“God is a concept by which we measure our pain” – John Lennon

Through the ages mankind has defined and redefined its concept of God. Mine has its roots in western Christianity, and through this site I'd like to examine it and other world religions - past and present. By studying the history and roots of religious beliefs I hope to gain a better understanding of their place in my world today – and what life and the concept of God means to me.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Death of God

“God is dead” is a widely quoted phrase that became very popular in the mid 1960s. It was the rallying call of a movement known as Radical Theology, and although it never attracted a large following and disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, it got a lot of press coverage. It was a statement that was tailor-made for journalistic exploitation, and in the uproar it created, the actual meaning of the phrase and the movement’s goals were misunderstood.

The origins of this ‘60’s cultural phenomenon can be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche, who originated the concept in the late 1800s. This is what he wrote:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? - Nietzsche, The Gay Science

What he was saying wasn’t that God was physically dead, but that he had stopped being a reckoning force in people’s lives, even if they didn't recognize it. Even then, the phrase was misunderstood. People thought he was exulting the concept, when in fact he was lamenting it. Nietzsche was saying that humans were drifting away from a believe in a cosmic order, and that without it universal values and moral laws would also slip away. To solve this eventual problem, a re-evaluation of the foundations of human values was needed. For Nietzsche, these foundations were deeper than the Christian values that most people refused to look beyond.

This is what the founders of Radical Theology picked up on. In the 1960’s, Nietzsche’s concept on the relationship between modern man's loss of the sacred and eroding universal values had become manifisted in society. People were no longer flocking to church, and they no longer accepted ‘divinely revealed truths’ without question. It seemed to some that the moral decay evident in society was directly traceable to this. Their response was a quest for a radical revision of Christianity in a secular age. Basically, they sought to reconstruct Christian beliefs for the modern world.

The problem with this new theology was that every spokesperson for it had a different solution. There was Jesus as the model human being who acted out of love and whose faith would be celebrated in an open church-community. In this view, God no longer stood apart from Man, challenging him to follow a divine path - he simply represented self-giving love. A ‘Sea of Faith” group attempted to work out the practice of their faith within the context of their new religious understanding while still seeking to retain the accepted 'structures' of the Christian faith (prayer, worship, God, salvation, grace, etc.). Others reflected Eastern views and saw God as something within us, but the emphasis was on this world and not anything beyond. What each group was attempting was to answer the question, 'What place does God have in my life (or in society) today?'

In retrospect, too many ideas with too little a following quickly led to the demise of this movement. The real significance was that these modern theologies, by giving up the essential elements of Christian belief in God, had logically led to what were really antitheologies. The Christian masses misunderstood and/or dismissed the concepts presented. When the death of God theologies passed off the scene, the commitment of some to secularism remained, and manifested itself in other forms of secular theology in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Although taken out of context here, it would seem that the general public of the 20th century was more inclined to accept a different widely quoted phrase from the late 1800’s. It was Mark Twain who said “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Jesus and Mary Magdalane

For several years now, ever since Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” became a bestseller, there has been much speculation concerning the marital status of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Now, with the movie about to come out, the topic is again popular. So what is the evidence for and against? And why is it so hot a topic?

Part of the problem is that nowhere in the New Testament is it stated that Jesus was celibate or married. If one looks at the context of the times in which Jesus lived, an unmarried man was considered incomplete. Typically, all Jewish holy men – teachers and prophets alike – were married. It would have been highly unusual for a recognized rabbi (teacher) to be single. Originally, Christianity was a Jewish spiritual movement, and Jesus primarily taught Jewish individuals. Bearing that in mind, it would have been easier for students to accept that Jesus was married than to accept a rabbi unwilling or unable to sustain a marriage.

On the other hand, Jesus was not technically a rabbi, nor did he portray himself as one. The apostles addressed him as such to say he was their teacher, not because he held any kind of official Jewish office. The Jews asked Jesus 'by what authority' he did certain things because he did not hold any kind of formal office within Judaism. He did not have an official position that would have permitted him to do things like act within the temple (Mark 11:28). As far as the Jewish leaders were concerned, Jesus had no recognized role within Judaism.

One reason the question of marriage with regards to Jesus is a taboo subject among modern day Christians because it implies sexuality. In the 2nd Century, however, the theological reasons were different. There was a tradition among various heretical sects back then that Jesus was married. It was taught that Jesus Christ symbolically entered every critical stage of human existence and sanctified it. Since family life, including sexuality, is central to our lives, it seems logically consistent with the mission of a Savior to redeem and sanctify this aspect of our experience, as well.

In response, Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria believed that a married Jesus was inconsistent with His role as the Savior of the world, not that marriage would have Him sinful, but rather, that His mission was too demanding and heavenly to allow Him the opportunity for marriage.

It was only later when the Catholic Church’s dogma became more established that the ideas of the marriage and offspring of Jesus became taboo topics due to their inconsistency with church doctrines (a celibate priesthood, ritual defilement of seminal emissions, etc.).

The true answers here cannot be known. If you know where to look, you can find biblical ‘evidence’ supporting both views. What is truly interesting here is the fact that as time has gone by our ides of Jesus have changed. In the early church there was much discussion as to the very nature of Jesus. Was he a man, or the son of God? In the Islamic tradition he was a great prophet – but definitely not God on Earth. Traditions grow and change with the times. So how important is it to know the facts? Are they threatening? Would they change what you believe? Would they change your belief in God itself?