Playing with Clay

When my family gets together, things get loud. I have a very – how shall I put it?… animated family. We feel things deeply. We engage with life and with other people with passion. That has its downside, of course. It means that most of us have battled with depression or anxiety at some stage in our lives. But the upsides far outweigh that. And as we sat around the lunch table last weekend, embroiled in the habitual spirited debate, I came to see just how wonderful a gift my family gave me.

 

I have been very fortunate. I grew up in a home where I was allowed to have a voice, an opinion of my own. But in my home, opinions – which we were encouraged to express – seldom went unchallenged. You could think what you liked and had the freedom to voice those thoughts, but if you didn’t have a sound rationale for holding that opinion, you could be sure that somebody would notice and comment on that. Whether you proposed, as my little sister did, that “hugebig” was a degree of comparison (ie big, bigger, biggest, hugebig), or that the pyramids – as my brother-in-law claimed – were made by aliens, or that music has become progressively worse since the 80s (I thought the argument was self-evident, but apparently I have no research to support that claim…), or that serial killers could not be regarded as evil because of the role of genetics in the development of psychopathy, if you have an opinion in my family, if it is not well-substantiated, nobody is going to show it any mercy. We love each other, we respect each other, and we are all secure in that knowledge, but stupid opinions get the treatment they deserve.

 

Of late, as I have walked a theological journey that has, at times, attracted a degree of hostility, I have come to understand a little better just how invaluable my upbringing has been. Quite apart from helping me to nurture the courage to speak my truth (a gift I would wish on every human being), my family’s debate culture has taught me how to hold not only opinions, but informed opinions. And in those moments when my theological stance has been labeled as heretical by more orthodox thinkers, knowing that I have a solid theoretical basis for my stance has really helped me to be confident in challenging the status quo.

 

But perhaps the most important skill my family’s culture has taught me is that we are not our opinions. You see, I am not a static being; I am in a constant state of flux. I never am, but am constantly becoming. And while my opinions may influence that process of becoming, that process of becoming influences them too. My opinions are shaped by me and, in turn, help shape me, but they are not me. There is a generosity of spirit in my family debates that recognises this. So while I may regard my sister’s refusal to acknowledge that the 80s/90s was a golden age of music as utterly ridiculous, I will never regard her as ridiculous. She is a sophisticated and systematic thinker. As such, she is entitled to defend her (patently absurd)stance, or to modify it in the light of new evidence, or even to discard it entirely and adopt another, and I will think nothing less of her either way.

 

You see, our opinions and beliefs are not birthed inside us. We acquire them through our social ties. I am certain that had I been born into a family from a different culture, a different religion, into different socio-economic circumstances in another time, I would have held very different opinions and been a very different person. Our becoming is always a product of the people we relate with, who we mimic – whether we like it or not. African culture generally understands this far better than Western culture does: Ubuntu states that “we are who we are through others”. There is no being with being-with.

 

Picture our opinions as lumps of clay. When we open the package of clay at birth, it has the potential to become anything. It is, so to speak, blank. We have no awareness of the clay’s existence, and are therefore ignorant of our capacity to shape it. But that does not mean it is not being shaped, nor that we are not the ones doing the shaping. From the moment we enter the world, through the words people speak to us, the way they treat us, the tones they use, the environments they place us in – the billions of sensory messages that bombard us relentlessly – the clay takes shape. It conforms to what is around it. If we are lucky, we become aware of the clay, of our power to manipulate it, of the malleable nature of it, and we gain some degree of control over our thoughts, over their influence on us, and thus – in a limited way – over our becoming. All too often, we do not.

 

My family culture gave me an invaluable gift – they allowed me to see my opinions as separate from myself, and – by extension – others’ opinions as separate from themselves. It makes loving myself and others much easier because I recognise that my/ their thoughts and beliefs are shaped by forces completely outside of my/ their control and often beyond my/ their comprehension. So I do not take it personally when people disagree with my opinions – it is not me that they dislike, it is what I think (although, I admit, not everyone sees the distinction).

 

When it comes to matters of faith, I have found this to be one of the greatest blessings my family has given me. I have no issue separating God from my thinking about God. The one is the Creator of all the universe; the other is my pitifully limited attempt to comprehend Hen. I would like to think that a God who could speak the universe into being would be capable of recognising that when mortals like me question religious doctrines and point out logical inconsistencies in our own faith systems, we are not challenging the authority of the divine, but searching for ways to serve more faithfully.

 

The reason I write this is because Megan (my wife), after reading one of my posts recently, observed that although she agreed with everything I had said, I might be perceived as coming across as condescending. Around the same time, some former colleagues of mine took exception to the generic nature of my description of the church as preoccupied with heaven and hell. They suggested that my descriptions created an unfair caricature that was not representative of themselves and other members of their church. I really needed to reflect on these comments, because it is certainly not my intention to personalise my attacks and I would hate for my poor attitude to become the reason why people fail to hear the gospel message.

 

I am hoping that some of my family history might prove helpful to those who (with every right) disagree with my positions on issues pertaining to the Christian faith. I would hope that, whoever you are, as you read my blog and perhaps even take offense, you can see that none of it is intended to target actual people. I target ideas – theologies, faith systems, cultural assumptions. Shamelessly. That is how my family has always done things. But, in my mind anyway, people and the ideas they hold are different. So I try hard not to make the target of any acerbic comment an individual – I recognise that all individuals must deviate from the group templates that shape their clays, so that they are always at once both like and unlike the general communities from which they come, slaves to the direction the body takes while simultaneously steering it. But I understand that not all people are as willing as I am to separate people from the ideas they hold, and that as a result some might take personal offence at my commentary on the church. You would not be wrong to point out that I sometimes use “a tone” (as in ‘don’t you take that tone with me, young man…’). I am trying hard to squash that. It’s hard, because the truth is that I am contemptuous of certain ideas, even though I love and respect the people who hold them. I see no paradox there. But please understand this too. That while you are unavoidably shaped by the clays of the community you are born into, and while you may deviate from the general shape the communal clay has taken in significant ways, you are also, as a member of the community, ultimately part of the force that shapes the generalized, mimetically-formed clay template that others will follow. And that gives both of us a certain responsibility. Because I understand this, at least in part, it behoves me to point out the ominous shapes our communal clay sometimes takes, and which must inevitably affect our individual clays. I point it out not out of a sense of superiority – after all, I am complicit in all of this too. Rather, I do so in the hope that, as you become aware of it too, we can begin the journey together of shaping our individual clays in such a way that as others mimic us and we them, our communal clay pattern will be one of harmonious relationship.

 

Before anything else, we are relational beings, and our primary responsibility, I believe, lies in creating and sustaining healthy (mutually respectful) relationships. To the extent that my or your beliefs compromise the health of our relationship, we will always have a responsibility to challenge the ideas (not people) that perpetuate the dysfunction. I want to take responsibility for my part in the relationship that is us. And your responsibility, dear reader? To take responsibility for your part too. But what does that entail?

 

I think the starting point – if you have not done so already – is to acknowledge, at least, that you have clay. All of your thoughts, your opinions, your beliefs, your worldviews, your creeds, are not altogether your own. They have been imprinted – indeed, are still being imprinted – on your clay by your own (unconscious) hand, as you attempt to sculpt that clay to make sense of the world as you experience it through those around you. The clays of the other individuals in the relationships in which you participate continue to shape your clay, just as you continuously contribute to shaping theirs. When you realise that fact, you will understand that you are, despite all of your noble intentions, at least complicit in creating and sustaining the mess the world is in; because your clay – with all of its flaws – helps give shape to the general clay that others mimic, you will need to take responsibility for shaping your own clay differently. You want to be able to take your theology, like a lump of clay, and examine it and say: “Who has had a hand in shaping you? Whose influence is unhelpful? Whose influence do I need to see more?” Because when you own your clay and the shape it takes, when you recognise that clay is always shaped by mimesis and you can choose the mimetic model, and so when you – as a Christian – choose to let your clay be shaped by the God of love and peace revealed in Jesus rather than by the God of blood and sacrifice who is simply the sum of our collective fears, only then will you be able to participate meaningfully in bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is a big vision for the restoration of creation that starts with the small step of recognising that God and the way we think about God are entirely separate matters: we need have no fear that in questioning the legitimacy of the shape our clay has taken we are questioning the Lord of the universe.

 

I am grateful that I have a loud family. I am grateful that they don’t simply accept everything I say. I will always be thankful that they can look past my sometimes myopic ideas and press me to see more clearly. I love that we are able to disagree together, argue together, learn together, grow together. No words can express how fortunate I am to have had their hands on my clay, how privileged I am that they allowed mine on theirs. It is how, one day, I envisage the family of Christ.

15 thoughts on “Playing with Clay

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  1. but stupid opinions get the treatment they deserve.

    And where on the Stupid -o-Meter of opinions would you rate the claim of the bodily resurrection of the character Jesus of Nazareth, which, of course, is based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever ?

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      1. Again, you are simply repeating what amounts to the apologetic line,
        I mentioned that there is no evidence whatsoever for the claim of the resurrection.

        Are you, therefore, telling me you believe in it based on hearsay?

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        1. No, that is oversimplifying and misrepresenting my argument. I am certainly not arguing that some guy wrote in the gospels that he saw it and therefore I believe it. Your argument about there being no evidence for there resurrection whatsoever is only true if you have a very narrow definition of evidence. Which, if I understand you, you take to mean somebody who has no Christian affiliations saying recording in explicit terms that he saw it. Your definition of valid testimonial evidence only allows people with no interest in the events to comment, and that – in my opinion – is unrealistic and narrow. There is no such thing as a neutral observer, and lack of neutrality does not invalidate testimony.

          But all that aside, my argument is not based on hearsay. It takes as a given that the genesis and rapid spread of Christianity across the ancient world is a well documented and easily verifiable historical phenomenon. Given the nature of the cultures and socio-political climate involved – particularly 1st Century Judaism under Roman occupation, contrasted with the Hellenised churches affiliated with Paul and the ideological predispositions involved – there has to be some way to account for the rapid spread of the Christian ways of seeing the world across such diverse populations. The explanation that the early Christians offer is that Jesus rose from the dead. Given how 1st Century Jews understood resurrection, it would make sense that if they believed such a thing had taken place, they would modify their cultural practices and theologies in exactly the way we see it to have developed in the early Christian church. If you take the gospel texts and other early Christian writings as historical source documents that show how people at the time are thinking, you will see that the debate is not whether or not the resurrection occurred. That is taken as a given. The debates are about what resurrection means – how to interpret it. That debate takes the church in Jerusalem on a different path from the Pauline churches, but it is interpretation of the event, not the question of whether or not it occurred, that drives the change. At the very least, the honest historian has to conclude that members of the early church genuinely believed in the bodily resurrection, whether or not it happened. And in that context, the modern historian is left with a choice of whether to believe the testimony or to reject it. It is not as simple as hearsay. The bottom line is that you have to account for the very real phenomenon of early Christianity’s rapid growth, and if you do not accept the explanation offered by the early Christians for what amounts to an abnormally radical ideological shift not only by Jews but by vast numbers of non-Jews with very different cultural and ideological backgrounds, in some other way.

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          1. If we are going you to use the supposed rapid growth of Christianity as a major reason for belief – and this in itself is somewhat of a misnomer as 350 plus years is hardly rapid – then you would then have to qualify why you are not Muslim.
            And if you at any stage try to point out that Christianity somehow just must be the right religion you will then have to explain why it never sprang up independently in any other region in the world. (which goes for all religions of course.)
            And this growth has been explained by numerous scholars far most adept than me, and acceptance of a myth is no indication of fact. based no matter how on sincere those conveying the tale may be.
            Especially when one takes everything into consideration. (I am sure I don’t need to elaborate).
            There really is only evidence, not types of evidence, otherwise we might as well accept Habermas’ rather silly explanation of why the resurrection of the character Jesus of Nazareth is an historical fact – palpable nonsense of course ,but one loved by those who seem to struggle with what evidence truly is.

            So we are back to what evidence is there for the bodily resurrection of the character Jesus of Nazareth.

            And once again, there is no evidence whatsoever, merely claims in a religious text that is known to be riddled with every conceivable error, not least of which is fraud.
            Bit this alone is not the sole reason why you are a Christian, surely?

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          2. 350 years?! Christian churches existed in Rome, Asia Minor and Jerusalem (possibly Africa) within a couple of decades (not centuries) of the crucifixion. Christianity crosses cultural lines and establishes itself in a remarkably short space of time.

            There may only be evidence, but there are different ways of interpreting evidence. We are going to repeatedly differ on this point: we do not come to the evidence as neutrals. We see the evidence as we are, not necessarily as it is. All of us, not just religious people. If you want more secular philosophical stances on this issue, I would suggest reading the thoughts of Paul Feyerabend or Thomas Kuhn. Because a source has errors, it does not render it dismissable. All historical sources are subjective. That is the nature of humanity. And I suspect much of the fraud that you allude to is the result of making sense of Eastern story-telling and meaning-making through post-modern Western eyes. For example, when Matthew refers to the dead walking the streets after the crucifixion, he is making use of literary devices that were perfectly acceptable in ancient narratives. He was not misrepresenting the truth, as modern western thinking would see it. He was telling the truth in a culturally appropriate way. The embellishments are not meant to be taken as historically verifiable, but speak to how he understands the person of Jesus. It is a culture that expresses truth differently. To you it looks like fraud.

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          3. You mentioned ”rapid growth” and the figure 350 years refers to the approx date Constantine accepted it and it was later still that Theodosius made it the ”one and only”.
            So, no, its growth was not rapid.
            Phrases such as ”remarkably short space of time” is a purely subjective term.
            And I reiterate, the reasons for its spread have been explained and believing in a tale based on hearsay does not in any way make it historical fact.

            I am aware of the raising of the Saints in gMatthew – apocalyptic imagery. Using such a term is what got Licona fired from two(?) jobs after the release of his 2010 book if memory serves.

            He was telling the truth in a culturally appropriate way

            So, we can therefore consider the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in exactly the same light then, yes?

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          4. I would argue that by the time Constantine accepts it, it has lost much of its character. It was in many ways an anti-Empire movement. It rejects the legitimacy of empire, but Constantine appropriates it and I would argue fundamentally alters it. The early church as depicted in Acts, as recorded in Tacitus’s writings, as persecuted by Nero, is a far more authentic church in terms of maintaining a Jesus-centred praxis and theology, and that has established itself long before Constantine. Rapid growth. We will need to agree to disagree on that, I think,

            Yes, theoretically the same could be said of the resurrection, but for reasons I explained before (related to the growth of Christianity), I think the most honest conclusion to draw from the historical evidence is that at the very least the early Christians believed in the bodily resurrection. They preached that – it is throughout Acts and the letters of Paul. there is no indication that they believed it was a narrative device.

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          5. Acts is regarded as largely non-historical and falls foul of similar nonsense as presented in the gospels.
            Tacitus writings? You mean the single short passage in Annals?
            Your reasons do nothing to demonstrate the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, any more than the Muslim claim that Mohammed went to Jerusalem and then heaven on a winged horse.
            And once the first generation accepts then it is a relatively simple matter to indoctrinate the children of the next.
            Look at the way it is indoctrinated today in the 21st century! And we are discussing a time and society that was rife, and in the main, fully accepting of almost every conceivable supernatural belief.

            So, how do you discern that gMatthew’s apocalyptic imagery and the resurrection of the the character Jesus differ in any meaningful way?
            Why is the Saints tale, effectively a lie and the Resurrection tale considered historical fact?

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          6. No, I think you are misrepresenting the historical veracity of Acts. Luke is a respected historian, even among atheist scholars. If anything, the view that it is non-historical is a minority scholarly opinion, and one severely decried by the scholarly community – religious and atheist alike.

            That said, however inaccurate you may believe it to be, the fact remains that the writers of the texts talk about the resurrection as a literal event, not as a narrative device. That means even if you understand it to be the same thing, the writers of those same texts did not.

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          7. Again, how do you discern that gMatthew’s apocalyptic imagery and the resurrection of the the character Jesus differ in any meaningful way?
            Why is the Saints tale, effectively a lie and the Resurrection tale considered historical fact?

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          8. Because if you play by the rules of the texts – taking into account the way the genres operate, the writers treat the two events differently. The similarity only exists through Western Modern lenses. All of the early Christian writers treat the resurrection as a literal historical event. You might wish they did not, but they do. That means that when I read their work, I need to assume that they believed it was a genuine historical event. So when I read the gospel accounts, I assume they meant a literal event.

            The only honest way to read the text is to treat them differently. You are actually asking why I am not treating an obvious literary device literally. If a text uses a metaphor in one place and makes reference to something literal in another place, why do I need to treat the metaphor as literal, or the literal as metaphor? That makes no sense. the accounts of Caesar’s death in the ancient writings are rife with descriptions of supernatural events because that is how the ancient writers indicated to the reader the significance of the event and the stature of the character of Caesar. That does not mean I have to take the assassination as a metaphorical event. The apocalyptic imagery used by the writer of Matthew in all probability does so to force a comparison between Jesus and Caesar. But the writer does not treat the resurrection as a literary device. You can only suggest the possibility that he does if you completely ignore the fundamental and explicit belief of the early Christians in the literal resurrection. I cannot make the text say what it is not saying. that is dishonest.

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          9. The only honest way to read the text is to treat them differently.

            This is, in fact, blatantly dishonest,
            You are suggesting that the raising of the Dead Saints in gMatthew would have obviously not been considered to be a genuine historical account but the resurrection of the Jesus of Nazareth would have been.
            What about Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter?

            Your approach is almost disingenuous, And let’s remember there are millions of Christians who consider that all accounts are literal historical events. Ask Norman Geisler.

            So, no, you cannot state what is metaphor and what is not and claim historical fact for whatever you consider fits with your presuppositional religious beliefs.

            You either have evidence of you don’t, and an unsubstantiated claim is not evidence.

            Now, if you state your beliefs are based on faith, then I can and will accept this.

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          10. “You are suggesting that the raising of the Dead Saints in gMatthew would have obviously not been considered to be a genuine historical account but the resurrection of the Jesus of Nazareth would have been”. Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. And it is not dishonest, it is reading the text on its own terms. To suggest that a literary device is meant literally is dishonest, not the other way around. And yes there are millions of Christians who believe that the Bible accounts are literal historical events. There are also a great deal of them who do not. From my perspective, your understanding of the Bible as text is far too simplistic, and you are not engaging with the various genres on their own terms. You are trying to force them all into one mold – historical record – and even then, your assumptions on what constitutes historical veracity are based on an understanding of historical narrative that is particular to a Modern Western way of thinking. So I am not simply claiming what is metaphor and what is not based on my own presuppositions, I am doing so based on an understanding of literary genre that is well supported in the scholarship. We are going to have to agree to disagree on this one too, because I have laid out my position as clearly as I can, and you seem not to hear it.

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          11. Again, you have not demonstrated how you discern the veracity from different resurrection accounts. All you have repeatedly done is assert that the writer of the Dead Saints in gMatthew knew he was merely using a literary device.
            This is nothing but a personal interpretation based on no evidence whatsoever.

            Once more, this is merely a way to sidestep the fact that there is no evidence for any such claim and your faith hangs on the belief in the resurrection of the the character Jesus of Nazareth.

            This not a demonstration of integrity.
            Faith, yes, Evidence? Not a chance in Gehenna.

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