All in the Mind

Blog 368 (2)

Christians dispute that those who saw the Risen Jesus after his death were merely experiencing hallucinations or ‘visions’ in their own heads. Despite the fact that the only first-hand eye-witness report we have of a resurrection sighting is of precisely this nature – Paul’s, in Galatians 1.16 where he says that the Risen Christ was revealed ‘in’ him – Evangelicals in particular insist that Jesus rose physically from the dead and was seen by numerous ‘witnesses’.

And yet, in the two thousand years since he supposedly ascended into Heaven, no-one has seen Jesus in his resurrected, physical body. This doesn’t stop believers today claiming that they experience him in ‘real’ ways. As the old song goes, they walk with him and talk with along life’s narrow way. Or they think they do.

Back when I was a Christian I used to hear Jesus speaking to me. He’d create a thought in my head, telling me to act in a certain way, to speak to some lost soul about him, for example. At the time I was convinced these promptings were really ‘the Lord’. How could they not be? I had his Spirit living inside me, a sure-fire way of experiencing the living Jesus. His presence felt very real, as it does still for millions of Christians. What greater proof of the resurrection could there be?

In fact, Jesus’ ‘voice’ was no more than the vague recollections of Bible verses I half remembered. The sense of his presence I felt was a trick of my own mind, conditioned by hours of sermons, Bible reading and the mutual reinforcement provided by fellow-believers.

I never actually visualised Jesus, though many claim to. They see him in burnt toast or cloud formations; they dream about him or think he has visited them in the night, standing at the foot of the bed. Some have near-death experiences when they (imagine) they travel to Heaven and are welcomed by his outstretched arms. Others ‘know’ he has rescued them from calamity, or purposely sent them a sign (by leaving a Bible unscathed after a storm destroyed a house, as happened this week in Indiana.) Still others, a mite more credibly perhaps, have a sense of Jesus being present in a wishy-washy mystical way. He seems especially real when they’re caught up in the ecstasy of worship or a mighty and wondrous healing is being staged taking place. What a blessing! After all, didn’t Jesus promise in Matthew 18.20 that ‘when two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them’? (Probably not, but Christians believe he did and that’s what matters.)

My point is this: if this is how Jesus ‘manifests’ himself today – in whispered messages, inner-visions, emotions, dreams, blessings and ‘signs’ – and if these are enough to keep today’s believers convinced he lives again, then isn’t it likely that this was exactly how his earliest followers experienced him after his death? Not as a real, physical body but in these same ‘spiritual’ ways, conjured up by minds deep in the thrall of religion? If illusions of their own imaginations are enough to persuade the susceptible of the Risen Lord’s presence today, then surely they were more than enough to convince a handful of superstitious zealots in the first century.

I mean, just look at Paul.

Christian charity?

Blog367

Over at the distastefully named Cripplegate, Jordan Standridge has been considering what Christians should do when a homeless person asks for money. Jordan wants some means of weeding out the fakes (fair enough, though he doesn’t really have any clear strategy for doing this) and also attaches conditions to his giving – the recipient of his largesse has to listen to him ‘sharing the gospel’. Jordan reports that none of those he treats to a free meal object to him doing this – probably because they fear going hungry if they don’t listen to him droning on about Jesus.

Most of the comments following Jordan’s post betray the Christian eagerness not to have to follow the command of Jesus’ to give unstintingly. I felt moved to add one of my own:

It’s good that you’re considering ways you can help the poor and homeless, but Jesus says to ‘give to everyone who asks’ (Luke 6.30). ‘Everyone’ is a pretty inclusive! There’s no mention of ‘weeding out the fakes’; just give to all. Seems to me you’re hedging around this command.

This met with variety of responses, shown below in italics, followed by my replies:

Mike: By that logic, if a homeless person asks you for your home, are you then to sign it over to them? If they simply ask for your car, are you then going to hand them your keys? Of course not. That’s not what Luke 6 has in mind. Otherwise YOU would be left on the street naked and homeless simply because someone ASKED you for everything you owned…

You’re right, Mike – it’s completely absurd and unreasonable. But it’s Jesus’ absurdity and unreasonableness, not mine. If you want to say he’s wrong – as you do when you say ‘that’s not what Luke 6 has in mind’ (you know what it ‘has in mind’, I take it?) – then your dispute is with him, not me.

Jane: I believe your atheism qualifies you as the one having the dispute with Him.

Well, Jane, you’re the one who claims to obey him as Lord and Savior and yet here you are trying to figure out ways not to. It brings to mind another of his sayings from Luke 6: ‘Why do you call me “Lord, lord,” and not do what I tell you?’ Why indeed.

Craig: The passage in Luke 6 is not instructions for the body of Christ. In the gospels Jesus has come to Israel as their Messiah to bring in the kingdom that was promised to them. Jesus is telling them how it will be if they accept Him as Messiah.

It’s not, Craig? How’d you know?

What you’re really saying is ‘we Christians don’t much care for this commandment, so we’ve decided it doesn’t apply to us.’

However, if we were to go along with your argument, that Jesus is not addressing the ‘body of Christ’ here, then it follows neither can he be addressing it anywhere else in the gospels. You can’t simply delete the bits you don’t like.

4CommenceFiring4: “Give to everyone who asks” doesn’t specify what to give, or how much. The other commands–like going the second mile or giving them your cloak when they ask for your shirt–has to do with attitude, not mathematical formulas.

The Jews asked Jesus for a “sign” that He was the Christ. Did violate His own standards by not providing a sign? If you think He did, then it would be fruitless to get into the subject any further.

Really? It’s to do with attitude not action? Who says so? I thought the Bible was the literal word of God, meaning Jesus’ commands here should be taken at face value. Thanks for enlightening me; I’m relieved to learn there’s enough wriggle room not to have to do what Jesus says.

Oh, and according to John’s gospel, Jesus provided numerous ‘signs’ for ‘the Jews’ (which he was himself, of course.)

4CommenceFiring4: “The Bible is the literal Word of God” is the claim of someone–believer or otherwise–who hasn’t thought much about what that even means. There are theological debates by serious people about that, so don’t think for one minute that because “literal” means different things to different people means it doesn’t mean anything and we can go merrily on our way thinking we have nothing to which we owe our attention.

A devotion to strict literalism would lead to ridiculous conclusions, as you well know, so if you intend to use that as a defense for why the Bible isn’t to be taken seriously, try again. Smarter people than either of us have devoted their lives to debunking it, and it’s still standing long after they faded away. So don’t waste your time with that empty pursuit.

The bottom line is, are you ready for what comes next? And are you sure? It’s a bet you can’t afford to get wrong. Examine that, and everything else is secondary.

Great stuff. The ingenuity and effort that goes into avoiding doing what Jesus clearly commands is truly impressive.

Am I ready for what comes next? Sure. Oblivion never hurt anyone.

*****

Meanwhile, the homeless go on being homeless and Christians continue to demonstrate that the people who get the most out of their ‘discipleship’ is primarily they themselves.

The Gods of Christianity

Blog366

Christians who argue that only their God is real and that life is futile without him, are like the person who jumps up and down on thin ice insisting the ground beneath him is solid.

The various forms of Yahweh belief have rarely been monotheistic. While Isaiah declares there is only one God, the Jewish scriptures also refer to ‘him’ as ‘Elohim’ and ‘Adonai’, plurals meaning ‘deities’ and ‘my lords’ respectively. Other gods abound, with Psalm 82.1 relating how Yahweh presides over an assembly of other deities. From the beginning – certainly the beginning of the bible – a belief in other supernatural agents has been a requirement; Satan and angels are both present in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament. There are also the cherubim and seraphim of Genesis 3.24 and Isaiah 6:1-8 who do Yahweh’s dirty work for him. All of these beings are supernatural entities of immense power; gods in everything but name.

And this is before we get to the New Testament where several new superhuman characters are introduced. Most notable, of course, is the Christ, the invention of cultist Paul. This eternal being is capable of rescuing human beings from the wrath of God and has the power to resurrect them after death. He is, in Paul’s eyes, on an equal footing with Yahweh himself, a god in his own right (Philippians 2.6-11). While the Christ himself has resided in heaven for the past two thousand years (or for eternity, give or take thirty years), his spirit haunts the Earth to this day, possessing members of the Christ cult. The three of them together – the Christ, the Spirit and Yahweh (re-imagined as ‘The Father’) – are the chief gods of Christianity. The church has spent almost two millennia trying to explain how there is only one god who is simultaneously three distinct deities. The Vatican declares the Trinity to be the greatest mystery of all, though of course it is only a mystery in the same way something that makes no sense whatever can be considered a mystery.

According to the gospels, Jesus himself believed in yet another collection of supernatural agents; demons who caused all manner of illness and mischief, opposing Jesus wherever he went. According to the writer of Ephesians (6.12), these ‘wicked spirits’ and ‘principalities’ rival God in terms of power, and are, together with their overlord, Satan, the real rulers of this world

For Catholics, this pantheon of three-in-one gods, angels, devils and demons is supplemented by another layer of super-beings. These are humans who have attained the status of divine immortality, and who are prayed to and worshipped by acolytes on Earth. Mary, the supposed ‘mother of God’ is the most significant, followed by ‘saints’ who have been translated to Heaven and now have free access to the chief gods, ‘interceding’ with them on behalf of ordinary mortals. While no doubt Catholics would dispute that these figures are themselves gods, it’s difficult to see how they are not: they’re immortal, eternal, possessed of great power and in direct communication with the Big Three. They are the equivalent of the Titans’ offspring in Greek mythology.

There is nothing monotheistic about Christianity (nor Judaism) despite the protestations of those who claim to follow the one true God. Christianity has, like most of its predecessors, a pantheon of gods. This not surprising when history repeatedly demonstrates the extent to which humans are inclined towards ensemble theistic imaginings.

So, beware those who tells us they know what the one true God wants, what he approves of and what he condemns: that ice is exceedingly thin and already cracked. It has been from the very beginning.

Proof of God

Blog364

Amateur apologist and C. S. Lewis wannabee, Don Camp, makes the argument that as human beings have always believed in gods (have they?), it must mean that gods exist. They – or at least one of them – must have planted an instinct for worship within us from the outset. Don, of course, feels it is ‘self-evident’ that the god he believes in (the Christianised version of the Jewish tribal god, YHWH) is the One True God and consequently the deity who imbued us with the god instinct. Eventually, after millennia, during which humans misdirected their god-instinct to create thousands of false gods and imaginary supernatural beings, this One True God revealed himself and made known his expectation that he be acknowledged as the only God.

Where to begin?

It is not ‘self-evident’ that the tribal god of ancient Jews is the One True God. It is not ‘self-evident’ that this god exists while all the other gods humans have created (current estimate: 28,000,000) do not. The people who created these other deities were equally convinced they existed. Some had texts setting out the expectations the gods had of their human acolytes; most had rituals and forms of worship that had to be adhered to; they had experts – priesthoods – who knew exactly what the gods required; many encouraged adherents to serve the gods in their daily lives.

These other deities were every bit as ‘real’ as YHWH. There is nothing that singles ‘him’ out from them; nothing that makes him any more real than they were. He is indistinguishable from them in every way. It cannot be argued that they don’t exist, while, ‘self-evidently’, the Christian god – a very late arrival on the scene – is real.

What of the god instinct then? Where does it come from if not from the gods themselves? As others have argued (Dawkins and Harris, for example) it appears to be a misfiring of our need to know. The ancient peoples who devised gods to explain their world were doing their best with what little knowledge they had. Attributing agency to the activities of nature is an understandable mistake to make. Early people had first-hand experience of human agency and it was not an unreasonable assumption that agency must therefore lie behind other phenomena. We know that very early religions did precisely this in respect of animals, weather and the stars (animism; while astrology, in which celestial bodies control human behaviour, survives to this day.)

We now know, however, that such attribution was wrong. Inanimate phenomena do not possess agency. They do not possess it because they are not cognitive beings; any cognition we think we detect is our own, reflected back at us. The entities earlier humans created to explain what they took to be the purposeful activities of nature had no independent existence.

Our imaginary creations have no counterparts in reality; none of the 28,000,000 gods that humans have conjured up have actually existed. Is it reasonable to assume, then, that one of these otherwise imaginary beings really does? That YHWH is the exception; the one god, who, just because we’re more familiar with him than any of the other 27,9999,999 deities, is one hundred percent real?

What do you think?