It’s really not very important to anybody but me but I’m filling up some time with a little bit of study.
Harvard Divinity School isn’t exactly a soft option and although the online lectures are not difficult to follow, all the hard stuff is in the reading that one is supposed to do as well.
The course involves looking at parallels between Christian and Jewish thinking; the lecturer is a rabbi, amongst other things, he treats his subject matter with little sentimentality and is entirely prepared to tear the guts out of the material, leaving sacred cows twitching and bleeding on the floor.
I asked myself “Why am I doing this?” One answer might be that one engages in it for a variety of reasons, some academic, others quite personal – asking basic questions like ‘what is the truth of the matter?’ Not being an expert in either Hebrew, Aramaic or New Testament Greek, I reluctantly have to accept the word of others in order to establish exactly what they mean by truth and how such truth is applied to reason and judgment when examining particular passages. “What is meant by….” Is the most fundamental of questions and one which seems to invite negotiation. We may approach a book or a passage using form criticism or historical criticism, or any combination of the two but it isn’t simply choosing to negotiate the principles by which we interpret scripture in order to decide what is true or not. It involves a whole raft of feelings and loyalties, a commitment to a community or denominational standpoint who see scripture in a particular way, an emotional commitment which I was surprised to discover was quite independent of intellectual inquiry. In other words, if we have no feeling, we gain little sense. We have an emotional investment in what we believe, and we don’t just change it because the opposing argument is good. As human beings, we are social; like a wolf pack we follow the lead of others, and we fear stepping out of line, even people like me who have spent a lifetime doing just that. I seem to be arriving at the conclusion that I can’t or won’t be able to really talk about the ways I interpret the scriptures until I’m honest about the feelings that underlie my commitment to them. I found myself returning to childhood patterns of belief systems, although I know that many of them lack rigour and logic. But, there’s stubborn resistance to letting go of old ideas even when I know them to be false or, at best, misapplied. John Robinson’s ‘Honest To God’ might well have answered a few questions for some, but, not for me. His secular theology seemed weak for exactly the same reasons that mine is – it’s all too easy to misapply the God of the cosmos to fill the gaps in our own thinly woven cultural identity, papering over the logical cracks, instead of looking for the light that shines in the darkness, knowing that the darkness did not understand it.
At this time of year, I am faced with the biggest ‘truth’ of all, the Resurrection. On it hangs everything – if it was a myth convenient, then a billion people plus the multitudes who came before have signed up to a fairy story since everything after hangs inescapably upon it.
I ask myself every year which bits of the Nicene Creed can I really sign up for but at least I don’t have to believe in the Easter bunny.