Monday, April 03, 2017

Difficulties in Believing: The Virgin Birth, Miracles, Creedal Statements

St. Bede's Forum, March 2017
Tom Woodward

            In the recent HBO series, "The Young Pope," the young American Pope was asked why he decided to be a priest. His response was simple, "I wanted to serve God." That, I believe, should have disqualified him from the beginning.
            A priest serves the people who serve God. In doing so, the priest is serving God, but not in the ways we usually mean with that phrase. As a priest I serve God by supporting you, feeding you spiritually, building up your community.
            One afternoon in California I was part of a meeting of Rural Deans, called by my bishop. In the middle of our discussion, he asserted that he was "the chief evangelist of the diocese." I responded by noting that bishops spend most of their time in their offices dealing with priests who spend most of their time in their offices dealing with lay people who spend almost all of their time dealing with the unchurched. It is the lay people who are really the chief evangelists of the diocese.
            As I remember, that was the last time I was to be invited to a meeting of the Rural Deans.

            I have often heard comedian Bill Maher challenge self-identified Christians by asking "How can anyone believe in a religion with a talking snake?" The line always got a chuckle from his audience, even while demonstrating an amazing ignorance of Bill Maher, who was unaware of the role of myth and metaphor in dealing with the ultimate questions about human life - and in addressing our relationship with the infinite.
            What is most important in talking about Christian doctrine and faith is this: we are saved through Grace by faith - not doctrine. The key for any of us is faith, which has to do with trust and relationship. That relationship can range from the tiniest of threads on our part to the relationship we attribute to our monks and nuns in their 24 hour daily devotion. We are all somewhere on that continuum - and every place is OK.
            Doctrine comes into being in the service of faith. Its purpose is to protect that basic experience of faith. As an example, the phrase in the Nicene Creed about Jesus being born of the virgin, Mary was inserted not to require belief in the virginity of Jesus' mother, but to mark the belief or trust that Jesus was born of a human mother - and that his birth was a matter of God's initiative. This came after a time of conjecture that Jesus miraculously appeared in the world as fully adult or that Jesus only appeared to be human, his humanity some form of a mask.
            The Church's doctrine arose out of the necessity to preserve the experience of the pre-Easter Jesus. So when disputes arose, in particular deciding which manuscripts would be in the Canon of the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament), arguments were settled by those who knew others who knew or were taught by the Apostles. It was not the resulting doctrine, but the faith the doctrine protected that was and is important.
            So what about St. Paul's teaching that we are saved through grace by our faith? When I was Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester I worked with Paul Walasky, who also taught courses in religion at the university. One year Paul summoned to his office a student who had earlier handed in his paper on St. Paul's Understanding of Grace. The student, anticipating a severe dressing down for his work, began making noises that his paper was not very good and probably deserved a failing grade. Paul interrupted him to say, "I agree that you didn't take the time to understand St. Paul and his understanding of grace, that your spelling was bad, the grammar often deficient, and you spilled coffee on two of the pages of your essay.  So I want to know that I am giving you a B on your paper. The student  was shocked, "But there is no way I deserve a B - everything you said is true!" Paul shoved the paper with the large "B" on the front page toward the student with these words, "Now you understand Paul's understanding of grace." That  may be the most important story most of us will hear during our lifetimes in the church.
            One last thing about doctrine, especially as codified in our Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed begins "We believe. . ." This creed is the belief of the church - and as a whole, not  necessarily the belief on any individual at any given time. I have often preached on the matter of faith and belief by having the congregation stand and then remain standing or regain standing for any phrase of the Creed they believed or which made a difference in how they lived their life. When the opposite was true, they were to sit.
            Through the opening of the Creed ("We believe in one God") everyone remained standing. Then with "the Father Almighty" a good proportion of the women along with a few men sat down. And on and on through the Creed. We then would talk about our experience, including the observation that no one stood throughout the Creed - even the priest! Our conclusion was always that the Creed represents the belief of the church, and not necessarily that of any individual in the church. We each have a part of the whole - and together we approximate the whole. That should be a relief to any of us who is struggling with belief.

            First, some background. One of the rarely used elements of Bible study is the field of Typology, which uses events and persons to illuminate or reveal aspects or significant meanings of history - or, for our purposes, holy history. For example, in our Bible readings two weeks ago, Paul made reference to Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. What image or event does that call to mind? The forty days the Hebrews spent in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
            Thanks largely to recent Biblical scholarship, we are beginning to understand the myriad ways the events and people of Christian Scriptures are tied to those of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).  As we will discuss later, I believe our best thinking is that we as the Christian church have been grafted into Jewish holy history (see Romans 9-11). Thus, our relationship to Judaism is one of dependence, not superiority.
            So here we go - with times when a prior unresolved event is fulfilled or resolved in the present - or when an event in one of the Gospels can be seen as the mirror image of an event in Jewish history, as in the passage two weeks ago about Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. These things tie us to our Jewish ancestry and  history as the people of God.

- Jesus as the New Adam
- The Disobedience of Eve is overcome by the Obedience of Mary
- Confusion at Tower of Babel is reversed at Pentecost
- Slaughter of the Innocents, both at the time of Moses and of Jesus.
- Refugee status of Moses - and similarly of Jesus (both involving Egypt).
- 40 years of wandering in the wilderness - Jesus spending 40 days in wilderness.
- Ten Commandments from the mountain and Beatitudes (sermon on the mountain)
- Moses' face shining, coming down the mountain precedes the Transfiguration.
- At Transfiguration, Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets).
- Suffering Servant Passages in Isaiah (46-53) reflected in Passion of Jesus.
- Passage in Isaiah 7:14 about "the virgin" or young maiden is basis for Matthew 1:22-33.
- The story of Cain and Abel lived out in Steinbeck's "East of Eden" in the Salinas Valley:
 --  Bruce and Steve Taylor had controlling interest in Fresh Express produce. When Steve "got religion," he initiated a brutal battle, forcing Bruce out of the family business.  Bruce, my parishioner, later started Taylor Farms, which is now the equal of Fresh Express. Thus, the important question about a myth is not "When did it happen?" but "Where is it happening?" This is especially true of the myths in Genesis.

- The Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 18) provides the context for Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus' cross. Mark, alone, tells of Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, carrying the cross of Jesus to the crucifixion (15:21). Note, that Simon is a Semitic name, Alexander ("one who contends") is a Greek name, and Rufus (from the Latin for "red") is a Roman name. Then remember that Isaac's sons are Jacob, who contended with the angel, and Esau, who founded the nation of Edom which was located on red clay (Edom's approaching soldiers were referred to as "dressed in red"). Third, just as Isaac was compelled to carry wood to his own sacrifice (where, instead, a lamb was provided), so Simon was compelled to carry a wooden cross to a sacrifice (where the Lamb of God was provided). So this is a stunning piece of writing by Mark, as in one verse with Simon's family consisting of a Semite, a Greek, and a Roman, - the whole of the known world was involved in carrying the cross of Jesus to Golgotha.

                Note:  You won't find this explanation in any Commentary, though the connection is clear                 and makes no other sense. TBW

            The nativity stories in Matthew and Luke reflect the passage from the prophet Isaiah, but there remains confusion as to the meaning of the term in Isaiah 7:14. However, regardless of a literal truth of a virgin birth of Jesus, there are other even more important truths:

a.  it is a metaphorical rendition of the belief that Jesus' birth being at God's initiative. There may     
         have been no other way to portray this.
b.  this is an affirmation of Jesus' humanity as he was born of a human mother, over against the  
        heresy of Docetism, which held that Jesus "seemed" to be human.

            As noted earlier, Mary's obedience reverses the Genesis story about the disobedience of Eve and the inclusion of "virgin Mary" in the Nicene Creed was to contradict the heresy of Docetism. It is interesting that in Mark's Gospel Jesus holds his humanity and divinity in tension by referring to himself as "the Son of man." The phrase is ambiguous. The Book of  Daniel refers to the Son of man coming to earth in clouds of glory, while the Psalms and the prophet Ezekiel speak of the Son of man being lower than the worms of the earth.
            In talking with Mike Miller, my Roman Catholic colleague in Salinas, California, I asked what progressive Roman Catholics thought about the doctrine of the virgin birth. He said it had to do with this: We all have parts of ourselves that we keep hidden from others and there are also parts of ourselves which are even hidden from ourselves. They are "virgin territory." When Mary opened herself to God, she offered all of herself, including that virgin territory - in that sense Jesus acquired a humanity deeper than all other births.

Myth over Literal Fact: There is a huge difference between an astonishing fact (virgin birth of Jesus) and the revelatory power of the metaphor, as explicated above. I want to explore in a future Forum the struggle between Biblical myths and Jesus' parables and the cultural myths embedded in our personal and national lives.

            The miracles are treated differently in Gospels. Mark, in the first half of his gospel, uses miracles to support his theme of "Who is this man?" to define his presence. As miracle follows miracle the question arises "Who is this who quiets the sea/heals the sick/ forgives sins/ and raises the dead?" John uses miracles as signs, revealing significant aspects of our Lord's power and mission. This is clearest with the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. There were plenty of miracle workers at the time: the issue was their identity and mission.
            Here are two paths to making sense or understanding the miracles in Christian Scriptures.
First, a Roman Catholic author, Louis Everly, writes that a prerequisite for understanding or believing the miracles, divine healing, and resurrection is that we have experienced these things in our own lives; that we have experienced the miracle of touch, the healing of another's forgiveness, the reality of resurrection in our own lives. Someone has also posited that the inability to accept the reality of miracles is a failure of imagination.
            Second, there is the analysis of physicist Karl Heim in his book, "The Christian Faith and  Natural Science." Heim was a real believer in Rudolph Otto's understanding of the experience of the numenous or Mysterium Tremendum* in his book, "The Idea of the Holy." For Heim, the experience of the Mysterium Tremendum is a reality of human existence and a clue to religious reality.  In short, his analysis is:

            a point has no conception or understanding of the dimension of a line, just as
            a line has no conception or access to understanding the dimension of a cube, just as
            a three dimensional object (human) has no direct access to the dimension of the Holy.**

The Holy is another dimension of reality which is inaccessible to humans (mundane reality), except when the Holy permeates the boundaries between itself and mundane reality. The Holy is a constant reality, as real as anything else  - just beyond our human capacity for apprehension or understanding.         

*  A feeling of the uncanny, the thrill of awe and reverence, the sense of dependence, of impotence, or of nothingness or the feeling of of religious rapture and exaltation. The sense of the tremendous, the awful, the mysterious, the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. . .often experienced in liturgy.

**  Most of us grew up in a world in which there was a single geometry, Euclidian Geometry. Mathematicians now wrestle with a variety of geometries and dimensions of reality.

            St. Mark bookends his Gospel with what Karl Heim is exploring. At the beginning of his Gospel, as Jesus is being baptized by John the Baptist, the heavens part and the Holy is expressed in the words "You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased." The word for the parting of the heavens is from the Greek, schizomenous, meaning a splitting apart. Similarly, at the close of Mark's Gospel, as Jesus breathes his last, the veil of the Temple is split apart, obliterating  the separation between the holy and the mundane. Again, Mark uses the Greek schizo, as do Matthew ( 21:55) and Luke (23:45)in treating the splitting in two of the veil of the Temple at Jesus' death..
            The same phenomenon is the focus of the Transfiguration, in which the full glory of the Holy infuses the body of Jesus as he is flanked by Moses and Elijah (Moses having earlier been the occasion of much of this phenomenon when he descends from the mountain with his face glowing from the reality of the holy in him.
            By extension, the miracles we experience in Scripture and in life may be expressions of this same reality of the Holy - not violating natural law, but permeating that boundary between the Holy and the mundane.  
            Martin Gardner, the insightful mathematician who was the puzzle editor for the magazine, "Scientific American," for many years, writes of coming upon a congregation in New York City which had at the center of its understanding this notion of Karl Heim.
            All this is close to what we are talking about when we talk of life as sacramental. Thus, as the novelist Walker Percy writes, a kiss is not just four lips in closest proximity. It is sacramental: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace - or an inward attempt at manipulation . . betrayal. Frederick Buechner writes in his "Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC" that when we say "God is love," we are asserting that God is the source of all love. Love is not one of the things in our power to create. When I love someone, that is God's love happening through us for the other. It is, in the old movie cliche, "bigger than the two of us."
           My favorite Buechner aphorism is from the same book. "Sex," he writes, "contrary to Mrs. Grundy, is not sin; and contrary to Hugh Hefner, it is not salvation, either. It is more like nitro-glycerin, which can be used to blow up bridges or to heal hearts."
           So it is in a world which is sacramental and with the clues to its heart in our experience of the holy, the mysterium tremendum.

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