The Darkening Age

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I’ve been reading Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. I highly recommend it.

Its sub-title says it all. The early church’s determination to destroy any way of life, any belief system or enterprise that it didn’t agree with was deliberate, systematic and brutal. It set out to eliminate the forms of worship, culture, learning and social norms in which it found itself. It did this initially by demonising, literally as far as it was concerned, the opposition. If it wasn’t Christian then it was demonic; ancient religious beliefs especially, but also schools of philosophy, science, education, the theatre, dancing and sexual mores.

As it grew in power, the church went from holding its ‘heathen’ neighbours’ views as suspect to actively and violently opposing them, destroying temples, toppling and mutilating statues of the old gods, razing to the ground historic buildings they considered ‘demonic’. Those they regarded as ‘pagans’ were compelled to convert to the new religion. According to the Christian propaganda of the time, these pagans turned to Jesus with joy in their hearts, once shown the error of their demonic ways. What choice did people have? It was either that or lose everything they held dear.

Once Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, religious authorities legislated against other philosophies and beliefs. As the Justinian code put it, ‘we forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism.’ Free thinkers could be arrested and have their possessions, including their homes, Blog393aconfiscated. They could be imprisoned for believing and saying things that ran contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Their works were burnt, often on public pyres, and that which survived was frequently written over with pages of scripture. Soon, however, even this wasn’t enough. It became a capital offence to subscribe to alternate beliefs, to write or teach about them. Similarly, same sex activity became outlawed and punishable by death. No wonder the philosophers of the day called Christianity ‘the tyrant’.

In 392, Christian mobs destroyed the magnificent temple of Serapis in Alexandria. The Great Library in the same city had disappeared by then too, quite possibly at the hands of Christian mobs. Hypatia, one of the Library’s greatest mathematicians, was degraded in the street and then murdered. (You may have seen the 2009 film Agora where Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz; if not you definitely should.)

By AD500, the church had successfully and completely eradicated the opposition. The culture that had preceded it had gone; its knowledge, mythologies, philosophy together with the ability to think freely and to criticise – all consigned, if not to hell, then to oblivion. Nixey reports that 90% of classical literature is lost forever (p246), including almost all Greek writing from the ancient world. As John Chrysostom boasted, the writings of the Greeks ‘have all perished and are obliterated’ (p245). From the little that survives we know that Greek philosophers had postulated that the world was made from atoms and didn’t have a beginning as such. They had also developed a form of evolutionary theory (pp35-36). It would take the world 1500 dark years to catch up with these suppressed ideas.

The elimination of Christianity’s opponents was carried out in the name of the man who supposedly said, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Nixey points out that the persecution of Christians was greatly exaggerated; many early believers aspired to martyrdom and the church undoubtedly meted out more persecution than it received.) It was done to bring the world into line with the way they thought God had decreed it should be:

That all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims! (‘Saint’ Augustine)

Thank Enlightenment we can’t, in the west at least, be executed these days for our beliefs and philosophies. And whatever became of Christians? Those who oppose anything in their culture they consider contrary to their tyrannical views, who would punish, perhaps execute, sexual non-conformists and who regard other belief systems, atheism especially, as demonic. The same believers who would eagerly take us back to the demon infested dark ages.

They’re still with us of course and have, in the UK where I am and certainly in the United States, a disproportionate amount of influence and power. We must be grateful they are moderate, reasonable people who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Aren’t they?

Bathwater

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While putting together the ‘Can You Be a Christian and…’ series, I encountered on more than one occasion the line of reasoning (I use the term lightly) used by moderate Christians that, essentially, certain parts of the Bible are no longer relevant. So you can, they said, be both a free thinker and a Christian; you can be gay, so long as you disregard what the bible says about homosexuality; you can be a Christian woman if you dismiss Paul’s denigration of women; you can acknowledge evolution provided you reinterpret what the bible says about creation; you can be a realist if you ignore the bible’s supernaturalism.

But if you’re going to disregard anything the bible teaches that appears incompatible with what we know about psychology, sexuality, biology and reality, then how does the Bible’s central objective truth, as one commenter on here calls it, survive? What makes its core message (that, in some way, Jesus’ death and resurrection is capable of saving humankind) an immutable, eternal truth, while almost everything else can be compromised, deemed to be ‘culture-bound’ and metaphorical, to the point of irrelevance?

I recognise, of course, that fundamentalist Christians don’t do this. For them the bible is inspired, infallible and immutable. They’re prepared to compromise themselves, science and reality in order to honour and preserve what the book says. For them evolution, feminism, homosexuality and independent thinking will always be wrong. The alternative is to acknowledge that the bible doesn’t get everything right and to take the approach of the liberal progressive Christian who is prepared to adjust and adapt what it says; to emasculate it.

Which brings us back to asking where this process stops. If progressive Christians are prepared to dilute to the point of meaninglessness what the bible has to say about creation, women, sexuality and reality itself then why not what it teaches about Jesus and salvation?

It’s a fact that almost all varieties of the Faith, including fundamentalism, are happy to ignore completely Paul and Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God was due to arrive, in all its glory, in their own time. It’s the same with Jesus’ moral extremism (giving to all who ask, loving enemies, turning the other cheek.) So why not the rest of it?

Why are Paul’s muddled theology and selected bits of the Jesus stories considered to be the baby while the rest of the bible is the disposable bathwater? On what basis do progressive Christians decide what is inessential and what is crucial, critical, indispensable? Ideas about angry deities, blood sacrifice, the sins of the people and the resurrection of god-men are every bit as culture-bound as the bible’s perspective on all those other issues.  

Because really, in the end, it’s all bathwater.

 

Can you be a Christian and … a Realist?

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If you’ve been reading this series of posts, you’ll pretty much know how this one’s going to go. You can’t really be Christian if you have, as the old song goes, half a brain. Still, it won’t hurt to see how compatible faith is with reality as we know it. You never know, we might be surprised.

Speaking of songs, I always liked Billy Joel’s ‘An Innocent Man’ from the album of the same name. Of course, by Christian reckoning there’s no such thing as an innocent man, nor woman or child – no, not one – because all have fallen short and are worthy only of death (Romans 3:23 & 6:23). All the same, we’ll give Billy the benefit of the doubt. In a song of insightful lyrics, the lines I particularly like are

Some people hope for a miracle cure
Some people just accept the world as it is
But I’m not willing to lay down and die
Because I am an innocent man

Christians seem to have such difficulty accepting the world as it is. They’re constantly upset that the world, which I’m taking to be synonymous with reality, does not and will not conform to what they expect of it. And when it doesn’t, it’s the world that’s at fault, that has it all wrong.

When the evidence is presented for climate change and our contribution to it, some believers announce, with no hint of irony, that God will never let it happen. He’ll step in, just like he always does, to prevent it. So take that Australia with your bush fires, Java with your floods and all you polar bears with your melting icebergs: God’s got it all in hand.

When a Hollywood movie depicts a same sex couple in the background of a scene for a nano-second, the born-again are apoplectic about the world’s immorality. When two female performers wiggle their bits, Franklin Graham – arch-supporter of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief – has the hypocrisy to claim, ‘I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children.’ Clearly he does expect the world to act like the church (which as we know is both spotless and sinless.) All these modern-day Jeremiah’s do.

Reality doesn’t, and won’t, conform to what Christians want it to be. So what to do? Either join with Graham and those other evangelicals railing pointlessly against reality, like Don Quixote and his damn windmills, or (and this a much more comfortable position to adopt) be like those climate change deniers and tell yourself that whatever sort of state the world is in, God will be step in any time soon to sort it all out. After all, this is what Jesus believed. He didn’t rant and rave about the state of things, brutal Romans and all, he just had a simple, smug faith that his Father was going to set everything right real soon and put him in charge.

Christianity demands that Jesus’ disciples deny the world; reject it, despise it. The faith has denial at its core, even of oneself. It demands reality be replaced with a fantasy version of the world.

As I’ve written before:

Christians, even moderate ones

Those older links could easily be replaced with up-to-date, reality-denying ones. This is what it’s like in the Christian bubble; with all this denial taking up space, there’s no room for accepting the world as it is, and trying to change what needs changing and improve what needs improving.

Again as I’ve said before, truth, reality and other people are the casualties of religion’s life-denying efforts at self-preservation. Fantasy and reality are just not compatible.

Can you be a Christian and… a Woman?

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…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works… Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet… she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (1 Timothy 2:9-10; 13-15).

The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God (1 Corinthians 11:3).

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24).

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord (Colossians 3.18).

(Women should) be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled (Titus 2:3-5).

So according to the cult handbook, women must be –

submissive, quiet, silent, submissive, under a man’s authority, modest and… submissive. They should work at home, do nothing that might embarrass their husbands and have no authority over any men.

If a woman wants to be a Christian this is the behaviour she must assume. Above all, she must be submissive to the men God has placed above her, from her husband to… well, every other male.

What self-respecting woman is going to submit herself to this?

But wait, I can already hear liberal, enlightened Christian women approaching, all set to tell me that these New Testament admonitions are no longer relevant because they’re ‘culture bound’. They were devised, by men, in a first century milieu and therefore they don’t apply today! Which is odd, given they were applicable for almost all of the previous two thousand years, well beyond the time and context in which they were written. Not until the twentieth century, when the church’s power began to wane and women began to demand equal treatment with men, was the Bible’s misogyny questioned. Less than a hundred years have passed since women’s rights were reluctantly acknowledged by western society, even less since parts of the church caught up.

Many evangelical churches today still subscribe to the ‘commands’ of Paul and the imposters that followed in his wake. They expect their women to be silent, modest, under men’s authority and submissive. Witness the number of Christian blogs that traduce women, many written by women who regard themselves as ‘godly’ wives. Look at the frequent attacks by fellow evangelicals on female preachers like Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, who ‘presume’ to teach men. (I can’t stand either of them personally, but not because they’re women.)

Liberal churches, however, know better. They safely consign the New Testament views of women to history; curios that provide an insight into how first century cultists thought, none of which are binding on today’s women. The world has moved on. Indeed it has; western culture has changed its views on women and their rights and roles, with little help from the church. While this is a very good thing, aren’t Christians told not to conform to ‘the world’? They are (Romans 12.2). Clearly this is yet more biblical teaching that can be ignored when it suits.

So, can you be a woman and a Christian? Evidently so, though it involves either compromising yourself as a woman to comply with the Bible’s warped ideas of what you should be and how you should behave – or compromising the Bible’s directives in order to respect and be yourself. But is compromise really what Christianity is about? Paul and his fellow fanatics didn’t seem to think so.

Can you be a Christian and… accept Evolution?

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People of faith have a problem with evolution. Some of them can’t seem to see it, but the Theory of Evolution is a significant encumbrance to faith, as it has been since Darwin first proposed it in 1859.

There are essentially four ways Christians (and those from other religions) deal with evolution.

1) There are those who recognise that evolution and faith are incompatible and consequently compartmentalise them both to avoid thinking about the problem: ‘Yes, evolution probably happened but my faith is important to me so I’m going to pretend it didn’t.’

It’s impossible to argue with this head-in-the-sand position, so let’s not bother.

2) Others insist that evolution is ‘just a theory’ and as such is in conflict with what the Bible teaches about the creation of life. But this is a double misunderstanding: of what ‘theory’ means in science, and of what the Theory of Evolution proposes. It has nothing to tell us about how life began, but how it developed. Nonetheless, it contradicts the order of creation found in the two creation accounts in Genesis.

Some believers are content to dismiss evolution on these grounds: a theory, in the popular sense, that is trumped at every turn by the Bible’s accounts of creation. Ken Ham and the laughable Answers in Genesis hold to this position:

The real issue is one of authority—is God’s Word the authority, or is man’s word the authority? So, couldn’t God have used evolution to create? The answer is No. A belief in millions of years of evolution not only contradicts the clear teaching of Genesis and the rest of Scripture but also impugns the character of God. He told us in the book of Genesis that He created the whole universe and everything in it in six days by His word: “Then God said … .” His Word is the evidence of how and when God created, and His Word is incredibly clear.

Hammy and his acolytes do accept what they call micro-evolution, the small incremental stages made within a species over time. Macro-evolution, as they like to call it, when one species gives rise to another over significant amounts of time apparently never happens. Why? Because the Bible says so (but good luck finding where.)

3) Still others extend this dismissal on the basis of ignorance: they are positively hostile to the idea of evolution. Street preachers who set up shop in my home town from time to time are always accompanied by a sign that says ‘Evolution is a Hoax’ (see above.) These kind of believers are not content simply to dismiss evolution as ‘theory’, nor do they accept that it occurs within species. They rail against evolution and disparage the vast amounts of evidence that exist for it. Evolution they declare over their megaphones, is not only a hoax, it is of the devil, who uses it to deceive people and lead them away from God. This is ignorance of a more wilful sort.

Christians in both these last two camps would themselves say that one can’t be a Christian and accept evolution. Actually, they’d say one can’t ‘believe’ in evolution, a word I’ve avoided. Evolution can no more be ‘believed in’ than gravity (itself a theory in the scientific sense.)

4) The fourth way Christians have of dealing with evolution is to attempt to marry the theory with their faith. They acknowledge that evolution has occurred, that life on earth has developed much as Darwin proposed and that the evidence from paleontology, geology, genetics and developmental biology fully substantiates this explanation.

Where then to fit God when he is superfluous to the explanation of life’s development, in much the same way the tooth fairy is superfluous to dentistry? This doesn’t stop these believers finding a place for him. They regard the apparent randomness (their term) of evolution impossible to accept and see a place for God in countering it. As Greg Allison puts it on Desiring God, without a hint of irony, the ‘entire process (of evolution) was undirected and purposeless, without God.’

Consequently, Christians who accept evolution have come up with a couple of ways of injecting God into the process, regardless of the fact he is not needed and there is no place for him. So-called Theistic Evolution, in both its forms, is the belief – and it’s nothing more than a belief – that God set evolution in motion and then let it take its course. One school proposes he occasionally gave it a nudge so that it went in the right direction, the other that he just sat back to see what would happen, though presumably he knew this from the start, being omniscient and all that.

This a hopeless compromise; the prevalence of suffering, death and extinction as drivers of evolution discount any involvement of a benign creator. Such a being’s disinterest in the constant struggle for survival of his created pets, every one of which perishes once past reproductive age (if they reach it in the first place) does not point to a loving God. Paul, who of course had no understanding whatsoever of evolution, believed that death entered creation only when Adam first ‘sinned’. Yet death and suffering existed eons before human beings first appeared. The ‘Evolutionary Creationists’ at BioLogos have a hard time trying to explain this one away. (Spoiler alert: they can’t.)

And let’s not even mention sex; sexual reproduction is a massive problem for the creationist.

As Greg Allison concedes, one cannot be a Christian and subscribe to a theistic model of evolution. Having considered the possibilities, Greg concludes that neither form of theistic evolution is compatible with faith. In this he is right. He comes back to the scriptural accounts of creation as the best explanation of life’s development. In this he is wrong.

No doubt there are commenters out there who think that some form of compromised Christianity and a diluted evolutionary theory are somehow compatible. They have no doubt discovered a way to put God at the heart of evolution or have a misunderstanding of the theory that somehow leaves room for him. Such arguments are unconvincing. Evolution and God are incompatible. One is true (as in observable, supported by evidence and predictive), the other imaginary. There’s no need to pollute the former with the latter.

Can you be a Christian and… gay? (part two)

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So, you’ve become a Christian. Your sins have been forgiven and you’re a new creature, or so you’ve been told. Christ/the Holy Spirit/your church are about to free you from the shackles of same-sex attraction.

This is a lie. While undoubtedly the pastor/priest/minister and your church/assembly/fellowship will exert subtle, and not so subtle, pressure on you to conform and suppress your sexuality – and for a time you might be able to – you will never change it. Certainly Christ and the Holy Spirit won’t be working any miracles. They don’t exist.

You will do the work of denying, suppressing and repressing who you are. In the process of doing so you’ll cultivate self-hatred, discover just how depressed and lonely you can be, and make yourself ill – I speak from experience. People on Living Out are doing just that right now. I predict that one day everyone of these so-called ‘Side B’ gay people will regret the awful compromise they’re making for the sake of an hallucinatory salvation. What they’re actually doing is trying to please the church, showing everyone how serious they are about dealing with ‘sin’ and ‘living out’ their faith. No good will come of it.

Being gay is no sin. Homosexual sex isn’t either, including when it’s just for fun (like a lot of heterosexual sex.) How do we know? Because there’s no such thing as sin: it’s a fabrication of an ancient, superstitious mindset. Nor are committed same-sex relationships ‘dishonourable’; they’re as wonderful as any other loving relationship. Same-sex marriage – without scare quotes – is too. If your desires are for intimacy with someone of the same sex, then that is how you will find your life’s fulfilment. That is who you are.

So, here’s the dilemma for the wannabe Christian who knows they’re attracted to people of the same sex:

Do you want to compromise who you are for the sake of conformity or do you want to live as yourself?

Do you want to become ill, depressed and lonely for Jesus’ sake, or do you want to find happiness and fulfilment in life?

If the latter, then you really must see Paul’s ranting for what it is and walk away from the discredited belief system that is Christianity. Instead, ‘live out’ your life, true to your nature. It’s not easy, I know, but, as someone or other once said, when you find the pearl of great price, all else is worth abandoning for it.

One thing seems clear: you can’t be gay and a Christian. Not really.

Can you be a Christian and… gay?

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No. You can’t. The church regards your gayness, your same-sex attraction, as sinful. If you act on your feelings you are, according to the bible, an abomination. You cannot enter the Kingdom of God if you have sex with someone who’s the same sex as yourself, not even if that’s within a committed, loving relationship:

…do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (1 Corinthians 6:9)

Paul doesn’t mince his words in Romans 1:25-28 either:

…God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error… God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper…

There’s no getting away from this: the bible is emphatic and unequivocal about how it views homosexuality and those who ‘practise’ it. There’s no ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ here. Gay people are unnatural, degraded, indecent, dishonourable, wicked, unrighteous, sinful and more: this, Paul is clear, is how God sees it too.

Some people, however, want to be both; they’re gay and they also consider themselves to be Christians. They’ve answered the altar call/been born again/baptised into the family of God and have made a commitment to Jesus/God/the church in whatever way their particular ‘fellowship’ teaches they should. Now they’re faced with what to do about their sexuality, when the bible, and in all probability their church too, finds it abhorrent. What to do?

Not all Christians are alike, of course, and not all churches the same. Some, a scattered few, are gay affirming. They say it’s okay for you and your partner to be gay, they still welcome you and see your homosexuality as a cause for celebration: you can, they say, be gay and Christian. To do this, however, they have to find ways around what the bible says about homosexuality. So they argue that the condemnation of the Old Testament is no longer applicable and doesn’t, in any case, refer to committed same-sex relationships. They make the case that Paul is really only referring to temple prostitution and promiscuity, not to loving couples.

If they’re honest, they acknowledge that these are pretty weak arguments and resort instead to ignoring everything the bible says about homosexuality (which is actually very little) and find comfort in the fact Jesus himself doesn’t appear to have mentioned it.

There are several problems with this way of thinking:

  • If you’re going to ignore these parts of the bible, what else can safely be ignored? It’s a slippery slope, brethren, a slippery slope;
  • Dismissing the bible’s grave warnings about same-sex sex, doesn’t mean that they’re not still there;
  • you’re engaging in a form of collective cognitive dissonance in pretending they’ve somehow disappeared or are no longer applicable;
  • You’re out of step with most other branches of Christianity, nearly all of which noisily disapprove of homosexual sex, relationships and even “marriage” (note obligatory scare quotes.)

In any case, gay-affirming churches are few and far between. The chances of living close to one are remote. Chances are, you’re stuck with a common-or-garden church. Chances are it disapproves of you. Chances are it will want you to renounce your sexuality. But there’s good news! If you’ve been saved/washed in the blood of the lamb/baptised, it’s easy. Your sins are forgiven and you are a new creature: God/Christ/the Holy Spirit will free you from the shackles of same-sex attraction. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 6:10-11:

And such were some of you (idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, that is). But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

So that’s it then. You can’t be a Christian and gay. The gay has to go.

That’s the Christian perspective anyway. I hope I’ve represented it fairly enough. I can’t help but feel there’s more to it than that, however. We’ll consider whether there is next time.