Everywhere Present and Filling All Things

The Hubble eXtreme Deep Field image of the early universe.

eXtreme Deep Field

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries. (Carl Sagan)

How can science and faith both be true? For the materialist, science provides the answers to life’s great questions; if it can’t be answered by science, it is not a valid question. Then there are those for whom faith provides all the answers; if the question cannot be answered by faith, or if science and faith appear to contradict each other, faith wins.

One way of resolving the difficulty is with assigning faith and science to different domains, allowing each to operate freely within that particular domain, but never the twain shall meet. To my mind this is no solution at all, as it is ultimately dualistic. The spiritual does not affect the material domain except by special intervention (i.e. miracles); the material does not affect the spiritual domain, being foreign to it.

The theological problem presents itself in the person of Jesus Christ, incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who became man for our sake and for our salvation. In the person of Christ was united the material and the immaterial, the spiritual and the physical. The Son of God humbles Himself, took upon himself the form of a servant, and became man. Thus, in Christ, there is no division between the material and the immaterial, between the spiritual and the physical. The concept of a domain for science and a domain for faith falls apart when we contemplate the person of Christ.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Gen 1:1)

I believe in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth. How God created is not revealed to us in Scripture. Some claim the creation accounts are literal accounts of what happened, yet they are insufficient for that purpose. A purely literalistic reading of Genesis does nothing to explain the creation of the immaterial and material worlds, nor does it provide any understanding of God’s eternal purpose in creation. A literalistic reading does not answer the great theological question of why God created in the first place. A literalistic reading of the creation accounts is not profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto good works.

The world has its origin in the love of God. (Father Ilarion)

Some believe that God created so as to glorify Himself. But this is unworthy of God, for God needs nothing. God does not need us to glorify Him, nor does God glorify Himself. When God said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26), this was not an expression of self-glorification, but rather a reflection of the inner life of the trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three divine persons share an eternal communion with each other. As one scholar notes, “The Psalms are the language the Trinity uses when It speaks to Itself” (Dr. William Weinrich). It is out of this intimate communion, this overflowing love, that God creates.

Science gives us the literal understanding of the material world, but science cannot tell us what it means, or if it means anything at all. And yet the search for meaning is part of the human condition. If we deny the reality of the immaterial, of the God who is everywhere present and fills all things, we close our eyes to the deeper and higher realities that exist in intimate contact with the world perceptible to our physical senses.

Miracles pose a problem for the skeptic. The same God who creates the physical laws which allow the universe to operate is the same God who suspends those physical laws at will. This God, the skeptic tells us, cannot make up His mind about how the universe should operate. The real issue here is not the existence of miracles as the suspension of physical laws, but the existence of miracles as something that opens our eyes to the immaterial realities, to the God who upholds all things by the word of His power.

Miracles expose us to the spiritual realities that undergird our physical existence. They reveal to us our true nature as enfleshed souls. They create a yearning for God in our hearts. They expose to us the depths of our sin, and our need for repentance. Miracles are everywhere, if we but had eyes to see.

O LORD, cleanse me a sinner, for I have never done anything good in your sight; deliver me from the evil one and let your will be in me so that I may open my unworthy mouth without condemnation and praise your all-holy name: of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen. (St. Marcarius)

Facts vs. Faith, and Faith’s Seeming Fragility

The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It)The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong by Thom Stark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Faith can be a fragile thing. It is possible to lose your faith when confronted by facts that don’t fit into your mental model. With that in mind, I cannot recommend this book to my Protestant friends, particularly those who are inextricably wedded to a literalistic interpretation of the bible. This book has the potential to change your perception of scripture and, with nothing to replace it, destroy your faith.

The Bible is not what we are so often told it is, particularly when we claim to be biblical literalists and interpret the text solely according to the historical-grammatical method. The fact is that no one is a biblical literalist, as the author aptly demonstrates. What are we to make of the evidence that our scriptures contain multiple points of view about who God is? About the existence of other gods? And even (God forbid) child sacrifice? The fact that we explain these away instead of taking them at face value is evidence that we are spiritualizing the scriptures, reading into them our point(s) of view.

If we come face to face with the obvious differences of opinion within scripture regarding fundamental things, what are we to do? For many, having no explanation and unable to integrate what they know into their religious perspective, they lose their faith. I don’t think that is what the author is trying to do, yet the author exposing these issues without providing a completely satisfactory solution.

Most of what Thom Stark describes is known to the Christian world — just not the Protestant world, and in particular the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. For most of the world’s Christians, the Bible is Sacred Scripture because the Church says it is. The Bible was written within the Church, declared to be scripture by that same Church, and interpreted within and by that Church on the basis of a living Holy Tradition (also known as the general consensus of the Church Fathers).

When Peter wrote that Paul’s letters were scripture, which ones? Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians; we have only the second and the fourth. Again, in Ephesians 4:15,16 Paul tells the Ephesians to read in church the epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans. The missing Pauline epistles were determined by the Church not to be scripture, while others became part of the New Testament.

Thom Stark contrasts the literalist, historical-grammical hermeneutic with three other hermeneutical methods of dealing with problem texts, each of which come up wanting. These are the allegorical, the canonical, and the subversive readings.

Stark recognizes that those employing the allegorical method recognize the problematic nature of some texts (particularly the genocidal narratives of the conquest of Canaan), yet argues that when this reading becomes the traditional meaning, it prevents people from confronting the problem texts directly, and dooms us to repeat the conquest narratives (as in the Crusades, the Colonial era, and Manifest Destiny) instead of learning their lessons.

The Canonical Method recognizes that the scripture was created within, by, and for the community of faith. Stark argues that the determination of what is and is not scripture was not created by the faith community, but by the elites within that community. The argument seems to be that because the process was not democratic, it may be that the elites chose those scriptures most amenable to their point of view and the maintenance of their status. This is a highly problematic argument, as it reads the modern western culture back into the situation as it existed in the past. Moreover, it ignores the fact that in the early church, bishops were sought out for persecution; some early records show that the term of a bishop was typically in the low single digits, and bishops often died as martyrs. To be elevated to the position of bishop was, in many cases, a death sentence. And finally, the idea that the Holy Spirit moved within the community of faith apart from the bishop was foreign to the early church.

The Subversive Method points out that in many cases a meaning can be given to a text that subverts its obvious meaning. In some cases this is justified; the Revelation of St. John is full of coded language suggesting the end and judgement of the Roman Empire. Even Jesus’ call to ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” has a subversive message—since everything ultimately belongs to God, nothing rightfully belongs to Caesar. But it is possible to subvert the subversive message to justify confiscatory taxation, as took place in the Byzantine Empire, and under the Medieval popes. It is also possible to use scripture to justify racism, slavery, polygamy, and the subjugation of women.

Stark offers an alternative approach: viewing certain texts as condemned texts. Their status as scripture would be precisely because of what they reveal about us, and about what they fail to say about God. Under this reading, the text is valuable as an example of what not to do and how not to think. For example, few Fundamentalists think the fatalistic message of Ecclesiastes is an example for us to follow, but rather an example of just where an idolatrous and hedonistic life ends up. So too we don’t accept Satan as a role model to follow, even though his seven-fold “I will” is recorded in the book of Isaiah.

What Stark fails to recognize is the vibrancy of Holy Tradition as a guide for the interpretation of the text. The fathers recognized the problematic nature of some of scripture; not only that, but they wrote about it, and we use their writings today to help us deal with the same problems. We don’t hide these texts away, we don’t pretend they don’t exist, and we don’t explain them away. Just as the church has determined the canon of Sacred Scripture, so too the church has passed on the methodology of dealing with problem texts. This methodology is different on a case by case basis. In fact, there are competing hermeneutics within Holy Tradition, just as there are competing views about God within Sacred Scripture. None of this is either a revelation or a problem for the Orthodox. All the hermeneutics described by Stark are present to some degree or another, in some place or another, within Holy Tradition.

I finish this review as I began. If you are a Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestant, avoid reading this book, as you lack the cognitive framework for dealing with the information.

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