Category Archives: Unitarianism

‘How Jesus became God’ by Bart D. Ehrman

ehrman

2014, 371 p & notes

It seemed rather appropriate, if somewhat transgressive, to read this book over Easter. As a Unitarian, I don’t celebrate Easter but there’s a lot of God going around at Easter, particularly this most recent one which coincided with Passover. The author Bart D. Ehren is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and he has written over thirty books about Christianity. He used to be an evangelical Christian, but is no longer. In fact, it sounds as if his distancing from his faith is very similar to my own, when he describes the way that he found that he could subscribe to less and less of the Nicene Creed. The exact same thing happened with me.

In this book Ehrman traces the historical development of the idea that Jesus was/is God.

He starts his book by noting that the divisions between the divine and human were not clear-cut, either in the Greek or Roman worlds in which Jesus operated, or indeed within Judaism itself.  In Greek mythology, there is constant slippage as gods become temporarily human, and humans become permanently gods.  In the Old Testament, there is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Abraham, Hagar and Moses, and humans like Enoch who became angels. There’s the Son of Man figure and Wisdom and the Word, and the King of Israel.

He then turns to the question of what/who Jesus thought he was, and whether he talked about himself as God. He starts by considering the methodological problem of dealing with the source texts.  Paul’s letters were written twenty to thirty years after Jesus died, but Paul himself never met Jesus.  The gospels themselves were not written by eyewitnesses, and they were written between 35 and 65 years after Jesus’ death, based on oral stories. He notes that Matthew, Mark and Luke have both stories held in common, and some unique stories that do not appear elsewhere.  He characterizes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet,  who predicted the end of the current evil age, who believed that God would intervene soon to destroy everything and everyone opposed to him. God would then institute a new kingdom on earth, and he (Jesus) would be king in that kingdom.   This was not a unique view: it could be found in the teachings of other apocalyptic-oriented Jews of his day.

He then turns to the resurrection.  There are many discrepancies between the gospels, so many that it is almost impossible to make a single narrative that combines the ‘facts’ of all four gospels.  We don’t really know whether he was buried, or whether there was an empty tomb.  But we do know that some of Jesus’ followers believed that he had been raised from the dead, that some of them had visions of him, and that the belief that he had been raised from the dead led them to consider him, in some sense, God.

The earliest Christians thought that Jesus had been ‘exalted’ and lifted up and given divine status after his crucifixion i.e. that he was a human who became God.  Others moved the moment of ‘exaltation’ further back in Jesus’ life:  the moment of baptism with John the Baptist and the dove, the moment of birth in the stable; the Annunciation.

Others- and this view came to dominate- saw him as already God, who became human i.e. became ‘incarnate’. This was the big change, and it occurred in the first twenty years after Jesus’ death. Jesus came to be seen as a pre-existing divine being, who became human.

He turns to Paul’s letters and John’s gospel at this point.  In particular he looks at Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, where the text suddenly breaks into a quite different rhythm and vocabulary. (Who, although he was in the form of God did not regard being equal with God something to be grasped after etc.) This, he suggests, is a poem that Paul is quoting.  In the book, the poem is presented broken up into poem-like metre, and it’s amazing how typography can change the way a test is read.   Likewise, he looks at John 1 (the ‘in the beginning’ prologue) and its reflection of Old Testament texts. I found this part fascinating: the idea that the gospels are a palimpsest of oral and poetic traditions, that can be traced backwards and identified by concepts and language that do not appear elsewhere.

He then shifts to the different heresies that arose in the second, third and fourth centuries:  the divine/human nature of God and Jesus;  whether there was ever a time when God existed but Jesus didn’t; whether they are one unitary being or two (or even three) separate entities, and the resultant concept of the trinity.  He then turns to the Nicean creed, our mutual stumbling block, which he demonstrates as not so much an affirmation of faith, as a refutation of the various heresies that were circulating the Christian world.

A good summary of his argument throughout the book appears in the epilogue:

To use the older terminology, in early Christianity the views of Christ got “higher and higher’ with the passing of time, as he became increasingly identified as divine. Jesus went from being a potential (human) messiah to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status as his resurrection; to being a pre-existent angelic being who came to earth incarnate as a man; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him. (p.352)

This is almost the mirror opposite of his own beliefs about God (and a trajectory I have also followed), where Jesus became “lower and lower” until he understood him as a human being, no different to any other human being.  He now understands Jesus as “a true religious genius with brilliant insights”, but a man of the first-century Palestinian Jewish apocalyptic milieu.  He says that he resonates with the ethical teachings of Jesus (as do I) but that these, too, were delivered in a first-century apocalyptic format.  He argues that the views of Jesus have changed over time, and continue to change as Jesus is recontextualized, on an ongoing basis by each generation.

I enjoyed this book, which is very clearly set out with discrete sections and subheadings, and clear previews and summaries topping and tailing each chapter.  He interweaves his own personal spiritual journey through the telling, which I identified closely with.  I don’t know if I’ll read other books of his, though, because from their titles alone, they seem to be further elaborations on the themes in this one.  This book was a New York Times Bestseller, and perhaps that’s the level that I’m happy to leave my reading at.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it’s Easter

My rating: 8.5

 

 

‘Ever yours, C. H. Spence’ ed. Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams

everyours

2005, 356 p & notes

The autobiography is a strange beast.  Unlike the diary which may or may not have another reader in mind, there is usually an assumption on the part of the writer that someone is going to read it, one day.  Although the distinction between autobiography and memoir is fuzzy (see here and here), I tend to see an autobiography as a chronological account, driven by the passing of time, where a memoir is a more consciously created ‘literary’ object, shaped by themes and tropes and where time is elastic.

In this book edited by Spence’s major present-day biographers, Susan Magarey and Barbara Wall,  we get autobiography, diary and letters carefully and usefully annotated. Taken together, they build up a vivid picture of the transnational networks that Spence developed and drew upon, confounding our picture of a little old lady in black dress and lace cap.

More than half of the book is devoted to Catherine Helen Spence’s autobiography. It appears to be a good old-fashioned autobiography,  starting at the start and ending at the end.  But it’s not. Only about 2/3 of it was actually written by Catherine Helen Spence herself.  It was always destined for publication in serialized form in the South Australian Register and when Spence died in 1910 she had the first three chapters typeset ready to go, and the following 13 chapters in manuscript.  Indeed, she was working on it when she died. Her friend Jeanne Young, a fellow-activist some fifty years Spence’s junior, completed the other eight chapters after some tussling amongst surviving family members.  In an attempt to make the change in authorship appear seamless, Young completed the remaining chapters in the first person, drawing on Spence’s diaries and her own knowledge of Spence’s movements from their mutual friendship.  It’s not a particularly successful ghostwriting strategy as the autobiography loses its ‘oomph’ as it goes along, and it becomes increasingly bogged down in the campaign for proportional representation, the passion shared by both Spence and Young.  It’s true that many people, including Spence herself, said that she was obsessed by proportional representation, but in Young’s hands it dominates the final chapters of the book, unleavened by the reflection and self-deprecation found in the first chapters.

Of course, Susan Magarey and other writers about Catherine Helen Spence have picked the eyes out of the autobiography, as you would expect them to do, and their approaches are easier reading than this autobiography.  But it’s good to read an extended length of Spence’s writing to pick up on her clear, but very 19th century narrative voice, and to observe the digressions and asides.

Jeanne Young went on to write her own biography of Spence (which I haven’t read), and in doing so she used the diaries that Catherine Helen Spence had kept every day of her life.  However, she refused the entreaties of “Mr Pitt of the Archives” to place them in a public repository, and it seemed that the “diaries had gone out with the newspapers”, once Jeanne Young had finished writing her book (p. 214). However, there was one left -Spence’s diary for 1894- and Magarey (I think – it’s not clear in this book which parts were contributed by Magarey and which by Wall) was able to borrow the diary from the protective and nameless private owners for a week to make notes from it.  However, in a letter to the editor of the Australian Book Review in December 2010, following a review of Unbridling the Tongues of Women, Magarey indicated that the State Library of South Australia had been more persuasive than she herself had been, and that the diary was donated to the library and is now transcribed and annotated by Barbara Wall on the Wakefield Press website.  [I must confess to not being able to find it there].

The diary covers only the year 1894, when Spence travelled to America, the UK and Europe. There’s an entry for nearly every day, and while they list her rather exhausting activities and meetings, there’s not really a great deal of reflection here.

The volume finishes with a collection of Spence’s letters to two of the feminist activists from this time: Alice Henry, who was to go to America where she was joined by Stella (Miles) Franklin, and Rose Scott from Sydney.  These letters are more engaging than the diary, and also reflect the buzz of activity in this indefatigable woman’s mind. They’re also affirming of the network of shared interests that  stretched across distance and age to further the causes that people – women and men included- had as their passion.

Source:  Readings bookstore (where they have this on special for $9.99 in hardback at the moment. Just do a search on their website)

Read because: I’m preparing for a giving a talk on Catherine Helen Spence at the First Unitarian Universalist of Melbourne Fellowship service this week.

This review has been added to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018 database.

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

 

‘Unbridling the Tongues of Women’ by Susan Magarey

Unbridling175

2nd edition 2010, (1985) 214 p.

Available as free PDF at https://www.adelaide.edu.au/press/titles/spence/

Catherine Helen Spence observed once that law and custom had “put a bridle on the tongues of women”. When in 1871 she actually read her own lecture to the South Australian Institute, instead of handing it over to a man to read, she said she did so “to make it easier henceforth for any woman who felt she had something to say to stand up and say it”. (p. viii)

“Stand up and say it” was exactly what she did over her long life.  As a novelist, journalist, board member, preacher, political figure and suffragist, she put her words before the public.  Magarey has chosen her title well in this biography, which highlights the breadth of Spence’s interests and why she well deserves the praise bestowed on her at her 80th birthday party as “the most distinguished woman they had had in Australia”.

Magarey’s second edition starts with a new introduction where she corrects and supplements some of the observations that she made in her original 1985 text.  I suppose that an introduction to a new edition does need to go at the start, so that your antennae can start quivering when you come across a point that she later corrected. But I must say that I found the introduction far more interesting after I had read the book.

The book does not follow a straight chronology as such, because it slices her life thematically. In the Introduction to the original 1985 edition, she gives an overview of Spence’s life, starting with her arrival in Adelaide in 1839, just after Adelaide’s establishment as a Wakefieldian colony. She quickly traces Spence’s career, claiming her as “Australia’s first feminist” – not so much in terms of political action, but through her ability and determination to break into the national conversation.

Chapter 1 ‘Acquiring a room of her own’ backtracks on Spence’s childhood, starting with her parents’ marriage in Scotland and the family emigration to Adelaide.  After her father died, Catherine was spurred to earn money through teaching to help support her mother and siblings.  Although she had two proposals of marriage, she decided not to marry because of the independence and pride earning her own money: a decision which opened up opportunities that might not have otherwise been open to her. But it was an inheritance through her aunts back in Scotland that made it possible for her mother to purchase the house in which Catherine could have the ‘room of her own’ that Virginia Woolf saw as crucial to a writing life, living alongside her mother (with whom she had a very close relationship) until her mother’s death.

It was in her ‘room of her own’ that Catherine began her novelistic career, which Magarey deals with in Chapter 2 ‘The line of least resistance’.  Having not read any of Spence’s fictional work, I found this chapter a little opaque, although I am impressed and fascinated by Magarey’s summary two of her later stories.  Handfasted seems to promote a particularly liberated view of marriage for the time, and A Week in the Future, set in 1988, seems to be a loosely-disguised fictionalization of Spence’s political ideas.

Chapter 3 is titled ‘Faith and enlightenment’, and it was for this chapter that I read the book, as I’m giving a presentation (oh, the presumption!) on Catherine Helen Spence at our Unitarian fellowship this coming Sunday (details below). Spence was a Presbyterian, but she was ‘converted’ to Unitarianism, a verb which does not sit comfortably with Unitarians today.  She was brought to Unitarianism through contact with her friend Emily Clark, and was attracted to Unitarianism’s emphasis on rationalism and faith. Spurred by the example of Martha Turner, the Unitarian minister from Melbourne and the first woman preacher in Australia, Spence was a regular speaker at the Adelaide Unitarian Christian Church.  Her addresses from the pulpit covered a wide range of topics, even if the minister at the church sometimes felt that the politics expressed were not appropriate.

Although she complained that the Adelaide Unitarian church was rather insular, she (and other members of the congregation) moved into secular philanthropic enterprises as an expression of their spirituality. In Chapter 4 ‘Edging out of the domestic sphere’ Magarey addresses the philanthropic work in which Spence was involved which built on her Unitarian connections. In particularly she deals with the Boarding Out Society which took children from impoverished homes and placed them with more respectable working class families.  It’s a strategy that does not sit well with our attitudes today, and Magarey bats off (rather stridently, she admits in the introduction to the new edition) the criticisms of other historians including Kay Daniels who see the scheme as a form of middle class imposition onto working class culture.  It was Spence’s philanthropic work that was to lead to her speaking at the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy in 1893 in Chicago,  conducted alongside the World Fair, bringing her to an even wider international audience.

Chapter 5 ‘Learning for the future’ traces through Spence’s work in education, noting the evolution in her views over time from her own work as governess and school-owner, through to her support for the state-run secondary Advanced School for Girls. She wrote a textbook that was used for many years ‘The Laws We Live Under’.

Her public writing is dealt with in Chapter 6 ‘Round woman in her round hole’ where Magarey emphasizes the range of topics that Spence dealt with in her newspaper columns, many of which bore her byline. As she notes in the new introduction, Spence is now recognized as a formidable economic thinker and was an advocate for greater economic equity- although not uniform distribution of wealth.

However, it was her political and economic thinking that led her to become a passionate (to the point of obsession) supporter of proportional representation, dealt with in Ch 7 ‘Prophet of the effective vote’. Her quest for ‘effective voting’ was taken up by the Reform Movement that emerged in South Australia in the 1890s which included the Land Reform League, Single Tax League and Fabians, among others.  She stood for the Federal Convention to discuss the coming federation of Australian states. Although she was unsuccessful, she was the first female political candidate in Australia’s history.

Largely because of her obsession with proportional representation, she came late to the agitation for women’s suffrage, as seen in Chapter 8 ‘The New Woman of South Australia: Grand Old Woman of Australia’.  However, once she turned her attention to it, she was warmly embraced by women’s groups who had been working towards it for years because of her strong and formidable reputation on all sides of politics.  After it had been achieved in South Australia (the first state in Australia), she maintained a strong interest in the suffrage question right up until her death.

When you think about it, there are just so many ‘firsts’ in her life.  I take my hat off to her, and I’m proud of the Unitarianism that I share with her. I wish that she was still there on the $5.00 note as she was in Australia’s bicentenary year.  I take my hat off to Susan Magarey too. This is an engaging biography of a woman with a long and varied life. I’ve been enjoying reading Magarey’s other writing on Spence too, most particularly an essay ‘The Private Life of Catherine Helen Spence 1825-1910) in Body and Mind: Historical Essays in Honour of F. B. Smith.

And my talk? It’s on Sunday 18th March 2018 at 2.00 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist of Melbourne fellowship, 506 Elizabeth St Melbourne, opposite the Victoria Market. You’d be very welcome to attend.

UUspence

 

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 And I’ll put this review towards the tally for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018.

Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0 and Unitarianism?

I see that Alain de Botton is in Australia at the moment publicizing his new book (which I have on order at the library).  Some people ask me why I  am a Unitarian, and how and why you would want a “church without God”.  For me, Unitarianism- and even more so the Unitarian Churches that I attended in Canada- meets many of the needs that Alain de Botton speaks about in this video.

Alain de Botton

(There’s a transcript that you can download on the site)

Something to think about…

If the great leading article of a creed be a contradiction of the intellect, or understanding, or reason, then the whole religious system must be supported by contradiction and absurdities… if a nation’s faith be superstitious and irrational, and they sincerely believe it, then all the laws and customs and institutions will, in some degree, be tinged with irrationality

Rev. Maxwell Davidson, January 30 1853 at the first Unitarian service held in the Mechanics Institute, Melbourne.