Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Holy: Understanding it Better by Understanding the Times

In the context of Eclessiastes 3:2-8, we read these lines among others:

There is a time for everything
and a season for every activity under heaven;
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

These lines can prove very valuablle, when trying to defuse false accusations in a controvery like the differences in defining the biblical words for holy.  It can also reduce the false name calling that sometimes happens even among Christians and scholars.  You probably have heard someone called a "hopeless optimist" or someone else on the other side of the argument called a "graveyard pessimist".  These are hardly compliments.  You might have also heard someone called a "conservative" or "liberal", based on whether you should accept their views or not.  These are used as ways to lay down a divide between groups of people.  I would like to clarify who I am, as I work on defining the biblical words that we translate as holy, sanctified or hallowed.  My point is not to create controversy, but to create clarity.  Readers have the right to know more about who I am.  I also will try to clarify who some others are in the important discussion of what holy means. 

Let's begin by using the lines from Eccleisiastes to define what I mean first by optimist and pessismist and then second what I mean by conservative or liberal.  It is helpful to begin with a common understanding of what I am saying, even if there is not an agreement with what I am saying. 

First, I define an optimist this way.  They are convinced that it is "a time to search".  I define the pessimist this way.  They are convinced that it s "a time to give up" (as lost).  Neither is good or bad in itself, but there is a question of relevance in relationship to time.  As an example, I remember my mother teaching me, when I was ready to give up on some valued possession as lost, to re-trace my steps.  She was right a fair number of times as I recovered quite a few things that way, but sometimes in the end, the valued possession had to be given up as lost.  Which point of view about the times in which we live is the more relevant or the right match for the times? 

Second, I define a conservative this way.  They are convinced that it is "a time to keep".  I define the liberal this way.  They are convinced that it is "a time to throw away".  Again, neither is good or bad in itself, but there is a question of relevance.  I remember learning a good rule for when to throw away or give away or sell some of my possessions.  It had to do with how long it had been since I had used some things.  Only a few times have I ever regretted deciding that it was " a time to throw away".  But some of those times were a bit hard to swallow later, when I really could have used those things I got rid of.  Which point of view about the times in which we live is more relevant or the right match for the times? 

My general position on defining holy is the following in relationship to the current majority poition on the definition of holy as "set apart" or "separate".  First, I am an optimist.  I believe that regardless of the past attempts to define holy, right now is a time in which it is "a time to search" rather than "a time to give up" as lost the possibility of knowing the meaning of holy with greater certainty.  I believe in the value of searching recent and past discoveries in archaeology, of evaluating further research into general exegesis and linguistics (for example from classic rhetoric), and in applying these types of things to the task of defiing holy.  I am optimistic that the deadlock between the majority position of the prior 350 years of defining holy and the the majority position of the last 150 years of defining holy can be broken.  So that is why I am still searching for answers in this blog and why I continue to produce blog entries. 

Some others are convinced that it is "a time to give up" the definition of holy as "whole" for the previous 350 years as lost in comparison to the last 150 years of scholarship.  They are pessimistic about the value of re-evaluatng the present time, because they believe that those earlier times of 350 yaers belong to a period of a failed searching.  I can't agree.  I think it is a great time for searching.  That says something about who I am. 

Again, my general position on defining holy is the following in relationship to the current majority on the defintion of holy as "set apart" or "separate".  So second, I working in my search toward possibly realizing that it is "a time to throw away" the present popular definition.  This would then make me a liberal, as defined above.  But I am not to that place quite yet.  In the present, I am convinced it is "a time to keep" both the definition of the prior 350 years as "whole" and the last 150 years as "set apart" and to evaluate them both again, before a final decision to "throw away" either one.  I could also put "pure" into this mix as a slimmer possibility for a deifnition to keep.  It is not the time to throw any of these away.  It is, however, a time to realize that when my search is over, some of what has been proposed in the past will mean it is "a time to throw away".  That should make my position very clear.  I am not stuck in a particular time, but I am trying to be relevant to the time in which I live.  I think I am moving forward toward and am attaining that goal.  The key now is finishing my thesis paper for seminary.  This clarification though is a part of that.  That says a little more about who I am.

Now let me use a broad brush to say a bit about relevant history that might be influencing our time more than we know.  The past sometimes matters, even through it is the past, like family influence and our own life choices of the past still influence the present.   I know too that sometimes the past can be irrelevant.  Let me try to stick with what might be relevant. 

Near the beginning of the last 150 years was an historic divide between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists.  Today their descendants are each called Conservatives and Liberals.  The sad thing is that the so-called Conservatives in Protestantism did not "keep" the meaning of holy as "whole" as the primary definition from the prior 350 years.  Instead they thought it was "a time to throw away" the primary definition of "whole" and make it only secondary (a descriptive word at best) while at the same time they saw it as "a time to keep" the secondary definition of the past as "set apart" and make it central.  They threw away, while their name says they kept.  These Conservatives were not conservative on the central character trait or quality or attribute of God.  This is one of the greatest ironies of all of Christian history.  How out of character with your name can you be? 

I think the explanation though may not be difficult.  In the late 1800s a Baptist named Charles Haddon Spurgeon (who I appreciate in many ways) was involved in what became known as the Downgrade Controversy.  One of his banner phrases was the passage that reads "come out and be separate".  This in turn became something that later Fundamentalists saw as sort of a creedo and banner statement of their stance .  Members had to agree that it was a time to "separate" from the Modernists.  Their new definition for holy helped support their stance because "set apart" or "separate", became the central character trait for who God is and who a saints is in their primary character. 

I must also say that the Modernists were the ones who primarily dug into how "holy" ought to be defined especially in a Hebrew context.  They searched as scholars.  Their lexicons in the latter 1800s largely influenced, not just the Fundamentalists to define holy as "set apart", but also those within their own camp.  It is another irony of history that their definition for holy helped the Fundamentalists to form and support a creedo of "set apart" or "separate".  I don't know that they intended for this new definition to create a bigger divide between themselves and the Fundamentalists, but that was an unintended consequence at least.  How out of character with their name can they be?  They assisted their opposition. 

So flashing back to the present.  It is important that a person understands the times and what is relevant.  What is most relevant is the present time and what approach fits or is relevant to that time.  It is important not to get stuck in a time that is no longer relevant.  We should not be sticks in the mud or sticks stuck in the mire of another time that is not relevant to our own.  Some times can be relevant even if not the present.  They can parallel the present, but that is not automatic.  It is important to discern when it is a time to be an optimist or a pessimist.  And it is also imporant to discern when it is a time to be a conservative or a liberal. 

Even in wirting this piece, I have had to keep searching for a better word and I also had give up when I wasconvinced that searching further for the right word would not profit.  I have also had to decide when to keep a sentence and when to throw it away. You and I may disagree on some of those decisions, yet they are naturally part of the times of life.  If I were to keep everything, you would consider me a pack rat and my writing would not have faced the editing that it needed.  If I threw out everything, then this page might still be blank and not worth anything at all. You get the picture.  Solomon's wisdom matters. 

These wise principles of Solomon are no less relevant today than they were back then.  So I guess at the present time, I should be described as a optimistic conservative, who at the right time will make the liberal decision to throw away some of the three most likely definitions for holy, as it is found the Bible.  I also at some point may decide, after I have completed my thesis paper at least, that it is time to finally give up writing more for the time being.  Only if it produces results will I then need to once again search for more on its meaning.  Maybe, at least temporarily, I will be able to say, "I have found what what's needed by searching".

May God give guidance from Solomon's principles.  May we also be willing from the results of our decisions on what to do in our times, be willing to evaluate whether our wisdom is God's wisdom, as it was penned by Solomon.  And if not, may we seek God's face for greater relevance and wisdom to know our times.  Don't get stuck in the wrong time!  You don't want to hear that punchy line, "Whatever!" 

In Christ,