Sunday, January 25, 2015

Subversion through Olympian Ways of Thinking

In his book, The Subversion of Christianity (trans. Geoffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans, 1986), Jacques Ellul talks about how Jesus was wholly faithful to Abba while Christians and churches gradually became wholly devoted to the Olympian gods. Today we will reflect on how theology became subverted by wrong ways of thinking; or, how we have failed, yesterday and today, to love Jesus with our whole mind.
At its most literal level, the word “theology” simply means “talk about God.” Theology, then, isn’t a difficult field of study pursued by specialists far removed from life. It is something we all do. Today, when people talk in this way, they talk about the six Olympian gods. This includes almost all Christians. As faithful witnesses to Jesus, we want to reflect on our talk about God so that we may share, more clearly, God’s light, love, and life with others.
Christian theology started unintentionally subverting faithful witness to Jesus perhaps as early as the AD 100s. This happened when there occurred “a phenomenal change in the understanding of revelation, namely, the transition from history to philosophy” (23). That radical change has continued to our day. Theologians then and now regarded the Bible as a means of answering philosophical questions or, more generally, questions rising from ways of thinking lying outside the biblical narrative. “They used the biblical text to meet their own needs instead of listening to what it really was (even Calvin, alas!)” (23).
In repeating this, my intention is not to attack the character of theologians. Rather it is to note that, “once the transition was made from history to philosophy, all that they said was completely correct and true. They expressed a profound and authentic faith marked by a concern for truth. Yet it was all completely falsified by the initial transition” (23).
The crucial point: “God does not reveal [himself] by means of a philosophical system or a moral code…He enters into human history and accompanies his people. The Hebrew Bible…is not…a system of knowledge. It is a series of stories that are not intended to veil or unveil objective and abstract truths. These stories are…the history of the people of God, the history of God’s agreements and disagreements with this people, the history of loyalty and disobedience” (23).
“Even the parts of the Hebrew Bible that seem more disembodied, such as the law,…still belong to the history” (24). The Ten Commandments, for example, are true only in relation to God who spoke them and for us as we live in relation to him. Apart from him, we easily and always falsify even these laws which otherwise seem so objective and certain.
“This is why this law does not fall from heaven like the golden plates of the celebrated J[oseph] Smith…The law is…the starting point of a new history…One can never make it a legal system apart from the living, moving, and actual presence of him who calls himself the living God…This aspect continues and gains added emphasis with Jesus” (24).
“To do his work God does not send a book of metaphysics or a sacred book of Gnostic revelations or…a perfected wisdom. He sends a man. In relation to him stories are told again that constitute a history [24]…This is the mode that God has chosen to reveal himself to us. But we seize it all and completely change the framework so as to bring in our own system of questions and expressions” (24-5).
“Hebrew thought was sown in a field nourished by Greek thought and Roman law” (25) and thereby subverted.
One example: the Christian understanding of life after death. To the biblical witnesses of both Old and New Testaments, human death was by nature final and total. Each human being was an indivisible unity of body and soul. When the body died, the soul did also. The only way the soul lived was when it was raised from the dead with the body solely by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The idea of an immortal soul, introduced by Pythagoras and repeated by others, entered and remained in Christian talk about God. “For the notion of a vital breath that dissipates at death, for belief in a survival of shades wandering about in the subterranean realm of the dead, [Greek thought] substitutes the notion of a soul of celestial substance exiled in this world. This idea…gradually replaces the affirmation of the resurrection” (25 note 4).
“What resulted was of decisive importance. The Bible was interpreted by the intellectual tools of Greek philosophy. Instead of [25] listening to the text as it was, theologians tried to draw from it a coherent philosophical system. It was put in the framework of a Platonic or an Aristotelian or any other system…The biblical stories were treated as myths from which one had to draw some abstract, universal ‘thought’” (25-6).
The mistake made by these early Christian theologians, and the one we continue to repeat today, is the absence of conversion in one’s way of thinking. Jesus calls and enables us to do that when he tells us to love God with our whole mind. He calls us to radically change not only what we know about God but also how we think about God. He invites us to do this daily. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. To keep up with him, we must embrace constant modification of our own ideas and ways of thinking as he grants us the light to do so.
Even though philosophy, Greek or otherwise, is not so popular now, Christians and churches continue the mistake of interpreting the Bible in terms of Olympian ways of thinking rather than questioning those ways of thinking in terms of the Bible. So, as Christians and churches, we mistakenly look to Freud, Jung, Myers and Briggs, progressive or restorative politics, evolutionary theory, neo-liberal economics, today’s latest news, or Facebook to talk about God rather than allowing Jesus to question them all with his truth.
As prophetic witnesses to Jesus, our great privilege today is to remember and affirm that God continues to reveal himself to us through the history of his relationship with us and of ours with him. Jesus continues to speak with us, in constant faithfulness and steadfast love, in ways that invite us to question, in his churches, the false talk about God that now dominates our discussions.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.