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Is "Material Spirit" a Contradiction in Terms? No! (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) November 18, 2010: Is the expression "material spirit" a contradiction in terms? No, says Troels Engberg-Pedersen, professor of the New Testament at the University of Copenhagen, in his fascinating new book COSMOLOGY AND SELF IN THE APOSTLE PAUL: THE MATERIAL SPIRIT (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Engberg-Pedersen's claim may come as a surprise to Christians and other people of religious faith who like to assail atheists and agnostics for being "godless," as they put it. He delineates the "material spirit" by drawing on ancient materialist stoic philosophy, as distinct from immaterialist (i.e., non-materialist) philosophy such as Plato's.

Immaterialist philosophy postulates the transcendent divine ground of being (a.k.a. God). By contrast, materialist philosophy does not. Nevertheless, ancient stoic philosophy is materialist and provides conceptual constructs for understanding the spiritual life in terms of the "material spirit," as Engberg-Pedersen puts it.

Because of the enormous influence of Plato's thought over the centuries, most Christians have tended to read the writings of Paul the Apostle in light of Plato's immaterialist philosophy. But Engberg-Pedersen shows that ancient materialist stoic thought can expand and deepen our understanding of Paul's thought.

That atheists and agnostics can have a spiritual life may not come as a surprise to non-religious people. But even non-religious people may be surprised at how Engberg-Pedersen's analysis and elucidation of Paul's writings opens up a way to understand those writings that can elucidate how atheists and agnostics can experience the spiritual life described by Paul.

Because Paul is usually considered to be the second most important founder of Christianity, second only to the historical Jesus, Engberg-Pedersen in effect is robbing Christianity of its second most important founder and giving him over to the atheists and agnostics, if they want him. (For understandable reasons, many atheists and agnostics may not want him.)

Related Reading: For further discussion of the historical Jesus, the interested reader should read John Dominic Crossan's two most accessible books JESUS: A REVOLUTIONARY BIOGRAPHY (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) and WHO KILLED JESUS? EXPOSING THE ROOTS OF ANTI-SEMITISM IN THE GOSPEL STORY OF THE DEATH OF JESUS (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). Also see Crossan's big book THE HISTORICAL JESUS: THE LIFE OF A MEDITERRANEAN JEWISH PEASANT (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

It is well worth the price of Engberg-Pedersen's pricey book to read his detailed and impressive delineation of the key term pneuma (spirit) in Paul's writings. As the subtitle of his new book indicates, Engberg-Pedersen opens up Paul's thought enormously by discussing the material spirit (pneuma), which is to say a materialist way to understand Paul's writings about the spirit (pneuma), as distinct from the immaterialist or non-materialist way of understanding those writings. But Engberg-Pedersen's materialist way of understanding the pneuma in Paul's writings does not necessarily threaten to overturn the traditional immaterialist or non-materialist way of understanding those writings that Christian theology has favored. Instead, Engberg-Pedersen opens the way of thinking about the material spirit, as he puts it, which is to say a way of thinking about the spiritual life of atheists and agnostics today as well as a way for atheists and agnostics today to understand Paul's writings about pneuma (spirit).

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For understandable reasons, Engberg-Pedersen situates Paul's thought-world in the contexts of competing ancient thought-worlds: Plato (and Aristotle to a lesser extent), Middle Platonism during the Hellenistic period, ancient Greek and Roman stoic thought, and ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought.

However, even though Engberg-Pedersen repeatedly refers to the conceptual construct and personification that Paul refers to as "Satan," Engberg-Pedersen does not explicitly discuss Zoroastrianism. During the period of time when the ancient Jewish homeland was under the rule of the Persian empire, before Alexander the Great conquered the Jewish homeland, ancient Jews came into contact with Zoroastrianism. During the later period when the ancient Jewish homeland was under Greek rule, ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought emerged. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that Zoroastrianism contributed to the emergence of ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought, including the conceptual construct of "Satan" as the adversary of God. (In the book of Job, the adversary figure referred to as "Satan," which etymologically means "adversary," is not the adversary of God, but the adversary of humans such as Job.)

That Paul the Apostle was an apocalyptic preacher is beyond debate. He was. Indeed, in accord with ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought, he had so convinced himself that the end of the world as we know it was about to occur that he expected to live to see it occur in his lifetime. But as we know, it has not yet occurred. Nevertheless, let us pause here and consider how we might feel if we thought that the end of the world as we know it was going to occur in the near future and that we would live to see it and experience it. Exciting thoughts, eh? Let's also say that this upcoming event would include a great dividing of people into the good guys who would be saved and thereafter live in heaven on earth or earth in heaven, and bad guys who would be consigned to eternal pain and suffering in hell. Exciting thoughts, eh? For people who have convinced themselves that the present world is evil, this apocalyptic vision of the impending future might be welcome.

For example, the recent mid-term gains by Republicans might convince many liberals that the present world is evil because Republicans are up to no good. After all, Republicans contributed mightily to deregulation and the economic crisis, and they also got us into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, Paul's apocalyptic thought-world might appear tempting to liberals in light of the mid-term elections. However, as is well known, certain movement conservatives over the last half century or more have sounded apocalyptic about liberals and so-called "big government." Indeed, an apocalyptic thought-world is arguably the signature characteristic of movement conservatism. Then again, our contemporary Islamist terrorists advance their own kind of apocalyptic thought-world. In light of the appeal of the apocalyptic thought-world to movement conservatives and Islamist terrorists, I hope that liberals can resist subscribing to another version of an apocalyptic thought-world, even though Republicans are up to no good. Liberals today should fight the good fight against movement conservatives without subscribing to an apocalyptic thought-world.

Digression: Despite my serious reservations about the apocalyptic thought-world, I do want to credit the ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition with one deep insight: Justice will not prevail in this world unless and until divine invention brings it about, which I do not expect to see in the near future. In plain English, our utopian efforts are not going to establish justice in the world. But this is no reason to stop striving to establish justice in the world, as long as we recognize that our efforts will be imperfect and incomplete, as President Obama's efforts certainly have been.

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As a result of Paul's thoughts about the impending end of the world as we know it, he traveled around the Mediterranean world preaching that this momentous event was about to occur and urging people to get ready for it. Evidently, his excitement was catching, at least among certain people. But exactly how should people get ready for it? According to Paul, people should get ready for it by putting their faith in the conceptual construct and personification that he referred to as "Christ Jesus," where the Greek-derived term "Christ" refers to the Hebrew-derived term "Messiah." For Paul, the historical Jesus was Jesus the Messiah (Jesus the Christ, or "Christ Jesus" for short).

Here I would like to interject Gabriel Marcel's useful distinction between belief-in and belief-that. Belief-in refers to our experiences of belief in a person, which we can expand to include belief in the personifications known as "God" and as "Christ Jesus." By contrast, belief-that refers to our experiences that certain stated propositional statements are true, so that belief-that means belief-that a certain proposition is a true statement. An example of a proposition would be the statement that the historical Jesus was the Messiah (a.k.a. the Christ). For Paul, this propositional statement is truncated down to the combination of words "Christ Jesus" that mean that Jesus is the Messiah. But for Paul, his claim about "Christ Jesus" is not a debatable claim; he does not want to invite debate about this claim. Instead, he wants evoke in people belief-in "Christ Jesus," who in Paul's presentation is presumed to be a living person. So if we want to catch his excitement and enter into his excitement and share in his excitement, then we have to share his belief-in this vividly imagined "Christ Jesus." In short, Paul wants people to use their imaginations to imagine the personification "Christ Jesus" as a living person whose living presence one can feel in one's psyche, as Paul himself claims to have felt such a presence in his psyche.

Two comments are in order here. (1) In his treatise known as the RHETORIC, Aristotle identifies three different appeals that the speaker in civic debate uses to help make his arguments for a particular course of action persuasive: (A) logos (reason), (B) pathos (emotion), and (C) ethos. Paul as a speaker used pathos in the form of fear about the impending end of the world as we know it and about the impending great divide of people into good guys and bad guys. But he also relied heavily of his use of ethos to persuade people in his audience. To use ethos as an appeal, Paul projected his identity as a good guy and thereby invited the people in the audience to identify with him as a good guy. Thus through the process of projection and identification, Paul could communicate his sense of excitement about "Christ Jesus" in a way that people in his audience who were disposed to his message could catch on to what he was saying and thereby catch his excitement and make it their own. No doubt Christian proclamation has relied on this kind of use of ethos over the centuries.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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