No Guarantees

“Communication as a bridge always means an abyss is somewhere near.” —John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod slaughtered every child of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its surroundings, because he was trying to kill the king of the Jews whom the magi from the East had come to worship.

To put the Bethlehem massacre by Herod in its full horrific context, the writer of the gospel reaches back to the prophet Jeremiah’s lament for the slaughter of children in Ramah, an Ephraimite village eight miles north of Jerusalem, before those who remained were deported to Babylon. He needs a historical parallel of sufficient magnitude.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Thus, the good news (for that is what euanggelion, the ‘gospel’, means) of the coming of the Christ child, the promised one, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, unfolds in haste and secrecy in the midst of a bloodbath. But it has ever been so, as powerful and corrupt rulers are threatened by women and children.

The family escapes to Egypt, being warned in a dream, and they remain there — we don’t know how long — until news comes that Herod is dead. They make plans to return to Bethlehem, but Joseph is again warned off in a dream. Instead, they find their way north to Nazareth, a village in Galilee so insignificant that there is no mention of it in historical records outside of the New Testament. Their caution is well-founded, for Herod’s son, King Archelaus, rules for only two years before the Roman emperor, Augustus, removes and banishes him for brutality. If Herod could kill a generation of Judean children with impunity, what must Archelaus have done to incur the wrath of the emperor? Or perhaps it was a pragmatic decision on the emperor’s part, knowing that even the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed will eventually rise up.

Advent is a season when Christians celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, the earthly beginning to Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the short, intense journey that brings that child, now a man, to an abrupt end on the cross. But then there is Easter and resurrection; the unexpected turn of a tragedy become comedy, the ultimate trick on the Trickster, and a silent nod off-stage to where Job stands alone in the wings, with an amused shake of his head and a smile. There are innumerable crucifixions without a resurrection, but in this story, there is no resurrection without a crucifixion.

When lies become the norm we cherish the truth even more, and for us in this century, truth is found in facts. We want the gospels to be history, a medium we think we understand as a story that corresponds to the facts. But behind the facts lie assumptions, and assumptions are most often invisible to those who hold them and inaccessible to those who don’t. What is not mentioned in the gospels about Jesus may not have been known by the gospel writers, or was known, but thought so obvious that their concise narratives did not include it, or was known, but considered insignificant to the core of the story. Their assumptions are not our assumptions; the stories that result are strange to us and sometimes even inexplicable.

Albert Schweitzer devoted years to a search for the historical Jesus and finally concluded that “Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus,” because one typically “created him in accordance with one’s own character.” “There is,” Schweitzer said, “no historical task which so reveals someone’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”

Thus, there are multiple versions of Jesus in all ages, as Jaroslav Pelikan so lucidly illustrates in his Jesus Through the Centuries, a cultural history. “For each age,” he comments, “the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny, and it was to the figure of Jesus as set forth in the Gospels that those questions were addressed.” And we could add that people of faith, as well as those who profess no faith, nevertheless carry refracted images of Jesus in their minds that are often at odds with each other. We see Jesus as through a kaleidoscope rather than through a microscope. The gospels give us a collage, not a portrait.

The fragmentary glimpses we get of Jesus are not the result of inattention on the part of the eyewitnesses nor are they lapses in the discipline of the story. Rather, they are the best that people could do to reveal a figure so mysteriously complex and yet so transparently good, that no one close to him could ever say they knew him through and through.

Jesus was not an open book to those who knew him. The disciples were often confused and distraught by his words, drawing him aside to ask for the meaning of a parable or to clarify for them his differences with the religious authorities. Jesus rejoices that God has hidden His truths from the sophisticated and has opened them to those who learn best from actions and images.

We simplify the story of the nativity down to what we can carry without dropping all the other things that fill up our lives. In a creche the animals form the background, their benign expressions of placid acceptance mirroring our own. Joseph stands to one side, proud but peripheral. The wise men, kneeling or standing, present their gifts with reverence. Mary and Jesus are front and center, the focal point of everything and the period to the exclamation mark of the star that stands above the stable. There is something so achingly touching about this, a child’s toys arranged just so to mimic the world she imagines. Add to this the innumerable Christmas plays in schools and churches acted out in front of proud but anxious parents, each play another means to build a bridge from an ancient culture to our own.

The question for Christians and other people of faith is how to tell this story, this coming-to-Earth story of divine kenosis, of an emptying out and pouring in of God become human. As the epigram suggests, a bridge implies an abyss, otherwise what is its purpose? In communication with one another, in telling the story yet again, we recognize the abyss to be the fact that we cannot clearly and completely express the truths we comprehend, nor can we be assured that our comprehension is correct. We are the ‘speaking animals’ whose verbal options are almost limitless, but by that very fact we must often grope for the words to match the images we have in our heads.

From within our comfort zone the Advent story is theologically safe, hermetically sealed, predictable in its results. It’s a ritual we cannot do without, yet it often bypasses the heart.

We need to recapture the ‘otherness,’ the very alien nature of this story of God become a human, a story that rings through history with tones both dark and bright. There are other gods who have appeared in human form, but none of them as a baby and none who stayed around to be murdered — and then rose again.

The thing that we must never forget, that if understood will disrupt our lives and break our complacency, is that nothing in the events of this story can be taken for granted. Joseph could have laughed off his dreams, Mary could have said no, the baby could have died before the age of five from diseases that take the lives of 15,000 per day of newborns in this world. The family seeking asylum in Egypt could have been turned away at the border, held for questioning, or simply murdered on the way.

People made choices without much to go on, save what they held in faith. As strange as those times and that culture may be to us, the common factor we may share if we wish is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that from the foundation of the earth this has been a work of love.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9266
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For all humans, moving through life with its variety of experiences

  • who our parents are and where we grew up
  • the choosing an occupation at the beginning of work experience but
    discovering that perhaps having a number of occupations by old age
  • choosing where in the world one lives which might change many times
  • to choose or not choose a partner in life AND at What Age to do so.
    Perhaps more than one in a life time.
  • life is a multitude of choices, sometimes required choices and each one
    sends us off on another trail to journey on with brand new experiences.
    Some pleasant, some a lot of fun, some not so pleasant but all prepare us for
    the NEXT Required Decision.
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No Guarantees! Thank you for this reminder.

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That is perhaps the most beautiful part of the Gospel story: we each have the liberty to see God and relate to Him in the ways that are meaningful to us while not expecting it to be essential or meaningful to our neighbors in exactly the same way. God touches us where we are and then draws us to Him and that is exactly where the attempt to tie Adventist theology into a neat package often makes it boring and irrelevant. It is the mystery of how God works with us and in our world that makes him so fascinating.

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This hilights a REALLY, REALLY, REALLY important point. Isa 55:9 alerts us that God’s ways are higher than ours. This includes God’s ways of BEING, not just doing.

Problem: For those who know something about how human cognition and perception operate, they will be aware that our default tendency as humans is for our subconscious mind to initially (at least) perceive others from our reference point. Stereotyping is an expression of this phenomena. Thus, our default tendency as humans is to perceive God in our image. We actually need to consciously and intentionally realise this is our default starting point for our perception and instead consciously and intentionally seek to go beyond this and consider the option that God is actually completely conceptually different. This is why the disciples were often confused by Jesus words and actions. And this is likely why Jesus laid out early - at the Sermon on the Mount - the seeming paradoxes about the Kingdom of God. They are not paradoxes in God’s Kingdom, they are only paradoxes when we look at God’s Kingdom from the reference point of our kingdom (which is our default cognitive and perceptual tendency to do unless we consciously over-ride and learn to go-beyond it).

Those who are able to grasp the significance of this point will soon realise the implications for the core concepts (dare I use the words fundamental beliefs?) of Christianity that unfortunately have been typically reflective of a human ways rather than God’s ways: eg God’s ‘justice’ and ‘vengeance’, God’s ‘wrath’, Jesus salvific activity as Substitute rather than Redeemer, God’s ‘day of judgement’ in general and ‘Investigative Judgement’ in particular, etc.

Similarly, it can also be seen that/how an authoritarian view of God (ranging from strong to subtle expressions of such) has come about as a consequence of unconsciously perceiving God in our image - and the implications of such a view with respect to how a significant group of people at both lay and leadership level are responding to the current issues of WO and more.

But when we learn to grow beyond our default tendencies, we can then see what the disciples eventually grew to able to see: an Awesome God of Compassion who is doing absolutely everything within the realm of what He is able to save us from the perishing that is being brought on by the reality of what ‘sin’ is/entails (Jn 3:16,17; 2 Pet 3:9; Ex 34:6,7), and not by a ‘God’ who punishes and destroys. (Guess whose nature and character those latter attributes describe: Jn 10:10).

Thanks Barry for commenting on such a vital issue. We need much more visibility of this matter.

ADDITIONAL NOTES: the latter part of Ex 34:7 in translations beyond the original Hebrew is grossly distorted. The original Hebrew actually supports a completely opposite portrayal of God whereby He - consistent with the first and foundational attribute (Compassion) revealed in Ex 34:6 - ‘numbers’ (ie limits) the reality impacts of intergenerational transmission of the ‘effects of sin’, rather than being misportrayed as “visiting” (ie, being the cause of) such.

The associated statement about God “by no means clearing the guilty” is not a statement of ‘vengeance’, but a statement of fact due to reality. God cannot stop (yes, there are things God cannot do, but that doesn’t in any way diminish ‘Him’ being God - it does the opposite) the cascade of consequences that are unleashed when someone chooses the option of ‘sin’ (lawlessness). Law (meaning all the laws of physics, maths, health and so on) enables order. Without order, chaos reigns. So when we choose ‘sin’/lawlessness, we unleash chaos: cause and effect. My personal belief is not that God created reality this way (when He could have created it some other way), but rather that this is the one and only way that reality can work. I therefore believe that God, knowing this, inhabits that reality and subsequently creates in accordance with that reality because it is the only viable possibility for life. Hence Jesus could accurately claim that He (the I AM) IS the Way, the Truth and the Life

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Thank YOU, Phil. You’ve given us a lot to think about. Thanks for playing out the implications of my essay.

It seems that while God is defined by scripture as SPIRIT, humanity has a hard time relating to SPIRIT. We (corporately) have created God in our image, as has been mentioned. We relate to the physical - people and things we perceive with our senses. When we leave our sense of touch, sight, smell, sound, taste behind and enter into concepts that are not governed by these senses, we run into conjecture and symbolism, going from the material into poetry. Christmas is in the realm of poetry - God becoming man is poetic. We don’t understand it - we can’t explain it - we need pictures. We need the angels singing; we need the rejection of the inn keepers; we need the stable - we need pictures. We also need Jesus on the cross and the empty tomb - we need pictures. Even then, we squabble - “Does God need the blood and the death to forgive; and is that forgiving or exacting a payment for sin through death?” We factor the SPIRIT down to the secular - to manageable pictures. The question that comes to mind is - are these pictures painted only for our benefit (not to minimize their importance)?

When Jesus spoke to those who were actually looking forward to his coming, he reminded them of that fact. The pictures of Christ even defined Israel itself, as when the four standers defined their camp - the LION (Matthew defined Jesus as KING) - OX (Mark defines Jesus as our burden bearer - MAN (Luke defines Jesus as “man”, the first fruits and the new Adam) - EAGLE (John shows us Jesus’ divinity). Pictures abound, real or imagined.

G.K. Chesterton sees portraits of Jesus painted even in the ancient myths, even though they are distorted by ancient imaginations. Even these are better than the secularization of spiritual mysteries of God. When we distill the pictures - the poetry- into secular language, we lose the freedom to personalize these intimate conversations we have with the SPIRIT of the Gospel.

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Our brain was designed, optimized by God for the immediacy of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. This was necessary given the plan to have humanity begin first as babies who grow up into adulthood rather than spring forth as ready-made adults. A baby learns and conceives of the world through those senses rather than through the complex nuance of language. A picture to him does, in fact, paint the thousand words rolling off an adults tongue, more so of an alien web of symbols on paper.

But someone may ask, “What does God look like? Yes, but what does He actually look like?” Well, He did reveal Himself, didn’t He? EVEN BEFORE WE ASKED. “Then God said, Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Gen. 1:26

God is with us. He lives in our time frame. The gifts and tokens He has provided are expressions of His love and presence. And why should that surprise us? Do we not give gifts one to another? Do couples not cherish the pictures and letters they send each other from afar? The manger and the cross: they mean something VERY SPECIAL to those who love Him. But as you grow up in Christ, you begin to realize, to learn that they represent flashes of insight into the more complex reality of a universe shaken and caught up in a bitter struggle, the details and full extent of which we have not even begun to grasp in its entirety.

And so, even as adults, we like little children sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.

///

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Phil,
I agree with your thesis but struggle with at least one example of your application.

You say that our starting and default point is ‘to perceive God in our image’ and we need to ‘seek to go beyond this and consider the option that God is actually completely conceptually different’. I believe you are right but then you say God ‘is desperately trying everything possible to save us…’

Surely you are projecting a human image onto God and attributing the human emotion of desperation (fear or even panic?) onto God, a transcendent, spiritual, all powerful, completely conceptually different Being. Is He a nice old man in the sky who wants us to ‘get it’ and is mightily struggling to find a way to help us? Is He feverishly attempting all kinds of strategies but just can’t seem to get through to us? I don’t believe so.

He who claimed to have taken Cyrus by the right hand to subdue nations (Is 45:1); who claimed that the king of Assyria was an axe He wielded (Is 10:15); who called Nebuchadnezzar ‘My servant’ (Jer 27:6); and who has mercy on or hardens whom He desires (Rom 9:15-18).

IMHO, speaking from my own experience, I found that my studies have showed me that what I had been taught about God, man, and the relationship between them relied on certain suppositions that I no longer believe are true.

Being open to differing ways of understanding the Bible (especially the passages that were previously discounted or avoided because they contradicted my old theology) gave me, I believe, a truer (though admittedly still humanly conditioned) ‘image of God’ and His plan for humanity.

I encourage everyone to attempt to recognize the assumptions that undergird their theology, hold them open to revision when studying, and ask for as receptive a mind as possible.

Hi Dave.

Thanks for taking the time and effort to provide feedback.

I have a different conception of ‘desperately’ and therefore missed picking up on the potential (that you have correctly outlined) for that word to misconstrue the point I was trying to raise. Your feedback is valid and I have therefore re-edited my posted comment.

I would appreciate if you would let me know whether the revised wording helps remove a potential ‘stumbling block’ to the thesis I have raised.

Like yourself, my in-depth study over the past decade or more has led me to a very different understanding of everything pertaining to theology compared with what I was raised upon. Coming to recognise and re-examine my/denominational/‘christianity’s’ underpinning assumptions was a big part of that - as you similarly noted.

Hi again Phil,
Thanks for your response to my comment.
Here are some additional thoughts that came to mind:

The Bible says that God said He created us ‘in His own image’ so we are not totally off base by viewing Him as the ‘kephale’ (1Cor 11:3) or source after which we have been modelled. So, I think, in some sense we are justified in projecting some of our image of ourselves toward Him in an attempt to envision Him. Of course that was before sin had its effects on us.
But that brings up the question of what Adam was like before sin.

I think when Adam was created he was more of a spiritual being in a physical body than the other way around. I believe he was to be the steward or trustee of our planet and thus to represent us before God in some heavenly council (Job 1:2). I think that would have involved travel in the spiritual realm. After sin, he was ‘grounded’ so to speak and was limited to the earth upon which he was to toil ‘all the days’ of his now mortal life. He lost the ability that Christ demonstrated after His resurrection - an immortal body that could exist in the physical and spiritual realms.

We, the descendants of Adam, are left with what he bequeathed to us. (One commentator says that when Adam sinned his soul took control over his spirit. The carnal or natural or physical usurped authority over the spiritual.) We are primarily physical beings living in a physical world which runs on certain physical laws. We describe phenomena which we have come to understand have predictable causes and effects. They are our reality.
(We naturally want and require some sort of order, a system of repeatability in which we can have some assurance. We tend to fear who or what is different, what we cannot explain and thus learn to control.)

We naturally, subconsciously, apply such reasoning to the spiritual world. In Jesus’ day, the Jews asked Him to perform physical miracles to prove who He was. Our minds struggle to grasp a reality beyond our physical senses. But the physical realm is but a small, crystallized part of the spiritual one. I think we err in thinking that God is somehow limited by our physical reality. This view is heightened because we are prisoners of time and He is outside of it. (For example, one Christian commentator has said he believes we can be ‘transported’ back to pray for our people with and as Daniel did.) So, I think that God is able to stop or change the effects or consequences of our sin if He chooses to do so.

You mentioned that the disciples were stuck at the starting point of our conception of God and that is why they could not understand much of what Jesus taught. I think there is truth in that. They were also conditioned by what the priesthood of their day had taught them (the ‘traditions of men’ we are subjected to even today).

Barry mentioned that often they had to ask Jesus privately what the parables he uttered publicly meant. That reminded me of an article I read a while ago a part of which offers another explanation about why Jesus spoke in parables (and why He wasn’t understood). I agree with a lot of what the author asserts in the article and I’m pretty sure it will further challenge some suppositions you have. I hope in the end it will prove helpful to you (hopefully you will not be put off by its rather bellicose tone):

https://bible-truths.com/twelve.htm

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