the US going into Iraq?
A: That’s a question that has haunted the church since among its earliest days. The early Christians were pacifists. In fact, it’s very difficult to find any New Testament witness that allows for any kind of war. Jesus encourages turning the other cheek. When Peter takes up the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane–although they had swords, which I always find interesting–to fight the temple guard, Jesus tells him to put down the sword, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And so there’s very, very little of anything that we can find in the New Testament that endorses warfare. There’s a lot of stuff in the Old Testament that does, but it’s always God’s initiative, it’s always for God’s purposes.
Now, this was fine when we were a minority religion without any power, when Christians were not the ones making weighty decisions about the stability of the state. But when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, this became a great question, because now people who were in the halls of power were Christians and they were having to decide what to do. St. Augustine himself was dealing with these questions about what to do in the face of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the invading armies of the Huns and the barbarians of Northern Europe.
The understanding that he came to was that he could turn his cheek as many times as necessary. He could take any abuse you would heap on him, but that he could not stand silently by while the innocent were afflicted. He could not stand and say “I’m sorry, I am against violence of any kind and I will not do anything to prevent you from harming that person, even if that person is not a Christian.”
So the church began to struggle with these issues: “Can Christians use violence in defense of justice?” Ultimately they said yes, with limitations. It’s what we call the “just war” doctrine. The idea that force can only be used as a last resort–and there are all kinds of criteria: It has to be a defensive war. The response has to be appropriate and proportionate–they don’t send one tank over and you send a nuclear warhead their way. You have to minimize civilian casualties. You have to make the violence as least damaging as possible. And above all else it has to be in a spirit of love, that you are not doing it because you hate the other people. You are doing it to protect your own with the hope that you can engage the other side and perhaps transform them. So what we saw with the Marshall plan. It wasn’t about destroying the enemy until there were no women or children left alive. But we would then go in and take care and rebuild. The violence that we would exercise was necessary.
Can a person be a Christian and believe that we have to go to Iraq? The answer is yes if they are fitting into what the tradition has defined as what the criteria are. There are many Christians who supported what we did in Afghanistan but do not support going into Iraq because they do not see that the criteria have been met. But it’s a question of debate among people of good will. The difficult part is that there is no simple answer. If you’re a Christian pacifist the answer is simple: never go to war ever. And if it means that Christianity is wiped off the face of the earth for not defending itself, then so be it. Most Christians came to the idea that we lived in two realities at the same time, the City of Man and the City of God. And that sometimes living in the City of Man required that we do things to protect the innocent.
Q: Is Jesus’ divinity central to the Christian faith? Is it possible to view Jesus as a God-filled prophet, similar to Hillel – maybe even ‘the son of Man’ – without being ‘the Son of God?’
A: I would say that the earliest church always understood that to encounter Jesus was somehow to encounter God. What they didn’t know was how that worked out. They didn’t necessarily have that thought through. But they knew that in this person and in this person specially, they encountered God in a way they had not before.
Now, they had all kinds of titles for him, the first title “messiah”—a royal title, a title of kings. Then ‘son of Man’ seems to be the title that Jesus used himself and there is a lot of debate as to what that means, whether he was claiming to be part of the prophetic tradition like Ezekiel, who was referred to as the Son of Man, or whether he was claiming some kind of kinship with all humanity. [Or whether he was making reference to an apocalyptic figure like the Son of Man in the book of Daniel, which is likely]. We don’t know what he meant by that. And then, “Son of God” was the other title that got used. And ‘son of God’ was also a kingly title. The kings of the ancient world often claimed to be the adopted sons of the local deity. The name Ramses means ‘son of Ra’ so Ramses was claiming to be son of the sun god.
But Christian faith believes that somehow God was encountered in this person. I think it’s fair to say that the gospel writers give us different understandings of this. If all you had was the gospel of Mark, and nothing else, you might conclude that Jesus had been adopted at his baptism. If you had only Matthew and Luke, you would understand that Jesus was the Son of God by virtue of his special birth. If you had John you understand that Jesus is the Son of God before anything else was created the son was there with God. We read those words earlier in our liturgy.
Can a Christian have what’s called a ‘low Christology’ – the idea that Jesus is only this much more than the rest of us. I think to be fair to the Christian tradition that has always believed there was more going on in this person than just a prophet. I would say there has to be some recognition of the divine presence in Jesus, a divine nature that exists in Jesus. But how we understand that, I think, is open to our own understanding and exploration. The church has a very definite traditional understanding of that: that Jesus was the Word, the Son of God, made flesh among us. That to see Jesus is to see the Son, which is to see the Father. And basically our doctrine of the Trinity comes from the attempt to figure out what the relationship between Jesus and God was. They knew it was something more than a prophet—something different than that. And they knew that somehow in this person they experienced God. And they struggled, as we have struggled, for 2000 years to figure out how that works out.
And at times in our history, and at times in our lives we will find that there are times when we need Jesus to be very, very God-like: invincible, immortal, impervious, unable to mess up, unable to make mistakes or to be wrong or to have imperfect knowledge. And then there are those times when we need Jesus to be very, very human: and we want to know perhaps that he thought and re-thought his own mission, and we want to know that perhaps he didn’t know everything, that he was in ways like us: human.
So the church has struggled with this. Basically (and I have said this before), Christianity is about two questions: “What the heck just happened?” [i.e., the Resurrection] And “Who was that man?” [Jesus]
And that’s what we’ve been trying to figure out for a long time. The short answer is yes—a faithful Christian can believe that but I would also challenge that person to explore the tradition and explore other ways of understanding the relationship between God and Christ and to see how that works out in the life of the faithful witness of the church.
Q: If Jesus is the perfect revelation of God then is there any other way to God’s salvation except through this revelation?
A: We have to be honest and say that in Scripture it says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” At the same time we live in a world in which we are able to perceive elements of truth and divine presence in traditions other than our own. And we are faithful in our confession that when Jesus died, he died for the entire world—not just for people who thought like him, or thought the right way, or even who knew him. That Christ died for all so that God could be in all.
That may even mean that Jesus died for the plankton, and the bacteria, and the mosquitoes of the Creation, too. That they too would share in eternal life. So that when we say that no one comes to God but through Christ, if we put the responsibility on us, then that’s a very limited number of possible avenues of salvation. But if we recognize that salvation is ultimately God’s activity, working through Christ, then we realize it’s not just a one-way street. It’s possible, I think, to confess that Christ is a unique revelation of God, and still to believe that that may not limit God’s saving ability. That we don’t have the ability to tell God who he can and cannot save. We do not, by simple virtue of our confession that Christ is a revelation of God’s nature revealed fully in humanity, that doesn’t mean that we can say “And therefore only the people who think that way get the benefit from it.”
Because Jesus didn’t seem to behave that way. Jesus seemed to minister to people who weren’t Jews, who didn’t understand the God of Israel anyway. Or Samaritans… they were worse than pagans, right? In the Jewish understanding, not only were they not Jews but they had gotten the religion all wrong: they were worshipping on the wrong mountain, they had the wrong books of the Bible, they were doing everything wrong. And Jesus dealt with them, too. They didn’t even believe in the whole Davidic Messiah thing, so they couldn’t have confessed him as the messiah. And yet we see Jesus interacting with them. So I think it’s possible to say that, but an understanding of what that means means that we cannot limit Christ’s ability and Christ’s grace to save even those who we don’t think know him. I am not sure that the two ideas are necessarily exclusive.
II. 7 O’CLOCK SERVICE
Q: Should the Bible be taken literally? And if not, how do we know what interpretations are correct?
A: There’s an old line that I like: I don’t take the Bible literally, I take it seriously. And there’s a difference, because taking it literally…we’ll often find that the more fundamentalistic elements aren’t taking it literally at all, they’re often reading into it all kinds of things to make their arguments work. The thing about the Bible–it’s a remarkable and diverse collection of documents. The authors of the Bible wrote for a very particular purpose. They were not trying to explain how the world came into being. They were not trying to give the exact history of their nation. They were not trying to explain how the world would end. They were trying to understand how God acted in their lives, in the universe, in their world, and in their nation. And as part of this exploration they set down geneologies, chronologies, histories, and cosmologies, and apocalypses, and all these things appear to us to be mundane historical documents but they are vested with an understanding of God.
Are we to take the Bible literally? If we do, we can wind up in a certain amount of trouble. Because either we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make the literal claims of the Bible fit, that is we try to understand how Jesus can walk from Galilee to Judea and not go through Samaria (like walking from New York to Ohio and not going through Pennsylvania). Or how it is that Pi equals 3 instead of 3.14159. But the Bible authors were not trying to give us math or geography. They were trying to tell us something about God.
The other pitfall is to assume that if the Bible is not literally true then it has no value, that it’s not authoritative. That’s the other extreme. And neither one of those is healthy for the church. If we understand that the Church and Israel produced the Bible and not the other way around–the Bible is the product of faith, it does not create faith out of nothing. The Bible is what people of faith put down as a way of understanding, expressing, and sharing their faith.
We should take it seriously–we should take what it says very seriously. But if it means that you have to check your intellect at the door, or you have to turn a blind eye to something you don’t understand or that doesn’t make logical sense, and that becomes a stumbling block, it is better to understand that the Bible need not always be taken literally. Understand that it is a great book of poetry, of theological language. When God creates the world in seven days it says more about the God who creates us than it does about the timetable for the creation. And that is the message that we should take from scripture?
Now, how do we know which interpretation is correct? I don’t know. We have interpretations that the Church has agreed upon, and of Israel before that, that are passed down through the tradition. So that if we read scripture, as we in the Protestant traditions are encouraged to do, to read it and interpret it and come up with our own understanding, the next thing we should do is to ask: Does that jibe with what the church has always said? Does that jibe with our reason? Or with our experience? And if it doesn’t–if you’ve got an ideosyncratic interpretation of Scripture that seems to be found nowhere in tradition, nowhere in reason or philosophy, and is not confirmed by your own experience, then perhaps you’ve got the wrong interpretation.
Other than that, it takes discernment. And that’s why the Bible needs to be taken seriously. It’s not something we can get a hold of very easily. It’s not something that someone with five minutes of experience in the church can get up and start explaining what a text means. It requires study and working it through in community with each other, testing our ideas and bouncing them off each other.
Q: Why did the opening prayer have “a great king above all gods” if there is only one God?
A: Well, to be honest, that may not have always been the position of the people of Israel. If you read the Torah, the first five books of the Bible very carefully, you’ll notice that it doesn’t make the claim explicitly that God is the only god. It definitely makes the claim that God is the most powerful, and God is the Israel’s god and the only god to be worshipped. But there is some argument as to whether they really go that extra mile and say that God is the only god.
Again, this is one of those things in Scripture that we need to interpret. The word that gets used for “gods” could be interpreted as meaning “false gods”–that is “gods” in quotation marks. And if you have the NIV, the New International Version, whenever the word “gods” shows up and it’s not talking about God it will always be in quotes. They’re not comfortable with that idea. So, they’ll say “God is a great king above all ‘gods'”. [Many Jewish translations will translate that word as “divine beings”–whatever that means.]
But there may have been a growing understanding of God and of monotheism. And Israel was coaxed into it, that perhaps it was not natural for people in the ancient world to believe in only one God. You had a god for rain, a god for snow, a god for lightning, a god for the seas. Perhaps this was a method for coaxing the people into monotheism. By first claiming that God was god of all the gods. So the other ones were vain and there was no point in worshiping them, because they couldn’t achieve what God could. Perhaps it was a response to the “gods” in quotation marks–the gods other people believed in. And actually, if I were to preach on this text, I would take it very seriously and say that there are other gods that we worship: gods of fame, of power, of money. There is always the threat of idolatry and worshipping false gods. So if you say God is the king of all gods, it puts things into perspective, whether you’re a monotheist or a polytheist–it helps to remind you of what is at the heart and center of our faith.
Q: How do you reconcile faith and action? I mean, how do you know when to let God be in charge, and when to go out and make something happen?
It’s been my experience that God operates in history in no other way but through us. There are a couple of times that we read in scripture of seas parting and great miraculous events. But they are relatively few. When we read Scripture, it’s the actions of people of faith. When we look at the history of the church, it’s the actions of people of faith, the witness that those people made, because we understand that they were trying to conform to God’s will.
I am one of those people that believes that faith requires action. Discerning what that action is is a complicated and important process. In the Epistle of James, James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, [if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?] If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” This idea of a simple faith that God will take care of it and I don’t have to, that kind of faith is ultimately dead. [James 2:17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.]
It’s not simply about something that we profess, or believe, or simply hope. Our faith needs to be lived and put into action. In the United Methodist tradition, John Wesley was a proponent of the idea that one’s faith was only the beginning, that faith had to be lived out. Your moment of conversion was not the end, you had to then turn that into the world. The connection between faith and action is not an either/or. I think it’s a both/and.
But you have to have faith to believe that even when you can’t do anything, things will still go God’s way. You have to have faith to believe that even when all hope is lost, God is at the center of all things. But you also have to have that faith that says that so far as it is within my power to do something, that will help to further the purposes of God, God will give me the strength to do it. It really becomes a question not of ‘what should I let God do?’ but ‘What is it that I am not able to do alone?’ ‘When might I need help from other people?’ Or ‘What is it that I need to pray and reflect on before I decide what to do?’ There are some things that can’t be fixed. There are people that we are not going to be able to change. There are situations we are not going to be able to singlehandedly repair. And we need to discern what those are, but we do it with the understanding that it is our faith that gives us the direction and it is our actions that live out that faith.
Q: What are the fundamental beliefs of Christianity (those which, if you denied them you would no longer call yourself a Christian?)
A: I think basically you can look to something like the Apostle’s Creed, in its barebones form. That there is a God who made heaven and earth. That Jesus Christ is his Son. And that the Spirit is the work of the Father through the Son for the benefit of the church and the world.
What that basically means is that we are not simply Jews who can eat pork. We do have a different view of Jesus Christ than the rest of the world does: that in this person God is acting decisively in our history. We haven’t always agreed on how that is to be understood. And we have formulated creeds and understandings that not all the church has completely believed and not all the church has known what to do with. But at the heart of Christian faith was what was read in our New Testament lesson earlier: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Those are what is required of the Christian, because we understand that God so loved us that he sent his only-begotten Son to redeem the world. At the heart of Christian faith is faith in God and in the Christ who serves him, and whom we serve in the Spirit.
There are other people with other lists. There are other people with lists that include various things: Virgin Birth, the Resurrection from the dead. Things that I believe and that normative Christianity believes. But there are times when such a thing is a stumbling block, the core of the faith is where we rest ourselves as we struggle to understand the things we can’t understand. The core of it: Christ came from God for our salvation–is what we maintain and what requires that we live that reality out for the world. That’s the core of the Christian message. That’s the good news. That’s what we proclaim. And that’s what makes us Christians.
Q: What is the ‘proper’ way to pray? What does Jesus say about prayer?
A: This is a great question. Jesus says go into your room and lock the door and don’t let anyone see you. And we get here every Sunday night and we pray out loud. Jesus says not to pray the same words over and over and over again. And we do every Sunday. We say the Lord’s Prayer.
In a way, there is no ‘proper’ way to pray. When Jesus is talking about vain repetitions, he didn’t mean repetitions, he meant vain repetitions. That is, just saying the same old words and not thinking about them. He didn’t say praying in public was bad. Praying in public so that other people see how pious you are, that’s a problem. It really comes down to what our intentionality is, where our heart is when we pray. That can be lived out in a myriad different ways. You can pray wordlessly with hands folded in the silence of your room. You can pray in the middle of the woods with your arms stretched, thundering to Almighty God.
Have you ever seen Fiddler on the Roof? Tevye has a great way of praying. It’s even called the “Tevye Model” of prayer. Tevye, the main character has this thing where he’ll be talking to God, somewhere in balcony-right, and he’ll say, “I’ve got to go over here and take care of something, I’ll talk to you later.” It’s sort of an ongoing conversation that picks up and drops off at various points. God is ever present and you can be in prayer that becomes that communication with God at the spur of the moment. It’s all about intentionality–when Tevye does that he doesn’t have his hands folded or his head bowed, or even his eyes closed. But he is in prayer with God.
There is no one way of prayer. It is all about our internal state, all about what we are doing when we are connecting with God. Because we can have the outward form of very proper prayer and we can not be praying at all. And we can be walking down the street, tossing ourselves a ball, and be more in thoughtful prayer, than we might find ourselves on some Sundays when we’re distracted.
Q: Where exactly in the Bible is the story of the guy who falls asleep, falls out an upper story window, and dies because the preacher-guy talks too long?
A: You might have stumped me on that one. It’s either in the gospels or Acts. He’s sleeping in the window, which shows you that you should never fall asleep in church. Doesn’t matter how long the preacher is talking.
[It turns out my memory wasn’t completely off: the story is from the 20th chapter of the Book of Acts:
[Acts 20:7-12 ¶ On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.
[This story has been understood as an instance of Paul being associated with Jesus’ power to raise someone from the dead. The name “Eutychus” is Greek for “good fortune.” Luke, who wrote the Books of Luke and Acts, is often concerned with the themes of inappropriate sleepfulness and the need for watchfulness.]
Q: How can we know what God wants us to do when all the examples in the Bible are based on knowledge and assumptions that are foreign to us?
A: This is an extremely important point. The Bible was not written by American males of European descent. It was not written in English. It was not written on this continent. It was not written in the past thousand years. It was written 8,000 miles away, by a people who spoke a different language, with a different understanding of the world, with a different understanding of the size of the world and the peoples in it. They had a different understanding of social conventions. It was written by a very different people with a very different set of understandings and presumptions: and they deigned to speak on what God wants. How do we know that they’re right? How do we know what to do when what they tell us to do is so culturally bound?
Well, the thing is: it’s not all culturally bound. Some of it is–and a lot of it we ignore. We don’t refrain from wearing clothing of mixed fabrics. The Bible tells us we’re not supposed to do that. We wear cotton-polyester mixes all the time, it doesn’t bother us. We don’t have the same ritual punishments: we don’t stone them to death for certain crimes, we don’t excommunicate them for others. We don’t have understandings of ritual purity. There’s a lot of stuff that we have felt was culturally bound and we don’t pay a lot of attention to it anyway. Long before people came up with the idea of truth being culturally bound, they were ignoring things that were.
But there is a part of the Bible that has continued to speak to all generations of the Church, no matter what culture they were in. The gospel stories of Jesus’ life and ministry–it doesn’t matter that none of us are fishermen here. It doesn’t matter that perhaps only two out of the bunch of us ever put a worm on a hook. We don’t have to have that experience to understand what is behind Jesus’ calling of the disciples and their experiences as fishermen in the Galilee. We don’t have to understand that, because the truths that we learn from Scripture, many of them are so powerful that they transcend culture. When I say “Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself” you don’t have to be first century Jewish peasants to understand what I am talking about. Some of if is very clear.
What’s problematic is that middle ground–between not wearing clothing of different materials and loving your neighbor as yourself–that we can’t figure out. Rules about women and the role of women in the church, or respecting governmental authority. Paul wrote some nice things about the Roman Empire. 50 years later St. John of Patmos [in the Book of Revelation] wrote exactly the opposite. Are we to say that God is ordaining state institutions or are we to follow St. John and say that they are “the beast”?
That requires discernment and there is no easy answer for that other than to try as best as possible to understand the cultural background and the situation, and the context of the people who wrote Scripture. To understand why it is that they framed such a thing in such a way. And then to ask, “Does this still speak to us?” Is this still something that though we are removed by distance and time and language and culture that still speaks to us? Often there is. Sometimes there isn’t. But where we find that there is something that speaks to us, then we have to discern in every generation how we will live that out, how we will conform ourselves to God’s will, given such different understandings [and contexts].
So, there isn’t an easy answer, but it is an answer that involves all of us as a community as we try to figure out what God wants from us. And we’ll disagree. Some will say, “God wants us to be pacifists and oppose all war.” Others will say, “God would want us to protect the innocent and engage in this kind of conflict.” We don’t know for certain. But all we can do is pray, and hope, and with each other in community and faith, and in the guidance of the Spirit, try to decide what is true and what is right in each generation.
III. UNANSWERED QUESTIONS DURING THE SERVICES (BUT ANSWERED HERE)
Q: My grandmother is Jewish. She was persecuted by Christians and Nazis in Europe, who she did no harm, and watched as her father died at their hands. She journeyed to America, and lived the rest of her life, never doing evil. The Christian Bible condemns her to hell. Why? How could anyone accept a religion that would do that?
A: The answer to this one is simple: I don’t. I do not accept a religion that condemns the Jews to hell. Further, I will say, that nothing in Christian Scripture does either. In fact, quite the contrary. St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans “All Israel will be saved.” It is a gross perversion of Christianity to claim this.
Have Christians persecuted Jews in the name of Christianity? Yes. Did Christians stand silently by or even participate in the evils of the Holocaust. Yes. Was that an accurate reflection of Christianity? No.
Christianity comes out of Judaism. It began as a messianic sect within Judaism. Jesus and all the Disciples were Jews. The geopolitical changes of the first century, along with the changing demographics of the first century church (more and more gentiles), led to a rift between Judaism and Christianity that is only now in the past couple of decades being repaired. Much of the hostility in both directions had less to do with Scripture or God than it had to do with sibling rivalry, as these two great sister faiths struggled to live side by side.
But for Christians to reject the Jews is to reject their own heritage, and Jesus’ own people. The covenant that Christians believe God initiated with us through Christ only makes sense in light of the Covenant God initiated with the people of Israel. If we say that God has changed his mind, and that God has reneged on his covenant with the Jews (a covenant made with Abraham and restated with Moses), then what guarantee do we have that God will be faithful to us Christians? Are we any better a people? Not at all.
Christianity, in its truest form, must affirm the continuing and ongoing covenant between God and the Children of Israel. Our faith becomes nonsensical if we allow that God could renege on a promise. As St. Paul says, “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” It was inconceivable to Paul, however much he believed in the Christian message, that God could ever reject the people ‘whom he foreknew.’
Christian anti-Semitism has its origins in historical circumstances that separated the two faiths. But it does not have its origins in God, and to the extent it still continues, it is an error and a sin for which the Church needs to repent, because it is not compatible with what we believe about God or God’s faithfulness.
Q: How do you explain the two creation stories in Genesis (one begins in water and one in dry land)?
A: The simple answer is that the two creation stories (Genesis 1:1- 2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25) have their origins in two different sources. The first story bears a literary relation to the Babylonian Myth of the Enuma Elish, a creation epic. In fact, many scholars believe that the first creation narrative may have been borrowed by Jews in the Exile in Babylon and Judaized. It involves forces of chaos being subdued by God.
The second creation narrative, begins on a dry, desert plain, devoid of life or vegetation. Perhaps likely to have originated with a nomadic, desert dwelling people like the ancient Hebrews. In this way, some scholars believe that this may be the older of the two myths and the original Israelite one.
Now, we look at these two creation narratives side by side and we note the discrepancies. And some of us smirk. Silly Bible. But think about something–you think you’re the first person to notice the discrepancies between these two? What about the scribe who first put these stories on the page? You think he didn’t notice the differences? And if he did, then what does that say about these two stories?
Well, I suppose we could say that the scribe who wrote these down may have been receiving it direct from God and didn’t understand it any better than we do. That’s a possibility, but I am not comfortable with human beings being simply dictaphones for God. God always allows us the ability to take part in God’s work, so our understandings and opinions are never irrelevant. So, I tend to think that that scribe knew what he was doing (yeah, it probably was a ‘he’).
And if he did, he probably was not trying to write us a history of the world from day one. What he was probably doing was conveying to us two different traditions: both of which have something to say about God. The first tells us that God is God not just of us, but of everyone and everything. God creates the entire universe: the heavens and the earth, the seas, the dry land. The stars, sun, and moon. And then God declares it to be “good.” God is the author of creation, which is good, and includes us as God’s image, God is transcendent: over and above the creation.
The second tells us that God forms us from the dust of the earth, with his own hands. And then breathes into us the breath of life. God plants us in the Garden and makes for us helpers and counterparts in nature. God walks through the garden ‘at the time of the evening breeze.’ God loves us and forms us, gives us life, and is present in the world with us.
Do you see how the two stories complement each other? If you’re looking for facts of biology, geology, and history, you will see contradictions. If you are looking for theology, there is none. For we believe in a God who is author of all creation and transcends it, but who is also intimately connected with life and immanent within it.
Seems to me that the anonymous Hebrew scribe who wrote the Book of Genesis knew what he was doing.