Thursday, March 5, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part I: On Having To Do With Yahweh Alone

Over at Slate, David Plotz has a wonderful article (and ongoing conversation) about reading the entire Hebrew Bible start to finish as a secular Jew, an "irreverently curious" account of which will be released soon as The Good Book. In the article he tells of the great literary insights drawn from nearly every page of the biblical text, as well as of his ultimate "coming down" on where to stand regarding the God portrayed in the Bible. The article is laudatory for a number of reasons, not least his remarkable honesty about his feelings toward a God he finds "awful, cruel, and capricious." Yet both as a Jew and as a human being, he doesn't see a way out from somehow dealing with this/a God, and from dealing with these difficult texts -- he may not "believe in" this God, yet he belongs to a people and a tradition that places him in a stance toward Whatever it is that stands above and below and behind the universe, and there is no option other than to continue to struggle. One thinks of Plotz's ancient father Jacob, who wrestled with God by the river Jabbok -- Jacob being, of course, Israel's namesake.

(Note: Incidentally, I had the good fortune of working at the library on Monday when Bill Smee called to ask about our digital archives of Christian images. As one of the Executive Producers of the video they put together for Plotz (the third link above), he was calling to get authorization to use the images, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to tell him my high regard for Slate; I didn't actually put together that Plotz's article was connected to that call until I saw the video this morning.)

Immediately after finishing the article, I sent Plotz an email commending him for such an incredible witness. The God we know in the people Israel and in the person Jesus of Nazareth, I am sure, gladly revels in such honest engagement and sharing. That is, Plotz takes seriously Yahweh the God of Israel; and I am convinced that is a great bulk of what it means to respond to God faithfully.

To step beyond Plotz's conclusions, however, I want to explore further what it means to "believe in" or even to "choose" to be with or for this God, the God of the Bible. Obviously I do not land where Plotz lands, partially because I find Yahweh revealed in the apocalypse of Jesus, whom I confess in the cross and resurrection as both Messiah and Lord; and partially because, while I appreciate his honest sketch of Yahweh's character, I see those characteristics in a somewhat different light. Regardless of these differences, I would like to (gently, respectfully) take issue with the way in which Plotz construes his "options." (In subsequent posts I will take up other points of interest raised by Plotz in his articles.)

Primarily, I want to address the imaginative construction of choices Plotz sees laid before him. This seems to be a product of post-Enlightenment rational individualism: I have read the Bible myself; I see x, y, and z options before me; I shall choose for myself what to believe. Plotz actually seems to set aside this way of formulating the problem, but it remains that this is an excellent presentation of what many Americans imagine when they think of "faith" or "religion." A set of options -- the religious buffet line -- and picking and choosing what sounds good, or what resonates with the heart, or what promises the most. It is difficult, in this line of thinking, to imagine evangelism in particular as anything other than laying out the pieces of verifiable information on an individual basis and allowing individuals to make their minds up about it; that is, whether to intellectually assent to whatever set of propositions have been set forth. Then, upon the confirmation of intellectual assent, this is called "faith."

Liberals and conservatives alike do this. Each group has aspects of the historic and biblical beliefs of the church that make them uncomfortable, and so they ignore them or wipe them away. Put simplistically, liberals forget orthodoxy and conservatives forget orthopraxy. It is a hard task indeed to find a Christian equally, or even mostly, committed to both.

Reading the Bible, though -- and especially the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament -- this concept of "faith," of the autonomous individual's personal "choice" to "pick" the God, or aspects about God, to "believe in," could not be more foreign. The biblical symbiote for faith, rather, is peoplehood. The faithful Israelite does not "choose" to "believe in" Yahweh: the Israelite belongs to the people of Yahweh. The son or daughter of Abraham is born into a family, a people, that worships the one true God, and to belong to Abraham's family is to belong to the God of Abraham's family. In blessing or curse, in peace or war, in life or death, there is only One with whom Israel has to deal: Yahweh. Put another way, there are no other options for "religious life" or for "spirituality" or for "faith." Peoplehood defines faith.

This is why the Shema is so important: Hear O Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. As the Decalogue similarly says, There is no other besides me. What does it mean to obey Yahweh, to worship Yahweh, to live in the way of Yahweh? Be Israel.

I realize that this explanation strikes against quite a few modern liberal chords (liberal meaning classical liberalism, as in, liberal democratic society as governed by Enlightenment principles). We want to say that this is unfair, that it is playing favorites; or that it excludes free will and the gift of choice; or even that it is immoral to connect birth and genealogy with religious truth. (The New Testament addresses some of these questions, though I caution any fellow Christians to give a fresh study to election, faith, and peoplehood in the New Testament as well. Israel's ecclesiology, so to speak, is not left behind.) Such modern concerns are understandable, but they simply do not register with the witness and memory of Israel as recorded in the Hebrew Bible.

So what does this all mean? First, it casts away any notion of our autonomy to choose our self-imaged gods. Yahweh turns over the tables of the religious buffet line.

Second, it helps us better to understand what it means to be God's people, Jew or Christian. Christians believe that in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and in his installation as Lord of the cosmos, the doors of Israel have been flung open to all the nations -- even Gentiles, non-Jewish peoples. This eschatalogical act accomplished in the cross of Christ has abolished the hostility between Jew and Gentile and made out of them one new people: the church. The church lives down through history, by the power of the Holy Spirit, witnessing in its communal life to the radical love demonstrated in the life of Jesus, living as a sign to the world that the triune God has triumphed over the powers of sin, evil, injustice, and death which held all of creation in bondage. The same God who raised up Israel out of Egypt raised Jesus from the dead and has raised all of creation out of deathly slavery. Jesus's resurrection is the sign of the coming new creation, fully liberated, fully restored, in which all will be made new and there will be no suffering. The people who follow the risen Lord Jesus, the community of his resurrection, is the church; and to belong to that people is to belong to the community of faith. To be born into this people is to be baptized: that is, to be adopted into the family of Abraham. And thus to worship the one true God of Israel, Yahweh.

I got carried away there a bit. As I sometimes say, it is hard to tell only part of the story; the whole picture is necessary at times to see the broad vista of God's plan in history. Which leads to the third point in rethinking "faith": like Israel, for the church there is only one God with whom we have to deal. Christians start shifting in their pews when much of the language of the Old Testament pops up in church largely because it is such a powerfully honest book. Rape, murder, genocide, politics, suicide, polygamy, incest, slavery, theft, deceit, poverty, oppression. And Israel does not hold back when speaking about or toward its God: they let him have it. The most common type of psalm in the book of Psalms is the lament. The lament is a complaint. Again, Israel has no Other to turn to, so they take everything to their God -- praise, anger, thanksgiving, vengeance, everything. It is also why we have such a hard time understanding evil in the Old Testament: to paraphrase Jon Levinson, Israel does not seek to explain away evil, Israel wants Yahweh to blast evil to bits. Which is also why above I placed Plotz in the long line of Yahweh's interlocutors in Israel's history. Abraham talked God down on destroying Sodom; Jacob wrestled God by the river; Job argued with God in the whirlwind; the Psalms tussle and pull with God with every fiber of their being. To know God truly or faithfully, says Israel, is to wrestle with him. And no less with God's texts.

We find ourselves, therefore, not deciding which parts of God are moral, which to keep and which to lose; neither do we wrap up this particular God into some kind of divine Ether that floats around, which we somehow "tap into" spiritually. Instead, we find ourselves as part of a people, as part of a texted tradition surrounding a book that tells us who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. There is no other to whom we can turn; we have only this God, this Lord, this Spirit. May we accept the invitation, not to turn away or think we can break him up, but to face him, to know him, and to struggle.

No comments:

Post a Comment