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Akma, Judaism, and the pleasures of blogs

AKMA responds at some length to Rowan William’s lecture on Biblical interpretation. Having just read (and blogged) Ethan Zuckerman’s post about the history of knowledge, I’m left this morning thinking: Good G-d almighty, I love the Internet. I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee and I’ve been given access to two brilliant, engaged minds wrestling with issues that really matter and that I would never have come across without the Linkosphere.

Now, on Akma’s response to my response to Dr. Williams (which I got to via Akma’s original recommendation)…

Williams says the Bible should be read “not as information, not as just instruction, but as a summons to assemble together as a certain sort of community, one that understands itself as called and created ‘out of nothing’.” As I said in my first post, understanding Scripture as more than something to be known strikes me (a Jew) as important and true. But I remain unconvinced that the Jewish more-than-that response is to see Scripture assembling a community. I may well be misinterpreting what Williams means by “community,” but I thought he meant that Scripture creates community by binding together believers listening to Scripture together. (Clearly the community goes beyond mere listening; I’m not getting the nuance right here.) I thought that was the “out of nothing” he has in mind. But (my point was), Jews aren’t Jews because of what they believe, any more than, say, Italians are. Akma’s response to me is that the Jewish “out of nothing” was the foundational event — the calling (Revelation at Sinai?) and the convenant.

This has me thinking, as Akma’s post always do. Akma’s interpretation makes the creation out of nothing an historical event. But if that’s what Williams meant, “community” is too weak a word. Jews are a people, not a community. (Of course, Jews also form communities; in fact, the religion is designed for community practice.) And, I assumed — thus making an ass out of u and med — that Williams’ reference to communities forming “out of nothing” wasn’t (just) to the historic foundational event of Christian history. but to the continuing creation of communities by hearing the Bible read in particular houses of worship at particular times.

If my interpretation of Williams is right — and I have no confidence that I’m getting any of this right, starting with what Jews believe — then Akma’s interpretation makes Williams’ lecture right for Jews but at the expense of obscuring an important difference between the two religions…a difference that comes down to the difference between being a people and being a community.

The truth is that I am spring-loaded on this topic — being ready to pounce is not a good intellectual position — because all too often, in my experience and opinion, Christians assume too much continuity with Judaism. (Akma is extraordinarily open to the possibility of difference — he defines “respect.”) So, when I read Williams, I tripped over that one little phrase of his.

In short: Let’s take the hyphen out of Judeo-Christian. [Tags: ]

10 Responses to “Akma, Judaism, and the pleasures of blogs”

  1. Funny. “God” has no religion, so why should we? Furthermore, a Northpolean would be no more one or the other, if at all!

  2. I assumed … Williams’ reference to communities forming “out of nothing” wasn’t (just) to the historic foundational event of Christian history. but to the continuing creation of communities by hearing the Bible read in particular houses of worship at particular times

    Good Lord, no. Absolutely not.

    Before going further I should say that I’m in an odd position here, partly because I’m strictly an ex-Christian, but mainly because the form of Christianity I no longer believe in (but still sympathise with) is quite big on the discontinuity between old and the new covenants. So I was just as uncomfortable as you with Williams’ repeated stress on the continuity between the two, albeit for the opposite reason. But I think he makes a very good case for continuity; if it is wrong it’s wrong in a way I haven’t got to the bottom of.

    It certainly isn’t wrong in the way you suggest. For believers, the Christian church – the ‘body of Christ’ – is precisely a community which extends over space and time; it’s instantiated or made physically present by the religious service, but it’s certainly not created. Here’s C.S. Lewis from The Screwtape Letters (supposedly written by a senior devil to a junior):

    “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. … When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.”

    And so on. The punters in the pews are ‘the body of Christ’, but they don’t constitute it or create it from nothing.

    I can see I’m going to have to re-read Williams’ lecture, to work out what he was going on about. I blogged on it here, incidentally.

  3. Just a quick postscript to that long comment – I’ve looked back at Williams’ lecture, and I’m seriously puzzled by that phrase ‘out of nothing’. I suppose you could argue that the Christian church was originally created ‘out of nothing’ by evangelism, but I’m not sure how this sits with the historical continuity of the church. Odd.

  4. A true Northpolean–that is, opposed to a neo-Northpolean–would see such a view precisely as Libertinism or, even worse, gross materialism, Phil. Even Dostoevsky and De Sade would shudder once or twice. I would veto such a proposal myself, and let nature take its course.

  5. Phil, thanks, but I’m having trouble getting past my reading of Williams’ passage. He really sounds to me to be saying that the activity of hearing the Bible in public (hearing=being summoned by it — obviously he’s not referring to having a minister’s breath beat on your ear drums) creates community out of nothing. I take “out of nothing” to mean that before the hearing, there was no community, not (of course) that the Bible is nothing! The Bible creates the community, and thus is not a mere text to be read; the reading that summons is a public act. That is what I take Willliams as saying. Am I misunderstanding him?

    How that fits with other Christians’ beliefs is not a question I’m fit to begin to address.

  6. David – I’m finding that passage a real stumbling-block myself. I’m sure he’s not saying what you think he’s saying, but it’s hard to work out what else he could be saying. Paging AKMA…

  7. Your grandpa’s cane
    It turns into a sword
    Your grandma prays to pictures
    That are pasted on a board
    Everything inside my pockets
    Your uncle steals
    Then you ask why I don’t live here
    Honey, I can’t believe that you’re for real.
    Well, there’s fist fights in the kitchen
    They’re enough to make me cry
    The mailman comes in
    Even he’s gotta take a side
    Even the butler
    He’s got something to prove
    Then you ask why I don’t live here
    Honey, how come you don’t move?

    In a nutshell, no one would have a choice about a Divinity, if he-she is really all he-she is cracked up to be, one way or another, like it or not, so why dribble all over ourselves about such a Being? I only hope a sense of humor is included, or I’m out. Are we not playing with words?

  8. I hear Williams touching on, alluding to, the [Christian] doctrine that the world was created ex nihilo; that point has particular pertinence to other doctrinal elements, and I take his invocation of it as an allusive echo.

    In the context, he seems to me to be saying that Christians are called into a community from no single pre-existing entity; the Christian community was not before it was called into being, and no other characterization holds priority over our identity as Christians.

    Relative to Judaism, I suspect that Williams might identify the call to Abram as a constitution ex nihilo of the people of Israel; before Abram responded to the divine voice, there was not “a people” of God. After Abram and Sarai set out for the land that he had been promised, the extended family unit looks like an inaugural version of “God’s people.”

    But he may also have allowed the Christian theological theme of ex nihilo to overdetermine his remarks relative to Judaism; I, in turn, would be intrigued to hear how Peter Ochs reponds to Williams’s hermeneutics.

  9. “God” is a concept of one’s own superego universalised, that is, a hyper-consciousness of a father complex, but always someones power trip. It changes nothing ex nihilo.

  10. The only thing that I think I can say that I know about God, from my finite intellect, mind you, is that I think that I know what I mean when I think, but not so perfectly, as in math.

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