Reading through Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman this past week (see my BookCellar review http://vineyardboisebookcellar.wordpress.com/) I came across this quote from Ehrman dealing with the Catholic doctrine of Mary the mother of Jesus (in the context of discussion about the existence of Jesus’ brothers as being one of the proofs that Jesus himself existed).
Made me think of dominoes…
As a side note I should point out that the Roman Catholic Church has insisted for many centuries that Jesus did not actually have brothers. That does not mean that the church denied that James and the other brothers of Jesus existed or that they were unusually closely related to Jesus. But in the Roman Catholic view, Jesus’ brothers were not related to Jesus by blood because they were not the children of his mother, Mary. The reasons the Catholic Church claimed this, however, were not historical or based on a close examination of the New Testament texts. Instead, the reasoning involved a peculiar doctrine that had developed in the Catholic Church dating all the way back to the fourth Christian century. In traditional Catholic dogma Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin not simply when Jesus was born but throughout the rest of her life as well. This is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
In no small measure this doctrine is rooted in the view that sexual relations necessarily involve sinful activities. Mary, however, according to Catholic doctrine, did not have a sinful nature. She could not have had; otherwise whe would have passed it along to Jesus when he was born. She herself was conceived without the stain of original sin: the doctrine of the immaculate conception. And since she did not have a sinful nature, she was not involved in any sinful activities, including sex. That is why, at the end of her life, rather than dying, Mary was taken up into heaven. This is the docrtine of the assumption of Mary.
These are theological views driven by theological concerns that have nothing to do with the earliest traditions about Jesus and his family.
Let me be clear. This post isn’t about bashing Mary or even attempting to debunk ancient Catholic doctrine about her. Personally, the last thing I want would want to do is go on an anti-Mary rant and bash the mother of the Lord of all creation. Unwise.
What struck me was the line of dominoes. The long line of doctrinal dominoes stretching back to the 4th century. Although I still can’t help but wonder if the dominoes don’t need to line up further back – if Mary had to be immaculately conceived to avoid passing a sin nature to Jesus, what about Mary’s mom? And her mom? And her mom? And her mom? Etc.
But I digress.
What struck me is what a wonderful example this is of the line of dominoes we build as assumption is added to assumption, conclusion to conclusion, inference to inference, thought to thought until the line of dominoes has backed up so far that we have lost the point and obscured the simple story, in this case, of a terrified young girl in Nazareth who utters those profound words “Let it be to me according to your word.” Pretty soon we are hovering over our elaborate line of dominoes and protecting that line of dominoes becomes the all in all of our existence and the ultimate test of our faithfulness, our soundness, our orthodoxy. Words acquire new handles and definitions as we protect the line (e.g. “brother” must mean “cousin” for a Catholic; “whole world” must mean “select group in the world” for a Calvinist, etc. etc.).
Personally, I think the Lord of all loves to tip over our dominoes and watch them fall – and in fact, isn’t that the point with dominoes? Don’t we set them up to watch them fall? Perhaps such a realization would cause all us religious types to relax just a bit – and to enjoy ourselves and this business of theology a bit more. Might even make others want to play too – when it’s not the fires of hell awaiting you if you set up a defective line, but rather a “Nice try” followed by a simple reset.
To really enter in healthily to this game of theological dominoes, perhaps we need to paint in large letters on the wall what for me is a classic, foundational statement from the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes (7:13 from the Message, of course!):
Take a good look at God’s work. Who could simplify and reduce Creation’s curves and angles to a plain straight line?
Or, I might add, to a carefully worded syllogism.
Or to an immaculately conceived line of dominoes…