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Justice holding a book with the Golden Rule on one page. © Shutterstock
Published on: April 16, 2014
Pluralism
Can One Teach The Whole Gospel While Standing On One Leg?

Modernity poses a not-unhealthy challenge to all religions to reflect on their core convictions. What is Christianity all about?

Pluralism, the co-existence of different world-views and value systems in the same society, weakens the certainty with which people had previously held their religious and moral convictions. Minimally, one becomes aware of the fact that other people, who do not seem obviously demented, do not share these convictions—and nevertheless manage to get along in their lives. This awareness makes it difficult to take one’s convictions for granted; now, one must stop and reflect about them. Pluralism has become a global reality. All those “others” keep obtruding.

Inevitably the thought occurs: Could it be that they are right? Perhaps, they are right about some things but not about the ones I care most about. In religious communities this has led to a quest for the core of the tradition, which is non-negotiable, as against more peripheral aspects which, if really pressed, I might modify or give up. I have used the term “cognitive bargaining” to describe this process. As Peter van der Veer has brilliantly shown in his new book The Modern Spirit of Asia, it was Western modernity that has exerted enormous pressure on the cultures of India and China to define a core of their traditions that (however redefined) must be preserved, while different (more supposedly backward or superstitious) ones may be left behind. Thus Chinese intellectuals and political leaders have sought to retain a supposedly central Confucian worldview, while stripping off its links with traditional social and political institutions—no more binding women’s feet, no more imperial ritual. And Hindu reformers have defined a “spiritual” core of Hinduism while renouncing features deemed unacceptable to modern sensibilities, such as untouchability or widow-burning. Even Christianity (actually not that much earlier) engaged with modernity, with similar “bargaining” has been taking place—for example, the resurrection of Jesus (even if redefined) has generally been deemed to be non-negotiable, but not all the other miracles of the New Testament.

Pluralism or not, I think that such a process of reflection is very useful. It has been broadly repudiated as “essentialism” by postmodern theorists. I disagree. Of course some alleged “essences” are poorly chosen, or are devices to avoid the immense complexities of reality. But reflection about core convictions is a healthy, and in some situations an inevitable exercise. Emile Durkheim proposed that the survival of a society depends on the willingness of its members, if necessary, to die for it. This implies that the core of what the society is, that for which one may be prepared to die, can be distinguished from more peripheral or even immoral items (the ideals of liberty and equality, as against the excesses of French colonialism). Every curious child will ask about this or that newly encountered phenomenon: What is this really all about?

Back to religion: The great Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century BCE, was once asked: “Can one teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg?” Hillel said yes, then recited the probably first version of what came to be called The Golden Rule: “Do not do to another what you would hate if it were done to you. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary”. [With all due respect for one of the fathers of rabbinical Judaism, Hillel’s choice of core teaching seems a bit off. It may be the core of Torah’s moral message. But Torah is more than moral (or for that matter, legal) teaching. It seems to me that a better choice for a core statement would be the Shema, the basic creed of Jewish faith: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”.] Islam has a core affirmation that surely can be spoken while standing on one leg, the Shehada, to utter which makes one a Muslim: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”. Buddhism has the so-called Four Noble Truths, which have different  Theravada and Mahayana versions. But all of them contain four assertions, which can be summarized as follows: “All is suffering. All is impermanence. All is non-self. There is a path to the cessation of suffering”. Of course, as in Judaism, there have been centuries of “commentary” about the core convictions in Islam and Buddhism. But a child who asks on first encountering one of these—“What is this really all about”—may be first answered by the relevant core affirmation. Of course that will only be the beginning. Then must come a lot of commentary.

What about Christianity?—Christians have long identified Jesus as the author of the Golden Rule. He is indeed reported to have recited it in a slightly different wording (Matthew 7:12): “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. For that is the law and the prophets.” I would not read too much into the different wording—Jesus’ prescriptive, Hillel’s proscriptive. The chronology leaves little doubt that Jesus was quoting Hillel (there are no footnotes in the New Testament). In any case, the Golden Rule in either version hardly states the core of the Christian Gospel any more than that of Judaism. What statement could do that for Christianity? Even the Apostles’ Creed, the shortest of the historic ones, is much too long (actually, already a sort of commentary). I think we are better advised to look at the oldest extant Christian texts, those by the Apostle Paul (who wrote long before the Creed attributed to the Apostles).

I think there is little doubt that Paul considered the resurrection the core of the faith. As he wrote (in First Corinthians 15:14), “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”. The Good News, of course, is that Jesus’ resurrection foreshadows the one that we can all look forward to at the end of time. In both cases it is a physical resurrection—that of a transformed body in this world, not that of a soul in some other world. Please note that calling the resurrection the core of the Gospel is a descriptive statement, not a theological one (an atheist or a Buddhist scholar could come to the same conclusion). I wish I could remember the name of the German historian of Central Asia (I have no idea of his religion or lack of same), whose lecture I heard quite a few years ago. He spoke about religious pluralism along the Silk Road, the great trade route between Europe and Asia, which had its heyday in the first millennium CE. Not only were so many religions present and active in the region, but there was a lot of so-called syncretism—mixing of ideas, practices and symbols from these traditions: Manicheism, Christianity (mostly Nestorian), Buddhism, Confucianism, and yet others. I remember that the lecturer showed a depiction of Jesus dressed as a Confucian scholar, one hand raised in Christian blessing, the other in a sign of Buddhist Enlightenment. Often a text begins full of Confucian ideas, then goes on to end as a Buddhist message. The lecturer made the point that there is one item in a text that occurs only in an originally Christian one—mention of physical resurrection.

One very interesting point about Paul: He showed very little if any interest in the teachings of Jesus, and rather focused on his role at the center of the great cosmic drama of redemption. This should be of concern to the many who look on Jesus as a great moral teacher to be emulated, from Tolstoy and Gandhi to the many people today described by the sociologist Nancy Ammerman as “Golden Rule Christians”.

There is an instructive story from the Soviet period in Russia. The official creed of the regime was of course “scientific atheism” (though its coercive implementation varied from time to time). But there were periodic campaigns of atheist propaganda conducted by party ideologues. One such campaign reached a rather remote village. All the villagers, including the Orthodox priest, were forced to attend an hour-long lecture on atheism. At the end the lecturer (perhaps with a smirk) the propagandist said: “We allow freedom of expression here. The priest has five minutes for a rebuttal.” The priest came forward, said that he didn’t need five minutes, turned to the assemblage and intoned “Christ is risen!” The villagers responded with the appropriate liturgical formula: “He is risen indeed”.  [Please note again: I am making a descriptive, not a theological statement here. Elsewhere than on this blog I could make the latter.]

What is Christianity all about? – I take three news items, almost at random, from the April 16, 2014 issue of The Christian Century. They tell us how some American Christians today answer this question. I’m phrasing the answer as it might be given to an inquisitive (say, twelve-year old) child.

Michael Rogness, who has taught about funerals for many years, makes recommendations to pastors. Some are commonsensical—such as choosing a fitting text for the sermon, trying to articulate the feelings of the survivors. But the following he labels his most important recommendation: “Proclaim the gospel to the survivors. The heart of our faith is that because Jesus was raised, death is not the last word.” (The Apostle Paul would approve.)

—- “We are all very sad that grandpa has died. We will miss him. I know that you will miss him. We are comforted by recalling that he was a wonderful person and that he lived a full life. But, far more important, we are comforted by God’s promise that he does not abandon any one of his creatures and that he intends for grandpa a future life full of a glory that now we cannot even imagine.”

Franklin Graham, who heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association which seeks to continue the work of his famous father, has in a recent article praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his repressive measures against homosexuality and contrasted this with Barack Obama’s “shameful” stance on the same issue: “Our president and his attorney general have turned their backs on God and His standards, and many in the Congress are following the administration’ lead”. Graham also writes: “Obviously, he [Putin] may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda”.

—- “People in important public positions face different moral challenges. At your age your great challenges are in your personal life. The Bible has given us a clear code of sexual morality, to which you are bound. Homosexuality is a terrible sin. You must shun it with all your strength. This is not easy today when the media push a gay and lesbian agenda, and the government and the courts increasingly follow in the same direction. For you, at age twelve, this is what Christianity is primarily all about: Living in accordance with Christian sexual morality, and resisting those (probably including some of your teachers) who would persuade you otherwise.”

Amy Frykholm, an associate editor of The Christian Century, whose sympathies are clearly on the other side from Franklin Graham on issues south of the navel, wrote a longish article in the journal where she suggests that the disagreement over same-sex marriage has gone too far to avoid a split in the United Methodist Church. (She does not develop her own view of the matter in the article—she acts as an objective reporter). Passionate convictions are involved on both sides, both buttressed by theological rationales: Same-sex marriage is a violation of God-given human nature and an egregious offense against Christian morality. Against this: Same-sex marriage is a profound expression of Christian morality, and a much-delayed redress for an ancient injustice. The dispute recently heated up when a disciplinary procedure stripped a Methodist pastor of his clergy credentials for conducting a same-sex wedding for his own son. It seems that American society as a whole is moving toward acceptance if not advocacy of same-sex marriage. The same fervent disagreement is of course threatening schism in other denominations, notably the Anglican communion, which pits strongly liberal churches in Europe and America, against churches in Africa and other parts of the Global South. Thus, while the Church of England is likely to accept the legalization of same-sex marriage by the state (though it will not solemnize it by church weddings), Anglicans in Uganda are debating whether the death penalty for repeated homosexual acts is appropriate (it has not been enacted, but long prison sentences remain).

—-“Every generation of Americans faces its own great moral challenge. A few decades ago it was the Civil Rights Movement, then the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Today it is the battle over same-sex marriage, which is about civil rights for gays and lesbians. The central Christian belief is in the equal dignity of all human persons. Today nothing expresses this belief more powerfully than the right of two people who love each other to enter into a sacred commitment to each other, no matter their gender or sexual orientation”.

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  • Boritz

    “The central Christian belief is in the equal dignity of all human persons. Today nothing expresses this belief more powerfully than the right of two people who love each other to enter into a sacred commitment to each other, no matter their gender or sexual orientation”.

    By limiting the right to two people the author seems not to care not about the equal dignity of those living big love.

    • fredx2

      Exactly. And what of the other kinds of arrangements? Do they get sanctioned as parts of “human dignity”?
      And what if in fact, homosexual acts can be harmful? Then, of course, respect for human dignity implies cautioning against homosexual acts. Since homosexuals seem to find it very hard to remain monogamous,(well documented) and do engage in lots of anonymous sex with near strangers, perhaps that behavior is beneath human dignity? Perhaps cheating on your gay spouse, even if “rules” have been agreed on, is beneath human dignity. Perhaps putting you know what into you know where is, in fact, against human dignity and can be a demeaning behavior. All I’m saying is that there are multiple aspects to this question, and pretending that some aspects do not exist is not healthy either.

      • Barbara Piper

        I’m not sure I follow the logic in this argument, but if I do, it appears that you are proposing a threshold of adultery that should disqualify anyone — not just same-sex couples — for participation in marriage. If adultery is bad, surely it is bad for everyone. It may also be worth pointing out that same-sex marriage is a newly enough legal option that we really don’t have good data on the promiscuity of same-sex marriage partners: extrapolating from pre-marital sexual data is dangerous, and might lead to ban marriage among millions of high school and college kids these days. I think of basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed to have had 20,000 sexual encounters: would you pass a law making it illegal for Wilt Chamberlain to marry?

        Remember also that the marriage equality movement focuses on the legal status of marriage, not the religious institution; marriage as a legal relationship does not rest upon such promiscuity tests for heterosexual couples who wish to marry, and it is not clear to me why it should for same-sex couples.

        The argument from a notion of human dignity is simply not relevant to the debate over the law. Showing her ankle was once undignified for a woman; if you want to live in a society in which “dignity” establishes the bar for legality I suggest that you consider the model of Islamic cultures, in which undignified behavior gets people stoned to death, publicly whipped, or, as in the case of Malala Yousafzai, shot by your compatriots in the Taliban.

        • Fred

          If adultery is bad, surely it is bad for everyone.

          I can’t speak for the other fred, but if I’m reading him correctly, the issue is not that adultery is morally worse for homosexuals than for heterosexuals, but that it is practically more likely, and that fact (and it is an undeniable fact) is possibly, I would argue probably, due to the nature of homosexuality.

          It may also be worth pointing out that same-sex marriage is a newly enough legal option that we really don’t have good data on the promiscuity of same-sex marriage partners: extrapolating from pre-marital sexual data is dangerous, and might lead to ban marriage among millions of high school and college kids these days.

          There is orders of magnitude difference between homosexual promiscuity and that of contemporary young heterosexuals. The first AIDs patients had had sex with literally thousands of partners in the five years previous to their diagnosis. Keep in mind, it is women who limit the sexual activity of men. With homosexuals, you have (at least) two men, ergo no constraint. That is why I would argue that the likelihood of adultery is so much greater among homosexuals and that it is due to the very nature of homosexuality.

          I think of basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed to have had 20,000 sexual encounters: would you pass a law making it illegal for Wilt Chamberlain to marry?

          Well, at the very least, I wouldn’t recommend marrying him :). Seriously though, that is a red herring. Sleazebags come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and sexual preferences. The point is that a heterosexual marriage is more likely to be a faithful one given the nature of homosexuality. And that is really only one small part of the objections fredx2 raised anyway.

          Remember also that the marriage equality movement focuses on the legal status of marriage, not the religious institution

          For how long? Already bakers, photographers, etc. are penalized for refusing to serve a ceremony they find harmful and immoral on religious grounds. The contraception mandate is a first step to making the constitutional injunction against “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” a dead letter. The slippery slope may be a fallacy in formal logic, but it is all too often a reality in politics, where successful power grabs tend to breed further power grabs. Btw, I find the euphemism “marriage equality movement” positively Orwellian. It is similar to “pro-choice.” The implication is “how can anybody be against choice?” while eliding the fact that the “choice” in question is the taking of innocent life. The movement is to impose the agenda of the LGBT movement on the culture at large and to (further) redefine marriage as “cohabitation with rings,” to last only as long as it is convenient for both parties, and to (further) separate it from reproduction and the raising of children.

          if you want to live in a society in which “dignity” establishes the bar for legality I suggest that you consider the model of Islamic cultures, in which undignified behavior gets people stoned to death, publicly whipped, or, as in the case of Malala Yousafzai, shot by your compatriots in the Taliban.

          Oh for God’s sake, hysterical much? I think you just hit a variation of Godwin’s law.

          • Barbara Piper

            “The movement is to impose the agenda of the LGBT movement on the culture at large…”

            The copy of the agenda that I’ve seen distributed at the secret meetings of gay activists is fairly simple: equal rights. ;)

            Seriously, your characterization of the “nature” of homosexuality is both bizarre and beside the point. The vast majority of gay men never visited a bath house, ever, yet are being condemned for the excesses of the minority who did. Again, will you set up a test for marriageability? Promiscuous? No marriage. Not promiscuous? OK, you can marry. Again we don’t do that for anyone who wants to marry, and we shouldn’t do it for homosexuals. On the contrary, it has been argued that marriage reduces sexual promiscuity in both gay and straight couples, so allowing same sex couples to marry could have the effect of reducing sexual promiscuity. But, as I noted, we don’t propose that heterosexual couples cannot marry because most of them engage in adultery, and no one I know wants to suggest the level or frequency of adultery associated with, say, tall men, that might lead us to deny the right of marriage to tall men. You’re proposing that we use a criterion for marriageability for gay couples that we would find offensive for heterosexual couples, and the courts would not let that stand.

            And we don’t insist that heterosexual couples reproduce, so reproduction is not a requirement of the right to marry. Besides, sexual behavior cannot be the point any longer, since straight and gay people will engage in sexual activity whether or not a state allows them to be married in the legal sense. And gay people can adopt and raise children, with or with marriage. The whole reproduction issue strikes me as the red herring here: we don’t force anyone to reproduce in marriage, and we don’t cancel marriages that don’t produce children.

            I was conscious of drifting into hyperbole and nudging up against Godwin’s law in my final comment, but I do think that there are lessons to be learned from repressive cultures, and in my work as a human rights lawyer in West African counties I see this constantly. I would never propose that we live in an anything-goes world, but the abuses of human rights that we see in the name of mythologies of human difference — women are weak and polluting creatures that need to be controlled; homosexuals are evil deviants that should be executed — are reminders of what we should strive to avoid at the other extreme.

          • Fred

            The copy of the agenda that I’ve seen distributed at the secret meetings of gay activists is fairly simple: equal rights. ;)

            In the “equal rights” entry in the Newspeak dictionary, I’m sure. In reality the agenda is to “normalize” behavior that is at best a disorder resulting from some genetic, environmental, and/or psychological dysfunction and at worst willful perversion. And they don’t stop at “tolerance” of that behavior, as demonstrated by the Mozilla case and the cases of the baker and photographer I mentioned above. Btw, I doubt seriously that either the bakery or the photography business was incorporated, IIRC, they were privately owned businesses so even assuming arguendo that owners of corporations do not have the same rights vis a vis their corporations as individuals, that is irrelevant to the case at hand.

            Seriously, your characterization of the “nature” of homosexuality is both strange and beside the point.

            Gay men, at least, are unquestionably more promiscuous as a group than heterosexual men. Do you deny that? That promiscuity will further redefine marriage in a way that weakens it. Do you deny that? Lesbians are a different story, I will concede, but as I pointed out in my previous comment promiscuity was only one small part of fredx2’s argument.

            And we don’t insist that heterosexual couples reproduce, so reproduction is not a requirement of the right to marry.

            That’s a straw man. No one has ever argued that married couples must have children. But as has been proven again and again, children do best when they grow up with their biological mother and father. And better still when mother and father are married. Any law that weakens the institution of marriage is bad for children. And redefining marriage in the way that gay marriage would will unquestionably weaken it. People of your political persuasion, especially feminists, made many of the same arguments about “equal rights” and “personal liberty” in the case of no-fault divorce in the 1970s. Then, as now, conservative opponents were dismissed as bigots (You’re just a misogynist who wants to keep women chained to unhappy marriages!) and laughed at as neanderthal reactionaries. But, of course, then as now, we were right, as witness the state of marriage today and the social consequences of that state (see Charles Murray’s latest book).

            I do think that there are lessons to be learned from repressive cultures, and in my work as a human rights lawyer in West African counties I see this constantly.

            To compare civilized societies to West Africa or the Middle East is the height of false analogies. But I’m glad to see you do recognize the hyperbole.

  • johngbarker

    “willingness of its members, if necessary, to die for it.” I believe it was Dorothy Sayers who said, “The first thing a principle does is to kill someone.” We live in a pluralistic society, but many still believe in the existence of absolute truth and that they possess it and have an obligation to die and kill for it.

    • Fred

      Sorry, but that strikes me as a bit adolescent. Fanaticism is part of the human condition and always has been. It can attach itself to almost anything: nation, race, ideology, sports team, celebrity. Just because fanatics commit evil in their excessive devotion to something doesn’t make that thing intrinsically evil. Are you really naive enough to believe that if we jettison any notion of absolute truth there will be no more fanaticism? There would be those who would fanatically hunt down anyone evil enough to still believe in absolute truth and kill them or die trying. There’s an old cliche about babies and bathwater.

    • Jim__L

      You do realize that Christian martyrs die but do not kill, right?

    • fredx2

      Those complaining about absolute truth are usually complaining about other people’s absolute truths. They usually have their own absolute truths, which they then defend absolutely.

  • amoose1959

    “The central Christian belief is in the equal
    dignity of all human persons”

    I do
    not know your credentials but in my opinion you are no biblical scholar.
    Nowhere is dignity mentioned in the New Testament and only a few times, mostly
    pejoratively, in the Old Testament. In
    fact this concept being a central Christian belief is a gross distortion of Christian
    theology. The only common thread of all human persons in the Bible is that we are all sinners and that by His grace are we saved .

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      amoose1959
      Neither am I a Biblical scholar or a theologian, but if we substituted the word “holiness” for “dignity” would that be Biblical enough? I don’t know the answer to this question myself. But here are some thoughts. Holiness precedes moral behavior. Holiness means to be set apart. That means to be set apart from animals who eat their own dung. Contrary to Marxism, it means that man does not live by bread or material things only. “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16). The problem with the use of the word holy is that it mis-presumes purity of behavior, which you affirm is not possible because of man’s sinful condition. So perhaps dignity is more understood to the modern person?

      • amoose1959

        Maybe I am too simple minded but I don’t see holiness that
        way. To me holy means sinless and my understanding
        of the verse is that our Lord says do
        not sin because I am sinless . He is not saying that I am sinless but that
        should always be my goal in order to be Christ like. Alas we all fall short…..
        , but we never stop trying and always pray for forgiveness because of what He
        has done for us even though we have been given positional righteousness by His
        infinite grace. Christianity is not cheap grace.

  • Jim__L

    Wait, what? The Apostle’s Creed is “too long”?

    Perhaps as an Austrian, Berger is offended by the movie Amadeus, but some lines come to mind from there…

    Emperor Joseph II: “My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

    Mozart: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

    I can just picture Emperor Peter Berger I, dressed in all his imperial finery, standing before Jesus and saying, “Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. But there are simply too many rules, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect”.

    How do you suppose God would react?

    • Gary Novak

      Berger is not saying that the Apostles’ Creed is too long but too long to be taught while standing on one leg. Even ballerinas can’t stay on pointe for more than a couple seconds.

      • Jim__L

        The point here is that his criterion doesn’t work. In either direction, come to think of it.

        One, Americans demonstrate on a regular basis you can say the alphabet
        (backwards!) while standing on one leg, so I’m not sure why the
        Apostle’s Creed would present much of a challenge.

        Two, his criterion is excessively reductionist. The Bible is big and complicated for a reason — human life is big and complicated. Certain portions can be boiled down to pithy statements, but to think that the whole can be boiled down in such a way is simply nonsense. (Additionally, it’s a way that, Berger makes clear in his comments farther down, is meant to carve a hole out of Christianity so that it can be replaced by modern cultural mores. He apparently has an axe to grind.)

        If he’d like a couple of pithy statements on an aspect of what Christianity is all about, here are some, generally applicable to sin — not just homosexuality, but others too.

        Don’t ask to be excused. You won’t be.
        Repent.
        Then ask to be forgiven. You will be.

        If everything can be excused, as moderns would have it —
        If we could simply change the Law so that anything goes,
        then Christ died for nothing.

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          Jim_L
          I presume you prefer a thousand leg barstool to a precarious one-legged barstool when it comes to the Bible. I think this is what Pascal wrote about when he said faith is a wager and a high risk gamble. Here are three verses from the Christian Bible that I would guess moderns would have difficulty with:

          1.) The Lord is speaking to Abraham in this story where God commands him to sacrifice his son:
          “Take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love, and to to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” (Genesis 22:2)

          2.) “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).

          3.) “Slaves, submit to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (I Peter 2:18).

          So if everything in the Bible is central, and nothing peripheral (to use Berger’s phraseology), then the above is just as important to the affirmation “He is Risen?”

          • Jim__L

            1) That wasn’t a test of Abraham, a feeble old man — it was a test of Isaac, the strong wood-bearer who could at any point have simply walked away from the proceedings. Did Isaac believe “God would provide” or not? God would, and did.

            It’s also a prefiguring of the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Christ. Turns out He didn’t require of Abraham what He required of Himself. Further, the evil that Christ suffered did not outweigh the good that He accomplished through it.

            2) The older I get and the more of life I see, the more I think that this reflects unavoidable biological reality. Men just aren’t built to be what feminism teaches we ought to be. Period.

            Also, any discussion of that verse in Ephesians really ought to include the following context…

            “25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of His body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

            This is why approaching the Bible in a reductionist way is such a mistake. Life is big and complicated, and so is the Bible. If you reduce it to a few slogans or catchphrases, or take things out of context, you miss a huge amount of what it is teaching — and ultimately misconstrue the whole thing.

            3) Considering the first two have a whole lot less traction than you seem to think, I’m willing to give God the benefit of the doubt on the third. For one, it’s completely consistent with the “turn the other cheek” and “extra mile” teachings of Christ.

            Also, see the results of slave rebellions… Haiti comes to mind, as does Nat Turner. Were those expressions of Christianity? The alternatives to submission don’t seem all that Christian. The vast majority of American slaves (slaves all over the world, in fact) were freed like the Israelites — it was an act from above. Add to the mix the fact that Christianity includes liberation imagery aplenty, and makes it very clear that freeing slaves is a good thing, talking about Christ’s sacrifice for us in terms of freeing us from slavery.

            Like anything else in the Bible, this subject deserves some more thought and consideration.

            Reductionism is a mistake.

          • Breif2

            “That wasn’t a test of Abraham, a feeble old man — it was a test of Isaac”

            Genesis 22:1 – “And it came to pass after these things, that God did test Abraham.”

            Regarding the length of the Apostles’ Creed, have you ever had the misfortune of being asked to draft a mission statement?

          • Jim__L

            First point goes to Breif2. :) At most one could say that it was also a test of Isaac. Goodness, it’s not good to leave bits out now, is it? Much too easy to get things wrong. ;)

            I do not think that the “mission statement” approach is the best to take, with respect to Christianity. You leave too much out.

          • Breif2

            :-)

            “I do not think that the ‘mission statement’ approach is the best to take”

            While I think it’s a wonderful mission-ary tool! :-)

            My original point regarding mission statements was that many people (Guilty as charged) have great difficulty with them, whether in drafting them or in even seeing a need for them. I hypothesize that those objecting to “essentialism” here may have a problem not only with this particular case but in general.

        • Gary Novak

          I don’t agree that the attempt to state an essence of Christianity is reductionist. When Berger says that Paul locates the core of Christianity in the resurrection of Christ, he is not suggesting that everything else in Christianity can be ignored or replaced with modern cultural mores. He is suggesting that Christianity is not like the tax code– an endless collection of lobbyist-induced regulations in which it would be futile to search for an essence. Christianity does have an essence, and a detailed knowledge of “the Law” will not prevent us from missing it or misidentifying it in peripheral issues like homosexuality.
          Yes, in the light of Christianity, homosexuality is a peripheral issue– a fact homosexuals have as much trouble understanding as fundamentalists. When Amy Frykholm says that nothing better expresses the central Christian belief than support for gay marriage, she is demonstrating the price to be paid for thinking that essences don’t need to be discovered but simply awarded like Nobel prizes to our favorite political causes.
          Berger somewhere makes fun of Christians who say that one of these days they will have to go to church and find out what they believe. A creedal essence without intelligible interpretive commentary that makes it assimilable is not worth much. Neither are tax lawyers– except when we are rendering unto Caesar . . .

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          Reductionism is a theory or paradigm that says phenomena is reducible to some other theory or phenomenon. Thus, Marxism reduces all religion to material interests; psychoanalysis to a dream, sublimation or delusion; sociology to a group mind and social control, and Biblicism, taken to its extremes, becomes a self-help book of how to be a good wife or husband, a trusted slave, a great leader, or a way to predict the end times, let alone a financial and nutritional manual. This is what Peter Berger often describes as Sunday School Christianity (from the term by sociologist Nancy Ammerman). Conversely, Berger’s inductive faith approach is expansive.

          There is a recent book by sociologist Christian Smith “Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture” which I have not entirely read. Smith introduces the concept of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” and relies on the neo-orthodox theology Karl Barth. By “pervasive interpretive pluralism” Smith means the many different interpretations of the Bible by different denominations within Christianity, let alone the aberrant use of the Bible to legitimate anti-semitism and other evils (as well as its use to legitimate the emancipation slaves, not treating women as property, or banning the Indian practice of Sati or dowry death of throwing a widow’s body on her husband’s funeral pyre). If we were so certain in our agreement about the Bible as the sole authority for our lives, why do so many Christian’s disagree about what the Bible says? Nonetheless, Smith’s book is highly “Christocentric.”

          Of the two Christian virtues of absolute certainty or humility which is the greater? How in a modern world can we have passionate but doubtful religion? Only by faith Berger would argue.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Peter Berger’s intent is not to give short shrift to The Apostle’s Creed. Indeed, he wrote a whole commentary on the The Apostle’s Creed titled “Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity.” For whatever it’s worth, you can find my review of the book on Amazon.com titled “God Beats Up on Those With Useless Questions,” a phrase which is taken from Berger’s book.

      Yes, we can find greater certainty if we literally believe in all of The Apostle’s Creed or the Sermon on the Mount, or whatever other litmus test of certainty one wants. But faith presumes uncertainty. Stated obversely, certainty crowds out faith. As Berger asks in his Questions of Faith: “if convinced why do I need faith?’

      Bergers states there are “three offers (or shall we say three religious temptations) of certainty”: an inerrant Scripture, an infallible Scripture of Pope, or an irrefutable ecstatic religious experience (“being born again”). To this I imagine one could add an affirmation of a creed. Berger’s book affirms The Apostle’s Creed but probably not to the liking of what he calls “The Certainty Wallahs.”

      In the context of modernity and modern social psychology, certainty is childish or perhaps the temptation of the adolescent. Perhaps in this context we can understand the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

      • Jim__L

        “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
        Luke 18:17

        It’s more useful to understand the Bible in the context of the Bible, rather than the context of pop psychology.

    • Breif2

      “Which few did you have in mind”

      Some that come to mind immediately are “on the third day” and “under Pontius Pilate.” I’d argue that a Christian should indeed believe the NT account that Jesus rose on the third day, not the second or the fourth, but is that the essence of Christianity? If you are evangelizing, are you going to claim that this is what Christianity is all about?

      My own contender for the one-leg digest is John 3:16.

      • Jim__L

        John 3:16 works well, it’s very true.

        I can also sympathize with Dumas when he lampoons abstruse theological debate with Aramis’ discourse on whether it is proper to bless with the hands or the fingers. It’s really not something you need to concentrate on.

        I’m not entirely convinced, though, that chopping bits off is the right way to come to an “essence”. As I said, life is big and complicated. So is the Bible. You never quite know what part is going to come in handy (or indeed, essential) at what time and place.

        • Breif2

          [For TLDRers, skip to last paragraph.]

          Or as is attributed to Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

          Returning to the original story, Hillel the Elder’s approach is contrasted to that of his (in)famous colleague, Shammai (an engineer, of course. :-) )

          A Gentile came before Shammai and said to him: “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah [Bible] while I stand on one foot.”
          Thereupon Shammai drove him away with the builder’s measuring stick that was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary; go and learn it.”

          [The Gentile/convert later ]said: “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s humility brought us under the wings of the Shekhina [to Judaism].”

          We can take it as given that Hillel (the Pharisee leader!) was not minimizing the importance of the laws regarding Sabbath, diet, or sexual misconduct.

          If the point of the exercise is to retrench to a minimal position and jettison all else, I am in agreement with the outraged on this thread. I see it rather as an important pedagogical tool. The essence is “what it’s all about”, not “all there is”. The Apostles’ Creed might be what all Christians should come to believe in, but succinct as it is, it seems too complex and technical. Similarly, neither Hillel nor the other rabbis proposed the Ten Commandments as an “essence”. (In fact, the same rabbis who will approvingly cite the Hillel story are very uncomfortable with defining the Ten Commandments as the core of Judaism, as it seems to detract from the importance of the numerous other commandments.) I would suggest the metaphor of the “essence” as a beacon.

  • Gary Novak

    amoose1959 and Boritz do not realize that Berger is not endorsing Amy Frykholm’s claim that the central Christian belief is in the equal dignity of all human persons. (It’s her claim, not his.) In previous posts, Berger has argued that insight into inviolable human dignity is available without the benefit of religion. His point here is that, postmodernists notwithstanding, essences matter. Without making a theological claim here, he hopes that the qualitative disparity in the claimants to the title of “essence of Christianity” in “The Christian Century” article will speak for itself. Isn’t it obvious that below-the-belt essences (either for or against homosexuality) cannot compete with the Russian priest’s “Christ is risen”?

    • Jim__L

      I may have jumped on his lack of comment on Frykholm’s claim as “silence equals consent”, it’s true. If this was not Berger’s intent, I ask his forgiveness.

      Particularly on Easter, it’s good to remember the primacy of “Christ is Risen!” However, if we’re not simply going to be CAPE (Christmas – Ashes – Palms – Easter) Christians, “Christ is Risen!” needs to be followed up by reading what Christ actually had to say — on below-the-belt issues and others. Once we have read that, we ought to follow it out of gratitude for His sacrifice for us and faith that His words are the way we ought to properly arrange our lives.

      Can anyone really be said to believe in Christ if he or she is unwilling to take His words seriously?

  • Anthony

    “At least since Leviticus 20:13 prescribed the death penalty for a man lying with mankind as he lieth with a woman, many governments have used their monopoly on violence to imprison, torture, mutilate, and kill homosexuals. A gay person who escaped government violence in the form of laws against indecency, sodomy, buggery, unnatural acts, or crimes against nature was vulnerable to violence from his fellow citizens in the form of gay-bashing, homophobic violence, and antigay hate crimes.”

    We’ve moved a long way Peter Berger (developing human moral sense or cognitive bargaining perhaps) and maybe more near ratiocination as modern function of both humanism and liberalism (Enlightenment legacy) when weighed against non negotiable. The religious core you write to vis-a-vis gay marriage in modernity moves up against individual autonomy and flourishing as prescribed by Enlightenment ideas made current. But even so, religions remain fundamentally community bases for reflection and moral action which can either affirm or oppose the essay’s pluralistic thrust (“Can one teach the gospel while standing on one leg?”).

    • FA Miniter

      Are you aware of the persecution of LGBTs in Africa, most of it promoted by American Pentacostals?

      • Anthony

        Human persecution knows no geographical boundaries nor is intolerance (moral sense) necessarily assuaged by experience (psychology of taboo often underpins primal relational models).

        • FA Miniter

          But this persecution was the direct result of interference by American (so-called) Christians.

          • Anthony

            If your allegation is merited (and I trust there’s no agenda), then Res ipsa loquitur.

      • Breif2

        Not to mention the American Pentacostal influence in Iran.

  • amoose1959

    Pencils down gentlemen.
    Happy Easter.
    “Christ has risen from the dead.”
    2nd line please.

    • Jim__L

      He is risen indeed, alleluia!

      (Apologies for the lateness of the reply, but I’ve never liked the American habit of moving on from a holiday before the dishes are even done.)

  • Brian Foster

    Eventually all religions will follow the doctrine of Spiritism. Which teaches us we are an immortal soul going
    through successive lives in a quest to be better spirits. That any wrong
    action causes a reaction now or in a subsequent life. Also, the Bible,
    was created by people who could only understand what their culture and
    knowledge allowed them to understand at the time it was written. The
    sections about the earth being created in 6 days was an incorrect
    interpretation of what they were told, the but message of love and
    forgiveness is eternal. Also, Hell is not eternal, but only a construct
    in our mind, in which we can escape once we learn to accept the doctrine
    of love and forgiveness. If you would like to learn more explore
    http://www.nwspiritism.com

  • modoccus1

    The core differences of Christian perspective and secular humanism: (the terminology may be a little raw and grating, but this gets to the core issue)

    The biological instincts of genetic imprint that affect behavior are the same in all primates, the most important: the biological imperative of reproduction: otherwise, no survival.

    Unlike other primates, man historically was largely a predatory carnivore. Herbivorous animals tend to easily socialize in herds and do not actively seek to kill except for self-defense. Carnivorous animals inhabit the world of red tooth and claw. Thus man comes by his feral tendencies as biologically imprinted behavior. That silly tabula rasa (the clean slate) fiction is not needed here.

    Core Christian perspective: man is sentient, self-aware, morally cognizant, and capable of countermanding and controlling primal instincts with superimposed religious, cultural software that makes civilization possible, and he is personally accountable to God for his moral condition.

    The only thing science has to say is the natural law of nature: power of strong over the weak, kill or be killed for the survival of the fittest of the human animal.

    If you want to see how that looks like, consider a sociopathic individual. He is not mentally ill in the form of delusions and incapable of rational thought. In fact, he can be quite intelligent and calculating. What you see is an individual that has rejected any religious/cultural inhibition over his natural instinctive nature.

    And when this feral animal in human form acquires totalitarian power, through radical political ideology, millions are enslaved and die (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, PolPot, etc).Their sociopathic infatuation with death and destruction unwittingly follows the primal instinct of dominating and destroying competing gene pool.

  • modoccus1

    Never, absolutely never, in all human history have common people lived in such personal freedom and prosperity as we do in America; nothing in history comes even close. Our American civilization is founded upon religious principles in totality.

    The foremost principle of rule of law: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

    This passage from theDeclaration of Independence is entirely a religious statement; the formulation of “rule of law” is entirely a set of religious ideals because the naturalism of nature decrees unequal primacy of the powerful and strong over the weak, survival of the fittest, kill or be killed.

    So the arguments between the traditional Christian perspective and secular humanism has never been between religion and science, but competing revelatory religious statements: one that is believed as transcendent revelation from God versus inventions from human philosopers and ethicist.

  • modoccus1

    Secular humanism originated from continental Europe and entered into academic and cultural circles at the turn of the previous century (like the repulsive,destructive European rats invading a tropical island) and is desperately trying to airbrush the traditional Christian perspective from American history. The quickest rule of thumb in identifying its positions is that it automatically is opposite of every Christian tenet.

    This led to the cultural revolution of the 60s, which was about separating rights and privileges from responsibility in the pursuit of the self: the hedonistic philosophy that happiness is found in the direct pursuit of pleasure and the self. The ultimate extension of this philosophy, for many, is the escape from reality of mere animal existence with substance abuse. This perspective is diametrically opposite of the baby boomers parents who really saw themselves as equal partners in the common goal of something much larger than the self. Without that perspective, you can only have shallow, temporary “relationships” (because of inherent incompatibilities between the genders) that destroys the connection to the “village” of the extended family of Norman Rockwell America..

    You will find the unhappy, angry, frustrated, alienated and socially disadvantaged people in this group; the children suffer enormously

    The censorial disapproval of traditional American culture to children born out of wedlock relates to this Christian ideal: that foremost of all children’s rights is to have responsible, committed parents with the mature understanding that the meaning, purpose, ultimate happiness and fulfillment of life was found in something much larger than the pursuit of the self.

  • RonRonDoRon

    “Buddhism has the so-called Four Noble Truths, which have different Theravada and Mahayana versions. But all of them contain four assertions, which can be summarized as follows: ‘All is suffering. All is impermanence. All is non-self. There is a path to the cessation of suffering'”

    This is not an accurate characterization of the Four Noble Truths – and, as far as I know, Theravada and Mahayana don’t have “different versions.” Even just five minutes on Wikipedia could have cleared up this misunderstanding.

    I understand that this article is not about Buddhism, but if the author is going to use it as an example, he should at least find out enough about this core teaching to state it correctly.

  • stefanstackhouse

    God became the human Jesus in order to live among us, teach us, suffer and die for us, and rise again in order to heal the broken relationship between humans and God, humans and humans, and humans and the creation. We receive the full benefit of this healing in part now and completely in eternity by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

    I do believe that I could recite that while standing on one leg.

  • MontyBurnz

    This whole standing on one leg exercise is an exercise in futility. We cannot reduce the deep truths and mysteries that people believe in in their respective faiths to simple formulations perfectly understandable to a pre-adolescent.

    On a side note, the last quote is also ridiculous. Gay rights is no more the civil rights movement of today than the abortion movement was in the 70s. Its more a sign of moral decadence than cultural progress or enlightment.

  • Raven Wood
  • diderot à la campagne

    Mysticism as method and path teaches the essence of faith, the union with God, and it is the true common denominator to all faiths. Here the author stresses the huge gap existing between between the exoteric (the ecclesia, the institutionalized discourse about the rules to observe around faith) and the esoteric (or Pneuma, the spirit or breath) the inner core of faith.
    We can then observe why there are huge differences in interpretation of the faith in divine order.
    The exoteric (I will underscore the need of using the language of incommensurability between interpretative forms), is according to the professor of religious study, Robert Forman, the early developmental stages of faith) while the esoteric represents the ultimate stages).

    There is a “galatic” distance between the teachings of Graham and the german theologian Eugene Drewerman, ex-communicated by cardinal Ratzinger, ex-pope Benedictus XVI. and between the teachings of intolerant buddhist fundamentalists in Thailand, Burma who are agitating for the killing the muslim minorities, and the profound esoteric interpretations of the teachings of Gautama the Buddha, the Zen, Chan or Dzogchen currents of the mahayana schools.

    The same pattern exists in all religions which have these two poles of attraction in their faith landscape. The exoteric side too often condamnes the individual´s own reflexivity over the living of his/her faith, the esoteric transcends and heals the traditional and collective compulsiveness of mechanically following the rules and dogmas established.

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