Monday, August 20, 2018
Why We Need More Disputes in Christianity
Why We Need More Disputes in Christianity
Jewish scholar Shaye J. D. Cohen suggested in a seminal article that the destruction of the temple brought about a radical change in the structure of what would become Judaism. Before the Romans reduced the temple to rubble in 70 C. E. Cohen argues that the Jewish religion had become “sectarian.” He dates the rise of sectarianism from the centuries of Greek influence and especially from the era of the Jewish Hasmonean kings. At the center of the sectarian conflict was the temple itself. Various groups emerged with very different ideas about the temple, its organization, leadership, and ritual. We know from Josephus’ works and from the writings of various sectarians, including those from Qumran, that deep divisions within Jewish society could be traced to arguments over the temple. Who should be high priest? How should the high priest be appointed and by whom? What rituals should be followed and how should they be carried out? What should the purity practices entail? What calendar should be followed? And what should be done about the domination of Israel by the Gentiles and the consequent “foreign” influences on the thinking and practices of both the political and religious leadership of the Jewish people? When the Jewish war broke out it in 66 C.E., it was not just a war against Rome. It was a vicious civil war. While the Romans were preparing to storm Jerusalem, the rebels were killing off their enemies within the city, including the recent high priests. Three factions fought it out in the city, weakening themselves as well as their opponents until it was too late.
In the aftermath of Roman victory, a group of rabbis gathered to consider how to prevent such suicidal sectarian strife. Those early rabbis, calledtannaim, had to articulate a new way to be Jewish—a way that did not require a temple or sacrifices to follow and obey the God of Israel. A key part of this according to Cohen was moving Judaism from being a community of sectariansto a community of disputants. All of these rabbis were committed to the “oral Torah”, the stream of tradition that sought to interpret and apply the “written Torah” to the ever-changing situations of Jews both in and beyond the land of Israel. But the traditions and the sages did not always agree on how in particular cases that should be done. There were significant differences between the followers of great sages of the past—like Hillel and Shammai. How could these differences be adjudicated without leading to the destructive factionalism that had almost destroyed the Jewish people?
The genius of those early rabbis was to leave room for dispute—more than that,
to encouragedispute. The circles of disciples that would become the rabbinic academies became circles of argument and disputation. The rabbis and their disciples would argue fiercely defending their various viewpoints. To this day, if you visit a traditional Jewish beit midrash (house of learning)you will find students arguing vociferously with each other. In one I visited in Jerusalem the cacophony was such that I wondered how they could even hear each other! Both the Mishnah and the later Talmudpreserve the arguments and conflicts of the sages. Even if a ruling of a particular sage was not accepted, neither the sage nor his ruling was eliminated. The losing arguments and the winning arguments are often recorded side by side. Who knew? Perhaps the “losing” view would be needed in a subsequent era when Israel’s situation had changed.
Moving from a sectarian society to a disputation society saved Judaism. It did not fragment into increasingly smaller and paranoid groups in the following centuries—as it could have done. With very view exceptions it remained united under the banner of what we would now call rabbinic Judaism well into the modern era. Even today, as great as the differences are between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, most religious Jews are loath to reject the Jewishness of other Jews, however greatly they disagree with the way they practice their Judaism.
This is perhaps an overlong introduction to the point I want to make. Almost from the very beginning, Christianity has been a sectarian community, rather than a community of dispute. As early as the second century its leaders were identifying and marginalizing “heretics”, thereby creating alternative and competing sects. Unlike emerging Judaism, the Christian Church eventually gained political power and used the power of the state to enforce conformity, burning the occasional heretic to make a point. Throughout the history of the church theologians who went too far in their speculations could find themselves facing a grim-faced tribunal of bishops who could deprive them of their livelihoods if not their lives. The Reformation challenged the authority of both church and state in the west, but clearly did not end the sectarianism, but rather enhanced it! The various Protestant bodies were as eager to identify and persecute “heretics” as their fiercest Catholic brethren (and I use the term advisedly).
I am not sanguine that Christianity can travel the same road as the early rabbis. I fear that our sectarianism, our eagerness to condemn our opponents and destroy our dissidents is too deeply engrained. But sectarianism is destroying us just as surely as it nearly destroyed Judaism. Everywhere I see vicious attempts to assure conformity by silencing dissent. This often occurs through the efforts of denominational enforcers. But it also, and perhaps more often occurs through the vicious public humiliation of those who dare to raise questions about the current received wisdom. Witness the attacks within the Evangelical world on any public figure who dares, however gently, to raise questions about or express a desire for a conversations concerning the role of women or human sexuality (especially homosexuality) or Black Lives Matter. Evangelical “leaders” seem terrified of any conversation that challenges the views of conservative churches and powerful donors. At all costs, it seems, these dissidents must be silenced or shunned, and the conversations ended before they are begun.
We should not be trying to end these disputations but encouraging them—bringing them into the open. As we engage in these difficult discussions, we need to acknowledge that our opponents are trying to follow Jesus, just as we are—even if we disagree with them. We should not brand them as heretics to be shamed, silenced, and driven out. In my experience, I would hasten to say, this is often as difficult for people on the “left” as people on the “right”. I am aware that his is a tall order since it is against all of our Christian instincts to demonize our opponents. And, as I witnessed this summer in Minneapolis, our impulse to eliminate problematic people and avoid difficult conversations is strong. But if we continue in our sectarian ways, we will destroy ourselves. And perhaps that is not a bad thing. Perhaps in the wake of the coming destruction, as occurred after the destruction of the temple, something new, and heathier, will rise from the ashes. Perhaps we will actually learn to follow Jesus in love and hope rather than trying to destroy individuals and communities trying to do exactly that.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
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