Why religion?

Blogger Wade G. writes in his blog that

despite my non-belief in traditional forms of Christianity and orthodox notions of God, I am drawn to religion for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. I like something about it. I like the language of the sacred and even the term "God" has power for me.
I can so relate to that. I posted a blog entry today, which I later deleted, in which I reflected on my own frustration in being torn between my attraction to Christianity and my feelings of being repelled by its orthodoxy. But I decided that what I wrote was rather boring.

I also like the language of the sacred, but I soon get defensive when that language is literalized and formulated into a belief system with propositions that are supposed to be affirmed as part of worship. In John Shuck's blog there has been a discussion about the membership criteria for joining a Presbyterian church. The question that comes up in my mind is what it means to join a faith community if the requirement is that you be a committed Christian. Is a commitment to Christian faith about affirming a belief in some ancient set of formulas? Or is it more about commitment, relationship, and community? Or is it something else entirely?

Re-thinking Christianity

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, a British progressive Jewish rabbi, wrote an article a few days ago for the Guardian's "Comment is Free" web site, in which she commented on the current divisions taking place within the Anglican church. As a practitioner of progressive Judaism, she has witnessed the divisions within her own faith over such questions as the ordination of female rabbis; orthodox Judaism, for example, still does not recognize the right of women to be rabbis. Thus she offers a perspective as an outsider on what is happening within the prevailing Christian denomination in her country, which is struggling over, among other things, matters of inclusiveness.

She notes, for example, that "Nowhere is the 'glass ceiling' more resilient than in the institutional frameworks of the major religions." Yet she also points out that "Progressive Jews look back on Jewish history and see that Judaism has evolved over four millennia, and that being able to adapt to changing circumstances has been the secret of Jewish survival." She offers this insight as a progressive Jew, as an example of perhaps what Anglicanism needs to consider for itself.

This theme--evolving and adapting to changing circumstances--resonates with me, and it is something I have written about quite a bit. In fact, it is because of my interest in this topic that I wanted to read the book Re-Thinking Christianity, by Keith Ward, which ostensibly is devoted to this very topic. For example, Ward makes this comment in his book:

There are many beliefs in the synoptic Gospels that we cannot share--where the kingdom would be, what it would do for Israel, when and how it would arrive. Christian faith has changed in important ways since the days of the apostles. But that does not mean such beliefs are no more than mistakes. We must try to see what the spiritual reality was to which such beliefs may have pointed, and ask how they might be rephrased in in the light of new knowledge or in the new contexts of our own day. That is why it is important to re-think Christianity. Christian faith needs to be re-thought in each new place and generation. That is something that may be become apparent as the result of a reflective and informed study of the synoptic Gospels and the form of their beliefs about the nature and coming of the kingdom of God. It is part of the essential nature of Christian faith that it should be open to constant change and creative exploration. The history of Christianity is the history of such change, and I have suggested that a fairly radical change was necessary even in the first generation of Christians, as they had to revise their beliefs about the nature of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. It should be no surprise if we find that we have to undertake a similar task in our own day. It can be an encouragement to realise how very radical the change of beliefs was a the very inception of Christian faith. (Keith Ward, Re-Thinking Christianity, pp. 16-17)
Keith Ward thus points out that a certain kind of Christianity that developed after Jesus died is not the same as Jesus's own religion. This is not exactly earth shattering news. Barrie Wilson has written a book, How Jesus Became Christian, in which he bemoaned this very fact, and offered a whole conspiracy theory surrounding it. But there is no conspiracy here, because it is no secret that Christianity evolved. What Wilson complains about, Ward celebrates. Ward sees this evolution as a reasonable and necessary phenomenon, one that set in motion a process that he believes should continue even to this day. Christianity should always be re-thought, he argues.

Yet even as Ward offers a compelling argument for this process, he in almost the next breath seems to waver in his celebration of diversity and evolution and re-thinking in Christianity. He describes himself as orthodox, and in many ways he is, and he is willing to rethink Christianity only up to a certain point. To him, incarnational and Trinitarian theologies seem to be essential parts of Christianity that cannot be rethought, even though he freely admits that these theologies themselves emerged within the Christian community after Jesus died and thus serve as an example of how Christianity was "re-thought" from the very beginning. At one point he seems to reduce Christianity to certain essential beliefs such as that "God...became incarnate, is Trinitarian in being and reconciles the world to the divine in Jesus Christ" (p. 191). It isn't clear to me why he draws a line in the sand around these beliefs when other beliefs are provisional and open to reconsideration. When Michael Servetus rethought Christianity in the sixteenth century and rejected Trinitarianism, wasn't he engaging in just the sort of re-thinking process that Ward wants us all to do?

As an illustration of just how well he understands that many "essential" Christian dogmas do not go back to Jesus himself or his early followers, he makes the point that Protestant sects that think they are restoring the practices and beliefs of "original" primitive or apostolic Christianity as described in the Bible are simply fooling themselves:
Most classical Protestants did not in fact derive all their doctrines from the Bible alone. They accepted the decisions of the first ecumenical councils of the church. They accepted, for instance, that Jesus was fully God and fully man and that the Trinity was three persons in one substance. They also tended to accept some specifically Western doctrines, as formulated by Augustine--that humans are born with original guilt, that the 'saved' are predestined by God and that human free will is compatible with such pre-destination. Many of them accepted a theory of atonement that derived from Anselm, as adjusted by Calvin, that we can only be saved because Jesus died 'in our place', to pay the penalty of death that God's justice required for our sins....

So Protestants did not in fact rely on Scripture alone for their doctrines, as they sometimes claimed. They relied on a number of traditional interpretations of Scripture, interpretations that got more and more specific and exclusive, until in the end some of them relied on Luther, some on Calvin, some on Zwingli, and some on other less famous but equally cantankerous interpreters of the allegedly 'self-interpreting' Scripture. (p. 106)
That is a wonderful quote, and it illustrates the fact that, indeed, modern Christianity in general relies on developments that came about some time after Jesus died, reflecting beliefs or practices that Jesus neither preached nor anticipated. Ward's point is simply that there is nothing wrong with this, and I don't necessarily disagree with him. I also think that there's nothing wrong with an evolving faith, but it also means that those later re-thought doctrines themselves can be just as subject to re-thinking as the earlier ones were that spawned the original re-thinking in the first place. In other words, if we follow the argument that he seems to be advancing in the book, we should not become too attached to any given interpretation, which is why I find it curious that at times he himself seems to just implicitly accept some of these later developments himself.

I think it is the inconsistency of his position, or at least the fact that he didn't articulate the subtlety of his position very well (or at least well enough for me to understand it), that I find the most frustrating. He often seems to contradict himself, and the book itself seems unfocused, as he ranges across many subjects, from merely arguing in favor of re-thinking Christianity to giving his own theology on the afterlife and the Trinity, to exploring the history of German philosophy as it relates to Christian thought. While it it was interesting to read about Hegel and Kant, I had a hard time seeing how it all related to his supposed central thesis.

Perhaps most disturbingly, at one point he seems to argue that the evolution of Christian doctrine should be a purely collective process, and that individuals should somehow defer to the collective wisdom of the Christian community as a whole rather then openly questioning these questions of theology for themselves. It is hard to know how a process of "re-thinking" Christianity could be possible without the input from free thinkers who questioned the prevailing wisdom that everyone is supposed to defer to, and yet he seems to suggest just that when he writes of the superiority of the authority of the apostolic witness, the New Testament, and church tradition over individual questioning of the received dogma:
Such authority is greater than that of personal experience alone, because it covers a greater range of human cognition, it has been subject to continued theological criticism and intellectual enquiry and it includes the experiences of those much more closely united to God than most of us are. (p. 217)
That statement bizarrely seems to undermine so much of his argument elsewhere in the book that it isn't exactly clear what he is really trying to say here. Or is this "wisdom of the faithful crowds" a sort of Wikipedia model for Christian theology? This would also seem to contradict what he says about the problem of repression against minority views, and it not particularly consistent with the fact that some of his own views are somewhat unconventional as far as Christian orthodoxy goes (he is essentially a universalist, for example, and he also offers his own take on Trinitarianism.)

Ward offers some powerful insights in this book, but in certain ways the book is disappointing. While I think he offers some powerful ideas at times, I also think that after having set up any attachment to a fixed orthodoxy as a potential target for questioning, he then at times seems too afraid to take his own advice and make the leap into territory that would actually question orthodox wisdom. Still, he is not dogmatic, and he treats his subject matter thoughtfully and intelligently, and in my view that counts for a lot. I would thus recommend the book, but with qualifications.

It isn't a smear to be called a Muslim

In the second frame of the above Doonesbury comic strip from a few days ago, being called a Muslim is the first item in a list of political "smears".

A CNN story on this subject notes,

The Obama campaign has created a special team to fight rumors like the one about his religion. He goes out of his way to deny it in speeches. His supporters do too. There is a Web site devoted to it, called FightTheSmears.Com.

But what about the underlying premise: why should his being a Muslim matter? Why is it a "smear?"

Tony Kutalyi of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says: "He needs to come out and not just simply say I'm not a Muslim, but again, if I were a Muslim, what difference would it make?"

I went to the "Fight the Smears" web site, and, indeed, it is broken down into sections that address various false statements, with one section dealing with his religion; it includes these words:
SMEAR: Barack Obama is a Muslim
THE TRUTH: Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian.
Contrary to the above, it is not a smear to be called a Muslim, and to suggest otherwise is an insult to millions of faithful Muslims around the world.

Emptying the faith of dogma

From Jim Burklo's blog:

The progressive Christian movement is about emptying the faith of dogma and doctrines that get in love’s way. It is about the practice of individual Christians who are emptying themselves of selfishness and egotism. In prayer, in worship, we are challenged to do what Jesus did, and empty ourselves of old, tired, uptight beliefs. Empty ourselves of judgment and prejudice. So that we can be amazed by the stars. So that we can be filled with the insights not only of our faith, but of other religions as well. So that we can have holy awe when we look at each other in worship, knowing that each of us flickers with a spark of the divine.

When biblical scholarship clashes with theology

Thanks to a link from the blogger NT Wrong, I found a description by James Crossley of his experience presenting a paper to a conference on the current Pope's book about Jesus. The conference attendees apparently included a fair number of Catholic theologians and various high ranking Catholic figures. Crossley noted that "this conference revealed what seems to me (and others) a significant and very interesting tension between theology (probably more precisely systematic theology) and biblical studies (more precisely historical criticism)." He somewhat casually made the rather significant observation that "many theologians wanted historical criticism to give them the answers they wanted for theology and discard views that were not helpful." (emphasis added).

In a nutshell, that captures what I think is a common problem. Considering what is at stake, it doesn't surprise me. When you base a religious faith on dogmatic assertions about historical events, then any research that is done in the service of that theology is inevitably going to start from the dogma and work backwards to find evidence to support it, lest the very foundation of the faith more or less collapse. This approach is not, of course, particularly scientific, but it seems inevitable given what is at stake. Neither the Catholic Church, nor any other church that is similarly invested in the outcome of such efforts, is likely to to lend support to any research that undermines its own tenets. I can think of analogy from the political world, when the CIA was pressured by Dick Cheney a few years ago to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This is not unlike the Catholic Church telling its theologians to go do biblical studies that support the party line. When you have decided the answer in advance, and only seek out the evidence that supports your position, you naturally (big surprise) get the answers you want. Ultimately, religious faith becomes equated with a willingness to affirm belief in spite of possible evidence to the contrary. This is not a very appealing definition of faith for people who like to think of themselves as rational. This one reason why religion ends up being so unappealing to large numbers of people.

I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful book The Fidelity of Betrayal by Peter Rollins. It is a long quote, but I think it explains very well why it is problematic for Christianity to base itself on the literal truth of extraordinary claims about events that allegedly happened as depicted in the Bible:

As soon as Christianity is thought of as something that makes claims to a set of facts that exist in the world, then it becomes subject to a whole range of critiques. This does not in any way imply that we must reject specific claims in the Bible, any more than it implies that we must embrace them; this is another question entirely, one that can be approached in relation to the best evidence that we have. It merely points out that if we take such claims as the "truth" of faith then we predicate that truth upon claims that will always be open to question. Of course within the Bible there are various claims to historical events; the point is that these claims, like all claims, are open to question, and so, if the truth of faith rests upon them, then it is also open to question.

Thus the truth affirmed by Christianity ends up being treated like any other set of factual claims, claims that are provisional and open to being proven wrong. Even if one believes that the various claims within the Bible are wholly accurate, it is always possible that a new discovery in archaeology, history, or biblical scholarship will overturn the current body of evidence. Apologetics, in its attempt to defend the factual claims of the Bible through the use of reason, thus implicitly affirms the very philosophical outlook that undermines its own project, placing the truth of Christianity in the realm of rational reflection and thus into the realm of reasonable doubt and provisionality.

This has the effect of placing the Christian idea of truth upon a very tentative and fragile foundation, one that could not possibly justify an individual's unconditional commitment--one that would not be able to embrace Jesus' statement that one ought to lay one's life down for one's faith. Such an approach to the truth affirmed by Christianity would effectively mean that the believer would have to bow down before the academic researchers who are able to discuss which biblical texts are authentic, when they were written, by whom, and for what purpose. The believer would need to study all the available evidence and ascertain facts such as whether or not the Gospels record the writings of people who were eyewitnesses to the events they mention, and if not, whether they knew the eyewitnesses.

To be a believer would thus require some hefty subscriptions to the latest academic journals in order to see if the truth claims of Christianity could still be regarded as plausible, or even possible. Philosophy journals would become a stable diet for the preacher who would , in fear and trembling, be working out whether belief in Christianity is still rational. Journals dealing with biblical scholarship would become the norm in home groups, and psychological journals would need to be read as an integral part of our devotional meditations (helping us to work out whether our religious experience was likely to have descended form heaven or whether it really welled up from the depths of our unconscious.) (p. 92-94)
From this I think one can infer at least two rather unappealing responses to the problem of these sorts of truth claims. One response would be to ignore any evidence that contradicts the claims. This would seem to be intellectually dishonest, but it would ensure the continued commitment to the faith. Another alternative would be to make one's faith provisional and dependent on the latest findings, as Rollins describes in the above text. That would be intellectually honest but it would take away the possibility of any real commitment to the faith.

To maintain one's intellectual honesty and one's commitment to faith would require that faith not be dependent on these sorts of contingent truth claims. As Marcus Borg likes to point out, it whether or not Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead should not really matter to the Christian faith. What should matter instead is the deeper truths that the story of the resurrection points to. As he writes in his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary:
Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality. The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe whatever you want about whether story happened this way--now let's talk about what the story means. If you believe the tomb was empty, fine. Now, what does the story mean? If you believe that Jesus's appearances could have been videotaped, fine. Now what do these stories mean? And if you're not sure, or even quite sure they didn't happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?

A parabolic reading insists that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. An empty tomb without meaning ascribed to it is simply an odd, even if exceptional, event. Only when meaning is ascribed to it does it take on significance. This is the function of parable and parabolic language. Parable can be based on an actual event (there could have been a Samritan who did what the character in Jesus's parable is reported to have done), but it need not be. Indeed, it may be that the most important truths can be expressed only in parable.

In any case, asking about the parabolic meaning of biblical stories, including the Easter stories, is always the most important question. The alternative of fixating on whether they report literally factual happenings leads one astray. And so, as we turn tot he stories of Easter in the gospels, I highlight their meaning as parable, as truth-filled stories. I leave open the question of how much of this happened, even as I affirm that their truth does not depend upon their public factuality. (pp. 280-281).

Intelligence and belief in God

Does disbelief in God correlate with higher intelligence? According to this article, a researcher thinks so:

Belief in God is much lower among academics than among the general population because scholars have higher IQs, a controversial academic claimed this week.

In a forthcoming paper for the journal Intelligence, Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, will argue that there is a strong correlation between high IQ and lack of religious belief and that average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 countries.

In the paper, Professor Lynn - who has previously caused controversy with research linking intelligence to race and sex - says evidence points to lower proportions of people holding religious beliefs among "intellectual elites".

The last bit of that quoted text, which mentions that Lynn has made assertions correlating intelligence with race or sex, makes me quite wary of what he has to say on this subject. I am also suspicious of the suggestion that IQ test results directly correlate with "intelligence", which I think is a concept that is loaded and often difficult to pin down.

That being said, though, I do think there is a way of viewing this subject that is being overlooked, because the idea of God per se is so commonly conflated with specific notions of God as "he" is often conceived. It hardly surprises me that many intellectuals and academics would reject as untenable a pre-Enlightenment concept of an interventionist God as Patriarch-in-the-Sky who miraculously fertilizes a virgin's egg with his Divine sperm, or who causes the offspring of that fertilization process to literally rise upwards into a heavenly realm that is part of a pre-Copernican three-tiered universe, or who in the modern day and age miraculously heals a parishioner's aunt's bad hip because the parishioner asked enough people in church to pray for it. I think that the more educated one becomes, the more likely one is to develop a view that sees the world as governed by consistent and generally predictable physical laws, which doesn't really seem to jibe very well with this traditional and miracle-laden form of theism (which Marcus Borg calls "supernatural theism".) They see this literalized mythology, and I think rightly so, as untenable and inconsistent with the way they understand the universe to operate.

But what does that have to do with the concept of God per se? As Marcus Borg says, "tell me about the God you don't believe in, and I probably don't believe in that God either." So many intellectuals who reject the concept of "God" are really just rejecting a stereotypical concept of God.

Perhaps the idea of a God who is not supernaturally theistic is not everyone's cup of tea. Maybe supernatural theism is easier to work with than the theologies of people like Tillich, Borg, Spong, Hartshorne, or Hick, because it conceives of God in ways that are more analogous with our ordinary experience of other objects and agents in our world, and is thus more accessible to the human imagination. Because an ineffable God as Ground of Being is much more difficult for us to get our minds around than ordinary objects that we encounter in our everyday world, we rely on mythologies as the lens through which we view the Divine. Not that this is a bad thing, but the problems arise when these mythologies are so often taken literally, and God becomes objectified and turned into something within the same ontological category as those objects we encounter in everyday experience.

Peter Rollins, in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal, writes of the problem of objectifying God:
This idea of life as beyond the realm of objectivity can be compared to our experience of light. No matter how wide we open our eyes or how hard we stare we cannot see the light that illumines our world. Just as the light in a room is not seen but rather enables us to see, so our life is not experienced but enables us to experience. Our life does not then exist like objects we encounter on a daily basis; however, it is undeniable that our own life is present to us. This can help us to understand what we mean by saying that God is not a problem to be solved but rather a mystery to participate in. For, like God, our life cannot be understood if we distance ourselves from it and treat it as an object of contemplation. Rather we must explore it indirectly, understanding that it is testified to in the midst of our engagement with the world rather than caught by treating it as an object in our world. God is no more an object in the world than our life is an object in the world. Rather, God is that which grounds our world and opens a world up to us. (p. 115)
Rollins also points out in his book that when faith is identified with the affirmation of creeds or is dependent on the truth of certain historical claims--which is what characterizes so much of Christianity--it lends itself almost inevitably to questioning and the possibility of rejection by intellectuals:
When the truth affirmed by Christianity is thought of as constituting a series of factual claims open to being assessed by intellectual experts, Christianity opens itself up to a corrosive form of doubt that threatens to destroy it. (p. 92)
One of the things that I like about what Rollins has to say on the subject of miracles as violations of physical laws is not that these miracles do or don't happen, but that the whole question is irrelevant. The focus of religion, he believes, should not be on any faith in such miracles, but rather on the transformative power that religious faith introduces into our lives. This is the real "miracle":
The point is not to exclude the idea that miracles can involve awe-inspiring, breathtaking spectacles, but rather to point out that if the event is purely spectacular, involving no real change in the core of one's being, then it is nothing more than a spectacle. Physical changes are natural insomuch as they take place in the natural world. Our medical technology is constantly improving and is able to heal in ways that would have seemed magical only a hundred or two hundred years ago. Vital as such healing is in today's world, such a focus can eclipse what Christianity affirms as the true miracle. It is not something natural (although it will manifest itself in the natural world) but something supernatural. It does not register as an object that can be recorded and beamed around the world on some religious cable channel, or witnessed at a local charismatic healing service. A miracle worth its salt takes place in the world but is not of it. A miracle worthy of the name is so radical that while in the physical world nothing may change, in the one who has been touched by it nothing remains the same. (p. 149)
As long as the concept of God is objectified, and as long as religion is equated with the affirmation of truth claims that intrude upon the magisterium of science, I think it is going to be a tough sell as an intellectual concept in the modern age.

George Carlin on God

Quite a while ago, I wrote a blog posting in which I quoted from George Carlin's monologue on the subject of God that he delivered on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975. What I quoted from included Carlin's observation that "EVERYTHING He has ever MADE.. DIED!! Everything so far!! So far! Where did He get this great reputation? He's batting .000!" The entire monologue that I quoted from can be found here.

Here is another sample of what he had to say in that same monologue:

Well, we create God in our own image and likeness. No question about that. Every time I see a picture of God, I mean, He has knees and toenails, right? Uh - and a good example - a better example - of our kind of self-centeredness, when it comes to God - when we put a statue of Jesus on the dashboard, instead of having Him looking out and watching for traffic, which is what He should be doing, we have Him watching us drive. [ mimes operating a steering wheel with frenzy ] "Heeeeyyy!! Watch THIS, Jesus! Left turn!" You ever see a statue leap? Jumped right up into the baby shoes that time. Don't worry, don't worry - the universe is in balance, because Jesus has a statue of a middle-class American hypocrite on His dashboard. It's alright. Things work out well.


magazine features a story on a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, which found that

70% of respondents agreed with the statement "Many religions can lead to eternal life." Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation...
The problem with surveys like this is that there is often an assumption contained within the questions that can make them difficult to answer. What if you happen to be religious but don't believe in eternal life, or care about the issue that much, or are at best an agnostic on the subject? How would you answer the question then? For me, certainly, the question would be meaningless. Still, it does provide an interesting insight into an increasing respect and tolerance for other faiths among Christians in the US--even among evangelicals. And that can only be a good thing.

The article pointed out,
Analysts expressed some surprise at how far the tolerance needle has swung, but said the trend itself was forseeable because of American Christians' increasing proximity to other faiths since immigration quotas were loosened in the 1960s. Says Rice's Lindsay, the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite: "If you have a colleague who is Buddhist or your kid plays with a little boy who is Hindu, it changes your appreciation of the religious 'other.' "
Indeed, I think that interacting regularly with people of other faiths cannot help but break down the walls of tribalism and religious intolerance.

The article also quoted from John Green, a pollster from Pew, who pointed out,
"Just because they don't want to believe that there's only one way to salvation doesn't meant that they don't take their religion very seriously."
This is a very important point. Religious pluralism doesn't necessarily translate into religious syncretism. One can be a religious pluralist and yet still committed to pursuing one's own path. This is a point that Marcus Borg, for example, has made.

Tiptoeing Through the TULIP minefield

Over in John Shuck's blog, the question came up as to whether (or how much) modern Presbyterian churches adhere to the five principles that supposedly summarize Calvin's teachings, which are identified by the acronym TULIP. These points are described in the Wikipedia article on Calvinism.

This question is of interest to me because I can count Presbyterian churches among those I have visited over the last couple of years, and Presbyterianism traces its theology back to Calvin. Many of these churches that I've been to seemed pretty progressive, or at least they viewed themselves as such. But something has always gnawed at the back of my mind as I have visited them. Calvinism, at least as it has generally been characterized, has always left a rather bitter taste in my mouth. I could never see the appeal of it; I found its conception of God abhorrent, and its view of humanity distasteful and misanthropic. So if I go to a Presbyterian church, am I signing up for something I really can't relate to?

On the other hand, like everything else, Calvinism no doubt has bestowed a diverse heritage, and is probably always going to be an evolving, or shall I say reforming, theology. So maybe the way it is traditionally characterized is not the last word.

But what about this TULIP thing? Consider, for example, the first item ("T") in that acronym, the doctrine of the "total depravity" of the human race. I for one am immediately put off by what comes across as a sour, curmudgeonly view of humanity. As John Shuck put it,

Total Depravity. I don't believe that. I think we would all say that no one is without sin, and that we need the grace of God (election) to recognize it, but totally depraved?

I prefer to think along the lines of Matthew Fox, that we are originally blessed. I am not really sure how other modern Presbyterians feel about that.
I like the idea that we are originally blessed. Total depravity, on the other thing, makes me cringe. I once got into a discussion with a Presbyterian blogger who insisted that people were inherently incapable of engaging in acts of selfless love, that every person's ostensibly loving act is necessarily flawed and selfish in some way (this was presumably derived from this idea of total depravity.) This is an example of why I don't like this idea very much. To cite a counterexample, I can't imagine anyone who has ever experienced parental love (whether it be on the giving or the receiving end) taking such a position. I know that my own parents, flawed people that they were, sometimes did things for no other reason than out of love for their children. Yes, parents are often selfish, inattentive, angry, or impatient--and their love isn't always pure, but--I'm sorry--to say that parents never engage in acts of selfless love for their children is just plain untrue. It is one thing to make the observation that people in general are imperfect and often act selfishly; it is another thing altogether to say that people always have corrupt motives in anything they do. The former observation is a sensible observation of human frailty; the latter is just plain misanthropy.

Perhaps even more unfathomable to me than the doctrine of "total depravity" is the second Calvinist principle in that acronym, the one represented by the "U"--unconditional election. This one really makes me want to scratch my head, because I can't imagine why in the world anyone would anyone worship a God who selectively metes out rewards and punishments to people in advance of their even having commited a single act. This is fatalism at its worst. I might as well be Oedipus Rex, unable to escape a fate that was predetermined for me by an inscrutable god. This would be like staging a footrace while deciding the winners and losers in advance, and then telling everyone to run the race anyway.

Double predestination in particular is the most baffling expression of this notion--the idea that an all powerful God would create some people with the advance intention of sending some of them to hell. If God knew they were going to hell, why did this all-powerful deity create them in the first place? What kind of sadistic monster are we talking about here?

Now I do recognize that there is a positive spin to this idea of election. For one thing, it implies that salvation is completely out of our hands, which supposedly takes the worry out of it (although I would argue that it is completely natural to worry about one's fate, even, or maybe especially, when we have no control over it; after all, it is our fate we are talking about.) But in reality, I think that the one way that this idea can be turned into something positive is by making God's grace universal and unconditional. Seen from that perspective, salvation is out of our hands because a loving God extends her grace to all of us, regardless of who we are or what we do. We all then become the elect. As John Shuck put it,
Now, there may be debate on whether or not some folks are not elected. I don't use it that way. I believe God elects everyone. I am universalist in that regard. I would say a good number of my colleagues would agree with me. What maybe 40-50% would state clearly that election should only be used in the positive sense. I am guessing on percentages based on my experience in conversation with colleagues.

I think, and I may be wrong, but I think Swiss theologian Karl Barth was universalist in that he defended the freedom of God who desires salvation for all and therefore his will cannot be thwarted.
So what are we left with? As I wrote in John Shuck's blog,
I've visited a few Presbyterian churches in my area and none of the ones I visited seemed very TULIP-like, but I have to admit that this issue has always stuck in the back of my mind about whether I would be getting myself into something that I couldn't identify with. I like the idea that God's grace is out of our hands and thus is a free gift from God. I don't like the idea that some people are preselected to be "elect" while others are not, or that we are all totally depraved, or that there is a substitutionary atonement and that it is only available to some people.
The question of how to relate to Calvinism from a progressive Christian perspective is really just a specific example of a broader question. Protestant churches divide themselves according to various traditions that go back to the early Reformers--Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and so forth. An interesting question for me is whether progressive Christianity might lead to a blurring of these historical distinctions, and thus whether progressives within each of the traditions find support within their own heritage for a common progressive theology for the twenty-first century that bridges all these divisions. I would like to imagine that this is possible.

P.S. Dick Martin, who died a few weeks ago, appears in the Youtube clip at the top of this posting, along with Tiny Tim. I was an avid eight-year-old viewer of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh In" when it went on the air in 1968, and I am thus pretty certain that I must have watched the original broadcast that the above clip comes from. God bless Tiny Tim.

On being a plutoid

I have a new name for where I stand with respect to Christianity: I am a "Christian Plutoid."

It made the news last week that the International Astronomical Union has decided to use the word "plutoid" to describe dwarf planets that lie beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto is one such plutoid, and Eris is the only other known example.

As it happens, I had written just last month that "I mostly locate myself within the Christian orbit, although, as orbits go, mine is about as close to orthodox Christianity as Pluto's is to the sun."

So I guess that means that I have a plutoid faith.

Who would you send to hell?

In Sunday's New York Times magazine interview, Gore Vidal was asked about how he felt when he heard that William F. Buckley died this year. His response was:

I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.
Vidal's curmudgeonly reply was consistent with the tone of the rest of the interview, and I somehow doubt that he actually believes in hell--but then, neither do I. I think his response, though, does illustrate the way hell can serve as a metaphor, or at least as an outlet, for frustration over the fact that we live in a world where some people have spent their lives acting on behalf of things we object to in the most strenuous way imaginable, and, dammit, they got away with it. That is to say, they died before they could be held accountable for whatever it was that they did that got us riled.

Certainly, I think that God is better than our petty human foibles, including the desire for vengeance. But speculating on who would go to this hypothetical hell can serve as an entertaining imaginary exercise. Getting to play God in this way can be fun because it doesn't really mean anything; no one will actually go to hell because we pretend that they will. What dead criminal would you send to hell if you had the power to do so? Augusto Pinochet? Pol Pot? Henry Kissinger? (No, wait, scratch that, Kissinger is not dead yet.)

The thing is, though, justice is not mean spirited, and hell is not about justice, although it is often claimed to be. But if we assume that there is an afterlife--and that's a big if--it is not inconsistent to also believe that we are somehow held accountable for the evils we do. That doesn't mean eternal torture in a lake of fire; on the contrary, I would suggest that it would mean something quite different, because under a God of infinite love it would mean an opportunity for all of us, regardless of what terrible things we've done, to reconcile ourselves to God and to the divine will.

I am currently reading the book Rethinking Christianity by Keith Ward. He says this about the idea of hell:
The God disclosed in Jesus is not a punitive avenger. But it is possible for rational creatures to exclude themselves from love, and therefore from the divine life. In that state, they will be tormented by their desires and by the desires of those who are like them. They will set themselves on a path that leads to final destruction.

A God of love cannot leave them in that state. A God of unlimited love would go to any lengths to persuade them to return to the path of eternal life, and to help them on that path. So Jesus says, 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance' (Luke 5:32). And his death on the cross is, John says, to take away the sins of the world.
Because I am in sympathy with that point of view, I guess that makes me a universalist, or it would, except that I am an agnostic on the subject of an afterlife. Whether or not there is life after death, I think that our ideas of justice should not be restricted to what we think God does after we are all dead. Justice, I believe, should instead permeate what we make of the world in this life, the one life we know about. And by the same token, I also think there is nothing wrong with us feeling angry over the fact that we live in a world in which people who perpetrate justice seem to get away with it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

Maybe the author of Ecclesiastes is right. Maybe it is all vanity. But then perhaps it is our task to break through the vanity of our short existence here on earth and make it as meaningful as we can anyway. This is true optimism. This is Albert Camus's Sisyphus, rolling the stone up the hill and creatively constructing meaning out of an apparently absurd existentialist universe. The concept of an afterlife where all is made right in the end might comfort us in some way, but it doesn't change the fact that the task we face here and now is in making the world a more just place. And regardless of what God does or doesn't do with us after we are dead, I think that God is calling us forward at each moment while we are alive, in this world, asking us to make a difference.

Another church visit

Before Sunday, I hadn't visited any new churches in quite a while, mainly because I'd lost most of my enthusiasm for the project. I had visited quite a few self-identified progressive churches in my city in 2006 and 2007, but none of them really worked for me. I was running out of new places to visit in my immediate area, and I wasn't sure what I was looking for anyway.

Sunday, I crossed a certain well known and rather large orange bridge to an adjacent county. As the crow flies, it wasn't that far away; for that matter, as the car drives, it wasn't that far away either. A thirty minute drive, tops. But I did somehow feel like I had crossed over into another world, although I'm not sure that this feeling made any sense. I live in a large metropolitan area and people do travel long distances some times to attend particular churches. The bridge was probably more a psychological barrier than anything else.

I had visited one other church in this county; that one was self-consciously progressive and had a progressive pastor, who tended to be somewhat less dressed up than the couple of men in dark gray suits and ties who stood at the door and greeted people as they walked in. I know it is not unheard of for men to wear suits in church, but the conservatism of those suits and the fact that the male attenders in general weren't necessarily wearing that sort of attire always made me feel a little weird or even intimidated. I wasn't sure what their official capacity was, if anything. In reality, that church never grabbed me for other reasons; the times I stayed after for coffee hour I found myself completely ignored by the rest of the congregation, even though I was obviously a visitor. Must have been the jeans. After a couple of tries, I never went back.

Well, the church I visited last Sunday wasn't like that. The attenders were dressed generally rather nicely, but none of the men were wearing suits, thank God. Actually, men in general seemed to be in somewhat short supply here. A clear majority of the maybe 50 people in attendance were female, and most of those were at least as old as I am (and I'm not that young.) There were some men, and a smattering of younger people, but the demographic did skew a certain way.

I felt the usual nervousness that I feel when visiting churches, as if I were some sort of interloper in a world that I was not a part of. The woman sitting next to me, though, was extremely nice and she told me at the end of the service that she hoped that I would come again. Part of the interloper feeling was, ironically, made more prevalent by the extreme informality of the proceedings, where the pastor (who was charming, outgoing, and cheerful) engaged members of the congregation frequently, addressing them by name, joking with them--and, of course, I was not member of the club of known people, so I was in that sense a definite outsider. This was not a somberly formal or sacramental worship service. The chairs were placed in a circle, and I could not help but notice that the pastor, although wearing a formal robe, was also barefoot. There was no communion this particular Sunday (I don't know how often they celebrate it; it could be once a month, but if so, apparently not the first Sunday of the month.) There was also no passing of the peace, which surprised me--I think this was the first Protestant church service I had attended in the last two years that did not engage in that practice. The overwhelmingly dominant presence was that of the pastor. I'm not saying that was a bad thing--she just had a dynamic personality and was involved in almost every aspect of the service.

As I sat in church, I contemplated the informality of the worship, and whether such informality was really my cup of tea. I think my Quaker background ruined me for life; I think I like something contemplative, sublime, uplifting, maybe even a little solemn, when I attend a form of worship. I realized that this particular church probably wasn't for me, but I also recognized that I had nothing against what they were doing either. It was fine, it was friendly. If I had gone back repeatedly, the pastor would probably have gotten to know me and started engaging me in the service like she engaged the others. If church for me were mainly about community, this church might actually have had considerable appeal.

The service included two readings, one from the Bible and one from an American poet. I liked the eclecticism in that. The pastor did talk about God and even made references to Jesus that suggested that she thought he was divine, so I was sure that the pastor was more theologically orthodox than I was; but the service was not that heavy on theology. It was more about community, really, and it seemed liberal enough that it could almost have passed for a Unitarian Universalist service.

Community is very much a part of what many churches offer, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. If I had a clearer idea of what I was looking for in a church, if indeed I was looking for anything at all, then maybe I could have done a better job of evaluating churches when I attended them. I spent some time during the service last Sunday thinking about this problem of not really knowing what my criteria were. To be honest, though, I didn't see myself as church shopping, but rather church window shopping. I wasn't looking for a church home because I really didn't think that it was likely I would find such a thing. Instead, going to church (when I did go, which has become less frequent) was more about sampling experiences, but not with any goal in mind.

It was not an unpleasant time, the pastor was likable, and I had at least one friendly encounter with a member, but I could see no compelling reason to make a half-hour drive over a bridge to visit this church again.

Hitchens on religion

I have commented before on the Templeton Foundation's online forum on the question of the compatibility of science and religion, but Liberal Pastor in Burnsville calls attention to something that Christopher Hitchens wrote in response to the question that I had missed. Hitchens stated:

Religion, remember, is theism not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will.
Hitchens, of course, presumes here that any religion that doesn't posit "the occurrence of miracles" must be a form of Deism. He has managed to reduce the entire range of religious inquiry to two paradigms--namely, that which he condemns as being unscientific, and Deism. Where panentheism, process theology, Tillich, or Spong--not to mention nontheistic religions like Buddhism--fit into his rather limited categorization is anybody's guess. But it does go to show how little he understands about a subject that he invests so much effort in attacking.

The meaning of Jesus's death

Here is a quote from Uta Ranke-Heinemann's book Putting Away Childish Things:

It is true, Jesus was killed. But not by his Father, who supposedly sent his only Son to his death and sacrificed him. Neither is God reconciled by this death, nor are we redeemed by it. Jesus was murdered by men. A person who lives in solidarity with all the poor and dependent--in this sense Good Friday means remembering someone who sympathized with everyone--will be seen by many people as siding with the enemy. And so in the world of murderers that we live in, a person like Jesus was placing his life at risk.

Redeemed from what, actually? Redeemed from more murders? That would be something, at any rate. But who is redeemed from murder by murder? And the murdering went further: It was for God, with God, in the name of God. Neither does murder redeem, nor does anyone's suffering, in itself, make other people better. There is no salvation through death....

...The Christian view that he died for others' sins creates new problems. It is not in fact the case that God's anger fell on Jesus vicariously instead of on us, and that he died vicariously for our sins, as we are always being told. Jesus never died for but simply because of the sins of human beings.

In the effort to give Jesus' death a meaning, one can only produce nonsense. This comes from trying to justify a murder that can't be justified, since no murder can ever be justified. Invoking God and God's will can't straighten out human crimes. Christians shouldn't glorify a gallows. They should sensitize themselves to the terror of the death penalty, of war, of violence, of torture, of military retaliation. Since they can no longer prevent the murder of Christ, they should at least not consent to it after the fact. And, not least of all for the sake of Christ's death, they should not consent to the violent death of any person in the world. So far as they can, they should prevent every such death.
(pp. 284-285)


The current issue of "The Progressive Christian" features a friendly dialogue between Del Brown and Jim Adams, in which they discuss their respective visions of what Progressive Christianity means to them (and no, their visions are not identical.)

Here is a quote from Jim Adams that I like:

Unless Christians make a major change in the way they present their story, except for small cult-like groups, I am afraid that the church will be dead by the end of the century. My hope is that Christians can adopt the point of view proposed by the late Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote about "non-overlapping magisteria." Science and religion each has a magisterium, a particular area of concern.

Although "magisterium" seems a bit pretentious, the proposal is that science deals primarily with verifiable facts and functions and employs the language of data, description, and mathematics. Religion deals primarily with matters of contemporary morality and ultimate meaning, and its language is myth and metaphor, poetry and song. Although both science and religion may have an interest in the well-being of the earth in general and human beings in particular, they should not be in conflict with one another. My hope is that by being science-friendly, the church will attract sufficient numbers of thinking people to make sure that the resources of the Christian tradition will be available for generations to come.
This absolutely jibes with my own understanding of the proper relationship between science and religion. I am not sure what to make of the fact that Del Brown responded by saying he was not "content" with Stephen Jay Gould's doctrine of "two magisteria", without elaborating further.

Easy religion

In her book The Other Buddhism: Amida Comes West, Caroline Brazier writes of a religion that is grounded in gratitude. Pureland Buddhism understands that the struggle to become perfect through one's own efforts is a trap, resulting in an endless cycle of frustration and failure, because none of us will ever be perfect. Perhaps even worse, once one identifies with this struggle towards self-perfection, this becomes part of the image that one tries to project to the outside world. This image, however, is just a public facade, and one's humanity becomes distorted by the fear of allowing others to see one's own imperfections. As Caroline Brazier puts it, "'Saints' are often hard to live with in private."

Accepting our own humanity is a kind of liberation. With acceptance comes gratitude.

In her book, she writes:

The experience of Pureland Buddhism is that we develop appreciation. This is not just for what others have given us, or for the world we inhabit, though these things are important. The central practices and teachings are grounded in an attitude of appreciation that goes beyond the worldly to the transcendent. The practice is deeply rooted in the sense of other-ness, and appreciation of the reality of a measureless expression of Buddha in the universe. It is a practice that expresses deep joy and gratitude, that reaches out in the wistful longing expressed by yugen, and that gratefully allows the practitioner to rest in the knowledge that despite their imperfection, they are blessed.
She puts her finger on what makes gratitude in this case a religious response. It "goes beyond the worldly to the transcendent."

Some would say that this makes religion too easy. Pure land Buddhism is often called the "Easy Path" to Enlightenment, because it makes no demands on its practitioners, other than to express their gratitude. There is no rigorous discipline of meditation and self-perfection. Instead there is just the nembutsu, the expression of thankfulness to Amida Buddha.

I wonder if one problem with the pursuit of self-perfection is to be found in the "self" part of that concept. If we are focusing on self-perfection, we are focusing on the self. If we instead shift our focus to others, on building a more loving community and a more just world, perhaps we will more effortlessly fulfill our human potential in ways that we never could by simply trying to will ourselves into measuring up to some standard we have set for ourselves. As long as it always comes back to being about ourselves, then it becomes self-defeating.

Any religion that offers grace to its practitioners can be accused of being too easy. Christianity frequently emphasizes this notion of grace, and in fact, the Apostle Paul has been criticized (by the author Barrie Wilson, for example) for offering an "easy" religion that placed few demands on its practitioners--no need for adult males to get circumcised, no need for strict Sabbath observance, and so on. Unfortunately, in practice, many forms of Christianity have ended up imposing a lot of demands of their own on their practitioners. If you want grace, we are told, you must have the right theological beliefs; you must undergo the baptism ritual before you will be invited to the table; you must express your sexuality in a certain way before you will accepted into our community. And so forth.

Is "easy" religion really such a bad thing? Is there anything wrong with a religion that says, "You are accepted for what you are? Come and join us?"

Faith and politics

The latest issue of "The Progressive Christian" contains a quote from Tony Blair, cited from an interview in the Los Angeles Times:

"One of the oddest questions I get asked in interviews, and I get asked a lot of questions, is: is faith important to your politics? It's like asking someone whether their health is important to them or their family. If you are someone 'of faith,' it is the focal point of belief in your life. There is no conceivable way that it wouldn't affect your politics."
Blair has been wearing his faith on his sleeve a lot lately. Blair was also one of George Bush's biggest cheerleaders for war. If Blair's faith led him to support the war in Iraq, then the world would have been better off if he had had a little less faith. Put another way, if given a choice between a world full of atheists who worked for peace and justice, or a world full of faithful Christians who committed or abetted the committing of war crimes, I would take the former every single time.

The faith line

Eboo Patel writes the following in his blog:

Our first and most important challenge is to recognize that the faith line does not divide Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists or secularists from the faithful.

The faith line separates religious totalitarians and religious pluralists.

Religious totalitarians want a society where their group dominates and everyone else suffocates.

Religious pluralists want a society where people from different backgrounds live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.

Religion, for good and for bad

Eboo Patel, a Muslim who is actively involved in interfaith work, is confronted quite frequently with bigotry against his faith. I sometimes am amazed at the patience he exhibits as he fights to overcome various negative stereotypes. Case in point--in his blog at the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith web site, he responds to a query that compares Islam to Nazism. Among other things, he writes:

The data shows that ordinary Muslims emphatically do not support Muslim extremists. As Fareed Zakaria writes in his recent Newsweek column, a 2007 ABC/BBC poll in Afghanistan found support for the jihadists to be about 1 percent. In Pakistan’s North-West frontier, a region supposedly friendly to bin Laden and his cohorts, his support ran at about 4% in January 2008.

Muslim extremists target ordinary Muslims, too, and often first. Who was subjugated under the Taliban (the closest thing to the Nazis in the Muslim world) in Afghanistan? Muslims. Who is being murdered by extremist groups in Iraq? Muslims.

Are Muslims speaking up? Of course they are. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have signed the Not in the Name of Islam petition, which states: “We, the undersigned Muslims, wish to state clearly that those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent. No injustice done to Muslims can ever justify the massacre of innocent people, and no act of terror will ever serve the cause of Islam.”

The most important Muslim scholars in American and across the world have not only denounced terrorism and fundamentalism, but written scholarly papers articulating how highly the Muslim tradition values peace and pluralism. Check out Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Place of Tolerance in Islam and Umar Abd-Allah’s Mercy, The Stamp of Creation.

In their important new book Who Speaks for Islam?, my friends Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito call this the "silenced majority". Based on the largest and most comprehensive study of Muslims ever undertaken, their findings include that Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustifiable.

In other words, we Muslims want people to know that we hate Muslim fanatics as much as non-Muslims do, and we are shocked and hurt that so many people either aren’t listening or don’t believe us.

I sometimes tell audiences of non-Muslims that if there was a Muslim extremist in the room with one bullet in his gun, and you and I were up against the wall, chances are that he would shoot me first. I am doubly hateful to him. Not only do I not follow his radical way of life, I put a different idea of what it means to be Muslim out in the world.

It is easy to stereotype religion based on the ones who manage to get a lot of the attention. Yet it seems to me that most of the people who are trying to live out their faith are ordinary, decent human beings who quietly go about their lives in the best way they can. They pray, they go to their place of worship, they earn a living, they raise children. They are not the ones who capture the headlines.

That is not to say that I don't think that religion should have a deeper significance for the world at large than just one's own, personal, individual lives. But I do think that it is easy to take the worst that people do in the name of religion and ignore the fact that this is not, for large numbers of people of faith, what their religion is about. Religion is about meaning, about purpose, about defining an overall framework for existence.

I have noted that the most militant opponents of religion are quick to say that when people do evil in the name of religion, it is religion per se that is to blame; but when people do good in the name of religion, somehow the religion has nothing to do with it.

If God, as Tillich would put it, is another way of describing our Ultimate Concern, then the ways we try to make a difference reflect that Concern. Sometimes, things go horribly wrong, and people translate that Concern into evil--bigotry, oppression, violence, all done in the name of religion. But the solution to that problem is not to eliminate the Concern--because our concerns never go away--but instead to channel our concerns in ways that reflect to the best that the human condition can offer, to fulfill our potential in the best way possible.

The problem of Zoroastrianization

Barrie Wilson contends in his book How Jesus Became Christian that first century Palestinian Jews were deeply focused on the "problem" of Hellenization, which he characterizes as various threats to the purity of the Jewish faith at that time from outside influences (specifically Greek.)

This presents an image of a Judaism that had to be on constant guard lest its theology or practices, handed down directly from God to Moses, be altered somehow. One might refer to this as the "Barbarians at the Gates" theory of Judaism. (Ironic, since it was the Greeks who coined the term "barbarian" to describe anyone but themselves.)

Never mind that the Torah was not actually handed directly from God to Moses, but was the redacted product of multiple layers of authorship over many years, produced by various competing factions with different theological and political agendas. The more interesting question, I think, is that Wilson focuses on Hellenization but ignores the problem of Zoroastrianization.

Consider this. Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism after the time of the Babylonian exile, which meant that first century Judaism was different from what it might have been, thanks to the pernicious influence of that other religion. In this case, Zoroastrianism handed to Judaism the idea of life after death. By Jesus's time, most Jewish parties (besides the Sadduccees) had come to believe in an afterlife--and thus the Jewish faith had already been largely polluted by Zoroastrianization. As Uta Ranke-Heinemann points out in her book Putting Away Childish Things,

Long before the age of Maccabees, belief in life after death had penetrated the conciousness of the Greeks--in Plato, in Stoicism, in the mystery religions, and in popular beliefs. But for the Jews, a still more important influence than Greek ideas of immortality seems to have been the Persian belief in the resurrection. The Jews had been in extremely close contact with the Persians, because from 539 to 333 B.C. the found themselves under Persian sovereignty. (p. 232)
It gets worse. By the time of Jesus, some Jews, such as the Essenes, had refined this belief even further to reflect the influence of--you guessed it, the Greeks. Whoa, Nelly, can it be true? Ranke-Heinemann writes,
The Greek doctrine of immortality changed the thinking of some Jews. Now they believed that souls of the just no longer went, even temporarily, like Abraham and Lazarus, into the kingdom of the dead. Instead they went off immediately to the heights of heaven. That was the view of the Essenes, who are nowadays more or less identified with the community at Qumran. (p. 235)
Josephus, who described this belief in some detail, also described his own beliefs, which were similar.

Ranke-Heinemann adds that the evolution of ideas about the afterlife was continuing on through the first century, to the point where Sheol as even some sort of halfway house for the dead faded away, at least as far as righteous people was concerned.

It seems to me that there might be a lesson here somewhere. The idea that first century Jews would never have modified their faith as the result of external influences--a key premise in Wilson's conspiracy theory about Jesus and Paul--just doesn't hold water. Theology never stands still, does it? New ideas, even ideas from other religions or cultures, can influence the course of theological development. This happened during the course of Jewish religious history. Even before Zoroastrianism, the experience of the Exile itself deeply influenced the Jewish understanding of God's relationship with the Jewish people. Time doesn't stand still, and neither do religious faiths.

Full Review--moved from other blog

How did Jesus, who was a faithful Jew during his lifetime, became the source of a radically new faith that broke away from Judaism in the decades after his death? Barrie Wilson, author of How Jesus Became Christian, thinks he has the answer. And he is not pleased.

It is not exactly earth-shattering news that Jesus was Jewish. But even if most Christians acknowledge this at some level, the question of what it means for Jesus to have been Jewish is another thing altogether. What kind of Jew was Jesus? Was there something about his brand of Judaism that carried within it the germ of what later became the breakaway faith of Christianity? Would he have approved of the religion that was created in his name? And was his self-understanding the same as what later Christians understood him to be?

That's a lot of questions, and I will add another one to the list--if he wouldn't have approved of the religion that he spawned, does that really even matter? I would suggest that when prophets die, they lose control over their franchise. It comes with the territory of being dead. And the movements they create often take on lives of their own, whether they would have liked it or not. After Buddha died, for example, Buddhism moved in many directions, including some that he never would have anticipated. So if gentiles later appropriated a Jewish prophet for their own purposes, so what? Isn't this just part of what Marcus Borg calls the post-Easter understanding of Jesus?

What annoys Wilson is that there is a tendency among Christians to Christianize Jesus, that is, to make him more like a modern gentile Christian than a devoutly Jewish prophet, and thus to push his Jewishness into the background. Wilson is not alone in this concern; there has recently been a sort of cottage industry of Jewish authors, such as Amy Jill-Levine and Julie Galambush, who have in recent years tried to reclaim Jesus's Jewishness. On the other side of things, although Marcus Borg's idea of a post-Easter understanding of Jesus resonates with some progressive Christians, there seems to be a need on the part of some more conservative Christians to deny that this process took place at all; they instead want to believe that the pre-Easter and post-Easter understandings of Jesus were essentially the same with each other and with Jesus's own self-understanding during his life. It just makes things easier for some people if God incarnate himself just said how it was going to be, no questions asked and with no later evolution in thinking.

Barry Wilson, on the other hand, accepts that a post-Easter understanding did emerge in contrast to Jesus's own self-understanding, but, unlike Borg, he doesn't like it. And he doesn't think that this post-Easter understanding came from Jesus's own inner circle of disciples, but rather only from one individual who didn't know Jesus at all.

Wilson blames all the differences that arose between these understandings of Jesus on Paul himself. He occasionally alludes to the possibility that the disciples who knew Jesus may have believed that he was resurrected after his death, but he insists that their fundamental understanding of both who he was and what he practiced and believed was essentially the same both before and after he died, and this understanding was quite simply that Jesus was a great but still very human, Torah-observant Jew who had a powerful message about an in-breaking eschatalogical reality. Those who knew him--James in particular, but also Peter--carried on Jesus's movement after his death in Jerusalem, as observant Jews. It was, by contrast, Paul, who had not known Jesus during his lifetime, who promoted a theology that was, Wilson argues, radically different from what Jesus himself taught and lived. His was a theology that he did not strictly learn from the apostles, but from his own mystical experiences. Paul seemingly admitted as much in the epistle to the Galatians, when he wrote:

the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; nor I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Not only that, but Paul makes it additionally clear in Galatians that he did not initially meet with Jesus's disciples:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
If he didn't learn the Gospel from anyone, and if he didn't confer with any human being, then wasn't he basically just making it up as he went along? Is it any wonder he was in conflict with the Jerusalem branch of the Jesus movement?

Wilson argues that neither Jesus nor the disciples who survived him in Jerusalem founded a new religion, but that Paul did, and, most important of all--and this is vital to his thesis--that there was really no continuity or common ground between Paul and the Jerusalem followers of Jesus. In this view, Paul's was a religion about Jesus, while the Jerusalem disciples shared the Jewish religion of Jesus. The Jerusalem disciples, then, may have believed that Jesus was resurrected, but they had no specifically "post-Easter" understanding, which related to two essential points: 1) who Jesus was, and 2) how his life and death affected their relationship to the Torah. Perhaps partly because the Jerusalem community of followers of Jesus could have been largely wiped out in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but also because Paul's religion seemed to demand less of its converts than Judaism did, it turns out that Paul's religion achieved dominance and overwhelmed that of the original followers who knew Jesus. The Jewish-oriented Ebionites who existed after that period of time and who continued this Jewish understanding of Jesus eked out an existence in the years that followed, but were eventually declared to be heretics, and their sect died out.

And that's the real crime, as far as Wilson is concerned. He believes that Paul in his new religion co-opted the bona fide Jesus movement and claimed it for himself. He believes there was a massive "cover-up" in Christian history, in which "the original message of Jesus and the Jesus Movement, Jesus' earliest followers in Jerusalem, became switched for a different religion" that was invented by Paul. The book of Acts was, in this view, part of a propaganda effort in order to lend credibility and a pedigree to Paul's religion by associating it with Jesus's bona fide disciples, when in fact (Wilson argues) Acts has little credibility as a historical document. If you think that Wilson is beginning to sound like a cranky conspiracy theorist, well, he does to me too.

I'll grant that Wilson raises some valid points. It is true, for example, that Acts sometimes contradicts Paul's accounts. And I myself have noted in the past that Paul's doctrinal positions differed from those of his Jerusalem counterparts, who actually had known Jesus. But to me, this represented the diversity that was found in Christianity from the beginning. Paul may have been taking the religion in new directions, but was that necessarily a bad thing? Wilson attacks everything about Paul's theology and finds nothing of value in it. For one who opposes anachronistic thinking about Jesus, Wilson engages in some rather anachronistic thinking of his own about Paul, taking for granted that Paul both advocated the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and that he believed that Christ was God incarnate. The radical Paul that Dominic Crossan identifies, who stood on behalf of all excluded people, is missing from Wilson's caricature.

Religions do evolve and often contain with themselves the seeds of diversity, but Wilson will have none of that; from his perspective, there was no real diversity in the early Christian faith at all, because he asserts that there were two different faiths--Paul's, and that of the Jerusalem community of disciples. In fact, he never really accepts the idea of diversity within Christianity at all--for him, the Gnostics were not Christians either; apparently nobody was a Christian except for those he identifies as (borrowing a term from Bart Ehrman) "proto-orthodox". As April Deconnick has pointed out, there are big problems with the term "proto-orthodox." In fact, early Christianity was quite diverse, which is why DeConnick prefers to use the term "plurodoxy" to describe what took place. Ultimately I think that Wilson's veers too far into the realm of conspiracy theories for me to really take his argument completely seriously, even if I think he has some interesting point to make.

The Historical Context

Wilson argues that the overriding context of Jesus's ministry was a time of deep resentment by most Palestinian Jews over what he calls the "problem of Hellenization." By this he means that large numbers of people resented what we might today call multiculturalism, seeing foreign influences as a threat to the integrity of Jewish faith and culture. He further argued that they desired to reinstate, with God's help (with or without a Messiah) a culturally homogeneous Jewish society that would not only be free from the intrusion of Greek (and Roman culture), but also would lie at the center of a new Golden Age in history. The Roman Empire was resented, not strictly because it was an oppressive system of imperial class domination--although it certainly was that--but more importantly, according to Wilson, because it was using its imperial might to impose corrupting foreign influences on the cultural and religious traditions of the Jewish people. Although some parties (the Sadducces, for example) collaborated with the foreign rulers, others responded to Roman rule with a kind of religious fundamentalism and xenophobia. For Wilson, Jesus was part of this general opposition to cultural and religious pollution from outside influences.

And herein lies his objection to Paul. He believes that Wilson accuses Paul of having effectively betrayed everything that Jesus stood for:
Paul accomplished by argument what Antiochus Epiphanes had tried to achieve by force: a religion detached from Torah, assimilated into common Hellenistic culture. (p.115)
From his point of view, Palestinian Judaism was more or less homogeneous on matters of basic theology and practices, but was divided over matters of strategy. Various competing factions agreed for the most part that there was a problem (the threat of cultural dilution by foreign influences), and the only question was how to respond to it. Among the strategies employed were: collaboration (the Sadducces); education and piety (the Pharisees), withdrawal (the Essenes); or violent resistance (the Zealots).

Even if Wilson stresses the divergence in strategies among different Jewish factions, it is their purportedly homogeneous stance towards the Torah that leads him to conclude that it was inconceivable that Jesus's view of Torah observance could have been any different from, for example, that of the Pharisees.

Was Judaism really as theologically homogeneous as Wilson claims? Is it really self-evident that Jesus would have taken a strictly conservative approach to the Torah as Wilson suggests? Is it possible that Jesus was more of a rebel against the prevailing religious status quo than Wilson gives him credit for?

Jesus's Life and Ministry

One of the weaker parts of Wilson's book is his treatment of the Gospel accounts of Jesus's life. One of the more bizarre decisions that he makes in this book is to treat the later synoptic Gospels, or at least Matthew, as more accurate sources about Jesus's life than the earliest one (Mark), on the assumption that the later authors "corrected" Mark. Part of the reason why he thinks so much of Matthew becomes clear later in the book, when he asserts that Matthew was actually a product of the anti-Paul Jewish Jesus movement, rather than of Pauline Christianity. This leads him to take at face value the questionable assertions in Matthew, such as that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, despite the many strong arguments that the birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke were mythological in nature; that being said, he does nevertheless manage to reject the virgin birth parts of those stories.

As for Jesus's teachings, Wilson does recognize the political impact of Jesus's ministry. However, for Wilson, the opposition to Roman rule was based not so much on its role as an oppressive Imperial force and oppressor of the peasant classes, but as an imposer of a polluting multiculturalism on the Jewish people. Thus, from Wilson's point of view, Jesus was not against tribalism (as John Shelby Spong would put it), but was instead uber-tribal to the core. From Wilson's perspective, the prevailing Jewish mindset of the time was tribal, and therefore Jesus must have been also.

It is interesting to contrast this with what Spong has to say in Jesus for the Non-Religious. Where Wilson paints a Jesus who just went along with the flow, Spong suggests that it was precisely because tribalism was the norm that Jesus was so remarkable in being anti-tribal. Spong writes,
The tribal God of Israel was still alive and well in the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. It was inevitable, therefore, that the fully human Jesus confronted this tribal mentality. (p. 242)
Spong cites examples from all three of the three synoptic Gospels to support his case. For example, he writes:
Mark is quite specific in saying that when Jesus departed from Jewish territory by crossing the Sea of Galilee, a great crowd followed him. Mark identifies the members of that crowd as being "from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon (3:7-8). Many of these areas, especially those regions beyond the Jordan and near Tyre and Sidon, were inhabited by Gentiles. Jesus proclaimed his message of reconciliation to "unclean" Gentiles and in so doing called his followers to step beyond their tribal boundaries and taste the meaning of a new and enhanced humanity, a humanity that did not hate, fear, or denigrate members of another tribe. (p. 244)
The Easter Experience

Wilson argues that there is no real point of contact between Paul and the Jerusalem disciples. But there is one teensy little issue that he glosses over--Easter. Okay, not so teensy. While it is true that Paul claims to have discovered his gospel through a mystical experience rather than having learned it from those who knew Jesus, one thing he does not claim is to have been the only one to have undergone such a mystical experience of the risen Jesus. On the contrary, he makes it quite clear that he was merely the latest in a long succession of such people, starting with a member of the Jerusalem church, Peter, and continuing with various other individuals. This is one area in which I think Wilson's theories miss the boat. The Easter experience lies at the basis of the continuity between the Jerusalem disciples and Paul.

Wilson describes the non-Pauline Jesus movement view of the resurrection this way:
For the Jesus movement and the Ebionites, no particular significance was attached to Jesus' death and resurrection. He died and was resurrected, like all righteous people will be. (p. 159)
True enough. However, I would argue that Easter was not a mere theological statement that Jesus rose from the dead. Rather it represented the experience that the followers of Jesus underwent and interpreted to mean Jesus's exaltation in the presence of God. This is an experience that not just Paul had, but, at least according to Paul, many of the disciples had as well.

Did Paul go off in different directions from those who knew Jesus? Sure. But I would suggest that the differences between him and the disciples, while theologically significant, were different interpretations of the Easter experience, and as such, represented simply the diversity that characterized the Christian faith from the beginning. Just because Paul took things in a new direction, was that necessarily bad? Paul's theology had a strongly progressive element that he is often not given enough credit for. Paul is often accused by modern theological progressives of having been conservative or sexist, when in fact, in the seven bona fide letters that we know he wrote, he was anything but a reactionary. He offered a radically egalitarian vision that stood in contrast to the hierarchical nature of society, and he was no fan of the Roman Empire. When he said that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus," he was standing in opposition to the prevailing tribalism of his era. Later biblical epistle writers, writing under Paul's name, tried to undo the progressive message that Paul preached by introducing a more conservative message. But the real Paul was something different from that.

As far as Easter is concerned, I believe that mystical experiences of a risen Jesus (as described by Paul in Galatians) has nothing to do with mythological tales of Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus. I do not, for one, believe that Jesus was physically resuscitated from the dead and then walked around showing his scars to his followers. But I do believe that Jesus, after his death, was indeed the subject of mystical experiences, by his disciples and later by Paul as well. And these experiences were interpreted by those who underwent them to mean that Jesus was "declared to be the son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness" after his death, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans. Another crucial aspect to this mystical experience was that Jesus was believed to be Lord--which was a political as well as a theological statement that stood in contradistinction to the Lordship of Caesar. These Easter experiences were thus inseparable from a proclamation of Jesus as the un-Caesar.

I think that, after Jesus died, Wilson's distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus turns out to problematic for two reasons. First, the movement that Jesus started took on a momentum of its own and thus could not remain forever a mere imitation of what Jesus said and did; I thus believe that the faith after his death was never just the religion of Jesus, though of course it paid close attention to and emulated that faith in many ways. Second, Jesus was a charismatic religious leader who stood in opposition to Roman authority, and the followers of Jesus found the best way they knew how to express their allegiance to the movement he founded by making their religion in some sense about him. As Dominic Crossan points out, declaring Jesus to be Lord was high treason in an era when Caesar was considered Lord.

In other words, maybe it makes sense to say that Christianity both was and was not the religion of Jesus, and that it both was and was not a religion about Jesus. And this still holds true today.

"How Jesus Became Christian"

I was interested in Barrie Wilson's book "How Jesus Became Christian" because it ostensibly explored the differences between Paul and the disciples who knew Jesus. However, upon reading it, I found it disappointing on several levels. Rather than exploring how these differences showed diversity within the early Christian faith, he denies that Paul and Jesus's disciples even shared the same religion, and he views Jesus himself as a xenophobic Jew whose main interest was in purging Palestine of any foreign influences. The book is mainly an exposition of a grand conspiracy theory directed at Paul and his successors. I reviewed the book in much greater detail in a blog that I created to serve as a repository for much longer postings than what I normally post here.

Update 6/10/2004: I decided it was a dumb idea to create that other blog, so I've moved my long review over to this blog, which you can read here, and back dated it so that it appears immediately after this posting.