04 January 2008

Heresy or Postmodern Theology?

Of course the earliest verifiable Christian writer, St. Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus), believed that the Fall narrative in Genesis 3 was true as fact, as he alludes in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. - 1 Corinthians 21,22

The implication is that Sin and Death came into the world through Adam's disobedience of God's commandment not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But as I stated in my last post, the Fall story in Genesis is false as history. Historically (well, pre-historically) Death and suffering preceded humankind into the cosmos. I elaborated on this in my review of The Passion of the Christ:

We, on the other hand, now know that hardship and Death were in the world from the beginning of Life, long before there were humans. Further, we know that evolution is the response of Life to hardship and Death, and that humans are one of the expressions of that response. In other words, God used hardship and Death to make humans. In response to hardship and Death, we often disregard others and look out only for ourselves. But, since we are evolved to be a social species, we know that it is wrong for us to do so. We know that we must do good for ourselves and our society, and that sometimes, we must sacrifice our personal desires and interests for some higher good. We know that this is what God's Justice has written on our hearts, yet we disobey, and we lie to ourselves about it. And we attack those who threaten to expose our lies — like Socrates, the Prophets, and Jesus. (Or anyone who challenges our way of seeing the world and ourselves.)

Maybe that's what gets the Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents so exercised about evolution. It exonerates the first humans from bringing suffering and Death into the world. Death has not been imposed on the cosmos as a penalty for the Original Sin of the first humans. But the idea that Death is penal was implicitly embraced by Paul, and explicitly argued by St. Augustine some 350 years later. Moreover, both men saw Jesus as having paid that penalty for us by his Crucifixion and Resurrection. That is, although we must still die, Death will not be final -- the resurrected Christ will resurrect us after him, and has the power to do so because he paid our penalty.

Yet I relegate the truth of Genesis 3 to the truth of myth. That is, it is true as a primitive psychology - it points out our predilection for being estranged from ourselves, each other, the natural world, and God - which I call being Sinful. It is true in the sense that it is as if we fell out of timelessness into Time. But I cannot accept it as historical fact, like Paul and Augustine. And that makes me a heretic.

Or does it? Up to now, I've been treating Christian Theology as the intellectual property of Paul and Augustine, two of its earliest and greatest formulators and expositors. But Christian Theology is the project of understanding the Gospel anew for each generation. The Church is bound, not by its doctors, but by the event of the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection, which means more than all verbal explanations can ever state. We need verbal explanations in order to talk about it, to place it in our understanding of ourselves, each other, the world, and God. As we learn more about ourselves, each other and the world, we need also to learn more about God - and thus we need to re-explain the event.

Part of that re-explanation is revising the doctrine of Original Sin in the light of recent advances in our understanding of Natural History. Is that legitimate? I would argue that it is, since Augustine incorporated Natural History as it was understood in the early 5th century into his theology. But we must have some criteria for accepting or rejecting these continual re-explanations. On the other hand, any criterion we could state in words would itself be subject to continual re-explanation.

Fortunately, a solution exists. The Church itself must judge whether theological statements are heretical in the light of its continuing relationship with God, and its Magesterium (divinely ordained teaching authority) and its Great Commission to make disciples in all peoples. At any given moment in time, the Church itself may judge wrongly, but over the course of time, the Truth will out.

As for myself, I think the Crucifixion itself is more than sufficient to establish the doctrine of humanity's sinful nature (so-called Original Sin), as I argued in my review of The Passion of the Christ. Moreover, the demand for blood sacrifice comes from ourselves. God demanded it because we needed God to demand it.

We don't want to be confronted with our lies. Which means we can't accept our true selves, and we don't believe anyone else can, either, unless we pay the price, unless we earn acceptablity by self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Yet we need to accept our true selves, in order to be able to tolerate God, in whose presence we confront the truth about everything. The price is beyond our ability to pay, for in the presence of God, we have nothing to offer but tainted goods — the selves that even we cannot accept. So God pays the price for us. God came into the world as one of us, to endure abandonment by God, and to be killed by us.

That is the price of admission for people like us into God's Presence — Paradise.

So I have to ask you. Am I a heretic, or just an amateur postmodern theologian?


VanceH- said...

Hi Scooper,
Very interesting posts. I agree that the early Genesis accounts (Garden, Flood, Babel) are very likely myths, but I am struggling with the implications of that in interpreting the Bible. The genealogies suggest a continuity that spans Adam to Christ--so when do things go from being mythological to being factual-- Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus?
Regarding theology, I am intrigued with the notion that better understanding reality (e.g. general relativity, quantum physics, DNA) gives us new ways to think about God. I totally agree that theology is not a locked down and should be continually re-examined and revised. You may be a heretic, or an amateur theologian--I'm not qualified to say which, but you are not alone.
-- Vance

Anonymous said...

This Mormon says that your heresy is acceptable, for what that's worth. Mormonism accepts that even events accepted as literally have symbolic meaning, and the symbolic meaning is likely more important than accepting the event as literal.

I tend to find those questions interesting intellectually, but functionally useless -- there are many more commandments (like, all of them) about loving God, loving others and living a Christian life than there are about being theologically correct about much of anything. Statements like "Thou shalt correctly memorize and accept man-made catechisms" are notably absent from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and there is nothing in the post-biblical councils that gives me any confidence that God directed their processes or products in any way.

But, again, I'm a Mormon, and therefor heretical and to be anathematized, so take my thoughts with as much salt as needed.

Scooper said...

Thanks for your thoughts. But when I use the word myth, I do not use it in the popular dismissive sense. Maybe that's a topic for the next post.

According to the Nicene Creed, Christians believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In other words, the division between Mormons and their fellow Christians, like all divisions in the Church, is just another manifestation of Sin.

But to your point about living a Christian life. It's not a lifestyle. It is relating to God, the world, other people, and even oneself through Jesus Christ. But if you do that, then what do you say when someone asks you, "Who is this guy?" And "Why did he do what he did?" Yeah, its theoretical compared to the actual person, but I think it's part of the evangelism to which we are all commissioned.

Anonymous said...

Scooper -- Ah, but the Nicene Creed only describes the belief of those who accept it, and quite a few those who accept it don't consider me a fellow Christian because I don't. Interestingly enough, the spirit of that portion of the Creed can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (another of our heretical books of scripture) found here with the phrase "If ye are not one, ye are not mine." I describe that as the problem of "themness" as any time we draw a line between "us" and "them," we have created a false division and a problem.

I think the way you answer those questions depends on the question you're being asked in that question. Sometimes people want a basic summary like "The son of God who came into the world to take all of our sins on himself and pay the price for them so that we could be saved if we would repent," and sometimes, rarely, they are ready for a much more personal answer. Those kinds of basics are the important things that I find purpose in, but the more important answer is the one that comes from the understanding gained through drawing closer to God through consciously following the will of God to the best of one's understanding and ability. It is not in the hearing or defending of the Word that one benefits -- it is by doing the Word once it is heard.

If I prayerfully extract the meaning I can gain from the story of (say) Samson and his riddle that helps me understand God and his purposes for me, it makes no difference if the story describes a specific individual's experience accurately or not. I will have no way of knowing the answer to that question based on empirical evidence, so knowing that can't be essential. What is essential is that I do my best to keep the commandments I have been given, and repent when I fail.

I think I'm tired enough that I'm not getting the point.