Sunday, 20 January 2013

Our own best critics

More than one commenter has pointed out that one of the strengths of Christianity is that it critiques itself. By doing that it avoids the kinds of indulgences and arrogance that characterise the worst kinds of religious expression in history. When Christians or the church are seen to be at their worst it's a guarantee that the self-critiquing has stopped.

Take the notion of divine punishment as an example. Just some quotes from throughout the Bible. First up, the "two ways" of Deuteronomy 28. If you obey then you'll be blessed but if you disobey then you'll be cursed.
Now, if you obey the LORD your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations o the earth. All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the LORD your God. Dt 28:1-2
But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect. Dt 28:15
Then something we read over (and over, and over) again in Psalms, the appeal to God to punish the wicked and rescue the righteous because the wicked are rich and the righteous are poor. Take these gems from Asaph's Psalms
Such are the wicked;
Ever tranquil, they amass wealth. Ps 73:12
Till when, O God, will the foe blaspheme,
will the enemy forever revile Your name?
Why do You hold back Your hand, Your right hand?
Draw it out of your bosom! Ps 74:10-11
Then the move to resignation in Qoheleth.
I have further observed under the sun that
The race is not won by the swift,
Nor the battle by the valiant,
Nor is bread won by the wise,
Nor wealth by the intelligent,
Nor favour by the learned,
For the time of mischance comes to all. Ecc 9:11
When we get the gospels Jesus is challenged about a misfortune that happened to a man born blind. Sin is still viewed as the cause of these kinds of problems.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. John 9:1-3
Jesus is also fond of telling people that it is because they are his disciples that they will have trouble, and that to follow him means to take up a fate of death, the cross.

This thread about why there is evil in the world is a trivial example, though, and there are others like it. The texts disagree with each other, refining each other, critiquing each other, bringing the idea into sharp relief. The canny Christian has a diversity of opinions in the Bible from which to draw. The canon we have allows us the space to debate issues, to correct ourselves. It's no wonder, then, that Kierkegaard comes to the conclusion1 that God's word to human self-aggrandisement is a resounding "No!" as though our own constructs are nothing but repeats of the Tower of Babel.

Christianity has inherited something wonderful from Judaism: space to argue with itself. As Paul writes, we need to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" immediately after he admonishes his readers to remain humble. We are our own best critics and we should revel in that.

1. At least according to Zizek.
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