My fairy tale is true; your fairy tale is false.

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In a comment to my "What Makes a Community a Community" posting, One Small Step writes the following:

Now, yes, many hold to a literal resurrection based on fact. But that is forcing the person to push past the paradigm of natural laws, and as soon as that happens, what standard is used to evaluate the truth of something? All you can do is take it on faith, or one's personal experience with God. It is again an "anything goes." If there aren't limits put on what one is studying, then how do we determine what is and is not something literally true? What basis is used? On the one hand, we'd usually know that if a story contains a man coming back from the dead, people would reject it as a fable, and not be told that they are doing so from a personal "a priori." Yet if they apply the same principle to the Bible, they are? What causes the standard to change?
This raises an interesting important point about credulity. Even most of those who believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus are selective about their credulity. If I went up to them and told them that my friend Bob died, was buried, and three days later came back from the dead and walked down the street, most Christians wouldn't believe me. They would categorically reject my claim as ridiculous. This is an example of the "my fairy tale is true; your fairy tale is false" phenomenon.

I'm not normally crazy about quoting from militant atheists, but in this case I think that one individual, who operates the "Why Won't God Heal Amputees" web site, makes a really good point on this score. This individual offers a set of argument that are fairly commonly used by militant atheists against religion, and as the title of the site suggests, the problem of theodicy plays an important role in those arguments. I don't accept those arguments against the existence of God, as I have stated in the past, because I think that they set up a straw man that is based on the faulty assumption that religion necessarily involves a certain kind of patriarchal, supernaturally theistic conception of an interventionist Deity. That being said, I do agree with these critics of religion on their objection to the miraculous claims that many religions often make; it has always been my interest to seek out a rational religion that is consistent with a post-Enlightenment worldview. I don't believe in miracles as they are typically defined, and I don't believe that being religious requires a belief in them. Thus I agree with the point that is being made in the following quote from that web site, namely that many people who are skeptical about the extraordinary and miraculous claims made by other faiths than their own often turn around and exhibit considerable credulity when it comes to extraordinary and miraculous claims made by their own faith:
No one (besides little kids) believes in Santa Claus. No one outside the Mormon church believes Joseph Smith's story. No one outside the Muslim faith believes the story of Mohammed and Gabriel and the winged horse. No one outside the Christian faith believes in Jesus' divinity, miracles, resurrection, etc.

Therefore, the question I would ask you to consider right now is simple: Why is it that human beings can detect fairy tales with complete certainty when those fairy tales come from other faiths, but they cannot detect the fairy tales that underpin their own faith? Why do they believe their chosen fairy tale with unrelenting passion and reject the others as nonsense?

I am admittedly being provocative when I adopt that person's term "fairy tale" to describe the story of the resurrection of Jesus. I normally would use the word "myth" (rather than "fairy tale") to describe it, because myths have meaning beyond their literal or factual truth, and I actually think the fanciful stories in Matthew, Luke and John of Jesus walking around after his death have mythic value--that they are ways of articulating through stories and metaphor the fact that, after Jesus died, his followers believed that they experienced his presence in some way. I appreciate and respect that aspect of Christianity--as long as one doesn't fall into the trap of literalizing these myths.

I recently attended a church service where the pastor, who regularly deals with people in a congregation with diverse points of view, reacted to one of the lectionary miracle stories in Matthew (where Jesus walks on water) by saying that whether you believe it really happened or not doesn't really matter--what matters is the deeper truth that the story points to. I appreciate what the pastor was saying in that case--and I'm sure that Marcus Borg would say the same thing. But I am coming to realize how hard it is for me to look the other way on this subject. It is important to my personal faith that these myths not be literalized, and it is hard for me to say that it doesn't matter to me whether those stories are true or not. There are a lot of people of faith in this world who feel disenfranchized by organized religion precisely because they don't believe that these mythical miracle stories are literally true, and I fall into that category mysself. True, the congregation in this instance seems to hold together just fine despite whatever differences of theology exist among its participants. I know that there are some more rationalistically oriented skeptics among the membership, and some who appear to be more traditional in their outlook. So I obviously can't speak for others on this score. Others may have no problem with the "it doesn't matter" approach. But for me, while I certain respect the right of other people to take these stories literally, it is not so easy to just sit back and say that it doesn't matter to me whether Santa Clause is real or not.

22 comments:

John Shuck said...

Excellent post, as usual! Your use of the word "Fairy Tale" is not necessarily wrong or dismissive. Fairy Tales contain the very magic of meaning, that is why we continue to tell them.

Frederick Buechner wrote a book entitled, The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Some folks were offended by it, but I thought he captured the heart of the gospel story.

DogBlogger said...

You said > If I went up to them and told them that my friend Bob died, was buried, and three days later came back from the dead and walked down the street, most Christians wouldn't believe me. They would categorically reject my claim as ridiculous.

But what if 500 people saw Bob, would that still remain in the "mine is true, yours is false" category?

Brian said...

In this day and age, no one wants to be seen as a non-thinker, so with the backing of science, we have managed to explain away most of the mysterious events of earlier ages. So much so, that Science is the god of the 21st century. We believe anything it says. So where does faith stand in relation to this god? It is very tempting to take this god's view that everything can and should be explainable, so faith is antiquated and has become redundant in this age. It seems to me that Progressive Christianity is moving in the direction of explaining everything so that it can be understood, thus cutting faith out of the equation. It seems to be the opposite end of the pendulum swing from "believe everything the bible says, and don't question it". So where is the middle ground?

Connor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Connor said...

"Why do they believe their chosen fairy tale with unrelenting passion and reject the others as nonsense?"

I'll take the easy way out and say that this is probably the case because we don't choose our beliefs.

PrickliestPear said...

dogblogger,

But what if 500 people saw Bob, would that still remain in the "mine is true, yours is false" category?

If one is not willing to accept uncritically the claim that a man was resurrected, why would one accept uncritically the claim that 500 people witnessed it?

In response to the original post, I would say that there is no rational basis for affirming the "fairy tales" of one tradition and rejecting the others. Some will say that the basis is not reason, but "faith," but that's a bit of a cop-out in my opinion. The argument from "faith" is often used to disguise the arbitrariness of this kind of religious belief -- the result, more often than not, of a mere accident of birth.

In a sense, those who hold these kinds of beliefs do not think of themselves as being unreasonable, in the sense that they do have "reasons" for believing. But when you've bought into the idea that the fate of your eternal soul depends on your continuing to hold these beliefs, what do you have to gain by evaluating the soundness of your reasons for believing them?

Grace said...

Some would argue that to even affirm the existence of a personal God at all is to accept a fairy tale. Check out the de-conversion blog.

But, if we accept that God is, then why does it seem totally incredible that He could raise the dead?

I agree that we should not blindly accept every miraculous claim that comes down the pike lightly. But, I don't understand how all such claims can be simply discounted out of hand, either.

Do you see what I mean? If there is an infinite God, can He simply be put into our post-enlightenment, naturalistic box? What if God just chooses not to conform to our finite way of thinking, and reasoning? Our opinions, either way, can't change who God is.

Are we looking to know the God who is actually there, or the idol that makes us feel comfortable, and conforms best to our own philosophy, and personal world view?

Believe me, I'm also directing this question to myself. God help all of us to honestly love, and look for truth.

OneSmallStep said...

Oy, I'm famous enough to quote. That's a heady experience. :)

Mystical,

**But I am coming to realize how hard it is for me to look the other way on this subject. It is important to my personal faith that these myths not be literalized, and it is hard for me to say that it doesn't matter to me whether those stories are true or not.**

I'm curious about this statement. When you say it's hard for you to look the other way, do you mean just you yourself, or being around people who do take the stories literally? We've seen instances where those who take the Christian creeds very seriously would not be comfortable in a congregation that doesn't adhere to those creeds, and thus couldn't look the other way. So do you mean it in that sense? Or is it in the sense of you can't keep looking the other way in that you are asked to tolerate those with the literal viewpoint, and yet feel that your viewpoint is not similarily tolerated, or there isn't as much room for your viewpoint?

Grace,

**I agree that we should not blindly accept every miraculous claim that comes down the pike lightly. But, I don't understand how all such claims can be simply discounted out of hand, either.**

In relation to your comment here, what I see this post getting at is what method do you use to determine what should and should not be accepted? The very method that would make most Christians discount Bob coming back from the dead -- is that same method applied to the resurrection of Jesus? Or vice versa?

Mystical Seeker said...

John, Thanks for the comment on the use of the term "Fairy Tale." I'll bear in mind its positive uses! :)

Prickliest Pear, Dogblogger may be making a reference to Paul's comment in Galatians about the risen Christ appearing to 500 people. I have two responses to that. First, it represents hearsay, it is conveniently vague and a nice round number, and thus is a little hard to pin down since it lacks specifics. But second and more importantly, I have always distinguished between the notion that early Christians believed that experienced Jesus's presence after he died (which I think happened), and the notion that Jesus actually was seen walking around on the streets, showing people his scars and so forth. Paul included himself in the same list as that which included that 500 people, he used the same verb "appeared" for all those experiences including his own, and Paul's own experience of Jesus was of a mystical or visionary nature--thus his visionary/mystical experience was of the same nature as that of that "500", whoever they might have been. The point is that the detailed, mythological stories of Jesus walking around after he did did not appear until Matthew and Luke fanciful (and contradictory) descriptions about it fifty years after the purported events took place.

Conor, can you be more specific about what you mean when you say we don't choose our beliefs?

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace,

But, if we accept that God is, then why does it seem totally incredible that He could raise the dead?

You presuppose in that question that "God" refers to a supernaturally interventionist deity. But in my case, I could not accept that "God is" in the first place until I discovered the existence of theologies that rejected such views of God. For me, the route to believing in God again was my discovery of process theology, which rejects the notion of divine omnipotence. In other words, I never would have believed that "God is" if I believed in a God who performed miracles like raising people from the dead.

If there is an infinite God, can He simply be put into our post-enlightenment, naturalistic box? What if God just chooses not to conform to our finite way of thinking, and reasoning? Our opinions, either way, can't change who God is.

Every time anyone makes a statement about God's nature, they are, according to that way of looking it, putting God into a box. So would you have us make no statements whatsoever about God's nature? Even saying that God is love, which comes straight out of the New Testament, is a statement about God's nature, and therefore "putting God into a box." In fact, I recently got into an online discussion in another blog with someone who read my blog here and for some reason (that she never specified) decided she didn't like me; in any case, in the discussion she disagreed with my characterization of God as a loving deity. She had a different box than the one I had. These so-called "boxes" are really just another name for theology. Some progressive theologians think that we can make no statements whatsoever about God, and so refuse to do so; I don't take that position myself, but if that is your position, then I guess you are more of a progressive than you let on. But I actually think that theology has its place.

Mystical Seeker said...

When you say it's hard for you to look the other way, do you mean just you yourself, or being around people who do take the stories literally? We've seen instances where those who take the Christian creeds very seriously would not be comfortable in a congregation that doesn't adhere to those creeds, and thus couldn't look the other way. So do you mean it in that sense? Or is it in the sense of you can't keep looking the other way in that you are asked to tolerate those with the literal viewpoint, and yet feel that your viewpoint is not similarly tolerated, or there isn't as much room for your viewpoint?

Good question, OSS. I'm not sure I can articulate an answer.

Maybe the problem has to do with what it means to say "it doesn't matter" whether you take these stories literally or not. The pastor (and Marcus Borg) are right that there is a deeper meaning that the stories point to and we can ignore our differences as long as we focus on the deeper meaning. But I think that in practice, as you suggest, mentioning that these stories "might" not have literally happened is at best an afterthought in lots of churches, and is rarely acknowledged even in most progressive congregations. The pastor in the example I cited gets points for at least acknowledging it. But the thing is, even if it is not important in the sense described above, it is still important to me personally. If I label these stories as fairy tales in church, my guess is that a lot of people are going to be offended.

Brian said...

MS, I don't think I fully understand your statement "I could not accept that "God is" in the first place until I discovered the existence of theologies that rejected such views of God." Please explain.

To me it kind of sounds like you wouldn't believe that a tree that falls in the woods, would make a sound unless you were there to hear it... even if 500 other people (approx or exactly) did report that they heard it.

BTW, if approx 500 people reported that something newsworth happened today, then we would believe it, so why not 2000 years ago. Our courts only need one or two witnessed to convict someone of a crime. I think 500 is a reasonably substantial number of witnesses.

Grace said...

Mystical,

I can certainly understood how someone would have difficultly with a childish interpretation of God as this old man with a white beard living in the clouds who from time to time swoops down to earth to direct the weather.

But, what about a concept of God who is both transcendent, and immanent in creation? "For it is in Him, that we live, and move, and have our being."

Couldn't a loving God intervene in our lives, or in His own creation for our good? Why would this bring someone to atheism?

I confess that I'm having real difficulty understanding.

Mystical Seeker said...

Brian and Grace,

I do not believe that omnipotence is a divine attribute. It was not until I realized that it is perfectly possible to believe in a non-omnipotent God that many of my objections to the existence of God were removed, and it became possible for me to become a believer.

To me it kind of sounds like you wouldn't believe that a tree that falls in the woods, would make a sound unless you were there to hear it... even if 500 other people (approx or exactly) did report that they heard it.

I'm not sure what you base that statement on. I am only pointing out that, first, we don't have the direct word of the 500, but rather Paul's vague, second-hand (or third-hand or whatever) report that there was some suspiciously perfectly round number of people who had an experience. Second, given that Paul makes no distinction between his own visionary experience of Jesus and that of this alleged 500, then we can infer that Paul is saying that 500 people experienced Jesus in the same way that he did. In other words, Paul is in no way making assertions that Jesus was walking around on earth after he died. He was only asserting that other people experienced Jesus's presence in some way, just as he believed that he did. The first stories of Jesus literally walking around on earth in a physical body did not emerge until half a century after Jesus died, when Luke and Matthew wrote about it.

Couldn't a loving God intervene in our lives, or in His own creation for our good? Why would this bring someone to atheism?

Not if God is not omnipotent. Your question assumes omnipotence as an inherent attribute of God. My reasons for being an atheist prior to my discovery that God need not be omnipotent were mainly based on two things: my belief that the God of the Gaps has proved to be meaningless in the modern, post-Enlightenment world, and the problem of theodicy. Not believing in omnipotence solves both of those problems.

Connor said...

"Conor, can you be more specific about what you mean when you say we don't choose our beliefs?"

Sure, believe for today that God is omnipotent and that Jesus was God incarnate and rose from the dead. Can you? I'll assume that you can't will that.

I know that this kind of shuts down the conversation therefore it is probably best to only to keep this idea in the recesses of the mind while discussing such topics as this and not let it dominate.

The Progressive Deist said...

I remember reading that the "500" witnesses was a later addition to the letter that Paul had written. As such, once removed we only have Paul mentioning a few people and of those people they had the same experience that he did which as mentioned was not physical in nature.

Certainly, 500 witnesses is nothing to throw out but if it was a later addition then it has little value in the discussion.

I remember a number of years ago I watched a movie about Buddhism where Keanu Reeves played the Buddha. It showcased the Buddhas journey from prince to Enlightenment. During this journey he had a giant Cobra cover him while it rained.

I was discussing this with some of my Christian friends and when I mentioned that part they stated that it was silly and could never happen.

Yet, they had no problem in believing in miracles that are within their own religion.

I think that we have the unfortunate ability to put aside the beliefs and claims of others when it does not suite our needs and purposes. So, person A can claim that the miraculous stories of his religion are true and should not be questioned while claiming that the miraculous stories of person B are wrong and silly to believe in.

The hard part is to apply the critical reasoning that we use on others on our own beliefs as well.

As a Deist I don't believe in a interventionist God. However, as mentioned by Mystical Seeker, I have also been influenced by process theology and believe that God persuades. I do not believe in intervention and miracles but I believe that we must all respect the beliefs of others.

I have been active in a United Methodist church for many years because my wife is a Christian and by default I have attended it. In many ways I am a progressive Christian but have not been able to apply the label to myself. For about a year my wife wanted to attend other churches and one of them was a large Methodist church. So large in fact that they have their own magazine. In one issue a woman wrote about being in a foreign country and watching a woman pray to God. She stated rather arrogantly that this woman had no hope of her prayer being answered as only the one true God that she believed in would and could answer prayers.

However, if I were to state to the Christian womam that God does not intervene then she would say how wrong that I was and provide examples. Yet, the same woman is willing to deny the prayers and experiences of this other woman simply because she does not believe in the same exact God.

Ultimately, we believe what suites us but we need to be respectful of others. I don't believe in intervention but I won't go around telling others that their beliefs are wrong or that they have no point. If she believes in intervention then I will respect this. I will not deny her the belief that God has intervened on her behalf. This can be hard to due but is part of the respect that we should give each other.

Joe

Mystical Seeker said...


I think that we have the unfortunate ability to put aside the beliefs and claims of others when it does not suit our needs and purposes. So, person A can claim that the miraculous stories of his religion are true and should not be questioned while claiming that the miraculous stories of person B are wrong and silly to believe in.


Great comment, Joe.

Ultimately, we believe what suites us but we need to be respectful of others. I don't believe in intervention but I won't go around telling others that their beliefs are wrong or that they have no point.

That relates to the problem I have in churches that try to be inclusive towards those who believe in miracles and those who don't. As one who doesn't, I don't want to come off as an arrogant bully who tells the other congregants that they are wrong in their beliefs. Yet I also want to be true to my own beliefs, which is that I simply can't accept that those stories are literally true.

Brian said...

"Ultimately, we believe what suites us but we need to be respectful of others."

This is the thing about God; we have a huge number of denominations within Christianity, all of whom have differing views about God, yet we all believe two or three core things: God exists and we can have a personal relationship with this being, for one.

God is flexible enough to speak into the hearts, minds and lives of anyone who is truly seeking Him/Her. Heck, the person doesn't even need to be a Christian for God to interact with that person.

If God is not personal then what is the point? If God doesn't interact with us, why believe in him? A tree hugger who honours nature doesn't expect the tree to be with them during crisis or any other life event, nor does someone who calls on an impersonal "Universe"

These thoughts aren't fully developed but I'm out of time, so gotta go.

SocietyVs said...

The funny thing about Mormons and Muslims (examples used in the quote) - they both accept some version of the resurrection or that something unique happened at the cross.

I would also like to note this was a well known theology for it's day amongst the Pharisee's - who believed it to be an actual truth.

Now for Jesus to come along and actually resurrect is not really that 'far out' in my opinion. This was expected in the faith and not something people would have seen as 'odd' and 'unique' (there was a theology around it already).

I guess it's like seeing a ghost. Lots of people claim to have had this experience - too much to count actually. Now some cases seem straight up falsified and imaginative. Then we have some cases where it either happened or more than one witness was delusional (at the same time). The resurrection, for me, falls into this type of evidence.

I know many people that do not believe ghosts are real - and why shoud they - they have never seen them (including myself - in the category of never seeing one). But that does not mean because you have had not had this experience that it is not a real phenomenon. It just means you want more proof before you accept the fact it can heppen.

For me, the resurrection is a literal and physical event of some sort. It has to be - this was the theological claim of the Pharisee's of the time and the Christians. Now I cannot prove any of this - but it is not based in a fairly tale either - we are talking real humans here and possible scenarios. It's like saying ghosts do not exist - maybe they do not - but the one's who know they do cannot prove it.

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**Then we have some cases where it either happened or more than one witness was delusional (at the same time). The resurrection, for me, falls into this type of evidence. **

It would depend on how one holds the resurrection, though. I know Christians who don't believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, but do believe people experienced something three days after the cross. I can understand where this is coming from, because I see a steady progression in making the resurrection physical, when reading Paul's letters first, then going to Mark, and then ending up with John. And even in the other gospels, there's something about Jesus that goes beyond the physical, with him vanishing and such.

It also depends on how one defines "witness" here, too, if you don't think that any of the gospels were written by eye-witnesses.

But in terms of fairy tales, I don't think Mystical meant that in the same way that we'd mean Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. Rather, it's something to convey a deep meaning, such as the followers experiencing Jesus in some way after his death.

The author of the quote might have.

Margie's Musings said...

I belong to a small group that meets on Sunday evenings. We watch a video called "Living the Questions" and then discuss the various points of view. Again, these people are from several religions traditions but we have a wonderful relationship. We discuss for a hour or so and then have a dessert and visit.

I actually propose that folks from varying traditions get together in the homes and get these videos and discuss the material on there. Marcus Borg is one of the regulars.

Have you heard of these DVD's?

Margie's Musings said...

Interestingly enough, Mystical, I too accept the God of process theism.