Up until a few short weeks ago, the name Terry Jones would have garnered blank stares from most quarters. Now, his back and forth plans to burn the Qur’an have elevated the obscure pastor into the most talked about clergyman of the season. Whether or not this burning or others like it actually proceed, those of us who claim to follow Christ must grapple with what people like Jones bring to the image of the Church and the Gospel.
We might wonder, if it mattered so much, why Paul did not more pointedly address the huge difference between the intellectual culture of the Bible against the rest of the world. His choice not to spend too much time teaching the cultural background of Christian faith in his letters was no doubt the best choice at the time. He wasn't writing to scholars. It's quite likely he did go into detail with some of his better students, like Timothy. Apollos clearly understood it, if we accept him as the author of Hebrews, for he rejects the Alexandrian content, but uses the Alexandrian style of presentation. Still, for us to ignore how thoroughly Christian teaching assumes a radically different orientation in thought would be thoughtless.
As a historian, I know what we call today “Western Civilization” was largely based on Christianity. I also know that it was a particular brand of Christianity. I leave for another day the debate whether that particular brand is now, or was then, the true Church. However, it is no criticism to note the Church of Rome which midwifed Western Civilization had not precisely the same outlook on the world as the New Testament Apostles. That is, the Apostles were Jewish men with a distinctly Semitic outlook, and Rome was decidedly Latin-Greek. Specifically, it was Aristotelian.
A truly gorgeous Easter has just passed, one that meant more to me than previous Easters have, for reasons I’ll not go into here. As is customary, Holy Week television included lots of programming on the subject, much of it speculative “scientific” debunking of various religious traditions, some inspired by the best-selling heretical drivel of the novelist Dan Brown. The tone of this stuff is so consistent that I was truly surprised by a History Channel program about the Shroud of Turin.
Late last year, I considered what was wrong with approaching Christianity from a Western, Aristotelean perspective (part 1, part 2). It is not as if we have to completely ditch the legacy of Aristotle. We simply have to put it in its proper place. In our minds, we must recognize there is a limit, a wall.
It's the basic concept of sin: saying anything contrary to God's revelation. As a collection of documents arising from the Ancient Near East (ANE), the Bible must be read from that ANE perspective, with an ANE epistemology. The only purpose for which He preserved the Scripture was to explain our burden of obligation to Him. Revelation's chief end is not information, but a call to commitment. If God says man is created in His image, then it places upon us the burden to respect each human. Indeed, Jesus said love your fellow humans as yourself, which is another way of commanding us to respect them. You are not greater than another. When Christians forget this truth, it encourages untold wrongs both within the church and out in the world.
When I read the article by our Editor-in-Chief, “The Hidden Danger of Peacemakers,” the other day, the dreadful actions that were told in the article sounded eerily familiar to me. I am not acquainted with the Peacemakers (they are not active, or so it seems, in my home country of Paraguay); but the actions depicted reflect the almost uniform sorts of behavior that appear when jerks — that kind of person that has no trouble abusing others as long as he or she can seek their stated goal — take control of an organization.
Here is a story. The leaders of a church have a personal agenda against someone and want to quiet him, exact revenge or what have you. They not only come at him within their church, they continue by following him outside of that church to any other church he seeks refuge at and any place he works, making a wreck of his life in the process. That is the sort of thing that only happened in the past, in dusty tales of witch-hunts in Salem or the Inquisition in Spain, right? Wrong: it is happening today, perhaps at a seemingly normal church near you.
Aristotle and his friends clearly stated only philosophers can really get where we are going. Thus, it was their duty to lay it all out for everyone else. To this day, we still use a significant amount of Aristotle's formal structure for human knowledge. Unfortunately, we carry forward his ideas without really ever questioning if they are valid.
It came to me as I surveyed a local bookstore. Many people write and believe things earnestly which are false, even monstrously so. And I saw such a book, authored by a noted celebrity. Right then, I understood as clear as day the truth of Christmas: it’s not about cultural conservatism, clean living, or patriotic fellow-feeling; the issue is fundamentally Christological.