Tag Archives: Faith in God

The Creator of Christianity

For my Realistic Living Pointers this month, I am using part of the introduction to a new book that I am publishing on our Realistic Living blog site.

The Creator of Christianity
a commentary on the Gospel of Mark
by Gene W. Marshall

The entire book can be purchased for $10 on this site:

https://realisticliving.org/blog/

While you are there, look around. We are also publishing the 8 spirit talks that Gene gave at the June 2018 Realistic Living Summer Program, plus Study Outlines for the above book, The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is by Jon Bernie, and Dangerous Years by David W. Orr. All this is in addition to the recent Realistic Living Pointers posts.

So here is the first part of the

Introduction

to the Mark Commentary.

Living in Aramaic-speaking Galilee twenty-one centuries ago, Jesus and his first companions constituted the event of revelation that birthed the Christian faith. But without Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of cross and resurrection for the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jewish culture, we might never have heard of Christian faith.

Mark, whoever he was, lived during the lifetime of Paul and was deeply influenced by Paul. In about 70 CE, Mark, like Paul, was a major turning point in the development of the Christian religion. Mark invented the literary form we know as “the Gospel.” This remarkable literary form was then copied and elaborated by the authors Matthew and Luke, and then revolutionized by John. These four writings, not Paul’s letters, are the opening books of the New Testament that Christians count as their Bible (along with the Old Testament). “Gospel” (Good News) has become a name for the whole Christian revelation.

We might say that Mark was the theologian who gave us the Christianity that has survived in history. The Markian shift in Christian imagination was important enough that we might even claim that Mark, rather than Paul or Jesus, was the founder of Christianity. However that may be, Mark’s gospel is a very important piece of writing. And this writing is more profound and wondrous than is commonly appreciated.

Of first importance for understanding my viewpoint in the following commentary is this: I see the figure of “Jesus” in Mark’s narrative as a fictitious character—based, I firmly believe, on a real historical figure. I do not want to confuse Mark’s “Jesus” with what we can know through our best recent scientific research about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. For our best understanding of Mark, we need to view Mark’s “Jesus” with the same fun and sensibility we have toward Harry Potter when we read J. K. Rowling’s novels about this unusual character.

In other words, Mark is the theologian that we are reading in the Gospel of Mark, not Jesus or Paul, and not Luke or Matthew or John. Mark is himself an unusually clever writer and a profound theologian. This truth is fundamental for understanding this commentary.

What do you think about Mark being the creator of Christianity?

How is it important to you that the historical Jesus of modern scholarship differs significantly from the Jesus of Mark’s narrative?

What is Theology?

Not all religions have a theology, but Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do. Buddhism has Dharma sutras and many Dharma talks that are still being given today. These thoughtful efforts of the Buddhist religion are something like a theology. It is fair to say that all religions have a “theoretics”—something that its members do to reflect upon the core topics that characterize that religion’s ongoing community of thoughtfulness about their life together, their message, their mission, as well as their religious practices and ethical guidelines.

Christian theology begins its thoughtfulness with reflections upon a specific event (a specific complex of happenings in history). The happenings that constitute this “event” are understood to reveal the profound essence of every event in human history. That event has been given the name “Jesus Christ.” An ordinary first century man named “Jesus,” understood to be the “Messiah,” was viewed as a revelation about living in an ultimate devotion to the Ultimate Reality that we encounter in every event of our personal lives, and in every event of our social history.

Judaism does something similar in its theologizing, but in this case the core revelatory event is “The Exodus from Egypt of a collection of slaves plus their revolution in law-writing.” Islam also treasures a revelatory event—in this case, “the Advent of Mohammad as a Messenger of the One Ultimate Creator of all things and events.” Obviously, in each of these religious groupings, there is good theology and bad theology, depending on whether those theological reflections appropriately reflect what their revelatory event revealed about the essence of living a human life. Good theology also depends upon whether a particular bit of theological thoughtfulness has resonance with living people in their contemporary settings.

This commentary on the Gospel of Mark intends to be “theology” in the sense just defined. I prefer the word “theologizing,” for I see Christian theology as an ongoing process of a community of people. My contribution to the ongoing process of Christian theologizing may be minor or large, but that is not entirely up to me. The community of those who are grounded in the Christ Jesus revelation will value or not value, preserve or not preserve, my contributions to the ongoing theologizing process of those who are captivated by the Christ Jesus revelation.

I see myself doing a radical form Christian theologizing. It is “radical” because this thoughtfulness is my attempt to return to the “roots” of the Christian revelation from the perspective of a radically contemporary understanding of the nature and role of religion in human society.

“Religion,” as I now understand that word, is not a set of stable doctrines and moralities allied with a once-and-for-all finished set of solitary and communal practices. The only stability that a religion has is its radical root. Religious doctrines and moralities, as well as religious practices are all in flux. Today, that flux is huge for every religion on Earth. The sort of Buddhism that is sweeping the North American continent is not stuck in the ruts of previous centuries. It is a fresh, creative accessing of ancient roots. In Christianity we are seeing something similar. I count this commentary part of that fresh effort to see the Christian revelation with new eyes and to hear this “good news” with new ears.

How in your life have you participated in Christian theologizing?

Whose theologizing has helped you most with your own?

The Death of a Metaphor

Some members of the Christian community speak of “the death of God” or even “the end of theology.” In this commentary (and in all my theologizing), I take the view that “the death of God” does not refer to an end of all use of the word “God,” I choose to understand “the death-of-God discussion” as pointing to the end of something temporal—namely, the obsolescence of an ancient metaphor of religious thinking held in the word “transcendence.” For 2000 years Christian theologizing has used this familiar metaphorical narrative: a vivid story-time imagination about a transcendent realm in which God, angels, devils, gods, goddesses, and other story-time characters are living in an other-than-ordinary “realm” and “coming” from that “realm” to “act” within our ordinary human space and time. That is metaphorical talk. Being metaphorical, however, is not the problem. The problem for us today is the obsolete quality of that double-deck metaphor.

I am using an alternative metaphorical system of religious reflection in my mode of Biblical interpretation. I view our ordinary lives as well as our profound lives as participants in “One” realm of being. This “One Reality” has a depth that is invisible to both human eye and mind. I am using the capitalization of “Realty” to mean something different than our mind’s sense of realty. Reality is a “Land of Mystery” that the human mind cannot fathom. This profound depth of Reality shines through the passing realities of time that are visible to eye and mind. This Invisible Eternity can be said to “shine-through” temporal events. An ordinary bush can indeed burn with Eternity. An ordinary human being can indeed glow with the Presence of Eternity. But this Eternity is a not another space that is separate from our ordinary space/time of living. Furthermore, this fresh view of Eternity does not imply a contempt for the temporal realm. Rather, it implies a fulfillment for each and every ordinary temporal event of our lives. Each temporal event has an Eternal depth or glow or burn. Eyes and ears alone cannot grasp our profound humanness and its Eternal connection. Only our enigmatic consciousness can “see” the Eternal, and this “seeing” is an internal experience that is “seen” in absolute solitude.

In this fresh context the words “ordinary” and “extraordinary” are viewed as mere categories of human perception. We live in One, and only One, realm of Reality with many temporally viewed aspects. Among these many aspects, we can speak of this basic polarity: the impermanent and the permanent—the temporal and the Eternal. This polarity is not in Reality itself, but in our human consciousness of Reality. Temporal and Eternal are both aspects of our one experience of one invisible One-ness that our minds cannot comprehend.

And this One-ness is not seen by eye or mind. We do not “see” One-ness directly. One-ness is a devotional category that means that we are devoted to serve all aspects of our Real experience, rather than viewing the Real as part friendly and part enemy. From this One-ness point of view, the only enemy is our own and other humans’ estrangement from the One Reality within which our own persons and all other persons dwell.

This One-ness viewpoint within Christian faith is not a denial of the diversity of our experiences of the Eternal or of the temporal. Differentiation and multiplicity obviously characterize our temporal lives. Multiplicity also characterizes much of our God-talk. In the God-talk of the Bible, there are many angels or servants of the One that express and carry out the actions of the One. But this One-ness is maintained in spite of the many-ness that is understood to be aspects of the Eternal, sourced from this One-ness. In the opening verses of the Bible, the One God says to some angels, “Let there be light!” and this was done by the One’s many servant forces. Such poetry was intended to preserve the One-ness of Reality, not to fragment the One-ness of Reality that is fundamentally worshiped in the life of Christian faith.

How has it been hard or liberating for you to give up the old double-deck metaphor?

What has been your struggle with devotion to One Ultimate Reality?

Power

Many authors today have often contrasted the power-to do things for people with power-over other people. Indeed, there is deep contrast between the use of our power in service of others and the use of our power to gain status for our selves or as a means of oppressing others for our own benefit and sense of worth.

Nevertheless, power-over is not in itself evil. Parents have power-over their children. This benefits the children, if such power is well used. Our political leaders (however they are selected) are granted power-over a wide scope of citizen life. Such political power can also be used in service of the citizenry, and such power can be misused very badly.

Power is an important factor in all social actions. As Paul Tillich spelled out in one of his most creative books, there is no Justice without Power and there is no Justice building Power or empowered Justice without Love (Tillich, Paul; Love, Power, and Justice).

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Giving Back our Gifts

The traditional model of Christian sainthood goes all the way back to Abraham. Actually, it goes all the way back to the stories of Abraham and Sarah. The fragment of historical truth beneath those stories refers to ancient migrations from what is now Iraq to Palestine—events that happened centuries before these biblical stories were written down.

Central within the Abraham and Sarah stories is a story about Abraham’s journey to the top of a mountain to sacrifice Isaac—his only son, the son miraculously given to him and Sarah in their advanced age. In this strange story, Abraham is giving back the gift of Isaac, who was Abraham’s only evidence for a promise made to Abraham by the Giver of Isaac—a promise to make the descendants of Abraham and Sarah as numerous as the sands on the sea shore.

Centuries after the Exodus from Egypt, when these stories were being widely told, written, and read, this promise to Abraham was still not realized. The Hebraic people who claimed Abraham as their forefather were not yet numerous. Today, we might assume that all the Jewish people, all the Christian people, and all the Islamic people are somehow descendants of Abraham. If so, then Abraham’s descendants are indeed in the billions. All these people are not biological descendants, but they are at least people who remember Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. Only a few of these billions, however, embody Abraham’s model of sainthood.

Why should we honor the Abraham stories or his model of sainthood? These stories are fiction after all, and rather gross fiction as well. And especially, why all the fuss over this strange story about human sacrifice? Why did a fully sane and renowned 19th century philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, write a whole book about this story?

This essay will be much simpler than Kiekegaard’s book. I am going to reflect on one idea: “Giving back to Reality all that Reality has given to us.”

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The Revelation of Moses

What happened to those slaves that Moses led out of Egypt?  Why do we remember an event that is centuries more than 3000 years old.  Furthermore, this event is now covered with layers of story, myth, and interpretations to the extent that any scientifically historical accuracy about what factually happened is obscured in all the fuss that has been made about this event.  Let us suppose that the following bare-bones approximation of the outward historical facts, gives us an impression of what we need to guess in order to begin understandings why this event was revelatory—yes, revelatory of the nature of every event that has ever happened or ever will happen.

Here is my guess:  An unusually aware, sensitive, and perhaps educated member of the Hebraic slave community was moved to lead a significant number of his Hebraic companions out of a severely hierarchical Egyptian society into the wilderness where a new vision of law-writing was established that was based on a vision that the Mysterious Realty allows free action to change the course of history.  This was a huge shift in life interpretation for these Egyptian enculturated slaves—so huge that it took Moses and others 40 years, so the story goes, to wash Egypt out of this people and prepare them to fight for a more promising place on Earth for their revelation and their emerging peoplehood.

A more personally rooted story-time rendering of this transformative event begins with how a man named Moses got so angry over a member of his people being mistreated by an Egyptian soldier that he killed that solder, and then had to flee to the out-back into a life in hiding.  Then one day, so the story goes, Moses came upon a bush that was blazing with a strange type of fire.  Temporal bushes burn up, but this bush was not being consumed.  It remained the same old bush in spite of this strange conflagration. This was surely a bit of Moses’ poetry for a very real inner happening to Moses himself.   His own “who-he-thought-he-was” was being burned up, yet he was not consumed.

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Uses of the Word “God”

A Definition of Theology

“God“ is a relationship word—a word of devotion similar to sweetheart, lover, friend, rock, foundation, shepherd, mother, father, and other such words of devotion.  When  we call the Final Mystery “God,” we are making a religious confession.  If we are not making a religious confession, we do not need the word “God.”  We can get along without the word “God” or any word like it, unless we are a self-conscious Jew, Christian, Muslim, or a member of some other religious community that uses ”God” as a devotion word—as a relationship word for the Final Mystery.

Honestly living within today’s culture, we find no heavenly realm of rational meanings that humans can access to make sense of the absurdity of a Big Bang Beginning, or of an evolution from the single-celled organisms that mysteriously arose on this minor planet of a marginal star in one of the hundred billion or so galaxies.  The sheer Mystery of this vast expanse and of the infinitesimal minuteness of  this physical cosmos is not made less Mysterious by presuming a First Cause or an Ongoing Creator of all this wonderment.  As a solution to scientific meaning or contemplative awareness, the word “God” is not needed for any rational solution.
If we call this Final Mysteriousness “God,” we are making an act of will, an act of devotion, an act of commitment, a leap of trust.  Trust of this Final Mysteriousness does not alter the fact that we still know absolutely nothing about this Mystery— nothing with our scientific research and nothing with our contemplative inquiry.  We know things, but all that we know is approximate and changing.

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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.

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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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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