Born to Believe

We understand and interpret the world through language. This of itself has the potential to bias the way we understand reality. Language right from our first words, ‘Mama, Dada, No!’ has inherent meaning, and frequently purpose.

reach for the moonIt should be no surprise to find that this is how  many of us interpret the world – a place with meaning and purpose.

We take life personally. And of course sometimes it is. Some of that which happens is a deliberate act by a conscious being.  Someone who if they had wanted too, could have behaved otherwise.

It is this feeling that life is, or ought to be, purposeful and meaningful, that creates within us the ecological niche, that is the habitat for religious memes.

I’m coming to think the really interesting thing about theology is not what any of it says about God, but how people try to verbalize their belief, and what the attempt tells us about the person and the culture in which said person operates.

Wendy Dackson  Two Entirely Random unrelated reflections 2016

Theology understood  not as the study of God, but as the study of how people incorporate this feeling that reality has purpose and meaning into their belief systems, has the potential to be a very fruitful discipline.

The study of God is a little more problematic.

The existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, is as the Scottish Philosopher, David Hume pointed out inconsistent with the existence of suffering in the world.

This is something that Bertrand Russell also referred to in his, ‘Is There a God?’ essay  of 1952, the one that introduced the world to the Celestial Teapot.

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

Bertrand Russell  Is there a God ? (commissioned by, but never published in, Illustrated Magazine, in 1952)

Bertrand Russell is frequently understood to be implying that belief in God is the logical equivalent to belief in an orbiting teapot; there is no reason to believe in the existence of either, and this is a good reason not to believe.

This is how Richard Dawkins understood him, and  argued in, ‘The God Delusion,’ published 2006, that he could do better than this, by making a probability argument. The existence of God, is like the existence of a Celestial Teapot, so improbable that believing in either is unreasonable.

Of course they aren’t actually comparable. We know what teapots are; human artefacts, intended for the brewing of tea. We also know, or at least think we know, that there was no way in 1952, that one of these artefacts could have gotten into space.

There is no reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot existed, and good reason to believe that it did not.  But all that would be required for it to have existed, was for there to have been something going on, that we don’t know about. (I am assuming that even if it had existed in 1952, the fact that it was made of china, makes it highly probable that it would no longer be in existence.)

The same is not true of the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, of traditional Western theology.  A mere something going on that we do not know about cannot turn this God into a possible reality.

A God who is Omnipotent and Omniscient, is one who could do anything that is logically possible, including achieving His ends, without the need for suffering.  Suffering exists and therefore, given a normal understanding of goodness, observed reality is incompatible with the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent God.

There is zero probability that the Triple O exists.

The same is not necessarily true of the Celestial Teapot.

Knowing that the Triple O does not exist, does not rule out the possibility that this universe is the result of conscious creation.

We know what a china teapot is, and its existence or otherwise in any given place, is open to direct verification.  The same is not true of consciousness. We experience consciousness in ourselves, and extrapolate this outwards. The existence of other minds is a theory that is not open to direct verification.

All the provable facts on earth, including things such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and the Mona Lisa, can potentially be explained, as the outworking of  materialistic processes. There is no need  to introduce the notion of conscious agency.

Science is sometimes understood to be pushing the notion of a conscious, purposeful Creator into smaller and smaller gaps, as more and more phenomena fall to materialistic explanations.

It is argued that everything that has been recognised in past times as an act of conscious creation can already be, or will at some time in the future be explainable in materialistic terms.  The trouble with this is that it doesn’t just apply to so-called acts of God, it also applies to among other things, Michelangelo’s David, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I am reasonably certain that the immediate creation of these items is explainable in entirely materialistic term, the firing of synapses, and contraction of muscles, and the effect that this had on materials external to the body of the artists.

I don’t regard this as evidence that these acknowledged masterpieces are not the work of conscious creators. Likewise materialistic explanations for the structures of the universe, do not provide evidence that they are not works of conscious creation.

There is good solid evidence that the Triple O does not exist.  There is good reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot does not exist. There is no reason not to believe in a Conscious Creator.

Our human tendency to see meaning and purpose, where we see structure and function combined, makes belief in a Conscious Other easy for many of us.  However as David Hume pointed out way back in the 18th Century, this does not give us sufficient reason to believe.  Since that time, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been propounded, with its demonstration, that it is possible to explain the existence of structure and function without need to invoke a deity. This proves just how right Hume was. It is unsound to argue from the existence of structure and function to a purposeful Creator, but it does not demonstrate that such a Creator does not exist.

The Protestant claim is that proof of God lies in his inspired word, the Bible.  We can know that God exists because he has revealed his existence to us.

It is sometimes claimed that the remarkable degree of consistency shown in doctrine, teaching and prophecy throughout the Bible demonstrates its divine authorship. This is a belief that although held fervently by some, is like belief in the Triple O, held despite the evidence not because it.

The author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, frequently wrote in a voice not his own.  The opinions expressed by his narrator, which in the case of Gulliver’s Travels, was of course Gulliver, were frequently although not necessarily at odds with the opinion held by Swift.  It is possible that the entire Bible is inspired by a consistent Creator, but if so then the Bible needs to be read like the works of Jonathan Swift.  The opinion of the narrator is not necessarily, the opinion of the Ultimate Author. And as with Jonathan Swift there is room to interpret the Author in different ways.

There is one major flaw in this analogy.  Gulliver is a work of fiction, he didn’t exist, therefore we know, that he was not the author of Gulliver’s Travels. It is reasonable to believe that there was an actual author, Jonathan Swift, who was trying to communicate something different, something frequently at odds with what his fictional narrator was saying. Swift was after all a satirist.

The case with the Bible is different.  The narrators of the Bible did exist.  There is no a priori reason to conclude that they were not working under the influence of an Ultimate Author. But no reason not to believe is not sufficient grounds to believe. This is the point being made by Albert Einstein in the following quote:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954

Subtle interpretations provide evidence, not for  the Mind of God, but the mind of the interpreter.

Among the allegedly primitive legends of the Old Testament, is a story which has been written in such a way that it can be interpreted fairly literally, without any need for subtlety, in at least two different ways.  There is the surface level account, which reads like a fairy tale, and serves to disguise the much more historical  account that is also there. Both accounts describe that historians and archaeologists tell us really did happen, the origin of agriculture.

The double interpretation relies on a very simple trick, giving one of the characters a proper name   that has a meaning.  Anyone who has ever at a personal level run across the legend of Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Tight, will know just how unsubtle this trick can be.

The name Adam, like Pinch Me Tight, is a name with a meaning. In Hebrew the word Adam means man. Man not in the sense of the male of the species, but of humankind. It doesn’t take too much subtlety of interpretation to figure out that any story where the main character is called humankind is likely to bear hidden meaning.

The Garden of Eden story starts off with no humankind to till the ground.  It is quite literally humankind that is told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  It is humankind that  is told that the consequences of eating of the Tree of Knowledge will be death. The immediate consequence of eating of the Tree of Knowledge was not death, but the difficulties of primitive agriculture; the tilling of a soil that became increasingly infertile. It is an agricultural origin story.

We are presently in what some scientists have labelled the sixth extinction.  Species are disappearing faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The cause of this extinction is not an asteroid hitting the earth, it is us.  For most of the 500 thousand or so years that our species has been in existence, we were mostly harmless.  It was the agricultural revolution, that changed that.  It was the triggering factor that made our modern world possible.  The event, that enabled us to become death the destroyer of this world; the likely bringer of our own extinction. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge has put us in the pathway to accelerated extinction.

The Adam and Eve story is a work of ancient human genius. At one level it is a simple children’s story, advising of the dangers of not doing what you are told.  At another level it is an account that is compatible with our modern knowledge about the history of the earth.

But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

Genesis 2:6

In our modern scientific version of origins, evolution, the process that resulted eventually in the formation of humankind, began after this initial watering of the earth, in the primitive ocean. The same time zone where the Bible describes God as initiating the formation of Adam.

In the Biblical account the river names identify the Garden East of Eden, where God places humankind, with the fertile crescent. In our modern accounts too humankind arose outside, the fertile crescent.  Human Beings moved into that area during the last ice age.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:8,9

And yes, our modern science tells us that as the climate became warmer the tundra type landscape changed to one where tree growth was no longer stunted. So trees did grow up, after human beings entered the fertile crescent.

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge strikes me as an excellent metaphor for eating of the fruits of agriculture.

Given the different roles of men and in hunter-gatherer society, it is likely that it was women who were the first farmers. Or metaphorically speaking it was they who first picked the fruit from the, ‘Tree of Knowledge.’

The King James version of the Bible provides a literal, not idiomatic, translation of the effects that eating of the Tree of Knowledge had on the woman.

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16

An increase in the number of conceptions, and an increase in male dominance are known to be consequences on women of the move from hunter-gatherer society, to subsistence farming.

And for men considerably more work was required of a subsistence farmer than of a hunter-gatherer. The diet of the first farmers was inferior to that of hunter-gatherers, and without understanding of the need for crop rotation and fertilizer the ground would have become increasingly infertile.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Genesis 3:17-19

There is good reason to believe that the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God of traditional Western theology does not exist.  The same is not true of a Conscious Creator. There is no reason not to believe that such a Conscious Other Exists.

Once men argued that the structure of the universe proved that God the Triple O, must exist. History has shown that Hume was right, there can be other reasons for structure than a Conscious Creator.  Massive improbabilities are possible in infinities.

The question I need to ask is, does the co-incidence between events related in this story and the findings of modern research, stretch the laws of probability to the degree, that requires introducing the concept of infinities into the equation; or could ancient human genius, and a bit of coincidence, provide sufficient explanation.

My opinion is that the latter explanation is sufficient.  The co-incidences mentioned are consistent with the reality of a Conscious Other, but do not provide proof.

The co-incidences do not prove that even this bit of scripture is divinely inspired.  But they do show that even as great a human genius as Einstein was, can sometimes be mistaken.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954

 

 

 

 

 

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The Sceptical Believer.

Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher

David Hume portrait by Allan Ramsay

The Scottish Philosopher David Hume wrote  the following defence of his scepticism, in response to  claims circulated, by those opposed to his appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University

In Reality, a Philosopher who affects to doubt of the Maxims of common Reason, and even of his Senses, declares sufficiently that he is not in earnest, and that he intends not to advance an Opinion which he would recommend as Standards of Judgment and Action. All he means by these Scruples is to abate the Pride of mere human Reasoners,  by showing them, that even with regard to Principles which seem the clearest, and which they are necessitated from the strongest Instincts of Nature to embrace, they are not able to attain a full Consistence and absolute Certainty. Modesty then, and Humility, with regard to the Operations of our natural Faculties, is the Result of Scepticism; not an universal Doubt, which it is impossible for any Man to support, and which the first and most trivial Accident in Life must immediately disconcert and destroy.

David Hume  A Letter from a Gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh 1745 taken from The Writings of David Hume#, ed. James Fieser (Internet Release, 1995)

To function as a human being we must act as though we believe in the real existence of the material world.  And this of itself provides evidence that we believe in its existence. We generally also require social relationships and this requires us to believe not only in our own existence, but of the existence of other people.

Many of us go beyond this, believing that reality has purpose. It is not just the theists amongst us that are believers in Providence. My atheist friends are as likely as my theist ones to hold that some things are so right that they are just meant to be. Drawing attention to the illogicality of this kind of  statement coming from an atheist, when that which is being endorsed is positive, seems to me a mean act. One not conducive to the forming of healthy social relationships.

Not every providence related belief expressed by theists or atheists is so positive.  For instance the belief that bad things don’t happen to good people, or that people get what they deserve, are two related negative concepts which can be used to justify our indifference to the suffering of other people, and the endorsement of torture and rape.

It can be argued that this sense that reality is purposeful, has evolutionary advantages and that this is why it is so widespread. Obviously a widespread feeling does not make it so. Nor does a natural explanation for why this feeling is prevalent, mean that it is not a true impression.

But whether or not the believer in Providence, feels the need for capitalisation, the credited actions are widely prevalent, with by and large no suggestion that they require the overturn of natural law.

Providence is experienced within the normal workings of natural law. Which means that miracles, that is events that are contrary to the laws of nature, are as foreign to the experienced reality of believers in divine Providence, as they are to atheists.

David Hume’s claim that the miracles recorded in the Bible did not provide evidence for the truth of Christianity, strikes me as  common sense, possibly rather in the way that the works of William Shakespeare appear to be riddled with clichés.  (An Enquiry Chapter 10)  What was then original appears commonplace now.

However not all Christians understand that recorded miracles only provide evidence of the truth of Christianity if you already believe in the truth of Christianity.

I remember the first time I heard a Christian apologist offer the resurrection as “proof” for the existence of God. I rejected his argument, not because of historical doubts or because of its miraculous nature per se, but because I didn’t even take it seriously.

Jeff Lowder  The Miracle of the Resurrection 1995

In fact even if one believes that Christ is the divine Messiah, the miracles, for most of us anyway, are so different, from the non-showy way in which one experiences God/Providence acting in the world, that they are a cause for doubt.  Something extra that you have to believe.

This, if the Gospels are literally true, does not apply to the first followers of Jesus, who had the chance to experience showy miracles so often, that they were commonplace. For them they would indeed have provided evidence for Jesus divine mission.

That a major world religion is based on the belief that a young man who suffered an agonising and humiliating public execution almost 2000 years ago, is God, seems improbable beyond belief.  And yet it is demonstrably true that this is the case.

It is the sheer improbability of this belief , that is sometimes used as proof that the miracles recorded in the New Testament, most particularly the bodily resurrection of Christ, must have taken place.

Those who make this type of claim, notably the English theologian Tom Wright, are basing it on empirical evidence, the demonstrably real, both historical and present, existence of Christianity.

The claim being made in the following quote is the induction based; similar acts have similar effects. Wright states that in every other case where a proclaimed messiah died, his followers ceased to believe that he was the Messiah, but the same thing didn’t happen with Christ.  He says that this evidence demands an explanation.

The historian is bound to face the question: once Jesus had been crucified, why would anyone say that he was Israel’s Messiah?

Nobody said that about Judas the Galilean after his revolt ended in failure in AD 6. Nobody said it of Simon bar-Giora after his death at the end of Titus’s triumph in AD 70. Nobody said it about bar-Kochbar after his defeat and death in 135. On the contrary. Where messianic movements tried to carry on after the death of their would-be Messiah, their most important task was to find another Messiah. The fact that the early Christians did not do that, but continued, against all precedent, to regard Jesus himself as Messiah, despite outstanding alternative candidates such as the righteous, devout and well-respected James, Jesus’ own brother, is evidence that demands an explanation. As with their beliefs about resurrection, they redefined Messiahship itself, and with it their whole view of the problem that Israel and the world faced and the solution that they believed God had provided.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

For any given evidence there are a myriad of explanations possible.  We are constrained only by our worldview and the limits of our imagination. And the following quote from Tom Wright is a faith statement. A reiteration  of his belief in his own belief. Anyone holding a different worldview, or expressing the notion that other interpretations are possible must be wrong, because Tom Wright is certain that his worldview is true.

But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him.  The origins of Christianity, the reason why this new movement came into being and took the unexpected form it did, and particularly the strange mutations it produced within the Jewish hope for resurrection and the Jewish hope for a Messiah, are best explained by saying that something happened, two or three days after Jesus’ death, for which the accounts in the four gospels are the least inadequate expression we have.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

Tom Wright’s claim is not only that something must have happened within 2 or 3 days of the crucifixion, but that this something was the miraculous raising of a man from the dead, as recorded in the gospels.

Such an event does have precedent within the gospels, where others were raised from the dead.  But it is unparalleled in our ordinary experience of life.  This according to David Hume, is what gives us good reason to doubt it.  Tom Wright is not arguing with this.  He is merely claiming that the rise of Christianity is so without precedent, that a miraculous explanation is more likely than any other explanation.

When horrific things happen to human beings, the frequent  response is that they must have been asking for it.  They brought it upon themselves. And those claiming this will use all their powers of intellect in the service of, the possibly instinct driven monster that is, confirmation bias.

That this doesn’t happen with all of the people all of the time, can be demonstrated by events following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015. Then millions marched to proclaim that the dead were risen in them. ‘Je suis Charlie.’

A similar explanation for the rise of Christianity strikes me as possible.  That those very first Christians were proclaiming, that Christ is risen from the dead.  He is risen in us.  ‘Nous sommes tous Christ.’

Evidence that the first Christians did make this kind of claim can be found in the New Testament, in documents written much closer to the events of that first Easter, than were the gospels.

Now you are the body of Christ 1 Corinthians 12:27

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: Galatians 2:20

I think this statement  from 1 Corinthians is also very relevant.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

1 Corinthians 1 22,23

The gospels are full of miraculous signs, and theologians have long since found ways, although they haven’t always agreed, to explain the logic of the crucifixion.  Yet here, comparatively early in the history of Christianity, when Paul proclaims the centrality of the crucifixion, the plain reading is that the signs and the logic did not exist. That the miracles with which the gospels are packed are later additions, which served to confirm for subsequent generations the depth of meaning that the first Christians had experienced.

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in arguing for the need to demythologise scripture, made  the following claim, a hostage to fortune, gifted to those who might want to discredit his argument.

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.

Rudolf Bultmann Kerygma and Myth 1948 quote taken from Radical Faith

Here Bultmann strongly underestimates the power of the human mind.  We have evolved with the capacity to believe all manner of things, that our cultures and social groupings expect of us. Even when they are in contradiction of each other. We have also the amazing capacity to affirm these beliefs in all sincerity, while completely failing to notice that our behaviour is at odds with our acclamations.

And he has misidentified the problem. The problem isn’t modern science, but that the miracles are inconsistent with the way we experience the world.

There is within scripture, evidence that the high significance the first Christians placed on the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was wrapped up by later generations, in Jewish Mythology. And it is in this form, that it has been transported through time.

I think  Rudolf Bultmann may have been right that it is impossible to disentangle the historical Jesus from the mythology. But the gospels deliver something else, in the God Man at their hearts. An image of what it means to be good. An image of goodness that exposes the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent god of traditional Western theology as an imposter.

David Hume argued that the existence of an, omnipotent, omniscient, and all good God was incompatible  with the fact that evil exists in the world. This very much depends on how you interpret the words.

The first two claims are normally interpreted as meaning all the power and all the knowledge that it is possible to have, without logical contradiction. So that for instance the claim that God could not make a stone to big for Himself to lift, and then lift it, is not evidence against omnipotence.

It does seem obvious that if these first two claims are true, and as suffering exists in the world that God cannot be all good. But that depends on how you interpret the word good. There has been a tradition within Christianity from at least the time of St Anselm (1033-1109), the first of the scholastic philosophers, of believing that ‘Might is Right.’

Anselm sees the duty of every rational creature as subjecting every inclination to the will of God. Of this Anselm writes, “This is the debt which angels and men owe to God. No one who pays it sins; everyone who does not pay it sins. This is the sole and entire honor which we owe to God, and God requires from us. One who does not render this honor to God takes away from God what belongs to him, and dishonors God, and to do this is to sin”.

Scott David Foutz  A Brief Survey of Anselm of Canterbury’s ‘Cur Deus Homo’ 1994

In the Medieval Feudal system the weak had a duty to the powerful, but not the other way around.  This is the system that Anselm translated into Christian Doctrine.  In this system it is impossible for an Omnipotent, Omniscient Being’s goodness to be impugned by anything that he does or allows to happen to us.

If you accept this interpretation of the word goodness, then the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and all good God, is logically possible.

Providentially the Gospels do not restrict themselves to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They also tell of his behaviour, teaching and miracles.  The incarnated God that walks these pages, is not King Herod.  The God Man at the centre of the Gospels gives the lie, to Anselm’s Omnipotent Monster.

If to be an atheist is to deny the existence, of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent monster of Anselm’s imagination, then  to be loyal to the Gospel of Christ, one must be an atheist.

 

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How Satan Became King

Satan

Human Beings bond on shared beliefs.  Factionalist type beliefs, i.e. those that say we are the good guys, and the evil lies in the other, are particularly good at producing within group social cohesion. They are also likely to operate in such a way as to maintain within group hierarchies.  Those who oppose the powerful within their own group are more liable to find themselves outed as traitors, than to overturn the status quo.

This remains true as long as the people in power, maintain their stance in denouncing the evil of the other.  Any softening of their position towards, the teapotted group,  those evil awful people over there, leaves them vulnerable to being overthrown by more staunch defenders of the faith.

So to be the prince in a world, where this is the dominant belief system, one must be an accuser.

The in-built paranoia of this hierarchical type of social organisation, is in the best interests of none, and it can result in horrific cruelty towards those on whom the evil is projected.  Yet because it operates as a vicious circle, its clutches are difficult to escape.

The early Christian movement, as described by St Paul, can be understood as a direct attack not on the people operating it , but on the system itself.

27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 23:27-29

Those within the belief system, were to be joint co-heirs submitting to one another rather than attempting to dominate. And rather than demonising the outsider they were called to love them.

At the heart of this ancient belief system lay the truth of an innocent man brutally killed. The likely outcome of any social system driven by the notion that as the evil lies in the other, it can be overcome killing its carriers.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

 1 Corinthians 1:22-24

Quite quickly after Christianity originated its teachings became conformed to the wisdom of the world in which it found itself.  As Tom Wright claims I think correctly in his 2012 book, ‘How God became King – Getting to the Heart of the Gospels,’ the four gospels, which were written after Paul’s letters,  really are telling the story of how Jesus of Nazareth, was the long expected Jewish Messiah.  And all the signs that the Jews expected from their Messiah were there.

Now Tom Wright’s position is that, the Gospels tell it this way, because this is what really happened. Other theologians, such as Dominic Crossan  and John Spong, take the view that the Gospel authors understood what they were writing to be myth or parable, telling a truth beyond the literal. While New Atheists are inclined to the view that they just made it up.

Regardless of why the gospel writers recorded the story as they did, the Jesus of Nazareth story is tied to an Ancient Hebrew notion of theocracy.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

Painting by Hippolyte Flandrin 1842

Jesus ride into Jerusalem, recorded as occurring just the week before his death in all four gospels, ties with a Messianic prophesy, from the Book of Zechariah.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

10 And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.

Zechariah 9:9,10

This Jewish image of theocracy has a king, who though he is triumphant and victorious, comes humbly to serve his people, not to laud it over them. A ruler who operates as a servant of the servants of God.

This is not the type of leader who emerges in the paranoid social systems that arise as a consequence of the desire of the presently powerful, to maintain their status.

In the rest of nature the hierarchies that exist are pecking orders.  They are maintained through combat, or through the use of ‘symbols’ that denote actual fitness, for instance the antlers of a deer.

In human societies one of the traditional functions of the notion of an omnipotent god, has been to shore up the position of the presently powerful.  It is the notion that whatever is, is the will of God, and therefore right.  The  view that might is right, is more appealing to those who are currently the beneficiaries of power, than those who are suffering from it.

The theology that Christendom inherited from Rome, had Christ embedded in it. It took a considerable degree of theological ingenuity to make Christ a willing servant of power. Something that St Anselm, achieved in ‘Cur Deus Homo.’ An account of the crucifixion, that explained that Christ’s death was not paid, as the majority view of the time was, to ransom us from Satan, but to satisfy God’s honour and dignity, which had been offended by our disobedience.

In his theology St Anselm recast God, as a prince of  the ancient world.  These princes had to maintain their place in the pecking order by ensuring that appropriate tribute was paid to them.  Otherwise they left themselves vulnerable to hostile takeover.

Now princes did not operate alone they had lieutenants to do the work for them. People like Pontius Pilate, who needed to look as though they were maintaining order, and collecting rightful tributes. And where looking as though one is maintaining order outweighs actually doing it, then innocent victims of what is purported to be justice are a highly probable consequence.

Thus in St Anselm’s theology, the God of heaven, was demoted to an earthly king, the Prince of this World. Someone whose powerbase was so insecure that his honour and dignity needed to be defended.

Karen Armstrong in her 2009 book, ‘The Case for God,’ argued that modern religious fundamentalism is driven by fear. And she is partly right. Fear driven factionalism is a powerful bonding tool, for creating cohesive groups.  Without an initial cause for fear it is unlikely that such groups would form.  Once formed leaders within these groups can acquire a great deal of in, and sometimes even out of, group power, by whipping up hysteria against the other.  This hysteria might reasonably be construed by the singled out group as a threat.  And defensive moves by this perceived other will be understood as offensive, by the fundamentalist group, thus further ratchetting tensions.

These fear based systems are invasive. They enforce an us and them mentality within, and encourage a similar mentality in those groups that are targeted as the evil other. As Jonathan Swift noted in his ‘Argument Against the Abolishing of Christianity,’ the problem lies in factionalism.

Are party and faction rooted in men’s hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles? And is our language so poor that we cannot find other terms to express them? Are _envy, pride, avarice_ and_ambition_ such ill nomenclators, that they cannot furnish appellations for their owners? Will not_heydukes_ and _mamalukes, mandarins_ and patshaws_, or any other words formed at pleasure, serve to distinguish those who are in the ministry from others who would be in it if they could? …………………. And therefore I think, there is little force in this objection against Christianity, or prospect of so great an advantage as is proposed in the abolishing of it.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

Jonathan Swift was a satirist, and the case that he was making , was that there was no point abolishing nominal Christianity*, because it wasn’t making the slightest bit of difference. All the world’s evils would exist even without it.  The same being true for any belief system. Get rid of one and a vacancy is left.  Any random difference can be used to justify a faction. The problem isn’t the belief, but the way of the world.

Christendom was not distinguished by its lack of barbarity. It too followed the Prince of this World.  The desire and respect for power and status  is a  cancer . Use power to speak peace and you end up with more violence.

This is the way that makes Satan the King of the World.

Footnote:

*Jonathan Swift at the start of his essay made the claim that he wasn’t arguing against the abolition of real Christianity, which it was once claimed had the power to change human behaviour.

 

 

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Is there a Time Lord?

Eyes in Space

Bertrand Russell in his 1952 essay, Is there a God? demonstrated that there is clear evidence that the omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, god of traditional western philosophy doesn’t exist.

The argument he made wasn’t new. It can be found in the, allegedly ancient Greek, Epicurean paradox.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

If evil exists, and there is evidence that it does, any God that exists must be, less than omnipotent, and/or less than omnibenevolent.

The god of traditional western philosophy therefore does not exist.

From this perspective, it is difficult to understand why Russell chose to conclude his argument with this rather weak conclusion.

My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

Why go for the, ‘no reason to believe,‘ option, when he could have gone for the option, not only is there no reason to believe, but there is good reason not to believe?

Perhaps it is because he understood, that his argument, like the Epicurean paradox isn’t an argument against the existence of God, merely a claim that he has been mislabelled.  Any God that might really exist doesn’t meet the standards set by the philosopher’s definition, of maximal greatness.  And is therefore not the god of traditional Western Theology.

There are ways of understanding the concepts of omnipotence, and/or evil that appear to falsify the Epicurean Paradox, but all of these arguments are like the paradox itself, arguments about definition, rather than fact.  Why bother?

While it is peculiar that Russell claimed merely that there was no reason to believe that, for which there was very good reason not to believe; it is not at all strange that he should say that there is no reason to wish that such a monster as he describes , should exist.

Peter Capaldi as Dr Who

Peter Capaldi as Dr Who

This is not the God of the human heart, the God that is loved.  That God, like Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord, in the BBC series Dr Who, is the God that, no matter what the appearances may be,  cares  about us, has our back.

Within Christianity, where you find the notion of God’s Omnipotence being pushed as a sign of orthodoxy, there you will also find that while the lip service is being offered to power, the adoration isn’t going there.  It is bestowed on Christ, or  on the Lady Mary.

Beings that the Bible tells us had the characteristics of that which, in the very last sentence of his famous essay, Bertrand Russell recognised as ultimate greatness; i.e. there were occasions when they were not subject to natural forces.

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

This abstraction of Russell’s, this Who’s the Daddy of Man, is every bit as much a supernatural being as the one he has spent the rest of the essay demolishing.

If you can find any part of humankind that is not subject to natural forces, then naturalism is falsified.

One of the things that I find interesting about Bertrand Russell’s, ” Is there a God,” and Richard Dawkins , “The God Delusion,” is that they both concentrate on disproving the existence of a god, that logically can’t exist.  In Dawkin’s case he ends up arguing not that the impossible god doesn’t exist, but that his existence is just very improbable. From the point of view of a theist this argument is just funny.  This is just a version of the ontological argument.  If that which exists beyond the universe is infinite, and if there is any probability of this god existing at all, then Richard Dawkin’s has proved that the existence of the Impossible is certain.

Many of us experience life as though we are, at least on occasion, interacting directly with a consciousness not our own.  I am not necessarily adverse to Richard Dawkin’s hypothesis, that this is just the imaginary friend experience carried on beyond childhood.

This certainly seems the most probable explanation. but then as discussed earlier, probability arguments don’t really work, when you are dealing with a possible infinity.

Consciousness, and by that I don’t mean information processing, but the ability to feel: pleasure, pain, emotion, is peculiar.  I know that it is something that can be achieved in a machine, because I am a biological machine, and yet I don’t understand how it is done.  I am amazed to be living on a planet, where the dust has given rise to this mystery.

Consciousness is so amazing that it doesn’t strike me as necessarily ridiculous to believe that the universe, or even the multiverse is part of a  process aimed at its reproduction. Nor does it strike me as necessarily impossible that this feeling of other consciousness, that some of us experience, has a reality that extends beyond the human.

However I do think it is reasonable to look for evidence, before jumping to the conclusion that this is either true or untrue.  The rational position is strict agnosticism, because while we have reason not to believe in celestial teapots – we know what china teapots are, and how unlikely it is that one, could not only get into orbit, but also survive in the extremes of outer space ; we don’t even understand how consciousness is created in ourselves.

It has occurred to me that the position of  any God who wanted to prove that he wasn’t a figment of our imagination or part of a con , might be similar to that of a time travelling alien out to save the world.

This is a position I dealt with in previous posts, “Is There a Teapot?” and “Beginnings Chapter 1.”

In the Alternative Universe of,  “Is There a Teapot?”  the holy scripture is the, “Book of River Song.”  And the contents of “River Song,” prove the falsity of the alternate Bertrand Russell’s claim the one that is equivalent to our Bertrand Russell’s, “there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology.”

In ironical voice, where he mocks the over certainty of the adoctorists, Russell says that there is no reason to believe any of the teachings of River Song.

This is of course not true. For instance the book  states that the earth had  a beginning (Beginnings Chapter 1 verse 1) and that there is more than one universe, i.e. the host of the heavens. (Beginnings Chapter 2  Verse 1) It would be very strange if a book containing as much information as River Song was not in agreement with modern  knowledge in some places, even if entirely by accident.

 Linda Bailey Is there a Teapot? June 2013

In this universe the same holds true, there is good scientific reason to believe that the earth had a beginning, and this was true even in 1952, when “Is there a God,” was written, and there is reason to believe that there is a multiverse i.e.more than one universe.  And in our universe Genesis 1:1 tells us that the earth had a beginning  and Genesis 2:1 talks about a plurality of heavens. (N.B. The word that is translated as heaven in Genesis 1:1 in the King James Bible, is identical to the word that is translated as heavens in Genesis 2:1.  The Hebrew word is in the plural.)

Of course as in the alternative universe, these two correlations are compatible with coincidence.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

It would take a lot more co-incidences between ancient scripture and modern science, to leave   coincidence an improbability.

In the alternate universe of “Is there a Teapot?”  The first chapter of their holy book, Beginnings Chapter 1, a fusion of Genesis 1, and our scientific story of the earth’s history, provides these co-incidences by matching exactly the scientific discoveries of their scientists with the ancient scriptures.

There are reasons, apart from the fact that I have a clear recollection of having made it up, for believing that this alternate universe does not exist.

Firstly, if scripture is to be passed through time, it requires its first hearers, and at least some of every succeeding generation, to hold it in enough reverence to ensure that it is copied and passed on.  This is extremely unlikely to happen if it portrays a world that is vastly at odds with that which the  first generation, and to a lesser extent subsequent generations believe to actually exist.

Secondly it is likely that a science, that served only to confirm scripture would be regarded as a minor branch of teapotology, their equivalent of theology, and held in no great esteem. It would be unfit to independently verify anything.

This is not true in our universe, where some religious fundamentalists attempt to gain respectability for their interpretation of scripture, covering it with a great big fig leaf labelled Scientific Creationism.

It isn’t just fundamentalists who have attempted to force a correlation between scripture and science, a point made by Stephen Gould in “Bully for Brontosaurus,” in a chapter entitled Genesis and Geology.

There he recounts the tale of a dispute, which took place in the late 19th century, between a former British Prime Minister, William Gladstone , and the biologist,Thomas Huxley.

Gladstone, based on his reading of Genesis made a probability argument for the existence of God. He argued that the appearance of animals in Genesis: first the water population, then the air population, followed, by the terrestrial population, and lastly man – is what the fossil record shows.  He argued that this was such a great coincidence that it could only be achieved by the writer of Genesis being gifted beyond belief, or divine intervention.

This argument doesn’t say a lot for Gladstone’s maths.  When ordering 4 different objects or pieces of information, there are only 24 different permutations. If in an exam you were asked to place 4 events in temporal order, you would have a 1 in 24 chance using straight forward guesswork of getting the answer correct.  This is more probable than throwing a double 6 in a dice game, not something that is generally thought of as proof of divine intervention.

Of course there is a 23 in 24 chance of getting the order wrong, and Huxley didn’t waste too much time in proving that the order that Gladstone was suggesting was incompatible with the findings of what was then modern science.

Huxley pointed out that there is clear evidence from the fossil record and from the morphology of birds and bats that terrestrial animals existed before the animals of the air.

He also argued that Gladstone should have included the plants in his argument.  (When you are ordering 5 pieces of information, there are 120 different permutations.  There is only a 1 in 120 chance of getting the temporal order correct by chance.)

Huxley wanted the plants included in the argument because he had noted that the description of the plants given in Genesis 1:11-12, the fruit trees, and other plants with enclosed seeds, identified them as angiosperms, the flowering plants.  These appear late in the fossil record, but are the first living organisms to be listed in Genesis.

Modern Scientific evidence shows that flowering plants diversified during the Cretaceous period, the last portion of the age of dinosaurs. And that there is some evidence that they may have been in existence throughout the age of dinosaurs.

In fact had Gladstone had access to modern scientific knowledge, been a bit better at statistics, and had gone for Genesis ordering correctly the times for the diversification of modern type lifeforms rather than first appearance of water, air and land animals, he could have argued that there was only a 1 in 120 chance of the following correlation happening by chance.

The flowering plants, which Genesis records as sprouting forth in the latter half of Day 3, scientific evidence shows as diversifying in the latter part of the age of dinosaurs, the Cretaceous.

The age of dinosaurs ended with a mass extinction, which modern science links to an asteroid collision with the earth around 65 million years ago.

The next readily identifiable creature mentioned in Genesis is the whale.  The word which is translated  as whale in the King James Bible, is more literally translated as great sea monster.  These appear in Day 5 in Genesis.  The first whales  appear in the fossil record around 55 million years ago.  This coincides with the diversification of modern bird groups. Winged fowls are mentioned as multiplying in day 5 of the Genesis account.

The rise of widespread grassland about 15 million years ago, resulted in a burst of animal diversification, a proliferation of  grazing animals, predators and the bi-pedal apes – our ancestors and related species. This happened after the origin of whales, in the same temporal position as Genesis describes the earth bringing forth, the living creature, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth. Another co-incidence.

Modern man, the not very modestly self-identified Homo sapiens, is a late appearance on the scene of life, according to both palaeontologists and Genesis.

And if you take into account the non-biological events mentioned there are still more co-incidences.

The flowering plants arose during the age of dinosaurs, the Mesozoic Era. The period prior to the start of the age of dinosaurs, the Permian, had seen the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea. When tectonic plate activity had resulted in smaller continents coalescing into one large continent, with one would suspect the mother of all continental weather systems – a dry land. This was surrounded by one ocean Panthalassa.  Or as Genesis 1:9 has it all the waters of the earth gathered into one place and the dry land appeared.

It is surprisingly easy to correlate the events of Genesis 1, with the findings of modern science.  Something I had fun with when I wrote, Beginnings Chapter 1.

It answers a question, that I asked of God, when I was teenager.  If you wanted us to believe that you created the world that really exists, why didn’t the Bible get it right.  I hadn’t at the time figured out that he hadn’t written the book himself.

The Genesis account was capable of telling the people for whom it was originally written that God had created the real world. It is still capable of telling us that God made the world that really is.  That makes it a fairly amazing piece of writing.

What it cannot do is prove the existence of God. There is no matter of fact that could make this a necessary conclusion. Even an inability to think of another explanation, would not prove that such an explanation did not exist.

To go from believing to not believing in God, or vice-versa is a paradigm shift. Not a matter of merely thinking one less or one more thing about reality, but a total change in the way you view reality.   A paradigm shift is, and I sympathise with those atheists who object to the phrase, always “a leap of faith.”

Douglas Adam’s provided a much better metaphor in his Dirk Gently novel, “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.”  It’s like, ‘a turn through half a molecule,’  everything is the same, and yet everything is different. A metaphor that works both ways.

The Christian Satanist

A   Northern Irish Christian Fundamentalist preacher- Pastor James McConnell  has acquired the support of the National Secular Society. Pastor McConnell is being prosecuted for under the 2003 Communications act for allegedly posting a  grossly offensive message, a recording of a sermon where he claimed that Islam was Satanic, “A doctrine spawned in hell.” The National Secular Society regard his prosecution as an infringement of his fundamental right to free speech, arguing that there was no incitement to violence in what he said.

In Northern Ireland we have a history of firebrand demagogues stirring up anger, and then taking no responsibility for subsequent violence. We also have a recent history of attacks on immigrants; so I am not as certain as the NSS that his message was inherently peaceable.

The NSS would have been considerably less vocal in support of Pastor McConnell’s rights, if he had wished to pray during a council meeting. There being “inappropriate, divisive and unnecessary”, even when it isn’t likely to incite violence, seems to be regarded as sufficient reason, for denying free speech.

Pastor McConnell is not the first Christian to argue that the God worshipped by those of a different Abrahamic tradition, is evil.  Marcion, of Sinope, who was expelled from the Church in Rome in 144 AD, made similar claims about the Jewish God, the God of the Old Testament. He argued that, the stories of the Old Testament should be taken literally, and that they clearly portrayed a wrathful vengeful God, who was not the God whom Jesus called Father.

It is undoubtedly true that in places the Old Testament presents a God who not only endorses but insists on genocide, the killing of the innocent, and the abandonment of wives and children. Pastor McConnell and other Christian fundamentalists claim like Marcion,  that the Old Testament should be treated as literally true.

Unlike Marcion, they believe that this is the God, that Jesus worshipped, and the First Person of the Trinity. They are able to hold this  belief, while being most of the time mostly harmless themselves.

Given what he believes about God the Father, it is perhaps no wonder that when Pastor McConnell wished to distinguish his belief system, from what he alleged was Satan worship, that he was very emphatic that his God was Jesus.

While there are passages in the Old Testament, that show God in a very bad light, there are others that show a very different God, a God who is just and merciful. A God who doesn’t require very special pleading to be called good.

And then there is Leviticus 24:10 -23.

Steve Wells at Dwindling in Unbelief, had fun with this  passage comparing the events to the stoning of the blasphemer, Matthias, Son of Deuteronomy of Gath, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A comparison that is more accurate than he realizes.

And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel: and this son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp;
And the Israelitish woman’s son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed. And they brought him unto Moses: (and his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan:)
And they put him in ward, that the mind of the Lord might be shewed them.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.
And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin.
And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.
And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.
And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him;
Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.
Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the Lord your God.
And Moses spake to the children of Israel, that they should bring forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stone him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Leviticus 24:10-23

Elbe Spurling, the creator of the Brick Testament and Steve Wells creator of The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible,  have this in common with the theologians of Christendom, they interpret the phrase, “And the children of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses,” as synonymous with, the children of Israel stoned Shelomith’s son to death.(1,2)

This is to ignore, what is metaphorically speaking, the small print.  God commanded quite a lot of things in this passage.  He commanded, that the hearers of the blasphemy identify themselves before the entire congregation, including presumably the relatives of the accused.  Relatives who were likely to be very upset and have easy access to stones.

If anyone was still willing to identify themselves as a witness to this alleged blasphemy, by standing close enough to the accused to touch him, then other laws come into play. God is entirely clear about the consequences of damaging or killing another human being.

Some thousands of years before Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice, we have the Jewish God, making an equivalent demand to that made to Shylock; take your pound of flesh without drawing blood.

There is only one of the commands given that could have been obeyed without contradiction, or danger to the life of the obedient.

And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.

An explanation of what the fight was about?

It is likely within the context of the story, that it is the mixed race man who had had his livestock killed. I have no doubt that the sweethearts who would have seen him stoned, would have been quick to seek legal redress if it had been their cattle.

This is the story of a God, whose  laws are harsh even by the standards of our judgemental, and fear filled nature, but which, like Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, in practice collapse in on themselves. This is the story of a God of justice, grace and wit.  One who understands His creation well.

Neither Elbe Spurling or Steve Wells see the logical consequence of the laws that God commands the Children of Israel to obey in this story. They do not however claim that ordering the cruel execution of a  mixed race man, over a matter of unwise speech, is the act of a virtuous God.

One of those who failed to recognize in Leviticus 24, the outworking of the claim made in Deuteronomy 8:3, and again in Matthew 4:4, that “Man shall live by every word that comes out of the mouth of God,” was the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.

Shockingly, to me anyway,  he justifies the barbaric desecration of this young man as an act of righteousness.

Lev. 24:23 Stone him with stones – This blasphemer was the first that died by the law of Moses. Stephen the first that died for the gospel, died by the abuse of the law. The martyr and the malefactor suffered the same death; but how vast the difference between them.

John Wesley  Wesley’s Explanatory Notes 1755

This shocks me, because everything I know about John Wesley says that he was a good man: opposing slavery as against mercy, justice and truth; arguing for prison reform, and universal education – he fought the abuses of his own age.

Modern day Methodists recognise that blasphemy laws become a source of victimisation for minorities. Why didn’t Wesley recognise that this was being described in the text?  Why was he willing to believe that God would condone such a thing?  Why didn’t he look for another explanation?

I think that at least some of the explanation lies in the understanding of God that was formulated by  Anselm, (c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers.

Prior to Anselm, the majority view of the medieval church was that Christ had given himself as a sacrifice to ransome us from Satan, that is the ransome theory of atonement.

Anselm, argued instead that the being that Christ was paying tribute to was in fact God.  An argument he fleshed out in Cur Deus Homo, as a discussion between himself and someone called Boso.

Anselm. I think, therefore, that you will not say that God ought to endure a thing than which no greater injustice is suffered, viz., that the creature should not restore to God what he has taken away.

Boso.  No; I think it should be wholly denied.

Anselm. Again, if there is nothing greater or better than God, there is nothing more just than supreme justice, which maintains God’s honor in the arrangement of things, and which is nothing else but God himself.

Boso. There is nothing clearer than this.

Anselm. Therefore God maintains nothing with more justice than the honor of his own dignity.

Anselm  Cur Deus Homo Chapter 13 (Deane’s 1903 translation)

This is the image of God, that is central to traditional Western theology.  For centuries Christians have acknowledged this self-obsessed and cruel God, as the foremost person of the Trinity. And have bowed down and called evil good.

It is this image of God, that enabled John Wesley to take Lev.24:10-23, at face value and accept the cruel execution of a young mixed race man as just?

It is this image that hides the other interpretation?  The story of a God, who far from being obsessed with his own importance, took steps to not only save the life of a man, who may well have blasphemed his name,  but also to ensure that those who had unjustly destroyed his livestock , replaced them?

A God who regards the deliberate killing or otherwise blemishing of those made in his image as the ultimate blasphemy.

Nearly one thousand years ago a clever pious man replaced a God deserving the honorific Father, with a monster who required torture and execution to appease him.

This is the God that John Wesley recognised in Leviticus. The God of Anselm’s imagination. The God that is not there.

24:14 Lay their hands upon his head – Whereby they gave public testimony that they heard this person speak such words, and did in their own and all the peoples names, demand justice to be executed upon him, that by this sacrifice God might be appeased, and his judgments turned away from the people, upon whom they would certainly fall if he were unpunished. Stone him – The same punishment which was before appointed for those who cursed their parents.

John Wesley   Wesley’s Explanatory Notes 1755

Anselm was  a very gifted man.  So gifted was he, that he had the power to make the devil from hell appear, not merely as an angel of light, but the very God of heaven.

No matter how gifted Anselm was, he could not have succeeded in this, if we did not instinctively subscribe to the notion of pecking order justice; the instinct that might is right.

John Wesley though he paid lip service to the abomination, in life was Christ’s man.  He proved the power of the cross, to save us from  that shameful, forelock tugging human instinct.  To recognise the greatness that lies in love not power.

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If Jesus Never Lived

photo

“Cottingley Fairies 1” by Elsie Wright (1901–1988) wiki

Two photographs taken in 1917, by 16 year old Elsie Wright and her cousin 10 year old Frances Griffiths along with 3 others taken in 1920, were accepted by, Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as evidence for the existence of fairies.

The cousins didn’t admit until 1983, that the fairies in the photographs were cardboard cut outs. Even then they still insisted that they had really seen fairies. And I am quite prepared to believe that they did indeed remember seeing fairies. I too have such a memory.

When we were very young, my brother and I adored the teenage girl who child-minded us. Being with her could be enormous fun.  Once when she was doing the dishes, she told us that the reason the washing up liquid was called Fairy, was because there were fairies in the bubbles.  She then blew some bubbles for us.  I have a distinct memory of having seen fairies, including one using a steering wheel to manoeuvre her bubble.  Imagination is a wonderful thing.

The upshot of this experience wasn’t that I ended up believing in fairies, but that at a very young age I learned that seeing is not sufficient reason for believing.

From the age of eight until I was in my mid teens I was a voracious reader, reading everything that I could find, including a book of poems by the First World War army chaplain, preacher and poet, G.A. Studdert Kennedy. (1883 -1929).

The following section from one of those poems left me absolutely bewildered.

Suppose the gospel story lies,
What then? Why, then
There are no fairies
Any more For men,
The shore
Of fairyland is dry,
Unlapped by any sea.
All fancies die,
If Jesus never lived,
For living fancies need to be
The symbols of a Truth.

G.A. Studdert Kennedy If Jesus Never Lived

As far as I was concerned there were and never had been any fairies, and whether or not Jesus had ever lived had no bearing on the matter. To me then the clear sense of what he was arguing was that it didn’t matter whether or not Jesus had lived, and yet  bewilderingly he was drawing the entirely opposite conclusion.

As an adult I understand him to be arguing that living beliefs need to be based on truth, and I  think that there is clear evidence that he is wrong. Beliefs require emotional resonance, and, as the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley fairies shows, this can be achieved without that which is believed having any underlying substance.

Aesop’s fables, such as Belling the Cat, and The Lion and the Mouse, demonstrate that truths can be told, by stories of things that never happened.

So no, living fancies don’t need to be the symbols of a truth. But also just because something isn’t literally true, doesn’t give you any reason to believe that its message is false.

Having said all that, I am going to argue that it is probable that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person.

The Bible can be a very informative book; for instance it was reading Genesis 1and 2 that convinced me that Scientific Creationists were basing their faith on the literal truth of their interpretation of the Bible, not on what it actually said.

It also tells me that the implicit claim made in this quote, taken from the introduction to my Gideon copy of the New Testament is false.

Most of them (the human writers of the bible) had no contact with each other and no means of knowing that when their writings were all put together as one book it would be complete, all parts agreeing in doctrine, teaching and prophecy.

Nor of course had they any way of knowing the truth, that their writings would be put together into a book, where the different parts did not agree in doctrine, teaching and prophecy.

One of the discrepancies in the Old Testament was noted by the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

The Bible says both that a woman must not marry her deceased husband’s brother, and that, in certain circumstances, she must do so. If you have the misfortune to be a childless widow with an unmarried brother-in-law, it is logically impossible for you to avoid disobeying ‘God’s law’.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic? 1953 

The New Testament despite the fact that it was written over a much shorter period of time is also loaded with incompatibilities..

In the following quote taken from The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as affirming his commitment to the Jewish Law, in fact telling his listeners that they must be even stricter in their adherence to the law, than the most strict Jewish adherent.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew Chapter 5 Verses 17-20

Yet in  John’s Gospel Chapter 8 Jesus is portrayed as  failing to follow the law himself, and also dissuading others from doing so.  The Law was very clear on what should be done to those caught in adultery.

And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

Leviticus Chapter 20 Verse 10

That two different authors make apparently incompatible claims about Christ, while it is relevant to the claim of Biblical consistency, doesn’t tell us whether or not Jesus was a real person.

What appears more relevant is that there are incidences in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is portrayed as condoning the breaking of Jewish Law.

In Matthew Chapter 12 verses 1-8, Jesus disciples pluck ears of corn and eat them on the Sabbath day.  When the Pharisees point out to Jesus that his disciples are breaking the  Sabbath; rather than telling his disciples to desist, he says King David broke the law too, and the, “Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. (The term Son of Man, in Hebrew Ben Adam, literally son of Adam, is found in what are regarded as Messianic texts in the Old  Testament, it is also used as a synonym for any man/person, see Isaiah 56:2.)  A slightly different version of this story appears in Mark’s  gospel.  There Jesus says,  “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”, Mark 2:27.

In Matthew Chapter 15 verses 1-11, the Pharisees berate Jesus because his disciples didn’t follow the ritual purity laws and wash their hands before eating.  He answers them by pointing out one of their customs which transgresses the law, and ends by saying in contradiction to the ritual purification laws, that it is what comes out of the mouth of a man, not what goes in that defiles him. A very similar account to this can be found in Mark’s Gospel, Mark 7:1-15

The Jesus in Matthew’s sermon on the Mount , with his strict legalism, is very different from the Jesus described elsewhere in Matthew,  where the behaviour described indicates that he understood the law to be flexible, there for the service of man, rather than the other way around.

These discrepancies don’t prove there was a non-mythical Jesus. They may be nothing more than the consequences of taking the beliefs of two different early Christian sects and trying to form a coherent whole.

We read elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in Galatians that there was a controversy in the early Christian Church, between those who thought that the new movement should follow the Jewish Law, and those like the writer of Galatians, a letter biblical scholars tell us might actually have been written by Paul, who held that Christians were no longer under the judgement of the Law.

For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Galatians Chapter 5 Verses 13 and 14.

The law  is fulfilled by acting in love to yourself and to the other.

So no the incompatibilities discussed here, don’t prove that Jesus was a real person, but they provide evidence supporting another claim of the New Testament. The claim that there was a faction within the early church who opposed the teaching that Christians were no longer subject to the law.

The gospels are foundational documents, explaining the origins of  Christianity. All of them claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah long expected by the Jews.  All of them contain one detail that was absolutely not expected of the Jewish Messiah.  He had been crucified.

It is  improbable that all four gospels would contain this claim, if it had not been an historical reality; therefore I conclude that there probably was a real Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.

Rational arguments  do not have the power to impart emotional certainty.  Stories do.  And it was a moment of empathy with what I concluded, based on emotional resonance, to be the  bewilderment  of  a First Century eye-witness;which convinced me that there had been an historical Jesus. That and the fact that the verses which inspired  the reaction contained such a mixed message , that the only reason for including it just had to be the conviction of the collator of Matthew that it was an eye-witness report.

The Parable of the Fish that Got Away

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:
Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.
So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just,
And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus saith unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord.

Matthew Chapter 13 Verses 47-51.

It is the good (kosher) fish that cook and the (non-kosher) that live.  The moral drawn is not consistent with what went before, unless of course Jesus wished to indicate that it is the just  that are to be cast into the fire

What I saw recorded with stunning simplicity  at the end of this story was the utter bewilderment of an eye-witness, that those around her/him all claimed to understand what had been said. A bewilderment which at the time matched my own.

I came to the conclusion that the most probable explanation for the peculiar nature of the parable, was that it was an account of a story Jesus once told,  as reported by a person who really did not understand the point being made

The story of the fishes is consistent with Paul’s claim, that the followers of Christ have been called to liberty from the law, and also with  the behaviour of  Jesus, when challenged about his disciples not  following the law. (It could of course just have been a very poor analogy.)

The phrase,”Wailing and gnashing of teeth,” is frequently used, facetiously and unsympathetically, today to describe the reaction of those who have had their wishes thwarted.  For example:

Many evangelicals have predicted doom and gloom if the Supreme Court issues a ruling in favor of gay marriage. However, I predict the sun will come up the next day and after a lot of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, not much will change.

Warren Throckmorton Scotus Blog June 2015

This usage makes sense.  Wailing and gnashing of teeth is behaviour consistent with someone throwing a tantrum, and not as the hellologists of Christendom had and still have it, the reaction of people enduring the pain of eternal torture.

Whatever the flaws and disagreements within the early Christian communities, and the New Testament is very clear that these existed; in their acceptance of the Man from Nazareth as the divine Messiah, and through their various writings they have sent into the world an image of a God, whose maximal greatness lay not in power: but in love

It is an image of maximal greatness that doesn’t sit easily with our species’ respect for power.

The sense that life is just and that people get what they deserve is a very common human belief, and not just of religious people.  It can lead to a blame the victim mentality, and a belief that might is right.  That people wouldn’t have all that power if they weren’t good.  A belief in a God who is maximally powerful can provide the rationale, for this belief, and be used to shore up very unjust power based systems.

It has taken considerable theological and philosophical ingenuity to mould the God of the New Testament, the God who became man, into a format that suited the complacent views of life’s privileged – the Omnipotence that Bertrand Russell identified, as one of the dogmas of traditional theology.

It is this Omnipotence, and the belief that he was God, that G.A. Studdert Kennedy railed against in a poem of his, that has immense emotional resonance.

And I hate the God of Power on His hellish heavenly throne,
Looking down on rape and murder, hearing little children moan.
Though a million angels hail Thee King of kings, yet cannot I.
There is nought can break the silence of my sorrow save the cry,
“Thou who rul’st this world of sinners with Thy heavy iron rod,
Was there ever any sinner who has sinned the sin of God?

G.A. Studdert Kennedy High and Lifted Up

United Church of Canada Minister Gretta Vosper has recognised that belief in the Omnipotence, can result in evil. She argues that we must reject the god called God, because belief in him can motivate bad things.

Studdert- Kennedy would have agreed, but he would have rejected the notion that the Omnipotence was the God that he called God. .

God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken, bleeding, but unconquered, very God of God to me.
All that showy pomp of splendour, all that sheen of angel wings,
Was but borrowed from the baubles that surround our earthly kings.
Thought is weak and speech is weaker, and the vision that he sees
Strikes with dumbness any preacher, brings him humbly to his knees.

G.A. Studdert Kennedy High and Lifted Up

This is the saving myth of Christianity, bequeathed to us by the very human writers of the gospels. To recognise, “That than which no greater can be conceived to exist,” in the broken bleeding man on the cross, is to be saved from the dominant  myth of this world, that might is right.

This is the truth that our species shameful forelock tugging respect for power, and two millennia of theology have conspired to hide from us.

 

 

 

Virgin Birth

Gerard_van_Honthorst_0012

Don’t let anyone tell you that modern science proves that virgin birth is impossible.  It proves the very opposite. We now know that with the right technological intervention it is possible for a woman who has never had sex to give birth.

To claim that the correct technology wasn’t available 2,000 years ago is to beg the question.  The claim being made by those who believe in the Virgin Birth is that God had the technology,  Despite what Richard Dawkins and others believe the words miraculous and magical are not synonyms.To say that something is miraculous is to say that it is due to a direct intervention of God, using  the powers which He has.

If  God exists and has this power, then modern knowledge gives us no reason to believe that virgin birth  was anymore impossible two thousand years ago than it is today.

The nativity story can only be literally true if God exists. But to claim as Christians have been for nearly 2,000 years that the Child in the manger was God incarnate, is to proclaim a God, who is not by his nature omnipotent and omniscient.  No baby can have these characteristics.

Anselm, ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers defined God as that than which no greater can be imagined to exist.  This for him included omnipotence and omniscience.

Bertrand Russell (1872 -1970) wasn’t overly impressed with omnipotence and omniscience as evidence of greatness, and finished an essay entitled “Is there a God?” with what he imagined greatness to be.

Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

An abstract concept whose conditions were, according to the gospels, fulfilled by the Child in the manger and the Man he grew into.

Not, I think, the conclusion that Russell was aiming for. 

Russell’s Error

There is, it is true, a Modernist form of theism, according to which God is not omnipotent, but is doing His best, in spite of great difficulties. This view, although it is new among Christians, is not new in the history of thought.

 Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

Christianity originated in a world where human wisdom accepted the reality of incarnate gods. The Caesars were recognized as gods; the earthly heirs to the power of omnipotent Jove. The Incarnate God of the gospels was the antithesis of the gods of the Imperial Cult; He was the Anti -Caesar.  His worship was a rejection of the values of power.

There is no doubt that the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient  God has a long history within Christian theology; this is not sufficient reason to claim that it has been the view of all Christians up until modern times. There is no reason to believe that Russell’s claim is true, and reason to believe that it is not.

It is not Virgin Birth and the miracles in the gospels which are the main offence to human rationality, but rather the image of maximal greatness.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians Chapter 1 Verses 22-24 King James Bible

Death by crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation, the fate of  the dis-empowered and conquered. The man on the cross was, by all the the commonsense of this world, the image of absolute powerlessness and defeat, and yet this is the man that Paul is declaring as the power and wisdom of God.

Or as G.A. Studdert Kennedy, one of Bertrand Russell’s alleged Modernists has it:

Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.

The history of Christendom is a long Judas Kiss, where theologians in the service of human rationality, have worked to conform the truth of Christ to the values of this world, with its overweening respect for power.

Though his image has been cheapened and demeaned, into that of the ultimate appeaser. He who accepted the authority of, and died to satisfy the wrath/honour,of the god of power; the omnipotent Caesar of heaven. Yet still the beauty of Christ’s truth shines through, even for Bertrand Russell. He was, in old age, able to admire the values, that this young man had taught were the Way of  the only God worth serving – the God who calls us to act in love to our fellow human beings.

When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is “love, Christian love, or compassion,” many people thought this showed some changes in my views, although in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time. If you mean by a “Christian” a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

 

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