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Bird Songs and Jesus: learning to listen in a new way

Recently we went birding at a local waterside park not far from home with a small group led by two ornithologists. The group wasn’t there to watch birds but to be introduced to the art of listening to them. The park is on our normal morning walk, so we’re familiar with the bird sounds there. We even recognize a few of the calls.  Mostly though, the woods and water are filled with unrecognizable chatter we are unable distinguish one from another.

What we learned on the outing was no more than a basic introduction to the differences between calls, songs, and begging.  the lead instructor interrupted herself in the midst of her talk several times to name a bird and its call, a call that none of the rest of us could even hear.  Standing in silence for five minutes, we were asked to say how many different calls we each heard.   Most of us heard four or five. The two ornithologists had their own count of almost thirty.

Learning to separate the cacophony of bird tweets into individual sounds and name the species is hard to do and takes years of practice. That practice doesn’t begin with bird names or the memorization of sounds. It begins with learning to listen in ways that one has never listened before.

I’ve always been a bird watcher, not a bird namer, so in spite of my increasing blindness it’s unlikely I will ever become an adept bird listener. For one thing, my mind kept wandering from bird calls to how learning to listen to birds was like learning to listen with understanding to God’s words, as we know God in Jesus Christ.

The Hebrew scriptures are filled with the record of stiff necked rulers and people unable and unwilling to listen to the word of God.  And why their stubbornness? God spoke through the prophets with unfamiliar, unsettling calls, and songs that conflicted with the accepted norms of the day and more primary concerns about food, shelter and safety.

If the prophet messages were unfamiliar and unsettling, the words of Jesus the good shepherd were even more so.   He said his sheep would hear him, know his voice, listen to his call and follow him.  He implored those gathered around him to listen, but what he said was even more unfamiliar and unsettling than the prophets’ words.  His challenges to the accepted norms of the day must have sounded like the indecipherable warbling of too many birds and drowned out by the even greater noise of daily life.  It took his closest followers three years to get just the basics, and the rest of their lives to become adept at listening with discernment and understanding. I wonder why we expect it to be any different for us?

Jesus’ words remain as distant, upsetting, and disorienting as ever.  They provoke us to hear and listen to new calls and songs that will lead us into a deeper and more profound understanding of what it means to follow him – if we are willing and able to listen.

We are surrounded daily by more noise, from more directions, with greater velocity and volume than any time in history.  Voices compete regularly against each other claiming to be the better way to knowledge and wisdom. Some of them are. More than a few are the voices of other gods and false prophets.  

It’s hard to find a quiet place to hear and listen to Jesus’ call to walk in the way of love. It’s all the more difficult when the words are unfamiliar and unsettling, challenging accepted norms, even those said to be Christian.  It took a lifetime for the disciples and apostles to learn to hear and listen to Jesus’ voice, to separate it from all other voices, and to discern its meaning for them.  Following Christ today requires the same life long work.

Humanity’s Story Told In A New Way

We are a violent species.  Other species are known to attack and kill others of their kind, to conquer and defend territory, but none can reach our high standard of warfare decimating populations and demolishing property as cruelly as possible.  We claim human rights, enact civil rights, and easily ignore both for the most selfish of reasons.  Still, our religious traditions and national ideals celebrate harmonious, peaceful coexistence.  If we are ever to become a more civilized and peaceful species, we’re going to have to understand the story of humanity from a history that isn’t constructed around sequential lists of wars and empires, glorious and heroic.

When Americans study history in school, they generally start with the wars of the Ancient Near East, work their way through Greek and Roman warfare then into Europe’s many wars, ending the first chapter with the conquest of the Americas.  Asian history is a footnote about Mongol Hordes. Arabian history has something to do with Islam and the Crusades.  Whatever we know of India we’re told by Rudyard Kipling.  Africa is called the dark continent because we never looked to see what light might have been burning there.  As for indigenous Americans, we learned it mostly from John Wayne movies.

United States history is likewise told as a sequence of wars: Revolutionary, 1912, Mexican, Civil, Spanish, WWI, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Some years ago I looked into the number of named wars and armed conflicts in our history and came up with something around 150, half of which were wars of Native American conquest.

Wars are wars and we can’t ignore them. They do change the direction of history but the cost to humanity is heartbreaking.  Just War Theory tries to establish moral boundaries for the conflicts, but is easily twisted to fit immoral intent. At its roots, war is the product of greed, lust for power, and stupidity.  The world faces many evils that come from nature and individual malfeasance, but wars are wholly the product of greed fueled by emotionally manipulating populations to patriotically go along.

History taught as a sequence of wars somehow makes war seem normal, even righteous.  Wars are a part of history not to be ignored, but how would history be understood if it was taught as a story seen through a lens of the arts and sciences?  

Wars have changed the face of the world, and yet they tell us nothing about developments in morality and technology that are the foundations of civilization we know and desire. Historical stories of agriculture, tools, transportation, social mores, politics, art, literature, theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and physics are far more important to understanding who we are and how we got here than is knowing a list of wars embroidered with heroic deeds.

Nevertheless, state legislatures are replete with bills to restrict history to glorifying patriotic (white) nationalism,  expunging anything deemed unflattering to a preferred mythology.

History as the story of humanity’s development is told in fits and starts in English Social Studies, and the Sciences, where important moments in human development are taught as episodes of importance to the discipline, but not as part of a comprehensive history of a people.

What would it look like if history was taught from the point of view of human development?  It might look like Jacob Bronowski’s 1972 book, The Ascent of Man, that doesn’t avoid the importance of war, but has more important matters to cover: the origins of agriculture, the impact of the arts on civilization, how questions of public morality have changed, what technological developments have meant, etc.  It might also look something like a James Michener novel that begins with primal ooze and works its way through the centuries in the lives of ordinary human beings. 

History taught that way might guide us more directly to become the people and civilization of our ideals.

A Partial Glimpse Into God’s Rules For Justice & Equity

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Jesus made it clear that the commandments to love were the standards by which values and actions must be judged. They are not commandments that sound good in theory but short on practical application.  They are commandments from God, not sentimental bumper stickers or wall hangings.  To paraphrase the letter of James, don’t tell me you’ve been washed in the blood of Christ, show me by your words and deeds that you are at least trying to follow in Jesus’ way of love.

That brings up the third subject in this brief series of columns about values and actions.  Has God said anything definitive about social and economic politics?  The answer is a loud yes and found most clearly stated in the ethical prophets writing about 800 years before Christ.  My favorite is Amos, whom I’ve drawn on for several columns over the years.  Amos was a farmer called by God to go to the king of Israel and explain why devastation was on its way if he and his people didn’t change their ways.  While he was at it God, speaking through Amos, had a few things to say to each of the nations surrounding Israel. It added up to a condemnation of social and economic injustices that had tested God’s patience.  They are the same problems nations, including our own, face today.  To be clear, God never expresses an opinion about the form of government a nation should have, but sets firm standards for how it governs and the kind of societies it creates.

What were the things that raised God’s ire?  Putting God’s words as recorded by Amos into contemporary English, they include these:

Destroyihg an enemy’s food supply

Ethnic cleansing

Inciting civil violence

Disrespecting legitimate civil authority

Manipulating the poor into bondage

Cheating the poor out of the necessities of life

Usury

Preferential justice for the rich and powerful

Sexual promiscuity

Drunkenness

Showing contempt for the poor

Elaborate but meaningless worship practices

Presumption of God’s favor for one’s self while oppressing others

Excessive income inequality

Lack of compassion for the suffering of others

There are more, but these are the highlights.  They speak not only to personal behavior, but even more to the public policies established and enforced by the government.  The nexus of religion and politics is not a private matter.  It’s a very public matter.  Those who claim to follow in the way of love cannot avoid making their voices heard, as Amos did, when governments and public behavior fall dreadfully short of God’s standards that put the greatest emphasis on issues of justice and equity.

What justice and equity mean has changed dramatically, not only in the light of Jesus’ commandments to love, but also in our ability to understanding what God is saying now in the conditions of the world we live in.  The fundamental questions Christians are obligated to ask in the political arena are how best to make the society more just and equitable for all people.  Answers may be hotly debated, but they can never be in the form of clever ways to self righteously suppress and oppress.

Christians cannot expect  centers of power and the general population to hear, understand, and respond.  Nevertheless, like Amos, they must declare in voice and deed what God has commanded.  It’s a slow march toward greater justice, but it cannot falter.

How To Tell If Values Are Christian: A quick guide to get started

Customary social and political values are not  made Christian values simply by claiming that they are.  It doesn’t matter how traditional or newly minted they are.  Each has to be judged by the commandments to love God, love neighbor, love self, and love each other as Jesus loves us.  Everything in scripture and all religious teachings hang on adherence to these commandments.

It wouldn’t be much of a hard thing to do if things would stay the way they should be, which by human standards is usually the way things used to be. The problem is, things are never the way they used to be and we cannot go back.  The way things are today will pass quickly into a future of conditions and relationships unknown.  Futurists love to take a stab at what they will be, but are seldom right.  It means everything always stands in judgement by the commandments of love.

They are commandments Christians are supposed to obey, but no one is compelled to do so, and what obedience looks like is often not clear.

Loving one’s self is not narcissistic self love, but the comforting consolation of knowing that one is deeply beloved of God.  The parable of the good Samaritan reveals the neighbor can be a stranger, a person one does not like, someone not to be trusted.  To love that neighbor is not only to be a help in need, but to willingly receive help from the one you do not trust.  And don’t forget the innkeeper who took on the burden and cost of caring for an injured man without any guarantee he would be paid as promised.  

Loving others as Jesus loves us raises the question: how does Jesus love us?  It can be answered only by examining the gospel records for what Jesus said and did.  Guessing doesn’t count.  Sentimental platitudes don’t count.  Only by examining the gospel records can the question be answered in ways we are to apply own in our own daily lives. 

It’s with that kind of unflinching examination that we can judge our own social values and the values that others proclaim as being Christian.  Do my values, or theirs, honor God’s holy name?  Do my values, or theirs, show respect for who I am as a child of God? Do they show respect for the dignity of every human being?  Do they contribute to the healing, reconciling work of Christ?

The world was never the way it was.  Conditions are always changing, and in our age it seems they are changing much too fast.  It means that whatever comfort we have that our social and political  values are Christ like, they must always be subject to challenge and examination.  There will always be new ways of walking in the way of love that will feel odd and uncomfortable at first.  It’s always thus, and always will be.

Right Wing Morality Is Not Christian Morality

A recent Heather Cox Richardson piece (April 18, 2022) discussed how Russian and Hungarian leaders assert high moral principles as justification for harsh policies limiting freedom to defend what they call traditional values. With no apologies, they condemn all things tolerant of LGBT persons, and the general moral degeneracy of Western liberal democracy.  Only the firm hand of authoritarian government can restore moral order, according to them.

HCR went on to note that the same line of reasoning has gained ground in the American right wing and among conservative Christian evangelicals who would like to codify their social values as the law of the land.

It’s a frightening scenario for at least two reasons. First, as a Christian theologian I find it appalling that the title Christian can be attached to what is clearly not Christian.  So called traditional values about gender, sex, marriage, reproductive rights, race and class are social conventions of recent origin having but marginal connections to the moral imperatives given to us by God through Christ Jesus.  In every age, no matter what the social norms have been, they have always been challenged by and in conflict with God’s moral imperatives.  

Even the diligent work of discerning what it means to follow in the way of Jesus in a rapidly changing world has to stand in judgement by the law of love.  If less conservative Christians are certain that the Authoritarian right is wrong and cannot legitimately claim the name of Christ to justify their beliefs, it is equally true that more liberal Christians can claim no more than provisional faith that they are on a more Christ like path.  Neither conservatives nor liberals can take social values, slap the name of Christ on them, and call it Christian.  New England Puritans tried.  It didn’t work.  It should have been an easy lesson to learn.  Apparently not.

Second, since the end of WWII, mainline conservatives have defended the rights of individuals from what they believed to be excessive governmental intrusion into personal ives.  As they leaned further into libertarian ideology they entered a revolving door that led  to favoring government that would no longer regulate business or protect human and civil rights, but would impose a puritanical moral code on all persons and institutions.  It would have the odd effect of creating a nation with no moral standards for business, industry and governmental operations, but strictly enforced moral standards on the lives of individuals. A mutant form of Orwell’s 1984 would be in place; one in which autocratic rule, oligarchical corruption, and a servile population would be deprived of nearly all of its personal freedom.

In a bizarrely curious way, significant elements of right wing America believe that would be a good thing. Through strangely colored glasses they think it would maximize their rights and freedoms.  Those that believe it is the Jesus thing to do are the most deluded. If by chance any of them read this column, they will not believe it and accuse me of being the worst kind of heretic.  I fear they are in a box from which there is no way out.  Moreover, they have demonstrated the political acumen needed to impose the box on the populations of several states, intending to do the same for all.  What could kill liberal democracy in the end is not the radical right wing, but the complacency of the voting public that takes freedom for granted, and Christian leaders unwilling to boldly proclaim the way of love as the way of Jesus Christ.

CNN, MSNBC, et al. Need To Do Better: Country Parson gives counsel

CNN, MSNBC and other mainstream cable news networks are relentless in covering the biggest issues of the day ad nauseam.  And that’s a problem.  Two or three stories reported on, speculated about, and commented on by every single news personality becomes tedious, even when the issues are of world wide importance. To spice things up now and then they offer a bit of whatever is salacious, scandalous or sensational.  It’s very foxworthy of them.

They could do better and I suggest they must do better.  It’s unlikely they will take counsel from a retired country parson any more than I would take advice from them about theology and, as well, I fit not a single one of their preferred demographics.  So I’ll begin by saying what follows is based in part on what CNN International does so well as it casts a wide net to cover news of importance and interest to a global audience.

Diversity of subject matter is a problem and it seems to me there’s a simple solution toward expansion. There are fifty states. Something of economic or political importance is happening in each one of them every day.  Some news is of purely local interest, but some has national implications that need to be made known to a wider audience. 

Bracketing the usual suspects of scandal and violence, state and regional issues of economic and political importance offer a huge menu from which to draw thereby enriching the American public with a deeper understanding of what is going on in places other than their home town, New York and Washington, DC.  

Local news media do the best they can to keep readers and viewers informed about what is going on elsewhere, but with limited resources it’s too easy to rip and read what has already been opined to date by cable news.

Subject matter diversification shouldn’t be all that difficult for the big cable networks.  The ground work is already done by existing sources: Federal Reserve district banks, major statewide newspapers, regional think tanks, local NPR and PBS stations, etc.  What cable news needs is imaginative staff who can discern the wider importance of local or regional issues.  Think of them as news skunkworks insulated from the oppressive atmosphere of cynical marketing types and bottom line bean counters.

The networks might even dare to begin offering important economic and political news from Mexico and Canada.  Canadian provincial news is especially important to northern tier states, as is Mexican state news to southern border states.  It certainly wouldn’t hurt Americans to be better informed about what is gong on in our neighboring countries.

Making cable news more diversified in this way would leave more than enough room to go on and on about the big national and international issues.  It might cut down on the endless chattering of pundit panels.  It would certainly help create a more well informed public, perhaps leading to less civic divisiveness.

The Light of Christ in Holy Week

Lent began with a Country Parson column suggesting a lenten discipline of being intentional about bearing the light of Christ in daily life.  As I got into Lent, it became obvious that being more intentional about receiving the light of Christ when it came near was as important as bearing it.  

It’s especially important to reflect on that thought during our annual remembrance of the week that turned from light to darkness.  It  began with the enthusiastic, if superficial, welcome of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem.  The days turned quickly into a gauntlet of accusations, attempts at arrest, threats of violence, and finally betrayal leading to Jesus’ humiliating, torturously painful death.  In spite of it, the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate with his closest disciples, lovingly giving the gift of Holy Communion to the very ones who would betray and abandon him. 

It was a week long demonstration of humanity’s inability and unwillingness to receive the light of Christ, even when borne by Jesus himself.  The priestly elite rejected him as a heretic.  Sadducees feared he was a threat to their relative safety and prosperity under Roman rule.  To Pilate, Jesus’ life was no more than the  cheap cost of pacifying a restless population.  With the exception of a few women, his disciples hid in fear for their own lives.  It appeared to nearly all that Jesus was a failure as a messiah of any kind.   Enemy and friend, believer and unbeliever, all were unable and unwilling to receive the light of Christ that was in their midst.

It’s not a simple matter.  In one sense, it had to be that way, otherwise how could the power of the Resurrection be made known to them and to us.  In another sense, the failure to receive the light of Christ by the powerful elite, rag tag band of disciples, and facile public, was no more than a display of the ordinary human condition no different than our own.  Fear, selfishness, greed, lust for power, and suspicion  that divine love is a fantasy create barriers to the light of Christ among all people in every place and time.  Why God so loved the world remains a mystery, but it is that love that came to free us from the bonds of the human condition.

Trusting Jesus is always problematic, and it can be especially difficult in times of war, pandemic, domestic violence, blatant corruption in public life, and feelings of darkness.  Yet Jesus is the light that the darkness cannot overcome. 

As Christians, we are called to bear the light of Christ even in darkness.  It’s something we can’t do unless we are able and willing to recognize and receive it when it comes into our lives.  Holy Week is a time to reflect on our reluctance  to do that.  It’s not that we are bad people, it’s that we are human.  No better than all those people in Jerusalem. Our witness to the power of the Resurrection can embolden us to move on and do better without self recrimination, just as the disciples did.

Public Morality and The Church

I’ve been thinking about public morality since writing a piece about Barr’s 2019 address to the Notre Dame law school.  Public morality is the words and behaviors that are acceptable within public arena.  Standards vary from arena to arena, but are always about what happens in public view.

There are two basic types of Public Morality standards: customary and legal. Legal standards are the laws that define and protect rights and safety, with enforcement through due process.  I want to lay them aside and focus on customary standards of public morality.

Customary standards are “the way we do things around here.”  Public arenas allow much freedom of expression, but it’s not unlimited.  “The way we do things around here,” establishes social boundaries for what is acceptable and expected. Generations of sociologists have spent entire careers trying to catalogue them: their works are both informative and entertaining. The point is, customary standards establish boundaries beyond which one is deemed to have breeched what is acceptable public behavior.  Enforcement is through various forms of social pressure from rude ostracizing to helpful mentoring, with the disapproving look of a mother’s glare in the middle. More violent forms of enforcement are recorded in our history and celebrated in today’s revenge-as-justice movies. It doesn’t take an academic to figure it out; just ask any high school kid how it works in their school. They’ll explain it to you. 

The questions are: who has the ability to set standards; how are they enforced; who is entitled to be exempt; and how do violators earn redemption?

Customary standards of public morality exist at every level of community, which means they exist at the national level: What is the acceptable American way we do things around here?  National standards for public morality are set most powerfully by the president and members of Congress as most often featured by the press and in social media.  They influence the way things are done in Washington D.C., how the nation is perceived in the world, and give social license to the American public for the ways they can behave in public.

For instance, Sen. Joe McCarthy made it morally acceptable for Americans to engage in thoughtless red-baiting. Richard Nixon so violated the customary norms that he paid the price of being ostracized.  Lyndon Johnson raised civil rights to a new definition of public morality that overturned  two centuries of acceptable behavior.  He also redefined what was morally acceptable in war and paid a heavy price, not unlike Nixon’s.  Reagan made it morally acceptable to make corporate profits more important than middle class prosperity.  Yet among all the good and bad there was a general sense of what was and wasn’t morally acceptable in the national public arena. It established the ideal, if not reality, of civility and integrity. Guided by the collective customary of national political leadership, it influenced what was and wasn’t morally acceptable public behavior at every level of society.  

Then came Trump.  He and his prominent allies in political office, aided by right-wing media personalities, violated almost every norm of public morality, and got away with it.  It signaled the nation that the old standards of public morality no longer need be observed.  Opinion untethered by a reasonable assessment of facts was deemed as valid as any other opinion; indeed, alleged facts became as good as verified facts. Theft and corruption became smart business practice.  Personal integrity gave way to personality cult loyalty.  Insulting bombast and macho chest thumping were signs of toughness. The virtues of our electoral system were held up to ridicule, and suppressing voting rights became virtuous.  American ideals of the common good were abandoned for the good of the powerful, rich few.

It corrupted the national sense of public morality, and made it acceptable for leaders at every level of society to behave the same way.  

GOP leadership buried the corruption of public morality under  a campaign to regulate the private morality of individuals by targeting gender, marriage, family structure, and so on under the guises of religious freedom and the alleged corruption of personal morality.  The party that boasts it stands for individuality and self-reliance would impose the full force of government on the private lives of individuals and families, depriving them of fundamental freedoms.

Restoring  customary standards of public morality more attuned to the long cherished ideals of American democracy will not be easy, but it is necessary.  Once decadent demagogy has been let loose, it’s hard to reestablish standards of civil decency because it’s no longer clear what those standards are or should be.  The methods by which the nation used to work out new understandings have been so corrupted that they no longer work, and what will work is yet to be determined. 

It is into this space that I agree, in part, with Barr.  The church, particularly the mainline and Roman Catholic churches have major roles to play, no matter declining church attendance. The message from the pulpit remains a strong, influential voice declaring what public morality must be.  The more that message can be aired by public theologians, the more influence it will have.  In cooperation with other communities of faith, it is the way we can recover the “soul of America.”

William Barr, Public Morality & Religious Freedom

After reading a Heather Cox Richardson comment about William Barr’s 2019 Notre Dame Law School speech, I finally read it. In one sense it was as advertised, a speech on the importance of religion as an essential part of a moral society.  By religion he made it clear he was talking about Christianity with a friendly wave of the hand to Judaism.  I doubt most Christians would find anything terribly amiss in the speech, if it was only about religion, but it wasn’t.

It was cover for a subtext that was the real point he wanted to make.  Barr asserted that religion (Christianity) is under attack by a well funded, disciplined secular movement aided by their progressive allies. Their aim is to eliminate religion (Christianity) from the public arena and suppress  individual rights to worship as one pleases.  It is, he said, the Judeo-Christian code that undergirds the moral health of society itself.  Secularists, and their progressive allies, have only hedonistic relativism to guide them in their march to socialism.

It’s an old, but effective, method to create a false enemy against which one’s own forces are said to be fighting for an all that is good survival.

Barr, I think, knows very well there is no well funded and disciplined secularist movement, and that progressives are as likely to be deeply religious people as not.  He knows but doesn’t care because asserting an enemy is all that is needed to create one in the minds of a good many people. And why not? There really are evil enemies of the good, so if a man of Barr’s stature says there are, it might be so to the uncritical eye.

Citing Adams, Madison, Franklin  and others, he claimed the United States was founded by Christians as a Christian nation in which the Constitution enshrined Christian values as moral guides for the country. It seems an odd claim to make in front of a law school audience that knows something about American history. The founding fathers were a mix of Christians of deep faith, social Christians, Deists and Enlightenment skeptics crafting a nation more neutral on religion with a heavy emphasis on protecting individual and property rights. If Christianity was the de facto national religion, in spite of revival movements, it was a mile wide and an inch deep.

That said, Christian voices have indeed been raised as guides to moral life in the public arena, most notably to oppose slavery, promote education, and advocate for civil rights. Barr argued for renewed moral guidance from the church in defense of traditional Christian values.  But his agenda of values had little to do with what Jesus taught, and much to do with the social teachings of the conservative side of the Roman Catholic Church.  There is nothing per se wrong with that; he was, after all, speaking as a Catholic to a Catholic audience at a Catholic University. What was wrong was his assertion that they were values universally accepted as both Christian and traditional, and that secularists and their progressive allies must be restrained from opposing them in the public arena.  He argued that social safety net programs weakened the integrity of nuclear families consisting of a husband, wife and children, while also undermining individual responsibility. 

He was not wrong about the importance of family, the difficulty of single parenthood, or the value of self reliance, but he was unwilling to consider a wider view of what family is; he was unable to recognize that government programs establishing more equitable conditions from which to succeed as self reliant persons are a help, not a hinderance. 

Most important, from my point of view, his slight wave of the hand to Jesus’ commandment to love God, one’s self and one another, avoided any consideration of Jesus’ principle teachings and deeds that show us what loving one another as Jesus loves us looks like.  That failure eroded the entire religious foundation of his remarks, replacing it with the mud bricks of right wing social evangelicalism.

Surprise! Paul Is Not Jesus! Who Knew?

Last fall I gave a lecture to an adult confirmation class on the structure of the Bible commonly used by Protestants. Toward the end I made a comment that surprised a few of them: Paul was not Jesus. For those raised to believe the Bible is the literal inerrant word of God, what Paul wrote is the equal of what Jesus is recorded to have said, and to suggest otherwise is troubling.

Jesus is the living word of God made flesh.  Paul, prior to becoming an apostle, was a persecutor of the faith. He had to learn by stages what it meant to help guide new congregations. Paul was learning as he grew in his faith; his letters show development, making corrections to his previously held assumptions.

What we have from Paul are copies of letters, or parts of letters, written over a span of thirty years that demonstrate two things.  First, how difficult it was to counsel new Christians far removed from Palestine and and Judaism.  Second, Paul’s teaching about the faith changed as he moved further into a deeper understanding of it.  Paul made mistakes, got things wrong, but if he was exactly wrong in some cases, he was roughly right in the whole, and spot on in many things.  He was a reliable guide who learned as he led others.  There’s no doubt that in his letters he illuminated God’s word for Christians of every generation, but he was not inerrant.

Jesus, the Son part of One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, spoke. Not on behalf of God but as God.  Everything in Paul’s letters is subordinate to Jesus.

The gospel records of Jesus’ life and teaching are a composite of eye witness accounts, oral teachings handed down from Jesus’ disciples, and sources unknown to us.  Some details and elaborations in them cannot be harmonized, but the essential of who Jesus is and what he did and said are consistent.  I am confident that the writers of the gospels accurately recorded  God’s truth, and generations of translations have not deviated from it. He was and is the living Word of God made flesh, there is no higher authority; everything elsewhere in scripture, and everything taught in the centuries since, must be measured by that.

If Paul’s understanding of what it meant to be Christian changed and developed over the thirty years of his ministry, it should not be surprising that Israel’s understanding who God is and how to talk about God changed dramatically over the two thousand years covered by Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a difficult concept to grasp if God’s progressive self revelation is denied.  

What is obvious to clergy and teachers reasonably grounded in biblical scholarship is not obvious to poorly taught but faithful Christians who want to know more.  Moving from baby’s milk to solid food can be uncomfortable, but it leads to a deeper more profound understanding and trust in God’s abounding and steadfast love.