Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Romans as written to diaspora Judean ethnoi

The more I read my commentaries, the less satisfied I am with them. Not Jewett, really, or Deibler's Semantic and Structural Analysis, but Esler and Witherington and socio-rhetorical analysis that proceeds on the notion of Christianity being a live -- if nascent -- option in the field at the time. Jews and Gentiles and a presumption of conflict with "Jewish opponents." To riff on Jay, "Did'jou know Paul was a Jew?" (NSFW) Of course they do, but much depends on how you take that "was," what you think Paul was doing as an apostle, and how you construct his world. So I've gone off looking for things that make sense in post-Neusner studies.

What I've got is the notion that we're not talking Judaism and Christianity at least until the 2nd century, not clearly until the 4th century; that if we're talking about Rome, we're talking about a diasporan identity filiated toward Jerusalem/Judea but referring to Hasmonean rather than Herodian Second Temple Judaism; that "Judean" is the correct translation of Ioudaioi, and that it's an ethnos -- Paul isn't talking about religio or cultic matters, but about ethnic Judean identity, its nature and its effects.

Remember above all things that ethnicity is not a matter of "race" or genetics. Being racially semitic (which is itself another topic for debate) is not the criterion for being ethnically Judean. There is no essential conflict between the dominant sense that Romans is addressing a gentile audience, and that it is addressing a Judean one. They need not be two separate groups -- many things resolve when you consider that we have a letter directed toward a single audience of highly-Judaically-socialized citizens. Plus, given that Paul is soliciting for mission support to the West, I see no reason (yet) that references to the nations should not be proselytic reminders to a Judean community, an internally-universalist pitch much like Rahner makes for anonymous Christianity.

On this line of thought, Romans is an argument about the Judean identity crisis in a diasporan community in which those who could be identified as Judean were expelled under Claudius, and only those who could "pass" were able to remain and take up the identity of Judean ethnic community. Those whose unmutilated penises could pass for citizens' at the baths, and who weren't so picky about what they could eat. You can imagine there were problems with the idea of ethnic solidarity! But there always are, in a community where some can pass as white, and others cannot. Incidental to the letter, this provides a measure of much-needed sympathy for the demonized "Judaizers" -- those who would compel the gentile converts to engage in *all* of the indices of Judean ethnicity, not just all the ones that were convenient to them as citizens of empire. Much as we're inclined to say about Christianity in the American empire, "Judaism" wasn't just an ancient, respectable moral philosophy with its God and set of rules, though it was attractive in Rome for those aspects. It was a culture, a way of life, and one that had a funny relationship to the authorities of the world. It could tolerate them, but it could not ascribe to them the authority they wanted. It had, at times, to be counter-culture. And when and where it had to, were serious questions! (Sounds familiar, but that's for after the exegesis.)

Anthony Smith (The Ethnic Origins of Nations, 1986, cited in Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Indentity in Greek Antiquity, 1997, p. 25) gives six characteristics for an ethnic group:
1) An ethnonym, a unified name by which the group is known
2) A common myth of descent
3) A shared history
4) A distinctive shared culture
5) A specific territorial association
6) A sense of communal solidarity

Jonathan Hall, dealing with ancient Greek ethnoi, finds 2 and 5 to be the most crucial, and with respect to Judeans as an ethnos in the Hellenistic environment, I would say that 1, 2, and 5 are reasonably incontestable. 1: The ethnonym says a lot about who they take themselves to be -- the gentilic "Judean" of the Hasmonean dynasty rather than the semitic "Israel" of the later Bar Kokhba revolt. 2: The common descent -- to which Paul appeals -- is Abrahamic. Mythos is important here -- while there may be a hierarchy prioritizing normative genetic descent, just as with the Aharonic, Zadokite, and Davidic lines, especially in the Hellenism of the diaspora we're talking about conversion as adoption into the family. Fictive kinship, as David Rhoads has said about the baptismal system. If Jesus is "the offspring," as Paul claims, this is an Abrahamic claim to Judean ethnicity through Jesus. 5: The specific territory the Judeans call their own is Judea, most specifically Jerusalem. It is well-attested that the diasporan communities, while having no such strong desire for return as we see in some contemporary forms, were quite willing to "send home" tribute/offerings to Jerusalem. (This bothered some emperors and governors more than others.) Paul's mention of the Jerusalem offering need not be a questionable pitch to get money from the Romans, but might be a proof of alignment in both ethos and pathos.

The trouble is that 1, 2 and 5 constitute the object of struggle. The battlegrounds are 3, 4 and 6. I've already touched on solidarity, and to some degree on distinctive shared culture as well. The degree of sharing, and what must be shared (the difference between a criterion of ethnicity and an index of it), are a real problem, and possibly the whole point of the "Jerusalem conference" of Galatians and Acts. (The perennial question of "What is a Jew?") Shared history becomes a real problem, as the marked Judeans have a very different near-term history than the converts (expulsion and persecution), and claim to embodying the longer-term history to which the converts have joined themselves.

I think this has solid claim to a thick interpretation of Romans, and one that can build out usefully into divided Christian contexts. But it's early yet, and I'm still learning. Maybe tomorrow will break it in half...though I don't think so, based on the research so far.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Meditation on Dives and the gospel

I cannot abide sermons in which both we and God lose. Which is to say, sermons in which there is no gospel. Which is always a shame when the exegesis is so evidently excellent!

The connections between Luke 16:19-31 and Amos 6 are quite well made, for which we may thank the wisdom of mother church (and her modern descendents maintaining the RCL). The call in both texts is not against leisure and wealth, let alone in favor of poverty, but against failure in the burden of hospitality. Other-concern. In the social locations, both texts set the notion of God-given benefits against the impiety of the recipients. We might say, "the burden of charity," but I was reminded this morning that we clearly misconceive charity. It follows the power gradients, and becomes down-reach. Giving downward with one hand, while pushing downward with the other. Or, as bad, while pulling upward hegemonically. Charity becomes the creation and maintenance of social obligations to the self, to the upper classes, and to the dominant cultural system. Not for nothing do we translate Kultur as "civilisation" in Freud.

It is worth noting the law implications of the parables and Paul, in which God becomes the owner, and we the recipients of charity. The pervasive notion of human misappropriation follows these accusations of impiety-by-failure-of-hospitality. (There has to be a German word for that...)

This morning, I was reminded of the necessity of the concept of dignitas implicit in caritas, the worth of the other levelled with that of the self, or raised higher in illustrative compensation. Which was a damn good point! I received into my understanding a new way in which we lose.

But what I didn't receive, in such an otherwise well-crafted message, was how God wins. No usus evangelium; no evident dependency of the usi legis upon the gospel. (Which may just make it typically Lutheran in ethos, but it shouldn't be!) Just "Go forth and do otherwise."

So where is the gospel in Dives? It is undeniably a law text, spoken to Pharisees who are "lovers of money," and the point in 16:16-17 must be taken as principle for illustration, that no matter how much people crowd their own way into the Kingdom of God (proper middle voice), the law and the prophets remain in effect. And in that light, we see Dives attempting to crowd his own way in to "the bosom of Abraham" after the fact, and failing that, attempting to push his family in with fear of hell.

Which won't work. And still we haven't gotten at God's opus proprium.

Let's advance in the same text, as Jesus turns from the Pharisees to his disciples. They get instruction, and what's the response? "Increase our faith!" And we get an excursus on the value of following up on your obligations: "Does he have gratitude for the servant, that he did what had been commanded? No. So also you, when you shall have done all that had been commanded of you, say: "We are useless servants; what we were obligated to do, we did.""

What can we say, then, of an hypothetically pious Dives? Only that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Speaking, of course, of piety as considered in terms of social obligations and deeds. As with Euthyphro, civil piety isn't enough to appease the gods. It's not wrong; the law and prophets don't disappear, including Amos and Jesus-of-the-parables. God still wants justice, and thinks of it in terms of hospitality and charity. But we remain obliged to say 1) it's not enough, and 2) increase our faith!

We remain obliged to say that the solution remains with God. We do work which God desires, and we do it insufficiently at best, but Christ is our righteousness. And the gospel, as it so often is, is where we least expect it: in the Psalm. 1 Timothy for the day is no help. It commands what we might also be led to command from the other two readings. But Ps 146 has it right: The lord may not praise the servant for doing what was obligatory, but the servant will praise the Lord, because:

"Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin."

We have been baptized into the service of a God who does all this, who has done all this, who will always do all this. Who keeps faith forever. A Lord who promises, and fulfills. A Lord whose grace is for his servants, not because of their works, but because they belong to God. Who executes the justice in which we are called to participate. A Lord whose good graces cannot be coerced, but can always be beseeched, and will always be received. A Lord in whose Kingdom we live, not because we are worthy, but because Christ is worthy.

So do worry about the practice of your piety, but not for the sake of your soul. You rest in the bosom of Abraham for Christ's sake already, though by the grace of God you may not arrive there today. God deals justly with you, and gives you faith. Strengthen yourself in the grace of God freely given, which enables you to go forth and do likewise.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Making claims on questionable evidence

I'm back from written examination land, so it's time for some pop-religion fun -- serious, but not on anyone's syllabus. And what pops up on my radar, but the new Hawking/Mlodinow book. So, alright, Hawking has been on the GUT/ToE (Grand Unified Theory, or Theory of Everything) hunt for a very long time. This isn't his first "disproving God" moment, but every time he does this, I find myself wishing that the former occupant of the Lucasian Chair would stick to his professional competencies, and not spout off like a two-bit crank on philosophy and theology.

I don't doubt that Hawking knows his math, or his astrophysics. And better than I do! But this isn't a professional paper. This isn't the math or the astrophysics. It's lay populism, and Michio Kaku does it much better. Which is to say, it's evangelism, and I prefer catechesis.

This time, apparently creation ex nihil is something the fabric of the universe is naturally capable of. And I get quite enough of M-theory and the nature of the 11D universe to understand why and how. As a professional theologian and a long-time amateur reader of high-level physics, I have no problem with this particular model of the universe. But this isn't a book championing a breakthrough in the underlying science of modeling the universe, it's a book selling metaphysics. And if the science isn't exactly new, the targets of its polemical evangelism are really old. The straw is mouldering.

Part of the problem is that these straw men are walking around quite a lot today. Creationism and Intelligent Design have been keeping them animated. Both sides might be seen as children of the Scopes trial, but the real lineage isn't science on one side and Christianity on the other. If I had to put a common name to their common ancestor, it's Deism. Old, but not older than the 17th century. Leibniz-Wolff-Kant line, mixed with German-American pietism. One side is maximizing, and one minimizing, the minimum-necessary-deity, constituted by the past-perfect act of universal creation. A "god of the gaps".

There are bits here that I don't totally mind, like the extension of Marx's dictum that we only develop questions for which we have answers -- our questions tend to match the state of our science. Metaphysics tells physics where to go and what to do. That is an interesting way to look at it, and it's not wrong, but it doesn't have to go where the authors take it. And then there's this whole intentional-confusion bit with the "multiverse" and our "pluralistic age".

"Multiverse" is an interesting term, sci-fi/fantasy derived as it is, for the string/membrane-theory universe and its understanding of the quantum probability matrix. Stuff really does just pop out of nowhere, and most of the time it pops back into nowhere. As I say, the science isn't new, even if it's not intuitive to brains conditioned on Cartesian coordinates and Newtonian physics as "good enough" models. But to say that this is the end of philosophy and theology, because we've discovered a mechanism of spontaneous generation of matter from probability, is a ploy to sell books. It is a claim made without evidence, in two fields in which the authors have no professional credentials, and for which they have not tried sincerely to engage the best minds and consensus work on the other sides.

"Pluralism" really gets me here. We're conflating two things, and hoping that popular misunderstandings will carry it off. The first is the irreducible plurality of religious, political, and sociological realities. The second is the reducible plurality of scientific models. The authors seem to hope that playing on the anti-relativism sentiment from the former with the objective universality of the latter will carry the field.

I'm sorry, that's a category error, plain and simple. Metabasis eis allo genos. But, as category errors go, it seems remarkably useful for sketching out the core confusion. In science, there are always multiple coherent models for describing the universe, coexisting -- some would say competing, but that has to to with who's getting paid what for which of them -- until some observation produces data that contradicts some of them. It's a situation like Heisenberg uncertainty, or Schrödinger's cat. While the box is closed, and we haven't observed any facts that contradict our knowledge of the universe, all the models that work with that knowledge are equally valid, but equally likely to be true or false. When we open the box, and observe some fact that changes our knowledge of the universe, some collapse to false, and others collapse to true. We then modify old models and generate new ones for the new set of facts, and repeat the process. It's a rolling system that we like to call "modern science". It is predicated on falsifiability, which is the root of the present problem. Scientific plurality is essentially reducible -- ideally to one model that best reflects the observed state of the universe.

Religious and political and sociological pluralities are not like this. Folks in the human sciences know this. Their positions are essentially irreducible. Comparable when talking about the same subjects, but not reducible to objective truth. (Whatever John Hick tells you ...) To the extent that multiple religions are oriented to the same God, such as the variety of Christian theologies, they do not necessarily reflect the same human truths about it. Again, comparable, but not reducible. Humanity is plural, and God is not epistemologically available outside of self-revelation. You cannot objectively say (we know, we've been trying for as long as we've been here) that one group is right and the others wrong. You can say that one theory is better than another, and you can reject theories that have tenuous relationships with the facts, but then you have to construct your set of facts, too. This is why ecumenical and interreligious dialogues are no longer aimed at objective truth and denunciation. (And to the extent that they are still, we denounce them.) The goal is understanding positions and differences.

In other words, religion is not subject to scientific falsification. Theological systems (or their equivalents for those who don't use the word "theology") may be debated, but rarely conclusively. Such debates tend to be over acceptance of a position within a group. They don't map singular objective realities in ways that make them factually falsifiable. But the move to call religion a thing susceptible to falsification, in its classical Enlightenment form, doesn't work with a fully-fleshed religious position. Too much to work with. Church history is too long and contradictory over its span to be convenient for that purpose. It doesn't look like a falsifiable model of the world, because it isn't. So we (well, not me - my job is dogmatics) make it into falsifiable models for the purpose. Which means false models, but they work better that way. Deism is the perennial favorite. The minimum necessary god to fill in the non-rational bits of the universe. A god whose action is creation, a fait accompli which we can talk about without having to ask the god any questions. Impersonal and objective and accessible on our own terms.

The trouble is, we don't believe in God because of the act of creation. Biblical creation theologies are posterior to belief in God. We ascribe creation to the God in whom we have come to believe for far stronger reasons. We believe in God because of actions of a personal sort, actions for which story is the only available proof, told by the people who are in relationship with that God. Evidence accessible only on their terms, for a God accessible only on its own terms. The action constitutive of the Christian God is salvation. Covenant relationship. Utterly subjective effects, which makes it no wonder the early 20th century went to psychology for it. Anthropological, not physical or chemical -- and only half anthropological! Hawking cannot disprove such a God by expanding physics into previously-unfilled gaps in our rational grasp of the cosmos.

There are other big problems, but the one I find worth hitting, I've hit before. The authors ask, "If nature is governed by laws, then three questions arise: 1) What is the nature of those laws? 2) Are there exceptions to the laws (for example, miracles)? 3) Is there only one set of possible laws?" To the extent that it is a legitimate question for Hawking and Mlodinow, they should be talking about the balance of physical "laws", mathematically describable relationships of factors that make the universe work the way it does. They're going to answer "no" to #3, given the spontaneous generation of universes with differently-tuned "laws" made rationally acceptable by the science. Within a universe, I'm guessing the answer to #2 is also "no", especially since Hawking is a traditionalist. The new math always describes the old universe. Which is actually good for him, because when the math says that things happen that the world doesn't evidence, you should check your math. But you should also check your world.

Here's some sci-fi theology for you: it has never seemed to me that quantum mechanics should contradict the deity, because at its bottom, everything becomes probability. And not deterministic probability, either; we describe what collapses out of the "quantum foam," but we do not predict it. What better tool for God to make the world from, every moment? Most of its activity is static, by which I mean line-noise in a communications channel. Particle pairs blink into and out of existence all the time. But we believe in a God who calls into existence that which is not. If you want to rule out "miracles," because they seem non-rational, that's a metaphysical choice. But I see no reason to believe in the "watchmaker," and every reason to believe that the world is made with handles everywhere for influencing outcomes. Can you really disprove an agent because you've found a mechanism? Or is it that you'd rather claim that the mechanism works sui generis because you don't see an agent?

And if, in 20 years, this looks like Pannenberg's speculations on field theory, that's because it's simple apologetics. It is not core dogmatics, but rather a translation tool for the moment. Call it an extension of my work on gospel and law into the language of particle physics.