Epistle Writer

I’ve been reading about Paul.  You know, that Paul.  What has struck me from this reading is that if he weren’t in the Bible rational people would likely think Paul was writing nonsense.  Getting into the Good Book is a big score, for sure, but a close look at what this particular apostle wrote does raise eyebrows, as well as questions.  Over my editing years I’ve discovered quite a few methods of dealing with the saint from Tarsus, but what they really point to is the elephant in the room—we don’t really know what Paul was on about.  A few basic facts stand out: the Paul of Acts doesn’t match the Paul of the authentic letters, and although Paul never met Jesus he became the architect of much of Christianity.

There’s a reason that I focused my doctoral work on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.  Still, it remains fascinating to look closely at Paul’s claims.  At some points he sounds downright modern.  Like a Republican he declares that he can be tried by no human power.  Specially selected by God himself, he can’t be judged by the standards of normal people.  This is dangerous territory even for those who eventually end up in the Good Book, especially since it wasn’t written as an abstraction, but to a specific readership in a specific place dealing with specific issues.  Galatia wasn’t the same as Corinth.  The issues at Philippi weren’t the same as those in Rome.  Yet, being in Scripture makes all his musings equally inspired.

The more we learn about Scripture the more difficult it becomes.  Perceptions evolve over time, and we know nothing about how various books were selected.  There are no committee minutes.  We don’t even know the committee’s name or if it was ad hoc or standing.  With repeated and long-term use these books became Bible.  Take Paul’s letters—it’s virtually certain that we don’t have them all.  He makes reference to letters that we don’t have.  What might he have written therein?  Is part of divine revelation missing?  The discovery of other gospels and many contemporary religious texts to those that made the Bible cut raises questions that can only be resolved with the category “inspiration.”  Christianity isn’t unified enough to add any more books, although some sects do nevertheless.  Paul is very much like that—an example of not being subject to human trial.  For a founder of a major religion we know surprisingly little about him.

Knowing How To Know

Some questions are deceptively simple.  For example: how do you know?  The fancy philosophical word for this is “epistemology,” although that often takes it a step further to ask how do you know you know.  Given that many powerful individuals are motivated by a Fundamentalist faith the question of how we know is more important than it might seem.  Back in the days when faith commitments meant thinking such things through, theologians in the western world came up with three bases of knowledge: scripture, tradition, and reason.  Anglicans, especially, favored this “three-legged stool.”  If you removed any one of the three, the stool became unstable, topsy-turvy.  The analogy worked well.  It assumed that all three factors would be weighed against each other.

Image credit: Blackash at en.wikipedia

As time went on two developments occurred—the wider belief in science, and the work of John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England and founder of the Methodists.  Science argued that reason alone led to knowledge, whereas Wesley’s thought suggested a fourth leg for the stool—experience.  This latter configuration eventually became known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, sometimes one leg was bigger (usually Scripture), but the other three could not be dismissed.  Science, however, rested on a one-legged stool, reason alone.  Fundamentalism, which is a fairly new form of religion, chooses Scripture as its one leg for a wobbly stool.  It may sometimes claim “tradition,” but since it only dates to the nineteenth century its tradition can’t hold a candle to that of, say, Roman Catholicism.

Amid all the drama we see developing in the halls of government where, increasingly, the power to declare truth resides, it’s important to understand how we know.  For a large and growing segment of society Scripture has been removed as a leg of the stool.  For others it is the only leg.  Having attended a United Methodist seminary, I admit the Wesleyan quadrilateral made great sense as soon as I heard of it.  At the time I didn’t think of this, but if you remove Scripture, the stool still has three legs, and could stand for even a secular person.  Scientists, if they examine their own precepts closely, could see that their stool has those three legs: tradition, reason, and experience.  The largest, of course, is reason.  Still, science builds on the work of earlier thinkers (tradition) and the observation of results (experience).   Knowing how we know the truth has become a question that theologians would’ve never anticipated.  The self-assured assertions of a self-convinced egoist don’t have a single leg to sit on.



Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Go Down, Moses

For a time, I tried to write down family tradition. My family was somewhat unusual in that regard. Family saying came generally from my maternal grandparents—my father wasn’t around for my childhood years—and since my grandparents died when I was relatively young, I didn’t hear much of their wisdom firsthand. Still, my mother told me various things her parents used to say and I tried to keep a record. Kind of like I wanted to be an anthropologist for raw folk sayings among the, non-elites. One thing my grandmother used to say, so I was told, was “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” I was always intrigued by this since I supposed it had something to do with Moses the miracle-worker. I guess I imagined Moses waving his rod and the lights coming back on. That single question is all I ever heard of this particular family treasure. I forgot about it until recently, though the miracle of the world-wide web, I learned that the query comes from a song.

Moses gets down

Moses gets down

The song, it turns out, exists in multiple versions. The Library of Congress has a recording dating to 1901 available on the web. According to this version, written by Harry von Tilzer, Moses was not “the” Moses, but a preacher condemning gambling. Also, “lights” is rendered in the singular. So much for the canonicity of family tradition. Duke University library has an undated, but clearly old, version of another song by the same title. This one does reference the biblical Moses, also the name of the song’s narrator. A child afraid in bed at night falls in love with and marries his nurse girl who used to ask him the question “Where was Moses when the light went out?” as he was falling asleep.

Yet another version, dating from 1965, has the question “Where was Moses when the lights (plural) went out?” followed by the answer, “He’s in the dark.” With all of this instant information from the internet, I’m still not certain what was being conveyed by my grandmother with this cryptic question. My mother said she used to say it when someone walked into the room too late to help with something, a kind of sarcastic “Where were you when I needed you?” What is clear is that the song was about as old as my grandmother and she found it somehow appropriate in an unconventional situation. I have to wonder how much of sacred tradition, including the Bible, might have come from misunderstood original instruction. We will, of course, never know. I don’t know what the original lyrics were, but I have learned that even family wisdom has a backstory, like any Scripture, for those who look hard enough.

Shooting Stars

One of the professions I used to consider as a child, before I had any real concept of the way the world works, was a scientist. I wasn’t sure what scientists did, beyond a broad idea of learning about the world though close observation. I was too young to see that it would likely conflict with the Fundamentalism in which I was being raised, and I suspect the same is true of many who become scientists and never stop to question the religion in which they were reared. Although religion, as a profession, won out in my case, I was, I recognize now, motivated by a deep and undying desire to know the truth. I still am, although you couldn’t tell that from my career path. In fact, rationally, it is the most important thing to me. What is truth?

Science has become extremely complex. The average citizen can’t afford the kinds of equipment needed to unravel the fabric of reality. A cyclotron wouldn’t fit in my backyard, and, besides, I rent. When I sat outside this morning looking for the Perseid meteor shower, I didn’t see a thing due to the ambient light. Even looking through a telescope, I know I don’t have the calculus to explain the things I see. Given all this, the average person requires a scientist to explain. But scientists are only human. We know that we haven’t evolved to discover the truth. Evolution favors survival, not philosophy. We also know that we don’t perceive everything. Some animals have senses that we humans lack. Still, we suppose through our use of our five—obviously the best—we can come up with an explanation of everything. The truth will be ours! Or will it? Even thinkers of such stature as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking make mistakes. They’re only human. When we idolize them, we make them gods.

Back in seminary I learned about the three-legged stool. The basis of authority, in the church, rests on three legs (four if you were Methodist): Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Methodists added Experience. There were checks and balances here. Well, Scripture seems to have fallen out of the running with the Enlightenment, and nones don’t much value Tradition. Experience is subjective, so we’re left with Reason alone. And yet, reason leads to paradoxes such as if the universe is infinite, how can it be expanding? In classical theological terms: can God make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it? Add to that the fact that some neuroscientists are now suggesting that emotion may be the seat of thinking rather than reason and you might begin to wish you had some tradition to guide you. In my experience, I’ve seen, I suppose, my fair share of shooting stars. I sat outside in the predawn hours this morning and saw nothing. Perhaps I should have had a three-legged stool upon which to sit.

Photo credit: Nerijp, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Nerijp, Wikimedia Commons

Tales of Wonder

OnceUponATimeI knew of fairy tales as a child, but I recall them mostly being mediated through the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, just before bath time.  I don’t recall experiencing them in written form, and although I may have experienced them as narrated versions from time to time, my memory is mostly of the animated variety.  I’ve been reading about fairy tales lately since folklore clearly relates to many sacred narratives.  My most recent book on the subject is Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale.  Like most of Warner’s books, this is a unique telling, one which takes into account modern and some post-modern concerns.  Addressing what fairy tales tell us about the supernatural, gender, psychology, and growing up, this is a little book with big thoughts.
Unlike the polished literature of the elites, fairy tales come from the folk, the common person.  In this sense they are often truer than the establishment version of things.  Life can be violent and magical, and nobody raises an eyebrow when something supernatural occurs.  These tales often contain uncomfortable truths.  Fairy tales may help children to cope with eventualities, but they also unsettle along the way.  Rare is the tale where someone doesn’t die before it’s all over.  Like many disenchanted adults who’ve discovered the promises society makes to be false and hollow, I find returning to fairy tales as an adult somewhat therapeutic.  Long ago in a land far away often sounds much better than here and now.  Nor is it pure escapism.
As Warner points out in the very final thoughts of the book, fairy tales have come to be treated as scriptures.  Like scriptures, they turn into myths.  Myths may be retold, deconstructed, reassembled, and applied to many situations to inform us of the human thing to do.  We sell ourselves short by not recognizing the other scriptures that wisdom has provided down the ages.  While most of the folk wisdom we have preserved in the canon of fairy tales don’t go back to the Bible, they do retread some of the same territory.  By calling some of it scripture and other secular, we might miss that very many of the truths are similar indeed.  The assumption that growing up means leaving truths of childhood behind may, on occasion, bear reexamination.  If we look closely at our fairy tales we may discover that we should keep them close at hand, no matter what our age.

Crossing Over

The periodic reforms that have swept through the church like so many Massachusetts tornadoes have often whirled around the matter of ceremony. Certainly there have been disputes over obtuse points of esoteric doctrine for which there is no final arbiter, but frequently the rancor involves what the faithful do when they meet together. In keeping with ancient templates, religion is generally a matter of what people do more than of what they believe. I personally had my love of ceremony beaten out of me by its plangent and perpetual repetition at an institution so enamored of it that humans and their needs were viewed as mere obstacles to sacerdotal perfection. Nevertheless, as the school year winds down, ceremony is all around us: graduations, awards dinners, rites of social passage. Last night I attended a Girl Scout bridging ceremony. Bridging is the symbolic crossing of a bridge to indicate a new level of commitment and integration into the larger Girl Scout community.

It's just a bridge.

As I sat staring at the bridge, waiting for the celebration to begin, it occurred to me that this was very much like a religious service. A group of spectators had gathered to watch a ritual unfold—a ritual that involved everyday objects invested with a new significance by the context. The bridge is just a small arch bridge over artificial water; before the ceremony kids run and jump over it with no fear of divine reprisal. Once the correct words are spoken, however, crossing the bridge becomes a solemn act. The ceremony opened with a kind of invocation, a creed (the Girl Scout law), a kind of Scripture reading—complete with exegesis of what that “Scripture” means and a reference to God as creator of all—a sacramental act of transformation, and even a hymn or two. The main difference I felt between this ceremony and most religious events was that the Girl Scouts are far more accepting and affirming than most religious conglomerations. Of course, there is the matter of gender distinction, but what is a church without any exclusivity?

I have great admiration for the Girl Scouts. In the face of a community that continues to act out male supremacy as a matter of God-given right, the Girl Scouts (and other similar organizations) offer a place for young women to assert their sense of belonging. Religion has just as often been used to suppress aspirations as it has been to uplift them. Life is difficult enough without God breathing down our necks. Human institutions that encourage thoughtful regard for those who are different, or underprivileged, or simply overlooked, often fill the gaps that religions callously leave behind. Yes, some religious institutions still display a social conscience, but if we wait for the religious to solve the suffering of the world, it is good to have groups like the Girl Scouts around who actually put their beliefs behind their ceremonies into action.