Theology: Much Ado About Nothing

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I heard Richard Dawkins speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival recently. He suggested that the best way to understand views that are the opposite of one’s own is to study them for oneself. He was then asked by a smart-alec in the audience, that if this was so, how many works of theology he had read. Dawkins responded by saying he wouldn’t waste his time reading ‘pure theology’ because, in discussing the nature of God or the Trinity or the mechanics of the Resurrection, theology presupposes that the supernatural is real. As there is no evidence it is, there is no point in reading books the sole purpose of which is to discuss the nuances of the non-existent.

It was a good answer. There is no such thing as intellectual Christianity (or Judaism or Islam, or any religion.) No matter how complex the arguments become, they are essentially ones about nothing. Debates about theological matters, within and between the many versions of Christianity, are, as I’ve said before, as relevant as arguments about the colour of the tooth fairy’s dress.*

*Actually she wears a white dress to symbolise healthy teeth. I know this because of my deeply held faith and personal experience of tooth fairies.

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The Sect Hiding in Plain Sight

Condemning-Pharisees

With thanks to David Eves.

Back at the start of Christianity, the cult was divided into numerous factions; not unlike its modern counterpart. Acts’ claim that all the new converts – the church – got on famously, sharing all they had and generally taking part in one big love-in is spin, a lie concocted by its author, ‘Luke’. Its not the only lie he invents; later in Acts he tries to present the new faith’s ambassadors, Paul and the original apostles, as being largely in agreement about what the Christian message was about. We know from Paul’s own writing that this wasn’t so.

Likewise the united church. We know that there was part of the cult that had a very different theology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) from Paul. They didn’t subscribe to his incantational magic about a dying god-man who would save them if they claimed his death for themselves. Instead, this group believed that the way to find favour with God was to be ‘righteous’, by doing good works and generally expending oneself on others. Its members promoted, and probably practised, a yin and yang measure-for-measure philosophy: God would show forgiveness, mercy and compassion, they said, only to the same extent that a believer demonstrated them him or herself. Because they believed Jesus had commanded it and God favoured it, they denounced wealth and advocated a self-deprecating way of life. They were predominantly Jewish. They believed Jewish Law was still valid and should still be followed by cult members. They were, however, hostile towards those who, unable to see any value in the new cult, remained within Judaism. The sect invented anachronistic stories about Jesus sparring with the Jewish leaders of their time, half a century or more after Jesus died.

Though it is unlikely any of members of this sect had ever encountered Jesus in person, they believed he was going to return to the Earth while they were still alive in order to judge humankind. Naturally he would vindicate them while condemning all others, particularly the rich and powerful. He would do this because they were the ones who were doing as he commanded – helping the sick, the hungry and the homeless – which would ensure the returning Lord would look on them favourably. None of them had seen the resurrected Jesus but nevertheless they valued the stories they heard about those who supposedly had, and they promoted these stories themselves.

How do we know this? Because this particular sect left behind a record of their beliefs. They imbued them with authority by putting them into the mouth of a preacher who had lived more than fifty years earlier. Who knows, maybe he did say such things. The sect either believed that Jesus had actually contradicted Paul’s notion that the Jewish Law was no longer valid or they felt it necessary to to make Jesus say so themselves. Likewise, they rejected the magical mysticism preached by Paul that was beginning to take hold in those early days. The group’s beliefs were radically different and their writing specifically designed to counteract ideas they opposed with a passion.

Where will you find this group’s writings? In the bible, at the very start of the New Testament in the book called ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’; this book is their writing, give or take the odd bit of tampering from later on. Matthew’s gospel details the sect’s beliefs about Jesus, their measure-for-measure morality, their recipe for righteousness and their beliefs about salvation and the coming judgement.* So different are these from Paul’s ideas that the gospel can only have been created to counteract his doctrines. The community that produced Matthew had no truck either with Paul’s theology or his soteriology.

Read Matthew for yourself and see how much it is at odds with Paul. The discrepancy is there for all to see, yet Christians have always convinced themselves, if they’ve thought about it at all, that not only is Matthew’s gospel compatible with the mumbo-jumbo that follows it, but that its ‘good news’ and Paul’s are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

* I’m happy to provide chapter and verse from Matthew’s gospel to support all I say about it.

Do No Harm

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If religions took ‘do no harm’ to heart (as the Hippocratic Oath does) and their adherents were made to comply with it, what a better place this world would be. There’d be –

No more religiously-motivated suicide bombers and terrorist atrocities;

No more murder in the name of the Lord (whichever);

No more children molested by priests and pastors;

No churches attempting to cover up their crimes;

No more child deaths as a result of ‘faith-healing’;

No religiously-sanctioned denigration and abuse of women;

No more ritualistic mutilation of children’s and young women’s genitals;

No more religious scams and shams;

No more religiously-inspired vitriol directed at gay and transgender people;

No more barbaric executions of ‘minorities’, like gay men, women and those of other faiths.

Of course, even without these, the world would still not be perfect. Awful things would still happen. But the principle of doing no harm would eliminate much of the trauma inflicted on people by the proponents of irrational superstition.

On paper at least, the Abrahamic religions have expectations that are more demanding than simply doing no harm:

Love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Judaism);

Love your enemies; treat others as you would like to be treated’ (Matthew 7.12 and 5.44; Christianity);

…compete with each other in doing good (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48; Islam).

However, these are just too damned hard for so many religionists. They disregard them and opt instead for the spiteful paranoia of the same holy books. Perhaps the simpler injunction of ‘do no harm’ would be easier for them. But until the preachers of judgement and hatred find it in themselves to promote such a principle, we will all continue to suffer the destructive effects of the ‘great’ faiths.

So, how long until the next terrorist attack? The next church child-abuse cover-up? The next rape scandal? The next persecution of gay people?

      Not long at all.

           Praise the Lord (whichever)!

 

Always and Forever

nurseGod is trustworthy and true. He always keeps his promises. We know this because Christians, either in person or on web-sites, like to tell us so.

Let’s take a look at some of the promises God made back when he only liked Jewish people. How well do they hold up?

As part of his promise (covenant) with Jewish patriarch, Abraham, that he would look after his descendants in perpetuity, Yahweh came up with a particularly gross way for them to sign up:

I will always keep the promise I have made to you and your descendants, because I am your God and their God… Abraham, you and all future members of your family must promise to obey me. As the sign that you are keeping this promise, you must circumcise every man and boy in your family. This will be a sign that my promise to you will last forever. Any man who isn’t circumcised hasn’t kept his promise to me and can’t be one of my people… The promise I am making to you and your family will be for (your son) and his descendants forever (Genesis 17.7, 9-13, 21; my emphases).

‘Always’ and ‘forever’ obviously meant only until God changed his mind – which he did when he came up with the new ‘covenant’. You know the one: ‘believe in Jesus to be saved, no primitive surgery required.’ Of course, Jews still feel the original promise is in force and so keep up the old slicing’n’dicing membership requirement. So who’s right? Jewish people who feel that a promise is a promise? Or Christians who insist God eventually lost interest in mutilating penises? It’s hard to tell, but if it’s the Christians, then God, being omniscient and all, must have known he would change his mind eventually. So why tell ol’ Abe the agreement with him was ‘always’ and ‘forever’?

Then there’s the one where God promises there’ll be a descendant of King David’s on the throne forever:

I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel’ (1 Kings 9.5).

Oops. David’s line ceased ruling over Israel when the Assyrians defeated it in 586BCE. Since then there has been no king of the Davidic line ruling over Israel. Why didn’t God see this coming? And if he did, why’d he make a promise, with ‘forever’ and ‘never fail’, that he knew he wasn’t going to keep? Yes, I know Christians like to claim that Jesus took over the kingship when he came along, but he didn’t, not really. His descent from David is highly questionable and there’s still that awfully long gap between 586BCE and Jesus’ time that blows a hole in ‘never fail’ and ‘forever’. In any case, Jews, by definition, have never seen Jesus as their king and they’ve got a point: it’s difficult to see how someone dead and/or totally invisible can be king of anything.

Never mind, let’s try another. This time God’s promise that everything’s going to work out okay:

(The Lord) will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2.4).

Safe to say this didn’t happen either. Not while people were still using swords and spears anyway.

Finally, what about the promise that’s trotted out every Christmas? –

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Whatever Christians might claim for these verses, they’re not about Jesus. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll repeat myself: Jesus did not and does not reign on David’s throne. He said he would, it’s true, believing himself to be the fulfilment of ‘prophecies’ like this, but he was wrong, as events went on to demonstrate. He didn’t, in any case, fit the description of whoever it is who’s being spoken of here; an earthly ruler who – yes, you guessed it – has still to show up. We’d have spotted him if he had. Some Jewish scholars think they might have done, pointing to King Hezekiah who ruled Israel in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, for almost 30 years. That’s hardly ‘forever’ though, is it. Yet more evidence that ‘prophecy’ doesn’t ever work, principally because it’s impossible to know the future.

God’s promises are like those of politicians: you just can’t trust them. There has to come a time when those who believe in them must face up to the fact they’re not promises at all, just ancient wishful thinking.