Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Only Some Humans Suffer from Original Sin? Responding to Pagan Claims 2

In a previous post, I discussed an article by Oberon (Otter) Zell in which she argues that the Genesis account proves that there was a multiplicity of gods at creation.  However, the central point of her essay was that pagans are not descendants of Adam and Eve and have no need for redemption because they do not suffer from original sin.  Hence, she informs her Christian interlocutors that she is from “the other people.”
This is quite an extraordinary claim, and it is hard to tell whether the author seriously believes this claim or whether it is just an argument designed to rebuff the missionaries.  Whatever her real motivations are, her mishandling of Scripture must be addressed.  After the discussion of creation, her article zips through five chapters of Scripture in an attempt to prove that Yahweh is the God of Semites and thus, any sins and consequences of sins believed by Semites are not the concern of pagans. She ends her article with the following words:
Neither heaven nor hell is our destination in the afterlife; we have our own various arrangements with our own various deities. The Bible is not our story; we have our own stories to tell, and they are many and diverse.
 Throughout Zell consistently ignores the philosophical consequences of her claims while simultaneously engaging in simplistic literalism, which hinders her ability to properly grasp the theological points being made by the Scriptures.  For example, she says, “Cain left the presence of Yahweh and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. We can assume that the phrase ‘left the presence of Yahweh’ implies that Yahweh is a local deity, and not omnipresent.”  Actually, no we cannot!  Throughout the Bible, the phrase is used to mean not right now talking to God or trying to avoid God.  But the same people who wrote this passage also wrote, “Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).  The 139th psalm beautifully describes how Yahweh knows our inner most thoughts and that even darkness is not dark for him.  Yahweh is everywhere.  Indeed, if Yahweh is the Elohim of Genesis 1, as I showed in my first post, He would have to be omnipresent to create the heaven and the Earth.
Zell’s literalism becomes a serious problem as she discusses the creation of Eve. We must always keep in mind that although Scripture is rooted in history, its primary aim, particularly in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, is not to offer a historical account but rather to make theological points through stories. She objects to the account of the creation of Eve, saying, “Yahweh God built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. Right. Man gives birth to woman. Sure he does.”
Zell seems to understand this account as a birth narrative.  This would be an unusually painless birth giving indeed. That is not what is being recounted at all. The fact that Eve is said to be made from the rib of Adam does not imply man gives birth to women. Rather, it is telling us that women are made of the same substance as men.  The woman is a fitting counterpart to the man because she, unlike animals, shares the same nature.  And thus, the man proclaims, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). 
Also, in our English account of Genesis there are two different Hebrew words translated as “the man.”  One is hahadam, which is would more accurately be translated “the human or humankind,” and ish, which specifically means a male human being.  The word ish is used for the first time Genesis 2:23 after the formation of the woman, who is isha.  Until then, the human creature is not defined as male.  The same word hahadam is used to describe the creation of humanity in Genesis 1:27, who are said to be male and female (here generic words masculine and feminine are used).  In other words, God creates one human race which is male and female and the woman is the counterpart to the man.  Therefore, the appropriate sexual partner for a man is a woman.  The narrator follows by saying “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  This is the thesis of Genesis 2 and sadly, many, including Christians, miss the point because they spend a lot of time focusing on ribs.
Moreover, it is evident from the snarky “Right. Man gives birth to woman,” that Zell does not believe that this is a true story.  Thus, I am compelled to ask, why waste our time with an argument about how you are not part of Yahweh’s little experiment when you don’t believe it actually happened?  Would it not be more intellectually serious to just say, “That’s ridiculous.” After all, does Zell really think that there are multiple strands of humanity, created by different deities, unrelated genetically to each other? Or since according to Zell, the guilt ridden, modesty-obsessed Cain married among the pagans, does this mean there are half-fallen humans running around? Also, since most pagans wear clothes does that not mean that they too feel shame when they are naked? Furthermore, what happens when a pagan converts to or from Christianity or Judaism? Does this person move from having original sin to not having it or vica versa?  Did Zell consider all the ludicrous implications of this argument?
Of course, the real problem is that Zell does not understand the fall or original sin.  It is actually the least objectionable of Christian doctrines. Even if one does not buy the Genesis account, it’s pretty hard to deny that human beings are sinful. Zell seems to think that a distinguishing feature of the fall is modesty and she says, “It follows that those who feel no shame in being naked are, by definition, not carriers of this spiritual disease of original sin!”
Even if that were true, that would only account for a tiny subset of humanity. Moreover, the author does not discuss the most important part of the fall which are the curses described in Genesis 3:14-19.  As a result of the fall, there is spiritual conflict (the serpent is a symbol for Satan), suffering and difficulty, male domination over women, and of course death.  By arguing that pagans are “the other people,” and “unfallen,” she is actually saying that pagans live painless, sinless, harmonious lives and that they are immortal.  Of course, that is obviously not true, and if Zell understood what was being described in the Fall, she would never make such a claim.
After all, when the “gods,” as she claims, created the heavens and the Earth in Genesis 1 did “they” not say over and over again, “It is good?”  Yet, we all know that there is much to life on Earth that is indeed not good.  Genesis 3, the fall, tells how God’s good creation has become “not always so good.”  The Judeo-Christian answer to the problem of evil, pain and death is that humanity rebelled and continues to rebel against God.  If Zell thinks that only part of humanity has original sin, how does she account for the fact that pagans suffer equally from the consequences of the fall?  Why were the other gods not around to protect their pagan creatures from the consequences of Yahweh failed project? Zell repeatedly points out that Adam does not die immediately after the fall but there is no denying the fact that he, like all of us, died eventually.  Of course, there could be alternative explanations for why there is evil, pain and death but one of them cannot be, “We are the other (unfallen) people.”
Lastly, the Christian doctrine of original sin explains an undeniable datum of human existence, which is our inability to do the good that we wish to do; that instead, we opt for the evil that we actually we wish we did not do (Roman 7:14-25).  Everyone who has struggled with something as small as trying to diet or something more serious like being faithful to one’s spouse and all the shortcomings that all of us experience daily know that this true.  It is extremely difficult by our own power to tame our wills; to do what we know is good for ourselves and for others even when we want to. We are sinful. We are fallen. This is in essence the doctrine of original sin and there is only one rational explanation that anyone would deny it—she has never met another human being, including herself.     


Friday, May 18, 2012

Mutiple Gods in Genesis? Responding to Pagan Claims

In her article, “We Are the Other People,” by Oberon (Otter) Zell, she recounts an incident in which some unsuspecting Christian missionaries were showed up by her innovative exegesis of the Genesis account of creation and the fall. The article begins with her saying that a group of Yahweh’s witnesses dropped by attempting to save her souls. By Yahweh’s witnesses does she mean Jehovah’s Witnesses or an orthodox Christian denomination? Jehovah’s witnesses are not considered orthodox Christians by most Christians because they are not Trinitarian but the author is nonplussed. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of her indifference to facts and details.

Zell reveals the same indifference to truth in the way that she relishes in the joy of mockery—a clear sign that she does not take the questions being raised seriously. If she thinks Christians are wrong about basic metaphysical and ethical questions, she is right to say so. However, questions about God and the nature of humankind have concerned great pagan minds like Aristotle and the author’s tone reeks of indifferentism. I would have preferred a thoughtful defense of pagan claims rather than trivialization of the matter, which indicates that she simply does not take the questions seriously.

However, my greatest contention with the author is not attitudinal but factual. I am going to grant her the benefit of the doubt by assuming that the objections she raised to her Christian interlocutors were done in good faith, that she sincerely believes that she has stumbled on some exegetical point that Jews and Christians have not considered, but she is mistaken.

The crux of her argument is that Elohim is in the plural and therefore refers to a multiplicity of gods. If the author knew more Hebrew rather than how to use a little bit of Hebrew to stump Christians she would know that the very first line in the Bible proves her wrong. Hebrew, as in most languages, uses a different form for plural or singular verbs. In other words if a noun is plural, it will take a plural verb but if a noun is singular it takes a singular form of the verb. This agreement that is common to most languages is often forgotten by English speakers because other than in the third person singular, we use the same form of verb no matter the person.

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, when God (Elohim) created (bara) the heavens and the Earth,” (Gen 1:1). Zell is claiming that Elohim refers to “gods” and not “God” but if that were true, than the appropriate Hebrew verb would be “baru.” The long “a” would be replaced by a silent “e” and a long “u.” That is not what happens in Genesis. In fact, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, Elohim, unless a comment is being made about “the gods of the gentiles” is consistently used with a singular noun because it is referring to one God not a multiplicity of gods.

Zell is absolutely right that the word “Elohim” is a plural noun, but this is simply what is known as the “majestic plural.” The majestic plural is commonly used for royalty or divinity. It basically arises out of the sense that that figure is so great, so worthy of exaltation that a plural noun has to be used to capture the grandeur of the figure. Over the centuries, persons of rank, such as Queen Victoria of England or the Roman Pope, have used the majestic plural to refer to themselves. For example, the Basic Law of the Sultanate of Oman opens with, “On the Issue of the Basic Law of the State We, Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman….”  Despite the fact that sultan refers to himself as “we,” it would be foolish to argue that Mr. Said here is actually more than one person. This is simply known as “the royal we.”

Zell’s distortion of the Biblical text continues when she alleges that Yahweh is simply “an individual member of the Pantheon” who creates Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. This is where I am forced to ask is Zell being intentionally deceptive. She repeatedly quotes the Bible pointing out that “Yahweh God…” is said to do x, y, and z.” This is an accurate rendering of the English translation but the word for God is still “Elohim.” If Zell was right that Yahweh was here being described as one of the gods in the pantheon, we would expect the Scripture writer to drop the majestic plural and simply say, “El” instead of Elohim. So, what Zell wants us to believe is that the same word which she alleges is plural in the first chapter of Genesis now suddenly singular in the second chapter. This is a classic example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Elohim and Yahweh are one and the same. There is nothing in Genesis that suggests that the Heavens and the Earth are created by a multiplicity of gods. There is a perfectly logically explanation for the fact that both names are used in the Bible. The short explanation is that early Israelite religious devotion included both names for God and certain traditions were more likely to use one over the other. El is simply an Ancient Near East word for God. It was used by many peoples in the Ancient Near East, including the children of Israel. It is a basic word that means God. The Israelites used a plural form of the word to show the majesty of that one God. Yahweh is the specific name of God revealed to Israelites by God himself. It means “I am” and that name is unique to Israel. The best way to think about it is Elohim is to Yahweh as human being is to Carolyn.

Zell goes on to say, “Then Yahweh decides to make a woman to go with the man. Now, don't forget that the Pantheon had earlier created a whole population of people, "male and female," who are presumably doing just fine somewhere "outside the gates of Eden." This is another gross misunderstanding of the text as well as the purpose of the Biblical narrative. This is not a story about what the “Elohim’s” did as opposed to what Yahweh did. This is two stories about Elohim who is Yahweh, designed to fulfill to separate theological purpose. The first story is about how God created the world by the power of His voice. Unlike the creation narratives of the Ancient Near East in which the gods are warring each other during creation, the point of Genesis is exactly the opposite of Zell’s claim. It is a counter-narrative to the pagan view of Middle Bronze Age in which the pantheon of gods are jostling for power. The Scripture writer is saying here that God creates all things, including human beings simply by the power of His voice. There are no other deities to contend with. He speaks and it comes into being.

Genesis 2 however is about sexual complementarity. It would be unwise to do, as the author and her fundamentalist visitors apparently did, to take this account as literal descriptions. Instead it is a story about the fact that man and women are made of the same substance and that an appropriate sexual partner for a man is a woman. On the other hand, Genesis I is designed to teach that human beings, both male and female are made in the image and likeness of God. Both of these are true but have independent theological purposes.

Also, since these stories are from two separate traditions in Israelite history, it is equality unwise to attempt to harmonize them as sequential, historical accounts of the actions of Yahweh. Thus, when Yahweh is said to be creating a helper for Adam, one should not imagine that there are people outside of the garden doing other things. The writer of Genesis treats Genesis 2 as the total sum of human existence and to properly understand his theological point, we should do likewise.

Zell proceeds to discuss the issue of the fall and original sin. For the sake of brevity, I will discuss that in a separate response.

Holy Communion of the Saints and the Real Presence of Christ

When the Lord ascended to Heaven, he did not leave orphans. Rather he graced us with many sources of sustenance that we may be comforted. Of these sources of sustenance, He left us his body. Because of our divisions, different Christian denominations are inclined to conceive of the words “the body of Christ” within their particular denominational framework, which tend to emphasize some aspect of truth over another.

For Roman Catholic Christian, the “body of Christ” usually refers to receiving sacrament of the bread and wine—the emphasis of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist frequently overshadows another real presence of Christ, the person sitting next to you during the liturgy. Of course, Protestants often exhibit the opposite problem—a complete neglect of sacramental presence and total emphasis of the body of Christ as equivalent to the people of God.

However, even among such churches, we very rarely grasp the gravity of what these words mean. Christianity is a scandalous religion. First, God scandalized the righteous and religious with the incarnation and if that was not already too grave an infraction for pious eyes ears, He added insult to injury through the scandal of the cross—a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23). Jesus scandalized His disciples when He said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (John 6:53).

These acts of divine condescension have garnered enough attention to give rise to heresies—He only appeared to have a body (Gnosticism), He was only a prophet (Islam), the Eucharist is just a symbol (much of Protestantism). And now, as I reflect upon the real presence of Christ, I rejoice in these departures from orthodoxy. It is only because people have considered the gravity of what is being said in these matters that they have bothered to deviate from it. What the Lord has done is just too marvelous in their eyes.

On the other hand, I cannot think of any great disagreement concerning the real presence of Christ in his body, the Church, the people of God, and now, I wonder if it is because we have not fully grasped the scandal of that reality. Do we really believe that where two or more are gathered in His name there he is (Matt 18:20)? Do we believe that we are really, truly the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19)? Do we believe that we are indeed members of His body (1 Cor 12:27)? Does this scandalous mystery not deserve a good heresy?

Well, of course, we ought to be grateful that we have not found one more thing to fight over, but it could just be because we have given it insufficient attention. At the very least, we need to stop and be awed by the holy communion of the saints. There is a first century document called the Didache, subtitled, The Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the nations. This document was important in the early Church and eventually became part of the Apostolic Canons and while it did not make the cut of the New Testament, it was on the shortlist. The Didache says, “You shall seek out daily the faces of the saints that you may find rest (to rest, be comforted) in their words,” Didache 4.2.

Pious Catholics advise daily reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist and pious Protestants religiously attend to their daily readings of the Scriptures. These are laudable practices but how many of us ever think to seek out daily fellowship with a brother or sister in Christ? Do we really take seriously that the one in Christ is a real icon of the Lord communicating the divine presence in to us.
This mystery was beautifully captured in a sermon by Augustine who says:

If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true! (Sermon 272).

For Augustine, the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is analogous with the mystery of the Church. Through each redeemed member of Christ’s body, he is also made present.

Then Augustine said:

But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: "The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body." [1 Cor. 10.17] Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. "One bread," he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the "one body," formed from many? Remember: bread doesn't come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were "ground." When you were baptized, you were "leavened." When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were "baked." Be what you see; receive what you are.

If we take these words seriously, then we must also take seriously the critical role of Christian fellowship in the sanctification of the members of Christ. In fact, the word translated as fellowship in the Bible is kononia is exactly the same word for communion. This word occurs 17 times in the New Testament and depending on the context, it is be translated as fellowship, participation or communion. It is never used to refer to an individual Eucharistic activity but rather a communal activity in which Christ is made present in the bread and wine and/or through the coming together of the members of his body.

Communion with God cannot be separated with communion with the people of God and one of the ways we receive communion to sustain us in our journey of faith is through the fellowship of the saints. Without this communion we will also have no life in us.