24 January 2009

self-identity surveys . . .

Posted by at 12:40 PM Read our previous post

That a continuity between Judaism and Christianity can be historically traced to some degree is an appropriate, valid assumption to make, given the undeniable multiplicity of allusions and references to the Jewish matrix in most of the early Christian texts. We must be careful, however, to avoid setting up the religion-then and the religion-now as congruent identities (truth is they are not even close), lest we open the door to presuppositions that are founded on anachronistic comparisons. Any clear mind can see that the structured Temple liturgy of post-exilic Judaism is no longer the normative form of expression of the people of Israel. After the fated siege of Jerusalem, in the interest of the survival of the Abrahamic and Mosaic et. al traditions, the scattered rabbis and people had to confer, reorganize, and thus adapt their expressions to the new limiting circumstances they now found themselves in. Thus were born the Talmudic traditions (Jews are famous for weathering dire strait after dire strait, their resilience is remarkable).

Similarly, any equating of the early Christian communities with their modern counterparts is bound to be unsatisfyingly incomplete. The evolution of creeds and dogmas in Christian history was such that, by the strict standards of our contemporary Christendom, in fact, the early church would not even qualify as "Christian" today. Trinitarian language was unkown for the first couple of centuries, as were such later 'patches' as 'the harrowing of hell' and even such taken-for-granted things as Jesus' divinity were not as universally professed as some would like to believe. The strictures of modern evangelical orthodoxy would virtually disqualify the earliest Christians from being "Christian.". (So much for sola scriptura and sola fideism!)

But despite the risk involved in such anachronistic comparisons, some insight might be gained from focusing in on human religious behaviors now. I find it interesting to look at how Christians and Jews today define themselves. What does religion look like from within?

A couple of surveys:

Here's a list of key terms drawn up by a class of Christian students who were trying to identify the terms that might be useful to explain to others what it was like to be a Christian:

  • God = Father, Son, Holy Spirit
  • resurrection
  • salvation
  • baptism
  • forgiveness
  • crucifixion
  • conversion
  • confirmation
  • ascension
  • justification
  • scriptures
  • faith
  • love
  • nativity
  • Holy Communion
  • prayer
  • trust
  • fellowship
  • 'born again'
  • obedience
  • eternal life
  • discipleship

The next list was drawn up by a religious Jew who wanted to explain his faith to a group of Christians:

  • God (personal, historical, protean relationship)
  • Torah (the way, instruction, teaching, not law)
  • mitzva ('commandment' = the practical unit of Torah = good deed)
  • avera (transgression, sin)
  • Free Will
  • teshuva (penitence, 'returning' to God)
  • tefilla (prayer)
  • tsedaka ('fairness', 'correctness' = charity)
  • hesed (love)
  • yetser tov ('good impulse' - the innate, psychological, tendency to do good) contrasted with yetser hara (the impulse to do evil; the cause and remedy for unfaithfulness to God lie within the individual)
  • Israel (people, land, covenant)

When I read through these two lists, I am struck by a few things:

First, except for the few christologically loaded terms ('Holy Communion', nativity, 'Son') the terms in the first list are not unfamiliar to Jews, who might well use them too. This reflects the pervasiveness (and permanence) of our cultural symbols and it also reflects the monolithic role that Christianity has had in the shaping of western society.

But notice that the compiler of the second list evidently thought that the terms used to describe Judaism, though some are familiar enough to English-speaking Christians (God, Torah, Israel), needed further annotation, lest they be misunderstood relative to their Christian analogues. Most of the words on that list are Hebrew words which, though easy words in that language, are not so easy to translate into English.

Still, if we parse these explanatory glosses, if we sift through these semantic difficulties, we might be able to see where the two systems overlap, what they might have in common with each other. And where they might diverge, as well.

When we strip away the trinitarian connotations of the Christian meaning of the word (as if it were that easy), the term 'God' is one such overlap. 'Love' and 'hesed' are likewise direct parallels; neither tradition has a monopoly on love and charity ('tsedaka'). Proceeding, we can match the Jewish 'teshuva' with the Christian 'born again' = 'μετανοια'. We can further match most of the terms with some kind of counterpart on the other's list.

One place where I see a distinct dissimilarity, however, is in the stress placed on 'free will' in the second list. The Jewish example of self-identification highlights a dichotomy in the human soul that is at odds with the post-Augustinian tendency to see depravity as man's natural condition, from which only 'grace' can redeem us. To the Christian, the yetser hara is doing the driving most times.

This difference, coupled with the rejection of trinitarianism and christological concerns (and possibly a revulsion stemming from a perceived idolatry) seems to me so far as the best delineator between the two faiths (at least in theory).

Anyway, I thought these lists were interesting to look at.

(They are both from a little volume by Norman Solomon, Judaism: A Brief Introduction).

What I think might be also interesting to look at would be corresponding lists, from these same students, of terms describing what each religion thinks the other is about.



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