Reading Lesslie Newbigin’s appraisal of how history is interpreted in various religions got me to thinking. Newbigin’s point was that Christianity, as opposed to the religions of Hinduism or Buddhism, views history as a linear concept – there was a past, there is a present, there will be a future. The eastern religions tend to view history as cyclical, as repetitive. Humans are caught in a never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. The only way out is to empty oneself so totally as to achieve “oneness” with the total, the complete, the one. For Christianity, history as we know it has a purpose, a goal, a telos. For the eastern religions, history is meaningless, there is no “point” to history.
Newbigin’s point is well taken, and as he spent many years in India, he should be well educated about the difference between Christianity and Hinduism. But reading his argument got me to thinking – how do you fit the despair of Ecclesiastes into the “history is linear with a goal at the end” viewpoint? Doesn’t the writer of Ecclesiastes stress “whatever has been will be, there is nothing new under the sun?” It is an interesting paradox.
Which, after a long and convoluted conversation in my mind (which will not be recounted here), got me to thinking about the difference between the Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Qumran covenanters, sometimes referred to, although not perfectly identified with, the Essenes. Each of these three groups are, in their own peculiar way, a manifestation of what we would refer to as “Conservatism.” That is, unless I am just horribly mistaken. This leads to some interesting connections to today (ergo, my lead-in with the “history as linear vs. cyclical” conundrum.)
The Sadducees were conservative in that they were entirely comfortable with the status quo, and did not want anything to disrupt their grip on the religion and piety of the people. As stewards of the temple cultus, the Sadducees had carved out a level of peace with the Roman invaders, and while they might protest the Roman occupation on a surface level, they knew that the Pax Romana also guaranteed their place as power holders in the Jewish culture. Thus Caiaphas’s view that it was far better for one man to die than for the people (i.e., Sadducees) to lose their place.
The Pharisees made their conservatism manifest in a much different form. If the Sadducees were concerned about the status quo of the present, the Pharisees were concerned about preserving a view of the past. Theirs was a legalistic conservatism, built upon a strict interpretation of the Torah. They were the stewards of the synagogues, and as such, did not necessarily conflict with the Sadducees as much as just come from a different foundation. The issue with the Pharisees was not a political alliance with Rome, but a spiritual purity that really had no specific relation to politics. In other words, they were not so much concerned with their political relationship with Rome, as they were their obedience to a literal and historic interpretation of the Torah. As long as Rome recognized their independence, they had no quarrels with the empire, and probably were quite pleased to live under the protection of the Pax Romana.
The Qumran covenanters (whether they were Essenes or not), were conservatives of yet a third stripe. They represented the escapist, the monastics, the “hunker and bunker” mentality of conservatism. They were so convinced they were the “righteous remnant” (a view probably shared by both the Sadducees and the Pharisees!) that they felt they had to leave the corrupt world and escape to a safe place where only the most pure could dwell. They lived in as much isolation as they could achieve, and we know about them only through their writings, which although are numerous, are equally shady, difficult to decipher, and open to a multitude of interpretations. They utterly rejected the self-seeking conservatism of the Sadducees, and they were equally dismissive of the antiquated conservatism of the Pharisees. They viewed both as cultural traitors and their faith as compromised. The only response was total, complete, and uncompromising withdrawal from both of these “secular” forms of the faith.
So, is history cyclical? Now, I am not a Hindu or Buddhist, but there is something about these three groups that is alarmingly contemporary. Which, I believe, confirms the truth and wisdom of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. History is linear – there is a point, there is a goal, there is a telos. But, equally, there is nothing new under the sun. Life is not cyclical in that we are in an endless loop of birth, life, death and rebirth, but humanity is remarkably dull and unimaginative when it comes to issues of ultimate importance.
Take modern conservatism, for example.
There are voices in the church that are clearly Sadduceean. They just want to “get along.” They do not want to ruffle any feathers, because they have made their peace with the political powers. They fear that if there is any turmoil they will “lose their place.” So desperate are these people that even when culture shifts in totally bizarre and unimaginable ways (witness the increasing militancy of the gender-fluid protagonists), they willingly go along with these cultural shifts so that they will not be stripped of their political, and outwardly religious, authority. Scripture is constantly being reinterpreted so that whatever “is” is blessed by God, and no one, especially of the Sadduceean mentality, is capable of challenging the cult of progress.
The ancient Pharisees have their modern counter-parts too. Chained to interpretations of Scripture that have not changed in decades (if not centuries) these folks are not so concerned with political power as they are religious power. Every jot and tittle is counted and measured, and if any word or deed conflicts with tried and true understandings, the new teaching is immediately labeled a heresy and the guilty is expunged. The specific topic of the modern-day Pharisee might vary, but the biggest issues today seem to be the only acceptable translation of Scripture, the literal (and specific) age of the earth, and how the worship service of the church is to be conducted. Related issues such as church architecture and proper decorum are never very far under the surface. Mint and dill and cumin are carefully counted and God’s tithe is duly given, but justice and mercy and righteousness are largely ignored.
Finally, the Qumran covenanters have their fair share of modern followers, too. These folks are, just like the Sadducees and Pharisees, devoutly conservative. So conservative, in fact, that they cannot stay in to day’s raucous society. They leave, even if only mentally while they physically stay put. They build their little enclaves of spiritual purity, and the cost to join them is high, if it is attainable at all. These enclaves usually die out after a few generations (as did the Qumran covenanters) because that level of perfection cannot be maintained by many or for long. However, another enclave will usually spring up to take their place, and this, the most rabid form of conservatism, will never truly fade away.
Looking at today’s religious conservatives I really commiserate with the author of Ecclesiastes. There really is nothing new under the sun, even while history moves inexorably toward it’s final end. This is why I think the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus for sure, would be so disappointed with today’s church.
We are not called to be Sadducees and form alliances with our pagan and paganizing culture. We are not called to be Pharisees and look back to some gilded age (which never existed in reality, anyway) and try to live up to a legalistic interpretation of the Bible that “neither we nor our fathers” were able to attain (to borrow a quote the apostle Peter). And, we have certainly not been called to become modern day Qumran covenanters, abandoning our role as being salt and light to a bent and broken world.
We are neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran. We are the church, the assembly, the people of God, the body of Christ. Let us ascend to that reality!