John Dominic CrossanThis weekend Trinity Episcopal Cathedral is hosting “The Unending Conversation: Progressive Christian Apologetics for the Twenty-First Century.” The intent is to “celebrate the legacy of Trinity’s Canon Theologian, Dr. Marcus J. Borg, and consider the impact of his writing and teaching on future generations of progressive Christian apologists.” Speakers include John Dominic Crossan, Diana Butler Bass, Jacqui Lewis, and Katharine Jefferts Schori.

John Dominic Crossan opened the conference arguing that if there is any integrity to progressive Christianity it is its methodology. For Crossan, and Marcus Borg, that methodology requires immersing one’s self into the matrix of a text, the context of a story. A “matrix” is what you have to know to know what is going on, the common sense of a story’s time and place. By grasping the matrix, it may be possible to understand the story as it would have been understood by its original hearers, according to the intent of its author(s). Putting aside the now long-standing battle between historical-critical methods, narrative-based interpretation, and every other permutation of biblical scholarship, I wonder if methodology really is the key.

Crossan brilliantly narrated the story of Genesis 2-4 as it might have been heard in its Sumerian context. We heard of primordial relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, their epic search for fame through heroic deeds which ends when Enkidu died of nothing more spectacular than illness. Not only is the Epic the first and greatest of its kind to be written, it is the most honest: no one gets eternal life, everybody dies. Read this way, ancient listeners understood that the primordial Hebrew couple weren’t even going to have eternal life. Instead, they were offered the knowledge of good and evil, the ability, the destiny, to exercise conscience. Their failure to do so leads to violence. The headline for the story of Cain reads something like this: “Farmer kills herder, builds first city, violence escalates.” The moral of the story: “Immortality is a delusion. Conscience is a responsibility. Violating conscience leads to the exponential escalation of violence.” I tend to agree. The first chapters of Genesis are, he says, the most succinct summary of the neolithic revolution and its consequences ever written.

Yet the explosion of Mesopatamian culture and the agricultural revolution was not the only matrix concerning Crossan. Over and over again, he noted what was absent in the story: punishment, judgement, a frantic wish that Adam and Eve had simply not eaten the fruit, original sin, sex. This set of concerns comes from a different matrix, an interpretive world concerned with sex and punishment, the world, as he mentioned, of Augustine. On the one hand, Crossan presented us the story as it was (or might have been) heard by its original listeners. On the other hand, Crossan was clearly concerned with the way misinterpretations of the story shape our ability to hear its essential message. There is more than one matrix at play in Crossan’s interpretation. This isn’t a bad thing, but it should be acknowledged.

It was also clear that Crossan and I come from different matrices, different worlds of interpretation.

As Crossan reminded us that Genesis 1 tells us that we are destined to be agents of God in the world, I heard the Greek term synergia, which literally means “to work with,” the conviction that we are called to become co-workers with God. When he described the offering of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as an invitation to exercise conscience, I heard the expectation that humanity will move from youthful immaturity to mature discernment between good and evil. When Crossan rejected the idea of original sin for a reading of Genesis which posits that the continued failure to exercise conscience leads to the inevitable escalation of violence, I heard that once again we have failed to wisely exercise the “dangerous freedom” (Yannaras) of morality, once again missing the mark of becoming fully human, that is, like God in Christ. My matrix was not formed by historical criticism, but the highly allegorical and metaphorical rhetoric (used positively) of the Christian East. The irony of hearing a resonance between a progressive biblical scholar known for his critique of doctrinal Christianity and an interpretation that flows from the world of Nicene Orthodoxy is abundantly clear to me. Note that I said “an interpretation.” There is more than one interpretation of this text in the Christian East, some of which echo the distortions with which Crossan is concerned.

I asked Crossan if he knew of theologians or theological traditions which developed theology in a way that intentionally or unintentionally respected his concerns with and interpretation of the text. He quite honestly said that he simply did not read theologians, he read primary rather than secondary literature (and no, this was not delivered as a some passive aggressive swipe at the rest of us), he simply didn’t have time to read it all. I appreciate his honesty, in part because I have said the same thing. Coming from a world that almost soley values patristic theology, I have argued that in order to do contemporary ethics I cannot also be a patristic theologian. I must trust the work of others and from it address contemporary theological and ethical concerns.

Yet I am also concerned with his answer. By reiterating over and over again the failed interpretations of Christian tradition without also engaging in constructive theological work, I am worried that we give the impression that there are no other alternatives, that there never have been. We stew a bit in our scorn of Augustine’s obsession with control and sex, we reiterate over and over again the damaging focus on sin, punishment and condemnation. Yet we rarely seem to move towards constructive theology. We are too busy reacting.

Yet if there is to be a progressive Christian apologetics for the 21st century, it must do more than react, it must construct. Further, it cannot be under the impression that the materials available for such construction are entirely of its own, new, invention. It cannot suffer under the illusion that its particular matrix, from which it is reacting, is the only matrix available either within the Christian tradition, or in our shared Christian future. By this I mean that to have integrity we must be aware that we interpret the story on which we focus in light of the story in which we live, and neither are the only stories available to us.

I suspect that Crossan would agree with me. When pressed to identify actual theologians who take the next steps in this work, he gave the following tidbit as a way to consider theological interpretation:

Given this matrix you know what to look for in their work: do they diagnose the human problem as sex or violence?

I think that is a fabulous evaluative framework.

4 thoughts

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