Born Of A Virgin? It happened a lot back then

I posted this 2 years ago today and thought it might be fun to revisit. 

As Christians we confess that Jesus was born to a virgin.  Some people doubt the accuracy of that – but they may not realize that it was not that uncommon back then.

Here are just 10 people born of a virgin in the ancient world: 

  • Buddha
  • Krishna – born without a sexual union, by “mental transmission” from the mind of Vasudeva into the womb of Devaki, his mother.
  • Odysseus
  • Romulus
  • Dionysus*
  • Heracles – Son of a god (Zeus)
  • Glycon – son of the God Apollo
  • Zoroaster/Zarathustra
  • Attis of Phrygia
  • Horus

One theory is that when somebody who led a deeply impactful life died, those who wrote about them later would attempt to say something special about them. One of the ways that they could do that was to say something extraordinary about their birth. It was a way of that there was something significant, even about they way that they were conceived.

Sometimes it was that they were born to people that were really old (past the age of child-bearing age).

Think of Issac born to Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament or John the Baptist born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the New (Advent).

Now, If somebody wanted to take the origin of their hero up a notch, they could say that there was no human dad … it was a god!  (like Zeus)

This is why some think that Jesus’ autobiographers took it up even one more notch! Not only did a God not have sex with women … there was NO sex at all!

 Now some say “yeah, lots of people were said to be born of a virgin … but Jesus actually was.”

This is where the problem starts. As best as I can discern, there basically three ways to approach the problem: physics, meta-physics or linguistics. 

Physics:

Some people take an approach that is so certain that even science itself would be proved wrong. This usually comes up around issue like the Shroud of Turin (the cloth Jesus was buried in). I once heard a very confident person say that if we did DNA test on the blood on the shroud it would show that Jesus was fully human with 46 pairs of chromosomes – only instead of 23 from the female mother and 23 from the male father – Jesus would have 46 human ones from Mary.

I find this problematic for the same reason that I do not believe in the super-natural. It concedes the rules of the games to science (reductive naturalism) then tries to fill in the gaps with God.  That is a losing game-plan if ever I heard one.

Meta-Physics: 

Other people try to get around the whole reductive scientific debate by saying “Look, if God could make the world in 6 days out of nothing, then what is to make a virgin pregnant?  God does whatever God wants to do and who are we to question that?”

I am not a big fan of this approach either. It seems to say that revelation doesn’t have to report to reason and that God can not be evaluated on any reasonable standard conceived of by humans.

It seems just a short leap to say that God can elect who God wants for salvation God can pick favorites if that is what ‘He‘ wants to do.

It seems to retreat into the silo of ecclesiastic isolation and unaccountability. I think we have to look a little deeper ask some bigger questions.

 Linguistics:

This is an interesting approach that some in the post-liberal camp or comparable schools of thoughts might take.

The basic line is that it’s not the physics or meta-physics of the virgin birth that matters, its the way that it impacts us as people and forms us as a community. The importance of the language found in the gospels has to do with how it functions for us as a community and tradition.

Some folks don’t like this linguistic approach because it seems like theologically ‘thin soup’ to them. They look at the formulations that are quantified in the early creeds and they make definite and literal assumptions about what is behind them.

I am however nervous that all of this controversy is simply because we don’t know how to read a gospel. It’s like when we get sucked into debates about talking snakes in the garden of Eden or trying to prove scientifically how a man like Jonah could stay alive in the belly of a whale for 3 days and not be eaten by the stomach acid (or something).

It would be the equivalent of people 1,000 years from now arguing that we actually thought there was a place called Mudville and that a man named Casey was literally up to to bat.  It is because we don’t know how to read the genre of literature.

Jesus was born of a virgin – we confess that by faith, it is affirmed in our ancient creeds and it functions in our community to form us as people.    

 

 

* I even found one internet source that claims Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.

F is for Fideism or Why What We Believe Really Matters

Fideism is one of the most alluring, and thus, potentially dangerous developments on the theological landscape in our lifetime.

Fideism: The view that matters of religious and theological truth must be accepted by faith apart from the exercise of reason. In its extreme, fideism suggests that the use of reason is misleading. Less extreme fideists suggest that reason is not so much misleading as it is simply unable to lead to truths about the nature of God and *salvation.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 552-554). Kindle Edition.

Fideism has been around for a long time but it has taken on a new tenacity recently.F-Fideism

The 19th Century was a tough one for ‘reasoned faith’. Those bastions that survived into the 20th Century were not left unaltered. In fact, since WWII the effect of those descended from who Paul Ricoeur dubbed ‘The Master of Suspicion’ – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx … and some add Darwin – has grown and intensified.*

Part of ‘reasoned faith’ is that it had to adjust and modify. It had to account for new data (scientific and sociological) and, more importantly, it had to stop playing by its own rules.

The rules of engagement changed. Faith no longer got a free pass. The ‘church’ was no longer running the uni-versity. Fields like science had grown up since the Copernican revolution was no longer afraid of the church and began to act like the were running the show now.

Modern christianity had to choose whether to

  • Flee
  • Fight
  • or Adjust-Adapt-Evolve

I have written about this as modern christianity’s temptations.

A subtle form of this impulse toward fideism is simply to speak of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisterium”. Science and reason take care of their areas and faith takes care of its area.

Those who take this impulse further retreat into what Wittgenstein would call ‘private language games’. They take on a formal defense of the given-ness of faith say that faith doesn’t have to be reasonable. Those two things are just speaking different languages and that science of reason doesn’t even have the ability to understand what faith is doing. That is why neither can even provide a critique let alone a correction. Religion is thus except from an investigation-integration from outside.

I would argue that what we believe in private has massive implication for how we participate in the public arena.

We can see this battle line in the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court.

Let me give an example from history – courtesy of another ‘F’ word in our pocket dictionary: filioque. A Latin term literally meaning “and the Son,”

The addition of this phrase by the Western (Latin) branch of the church in the in the 6th to the 4th Century creeds – without the permission of the Eastern churches – would eventually lead to the schism of the two groups in the 11th Century.
This schism is notable enough but 500 years later, in what would become colonial missions by western europeans, the issue had real consequences. As both Catholic and Protestant missionaries sailed around the world to convert native populations, the filioque clause would answer a significant question.
Could the Spirit of God be at work ahead of the missionaries arrival? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The Spirit proceeded not just from the Father (and thus potentially outside of the work of the Son) but ‘from the Son also’. It was believed then that the work of the Spirit followed (proceeded not preceded) the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

There were minority schools (some Jesuits) who disagreed – but they were subsequently reprimanded.

Some may hear about the filioque clause and think “how would we even know who proceeded when? And how exactly are three people ‘one God’ anyway? This is all just speculation and minutia – like angels dancing on the head of the needle!”

Speculation it might be. But both in history and in our present societal unrest what folks believe in private really does impact how that participate in public.

This is why we have to care about fideism. I understand the desire to preserve the past and stake out ones territory for the given-ness of the tradition. It is a way of protecting what is deeply valued and – let’s be honest – in grave danger.

Those who are attracted to fideism look at the evolution of their religion and the disappearance of treasured practices and think “I don’t even recognize this contemporary mutation as the same thing that we inherited from those who came before!”

… and that might be true. But , as I am arguing in the series, we live in a world come of age and The Faith both needs to and is bound to change.
* another way of saying this is to list the fields of psychology, philosophy, sociology, and science.

10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101

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Greg & Tripp Chatting

CEM47354539_129436297782Tons of people that are ‘religious’  would be shocked if they just took a religion 101 class.  The divide between the academic study of religion is so huge that the experience of many students in their first religion class is disorientating.  I don’t think this is because religion professors hate religion and want to ruin people of faith’s confidence.  Largely it is evidence of just how poor our religious communities educate their members.  In this episode I am joined by Greg Horton, ex-pastor and undergrad religion professor in Oklahoma to look of  a list of 10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101.  Well we get through half of it in this episode.  Next week we will finish

Greg Horton was one of the inspirations behind starting the podcast.  I have stalked him online for a long time and then we got to have some fun in person on my visit to Oklahoma.  It was turned into this popular episode of the podcast.  Then he came back on the podcast to share 10 Dirty Secrets About Being a Minister.  Way back when he had a podcast called ‘the Parish’ on the wired parish podcast network. Back then he was an emergent Christian and has since left the building. Throughout his journey I have loved following his blog,hearing about his undergrad religion and ethics students, and thinking through some of the serious criticisms he has leveled against the church. Plus he also does some wine reviews.

Hold God Loosely – Like A Lover

Fun title … but I’m serious. Yesterday, when I suggested dropping the ‘the’ as a litmus test, I mentioned that we need to revisit the way that we hold our faith.

Convictions about God and our religious experiences can be very powerful. As both a minister and an academic theologian I have given most of my life to this idea.

It dawns on me however that sometimes the way we hold those convictions can be more significant than the convictions themselves. What we do with our religious experiences can be more impactful than the actual experiences.

 Let me use an analogy.  Relationship can be tricky. For friendship, romance, siblings, parenting, even marriage I have noticed an odd sort of truth:

People are at their relational best when they are fully available to the relationship but not completely dependent on it.

There is an art to holding a treasure loosely. If one holds it too tightly it can actually warp and even endanger the prized item.
I am able to be a good friend when I can enjoy the friendship but in way that I would still be OK if it went away. I know this is kind of a dark thought but …

I am the best version of myself as a spouse when I hold my lover loosely. The tighter I hold them – the more I need them – the less available I am to participate in the marriage in a healthy and mutually beneficial ways.

 Call it a relational paradox. Call it a delicate balance. Call it a damnable balancing act. 

The more I need my friend or spouse to do this or that for my happiness, the less I am able to both be there for them and to enjoy them as they are.

Believing in God and participating in religious experience is the same way.

 

I believe in a personal god. I act as if that is true. I want that to be true.

I need, however, to participate in that conception in such way that I would be OK if it were not. If, in the end, it turns out that ‘god’ is merely the ground of being that gives rise to all existence – or a benevolent force – or our conception of the greatest good … my faith wasn’t in vain.
The reality is that if I would be devastated that my conception of God turned out not to be true, I participate in my religion in a way that is not best for the world and my view. I need it too much.

This is the beauty of perhaps.

If I am unwilling to say ‘perhaps’ I will be too heavy handed, dogmatic, inflexible, and closed minded.

 

This comes up sometimes when people hear a new idea and are immediately resistant. I will ask them why they recoiled so strongly and they will often tell me about an experience they had.  I acknowledge that they had that experience … my question is about how they interpreted that experience. giant-jenga
The problem comes when they need that exact interpretation to be true. They feel like you can’t move even one Jenga piece or the whole thing is in danger of coming down. At that point we simply are not free explore other ways of looking at it. Perhaps that will come down the road.

 

When I run this idea past my PhD friends I get to use fun phrases like epistemology, phenomenology and narrative frameworks. 

 Today I just want to put an idea out there: 

If, god forbid, I were to lose my spouse and I could not go on … I am not free to participate in this relationship in ways that are best for the relationship.

So it is with religion. If I need my conception of God to be 100% true, then I am not free to be in my religious views the way that are most nourishing and helpful for my religion.

Thoughts?

The Historical St. Nick, the White Santa, Marxist Pope, & More: Christmas Special w/ Adam English

AdamEnglish2012_2Santa & Jesus aren’t white, Christmas isn’t about Capitalism, the Pope isn’t a Marxist leftist, the Christian Calendar is a hardcore form of resistance, and you find out that Roger Olson’s own student turned Tripp into a Process theologian.  st-nicholas-of-myraThat is just a bit of what is in store for you in this special Christmas episode!

Tripp planned on just getting a TNT segment out of his chat with Adam… then they just kept talking… and it turned in to a Christmas present for all the Deacons.

Dr. Adam English, author of The Saint Who Would be Clause and Remixing Theologyis professor of Religion and Philosophy at Campbell University.  He has been on the podcast before discussing St. Nick & giving us a little taste of Post-Liberal\Conservative theology.
*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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TNT: Letters Edition

A cast of two halves! In the first half Bo and Tripp respond to 3 letters from listeners.

Then we get a call with Micky Jones about choosing a seminary (43rd minute) – and when we come back for the 4th and final letter things get a little rowdy.  It turns out the resurrection is a topic that brings some important distinctions between the nerds.

Here are some resources that are mentioned on this episode.  tntpcsubad

How to read the Bible by Kugel

Chalice BIble Commentary series

How to take the Bible seriously but not literally by Borg

The Everyone series by N.T. Wright

Exodus by Fretheim

a mother’s lament

Evangelical defense of same sex

Elizabeth Johnson Barrel Aged

Triune Atonement by Sung-Park

Saved from Sacrifice by Heim

The Non-violent Atonement by Weaver

Contemporary Christologies by Schweitzer

Cross & Covenant by Larry shelton

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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Subscribe on iTunes Here!

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