Religion Today

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thanksgiving at Plymouth: The Christmas Substitute (or, You Can’t Stop a Good Party)

November 11, 2015 
The celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in late November was not enacted until the 1870s. The official reason was to commemorate the landing at Plymouth of the nation’s Puritan forefathers and foremothers. The holiday’s national designation stemmed from two forces. The first was the unceasing will of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who spent 40 years of her adult life campaigning for the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
The second was the Civil War and its aftermath. Thanksgiving celebrates the American nation and the country’s citizens’ unity within it and subordination to it. So, it is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln issued the first national proclamation for its observance and that his successors, encouraged by Hale, instituted the national date of a Thursday in late November.
Before the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, states held their own observances on a variety of dates under different names. As the location of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts commemorated the first arrival of the Puritans on the Mayflower at the site of Plymouth Rock, which they identified as Dec. 22.
In the town of Plymouth itself, public celebrations began to take place in 1798, and accounts of celebrations over the next 25 years appear in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 17. 
Plymouth’s observances contained three main parts: a religious ceremony that included a procession around the town and a sermon or “oration”; a large dinner followed by the drinking of numerous toasts to leaders past and present; and a festive ball filled with dancing and merriment. This last item is usually accompanied by thanks to the town’s women for organizing such an enjoyable evening.
Toasts feature prominently in the local news reports, which often list them. The dinner of 1798 features 29 separate toasts. Unsurprisingly, later reports reveal worries about public drunkenness.
Plymouth’s annual observance of the “Pilgrim Anniversary” took place just three days before the traditional date of Christmas, Dec. 25. True to their Puritan heritage, most people in Massachusetts during the 18th and early 19th centuries did not celebrate Christmas.
On Dec. 25, shops were open for their normal hours, children attended school, and daily life continued as normal. Merrymakers were often prosecuted for disturbing the peace. Massachusetts continued this treatment of Christmas until well after the Civil War.
Puritans disliked Christmas intensely. It was not a biblically ordained celebration. Nowhere in Scripture appears any encouragement for a celebration of Jesus’ birth. When the Reformation took place, many Protestants saw Christmas (and Easter) as part of Catholicism’s “pagan corruption” of Christianity and removed them. American Puritans held to this view long after most other Protestants abandoned it.
Perhaps more importantly, Puritans disapproved of the rowdiness, drunkenness and inappropriate actions that accompanied Christmas celebrations of the time. They believed the celebration of the Savior’s birth, who was God’s Son, should not be a time for encouraging irreligious behavior.
From the 1880s onward, despite changing attitudes in Massachusetts, American Christmas stories and poems decry and ridicule this dour Puritan denial of Christmas and its celebratory joy and festivities.
The stories usually imply and even state outright that the rejection of joyous activity on Christmas day is typical of daily life in New England: No one ever smiles; children are quiet and subdued; there is no pleasure in living; happiness is never expressed.
Such tales overlook the festivities of the Pilgrim festivals just three days before. Celebrating the foundation of America as a nation, these revelries were secular (despite occasional religious overtones). So drunkenness, and loud and exciting activities like dancing, did not offend religious sensibilities, because they did not take place on a religious holiday.
The people of Plymouth did not shun merriment; they didn’t even shun it in late December. They simply avoided associating it with a day that their Puritan heritage linked to “pagan worship.” In many ways, they exemplify what happened in Boston and other Massachusetts towns and cities. And, it should be noted, they engaged in the much despised activities that caused their Puritan forefathers to reject Christmas.
Plymouth’s early celebrations of what later became Thanksgiving, then, gave them a day of celebration that they could enjoy at the same time the rest of the country was celebrating Christmas. Their secular observance of the nation’s founding provided a substitute for Christmas religious festivities.

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Commanding Morality

October 28, 2015
It is a tenet of Christian belief that the moral values that God commanded are “good.” By this I do not mean to say that they are a “good job” or that they were “done well” or that God should receive a gold star for creating them.
No, I mean that, according to Christian belief, God’s ethics represent the highest form of the virtue "goodness" possible. They are the epitome of moral values; it is impossible for a better moral system to exist.
Of course, in the modern world we disagree with specific moral rules and no longer practice some of them, such as the rules about slavery and divorce. Indeed, fewer than half of the Ten Commandments are encoded in United States law. But, as a theological claim, if God is good, then the moral rules He proclaimed must be good. And, since God is by definition perfect, then the morality He proclaimed also must be perfectly good.
From this viewpoint, it is interesting to ask this question: Is God’s morality good because He commanded it, or did He command it because it was good? This is a difficult question, and different forms of Christianity have answered in different ways. It is so difficult that many forms of Christianity have refused to address it. It is a conundrum for all monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Islam.
The conundrum is this: While all Christian and monotheistic believers happily affirm that God and His ethics are good, the possible answers to the question require the affirmation of a second point, and that point is less willingly accepted. Indeed, there are two possible points, one for each answer to the question, and both are uncomfortable for monotheists.
If God’s morality is good because He commanded it, then that means that whatever He commanded would have been equally good. He could have commanded anything, and it would have been just as good. God could have decreed that Wednesday was the holy day instead of the Sabbath. And that would be good. He could have decreed that murder or theft were good.
Our ethical and moral sense, therefore, comes from God’s commands. If He had commanded something else, then Christian moral sensibilities would be different. It is rather uncomfortable to think that Christian morality was open to all possibilities before God uttered His commands, and that He arbitrarily chose to declare some actions good and some actions evil.
The alternative answer to our question resolves this problem, but only by creating another one. If God commanded Christian morality because it was good, that means that each rule in it has an essence of goodness. Due to its inherent nature, then, and not because God said it, each command is good in and of itself. When all moral rules are taken together, that means there is a standard of goodness that is independent of God. The standard did not come from God, because then it would evidence the problem of arbitrariness and actually be the answer discussed above. Instead, this moral standard exists apart from God, and existed before God commanded the Jewish and Christian moral rules.
The problem this causes for Christianity, or for any monotheism, is that it creates something ultimate that is not God. It also implies that God is not omnipotent in the area of morality, but consults the standard to ensure the goodness of His moral rules. To be sure, the goodness standard is not a second god, and so does not require the conclusion of polytheism. But, it does mean that God is not alone and that He did not create goodness, but instead followed a pre-existing standard of inherent good.
Of course, this theological conundrum has no impact on the specific character of Christianity’s moral rules. Its ethical demands remain the same whichever answer one takes, and even if one chooses not to address the question. For, in the end, Christianity believes, God’s morality requires obedience, not understanding.
Thanks to James Rachel’s “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). For information, see the section on Divine Command Theory.

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Ancient Readers

October 14, 2015
When people read the Bible, the works of Homer or any other ancient text, they link themselves to the people who read these works millennia ago. “We have read the same text,” they may think, “so, we are alike.” This happens particularly within religions; modern Christians who read the Bible, for instance, often imagine themselves to be like the ancient Christians who read the same Bible.
But, nothing could be further from the truth. In the ancient world, reading was a different kind of activity from what it is today. The difference in reading indicates a difference in character in three ways.
First, in ancient Mediterranean cultures, the ability to read marked someone as elite, as an influential member of society. Not many people in countries such as Egypt, Palestine, Rome or Greece could read more than a few special words. Reading required learning, which required time. Few members of agricultural societies had the leisure to attend school rather than working for the food and other materials that enabled them and their families to survive.
Although there is some debate over the exact numbers, only 2-7 percent of adult males in antiquity could read. Almost no women could read. Since ancient Judaism emphasized reading’s importance, perhaps a percentage point or two more of their men could read, but probably only in the cities.
Second, in antiquity, people did not read books; they read scrolls. Scrolls were heavy, awkward rolls of parchment or leather, which required manual dexterity to be read. Readers looked at one column at a time, perpendicular to the scroll’s length. To read a new column, one had to take up the finished column onto a roll at one end of the scroll while letting out a new column from the roll at the other end. The new-fangled notion of a codex, or book, with pages bound together on one side, did not become popular until the end of the fourth century -- almost the Middle Ages.
Third, people always read out loud. They did not read silently, as we are taught today in school. St. Augustine, fourth century, tells of his astonishment upon discovering that St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, not only read without sound but without moving his lips. Apparently, Ambrose became hoarse quite easily from speaking. So, he developed a technique of reading that did not strain his voice.
To read, then, was to perform the text, even when one was alone. The meaning of the text resided not on the page, but in the performed, spoken words. This performance required choices, even interpretation, for writing during antiquity had not yet developed ways of representing all elements of the language.
As late as the fifth century, for example, Greek was written in a continuous form with no breaks between the words. Nor did it yet indicate accents and breathing marks. A reader had to know by memory the possible spoken words represented by the incomplete written code. So, the task of a Greek reader was to decipher the written text and render it into speech so that it could be understood. Identifying different locations for word breaks, as well as supplying different required accents and breathings, could change both the sound and the meaning of the words being read.
Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic developed the practice of word separation many centuries before the Greeks. The problem facing these languages was that writing represented the consonants but not the vowels. Readers had to know every possible oral combination of vowels that could be placed with a particular set of consonants to make valid, spoken words.
Readers had to choose the right vowels to give the right meaning. For instance, take the two consonants R and N. One could supply vowels to make the present tense “run” or the past tense “ran.” The letters also could stand for the boy’s name “Ron” or the girl’s name “Erin.”
This requirement of decoding the written text into spoken language means that the complete text existed only while the reader performed it. To be sure, someone could try to remember it. But, if a reader returned to study the written text a few days later, he or she would have to perform it again, and that person may not perform it the same way as he or she did the first time.
So, what makes ancient readers different from today’s readers is that modern readers believe the text to be solid and unchangeable. Ancient readers knew it wasn’t.
This uncertainty led groups of rabbis known as Masoretes to create a set of signs to represent vowels and accents for Hebrew and Aramaic in the ninth century. At that time, the Masoretes used them to identify the words in the biblical text and, thus, to fix its meaning. This aimed to guide future readers so that they would no longer know the uncertainty of the reading experience, which had been common in antiquity.

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Morality: The Face of Public Christianity

September 30, 2015
A non-Christian who read recent newspapers to learn about Christianity might arrive at the following picture. Christianity believes that marriage is between a man and woman, so no marriage between members of the same sex. Christianity believes life begins at conception, so no abortion and no stem cell research. Christianity believes that God created the universe, so evolution should not be taught. Sexual activity belongs in marriage, so no premarital sex.
In this picture, Christianity is about actions that people should or should not do; it is about morality. What is missing from this public Christianity are the religion’s core features. Salvation, Scripture, faith and belief have disappeared from public view. How did this happen?
The story begins in the early 1500s, with the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the Christianity of Western Europe was Catholic and centered on community. Based on their doctrinal interpretation of Scripture, Catholicism raised a group of men out of the community to become priests. These priests then mediated between God and the people to bring salvation, forgiveness and blessings from God to the people. The church stood with individuals before God, buffering them in his majestic presence.
Starting in 1517, Martin Luther changed all that. Instead of the church standing with the individual, Luther held that individuals stood alone before God, with only their faith, based on their understanding of Scripture, alongside them.
Despite this theological change, the social reality altered surprisingly little. Individuals still lived in communities and these communities shared a single doctrinal interpretation of Scripture. Individuals did not interpret Scripture on their own, but rather followed their community’s understanding.
Often, these communities were formed around the teachings of influential theologians and leaders. Luther founded the Lutherans; John Calvin founded the Reformed Church and influenced the Puritans; and John Knox organized the Presbyterians. And these are just a few of the communities, the churches, if you will, created from the Reformation.
So, early forms of Protestantism took a similar structure to Catholicism: Each was a community that brought a common interpretation to Scripture which, in turn, led to common social norms (i.e., morality).
The Puritans brought this communally organized Christianity to America, where they established a new community that would help individuals lead moral lives in keeping with the Puritan interpretation of Scripture.
But Luther’s dictum of the individual alone still rang out. When Roger Williams interpreted Scripture for himself in the 1630s, the Massachusetts Puritans expelled him. Williams believed in a radical understanding of Luther’s dictum: The church should be separate from the government so that the church could not use government powers to enforce doctrine and interpretation on individuals.
Williams’ idea become the foundation of America’s religious freedom. By the 1680s, variety was the religious flavor of the era. Formulations of Christian beliefs, called catechisms, proliferated. Puritan preacher Increase Mather thought that “over 500” different catechisms were circulating at the time. Over the next century or more, European immigrants brought in new Protestant denominations and Americans created their own.
By the 1800s, Christians realized all this religious freedom fragmented Christianity and interfered with its ability to accomplish the great deeds needed. So, they banded together into non-denominational organizations to take on moral projects. To accomplish this unity, they overlooked doctrinal features that divided them.
Thus, the great ethical movements of the century were founded: anti-slavery, temperance, women’s suffrage, and missionary projects to evangelize both foreign peoples and the USA’s “unchurched” masses. By the mid-20th century, new non-denominational groups joined with those of a more secular bent in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. The lessons of these movements was that, if the divided Christian populace overlooked matters of doctrine and Scripture interpretation, they could unify on moral issues.
Toward the end of the 20th century, a new alliance of Christians was formed. Since the great moral concerns of slavery and personal civil rights had been resolved (more or less), these groups took up new ones. Thus, the “right to life” movement, for example, took up the cause of the unborn. This brought together an alliance of conservative Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, who were able to overlook their differences on doctrine and Scripture, to unite on what they saw as a great moral concern.
Thus, morality is the great religious unifier, where different religious groups can agree. They may arrive at those moral positions through different doctrinal interpretations of Scripture, even from different versions of Scripture. But, to strengthen their unity, they ignore those differences. The public unity of Christianity, as apparent in American news coverage, comes from morality rather than doctrine.

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