Saturday, March 14, 2009

The New Paul

Krister Stendahl and John Gager immediately spring to mind when considering the 'new perspective' on the apostle Paul. The gradually calcifying consensus on the nature of Paul's identity and writings highlights the long historiographic tradition of reading then-contemporary ideologies into Paul's letters; consequently, he becomes associated with anti-Semitism, universalism, psychological torment, etc. In contrast, 'new Paul' scholars re-anchor the apostle in the broader framework of 1st century Judaism. Pauline Epistles read not as systematic theologies directed at the 21st century Christian church, but as occasional letters written to specific communities facing specific problems. Further, on this view, Paul re-enters a long-standing debate about how to read Jewish scriptures in light of claims to messianic prophecy. Paul employs allegorical interpretation alongside Philo, Origen, and Barnabas, to name but a few.

Importantly, this re-working of Paul raises difficult questions about textual authority and authorial intent. For example, what is lost in translation, when the household codes (or Haustafeln) found in Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Peter - likely intended to appeal to wealthier Gentiles in particular communities, as well as demonstrate social normativity - grow into authoritative, eternal social prescriptions on account of their (much) later canonization?

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Multi-Racial vs. Anti-Racist

The two are not the same. Multi-racialism speaks to a congregation's physical composition - its racial or ethnic demographics - while anti-racism refers to a congregation's disposition and orientation towards prejudice and power. It is neither difficult nor unusual to demonstrate one without the other. In speaking with fellow seminarian Molly Housh, the following questions sprang to mind:

1) When is it appropriate for a congregation to achieve multi-racialism? Stand against racism?

2) Should certain congregations strive towards anti-racist awareness without identifying as multi-racial?

3) How are the two causally connected? Does an anti-racist posture beget multi-racialism?

4) What practices, theologies and traditions keep a congregation from welcoming racial diversity?

5) How does racism manifest itself within multi-racial congregations?

Food for thought.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

God and the Brain

Neuroscientists have long sought to find the 'God spot' in the human brain - after all, a lot is at stake: does the identification of a neurological source for religious experience debunk its other-worldliness or, on the contrary, validate its reality? A recent study points to three specific brain regions activated during spiritual reflection: the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes. Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, draws the following conclusion:

'Religion doesn't have a 'God spot' as such, instead it's embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use every day.'

It is my hope that this 'scientific evidence' will in turn influence contemporary understandings of religion from theological, socio-political and anthropological perspectives. Religion informs, and is informed by, a complex web of beliefs, commitments, relationships and ways of being-in-the-world. To segregate religion as an autonomous sphere of hocus-pocus disingenuously flattens our experience of the divine.

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In his gripping collection of sermons entitled The Finger of God, South African Dutch Reformed Church cleric and anti-apartheid activist Rev. Allan Boesak offers the following admonition:

Neutrality is the most reprehensible partiality there is. It means choosing for those in power, choosing for injustice, without taking responsibility for it. (p.29)

This insight resonates with my work on whiteness and the need for white individuals to re-claim both their privilege and distinct cultural heritage - to take, or more accurately embody, a space on the racial spectrum, as opposed to hovering above it or rendering themselves invisible to it. At the same time, Boesak speaks to a much larger experience of self-distancing: the desire to remove the self from partisanship, from conflict, from discord. If we don't stand up, who will? 'Those in power,' presumably. And so on issues of LGBTQ rights, American imperialism, capitalist socio-economic stratification, to name but a few, we must learn to feel Boesak's contempt towards neutrality. We must get angry.

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