All posts by Gene Marshall

New Testament Living

How does a viable and vital next Christianity need to be grounded in the originating revelation witnessed to in the New Testament texts? In our contemporary culture we honor or we need to honor both the scientific and the contemplative approaches to truth. How does this affect Biblical interpretation? Following is a four-point summary of the biblical interpretation methods I am promoting.

(1) Scientific History: What do we know about when and where a text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?

(2) Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?

(3) Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.

(4) “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?

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My Contemporary Theologizing

Perhaps I owe the readers of these e-mails (which are also Realistic Living blog posts) some information on who I am as a Christian theologizer. I am certainly not a great scholastic— a theologian in the company of Rudolf Bultmann, whom I consider to be the most important Christian biblical scholar and theologian of the last two centuries. I also include Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoefer in my smallest circle of great recent Christian theologians. All four of these scholarly luminaries lean strongly toward what Tillich calls the “Protestant principle”—by which he means the perpetual critique of all religious and cultural assertions. These four theologians are also “catholic” thinkers in the sense of fully honoring the whole history of Christian expression. I am especially indebted to Paul Tillich and H. R. Niebuhr for my love of history and my perspective on church history.

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Theological Commonalty

I am assuming that the common culture of a vital next Christianity will include basic methods of theologizing. I am assuming that it is possible to create forms of Christian organization and practice that avoid the common flaws of: biblical literalism, doctrinairism, sentimentalism, moralism, institutionalism, ineffective witnessing to the core truth of the Christian revelation, and social neglect of economic injustice., ecological devastation, racism, sexism, and more. I am assuming a victory over all these obsolete cultural elements through creating a movement that features a better culture. A new style of theologizing is one aspect of that better Christian culture.

I am using the term “theologizing” rather than “theology,” for I want us to be clear that the theoretics of a vital next Christianity needs to be an ongoing thoughtfulness, rather than a settled “theology.” Nevertheless, there are theological qualities and methods that need to be observed, if we are to have a vital next culture of Christian religion of the sort that I am assuming when I employ the term “a next Christianity.

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The Darkest Day of the Year and the Virgin Birth

Medieval Christianity wrapped almost everything in a Christian ritual: birth, adulthood, vocation, marriage, death, the first day of the week, the seasons of the year, even the hours of the day.

The original Christmas rituals wrapped the darkest day of the year with the birth of a tiny light in this very dark season of Advent judgement—a single candle, a new star in the midnight sky, a tiny babe born in extreme poverty, an intrusion of something dangerous to the dark powers of degraded government. Even this inconspicuous tiny beginning of hope, the powers of darkness sought to kill.

The good-news narrative of Matthew envisioned the true wisdom of the world coming to visit this birth. And the good-news narrative of Luke envisioned poor nighttime sheep keepers joining the party.

This has been an especially dark Advent season for me. The biggest, richest, greediest corporations on the surface of the planet are doing cartwheels of delight over the president-elect of my nation, a man who claims that the climate crisis is a hoax. But I groan in grief that adequate action to moderate the most horrific crisis humanity has ever faced may be still further delayed. In addition, I see the prospects for relieving poverty and low wages being neglected and billionaires. further empowered I also see backward motion on finishing the overthrow of our unacknowledged and unconfessed minority enslavements and patriarchal oppressions.

I even groan over the unconsciousness of the population of my own Texas county, of my own mostly good-hearted neighbors, 1 out of 2 of whom did not even vote, and of those who did vote, 4 out of 5 voted for the dark side. Such are my surroundings as I light my Christmas candle on the darkest day of the annual calendar,

All rituals are, of course, sort of silly. It is only the darkest day in the northern hemisphere, and those Medieval ritual makers missed December 21st by four days. But silly rituals can sometimes point beyond themselves to the dynamics of life that matter most. So what is this tiny Christmas hope all about?

Our first good-news narrative, accredited to someone named “Mark,” did not tell of a baby’s virgin birth, but of a “heavenly” second birth of a poor roof-repair man being doused by a wild man in the waters of the river Jordan. Both John and Jesus apparently gave this ritual the meaning of washing away the cruel darkness of grim estrangements gripping that out-of-the-way religious people of ancient origins. When in Mark’s story, Jesus came up out of that washing, the very heavens announced him as another real threat to the evil powers of the world. Being such a hope for the downtrodden and such a peril to the establishment hypocrites drove Jesus to undergo a long fast, in which he grappled with his possible vocations. In the wilderness, alone, with only wild nature and enigmatic angels to comfort him, Jesus decided to take on his dangerous vocation. This was Mark’s new birth of hope. The rest of Mark’s narrative reveals the “secret” of this new hope. And here it is. When we die to our clinging to all our temporal devotions, we are left with the resurrection of our authenticity.

The fourth good-news narrative, accredited to someone named “John,” told of a “virgin birth” that can happen to any of us who choose to join Jesus in his mode of living.

What then is this “virgin birth” that anyone can share? Well, it turns out that it is simply this: When we die to our clinging to all our temporal devotions, we are left with the resurrection of our authenticity. When that has taken place, we are born of Final Realty—freed from our parental upbringing and open for the real future we face. This is the virgin birth. This is the hope of Christmas. This is the core healing of the dark powers of the world, and the dawn of the Final Commonwealth of Ultimate Realism.

How is this so? If by this “virgin birth” we are freed from the powers of the past and open for the future, whatever that future may be, we are participating in the solution to any and every cruel problem that needs to be solved.

For example, here is the virgin-birth contribution to the moderation of the climate crisis—dying to the need for fossil fuels and open for a future with only sunshine to power the lives of the many billions. This will include more dying and openness that goes along with the climate crisis. We will need to die to having billionaires and grueling poverty, and be open for an economic justice that includes everybody—blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, greens, women, men, and any other color or gender or culture.

It may seem strange that all this begins with a few million virgin births, but that is just the way it is. Without these virgin births the same old karma carries us into the abyss of disintegration and total despair. But when the millions and billions share in the virgin birth, anything is possible. When the virgin born say, “Move!” to our mountains of wrong, those mountains simply move. The demons will cry out in wild backlashes, but they are on the wrong side of realism. Reality always wins in the end. The virgin born get to choose how they would like for Reality to win. The cosmic power that the virgin born breathe and live, can enable these surprising but ordinary folk to claim the victories that they are willing to live and die for.

Sure, the future will be a surprise, for many other forces are at play than the historical forces of the virgin born; nevertheless, the future will be very different because the virgin born live their lives and do their doing.

For more 21st Century theologizing on these core topics, I recommend the following essay on the controversial topic of “God” and Part One of my revised commentary on the Gospel of Mark:

The “Death of God” Conversation

http://www.realisticliving.org/PDF/0NextChristianity/1GodDeathResurrection.pdf

Mark Commentary: Part One
Cross and Resurrection

a commentary on the last three chapters
of the Gospel of Mark

http://www.realisticliving.org/PDF/MarkCrossResurrection.pdf

Certainty

A good philosopher of real life begins with what he or she can know with some certainty. We know that we are stuck in time. We have come out of a now absent past, we are in some sort of continuing now, and we are now facing an unstoppable future. We have no perfect knowledge of that past, we only have fragments of memories and factual research open to many different interpretations, all of which are fragmentary at best and delusory at worst. We anticipate a future that we know will be a surprise in many, or even most, of its aspects.

So, we don’t know where we have been, or where we are, or where we are going. We do have images and perhaps careful thought and plans about all of that, but none of those rational products provide certainty. The sheer MYSTERY of it all is our only complete certainty.

Christian faith includes trusting that very MYSTERY that anyone and everyone can know about and have certainty about if they will only admit their ignorance and stop assuming total certainty for their models of thought with which they express and exclude aspects of that MYSTERY. This strange certainty that there is no complete certainty graspable by a human mind is, paradoxically, a type of certainty that we can absolutely count upon.

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Prayer Always Works

Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.

In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.

Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.

Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:

“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)

God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.

Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.

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Spirit Penetration

In the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we see Jesus engaging persons whose personality habit is to think that he or she knows what is good and what is evil.  Some come to Jesus complaining about what he does on the Sabbath day.  Jesus penetrates their personality with sayings like, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”  Or they express their shock and revulsion that Jesus is eating meals with tax collectors, riffraff, and other Jewish lawbreakers.  Jesus says to them, “It is the sick, not the well, who have need of a doctor.” 

One of the best stories about penetrating a moralistic personality is the story in which Jesus is having a meal and a discussion with a Pharisee who invited him for a visit and apparently has a modicum of interest in Jesus and his wisdom.  While they are there at the table, a woman comes in and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair.  The Pharisee recognizes her as a woman of the streets who has probably made her living providing bodily comforts to the male population.  He is repulsed that Jesus is permitting such a woman to touch him.  Jesus recognizes the Pharisee’s feelings and asks to speak to him.  The Pharisee consents, and Jesus tells a story about two men who owe another man a debt.  One of them owes a big debt and the other a small debt.  The lender forgives them both.  Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which one do you suppose will love the lender the most?”  The Pharisee gives the obvious answer that it is the one who owes the most.  Then Jesus points out that this woman whose sins are very great is showing great love.  He also points out that nothing comparable is being shown him by the Pharisee.  Then Jesus makes this penetrating remark, “Her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” (Luke 7:47)  The Pharisee is left to ponder whether his harshness toward the woman and his lack of love for Jesus indicates layers in his own life that need forgiveness.

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Mono-devotionality

The word “monotheism” has experienced some disrepute among recent theologians and secular philosophers.  Nevertheless, H. Richard Niebuhr gave this old term “monotheism” some new life in his breakthrough book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

Too often overlooked is Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” in biblical writings does not point to “a being,” but to “a devotion”—that the word “theism” or “God” is a devotional word, like the word “sweetheart.”  Niebuhr holds that the Hebraic Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as Augustine, Luther, and thousands of others use the word “God” to mean a devotion to a source of meaning for our lives.   Luther was very explicit about this: “Whatever your heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly termed your God.”

So, if we view the syllable “theo” in the word “theology” to mean a devotion rather than a being, then “theology” might be termed “devotionology.”  “Monotheism” becomes “mono-devotionality.  “Polytheism” becomes “poly-devotionality.  And “henotheism” becomes “heno-devotionality.”

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The Cost of Realism

Psalm 23 has been a favorite Scripture of many people, but it has often been cheapened through a sentimentalized understanding of the word “God” or “Lord.”   The richness of this Psalm only appears when we view this “shepherd” as the Reality that creates, sustains, and terminates all realities, as the Reality that we confront in all the ups and downs of our daily lives.  So here is my very slight rewording of this Psalm in order to emphasize its original meaning:

Reality is my shepherd, so I lack nothing.
This shepherd provides green pastures,
and leads me to peaceful drinking water.
This Ground-of-all-being persistently renews life within me,
and guides me step-by-step on the path of righteous realism.
Even when I walk through a valley dark as death,
I fear nothing, for the Great Shepherd is leading me.

Dear God, my shepherd, when Your staff pushes me
or Your crook holds me back,
I see these actions as my comfort.
Indeed, Oh Final Mystery, You spread a picnic for me,
even in the presence of my enemies.
My head is anointed in Your oil of honor.
My cup of aliveness runs over.

So I say to all of you here listening:
Goodness and love unfailing will attend me,
all the days of my life,
and I shall abide happily within this Enduring Wholeness
my whole life long.

Continue reading The Cost of Realism

A Larger Language

“I had begun to form a philosophy of existence that demanded a larger language than the scientific one I had concentrated on for the last few years.”

This is a quote from a book, Crossing the Unknown Sea by David Whyte, (page 75) and it states exactly what was happening to me at age 20 as a senior in college in 1952.

In order to share with you the depth of this shift, I need to brag a bit about my accomplishments in mathematics and physics at that tender age. I had taken every course in mathematics that was offered in my high school and made an A in all of them.

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