Greg Leake emails: Hi Luke,
Another adventurous excursion into the Torah with the patrician Luke Ford and the pugnacious Rabbi Rabbs. I have a growing sense of appreciation of some elements of the Jewish faith. At the same time I thank G-d that my mother was not Jewish, and also for Jesus bin Joseph. Otherwise I probably would have fallen heir to all of these obligations and responsibilities and would have been a considerably less free human being.
Rabbi Rabbs, I have wondered in times past why every reference to Christianity was directed at sort of the lowest common denominator on the Christian theological spectrum. Always some bumpkin TV preacher, and never the sophisticated theology of, say, graduates of Union Theological Seminary. Now I think I know, because of your discussion of the Methodists. Apparently you really don’t know much about it.
So here are a few points that might interest you.
The Protestant Reformation was actually a very big deal, and you might be surprised to learn that you probably share more with Protestants than you do with Catholics.
Although you were hearkening back to an appreciation of Christians who are following their tradition, that tradition actually shares less with your point of view than the Methodists. For example, the Protestant denominations feel very much as you do about idols. Protestant churches are intentionally austere in their iconography because of the idol worship idea.
One of the really spectacular and beautiful visions one can behold is a magnificent Catholic cathedral. Outside of the grandeur of nature, there may be no more beautiful and aesthetic experience. However, the church will be punctuated by many statues of saints and Mary and the Nazarene. Some of the statues are so lifelike and celestial one almost feels that they are beholding the holy persons themselves. A Protestant church will have, perhaps, a cross; a manger scene at Christmas.. Naturally Protestants would not see members of the holy family as idols. At least no more than they would see Orthodox Jewish fummie dress as idols.
Another point is that the Christian tradition that I believe you allude to is essentially the Catholic, that includes Greek philosophy in its beliefs. You know, Augustine favored Plato, and Thomas Acquinas favored Aristotle. Obviously there are other philosophers and theologians that are not specifically Greek in origin as well.
Protestants are much more rigorously bound to the scriptures themselves without those scriptures being elaborated by inclusions from philosophies from elsewhere. For Protestants, the new and old testaments form the wellspring of the faith.
And, you know, a big division between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics believe that the sacramental wafer and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ through transubstantiation.
Protestants, on the other hand, for the main part see the communion as a sacred, symbolic ritual somewhat like a sacred commemoration.
The United States came into being by Protestants: almost every signer of the Declaration of Independence was a Protestant. All of our impetus of growth, most of our ethics, and our sense of government grew out of the thinking of Protestants.
I am still enjoying your Torah talks. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Luke would find anything amiss with flirting with an attractive Jewish girl. Maybe someday someone will explain that one to me. And I hope you have a slightly better appreciation of some of the Methodists that you were treating so lightly.
RABBI RABBS EMAILS: Greg,
Thank you for your continued interest in our Torah Talks, and for taking the time to compose such a lengthy response to our latest episode.
You missed the entire point. My problem is not with Protestants. In fact, what I said was based on the words of a friend of mine who is a devout Protestant. If you are a devout Protestant, then you should appreciate what I said, because your problem should be with those who trample on Protestantism, and water it down into something it isn’t as the Methodists and Episcopalians apparently do.
I am not an expert on Christianity, so I will defer to my friend who wrote the following for me to forward explaining why Methodists are liberal and secular, and hence, very close to secular Judaism movements such as Conservative and Reform:
“I’d say the simplest test is whether the leadership of a church affirms historic Christian doctrine precisely on the points which are unpopular with the surrounding culture. A church which will not risk offending non-Christians and hemi-semi-demi-Christians is a country club with crosses strewn about in odd places, and in the US heresy has nearly always come from the top and not from the pew so we should look at the leadership.
So what does the UMC leadership affirm, permit, and defend? Here is one random example which took me all of a minute to find:
That was written before the Foundry Church vote, which I believe affirmed same-sex marriage, but basically the leadership is *fine* with Foundry Church defying current UMC doctrine and the whole testimony of the historic church in affirming same-sex marriage. Both the bible and church tradition in every branch of Christianity insist that this would require the leadership discipline the erring church. The article makes it clear that the leadership will do no such thing, because it agrees. Denial of the historic faith by the leadership is, I submit, sufficient grounds to prove apostacy, and in this case the apostacy is clearly in accord with secular liberal beliefs–pressure from the outside culture is the whole reason the issue was raised.
So much for the question asked. I just grabbed random illustrations from the net instead of using the more formal material from, for example, Thomas Oden’s book, but perhaps that is sufficient answer?
It is important, though, to understand that the above is entirely about the shrinking US church (and probably the British one, but I have no personal knowledge there). The third-world church is quite healthy and growing, particularly in Africa, having received their doctrine from Methodist missionaries before the mother churches ceased to believe. This is significant because unlike the Episcopalians the UMC is a single, international body, and representation is proportional to membership (with some caveats, and the leadership is apparently biased towards Americans). This page
tells the story of how it played out at the last general conference in 2008. The faithful, believing Evangelical Africans and others were up to 30% of the delegates (20% from Africa alone) in the 2008 conference, and they provided the margin of victory in, for example, reaffirming the UMC’s traditional stand on marriage and sexuality *against the wishes of the American leadership*. However, the US bias toward leadership appears to have placed a liberal preponderance on the Judicial Council, so it is quite clear that the UMC will have no will to actually discipline the defiant. My point, though, is that there are still reasons to think the UMC may remain Christian. But that only reinforces my accusation of liberal apostacy; if the church returns to faithfulness, it will be because the Africans who affirm the faith they were taught stood up to the apostate, liberal American leadership which has abandoned it. I suspect the 2012 General Conference, where another 10% of the delegates are likely to be third-world Evangelicals, will be…interesting.”
I believe his words are convincing, and I hope they clarify the matter. I look forward to your feedback.
GREG LEAKE EMAILS:
that is quite a lot of information that you posted. And your Methodist friend certainly sounds very conscientious about the factors related to his church.
I’m afraid the Jewish principle that you and Luke discussed in your Torah Talks seems to be active here: the one about the possibilities of a blessing and a curse coming from your activities.
Apparently my hope to inform about Protestantism generally led some to suspect that I might be a Methodist. In fact I am not, nor have I ever been, a Methodist, and if drafted I will not serve.
(I guess you know that President Bush and Laura Bush are both Methodists, and so are the kids.)
Still, I am familiar with the degeneration that is occurring in almost every religious expression in the West. I decry it as you do. There are some denominations that are holding the line better than others, but only a dozen years ago we would never have realized how degenerative the attacks on religious traditions would be.
A while back an Episcopal priest was at a seminar listening to distinguished speakers from the Episcopalian church. A woman priest took to the podium and began to describe the crucifixtion agony as the birth pains of a mother delivering a baby. He turned to his friend at that point and said, “We’re in big trouble.”
And I also agree with your larger points that the downward movement of religion is having a deleterious effect on society. Believe me, I can gripe about this as easily as anyone.
However, I will offer a few reflections.
I wonder whether the deterioration of religion is because of external forces or because the more traditional and conservative ways we conducted religion previously drove people away. Or in other words, is what is occurring now that we so dislike a product of our not being able to deliver the spiritual substance that people require in order to stay engaged in the way we would wish them to.
It seems to me that the ontological connection between human and divine has requirements, and it’s possible that we in the religious world may not have been successful in causing those requirements to be viable enough that people felt rewarded practicing their faith in the way we all grew up expecting. Are we the victims of the new devolutionary religious movement, or are we the progenitors? Do people simply not feel the viability of their relationship with G-d because we are not providing it? And does a return to the old verities help or hinder? These are questions that haunts my mind in the dark of night.
Here is another reflection. I believe that both Christians and Jews think there is veracity in the idea of the biblical Fall. I assume there would be some differences, but it may be one of those subjects about which there is a lot of agreement. The further distance a rock falls, the more velocity it picks up, and it seems to me that the Fall continues to resonate and echo throughout human history, the descent becoming faster and easier to cognize.
It seems to me, for example, that the United States once was a bastion of very clear principles that enjoyed almost universal appreciation. However, as the movement of history propels us downward, the further away from those original principles we get.. And finally those principles become a memory and then pass from sight altogether, like a ship traveling away from the shore.
It also seems to me that the original principles of our religions have lost gravity for many practitioners because through time people have drifted further and further away from an understanding of the divine impulses that created them in the first place.
So I entertain the possibility that what we are witnessing is a continuation of the Fall alongside other factors I will leave out for the moment because of space. And the Fall has now gone on long enough that the daily degeneration is for the first time really visible.
Is there some way to rescue all this? I know in my religious experience, “that old time religion” has done as much to drive people away as it has to retain them. And the Fall is a relentless, divine proclamation and not malleable by the possibilities of human activity, so I wonder where that leaves us.