Monday, May 30, 2011

Genesis and John

I have done a lot of thinking about Genesis and John in recent weeks, partly because I am leading a Bible study at Westbury Monthly Meeting and we're working on Genesis, but also I am part of an adult study group at my local Catholic Church and we were doing the Book of John all winter; we just finished up about a month ago. In one of those moments that is very mysterious as we were going over the last words of Jesus on the cross, I began to see something I really hadn't seen before. Some things came together for me - some Quaker, some Catholic - a volatile mix. But it was an "opening" for me, a powerful one, so I thought I'd write it up.

OK, so to start, the words of Genesis 3:15 have been seen by Christians from the earliest days as prophetic - that one day the "Seed" [Offspring] of "the woman" would "bruise the head" of the serpent [evil power that alienates man from his creator]. For Fox and early Friends, this idea of the Seed - Christ, the Light and Word of God - meant that the power of evil over us was dashed in a fundamental way. Christ was the "Second Adam":

“And when I myself was in the deep, under all shut up, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great, that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how he was tempted by the same Devil, and had overcome him and bruised his head, and that through him and his power, light, grace and spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in him” (Journal 12).

AND again:

“Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I say I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell . . . I was immediately taken up in spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall. And the Lord showed me that such as were faithful to him in the power and light of Christ, should come up into that state in which Adam was before he fell, in which the admirable works of the creation, and the virtues thereof, may be known, through the openings of that divine Word of wisdom and power by which they were made” (27).

This vision of Christ as the Second Adam was pivotal for Fox. The overturning of "the fall" as a condition that weighed us down made "perfection" possible - moral perfection. It made possible ALL the testimonies Friends made and have continued to make to this day: equality of male and female – restoration of the original equality, the peace testimony, the ability to love as Christ loved, the end of all worldly obsession with position and power.

I knew the importance Quakers had associated with this vision of Christ’s work. I remember asking the leader of my Catholic Study Group [Emmaus] why Catholics did not seem to give much weight to the “Second Adam” idea: Why was there still an assumption that mankind lived in “the fallen state” that Adam and Eve’s disobedience had led us to? It seemed like Christ’s redemption should be at least as potent in shaping the reality we all lived in. He responded that we had a choice – about accepting Christ and his being the Second Adam or not, but it didn’t change the underlying reality we lived in. I didn’t pursue it, but inside I did feel that somehow something wasn’t right about this. If Christ was in fact that Second Adam shouldn’t we be dealing with a world fundamentally transformed? Please know, by the way, that I know I am dealing with a spiritual reality and not a simple historical reality when I speak of these parts of the narrative.

I admit I became a little obsessed with this and went to the internet and tried to find out why Catholics hadn't given the "Second Adam" idea the same weight Friends had, and it led to a whole new discovery. I learned something very interesting. The passage at the center of this – Genesis 3:15 – was a foundational passage of the Church’s devotion to Mary (Mariology). OK, go slow.

Inquiry into this, I might add, has led me to be aware that this passage is a veritable quagmire of theological discussion. At bottom, the majority of Christians over the years have accepted the passage as a messianic prophecy. The interesting thing is that I don’t think any Christian group has given the passage more weight than early Friends. That Jesus was for “man” a Second Adam that gave us an ability to overcome all the consequences of “the fall” in a very real way – including an end to the submission of woman to man, an end to the futility of life and expulsion from the spiritual garden that God intended this world to be – these are absolutely fundamental elements of the Quaker Christian vision and tradition.

But the Mary part – how did that come to be? It comes down to translations. The translation of 3:15 that I have in my Bible and that Fox had in his Bible [either the Geneva or the King James] was based on the Greek Septuagint [pre-Christian Jewish translation of the Torah from Hebrew to Greek]. Here the passage read, "I will put enmity between you [talking to the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed [offspring] and hers; He will crush/bruise your head, you (serpent) will bruise/strike his heel.” Most modern translations seem to use the word “offspring” rather than “seed” and this is important mainly because the text Fox used probably had “seed” and the idea of the “Seed” of Christ was one of the key terms Quakers used to refer to that indwelling presence of the redemptive power we should be living in. But the key thing here for the Second Adam idea is the use of the pronoun “He” which was seen by the early disciples and later by Fox as a prophecy of Christ’s role.

What happened though was that sometime in the late 4th, early 5th century AD, Jerome created a Latin version of the Old Testament texts but used some existing Hebrew texts as his source, not the Greek Septuagint. The few changes he made in the Genesis passage 3:15 were influential in the growth of the devotion to Mary in the church. It wasn’t the only passage that seemed to justify it, but it was important. His translation used the feminine Latin pronoun instead of the masculine singular. In English it reads, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” So in the Catholic “take” on 3:15, the emphasis is on Mary as the New Eve, not Jesus as the Second Adam. The dispute about the passage is very interesting and continues to this day. But for me the issue is not so much which translation is exactly right but how did the people influential in my Christian life see the passage and how did it shape their theology. It makes a lot of sense that God, in the story, would be talking about “the woman” and “the serpent” – they were the two He was talking to. But my inquiry into this also led me to a somewhat new and equally exciting new take on another related reference to Mary.

I knew that the opening of Genesis was very important to Fox and Friends. And I knew that the term “Seed” was just as linked to Genesis as “Light” and “Word” but I wondered if the first part of Genesis was so important to the author of John, were there not perhaps other references to it in other parts of John’s gospel. The first other passage I thought of was the miracle at Cana, Jesus first miracle and the beginning of his ministry. There had always been controversy over the question of why Jesus referred to his mother as “Woman” not mother dearest. And the note in my Jerusalem Bible says, “Unusual address from son to mother; the term is used again in 19:26 where there may be a reference to Gn 3:15, 20: Mary is the second Eve, ‘the mother of the living’.” And the only other mention of Mary in John is in John 19:26 when Jesus is on the Cross, and he again calls her “woman” – Jesus, “[s]eeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son’. Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother’. And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home” (John 19:26-27). Putting together all of these passages blew my mind. Quakers had gotten the Second Adam insight and run with it, finding in it a theological basis for leading the charge back through the “flaming sword” that kept us out of Eden; but Catholics had seen that in accepting Mary, the woman who was the first to open herself utterly and completely to Christ’s life in her, we too - all of us who were Christ’s beloved disciples – could really join ourselves to them both.

But perhaps the strongest sense of "convincement" I felt about the connection between these Old and New Testament passages came when I read on in John and it said, "After this, Jesus knew that everything had now been completed, and to fulfil the scripture perfectly he said: 'I am thirsty'. A jar full of vinegar stood there, so putting a sponge soaked in the vinegar on a hyssop stick they held it up to his mouth. After Jesus had taken the vinegar he said, 'It is accomplished'; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit" (John 19: 28-30). Yes, the promise made in 3:15 was accomplished.

“Openings” have power. They make us feel that God is working in us, opening our eyes to things we have been blind to; raising to life in us insights that enrich our faith lives and make us feel the fruits of faithfulness – excitement on an intellectual and spiritual plane, love for those who have witnessed to him and made him live for others. I am thankful.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Being Catholic AND Quaker

Well, I don't know how this is going to work, but I've decided to put the Bible Study on a separate blog that is linked to this page, but not on this page. This is partly so I can continue having a blog that is completely dedicated to the reading and study of the Bible, but also have space to have posts on other things. So Catholic-Quaker will be a place I can post my ideas about other things.

How is it possible to consider oneself a Roman Catholic AND and Friend/Quaker? I consider the Catholic Church to be the original home of the gospel of Christ at least in the west. The Eastern Orthodox Churches go back to the beginning too, but I am from the western world. The separation of church and secular state is something achieved by the church in the west and I think that was a good thing. There is a lot of history and a lot of religious diversity within the Catholic Church that a lot of people don't appreciate. There is a deep tradition of mysticism and many stories of individuals feeling "called" by God to live out their faith in different ways. As my husband once said, I am drawn by the history and the mystery of the church.

Then how can I be a Quaker as well? Quakers arose in 17th c. England in a landscape of religious ferment brought on by the Protestant Reformation. With the rebellion of Martin Luther and the crumbling of church unity that came as a result of his prophetic call, the political ferment of the times, the revolutionary role of the printing press and people's access to the Scriptures and the church's inability or unwillingness to respond constructively, a whole array of new voices emerged and many groups that believed that they had recovered a vision of the gospel that was truer, more faithful than what the church was teaching. I think that many if not most of these voices were authentically prophetic and should have been listened to better. George Fox was one of these voices, and his vision of Christ's gospel - the new covenant and "gate" or portal into the Kingdom of God - as a way we could truly enter into Life as God meant us to live it. The difference between Fox's message and the messages of St. Francis or probably many other holy people was the this was a way not just for those who committed to "religious life" as the Catholic Church understood it - it was for all lay people who wished to live the consecrated life.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Genesis 4 through 9 - Cain & Abel and the Great Flood

Genesis 4 – Cain and Abel
The consequences of "the fall" are inescapable when we look at the history of "civilized" man. The story of Cain and Abel reveals to us the broader consequences of man's fall as they extend beyond the lives of the perpetrators into the lives of their children (all of us). Cain and Abel represent two ancient modes of life - the shepherd's and the farmer's. Both are already in the practice of relating to God through the giving of gifts, offerings or sacrifices. Why this mode of relating to the creator is adopted is not explained. It is simply assumed.

The two first children of "the woman" are Cain and Abel, a tiller of the ground (now cursed) and a tender of sheep (4:2). We see them here offering the work of their hands to the Lord. Cain gives offerings from his labors - fruit of the soil, and Abel from his labors, "the first-born of his flock" (4:4). We are not told, nor is Cain why his offerings are found less pleasing (4:6). Perhaps God favors offerings that are "living" over those from the soil and the wits of men. Perhaps it is because the soil is weighed down with the curse He placed on it in Gen. 3:17. God will favor shepherds throughout His story and also will favor the "younger" sibling over the older. But we may also perhaps assume that there is something awry in the heart of Cain, something only God can discern but which makes all the difference between them. God's displeasure with Cain enrages Cain and the jealousy he feels leads directly to his act of violence against his brother. The soil--cursed along with Adam--is Cain's medium. He will further debase it by pouring his brother's blood out on it. We see in his violence and violation of family love the furthest consequences of the alienation which Adam and Eve initiated.
God's words to Cain - ". . . is not sin at the door like a crouching beast?" - are, I think true of all men in the fall. But God tells Cain he must "master" it (4:8), and so must we. We can do this. The warning comes before Cain's act. There are some fascinating details in this story when God confronts Cain with what he has done: God tells him his brother's blood calls out to Him (4:10). God does not kill Cain (no capital punishment here - yet) but bans Cain from the soil, which is what he takes his living from, and forces him to be a wanderer, thus deepening the alienation and exile imposed by the first fall. Whereas the soil for Adam was cursed, for Cain it will yield nothing. He is exiled from it completely and must live from his "technologies" alone. He will be a fugitive and a wanderer, belonging to no real community, yet still alive. This is the completion of that spiritual death begun by his parents. Cain will be the founder of a "city". This adds a sociological dimension to the fall narrative. Then the text traces the descent from Cain and goes on to tell of the birth of Seth to Adam and Eve, a boy that will take the place of Abel in the family.

The sin of Cain ramps up the tension in the narrative, a tension that was introduced by the fall. For George Fox, the key wisdom to be taken from the narrative was to see the "state" of Cain as a "state" we too must struggle with (Journal 30). But other details of the story intrigue me as well.

Genesis 5-11
The next seven chapters of Genesis set forth the early history of "fallen" man as they saw it. The descendants of Adam and Eve are told of and some early legends and myths set in the narrative build a sense of God's frustration with how his creation has turned out. Man's heart "fashioned nothing but wickedness all day long" (5). So God decides to basically start over again, to wipe everything out, saving only Noah and his family to start the "human being project" over again. Noah's name means "may this one comfort our sorrow" and I do think it is God who is sorrowing. It's kind of interesting but God's work too - like man's - is burdened with a sense of frustration and futility.

God tells Noah to build an ark and give him very specific instructions for constructing it. He will be equally specific later when He instructs His people to build an ark for the covenant and even later to build a Temple under Solomon. Whenever God punishes us in the narrative - in Eden - and now here, He also helps. Throughout the story we see the same paradox - God punishing man and simultaneously offering the hand of salvation.

What is also interesting is that the story shows us a God who punishes the innocent along with the guilty. The innocent animals God created to be with man in the creation. There is a sense in these early stories that the one given dominion by God - here generic "man" but later the kings and priests set over "man" - stands for everyone over whom they wield authority. So here, when man does evil, all the innocent creation must endure the punishment imposed on those in position of responsibility. Later, when there is a monarchy, or a priestly leadership class, the innocent, poor and dependent people they are responsible for also bear the chastisements brought on by the "shepherds" who fail. There is a tension in the story between this kind of "collective" vision and an equally strong vision of individual responsibility and existence before God. Later we will be told in no uncertain terms that children will not be held responsible for the sins of their fathers, that each person will be judged on his or her own "merits" whether those merits be earned or won through faith in Christ. But the "collective" dimension has a continuing reality too. We do bring the innocent down with us when we sin.
So Noah and his family build the ark , gather a remnant of the creation onto it, and endure forty days of God's wrath. Forty is a magical number in Scripture. Later there will be forty years in the desert for Moses and the people with him. And Christ will spend forty days and nights in the desert as well. When Noah and his family leave, they offer up a sacrifice of those "clean animals" on board [there are two accounts woven into the story - one giving two of each animal and one that provides a few others so that this offering can be made]. God makes a "covenant" with Noah, expanding his "dominion" over the creation by giving him meat to eat as well as plants, but man is to refrain from eating the blood of the animals, and God places a rainbow in the sky as a "sign" of his covenant with man.

So God tries to start the project over, but it doesn't take long for us to see that things are not going to change much. Noah, being a descendant of Cain, is a tiller of the soil and he plants a vineyard. He gets drunk on its grapes and his son Ham disgraces himself by looking on his father's nakedness while he is drunk. In punishment for this, Ham is consigned to a destiny of servitude. 19th c. pro-slavery apologists used this to justify the perpetual slavery of the black race, which was believed to be included as descendants of Ham.

And chapter 11 describes the splintering of man's language into many tongues as a result of man's pride in building a tower of Babel to "make a name" (11:4) for themselves. So the overall narrative leaves us with a creation still far from what it is God intended. In His next attempt, he will take another tack, starting instead with one faithful man.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 1st Bible Study Meeting

As everyone knows, it was very frustrating trying to just get to the Meeting House last Sunday, with all the roads blocked off. We got there late, but there were four for about a half an hour - not long enough for such important material as is in the first three chapters of Genesis. I felt moved in meeting to pretty much go over the very important Quaker-related material I feel is in the text and I see more and more in these words. But the conversation was great. The following are observations I have made on the QuakerQuaker Blog site on these chapters:

There are many interesting things in the story of the "fall" but the things most interesting to me:

1. The nature of the "death" that Adam and Eve suffer as a result of their disobedience?
2. The "fallen" nature of our lives on this earth, and do we continue to live in that fallen world/nature?
3. What Christians and especially early Quakers understood about what you might call God's "Ur-Promise" [original/first promise made] in verse 3:15? This is called the "protoevangelium" in Catholic circles.

But first, I just want to point out something I think most writers have missed - the fact that there is a whole lot of "irony" and sophistication in the story. First of all, the serpent says to Eve, that the creator God has lied to them. God has told them if they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they will "die." But the serpent says, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (2:4-5). And then when they both eat of the fruit, the text tells us "the eyes of both of them were opened." They see that they are naked and they feel ashamed. But God is not trying to keep them from being like gods; he has created them specifically to be like Him - the one and only God. And when the text tells us that their eyes were "opened" I think we should see this as irony. They have by their disobedience become less like Him and less able to see and less alive. Their fallen condition will be one of spiritual death, spiritual blindness and spiritual debasement. I think early Friends saw that these results of the fall were all internal. They have separated themselves from the divine nature God planted in them.

But then comes the promise (also called by early Latin speaking Christians the "protoevangelium" [original "good news"] - mysterious and embedded in the punishments God imposes - and this needs to be presented in one of the older translations to be appreciated in the Quaker context I am trying to present: "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (KJ Version). This promise that someday a descendant of Eve - her "seed" - would defeat the serpent. Early Christians took this to be a prophesy of Christ's victory over sin. Christ was to be the second Adam, and his victory over the seed of the serpent (evil/sin/the fallen condition of man) would permit things to revert to the original intention God had for us - to be His presence on earth, to be faithful in all things to Him. Fox's famous quote -

“And when I myself was in the deep, under all shut up, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great, that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how he was tempted by the same Devil, and had overcome him and bruised his head, and that through him and his power, light, grace and spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in him.” (12)

It is because of Christ's victory over the serpent that Friends believed that spiritual "perfection" could be achieved, that the spiritual "death" could become life once more in us and the earth restored to become God's "kingdom" again. The testimonies of Friends are all elements of faithfulness that can only be achieved through this overcoming of our fallen condition: the equality of man and woman as it was meant to be (see Genesis 1), the peaceable kingdom, our ability to walk day to day with God as our guide.