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Christianity, like Shakespeare, never goes out of date

Unlike the pseudo-scripture of our age, the texts are timeless

By on Friday, 2 November 2012

Timeless     Dave Thompson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Timeless Dave Thompson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The gospel for the Feast of All Saints was that of the Beatitudes, the start of the Sermon on the Mount, which is of course the most famous gospel passage of all. It is usually cited by moral theologians as being Jesus’ equivalent of the Ten Commandments, which were delivered through Moses on a different mountain. The Sermon is, like the Ten Commandments, something that does not grow old.

All this reminded me of what Ben Jonson  said about Shakespeare: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” If that is true of Shakespeare – and it most certainly is -how much more is it true of the Gospels.

Again, I was reminded of something once said by Fr Francesco Pierli, the Comboni missionary, at a meeting I attended in Africa. “The Bible,” he said “is a moment in history that illuminates the whole of history.”

Shakespeare and the Bible are both products of their time, that reflect their time; but they are not locked into the culture that produced them. You do not need to travel back to Elizabethan England in order to understand the universal themes of, let us say, Romeo and Juliet. And you certainly do not have to enter into the world of the Ancient Near East to be able to read the Bible, which transcends history, time and place, while being, at the same time, securely anchored in all three. This is why, contrary to the expectations of so many, Christianity simply does not go out of date. So many pseudo-gospels – Marxism being the most obvious example – look very passé now; and quite a lot of modern trends will, fifty years from now, look anything but. But the Scriptures are as fresh now as when they were written.

Like all priests, I went to seminary, and like many I was disappointed by much of the teaching there. Some of it was good, but the part that really let me down, I felt, was the Scriptural part. The approach taken was something like this. To enter into the text, you need first to understand authorial intention; to understand authorial intention, you have to understand the author’s “living situation” (Sitz im leben); and to do that you have to reconstruct as fully as possible the concerns of that long dead person, which will involve understanding the language that person spoke. And so it was, before we could ever approach the Scriptures themselves, we had to spend hours and hours listening to very diffuse talk about the Hittites.

But the truth of the matter is, it seems to me, that people can engage with the text without any preamble whatever, and find it profitable. The text speaks directly. You do not have to know about the Hittites; you do not have to know about the Roman Empire to understand, for example, the accounts of Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate. When Pontius Pilate asks “What is truth?” or says “Quod scripsi, scripsi” or “Ecce Homo”, these things speak for themselves.

Please do not think that I am going down the Lutheran path of Holy Scripture being its own interpretation. Rather I am saying that just as moral experience is at first hand, so too is the experience of God through the reading of the Bible. What that experience means, of course, has to be interpreted by the Church. But the foundational approach to Holy Scripture surely must be that of Saint Augustine: pick up and read. Tolle, lege!

Talking of great literature, consider this, from Book Eight of St Augustine’s Confessions, which is great theology too:

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl, I know not which — coming from the neighbouring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

  • JabbaPapa

    I had already pointed out that I was referring to high level thoughts

    This is an entirely subjective, aesthetic, conception having nothing at all to do with any kind of accurate, objective distinction in human cognition.

    In fact, it’s just downright intellectual snobbery.

    A plan for the management of your dirty underwear is exactly as “high level” as anyone’s thoughts on interspecies DNA transfers in vivo.

    I agree that the languages that we speak, not least English, are often
    an impediment to conveying those thoughts. That is not a fault of the
    thought itself, but it is a caveat regarding my suggestion of using
    rational thought to avoid unfair criticism. Sometimes it does not matter
    how hard one tries to be unambiguous, the listener (for example, my
    girlfriend) can take it the wrong way. This can manifest itself in
    computer programming where the programming language does not do exactly
    what it says on the tin (the programming manual), where the compiler or
    interpreter does not match the original specification, or the
    specification itself was at fault, but once these ‘bugs’ are ironed out,
    I think that pure rationality is possible there.

    Sorry — but that’s just a load of rubbish.

    Language certainly transcends the means of its own expression, which is the necessary prerequisite for any communication, but its very transcendence requires that pure rationality is a complete impossibility — because language is meaningless without an inherently imperfect audience to interpret and misinterpret the statements that it provides.

  • JabbaPapa

    If your god is so perfect, omniscient and omnipotent just why can’t he express himself in a way that everyone can understand?

    Second good comment in a single day, well done.

    The answer is — He does.

    But — whether we believe Him or not is in our own hands, not His.

    So now you finally admit that misinterpretation occurs, therefore repeated copying will be subject to ‘Chinese whispers’, therefore what you have is a flawed copy of something that may but probably didn’t come from a supernatural being especially as a lot of it is obviously cribbed from earlier stories.

    That’s a very irrational interpretation — concerning Scripture, its contents are VERY stable.

    The “chinese whispers” theory of late 19th century has been TOTALLY debunked as a completely unscientific fantasy.

    The existence of individual misinterpretations does not imply what you falsely believe it to.

    Me : Revelation is therefore provided by God ; NOT by the Scripture alone

    Acleron : And this is the big get out. As your supernatural being doesn’t clearly communicate with you, you choose which bits are what you follow

    No, you haven’t even the faintest idea here, you have no idea at all about the nature of Revelation.

    Contrary to your uninformed and therefore irrelevant declaration, the only reason why I am a Catholic instead of an agnostic is because of personal revelation from God.

    It’s no “big get out” — Revelation is more simply that part of God who is knowable to us by means of His desire to gift us with this understanding and this Love.

  • JabbaPapa

    Learn how to read !!!

    “merely by domesticating animals” — cause

  • JabbaPapa

    Actually, I was wrong to restrict this statement to “animals”.

    Apart from that, I suspect you of being willfully obtuse — your statement “you confused variation with mutation“, based as it is on a complete absence of supporting evidence, suggests as much.

  • JabbaPapa

    You have a belief that shapes your life and is totally without evidence and you accuse others of being deluded? Oh dear.

    No, I don’t think he does.

    He’s not a nihilist.

  • JabbaPapa

    I keep an eye on this site because occasionally it is the source of the
    most vile vituperations about people. I don’t particularly enjoy it but
    look upon posting here as a contribution to the society which gave me
    the opportunity to understand how the universe works, a far greater
    experience than worrying about living my life to mirror a 2000 year
    document.

    Good grief your arrogance is insufferable !!!

    Catholicism is NOT “a document”.

    If you think that, then you understand exactly NOTHING about God nor the Faith nor the Church.

  • Acleron

    So just the usual hand waving.

    God speaks perfectly understandably but we can’t understand it?

    I have a thought inside my brain that trumps all facts?

    I choose what I want from a document, but I’ll just keep rambling to hide the fact?

  • Acleron

    Pull the other one Jabba, yet again, you’ve been caught making up things.

    You claimed Darwin was wrong (in capitals no less) about variation increasing by domestication.
    Only in a later post did you add that he was wrong about Lamarckism being a mechanism in without any reference to the fact you were wrong to start with.

    When I agreed with that, you went into your normal rant.

    Finally you tried to slip in the switch, that animals don’t experience variation when they are introduced into a domestic environment and got caught on that too.

    You are hopeless.

  • Acleron

    It was hardly obtuse, it was the only rationale I could think of for such an error of fact.

    But if you want to extend it to plants and even micro-organisms, please do so, although it does confirm you are talking about domestication not causing variation and has nothing to do with mechanism.

  • Acleron

    Oh stop trying to shift back and fore. You rely on the bible to give you your rules of conduct about homosexuality, women, condoms, population growth etc, etc. Or is it just a complete coincidence that those bronze age rules, outlined in the bible and confirmed by external sources are exactly what you follow? Of course, you no longer follow all those rules, some you cherry pick and others you no longer follow, while at the same time claiming you don’t and simultaneously claiming these rules are absolute and handed down by a god.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’ve no idea whence you’ve obtained these ludicrous and irrational notions.

    Your Bible interpretation OTOH just stinks, pure and simple …

  • JabbaPapa

    FFS learn how to read !!!

    You’re making a hodge-podge of ludicrous claims having nothing to do with me.

  • JabbaPapa

    it was the only rationale I could think of for such an error of fact

    What “error” ????

    You’ve already agreed with the contents of my statement ; you’re just trying to “prove” me “wrong” by the means of an irrationally intrusive method of claiming that I have supposedly “said” something that I haven’t.

    How exactly can I make a claim about mutation without ever mentioning it ?

    Pathetic.

  • JabbaPapa

    You rely on the bible to give you your rules of conduct about homosexuality, women, condoms, population growth etc, etc

    More inventions and lies ???

    Pathetic.

    Or is it just a complete coincidence that those bronze age rules,
    outlined in the bible and confirmed by external sources are exactly what
    you follow?

    Cripes, have you ever consulted a psychologist for possible paranoia ?

  • Parasum

    @Jabba:

    “The so-called “literalist” approach towards the interpretation of Scripture is therefore quite perfectly absurd”

    ## That depends on what one means by literalism.

    [The page seems very anxious to prevent anything I say appearing directly after your post - sorry about that :)]

  • Acleron

    You don’t seem to be aware that your views on contraception, your dislike of homosexuals, your approach to the equality of women are all in your bible.

    Act in denial all you want about this, but then the alternative would have to be admitting you made it all up yourselves.

  • TreenonPoet

     In my first paragraph I explained what I meant by ‘high level thoughts’. You seem to think I was talking about levels of sophistication in content. Please read the comment.

    In the case of computer languages, no ambiguity is allowed (other than as deliberate placeholders). If there is ambiguity, the language is at fault. It is true that a computer program can be misinterpreted by a human reader, but that is the fault of the reader, not of the program. It is possible for the program to be rational, and this would be partially demonstrated by running its code on a processor capable of executing it. For example, when somebody uses the word ‘or’ in English, it is sometimes not clear whether it is meant in the inclusive or exclusive sense. If the word ‘or’ is used in a computer language boolean expression (as opposed to bit for bit operations, for example) in its default sense (i.e. the word has not been overloaded by the programmer), that sense must have been predefined as being either inclusive or exclusive. The compiler will know what is meant, but a human reading a printout might inadvertently read it in the wrong sense.

  • JabbaPapa

    Well, “literalism” is the doctrine whereby *only* the literal meaning of Scripture is meaningful, and all others are wrong — which, combined with faith, leads to that particular form of Christian fundamentalism ; combined with lack of faith, leads to the tedious scriptural radicalism of some online atheists.

    Normal exegetics do not of course reject reading the Bible to discover its literal meanings, in fact a proper interpretation of Scripture *requires* being aware of them…

  • JabbaPapa

    In my first paragraph I explained what I meant by ‘high level thoughts’.

    You are under the mistaken impression that I had not seen your definition.

    You’ve addressed my own point not in the slightest.

    In the case of computer languages, no ambiguity is allowed

    Rubbish — for starters, you’ve obviously never heard of the use of fuzzy logic in programming.

  • JabbaPapa

    My views on contraception are my own, informed as they are by various sources, not including the Bible.

    Your claim that I “dislike” homosexuals is slander, and bigoted in nature.

    As for what you imagine my “approach” is to the equality of women, I can only assume that it is defined in your mind from the same source of your bigotry concerning Catholicism. Whatever it might be, I’m not responsible for itat all, given that I’ve said pretty much nothing on the subject in these blogs.

  • Acleron

    Your was plural.

    However, if you have formed your own views on contraception, then you are responsible for them, no god required. Strange, though, how they coincide with those in the bible.

  • TreenonPoet

     

    You are under the mistaken impression that I had not seen your definition.

    You’ve addressed my own point not in the slightest.

    If you understood my definition, then you you would realise that your ‘point’ does not make sense.

    Rubbish — for starters, you’ve obviously never heard of the use of fuzzy logic in programming ; and you clearly do not understand just how deeply ambiguity can be incorporated into a computer language.

    I have heard of fuzzy logic, and it is irrelevant to my point, firstly because when fuzzy logic is implemented using a computer language, it is still necessary to understand exactly the semantics of the computer language itself in order to achieve the desired level of ‘fuzziness’ and statistical accuracy, and secondly because even if this was not the case, it would not negate my claim that pure rationality is possible. However, your claim that it is obvious I have never heard of fuzzy logic is disproven.

    By ‘deep’ incorporation of ambiguity into a computer language, you must mean something deeper than the ‘bugs’ that I have already referred to because it is possible to fix such bugs. Given that, to refute my claim that pure rationality is possible, such ambiguity must be widespread, it should be easy for you to cite an example. I cannot think of one.

    Not to mention that any command in a programming language can be manipulated, changed, or redefined at any point in time — even within the framework of a single program.

    I presume you are referring to cases where the program (or its code) is stored in the same memory as the the area of storage that can be altered by the program when it runs. Again, this does not refute my claim that pure rationality is possible, and it would even be possible in that self-changing-program scenario providing that enough care was taken in the programming.

  • JabbaPapa

    But your claim about “levels of sophistication in content” is a complete irrelevance, so that I was very unlikely to be thinking of any such thing — I mentioned *precisely* what I was referring to, and it was subjectivity and aesthetics in your analyses — that you have NOT addressed in the SLIGHTEST.

    That is to say that you have a subjective and aesthetic concept of “pure rationality” that does not correspond to any actually specific functions of human consciousness — it is romantic and unscientific in nature, and it bears no resemblance to reality.

    Concerning fuzzy logic, there are two very different manners of implementing it, though I can see that you do actually understand one of them.

    You refer to fuzzy logic where it is implemented within the rules and framework of a specific programming language and those of a coherently devised project. Fine, and what you say concerning this is true.

    The deeper level of fuzzy logic is the kind that violates those things at a very fundamental level, mainly by forcing the program to abandon them altogether, or to use methods of input or output that do not obey their definitions — typically human/machine interface interrupts or intentional logical paradoxes

    Some software will only work as desired if you deliberately design it to fail at the tasks requested of it, and then design an interface that will allow the user to actively correct these mistakes.

    … of course, this is the only sort of software that’s any fun to write, because it actively subverts everything that anyone has ever taught you about programming and logic and so-called “pure rationality” — but it works ; because, at the end of all things, it’s the person using the computer who’s running your software, NOT the computer itself.

    Fuzzy logic at this deeper level creates a material relationship between the programmer and the users via the hardware and software ; and there is NOTHING about such a relationship which is going to be “purely rational”.

    I presume you are referring to cases where the program (or its code) is
    stored in the same memory as the the area of storage that can be altered
    by the program when it runs

    Not really no. Data variables perform exactly that same function anyway …

  • JabbaPapa

    Acleron : Your was plural.

    What a complete flipping cop-out !!!

    However, if you have formed your own views on contraception, then you are responsible for them, no god required. Strange, though, how they coincide with those in the bible.

    Is this another of your “Flat Earth” claims ?

    As far as I know, contraception is mentioned NOWHERE in Scripture.

  • Acleron

    Your views are strikingly similar to other catholics, it is hardly surprising I use the plural.

    Ah, the old document  doesn’t have a term that was coined in 1886. Amazing.
    But there is a prohibition about spilling a man’s seed on the ground. Of course, they were ignorant of the vast number of such ‘seeds’ that were wasted anyway.

  • JabbaPapa

    … all you found scraping the barrel was this non sequitur ???

    Oh well, your loss, not mine …

  • Acleron

    Acleron:-’But there is a prohibition about spilling a man’s seed on the ground. Of course, they were ignorant of the vast number of such ‘seeds’ that were wasted anyway.’
    Jabba:-’… all you found scraping the barrel was this non sequitur ???’That was a non sequitur? You really don’t know much about the meaning of words.

  • JabbaPapa

    My objection that contraception is NOT mentioned in Scripture, contrary to your fallacious claim, is not conversationally addressed by any irrelevant comment about either English vocabulary or cellular biology.

  • TreenonPoet

     Purely rational thought is not a subjective or aesthetic concept (at the level of thought that I am referring to, which is why I had assumed that you were not referring to that). Integer arithmetic is a simple example of a discipline that is objective and not affected by opinion.

    How does this relate to aearon43‘s accusation that I was making stuff up when I referred to the ‘religious method’ of making stuff up? Well, a religious assertion is not based on evidence (otherwise it would not be religious in the sense meant in the term ‘religious method’). If there was evidence at the time that the assertion was originally made it would not, at that time, be a religious assertion. If all the evidence dissappears (as in often the case in assertions of a historical nature), we can no longer be sure that the assertion was correct. The best we can say is that the assertion was made, and perhaps give pointers to the probability that it was true or false. We cannot reasonably be more certain than that (given the absence of evidence). Therefore, to claim that the assertion is definitely true is a matter of religious conviction. The claim is made up. The truth is that we do not know for sure that the assertion is true.

    I have expressed the above in English, and so I rely on you to mentally disambiguate it, but I could have expressed it more formally (by predicate logic, with all terms predefined). I would guess that in most cases English is sufficient when trying to convince the other person (but that is not to say that English cannot be used to deliberately mislead). The point is that, if it came to it, the argument could be tediously expressed in predicate logic and formally reduced to a truth value (hopefully, true).

    In a simple example, “All that glisters is not gold” could be expressed as “Every member of the set of things that glister, does not belong to the set of things that are made of gold”, but given that “Gold is a member of the set of things that are made of gold” and “Gold is a member of the set of things that glister” we can say that “There exists at least one member of the set of things that glister that is a member of the set of things that are made of gold” which contradicts the original assertion, so the original assertion is false. (Of course, Shakespeare meant “There exists at least one member of the set of things that glister that does not belong to the set of things that are made of gold”.) Given the two premises about gold, the original assertion is rationally shown to be untrue.

    I had not heard of your deeper level of fuzzy logic, but again it does not negate the existence of non-fuzzy, rational logic.

    If you were not referring to self-modifying programs, then I have no idea what you were referring to.