Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The ancient conversation that could cure the Catholic Church...and maybe the rest of us too!

Nicholas Kristof, in his New York Times op-ed piece A Church Mary Can Love, hits crucial nails on the head. The Vatican establishment is completely out of touch, and Christians need to put vital community service at the center of their faith.

But I think some tweaking of his understanding of the history involved could strengthen his case. Further to my last post, I think appeal to 2nd and 3rd Century "lost books of the Bible," while these texts may properly be cited as at least plausible secondary evidence of proto feminist ideals in earliest Christianity, distracts from the power of the canonical and more indisputably primary sources of early Christianity to address the problems of churches today. Not that I pretend to offer anything more original or authoritative than a second-hand regurge of scholars I've read, but I think the school of thought I will seek to summarize, which has eluded most journalists, is at least worth considering.

To be sure, I think the transition from house churches to larger public gatherings that Kristof notes was an early contributing factor to making churches what they are today. But there is so much more to the story, and therefore so much more to be consciously recognized and confronted, if we are to find our way again.

Kristof nails the oppressive and bungling tendencies of "good ole boy clubs" like the Vatican. But how many other "good ole boy clubs" do you know of get all excited about...celibacy?!?! There is surely a more bizarre and convoluted story that begs to be told in this regard. Not to be ignored is the influence of the anti-material Greek philosophies, e.g. Neoplatonism, that saturated Greco-Roman culture in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Many expressions of this kind of thinking were deeply anti-woman, saying that the allure of matter (and therefore sex and women) are "the problem." Kristof does not even mention this, even though it is arguably one of the most dominant factors leading to the anti-sexual features of the church he critiques. Concerns over property and inheritance in the medieval period further solidified the drive for a celibate priesthood.

As to the "lost books," as mentioned in my last post, I think there is a strong case that many of these were not accepted simply because they came decades to centuries after the New Testament was written, and were thus far removed from Jesus and his earliest followers. Really, the clincher for me is this: If the folks who at various points in church history compiled lists of "accepted" books were willing to consider texts that late, would they not have included late texts that affirmed their anti-feminist views? They would have had plenty to choose from.

To be sure, many scholars believe 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, traditionally attributed to Paul, are pretty much that--later pseudonymous texts expressing a more patriarchal and hierarchical view of the church. (And this was the consensus of scholars long before feminist issues really came to the fore.) But even those books don't come nearly as late or as far removed from the original Jesus communities as many of the "lost books" people have in mind. Don't get me wrong. By all means, I'd say, read the "lost books." For that matter, read the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Quran. Definitely read Rumi. Include them in the conversation. But due regard should be given to the time and historical circumstance of each. And it's just quite a quite a stretch IMHO to consider the voice of a 1st Century Jesus to be represented equally well by 3rd Century texts.

Some scholars also think there are later insertions into parts of the earliest New Testament texts. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, the passage where women are urged to be silent in the church, though appearing in a letter that virtually everybody agrees was written by Paul, may have been inserted later by others as a kind of "damage control" to offset Paul's acknowledgment of female prophets elsewhere in the same letter. (And lest it be thought that these scholars are simply trying to sanitize Paul for modern consumption, let it be noted that they appeal not only to the apparent incongruity of the message of these verses with other parts of 1 Corinthians, but also to the fact that the verses are placed in a different location in some manuscripts.) Or it may have been Paul's own "damage control," reflecting a kind of two steps forward and one step back, to put the brakes on applying his more radical teachings in ways that would have offended social mores to no immediately constructive end. Or, more likely as I see it, there may be a specific context to the forbidden "speaking" that was understood by the original audience but not by us.

In any case, just how jarring this whole matter is, and what one feels to be at stake, will depend on how one understands the nature of the Bible and its intended role in the life of faith. This is one area where I think we've gotten de-railed, and I'd like to say just a little about that....

There's no doubt, there are isolated Bible texts that people can use to put down women, exclude gays, justify slavery, insist on not mixing certain kinds of cloth, defend the divine right of kings, and what have you. But all this misses the grander narrative. Biblical authors were motivated by a desire to escape and transcend the oppressive traditions, social structures, and powers that were causing misery in their societies. The fact that their thinking, in part, was also inevitably conditioned by the same should not blind us to where the conversation, as a whole, is headed. There is plenty of dialogue in the process, yet the overall direction is not only discernible, but IMO inescapable: "The Bible bends toward inclusion," as Walter Brueggemann puts it.

Fundamentalists treat the Bible as a repository of absolute truth claims, out of which they seize upon a few things, usually out of context, in order to define themselves apart from other people. Many skeptics unwittingly accept this same flawed understanding of the nature and purpose of the biblical conversation, and spend most of their time refuting such claims, motivated by the admirable goal of preventing fundamentalists from imposing their will. But I think both miss the sense in which the Bible is truly a divine word, a divinely animated conversation leading flawed and wounded people on a path to redemption.

This conversation, as I read it, finds its climax in a Palestinian prophet who preached radical love for all people, who at one point had the opportunity to lead an armed revolt against the Romans but chose not to, leading to his abandonment and death, and in the story of his disciples who, convinced of his divine vindication in the resurrection, found strength to fight evil and oppression in a much more powerful way--specifically, by organizing communities of shared goods whose definition of "family" transcended blood lines and tore down barriers of language, ethnicity, ritual "cleanness," etc. There's more than enough power in that story to cure what ails the Catholic Church in its current crisis, and much else besides, if only we re-connect with the main drift of it, and stop being absorbed by tangents and accretions, not least those which some old white goons dressed in funny suits have built a whole institution around.


me3020 said...

Good Article Steve!

Steve said...

Thank you!

E. Peevie said...

Yes, "more than enough power." And I love the Kristof piece.

My pastor is preaching on The Apostles' Creed, and today we heard about the holy catholic church, which was a timely reminder that the church is all of us who follow Jesus, not just those in my own denomination, or those with whom I agree.