Eloi, Eloi

September 5th, 2010
by chris

I’ve always thought that the phrase “eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani” (“my God, my God why have you forsaken me”) is the most heartrending phrase in the Bible. Why?

Well, from the point when, aged 15, I had an out of the blue spiritual (properly speaking mystical) experience which converted me instantly from an evangelical atheist to a believer in search of a language in which to talk about God, I set out on a quest to repeat that experience. It was, after all, “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”. I don’t think I missed out any of the techniques which I could find reported from whatever religious tradition as producing mystical or quasi-mystical experience, including several which I would not recommend that you try at home – or anywhere else, for that matter.  Many I discarded quickly, including all those carrying a danger of arrest, addiction or serious physical harm to myself.

It seemed to me that teachers in very many religious traditions were, underneath the differences in wording and concept-structures, all talking about what was pretty much the same experience, and about ways in which it could be cultivated. In Christianity, St. Paul and St. John were the Biblical writers whose words said to me most clearly “here is someone who has had this kind of experience and is trying to put words around it”, but a study of the synoptic gospels and in particular Matthew also spoke to me through Jesus’ sayings, in particular his “kingdom” statements, which seemed to me to be underlain by the same kind of experience.

By my late teens, I had a regular praxis which would fit well the description “practising the presence of God” which was broadly Christian, but incorporating some Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu concepts of prayer and meditation, and while I rarely if ever experienced quite the intensity of the original experience, not infrequently I came reasonably close to it – but most of all, I came to have a near constant low-level consciousness of God’s presence, and when I wasn’t actually experiencing that, it was only a thought away. I would particularly access that state of consciousness when I didn’t see a clear answer to a problem, and not infrequently an answer would surface then or within days, with a feeling of confidence in it’s rightness. I’d do the same when painting, writing or, sometimes, playing music, and inspiration not infrequently came (hampered only by lack of technique, it seemed to me). Mostly, however, it was just for the joy of feeling that presence, and I well understood Baba Kuhi of Shiraz writing “In the market, in the cloister, only God I saw” and “I passed away into nothingness, I vanished, and lo, I was the All-living – only God I saw” and Meister Eckhart writing “When I was flowing all creatures spake God”.

I suppose I got too used to this; in my twenties, I stopped having a formal, regular praxis and became very informal; this continued through my thirties and into my forties with the demands of work, family and other interests making any praxis more and more irregular and infrequent – but still, when I turned and opened myself, there was God, just as before. My life became very difficult in my forties, and over some ten years I first descended into psychological collapse and then endured the results of that, looking to rebuild some stability. However, until about two years ago, when I could actually bring myself to open myself to God, sometimes there he still was, and this carried me through serious physical and psychological pain on many occasions.

With the benefit of hindsight, I remember the teenage me reading in several places accounts of the “dark night of the soul” or “dark night of the spirit” as being a stage through which serious mystics were expected to go before reaching real heights of experience, and wishing this would happen so I could (hopefully) experience the intensity of the original at will. This may be a delayed case of “be careful what you pray for, it may happen”.

In any event, something between a year and two years ago (I can’t now remember exactly when) the “opening” process stopped working completely. I could still use the techniques to calm myself, and did, but there was no longer any trace of the emotional connection which I used to feel so frequently. This began to produce occasional anxiety and even panic when despite longer and harder concentration, there was no feeling of connection. I gave up straightforward petitionary prayer many years ago – it was a case of “nevertheless, thy will not mine be done, O Lord” at the end for a considerable time, and then I came to see no point in asking in the first place, just to express what I felt was a problem and await direction, except when it involved some change in myself. It seems to me that this is along the lines of the “surrender to the will of God” which Islam sees as ideal, and moves towards the “non-attachment” of various Eastern traditions. Any outcome is acceptable; “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord”. This, it seems to me, is fine when you have a base sense of connection with God to sustain you, but I now find myself without any such connection and without either any will to do anything in particular or any instructions on what to do.

I am feeling abandoned, empty. I tried to make of myself an empty vessel for God to fill with his purpose, and without feeling that purpose, it’s just an empty vessel. It has to be somehow my fault, doesn’t it? But I can’t think what to do to repair that. I look for other people’s direction in the meantime – if I can help someone else, someone who does experience a driving force, there’s at least briefly some sense of satisfaction; I can easily avoid actions which intellectually I think are damaging to anyone other than myself, but there’s no longer the feeling of “this is right”. Images of wastelands, of deserts spring to mind.

I think Jesus had a sense of connection far beyond what I’ve experienced myself; if I feel this way, what must he have felt as he asked why he was forsaken?

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A joke?

August 27th, 2010
by chris

“Three men go into a bar”

“Where was the bar?”

“It isn’t important, but hey, say it’s in London”

“OK. When did it happen?”

“It isn’t important. but lets say last week. They’re an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman”

“How do you know they’re English, Scottish and Irish?”

“It isn’t important, but, if you like, they’re called George, Andrew and Patrick”


“Oh, because those are the patron saints”

“Why are they patron saints?”

“Can we just get back to the story?”

“What story?”

“An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a bar”

“Where was that, again?”

“Oh, say it’s in York”

“But you said it was in London”

“And I said it wasn’t important!”

“But it’s got to be consistent, otherwise how do I know it happened?”

“Shut up and listen. An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar, and the barman says…”

“But last time it was an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman. Which order were they in?”

“It doesn’t matter.  Just let me finish!”

“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar, and the barman says ‘This is a joke, isn’t it?’ ”

“So the bar’s in London and York, and they walk in in two different orders. I don’t think it happened at all. When is it supposed to have happened?”

[exit screaming gently]

I have been discussing the Bible with both fundamentalists and atheists recently, and it feels very much like trying to tell a joke in circumstances where my listener has no conception of what a joke actually is, or why certain elements of what you say aren’t important (it could be a rabbi, a priest and an imam) or that if you tell it both ways, it isn’t actually invalidated because one time it’s an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman and another it’s a rabbi, a priet and an imam (I hear a voice saying “I’ve never heard of a Scottish Imam” ringing in my ears…), or that it really doesn’t have to be actual people or actual events in order to convey a message.

Just to avoid any possible misconceptions, the exchange of comments I started with never actually happened, though I can remember trying to tell a joke to a four year old once, and it felt a bit like that. It’s just there to illustrate a point. And it doesn’t matter whether it did happen or not, the point is still valid (though the joke falls rather flat). But you knew that. Didn’t you?

I begin to wonder, when two substantial and apparently growing groups, including some apparently otherwise agile minds, insist that the one and only way to read the Bible is literally, as history and as science – and on the one hand insist that it can’t possibly be factually incorrect in any respect, on the other insist that as it plainly isn’t good history or good science in some respects and, in fact, is slightly inconsistent, it therefore has no value. I wonder whether there will come a time when the real messages of scripture are lost, because there’s no-one left who can understand them.

There will probably be no jokes, either…

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Not “the messiah”?

March 25th, 2010
by chris

At Henry Neufeld’s Energion site, http://energion.net/2010/03/consider-christianity-week-contest/#comments, he asks:-

Was Jesus of Nazareth the Christ (Messiah/anointed one) as claimed in orthodox Christianity?


I have written before about my belief that both Judaism and Christianity have misinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures at http://eyrelines.eneblogs.com/. I do not myself think that those scriptures predicted a single messiah, a single person anointed of God. I do think he was anointed of God for a very special purpose, I am happy to consider that several of the Hebrew Scriptures envisioned a template which he filled, but I cannot in comfort say that he was THE messiah, THE anointed one; he was a messiah, an anointed one – and, so far as I am concerned, the single most important person to have claim to those titles.

However, I need to be cautious in reading the question (not merely because of the normal caution of a scriptural interpreter but also because I’m a lawyer by training and unable to do anything else). The figure of the Christ in orthodox Christianity is not just the messiah or anointed one of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is something far beyond that. There is nothing in the Hebrew messiah concept of the supernatural, non-corporeal Christ; that messiah is a priest-king who saves Israel for the most part, or in the suffering servant of deutero-Isaiah something more of a type of Israel (which is the part of the Hebrew Scriptures which I consider Jesus can most clearly be fitted to). The Jewish messiah is not an angel or other supernatural agent of the divine, and is definitely not God incarnate, a member of a trinitarian Godhead. This, far more than a messianic aspect, is what is claimed in orthodox Christianity.

However, is the Christ of orthodox Christianity actually able to be equated with Jesus of Nazareth? Clearly incarnational theology seems to say that it should be, and yet we would not have been likely to have a whole scripturally founded set of heresies (for example separationism, tritheism, some aspects of gnosticism, Nestorianism) which see serious distinction between the human figure of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ if things were as simple as that. I have great sympathy with these heresies; even the Cappadocian fathers concluded that the trinity was a “holy mystery” and, essentially, did not make rational sense, and I cling to the feeling that, ultimately, reason prevails, even if we do not see it for the time being. My own instinct is to say that the supernatural construct which is the orthodox Christ postdates the time of Jesus’ life and did not actually pre-exist (though the Logos which was in him made flesh did…).

However, I do not think I need go as far as one of this clutch of heresies. In Phillipians 2:5-7, Paul says “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man”. The kenosis (emptying) of this statement is everywhere apparent in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ sayings, even in the Fourth Gospel, but as Paul goes on to say, post-mortem Jesus is again exalted. Thus it is reasonable to contend, as I do, that Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, is not equivalent to the Christ of orthodox Christianity, as he is temporarily emptied of a part of the fullness of that description.

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Many messiahs?

July 9th, 2009
by chris

This is a concept under development; I intend to show that there is a valid additional way of looking at the concept of “messiah” and to draw some conclusions from it. It’s intended primarily for a Christian audience at the moment, but attempts not to tread too hard on Jewish toes…

In Hebrew, the word which is translated in English as “messiah” is “moschiach”. This word means “anointed” and is used in quite a few passages of, for instance, items used ritually in Judaism.
In texts in Biblical Hebrew it tends to come without any “the” (maybe it always does, but I’m careful about claims like that, as I don’t read Hebrew to any significant extent!).
Now, in the Hebrew scriptures (in Christianity referred to as the Old Testament), where we’re talking about human beings who are given this label, they are priests or kings (Saul and David spring to mind as both having been labelled so); Cyrus is, if I’m not mistaken, the only non-Jewish person so labelled, in Isaiah 45:1. In addition there are, of course, multiple references to a future “annointed one” in the prophetic writings.
The direction of my thinking on this subject makes me an equal-opportunity offender from the point of view of both Judaism and Christianity. It goes as follows:-
1. Multiple people are described in scripture as “moschiach”, including one non-Jew. Multiple messiahs are therefore scripturally sound as a concept, taken historically.
2. There is no helpful “the” to distinguish whether what is being talked about prophetically is A messiah or THE messiah.
3. The assumption that prophecy using the word “moschiach” refers to one single individual is therefore unfounded in Scripture, taken purely on the face of the words.
4. The tradition of “one messiah” may therefore not be what the prophets intended to indicate. (In fact, I’m aware of a smallish Jewish school of thought which talks of two messiahs, a kingly and a priestly one, and another which talks of a “messiah of the age”)
5. Judaism therefore need never have looked for one person to fulfil all messianic prophecy.
6. Christian identification of Jesus as “the messiah” is therefore based on an error of interpretation. It was open to him, possibly, to have been “a messiah”, and using the example of Cyrus, he didn’t have to be of either a kingly or priestly line for that to be a valid identification. It didn’t, however, have to be exclusive, as he didn’t have to fit all messianic prophecy (and there are a lot of these recognised in Judaism, few of which have so far actually been satisfied). One would do.
7. Reb. Schneerson (former leader of the Chabad Lubavitch group within Judaism and controversially hailed as “moschiach” by many during his lifetime and still by some today) may well also have been correctly identified as “moschiach”, and the same comments apply.
8. I take the view that if the “end times” are actually going to occur in a literal sense, there’s no good reason to believe that that will be any time soon. In terms of fulfilling all messianic prophecy, it seems to me hugely unlikely that a confluence of all these will in fact happen during the lifetime of any one individual, so messianic expectations in both religions are likely to continue unfulfilled. However, they don’t necessarily need to, purely on the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures.
It’s clear to me that there has been a development of a tradition (within pre-second century Judaism) on which both the modern Jewish and the Christian positions are based, but I haven’t yet been shown a logic for this development and would question it if it were shown. I don’t remotely expect either religion to break with this tradition, but I wonder whether freeing up the possibilities a little would not be a good thing…
And on that note, in Christianity we look for the return of Jesus. In part, theologians justify the fact that Jesus emphatically did not satisfy all prophecy referring to a future messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures by suggesting that the remaining prophecies will be satisfied on his return, which is conceived as a once-and-for-all event. Indeed, a return is talked of in the NT eschatological scriptures, and very many people take that as prophetic and literal. While I take note that it might be, on the whole I look for how the eschatological scriptures might be interpreted in terms of the here and now on a spiritual basis.
However, I don’t at this point need to explore this avenue in detail, because I have a number of well-developed principles in Christianity which allow me a view of Jesus as having already returned in some sense (or possibly having never left). The church as the body of Christ, for instance. Jesus being our “head”, i.e. controlling our actions. Aspiring to be Christ-like. Entering into His death and resurrection ourselves. My list is not exhaustive…
This opens the way for me to look for individual Christians or the Church as a whole to fulfil messianic prophecies in advance of any dramatic “second coming”, and thereby to become “moschiach”, “messiah” themselves, in a limited sense individually, but possibly in a more general sense collectively.
The notable unfulfilled prophecies which I have in mind are “a time of world peace” (Isaiah 2:4) and “a time when everyone believes in God” (Isaiah 66:23), these being accessible to everyone as aims. We may be pursuing the second, but I suggest we should maybe not be looking for divine intervention to establish the first. Other notable ones are “gather all the Jews” (Isaiah 11:12), “rebuild the Temple” (Ezekiel 37:27 inter alia) and “a time when all Jews follow God’s commandments” (Ezekiel 37:24); I see the first two as up to Judaism and the nation of Israel to accomplish, though the rest of us should approve. The third, I could interpret as indicating that we should not attempt to persuade Jews to cease following all of the commandments.
There’s also Zechariah 8:23, indicating that the rest of the world will turn to the Jews for spiritual guidance. Now in the person of Jesus, a Jew, I could argue that Christians already do this. However, it may very well be that there’s more to it than that, and that we should re-examine any supercessionist thinking we may have (and the passages which lead us to that) and enquire whether we should not be taking concepts such as, for instance, mitzvah into our own thinking, at the very least. Pace the Council of Jersualem in Acts 15:28-29, while accepting that there is no obligation on us as Christians to follow any of the commandments specific to Israel (and this is echoed within Judaism in the “Noahide” concept), there is also (I suggest) no overriding reason why we could not regard voluntary adherence to some of those as being a valid and worshipful action, and something which could be introduced into our own praxis.

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