fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

Shadows of Things to Come?

A Shadow of Things to Come
(This post was written for the June synchroblog; other entries can be found here [link TBA].)

I remember as a child learning that Christians thought the "Old Testament" laws didn't apply to them, so we could eat ham-and-cheese sandwiches and drive on Saturdays and all kinds of fun stuff. That's changed a bit in recent years, though. (Or at least I've become more aware of it.) There's a growing strain among Christians who want all things Jewish to be part of their faith life. They want Seders and menorahs and bar mitzvahs and everything else – all while holding on to a more or less orthodox Christian theology.

Is this a good idea? I'm not so sure, honestly. There are people who are ethnically Jewish or who feel a strong spiritual connection to the Jews – who might convert if they weren't already so Christian in their theology – and who actually want to honor Judaism for what it is. For these people, I can't find it in myself to discourage them from learning more about Judaism and adopting some of its customs. If they make a difference in that person's life, help them connect up with something greater than themselves, why not?

But there's a darker side to this practice, too, and it's hinted at in the verse put to Synchrobloggers this month:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Colossians 2:16-17

To a philosopher like me, that word "shadow" is particularly ominous. It reminded me of Plato's Cave Allegory, actually. This is Plato's attempt to discuss the true nature of the world, and is found in (I think) Republic Bk VII. Basically you have these prisoners chained to a wall and behind them there are people parading across a walkway carrying objects in front of a great fire. The prisoners can't see the objects themselves but they can see the shadows these objects cast on the cave wall. That's all the prisoners in the caves can know – the shadows.

This is eerily accurate to how many Christians – even Judaeophiles – tend to view all things Jewish. A Seder as a commemoration of the original Passover in Egypt will usually get a *yawn*; what really gets their motors running, in my experience, is the way the Seder is supposed to prefigure the Resurrection or the Second Coming or whatever meaning the group wants to put on the ritual. Similarly, support for Israel is less about any actual connection or sympathy for those people and more about end-times belief. The idea is that Jews *must* return to Israel for Christ to come back; that's why the money and political support is given.

In a way, those old Gentiles – and their modern-day equivalent, those blinded by anti-Semitism or simple ambivalence who don't understand what the Judaism Paul is talking about here is driving at – are seeing only "a shadow of things that were to come." I guess the Jews themselves could be said to only have access to a shadow, in the sense that all people only can see a shadow of the future if they can see anything at all. We are all chained to the cave wall, unable to see the "real" thing being carried before the fire and have to settle for a pale imitation. Jews (hopefully!) had less of a shadow-glimpse because they had the best knowledge of their future, but even with them, you can't expect a sort of prefiguring to live up to the same standards of the actual world that surrounds us.

The problem most Christians get into is when they think such celebrations were only prefigurings. To the extent that the Sabbath points to a future event, it is veiled in shadow. But to the extent that the Sabbath is a call for justice (enough work to fill six days, and the luxury to rest on the seventh), it is extremely real, extremely vivid, extremely... well, extreme. It's Technicolor. And it is wrong to think that those "shadows" don't have their own reality as well.

That last clause also fits into Plato's allegory quite well. The Cave Allegory continues to say one of the prisoners is released so he does encounter reality. No more shadows for him, or at least not just shadows. This distinction is really well illustrated in the Youtube clip I linked to above, actually: on the one hand, the almost monochromatic world of the forms, and on the other hand the bright yellow tunic and the bright flesh tones of the woman the prisoner meets after he escapes. This, on Plato's view, is reality: when we are no longer bound within the confines of our senses but can explore the world of pure ideas using our mind alone. And to Plato we would be fools to prefer the cave to the reality.

Here's where we get into real problems for Paul. If the old celebrations are just shadows we would be fools to keep on celebrating them once the thing they prefigured was at hand (that is, on the Christian view, in the world post-Resurrection). In that sense the reality is at hand and only prisoners would prefer the shadows to the reality, given the choice. And yet that is exactly what the Jewish first-Christians did. Those first Christians were gathered together fifty days after Passover for a reason! And there's a reason, too, that there was so much fighting over whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcised. These pthe e thought they were Jews who should still obey the Jewish law.

The most obvious answer I can see is that, while "New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day" were thought to prefigure future events, they didn't just prefigure those future events. The medieval philosophers that I study got this quite well and formalized it into something called sign theory. Sign theory is basically the idea that words and other things not only have their own reality but point to something else. A modern example of this is a computer icon. The trash bin on your computer desktop isn't just a nice picture but also points to something beyond itself, and if you click on it, your computer will open up your folder containing deleted files.

In the same way, I think, the festivals weren't intended to just be shadows of a reality greater than themselves. They were also pretty damned special on their own as well. It's insulting (not to mention theologically wrong) to try to co-opt someone else's holy day and make it just a pointer to something someone else says it means.

The good news is, we don't have to do that. Being a sign doesn't take away the non-sign meaning. Christians can be inspired by Shavuot and all the rest – inspiration is completely allowed, it's actually a big part of what a sign is supposed to do anyway – but we can't try to redefine the original. The trick is being humble enough so you don't try to do too much.
Tags: synchroblog, theology

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