Friday, January 21, 2011

Self-affirmation: Enemy of the Christian Gospel

It would not surprise me that if you asked most church-goers what the major current threats to Christianity were, very few would name self-affirmation. In fact, a fair number might argue that the end-goal of the Christian religion was self-affirmation. I believe it is one of the greatest enemies of the Christian Gospel in the western world.

The conversation might go something like this:

J: “Your sense of self-affirmation is wrong. You’ve missed something important here.”

Me: “What do you mean? Doesn’t God want me to be OK with myself?”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’, not ‘Blessed are those who are OK with themselves.’”

Me: “Why not? I go to church. Are you telling me I’m a bad person? I don’t feel like I’m a bad person. I’m OK with that. What’s wrong with feeling OK about myself? It makes me a better person. You should be happy for me. We should both rejoice in it.”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’, not ‘Blessed are those who are content with themselves.’”

Me: “You’re telling me that I’m a bad person aren’t you? You’re telling me that I’m a bad person because I think I'm OK. You just don't like me. Doesn't anything satisfy you? Can't you just accept the fact that I'm OK? I have a right to be OK. OK?”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’, not ‘Blessed are those who assert their rights.’”

Me: “Stop changing the agenda. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for the way God has turned me into a good person. I guess it’s not for everyone, though. That's why I have chosen the winning side.”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’, not ‘Blessed are those who expand their religious interests in myriad directions, and mix them with a whole bunch of other stuff’”

Me: “Oh, riiiiight. You want me to become a fundamentalist now. Why don’t you just run along and get a life. Hey, if someone wants to get all confrontational about religion, it’s not my fault they’re pathologically stupid. If they want answers, why don’t they just Google it. What do you want me to do about it?”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’, not ‘Blessed are those who have no time for others.’”

Me: “Not a bad branding strategy – I’ll remember that. Maybe if we get enough converts into our Church, we won’t have to live with the fact that our neighbors insist on being different to us. It sure will make life more comfortable, and we could do with a few extra hands doing the chores at Church. It's not a one-way street, though (and you should know); there are plenty of advantages to the whole Church scene. For example, it makes me feel good about myself; as if I'm doing something worthwhile.”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’, not ‘Blessed are those who are quick to promote and defend their self-interests.’”

Me: “Why are you spoiling it for me? Why are you pestering me with this stuff? Can’t you just leave me alone, so I can work on my sense of self-affirmation? I have enough trouble maintaining my internal sense of peace without you coming along and confronting me. Thank goodness I do religion. If I didn't, I'd probably lose all confidence in myself. Isn't this what you want? If you carry on like this, I’m going to have to block you out.”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God’, not ‘Blessed are those who avoid confrontation.’”

Me: “But I don’t live in a war-zone. I like avoiding confrontation; it means that my sense of self-affirmation wont possibly get challenged. You don’t know what might happen if I actually allowed myself to listen to someone outside of myself, especially someone who was different to me. You're not different, though. Or are you? No, forget I said that. Why let their point of view trouble me? Better to avoid it altogether. Things could go bad if I don’t do my best to fit in. Can we change the subject?”

J: “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’, not 'blessed are those who keep their heads down, or those who get persecuted for reasons other than being righteous.'”

Me: “You’re talking about heaven again. Like I said, I’m one of the good guys. Good guys go to heaven, don’t they? Can we change the subject, please?”

J: “Are you telling me that you think you’re going to heaven because you’re a good guy?”

Me: “My sense of self-affirmation tells me I’m a good guy. My family tells me I’m a good guy. The TV tells me I’m a good guy. My church tells me I’m a good guy. You tell me, what’s wrong with that?”

J: “Give up the “good guy” thing. It’s not what decides your destiny. I do.”

Me: “Good grief! Don't you get the message? Are you telling me I’m a bad guy? You're just being offensive now. My sense of self-affirmation won’t tolerate it. You’d better take a rain-check, while I go and find something familiar and non-confrontational to restore my internal equilibrium. Then, maybe we’ll talk.”

J: “What would you rather trust; your sense of self-affirmation, or me?”

Saturday, January 15, 2011


A few things have delayed my blog; we had a family holiday, MRM posted an article I had written some time ago, and the Brisbane River flooded. The latter occupies me this week.

Our home is high and dry in Camp Hill, for which we’re very grateful. Apart from missing a couple of days at work (my office in the CBD got shut down), the floods have hardly touched us. Of course, it’s a different story compared to 16 confirmed deaths 15 missing people, and the homes that have been affected. About 30,000 properties have been affected in Brisbane alone, and about 90 towns and villages have been affected in Queensland (see here, though the BBC's normally excellent standards of reporting have slipped on some facts and figures). The floodwaters are now moving south, and Victoria is getting heavy rain, so this emergency is far from over.

I was back at work on Friday, and my wife, Janna, volunteered to help clean up a house in Fairfield that belongs to a family that we know through church. The floods had left a half-inch layer of mud on the ground floor. My wife said it looked like someone had spread a ganache over the entire floor, only not as tasty.

I joined the rest of the family yesterday as we returned to the house. We went in two cars; me going first with my daughter, Evie, and a wheelbarrow occupying the rear seats. Janna followed in a friend’s car and picked up Jin, one of the lads from the church youth group, on the way.

Usually, our friend's house is a 30 minute drive from our home. However, on the way in, when approaching Cornwall Road, we hit gridlock. The police had sealed off the area to cars. We found out later that all the available parking had been occupied by volunteers, and the streets and roads needed to be kept free for emergency vehicles and rubbish removal trucks. Some other friends at church had left shortly before us, so I called them on the mobile to find a way in. They had parked near the cemetery, so we crawled through the traffic and found a car park with one place remaining and grabbed it.

Evie and I loaded the provisions into the wheelbarrow and set off through the graveyard. On any other day we might have looked like grave-robbers. We met Janna and Jin at the house.

What we found could best be imagined if you took a muddy, outdoor rock festival and dumped in on suburban Brisbane. The place was full of people and mud. A couple of army trucks were there, but the streets were filled with the parked cars of the volunteers who had turned up to help. I later found that about 20,000 people had registered with Brisbane City Council to volunteer with the clean-up. Many of them had come in by bus.

Whilst Janna and Evie went to work on the house, I got stuck into the mud in the yard. I was not the first there, an we must have had over 100 people shoveling mud into a procession of wheelbarrows. In the morning, I thought there was no way we would shift the mud from the yard, but by the afternoon, the bulk of it had been removed.

The volunteers in “my” patch came from all over. There were the two middle-aged ladies, the father of one owned the neighboring house but he was in hospital at the time. They got shoveling in the ankle deep mud. One guy, Troy, turned up with shovel in the morning and simply found somewhere to work. About a dozen young men belonged to an Ultimate Frisbee Team. A couple of men were jet-spraying the driveway earlier. Some people shoveled away in a single spot, others walked past with jet-sprayers and other specialist kit, and still others patrolled the streets with food and drink. The Frisbee-players and I took a lunch break on the less muddy area of the grass, eating a tasty bean and rice casserole followed by bean-sprout salad. The food, plates and drinks came from the husband of a colleague of the house’s owner, and the excess was used to fuel up several areas of work.

When my arms could take no more, we called it a day. Walking back to the car, we saw the streets transformed. The mud on the roads was beginning to dry, but the big difference was the huge mounds of furniture and other effects that had grown on the roadside. The owners of "our" house had managed to save most of their stuff by lifting it off the floor, or taking it upstairs. Many of the other homes were not as lucky and they had their entire contents shifted by the volunteers onto the roadside for later collection by the Council trucks. I have never seen so much stuff; furniture, cupboards, fridges, washing machines, carpets, curtains, plenty that was unrecognizable and all of it stained and ruined by the mud. There was an entire stage lighting rig outside one house, presumably the owner’s business but now destined for land-fill. Some houses appeared to have been emptied of everything but the walls and ceilings, though in other areas, even these had to be stripped out, leaving nothing but the timber frame, the weatherboards and the tin roof.

Two things have stayed with me as I reflect on this. The first is the fury and violence of the flash flooding that claimed so many lives. I realize that I had wrongly imagined the Biblical accounts of flooding (e.g. Noah’s flood in Genesis 7 to 9) as quiescent, widespread flooding, even though classical depictions of the deluge show terrifying, chaotic scenes. The images of flash flooding in Toowoomba and the aftermath of Grantham remind me that the fury and violence of the flood is often associated in the Bible with the wrath of God (Job 20:28-29), and we should rightly fear Him because of it.

The second is that even though we are overwhelmed by the chaos and violence of the flood, there is One who cannot be touched by the waters, no matter how hard they try to claw their way up to Him. Though many of the people I spoke to yesterday might have had no religious convictions (and one openly expressed his doubts), I can’t help but look at them and think that God was in the flood. He was there, with his shovel and wheelbarrow, slopping mud or cleaning floors or handing out food and water.

I don’t know how to fully reconcile these two aspects of the divine mystery that we call “God”, but I believe it when it says;

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.

Psalm 29, verses 10-11.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Name of God

On more than a few occasions, when discussing the nature of God, translations and the like, I quote Professor Robert Alter’s commentary on the dialogue between Moses and God prior to his confrontation with Pharaoh (from The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, 2004, ISBN 0-393-01955-1). The story is told in Exodus 3, and when Moses asks of God, “what is his name?” (Exodus 3:13), God replies “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Here’s what the Professor writes on Exodus 3:14;

‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. God’s response perhaps gives Moses more than he bargained for – not just an identifying divine name (the implication of offering one such name might be that there are other divinities) but an ontological divine mystery of the most daunting character. Rivers of ink have since flowed in theological reflection on and philological analysis of this name. The following brief remarks will be confined to the latter consideration, which in any case must provide the grounding for the former. “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible construction of the Hebrew, though the middle word ‘asher, could easily mean “what” rather than “who”, and the common rendering “I-Am-That-I-Am” cannot be excluded. (“Will” is used here rather than “shall” because the Hebrew sounds like an affirmation with emphasis, not just a declaration.) Since the tense system of biblical Hebrew by no means corresponds to that of modern English, it is also perfectly possible to construe this as “I Am He Who Endures.” The strong consensus of biblical scholarship is that the original pronunciation of the name YHWH that God goes on to use in verse 15 was “Yahweh.” There are several good arguments for that conclusion. There is an independent name for the deity, Yah, which also appears as a suffix to proper names, and that designation could very well be a shortened form of this name. Greek translations reflect a pronunciation close to “Yahweh.” In that form, the name would be the causative or hiph’il form of the verb “to be” and thus would have the theologically attractive sense of “He Who Brings Things Into Being.” All this is plausible, but it is worth registering at least a note of doubt about the form of the divine name. Here God instructs Moses to tell Israel ‘Ehyeh, “I-Will-Be,” has sent him. The deity, if the Masoretic vocalization is to be trusted, refers to himself not with a causative but with the qal (“simple”) conjugation. This could conceivably imply that others refer to him in the qal third person as Yihyeh, “He-Will-Be.” (The medial y sound in this conjugated form would have had considerable phonetic inter-change with the w consonant in YHWH.) This in turn would make the name fit a common pattern for male names in the third-person singular, qal conjugation, imperfect form: Yitshaq (Isaac), “he will laugh”; Ya’aqov (Jacob) “he will protect,” or “he will grab the heel”; Yiftah (Jephthah), “he will open”; and many others. If this were the case, then the name “Yah” could have been assimilated to “YHWH” by folk etymology and then perhaps even affected its pronunciation. Whether the pronunciation of this name later in the Hellenistic periods, by then restricted to the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Yahweh, as indicated in Greek transcriptions, reflects its original sound is at least open to question. The logic of Yihyeh as the essential divine name would be that whereas particular actions may be attributed to humans through the verbal names chosen for them, to God alone belongs the unlimited, unconditional being. This conjecture, inspired by the use here by God of the qal conjugation rather than the causative conjugation in naming himself, is far from certain, but it might introduce at least some margin of doubt about the consensus of opinion regarding the divine name.

Two thoughts have remained with me since first reading Professor Alter’s commentary. The first is that translation is a serious business, made all the more difficult when tenses, grammar and word boundaries bear little relationship with modern English. The acknowledgment of these difficulties must precede, and qualify, any attempt at a translation (which Professor Alter does). Correspondingly, the absence of such an acknowledgment must signal a fraudulent or lazy approach. So much for the efforts of Joseph Smith, who’s method for “translating” the Book of Mormon comprised burying his head in his hat, reading out each word that appeared on his scrying stone and not proceeding to the next word until his scribe (a role fulfilled by Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and Emma Smith) had written down each word correctly (a discussion on the extant accounts can be found here). Luckily for Joseph Smith, the 2,000 year old “reformed Egyptian” (a language that no-one else has ever heard or seen) that he was supposedly translating shared its grammar, word boundaries and tense system with modern English. And, if he were “translating” (in the commonly understood sense of the word) what was written on the plates, one would expect that he would have been assisted in his task by actually looking at them. More likely, he simply invented it.

The second is that, as in all Hebrew names, the name is not a mere label – it tells us something about the person. Professor Alter points out two alternatives, but I see a theological attraction in harmonizing them. The traditional rendering, “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” speaks of Gods unlimited and unconditional being, as the Professor notes. The alternative offers an intriguing possibility in that God has a name that no one has given to him. This avenue is worth exploring further because the biblical convention is that the greater gives names to the lesser. In Genesis 2:19-20, Adam’s first job is to give all the animals names, and in Genesis 2:23, Adam names Eve. To the biblical mind, the giving of the name affirms the hierarchy; the animals are named by Adam, and Adam is named by God. In this schema, one can readily see that the “highest” name is of God himself – he has the “name above all names” (Philippians 2:9) and there is no name “higher” than His. All else in the universe is derived from God and he is the source from which all things are created and have their being (Colossians 1:16 etc). Thus, the two alternatives might be harmonized (whether this was the author’s intent or not) for it offers a picture of One who does not owe his existence to anyone or anything greater than Himself, but is unique in that all else owes its existence to Him.

God is not merely an inhabitant of our universe; He is the unique source of its being. Furthermore, this idea has been around a long time; at least since God spoke to Moses on the Mountain.