Christianity's global history: 10-15-12
A prize for interfaith work: 10-17-12

Looking into Kabbalah: 10-16-12

Every religious tradition has its mystical path. Beyond Christian mysticism (among the many names associated with this are Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas a Kempis and Bernard of Clairvaux), there's Sufism in Islam and Kabbalah in Judaism, to mention nothing of similar paths in many other traditions.

Kabbalistic-journeyIn recent years, because of publicized interest by such celebrities as Madonna, Kabbalah has received a fair amount of press and become at times rather faddish.

But Kabbalah is an ancient and honorable way of seeking a personal experience of God, which is what mysticism generally is all about. And it is the subject of two new books by Rabbi Joseph P. Schultz, the former director of the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Schultz, who now lives in the Boston area, will be in Kansas City soon to talk about his books, The Kabbalistic Journey: From Religion to Spirituality to Mysticism, and In Search of Higher Wisdom: Conversations About Religion, Spirituality and Mysticism.

Search-WisdomHe will speak at free public events at 10 a.m. this Sunday at Congregation Beth Shalom, 14200 Lamar, Overland Park, Kan., and at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at Congregation Beth Torah, 6100 W. 127th St., Overland Park.

The Sunday presentation will be done in an interview format with Schultz's son, Eric Schultz, a journalist at KSHB-TV, Channel 41, in Kansas City, who also helped edit the new books and who, with his sister, Reena Schultz, a teacher in the Boston area, conducted the interviews with Rabbi Schultz that make up the core of In Search of Higher Wisdom.

People first learning about Kabbalah and mysticism in general might want to start with In Search of Higher Wisdom. Its interview format makes for easier reading, and Rabbi Schultz's deep knowledge and expansive sense about the human struggle come through clearly.

One thing I especially liked about this volume (also present in the more traditional other book) was its attention to interfaith matters.

In response to a simple question, Rabbi Schultz reaches into his experience and learning and brings readers information from Buddhism, Islam, Native American spirituality, Christianity and other traditions. It's impressive and enlightening.

The Kabbalistic Journey book has a more traditional format but is quite accessible, even to those not especially familiar with mysticism. (And, by the way, did you know that there's a Christian Kabbalah path, too? Schultz writes a bit about it, explaining how it and Christian mysticism generally owes a lot to Judaism's mystic path.)

Perhaps Rabbi Schultz's appearances in Kansas City will be your opportunity to explore mysticism in general and Kabbalah in particular.

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Four "Occupy" protesters chained themselves to the pulpit of London's St. Paul's Cathedral. It's a start, but it's going to take a lot more of them for church attendance to improve in Europe.

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Yesterday here on the blog I praised a book about Christian history but took issue with the author about his description of the Apostle Paul converting people to Christianity.

Today, I'm sorry to say, I will make a quite similar point, though this time about a different book, Paul: The Great Scandal, by Vassilios Bakoyannis. Despite containing some interesting facts about Paul, this book makes so many errors that Convivium Press, whose books I've generally admired, should have passed on publishing it.

The opening page is a tip-off. It calls Paul "the former Christian persecutor." There was no religion called Christianity in Paul's lifetime. Rather, there were Jews, including Paul, who believed that the long-promised Jewish Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth. It also says the New Testament contains 14 "of the Apostle Paul's epistles." In fact, though many New Testament books have been attributed to Paul, scholars believe only seven were actually written by him personally. It gets worse.

In describing Torah-observant Jews of Paul's day, the author says they spent time in their synagogues "learning of the Old Testament." The term "Old Testament" is a Christian designation of the Hebrew Scriptures that came into use only after the New Testament was put together. No Jew of Paul's time would know what you meant if you talked about the "Old Testament." Still, the author says Paul "knew the Old Testament by heart."

A page or two later Bakoyannis talks about "Christ's new religion," as if Jesus himself had created a separate religious tradition. The separation from Judaism of what became Christianity did not happen in any formal or complete way until decades after Jesus' life, and it happened at different times in different locations. The first members of the First Century Jesus movement were Jews who remained Jews. Later they were joined by non-Jews, who were urged by Paul and others to convert to that branch of Judaism that believed the Messiah had come.

In describing Paul's role in the death of the martyr Stephen, Bakoyannis writes that "supporters of Judaism were set on eradicating Christianity," as if there were any such religion then. They may have wanted to dissuade members of the Jesus Movement from continuing in their beliefs, but there was no Christianity as such to eradicate. And on and on.

For reasons I cannot imagine, this book reflects none of the excellent scholarly work that has been done about Paul for the last half a century or so. There's really no excuse for that because misrepresenting who Paul was leads to terrible misunderstandings between Christians and Jews today, and we've got more than enough of that.

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here.


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