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The eruv is perhaps the most creative, confounding, and contested spatial construct in Judaism. Territorially, it demarcates the urban space within which prohibitions otherwise attached to Sabbath observance for Orthodox Jews become permitted. While virtually imperceptible to the human eye, eruvin (pl.) sanctify what would otherwise be sacrilegious. An eruv thus creates permissive religious space for Jews on Sabbath. Hundreds of cities worldwide, including urban areas across North America, are home to an eruv. Notwithstanding their prevalence and undetectable physical imprint on urban landscapes, the establishment of eruvin has unleashed intense hostility and resistance in some locales. Opposition has typically been mounted by a surprisingly mixed array of critics including non-Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and dissenting Orthodox Jews. The eruv highlights, in compelling fashion, the spatial challenges of navigating faith, ritual, secularism, and pluralism in contemporary American cities. Seemingly ethereal religious beliefs can occasion radically different perceptions of public space.
“Esoteric Buddhism” and “Buddhist Tantra” are contested categories to begin with in Buddhist studies; within the specific context of the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, they are doubly contested. That is, on top of the usual contestations applying to these categories within the contexts in which they are usually studied—medieval north India, Tibet, and Zhenyan/Shingon in East Asia—there arises the issue of whether and to what extent these categories are applicable to Southeast Asian Buddhism. There are two discrete ways in which the category “esoteric Buddhism” can be used as a lens through which to study aspects of Southeast Asian Buddhism. The first is historical and pertains to the usual referent of “esoteric Buddhism,” namely, Tantra as an aspect or subdivision of Mahāyāna Buddhism (mantranaya). Although Mahāyāna Buddhism is no longer a major force within Southeast Asian Buddhism (aside from Vietnamese Buddhism, which shares more affinities with East Asian Buddhism), Mahāyāna Buddhism did play a significant role in several “classical” Southeast Asian states in the past, and there is some evidence of mantranaya ideas and practices within certain historical Southeast Asian Mahāyāna contexts. The second way in which “esoteric Buddhism” can be applied to Southeast Asian Buddhism is as a (putative) aspect of Theravāda or Pali Buddhism, which continues to be practiced over much of mainland Southeast Asia to the present day. Certain aspects of contemporary (and recent historical) Theravāda/Pali Buddhism have been labeled variously “Tantric Theravāda” or “esoteric Southern Buddhism” out of perceived similarities to the more familiar system of Mahāyāna Buddhist Tantra.
The Eucharist is a liturgical meal of bread and wine, which is almost always preceded by a service of reading the Scriptures. Christians attribute the origin of the Eucharist to Jesus Christ himself at the Last Supper on the night before he died. Many Christians regard the Eucharist as a sacrament and as their central ritual, and many celebrate the Eucharist weekly or even more often. This sacred meal has had various names throughout history: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Offering, the Divine Liturgy, the Mass. The most common name in the early 21st century, however, is Eucharist, which derives from the Greek word Eucharistia, a thanksgiving.
What we know since the 3rd century as the basic form of the Christian Eucharist is most probably the result of a number of trajectories from the first 150 years of Christianity coming together, including: fellowship meals in remembrance of Jesus, celebrations of his passion and resurrection, and the tradition of his significant meals such as the Last Supper and the Supper at Emmaus (Luke 24).
In the late 4th and 5th centuries, many local traditions coalesced to produce (1) a basic common form of Eucharistic liturgy consisting of entrance rite, liturgy of the word, homily, prayers, the sharing of a kiss of peace, presentation of gifts of bread and wine, Eucharistic prayer, Lord’s Prayer, fraction of the bread, distribution of communion, and dismissal; and (2) the various traditional liturgical families tied to major Christian cities: Byzantine (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch), Coptic (Alexandria), East Syrian (Edessa), and Roman.
The church of the first millennium knew a common affirmation of the understanding of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharistic elements as well as a variety of ways of expressing the notion of Eucharist as sacrifice. The first controversies over how to express Christ’s presence arose in the 9th century, and they rose to a crescendo with Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. The most sophisticated explanation of that presence (transubstantiation) was provided by Thomas Aquinas in the mid-13th century.
The Protestant reformers of the 16th century made various criticisms of traditional Roman Catholic theology and practice. They insisted on using the language of the people, giving communion in both bread and wine, and dismissing the language of Eucharistic sacrifice. The Reformed tradition (John Calvin) and the Lutheran differed considerably, however, on how to affirm Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic celebration, with Luther taking a much more realist position and Calvin a more “spiritual” understanding. The Church of England was reluctant to take sides in this discussion and its own theological position on the Eucharist remains a matter of debate.
The liturgical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, combined with renewed interest in biblical and patristic scholarship, has produced a remarkable convergence among various Christian churches, and it has led to Eucharistic liturgies among Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists that bear a notable similarity to one another.
Evangelism, mission, and crusade are terms related to spreading a religious message. Although all three words are primarily used in relation to Christianity, evangelism and mission have been applied to activities by traditions other than Christianity and, indeed, to secular actors, including nations. In the context of American religion, evangelism, mission, and crusade are activities through which people have contested and defined national identity and distinguished between the “foreign” and “domestic” and “us” and “them.” These delineations, even when done through activities ostensibly concerned with religious difference, have often been made on the basis of ethnicity and race. Thus, exploring evangelism, mission, and crusade illumines how notions of religious, racial, ethnic, and national difference have been constructed in relationship to each other. Considering these terms in their U.S. context, then, reveals relationships between religious and national identity, the role of religion in nation-building, and how religious beliefs and practices can both reify and challenge notions of what the nation is and who belongs to it.
Political Islam has generated two ideological strands that use religious ideology to advance their goals, namely, Islamism and jihadism. On the one hand, Islamists have formulated a political paradigm premised on Islamic teachings that are adaptable to the secular framework of the modern state and have, therefore, endured both as domestic and global political actors. On the other hand, jihadis have rejected positive law outright and advanced a global revolutionary paradigm against today’s secular world order. Key to jihadism’s appropriation of Islamic teachings is a quest for a legal code that provides jihadis with both an anti-establishment justification for their violence and a claim to legitimacy in the minds of Muslims whom they wish to enlist as their followers.
As part of a broader turn in humanities scholarship toward emotion since the late 20th century, scholars of religion increasingly have explored how emotion has been a key component in the lives of religious Americans. The relation of emotion to religious ideas has been particularly important in this nascent scholarship. In exploring how emotions and religious ideas are intertwined, scholars have focused on emotions such as love, melancholy, fear, and anger, among others. However, for reasons having to do with the historiography of American religion, as well as with categories that have governed much academic study of religion in America, the feeling of emptiness, which is so crucial to understanding Buddhism, and other Asian religions, has been underestimated for its role in American religions. In America, the feeling of emptiness plays a central role in religious practice, community formation, and identity construction, among Christians (the religious majority) but also in other religious communities. This essay describes some of the ways in which the feeling of emptiness has been expressed in American religions, and in American culture more generally, comments on how it has been joined to certain ideas at various times, and suggests how it has played a central role in shaping relations between religious groups in a society where religion is disestablished. The approach here is eclectic, blending historical narrative with cultural analysis, and the essay proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. Focusing on the feeling of emptiness allows a fresh perspective on religious practice in America, prompts new questions about belief and community, and enables new lines of interpretation for the development of religious ideas in America. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religious communities in America have distinct ways in which they interpret the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual phenomenon. Religious persons often conceptualize it as an emotional experience of great value. Among Christians, it is important as a sign of an emptying of the self of immorality, distractions, and worldly clutter in preparation for being filled with the grace of God. Accordingly, Christians and others in America have developed spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating the feeling of emptiness and advancing it to a point where deep longing becomes deep fulfillment. Religious practices involving the body include fasting, which is emptying the body of food, and tears, which empty the body of fluids. Bloodletting is also a notable practice, and, for those who do not cut or otherwise make bloody sacrifice (including war and lynching), bloodletting nevertheless is revered as a model discipline of emptying. There are aspects of sexual practices and the performance of work that also are exercises in self-emptying. All such disciplines are expected to prompt and enrich the feeling of emptiness. The severe fast, the deep feeling of emptiness, the desperate longing, the distancing from God becomes, paradoxically, a drawing closer to God. From the earliest settlement of North America, white Europeans and their descendants constructed the emptiness of the land to match the emptiness of their souls. Americans claimed to feel space. They expressed the spiritual feeling of emptiness in ideas about North America as a barren desert, crying to be filled by colonists and their descendants. The Great American Desert, a fiction created in the early 19th century, was one way in which Americans continued to imagine space as empty and themselves, as God’s exceptional nation, as the agents of fullness. American fascination with millennialism was a valorization of the fullness of eternity over the emptiness of history. Millennial movements and communities in America felt time as they did space, and when American Christians felt historical time they felt its emptiness. Americans have constructed elaborate and richly detailed depictions of the end as they look forward to a time when empty time will become eternity, fullness. Christian groups in America, populated by persons who cultivate emptiness, have defined themselves largely by saying what they are not. Both persons and communities, invested in the feeling of emptiness, mark personal and collective boundaries not by projecting into the social world a pristine essence of doctrine so much as by pushing off from other groups. Committed to emptiness, there is little to project, so the construction of identity takes place as an identification of Others. Such a process sometimes leads to the demonization of others and the production of identity through the inventorying of enemies.
Festivals are periods of time, cut out from daily life, during which a group performs activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world. Festival names in Greece and Rome often express this close connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder, or they refer to a ritual activity that is characteristic for a festival. The basic ritual elements that underlie a specific festival scenario are similar in both cultures (as well as in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world): processions, sacrifices with ensuing banquets, and athletic and musical contests are most common and exist already in the festival descriptions in Homer, such as the New Moon festival on Ithaca in the Odyssey. Common festivals founded and expressed group identity, first and foremost on the city level, but also for smaller and larger groups, from the family and clan group to the tribe or the community of all Hellenes. Greek and Roman festivals were so similar in their basic forms that, during the Imperial epoch, cities in the eastern part of the Empire adopted Roman festivals despite the fact that Greek cities followed a lunar calendar, whereas Rome early on had introduced a luni-solar system. The one festival type absent from the Roman world, at least during the Republican epoch, was the mystery ritual that, typically through a one-time initiation ritual, founded groups that transcended a single city, as well as the limits of gender and social status.
During the Imperial epoch, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions, continuing and exploring innovations that had occurred already in Hellenistic times. An early development was ruler cult, developed in the Greek cities during Hellenistic times and adopted for the cult of Roman emperors, who exploited its potential to tie together a heterogeneous empire through shared cultic activities. The most important driving force was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its helpful manifestation and thus allowed the cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities also founded festivals in the memory of family members, and during the Imperial period, such foundations multiplied and gained in grandeur. The Imperial epoch also saw the extension of single festivals to events that lasted many days, if not an entire month and helped to shape the Christian festival calendar with its long festival periods.
Many people, even scholars like Kenneth Ch’en, thought that filial piety is a special feature of Chinese Buddhism because it has been influenced by Confucianism, which considers filial piety as the foundation of its ethics and the root of moral teaching. In fact, we find in the early Buddhist textual sources that filial piety is not only taught and practiced in Indian Buddhism but also considered an essential moral good deed although it is never taken as the foundation of Buddhist moral teaching. One of the most important sutta-s related to this issue in early Buddhist resources is the Pāli Kataññu Sutta, which teaches children to pay their debts to the parents who gave them birth and brought them up with much difficulty and hardship. When Buddhism was introduced in China during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), Confucianism already occupied the central position in Chinese philosophical thought, and it continued until the end of imperial rule in the beginning of the early 20th century, although its position was challenged by Buddhism and Daoism from time to time. In response to Confucian criticism of Buddhists being unfilial, the learned Chinese Buddhists retorted in theoretical argumentation in the following four ways: (1) translations of and references to Buddhist sutra-s that teach filial behavior; (2) writing scholarly refutations of the charges of unfilial practices, such as Mouzi’s Lihuolun and Qisong’s Xiaolun; (3) interpreting Buddhist precepts as equal to the Confucian concept of filial piety; and (4) teaching people to pay four debts to four groups of people: parents, all sentient beings, kings, and Buddhists. Ordinary Chinese Buddhists replied to the criticism by (1) composing apocryphal scriptures, such as the Fumu Enzhong Jing (Sūtra on the Great Kindness of Parents), to teach filial piety and (2) popularizing such stories and parables as the Śyama Jātaka and the Ullambana Sūtra by way of public lectures, painted illustrations called Banxiang or tableaus on walls and silk, and annual celebration of the Yulanpen festival, popularly known as the ghost festival. Chinese Buddhism has become a religion that emphasizes the teaching and practice of filial piety with rich resources through such exchange and interaction with Confucianism and Daoism for the last two thousand years. Even today, ordinary Chinese Buddhists still teach and read the Fumu Enzhong Jing and celebrate the Yulanpen festival every year. This influenced Daoism such that they also created a similar text teaching filial piety and celebrate the festival on the same day and perform same activities of feeding the hungry ghosts, but they call it Zhongyuan.
Eric Michael Mazur
Religion intersects with film not only in film content, but also in the production and experience of film. From the earliest period, religious attitudes have shaped how religious individuals and communities have approached filmmaking as way to present temptation or salvation to the masses. Individual religious communities have produced their own films or have sought to monitor those that have been mass produced. To avoid conflict, filmmakers voluntarily agreed to self-monitoring, which had the effect of strongly shaping how religious figures and issues were presented. The demise of this system of self-regulation reintroduced conflict over film content as it expanded the ways in which religious figures and issues were presented, but it also shifted attention away from the religious identity of the filmmakers. Built on a foundation of “reading” symbolism in “art” films, and drawing from various forms of myth—the savior, the end of the world, and others—audiences became more comfortable finding in films religious symbolism that was not specifically associated with a specific religious community. Shifts in American religious demographics due to immigration, combined with the advent of the videocassette and the expansion of global capitalism, broadened (and improved) the representation of non-Christian religious themes and issues, and has resulted in the narrative use of non-Christian myths. Experimentation with sound and image has broadened the religious aspect of the film experience and made it possible for the viewing of film to replicate for some a religious experience. Others have broadened the film-viewing experience into a religious system. While traditional film continues to present traditional religions in traditional ways, technology has radically individualized audio-visual production, delivery, and experience, making film, like religion, and increasingly individualized phenomenon.
William D. Romanowski
Since the dawn of the cinema at the turn of the 20th century, the church and its vicissitudes have been an essential part of the Hollywood story. There is a basic affinity between film and religion; both propagate values and offer visions of life that can—and often do—rival one another. For that reason, religious leaders have always been wary of Hollywood’s effect on the moral and religious character of the nation and its influence around the world. The film industry evolved in tandem with the church and other social institutions as it became integrated into society as a legitimate art. Negotiations with Hollywood were complex as church leaders sought to resolve enduring tensions between profits and the public welfare, freedom and control, art and entertainment, morality and marketing.
Approaches to the cinema embody deeply held religious principles held in some tension. The one stresses freedom of expression and individual conscience; the other a concern with protecting the church and the moral and religious character of American society. Various perspectives that are rooted in different theological-cultural traditions exist along a spectrum. At one end is an emphasis on the individual as the genesis of social change; at the other is a concern with transforming institutions that influence and govern people’s lives. These two tendencies, which are not mutually exclusive, find expression both within religious groups and between them.
In the history of Hollywood-church relations, Protestants favored industry reforms to protect individual liberty and the common good based on a shared recognition of the need for self-restraint and public responsibility. While Protestants stressed the individual conscience in movie matters, Catholics emphasized ecclesiastical authority. Proscribed film viewing and production oversight were deemed necessary to develop the individual conscience and protect parishioners from false ideas and immorality. Evangelicals, in turn, utilized film to evangelize and expected to restrain film production with highly publicized protests and a demonstrable consumer demand for family-friendly movies. Though motivated by different goals and perspectives, these strategies are all in some measure attempts to fuse moral and religious principles with democratic values and market realities: persistent dynamics traceable from the origins of the cinema to contemporary debates.
Carol S. Anderson
The Buddhist teaching known in English as the four noble truths is most often understood as the single most important teaching of the historical buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who taught in northern India during the 5th century
Phillip Gordon Mackintosh
American Freemasonry is as much a spatial as sacred practice. Emerging from arcane Enlightenment origins, Masonic theology and practice brim with a spatiality representative of Masonry’s compulsion to make men moral. Moral masculinity reflects in Freemasonry’s “sacred space,” Masonic geography fixed with symbols vital to the moral, social, and spiritual growth of potential and actual Freemasons.
Masons have routinely embedded sacred geography in architecture from stylish Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian “temples,” to humble lodges occupying multi-use back rooms or above street-level shops. Masonic historical preoccupation with spatiality evokes Victorian faith in moral environmentalism: the impulse to effect virtuous and civil behavior through orderly manipulations of environment. Indeed, the dedicated employment in the lodge of Masonic furniture and furnishings loosely mimics the Victorian middle-class parlor’s preoccupation with order, design, and moral aesthetics. Masons call this ritual and allegorical décor the lodge’s form, support, covering, furniture, ornaments, lights, and jewels. Such furnishings figure in Masonry’s performance of rituals, and, together, they both produce sacred space in the lodge and substantiate the rites’ moral masculine transformation of Masonic candidate and Mason alike.
Masonic spatiality includes a waning penchant for racial and sexual apartheid, originating in early modern American misapprehensions of biology, anthropology, and gender. Accordingly, “black” Masons have attended separate lodges. Prince Hall Freemasonry has existed since the late 18th century and is named for its eponymous founder, although “black” Masons join “white” lodges today. Women Masons or “matrons” are initiated in an appendant Christian rite: the Order of the Eastern Star, which includes a Prince Hall form, was developed for evangelical Protestant women followers of Jesus intentionally to distract them from the deism of the men’s rituals in a milieu of 19th century Christian anti-Masonry.
Recognizing the lodge as sacred space contributes to its existence as sacred “place.” Thus, the lodge-as-place becomes a “sacred retreat” for Masons who dwell outside its precincts.
Stephanie Y. Mitchem
With rapid development, academically and socially, in the past sixty years, gender and public religion in the United States have become a separate field, even as it is integrated into others such as politics, biology, law, philosophy, and cultural studies. As ideas about gender have expanded, potential conflicts with established religions have sometimes occurred even as new theologies, ethical constructs, and even new strains of religion occur.
Throughout American history, religious people and groups have developed, sustained, or challenged cultural norms around gender, marriage, and sexual purity. Beginning with the earliest English Protestant settlers in the 17th century, American Christians have devoted consistent attention to the proper roles of men and women, and to the proper functioning of families. Throughout American history, religious leaders have assigned men as spiritual leaders of their families. Assessments of women’s piety—and its importance in maintaining social order—have grown more positive over time. Prophetic radicals and political activists have frequently challenged American Christianity by attacking its traditionalism on issues related to gender and sexuality. The ideal of a “traditional family” has, however, proven quite robust. Even as cultural attitudes around gender and sexuality have shifted dramatically in recent years, the presumption that typical American families are heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian has persisted. This presumption developed over time and has remained dominant owing in part to the contributions of American religious groups.
The history of religion in the United States cannot be understood without attending to histories of race, gender, and sexuality. Since the 1960s, social and political movements for civil rights have ignited interest in the politics of identity, especially those tied to movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. These movements have in turn informed scholarly practice, not least by prompting the formation of new academic fields, such as Women’s Studies and African American studies, and new forms of analysis, such as intersectionality, critical race theory, and feminist and queer theory. These movements have transformed how scholars of religion in colonial North America and the United States approach intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.
From the colonial period to the present, these discourses of difference have shaped religious practice and belief. Religion has likewise shaped how people understand race, gender, and sexuality. The way that most people in the United States think about identity, especially in terms of race, gender, or sexuality, has a longer history forged out of encounters among European Christians, Native Americans, and people of African descent in the colonial world. European Christians brought with them a number of assumptions about the connection between civilization and Christian ideals of gender and sexuality. Many saw their role in the Americas as one of Christianization, a process that included not only religious but also sexual and cultural conversion, as these went hand in hand. Assumptions about religion and sexuality proved central to how European colonists understood the people they encountered as “heathens” or “pagans.” Religion likewise informed how they interpreted the enslavement of Africans, which was often justified through theological readings of the Bible. Native Americans and African Americans also drew upon religion to understand and to resist the violence of European colonialism and enslavement. In the modern United States, languages of religion, race, gender, and sexuality continue to inform one another as they define the boundaries of normative “modernity,” including the role of religion in politics and the relationship between religious versus secular arguments about race, gender, and sexuality.
The structures of the late medieval Church into which Martin Luther was born and within which he received his education and theological training were complicated, particularly in the German lands. German bishops were territorial princes as well as spiritual leaders. Only a minority of German dioceses fell within temporal territories, but in most cases dioceses spanned several territories and some territories included areas in two or more dioceses. Abbots and abbesses were also rulers of independent territories, many of which answered only to the pope. Germany’s prince-bishops had considerable political power, exemplified in the college of electors who selected the Holy Roman Emperor. Of these seven, four were temporal political rulers: the King of Bohemia, Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count of the Palatine, and the Duke of (Electoral) Saxony; but the remaining three were Germany’s three Archbishops: of Cologne, of Mainz, and of Trier. Although such high-ranking church posts were not hereditary, the candidates for most German bishoprics were required to come from the high nobility, and many bishoprics effectively passed down families, or alternated between two families. The Archbishopric of Magdeburg, for instance, was generally held by a scion of the families of the Electors of Saxony and of Brandenburg. In addition, temporal rulers could hold and exercise spiritual power. Thus in Wittenberg, the Elector of Saxony claimed spiritual jurisdiction over the castle church and later over the town, and this was ceded by the Archbishop. In consequence, long before the Reformation, bishops and rulers were vying for authority and sometimes for territory. Not all ecclesiastical power was mediated through bishops: the Abbesses of Essen and Quedlinburg, like some abbots held their jurisdiction directly from the Pope. The German churches which emerged in the course of the Reformation were deeply influenced by their local contexts and by the patterns of relationship between the bishops and temporal political authorities, which in turn shaped emerging Reformation church orders.
Bo Kristian Holm
In analyzing the role of gift and giving in Martin Luther’s theology, one almost inevitably has to deal with the contrast between Marcel Mauss’s description of archaic gift economy, where gifts and exchange are interconnected and gift exchange a total social fact, and Derrida’s critique of Mauss for talking of anything else but the gift, since only a gift uncontaminated by exchange deserves the proper name “gift.” Accordingly, any reading of Luther relating Luther’s theology to the reciprocity of giving seems, from the outset, to grasp anything but the cornerstone of his theology: the justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. Nevertheless, scholars in the early 21st century have been discussing Luther as a theologian of the gift. Some defend a position according to which Luther’s theology can only be rightly understood by maintaining that the divine gift is free and pure. Others argue that Luther’s mature theology allows for an integration of some kind of exchange as a vital part of the very doctrine of justification.
In both cases, social anthropological gift studies can function as a lens for highlighting the heart of Luther’s theology, either negatively by presenting the absolute opposite of Luther’s understanding of divine giving in justification and creation or positively by revealing the very heart of the same. The young Luther vehemently criticized a piety regulated by economic principles and understood divine righteousness in contrast to human principles for righteousness. However, he soon began integrating reciprocal aspects from the traditional definition of righteousness into his doctrine of justification. This was possible due to an emphasis on the divine self-giving, revealed in Christ and slowly elaborated to cover Luther’s understanding of the whole Trinity. In this move, Luther seemed to have been influenced by Roman popular philosophy, which was widespread in the late renaissance, but biblical passages emphasizing reciprocal justice also played an important role. Advocators for understanding Luther’s theology from the perspective of inter-human gift exchange will argue that Luther’s theology of the gift is intimately related to his use of the figure of communicatio idiomatum, which allows the giver to share his attributes with the receiver.
David J. Bartholomew
In many quarters God and chance are still seen as mutually exclusive alternatives. It is common to hear that ascribing anything to “chance” rules out God’s action.
Recent scientific developments have tended to reinforce that distinction. Quantum theory introduced an irreducible uncertainty at the atomic level by requiring that certain microscopic physical events were unpredictable in principle. This was followed by the biologists’ claim that mutations, on which evolution depends, were effectively random and hence that evolutionary development was undirected. The problem this posed to Christian apologists was put most forcibly by Jacques Monod when he asserted “Pure chance,… at the root of the stupendous edifice of evolution alone is the source of every innovation.”
Several attempts have been made to include chance within a theistic account. One, advocated by the intelligent design movement, is to contend that some biological structures are too complex to have originated in the way that evolutionary theory supposes and therefore that they must be attributed to God. Another is to suppose that God acts in an undetectable way at the quantum level without destroying the random appearance of what goes on there.
A third approach is to contend that chance is real and hence is a means by which God works. A key step in this argument is the recognition that chance and order are not mutually exclusive. Reality operates at a number of different levels of aggregation so that what is attributable to chance at one level emerges as near certainty at a higher level.
Further arguments, based on what is known as the anthropic principle, are also used to judge whether or not chance is sufficient to account for existence. These are critically evaluated.
Luther’s understanding of God saturates his oeuvre, and in turn, this understanding is saturated by his doctrine of the justification of the sinner. God is the sovereign source and origin of all that is, and Luther develops his understanding of God in a manner that tries to safeguard this position in such a way that the personal relationship to God becomes the focus point for all he says. The doctrine of God as creator and as savior is modeled in a parallel way in Luther, as he sees God as the source of everything positively in both contexts. God is the sole giver of the gifts that human life requires. As creator, God is omnipresent, omniscient, and sovereign. Nothing can determine God. God is accordingly also the only instance in reality that has free will. Everything else is dependent on God, God’s foreknowledge, and God’s predestination. It is possible to see Luther’s position as an attempt to offer the human being a reliable and trustworthy notion of God, someone he or she can cling to in times of despair and desolation. The only God who deserves to be God, who is trustworthy with regard to being able to provide a safe and reliable basis for human life, is the God who justifies the sinner because of God’s own righteousness. In contrast, a human who puts her trust in herself and her own works or merits makes herself a god and will not be able to stand justified coram deo in the last judgment.
Luther develops the idea about God’s hiddenness in different ways, most notably in his ideas about the hidden God in De servo arbitrio. But also in his notion of the theology of the Cross in the Heidelberg Disputation, and in other places where he writes about the masks of God, behind which God hides in order to do God’s work, we can see related or similar ideas. Thus, Luther develops an ambiguous element in his understanding of God.
Brent A. Strawn
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
The God of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is arguably one of the most fascinating deities in all religious literature: complex and multifaceted; prone to great acts of mercy and kindness, although not above brutal acts of punishment and wrath; consumed with care for the world and its inhabitants; capable of changing direction or mind; inexplicably in love with God’s people and deeply concerned with their ways in the world.
This robust picture of the character of God in the Old Testament emerges in the aggregate: from viewing the library of books that is the Old Testament as a whole and trying to reckon with their literary complexity at a higher order of reflection. Inordinate attention to specific parts of the Old Testament—this verse, say, or that one, especially when divorced and isolated from all others—can produce a completely different (mis)perception such as that found in some ungenerous estimations that see the God of the Old Testament as petty or unjust, vindictive or bloodthirsty, misogynistic or genocidal. Such estimations are as old as the second-century arch-heretic Marcion but are also found in works of more recent vintage.
Some—although certainly not all—of these negative descriptors can be applied to the God of the Old Testament in certain passages, but a portrait consisting solely of them will end up being little more than a caricature that will not hold up to close scrutiny because it systematically ignores every piece of contrary data found in the Bible. To be sure, accounting for what might be called “polarities” in God’s presentation (God’s love versus God’s wrath) is a challenging intellectual task, literarily as much as theologically. Not all readers are up to the job (witness Marcion). But this task must be engaged if one wishes to write a complete character description (not to mention analysis) of God from the biblical texts. Indeed, the complexity of any more fulsome portrait of God in the Old Testament—marked, for example, by tensions, a vast array of metaphors, and alternative presentations—should be one of the primary results of such an endeavor. The God of the Old Testament is, after all, first and foremost, according to the description above, complex and multifaceted.
The complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament is the direct result of the diversity of the Bible itself—a term that derives from a Greek plural, ta biblia, “the books.” Not only are the books of the Bible several and different at a synchronic level, but also they come from different periods and are themselves (that is, within each particular book) the result of long diachronic processes. This two-layered diversity that marks the Bible adds yet further difficulty to the task of describing God therein, even as it suggests that more than one approach can and must be (and has been) utilized in the attempt.
In the final analysis, it seems safe to say that the complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament has functioned not only to make this deity endlessly fascinating in the history of civilization but also to underscore—at some literary level, if nothing else—that the God of whom the texts speak is truly a divine character: not able to be captured, controlled, or managed by the human characters in the stories and not even by the sacred literature itself. Only a robust approach to the biblical literature that pays attention to both synchronic and diachronic aspects can hope to do justice to such a fascinating deity.