Wednesday 11 February 2009

Deformed Ethics

Something I've had to come to grips with over the last year or so is the field of Christian ethics. "Had to" because they lay in wait, jaws snapping, on the study path to my objective of a degree in theology.

At the venerable institution I study with, the Reformed influence reigns. I say that because, when it comes it ethics it's all Gunton, O'Donovan and - most horribly of all - Samuel Wells. These guys either build their ethics on the powdery grey clouds of Reformed dogmatics, or in an adjoining en suite. "Metanarrative" is the key word. The line goes from that ancient heretic Augustine, loops a few times around Calvin and then proceeds - faster than a speeding bullet - to Karl Barth. It's all Adam's fault (the Fall) and only Christians can be truly ethical because of nod-nod, wink-wink "revelation."

Looking at the course outlines you'd never guess that there was a whole other paradigm out there, but there is. Those wicked Roman Catholics are at the forefront. Catholic moral theologians are a stimulating if endangered breed. Hans Kung in Germany, Charles Curran and Daniel Maguirein the US (both thorns in the side of Holy Mother Church.) Across in Australia Michael Morwood(not an ethicist but a Catholic educator who fell afoul of the hierarchy, and who has a lot to say about ditching the Fall/Redemption theory.)

The moral theology perspective is far more optimistic than anything that comes out of the Reformed camp, with a passion for justice that is inclusive rather than turned in on itself. It doesn't depend on symbolic acts by fictive characters who are convicted of terrible deeds they couldn't have done even if they were real. Death and sin did not enter the world because of Adam. There was no Adam. Death and suffering have been doing the rounds since well before life crawled out of the oceans. The universe is not in disarray because of a snake and an apple. We didn't do it. The "metanarrative" is screwed.

So, my ethical dilemma is whether or not to parrot the expected party line, or stir in a dose of dissent on this semester's course. As readers of my other blog know, I'm an irenic fellow, rarely confrontational or controversial.

To hades with the grade: which way to the jugular?

Friday 6 February 2009

A Noahide Manifesto?

A Review of Restoring Abrahamic Faith, James D. Tabor, Genesis 2000, Charlotte, NC., 2008

Restoring Abrahamic Faith is not intended for an academic readership, but those with either an interest in the “Hebrew roots” movement, or who perhaps have been members at some stage of a Sabbath-keeping church. “It is more particularly addressed to the millions of biblically oriented Christians who love the God of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets.” (p.4)

The potential for a book like this is huge. The Hebrew roots movement is usually known more for its enthusiasm than its scholarship, but Tabor is undeniably a scholar, and a very good scholar.

The first surprise was that Tabor is not interested in a specifically Christian debate, and the New Testament is peripheral to his case.

… the TORAH and the Prophets must be the fundamental foundation of any restoration of BIBLICAL FAITH. Other sacred texts offer commentary and elaboration... (p.20)

The second surprise is that the writing style is not only non-scholarly, but highly reminiscent of the author's former affiliation, the Worldwide Church of God. Tabor speaks of a “great and unseen Hand” (p.2), Earth is “our polluted planet” (p.1), the purpose of life is “the creation of holy, righteous character” (p.69). Like old copies of The Plain Truth there are – as the first quote demonstrates – caps and italics in profusion. The introduction is reminiscent of the opening pages of The Wonderful World Tomorrow – What It Will Be Like: the world is going to hell in a handcart (“And yet we live in a world of utter religious confusion.”) But Tabor has a panacea to offer: “You can expect to be surprised and challenged by what follows.” It's not a promising start.

Neither does Tabor do his credibility any favors when he cites with approval a Jehovah's Witness booklet, Strong's concordance, McMillen's None of These Diseases, Hislop's The Two Babylons, and Adam Clarke: a selection that most of his fellow academics would surely regard as motley. Works of contemporary scholarship are thin in the footnotes, and there is no bibliography.

Given the many Christian references and footnotes, it takes a while to appreciate that Restoring Abrahamic Faith is in part an appeal for Christians to abandon any idea of Jesus as Messiah or Son of God, and to adopt a cut-down form of Judaism (more on this below.)

Certainly the Gentiles who turn to the God of Israel in this way, as well as those from the Lost Tribes of Israel, will live their lives in a new solidarity with the fortunes of the Jewish people. Others may choose conversion to Judaism... (p.107)

The problem is that Christianity denies the pillars of the BIBLICAL FAITH: God, TORAH, and Israel. (p.153)

It's worth pausing at this stage to ask what Tabor means by “Lost Tribes of Israel.”

Significant portions of these tribes ended up among the peoples of northwestern Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States – namely among the Welsh, Scots-Irish, Scots, Anglo-Saxons, and Scandinavians. (p.79)

… history shows that the bulk of these tribes migrated northwest into Europe, and did finally fulfill the promises that were made to the two sons of Joseph – Ephraim and Manasseh, about unprecedented national greatness... (p.80)

… these so-called “Lost Tribes” of Israel... have lost their Israelite identity and consider themselves Gentile... (p.65)

This, we are assured, is not the same thing as Anglo-Israel or “standard” British-Israel theory, a point Dr Tabor was keen to stress in personal correspondence in preparation for this review. Anyone familiar with British-Israel belief might however be hard pressed to see something different here. Isn't this sort of claim pseudo-history? “I refer to good scholarly research as to where these tribes actually migrated.” (p.80) What good scholarly research? Dr Tabor cites Anne K. Kristensen, but was unaware of Greg Doudna's challenge to Kristensen's hypothesis in Showdown at Big Sandy (p.228-239) when questioned. Tabor rejects out of hand the explicit racism of “identity theory” (White supremacist interpretations of Anglo Israelism), but seems unaware of – and unperturbed by – the implicit racism that under-girds the theory itself.

While at first glance there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between what Tabor is arguing for and the “non-standard” British-Israelism of Herbert Armstrong, the Lost Tribes theory has had other advocates, among them David Horowitz (1903-2002).

In fact Tabor's personal manifesto seems largely indistinguishable from that of the United Israel World Union, a marginal Jewish organization formed in the 1940s by Horowitz, and maintained by Dr Tabor since the founder's death.

The primary purposes of UIWU are to represent a universal version of the Hebraic faith to the non-Jewish world... Central to this mission is the conviction that scattered among the Gentiles are untold numbers of descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel who are discovering their identity and their kinship to the Jewish people. Membership is based on the simple declaration of faith in the One God of Israel and a commitment to live according to the principles of the Hebrew Bible. Members, accordingly, observe the Sabbath day, Jewish festivals, and a biblical “kosher” diet, although the manner and extent of such observances is left to one’s individual conscience. (UIWU website.)

The organization has a tenuous “real world” presence in the ministry of Ross Nichols at the former Temple Sinai Synagogue in St. Francisville, Louisiana.

To describe United Israel as Messianic Jewish would be wrong; a better term is Noahide.

Noahides describe themselves as people who have embraced the Seven Laws of Noah as set out in the Torah and the Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud. Jewish Law defines them either as Bnei Noach or Gerim Toshavim. Almost all of the modern-day Noahides are former fundamentalist Christians who have rejected Christianity and the divinity of Jesus... Dr. Tabor... is generally thought of as the most academic of the Noahide leaders... While many of them view Jesus in a positive light (as an observant Jew who tried to spread the message of Torah to the world), they make it clear that they view Christianity's deification of Jesus as blasphemy. Yet their positive attitude towards the human being Jesus clearly presents a challenge to the Jewish world. (Rosemary Frei)

While Tabor, in recent correspondence with the writer, expressed reservations about the word Noahide, he states in the book: “This Noahide Code... might be likened to a basic 'clean up operation' for those who are turning from idolatry, paganism, and misguided ways of our secular society.” (p.55)

Whatever the preferred terminology, the author has moved a long way from his sectarian Christian roots.

Commenting on the merits or otherwise of Noahide Judaism is something that's well beyond the scope or competence of this review, other than to say that it manifests a certain allure – a stripped down monotheism with neither Trinity nor Talmud. My reservations are more that the book exploits pre-critical assumptions about biblical authorship – for example that David composed the Psalms, or Moses wrote the Pentateuch – and also fails to distinguish myth from history, as in the Cain story (p.68). It's hard to imagine that Dr Tabor shares these views, yet they're seemingly “good enough” to ease his case for this target audience. Accepting that the book is an exercise in apologetic rather than academic writing, these failings still grate. Tabor is a master of almost saying something, but leaving wiggle room. This may be the mark of a cautious scholar, but this is not intended as a scholarly text. Does Tabor support a version of British-Israelism or not? "Not 'standard' BI." Is that a no or a yes?

At times the author's imagination seems to take full flight in passages worthy of William Dankenbring. “These tablets [given on Mt. Sinai] seem to reflect some kind of advanced laser-like holographic technology in which data was embedded into these translucent stones.” (p.42)

Good theological writing moves people on. It encourages them to read widely and expand their vision. It doesn't patronize them or, even worse, exploit their naivete. It seems to me that Restoring Abrahamic Faith fails these criteria.

Chapter four, “The Messiahs”, is possibly the strongest, and most provocative. Tabor makes some telling points relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the “varied and even contradictory” messianic traditions that became “hardened and inflexible” in the hands of emerging orthodox Christianity.

The great error of Christianity was to turn the Nazarene into a paganized God-Man, hardly even a human, who uniquely “suffers for the sins of the world.” (p.147)

The chapter concludes by directly asking “Was Jesus the Nazarene the Messiah?” The answer offered is an only slightly-nuanced “no.”

The final chapter is a kind of altar call, though not one Christians – those who believe that Jesus was much more than a good man and a great prophet – could embrace. Tabor's plea is for Christians to purge the Hellenistic dualism that was introduced early in church history; to return to the faith of Jesus, not a faith about Jesus. There can be little doubt about the author's passion or sincerity. Unfortunately for those who share Dr Tabor's background, there may be disturbing echoes to be heard, among them the voice of former colleague Roderick C. Meredith, bludgeoning his flock with a battery of proof texts on “restoring apostolic Christianity.” Listen a little harder perhaps, and you might hear the shade of Ellen G. White asserting her role in completing what she thought the sixteenth century Reformers had failed to complete – a theme Tabor also mentions (p.165).

These are well traveled roads. James Tabor has simply followed them further back than most, into the years BCE.

Which is fair enough, if the road actually leads anywhere. But if we had the ability, via some kind of time machine, to return to an agreed beginning, would we really find a pure, unblemished faith, or were the waters just as murky for those people living then? Is the projection of a perfect moment of origin, whether in Abraham's time, at Sinai, or later in an upper room in Jerusalem, the revelation of a shining ideal, or just another mirage that masks the realities of human inconsistency?

Restoring Abrahamic Faith is available for $15 plus postage from Genesis 2000 (