Saturday, April 24, 2010

A New Old Idea

I was listening to Bill Moyers interview Karen Armstrong when she brought up a point that I had forgotten.  She mentioned it in at least one of her books, although I don't remember which one(s).  I've read nearly her entire body of work in which she repeats Big Ideas frequently, so I tend to get them confused.  Her point was one that was peripheral to her theme so it got lost in the bigger ideas and I'd forgotten it until I heard her say it again.

Here's the background: when rabbinical Judaism was developing after the razing of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD (effectively decimating the entire source of meaning for all Jews of the era) and Jews were struggling to reframe their identity without Temple sacrifice, the rabbis (a new type of Jewish scholar/teacher who gained prominence during this period) realized that their Scriptures were confusing, contradictory, and impossible to interpret at face value.  They needed a lens through which to interpret Scripture.

The urge to fundamental literalism was overwhelming in the face of the tremendous physical and spiritual upheaval the Jewish people faced.  History shows us time and again that the greater the experience of chaos, the stronger the fundamentalist backlash of legalism, literalism, and control, the greater the desire for security and spiritual predictability.  The Christian New Testament Gospels were also written in the midst of this catastrophic religious overhaul.

The new rabbinical scholars understood, or came to understand, the dead-end that literalist fundamentalism becomes.  The Jewish Scriptures do not present a clear and coherent God--is YHWH omniscient and omnipotent or capricious, tribal, and vicious? What exactly was the nature of the covenant that made Israel the chosen people?  It had been previously cast as Temple-based sacrificial activity.  If that is now impossible since the Romans utterly destroyed the Temple, what now does God expect?  How were the Jews to understand the meaning of their God and their nation?

So, here's Karen Armstrong's point: the rabbis decided that all of scripture must be read through the interpretation that Love trumps everything, that the primary theme of scripture and therefore God is Love.  If any individual bit of scripture seems to contradict that theme--say, that YHWH commands Israel to genocide in their takeover of Canaan--that such passages MUST be interpreted as allegory rather than history and that the allegory MUST be such that shows Love for all (gentiles included)

The implications of that  presumption are rather staggering.  Too bad Christians were so keen on separating themselves from their Jewish roots in the decades after 70 AD that they missed out on that quantum leap of faith.  The canonical gospels are filled with anti-Jewish, anti-others, sentiment.  If you are looking for it the Love is there, of course, but so are a lot of Us-Good/Them-Bad polarizations that when read literally are anything but Love.

I suggest that Christians take a step back from the rabid literalization of Christian Scripture, take a page from the Jewish history that is so very nearly our own (only fundamentalist politics of the day turned the Jesus people from a Jewish minority into a separate Christian religion).  Can we not pay mere lip service to the phrase "God is Love" but place it at the forefront of our faith?  Let us, too, read our (mostly Jewish) scripture through the interpretation of Love.  Any understanding of any passage of the bible that seems to create separation, to polarize communities, to set up hierarchies of righteousness, MUST be reinterpreted so that it promotes Love, of God, by God, to all people, at all times.

1 comment:

  1. So Agree! I was saying this morning that all I need to hear as a Christian is the same four sermons over and over: 1) Love God 2) Love your brother 3) Love your neighbor 4) Love your enemy.

    When I get those down...well, I think I could/should be working on those the rest of my life and doubt if I'll ever master love. It is the only thing Jesus called a command.