Monday, June 1, 2015

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 4: Mysticism, Fundamentalism, and Judaism

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


Mysticism Vs. Fundamentalism
In the last post, I talked about how Christian Mysticism takes the focus off of ideas and puts it back on practice.  This is not to say that ideas do not matter, but that we cannot form right ideas without practices which demonstrate to us how those ideas are true, and in the process reshape our hearts.  So Christian Mysticism seeks to take the focus off of loading heads full of ideas and put it back on living the Way of Jesus.

And Christian Mysticism is a radical reversal from the Fundamentalist paradigm of insiders and outsiders.  When we take the emphasis off of having the right ideas and put it back on practice, as the earliest Christians have done, we find that we have much in common with people of other faiths.  We find that there are practices among the other faiths which resemble our own faith's practices.

This causes problems for Fundamentalist forms of Christianity.  I live in an area where there is quite a lot of Fundamentalism, and I want to tell you about a friend of mine who is an Atheist.  This friend grew up in a Christian household and was a Christian, but de-converted later on in life.  My friend described Christian Fundamentalism this way:
I find a lot of mainstream Xian thought is that way. “My religion is the only truth. All others are lies. They experience a false sense of religion. Only mine is true."
Being "ridden" - totally different from "slain in the Spirit"
This outlook causes logical problems, if you're paying attention.  I have another friend whose faith crumbled underneath her.  This friend told me a story about how she came from a Pentecostal background, where speaking in tongues, falling out, etc. are considered to be signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit. When she was in college (a Christian school), one of her professors showed the class a video of African tribal members doing (basically) the same things as part of their religion.  The consensus of the class was that it was the devil causing this behavior, but my friend quickly realized that the Pentecostal tradition of doing the exact same things was thought of, quite inconsistently, as the work of god. She said that was a major breaking point for her.

In "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", retired Bishop and scholar John Shelby Spong writes about this tendency to level criticisms at other religions that we are unwilling or unable to level towards our own:
Joseph Campbell, the great American student of mythology, observed that most people have no difficulty seeing the mythological elements in a religious system other than their own. The problem, he suggested, comes when looking at one's own traditions. Most of us are too close to our own faith to see clearly, and too invested in the meaning of that faith to have any objectivity about the beliefs that finally undergird our life. The suggestion that key elements of our faith tradition have been caught up in and are interpreted by the mythological patterns of the ages disturbs some people, even while it promises new insights for others. A senior fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, told me that he thought mythology could not be in one's own religion. “Once you see your own religion as myth, it dies,” he asserted. Not so, I countered. Your religion does not really live until you allow it to enter, touch, and illumine the great mythological themes of the ages. To enter into such mythology does not compromise any truth except literal truth. Only when literal truth is challenged are we able to float in the profound and limitless sea of ultimate truth.
This tendency to believe that one's own religious ideas are only the truth and nothing but the truth and the religious ideas of all others are false (even if they resemble our own) is a common characteristic in Fundamentalism.  Before I go on, I would like to offer an exploration of what, at its basic level, Fundamentalism is.  To start, we ought to know a little history. 

Between 1910 and 1915, a set of essays called "The Fundamentals" was published.  This is really the birth of the modern movement of Christian Fundamentalism - even more so, the very word "fundamentalism" comes from the name of these essays.  The essays were, more than anything, a reaction to current scholarship which challenged literalistic interpretations of many of the Biblical stories.  The authors of these essays sought to unite Protestants against this "liberal onslaught" by outlining the core beliefs that, supposedly, all Protestants could agree on.  The fear that these early Fundamentalists were gearing up to fight is best illustrated in a cartoon from 1922 called "The Descent of the Modernists":

Ironically, Fundamentalism seems to completely miss the important tenets of the Christian faith - they overemphasize all the wrong things.  In "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It", Jim Wallis provides a great analogy to demonstrate these backwards priorities:
Being raised evangelical in the Midwest gave me a personal experience of the phenomenon called “religious fundamentalism.” A story illustrates. When I was a boy in high school, I was interested in a girl from our church. It was an evangelical church, although some might have called it a bit fundamentalist—taking a hard line on cultural issues. But I took a chance and invited her to a movie, which was certainly frowned upon back then in our church culture (though my own parents snuck us out to Walt Disney movies at the drive-in, where we were unlikely to be spotted). I chose The Sound of Music, thinking it was “safe.” Who could object to Julie Andrews, I confidently thought? I was wrong. As we left the house, my girlfriend’s father stood in the doorway, blocking our exit, and said to his daughter, “If you go to this film, you’ll be trampling on everything that we’ve taught you to believe.” She fled downstairs to her bedroom in tears. We missed the movie, and the evening was a disaster. A year later, the fundamentalist father watched The Sound of Music on his television - and liked it.

Fundamentalism is essentially a revolt against modernity. It is a reaction usually based on profound fear and defensiveness against “losing the faith.” My girlfriend’s father instinctively knew that his religion should make him different than the world. That is a fair religious point, and to be honest, there is much about modernity that deserves some revolting against. But I wish he had chosen to break with America at the point of its materialism, racism, poverty, or violence. Instead, he chose Julie Andrews.

Fundamentalism has evolved from trying to preserve what they originally believed to be the core beliefs to insisting on rigid interpretations of all of their own ideas - in other words, every idea a modern Fundamentalist has seems to be a fundamental in our modern times.  This comes from a need for certainty, that I feel has been described by scholar Kenton Sparks much better than I ever could in his book "God's Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship" - so I am going to provide a few sections from his exploration of this topic:

Fundamentalists yearn for a world in which all is fixed and certain. For this reason they militantly eschew anything and anyone that introduces doubt, uncertainty, or ambiguity into their worldview. This ideology puts fundamentalism into direct conflict with modernism because modernity is the product of a world gone international and intercultural. But modernity is not the creator of pluralism, as fundamentalists often suppose. Modernity’s pluralism is instead the inevitable consequence of human diversity - and it is contact with this diversity, and its “pollution,” that fundamentalism fears.

Fundamentalism’s response to modernism is a kind of ideological paranoia that features two interrelated defensive strategies. First, every fundamentalism secures the uniqueness of its worldview by claiming access to an inerrant text or authority that provides perfect knowledge. This assertion not only secures the validity of the community’s beliefs but also ensures that the beliefs of outsiders are in error. Nothing is more important to a fundamentalist than being right and being sure of it. Fundamentalism’s second defensive strategy erects a thick cultural wall between the community and those outside it. The primary purpose of this wall is to prevent contact with opposing views that might challenge or raise too much doubt about the community’s worldview. As a rule, this barrier is constructed by forbidding or greatly discouraging the study of materials that come from those outside the fundamentalist guild.  For instance, while Christian fundamentalists are quite likely to read descriptions of modern evolutionary theory that have been written by other fundamentalists, they would rarely study a book that was written by an evolutionist, or study evolutionary biology in a university setting. For most fundamentalists, such pursuits would be a waste of time at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
[T]here is an inevitable circularity in all human thinking. In fundamentalism, however, this circularity takes the form of a vicious circle, which we would commonly describe as circular reasoning. It is not that circularity itself is a problem; as I have pointed out, all human thought has this circular or spiral property. No, the difficulty in circular reasoning is that it includes far fewer pieces of reality than it should. It juggles a few balls successfully when there are many other balls that should be juggled. Fundamentalists attempt to perpetuate this illusion of hermeneutical success by denying the existence of the extra balls.
Fundamentalism fears the evidence that challenges its views; healthy Christian orthodoxy revels in the evidence, since it believes that all evidence, properly understood, will lead to a healthier view of life and faith.
In certain respects, [Fundamentalism's] adherents perpetuate the very obsession that stood behind original sin: an obsession for God’s perfect knowledge, and for the totalitizing power that supposedly comes with it. A far better theological route will be satisfied with the God-ordained limitations on human intellect and perception. Christians should have no fear of mystery.
One of the features above that I'd like to highlight and explore even further is this self-isolation of Fundamentalism in an effort to protect its ethos.  This isolation makes Fundamentalists very confident of themselves, though completely unaware of their own biases. 

In "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes about one experiment where participants sat on a mock jury.  There were three groups of participants.  One group only heard from one lawyer, one group only heard from the other lawyer, and the final group heard from both lawyers.  Kahneman explains the results of the experiment:

The participants were fully aware of the setup, and those who heard only one side could easily have generated the argument for the other side. Nevertheless, the presentation of one-sided evidence had a very pronounced effect on judgments. Furthermore, participants who saw one-sided evidence were more confident of their judgments than those who saw both sides.
A wonderful illustration of the problems that this isolation generates is demonstrated in the following video:

Here we see that the "Christian team" knows very little about the "Atheist/Agnostic team", though they seem to have thought they'd know more.  And when you think about how Christians know they are called to make disciples, you've got to start wondering if we can do this effectively without knowing anything about the people who aren't already part of our group.  Even in a world where Christianity is all about having the right ideas, you've got to ask: how can we persuade anyone if they already know our arguments and find them unpersuasive, but we know none of theirs?  What I see all too often in modern Evangelicalism is a tendency to engage in apologetics without a polemic, or with the wrong polemic (and a very old one at that) - which means that the only people they are convincing are themselves.

Now you might have noticed that in the last paragraph I switched from talking about Fundamentalists to talking about Evangelicalism.  I think that we've also got to become more aware of the fact that modern Evangelicalism has, as one of its parents, the Fundamentalist movement.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard people who have no problem calling themselves an Evangelical say "I'm not a Fundamentalist" - but when you start to get a better idea of their beliefs, they rigidly hold to all of the fundamentals that were listed between 1910 and 1915, and they rigidly hold to a number of other beliefs as well.  So we've got to be more honest about what we're dealing with here.  And the problem I'm trying to address in much of my writing is not so much that I'm concerned that people believe ideas that are wrong.  As one of my favorite authors often says: "believe whatever you want about whether the stories happened this way – now let’s talk about what they mean."1  When we put the emphasis on arguing over the particulars of the ideas, we lose focus on the Way of life Christianity is supposed to point to.  We lose focus on the meaning, and on the practice.  So on the one hand, I really don't care if people disagree with me on the ideas, as long as they are living in a way that is loving towards others.  On the other hand, I am concerned over the tendency I've noticed for people who believe in these "fundamentals" to villainize people who are skeptical of them.  Not only this, but I find it very disturbing how Evangelicalism has played such a big part in turning the word "liberal" into the new red-baiting technique.  "Liberal" - defined usually as "anything which disagrees with us" - automatically means "bad" and "wrong" within Evangelical circles, and it makes it very hard to have a constructive conversation.

But in contrast with the cultish tribalism that has infected modern Evangelicalism, the Christian attitude is to transcend tribe.  There are a few passages of the Bible I'd like to focus on to illustrate this.  The first is I Thess. 5:19-22:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
[emphasis mine]
What this passage is telling us is that we cannot ignore people simply because they are considered outsiders - in other words, we are not allowed to test people against the standard of whether or not their views match our preconceived notions!  We must, rather, test everything.  This doesn't mean that everything we hear is automatically true, but rather, it means that we must hold all things - including our own opinions - up to a universal standard.  And what is that standard?  I have already argued in this series - and in other posts - that it is the standard of the fruits.  Do our ideas produce good fruits or bad fruits - this is the standard, and we must not only hold other's opinions to this standard, but we must also test our own!

Another passage which challenges the closed-off tribalism of Fundamentalism is Gal. 3:28:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
In the world this was written in, Paul was eliminating the three main categories that determined status, power, trustworthiness, etc., within the religious, economic, and biological boundaries of society.  Paul was saying that we can no longer judge people by such standards.  In other words, being within the right category doesn't guarantee you're right!  This presents an enormous challenge to the "circle the wagons" cultishness that is so pervasive within Fundamentalist circles.  In other words - labels, groups you are within, status, etc., do not guarantee you are right or wrong!  But all too often, we’ve turned the trans-cultural message of Jesus into a call to others to abandon their culture in order to become part of our tribal reality - when in reality Jesus’ mission was to abolish all tribalism.  The call for others to abandon their culture before becoming a part of our own is not an abandonment of culture, it should be noted, but rather it is imperial colonialism - the idea that our culture is the only good form of culture.  This turns our culture into an idol.

I will explore one final passage at the end of this post.

Why Study Judaism?
From a Fundamentalist standpoint, one might ask why we should even bother studying Judaism.  But from a Historical standpoint, this is a very strange question.  After all, Jesus was not a Christian - he was a Jew!  Likewise with Paul.  At its birth, Christianity was not a new religion, but was a reform movement within Judaism.

Additionally, we need to understand how important Judaism in the time of Jesus is to Christianity, as it provides the context for the stories of Jesus.  In "The First Christmas", scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan illustrate this importance:

What would you think of a book that started with the opener, “I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India”? Or another with, “I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage”? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations. In order, therefore, to emphasize situations where background is absolutely vital for understanding an individual’s life, we distinguish between background and context.
They go on further to illustrate how background is different from context through the illustration of going to a photographer's office and being given the option of various backgrounds for your photo - you may be able to put a sunny beach scene behind yourself, but you will not feel the warmth of the sun or the misty spray from the waves in the air.  But if you are actually at the beach, and a picture is taken with you cringing right after the splash from a wave has struck you, this wave provides a context for your facial expression which explains the story behind it.  Likewise, if we want to understand the stories of Jesus/Paul/Acts, we must learn to see Christian texts within the context of early Christianity within the context of Judaism within the context of the empire of Rome.

You might ask, after that last sentence, why we would want to see the stories within the context of early Christianity.  We will explore this further in a later section, but for now, understand that the stories in the gospels were not written down until a few decades after Jesus, and thus we must understand how the culture of the early Christians helped to shape these stories.

So far, I have written about the history of Fundamentalism and our current cultural tribalism, which worships its own culture and seeks to annihilate all other cultures.  This attitude goes back a ways in History, actually - a fact which can be demonstrated through "The Constantine Creed", which the Church of Constantinople made Jews affirm in order to gain membership to their church after Constantine made Christianity the state religion:

I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads and sacrifices of lambs of the Hebrews, and all the other feasts of the Hebrews, sacrifices, prayers, aspersions, purifications, sanctifications and propitiations, and fasts, and new moons, and Sabbaths, and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews; in one word, I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom. . . . and if afterwards I shall wish to deny and return to Jewish superstition, or shall be found eating with Jews, or feasting with them, or secretly conversing and condemning the Christian religion instead of openly conflating them and condemning their vain faith, then let the trembling of Cain and the leprosy of Gehazi cleave to me, as well as the legal punishments to which I acknowledge myself liable. And may I be anathema in the world to come, and may my soul be set down with Satan and the devils.
If we realize that Jesus and Paul, as well as the twelve disciples, were Jews, this profession ought to be shocking to us, and illustrative of a serious problem that entered the Church at this time in History.  And part of this problem is that we have completely removed the Gospel from its Jewish context - so in order return to a proper understanding of the Gospel, we must re-contextualize it.

But before I proceed, consider the fact that even if it is true that our own culture is the best culture, or that we completely possess truth, it should be understood that in order to evangelize, we need to understand those we are trying to evangelize or we will not be effective in our efforts.  

In "Restoring The Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians Condensed from Messianic Judaism", Dr. David H. Stern outlines three types of Evangelization:
  • Type I Evangelization is when you are talking with those who have been “Christianized”, but never “saved” - when you are talking to Christmas and Easter Christians, for example, you are allowed to use Christian language, because they’ve grown up with it and understand it.  In one sense, this is the easiest type of evangelization, and in another it may actually be the hardest.
  • Type II Evangelization is when you are talking with people from your own country who share your language, but not your presuppositions.  As there is a higher and higher amount of people in the US who are Atheists and Agnostics - many who never went to church in the first place - we need to learn how to do this type of evangelization.  The trick is contextualization - we have to learn how their framework works, and get inside it in order to point to the truth from where they are standing.
  • Type III Evangelization is when you are a stranger in a strange land, and you must not only learn the culture but the language as well.
The poignant question that Dr. David H. Stern asks is:
Nevertheless, there is something strange, even wrong, in talking about contextualizing the Gospel for Jews; because the Gospel was completely Jewish in the first place! If Christianity’s roots are Jewish, if the Gospel itself is Jewish in its very essence, why should it need to be contextualized for Jews?

The answer is that it doesn’t need to be - provided the New Testament Gospel is actually being proclaimed! In fact, the Gospel had to be contextualized for Gentiles!
In Acts 15, Paul had to first make the case that Gentiles shouldn’t have to be forced to follow every law and custom of the Jews in order to become Christians - that’s not what was important about Jesus’ message!  Paul then had to confront Peter about Judaizing the Gentiles.  But the irony is that the path history took afterward led to a place where the complete opposite was done - we started insisting that Jews cease to be Jews in order to become Christians!  And this is complete nonsense when you realize that Jesus is a Jew!  And what should be even more frightening is when you realize that this shift signals that the message of Jesus had to have shifted radically from what it once meant in order to bring us to this place where we see things so differently from Jews.

Dr. Stern writes in his book:

Paul was a lifelong observant Jew. According to the Book of Acts, Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3); regularly went to synagogue (17:2); took a Jewish vow (18:18); rushed up to Jerusalem to observe the Jewish pilgrim festival of Shavu’ot [Pentecost] (20:16); paid for other Jews to offer Jewish sacrifices at the Jewish Temple (21:23-27); stated before the Jewish Sanhedrin that he was then - as of that moment and not just formerly - a Parush [Pharisee] (23:7); and declared to the Roman governor, Festus, that he had “done nothing against the Torah to which the Jews hold, nor against the Temple” (25:8, Jewish New Testament version). Finally, having fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith, he could tell an audience of Jews in Rome, “I have done nothing contrary to the people or to the ancestral customs” (28:17) - the phrase “ancestral customs” including Jewish traditions and not only the Written Torah.
Paul contextualized the Jewish Gospel for the Greek Gentiles, but as the Jews fell on hard times in history and the Gentile Christians grew in incredible numbers, the Jewishness was lost, and as a result, Christians - rather than challenging their own biases - began to arrogantly assume that Jews who wished to become Christians needed to change.

The pattern scholarship is seeing in history is this: prior to the fall of Jerusalem circa 70 AD, what we call "Christianity" was more of a Jewish reform movement - a strain of Judaism that could be called a form of "Liberal Judaism" which welcomed Gentiles and even (in Paul's case) softened the cultural laws (dietary laws and such) in the case of Gentile converts.  Before the fall of Jerusalem, what we call "Christianity" was composed mostly of these, as we might call them, "Jewish Reformers" or "Liberal Jews".  If this seems doubtful, one might want to examine some of the records of "James the Just" - "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ" (from Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews) - particularly the records of Eusebius, quoting Hegesippus, where we find, interestingly enough, that James was so well respected by the Jews of Jerusalem that the scribes and Pharisees actually approached James to try to convince him to help them "persuade the people not to entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus: for all the people, and we also, listen to thy persuasion."  This seems to indicate that the earliest Christians were still very much a part of Judaism to a certain extent - even if their views were seen by some as heretical.

Leading up to the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, these Christian Jews fled Jerusalem to a town called Pella - an event which is written about by Josephus and Eusebius, as well as being represented in vaticinium ex eventu (prophecy after the event) added by Luke (who wrote his gospel after the fall of Jerusalem) in Luke 21:20-22.  Due to this flight, the Messianic Jews were seen by the Zealots as traitors.  Additionally, after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple - a catastrophic event which represented an annihilation of the very religious center of Judaism itself - due to the fact that part of the platform of this reformation movement had been to challenge the views towards the temple as the only place whereby access to God's presence was offered, the "Orthodox Party" of Judaism excommunicated these Messianic or Christian Jews from the Synagogues after these events.  It is important to note how a significant scholarly consensus holds that at least 3 of the gospels - Matthew, Luke, and John - were written after these events, and thus, much of the "anti-Jew" sentiment represented within the crucifixion accounts of these gospels are reactions to this excommunication.  Thus, when we read the crucifixion accounts, we should not so much read this as "the Jews did this" as "the Orthodox Party of the Jews did this" or "the temple authorities did this".  We might also want to consider the fact that the word "Jew" comes from "Judean" - and thus, when the Gospels speak of "the Jews", they are most likely speaking specifically about Hebrews who lived in the city of Jerusalem or the surrounding area, rather than all Jews.

When we read the account of the Jews supporting Jesus in great numbers on Palm Sunday, and then apparently experiencing a complete change of mind on Good Friday, the question to ask is: if the Jews were indeed so rabidly and violently against Jesus, why was it necessary to arrest him at night and conduct his trial overnight (breaking various rules in the process)?  And why did they need Judas?  Why all the sneaking around?  This would have only been necessary if they were trying to get rid of Jesus quietly before the people who loved him could organize a resistance.  This is confirmed by the fear of the temple authorities represented in Mark 11:18 and John 11:48 - the high priestly authorities knew that if they allowed Jesus to continue and he gathered even more in support of his "kingdom of God" (which challenged the authenticity of the kingdom of Caesar), Rome would not only destroy Jesus, but Rome would destroy them as well - and this if the people supporting Jesus’ movement didn’t destroy or remove the high priestly authorities first.  On that last part, if such were to occur, at the very least Rome would have seen this as a failure to control the people by the high priestly authority - who were collaborative authority figures - and would have replaced this Jewish authority structure with a Roman authority structure.

Also consider what Josephus writes in his Antiquities: Jesus, he says, "won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him" (18.63– 64).

To continue this historical context, there was a second revolt from 132-135 A.D., and during this revolt Messianic Jews complied at first, until Rabbi Akiva declared the military leader Simon bar Kokhba (or Shim’on bar Kosiba) to be the messiah - and the Messianic Jews refused to cooperate with this, which further stacked the Orthodoxy Party’s case against them and contributed to their expulsion from the community.

Even after all this, Judaism continued to be marginally associated with the Christian church - the complete split occurred with Constantine, as we saw before in
"The Constantine Creed".  At this point, the Gentiles in the church outnumbered the Jews to such a large degree that the voice of Judaism was drowned out completely, and Judaism began to be fully seen by the church as if it were a vanquished foe.  Along with this, I feel it is important to note how early church leaders before Constantine were virtually unanimous regarding non-violence - which is astounding considering how many other doctrines they disagreed on.  But after Constantine, there is a stark contrast where you find leaders like Augustine seeking to justify the use of violence (with the so-called "Just War Theory"), and then we see in history that Crusades, witch hunts, and inquisitions led by the Church become unquestioned.  It would be a mistake to undermine how pivotal a moment in history Constantine was, and to ignore how drastically the path of the Church veered from the purposes of Jesus afterward.  As Pope Sylvester - the Bishop of Rome from 314-335 - said: "now is poison poured into the church".  The combative attitude and justification of violence towards Judaism that was solidified by Constantine carried on in the church until modern times, and is vividly displayed in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

So it is within this historical context that Christianity experienced a break from Judaism, becoming a separate religion.  This is what led to what Dr. Stern refers to as "Covenant Replacement Theology" or "Dispensationalist Theology" - the idea that we can ignore most to all of what the "Old Testament" has to say, treating it as obsolete (Jesus "gave us a new contract", so to speak).  These theologies all too often result in anti-Semitism, even if it is subtle.

The alternative that Dr. Stern proposes is what he terms "Olive Tree Theology", and is based on the Jewish idea of tikkun-ha’olam - which literally means "fixing up the world".  The way this plays out, according to Stern, is depicted in the following diagram (which depicts a timeline starting from the bottom):

"Olive Tree Theology" as it plays out in history

The "Olive Tree" name comes from Romans 11:16-21 - for which Stern provides an interesting translation in his "Jewish New Testament":
Now if the challah [a loaf or cake made for Shabbat - in this case referring to the dough set aside for the priests] offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole loaf. And if the root is holy, so are the branches.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you - a wild olive - were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, then don’t boast as if you were better than the branches! However, if you do boast, remember that you are not supporting the root, the root is supporting you. So you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” True, but so what? They were broken off because of their lack of trust. However, you keep your place only because of your trust. So don’t be arrogant; on the contrary, be terrified! For if God did not spare the natural branches, he certainly won’t spare you!
One of the main ideas behind Stern's Olive Tree Theology is recognizing how Israel failed to live up to their mission - which is to be a blessing to all nations, as stated to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 and Genesis 22:18, and reaffirmed by the prophet Isaiah (see Isa. 19:24-25).  But over the course of Israel's history, they had become more concerned with self-preservation and had withdrawn into their own community which sought to shut out the threat of outsiders.  To put it another way: they prioritized the protection of their traditions and culture over the well being of the nations.  Hence, according to Paul's logic in Romans 11, they were not "bearing fruit" and were "cut off".  But, for Paul, Jesus was the quintessential Jew and the quintessential human, and gathered Jews and Gentiles around himself - fulfilling God’s original purpose.

To further the analogy, today’s non-Jewish Christians are as if another plant of some sort looked at this tree, and decided it wanted to grow in a way that resembled the tree - but it was never grafted in.  We've never even tried to understand Jewish tradition, all too often.  We've just assumed we didn't need it.

Paul argues in the remainder of Romans 11 that the natural branches which were cut off will be grafted back in - actually arguing that all of Israel will be saved!  From an agricultural view, grafting a branch that was once part of the tree back into the tree is more likely to "take" than grafting a foreign branch in - we should keep this in mind.  Paul's dream - as stated in Eph. 2:14-19 - was that both groups would be made one, and all dividing walls and hostilities would be broken down by the peace of Christ, "that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it."

The important takeaway from this history is that the early followers of Yeshua (as he would have been called, before Aramaic was translated into Greek, Greek into Latin, and Latin to English) were expelled - they were not the excluders.  But the result of being expelled was that the Church of Yeshua ended up having hard feelings towards those who had cast them out, and then the tables were turned by history.  But I do not believe Jesus would have had his followers turn around and strike back at their enemies in kind simply because they found themselves in a more strategically advantageous position to do so later on.

As an analogy, consider the following: suppose that there were some confusion within the
Commonwealth of England regarding the king’s successor, and Great Britain went one way, while Canada, India, Nigeria, Australia, and other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations recognized King Joshua (a more accurate translation of "Yeshua" to English) as their king.  A split occurred over this fight, but over time Great Britain became weak while the other lands grew in number and strength.  Ultimately, King Joshua was proven to be the legitimate successor in many ways.  Imagine how strange it would be for King Joshua to declare the other lands to be “England” and strike Great Britain from history.  In many ways, this is what the thought world of Christianity has done with Judaism - we've constructed entire theological worlds completely outside of "Great Britain" and declared their supremacy.

Corporate Salvation

One of the striking differences that arises out of this divorce of Christian theology from Jewish concepts is the individualistic idea of salvation that so many Christians have been brought up with.  Salvation, in so much Christian theology, is a personal matter that can be achieved completely separate from any form of social healing.

But in Judaism - even today - Salvation is a corporate matter.  If you carefully examine the ways Salvation is talked about throughout the Old Testament, you'll see that it always has to do with the redemption of Israel as a nation (more details on this here).  Salvation, in Jewish thought, is intrinsically tied to a person's social context - one cannot be saved if their community is not.  And so, for a modern Jew examining Christian thought, we seem to be very self-centered in their eyes.

Ezekiel Isaac Malekar writes in "The Speaking Tree: Concept of Salvation In Judaism"2:

The Jewish concept of Messiah visualises the return of the prophet Elijah as the harbinger of one who will redeem the world from war and suffering, leading mankind to universal brotherhood under the fatherhood of one God. The Messiah is not considered as a future divine or supernatural being but as a dominating human influence in an age of universal peace, characterised by the spiritual regeneration of humanity.

In Judaism, salvation is open to all people and not limited to those of the Jewish faith; the only important consideration being that the people must observe and practise the ethical pattern of behaviour as summarised in the Ten Commandments. When Jews refer to themselves as the chosen people of God, they do not imply they have been chosen for special favours and privileges but rather they have taken it upon themselves to show to all peoples by precept and example the ethical way of life.
This strikes a contrast with the perceived idea of individual salvation within Christianity.  If we reexamine Paul's thought, however, we see that Paul always intertwines individual and corporate salvation - we see this especially in his hope for the salvation of all of Israel in Romans 11.

It should be noted that there are ways to formulate individual salvation in such a way that it produces a contribution to corporate salvation - a good example comes from Orthodox Rabbi and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism Mordecai Kaplan wrote:
Salvation is redemption from those evils within and outside man which hinder man from becoming fully human, or which obstruct his urge to self metamorphosis [self-transcendence]. Salvation is unhampered freedom in living and helping others to live a courageous, intelligent, righteous and purposeful life.
We have all too often turned the Gospel into an escapist fantasy where every man becomes an island unto himself.  Our personal spiritual journey is important, but it must be set within the larger context of what is happening in and to God’s world in order to avoid spiritual narcissism.  If we reexamine the teachings of Jesus and Paul, we will find that while individual salvation is a concern, it is always part of the plan to get each person directed towards a common goal - the good of all - which would result in the corporate salvation!  And this is the path to "Mystical One-ness".

The Mystical One-ness

Earlier in this post, I explored two passages that challenge the tribalism of Fundamentalism.  I mentioned one further passage I would consider - that passage is Psalm 19.  This Psalm, as a whole, challenges our cultural tribalism.  When it says that Creation tells us about God - it "pours forth speech" every day about God - this challenges the idea that any small part of this Creation could hold the corner on the market of truth.  Rather, this Psalm challenges us to make sense of the parts by understanding the whole - but recognizing that we are incapable of a full knowledge of the whole, and this is why we humbly continue to challenge ourselves by enlisting new evidence, new considerations, new thoughts, and carefully examining everything.

Fundamentalism all too often results not only in separating ourselves from others by superficial categorization, but it also quite often results in the denial of science.  But Christianity ought to embrace science, as Creation reveals the Creator!  This is an attitude that has been reflected by many Church fathers - Diana Butler Bass writes in "
A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story":
Justin (Martyr) did not reject the philosophy and science of his day but rather tried to find elements of Christian wisdom in pagan thought and ideals. He appreciated ancient philosophy, arguing that “Socrates was a Christian before Christ.” The best of the ancient world acted as a bridge to the fullness of Christian revelation. In essence, he hoped to convert the Roman world to Christianity by affirming the riches of ancient culture.
When we cease to separate ourselves from others by superficial labels and boundaries, that is when we can draw together in Unity.  We ought to consider how Paul talked about the church being the "body of Christ" and see how this speaks to the human need to be part of a corporate identity - to go beyond oneself and become part of something greater.  This is what Mysticism is all about.  In "The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality", Carl McColman writes:
In our postmodern, multicultural age, people have unprecedented access to many different religious and spiritual traditions. While some may ignore this and choose to express their faith by adhering strictly to one religious path, many others experience an understandable desire to find common ground and shared values with those who come from other parts of the world. In other words, many Christians today are interested in the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, or Hasidic Judaism, or Taoism. This is a good and beautiful thing. The more we see ourselves as members of a single global community, the more hope we have for peace and shared prosperity.

Indeed, mysticism has become a code word for whatever it is that unites all religions, despite their cultural differences. As blogger Darrell Grizzle puts it: “Mysticism is that which enabled the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton to meet in the 1960s and to recognize each other as brothers.” Such sentiments suggest that mysticism may be the best hope for cultivating a true spirit of peace and goodwill among religions.
S. Abhayananda writes in "History of Mysticism: The Unchanging Testament"
Scholars may imagine that a Buddhist experiences one thing, a Vedantist another, and so forth; but one who has experienced It, whether a Sufi, Christian, or Hindu, knows that It is the final Truth, the only One. There are not different Unitys, one for each sect or denomination; there is only one One, and it is That which is experienced by Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sufis alike. It should be obvious that, if there is such a thing as Unity, and if It can be experienced, then the experience must be the same for all; since Unity, by its very definition, by its very nature, is one.
And Richard Hooper writes in "The Essential Mystics, Poets, Saints, and Sages: A Wisdom Treasury":
Though bridges between mystical systems can be hard to build, the similarities of the mystical experience far outweigh the dissimilarities. All mystics describe the experience of Enlightenment as a sense of complete loss of one's ego-identity, and a complete absorption into the One - no matter what words are used to describe the One.  The goal of all mysticism is the same.
I feel that it is important to note here that true mysticism is not a return to irrational thinking - or superstition.  It has been sold like this, though - so it is important to note that if your impression of mysticism is that it is all about New-Agey mumbo-jumbo that has no basis in reality, you should check yourself and examine the thoughts of the more rational mysticists out there.  True mysticism accepts rational thinking, incorporates it into spiritual practices, and then transcends it.

The effort to build bridges between religions has often been termed the "Perennial Philosophy".  In "Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment", John Horgan summarizes this philosophy and its connection to mysticism and rationality with the following three points:
First, reality is more unified than it appears. Second, reality is better than it ordinarily seems to us. Third, reality is more mysterious than it looks. These are the central insights of the perennial philosophy, which mystics know firsthand.
In "The Big Book of Christian Mysticism", Carl McColman warns those who wish to emphasize the similarities between religions in an effort to grow in Unity not to be judgmental towards those who "prefer to remain anchored in their own particular religion."  But on the flip side, he also warns those who wish to focus on what is unique within Christianity not to "reject those who are eager to see the similarities between religions" - perhaps it is important to acknowledge both sides and to engage this tension honestly.  McColman then compares mysticism to tofu, in that tofu has a way of absorbing the taste of whatever it is being cooked with so that it then tastes more like what it was being cooked with than tofu.  McColman writes: "Likewise , mysticism thoroughly and completely adopts the flavor and identity of whatever wisdom tradition it inhabits."  He goes on to say that just as tofu is bland by itself, mysticism outside of any tradition may also prove to be bland - he writes that "in practice, the beauty of mysticism rests in how it manifests unity in a distinct, particular way."

What makes Christian mysticism unique is that it is anchored in a Christian concept of God, it is respectful both of the Christian scriptures and Christian tradition (rather than emphasizing one over the other - the Bible for Protestants, or tradition for Catholics), and it emphasizes the importance of community (whereas many forms of mysticism emphasize solitude to such a degree that community is not even considered to be necessary for the spiritual journey).

Mysticism - speaking generally - is about experience, but not just about experience.  After all, if one claims to have experienced God, it is quite possible that they have eaten a bad burrito or are suffering from lack of sleep.  No, the mystical experience must be integrated with rationality.  But rationally thinking about spirituality without experience is empty as well.

Next Chapter: Pardes, the Garden of Jewish Biblical Interpretation

1 This is an oft used catch phrase from the scholar Marcus J. Borg, who recently passed away.
2 See

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