God writes…

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I see the insects are in trouble again. Seems they’ve infected themselves with some sort of virus. The joke is they think I’m going to do something about it. Imagine! Course, it could be said that I created this virus in the first place. But then I gifted it to bats, not them. How they managed to catch it, I don’t know (and care even less) but it’s certainly running rampant through them.

Some of them think they’re channeling their thoughts up to me and that with sufficient grovelling I’ll intervene. Fat chance! I know they think I have some interest in them – one of their number even reckoned I had nothing better to do but count the hairs on their heads. Well, I have nothing better to do, but I’m certainly not going to count hairs on their heads, or anywhere else. In fact, I’m not interested in them in any way. Why should I be? Incredibly, some of them think I want to have a relationship with them. A relationship! There’s as much chance of my having a relationship with them as they have with a colony of microbes.

And while we’re on the subject, I’ve have never ever written a book. I make galaxies and nebulae, I don’t write books. They do that and tell themselves it’s me. I ask you! Nor have I ever sent any messengers to their god-forsaken planet to tell them what I want from them. I don’t want anything from them. I don’t need anything from them. I. Am. Not. Interested. There are no special ways of attracting my attention whatever any of them say. And as for the idea I have an allergy to their behaviour – preposterous! I AM God Almighty. Their stupidity has no effect on me. They offer me nothing nor do they affect me in any way.

So, they’ll have to get on with their virus on their own, as they have with every other drawback of their miserable existence. I’ll be doing nothing, no matter how much they beg. Why should I?

Note:

No gods were harmed in the making of this blog. Any resemblance to any deity imagined or dead is purely coincidental. The existence of a god or gods is not presumed by this post. In point of fact, none does.

Can you be a Christian and… a rational thinker?

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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

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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

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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.

The Chosen One

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Donald Trump is chosen by God. His powerful friends in The Family have decided. Other influential Christians, like the odious Franklin Graham, have endorsed it. Trump himself made reference to it in a speech recently. He claims this was a joke, but we know what’s said about words spoken in jest; the Donald believes what his Christian chums have told him.

Evidently Trump cannot have been chosen by God when there is no God to do the choosing. Nor does Trump’s behaviour indicate that he’s God’s man. He is ignorant, self-obsessed, spiteful, vindictive, boorish, narcissistic and cruel. Not only is he ignorant generally, he is ignorant about the bible, has no idea about what being a Christian entails and is unable to answer any questions about his supposed faith.

Why then do Christians of all stripes claim he is specifically chosen by God to be president? How do they know? Allowing for a moment that there is a God, the notion that he chooses his agents here on Earth is fraught with insurmountable problems. That he predetermines who will serve him or even who is saved is an insoluble paradox that I’ve written about before, here and here.

No, Christians who say Trump is God’s Chosen are convinced of this only because he supports and implements their agenda; he is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-immigrant. He favours guns, white people, Israel, the wealthy and evangelicals. This is why Christians like him, why The Family says he is chosen by God, because these are their priorities and therefore, they conclude, they must be God’s priorities too.

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For any Christians reading, particularly in the U.S., the process goes something like this:

1. You decide what is important to you.

2. You find support for your priorities in the bible (because support for just about anything can be found somewhere in the bible. Alternatively, you can just say what you believe is in the bible. Nobody’s checking.);

3. You disregard any apparent contradiction in the words attributed to Jesus;

4. You tell yourself that because God supports your agenda somewhere in the bible, this must therefore be his agenda also;

5. You exercise cognitive dissonance, a.k.a. dishonesty, to enable you to conclude that any influential agent who is prepared to support your priorities must therefore be chosen by God.

Naturally your agent need not demonstrate any other traits that might reasonably be expected of a God-follower (humility, love, hospitality, treating others like they themselves like to be treated and so on.) These things are unimportant so long as the agent is carrying out your agenda.

6. You tell others only of point 5, thus furnishing the entire process with a high-sheen spiritual gloss;

7. You accuse anyone who doesn’t support your agenda and your Chosen One of betraying God.

A good deal of self-deception and deceiving of others is required to pull this off, but Christians are more than up to the job. That’s why Trump is in the White House and why his Christian fixers are never far from his side.

Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?

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So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7.12: New International Version)

In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfils the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7.12: NET Bible)

I went to see a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe on Saturday. Actor David Benson presented a one-man show about the Cato Street Plot, which was an 1820 plan to assassinate the British Prime Minister and government (or possibly not.

During the show, Benson riffed on some of Jesus’ sayings, including the one above, about how we should treat one another in a country that claims to be Christian (as Britain did in 1820). ‘Do unto others’ has become known as The Golden Rule and like most rules it is largely ignored, even (or especially) by many who profess to be disciples of the man said to have formulated it. The principle is of course much older than the gospels.

When I returned home I caught up with some of my favourite blogs and read about:

A military organisation that promotes the separation of church and state in the U.S. on the receiving end of Christian hate mail.

A preacher who thinks the comedian Sarah Silverman should have her teeth smashed before dying prematurely and being sent to Hell.

The same preacher promising that the Jews, who he says are not God’s Chosen People, will be made to bow down before male Christians, who are.

A different pastor who recited Bible verses while allegedly assaulting an under-aged girl.

The cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors by the Jehovah’s Witness cult.

A Baptist Preacher charged with sexual assault.

Thousands of hateful messages, many from Christians, sent to Montreal Pride organisers.

They just don’t get it, do they? Being a Christian means doing what Jesus says (doesn’t it?) and he says that in everything we should to treat others as we ourselves like to be treated. Note how all encompassing that is: in everything, meaning ‘in every circumstance, with no exception’.

My guess is that the majority of Christians like to be treated fairly, with kindness and respect. I know they do because they whine endlessly when they think they’re not being. Yet so many of them won’t extend the same fairness, kindness and respect – in every circumstance – to other people.

I recently saw a slogan that said ‘Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet’; too many Christians can’t even manage that. They feel compelled to hurl vitriolic insults and threats in defence of the most powerful being ever imagined (and he is imagined). Others think that people more vulnerable than themselves, children included, exist only for their own sexual gratification. These Christians have no interest in ‘In everything, treat others as you like to be treated’. It just doesn’t apply to them.

Strike up another failure for their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

 

All in the Mind

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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.