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The Old Testament – Timeless wisdom or old, outdated operating system?

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps...

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps from Tunisia, found in Iraq: part of the Schøyen Collection. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Old Testament is a Christian name for the books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a problematic term because Jewish people could easily find it disrespectful of their holy scripture.

The designation comes from a Christian perspective with the unabashed implication that the New Testament fulfils the Old Testament, rendering the latter imperfect and somewhat lacking. This way of viewing the so-called Old Testament is found within Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity.

In Christianity, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments seems confusing. I had one professor who argued that Christianity’s biggest mistake was to try to incorporate the Old Testament into the new religion. They should have just started afresh, he felt. I think this perspective lacks appreciation of the Jesus story. The “new” religion gains a certain depth and continuity by including the Old Testament. However, problems do arise, which theologians and preachers try to resolve in various ways.

The most notable difference between the Old and New Testaments is God’s apparent encouragement of violence and animal sacrifice in the OT but not in the NT. Sometimes, that is. The OT God doesn’t approve of all sacrifices, as we see with Cain and Abel. And sometimes he punishes doers of violence, if that particular violence is not in keeping with his Holy Agenda.¹

Also, the NT says we should live by the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.² Living by the letter of the law “kills” it. The OT, by way of contrast, lays out strict and fairly detailed laws as to how the righteous should behave. This difference in rules and regulations also applies to what and when we eat. Somehow the Catholic Church forgot this, and started making new rules of regulations about eating. But many modern Catholics see this as unimportant.

As for adultery and sexual lust, Jesus of the NT raises the bar here. You can’t even think about it without being sinner; whereas in the OT actually doing it is the sin.²

A representation of Saint John the Evangelist in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue on July 31, 2010 in New York City.

Some Christians make no apology for calling the Old Testament the Old Testament. For them, it’s just another instance of unwarranted political correctness to pretend that all religions are of equal value. The New Testament, again for them, is better. So why, they argue, water things down by pretending otherwise? But again, their Holy Bibles contain the Old Testament. So there’s a lot of room for debate here.

¹ Both the OT and NT, however, are sexist and often simplistic—especially in the NT with regard to nutritional needs.

² These are just some of the differences that came to mind while revising this entry; this is not an exhaustive list. The NT also emphasizes forgiveness while the OT prescribes the famous, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” kind of reactive punishment for wrongdoings. Follow this link for more perspectives.

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The Son, Catholicism and its Critics

English: child Jesus with the virgin Mary, wit...

Child Jesus with the virgin Mary, with the Holy Spirit (represented as a dove) and God the Father, with child john the Baptist and saint Elizabeth on the right (Wikipedia)

In Christian theology, the Son is part of the Holy Trinity. The Christian Trinity refers to the belief that God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit form a co-equal, co-eternal mystical union.

Jesus, the Son, is fully human and fully divine. Not a few alternative Christianities claim or have claimed that Jesus wasn’t fully human or, alternately, that he wasn’t fully divine. These views were aggressively branded as “heresies” by the early Church Fathers, most notably Tertullian, a presbyter from Carthage (a Roman province in occupied Africa), and Irenaeus, the Bishop of the Roman occupied Gaul (what is now Lyon, France). These two men expended a great deal of energy denouncing anyone who didn’t see things the way they did.

Concerning the orthodox version of the Trinity, so vigorously proclaimed in the early Church, each of the three parts is defined as a “person.” It remains somewhat mysterious as to just what this means.¹

Another issue with the idea of the “Son” as part of the Trinity is its supremely masculine character. Many feminist writers have taken issue with this, forwarding notions of “The Goddess” to counterbalance what they argue is nothing more than an unsavory remnant of patriarchal oppression.

Some Christian theologians counter that God is beyond gender, a position outlined in the Roman Catholic catechism. But to many, this still falls short.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung believed that the Catholic dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1950) was a step in the right direction. Jung believed that Catholicism trumped Protestantism in this area because it was promoting much needed feminine symbols to communicate the numinous. But again, to many feminists, calling Jesus’ mother Mary the “greatest saint” or “Mother of God” does not compare to her son’s status as “God.”

The discussion here can get complicated, and I don’t pretend to have any answers, myself. It’s probably most productive to remember that God is a mystery. The mysterious aspect of God is something which, again, the Catholic authorities do recognize.

Some critique Catholic notables who believe they are divinely inspired or, at least, in a privileged position to make firm, even cutting, statements on pressing issues.² The more forceful critics say that worldly power has gone to their heads, and they lampoon the notion that Catholic authorities have a pipeline to God.

From a sociological perspective, it’s also worthy to note that because Catholic authorities belong to a group which enjoys social power, the current version of psychiatry does not designate them as mentally unsound. But if it were an individual saying “I know what God wants,” most, if not all, psychiatrists would probably see this as a mental disorder and possibly prescribe medication to dampen down their “delusions” or “magical thinking.”

History reveals that the individual is often persecuted. And some believe that today’s conventional Church in some ways carries on that tradition of insulting, bullying and marginalizing people who are different. This claim is ironic considering that Jesus, the individual, was persecuted within a similar dynamic.

¹ Wikipedia outlines the standard theological wording, but it doesn’t really help much.

² Recall the Pope recently saying that Donald Trump is “not Christian.”



Hartwig HKD – Bonsai Moon via Flickr

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the idea and belief that one can experience a sudden flash of enlightenment in which all the conventional dualities of ‘love and hate,’ ‘good and bad,’ ‘beautiful and ugly’ are apparently transcended.

Those claiming to have experienced satori talk about the importance of living in the present—hence popular spin-off catchphrases like “Be Here Now” (cleverly satirized in the otherwise vulgar film, The Love Guru).

There are different understandings about what satori really means. Some say that a greater kind of love and compassion follows the destruction of smaller ideas about love and compassion.¹ But satori usually is a somewhat cooler idea about surpassing the discriminating intellect.

One can’t help but wonder if some enlightened masters would, perhaps just as quickly as they gained enlightenment, lose their cool if their followers suddenly stopped funding them.

The Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki champions Zen while casting aspersions on core Christian beliefs about Jesus dying on a cross. For Suzuki, religion is largely about aesthetics. And he says it’s distasteful to the Japanese mind to think of God dying in such a gruesome way. He also writes extensively on satori but admits to never having experienced it.²

Related » Koan

¹ This should not be confused with the Christian ideas of eros and agape because the latter involves a selfless service to God. And the entire idea of an absolute God is absent or seen as unimportant in Zen. See D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and D. T. Suzuki in C. A. Moore, The Japanese Mind.

² Suzuki, himself, says that the idea of satori differs from Christian mysticism. The latter, he claims, is disconnected from everyday life. This demonstrates how Suzuki misunderstands the subtle workings of Christian mysticism, which reaches out to others through intercessionIbid.

On the Web:

  • Mel Van Dusen presents the talks of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.”

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Serenity Prayer

Scott Shatto Peace Church

The Serenity Prayer is a Christian prayer written in 1943 by the American Protestant theologian and man of letters, Reinhold Niebuhr, here in its most familiar form:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

In 1951 Niebuhr added the concept of “grace” to the opening lines, which I think was an unnecessary clarification. Wikipedia also notes that the prayer didn’t come out of nowhere. There are many antecedents throughout the world’s wisdom literature. Also, and quite interestingly, there was even a case of plagiarism with this prayer. Quite ironic considering the subject matter! For details see the excellent Wikipedia entry.¹




Search – “Wisdom” via Tumblr

When someone seems to know through insight, intuition and experience how best to act or how things will likely work out, we say they’re wiser than those who make superficial, snap or conventional judgments.

Wisdom may or may not involve academic, specialized, scientific or factual knowledge. The intuitive aspects of wisdom may involve revealed, infused, illuminated, transpersonal or transcendent knowledge—that is, knowledge that saints, mystics and seers from many different religions say extends beyond the usual understanding of space and time.

name lost in internet. Seems to be Mystic Marr...

Name lost in internet. Seems to be Mystic Marriage of Christ and the Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea of wisdom has been debated among religious traditions. Hindus, for example, might see Christians as slaves to externally imposed dogmas and rituals that seal them in ignorance, while some Christians may see the works of the devil binding Hindus to false or incomplete beliefs that deny or ‘water down’ the belief that Christ is the only Messiah.

Even within a given religion, opposing viewpoints can be found about the nature of wisdom. Fundamentalist Christians, for instance, often react strongly against the deeper aspects of Christian mysticism. In fact, some Fundamentalists go as far to say that all mysticism is Satanic.

drifts ...item 1.. Grand Jury's indictment add...

Photo credit: marsmet53 via Flickr

The Protestant Josh McDowell seems to lean in this direction. In his book The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, McDowell notes that there are many types of mysticism but only discusses the alleged errors of the “pantheistic mysticism of the East.”¹ More importantly, his discussion equates the term ‘mysticism’ as if it only applied to Eastern mysticism, particularly that of Zen Buddhism.

McDowell’s argument overlooks the plain fact that a mature discussion on mysticism applies to a wide variety of religious experiences, along with the key question concerning their transcendent origin and ethical orientation. In fact, Catholics and some Protestants take great pains to differentiate interior experiences that are from God and those that are not. Moreover, mystics can variously describe God as being wholly other or as some kind of natural or pantheistic consciousness.

¹ Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999: 643-658.

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Apollinarius (The Younger, 310-390 CE) was an early Christian teacher whose views on Christ were condemned as heresy. He and his father, a grammarian, rendered the Old Testament into a poetic form reminiscent of ancient Greek verse and Platonic dialogues. This was done after the Emperor Julian forbade Christians to teach the classics.

But Apollinarius’ sense of innovation didn’t stop there. He argued that Christ and God were one and that this doctrine should be taught to the people. This might sound similar to what some Catholic priests say in passing today, but it’s very different when we look at the finer points of Catholic theology.

For Apollinarius, Christ’s human spirit was replaced by the divine Logos. As such, Christ couldn’t morally develop during his lifetime because he was already perfect. This view denied Christ’s human side. It was rejected by an orthodoxy believing that all of humanity could not be saved unless God was partly human. The movement spearheaded by Apollinarius, called Appollinarianism, could only redeem the spiritual but not the natural aspects of humanity.

English: Stephen Hawking being presented by hi...

Stephen Hawking being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA’s 50th anniversary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The distinction between spirit and human nature continues today. More generally, it takes the form of a broad distinction between spirit and nature. Some see these two ideas as identical and others don’t. A new wrinkle in this issue is the subatomic physics observation that matter can behave like energy and vice versa. This development has lead many to speak of “matter/energy.”¹

Although Apollinarius became Bishop of Laodicea (360 CE), he was condemned by the synod at Rome (374-380 CE) and the council of Constantinople (381 CE).

¹ The centuries-old theological idea of immanence means that spirit comes into or dwells within matter but matter and spirit remain qualitatively different. This idea is found within the Catholic Holy Spirit and with variations in many world religions. Now that subatomic physicists see matter as matter/energy, it doesn’t follow that matter/energy is necessarily the same as spirit. But not everyone sees it that way. Recent observations in subatomic physics seem to have given some, like Stephen Hawking, confidence in believing that they can speak meaningfully about God and spirituality. But Hawking’s confidence seems to be more about his exceptionality in conceptual thinking than in any kind of advanced mysticism. Accordingly, his remarks arguably fall short when he speaks to ultimate meaning and purpose. However, one can’t help but admire how he’s overcome adversity, as well as his treatment of complicated scientific ideas—especially when illustrating new theories about space and time. He’s also to be commended for asking the big questions, which many people never even bother to think about.



Early Christians celebrating Communion at an A...

Early Christians celebrating Communion at an Agape Feast, from the Catacomb of Ss. Peter and Marcellinus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In literary circles the Greek term agapē (Latin: caritas) refers to the ideal of universal love, especially charitable Christian love among brothers and sisters of the one human family.

As C. S. Lewis suggests in his book, The Four Loves (1960), this type of love is distinct from matrimonial, emotional, passionate-erotic and friendly love.

For many Christians, agape also refers to the institution of the Eucharist, introduced by Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is often connected by Christians with the Jewish Passover meal, an event signifying, among other things, fellowship.

Christians also stress that the Eucharistic meal is not just a celebration of fellowship. For believers in the Eucharist, agape is a “love feast” involving a genuine participation in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The rite is said to pierce through space and time and be sanctified from heaven.

Agape feast 04

Agape feast 04 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Believers also say the Eucharist is not a mere symbol nor memorial; rather, the host is essentially if not visibly transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

The roots of the Eucharist are traceable to ancient Greece and Rome, where it was believed that deceased ancestors partook of food and drink offered at funeral feasts. Somewhat like the Eucharist, this was not just a memorial feast but an active celebration of the living and the dead.

The Wikipedia entry on agape says that the earliest use of the term agape didn’t bear any particular religious connotation.

Although the word does not have specific religious connotation, the word has been used by a variety of contemporary and ancient sources, including biblical authors and Christian authors. Greek philosophers at the time of Plato and other ancient authors have used forms of the word to denote love of a spouse or family, or affection for a particular activity, in contrast to philia (an affection that could denote friendship, brotherhood or generally non-sexual affection) and eros, an affection of a sexual nature.¹

¹ This Wikepedia entry may seem less “biased” and more “objective” than a Christian theological view. But it’s arguably biased in its own way.

Related Posts » Consubstantiation, Eros, Philia, Transubstantiation