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"Listen up: God isn't Santa"
October 13, 2001 8:08 PM   Subscribe

"Listen up: God isn't Santa" says a retired bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church. The basis of prayer has always seemed like a paradox to me. I'm glad to see that John Shelby Spong agrees.
posted by UrbanFigaro (54 comments total)

 
He states unequivocally: God is not in heaven listening for prayers, petitions, supplications on which He will choose to act or not act -- a choice always beyond human comprehension (which explains why He lets planes fly into buildings) because no one knows God's mind.

I have always thought praying to God was an acknowledgement of His omniscience and omnipotence. Bishop Spong must also be speaking to people who want to pray at football games. Do they think the side with the most prayers will win?
posted by sierray at 8:22 PM on October 13, 2001


His views are like Voltaire's when Lisbon fell. I'm suprised no one had made a reference to that before. People act like this is the first time something like this has happened. We aren't the first generation for that has had to cope with something.
posted by geoff. at 8:31 PM on October 13, 2001


He writes a lot for Beliefnet. Mostly cool stuff, but he's got the kind of angle where you wonder why he even bothers to believe in God. An example:
A supernatural God--who lives above the sky and is intimately involved in the affairs of human history, miraculously changing events to conform to some divine purpose--is simply no longer believable.
posted by boaz at 8:55 PM on October 13, 2001


Read it a little closer. He believs in god because he believes God is inside you, in love. A very interestesting concept.
posted by stoneegg21 at 9:26 PM on October 13, 2001


I've actually read a bunch of this guy's stuff on Beliefnet; it just seems the supernatural God's a lot cooler (you know, the enemy-smiting, miracle-causing, prayer-answering, letting-you-into-Heaven god). His idea of God as a part of the human just seems like he's renaming the idea of a 'soul'.
posted by boaz at 9:39 PM on October 13, 2001


Spong is a fascinating cat ... I used to browse his books quite a bit, during long afternoons stuck shelving the religion section at suburban Borders hell. In spite of the traumas and the blocked out memories, I remember thinking that he was making the bare minimum lip service to any kind of recognizable Christian doctrines, hanging onto his pulpit by his fingernails just so he could plant all of these idiosynchratic concepts between the lines. If I had to make a bet, I'd say that he's not really a Christian at all, but off on a trip of his own creation, just a very succesful and lucky subversive using the system for his own ends. I can't say that I agree with him any more than I buy his more orthodox contemporaries, but he certainly makes for a better read.
posted by hipstertrash at 9:55 PM on October 13, 2001


Plus, Sprong has cool saucer-like areolas.
Really.
posted by dong_resin at 10:05 PM on October 13, 2001


Just a couple of hundred years ago, Spong would have been burned for heresy. His work is interesting because he focuses on some of the toughest issues that people who proclaim a Christian faith may ever encounter. But he draws conclusions that are much closer to secular humanism than to Christianity. (There are good Christain answers to those questions, in my opinion, and these ain't them.) Having gone through this exercise and losing his faith, he has at the same time devoted his entire life to the church. Renouncing his faith would invalidate his life's work. So... let's change the church! Others disagree with his scholarship, his logic and his conclusions.
posted by JParker at 10:10 PM on October 13, 2001


hipstertrash: I can't say that I agree with him any more than I buy his more orthodox contemporaries, but he certainly makes for a better read.

Agreed. I tried reading the Falwell stuff on Beliefnet, and couldn't take more than 1 a week; it's a miracle that guy has actually managed to convert anyone.

dong_resin: Plus, Sprong has cool saucer-like areolas.

I was going to ask where you came by that information but thought better of it.
posted by boaz at 10:14 PM on October 13, 2001


Spong.

Spong. Spong spong spong spong spong.

Spongspongspongspongspong.

Spong.
posted by rodii at 10:22 PM on October 13, 2001


Just a couple of hundred years ago, Spong would have been burned for heresy

I would've too if I had mouthed off like I do here; so what's your point?

His work is interesting because he focuses on some of the toughest issues that people who proclaim a Christian faith may ever encounter. But he draws conclusions that are much closer to secular humanism than to Christianity.

Secular Humanism has proven to be a popular answer to the problems of Christianity. Spong's work is classic embrace-and-extend (trademark Microsoft) theology. The good news is that you will still be able to find a faith that represents your non-Secular-Humanist ways.

Renouncing his faith would invalidate his life's work. So... let's change the church!

Churches do change; the ones that don't eventually become irrelevant. While it may be hubristic for someone to think he can, Martin Luther made a good go at it also.

So, do you think they'll be called Spongists, Spongians or Spongers?

Others disagree with his scholarship, his logic and his conclusions.

Yep. That whole Jesus-didn't-get-resurrected line is a tough one to swallow as a Christian. I can respect that.
posted by boaz at 10:36 PM on October 13, 2001


I think that Spong has the right idea here, and his concept of God suits me fine. I will not pray to God or anyone else to help see someone killed or hurt. I ask God for guidance and to help my wa for lack of a better term.

When I see the President invoking the name of God each time he talks about this war I wonder if his motive is to rally America, or piss off Muslims.
posted by DragonBoy at 10:38 PM on October 13, 2001


Boaz wrote: That whole Jesus-didn't-get-resurrected line is a tough one to swallow as a Christian.

Spong was not speaking about the resurrection three days after being crucified. He was speaking of the Second Coming, or as bumper stickers like to call it, the 'rapture' (see the fundamentalists 'Left Behind' series of books at Wal-Mart).

Instead he says that the second-coming is when you accept that Jesus died for your sins, and you dedicate your life to following him. When you think about that, it is a much more Jesus-like option instead of people disappearing all over the planet and the rest of us having to look to Kirk Cameron for leadership.

That way, we all get to experience heaven on Earth.
posted by DragonBoy at 10:49 PM on October 13, 2001


So, do you think they'll be called Spongists, Spongians or Spongers?

How about Spong-worthy?
posted by UrbanFigaro at 10:50 PM on October 13, 2001


Where I got that Jesus-didn't-get-resurrected idea:
From JParker's link: [Spong] thinks that Luke only intended the Ascension to be a "symbolic event lifted out of the Old Testament and told to open the eyes of faith to behold Jesus as he really is"

I have to admit the stuff I've read of his on Beliefnet has been mostly issue-focused (i.e. homosexuality, women priests, etc.) rather than general theology, so I'm not 100% sure, but it seems to fit in well with his idea of a non-theist God.
posted by boaz at 10:56 PM on October 13, 2001


How about Spong-worthy?

Groaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan
posted by boaz at 10:57 PM on October 13, 2001


boaz, I'm not personally attacking the guy. I don't care if he believes in Space Ghost now instead of God. I was just pointing out that: (1) his views are not generally accepted within his own church, and (2) he's not a Christian, at least from the perspective of meeting the minimum criteria as currently defined by any Christian church.

The only thing about his "new" worldview that bothers me is that he insists on calling it "Christian." The only reason I can think of for him insisting on that is his own (lifelong) experiences under the auspices of a Christian church.

Rather than betray his history and risk having others view his life's work as a waste of time, he chose to betray his church (by utilizing to the fullest his titular (there we go with the areolas again) status as Bishop (retired) to lend credence to his ideas. You may wish to grant him the authority to redefine Christianity for you, but I don't, and neither, to my knowledge, do any of the existing denominations of Christianity. So... that kinda makes him just another public figure with a religious agenda, doesn't it?
posted by JParker at 12:52 AM on October 14, 2001


Spongarians, Sponglettes, Spongonions, just plain old Sponges......

Spongarianism is appealing because compared to traditional Christian faith, it's easy.

It is particularly appealing to intellectuals because it reaffirms the power of own brains, our own logic. We don't have to believe in any kind of supernatural God; God is within us, God is love. We have everything we need to handle our own salvation, thank.you.very.much. You can call that rationalist, reductionist, humanist, whatever, but you can't (legitimately) call it Christian.
posted by JParker at 1:07 AM on October 14, 2001


(1) his views are not generally accepted within his own church, and (2) he's not a Christian, at least from the perspective of meeting the minimum criteria as currently defined by any Christian church.

What a load of loopiness.

So you are admitting the "Christian Faith's" certainty (as well as your own) of Jesus' factual resurrection (i.e. god's existence) is wholly dependent upon consensus?
posted by crasspastor at 1:35 AM on October 14, 2001


(1) his views are not generally accepted within his own church, and (2) he's not a Christian, at least from the perspective of meeting the minimum criteria as currently defined by any Christian church.

actually, a christian is any person who says to follow christ's teachings, irrespective of whether his way of doing so fits in with any mainstream organisation's idea.

if i declare myself to be borgesian (which i do), and the Grand Lodge of Borgesians doesn't agree, tough shit.

christians are always accusing each other of hipocrisy.
kind of makes you wonder, hmmm?
posted by signal at 2:44 AM on October 14, 2001


Which leads him to recount the story of the iron crossbeam extracted from the wreckage of the World Trade Center that looked like the Christian cross. It was promptly called a sign from God. Spong practically snorts: "A sign from God? If God was going to give a sign, he would have stopped the airplanes from hitting the building."

Funny, I said the exact same thing, in so many words, in my blog not too long ago. I guess it's really not such a unique question, really. I guess it just dumbfounds me how people can accept something like this as a "sign from God". I guess when you feel insecure, you withdraw into whatever brings you comfort, I guess.
posted by tpoh.org at 6:13 AM on October 14, 2001


What a load of loopiness.

Maybe, but isn't a church by definition a community of like-minded believers? Doesn't that necessitate a consensus forming around a core dogma? If you allow everybody to believe anything they want, chaos (and Unitarianism) ensues.

Actually, Spongbob Squarepants sounds an awful lot like a modern-day Manichaeist or a Gnostic.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:22 AM on October 14, 2001


(1) his views are not generally accepted within his own church,

Which is a pretty fair assessment of Catholics that are pro-choice, for example.

and (2) he's not a Christian, at least from the perspective of meeting the minimum criteria as currently defined by any Christian church.

I had alway felt that Christianity was self-selecting. That's why I used the Martin Luther comparison; just because no church accepts his view now doesn't mean one won't later.

You may wish to grant him the authority to redefine Christianity for you, but I don't, and neither, to my knowledge, do any of the existing denominations of Christianity

I don't see his writings as a 're-definition' per se, more a 're-reforming'; for example, those Mormons who are still supporting polygamy aren't redefining Christianity. I would never claim that Falwell's homophobic rantings, even though they are shared by a great number of supporters, had somehow redefined your faith.

So... that kinda makes him just another public figure with a religious agenda, doesn't it?

But, no, you see, this is different, because, you see, um, this guy, um, is kinda cool, see.
Spong at least has the decency to keep his religious agenda a religious agenda rather than convert it to a political agenda.

Spongarianism is appealing because compared to traditional Christian faith, it's easy.

This is a common Jewish criticism of Christianity, suggesting that their abandonment of Levitical law (which is in the Bible, you know) was a cynical attempt to make their religion 'easier'

You can call that rationalist, reductionist, humanist, whatever, but you can't (legitimately) call it Christian.

Just so I'm being clear, I'm not going to pretend that Spong represents even Episcopelianism, just that there's no legitimate guidance on what constitutes Christianity anymore. Since the protestant reformation, it has become an umbrella group rather than a specific faith.
posted by boaz at 6:33 AM on October 14, 2001


isn't a church by definition a community of like-minded believers?

Christianity is not a church; kicking someone out of every church is a different sport than kicking someone out of a church. It's the kind of sport, that were I a God-fearing Christian, I'd leave to God.
posted by boaz at 6:40 AM on October 14, 2001


That whole Jesus-didn't-get-resurrected line is a tough one to swallow as a Christian

Read the end of Mark, the earliest Christian gospel. Empty tomb, yeah. Weird guy in a white robe, yeah.

But proof of resurrection, ascension, Jesus being revealed to the disciples? Not there. The resurrection and ascension came in later gospels.
posted by dogmatic at 6:58 AM on October 14, 2001


Yep. That whole Jesus-didn't-get-resurrected line is a tough one to swallow as a Christian.

O, the irony!
posted by rushmc at 8:26 AM on October 14, 2001


Just a couple of hundred years ago, Spong would have been burned for heresy. His work is interesting because he focuses on some of the toughest issues that people who proclaim a Christian faith may ever encounter. But he draws conclusions that are much closer to secular humanism than to Christianity.

Actually, I read him as more of a religious humanist which keeps the door open to the benefits of religion and the possibility of a god than secular humanism which asserts anti-supernaturalism up-front. If he wanted to hop churches he probably would be at home within Unitarian Universalism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 AM on October 14, 2001


Kirk, Funny you should say that about him becoming UU, I say the same thing on a religious board --a Roman Catholic one--Im Roman Catholic--this morning where I posted the following.

*****found myself thinking that his faith was diminished as I read the article and he might as well go join the Unitarians who often would in sermons discuss how God was a false concept of a "Santa Claus in the sky" I see New Age philosophies affecting Christianity. When I was choosing which Christian church to return to, I choose Roman Catholicism (the religion of my youth also) over the more liberal Episcopal church for many intuitive reasons. One of these was an influx of what I saw as the New Age. I think this article may bear me out as representative.

quote from article----
"They have got to cease their childlike dependency on the supernatural holy because "the God we used to count on -- the superparent -- is gone." This God has ceased to be."

When I reread the article, I was tired last night and saw this aspect, It was shocking. Here this author almost admits that God is no longer. A God that is NOT a father is the GOd of the New Age. The Unitarian like worship of the Universe and stars. I want a God I can count on. Jesus tells us God is our father and is intimately involved with us. You are right Jesus talks about us coming to God as children. New Age philosophy that has affected even Christian thought is downplaying and negating this.

I am an ex-Unitarian Universalist that returned to the Roman Catholic church three years ago.
posted by Budge at 10:40 AM on October 14, 2001


Christianity is not a church

I never said that it was.
posted by MrBaliHai at 11:42 AM on October 14, 2001


I never said that it was.

I quoted what you said. There are plenty of 'like-minded communities' within Christianity; he's the leader of one of those.
posted by boaz at 11:47 AM on October 14, 2001


I want a God I can count on.

What you want your God to be is irrelevant to the actual nature of God. Wouldn't you be better off searching for the true nature of God, rather than deciding in advance what you want to find?
posted by kindall at 11:51 AM on October 14, 2001


I don't see his writings as a 're-definition' per se, more a 're-reforming'; for example, those Mormons who are still supporting polygamy aren't redefining Christianity. I would never claim that Falwell's homophobic rantings, even though they are shared by a great number of supporters, had somehow redefined your faith.

No, but he's attempting it, and that makes him just as... I want to say "reprehensible", but that's judgmental and coming form my perspective; maybe "suspect" is a better word... as Spong.

But, no, you see, this is different, because, you see, um, this guy, um, is kinda cool, see.
Ewwww.

Spong at least has the decency to keep his religious agenda a religious agenda rather than convert it to a political agenda.
As do most Christians who accept the core principals of their faith. It's only the so-called fundamentalists that get mixed up in the politics.

This is a common Jewish criticism of Christianity, suggesting that their abandonment of Levitical law (which is in the Bible, you know) was a cynical attempt to make their religion 'easier'
Yeah, so what? That's pretty much the gist of the New Testament, right there. God gave men rules, we couldn't obey them, so he had to arrange another way for us to attain salvation.

...there's no legitimate guidance on what constitutes Christianity anymore. Since the protestant reformation, it has become an umbrella group rather than a specific faith.
I don't mean to be pedantic, but the Bible spells out the membership requirements pretty clearly. Spong wants to use the Bible selectively -- believe this, don't believe that, this part was allegorical, this part was metaphorical, this part is outdated. It doesn't work that way.

I don't think there's anything wrong in the things that Spong advocates. He has focused on good, charitable values, loving relationships, kindness and thoughtfulness. All good things. And that's what makes his position both appealing and dangerous. One of the hardest things to come to terms with in Christianity is that good people, with the best of intentions and love in their hearts, are not going to make it into heaven. Simply because, left to our devices, we can't be good enough. I don't like that, and if it were up to me I'd change it... but it's not up to me. And it's not up to Spong, either. That's a pretty basic tenet that is shared by all Christians, and Spong rejects that.
posted by JParker at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2001


kindall, Well the statement, "I want a God I can count on", is basically a personal opinion regarding the fact I believe in a personal God rather then just the fuzzy New Age concept of God within or God as universe. Spong is basically a New Ager under a Christian cloak. I do want to know the true nature of God. A better way to have stated this would be: I believe in a personal God, one that cares about each and everyone of us and can be counted on.
posted by Budge at 12:05 PM on October 14, 2001


Budge said:
I am an ex-Unitarian Universalist that returned to the Roman Catholic church three years ago.

Ugh. That's like learning to crawl, finding that it's too hard, and going back to letting people carry you around.

Look, I know you want a God you can count on. But, seriously, what is he going to do for you? Save your life? Protect you from harm? Bad things happen to good people; I don't think anyone argues the validity of that. So, how exactly can you "count on" God in THIS world?
posted by UrbanFigaro at 12:14 PM on October 14, 2001


my God comes to earth every once in a while and stars in movies. He goes by the name "Harvey Kietel".

my God... he's such a fruity-ball.
posted by jcterminal at 12:34 PM on October 14, 2001


Ugh. That's like learning to crawl, finding that it's too hard, and going back to letting people carry you around.

Urban: Here at MetaFilter, we try to respect other people's beliefs. We strive for a thoughtful and civil discussion of the issues. We don't always succeed in that, but in general our civility is part of what distinguishes us from usenet and other forms of internet discussion. So, in the future, take the time to write a thoughtful and reasoned critique. Don't just ridicule other people's beliefs.
posted by gd779 at 12:45 PM on October 14, 2001


JParker: Spong wants to use the Bible selectively -- believe this, don't believe that, this part was allegorical, this part was metaphorical, this part is outdated. It doesn't work that way.

Actually, it does work that way. Almost all xtians believe some parts of the bible are metaphorical, some allegorical, some historical.

I'd say that only fanatical fundamentalist xtians view Genesis as factual truth, word for word, or really expects the end of the world to play out as the Apocalypse. And only the criminally insane would think that all the parts about smoting unbelievers and sinners aren't outdated.
posted by signal at 12:58 PM on October 14, 2001


But, no, you see, this is different, because, you see, um, this guy, um, is kinda cool, see.
Ewwww.


Thassa joke, son.

Yeah, so what? That's pretty much the gist of the New Testament, right there. God gave men rules, we couldn't obey them, so he had to arrange another way for us to attain salvation.

I wouldn't say that's the whole gist (Matthew 5:17-20). Besides, I thought taking the 'gist' while throwing out the literal word was what we were trying to avoid here. Further, there were people alive in Jesus's time who did follow the Levitical law; Jesus was one of them.

I don't mean to be pedantic, but the Bible spells out the membership requirements pretty clearly. Spong wants to use the Bible selectively -- believe this, don't believe that, this part was allegorical, this part was metaphorical, this part is outdated. It doesn't work that way.

I don't mean to square your pedantry, but when Christians spell out the membership requirements, it seems a lot easier than the ones the Bible spells out (Matthew 5-7 for examples).

That's a pretty basic tenet that is shared by all Christians, and Spong rejects that.

I'm conflicted; the way I see it I can take this statement and run one of two ways. 1) Pure logical reductionism: Spong is a Christian; he rejects that, therefore it's not shared by all Christians; QED. That's not going to get us anywhere though. 2) Historical context: pointing out that the Protestant Reformation also dissolved some tenets that were up till then considered a baseline, the necessity of good works and the divine leadership of the papacy.
posted by boaz at 1:14 PM on October 14, 2001


Spong is actually part of a movement in recent years to reawaken the gnostic roots of Christianity. Gnosticism was one of the very first heresies rejected by Rome and as such has had a fringe existence over the last two millennia, but it appeals to many people who have experience with other spiritual traditions, from Buddhism to the Koran. It's linked with prayerful meditation and other practices meant to intensify the personal experience of God. It doesn't depend much on things like the Trinity or even (and here's part of the problem) Christ himself, harking back as was said above to the immanent God rather than the transcendent one. Fundamentalist Christians are very suspicious of some of these practices (the very word meditation, for example, alarms some of them to fire-and-brimstone levels), and "New Age" (the term Budge used) is a basket term to encompass them.

Spong's pretty radical for a contemporary Protestant, but he's not actually that original. Radical, one will recall, means "of the root", and he's definitely returning to the earliest roots of Christianity. Since these views have been sidelined and overlooked -- even suppressed -- for so long, they're bound to sound strange and alien to people steeped in little more than their own tradition. They should not be surprising or shocking, though, to anyone with basic seminarian studies.
posted by dhartung at 1:22 PM on October 14, 2001


Whoops, one more thing (thanks for your patience, JParker):

No, but [Falwell's] attempting it, and that makes him just as... I want to say "reprehensible", but that's judgmental and coming form my perspective; maybe "suspect" is a better word... as Spong.

But non-Christian? Will there be bad people in heaven as well as good people in hell? I have to admit that I don't totally grok (all hail Heinlein!) the idea of Justification by Faith. Can you just do a heaven-hell checklist for me:

Falwell: Heaven / Hell
Spong: Heaven / Hell
posted by boaz at 1:26 PM on October 14, 2001


Can you just do a heaven-hell checklist for me

Since Hell doesn't exist, why don't we leave it out of the equation. Why not instead list which Bible translation each 'Christian' denomination ascribes to.
posted by mikhail at 2:08 PM on October 14, 2001


I think the headline has a typo and it's supposed to be the much less controversial "God isn't Satan."
posted by kirkaracha at 3:01 PM on October 14, 2001


boaz, nice post, interesting thoughts. I am no Bible scholar, but here are the answers as I understand them.

I wouldn't say that's the whole gist (Matthew 5:17-20). Besides, I thought taking the 'gist' while throwing out the literal word was what we were trying to avoid here. Further, there were people alive in Jesus's time who did follow the Levitical law; Jesus was one of them.

First of all, you're right, "gist" wasn't the right word. I meant "primary purpose".

In the book of Hebrews it says Jesus came to establish a new and better Covenant because he found fault with the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8:7,8). The law (the Old Covenant) served its purpose, but it was only a temporal law, not a universal and a spiritual law. In the verses you mentioned, Jesus is contrasting the law of Moses with the New Covenant and pointing out the superiority of the New Covenant. The issue he was addressing was that the religious leaders of the time had turned into lawyers, with, for example, 635 rules for "keeping the Sabbath holy." That wasn't what mattered, and that's what Jesus was telling them. What matters is your heart, your faith, your values, your convictions -- in relationship with God.

Read on in Matthew's chapter 5. Six times Jesus says "You have heard that it was said," spelling out the old law, followed by "but I say to you..." He then compares the old (legalistic) law and its interpretations with the New Covanent, and each time shows the weakness of the old law and the superiority of the New Covenant.

I don't mean to square your pedantry, but when Christians spell out the membership requirements, it seems a lot easier than the ones the Bible spells out (Matthew 5-7 for examples).

There is really only one requirement. Accept Jesus as Lord in your life. It isn't sufficient to mouth the words, which is why the "I have plenty of time to decide later" argument is dangerous. It has several necessary corollaries, though:
(1) admit your own inadequacies (Romans 3:23); (2) accept that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is sufficient (Romans 5:8 and John 14:6; and (3) repent of your sins and reject the sin in your life (Romans 6:23). There are lots of other "shoulds" and "ought to's", but basically what is supposed to happen is that if you get the Jesus is Lord part right, the other stuff comes naturally.

1) Pure logical reductionism: Spong is a Christian; he rejects that, therefore it's not shared by all Christians; QED.

Incorrect assumption. Spong is not a Christian, at least as I understand what it means to be a Christian.

Checklist -- can't do it. Not for me to judge. I would never choose to behave as Falwell does, because I believe in "love thy neighbor as you love yourself", and I don't exactly feel the love coming off the guy. I would never choose to behave as Spong does, because I believe in God.
posted by JParker at 3:02 PM on October 14, 2001


Yeah, so what? That's pretty much the gist of the New Testament, right there. God gave men rules, we couldn't obey them, so he had to arrange another way for us to attain salvation.

Strange, my Lubavitcher relatives obey the Levitical and Talmudic laws without much trouble. If you're talking specifically about the Temple, that's something far more important to Christians (at least so far as I've seen it discussed in apologetics) than it is to Jews.

You don't have to obey the rules to obtain salvation. Jews do. This is part of the Jewish solution to the problem caused by shifting to a non-proselytizing system: God offers salvation to all of the righteous of whatever religion, but requires that Jews adhere to the laws. Fairly standard interpretation across the Reform-to-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox spectrum, although, of course, the meaning of "rules" will be different, depending on what kind of Jew you're talking to at the time.

Speaking of Unitarianism, I've always suspected that most "the Fathers of Our Country Were Christian!" types would faint when presented with the "Jefferson Bible," which eliminates extraneous details like, oh, the resurrection and all the miracles. (Jefferson thought they were patently ridiculous.) Personally, I always liked the fact that Jefferson chose to delete the episode where Jesus talks back to his parents when they find him in the temple; Jefferson must have thought He was being a bad role model...
posted by thomas j wise at 3:10 PM on October 14, 2001


thomas: You can hardly claim that TJ's beliefs were representative of the beliefs of the founding fathers generally. Read the letters between John and Abigail Adams, if you are looking for a Christian FF. Or, for that matter, read the letters if you want to read a great love story... those two were a remarkable pair.
posted by gd779 at 3:33 PM on October 14, 2001


thomas j wise, For Christians, your assertion that "my Lubavitcher relatives obey the Levitical and Talmudic laws without much trouble..." is central to the problem. In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus points out that obeying the letter of the law is not sufficient. Example: The Old Testament says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Ok, that's easy. But Jesus says what it really means is, "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Well, uh, I, uh...

In Christian usage when we refer to the Torah, we mean the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Jews, however, use the word "Torah" to refer to: (1) the Five Books of Moses, (2) all of the Tanakh (ie: the equivalent of our Old Testament), or (3) the entire body of rabbinic tradition, including not only the Bible but also the "Oral Law" (the Talmud) and other Jewish writings. This includes non-biblical customs and practices that originated in Babylon -- like men wearing head coverings (kippot, or yarmulkes), a practice that is not biblical. Of the 613 basic commandments of Judaism, nearly half are related in one way or another to Temple worship; since there is no Temple, it is not possible to carry them out. Others, like the regulations for Sabbatical and Jubilee Years, are overlooked for the most part today, just as they were in biblical times (Jer 34:13-22). Did your relatives forgive all debts and revert all their property to its original owners during the Jubilee Year (Yovel) in 1998? If I remember correctly, Levitical law also allows fathers to stone troublesome sons to death, soldiers to kill captives and take their women, and masters to beat their servants so severely that they can't get up. It condemns the wearing of two different types of fabric at once, or the planting of two different crops in the same field, or cutting the sides of one's hair. Your relatives live like this?

The whole Book of Hebrews in the New Testament is basically a warning to professing Jewish believers about the danger of returning to the old, Levitical system. Christains would have to answer your assertion that your relatives are living under the Law with, "No, they're not."
posted by JParker at 4:14 PM on October 14, 2001


The law (the Old Covenant) served its purpose, but it was only a temporal law, not a universal and a spiritual law.

This statement seems to me to be in direct opposition to Matthew 5:18:
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Read on in Matthew's chapter 5. Six times Jesus says "You have heard that it was said," spelling out the old law, followed by "but I say to you..." He then compares the old (legalistic) law and its interpretations with the New Covanent, and each time shows the weakness of the old law and the superiority of the New Covenant.

Right, but each time he extends the old law to a stricter version, not weakens or cancels it. If you have an example of Jesus repealing a Levitical law, I'd be interested, but your argument seems to be a metaphorical interpretation rather than a literal reading of the section.

635 rules for "keeping the Sabbath holy."

This deserves special mention since it is not true; 635 is one of the counts of the whole of Levitical law (618 and 620 are others; there's some disagreement about what exactly constitutes a law). 635 isn't really a very large number when you consider that the US currently has millions of laws and regulations; And the Orthodox Jews observe about 10,000 Talmudic extensions of these 635 laws.

(1) admit your own inadequacies (Romans 3:23); (2) accept that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is sufficient (Romans 5:8 and John 14:6; and (3) repent of your sins and reject the sin in your life (Romans 6:23).

To tell you the truth, I've never been a big fan of Romans (or Hebrews or any of the various letters); to use the founding father metaphor, it's like the relationship between the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. They're interesting, but they don't really have the same force as Godly decree. Especially since Paul wasn't even a disciple; he was converted after Jesus' death (Acts9:4-6). Not that I have a problem with his interpretation of Christ's message; it's just weird that Christians seem to believe that interpretation overrules Jesus' own words.

Checklist -- can't do it. Not for me to judge

You are right that it is unfair of me to ask you the fate of real people, so allow me to make up some fake people, called A and B. A is a fundamentalist Christian; B is a Spongian (we did decide on Spongian, right?). Both are sincere in their faiths, honest in their dealings and well-meaning. So, based on that, would their final destinations be the same or different? I'm not asking where it is, just if it's the same place for both.
posted by boaz at 5:05 PM on October 14, 2001


In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus points out that obeying the letter of the law is not sufficient.

All that stuff I wrote above; I'm really just looking for a statement how insufficient came to mean not required.


In Christian usage when we refer to the Torah, we mean the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Jews, however, use the word "Torah" to refer to: (1) the Five Books of Moses, (2) all of the Tanakh (ie: the equivalent of our Old Testament), or (3) the entire body of rabbinic tradition, including not only the Bible but also the "Oral Law" (the Talmud) and other Jewish writings.


This is not true; in Judaism, the Torah is only the 5 Books you listed. The Tanakh is an acronym for Torah, Neviot, and C'tuvim (translated as Torah, Prophets and Writings) and forms the whole of what Christians call the Old Testament; note that the Torah is part of the Tanakh. The Talmud is a collection of commentary on the Tanakh started immediately after the Diaspora in AD 67-70 and continued until the 13th century AD; None of it was written while Jesus was alive.

Of the 613 basic commandments of Judaism,

Yep. forgot 613. My bad.

If I remember correctly, Levitical law also allows fathers to stone troublesome sons to death, soldiers to kill captives and take their women, and masters to beat their servants so severely that they can't get up. It condemns the wearing of two different types of fabric at once, or the planting of two different crops in the same field, or cutting the sides of one's hair. Your relatives live like this?

Yep. God sure put some groaners in there. Let's now talk about Paul's misogyny; that'll be an important point in evaluating Hebrews.
posted by boaz at 5:21 PM on October 14, 2001


Urban Fiargo said "Ugh. That's like learning to crawl, finding that it's too hard, and going back to letting people carry you around."

I guess you are insuinating that UUism is a superior belief system to Roman Catholicism. To me it is not. We all are welcome to our points of view. I had my reasons for converting to Christianity and could explain via email. However its insulting in a way that you see UUism as learning to crawl and Christianity as a step "backwards" In fact I remember being told in 1990, that no UU ever made the step "back" into Christianity. Ironic isnt it? Anyhow a life with faith for me personally has been 100 times much more fulfilling. I dont regret my decision to leave the UU church.
posted by Budge at 6:56 PM on October 14, 2001


The law (the Old Covenant) served its purpose, but it was only a temporal law, not a universal and a spiritual law.

This statement seems to me to be in direct opposition to Matthew 5:18


But it's not! Read it in context. When Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matt 5:18) The Greek word translated "accomplished" comes from the verb ginomai, which literally means "to become" or "to come into being". So Jesus was saying, literally, "Nothing written in the Law will pass away until it happens." Most of it happened when Jesus came the first time. The rest will happen when He comes the second time. So He did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.

If you have an example of Jesus repealing a Levitical law, I'd be interested...

Probably the best source for Levitical law is Leviticus. For example, Leviticus Rabbah 9:7 (Leviticus 7:11-12) speaks of the Temple sacrifices and prayers being discontinued when the Messiah comes. Ecclesaistes Rabbah (Ecclesiastes 11:8) says, "The Torah which ones learns in this world 'is vanity' in comparison to the Torah of the Messiah".

Jesus' disciples reaped and threshed grain on the Sabbath- in violation of the Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) where 39 categories of m'lakhah (work) are forbidden on Shabbat (Matt 12:1-8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5). He gave them permission to pick and eat grain because His authority exceeded that of the Oral Law.

When He was having dinner at the home of Matthew, he also broke the Jewish tradition of fasting on the Sabbath (Matthew 9:14-15)

635 rules for "keeping the Sabbath holy."

You're right, I'm wrong. Sloppy bookkeeping.

To tell you the truth, I've never been a big fan of Romans (or Hebrews or any of the various letters)

Yeah, me either. Those are some hard words. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't apply to us. Bummer.

Checklist -- can't do it. Not for me to judge

Still can't do it. The New Testament allows individual believers the freedom to choose our own path and warns us against judging, whether for observance or nonobservance (Rom 14:1-23). All I can do is tell you what I would or would not do.

Jesus points out that obeying the letter of the law is not sufficient .... All that stuff I wrote above; I'm really just looking for a statement how insufficient came to mean not required.

In Hebrews it says the very fact that the New Covenant is called "New" implies that the "Old" (Mosaic) Covenant is now obsolete. In fact, the writer says it was growing old even then and was about to vanish away (Heb 8:13), and that was in the first century. Yeshua is the mediator of a "better" covenant (v 6) one based on Abraham's pre-Sinai relationship with God.

So is the Old Testament no longer beneficial to New Testament believers? Paul was referring to the Old Testament when he wrote, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (2 Tim 3:16) The only Bible Jesus had was the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is no longer an active covenant as it applies to the New Testament believers. We can't be under both covenants at the same time. If we are now under the New Covenant, then we are no longer under the Old Covenant. But that does not mean we cannot study and learn from the Old Testament. God never changes, so we shouldn't be surprised that the principles of the Old Covenant are carried into the New Covenant.

Paul told mostly Gentile congregations (Colossians 2:16 and Romans 14:14) that their members should refuse to be judged by legalists for not keeping man-made dietary laws ("meat" and "drink") , ritual purity laws, or religious festivals (a "holy day" , "New moon" or "sabbath"), whether Jewish or otherwise.

In Acts 15, a church council convenes in Jerusalem to deal with this problem. The fledgling Christians included a party of Torah-observant, believing Jews who wanted Gentiles to submit to the Mosaic Law to be saved. Following extensive deliberations among the Apostles and elders (v.v. 6-18), they decided that the Gentiles would no be required to convert to Judaism and be circumcised according to the Mosaic Law (v 19).

This is not true; in Judaism, the Torah is only the 5 Books you listed.

I'm sure you're correct from the standpoint of dictionary definitions. But when the rabbis talk about being "Torah observant" they mean more than just living according to God's Word. To them, true Torah observance means following not only the 613 basic mitzvot (commands) of Judaism but also the traditions of the rabbis as expressed in the Talmud and other traditional Jewish sources. That was my point.

Paul's misogyny
Oh, let's not. "Every organized patriarchal religion works overtime to contribute its own brand of misogynyā€¯ (Robin Morgan). A depressingly true statement, but one which we're actively fighting to remedy... at least at my church.
posted by JParker at 7:07 PM on October 14, 2001


I don't mean to be pedantic, but the Bible spells out the membership requirements pretty clearly. Spong wants to use the Bible selectively -- believe this, don't believe that, this part was allegorical, this part was metaphorical, this part is outdated. It doesn't work that way.

Certainly the Bible spells out the membership requirements pretty clearly. However I don't know of many "Christisans" other than a handful of comunes and possibly the Franciscans who meet the requirement for communal ownership of property. So certainly if you want to criticize people who use the Bible selectively, then almost all of contemporary Christianity, including quite a bit of contemporary fundamentalism gets excluded.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:43 PM on October 14, 2001


But it's not! Read it in context. When Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matt 5:18) The Greek word translated "accomplished" comes from the verb ginomai , which literally means "to become" or "to come into being". So Jesus was saying, literally, "Nothing written in the Law will pass away until it happens." Most of it happened when Jesus came the first time. The rest will happen when He comes the second time. So He did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.

But even following your reasoning, you should be following the laws until the Second Coming.
Side Note: My aramaic is rusty, but these are 3 entirely separate words in Hebrew (to accomplish is l'batza; to become is l'hiyot, the same as to be; to come into being is the same as to be born, l'nolad)

Yeah, me either. Those are some hard words. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't apply to us. Bummer.

So, I guess that includes the misogynistic ones, right? That would be a shame.

In Hebrews it says the very fact that the New Covenant is called "New" implies that the "Old" (Mosaic) Covenant is now obsolete. In fact, the writer says it was growing old even then and was about to vanish away (Heb 8:13)

More commentary. I understand that the early proselytizers of the church decided this; I want some sign that God desired this.

But when the rabbis talk about being "Torah observant" they mean more than just living according to God's Word.

Generally, they just use the term 'observant'. More importantly, only the Orthodox branch believes in observing the Talmudic law. The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructioninsts (the Spongs of Judaism) all believe that following the Levitical Law that is still applicable is sufficient (Well, 95% true for the Conservatives).

Oh, let's not. "Every organized patriarchal religion works overtime to contribute its own brand of misogyny? (Robin Morgan). A depressingly true statement, but one which we're actively fighting to remedy... at least at my church.

And that sounds like good work, but is it the Lord's work?
posted by boaz at 7:48 PM on October 14, 2001


ginomai - Greek lexicon

The verse isn't intended to be used the way you're using it. It's clear, in context, that He is referring to His role as the fulfiller of the law and of the prophesies. Comments about the New Covenant and the Old Covenant are also pertinent here: only one can obtain at any given time.

Re the misogyny, as I'm sure you know, women at the time were treated as property. Jesus actually had some pretty radical ideas about women as full-fledged partners in the marriage relationship. The leadership of the new church was, unfortunately, slower to change.

And that sounds like good work, but is it the Lord's work?

I hope so. I believe so. We prayed a lot about it, and we're always willing to listen to other opinions. We lost some church attendees because of it. It created a rift with a local theology school. People lost jobs because of affiliations with our church over this issue. It seems like a minor matter, but bucking the fundamentalist tide carries consequences, and we - as a church - had to follow where we think God is leading.

boaz, a Gilligan's Island Special is on CBS in half an hour, and Discovery Channel is running a special on the new Harley Davidson V-Rod, so I really have to jump off now. Thank you for indulging me with your questions and answers; it has been entertaining and educational. Peace.
posted by JParker at 8:31 PM on October 14, 2001


Thank you and good night
posted by boaz at 8:35 PM on October 14, 2001


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