The Light and the Dark in Christianity

Rev. William Alberts is both a Unitarian and Methodist minister. His article at Counterpunch is called “Christianity: Empathy Versus Evangelism”:

Christianity has built-in contradictions.

Certain Christians seek to empower people, while other Christians seek to gain power over them. Some Christians want to comfort people, while other Christians want to convert them. There are Christians who seek to love their neighbors as themselves, and other Christians want to make their neighbors like themselves. Certain Christians believe that people know what is best for themselves, while other Christians believe that they know exactly who and what is best for everyone. For some Christians, faith is about social justice and ethical behavior for other Christians, it is about theological orthodoxy. Certain Christians are committed to creating justice for people in this life, while other Christians stress justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone as the key to salvation in a future life.

Not that evangelizing-motivated Christians do not comfort or empower or want justice for people, but they want it on their “Jesus is the Savior of the world” terms. Their unconscious predatory paternalism prevents them from experiencing and honoring other people’s reality and beliefs and negates any real mutually respectful democratic give and take.

Christianity’s built-in contradictions are found in its scripture. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying that his mission was one of empathy: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to “proclaim good news to the poor . . . liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (4: 18,19) But the liberator was transformed into an evangelizer. In Matthew’s gospel, an assumed resurrected Jesus commissioned his disciples with, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you..” (28: 16-20) From identification with people to domination over people.

These contradictory biblical narratives are explained by a leap of three centuries after Jesus death. It was not until 325 A.D. that the Christian Council of Nicaea confirmed the oneness between the Father and the Son. And not until 381 did the Council of Constantinople add the Holy Spirit, finalizing the doctrine of the Trinity. . . . Evidently, the writer of Matthew’s gospel put words in the mouth of an assumed resurrected Jesus in recording him as telling his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” The New Testament itself contains no explicit reference to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Whatever happened to the Jews prophecy that a Messiah will come and liberate their nation and create peace on earth? Roman authorities arrested Jesus for sedition, and Roman soldiers crucified him on a cross, as they commonly crucified other would-be Jewish liberators. (See “Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of the Passion”, May 2, 2003)  Instead of liberation and peace, the Jews continued to be brutally oppressed under Roman rule. Thus, obviously, Jesus was not their prophesized messiah, who would restore Jewish independence and bring them peace.

Along with his concluding emphasis on evangelism, the writer of Matthew’s gospel engaged in the horrible anti-Semitic act of blaming the victims. Roman ruler Pilate had complete power over the Jewish people, with a reputation for crucifying rebellious Jews who tried to stir up Jewish nationalism. (see “Blame Pilate, Not The Jews” by T. R. Reid, The Washington Post, April 25, 2000)  Jesus is believed to be one more such prophet. Yet Pilate supposedly made an exception of Jesus, giving in to the Jews who repeatedly shouted, Crucify him!” Pilate’s supposed next words branded the Jews with an unpardonable sin: he washed his hands of the matter, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.” Then these words were put in the mouths of the occupied Jews, setting them up for their own persecution through the ages by Christians as “Christ killers”: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children.’ “ (27: 24-26) Blaming the Jews for their own historic persecution as “Christ killers” is an example of irrationality, dehumanization and violence — hardly an example of The Bible as the source of infallible truth.

Blaming the Jews, not the Romans, for Jesus’ death was timely. The Jews were turned off by Jesus’ crucifixion and their continued oppression. And blaming them for Jesus’ death would go over better in the Roman world, which became the fertile ground for baptizing people “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In fact, the small Christian sect became dominated by Gentiles who had been pagans.

Not that these early Christians were welcomed by the Roman world. Their reported belief in Jesus’s resurrection, which led them to refuse to worship Roman gods, resulted in countless Christians being killed by wild beasts in arenas, beheaded, burned to death and crucified. The Christians’ steadfast faith in Christ in the face of death became a moving testimony to Romans, leading to Christianity being more and more rooted in Roman soil and souls.

In 380, “Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I . . . signed a decree . . . that made Christianity the religion of the state and punished the practice of pagan rituals.” Ironically, also reported is that “non-believers were persecuted with the same fervor that was once reserved for Christians and Jews.” And, “during the coming centuries, it wasn’t just the poor that were fed in the name of Christ; critics and dissidents were murdered in the name of the Lord as well.” (“Christianity becomes the religion of the Roman Empire – February 27, 380” by Matthias von Hellfeld)

Empathy versus evangelism. Power over people, more than morality, is believed to motivate Christians who believe The Bible is literally the Word of God. Here faith is about authority, not authenticity.

The centuries following are replete with instances of evangelizing Christians using the power of the state to explore other lands and exploit their inhabitants. In 1495, Pope Alexander VI “issued a Papal Bull,” the Doctrine of Discovery,” which “aimed to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on lands and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian domination and superiority.” (“Doctrine of Discovery”, Upstander Project)

Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States that, upon arriving in the Bahamas, Columbus reported: “‘The Indians are so naive and so free with their possessions . . .’ He concluded his report by asking for a little help from the majesties and in return he would bring them from his next voyage ‘as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.’ “ Zinn added that Columbus “was full of religious talk: ‘Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.’”

The U.S. was “discovered” and expanded on the bodies of Native Americans – and on the backs of black Africans forced into slavery. Christians justified slavery with biblical passages, such as Paul the Apostle’s admonition: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6: 5)

The Doctrine of Discovery itself is reported to be “the inspiration in the 1800s for the Monroe Doctrine which declared U.S. hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, and Manifest Destiny, which justified American expansion westward by propagating the belief that the U.S. was destined to control all land from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond.” . . . This usurping of Native American land was justified in biblical terms, with a number of U. S. presidents equating America with Jesus’ teaching: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5: 14)

. . . Jesus is recorded as teaching, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12) He is also recorded as declaring, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) The one path leads to human solidarity. The other path supports state imperialism. . . .

Unquote.

State imperialism, among other things, is on the ballot in November. Please vote and choose wisely.

Rev. Alberts included several paragraphs describing the Republican National Convention, which emphasized “the sowing of enmity toward other peoples, not the cultivation of empathy, and the use of evangelistic Christian nationalism to legitimize imposing America’s will on them”. For those who are interested: another link to his article.

Un-Christian Christians

From Matt Hanson writing for The Baffler:

After a set in Tennessee, the story goes, a couple of locals confronted the Texas-born comic [Bill Hicks] and declared that they were Christians and they didn’t like his act. Without missing a beat, Hicks responded with “well then, forgive me.” Instead, they broke his arm.

You might think reacting in such a spirit of vengeance is pretty much the exact opposite of how any self-professed Christian is supposed to behave. Yet there were deeper and more distinctly American pathologies at work: the guys who supposedly beat up Hicks were responding politically, not theologically. It wasn’t an attempt to defend Jesus’ honor or the tenets of whatever church they might have belonged to—it was to show that little punk who was really boss. They probably didn’t even notice the irony; and why would they? They may have grown up in an evangelical culture, but that culture glorifies what we now refer to as toxic masculinity. This “muscular Christianity” encourages both aggression and victimhood, emboldening believers, especially men, to impose their collective will on the rest of the public whenever they suddenly feel empowered or aggrieved.

In Jesus & John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation, the historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this moral schizophrenia. We know there are legions of people on the religious right who talk a good game about following Christ but end up voting overwhelmingly for venal, crass, blustering wannabe tough guys like the current president and his enablers in Congress. But much of the evangelical leadership is this way, too . . .

The question is often asked . . . why the white evangelical community consistently supports people who don’t practice what the Gospels preach. Du Mez argues, using an extensive amount of research, that white evangelical culture often glorifies the aggressive, patriarchal idea of manhood, which has become intertwined with what it means to be a conservative Christian in the modern age. They conflate a guy like John Wayne with Jesus because their idea of evangelical Christianity rejects the gentle, egalitarian aspects of Jesus’ teachings in favor of all the usual culture war gripes about big government, gun control, immigration, and gay rights. Thus, “a nostalgic commitment to rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity serves as the thread binding them together into a coherent whole.”

It’s not hard to see that religion has always been one of the most effective ways of enforcing the social order, especially in a relatively young and wide open country like America. It’s more effective to tell the weirdos and the sissies—those pesky un-American types—to get off your lawn when you assume that the creator of the universe is in your corner. In [a country]obsessed with religion and rugged individualism, where holding your own and taking no shit is considered a cardinal virtue, sticking to your guns (metaphorically and literally) is how you define the rules of the game and make sure you win it in the end. Harold Bloom once quoted Spinoza’s comment that one must love God without having any expectation that he loves you back, which he called the most un-American idea ever. . . .

One of the book’s . . . insights is that being evangelical isn’t just about agreeing to a certain set of theological principles—that’s just where the rest of the lifestyle management begins. . . .

You don’t have to go very far in the evangelical world to see how a “God made boys to be aggressive” mentality is more or less taken for granted. Even if physical purity, restraint, and accountability are supposed to be the name of the game, plenty of pastors brag about how hot their wives are, and how the Bible encourages women to submit to their husbands sexually, and if their hubby strays, it’s their fault for not keeping him interested or satisfied. When notorious televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught with a hooker for the second time he refused to confess and told his congregation “the Lord told me it’s flat none of your business.”

Such confidence is seductive to a certain kind of white evangelical male. Du Mez points out that for many white men,

to obey God was to obey patriarchal authorities within a rigid chain of command, and God had equipped men to exercise this authority in the home and in society at large. Testosterone made men dangerous, but it also made them heroes. Within their own churches and organizations, evangelicals had elevated and revered men who exhibited the same traits of rugged and even ruthless leadership that President Txxxx now paraded on the national stage.

For anyone who still wonders why the president’s base seems to hold fast no matter what he says or does, we should recall that inflicting the merciless cruelty—to dominate, as he often says—is the point. . . .

Zooming out from the hierarchical model of the nuclear family, we then have divinely inspired conservative government, which now shows its attitudes toward discipline by deploying military might against rebellious citizens. Then, naturally, at the top of the social pyramid is the Lord God almighty, whose ways may be mysterious and capricious (and quite harsh at times) but since he’s the almighty master of the universe, he is the ultimate giver of Law and Order. Best get with the program in this so-called Christian nation. Call it “God’s chain of command” in a trickle-down theocracy.

So today all that wounded pride and self-assumed authority make large swaths of the religious voting public want to vicariously identify with the loudest, crassest, most ignorant and arrogant, and least constrained president in modern history. And if the ravages of Late Capitalism have left you feeling emasculated, since your job isn’t paying what it used to and it’s hard to get a new one, then the thrill of identifying with a very rich playboy who promises to stick it to the people who did you wrong becomes pretty obvious. . . .

If you actually believe, as some Christians do, the Biblical principle that the devil is stalking the earth looking to devour vulnerable souls (1 Peter 5:8) then you’re not going to think twice about lining up to do political battle by way of spiritual battle. The difference between the two is almost nil. And the right wing has always known how to make that kind of paranoia work for them. The idea that money is spiritually corrupting is discarded, because money equates with political power and spiritual endorsement. Survival and success are all that matters, and it doesn’t come from being meek and poor.

The Passing Parade

The year is almost over and so is the decade that’s strangely ending with a “19” instead of a nice, round “20”. There is lots of news and commentary out there. An extremely truncated summary:

It didn’t make a splash, because this is 2019, not 1971, but The Washington Post reported:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable…

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking … Who will say this was in vain?”

The Afghanistan Papers won’t get as much publicity as the Pentagon Papers. They should have called them the “Afghan Papers”, more concise language now being the custom.

The Post also explained the history of the “It was Ukraine, not Russia” myth that has taken up permanent residence in what’s left of the Toddler’s brain and is so popular among right-wing politicians and propagandists everywhere. In a few words, the Russian government created the myth in order to cast blame on somebody else:

The president’s intense resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin himself helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity [of course]. . .One former senior White House official said [the president] even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because “Putin told me.”

The Popular Information political newsletter summarized new analysis of the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors:

An extraordinary analysis by top legal experts, published by Just Security, clearly explains how the impeachment inquiry [implied] that [the pres] committed at least three (and probably more) federal crimes. All of these crimes involved him abusing his presidential powers, making them particularly relevant to impeachment….

  • Federal campaign finance law
  • Bribery
  • Honest services fraud

[This last one] occurs “when a public official breaches his duty to act in the best interests of his constituents by performing an official act in exchange for personal gain”, such as “withholding funding that had been allocated by Congress —  money intended to advance U.S. national security by helping Ukraine combat Russian aggression — to advance his personal political interests”.

Cool.

By the way, Congressional Democrats and Rep. Justin Amash (an independent who was kicked out of the Republican Party when he exercised his conscience) finally got around to impeaching the monster. Paul Krugman reacted:

What we saw Wednesday was a parade of sycophants comparing their leader to Jesus Christ while spouting discredited conspiracy theories straight from the Kremlin. And as they were doing so, the object of their adoration was giving an endless, rambling, third-world-dictator-style speech, full of lies, that veered between grandiosity and self-pity…

Republicans, in other words, are beyond redemption; they’ve become just another authoritarian party devoted to the leader principle. And like similar parties in other countries, the G.O.P. is trying to rig future elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression, creating a permanent lock on power

But if Trump’s supporters look just like their counterparts in failed democracies abroad, his opponents don’t.

One of the depressing aspects of the rise of authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice has been the fecklessness of their opposition — disunited, disorganized, unable to make an effective challenge even to unpopular autocrats as they consolidated their power.

Trumpism, however, faced determined, united, effective opposition from the beginning, which has been reflected both in mass marches and in Democratic electoral victories. In 2017 there were only 15 Democratic governors, compared with 35 Republicans; today the score is 24 to 26. And last year, of course, Democrats won a landslide victory in House elections, which is what made the impeachment hearing and vote possible.

Many of the new Democratic members of Congress are in Republican-leaning districts, and some observers expected a significant number to defect on Wednesday. Instead, the party held together almost completely. True, so did its opponents; but while Republicans sounded, well, deranged in their defense of Trump, Democrats came across as sober and serious, determined to do their constitutional duty even if it involved political risks.

Now, none of this necessarily means that democracy will survive….

What we learned Wednesday, however, was that those who define America by its ideals, not the dominance of a particular ethnic group, won’t give up easily. The bad news is that our bad people are as bad as everyone else’s. The good news is that our good people seem unusually determined to do the right thing.

Finally, speaking of good people, the widely-read evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for the Toddler’s removal from office. The editorial got so much attention, their website crashed:

His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused…. .Whether [he] should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election — that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments….

To the many evangelicals who continue to support [him] in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of [the president] influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off [his] immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

You have to wonder how many of the president’s supporters understand that, if the Senate did its duty in the new year, our convicted president would be replaced by super-Christian Mike Pence, not the dreaded mainline Protestant who failed to carry Wisconsin.

In conclusion, it seems to me that we face two major issues:  climate change and bringing majority rule to America.

Majority rule would mean dealing with the courts, the Electoral College, a skewed Senate, gerrymandering, election security, campaign finance reform and voter suppression. It’s quite an agenda. But, as Senator Warren [subject of the latest Rolling Stone interview] keeps saying, we need big, structural change in our political system if we’re going to make progress on issues like climate change, inequality and much more.

Oh, and you might check out “The Historical Case for Abolishing Billionaires” in The Guardian. It begins by quoting another well-known proponent of regulated capitalism, Adam Smith.

A Few Choice Paragraphs

From “God and the Don” (CNN):

Two days before his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump greeted a pair of visitors at his office in Trump Tower.

As a swarm of reporters waited in the gilded lobby, the Rev. Patrick O’Connor, the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Queens, and the Rev. Scott Black Johnston, the senior pastor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, arrived to pray with the next president….

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation… 

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”

From “Why Are Republicans Getting So Little Done? Because Their Agenda Is Deeply Unpopular” (The Washington Post):

Is there anything — anything — on the agenda of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress that enjoys the support of the majority of the public?

… The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds that an incredible 84 percent of Americans say that it’s important that any replacement of the Affordable Care Act maintains the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. Even 71 percent of Republicans said so. Which is a problem for the GOP, because rolling back the Medicaid expansion is the centerpiece of the Republican repeal plan….so that they can fund a large tax cut that mostly goes to the wealthy.

The Senate is right now tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to pass something that satisfies the GOP’s conservative principles but that the public won’t despise, and it may be slowly realizing that this is impossible. “I don’t see a comprehensive health-care plan this year,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday, and he’s probably right.

Let’s move on to taxes. At yesterday’s speech announcing his pullout from the Paris climate agreement, President Trump made this little digression:

“Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well. I think a lot of people will be very pleasantly surprised. The Republicans are working very, very hard. We’d love to have support from the Democrats, but we may have to go it alone. But it’s going very well.”

It was certainly interesting to hear that the tax bill is moving along in Congress, because there is no tax bill, neither moving along, standing still or spinning in circles. The administration has produced nothing more than a one-page list of bullet points on taxes, and congressional Republicans haven’t written a bill, either. There have been no hearings, no committee votes, nothing. This is one of those moments when it’s hard to figure out if Trump is lying or genuinely doesn’t realize what’s going on; earlier this week he tweeted:

Yet nothing has been submitted, nothing is moving along and nothing is ahead of schedule.

[Republicans] know that whatever bill they come up with is going to be hammered by Democrats for being an enormous giveaway to the wealthy. They could solve that problem by not making it an enormous giveaway to the wealthy, but then what would be the point?…

Are there other Republican initiatives that the public is behind? If there are, they’re awfully hard to find…. 

The deep unpopularity of this agenda goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has gotten almost nothing done this year… All Republicans feel nervous these days … That’s enough to make a lawmaker skittish about doing anything that might make the voters even more disgusted. So the legislative process gets dragged out for longer and longer.

Congressional Republicans complain that all the drama and scandals in the White House suck the air out of Washington… But the real problem is that the public just doesn’t want to buy what they’re selling.

From “I Can’t Stop Laughing at the Trump Administration. That’s Not a Good Thing” (The Washington Post):

Rex Tillerson has given zero indication that he knows how to run the State Department. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made clueless comments about Saudi Arabia that left the impression of him as a doddering fool. As secretary of homeland security, John F. Kelly keeps saying things designed to scare the hell out of people rather than make them feel more secure. He seems to have fallen victim to the worst pathologies of the Bush administration….. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn seem to be focused far more on pleasing the president than offering cogent advice…. Jared Kushner? Please.

The rest of the White House staff is busy trying to be more absurd propagandists than Kim Jong Un’s flacks. So far, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are the only foreign policy hands who have managed to retain their dignity, and that’s mostly because what they say contradicts Trump….

Then there’s the president himself. Just a glance at the decision-making process he used on withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord makes it clear how manifestly unfit he is to do his job….he’s getting played left and right….It’s hard to overstate just how badly Trump has navigated the global stage. The Chinese and Saudis have figured out how to buy him off with a couple billion dollars and some flattery. There is zero evidence of any appreciable policy gains. U.S. leadership is being constantly questioned…. Outside of the Persian Gulf, Trump’s approach has done nothing but alienate allies and bolster potential rivals….

Heck, I could be on Twitter all day and only pay partial attention to briefings and still do a better job than the current clown show.

Finally, from “Trump’s Pathological Obsession with Being Laughed At” (The Week):

If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the last couple of years, you know this is a topic he returns to again and again. Search Trump’s Twitter feed and you’ll find that who’s laughing at whom is an obsession for him, with the United States usually the target of the laughter. “The world is laughing at us.” China is “laughing at USA!” Iran is “laughing at Kerry & Obama!” “ISIS & all others laughing!” “Mexican leadership has been laughing at us for many years.” “Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush.” “Putin is laughing at Obama.” “OPEC is laughing at how stupid we are.” “Dopey, nobody is laughing at me!” I could go on (and on, and on), but I’ll spare you.

This is nothing new for Trump; he’s been talking about us being laughed at for his entire career in public life. In his first major foray into politics in 1987, he spent nearly $100,000 to buy full-page ads … lamenting the fact that America helped defend countries like Japan without getting enough in return (sound familiar?). The last line of the ad was, “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.” 

It is Trump’s gift to future biographers that he makes so little attempt to hide his psychological issues, but the desire to avoid being laughed at truly stands out. Perhaps there was some childhood trauma that led to this obsession, a schoolyard incident in which a bully pulled down Donny’s short pants to the guffaws of the other tots (particularly the girls!). It would be only fitting if Trump, the world’s foremost avatar of anxious masculinity, lived in terror of women’s laughter, but he seems concerned with everyone’s laughter, whether it comes from people or governments. As much as he cares about winning and getting the better of someone, defeat is marked by the ultimate humiliation of being laughed at.

Yet ironically, no president in history has ever been laughed at as much as Trump….

Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:

dawkins_scale

Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.