Friday, 7 September 2018

Hebrew Bible Perspectives on Economic Ethics

Thomas Krüger, “Wirtschaftsethische Perspektiven der Hebräischen Bibel,” in A. Härter, E. A. Kunz, and H. Weidemann (eds), Dazwischen: Zum transitorischen Denken in Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft (FS J. Anderegg). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2003. Pp. 333-347.

  • the location of the Torah in the wilderness following the experience of slavery and mistreatment,
  • that the wilderness where everyone is provided for by God and no-one knows whether they are going to be rich or poor in the land is an ideal place to agree to a law which serves rich and poor
  • that the people’s voluntary agreement is required for the divine laws to be put into force (Exod. 24; Deut. 26:16-19; 28:69);

  • the importance of key terms within the prophetic critique such as zedakah (the preservation and restoration of a life-promoting order for the community and the world), mishpat (which aims at the amicable resolution of conflicts in a balancing co-ordination of interests), and hesed (the elementary bond, solidarity and loyalty in the manifold human relationships such as between relatives, between friends, between host and guest, between master and slaves),
  • the ideal of the economic independence of individuals or individual families (ideally shalom);

  • that the social critique of the prophets assumes that the ultimate aim of social and economic action is to safeguard the freedom of all members of the community which requires a certain distribution of goods and especially of the means of production (which can well be uneven but not such that the rich become richer at the expense of the poor);

  • a development within the composition history of the Torah from (1) Exod. 21-23 which focuses on the reconciliation of interests between the rich and the poor, via (2) Deut. 12-24 which aims at the elimination of poverty – a goal which is considered worthy even if not achievable, to (3) Lev. 25 which has even distribution of income as its goal;

  • the biblical insight that the freedom of the individual and of the individual clan requires economic independence  and
  • the biblical conviction that an economic system oriented towards freedom and justice will be more successful in the long run than ways of running the economy which ignore them;
  • makes the point
  • that the difference of treatment between members of the community and foreigners is not to take advantage of foreigners but to prevent being taken advantage of, given the less charitable systems in Israel’s neighbourhood,
  • that the Psalms and wisdom literature qualify the value of wealth and prosperity in favour of justice (e.g. Prov. 10:2) and love and peace (e.g., Prov. 15:16-17), not least with God and the afterlife in view (e.g. Ps. 4:6-8; 17:14-15; 73:25-26), so that wealth can be considered problematic as much as poverty (Prov. 30:8-9);

  • that the most detailed and thoughtful reflection on the value of material wealth and its just distribution is found in Ecclesiastes, esp. chap. 4, reinforced in 5:9-6:9, where it is emphasised that material goods are means to an end, namely the enjoyment of life which God intends for every human being with the consequence that (a) the rich can only lay claim to that part of their wealth actually needed for their enjoyment of life and (b) a distribution of goods which allows everyone to enjoy life is desirable;
  • that Eccl. 11:1-2 then reinforces the second insight of Eccl 4 which given the uncertainty of life draws the conclusion that it makes sense for the rich to work towards a system that balances  discrepancies of income, not least as they might be in need of such a system themselves in the future.

Krüger concludes
  • that we obviously cannot simply transfer the ethical deliberations and economic concepts of the Hebrew Bible to our situation in which economic structures and processes are vastly more complex but
  • that the biblical texts can remind us of some of the basics easily overlooked in our complex world, namely that freedom presupposes economic independence, that wealth and propserity are means to an end, that success of human endeavour does not depend only on effort and skill but also on factors beyond human control,
  • that the biblical aim of an an even distribution of “land” (which in those days meant means of production, labour, and food) is at least worth considering.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Understanding Nationhood

“The contradictions in modern understandings of nationhood are obvious. On the one hand, the notion of nation-sates that matured in Europe in the nineteenth century was based on a romantic ideal of matching ethnic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries with political borders. At the same time, these same nations were caring the rest of the world up into subject states in which state boundaries often bore no relationship whatsoever with ethnic boundaries. But this raises the question: What does it mean to be a nation? Modern Western answers to this question tend to be as inconsistent as the perceptions of the ANE. Several factors that contributed in varying degrees to the ancients’ national self-consciousness may be identified.
1. Ethnicity. The importance of this factor varied. In the territorial states of northern Syria (encompassing the Phoenicians and Aramaeans) this element appears to have been inconsequential in the determination of national boundaries. In the national states farther south ethnicity was one of the primary determinants of nationality...
2. Territory... In territorial states membership was determined simply by residence within the territory of the state [גּוֹי], without consideration of ethnic origin or affiliation [עָם]. The size of such states tended to depend on the political, military, and economic power of the king ruling in the capital city. Accordingly, a single ethnic or cultural group [עָם] could be divided into a series of states [גּוֹיִם], a pattern evident in Aramaean and Phoenician regions (e.g., Damascus, Hamath, Tyre, Sidon). In national states membership was determined by affiliation with an ethnic group, and ethnic borders tended to coincide with political boundaries (e.g., Israel, Ammon, Moab, Edom...The boundaries of territorial states fluctuated, depending on the ability of the king to control his region or incorporate more land. For both types of states territory played a critical role in national development...
3. Theology. In the ANE, nations tended to be identified with their own distinctive patron deity...In the minds of Phoenicians and Aramaeans, like the Mesopotamians, a people related to a specific god by virtue of residence in that god’s land. The Hebrews, by contrast, viewed their association with Yahweh as primary; the land of Canaan represented his grant to them after he had established himself as their God by covenant...But this notion of national deities was not absolute. The gods of the nations outside Israel tolerated the worship of other divinities by their subjects, even within the homeland or city, and the subjects felt free to worship other gods at home, and especially when they traveled to a new land...
4. Kingship. In both territorial and national states the institution of kingship served as a glue holding the subjects of a nation together...
5. Language. Several types of evidence in the OT suggest that people of the ANE recognized a link between language and nationality...However, [other evidence] suggests that the relationship between language and nationality may not have been the subject of much reflection...The OT traditions imply that all the nations of southern Syria (the Philistines, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Israel) gave up their native tongues in favor of the Canaanite dialect without any loss of national self-consciousness...
From Daniel I. Block, “Nations/Nationality,” NIDOTTE 4:966-972.

The Decalogue and Confession

Lent has long been considered a good time to take stock, to confess our sins before God. And the Ten Commandments (see previous post) are sometimes recommended to help us prepare for confession. As I encouraged my congregation to prayerfully reflect on the Ten Commandments for this purpose I asked them to remember this: When we ask ourselves, “have I kept this law?” the question is fundamentally not “have I done anything that contravenes it?”

Much more basic are these questions:
  • Do I believe what these commandments imply about the nature of reality? Do I trust God?
  • Do I want to keep these commandments? Do I love to do God’s will?
Because if I am merely interested in not getting on the wrong side of the law or if I try to earn brownie points with God, I have completely and utterly misunderstood what this is all about. Christ delivered me and so I need not fear God’s judicial punishment or earn his favour. Christ lived the perfect life here on earth. I want to follow him and so I want to read and reflect on the Ten Commandments in order to learn about my God, to trust him more, and to live as a human made in the image of God, as a child of my heavenly Father, and as a disciple of Christ. And I pray that God’s Spirit would enable this.

And so, e.g.,  when reflecting on the last commandment I want to “learn how to make distinctions between desiring that which is wholesome and good and beneficial for both people and nature and that which only feeds a hunger for more than we need.” (Janzen, Exodus, 238) I want to ponder the question why it is that we have more than some and less than others which leads me to two other questions: what does God want me to do with the resources he has given me and what might he want to tell me by not giving me someone else’s resources?

The Ten Commandments

Some notes in preparation for a sermon about the Ten Commandments

1. The Ten Commandments are God's words and that is why we pay attention to them. Indeed, they are God's words in a special sense because this is the only time God spoke to his whole people together and these are the only words God is said to have written down himself. 

2. They are not all that can or needs to be said about how God’s people are to live. Thus the Ten Commandments instruct us not to murder (“kill without authority”), not to commit adultery, and to honour our parents but they do not spell out what this means. For this we need – and are given – more words from God. The same applies to the great commandment to love God and neighbour. We need to learn what it means to truly love.

3. The Ten Commandments are God's words for a people he has delivered from slavery. This suggests two things:
·         we do not become God’s people by obeying his commandments; we have become God’s people by his gracious act of deliverance; God’s instructions are to help us to become more and more his holy people
·         the commandments are not to enslave us; God has liberated from slavery – the law is a gift of his grace; it shows us the good life; the commandments are the boundaries that make true freedom possible, a bit like a play ground fence facilitates safe play for children and guard rails on mountain roads help safe driving

4. The first commandment is the basis for the other commandments. 
“All sins are sins against the first commandment; the first commandment contains the whole of the Decalogue. For all sin serves some other god, obeys another commander: the world or the flesh or the devil. So if we obeyed only this one commandment perfectly, we would need nothing more. St Augu­stine says, “Love God and then do what you will.” For if you give your whole heart and will and love to God, then what you will will be all that God wills.” (Kreeft, Catholic Christianity, 205)
This is not payback for God’s deliverance; this is an expression of our belief that God is worthy to be feared, to be loved, and to be trusted above all things. God deserves the allegiance of those he delivered. More fundamentally, the nature of reality demands that worship is only given to God. Idolatry consist in treating as God what is not God. This links closely with the next word.

5. The living God who transcends all of creation cannot be represented by a lifeless statue. To confuse the Creator with a part of creation has serious and far-reaching implications for our life as God’s people. The Israelites were told that if they disobeyed, the effects would be felt by whole households for several generations.

6. God’s reputation is of the utmost importance - for us. (The old blasphemy laws were not about protecting God, but protecting us against fundamentally misconceiving reality.) If God’s name is besmirched, people are not drawn to him. God’s name must be honoured and praised, celebrated and invoked. To treat God’s name with disrespect is to treat his gift lightly and to misrepresent his nature. Arguably the worst way in which we can break this commandment is by calling ourselves Christians without living as disciples of Christ. How can they call upon him whom they do not know because those who bear his name misrepresent him? 

7. We are not to live as if all time were our own, to do with as we please. “The God of all time retains the right to determine how one day shall or shall not be used.” (Janzen, Exodus, 229). Remembering the Sabbath by creating “a sanctuary of time” aligns us with the pattern of creation. God built into the very order of things a working/resting rhythm. “By resting on the seventh day, Israel is not just following God’s command, but actually following God’s lead.” (Enns, Exodus, 419)

8. The commandment to honour one’s parents (notice: both father and mother) is open-ended, not clearly defined. It finds expression differently at different stages of our lives. For young children to “honour” one’s parents means to trust and obey them; for mature adults, especially when their parents get to a stage that is closer to the dependence of childhood again, to “honour” one’s parents means to make sure that they are properly cared for and to make time for them.

This is the first commandment with a promise, as the apostle reminds us (Eph. 6:2). This should not be understood in an individualistic way. The nation Israel is here warned that breaking God’s commands, “will jeopardize their possession of the land God has given them.” (Enns, Exodus, 421)

9. God protects the integrity of his creation by prohibiting attacks and so the next few commandments give us
  • God’s “No” to attacking another’s life
  • God’s “No” to attacking another’s marriage
  • God’s “No” to attacking another’s property
  • God’s “No” to attacking another’s reputation
These commandments are not about personal morality only but protect society from the corrosive effect of violence and injustice. They can remind us that
  • life belongs to God and he alone has the right to end it 
  • sexual union in God’s purposes is linked with procreation and parenthood 
  • theft is an attack on human dignity and their work 
  • false witness compromises justice and gossip corrodes community
10. The last commandment concerns our hearts rather than actions. Lust, envy, and greed will lead to breaking other commandments. In this sense the tenth commandment is a ‘summary commandment’, as one commentator pout it (John Durham). Coveting of course cannot be regulated or policed and this reminds us again at the end that it is all about God. Only God can look upon the heart. “These commands are not given so that we can be good citizens, but so that we can reflect even more fully the image of God in which we participate through our union with the risen Christ.” (Enns, Exodus, 430)

Final reflection in the following post.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Bible and Slavery

A few initial thoughts putting the question of why the Bible does not offer an outright condemnation of slavery in context. There is a simple answer sometimes given which has more than a kernel of truth ("slavery was such an integral part of societies in antiquity that calling for the abolishment of slavery in the ancient world would have been akin to calling for the abolishment of money in our world")* but it is worth reflecting on this more broadly.

(1) Slavery is not a natural part of creation order but a social-historical institution. It is possible to be born into slavery but the Bible offers no justification for the belief that some people are born to be slaves based on their race** (as, e.g., in much of Western colonialism) or class (as maybe in the Hindu caste system in the East). There is no instruction within the Bible to uphold slavery as if the institution was necessary for an ideal ordering of the world.

(2) The institution of slavery can and should be regulated. Not all slavery is governed by rules. In the ancient world as well as in Islamic and European and American slave trade, slavery was often linked with kidnapping. This is condemned in the Bible (e.g., Exodus 21:16; Amos 1:6, 9). The people of God under the old covenant were given rules to regulate the institution (Exodus 21:1-11; Leviticus 25:39-55; Deuteronomy 15:12-18) and were commanded not to return fugitive slaves to their masters but welcome them within their own community (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

(3) One corollary of the first two points is that slavery was not a monolithic entity within the biblical world. It can take many and various forms and there are fuzzy boundaries. "Given the historical significance of the Atlantic trade it is not surprising that the dominant stereotype of slavery is that of the New World Afro-American plantation system, a stereotype in which 'slavery is monolithic, invariant, servile, chattel-like, focused on compulsory labour, maintained by violence, and suffused with brute sexuality' (Kopytoff 1982:214). Yet examples from different times and places of what is usually taken to be slavery reveal a great variation in both the type of servitude slaves experienced (a common difference often being noted between domestic and chattel slaves), and the political and economic systems in which the institution existed." (P. Thomas, "Slavery," Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. A. Barnard and J. Spencer [Taylor & Francis, 1996], 509-10, p. 509) Many slaves within the Greco-Roman world carried out sensitive and highly responsible tasks, e.g. as doctors and accountants, teachers and bailiffs, sometimes being better educated than their masters, and emancipation was a real possibility for the majority of urban and domestic slaves.

(4) The assumption within the Bible is that people holding ownership rights over other people is not in and of itself immoral. This is the nub of the issue for us today. It is arguably first of all a philosophical clash relating to notions of freedom and self-determination. In practice the biblical world and ours are not quite as far apart as it appears at first because on the one hand ownership was not total and absolute but governed by God's decrees and on the other hand individual liberty in the contemporary world is also sometimes severely restricted and in the same circumstances that led to slavery in the ancient world, namely economic hardship. Again, the experience of New World slavery misleads some into thinking that slavery is defined by treating people as property in a way which denies their personhood but if one were to accept this definition much of ancient slavery within and outside the Bible would have to be called something else. In the ancient world it was possible to consider slaves both property and persons with legal rights, e.g. the right to appear as witnesses, plaintiffs or defendants in court and to own property, including slaves.

(5) Slavery within the ancient world was gendered. In particular, masters seem to have been universally male or nearly so and female slaves were treated differently from male slaves. A woman sold into slavery regularly became a concubine or secondary wife in the process with attendant obligations and rights. In particular, this seems to have been a way to provide for a woman when a father could not provide a dowry. Thus the issue relates to the question of patriarchy and the relationship between the institution of slavery and the functioning of kinship structures. Masters also bought female slaves to give in marriage to their male slaves.

(6) Legally regulated slavery within ancient societies was regularly related to either avoiding or responding to economic hardship. P. Garnsey observes: "This points to a paradox at the heart of the slave system. Slavery is the most degrading and exploitative institution invented by man. Yet many slaves in ancient societies (not all, not even all skilled slaves, a class that included miners) were more secure and economically better off than the mass of the free poor, whose employment was irregular, low-grade, and badly paid...It was not unknown for free men to sell themselves into slavery to escape poverty and debt, or even to take up posts of responsibility in the domestic sphere." (Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine [CUP, 1996], 5)*^

(7) Slavery was often a consequence of war. This is sometimes considered the chief source of slaves in ancient societies but this seems unlikely for Israel and Judah. The regulations are again gendered and varied depending on the course of the battle. A city that accepted terms of peace seems to have become subject to serfhood as a vassal entity rather than slavery, while military confrontation led to slavery as an alternative to death (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-15; 21:10-14).

Much more could be said, especially about the way in which Christ elevates slaves in such a way that the abolishment of slavery arguably becomes at one and the same time less urgent and inevitable in the long run but for now it is worth noting by way of summary that the Bible does not condone slavery in all its various forms. It specifically condemns theft and allows for slavery only within a certain framework. The biblical instructions assume (a) that slavery is not in and of itself immoral but can become so, and (b) that there was not always a ready, less de-humanizing alternative to slavery. Today we have found other ways of dealing with people who cannot pay their debts (prison) and children who are an economic burden on their parents (abortion, adoption).

* Cf. "The institution of slavery was taken for granted not only by the free persons but also by the slaves themselves, who never demanded its abolition. Therefore ideology of the [Ancient Near East] contains no condemnation of slavery or any protest against it." (M. A. Dandamayev, "Slavery (ANE)," ABD 6:58-62, p. 61) -- S. S. Bartchy observes that "ancient Greece and Rome are two of only five societies in world history which seem to have been based on slavery." He also notes: "It must also be stressed that, despite the neat legal separation between owners and slaves, in none of the relevant cultures did persons in slavery constitute a social or economic class...Slaves' individual honor, social status, and economic opportunities were entirely dependent on the status of their respective owners, and they developed no recognizable consciousness of being a group or of suffering a common plight...For this reason, any such call as 'slaves of the world unite!' would have fallen on completely deaf ears." ("Slavery (Greco-Roman)," ABD 6:65-73, p. 66)

** "Slavery, which both long preceded and continued after the emergence of race, assumed a new dimension with global racialization. Before the 1400s, slavery was widespread in state societies, but its victims, either recruited internally or from neighbouring groups, were largely physically indistinguishable from slave-holders; slavery was a status that, as fortunes changed, might be held by anyone." (R. Sanjek, "Race," Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. A. Barnard and J. Spencer [Taylor & Francis, 1996], 464-64, p. 463)

*^ See also the various references to debt slavery in R. Westbrook and G. M. Beckman, A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, 2 vols (Brill, 2003) and S. S. Bartchy's comment: "Furthermore, by no means were those in slavery regularly to be found at the bottom of the social-economic pyramid...Rather, in that place were those free and impoverished persons who had to look for work each day without any certainty of finding it (day laborers), some of whom eventually sold thesemlevs into slavery to gain some job security." ("Slavery (Greco-Roman)," p. 66)

Monday, 5 February 2018

Preaching from Colossians 1

I don't usually write my sermons out in full but having written a summary of last week’s sermon for a friend who was hospitalised, I have written a version of my sermon for 4 February 2018, based on Colossians 1:15-20.

Proverbs 8.1,22-31
Psalm 104.26-37
Colossians 1.15-20
John 1.1-14

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”
“What’s it all about?”
“How should we live?”
Today’s readings invite us to think about the big questions. Do we find ourselves acting on impulse, taking one decision at the time without letting those decisions flow from our understanding of what life is about? Thus we might act as if “looking after number 1” is the most important thing in life even though few of us really believe that it is, as becomes clear when we do take a step back and look at a life as a whole.
I have never heard anyone say at a funeral or thanksgiving service, “That guy really knew what life is about; he always looked after his own best interests. Of course, he helped others as well, that’s part and parcel of getting on in life, but at the end of the day he always knew that the most important thing is to do what you like and to pay as little as possible for it. What a man!”

What I have heard more than once is admiration for people for whom nothing was to much. “He would do anything for anybody, without complaining.” Or: “Our mum lived for us; she worked tirelessly to give us a good life.” Do we hear an echo of the self-giving love of God here? Of course a life lived for others is not unproblematic. Sometimes “living for number 1” has merely shifted from an individual to one’s close family and so lacks openness to the wider world. Sometimes those who are known to be there for everyone and anyone end up so much reacting to others that the self (identity) that is doing the giving is little discernible. Does then what many of us recognise as life at its best, namely the love that finds expression in self-giving, by way of balance need a bit of “looking after number 1” as an act of self-preservation?

In the Scriptures we read that true wisdom is found not in such a balancing act but somewhere else. Not “looking after number 1” but looking for/towards number 1 and the number 1 is identified in Paul’s letter to the Colossians as Christ. It is he who is “to have first place in everything” (v18b).

Why should Christ be the number 1 in everything? For starters (literally), he is “the firstborn of all creation” –  this doesn’t just refer to temporal priority: Christ got every thing going: “in him all things...were created” (v16). He is “the firstborn” in the way Jacob’s firstborn Reuben was the beginning of a people, outstanding in dignity, outstanding in power (Genesis 49:3). More than that, “all things have been created through him and for him” – material things and spiritual powers (v16). Christ is not only the agent of creation but also its purpose, not only the one who got it going but also the end of everything. He is firstborn in the sense also of being the legitimate heir of creation.

“He himself is before all things [in time and status] and in him all things hold together.” (v17) Just as all that is physical is, in a sense, held together by the four fundamental forces (gravity; electromagnetism; weak and strong nuclear forces), so the whole universe, visible and invisible, material and immaterial, is held together by the force and person that is Christ. But many of those powers are in rebellion against the one who is their Lord by right and therefore have become oppressive, enslaving and tyrannising – which brings us to the next point.

Reading about Christ as “the head of the body, the church” (v18) after all that was said about his central role for the universe may at first seem a bit of an anti-climax. But it is not. Christ is also “the head of the body, the church” as the founder of a new people, a resurrection people. He is the head because all life in the new creation depends on him.  Being “the firstborn from the dead” (v18) is just as important as being “the firstborn of all creation” (v15). It tells us that Christ is the first not only of the old creation but also of the new.
It is hard to imagine an event of greater significance for the universe than the Big Bang, the very first event. There have been other important events but without this first event there would be no universe. Maybe there is only one event in the history of the universe that is fully equal in significance to the Big Bang: the death of Christ on a cross and his resurrection. It is shocking to think that what was, sadly, a fairly ordinary event at a particular time in a half-forgotten corner of the Roman empire, not noticed by contemporary chroniclers, should be seen of such great significance. But the blood shed on the cross was the Big Bang of the new creation.

The church is not just a motley crew in pews, it is the new humanity that belongs to the new creation. It consists of people who have been reconciled to God, liberated from the rebellious forces that had enslaved us (cf. 2:13-15). Humanity was designed to play a key role in ordering God’s world. The reconciliation of humanity to God is therefore critical for the restoration of all creation, for the establishment of complete harmony. We have come under the spell of deadly powers and it is in Christ that all persons and powers will make their peace with God, one way or another, either being joyfully reconciled to their Creator or being disarmed and rendered harmless. In Christ the rebellion will be overcome and the church is the place where the reconciliation starts to work its way through every nook and cranny of the universe.

How could Christ do it? Let us finally observe that Jesus is not just made in the image of God like Adam; he is the image. We sometimes speak of a divine spark in human lives; in Christ it’s not just a spark, in him the fullness of God dwells – and God is delighted for that to be the case. Christ reflects perfectly the character of God. The invisible God is revealed to us in the person we know as Jesus of Nazareth. This is why he is the one who must be first in old and new creation.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Because  God wanted to express himself in a created world. So what’s it all about? Reflecting God’s glorious goodness in God’s world. How should we live then? With wisdom, centred on Christ, the perfect image of God.

If Christ is the hub of the wheel of life, for both the old and the renewed creation, as Scripture testifies, he deserves our full allegiance – and not just ours but the allegiance of everyone. And he does not only deserve it, allegiance to him is what will make us more truly human, one decision at a time.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Preaching from Deuteronomy 18

I don't usually have sermon notes that are sufficiently self-explanatory to go on a blog but I am writing up a summary of two sermons to email the summaries to someone who was missing today's and last Sunday's services.So here is a brief summary of the morning sermon for Sunday, 28 January 2018, on Deuteronomy 18:15-20.

I was reflecting last week on how we think about "religion" - what it is and what it is there for. I suggested that most religions offer coherence to a community with a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, a set of moral precepts to guide conduct, and a set of devotional and ritual performances. Ideally, I supposed, a creed is meant to give a higher meaning to our lives, a code of conduct is meant to put our lives into a broader context of values, and a cult to give us a deeper experience. Today we have individualism with some turning away altogether from any concept of a higher meaning or broader context to our individual lives and others picking and mixing their own "religion" maybe with a secular creed, a behavioural code inherited from one's kin, and sports or music as a means to get deeper experiences. Alas, with that comes the disintegration of coherence, often even in individual lives but certainly for communities. Today we also have pluralism, a global marketplace wherein one's own religion and traditions can no longer be taken for granted and societies which struggle to host different religious groups (which is only possible, if one "religion" plays the host and within the UK the two main contenders, Christianity and classical liberalism, are maybe no longer widely enough respected).

I pointed out that the strong desire to declare all religions equal (equally good or bad for us) is misguided as any concern with higher meaning must face the question of truth and falsehood, any code of conduct raises the question "who decides what is right and wrong?", and the different devotional practices are not really meant to gives us deeper experiences only but raise the question of the relationship between our realm and the divine. It would therefore be reductionist to evaluate religions simply on the basis whether they succeed in giving people a sense of being part of something bigger and help them to lead decent and fulfilled lives in the community. We must also ask about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural in any religion and how the two realms interact.

I then talked about how therefore in Deuteronomy 18:9-14 a culture is condemned and the people of God are called to be different. What is in view here is a religion that uses mechanical, a-moral means as it tries to get answers to the riddles of life and the future and to manipulate the divine realm. This is all swept aside in Israel in favour of prophecy as the means by which God, on his own initiative, makes himself and his will known to his people, Deuteronomy 18:15ff. Somewhat unusually within the ancient world, professional prophets within Israel often operated independent of other institutions, especially the palace and the temple, and so underline that the final authority lies with God. (Note also how prophecy is discussed last in this section of Deuteronomy, following instructions for king and sanctuary.) This of course makes it critical to distinguish between true and false prophecy and I talked a little about that before turning to Christ whose teaching is as instrumental in founding a new community and kingdom as was that of Moses for founding the old community and kingdom. Here I made a link to the Gospel reading (Mark 1:27), suggesting that the teaching of Jesus was new because it did not defer to previous authority but belongs to the new creation, leading to an enlarged creed, a deepened moral code and a changed cult.

So how do we think about our religion? We have been infected by a virus that will seriously harm our spiritual health, rendering us unable to function properly, if our religion is for us
  • a merely personal set of beliefs not necessarily valid for others, plus 
  • a code of conduct we want to follow but others may not, plus 
  • a set of rituals that works for us but may not work for others. 
Instead we should think of the Christian religion as
  • a set of beliefs that claim to be universally true, 
  • a challenge to live a life pleasing to God, 
  • devotion that can taken many forms but must be "in spirit and in truth" and 
  • above all: Christ himself - he is the one to whom we are bound. 
If Christ is who he claims to be, he deserves our full allegiance - and not just ours but the allegiance of everyone.