Blogroll: The Hadley Rectory
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In the previous post I discussed the four hermeneutical principles she describes as essential. They are not wrong but one-sided, designed to support this conclusion:
The combined effect of these four principles (there are others, but these will do for our purposes) is that it is not good enough (or safe enough) to take a single biblical verse, passage or story, and to maintain that it should be understood as authoritative for the conduct of our lives today. That does not mean that we cannot, or should not, attempt to take the Scriptures as a guide for living – we certainly should do so – but our approach needs to be comprehensive, critical and cautious if we are to avoid doing violence to the text and to one another.The principles are not in fact robust enough to warrant this conclusion in its absolutist form. It is of course obvious to virtually everyone that one cannot simply take a verse, passage or story at random out of its biblical context and declare it binding on our conduct today. But this does not mean that there are no specific biblical verses that can be identified as "authoritative for the conduct of our lives today." Christ's summary of the law would seem an obvious example.
I doubt that there are many who would disagree with the notion that "our approach needs to be comprehensive, critical and cautious" (even if they do not practise what they preach). The main problem therefore is the insinuation that her argument is only with people who rely on illegitimate proof-texting. Now I can well believe that Meg Warner has come across people whose use of Scripture was uncritical, insufficiently cautious and piecemeal proof-texting. But a Christian scholar seeking an honest answer to the question posed should arguably ignore such nonsense and engage with the arguments of those who seek their best to be comprehensive, critical and cautious.
It is not impossible that Warner has picked Deuteronomy 22 because someone used verses from this chapter as a proof-text to say that sex outside marriage is wrong. I myself do not remember having come across this before and her stated reason sounds different:
The foundation for biblical views on this subject is found in Deuteronomy 22’s collection of law (or ‘instruction’) about sexual conduct outside marriage, which sets out a series of examples of proscribed behaviour.Unfortunately she does not tell us why she thinks Deuteronomy 22 is foundational in this sense. I want to suggest that it is not. The chapter concerns property laws and family laws rather than sexual behaviour more broadly. The critical point here is that the second half of the chapter considers just penalties for sexual crimes; it does not say anything about sexual immorality which was not criminal in ancient Israel. Warner is right to stress that we need to understand the cultural background to make sense of these laws. We would need to bear in mind such factors as (a) daughters customarily given in marriage at a young age, (b) the father's responsibility for and authority over the woman until marriage, (c) the legal nature of engagement, as well as cultural considerations which also relate to biology such as (d) inequalities between men and women with regard to forced intercourse and (e) the more serious consequences of loss of virginity for women than men not least in the light of the different ways in which paternity and maternity could be established in the ancient world. All of this then relates to the custom of marriage presents given by the bridegroom and his family to the bride's family (which in the light of the complaint in Genesis 31:15 may have been held by the bride's family for the bride). The law also seems to assume the practice of polygamy as the obligation to marriage in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is not conditional on the offender being unmarried (although Exodus 22:16-17 suggests that the bride's family can veto it).
The obvious omission is prostitution. This involves illicit sexual intercourse (carrying opprobrium throughout the Bible) which carries no legal sanctions. Why? Because a prostitute is already on the margins of society and a man's relations to wider society are not fundamentally changed by intercourse with a prostitute. This means that we cannot go to the case law for a comprehensive answer to the question what constitutes sexual immorality. The law only concerns itself with certain forms of illicit sexual activity, namely those that disrupt society or profane Israel's holiness by ruining fundamental distinctions.
Her "few essential principles of biblical reading and interpretation" offer a typical example of a sectarian approach to the Bible. (The nature of sectarianism is that an aspect of the truth is taken as the whole truth with consequent distortion of everything.) Here are the principles:
1. The phrase ‘the Bible says’ is nonsensical.It is claimed that this is so because the Bible is a library offering a variety of perspectives which are not always consistent and even in contradiction with each other. The church catholic recognises diversity and development within Scripture but it also acknowledges a fundamental harmony and coherence in the Bible, as one might expect of a book whose ultimate author is God. Denying the unity of Scripture goes hand in hand with denying that Scripture is God-breathed and truthful. The phrase 'the Bible says' is not always properly used but it is not nonsensical. It is merely inconvenient for those who prefer to pick and choose which parts of Scripture to recognise as truthful.
2. The Bible is not an ethical guide-book.It is a common place that there are many different genres within the Bible, not all of which offer clear ethical guidance. It would be reductionist to consider the Bible merely "an ethical guide book" but from this it does not follow that the Bible is not a collection of writings that as a whole offer ethical guidance among other things. 3. Mind the GapIt is obviously necessary to carefully consider how an instruction given within the Bible would have functioned within its original historical context and how this is to be translated into our context. So, yes, "mind the gap" but this is very different from "don't enter this carriage" as if our contemporary context renders any part of Scripture irrelevant.4. Cultural BorrowingThere is cultural borrowing in every communication. But there is subversive as well as affirmative ‘borrowing’ and there is both ‘assuming’ due to shared convictions as well as ‘assuming’ for the sake of argument. The specific marital rules within the Torah work from within a cultural context but they are given towards an ideal of marriage that is not simply borrowed or assumed.A word on the specific example. Warner observes that men and women are treated differently in Deuteronomy 22 and claims that the disparity "has to do with cultural ideas about men and women in biblical times." The ancient cultural background is indeed relevant here but so are biological realities about child-bearing. In our cultural context we take for granted that "having sex" and "having children" are two altogether separate things. Maybe this makes it difficult to appreciate that in a different cultural context the two were much more closely related. This is a serious shortcoming, given that Meg Warner thinks she has discerned what the Biblical laws were all about (protection from shame and financial loss) based on her reconstruction of the relevant background.
In addition, Warner's atomistic approach fails to consider how Deuteronomy 22 relates to biblical teaching elsewhere on sexual union and sexual immorality and to explore whether there is a development from Old to New Testament.
Chapter Four, "the boxing ring", again pits law and grace against each other. Rohr stresses that it is necessary to have the match and that it is crucial that grace wins - as it does. The challenge is big because morality is "a common counterfeit for religion" and "the idolatry of law" seems an ever present temptation.
Rohr expresses amazement about how "the three classic divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (Law, Prophets, Wisdom) also parallel the normal development of spiritual consciousness and even human growth" as follows:
Law Prophets Wisdom order criticism integration thesis antithesis synthesis
"Now if you think that is rebellious talk, it probably means you have not studied much of the second section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Prophets or the birth of criticism."
Now, I don't think it "rebellious talk" - I think it is ridiculous. I can understand that Walter Brueggemann whose Theology of the Old Testament worked with the categories of testimony and counter-testimony would want to promote the picture of development of spiritual consciousness presented here I still find it odd that he would endorse Things Hidden (even if his endorsement makes no reference to Rohr's credibility as a reader of Scripture): "Things Hidden is an invitation of gospel proportion to move on into the life God intends, a life of joy and obedience." Maybe it is but this chapter is driving me to the edge of what I can bear as a biblical scholar.
Where do biblical prophets challenge "the idolatry of law" or an over-emphasis on morality? Where do we get a picture of the people of God being caught up or stuck in the "container" (Law/Torah)? It is maybe not surprising that Rohr does not discuss a single passage. Nor is it surprising that Rohr's list of wisdom books fails to mention Proverbs which presumably does not fit into the category of "non-dualistic thinking."
What about the New Testament? If you were looking for a snappy summary of Paul's letters to the Romans and the Galatians, Rohr offers this line from the Dalai Lama: "You must learn the meaning of the law very well, so you will know how to disobey it properly." I am not convinced this sits easily with, say, Rom 2:17-27 where Paul elaborates on the problem with relying on the law.
Rohr is on more secure grounds when he says that Paul teaches us that "laws can only give us information, and even helpful information, but they cannot gives us transformation." Maybe it is because I grew up in a Lutheran church but this comes across to me as a common place rather than as the much neglected insight Rohr claims it to be. Rohr's Paul is very Lutheran: "Give them the law until it frustrates them to hell!"
Rohr's experience is that "instead of tackling that frustration and moving people toward union with God, what we have by and large done is trivialize the law into small issues that we could obey by willpower, determination and a certain kind of reasonableness, still trying to find salvation through the law." I can detect a faint echo of this in my context but most ideas of "being good" which I come across seem to have only the most tenuous relationship to biblical law or church teaching.
I am left wondering whether it is worth persisting with the book. Rohr offer kernels of theological as well as psychological truths, e.g. in the observation that "our unconverted and natural egocentricity ("sin") uses religion for the purposes of gaining self-respect." But none of these are new to me and when it comes to the Bible he is untrustworthy, a charlatan who pretends to insight which he does not have and, whether deliberately or not, seems to shield himself against criticism by casting aspersions on anyone who might ask for hard facts, proper analysis or logical coherence as if scholarly exegesis is "law" to the "grace" of eisegesis flowing from "inner experience".
Chapter Three proved a less irritating read. There are fewer dismissive comments although they are not altogether absent ("Healthy religion knows that there are many essential things you can only know by a different path than cerebral knowing. Atheists do not know that."). The importance of personal relationships, and especially a personal relationship with God, over against abstractions is developed with reference to a number of lovely Bible verses and to one of my favourite novels - C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces.
Maybe the chapter "people who have faces" is best encapsulated in this excerpt:
I served as a jail chaplain near my home in Albuquerque for fourteen years. One Christmas Day I was talking to an old Hispanic man in his cell. I said to him, "Well, it must be pretty lonely today on Christmas Day to be here." He said something that astounded me. He said, "Father, if you agree to be with him, he always agrees to be with you." Now there's a man who learned everything I'm talking about with all my sophisticated theology."Sophisticated" in this context presumably means that Rohr is using big words like individuation and non-dual consciousness. It does not mean that he now welcomes intellectual rigour, careful analysis, logical coherence or any such matters which, I suppose, easily go with wanting to be in control.
Rohr says he sees the pattern of moving from tribal thinking via individuation to unitive consciousness in the Bible but he makes little attempt to explain how this emerges from the Scriptures rather than being a case of seeing what he wants to see.
Rohr claims that "the biblical tradition, and Jesus in particular, both praise faith even more than love." He may be right but he offers no evidence and I suspect this is just based on his intuition or impression. A quick count in a red letter KJV (done electronically) shows that Jesus refers to "faith" twenty-eight times in the synoptic Gospels but never in John's gospel; he refers to "love" twenty-six times in the synoptic Gospels and twenty-two times in John's gospel. Passages such as Matthew 6:5 and 23:6 need to be deducted from the count for "love" and one would need to analyse the passages more carefully to discern in which faith or love are commended (and maybe without the word being used). I have not done this but I strongly suspect neither has Rohr.
This is not to say that I don't like what Rohr wants to communicate here. "Love is the true goal, but faith is the process of getting there, and hope is the willingness to live without resolution or closure" is a nice way of putting it, maybe except for substituting something more static for the biblical concept of hope as waiting which is a willingness to live without resolution or closure in the firm and certain hope that God - and he alone - will bring closure and resolution.
Experientially I agree with Rohr that "at the beginning, mature adult relationship with God is not yet possible" but his reference to "by the end of the Bible" is vague and unclear, given that he identified Moses as one of those who had a breakthrough to unitive consciousness and Jesus famously invited his disciples to become like little children. For better or worse, it is arguably a feature of growing up for many that their identity is no longer founded on one significant other (parent, lover), even if it is true (as I think it is) that "if a person has a constantly changing reference point, you've got a very insecure person."
I am not convinced that refection on the psychological problems arising from our obsession with celebrities or from "internalization of negative values" are best helped by claiming that this is what the biblical tradition means with the language of "having a demon". (Apparently, the man who named his "unclean spirit" [Mark 5:2] "legion" [Mark 5:9] "for we are many" carried the negative projection of the military in himself - I find it hard to keep a straight face.)
Rohr is right to stress the importance of "encounter, relationship and presence to the face of others" over against "arguments over ideas and concepts" although he comes close to suggesting that the former excludes the latter. He does of course engage in the latter, albeit by way of assertion more than actual argument, when he points out that "Biblical rightness is primarily right relationship!"*
Ironically, to my mind Rohr de-personalises the famous statement by Jesus, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6 - the second half is, unsurprisingly, not cited) by claiming that this is all about "the sharing of our person instead of any fighting over ideas." On the previous page he tells us that Mother Teresa is said to have encouraged her sisters "not to talk about Jesus, as much as trying to be Jesus!" Now, there is a sense and context in which this is right but I cannot help thinking that the actual person, Jesus, has vanished behind the concept of being present to the other.
*Rohr claims: "Biblical knowing is more akin to face-to-face presence. It is a full-body knowing, a cellular knowing, and thus the word often used for "knowing" is key biblical texts is actually the word for "carnal knowledge" or sexual intimacy." This is of course nonsense. It is the other way round: the usual word for "knowing" is also used occasionally for sexual intimacy. Maybe little harm is done by this howler except that it serves as a reminder that Rohr's assertions are not based on sound biblical scholarship. But it also raises the question what Rohr actually means by "full-body knowing" (and "cellular knowing"), presumably not that we can only truly know those with whom we are sexually intimate. True knowledge is arguably less about physical nudity than the nakedness of one self before another.
Chapter two is about “getting the ‘who’ right” which is to appreciate that we are created in the image of God. Rohr interprets this as “humanity’s objective unity with God” which he contrasts with a view of humanity as totally depraved. Rohr seems to be saying that, in a sense, we are already in union with God; many just lack the inner experience of this and therefore, in another sense, are disconnected.On the one hand, Rohr claims that “the great illusion that we must all overcome is the illusion of separateness.” On the other hand, he writes of “disconnected people” and “the state of believed or chosen autonomy” and sin as “a state of living outside of union.”I think I know what he is trying to say (God’s arms are wide open; it’s our resistance to receiving the gift that is the problem) but I do not find his way of putting things attractive.I remember distinctly one occasion when I heard someone use the language of “total depravity” in a way which made me recoil but nevertheless I do not warm to Rohr’s opposition to such language. I think I know why theologians have coined it and what they meant by it. I doubt that Rohr does, or that he can imagine any sense in which this phrase may be considered truthful. Am I a theological snob who does not want to be associated even in his own mind with theological illiteracy? I don’t think so and yet I feel embarrassed at what seem to me cheap shots here and elsewhere.Rohr claims that “most people have never noticed that on the first and second days it does not say that it was good!” He’s probably right. With his usual self-confidence he asserts: “The Bible does not say that [the separation of darkness from light and the separation of the heavens above from the earth below] is good–because it isn’t.” As seems typical for Rohr’s writings, there is no need to explore options or weigh up arguments. Rohr presumably now apprehends the truth intuitively as anything that aligns with his vision. A moment’s thought could have shown that there may be a problem with the view that “separation” (interpreted as dualism) is not said to be good because it is not good – see the separation of land and sea which appears to be good in Genesis 1:10 and the summary statement in Genesis 1:31 which surely looks back to all six days. Rohr probably did not bother to look at a Genesis commentary but if he happened to chance upon one that does not (at least implicitly) explain why “good” does not feature at the end of the first two days, he should get a different one. I am afraid, to me this failure to engage with other voices just looks like arrogance, given the importance of the claim. “The rest of the work of the Bible will be about putting those seeming opposites of darkness and light, heavens and earth, flesh and spirit back together in one place. They have really never been separate, but remember, ‘sin’ thinks so.”In the same vein, Rohr believes that “the ark is an image of the People of God on the waves of times, carrying the contradictions, the opposites, the tensions and the paradoxes of humanity.”In line with this Rohr then defines forgiveness as “mutual deference” in which one accepts reality by forgiving “reality for being what it is.” Thus you experience “God’s unmerited goodness, the deeper goodness of the one you have forgiven and...your own gratuitous goodness too.”The section on “the garden of knowledge” is revealing. Rohr reckons that the major heresy of the Western church is “demanding to know and insisting that I do know!” While I can vaguely see what he means, Rohr’s penchant for exaggeration and blanket condemnation rather puts me off exploring this further.A sentence at the bottom of page 38 reinforces a suspicion that grew in me as I read the first chapter, namely that most of Rohr’s judgemental statements are directed (also, primarily?) against his own (former) self: “I came out of the seminary in 1970 thinking that my job was to have an answer for every question.”By contrast, I think it is possible to be both analytical and humble (Thomas Aquinas?), to seek answers without believing that we can ever have all the answers (let alone believe that God won’t love us until we do – see previous chapter), to appreciate the gift of positive knowledge as well as to value the gift of unknowing (Hildegard of Bingen?). As three “bookmarks” for union Rohr introduces “water, the first invitation to an inner life of union...blood, which symbolizes the difficult price of union...bread, the ongoing feeding of that union.” It is probably difficult to get the symbolism of bread wrong. Blood is more complex (see my entry in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 2000); Rohr seems to think nearly exclusively of sacrifice. Water is ambivalent, flood and river being two very different motifs; Rohr seems unaware of this. Maybe I can receive some valuable un-knowing from reading subsequent chapters, maybe not. Again, the final pages offer material that I can affirm (nearly) without irritation. The one thing we most need to know in relation to who we are is that we are “in Christ” -- although I suspect that Rohr believes that every human being is in Christ which would then be equivalent to being made in the image of God. I think it is possible to speak of an objective change from not being in Christ to being in Christ without (a) claiming a change from God hating to God loving us, or (b) reducing the change to an inner experience.
Reading Richard Rohr’s Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (London: SPCK, 2016; originally published in 2008, based talks given in 1998) and reviewing my response. (Preface, Introduction)Chapter 1 makes the point that “information is not necessarily transformation” and contrasts ready-made answers with the exciting process of “participatory knowing” that connects the dots. On one side is “the overwhelmingly shame-and guilt-based church and culture we have today in the West” with churchgoers that are “overwhelmingly passive or even passive-aggressive” and religion that is “merely ritualistic, moralistic, doctrinaire and largely unhappy.” On the other side are those who have “inner experience of how God works in [their lives]” and who will “substitute the text” in places where it goes backward (in the direction of vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substance) “for the real inner spirit” evident in places where the text moves forward (towards mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust). I bristle at the same things that rubbed me up the wrong way in Rohr’s Falling Upward. It is not that there is no truth to the statements he makes about the vast majority of people who are a foil to the spiritually enlightened. But by and large it is a caricature that I do not recognise. There are “religious” who feel the need to impress God and to win his love by their good works or faithful exercise of religious duties, but I do not find this a plausible characterisation of the majority of people inside the church, let alone outside.Rohr believes that to begin with almost everybody assumes “that if you get the right answers, God will like you.” Is this true? I am not conscious of ever having been even so much as tempted by that idea. Do “religious” people prefer abstractions over the actual, as Rohr suggests? Are they disappointed that so much of the Bible is about ordinary folk rather than pious saints? Even if this might be true in some contexts, I do not believe it to be universally so. For all his urging against dualistic thinking in favour of ambiguity and mystery, Rohr comes across to me as rather black and white. Even if there is a journey we all have to make (from building containers in the first half of life to letting go of them in the second, if I remember Falling Upwards correctly), I do not find Rohr’s sweeping generalisations helpful. They do not sufficiently ring true to me and thus many of his swipes at “religious” people simply baffle me. I also wonder whether Rohr is going to offer an integrative vision or another variety of dualism, pitting vengeance and law over against grace and love. In addition, the motif of the journey seems to operate at the level of human history as well. With his comment on guilt- and shame-based culture being “at the heart of most of the European Reformations–on both sides,” Rohr does seem to suggest not only that he has a deeper experience of God’s love than the majority of religious people today but also a better grasp of grace than Martin Luther, John Calvin or Francis de Sales. I would not be surprised to discover in subsequent chapters that Rohr believes with Trevor Dennis that we can know the gospel better than the apostles and the Gospel writers in a way that allows us to correct them.I conclude this post with a positive responses to two statements:“Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as ‘whenever you are not in control.’” The definition of suffering in the second sentence strikes me as worth pondering and I appreciate the use of the first person plural in the first sentence which guards against the “them” and “us” so frequent elsewhere in the chapter. “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. Great religion shows you what to do with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”The statement in italics voices a common place but it is nonetheless worth saying and underlining. The statements about “all healthy religion” and “great religion” confirm that, having beaten the drum for the scandal of particularity, Rohr is not averse to generalisation. I wonder how much mileage there is in those statements. Can these categories be sensibly defined? Was Stoicism a religion? Was medieval Catholicism a “healthy religion”? Is Buddhism a “great religion” or far too diverse a phenomenon for the question even to make sense?