Christianity: Aesthetics: Spirituality: Life: Stuart and Moira Gray

News and Events June 2012: Fundamentalism, Finance and Politics: Easter:

Stuart Gray
Moira Gray
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Fundamentalism, Finance and Politics. The economic woes of Europe, indeed the world, grow apace. What to make of them. Is it a crisis of the banks who engaged in trading in questionable derivatives, and offering mortages and loans to unsupportable clients in the construction industry, or is it a question of personal finance in which individuals took on unsustainable debt in pursuit of a lifestyle which was really beyond their means? The present solution seems biased towards saving the financial institutions rather than the individual on the basis that a stable banking system is essential for the financial well being of a country. It seems a two dimensional solution in a three dimensional world. The more the need for a financial solution is stressed the more humanity is degraded as being nothing more than commodities to be traded in the world economic forum, a blanket solution with no regard for individual survival or needs. Banks and financial institutions are being saved at the cost of individual employment and livelihoods. Banks continue to pay their chief executives large bonuses (increasing 10% since last year) while wages decline and employment decreases to pay for their survival. More to the point, in Britain, we are supposed to be living in the era of 'the Big Society'. In May 2010, David Cameron invited 16 social entrepreneurs to an inaugural big society launch. The aim was "to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people". The thinktank 'Civil Exchange' recently produced a report which drew on more than 40 data sources to test progress on the government's "three pillars" of the big society: enabling people to shape their local area, opening up public services provision to charities, and levels of "social action" such as volunteering. It finds:

• There is a widening "big society gap" in which volunteering and other forms of social capital are strongest in wealthy areas. Cuts have hit charities based in deprived areas the hardest, creating the danger that the project becomes "an initiative for the leafy suburbs".

• Despite ministerial promises, charities and social enterprises have been sidelined in the market for government contracts, such as the Work Programme, which the report says has "an implicit bias towards large, private sector businesses".

• The government lacks a common vision and strategy for the big society, while smaller voluntary groups vital to delivering the project have found it hard to make their voices heard in Whitehall. It cites figures showing 70% of charity leaders believed the government did not value or respect the voluntary sector as a partner.

It says grassroots community groups expected to deliver the big society have been dealt a "body blow" by the first tranche of expected £3.3bn cuts in government funding to the voluntary sector over the next three years, while a support programme, introduced by ministers for charities at risk of going bust, was "too little, too late". Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence have agreed that there is currently an overspend of £6bn on its procurements, while defence chiefs are requesting a 1% increase in their budget from 2015. Moreover the Armed Forces have had their pay frozen and allowances reduced. At the same time the army has 59 serving generals with only 100 operational tanks, while the navy sports almost 10 captains for every operational warship.

Is this not the same philosophical situation as charities and the Big Society, i.e. the wealthy or influential will always look after their needs and those of their supporters first, rather than those front line areas in real need? This is mirrored in personal income where ordinary incomes have declined by about 3% while those of top executives have increased by up to 12%. Arguments about the need for adequate incentives for top executives lose their impetus when one considers the decline in share prices and prime responsibility for all the bale outs, not least the 140 billion for the Royal Bank of Scotland paid for by ordinary tax payers. In terms of the Big Society can we all be expected to engage in it where such inequalities abound? Surely a Big Society presupposes a fair society?

Easter Message 2012: Was the resurrection of Jesus a physical or spiritual one? I have long maintained that the evidence indicates a spiritual one, and when I studied Theology in the '60s there were many theologians who agreed. There was an openness of debate, a 'we can never be certain but what if..'. Belief in a spiritual resurrection did not deny the Christian faith, rather redefined it in a more spiritual way, and more in line with the evidence. What is more, because there remains uncertainty, each side respected the other. Where, I wonder, has such open liberal theology of the 1960s gone? I am writing this having listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury's final Easter message, and that of the Bishop of Coventry in his BBC1 Eucharist broadcast. To both the resurrection of Jesus had to be a physical event or else the Christian faith is in vain. What is more worrying is that the Bishop of Coventry maintained that having trained as a barrister and therefore looking at hard factual evidence, the only conclusion is that it was physical event.

We now live in a more unforgiving, hard defined Christian world where scholarship is subordinate to belief and fundamentalist attitudes are gaining supremacy. Now I have dealt with my own beliefs in the sections on this site dealing with the Resurrection, so I need not repeat them all here. Yet a number of further and substantial thoughts might not go amiss. The traditional Christian concept of an immaterial and immortal soul separate from the body is not found in pre-exilic Judaism, but evolved eventually as a result of interaction with Persian and Hellenistic philosophy.

One of the major problems, rarely addressed, is that of definitions, i.e. resurrection, soul and immortality, or who believed what in the Biblical period. The basis of any Christian interpretation of these words must, for any sense of authenticity, derive from the Bible and that starts with the Hebrew Bible - and a major problem. There are two competing and conflicting philosophies, Hebrew and Greek. Greek philosophy, notably that of Plato, separated body and soul, the latter capable of immortality. Such a concept was unknown to the ancient Hebrews. The only Hebrew word applicable, nephesh, which was traditionally translated as 'soul' in English language Bibles refers to a living, breathing body, rather than to an immortal soul of the Greeks. In the Septuagint, true, the translation of 'nephesh' is 'psyche' which indeed is the Greek word for soul, but in the New Testament this Greek word, psyche, retains substantially the same meaning as the Hebrew, i.e. without reference to an immortal soul. It was not until the second century that Christianity started to lean towards the Greek separation of body and soul, eventually to be confirmed by Origen in the third century. Consequently the modern scholarly consensus is that the canonical teaching of the Old Testament made no reference to an "immortal soul" independent of the body.

In Genesis 2:7 we find that man is a "living soul" and in Genesis 1:21 we find that animals are "living creatures". These two phrases were the identical Hebrew phrases - nephesh chayah. In the Hebrew mind we are composed of three entities; body, breath and mind. The body is the flesh, bones and blood, the vessel. The mind is ones thoughts and emotions. The breath is ones character, what makes a person who they are. The soul is the whole of the person, the unity of the body, breath and mind. It is not some immaterial spiritual entity it is you, all of you, your whole being or self.

So where does that leave us with Jesus, Paul and the early church? At the time of Jesus there were two basic schools of thought. The dominant factor, the priestly class or Sadducees in Jerusalem, had no belief in any form of resurrection, while the Pharisees believed, along more orthodox Hebrew lines, in a bodily resurrection. I might suggest to the Bishop of Coventry that he has not fully examined the evidence of Paul who maintains that lastly Jesus appeared to him (after appearing to the Apostles and others). Now we know that Paul never met Jesus (he tells us so in his letters to both the Corinthians and Galations), and that by the time he had his 'Resurrection appearance' Jesus had long ascended into heaven. So, what are we to make of this? Was this not part of Paul's enlightenment on the road to Damascus, and yet this appearance was experienced only by Paul and not by any of his companions. A physical appearance? Unlikely. Equally his experience was accepted by the Apostles in Jerusalem as valid as any they had experienced.

Why is it that we need a physical experience? Think of the problems. Are we given a new body? If so what age, gender, ethnic variety etc.? Does it grow; does it need feeding; where is it situated? Now if Jesus resurrected in a body equivalent to that last seen by the disciples, i.e. that was his resurrected body, then where is the evidence to gainsay that when we die our resurrected body is the one with which we died? Also to the point is why Christianity does not discuss such issues.

Not quite true. Roman Catholics have made some attempt at the doctrine of a bodily resurrection. It follows on from Paul, who made an unsatisfactory attempt in 3 Corinthians with his concept of a spiritual body which isn't really when its ascended because it has become a physical body. According to the Summa Theologica, spiritual beings that have been restored to glorified bodies will have the following basic qualities:

* Impassibility (immortal / painless) — immunity from death and pain
* Subtility (permeability) — freedom from restraint by matter
* Agility — obedience to spirit with relation to movement and space (the ability to move through space and time with the speed of thought)
* Clarity — resplendent beauty of the soul manifested in the body (as when Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor)

Certainly in America belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, or any human being is on the decline. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they'll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. Thanks to the growth of Eastern religions, reincarnation — the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body — is gaining adherents in America. Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent.

Hiding behind 'an act of faith' does not make any of these questions go away, and what, I wonder, is the problem with saying that we do not know what happens to us after death other than that we enjoy some form of independent existence? Such doubt can create only certainties in minds of the whole of society, for example a certainty that existence post death is available to those who believe in a Creator whose benefits are for those who lead moral, compassionate and inclusive lives, open to question and debate. It is a courageous act of theology to assert this. Pinning one's faith solely on a physical resurrection creates uncertainty in most people's minds. What if I do not believe in a physical resurrection? What happens to Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, believers in Confucianism, Mysticism, Neopaganism and the myriad of other religions? What of those who lived before the time of Jesus, or who never had the chance to hear about him? Is it sufficient to say, at best, that God has 'other purposes' for them, rather than the Roman Catholic belief that they are in grave error, and liable to a long period in Hell?

And what of inter-faith co-operation? Highly welcome and beneficial all would agree. Respect for other religions should be an integral element of all religions, but such respect can be valid only if one accepts the other religions as valid. In this case logic dictates that one must accept the religious path to salvation of other religions as equally valid, otherwise it becomes a strategic fudge, i.e. we do not really accept their religion as valid, but they have useful comments to make about social cohesion, responsibility, morals, and co-operation (and all atheists are against us), so we are all in the same bed together, no matter what our severe theological differences. In essence it is saying that here on earth human co-operation transcends theology.