Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A New Kind of Christianity: The God Question

In this third part of the book McLaren puts his two prongs, the supposed Greco-Roman god Theos and the Bible as cultural library, into use.

He begins with the question "Is God Violent?". McLaren acknowledges that, as useful as his 'Bible as cultural library' proves to be for him, it just doesn't do away with all of what he considers disturbing images of God. "But as a serious reader of the Bible, I'm still a little uneasy, because I know about some of the other images of God that are also found in the Bible--violent images, cruel images, un-Christlike images", p 98.

What he posits to answer this is a form of 'progressive revelation', or as he called it, "this evolving understanding of God", p 100. He says there are five ways that the Bible shows such an 'evolving understand--God uniqueness, from a God supreme among many gods to one true God; God's ethics, from ritual and cermony to social justice; God's universality, from a tribal God to one who loves all people; God's agency, from a distant God to one close and involved; and God's character, from a violent God to one who is gentle, pp 100-102.

He claims that this isn't an evolution of God himself, but of how people understood God. "I am not saying that the Bible reveals a process of evolution within God's character, as if God used to be rather adolescent, but has taken a turn for the better and is growing up nicely over the last few centuries. I am saying that human beings can't do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and the Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestor's best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God...If we read the Bible as a cultural library rather than as a constitution, and if we don't impose a Greco-Roman plotline on the biblical narrative, we are free to learn from the evolutionary process--and, we might even add, to participate in it", p 103.

He likens it to math. Students in early grades learn simple math, and as they advace, they learn more complex forms of math, onesthat may even seem to contradict what they had previously learned. So, those early in the Bible who recorded what he considers less-mature images of God were simply understanding God as best they could, as a second-grader understands math in only a limited sense. But people like McLaren are more advanced. To make his point, McLaren uses one of his favority tactics--a series of unanswerable "What if...?", questions, p 104-105.

As if to show us what that is like, McLaren gives another example--people from today are somehow sent a bit over 1000 years into the future. People in this speculative future are some different from us, they are "deeply spiritual", they have "grown socially", they no longer fight wars, eat meat, or use fossil fuels, p 106. When those from today arrive, the people of the future are horrified that people used to fight wars and pray for God to bless them in doing so, eat their "fellow creatures" and even view vegetarianism as being 'pro-life', and thought it ok to ruin the planet by using oil.

People who don't like this way of thinking are, of course, stuck in the old Greco-Roman and constitutional way of viewing the Bible, p 108.

McLaren focuses on the story of Noah. Instead of seeing it as God saving a man and his family, he focuses instead on God practicing "ethnic cleansing", p 108, and a story in which people may find justification for similar destructions. "In this light, a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worth belief, much less worship", p 109. He even points out that the flood was a failure, as Noah and his sons soon enough start sinning and soon the world is a mess again.

He does say that, while for him the story of Noah is now distasteful, it is still a step up from what he considers to be the origin source of the story of Noah, something in Gilgamesh, where the gods kill mankind because man is too noisy for them to sleep.

"This approach helps us see the biblical library as the record of a seris of trade-ups, people courageously letting go of their state-of-the-art understanding of God when an even better understanding begins to emerge", p 111.

When coming to Jesus, McLaren quotes a Quaker scholar named Elton Trueblood, "The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means the God is like Jesus", p 114. Jesus, then, "...bring us to a new evolutionary level in our understanding of God. An old definition of God does not define Jesus--the experience of God in Jesus requires a brand-new definition or understanding of God", p 114.

"The character of God, seen in Jesus, is not violent and tribal. The living God is not the kind of deity who decrees ethnic cleansing, genocide, racism, slavery, sexism, homophobia, war, religious supremacy, or eternal conscious torment. Instead, the character of the living God is like the character of Jesus", p 118.

My thoughts on this.

A few years ago, I heard someone talk about "chronological snobbery", which essentially means that a person or people will look back on those before them as having been rather stupid. Maybe they will try to say nice things about those ancients, saying they did the best with what they had, but we today know so much more and know it so much better.

Essentially, McLaren's whole position here is an astonishingly towering tribute to chronological snobbery. The arrogance emerging from this part of the book is almost more than I can imagine.

About a year ago, I read parts of a book called "The Lost Message of Jesus" by a couple of emergents on the other side of the pond, Chalke and Mann. They say this about God in the Old Testament.

Hence, Yahweh's association with vengeance and violence wasn't so much an expression of who he was but the result of his determination to be involved with his world. His unwillingness to distance himself from the people of Israel and their actions meant that at times he was implicated in the excessive acts of war that we see in some of the books of the Old Testament. From the very beginning, Yahweh's dealing with Israel were motivated by his desire to demonstrate his love. But to a people saturated in a worldview that saw him as power, this was always going to be a slow uphill struggle

God's relationship with Israel took place in the messy and often brutal reality of their day-to-day lives, longings and ambitions. And in the ancient Near East, where war and unrestrained violence were commonplace, having a god of power on your side helped justify cruel acts of revenge towards those who wronged you. That is why, if we focus in on individual Old Testament verses and stories, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing God as a vengeful despot...
Chalk and Mann, the lost message of jesus, p. 49

I called this god of Chalke's and Mann's "the incompetent god", because he was unable to get his real message across to humanity; for example, he was pacifistic, but kept having to send Israel off to war, because he was unable through his divine power to protect them.

McLaren essentially uses "the incompetent god", and adds a bit to it. For unspecified reasons, God cannot make ancient man understand Him, so He's doomed to have his character misrepresented in Scripture, at least until McLaren and other enlightened ones come along to set the record straight.

One of the most distasteful parts of his argument is positing a sort of conflict between God and Jesus. He claims that there are images of God in the Old Testament that were "un-Christlike". He says that we must compare views of God to Jesus, "The images of God that most resemble Jesus, whether they orginate in the Bible or elsewhere, are the more mature and complete images; the ones less similar to the character of Jesus are the more embryonic and incomplete...", p 114. As the quote states, he thinks that one can find 'images of God' outside the Bible, I suppose in other religions, that are better than some one can find in the Bible itself.

I noted before that McLaren seems to put a lot of the Bible on to the fiction shelves of his 'cultural library', and this is more confirmation of that. He pretty blatantly says that Noah is a made-up story, ripped off from another culture. More than that, he strongly implies that almost all of it was somehow made-up--it's a man-made book, not a divine revelation. It's a book of mankind's continual evolution in the understanding of God, and that evolution is still going on, an evolution was can still participate in today.

If McLaren's god didn't destroy the world in Noah's day, what does that do to other times that the Bible records God speaking? Does God not judge Sodom and Gomorrah, because that would be homophobic? What about what God did to Egypt? Did God really tell Israel to conquer Canaan, or was that just Moses and Joshua using god-language in support of their own agenda of conquest? And what about those prophets and all their dire warnings and predictions, did God really tell them to say those things?

In order for McLaren to hold to his positions, he must say that much of the Bible claims to have been spoken by God was not really God speaking. His continual emphasis on "an evolving understanding of God" makes that point as well, and is essentially saying that much of the Bible is simply made-up stories where a character called God is introduced, words put into his mouth, and those words given status as Scripture.

There is someone at the forums where I participate in discussions, who has a quote by Spurgeon in her signature area, which goes something like this: "It is a remarkable fact that all the heresies which have arisen in the Christian Church have had a decided tendency to 'dishonor God and to flatter man." As this seems a reasonable criterion, one can say that McLaren here soundly falls in the heretic category. Not only does he bring down God, he essentially places man, especially ones like himself, in a seat of judgment over God, pronouncing judgments on things God did and said, saying even the sometimes God is "un-Christlike".

Most people who read the Bible would probably agree that there is a sense in which God reveals things about Himself over time. But this is more of a sense of God adding knowledge of Himself to what knowledge was before, rather than "trade-ups" as McLaren posits. There is no sense in, for example, the New Testament that the God of what we call the Old Testament--God in the books of Moses, God in the prophets, God in the recorded history--is being traded out for a new, improved, better God, like an older man divorces his wife for a younger model.

In the end, I think what McLaren is most against is Hell. Instead of seeing Hell as an aspect of the the justice of God, even if a rather harsh and hard-to-understand one, he calls it "torture" several times, as if he's trying to equate Hell with liberal's views of Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. I think McLaren's politics comes into play here.

Finally, McLaren resorts to 'scare tactics' in order to try to make his interpretive method more user-friendly. He essentially says that we much do violence to the message of the Bible for our own good. Like all liberals, he sees people who don't agree with him as simply stupid, brutish, small-minded sheep, motivated only by self-interest. Perhaps because he has dismissed the Fall, he must hold to such a low view of man to explain why he isn't universally accepted.

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