Thursday, November 27, 2008

What is the covenantal spirit?

Historian Donald Harmon Akenson writes in God's Peoples. Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster (1992):
Just how difficult it is to escape the influence of the ancient scriptural grid is best illustrated by the development of early Christianity. Although we know much less than we would like to know about the historical Jesus, it is generally (if not quite universally) agreed among biblical critics that the most radical parts of the New Testament, the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-46) are for the most part authentically representative of Jesus' views, if not his exact words. It is impossible to read the Beatitudes without recognizing that Jesus was rejecting the covenant. He was truly revolutionary... [But] The church was unable to follow his example in breaking free of the covenantal grid. So, although on the surface they appeared to reject Judaism, Jesus' successors interpreted the life and teachings of Jesus within the context of that grid. His successors transformed him into a covenantal figure... though claiming to have broken free of the Hebrew covenant, the Christian Church did not. Why? Because the Hebrew conceptual grid was not simply a conviction or a belief, but rather something lying so deep within the mind that it ultimately determined the possibilities of conviction and belief. (41)
Although Akenson is one of Canada's finest historians (he is one of our American imports) I am not yet convinced, only forty pages into his book, that he fully grasps how a covenant may ever be renewed (does his metaphysics offer him a satisfactory understanding of why and how humans are historical beings?). Is Jesus a "revolutionary" figure in the sense of someone who makes a definite and (at least in intention) complete break with the old covenant, or someone who is recovering the necessarily radical moment, those rare moments in history when (re)new covenants are first proposed to a people desperately in need of them (again) because they have fallen away from the old? What are we to do with the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that immediately follows the passage referred to by Akenson? The beatitudes, Jesus' declarations of the blessedness of the meek, hungry, persecuted, etc., in Matthew 5:3-12 are followed in the now canonical text by
13Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

14Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

15Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. - Passage Lookup: Matthew 5;

Is that a rejection of the old covenant or a recognition of the spirit in which it must be renewed? Only a way of thinking that is enamored of the need to recover our Judeo-Christian traditions for covenanting in ways appropriate to our own times will provide answers. To this end, I recommend two things: 1) the recent post at the GABlog: Victimary Modernity and Covenantal Modernity and 2)joining in some conversation about how we can renew our commitments to sharing in a nation founded in covenants that requires each of us to act as guarantors of each and every other's individual freedom to share in a collective self-rule. If you can join us some Thursday in Vancouver, we can be found at the Downtown Library, 7-9 pm, in the atrium in front of Blenz Coffee (with blue scarves).

As Adam writes:
The only answer is freedom–to act as free men and women, engaging in free speech, free inquiry, free creation, free association, because covenants can only be generated amongst the free. Maybe the most basic thing to do now is distinguish these modes of freedom from their victimary doppelgangers: speech, inquiry, creation and association mired in “resistance” to the “hypocrisy” of “domination.”


tiberge said...

@ charles,

Happy Thanksgiving (American-style, of course) to you and all the loyal attendees at the library tonight.

Enjoyed this post very much.

I feel there has to be continuity between the Old Covenant and the New. There is often talk at French Catholic websites about how Christianity made a DEFINITIVE break with the old and rotted branch of the tree, and how the new completely replaced the old, which fell off because it no longer had life in it. Such thinking leads inevitably to a complete contempt for Judaism and Jews. Then, no matter what any Jew says or does, he is not given any credibility.

Of course, a spirit of continuity (not necessarily reconciliation, which may be asking too much) must come from both the Old and the New branches.

Others regard the Old not as a fallen rotted branch but as the ROOT - that is perhaps a much better way of looking at it, and should lead to at least a willingness to abide each other, however tension-filled the relationship.

Dag said...

People are defeated if they assume they know the truth, if they know the obvious, if they "understand." If people have the answers, they will stop questioning. For most that's a great state to be in. Who needs the uncertaintie of the unfolding and unknowable cosmos to wreck ones otherwise pleasant routines?

What could be easier than a set of beliefs that one never questions, having found all the satisfying answers already? And if one is a Leftist, then the answers are perfect, and one should never question perfection, for that would result in the lesser by the act itself. Those are folks I don't like talking to. Those who don't know everything are pretty much welcome to have coffee on me this evening. I'm willing to bankrupt myself for that pleasure.

truepeers said...

Hi Tiberge,

I think you're right. What intrigued me about the passage from Matthew I quoted is that it suggests someone who knows that living a covenant is not just about living consistently in some proper way, but living in a history that makes different demands on us at different times. One is at once the salt of the earth, and then useless. One has a light, but it is a task to get to the point where you can get others to share in it. We are not giving up the old law but the new law will require yet more of us for it will not work if we cannot find a way to re-include those who have fallen astray. If we want an alternative to the sacrificial theatre of playing with victims, then we have to reincorporate the fallen.

And yet none of this can be predicated on a desire simply to declare null and void the old covenant. For it is the very tensions it sets up that will create the possibilities for new understandings in future.

It seems to me that Jesus was creative precisely because he know how to stand between past and future without limiting either.

I hope this doesn't sound like I know anywhere near the complete truth, though I hope I have a piece of it. I could use a coffee!

truepeers said...

Oh, my best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving to you Tiberge.

Charles Henry said...

thanks for thinking of us, I hope that your Thanksgiving Day has been an enjoyable one, bringing you some measure of peace and a well-deserved respite from the personal problem(s) that you've been otherwise dealing with this past year.

tiberge said...

@ truepeers,

OOPS! Mea culpa! I thought Charles had written the post. That shows my mind was more on food than food for thought!

At any rate thanks to all three of you for your commitment to something higher than what we see around us everyday.

The Indian attacks not only have NOT awakened the media, they seem to have taken an even deeper plunge into denial. Such is the nature of THEIR covenant. Or should we call it omertà? Or is it some kind of sick desperation??

And did you hear about the wild crowd of hundreds of "shoppers" who stampeded into a Wal-Mart on Long Island, trampling to death, without the slightest concern or remorse, an employee? Absolutely savage. Such people have not yet evolved to the point where a "covenant" can be anything other than collective gleeful bestiality.

At any given moment we have the alpha and omega of humanity alive on planet Earth. The victims in India, the savages on Long Island. The only connecting link between the two events? Hatred of the Good, hatred of the West, hatred of Civilization. And the omertà of the media and other do-gooders who are destroying what has been built up over 5000 years.

This HAS to be a transition period for planet Earth. This cannot possibly be the new world order, or the New Age, or any other new beginning for humanity. This really HAS to be the falling off of the rot, until such time as men really CAN start afresh. It will be a slow agonizing process, not easily visible in its workings, where each human being perceives only a small part of the whole.

Dag said...

Hi Tiberge,

I bookmarked Brussels Journal so that I see you work whenever it comes out there. You keep us going.

Regarding your comment, I'm certainly with you there.

My best, Dag.

truepeers said...


Such people have not yet evolved to the point where a "covenant" can be anything other than collective gleeful bestiality.

-what happened was savage, but I cannot say that that exhausts my hope for my fellow man. It is perhaps just when we see how fallen we are that the need for and hence the possibility of engaging in some covenantal thinking becomes more likely. And the covenant need not be anything too sophisticated. The primitive Hebrews were not at first anything much in the way of tamed folks. Crowd "psychology" is usually evil but that moment alone does not illuminate the alpha and omega of the mob members' existences. But it requires people to start stepping out of that mob and saying we must grow up. It requires faith in something higher. Faith in consumer culture does work, up to a point - there would be a lot more violence without it - but its political limits are evident in situations like this act of uncontrolled hysteria.