Friday, July 24, 2009

Theology and Belief

Recently I read Bart Ehrman's most recent books, Misquoting Jesus and God's Problem. Ehrman is at his best when he does exegesis and explication of biblical tests. His area is primarily the Christian Bible, but he examines the Hebrew Bible as well. Misquoting is an easy to read, enlightening examination of sayings of Jesus that are in the current Christian Bible, but are not found in the most ancient manuscripts. He examines reasons why later scribes and copiers inserted these passages. In Problem he discusses the four principal reasons for suffering given by the men who wrote the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In addition he discusses his own evolution from fundamentalist Christian to agnostic. By the time he reached middle age, he writes that he could no longer believe in the God his close reading of biblical texts proposed. My question is, no disrespect to Prof. Ehrman intended, what took him so long?

Ehrman's understanding of God is that the biblical deity is all powerful and all good. He lambastes theologians who offer and alternative understanding of the divine. Rabbi Kushner, for instance, believes that God is good, but no all powerful. Ehrman calls his book, sarcastically, "When Good People write Bad Books." By age fifty, Ehrman saw that God did not help all people in dire need, and discards belief in this deity. The only God he, or apparently anyone else, should believe in is the God of the Bible. In this respect, it seems to me like Ehrman is like Sade. Sade proclaims his atheism, but takes delight in blaspheming, wanting to shock the God he does not believe in. Ehrman, at times, seems petulant that a God who is not a divine Santa Claus does not intervene.

Ehrman takes pains to explain to readers that although he is agnostic, he is happy. Huh? If religious people were uniquely happy, preachers and proselytizers would not have to work so hard. Ehrman would do well to take a class in comparative religion, or else completely outgrow his religious parochialism. He wants to have it both ways: the only God possible is the God of the Bible, yet he does not privilege the Bible as divinely inspired.

Ehrman cites the holocaust as proof that God does not exist. Maybe he should read the Diary of Anne Frank. The theological book that has helped me most in my religious education is a diary that forms a complement to Anne Frank, the diaries of Etty Hillesum, published as An Interrupted Life. I am grateful to Chris Glaser for recommending this incredible work, one of the most inspiring books I have read. The same month, year, and in the same place as Anne Frank, Amsterdam, Hillesum chose to live openly as a Jewish woman. She understood that God either could not, or would not, help her, yet she wrote "I do not blame God. He is not accountable to us, but we are to him." Hillesum was widely read, and examined the Hebrew and Christian Bible as closely as Ehrman, although she was not a theologian. She was an intellectual, and wasn't trapped by a parochial paradigm.

Whatever God is, he can best be described in the negative, as Heschel wrote. God is not an old man with a beard, sitting on a cloud, waiting to throw lightning bolts at people he doesn't like. We can say what God is not, but it is more difficult to say what God is. The God of the Bible is, at times, perfectly horrible. He delights in the slaughter of children, and doesn't mind the occasional infant sacrifice, as in the case of Abraham and Isaac. Or, as in the case of the Christian God, God is a father who is complicit in the death of his son. This is the God Ehrman stopped believing in, but not until middle age?

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