Think Free

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Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Ancient innovation to overcome legalism

Rembrandt - St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Rembrandt – St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Paul’s Letter To The Romans is an important book of the Christian New Testament.

Most Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that it was written by the apostle Paul c. 56 CE., probably in the Greek city of Corinth.

Paul’s writings have a certain depth because he was not only traditionally ‘educated’ but also a former persecutor of Christians. His dramatic conversion while riding to Damascus gives him a unique credibility among contemporary believers.

In Letter To The Romans Paul writes to a specific community he is planning to visit. His message is clear. The Old Testament laws are holy but strict, legalistic adherence to them does not guarantee spiritual salvation.

Early Christians have metaphorically died to the old Jewish law and are reborn in the faith of Christ. With a pure heart set on Jesus, good thoughts and actions arise through God’s grace.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.¹

For Catholics, this means one is not saved through faith alone. Believers also must do the right thing before God.

Paul arrested - Wikipedia

Paul arrested – Wikipedia

The difference between Paul’s vision and the early, Old Testament approach is that good works are “alive” and adaptive in contrast to just doing what we’re told through a given set of rules and regulations.²

Put another way, Christians ideally live well from the inside, responding appropriately to a variety of complicated life situations. They do not simply obey from the outside, responding in a fixed way for every circumstance.

Paul’s letter also breaks new ground by saying that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ.

Salvation also includes women, who, in ancient times were not always too visible. About one-third of Romans’ greetings are to women. This may not be 50% but it is a significant step considering the ancient world mostly ignored women as equals.

¹ Romans 7:6

² (a) Historically, rabbis have debated the meaning of the Law coming up with different interpretations. I’m not sure if any interpretations have approximated Paul’s message. If any Jewish scholars know, please comment! I’d be interested to hear. (b) For some, it is ironic that the Catholic Church has adopted so many rules and regulations while, at the same time, upholding Paul’s position that the letter of the law “kills” while the spirit “lives” – 2 Corinthians 3:6.


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Elizabeth – The Mother of the Last Great Jewish Prophet?

Statue of the Visitation at Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel via Wikipedia

In the New Testament, Elizabeth a daughter of Aaron, wife of  Zechariah and the mother of John the Baptist.

Among Christian theologians and homilists, John is often spoken of as a link between the Old and New Testaments. He’s the last of a long line of Jewish prophets who announces the coming of someone so great that he, himself, is “not worthy to untie the strap on his sandals.”¹ That person, of course, turns out to be Jesus of Nazareth, who goes on to become the founder of the world’s largest and most international religion.²

A nice New Testament story is one that also becomes part of the Catholic Holy Rosary as “The Visitation” of the Joyful Catholic Mysteries.³ This is the tale, true or not, that the unborn John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when the pregnant Mary, bearing Jesus, comes to visit.4

This story reminds me of several studies, true or not, suggesting that the unborn get used to and turn out smarter if they hear classical music through their mother’s abdomen. 5

But in the case of John and Jesus, I would also think that these two babies, being who they were, would be especially spiritually sensitive. So quite possibly John leaped in the womb because he could sense the presence of Jesus. Not so much because he heard Mary’s voice. However, John’s reaction could have been prompted by both auditory and spiritual factors—if the story is true, that is, and not just a pleasant religious tale fabricated by early enthusiasts to advance their religious beliefs.

Most of us have heard the tale about the angel coming to visit the teenager, Mary, giving her the choice to be the mother of a miraculously conceived Jesus. But not quite so popular is a parallel story about an angel coming to visit Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah:

But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born (Luke 1:13–15).

Again, is this just good religious storytelling or did things really happen in parallel as written? While scholars and religious people argue this point back and forth, for me the answer, like most things in life, ultimately comes down to belief.

Sadly, the human story ends miserably for both John and Jesus. John is beheaded at the hands of Herod Antipas who grants the cruel request of his step-daughter Salome and her mother. And Jesus dies on a cross after willfully submitting to a complex political web involving the Jewish religious leaders in Israel, some of an assembled mob, and the occupying Roman authorities. I say the human story ends miserably because, according to the belief, both of these figures endure in unimaginably great heavenly places, beyond time and space as we know it.






Related » Hail Mary Prayer

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Fundamentalism – Can we escape interpretation?

English: William Jennings Bryan, full-length v...

William Jennings Bryan, full-length view standing on stage, delivering campaign speech, another unidentified man seated to the rear of the stage. A portrait of Bryan from some years earlier is seen at bottom left. c. 3 July 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea of Fundamentalism refers to religious or political groups adhering to a rigid, traditional interpretation of their particular belief system.

In Christianity, some fundamentalists seem to believe that they take the Bible literally. But as human beings it is arguably impossible for any religious person to escape the interpretive process.

It seems reasonable to say then, that fundamentalists adhere to an interpretation of scripture that they suppose is literal but which is selective and slanted to suit a particular psychosocial agenda.

A similar critique could be leveled against Christian liberals and other denominations.

The current split between Fundamentalism and science has deep roots, going back to the Scopes trial of 1925 in which Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan argued for a Biblical view over Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bryan’s campaign fought for banning evolutionary theory from American classrooms.

As for Islamic fundamentalism, the Oxtord Dictionary has this to say:

Islamic fundamentalism appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries as a reaction to the disintegration of Islamic political and economic power, asserting that Islam is central to both state and society and advocating strict adherence to the Koran (Qur’an) and to Islamic law (sharia)

Skip O’Neill, a leader of the fundamentalist Church of Bible Understanding’s branch here. November 12, 1976. (Photo by Jerry Engel/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)

More recently, the term fundamentalism loosely refers to any kind of strict cultural preference. So we have Hindu fundamentalists who insist on the historicity of their sacred myth, Star Trek fundamentalists who accept nothing after TOS, Disney fundamentalists who maintain that anything after hand-drawn cartoons are bogus, and so on. These types of fundamentalists hearken back to a supposed “original” or “golden age” within whatever activity inspires them.


Related » Galileo Galilei, UFO

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Herod Antipas

Herod Antipas » John the Baptist

This post needs content. Why not help us get it started? Please remember that copying and pasting large amounts of material from Wikipedia (or some other online encyclopedia) is not what is about. We want a fresh view, from you… not from your copy and paste editor!


Michael Clark, Ph.D.

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Herod ‘The Great’

Herod ‘The Great’ » Hero

This post needs content. Why not help us get it started? Please remember that copying and pasting large amounts of material from Wikipedia (or some other online encyclopedia) is not what is about. We want a fresh view, from you… not from your copy and paste editor!


Michael Clark, Ph.D.


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Protestantism – Another take on the Biblical Jesus

The Apprentice Boys March of the Orange Order leads through a street in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The march, which involves the playing of traditional Orange songs such as ‘The Sash My Father Wore’, celebrates the ending of a seige on the town by the Catholic army under Lord Antrim in April 1689. An earlier attempt to hold the city was foiled by a group of 13 apprentices, hence the name of the march. Catholic protests against the march in 1969 led to stone throwing and rioting and partly towards the IRA terror campaign of 1969-1994. The 1995 march took place against protests that this kind of provocative behaviour should not occur in the light of the ongoing peace talks.

I didn’t always have a keen interest in religion and spirituality. Growing up as a kid, I was pretty average and didn’t belong to a churchgoing family. Weekends were mostly spent cottaging or skiing. And that really left no time nor interest for sitting in a stuffy old church on Sundays.

Things changed, though, and I became increasingly interested in psychoanalytic and, soon after, numinous issues. This led me to India where I did a Masters in Comparative Religion. Because, however, I had virtually no religious background, I remember being caught off guard by an Indian professor who once asked me, “Are you Protestant or Catholic?”

“Uh… I was baptized in the Anglican Church,” I replied after quickly remembering what my parents had told me. So walking home from class I mused, I guess that makes me a Protestant.

In other words, I hardly knew the difference or, at least, never really gave it much serious thought. I was far more interested in Asian religions at the time. Christianity just seemed so wooden and non-experiential.

Again, things changed and I actually converted to Catholicism in 2001. But that’s another story. And today I am far from an uncritical Catholic, believing – or pretending to believe – in all the teachings piped in from the Vatican. In fact, I have evolved so much since converting that I only hold the core of Catholicism close to my heart. All the rest, all the hypocrisy and clannish thinking, well, I had to let it go.

Some may say I’m a “fallen away” or “lapsed” Catholic. But I’d just say that as I grew in spiritual maturity, the confines of the Church became more of a hassle than a help.

So with that personal preamble, I’ll jump to what I wrote about Protestantism several years ago:

Protestantism is a Christian movement that separated believers from the Catholic Church and its Papal authority in the 16th and 17th centuries.

A Protestant is a member of a Church that follows regulations formed during the Reformation. And today I would add… Important figures in the Protestant Reformation are John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli.

And that’s about all I have to say on the topic. I don’t find it very fruitful to enter into debates about “who’s right” because, frankly, I see both Protestant and Catholic teachings as only partially right. So why get into all the fuss of heated debates? I think many who do that are really working out their inherited biases and unresolved complexes, all under the mask of being righteous and holy.

In my case, I find it liberating to finally say what I really think rather than hold back out of fear. As a new Catholic, I knew I didn’t agree with everything. But I feared that if I said so, they’d kick me out. I admit, I wouldn’t like it if that happened today. But as Elton John sings,

And you can’t go back, and if you try it fails
Looking up ahead I see a rusty nail
A sign hanging from it saying, ‘Truth for sale’
And that’s what we did, no lies at all, just one more tale
About the captain and the kid


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Ptolemy the polymath

Engraving of a crowned Ptolemy being guided by the muse Astronomy, from Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch, 1508. Although Abu Ma’shar believed Ptolemy to be one of the Ptolemies who ruled Egypt after the conquest of Alexander the title ‘King Ptolemy’ is generally viewed as a mark of respect for Ptolemy’s elevated standing in science. – Wikipedia

Ptolemy (circa 90-168 CE) was an Egyptian polymath who lived in Alexandria while enjoying Roman citizenship. His encyclopedic work on astronomy became the accepted standard for scholars and scientists right up to the 16th century, and came to be known as the Almagest (The Greatest).

He was also a mapmaker supreme, amalgamating all the cartographic knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. Things tended to change slowly in the ancient world. So centuries later, Christopher Columbus relied on Ptolemaic maps for his voyage in search of a western route to Asia, in which he unintentionally found the Americas.

In addition, Ptolemy advocated a musical scale that involved octaves and precise mathematical ratios. And his work on perception, especially visual perception, laid the groundwork for subsequent optics theory.

His geocentric (Earth centered) model of the universe pleased the scientifically backward and  authoritarian Christian clergy because it didn’t obviously conflict with ancient Hebrew conceptions of creation as portrayed in the Bible. People being an impressionable lot that usually follow the herd, this geocentric view dominated public thinking for centuries until the heliocentric (sun centered) theories of Copernicus, and later Galileo, put everything in a new light.

A printed map from the 15th century depicting Ptolemy’s description of the known world, (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver). – Wikipedia

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