Friday, 29 October 2010

The role of women in the church

Post by Ian
Always a topic of debate in the more traditional doctrinal churches, the role of women has been hotly contested - especially in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. However, there's evidence in the Bible that women not only taught in the early church, they helped fund Jesus' mission. There's even evidence in the Bible of a possible female disciple. Not one of the twelve, named in Mark, Matthew and Luke; but possibly one of the seventy. Firstly, the role of teacher in the church. Women are mentioned throughout Paul's final salutations in the Letter to the Romans (Romans 16). A lot of the women in this list are in high positions of authority in churches. Junia (or Julia) has been generally edited out as Junias, but the oldest and most authoritative texts have a female name. The reason, she is counted as an apostle of Christ by Paul. Paul generally addresses his letters to "brothers and sisters" within the texts. This alone is significant as Paul obviously expects both men and women to be present at its reading - something that was not necessarily true of Judaism of the time. Acts 18 describes the actions of Priscilla and Aquila. These two are always mentioned together, husband and wife, obviously a team in their ministry. Galatians 3:28 states that there is no male or female, as we are one in Christ.

Yet it is also Paul, generally showing a very egalitarian attitude throughout his letters, who gets the blame for the main piece of scripture against women teaching in church. Passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 have been used to ban women from the priesthood in the Orthodox churches. At least we have the argument that the Timothy letters are of the pseudepigrapha, written much later in Paul's name. But Corinthians is a letter that scholars agree is written by Paul. So, what did Paul actually think? Is the passage in Corinthians a later addition? Personally, I agree with those who regard this passage in Corinthians (34-35) as a later scribal addition to the text - possibly as a result of a marginal note referencing Timothy being incorporated in the text during copying.

Let's then look at Jesus' mission. In Luke (Luke 8:1-3) states that the Jesus and his disciples were supported financially by a number of women. Jesus addressed women directly in his teaching. He used women as examples of exemplary faith. It was a woman who first saw Jesus after the resurrection and who was sent to spread the message of his rising.

Also, in Luke (Luke 10:38-42), there is an indication of the discipleship of at least one woman - that of Mary, sister of Martha. She sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching. To sit at the feet of a teacher was the position of a disciple. For Jesus to allow a woman to do this, accept the role of disciple, was unusual. Jesus not only allowed it, but rebuked Martha when she commented on it and asked for Jesus to send Mary to help her.

To me, the Bible shows that Jesus and Paul both considered women to be important contributors, and even teachers. Both considered men and women to be equal, working together and being taught by each other.

But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:24-27

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Peace in Islam could do so much more for Palestine

Post by Ian.

Again, talks between the Palestinians and Israelis are taking place, hosted by the US, in the hope that the cycle of violence between the two peoples can be ended. The cycle, begun in the conflict of 1947 and perpetuated since on both sides. Like in Ireland, the people on both sides wanting an end to the conflict but their leaders sadly pandering to the minority who wish to continue the conflict.
Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both won their struggles through the use of non-violent civil disobedience. They used their faith in a cause for which they were willing to die, but not to kill. I have often thought that this strategy would work for the Palestinians far better than the cycle of violence perpetrated by the terrorists among them, and on them by Israeli forces. As said by Gandhi, the cycle of an eye for an eye will only end up making the whole world blind.

Islam is to submit, to submit to God all that you are. Could it be that it's now time to trust to God and look for ways other than armed struggle to resolve this long weeping sore?

O you who believe! be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness of Allah's sake, though it may be against your own selves or (your) parents or near relatives; if he be rich or poor, Allah is nearer to them both in compassion; therefore do not follow (your) low desires, lest you deviate; and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely Allah is aware of what you do.
Surah 4:135 (Qu'ran, Shakir translation)

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Eying The Horizon

Post by Ash
The announcement this week of drastic cuts in government budgets, will doubtless be followed all to quickly by the usual political and media noises about the urgent need for public sector reform. Almost certainly there will then be a backlash from those threatened by this attack, with complaints about greedy bankers, fat cats, and those employing off-shore tax-havens. In the middle of all of this will be those far too many real lives from both the private and public sectors, desperately affected by an economic crisis not (they will consider) of their own making.

We can all be `one-eyed` in our off moments, and political and economic bad news is often more palatable when the distractions of blame are encouraged.

Reality of course, is a very different matter. We`re all mostly grateful for the interventions for example , that happen to keep us in good health. Few of us would think to complain to a GP making a life-saving intervention, that she should focus more on cost-effective budget reform, or to a nurse who has reassuringly managed our everyday needs whilst we were unwell that he should see what it`s like to do a `proper` job. We`re just so overwhelmingly grateful to them. And of course, most of us are also aware that it is the success of our thousands of businesses that enable these activities. We actually admire entrepreneurs and their like, we respect the sheer hard work of those employed in our manufacturing and creative industries, and yes, we even admire good, honest bankers.

The simple fact is, both sectors need and depend upon each other. Added to that, we all know good people who are either currently working, or whom have lost their jobs, or at least are in peril of such, in both sectors. When we take the time to remember this, we inevitably reach more refined and mature conclusions.

So, what does all of this have to do with Unitarian belief? Surely we are tolerant, believe in individual freedoms and the need for respect ? Well of course, but are there also times when we ourselves lose sight of the target, and become side-tracked by the old polarised arguments between dissenting and traditional religions ? Are we sometimes so quick to defend our own lines of reasoning and belief that we too become unwittingly dismissive of other religious pathways and interpretations, particularly those associated with the pains of our historical schism? We have probably all heard stories of ministers in Anglican church`s for example, who have spoken openly about how misguided and unfocussed Unitarian attitudes to the gospels may be, and that there should be `no truck` with such `sinful` dissent. In some regions of the UK therefore, Unitarians are even banned from `Churches Together` type activities.

But so what ? There are eccentrics and excesses in every walk of life. No church, including our own, is exempt from that reality. Such actions should not condemn the majority. By rising to the bait aren`t we ourselves in danger of a continuance of a public versus private sector-type impasse, that serves neither side well ? Just like those sectors, we are also inextricably linked, whether we like it or not, with other religious and spiritual pathways.We all know good and deeply sincere people whose beliefs are different to our own;dare I say they may even be Trinitarian.That doesn`t make `them` wrong any more than it makes us `right`.

I`m all for exploring Unitarian attitudes to theology and to the growing confidence that this can engender, and for the need to focus upon our `particular` identity.This is fundamental and I applaud those who are able to provoke, challenge and lead us in these matters. I also completely understand the need to be aware of and respect our proud traditions; history reveals the appalling treatment of dissenting individuals and their families by the traditional church. We should however be aware of the wasted energy of ongoing scuffles, albeit unintentional ones, that belong firmly to the past. The last thing we want are mixed messages, yesterday`s battles, and barriers to newcomers.If we are to thrive and grow, it will be as a result of our actions both now and in the immediate future, as much, maybe even more so, than of our words. People will be attracted to our beliefs and to our buildings by the strength and usefulness of what we actually do, both for them and for the wider community, as well as what we say. That has certainly been shown to be the case in the Unitarian Church`s that have grown and `succeeded` in the last few years. There is much to celebrate and promote both nationally and locally in what we are already doing, I know. So let`s work on the link between our unfettered spiritual belief and effective physical actions. Let`s make our buildings useful places with unambiguous and inspiring messages that people from all walks of life,ages,and spiritual persuasion will want and need to visit. And let`s ensure we rise above the need for any points-scoring and blame, and keep our eyes firmly on the horizon.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Christian Eschatology and the concept of Hell

Post by Ian
I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that I will "burn in hell" for not believing that Jesus was divine. I actually believe that there's a possibility he existed historically, but that he was a very human religious teacher rather than a divine god creature.

The trouble with this statement, "burn in hell", is that it's inaccurate. The main reference to lakes of fire and the fiery abyss are in Revelations - which has more credibility as a political treatise that as an eschatological work, and wasn't written until late in the 1st Century (Irenaeus states around 95AD). Other references are scattered through the New Testament. However, the modern Christian view of a fiery Hell comes from the Greco-Roman vision of Tartarus, and is not the traditional Jewish view which Jesus would have recognised. It would be a good guess that this vision of Hell came in to play once Paul and other Hellenised Jews began to form the Christ movement in the decades following Jesus' death. The Greek learning of the Biblical authors colouring their imagery, rather than the Hebraic imagery of the earlier books.

Traditional Jewish belief is that of a purgatory state which can last up to a year (hence the saying of Kaddish and sitting shiva). You reflect on the sins of your life and then move on to heaven (rest) or to sheol ("death" or "the grave" rather than hell). Non-believers aren't automatically condemned as long as they follow a righteous life (preferably by following the seven Noahide laws that apply to all humankind). On the resurrection, the righteous dead will live again in bodily form on Earth (the "Kingdom of God" described by Jesus). This earthly Kingdom of God would be ruled, in God's name, by the messiah - the descendent of David. This is what Jesus' disciples believed Jesus to be, and was the throne Jesus was claiming.

In the New Testament, this vision of an earthly Kingdom is again born out again and again in Jesus' teachings - as recorded in the gospels. The three synoptic gospels, and even the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters, all refer to an earthly Kingdom of God which Jesus will return to establish. These writings are all 1st Century. When this didn't occur, the message of a spiritual kingdom began to circulate. Now, this is all we have. Because of this later move (late 1st Century and 2nd Century) toward a spiritual kingdom, the vision of heaven and hell is firmly Greco-Roman rather than Jewish. Modern Christians basically believe in Elysium and Tartarus. If you're Catholic, there's also Hades thrown in to the mix - which at least is comparable with the Jewish purgatory concept.

"The wages for sin is death" says Romans 6:23. As this is what most secular atheists believe anyway, it's not very effective to threaten them with it. The denial of the sight of God, a god that an atheist doesn't believe in, isn't much of a threat either. So why bother? The lack of a fiery hell to scare people with might force Christians to actually think about their religion. A rethink of the message being given in the Bible may also make some of the eschatologically focussed Christians reconsider the environment. God's Kingdom is meant to be here on Earth - build it, and He may come (to paraphrase Field of Dreams).

Are humans social creatures?

Post by Ian

My thoughts are as follows.

Humans are social creatures, up to the extended family group. We naturally cope with our family ties and close friends that have been adopted in to the family group. A certain amount of altruism is encoded in our brains through the 250,000 or so years of human societal development. This is the basis of the tribal social structure. As social structures have increased in size over the last 10,000 years, rules of society have been laid down through religion or secular ethics. These rules are what keeps our selfishness in check and allow us to work within a larger society. This in turn allows us the increase in specialisation and technology we enjoy today.

But is this a natural state, or are we just using our intellects to guide us through the problems? When the rules of society are not followed, then society breaks down and the natural state reasserts itself.