Jesuses -- 4
posted on 10.18.2006 at 8:23 AM
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. [from a speech in Munich on April 12, 1922]
Dying for Jesus
posted on 09.07.2006 at 8:55 PM
Dark Sided has a link to the trailer for a documentary called "Jesus Camp," in which children are asked if they are prepared to die for You-Know-Who. A fair amount of children are being indoctrinated to die for various You-Know-Whos in this supposedly enlightened world today.
Many have died because of an absence of belief in the supernatural qualities of Jesus and The Others, but rarely with head high -- proudly declaring disbelief. Instead the tendency has been to choose Galileo's strategy and, when faced with the threat of execution, cave. Is the problem that atheists don't have summer camps? Or, as I suspect, is the problem that their martyrs can't expect heavenly reward? Wouldn't there be less killing and dying if fewer among us expected heavenly reward? Would there also be a reduction in the number of people standing up, with head high, for various dangerous causes?
Beauty and Jesus
posted on 08.22.2006 at 11:58 PM
On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.
If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything.
Why is it that natural beauty is seen as belonging to the supernatural? It seems, at first glance at least, rather firmly rooted in the natural.
Your Father, Which Is in Heaven
posted on 06.18.2006 at 8:45 AM
Religion wants to substitute itself for (all?) other aspects of life. It provides new, sometimes counter-intuitive (sometimes lovely) meanings: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." It provides a new, seemingly, counter-intuitive, morality: "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." It asks men and women to live in a new kingdom: "The Kingdom of Heaven" to which "I will give unto thee the keys."
It can even substitute for basic family relations, as we were reminded when President Bush explained to Bob Woodward why he hadn't asked his experienced father, the former president, for advice on Iraq:
"He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength." And then he said, "There's a higher Father that I appeal to."
This notion that there is a substitute Father is indeed in the New Testament: "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven."
All the biblical quotes here are from the New Testament (from Matthew, actually). The Hebrew Bible certainly enforces its own substitutions, but they seem less radical, less thorough. And earthy parents are not entirely replaced: "Honor thy father and thy mother."
Fiction and the Catholic Church
posted on 05.17.2006 at 4:05 PM
Although I'm one of the forty-three literate individuals left above the age of 16 who have not yet read The Da Vinci Code in one language or another, I still find the Catholic Church's position on this amusing. This organization -- or at least a semi-secret group within it, Opus Die -- had asked that the movie be labeled "fiction."
The "nonfiction" view of the life of Jesus subscribed to by the Catholic Church is that He was born of a virgin impregnated by God; that "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;...these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another;...and yet there are not three Gods but one God"; that Jesus came back to life after being executed by the Romans; and that He will preside on a Day of Judgement in which the dead "must rise with their bodies and are to render an account of their deeds."
Which is not to deny that Dan Brown's argument in The Da Vinci Code -- despite the attractiveness of a married Jesus -- seems screwy.
posted on 05.04.2006 at 9:36 AM
Even if religion has been making a comeback against secularism in recent decades, hasn't much (not all) religion been transformed by its exposure to secularism? This from A. C. Grayling, writing in The Guardian:
In its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles.
A Teleology of Disbelief -- 2
posted on 04.21.2006 at 10:13 AM
A couple of thoughts are helpful if you want to see the world as "progressing" toward nonbelief: First, you might want to view the current apparent resurgence of religion as a mere counter-trend, a hysterical reaction to a global march toward secularization, a blip on the curve. Second, you might want to develop a theory that religion itself has been growing more diffuse, gods getting increasingly "wan."
That latter thought can, in turn, be buttressed by the notion that the New Testament represents some sort of step forward from the Hebrew Bible. The old bellicose Deity of Genesis and Exodus, who demands only adherence to the Law and sacrifice, has been replaced by a Father and Son who demand "faith," good works done in secret, morality in the "heart" not just in practice. It helps, in other words, to view Yahweh as louder, more visible and the Son's Father as more a reticent resident of the heart.
However, here's the often provocative Harold Bloom, in his usual literary reading, to mess up that view of progress from Old Testament to New. (This from Benjamin Balint): "The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible," Bloom writes, "is simply beyond the competitive range of the New TestamentÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest." And Bloom, less originally, sees in the Trinity a step back to polytheism.
Jesuses -- 3: "Bleeding Stinking Mad"
posted on 04.16.2006 at 2:44 PM
"His black eyes, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."
"from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark..."
Got to understand, I guess, if you're in the religion-eradication business, that a lot of the attraction -- beyond the charity, the community and the meaning, beyond even the rapture and the rupture of physical laws, the rupture of history -- is in the "wild ragged," "bleeding stinking" madness of it all.
Where is the atheist who jumps "from tree to tree in back of" the "mind"? Do nonbelievers -- Shelleyans, most of them -- spend too much energy switching on lights? Who whispers -- Sade?, Ivan K.? -- "come off into the dark"?
Is the point that you become -- inevitably -- the opposite of what you are falsely accused of being? Are nonbelievers so concerned with not being seen as dissolute that they seem dull?
posted on 04.14.2006 at 12:33 PM
Were you to subtract the supernatural from the events at the end of Jesus' life, one Passover week in Jerusalem, you would be left with a popular Jewish religious figure experiencing the most brutal of executions -- one intended, by the Romans, primarily for political rebels. That this actually happened does not seem in much doubt. (Jesus lived perhaps thirteen centuries before Moses was supposed to have lived and perhaps nine centuries before the also questionable Solomon; and he lived in a literate outpost of the sophisticated Roman Empire.)
We see in the four Gospels, written of course generations after the fact, a man, presumably in unimaginable pain, nailed to a cross. Jesus had by the time of his execution numerous followers, so his last words (forgetting dreams and visions of reappearances after death) might well have been remembered. In John those words are "It is finished." In Luke: "Father, 'into Your hands I commend My spirit.'" Mark and Matthew, however, likely the two oldest of the Gospels, have a question, the same question, coming out of Jesus' mouth right before he dies. That question -- given, remarkably, in the original Aramaic before being translated -- is: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" or "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"
In her fascinating attempt to get at the historical Jesus, Paula Fredriksen notes that passages in these probably heavily worked over texts that do not seem to further their purposes in rallying the faithful seem more likely to be authentic. This seems such a passage. Yes, Jesus is repeating the first line of the controversial Psalm 22, which describes the tribulations of David or, in the Christian interpretation, the Messiah. But might not a man, dying with the belief that a glorious plan has been fulfilled, quote a line from the positive second half of the Psalm?
The case could be made that this man, Jesus, died not only in terrible pain but in doubt.
Jesuses -- 2: From Garry Wills
posted on 04.11.2006 at 2:13 PM
"The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs -- accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.
"He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates."
Each of these Jesuses, of course, requires subtracting other Jesuses. This seems a significant subtraction. Jesus sometimes serves as a grab bag with something for everyone. I respect Wills' effort to deprive politicians (Republicans and Hillary) of Jesus. But Jesus minus charity and goodness doesn't seem to leave much for the two billion. (Oh, and Socrates, proponent of repressive oligarchy, is not my "leading humanitarian"; and I'm not quite sure how Jesus' thinking on good and evil is "higher" than Nietzsche's.)
posted on 04.02.2006 at 11:24 AM
You encounter some fine minds as you pour through the often wonderful literature on disbelief and its history. Twice, however, I have been truly blown away: once while reading Nietzsche's Anti-Christ; and then again last week when, about a third of the way into The Brothers Kazamazov, I met (for the third time in my life) the Grand Inquisitor.
The Inquisitor, leader of the local Church, is speaking in Spain in the 16th century to the latest Heretic he has arrested -- a long haired semitic Man with a beard and "a gentle smile of infinite compassion":
Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.... We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.
Nietzsche read and respected Dostoyevsky.
Religion and Politics: Hillary Clinton
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:30 PM
"It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures," Clinton said, "because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Hard not to support adoption of a Would Jesus Get Arrested standard for all future US legislation (though I must admit I have some difficulty locating this particular Jesus, The Illegal Alien, in my copies of the "Scriptures"). And it's always invigorating, of course, to see a politician standing up for some valued voting bloc's convictions.
However, I have to wonder whether the good senator, even with all her advanced polling, might not be missing the beginnings of a turn in American public opinion. Our finger in the wind (and this method does, upon occasion, work) is detecting the initial stirrings of a secular backlash against the orthodox backlash against secularism. Whoever Hillary assigns to adjust her convictions should be advised to turn to this page for the latest on this anti-religious revival.
posted on 03.23.2006 at 11:05 PM
You don't have to get too far into your average holy book or testament before something fails to add (unless your calculator adjusts results based on faith) up. Here's the early-twentieth-century anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton:
There is much that is inconsistent and contradictory in religions generally, because they grow by accretion through many, many ages and kinds of culture, from mingled emotions, timidities and hopes and in the minds of different individuals and peoples.
I think of Jesus -- or rather the many, many Jesuses -- when I think of such inconsistencies and contradictions. (Though there are, to be sure, examples in all faiths; Barton is talking about headhunters in the Philippines.) Born a Prince/Born a Carpenter. Son of Man/Son of God. Revolutionary/Ascetic.Turn the other cheek/Not peace but a sword. Messiah/Sacrifice. Kingdom of God Soon/Kingdom of God After I Die/Kingdom of God Many, Many Generations Hence.
Most Christians, and even many non-Christians, have a favorite Jesus. (I venture to say that it is hard to read the Gospels without finding something to like.) Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to cut up the Gospels -- taking out the parts he didn't like. (I've heard two version of what those parts were: all the supernatural stuff or everything except Jesus' own words.) Even Nietzsche takes a brief break from pummeling Christianity to roll out a kind of Buddhist, naif Jesus, of whom he seems quite enamored. This game has been played, on quite a high level, by artists too, of course.
Garry Wills has a new book, What Jesus Meant, which promises to present some interesting Jesuses, cause Wills is an interesting thinker. The review in the New York Times, by Jon Meacham, however, mostly just trips over various contractions.
My favorite Jesus: The would-be Messiah who, finding himself dying in pain on a Roman cross, cries out (his last words, while alive, in Matthew): "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me." (Slavoj Zizek, not surprisingly, likes him too.)
The deeply sad, if not disgusted, yet somehow also resolute and caring mosaic Jesus in Istanbul's Aya Sophia also intrigues me. Maybe because it manages to bring together a selection of the contradictions and inconsistencies in one believable Face. Might the painting be a reminder that such a selection could have coexisted in the Man Himself? Sure. Plenty of lower-case men and women manage to embody a bunch of contradictions. But, in Jesus's case, that's hard to square with the various supernatural perfections.
Is there a Jesus of whom you're particularly fond? Or, perhaps, a favorite contradiction in the various accounts of His life and death?
God as Metaphor
posted on 03.06.2006 at 11:52 AM
Listening, on a too-long car ride, to Lucinda Williams singing (only faintly ironically, I suspect), You know you've got to get right with God.
Perhaps the most "wan" argument for religion (one even arch rationalists might buy) is that it has philosophical or psychological uses when seen, like fiction, as metaphor, as parable. (Bit of a switch: Jesus uses parables from life to make points about religion; the argument here is that parables from religion can illuminate life.) From this perspective, Lucinda's get right might be read as adjust your view of life to better accord with. And her God (There are, of course, others) might be seen as the world, the universe, fate or the way things are.
It gets tougher when Lucinda sings (with whatever degree of irony) about the deep darkness of Hell. But, okay, life can seem bleak. Her reference to Satan's slaughter, however, threw me. Not sure Lucinda's beliefs are that wan. Not sure my ability to find something in parables is that powerful.
Morality Without God
posted on 02.14.2006 at 1:46 PM
I'm currently teaching (conveniently and not-coincidentally) a seminar on The History of Disbelief.
Last week we discussed the slippery slope down which Jesus seems to lead in the Sermon on the Mount. There ain't much credit, He notes, in doing good "before men, to be seen by them." Instead, our charitable deeds, He insists, should be done "in secret." Then "your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."
But -- and here's where the slipperiness of this particular slope becomes clear -- what credit is there in doing good just to be seen by God, just for that promised "reward"?
Kant, I have just learned (in a "text" by Jacques Derrida), ventures further down the slope arguing that (in Derrida's paraphrase) "in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as if God did not exist." We should, in other words, do good without expectation of heavenly "reward."
Hmm... Isn't this saying we'd be more moral without God?
[Note: The depiction of Jesus in this entry is non-satirical.]
posted on 12.30.2005 at 4:12 PM
All of us would qualify as atheists by the definition that, as I've been reading, mostly applied in Greece and Rome: not honoring the residents of Mt. Olympus. For Zeus/Jupiter, Athena/Minerva, Hermes/Mercury, the sacrifices, lately, have been few and far between.
Have we been in the process of moving beyond the angry, meddling, jealous god of, say, Exodus? "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'"
Is Jesus, the worker of miracles, beginning to seem a little distant? "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up." Is this what they're so nervous about out in the red states? (A friend reports seeing a billboard decorated with flames somewhere in Indiana upon which is written: "Hell Is Real.")
Might societies someday look back even on our more retiring god -- who provides meaning, hope and a beginning but stays out of the way of evolution, planetary motion and football games -- the way we look back on the notion of Apollo chauffeuring the sun?
posted on 12.24.2005 at 10:40 PM
One of the factors that contributed to the centuries-long period of questioning of religion (which may, or may not, be ending now) was the advent of critical study of the Bible.
Isaac Le Peyrere in France in the seventeenth century wondered, for example, where Lilith and Cain's wife came from if Adam was the first man. He wondered how Moses, if he had indeed authored the first five books of the Bible, could have written about his own death.
And many have noted apparent contradictions in the various accounts of Jesus' life. Indeed, it was concern about such contradictions that seems to have started quite a few atheists -- among them Charles Bradlaugh, who will be a major character in my book -- on the road to disbelief.
Wintertime for Atheists?
posted on 12.18.2005 at 10:39 PM
Let us count, during this holiday season, the outrages: School officials here and there - Kansas, Pennsylvania -- attempting to force teachers to pretend that "intelligent design" is science or that evolution isn't. A United States president who appears to have based decisions involving war and peace upon his belief that he is the instrument of his god's purposes. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shall make no graven image," has always been my favorite) attempting to sneak into government buildings in the United States. God as a character on prime-time TV. Incessant efforts to reinsert Christ into holidays celebrated by many who do not worship Christ. And overseas? Fatwas, jihads, bombings, wars - in the name of religion.
The United States seems lost in yet another of its Great Awakenings (though to partisans of reason and enlightenment it looks more like a Great Swoon). Religious belief, now that the heathen Communists have been routed, is on the rise in Poland, Russia and other former Soviet countries. Such belief seems, with heathen left-leaning intellectuals also having taken some blows, even to be crawling back in Western Europe, even in France.
This is a blog about the writing of a book. And that book is to be a history of disbelief - from ancient India to contemporary California. One conclusion is clear: Disbelief has been on the rise in the world in the past five hundred or so years. The days when most literate Europeans seemed convinced that the universe was created by God in six days, on or about the year 4004 B.C., seem long gone. The days when it was possible to argue that there is no such thing as a true atheist also seem rather distant. However, what is not clear is whether this great march toward secularism has, somehow, right now, stalled.
Is the age of disbelief ending, as Alister McGrath recently argued in his book The Twilight of Atheism? Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback? Or is all this orthodox sturm and drang merely an understandable reaction to the globe's ongoing secularization? Is freethinking in retreat or is this merely a pause in our continuing march toward a world based more on reason, less on faith or superstition?
By writing a blog while writing the book, I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues - by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land. I hope, thereby, to write a better book.