August 15, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, August 15, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Transgender deity in the Old Testament? Nonsense from a rabbi in The New York Times
We might say that there’s your average everyday nonsense, and then there’s something like a higher nonsense, the kind of nonsense that makes it onto the pages of leading newspapers such as the New York Times—in the case of yesterday, an opinion piece that was entitled,
“Is God Transgender?”Show Full Transcript
This is the kind of higher nonsense in which there’s a direct refutation of the entire theological tradition of both the Old and the New Testaments. The author of the article is a rabbi by the name of Mark Sameth. He writes,
“In the 1970s a cousin of mine, Paula Grossman, became one of the first people in America to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. As Paul Monroe Grossman, Cousin Paula had been a beloved music teacher in New Jersey. She was fired after her surgery, and she subsequently lost her lawsuit for wrongful termination based on sex discrimination.”
Later he writes,
“Forty years after the Supreme Court refused to hear Paula’s appeal in 1976, the transgender story is still unfolding. This month, a transgender high school student in Virginia lost the right to use the restroom of his choice when the Supreme Court temporarily blocked a lower court’s order. Still,”
He says in one crucial sentence,
“For the first time it is possible to imagine a ruling from a fully seated Supreme Court to comprehensively outlaw discrimination against transgender people. There is real reason to be hopeful,” he writes, “even if social prejudices don’t disappear overnight.”
So the entire tradition of both Judaism and Christianity through the centuries in terms of understanding what it means to be male and female is here overturned, with all that dismissed as a mere social prejudice. Later, he writes,
“I’m a rabbi, and so I’m particularly saddened whenever religious arguments are brought in to defend social prejudices — as they often are in the discussion about transgender rights.”
He then goes on to argue,
“In fact, the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender. And I do mean highly elastic.”—‘highly’ put in italics.
The entire point of his article is to argue that Judaism and Christianity, historically defined, have completely misunderstood the Scriptures and in particular what he calls the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament concerning the matter of gender, and not just the gender of human beings, but the gender of God. He writes,
“In the ancient world, well-expressed gender fluidity was the mark of a civilized person. Such a person was considered more ‘godlike.’”—the word ‘godlike’ put in quotation marks.
Later, he argues,
“In Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the gods were thought of as gender-fluid, and human beings were considered reflections of the gods.”
In a crucial paragraph, the Rabbi writes,
“The Israelites took the transgender trope from their surrounding cultures and wove it into their own sacred scripture. The four-Hebrew-letter name of God, which scholars refer to as the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, was probably not pronounced “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” as some have guessed. The Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi — in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for “He/She.” Counter to everything we grew up believing,”
“The God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.”
Well, at this point we’re at what we might call the height of this higher nonsense because the Rabbi has actually conceded the weakness of his position when he refers to his own argument as,
“Counter to everything we grew up believing.”
Now why would that be so? It is because Judaism, and Christianity in particular, have clearly understood the Old Testament as very, very clear on the matter of God’s self-revelation, including the Tetragrammaton. There has been no confusion whatsoever throughout the history of Orthodox Judaism or Biblical Christianity concerning any such thing. Now we have a rabbi, who by the way is according to the New York Times writing a book on the Tetragrammaton, who has discovered something like the Da Vinci code of the Old Testament, arguing that if we understood the Old Testament correctly, we would see what virtually centuries and millennia both Christians and Jews failed to see, and that is that God was actually revealing himself to be transgender.
But wait just a moment. That’s not actually what he says, because he also betrays the fact that his understanding of Scripture, including the Hebrew Scriptures most particularly, is that they were forged by the people who embraced them as holy Scripture. There’s absolutely no reference to divine revelation here whatsoever, that this argument really isn’t about biblical authority at all. And that’s made clear in the sentence,
“Scientists now tell us that gender identity, like sexual orientation, exists on a spectrum. Some of us are in greater or lesser alignment with the gender assigned to us at birth. Some of us are in alignment with both, or with neither. For others of us, alignment requires more of a process.”
You’ll notice the first word in that sentence is ‘scientists’; we are told that scientists now tell us this.
One of the things Christians need to understand is that this kind of argument is exactly what the secular elites are looking for. They are looking for arguments that Judaism and Christianity have been based upon some massive misunderstanding, something that was simply misunderstood through the millennia as Jews and Christians were dependent upon the Holy Scriptures. Just like we have so many in the New Testament trying to argue for the superiority of the so-called Gnostic Gospels outside the New Testament, in order to understand Jesus, a similar effort is now very much demonstrated in this argument coming from a Jewish Rabbi.
The Rabbi is making the argument that if we genuinely understood the Old Testament, what he calls the Hebrew Scriptures, in the original Hebrew we would be able to detect this massive misunderstanding—the misunderstanding that means that we have artificially separated men and women into two different categories as male and female. And more fundamentally, we made the same mistake when it comes to God, referring to God as he and as Father when, according to this rabbi, the God who named himself names himself as he-she. Of course, both Judaism and Christianity have rightly understood that what the Hebrew reveals is God revealing himself to Moses as I Am.
From a Christian theological understanding, there are a few huge issues here beyond what we’ve already discussed. For one thing, there’s a failure in this author to distinguish between metaphorical and analogical language in Scripture. That might sound quite technical, but it’s actually easy to understand. At times, rare as they are, the Scripture refers to God as loving his people in a motherly way. But it never says that God is mother. The Bible will use a metaphor in that sense, but it’s clearly identified as being metaphorical. On the other hand, there are analogical statements where we’re not told that God is merely like a father but that God is Father.
The next thing we need to understand in terms of an even more fundamental issue is this: God is not presented in either the Old or the New Testament—that is the Father—as male but rather as Father. Both the Old and the New Testaments make clear that God is a spirit. He does not have a body and thus does not have a biological sex. The Bible never addresses that issue except to make very clear that God is a spirit. But just as straightforwardly, the Scripture identifies God as revealing himself as Father. And thus as Father he clearly has a gendered identity in the same way that we understand the same to be true of a human father. That’s different than saying that God has a biological sex. Those are two fundamentally different things.
But the Christian also understands what the Jewish tradition does not, and that is that God’s ultimate self-revelation was the Son. Just as the Father reveals himself as Father, as the book of Hebrews says in these last days he has spoken to us in a Son, his Son, the Son, who is the exact representation of his own reality.
But on this issue, we also need to ask yourself the question: why did this article appear in the New York Times? On the one hand, it’s unusual to have this kind of a theological issue addressed, either way, in the pages of a major secular newspaper. Secondly, the article is actually itself fairly technical. After all it deals with the Tetragrammaton, the ancient four Hebrew letters by which God revealed himself to Moses. That’s unusual material for the New York Times.
So we ask ourselves, why would this article appear in the very precious media real estate of the Sunday edition of the New York Times? It’s because this article makes a point that the paper and its editors want made. And that, perhaps more than anything else, tells us what’s really going on here. And it’s one of the things we need not to miss. This is the world we live in, a world in which the New York Times all of the sudden gets interested in theology and even ancient Hebrew if the article they’re able to run makes the argument they’re for.
Terror Management Theory? Why even atheists worry about what happens after death
After that bizarre article, the New York Times returned to the issue of death. Simon Davis, writing for Religion News Service, tells us,
“Since atheist blogger Martin Hughes left Christianity, he hasn’t missed believing in God or in hell. But he does miss heaven.”
One of the most perplexing problems for atheists is the fact that even atheists tend to have some continuing instinct about the afterlife, about something after human death. Some the most influential early atheists in America, such as Robert Ingersoll in the 19th century, argued that the most effective means whereby Christianity perpetuated itself was the fear of death and the instinct that there must be something coming after death. But as we have seen, that is something that even more modern atheists haven’t been able to shed.
Martin Hughes, the atheist blogger, referred to in this article, who left Christianity saying he hasn’t missed believing in God or in hell but does miss heaven, said,
“I wish that there was one to go to, and that’s the truth.”
He went on to say he knows his view was not “atheistically correct.”
But he says that in his own version of heaven, he would “understand everything.”
There would be “deep, rich happiness that feels like Mom’s sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving.”
Davis then writes,
“Hughes may not be alone in his desire to keep believing in a more secular version of heaven. According to a recent analysis,” he writes, “in the journal SAGE … the general trend over the past few decades is broadly toward less religiosity (both public and private). However,” he writes, “the one indicator that seems to buck this trend is belief in the afterlife, where a slight increase was recorded in recent years.”
Now this is really revealing. Here we have people who say that they no longer believe in God or in hell, but they do believe in the afterlife and they hope there is a heaven. Davis then tells us,
“The U.S. is not the first place where this phenomenon has been documented.”
He tell us that the United Kingdom’s paper, the Daily Mail,
“Asked several prominent thinkers how they might explain the rise in numbers of atheist Britons as well as the increase in those that believe in life after death. The proposed explanations,” he tells us, “included selfishness, incredulity at the finality of death, a desire to believe in infinite p ossibility, and hope for those without material possessions.”
But then Davis asks a most important question,
“But is someone who believes in life after death still an atheist?”
Well here you might not be surprised that it depends, as we’re told here, by how you define atheism. Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, as well as what’s identified as the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief says,
“Strictly defined, an ‘atheist’ has no belief in the traditional personal deity imagined by Western religions. Such an atheist could believe in an impersonal supernatural realm or an afterlife, but not presided over by a god. Arguably some Buddhist conceptions of karma and reincarnation are atheistic in this sense.”
He went on to say,
“That a broader definition holds that an atheist has no belief ‘in any supernatural realm or phenomena,’ which would rule out belief in an afterlife”—to say the very least.
A study out of Australia Davis cites suggests that there are four categories of belief in life after death. First, the idea that, “life continues in heaven;” second, “continuing on”—that is, some continuing human consciousness and personality after death—the third is “reincarnation;” and the fourth is nothing at all, nothing after death, nothing whatsoever.
Just about the same time, a similar article appeared in the very forenamed Free Inquiry magazine, a major atheistic journal. It was written by Simon Davis, presumably the same Simon Davis. The headline in this one,
“Death: Thoughts on the Final Subject.”
Atheism, we are told, is scary because it reminds people of death. Now this is written to atheists, presumably for atheists. He writes about a study co-authored by a man by the name of Corey Cook who tells us,
“Terror Management Theory posits that the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that is assuaged by embracing cultural worldviews that provide a sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe.”
Now I guess that’s the kind of language that atheists use in order to describe their own worldview. But if we take that convoluted sentence apart, we’re being told here that what’s called Terror Management Theory explains that people want to believe in life after death because of the paralyzing fear or terror that death is the end. This is one of the reasons atheism has a very hard time as hard-core atheism making any progress even an increasingly secular society. Cook said,
“What we found is that when participants thought about atheism, it activated concern about death to the same extent as actually thinking about death.”
Now if you’re trying to promote atheism, that has to be one of most frightening sentences you could consider. Because this scientist is saying—and this is being published in an atheist journal—that atheism is just about as scary to people as death, and for the simple reason that atheism points to death and says there is nothing beyond. And people just don’t believe that. But this is where the article gets even more interesting, if unintentionally so. Because Cook also said,
“We found the effect even if we included atheists in our study. Because as an atheist, you have to confront that “Wait a minute, what is going to happen?” So atheism,” he says, “increases thoughts of death, even for atheists.”
“We just didn’t have enough in our sample to include them as a separate group and test them. We analyzed them and it didn’t change the results at all. So it’s not just the Christians; it’s something deeper than that.”
So here we have the acknowledgment that atheism scares atheists when it comes to the reality of the worldview of atheism and the denial of anything after human death. In a classic sentence as clear as some of the other sentences in this article are confounding, he writes,
“Clearly, the atheistic lack of belief in an afterlife is striking a nerve.”
The article continues quite a bit. But let’s just ask the question, why would the atheists’ lack of belief in an afterlife strike a nerve? I would argue that Terror Management Theory is not irrelevant here, because actually the Bible makes very clear that the terror of life after death in Hell is actually something that every human being should rightly take in to understanding. It is used as a very clear motivation in the New Testament to turn to Christ and to avoid Hell. You don’t need some modern sociological concept of Terror Management Theory. All you have to do is read the words of Jesus in the four Gospels.
The second thing Christians must keep in mind is that in the book of Ecclesiastes, we are told that God has put eternity into the hearts of human beings. A part of what it means to be made in the image of God—and every single human being is made in God’s image—is to have the knowledge of eternity built into our consciousness. It might be something we try to deny, but amazingly enough, this article makes clear even those who deny the existence of God can’t deny the fact that that very idea scares them when it comes to the end of life and what then might or might not happen.
But we also have understand that the Christian understanding of the afterlife, of life after death, of God’s judgment and of the dual destinies of Heaven and Hell, points to the fact that in this life and on this earth we will have and experience no satisfying justice. Not only does the image of God within us cry out that there is an eternity, it also cries out that there must be the accomplishment of righteousness and justice.
Secular Americans choose cremation: What does worldview have to do with burial choice?
The same article, by the way, in Free Inquiry magazine by also Simon Davis, presumably the same Simon Davis, is entitled,
“How the Nonreligious are Reshaping American Burial.”
This too is something we have discussed on The Briefing, but it’s really interesting here to have the argument made on behalf of atheists as explaining why the nonreligious, those who in particular are not Christians, are reshaping the way Americans bury the dead. Davis points to two really interesting issues in this article. On the one hand, he points to the vast increase in the number of Americans who are cremated rather than buried. But then he points to the fact that this is very much tied to worldview. The vast increase, the largest percentage in the growth of those who have chosen cremation or for whom cremation is chosen, are those who are not identified with Christianity or with any form of theistic belief. That too is very important for us to recognize.
One of the issues we discuss repeatedly on The Briefing is that the Christian tradition has been very aware of cremation but has stalwartly resisted it, as did Judaism, believing that the body itself is not to be destroyed by human effort, and in particular not by fire. Davis makes a couple of other interesting observations. He points out that according to Barbara Kemmis, the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, the main reason why people say that they choose cremation is costs. However,
“There are other considerations, particularly the flexibility to have a memorial ceremony after some time has passed with practically limitless options for venue.”
We have been looking at how, increasingly, weddings have become even in destination weddings often kind of an ultimate act of self-expression. Now self-expression is being carried from the wedding all the way to the funeral, or at least to the memorial service, because cremation allows one to have the funeral at any time in any place, whereas the more traditional funeral leading to burial certainly did not.
So here we have three different articles appearing in two different venues about the same time by one author, all on the intersection of worldview and death. And Christians must understand that to raise the issue of death is to raise one of those unavoidable worldview questions. And every single human being ponders death. Once the human being reaches the age in which there’s an understanding of mortality, that too appears to be built into us by the very fact that we are made in God’s image. Not only is there an understanding of eternity that is based within us, there is also an understanding of our own mortality. And that causes us to raise some very important questions.
One of the failures of atheism in the modern world is that it offers no intellectually or spiritually satisfying answer to life after death. As Tom Flynn, the atheist editor and authority cited in the article, makes very clear: absolute atheism means absolutely nothing after death—no realm of the supernatural—and yet we see that even atheists find that rather perturbing. And that’s why, as the Religion News Service article by Simon Davis made very clear, even those who claim to be “nones”—to have no religious affiliation—still want to believe in heaven, even if they don’t want to believe in hell.
I want to go back to that second article by Simon Davis in which he cited Corey Cook and that study,
“What if they’re right about the afterlife? Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice.”
Remember these words:
“Terror management theory posits that the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that is assuaged by embracing cultural worldviews that provide a sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe.”
Ponder those last words, a worldview that provides a sense that “one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe.”
There’s far more to the Christian worldview, but we have to understand that that very biblical worldview makes clear that every single human being is indeed a valuable participant in a meaningful universe because God created the cosmos, all of creation, for his glory. And he created every single human being in his image. That’s what makes us a valuable participant in a meaningful universe.