Friday, November 17, 2006

A Puzzlement

Much as I enjoy attending the South Whidbey Lectionary discussion group, I have to admit that sometimes I am puzzled by the effect of my comments on the group. Today we were talking about the passage in John which is assigned for "Christ the King Sunday", i.e., the Sunday before Advent begins, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

The passage is from John 18 and Jesus is being questioned by Pilate, who essentially asks him "what have you done to make these people angry? Are you calling yourself the king of the Jews?" And Jesus replies "you are saying that I call myself this, but my kingdom is not of this world. I come for this, to preach the truth." (abridged version, of course)

The conversation touched on the idea of kingship, of authority, and the meaning of kingship in this day and age, and then it veered into comments about what Jesus's kingdom was, how he saw himself and his authority, etc. There was a certain amount of substitutionary theology offered, thoughts about whether this is clear evidence of Jesus' offering himself as a substitute for the sins of humankind by his death, and such, which seems to me to miss the point of Jesus' whole life.

I hadn't said much so far, but finally I offered the comment that because I have an understanding of Jesus the Christ as the incarnation of Divine Love, I saw this in terms of Jesus defining his kingdom as a kingdom of love and justice, not of political rule. I thought it was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; I even prefaced it by saying that though I am a Christian, I minister to many people who are not Christian and that speaking of Jesus as a metaphor for love makes Jesus understandable to them.

There was silence in the room. Nobody made eye contact with me. Nobody commented. There was dead silence, as though they were just waiting an appropriate amount of time before they could go on. And then they went on without a single nod to what I had said. I almost commented on their silence but decided not to. It felt more like a stunned silence than an offended silence, but I can't be sure.

I don't know if I shocked them, offended them, irritated them, or just what. I don't think they quite know what to make of me, how to receive what I think without arguing or letting go of their own opinions. I don't think what I said was particularly challenging nor far out. Most of them are fairly liberal themselves, but they do seem to take the scripture more as fact than as metaphor and seem uncomfortable with metaphorizing Jesus.

They are lovely guys, all of them, and I like them a lot. But I wonder about this kind of reaction from them.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Kit,

I think you frightened them. Certainty is what they require, even though they call it faith. If Christ is the Metaphorical King, lots of ideas about his 'rule' become unstuck from certainty too. Authority? Apostolic succession? Judgement? Punishment? You heretic!

Bill Kennedy

ms. kitty said...

Bill, I hadn't even thought of that! It simply had not occurred to me that I might have frightened them. But it makes sense and I will think about it some more.

I don't want to frighten them, but I also don't want to be silent.

LinguistFriend said...

After rereading the passage, the substitutionary theology approach really does not seem relevant to me, given what the text says. C. K. Barrett, in my favorite commentary on John, points out the extent to which John's narrative s based on Mark, and sees little likelihood of any factual basis for John's additions. In support of the discussants' focus on kingship, Barrett sees the core of the passage in the discussion of kingship and power, going on that " . . . John has with keen insight picked out the key of the passion narrative in the kingship of Jesus, and has has made its meaning clearer, perhaps, than any other NT writer."
On the other hand, there is a basic problem with metaphorical interpretation such as the one you offer, in the sense that the choice and interpretation of the metaphor are not determined in any systematic way. Sometimes a metaphorical interpretation is determined by Jewish tradition or language or something else specific we know, but if it is not, then the field is wide open and it is hard for the choice and interpretation of the metaphor not to be arbitrary.
More generally, what stance can one take in such company (with a different commitment) towards the interpretation of biblical texts? I generally prefer to look towards the aims of the author, if we can see them; I see John's main aim in propagating a christology that has obscured the interpretation of the synoptic gospels, as Pagels points out. You reinterpret this christology of Jesus as the incarnation of Divine Love. I am not sure that is a good match for the world of Hellenistic Judaism, but it is a moving one for today, which may well work for those to whom you speak. We do not want to throw away texts which have moved men for two thousand years, because surely that was not an accident. There is something important in them.
There is also the historical context and what interpretation was favored by early Christians. One does not have to accept the interpretation of one's colleagues, but one can explore with a conditional belief to see whether a consistent and defensible interpretation can be framed in the proposed terms. Sometimes one has to do so, to see the text from a historical point of view, whatever one's own beliefs. That may decrease such uncomfortable or painful moments with your differently committed colleagues as you describe, although it will not eliminate them.
LinguistFriend

Joel said...

I suspect the reaction you got is the same as I would get if I referred to the Incarnation as a literal fact in the cirles you move in.

Miss Kitty said...

The ideas you put forth in your sermon must have blown their minds. That's all I can figure. I probably would've sat there in silence, too...trying to figure out the implications for us all. That's what I'm dong now, letting what you wrote sink in. Wow.

If you offended them, I guess you'll know soon enough. But my guess is that they're frightened (as Bill said).

Joel said...

I think you frightened them. Certainty is what they require, even though they call it faith.

The ideas you put forth in your sermon must have blown their minds. That's all I can figure.

Bill and Miss Kitty (the last commenter, not Kit), do you really mean those statements to be as condescending as they sound? Bear in mind that while these folks may be at the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, they are nevertheless representative of denominations that still hold officially to some Christian orthodoxy. I would be very surprised if any of them were blushing virgins when faced with heresy, but I expect it still doesn't seem a desirable thing to them.

No, I doubt very much that they were frightened, but it may have brought home to them how much gap there is (and always will be, unless they between Ms. Kitty's theology and theirs.

However, the thing I find really patronizing in those comments is the assumption that if they believe that the Incarnation was a literal fact, it's merely a reflection of their hidebound ignorance. Surely no thinking person would accept the miraculous as a valid interpretation of the tradition; it must be because their eyes have never been opened to the higher meaning of their holy book. It's all right; they'll understand in time, as they learn to give their intellects free rein, poor blind sheep that they are. Bah!

I apologize to Ms., Kitty if my words sound overly confrontational. I'm a guest on this blog and certainly in the minority from a religious standpoint, and I don't want to be rude. To be honest, I've met KJV Fundamentalists who were more respectful of other traditions than those remarks. Come to think of it, I wonder if the other members of the lectionary group felt as I do, and were just better-mannered than I am.

Auntie, you can ban me from the combox if you like; I wasn't looking to offend other readers. But it was an awfully hard thing to hold still for.

Christina Martin said...

Joel, I don't think your comments are necessarily fair. If Miss Kitty said what she quotes herself as saying (which I have no reason to doubt) then I suspect the reason for their silence is because they had nothing to respond. I doubt that there are many Christians who would even think that "Jesus is the incarnation of love" would be even debatable, let alone frightening.

More likely, I suspect that the comment didn't really strike them as theologically meaty enough to bite, because to most (if not all) of them, it would be considered self-evident.

ms. kitty said...

Whew! I am amazed at the variety of comments on this post. And they make me realize how poorly I've portrayed just what happened at the Lectionary discussion.

I wish you all had been there with me; I suspect your comments would have been even more interesting then!

LinguistFriend, I wish you could have wowed them with your knowledge of the Gospels and history. T
Father Rick, the priest from St. Hubert's would have relished talking with Joel and Christina, I'm sure.
Miss Kitty, it would have been good to have another woman's perspective, especially with your teaching background.

Thank you all for your thoughts

Anonymous said...

I think they heard the feminine perspecitve. That silenced them. There aren't centuries of acknowledged female biblical scholars in the first place. Most biblical interpretation, to this layman, seems primarily based on tradition and honoring the viewpoints of persuasive, charismatic, authoritarian men. sects. Your comment was out of their comfort zone and their envelopes pushed.

The Emerson Avenger said...

Guess they didn't have much of a comfort zone then. . .

The Emerson Avenger said...

Joel said... I suspect the reaction you got is the same as I would get if I referred to the Incarnation as a literal fact in the cirles you move in.

No actually you could expect a much less restrained and civilized reaction from U*Us if you did that Joel. Some would openly question your sanity. . .

Joel said...

There aren't centuries of acknowledged female biblical scholars in the first place.

Well, of course not! Except for illiterates like Teresa of Avila, Edith Stein, and Therese of Lisieux. I'm only thinking off the the top of my head of the Carmelite Doctors – because my wife is a Carmelite – but they're far from alone in Christian history. I could probably compile quite a reading list if you were interested. (My wife could come up with a better one, come to think of it.)

It's a myth (as opposed to a mythter?) that women have always been kept ignorant in theological matters. It's true that during the Middle Ages it was generally clergy and religious (monks and nuns) who had the leisure to study theology, but a large number of those were women, and they were far from unlearned.

Joel said...

Some would openly question your sanity. . .

EA, I have seven kids. Sanity is a pipe dream. :)

Miss Kitty said...

Joel--if you'll note what else I wrote in my previous comment:

That's all I can figure. I probably would've sat there in silence, too...trying to figure out the implications for us all. That's what I'm dong now, letting what you wrote sink in. Wow.

I didn't mean for it to sound condescending at all. My mind gets blown all the time in church.