The Elusive Presence-history and God-driven personalities

The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Before that Judaism had been a temple-priest-sacrifice centered religion. Before that Christianity had been a sect of Judaism. But the events of the year 70 caused Judaism to become a synagogue-rabbi centered religion and Christianity to become largely the faith of messianic Gentiles. So both became different religions. Not right away. But the trajectory was set.

Samuel Terrien in The Elusive Presence argued that the seeds of a change in attitude toward the Temple already existed in early Christianity. The speech of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7 called Solomon’s choice to build a temple invalid. And Paul had the idea that God dwelt in the people of the church as in a temple. Neither Stephen’s speech nor Paul’s letters actually call for a new temple. But Stephen critiqued the ideology of the Jerusalem temple as the seat of God’s glory. And Paul used metaphors for the church that made it seem like an organic temple.

When the physical temple ceased to exist it was a short jump to the idea of a new temple.

But Christians have sometimes used all of this in an anti-Semitic way. They have used it to suggest that the Jewish people were displaced as God’s people and that Gentile Christians then became the true people of God. The passage in 2 Corinthians 3:15-18 lent itself to this use.

Paul wrote that whenever the Torah was read the people of Israel had a veil over their minds. But that when anyone turned to the Lord (Jesus), they could see the glory of God. The way they saw the glory was in each other as glory reflected through a mirror. The purpose of beholding the glory of God was to make spiritual progress, moving closer and closer to becoming like God.

Paul was not attacking Moses or the Torah. He was saying that the presence of God was not readily apparent in the written word, but in a charismatic and communal way–through the Spirit and in the congregation.

Like the prophets and the author of Job, Paul pierces

“through the illusion and the arrogance of all forms of legalistic subservience. Subsequent history has shown that such and illusion and such an arrogance may be Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Protestant. They may include secular as well as clerical moralism, whenever the church or state or any relative entity of the political right or left claims to be the ultimate reality.”

“Presence –elusive, intangible, unpredictable, untamed, inaccessible to empirical verification, outwardly invisible, but inwardly irresistible–is the source of freedom from the written code” (p. 457).

So, in his final chapter, Terrien draws us toward a biblical theology. There have been many volumes of Old Testament theology. There have been many attempts at a New Testament theology. But if the presence of God is the central theme it is possible to have an overarching biblical theology. But only when the presence of God is understood as elusive and mysterious. For Christians, God’s presence conceals itself behind a cross.

I find this all highly suggestive.

Terrien’s use of the Great Man theory of history throughout the book is certainly unfashionable. But the contemporary bias toward seeing history as propelled by impersonal forces is suspect as well. We cannot prove there was an Abraham or that David was the musician behind the collection of Psalms, but Terrien thought that personalities drove history. So someone like Abraham or David must have existed.

I just watched the movie Mongol about the rise of Genghis Khan.

There is a scene of lawgiving at a sacred mountain. So the writer perhaps drew upon the experience of Moses. But, more to the point, history would not be the same without a personality like Genghis Khan. Social, economic, and cultural forces only explain so much.

Judaism and Christianity go back to pivotal figures. Those figures claimed to have experienced the presence of God, elusive though it was. It is not unscientific or irrational to take those reported experiences seriously.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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