Monday, October 09, 2006
Discussions with Infidelis Maximus - Responses to the May 2006 Archive
My Beliefs response
I'm going to skip on commenting on your beliefs (entry entitled "My Beliefs") because I believe/hope that each of the significant elements of your discussion will come up at other points and we can discuss them each in turn giving them the proper attention they deserve.
It was good enough for Paul and Silas... response
Despite the preeminent place given the gospels, Paul’s writings are the oldest of the New Testament books....
WRT the Pauline epistles and their disagreement with the gospels about Christ. I agree that there is some discord. I've heard more than one bible scholar say that the worst thing to happen to the theology of Christianity was Paul. Of course, in nearly the same breath, they also describe Paul as saving Christianity from the same fate as other obscure Jewish sects like the Essenes. Oh, and in your list of major elements of the faith that are never mentioned, don't forget that the early gospels (particularly Mark) do NOT agree about the resurrection. Mark doesn't even have a resurrection story. Ironic since it is the earliest (i.e. most accurate and/or closest to the time of actual events?) of the all of the canonical gospels. However, I have a different point of view about Paul's writings.
What is missing, however, is virtually the entirety of the gospel account of who Jesus was and what he said and did.
Paul not mentioning the miracles of Christ can be explained several ways. My explanation probably wouldn't sit well with a fundamentalist, but of course, neither would any of this discussion. Let me also state for the record that I am a practicing Christian who considers himself to be devout. Anyway, I prefer to focus on the fact that Paul was in a constant, long-running battle with Peter for authority and credibility in the church. If Paul were to focus his epistles on miracles that he never personally witnessed, then he would actually be ceding credibility and authority to his foremost competitor, Peter, who was with Jesus every step of the way. Every time Paul where to mention a miracle in one of his epistles would be to put the finger at Peter and say "And I got this on his authority!" Not very good for Paul's rivalry with Peter. So, in my own imaginings (which of course can be neither validated nore invalidated), Paul not mentioning the miracles of Christ and other important details about Christ is a sort of social Darwinism that contributed to his own theological arguments and strengths without bolstering that of his main rival, Peter.
In my view, writing about these things, in Paul's case, would have been extraneous effort to what he was trying to achieve - a "Hellenification" of the church (i.e. turning it into a more open and Greek organization). You also point out Paul's earnest and heartfelt oppression of early Christians and that he neither supports nor refutes any of the miracles of Christ or the early saints. My thought there is that he probably devoted little, if any attention to this topic, because it was undertaken by his close friend and protege Luke.
And it was Luke, in fact, who corroborates (sp?) the story of Paul's conversion in the story of Stephen's martyrdom in the Book of Acts. Of course, there were many years separating the works of Paul and Luke. Nevertheless, I have to believe that sitting on a boat in the Mediterrainean somewhere, Luke probably said, "Don't worry, Paul. I'm collecting all of these stories and I'll get it on paper eventually."
The mythos around Christ’s teachings and miracles had not yet evolved.
Yes, I am in complete agreement here. But not so much because of a gap between Paul's epistles and the synoptic gospels but because of the mindbendingly huge philosophical and theological leap between the synoptic gospels and the Logos gospel of John. They are from entirely different planets.
That they are absent from Paul but present in the gospels tells us something about the veracity of the gospels and about the real person behind the Christ they present.
To a point... It does make me wonder whether the religion just needed time to 'ferment' and smooth out all of the theological rough spots or whether that was actually how events happened. Evolved, as you put it, is a very good term but one that is entirely unacceptable to many Christians. I accept and embrace the term 'evolved', but it doesn't exactly fit with the term 'inspired by God' does it? So, the rational person has to conclude for the former option and not the latter.
There were actually many distinct early forms of Christianity, and we don't know which one was first or preeminent.
This fact is gallingly unknown to almost all fundamentalists and evangelical Christians that I know. I still have friends who think that Jesus spoke in chapters and verses.
As for the Docetists, Ebionites, Gnostics, and the like, you might enjoy "The Encyclopedia of Heresies". This is a very interesting read, especially when cataloging all of the multitude of different beliefs in the early church before "orthodoxy" was established by Ireneus.
I especially enjoy waving this in the face of certain denomenations that rail against the lack of uniformity in the modern church and that their denomenation is the only "right" one. For some reason, these denomenations seem to think that the church has always been uniform instead of manifold.
There are many who would equate “true” Christianity with “early” Christianity. I would posit that the true Christianity is what Christ actually taught and that this has been mostly lost to the ages and may have even been unknown to the early church. To know true Christianity, we must first determine, as best we can, what Christ actually taught and be prepared to distinguish it from the Christianity practiced by the early church.
I have to disagree with you there. To know a true single malt whiskey, you have to know the distilled and aged one. To know a true wine, you have to know its vintage. Similarly, to know "true" Christianity, we must first determine the most atomic and elementary tenets of what Christian faith is. These elementary tenets took a while to bubble to the surface. Going back to the earliest written records of what Christians believed leaves with something that is, following the analogy, icky tasking and half-baked stuff. It it were left to me to answer off of the cuff (which is, of course, exactly what I'm doing now), I'd suggest that the most elementary tenets of Christianity is that we should love God (meaning of God still TBD for purposes of this discussion) and other humans selflessly as described in Matthew 22:34-40. The themes of the New Testament constantly point back to these most simple tenets. So for me, they represent the most fundamental and "truest" Christianity.
For me, peeling back all the layers of mythology surrounding Christ, the bogus accounts of his life and death, the interpolations, errors, and alterations made over the centuries and getting down to the essence of what we can reasonably believe he taught is the only effective way to begin to explore “real” Christianity.
I wondered if you might mention Q and/or other texts such as the Gospel of Thomas. I agree that gaining a greater understanding of the experience of members of the early church. But I am not sure of how much that would affect my opinions about the faith overall. By analogy, if I watch a football game (which I love to do) I can still be satisfied with the outcome despite some terrible calls by the refs. Why? Because the fundamental substance of the game was good and met my expectations. In the end, it didn't matter that every element of the game was good and without blemish. The game itself was good. But again - that's just me.
How does this brand of Christianity differ from today’s Christianity? It differs substantially – in fact, it presents a completely different spiritual philosophy. In it, Jesus’ teachings are more about enlightenment, love, and tolerance than about Original Sin, forgiveness, or adherence to a particular creed. They’re about leading a life on earth that is both fulfilling and examined rather than merely laying up treasures in heaven. They’re about the quest for truth and the desire to find answers to the great questions of life.
Uh oh! That's exactly what my personal faith is focused on!
You see a belief system that is more about acceptance, love, and goodwill toward others than about rigid adherence to any particular set of rules. It is about the brotherhood of man and sharing the goodness that can be found in each of us.
That is certainly one of the two major tenets in my personal faith. The other major tenet is that God (in some form) exists and desires closeness and reconciliation with each of us on an individual level. More on that later...
Essential Theism... response
In a nutshell, I believe that a true relgion or philosophy doesn’t need to be propped up by falsehood. In other words, if Christianity was ever based on any sort of truth, it did not require then, and does not need now, lies to protect it. No "true" philosophy does.
Ironically, I believe the counter. I believe that any good religion or philosophy will have a lot of bumps, rough edges, and incongruities that can only made sensible by lieing, contorting, or otherwise warping some realities of the physical world to give it any working sense. It's kind'a like the difference between designing an academically "pure" computer system, for those of us who are computer people. You can create a database design that's in 5th normal form (i.e. a "truest" system definition), but it simply work work in a real world scenario because it will break under load. The more inflexible the philosophy/religion is to the realities of its adherants, the more likely it is to fail. Go ask the Heaven's Gate team about adhering to the deepest truths of their religion. They didn't flex and they exterminated themselves in very short order.
A just God ... (snip) ... would never punish anyone for not believing in him, and would never create a place like Hell for anyone, let alone for creatures who simply misinterpreted the evidence he left and mistakenly believed he didn’t exist.
I have to agree with you here. I cannot believe that the God of the New Testament would create hundreds of millions, even billions of human beings, knowing that they'd eventually become nothing but fodder for the ovens of Hell. On the other hand, I'm not sure what the explanation is.
If he is somehow responsible for our being here, I believe that he left a piece of himself in each of us and that it manifests itself in our curiosity, our ability to reason, our creativity, and our compassion for our fellow creatures.
This is a similar and reasonable kernel of faith from which the rest of my personal belief system hangs.
Why we care about who wrote the gospels ... response
We care about whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the gospels because the church claims they did, and whether or not they actually did tells us something about the reliability of what the church tells us. A great deal of Christian doctrine is based wholly or in part on church traditions that have no direct scriptural support.
This is a big grey area for me. On the one hand, the church cares a lot that this-and-such book is written by Luke or that-n-such book is written by John. But at the end of the day, what people really want is a sense of confidence in the material. Conversely, anyone's who's studied the history of the canon knows that almost none of the canon was written directly by the person attributed with authorship. At a minimum, they all used professional scribes to write for them, as evidenced by Paul in Galatians chapter 6, where he notes how unusual it should be for the reader to see blocky and crude lettering that he penned himself. So there is, in the body of believers, a certain acceptance that the author and the writer of a given book are not the same person. By extrapolation, there is also a certain degree of acceptance to the concept that a book might've been written by someone who collected the first-hand accounts and recounts them second-hand, as evidenced by Luke's preamble in chapter 1:1-4.
In this preamble, Luke writes:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
So Luke answers for us in a nutshell why it is that we should care about the authorship of the very books whose authorship we today question. We care because we wish to know "the certainty of the things you have been taught". And from Luke's preamble, we can also ascertain that there were many accounts that were disorderly in some form or another. So we can see that the very issue that wracks your conscience was also on the mind of Luke just 50-80 years after Christ.
Still, a key concept that differentiates Christianity from, say, Islam is that the bible is considered by Christians to be "inspired by God to Man". Whereas in Islam, the Koran was given literally from the mouth of Allah to the angel Gabriel and from Gabriel to Mohammed. Thus, in Islam, Allah literally speaks Arabic. If you don't speak Arabic, you don't speak the true language of God. This, to me, seems even less tenable then the Christian concept that God, a spirit without a physical body nor a physical mouth to speak, put words into the minds of men to be written out with a sense of divine purpose and higher authority. Inspired by God, but not literally spoken by God to Man. This is one, of many, reasons why it it much harder to find a good translation of the Koran compared to the bible. In Islam, Man come to God. In other words, to be a truly good Muslim, you should learn to speak Arabic. In Christianity, God comes to Man. You need not speak any language other than your own.
The doctrine of the trinity, for example, is based mostly on church tradition – there is no direct reference to it in the Bible, nor was it a tenet of either ancient Judaism or the first century church.
If the church is wrong about something so fundamental as who wrote the scriptures, perhaps it is wrong about a great many things. Again, we apply this rationale when evaluating other historical sources – why should it be any different with the church?
Don't get me started on church traditions. The failure of church traditions to uphold the "right way" is one of the primary reasons that Martin Luther took a hammer and nails to the Wittenburg Gate, as you probably know. So your rational, IMO, is possible and even probable. Heck, I'll give you a good example from a Jewish friend of mine. In his Hebrew bible, the Jewish 10 Commandments read differently than our Christian 10 Commandments. All of my life, as a conservative, Southern Christian, I was taught that you could never say "Jesus!" when you hit your thumb with a hammer. Nor could you use the dreaded "GD!" (see, I can't even say it now) because you were breaking the commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy of using the Lord's "name in vain". My Jewish friend tells me that the Hebrew bible says simple that you must not use the Lord's name for false oaths. There's a BIG difference between using in vain and using for false oaths IMO.
In my next post, I'll respond to Infidelis Maximus' "Myths and Reasonings Regarding Christianity"...
More to come,