Bathwater

Blog392

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… gay?

Blog391

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.

Can you be a Christian and… a rational thinker?

Blog390

This is the first in a series of posts that pose the question, ‘Can you be a Christian and..?’ It seems to me that certain ways of being are incompatible with religious belief. Any religious belief, that is, though here I’ll limit myself to the Christian faith as that’s the belief system I know best and the one on which I wasted a great deal of my life.

Conversion is, I’ve become convinced, an emotional response to being told God loves you (who doesn’t want to be loved?) and that Jesus sacrificed himself so that you – yes, you – can enter into a full and meaningful relationship with God. It’s an intuitive, gut-reaction to the ‘promise’ that once you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, he will  be with you always, guiding you through life and guaranting you’ll survive death.

What is rational about this? Nothing; it’s muddled supernaturalism, magic based on others’ dreams and visions, that appeals to your need to be wanted, to matter and your hope that your life means something and will go on beyond death.

The rationalisation comes after you’ve made this response and after your commitment. It’s rather like buying something incredibly expensive you’re not sure you actually need but which makes you feel good momentarily as you hand over your cash. On the way home, as doubts start to assail you, you start trying convince yourself that you were right to buy it, on the basis you deserve it, so that by the time you’re home you feel completely justified. Psychologists tell us we do this often: act first and then come up with the rationalisation for why we’ve behaved the way we have.

So it is that once you’ve made the emotional response to what Christianity purports to offer, you start justifying your decision to yourself. You know there’s really no evidence for what you’ve started to believe. All there is is the bible and other people’s enthusiasm for what it teaches, but still, there must be some sort of justification for it; all those others, including the guys who wrote the bible, can’t all be wrong. You’re helped in your rationalisation of the irrational by sermons in which a respected pastor explains what certain teachings mean, the warm and fuzzy feelings you get from fellowship with other Christians and from reading the bible with the aid of a study guide that smooths out its many inconsistencies and contradictions. You start reading too those devotional books that have been recommended to you, which give your new-found faith a respectable gloss. All after the event.

And before you know it you are fully invested in an entirely new belief system. Not only have you accepted the central mystery (magic) of salvation but you find yourself entertaining the notion that there exist all manner of supernatural beings; angels, demons, devils, spirits all engaged in spiritual warfare in higher places. You convince yourself, even when your intellect is telling you to exercise caution, of the existence of Heaven and Hell. You become persuaded that talking to yourself inside your head is communicating with the God of the Universe and that your very thoughts can change his mind. You assume what you are told is biblical morality and alter your world view so that it conforms to the bible’s: sin everywhere, yet miracles happen; God creating humans and not just (or even) evolution; Jesus returning at any time soon to change the word so it is more to your liking.

Yet there is no evidence for any of this. A book written by Iron Age tribesmen and first century religious zealots is not evidence. Nor is any of it rational. You know this, but you hold fast to your belief that God’s ways are not our ways. He likes, it says somewhere in the bible, to conceal his plans from the worldly wise. Like many other believers you are not stupid but you’ve happily sublimated your intellect to assume irrational, unsupported beliefs. You’ve subjugated your capacity for rationalisation in deference to these beliefs. If and when a rational objection forms itself in your mind, you dismiss it as a doubt, or worse still, a Satanic attempt to snatch you away from your salvation.

How do I know? Because I did so myself.

So, can you be a Christian and rational thinker? No. Because once you’ve tethered your intellect to ancient superstition you’ve denied yourself the possibility of independent thought. Rational thinking can go then in only one direction, towards the conclusions already established by the Faith. It isn’t possible to be an independent thinker and to adopt a worldview based on others’ emotions, dreams and visions. It isn’t possible to believe irrational things and be a rational thinker.

Metaphor, Hyperbole and Context

Blog387a

A moderate and self-styled ‘intellectual’ Christian told me in a online discussion recently that ‘most of the bible is metaphor’. When I asked what it was a metaphor for, he decided it was time to end the discussion. A metaphor signals a deeper or alternate meaning; the bible cannot be ‘mostly metaphor’ without there being something else – what Christians might regard as a ‘greater truth’ – the metaphor is intended to convey. So, yes, I can see that the Genesis creation stories might be interpreted metaphorically (though symbolically might be a better term) as the inclination of all humans to rebel against God… but then that’s only one of many interpretations, and not actually what the text says. If the bible is mostly metaphor then understanding what God is supposedly communicating through it becomes a matter of personal, subjective interpretation, which is why there are so many factions and sects within the Christian brand.

Similarly, when I challenged Dave Armstrong on Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, about why Christians don’t take everything Jesus said literally, he told me it’s because Jesus was fond of hyperbole and it’s the point underlining his hyperbole that matters. I knew, of course, that Jesus liked to exaggerate so I asked Dave how we know which of Jesus’ remarks are hyperbole and which are not. He declared that this was ‘obvious’. Perhaps it is, in sayings like ‘when your eye offends you pluck it out’, but it’s less apparent with pronouncements like ‘sell all you have and give to the poor’ or ‘abandon everything and follow me’. Again, it becomes a matter of subjective opinion, however learned that opinion might consider itself to be, about which of Jesus’ words are hyperbole and which are meant to be followed to the letter.

When I made this point, Dave decided that, rather than it being ‘obvious’, it actually takes years of study to know which is which: ‘It’s by studying Bible commentaries and linguistic aids, and the rules of hermeneutics and exegesis (Bible interpretation).’ Jesus as the incarnation of the God of the Cosmos, and the gospels in reporting him, could surely have made it clear. Instead, it seems, it takes armies of theologians and commentators, and years of study to work it out.

The third way Christians (of all stripes) manoeuvre around the bible’s shortcomings is to say that anything they’re keen to disregard is ‘context-bound’. There are some matters, they say, that are of their time and ancient place and are therefore no longer applicable today.

There are things in God’s timeless Word that pertain only to the time in when they were written? Who knew?

So, instructions like ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ (which Paul advocates four times in his letters: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26); ‘women should always have their heads covered in church’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and ‘heal the sick by anointing with oil’ (James 5:14) are now generally considered to be context-bound. This, however, creates the same problem that arose over Jesus’ hyperbole. How do we know which of the bible’s pronouncements are context-bound and which are still of significance today? Answer: we don’t.

It could be argued that, just as ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ is a custom anchored in the first century, beliefs like

the world is populated by demons,

humans are capable of living forever,

and

incantations (that Jesus is the Saviour) work

are equally context-bound. We know categorically in the 21st century, that demons don’t exist, humans cannot live forever and magic spells don’t work. Only those in a pre-scientific age, dominated by superstition, thought so (together with those today who buy into these same ancient beliefs.)

Once believers start claiming – and it’s Christians themselves who do this – that significant parts of the bible are metaphor, hyperbole or are context-bound, then they’re acknowledging that the bible frequently makes little sense, and that significant portions  lend themselves to whatever interpretation suits the individual reader. Some parts can even be dismissed altogether, which is precisely what Christians do with them (how many Christians do you know who believe they can move mountains or heal the sick by laying on of hands?) What this shows is that they don’t really believe the bible is God’s Word, either in the literal, evangelical sense, nor in a moderate, quasi-intellectual way.

In practice, even to most Christians, the bible is a book of no particular merit.

Bible Truths

Blog387

If ever there was evidence that Christianity is an entirely human affair it’s the way believers constantly disagree with each another. If the bible really was, in some way, ‘the Word of God’ (they don’t all agree even with what this might mean) then surely it would offer greater clarity on what being a Christian entails. Given what’s at stake – heaven or hell, a life of fullness or one spent mired in sin, helping the poor and hungry or self-indulgence – you’d think God would be just a little more precise about what his expectations are.

Instead, what do we get? A rag bar collection of myths, pseudo-history, folklore, poetry, fantasy, yet more pseudo-history, letters, forgeries and invective. Muddled and inconsistent about what the Supreme Being requires of his creation, it ranges from a forever agreement that says following a set of arbitrary laws is what he wants, along with a spot of male genital-mutilation (Genesis 17.1-16), to a new scheme that involves magical incantation (Romans 10.19), to yet another that says helping those in need is what he requires (Matthew 25.31-40).

I’ve been involved at different times in my life with writing policy documents for a range of organisations. Despite creating what I’d estimate to be around 50 of these documents, it never occurred to me to cobble together myth, stories, letters and fake news in even one of them. They needed to be precise, detailing how the organisation worked, what its take was on various areas of operation and, most importantly spelling out for people as clearly as possible what was expected of them. This precision was important; the documents had to be water-tight and open to as little interpretation as possible. They couldn’t allow for the possibility of one part of the organisation acting in one way in a given area while another acted completely differently in that same area.

If I, a fallible human, could manage this more often than not, why couldn’t God? Why could he not, for example,

Declare definitively how old the Earth is so as to leave no room for dispute?

Why could he not set out his requirements for pleasing him as one single, unequivocal list? (he’s not averse to bullet points – see his ten commandments, of which he manages to present two largely incompatible versions, both of them fairly useless.)

Why could he not ‘inspire’ scribes contemporaneous with the figures in the Old Testament to record what happened as they happened and not centuries later?

Why could he not ‘inspire’ eye-witnesses of Jesus ‘ministry’ to write about it at the time, instead of waiting decades before giving the job to strangers who’d never met him?

Why could he not say decisively what happens to people when they die?

Why could he not present one definitive way of how to get in his good books instead of offering a range of confused alternatives, about which he is prone to change his mind?

And so on and so forth…

If the managing director of an organisation produced policy documents as shoddy and shambolic as God’s they wouldn’t last five minutes. Nor would the organisation.

But of course God didn’t write, inspire or otherwise cause the bible to be written. It’s human through and through, culturally-bound (to a range of ancient cultures) and not intended by its myriad authors to be a single volume. This fact doesn’t trouble most Christians; they read it selectively, if they read it at all, and believe what they are told about it. Others, who are aware of the bible’s shortcomings, have a variety of ways of negotiating around them. All of these entail great dollops of cognitive dissonance. We’ll look at some of them next time.

Jesus, plus nothing

Blog376

‘Jesus, plus nothing’ is the motto – the slogan – of ‘The Family’, a secretive, clandestine Christian group that for 60+ years has influenced, and been part of, the government of the USA. Yes, poor persecuted Christians, who find their rights eroded on a daily basis (or so they like to tell us) actually exercise a disproportionate amount of control over those in power. Controlled for many years by ‘the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of’, Doug Coe, this group disregards any notion of separation of church and state. The new Netflix series, The Family, based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family and C Street, documents their activities, which include affecting policy both at home and abroad, and taking the gospel of ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ to the mighty and powerful across the globe, often on the taxpayer’s dime.

But what does ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ really mean? There’s no doubt it’s intended to convey a stark honesty: this version of Christianity, it says, is without all the clutter that has accrued since Jesus walked the Earth, including all of Paul’s complicated theology. The Family’s holy book is not the bible in its entirety but a slim volume simply entitled Jesus that contains only the four gospels and Acts. The Jesus story, pure and simple.

Except there really isn’t anything simple about the Jesus story. It isn’t even a single story. Nor is there one, single Jesus. (As you’ll see at the links, I’ve written about both of these problems before.) The Jesus that The Family promotes is one of its own making. Of course, every version of Jesus is a construct, loosely based, at best, on bits and pieces from the bible, but manufactured entirely by what different groups and individuals would like him to be. It’s probable that the gospels themselves are constructs built on Old Testament ‘prophecies’ and references, and that the Jesuses they portray are no more than literary creations. Even so, the Jesuses held dear by modern believers, and The Family in particular, bear little resemblance to the constructs of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John on which he is supposedly based.

He is, as one of The Family’s Christian critics points out, a talisman, a magic word that opens doors for speaking ‘truth’ to dictators and tyrants. A Jesus synonymous with power; the power to control nations’ policies, direction and morality. A Jesus who chooses his men (always men) to wield this power; a Jesus who chooses ‘weak vessels’ to do his bidding; a Jesus who, The Family is convinced, chose Donald Trump to be president. And when Jesus chooses you – or when his agents on Earth do – then you are chosen indeed. They make sure of it.

To be continued.

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.