Thursday, 9 April 2009

Relishing faith's contradictions

When many years ago I stopped being a research mathematician and began to study theology, one of my few regrets was that my new discipline was much poorer than my previous in handling contradictions. For mathematicians to discover a contradiction is a delight; it sends us off in a fresh direction; makes us examine our underlying axioms; leads us to a deeper understanding. By contrast I have found theology sees contradictions as difficulties to be explained away, tests (like the queen in Alice) to prove our ability to place faith above fact, or embarrassments to ignore.

At the heart of the accounts of Holy Week in the Four Gospels lies just such a contradiction. Whilst the common account in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has Jesus sharing the Passover Meal tonight with his disciples, St John has tomorrow’s crucifixion taking place at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered. Even a longstanding vegetarian like me knows that if you are going to eat meat you kill it beforehand, not the day after. I’ve read some bizarre suggestions that maybe for some long lost liturgical reason Israel celebrated a double Passover that year, but mostly, this bare-faced contradiction at the heart of the central narrative of Christianity has been ignored; and by ignoring it theology fails to ask the vital question of what our Gospel writers were doing that led them to offer such irreconcilable narratives.

To Matthew, Mark and Luke this is the Passover meal that inaugurates a new Exodus. The journey will take Jesus and the disciples not through the waters of the Red Sea, but the deep waters of death itself on their way to the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed as their new Promised Land. Written at a time when Church and Synagogue were finally and irrevocably splitting from each other they want to make the point that God’s new covenant is with the Church, the whole Church and nothing but the Church. It all fits with the theology in which Jesus adds to, and completes, what the Old Testament began.

John is scarcely on the same planet.

The whole of his Gospel to this point has been about what he calls “signs”. Signs are things that point towards Jesus, so that looking in the direction to which they point we see the one who, raised up high on the cross, brings salvation to all who look upon him. In John’s theology the big stories of the Old Testament are themselves no more and no less than earlier signs pointing to the same, single central focus. The great Old Testament covenants, with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, are (some implicitly, some explicitly) subjected to this overreaching theme — all point to Christ on the cross. What neither the sacrifice of Isaac nor the yearly sacrifice of Passover lambs could achieve is now being accomplished through the sacrifice of God’s own son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John’s church is not the sign of a new covenant but the sign of the only covenant, to which all that appeared before was no more than pointing towards.

All that follows, to the end of time, points equally to the only place where salvation is to be found, Christ lifted on a cross. And all church practice: liturgy; ethics; liberating engagement; pastoral ministry stands or falls by whether it lifts up the eyes of the people to the crucified Christ.

In the mathematical world we have learned to live with contradictions such as the perplexing behaviour of light — which sometimes acts as a particle and sometimes as a wave — recognising that each formulation carries an essential part of the whole truth; a truth that our limited imagery cannot fully capture in one form. The Passover story alerts us to the fact that faith contains its own integral contradictions. Explaining, enjoying and learning from them is the way to a deeper and fully balanced faith; a faith that will then be equipped to manage contradictions in moral teaching and ecclesiology as well as in doctrine. And so guard us against the fundamentalisms that are the all too often consequence of pursuing a single logical and consistent system.

Posted by David Walker on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 8:11am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking
Comments

I suspect that, in religion, it is the mystics more than the theologians who've learned to live with and been driven deeper by "contradictions."

Posted by: Peter of Westminster on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 9:42am BST

thank you, David, this all makes sense.

Posted by: Malcolm on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 10:49am BST

I know it's very vulgar of me to say so, and perhaps I have been reading the Guardian too much, but this kind of treatment does leave open entirely the question of when or even whether the meal actually happened. I do appreciate that the story might, or must contain both symbolisms. But the historical narrative has to pick one or the other.

Posted by: acb on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 12:10pm BST

Spiritually helpful too, in facing the contradictions of life, as well as faith, as they interweave.

I am open to and hoping to get relishing !

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 1:56pm BST

acb: Of course the historical narrative has to pick one sequence or another. However, I don't think it follows that this jeopardizes the historicity of the event itself. If anything, the argument for its historicity is strengthened, not weakened.

If we assume that the 2-source hypothesis is true, then it's possible that Matthew, Mark, and Luke's re-telling of the story indicate a single source (perhaps with the influence of other sources, which would explain the differences that *do* exist among the Synoptics - such as the order of the wine and bread in Lk vs Mk and Mt.) And if we add John into the mix, we have multiple independent attestation. Thus, I still think there's a very compelling argument for its historicity.

David: Spot on throughout; I really couldn't agree more! Thank you so much for this wonderful addition to our observance of Maundy Thursday.

Posted by: Justin on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 5:28pm BST

It wasn't until a few days ago that I even learned that there was a contradiction in the timing of the Last Supper -- whether it was a seder or not. I'd always assumed it was. I read another commentary talking about Jesus being John's "Lamb of God". The author then talked about how for John, it was crucial that Jesus was being crucified on the cross at the same time the lambs were being slaughtered for the passover sacrifice.
acb, there is no "historical narrative" as we have come to understand "history". None of the Gospels is a dry, neutral, objective recitation of dates, times, and places. They're all driven by the need to spread the "Good News", to explain, to portray, to show Jesus as being out of the ordinary, as being no itinerant rabbi, as being truly who the Gospel writers say he is.
As far as the meal itself, Paul's letters pre-date the Gospels and he makes mention of it. Virtually every religious historian says the early Christian Church's life and worship revolved around a common meal re-creating that meal. Do the Gosple writers perhaps embelish things to make a point? Maybe. But the meal happened.

Posted by: peterpi on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 5:48pm BST

In other words, if I read David right, there were two ways the early Christians split with their Jewish roots: the synoptics, by saying a new covenant replaces or fulfills the old; John, by saying the old covenant was always Christian. Either of course insulted the Jews, and historically led to antisemitism that culminated in the last century (but unfortunately continues in some cases today).
I'm coming to believe that the early Christians, must as I respect much about them, were wrong... that schism is always wrong... and that Christian exclusivism ("I am the [only] Way..."] is wrong. If only Paul and James had _really_ made up!

Posted by: Neale on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 6:59pm BST

Never mind all that: when do you get palms?

The meal happened - but what meal? Was it cut down to a bare bones celebration for the sake of a quick getaway? Who retained more of a meal? (Jewish Christians did, apparently)

Posted by: Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) on Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 9:34pm BST

To me, the stor(ies) of the Gospels are *True*---if any of them are (merely) factual, is simply coincidence. [No, I'm not a mathematician! ;-/]

Posted by: JCF on Friday, 10 April 2009 at 3:04am BST

Whoever expected perfect synchronicity in the Bible anyway - except perhaps the most rabid of detractors of its fundamental message? Just take, for example, the modern news sources - each one with a different interpretation of what actually happens in the world events of today. The fact that there is some diversity in the accounts of the sayings and doings of Jesus only reflects the theological perspective of the original writers - and the revisionists who prepared them for acceptance in, by and to the Church.

Singing the liturgical setting today (Good Friday) of the Saint John Passion, one is struck by the stark beauty of the narrative which, when folowed by the ancient ceremony of Veneration of the Cross and silent reception of the Remainder of the Blessed Sacrament from the Altar of Repose, has resonances which are unique to the Beloved Disciple and valuable in reflection of the Mystery of the Cross.

John's version is different from that of Mark, which will be sung on Easter Eve, when we will celebrate the Resurrection. Each of the Gospel accounts has some valuable contribution to make to our fuller understanding of the amazing story of redemption. "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast! "Deo Gratias!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Friday, 10 April 2009 at 11:25am BST

Many thanks for this lovely reflection. Maybe now I know why I loved mathematics when I was student, though I took another road. To confirmands who often ask: is it true, did it happen? I always point out that to have two creation stories and four Gospels is a great, even sanctified gift, for which we should be forever grateful

Posted by: Sara MacVane on Friday, 10 April 2009 at 3:56pm BST

I wonder if in the end this actually matters. Essentially the gospel stories are just that, stories, and hopefully we are mature enough to know that many if not most stories have a purpose and underlying meaning. Its obvious to any but the most boneheaded fundamentalist that these stories are not an historical record, how can they be if they were written 40 years and more after the events described. So why shouldn't there be a discrepancy between the various writers, their accounts and what they or their sources thought was important?

Posted by: Richard Ashby on Saturday, 11 April 2009 at 5:34pm BST

As a Anglican clergyman who studied religion as an undergraduate, and theology whilst a seminarian at Westcott House, and the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge, and a scientist and university professor in the domains of developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and the psychology of religion, I can very much appreciate the gist of this article; both as it pertains to the working out of differences amongst the "Last Supper" accounts, and the relative ability of sciences other than theological ones to handle "contradiction" any better, or worse, than theologians do.
One key, it seems to me, across domains, is the capacity to manage complex types and numbers of variables when detecting and trying to make sense of "contradiction". This is quasi-independent of discipline, and has to do with the degree to which one learns to appreciate paradox and irony as potential goods, rather than things dangerous to notions of "truth".
Respectfully submitted......

Posted by: Revd Prof J M Day on Monday, 13 April 2009 at 1:41pm BST

Understanding the Jewish Festal observances according to first century Jewish sources helps with these difficulties, of course:

http://www.mortalresurrection.com/2009/05/09/reconciling-the-eyewitness-accounts/

Also, it is unlikely that we 'know' the Gospels to be of late date, as alleged.

Posted by: john on Thursday, 14 May 2009 at 10:47pm BST
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