Sunday, December 3, 2006

Forgetting the 'Judeo' in our Judeo-Christian Worldview

I just finished reading Thomas Cahill's excellent work, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. I feel simultaneously invigorated and humbled. Invigorated with the sense that one should have after finishing any good book, especially one that helps you better understand God, yourself and your place in His world. Humbled because of how it took Cahill, a non-evangelical and possibly a non-Christian — with quite a skeptical view of Scripture — to remind me of how indebted I am to my Jewish heritage. Being a Gentile, I obviously am not referring to ethnic heritage but to spiritual heritage.

Of course, without the Old Testament there would be no New Testament. The exclusive people of Israel came before the inclusive Church and, as Jesus Himself proclaims, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). But exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity is not Cahill's thesis. In a way, such a thesis is too mild for Cahill. Rather, Cahill explains how the foundations of Western civilization and thought would not be possible without the experience of an unassuming group of Semitic wanderers and the gradual expression of their experience as recorded in the Bible. Without this unique and unlikely change in culture and lifestyle brought about by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and the rest of our Old Testament heroes, we would still be stuck in the cyclical and meaningless worldview of the ancient Sumerians. I'll let Cahill speak for himself:

"The Jews gave us a whole new vocabulary, a whole new Temple of the Spirit, an inner landscape of ideas and feelings that had never been known before. Over many centuries of trauma and suffering they came to believe in one God, the Creator of the universe, whose meaning underlies all his creation and who enters human history to bring his purposes to pass. Because of their unique belief—monotheism—the Jews were able to give us the Great Whole, a unified universe that makes sense and that, because of its evident superiority as a worldview, completely overwhelms the warring and contradictory phenomena of polytheism. … The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside—our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact—new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice—are the gifts of the Jews." (pp. 239-241)

It is one thing to read the Old Testament and see how God reveals Himself there. His creative activity, His love for Israel and His promise of redemption, teach us about Who God is. But it is another thing altogether to realize the distinctiveness of the Old Testament in light of the prevailing culture and worldview of ancient times. What God did in and through Abraham and his descendents changed the entire world, and life today — for you and for me — would not be what it is without this essential change. Humbling and invigorating.

Unfortunately, I would be negatively categorized by Cahill as a "fundamentalist" and a "biblical literalist" since I disagree with him when he says, "it is no longer possible to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by God" (p. 245). That doesn't mean, however, that I can't thank him for his wonderful literary contribution and highly recommend his work to anyone who wants a bigger, better view of God and how He has so radically and graciously acted to redeem mankind.


Trader Joel said...

Dude..excellent first post. My props on the OT focus.

Jit Fong said...

You have a blog! When I was in college, I took a "Bible as Literature" class and it was taught by a lit professor who was Jewish. She talked about how constant questioning is part of the Jewish tradition. It was the first time I'd ever heard of it and I felt inspired by Jewish culture and the foundation it laid for Christian faifth. (The class was wonderful, revelatory. Yet, there were many Christians I knew who took the class who were very displeased by the professor's literary approach to the text. Personally I think they enrolled in the class with wrong expectations that it was a conventional bible study class where they were going to read the Bible like in Sunday school. But that's a long digression.)

Kim said...

Now I see why Josie refers to you as the Seminary professor in Kiev. Good insight and exposure to good thinking. I stumbles on your blog via a forwared message from Jane, and the link on Josie's blog. It was great seeing you both just before your departure.

Kim Hamilton