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A JOYOUS JEREMIAD?
Ross Douthat has recently written the book “Bad Religion”, essentially a lament about the back sliding gentile parishioner. A pious yet vigorous defense of the past more stringent moral standards of the Christian ethic expected and practiced. Leaving mainly an “ accomodationist” standard that he decries, but definitely not a “holier than thou” nose nose up the air supercilious approach. Douthat, however, definitely fears that the trend today veers toward an uneasy too permissive territory, hence the subtitle, “How We Became A Nation of Heretics”. Our enterprising author, however, despite his ominous intimations, does take a more positive tone against the somewhat dread manifestations of the permanent religious crippling spiritual malaise of agnosticism and even worse---atheism. “Yet, perhaps this vision does not give heresy enough credit….. Heresy was always orthodoxy’s grumpy but indispensable twin….Christian faith needs heresy, or at least the possibility of heresy, lest it becomes something rote and brittle, a compendium of doctrinal technicalities with no purchase on the human soul…the pull and push of competing heresies may be precisely the thing that holds the Christian edifice upright.”
The end of the devastating second world war, when over a hundred million people were killed, is grim evidence that the world was indeed not a very pleasant place with a benign Deity in place above. Indeed, around then a “death of God movement” attracted attention, among both Jew and Gentile. For the Jews of course, glaring sufferers of the Holocaust atrocity of over six million killed, a divine, caring God then was indeed a hollow mockery. But a rebound emotionally, and financially, soon ensued. Relative prosperity after World War II became a most welcome occurrence. Also many competing secular thrusts came to the fore. Increased promiscuity due to the sexual revolution and the increased prominence of the role of women in all their various social and economic roles. The troubling celibacy confine, too, that the priesthood compels. And the shocking childhood sexual resulting tangle. Also, “the God Within” a chose your own Jesus mentality. “That encourages spiritual seekers to screen out discomfiting parts of the New testament and focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial.” This increasing emphasis, according to Douthat, our dissenting spoilsport, accentuates the heretical aspect. And the most successful current example is Joel Osteen, the prime exemplar of the divine concurrence of capitalism and Christianity. Douthout has a much more favorable opinion of the evangelist Billy Graham who did not over emphasize the profound embracing of Christ as the hallowed path; that customary good works and compassion were still part of the picture to redemption and salvation.
“The refashioning of Christianity , however, to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in a marriage of God and Mammon”.
“As much as any trend in contemporary belief, the success of this message suggests that modernity and religious faith not only coexist but actually reinforce each other-----so long as modernity means American capitalism and religion means the Christian heresy that has made Joel Osteen rich and famous”.
There are many names along this “heretical” pseudo Jesus route, starting with genuine evangelism and then veering off, from Billy Graham thru New Thought, a blend of positive thinking—including “positive” prayer. Prominent was Mary Baker Eddy, and her Church of Christ, Scientist and L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, which left theology completely behind.
However, as a sympatheticc non believer, I am somewhat bemused by all this heresy guilt. My testament, the Hebrew Bible, contains much downright heresy material. The first chapter, in the Beginning, starts off quite majesticly, and in six days all the great and sublime work of earth’s beginnings was accomplished. On the seventh day the Lord God rested. “God saw all that He had made and found it very good.”
The very next chapter, however, contains doubt and discord. The Garden of Eden is created and the Lord caused every tree and plant to grow and “He created man from the dust of the earth”. Other key creations were, in the center of this idyllic garden, were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. And the Lord God said that of “every tree of the garden you free to eat, ;but from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it but as soon as you eat of it you shall die”
And also the Lord God said “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him……..So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and while he slept He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man……(who said)..this one at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh….this one shall be called Woman. …..and from man was she taken. Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.
Happy managers of this idyllic Garden were they, until the malicious serpent slinked along and persuaded the first woman,-- Eve—to eat an apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Adam, her husband, following her urging, also ate. “then they perceived they were naked; they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.” Soon the Lord God, “moving about at the breezy time of day” discovered them hiding, ashamed of their relative nakedness, which they, in their unease, tried to disguise with fig leaves. A most wrathful God condemns all three miscreant participants; the dignified serpent is a mere crawling reptile, who can be trodden upon, but very carefully, of course! To the female-- Eve-- God said, I will make more severe your pangs in child bearing. In pain shall you bear a child. Your urge shall be for your husband. He shall rule over you”. The Lord’s parting words to Adam were very harsh. “ By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat. Until you return to the ground. From it you were taken. From dust you were , and to dust you shall return.
And the Lord God made garments for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.”
Also “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing the good and bad, what if he stretched out his hand to take also from the tree of life and live forever!” And Adam and Eve were banished from the garden of Eden, which was closed forever.
This beginning, as is most of the rest of the Hebrew and New Testament Bibles, is common to both the Jewish and Christian people. The interpretation can be quite different, however. Gentiles look at this as mankind’s’ prime example of sinful, guilty fallibility. Needing God’s grace to continue as a guide for their existence and help for ultimate survival--and redemption And thus we have the coming of their ultimate savior, Jesus Christ , God’s only son—the Messiah--- whom the Romans crucified. Jews, however, believed in the actual doing of good deeds(mitzvoth) here on earth for mortal salvation. While mankind was capable of corruption he was not basically a corrupt creature. His was a constant struggle between his good impulses( the yetzer tov) and the evil impulses( the yetzer hara). And that God was waiting hopefully for humanity to do the right thing. Not to be hurtful to anyone else—and to be “my brother’s keeper”. The so called “golden rule”
Also that Jews had a great respect for the tree of knowledge in the middle of Eden, and always for the potential that intellectual improvement would enhance greatly their life style prospects. Not merely shepherds and herdsman in a bucolic, static life. But one that offered some challenge for possible growth and reward. Jews have generally been known as “people of the book”, specifically for the Hebrew Bible, which is quite long and sometimes didactic, but still a mostly fascinating read. Indeed Jews have always been, perhaps, inordinately proud of their Jewish bookish and intellectual inclination. The somewhat shameful snobbish joke, still lurking in the air is----- the prime difference between Jews and Gentiles? ----- Only the Gentiles buy retail! The major heresies in the Jewish past history and probable pre history are large and small. The most catastrophic was the was a the the story of Noah, the ark that Lord told him to build the story of the world wide flood because the Lord God was most unhappy with mankind’s universal corruption.
More significant, of course, are the more current events detailed in the book of Exodus, the second book of the five books of Moses, the holy Jewish Torah. Therein is detailed the infamous golden calf heresy, at the Mt. Sinai, wherein open rebellion is confronted. But first the Israelites must traverse the wilderness of the Sinai desert. And this became a forty year ordeal because of the doubts and actual hardships in this very wearisome journey; many times they tested both Moses’and the Lord’s leadership, wanting to return to the “fleshpots of slavery” of Egypt again. Indeed, when he returned after his long stay with the Lord receiving all the laws and ten commandments----approximately 40 days--- the people were in open rebellion, having commanded Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make them a golden calf to worship. On that frightful day of return from his extensive most elaborate conference on Mt. Sinai with God, Moses marshaled loyal adherents to the Lord God killing over three thousand idolatrous, heretical rebels.
Eventually these rebellious elements were contained and the Jews gradually conquered Canaan, the “Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey”. And they repelled the invading Philistines from the north under their first king, Saul, and under David, and under the renowned King Solomon raised Israel to the status of a small “empire” as Egypt(south) and Assyria,(north) were each relatively weak. Indeed, he received annual tribute from many smaller neighboring tribal leaders. His fame had indeed spread to southern Africa and led to the Queen of Sheba’s famed visit to Solomon’s court in Israel.
. Solomon, however, to achieve his worldly wealth was evidently using some oppressive measures against his own people, such as conscription of labor for public works programs. But most noxious were all the foreign women Solomon consorted with. The Bible states that the Lord told Solomon “I will tear the kingdom away from you and give it one of your servants for you are following gods of other nations”. Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines! And Solomon allowed them to use their foreign religious rites on Hebrew soil. Civil war resulted and the hitherto powerful state was much weakened, just as the Lord God told Solomon would happen because of Solomon’s apostasy. Thus, after Solomon’s death civil discontent led to the split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the much smaller southern kingdom of Judah, maintaining some prominence due to its site as the most holy temple built by Solomon.
The northern kingdom of Israel had the leadership of King Ahab and his infamous wife, Jezebel, an ardent worshipper of the Canaanite god of Baal. Indeed, the true Jewish priests of the temple which were in the southern country in Judah were said to be in hiding in Israel, the Northern country of Ahab, the apostate Jewish King and his Phoenician very ardent Baal worshipping wife, Jezebel.
The story of the confrontation of the solitary, raggedly clothed Elijah and the 450 priests of Baal as to the real power—The Lord God or the pagan gods of Baal—is quite dramatic. All day the Baalim danced and wore exotic costumes imploring their gods to set fire to the waiting altar they had set up with a slaughtered bull. All in vain! Then Elijah steps forward and prays simply to the Lord God at the waiting alternate altar and dead bull. Fire and lightning flash down from the skies and consume the Israeli dead bull and altar, bricks and all. Elijah seizes the moment and orders the death of all the priests of Baal and then prays for rain to end the famine that a three year drought had caused. Rains do fall and the famine is no more. But Jezebel is still undaunted and Elijah has to flee before her wrath. Ultimately he encounters the “still small voice of God” and even a bit later is swept up to heaven in a flashing chariot with powerful steeds. While his loyal following watched in awe his ascent, still a mortal sentient live being. To this day, at the crucial Passover seders the cup for Elijah is filled but unconsumed. While the conventional toast now “next year may we drink in Jerusalem” can now be realized, the daunting question of Netanyahu, the current Israeli leader, being the new Moses is still most unsettling. We have survived beyond Hitler and Stalin but can we survive beyond the growing restive, creeping anti Semitism world wide, with only the United States as the only firm base of support? And the Jewish base in our country also somewhat stagnant? Not so much heretic but indifferent?
But God is still waiting in the wings, of course, still waiting hopefully for the yetzer tov to be transcendant….for all humanity --at last!