Posts Tagged ‘dualism’

1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Theism is generally the belief in a god (or gods) who exists in some higher (supernatural) or hidden (metaphysical) location, supervising human affairs. A god may be more or less directly involved with these humans (commonly called believers or devotees). There is typically a reciprocal relationship between believers and their god, where worship, offerings, and obedience are directed toward the deity in exchange for protection, blessing, and perhaps beatitude in the next life.

Early polytheism entertained a variety of deities – and devils, who were mischievous or malevolent deities – representing the forces of nature and concerns of cultural life. When the Mosaic revolution in Judaism rejected the existence of any god but Yahweh, something had to be done with them besides simply dismissing them out of hand, along with their diabolical counterparts.

One solution was to preserve the existence of these other deities and devils, but demote them to subordinate status as angels and demons. A variant of this was employed later, in the idea of a divine council assisting Yahweh in his administrative duties. As a member of this heavenly committee, Satan was depicted as “the adversary” who tested the faith and loyalty of Yahweh’s human subjects (as in the literary example of Job).

At about this same time (sixth century BCE), a prophet known as the Second Isaiah suggested the more radical idea that Yahweh is the only one behind the “weal and woe” that humans experience. For this writer, having one supreme cause behind everything that happens was a way of giving meaning to the universe and all possible events. This was his way of answering the national tragedy of exile by the Babylonians (587-538 BCE).

Eventually, however, the generally accepted solution to the problem of good and evil was a dualistic one. God was put in charge of the good (blessing, prosperity, salvation) and Satan was moved out of the heavenly boardroom and into his own nether region, where he orchestrates the cause of evil (iniquity, calamity, and damnation).  As a messianic movement within Judaism in the first century, Christianity carried forward this dualism, joining it to an apocalyptic expectation of a fast-approaching end of the world.

Wherever we may stand on the issue – one god with several angelic and demonic ministers, a single supreme will behind everything, or a polarity of agencies in the war of good and evil – the key to remember is that all solutions are efforts to make meaning of what human beings sense, suffer, care about and hope for. Truth is not really a question of accuracy, but therapy in helping people work through the challenges and opportunities of life.

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COLOSSIANS 3:1-4

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

If you have been raised …  This requires us to shift our thinking about resurrection from an end-time event, or even a postmortem event, to something that Paul looked for in the here-and-now. It’s very likely that this letter to the congregations in the region of Colossae was not written directly by the apostle Paul, but instead by a successor in the Pauline tradition of early Christianity.

The letter amounts to a defense (called an apology) against the tendency toward Gnosticism in the Greek streams of Christian development. While much about Greek culture was a celebration of the body, physical beauty, and the sensual enjoyment of life, the influence of Greek philosophy – particularly under the guiding theory of Plato and the Orphic tradition – emphasized acetic discipline of the body, renunciation of animal passions, and eventual escape of the immortal soul from its mortal coil.

Some strains of Gnosticism advised early Christ-followers to deny the physical reality of Jesus, suggesting instead that he was truly a spirit-being in mortal disguise – that his body only seemed to be real but was only an illusion. He didn’t really die (since he wasn’t mortal), except to the minds of the ignorant who were spiritually blind to his essential truth. The career-path of Christ only appeared as Jesus in order to capture our devoted attention and carry it away from the material realm and ultimately out of this world.

                                                                                           

The reader will recognize that orthodoxy Christianity eventually went in a “gnostic” direction – emphasizing immortality over resurrection (more on that in a bit), soul over body, afterlife over this life, and, since woman’s body is so deeply entwined with the rhythms of earth, moon and natural time, also male over female, reason over passion, doctrine over experience, and meaning over mystery.

Even the apology of Colossians illustrates the challenge early Christianity had in preserving its Hebraic origins as it accommodated to the wider Greek culture (the future of its expanding empire). The contrast of “above” and “below” might suggest a logic of dualism, which can easily slip into Gnostic assumptions and convictions.

Jesus and his initial revolution had germinated in a different value-context, particularly when it came to the appraisal of creation, matter, body and time. For the Hebrews, these are not corrupt, evil or illusory. Instead they represent the manifestation of divine glory and the embodiment of God’s sacred purpose.

For the Hebrew, resurrection represented the sanctification of flesh, to the point where the expired physical reality of the body is renewed and becomes again an epiphany of the spirit. But it wasn’t about getting the departed soul back into its carnal container – which is how a Gnostic would see it, and with considerable disgust. The Greek problem was due to the fact that its worldview and anthropology (view of human nature) were dualistic; a “reunion” of soul and body would be going in the absolutely wrong direction.

The Hebraic view, however, saw body and soul as essential aspects of a single mystery – the living person. In this value system, resurrection is the symbol of healing, communion, wholeness and authentic life. As we contemplate the witness and example of Jesus, as we follow him to the cross where he died in solidarity with God’s love for the world, we can also step with him into New Life (what he called the Kingdom of God) as awakened, compassionate, and generous human beings.

ROMANS 5:1-11

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul was the architect of an early and influential doctrinal system in the Christian movement, before there was a centralized authority, official canon of scriptures, or singular tradition to identify it. We need to keep this in mind because even though Pauline theology would significantly shape and determine the emerging orthodoxy of the later empire of Christianity (known as Christendom), as he writes he is just one of several creative voices in the early Christian conversation.

Paul’s acquaintance with Jesus of Nazareth was not by way of a personal relationship with the Galilean, nor does he seem to have known much at all about the teachings of Jesus that were circulating by oral transmission in and around Jerusalem. By his own confession, Paul had encountered a light and/or a voice (the accounts differ) that identified itself as the living spirit of the crucified Jesus.

Following this encounter, and after a lengthy retreat of some years where he worked out its theological foundations and implications, Paul began an aggressive missionary campaign throughout Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and established numerous congregations under his unique Christian brand.

Paul’s brand of Christianity was marked by some strong dualisms: law-versus-gospel, merit-versus-grace, works-versus-faith, and (containing all the rest in horizons as big as God himself) wrath-versus-love.

Here’s a summary of how he put it all together:

  1. Jesus was condemned under the Jewish law for living according to the will of God, which effectively rendered the Law useless as a definition of righteousness.
  2. In raising Jesus to life again, God provided a way of salvation outside of the Law, which also means outside of religion (Judaism) and “religious” requirements.
  3. One has only to identify with Jesus in faith and be filled with his spirit, the spirit of Christ.
  4. By that identification and total surrender, a person is saved from judgment (wrath) and reconciled to God.

One far-reaching implication of Paul’s brand of Christian mythology was its bold disregard for ethnic, class, gender or even religious divisions. All people – Gentiles and not just Jews, slaves and not just free citizens, women and not only men – are the beneficiaries of God’s gracious offer in Christ Jesus. This also explains his untiring passion for the missionary spread of Christianity throughout the world.

Whatever may be said about the limitations of Paul’s theology, and there are some significant ones, his vision of a world united by the revelation of God in Jesus was a game-changing revolution in early Christianity.

                                                                                                   

We might try to reconstruct the process that could have inspired and guided the apostle Paul in his invention of Christianity – or at least his brand of Christianity. Much about it is very different from other developing streams in the first-century movement.

His explanation of how Jesus was lifted to divine status when he was “declared son of God by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4) is different from the storyline of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, where this happens at his baptism by John in the Jordan, or, according to the similar storylines of Matthew and Luke, at his conception inside a virgin mother. The Fourth Gospel moves this cursor to the very beginning of creation, with the divine Word of Genesis becoming flesh in Jesus.

It’s important to understand that these are all metaphors, worked out in some cases into elaborate myths. Probably none of them have roots in the teachings of Jesus. The impulse to begin expanding the meaning of Jesus into stories about him began very early on, and we should not be surprised.

But there may be something that traces back into the gospel of Jesus himself. Paul’s conversion experience apparently turned on the pivot of a breakthrough realization, which for him translated into a very personal calling: the good news of human liberation and new life is for everyone.

As a “deep insider” of a rather puritanical sect of Judaism (Pharisee), Paul experienced the transforming power of Jesus’ gospel. It reached into the tight knot of his religious convictions with a revolutionary message of universal grace, radical love, and unconditional forgiveness. The knot loosened and Paul was forever changed.

In conscious defiance of religion’s own tendency toward exclusion and “salvation management,” Jesus’ gospel – now conferred to Paul as his appointed “apostle to the Gentiles” – put the invitation out to any and all who would listen. This universal offer and world-wide evangelistic vision, perhaps more than anything else about the early Christian trajectory from Jesus to Paul, contributed to the movement’s dramatic burst on the first-century cultural scene.