Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings

Archive for the tag “jesus”

God –The Ultimate Meme, or The Problem of God

In Perception Theory and Memes — Full Circle, [March 2019], the epistemological concept of memes was used to “tie together” the basic concepts of Perception Theory, “circling back” to the beginnings of the theory. This tying-together of memes into Perception Theory, if you will, was done within the group of related posts having to do with Perception Theory.

Similarly, this is the tying together of two groups of posts, one again being the Perception Theory group (Group II.) and the other being the origin of Christianity group (Group I.)  Both groups of posts share constituent subjects of God, religion, or, to use my phrase, god and god stories.

Group I. consists of Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015], At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015], and Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015].  It is a personal journey of religious belief utilizing history as a forensic science and my own “spiritual” experiences as a guide toward understanding how Christianity (and, by extrapolation, all religious systems of belief) came about.  It utilizes modern biblical criticism and the application of philosophy’s Occam’s Razor.  Conclusions gleaned in this group of posts rest upon the separation of theology and ethics, the former seen as mostly epistemologically and intellectually toxic, and the latter seen as epistemologically, intellectually, and socially essential and vital.  As the title Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015] implies, Christianity’s value (and by implication the value of all religions) lies in the time-proven ethics of the Golden Rule or Principle of Reciprocity, not in theology.

Group II. is much larger numerically, which correctly implies its greater subject breadth and depth.  It consists of Perception Is Everything, [Jan., 2016], Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016], Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016], I Believe!, [Oct., 2016], Hope and Faith, [Jan., 2017], Prayer, [Feb., 2017], Egalite: A Qualified Virtue, [Feb., 2018], Going Global, [March, 2018], AVAPS!, [May, 2018], Toward an Imagined Order of Everything, Using AVAPS, [June, 2018], The “Problem ” of Free Will, [June, 2018], and, as indicated above, Perception Theory and Memes — Full Circle, [March, 2019].   This group develops a universal ontology and epistemology under the heading “Perception Theory.”  Perception Theory is a combination of rationalism and existentialism which enjoys a wide range of applications, as demonstrated in Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016] and The “Problem ” of Free Will, [June, 2018].  In addition to illuminating directions of modern political and economic theory, Perception Theory particularly sheds light on topics from Group I., as shown by Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016], I Believe!, [Oct., 2016], Hope and Faith, [Jan., 2017],  and Prayer, [Feb., 2017].   Hence, from the perspective of sorting out “god and god stories,” much of Group II. seems like a continuation and elaboration of Group I. (as the posting dates of publishing on www.ronniejhastings.com (site name Beyond Good and Evil) above might indicate).

Memes blending “full circle” with Perception Theory (Perception Theory and Memes — Full Circle, [March, 2019]) indicates that a common theme woven throughout both groups, the “what” and “why” of gods and god stories, will also have a “full circle” of its own.  Philosophy of religion often posits the “problem” of God.  As in the “problem” of free will (The “Problem ” of Free Will, [June, 2018]), a question is begged:  is there need of a “problem” at all?  The epistemological questions surrounding the formation of Christianity (and all religious sects, for that matter), coupled with the suggestion that ontological differences among theists, atheists, and agnostics are silly and absurd (Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016]), imply, in my opinion, a resolution concerning any such “problem” is highly plausible.

{Here it is necessary to interject that the more familiar the reader is with the content of all the posts referenced above, greater and swifter will be the understanding of that which is to follow.  Bear in mind that, as always, “understanding” is not necessarily the same as “agreeing.”  Listing all the posts above emphasizes that the “full circle” attempted hereafter is not some momentary epiphany, revelation, emotional experience, recent whim, or musing, but, rather, is the result of years of methodical, careful thought leading to satisfying  personal conclusions.  That they would be satisfying to anyone else is unwarranted speculation on my part.  Achieving understanding (not necessarily agreeing) with others may be a forlorn hope (See Hope and Faith, [Jan., 2017]), but achieving any understanding from others at least would provide relief from any lingering angst over my personal “subjective trap” (See Perception Is Everything, [Jan., 2016]) — adding to the personal relief memes give (See Perception Theory and Memes — Full Circle, [March 2019]).}

In dealing with gods and god stories in terms of memes, we do not start “from scratch;” all terminology has been defined in the above posts in both Groups I. and II.  The context of our start is 1. We are star-stuff in self-contemplation.  2.  Math is the language of the universe.  To this context is added 3.  God is a looped non-veridically based concept in our heads, or meme having no resonance with the “real” veridical world or universe outside our epiphenomenal minds contained in our veridical physiological brains. (Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016])  Therefore, God exists as does a unicorn, as does Santa Claus, as does the tooth fairy, as does Satan.  The same existence applies to the generic term “gods” as well as to stories about God, or god stories.

Memes or concepts of the veridical world outside us, like the idea of “rock” or “dog,” are non-veridical, like the memes of gods, but with a very important difference: they are resonant memes, resonating with the empirical data bombarding our senses when we experience a rock or a dog.  We use our epiphenomenal  imaginations to create memes of both looped concepts (non-veridically self-contained in the imagination) and resonant concepts (non-veridically related with the veridical “outside” world indicated by our continual “pouring in” of empirical sense data).  Imagined worlds in science fiction are looped memes and scientific theories are resonant memes.  “Scientific” objectivity is making memes as resonant as possible, or as veridical as possible (AVAPS!, [May, 2018] and Toward an Imagined Order of Everything, Using AVAPS, [June, 2018]).

Certain looped non-veridical memes, like Santa Claus and Satan, are made to appear resonant by saying Santa Claus is the “personification” of Christmas giving or Satan is the “personification” of human evil.  Personifications are like avatars, or manifestations of something else.  If the “something else” has a veridical existence, again, like a rock or a dog, then it would not be looped.  The behavior of giving at Christmas and acts of human evil are real enough, just as human values like “love” and “freedom,” but equating the spirit of giving with a human form or evil acts in general with a human form is as absurd as equating all the facets of human love to a single form (like a pagan goddess) or all the facets of freedom to a single form (like Miss Liberty).  Therefore, just like a goddess such as  Venus or Aphrodite does not exist like a rock or dog, or a historical woman named Miss Liberty does not exist like a rock or dog, Santa Claus does not exist, nor does Satan.  As extant beings, Santa Claus, Satan, Venus, and Miss Liberty are looped memes; the phenomena of which these four are personifications, giving at Christmas, human evil, love, and freedom, respectively, do exist as scientifically observable distinct acts in the veridical real world, and, therefore, are resonating, non-veridical memes (Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016]).  Personifying (or making gods of) real human activity is a primitive habit of human imagination that probably began with the earliest forms of animism, and is linked with the origins of religion and its ritualization; personification was and still is a method of making sophisticated memes understandable for children; as adults it is strange today that in Christian civilizations we shed the notion that Santa “really” (that is, veridically) exists, but many of us still believe Satan “really” (i.e., veridically) exists.

What about the looped meme God, a.k.a. Yahweh, Elohim, or Jehovah in Judaism, God in Christianity, or Allah in Islam?  To what would God resonate to make God a resonate meme, like love, evil, or freedom?  To the whole world, being that God is the creator god?  Would that not be pantheism, meaning we worship the universe? (How odd would that be, in that we are part of the universe?  To worship the universe is to make the matter and energy of our bodies also objects of adoration, along with mountains, stars, animals, etc.)  To worship any part of the universe is, again, returning back to primitive religion, to idolatry.  It seems clear to me that we have made up God as the personification of everything, as the answer to any question we may pose.  As I said in Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016], God is the Grand Answerer, Super-friend, and Creator.   God, once believed in within the individual heads of worshipers, can be used to any end by the clergy, from yesterday’s shamans to today’s popes, ministers, priests, mullahs, etc.  It seems easy for us to forget that just because we can imagine X, that does not mean that X exists like a rock or a dog (Remember, a rock or a dog exists in our head like any other non-veridical meme — in the form of a concept stored as memory built by perception.)

God, therefore, is the ultimate meme, the meme beyond which nothing can be imagined.  The meme of God is seemingly a tribute to the power of our imagination, but the history of humanly imagined religion shows this tribute to be simultaneously a problem — a flexible meme easily twisted into a “pass” to do evil to each other; this is the toxicity of most, if not all, of theology; this is why Richard Dawkins describes religious, theological memes as agents of a chronic mental disease; this is why I separated ethics from theology in Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015].

But have I not described God as the atheists do?  No, not quite.  Perception Theory allows existence in the real, veridical universe outside our minds (which includes our bodies, including our brains), but also allows the epiphenomenal, non-veridical existence of imagined memes inside our minds, which are, in turn, inside our brains.  In other words, an imagined entity, like a unicorn, if defined in any mind, can have an ephemeral existence as stored data in the memory of the brain of that mind; in this sense looped non-veridical memes exist.  A very weak existence compared with the strong veridical existence of a rock’s meme or the quickened and strong veridical existence of a dog’s meme (Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016]), for sure, but an existence made possible by our imaginative, epiphenomenal mind.  According to Perception Theory, then, an atheist recognizes only strong veridical existence, whereas a theist thinks that a weak existence is as strong as a strong existence.  An agnostic does not take either position, but Perception Theory would say all three positions are in denial of the ability of the mind to be both objective and subjective.  Theists, atheists, and agnostics can all agree that some form of God exists in the heads of both believers and non-believers (Atheists have a meme of a god that does not exist in the real veridical world like a meme of a rock or dog that does exist in the real veridical world.), and that existence of god has no basis outside the human mind; all can agree to the statement, “God exists!” in the dual veridical/non-veridical definition allowed in Perception Theory.  All the conflict, blood, and death perpetuated over disagreement as to what kind of God is “real” throughout the terrible annals of historical warfare, pillage, incarceration, and personal violence were never necessary, and in the long run silly; what still goes on today is folly, absurd, and unjustified.  How less amazing are the billions of concepts (memes) of God in the imaginations of humans worldwide compared to the consensus, imagined Creator God of, say, Genesis, Chapter 1?

In order for theists, atheists, and agnostics to agree on the existence of God or of the gods, atheists have to compromise but very little, while theists will have to move their position a great deal.  To agree that God exists in the imaginations of individual heads into which no other but that individual can “see,” due to the subjective trap, is not that far away from the “classic” atheistic claim that there is no supernatural deity or deities in the “real,” veridical universe.  The theist “classic” claim is just the opposite that of the atheist — there IS WITHOUT DOUBT a God that exists outside human imagination, just like some part of the universe or the universe itself actually exists.  If one listens carefully to the worshipful words of praise of theists (at least, this has been my experience), the existence of God is affirmed “within the heart” of the believer — affirmed by an epiphenomenal feeling of emotion fueled by faith (See Hope and Faith, [Jan., 2017]).  That is about as far from objective evidence as one can get.  This, instead of affirming God’s existence, affirms what Perception Theory identifies as a looped non-veridically based case for existence.  That is, the theist’s affirmation of God’s existence is no stronger than that of affirming the existence of unicorns or tooth fairies, and is much weaker than affirming the existence, of, say, freedom.  And, of course, the theist’s affirmation of God’s existence is minuscule compared to the strong veridically based cases for existence of, say, a rock or a dog (Perception Theory:  Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016]).  As for agnostics, I would speculate that some would welcome the compromise about God’s or the gods’ existence with the “little-to-lose shoulder shrug” of the atheists, or some might remain skeptical and non-committed, not willing to come close to agreeing with theists, who they see as gullible and naive.  All in all, I would speculate that at the “table” of agreement of all three groups over Perception Theory’s compromise possibility of the existence of God, it would be disproportionately made up of atheists, with a smaller group of agnostics, followed by an even smaller group of theists who have bravely changed their ontological thinking a great deal.   The future success of Perception Theory might be measured by seeing if the population at the compromise table might approach equal proportions from all three groups.  (No matter what the proportions at the table might be, Perception Theory might take credit for the absence of evangelism among the three groups, as, by definition, the table is one of agreement.)

Stated directly and succinctly, God or gods exist(s) only in our imaginations; we made up all deities, past, present, and future.  Most theology is not only useless, it can often be dangerous and even lethal.  Not all of religion is useless; part of religion is vital — the ethical part based upon the Golden Rule or Principle of Reciprocity (Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015]).  In Western culture this means a deliberate separation of ethics from theology in religions like the three Abrahamic ones, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; this separation is already done in some religions of Eastern culture, like Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Taoism.  We have met the Creator God, and it is us; there is no problem of God or of the gods — just like all memes in our heads, the ultimate meme of God or the gods is at our disposal; we can do with theology what we will; we can make it impotent and irrelevant, just as we have made memes like pseudoscience, superstitions, and unwanted or uninteresting fantasies.  Just as was done by so many Americans in their revolution for independence, religion must be relegated and confined to individual minds, not made into social and sacred creeds demanding conflicting evangelism (The United States of America — A Christian Nation? [June, 2012]).

 

With the gods relegated to fantasy within our heads, we can now deal with god stories and the lessons they teach with historical utilitarianism.  Like so much of “ancient wisdom” from our distant past, such as the humanistic Principle of Reciprocity, we can both individually and collectively judge the god stories and their lessons without fear of supernatural reprisals.  For example, in Christian culture, from which I come, I can now see that the Old Testament of the Bible is a collection of literature blended together by Hebrew scholars and priests to teleologically justify the invasion and conquest by newly independent nomads of what we call the Holy Land, all under the theological guise of the Hebrews being God’s “Chosen People.”  I can now see that the New Testament of the Bible is a collection of literature blended together by the scholars of a new sect to teleologically justify the execution of their leader as a common criminal (See all of Group I. for details).  The New Testament is to Christians what the Icelandic Sagas were to many Scandinavians of the Viking persuasion.

Erich Fromm, a Jewish humanist philosopher, who describes himself as a “non-theist,” has done something very similar way before Perception Theory.  In Ye Shall Be As Gods (Fawcett Premier Books, New York, 1966 — ISBN 0-449-30763-8), Fromm “radically” interprets the Old Testament as the evolution of the relationship between the meme (concept) of God and the entirety of mankind, not just the “Chosen People.”  He offers understanding into the “God is dead” meme and gives insight into the New Testament’s Passion of Christ, using Psalm 22.  The rabbinic teachings of the Old Testament during the centuries of the Diaspora are also employed.  By critically looking at the Old Testament, Fromm has, in my opinion, created paths toward its greater appreciation. (Why Some White Evangelical Christians Voted for and/or Still Support Donald Trump, [Dec., 2018])

With the gods relegated to fantasy within our heads, we can now investigate why religion sprang within the heads of our species in the first place.  The reasons why belief in some form of supernatural entities or spirits in the real world became, apparently, necessary for human survival in our cognitive revolution during our species “hunter-gatherer” stage can now be studied and be made into a consensus of anthropology.  Elements dealing with the origins of religion from Groups I. and II. have already pointed the way (See At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015],  Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015], Perception Is Everything, [Jan., 2016], I Believe!, [Oct., 2016],  and Toward an Imagined Order of Everything, Using AVAPS, [June, 2018]).  The physical and cognitive attributes that were passed on from generation to generation over thousands of years contributing to our species-wide universal “religiosity” will have to break down the elements of our survival, such as cooperation, altruism, and the necessity of suspending doubt and questioning in times of emergency, such as discussed in I Believe!, [Oct., 2016], wherein our ancestors having to deal with a “leopard problem” is offered as a “thought scenario.”  How did religion evolve from simple appeasement of a local “leopard god” to the continual sacrifice of thousands atop Aztec temples in Tenochtitlan?  How did we get from admonishing our children to be quiet when the shaman is speaking to the eruption of the Thirty Years War?  What a difference between believing a god or gods causes thunder/lightning and calling the faithful to the Crusades!

With the gods relegated to fantasy within our heads, we can now see how important the separation of theology from ethics is.  Moreover, such a separation is conveniently seen as a sorting of memes.  When the origin of religion, with its subsets of theology and ethics, is couched in terms of memes, I would suggest that the vital “good” memes, those of ethics coming from the human mind and necessarily developing in the longest childhood of all primates, if not of all mammals.  That is, the memes of ethics for human beings necessarily formed on the “template” of the development of the nuclear family — mother, child, father, and extended family, including friends.  The rules of behavior taught to a child are extrapolated to apply not only to the mother-child relationship, but to all other possible relationships within the hunter-gather group, and these rules collectively are treated as social norms applied throughout childhood and adulthood.  In turn, these norms were justified upon the authority of the group.  This collective authority became more than “what our mothers and older siblings told us;” it became the authority of the political leaders and the authority of the “spiritual” leaders, the shamen, the beginning of politics and the beginning of religion.  But now, without the necessity of religious memes, only those of politics and ethics are still needed.  (Recalling a point germane to the “need” for religion shown by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – that religion is a meme that can motivate many more than a leader within shouting distance, once that meme is transmitted to other minds — I would hasten to add that today’s almost instant electronic communications over the world wide internet has taken over religion’s communicative skill and can spread memes much, much better; spreading theological memes using the internet only accelerates the spread of the “poison.”)  Religion and theology memes are not needed any more; only ethics memes are needed.

Gods as fantasy has at least one ancient precedent.  In India, in the 3rd to 6th centuries, BCE (or BC), the original form of Buddhism, called Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism, basically ignored the question of the existence of the gods (curiously non-theological) and concentrated on the human, inner, existentialist self (Jainism, contemporary with the founding centuries of Buddhism, could be spoken of in a similar vein, and could even be seen as outward looking, not for the gods, but for practicing an extreme reverence for life).  Hinayana Buddhism dealt with attaining Nirvana, or enlightenment as demonstrated by Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism; dealing with gods took a back seat to struggling with inner human desire; the gods were not germane to Siddhartha’s original teaching.  In time Mahayana Buddhism (along with other forms, like Zen) became the dominant form of Siddhartha’s teaching, in which Siddhartha himself, or Buddha, became deified as a god — much as Jesus himself became deified as a god in Christianity (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]).  Imagery featuring the statues of Buddha are found at Mahayana sites, but sites featuring simple imagery such as Buddha’s footprint are Hinayana or Theravada sites.

Note the “direction” of Hinayana Buddhism, though admirably unhindered by the gods, is inward, toward the non-veridical, not outward, toward the veridical, as are science, technology, math, and engineering (the STEM subjects in US schools), which are equally and admirably unhindered by the gods.  The success of studying “outward” toward the veridical is another way of repeating the message of AVAPS!, [May, 2018] — As Veridical As Possible, Stupid!  Hinayana Buddhism took its lack of theology and went the “wrong” direction!  Hinayana Buddhism should have done “a 180,” (180 degrees) and gone the opposite direction.

Without the threats of punishment after death or fantasies of paradise after death germane to much of theology, religion becomes transparent as many, many forms of the sociological phenomenon of a cult.  At every religion’s beginning — more finely, at the beginning of every denomination’s sect — it is a cult.  If I in another time had acted upon my “visitation” from my deceased great uncle in the form of a vivid dream, as described in At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015], and had convinced others around me I had communicated with the dead, I would have formed a cult.  Great religions of the world throughout history are successful cults, their “truth” erroneously measured by their success, and large subsets of great religions are smaller successful cults.  Cults venerate a “great” being (usually a god or person of “special” powers) through the leadership of a cult founder, who also can be the venerated.  Thus, Judaism can be seen as Moses founding the veneration of Yahweh, Elohim, or Jehovah, and Christianity can be seen as Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene venerating Jesus (See At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]).  Smaller successful cults in the Christian vein include cult leaders such as many Popes, many Orthodox archbishops, many saints, Martin Luther (Lutherans) , John Calvin (Presbyterians), Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer (Anglicans in U.K., Episcopalians in U.S.), George Fox (Quakers), Jane Wardley, Ann Lee, and Lucy Wright (Shakers), John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Roger Williams (Baptists), Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and George Whitefield (Methodists), Joseph Smith (Mormons), Christian Rosenkreuz (Rosicrucians), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Scientists), William Miller and Ellen G. White (Seventh-day Adventists), Barton W. Stone (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ), Alexander Campbell (Church of Christ), Charles Fox Parham and William Seymour (Pentecostals), 1914 General Council at Hot Springs (Assembly of God), and Sun Myung Moon (Unification Church) — just to name a few with which I am familiar.  Two non-Christian examples of small successful cults are 3 Roman Emperors (veneration of Apollonius) (See Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015])  and Scientology (veneration of L. Ron Hubbard).  Two unsuccessful cult leaders and their cults here in the United States are Jim Jones (Peoples Temple) and David Koresh (Branch Davidians).  The toxicity of theology throughout history has been carried out through cults such as these.  The ethical kindness, love, and care of one group of humans to another group has also been carried out through cults such as these, but what has been overlooked is that ethical behavior needs no theology or organized religion to spread from one human to others.  When Jesus taught his version of the Golden Rule, he talked not of loving your neighbor as yourself through the social vehicle of the synagogue; the foundation of ethics, our caring for each other, has no origin in any religion or any theology; the Principle of Reciprocity began within each little hunter-gatherer group that successfully struggled for survival.  If theology exists as a meme in an individual, there it must stay — it should not be passed on to others; mental health services can help individuals for whom resisting that passing on is a struggle.  On the other hand, if ethics such as the ethical teachings of Jesus exists as a meme in an individual, by all means it should be passed on, as ethical memes were passed on in the little hunter-gatherer groups.  To be ethical in the manner spoken here is to be human, not religious or theological.  We are not human to each other through the imagined groups to which we belong, but, rather through the fact we are homo sapiens.

The general “shedding” of religion and its toxic theology, then, is seen as a veridically-based “enlightenment” which follows AVAPS toward more anthropological memes.  Imaginations young and old, fueled by the ethics of reciprocity (The Golden Rule), cannot but generate memes fired in the scrutiny of scientific consensus that will solve problems and heal wounds both for our species and for our planet and the universe beyond.  We are tweaking our inner-star-stuff to resonate more with the star-stuff that makes up the rest of the universe.

I would suggest that any reader who thinks this is but another announcement of another religion, of another cult, is victimized by her seemingly genetic tendency to think in terms of gods and god stories.  He needs to go back and read or re-read Groups I. and II.  God as the ultimate, unnecessary meme is NOT a new religion, NOT a new cult.  Rather, it is a veridically-directed philosophy transcendent of theism, atheism, or agnosticism.  Using the combination of rationalism and existentialism provided by Perception Theory, it suggests an expansion of anthropology to deal with the “who, what, why, and how” of human existence; the “who, what, why, and how” of human existence used to be handled by religion and its attendant theology, and I am suggesting that they have failed miserably.  The “should” statements used above are not evangelical pontificates, but, rather, are calls to consider looking at existence veridically, to look at existence in the opposite way Hinayana Buddhism did.  When I followed my own “shoulds” of Perception Theory tied to religion, I found the intellectual and emotional personal satisfaction I had been seeking for years. (“Personal satisfaction” does not mean I’ve not continued to question “everything,” especially this meme like Perception Theory that my imagination conjures.)  Perhaps my own intellectual adventure might be of help toward others finding their own version of personal satisfaction.  Or, perhaps not.  I’ve written it down compelled by an ethical Principle of Reciprocity tens of thousands of years old and taught by Jesus and so many others.

RJH

 

 

Why Some White Evangelical Christians Voted for and/or Still Support Donald Trump

White evangelical Christians who apparently were “one issue” voters willing to sell their morality and soul by supporting Trump over an issue like abortion, prayer in schools, secularization of society, too liberal SCOTUS, demonization of liberals like the Clintons and Obama, etc. are in my experience not as dense as their stance might portend; there had to be some “sacred” reason(s) they would knowingly be supportive and culpable of the bigotry, immorality, and intellectual bankruptcy of Don of the present White House. Finally, I have discovered at least one such reason.

 
Up until recently all the clues I had from evangelical Christian friends and family, always reluctant to talk politics and/or religion with me, were comments like “God moves in mysterious ways!” (from the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” by William Cowper (1774), based upon Romans 11:33) or “Hillary is evil!” Then my friend and former student Dr. John Andrews sent me a link entitled “The Political Theology of Trump” by Adam Kotsko, which begins with the question “Why do evangelical Christians support Trump?” Kotsko, who is apparently white and an evangelical Christian, pointed out something concerning the Old Testament that “clicked” with my life-long experience with white evangelical Christians. Turns out, for some white evangelicals, to support Trump is to support God’s will; to not support Trump is to work against God’s plan!

 
First, let’s be clear about whom I’m writing. I am not talking about all Christians; I am not talking about all evangelicals; I am not talking about all white Christians. I am talking about a minority within a minority within a minority…, like the innermost figure in a Russian matryoshka doll, or nesting doll, or stacking doll. This minority group is mightily qualified and nuanced. White, Protestant, evangelical, biblical literalist, apocalyptic, and often holier-than-anyone-else describes this group well. I need an acronym to cover efficiently all these qualifications — White, Evangelical, Protestant, Christian, biblical LiteralistS, or WEPCLS, pronounced “wep-cils.” (I’ve not included the nuance of politically conservative, which I assume is obvious.) WEPCLS vote for and support Trump with hypocrisy so “huge” and blatant they seem unaware of it, like not seeing the forest for the trees.

 
Here in the “Bible belt” part of Texas, it may not be apparent that the WEPCLS constitute a minority. After all, the large First Baptist Church of Dallas with Dr. Robert Jeffress, well-known Trump supporter, as pastor, is seen as a beacon of WEPCLS values. But even this congregation is not 100% WEPCLS. When all Christians nationwide and worldwide are taken into consideration, then even we Protestant Texans can see WEPCLS as a minority.

 
Second, the reason something “clicked” about the Old Testament with me is that, for those of you who don’t already know, I’ve lived my whole life among WEPCLS; many of my friends and family are WEPCLS and, therefore, voted for Trump. (Personally, I “got” the “W” in the acronym down pat! 23 and me showed me to be Scots-Irish, English, French, German, and Scandinavian; I’m so white I squeak!) The denomination in which I grew up, Southern Baptist, was and is replete with WEPCLS; not all Southern Baptists are WEPCLS, but every congregation in which I have been a member contained and contains not a few WEPCLS. Why did I not over the years join the WEPCLS? Because, briefly, I early on asked questions answers to which were NOT “Because the Bible said so,” “Because the Church, Sunday School teacher, pastor, your parents, etc. say so,” “Just because,” “Because God made it that way,” “You shouldn’t ask such things,” etc. These woefully inadequate and empty answers made me take a closer look at the Bible, and by the time I went to college I had read both testaments and began to see why so much of Scripture was not the subject of sermons or Sunday School lessons. (See Sorting Out the Apostle Paul [April, 2012] on my website www.ronniejhastings.com) In short, I did not become a member of WEPCLS in large part because I did not become a Biblical literalist, and over time the idea of evangelizing others based upon faith that had few if any answers added to the social divisiveness around me — added to the “us vs. them” syndrome, the bane of all religions.

 
In addition to WEPCLS’s Biblical literalism, which is the clue to their support of Trump, it is my opinion the WEPCLS have sold their birthright from the Reformation with their emphasis on conversion and conformity. The Reformation gave birth, it seems to me, to a Protestantism wherein congregations are not groups of sheep (pew warmers) led by shepherds (the clergy), but, rather, are groups of meritocratic believers, each one of which has his/her own pathway and relationship to God. Moreover, WEPCLS have turned their backs on the great gift of the Enlightenment to everyone, including all believers — that everything is open to question, including this statement; there are no intellectual taboos. The human mind is free to question any- and everything, in the fine traditions of Job and doubting Thomas. It has not been that long ago a WEPCLS friend of mine referenced Martin Luther negatively because the Reformer was not godly enough and blamed the Enlightenment for the blatant secularism of today. To ignore both the Reformation and the Enlightenment categorizes the WEPCLS as woefully anachronistic — downright medieval even.

 
Incidentally, the mixing of politics and religion by so many WEPCLS (an attack on separation of church and state) is very unsettling because it is so un-American. As Jon Meacham, renowned American historian, said in his book American Gospel (2006, Random House pbk., ISBN 978-0-8129-7666-3) regarding the Founders’ view of the relationship between the new nation and Christianity, “The preponderance of historical evidence….suggests that the nation was not ‘Christian’ but rather a place of people whose experience with religious violence and the burdens of established churches led them to view religious liberty as one of humankind’s natural rights — a right as natural and as significant as those of thought and expression.” (p. 84) (See also my The United States of America — A Christian Nation? [June 2012] at www.ronniejhastings.com.)

 
Back to the clue of why WEPCLS support Trump. If one is a Biblical literalist, chances are you have to hold the Bible as your sole source of truth — the source of true science (creationism and intelligent design) and of true history (Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Adam and Eve were actual historical beings, Joshua actually commanded the sun to stop in the sky, Mary of Nazareth was impregnated through some form of parthenogenesis, Jesus was resurrected back to life after crucifixion, etc., etc.). As time went on it was to me like adult Biblical literalists actually believe Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, Satan, the Easter bunny, ghosts, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Uncle Sam all exist just like the live friends and family that surround them instead of as concepts in their heads. As I studied epistemology in college, it became obvious one could justify and believe in literally anything through faith. Evidence-based truth is non-applicable to a Biblical literalist, and therefore is not applicable to WEPCLS.
Eventually, I became a physicist who likes to teach, instead of a WEPCLS. This post represents how the teacher in me compels me to pass on knowledge as best we know it at the present; to not be skeptical as all good scientists should be, and to not pass on what evidence-based skepticism cannot “shoot down” as all good teachers should do, is for me to fail my family, my friends, and all my fellow homo sapiens.

 
Recalling my days as a Sunday School teacher who relished the rare lessons from the “histories” of the Old Testament (like I & II Kings and I & II Chronicles), let me give you in brief outline the Biblical history that animates the WEPCLS (especially if Old Testament history is not your cup of tea):

 
1.) After the reigns of kings David and Solomon, the Israelite kingdom (consisting of the 12 tribes associated with the 12 sons of Jacob) split in twain, 10 tribes in the north known as Israel and 2 tribes in the south (close to Jerusalem) known as Judah. Each new kingdom had its own line of kings. The split occurred around 930 BCE (Before Common Era) or B.C. (Before Christ).

 
2.) Beginning about 740 BCE, the Assyrian Empire, which replaced the “Old” Babylonian Empire, invaded and overran the northern kingdom of 10-tribe Israel over some 20 years under the Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser III (Pul), Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, and Sennacherib. The 10 tribes were scattered in an Israelite diaspora and became known as the “lost tribes” of Israel. Assyria replaced the displaced Israelites with other peoples from the wider Mesopotamian region who became known by New Testament times as Samaritans. Sennacherib tried unsuccessfully to conquer 2-tribe Judah in the south, being killed by his sons. These events are covered in II Kings, Chaps. 15, 17, & 18, in I Chronicles Chap. 5, and in II Chronicles Chaps. 15, 30, & 31. The prophet known as “early Isaiah” from the 1st of three sections of the book of Isaiah is the major “prophet of record.”

 
3.) The Assyrian Empire was replaced by the “New” Babylonian Empire under King Nebuchadnezzar II and by 605 BCE the kingdom of Judah was succumbing to Babylon in the form of three deportations of Jews to Babylon in the years 605-598 BCE, 598-597 BCE, and 588-587 BCE, the third resulting in the Babylonian Captivity from 586-538 BCE following the siege and fall of Jerusalem in July and August of 587 BCE, during which Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. The end of II Kings and II Chronicles record the fall of Judah, and the Book of Jeremiah, Chaps. 39-43 offers the prophetic perspective (along with the book of Ezekiel), with the addition of the books of Ezra and the first six chapters of the book of Daniel.

 
4.) After Cyrus the Great of Persia captured Babylon, ending the Babylonian Empire and beginning the Persian Empire in 539 BCE, the Jews in exile in Babylon were allowed by Cyrus to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE and eventually rebuild the Temple (II Chronicles 36:22-23 and “later” Isaiah). The book of Daniel records Cyrus’ (and, later, Darius I’s) role in the return and the book of Ezra reports the construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem begun around 537 BCE. Construction, toward which contributions by Nehemiah were incorporated with Ezra, lasted at least until 516 BCE.

 
The Biblical histories and books of the prophets concerning the historical events described in 2.) through 4.) above show a “divine pattern” which WEPCLS have seized upon. The great cataclysms brought upon the ancient Hebrews after Solomon were orchestrated by God as punishment for the sins (turning from God) of His Chosen People, and, moreover, God used pagan, heathen kings like Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar to punish His people and a pagan heathen king like Cyrus for the restoration of His people. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant in Jeremiah 25:9 and is promised that the Babylonian’s land will be wasted only two verses later (Jeremiah 25:11). Later Isaiah calls Cyrus God’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1) and promises Cyrus God’s divine favor (Isaiah 44:28 & 45:13), while nonetheless declaring that Cyrus “does not know” God (Isaiah 45:4).
In other words, the WEPCLS have been swept up in the “divine revelation” or “special knowledge” that whatever happened to the ancient Hebrews (all the death, destruction, and utter humiliation), God was always in control of both punishment and reward, using unGodly evil empires as his tools to chastise His wayward “children.” Being Biblical literal-ists, the WEPCLS “naturally” transfer these Old Testament revelations to the present day, seeing “evil” Trump as God’s tool to punish the secular world for resisting God’s plan according to the interpretations of the WEPCLS. Trump as God’s tool is WEPCLS’s “special knowledge” through which all their issues like abortion will be “taken care of” without regard to the pagan, heathen, and evil attributes of that tool — just like the pagan, heathen, and evil actions of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian rulers were disregarded by the prophets.

 
Trump is a tool all right, but not God’s tool.

 
Before applying “higher” Biblical criticism (or just biblical criticism) to WEPCLS’s interpretation of scripture, look at the conundrum the WEPCLS have created for themselves. Trump is so unGodly the absurdity that evil can be a tool of good is somehow proof that this must be, in the end, of God; Trump must be God’s President. And the more unGodly the tool, the greater proof that the tool must be of God! It reminds me of the Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard’s assertion that the absurdity of accepting Jesus as God on nothing but pure, blind faith is all the more reason for taking the leap of faith and accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and personal Savior. Or, on a more mundane level, it reminds me of the creationist scientist on the banks of the Paluxy River announcing that the absence of human prints in the Cretaceous limestone alongside those of dinosaurs must INCREASE the probability that human prints ARE to be found; in other words, absence of evidence means presence of evidence! One can’t help but think of an Orwellian “double-speak” mantra “Bad is good!” and “Good is bad!”

 
Faith, like falling in love, is irrational, but falling in love is not bat-shit crazy!

 
The epistemological problem with faith-based religion is that any one religious belief cannot be shown to be better or worse than any other. By faith the WEPCLS believe the Bible is the Word of God established as everlasting truth about 1600 years ago (when the biblical canon was finally hammered out by acceptance of some books and rejection of others). For them truth is “set in concrete,” never to be altered by facts thereafter. despite the uncomfortable truth that God’s “concrete” of Jesus being God in the Trinity was not established as truth until about 400 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. What became amazing to me is that such canonization into unmoving, unchanging truth can only be defended by ignoring hundreds of years of new facts. If I were living in Europe around 1500, the fact that the Bible does not record the existence of a whole New World of two huge continents would make me revisit the rigidity of my faith and my beliefs. Nor does scripture mention all the scientific facts that evolve with ever-increasing evidence year after year, because the Bible is pre-scientific and written way before widespread literacy.

 
Because Christianity is “set” in history for biblical literalists, and because history has become a forensic science, Christians such as the WEPCLS do not have history on their side, just as all other believers who believe solely on faith. The forensic science of biblical criticism shows that literalists such as the WEPCLS do not have to become atheists or agnostics if they seek the most reasonable and probable view of what must have happened in the past for the Bible as we know it today to be in our hands. They must accept more historical facts than they presently do — facts that are compatible with as objective a view of the past as possible, facts that conjure the broadest agreement across Christendom, facts that place Christians in a majority armed with modern techniques of forensic history and forensic science, like archaeology and the history of Judaeo-Christian scripture (See the Dec. 2018 issue of National Geographic).

 
What then does biblical criticism have to say about WEPCLS’s interpretation of the Old Testament stories involving Assyria, Babylon, and Persia? Note the span of years covered by the events 1.) through 4.) above — essentially 930 BCE to 516 BCE. If you look at faith-based, conservative listings of the books of the Bible covering this span (I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah) and when they were written, you would be told the books were written contemporaneously with or soon after the events with which they deal. But biblical criticism, which we have had since the 19th century or earlier, is, through archaeology and study of the origin of scripture (Dec. 2018 National Geographic), finding that they were all written well after the events as rationalizations or apologetics for the tribulations of what are supposed to be God’s Chosen People who He loves. (To say God employed “tough love” dealing with the ancient Israelites is a gross understatement indeed!) For a fairly well-established example, the book of Daniel was not written during or soon after the Babylonian Captivity or exile (586-538 BCE), but rather was written in the 2nd century BCE, circa 165 BCE. Further, it appears the author of the book of Daniel was writing about the 2nd century persecution of the Jews under the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes using the prior persecution of the exile as a cover. The same dating fraud is committed concerning the books of the New Testament, especially the Gospels. Faith-based conservatives such as the WEPCLS want the Gospels written well before the Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 62-70 CE (Common Era or A.D. , anno Domini), as close to the life of Jesus as say, Paul’s letters. But biblical criticism based upon historical research shows the Gospels to be written during or after the Revolt (See Sorting Out the Apostle Paul [April, 2012]).

 
As we enter the 21st century, we know much, much more about the origins of the Bible than ever. What is needed in Christian scholarship of the scriptures is more polemics, not more apologetics. For WEPCLS to ignore this new wealth of historical findings for the sake of their medieval-like literalism is intellectually anachronistic and irresponsible. Consequently, the WEPCLS give non-Christians a bad name, as many non-Christians erroneously think WEPCLS represents all Christians.

 
Epistemologically, the WEPCLS commit the intellectual fraud of decontextualization, the practice of plucking a source out of its context so that its plucked state of being ripped from historical references makes it applicable to any time whatsoever, even a time bearing no relationship to its original intended applicability. The WEPCLS have decontextualized much of the histories and major prophets of the Old Testament so that they can be used for their conservative, Trinitarian, evangelistic purposes. Higher Biblical criticism has exposed their attempts to relate Old Testament references to Old Testament historical individuals as being references to the coming of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. To relate God’s use of Godless leaders in the Old Testament to today’s situation is not the WEPCLS’s first “fraudulent rodeo.”

 
I urge everyone in Christendom to apply biblical criticism to expose WEPCLS as a corrosive influence to Christian evangelism. I urge believers of all religions to use the same techniques of biblical criticism to their own faith-based creeds and/or practices. I urge non-believers to apply these same techniques to combat the politicization of theologies of organized religions.

 
My own experience in biblical criticism suggests it does not necessarily mean the WEPCLS retreat further from intellectual inquiry nor mean that it drives one away from Biblical consideration forever. The Bible itself often is all that is needed for its foibles to be exposed; often the Bible is its own best critic. For instance, I found that by comparing pre-exile-written II Samuel 24:1 with post-exile-written I Chronicles 21:1, one discovers how the concept of Satan, a parallel to the Zoroastrian (Persian) evil co-god Ahriman (counterpart to the good god Ahura Mazda), was introduced into Judaism by the exile (and later into Christianity). Calling upon other sources from archaeology, the Christian scrolls found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt show that there were at least 21 possible Gospels, not 4. These scrolls also show how the early Church bishops strove mightily to suppress and destroy these “lost” Gospels and also perpetuated the besmirching of Mary Magdalene’s character. To my surprise, when I placed Genesis 1 in its literary context, I saw it was not a history of the beginning of the world at all, but, rather, a comparison of the “superior” Hebrew Creator god with the “inferior” gods of neighboring peoples; my respect for Genesis 1 has risen considerably. Biblical criticism opens your mind to broader horizons not suggested by the Church, and helps to understand the archaeological findings relating to ancient religions.

 
Biblical criticism and its related readings applied to consensus world history has led me to work through a “most probable” scenario of how to me Christianity came into human history (Read in order on my website www.ronniejhastings.com Sorting Out the Apostle Paul [April, 2012], Sorting Out Constantine I The Great and His Momma Feb., 2015], Sorting Out Jesus [July, 2015],  At Last, A Probable Jesus [August, 2015], and Jesus — A Keeper [Sept., 2015]). Any person so “armed” and inclined can come up with their own scenario as well or better than I.

 

 

Regarding this matter of Biblical or biblical proportions and votes for Trump, I hope I have not failed my family, my friends, or my entire species in passing on what I see as the best of a growing majority consensus.

 

RJH

 

Jesus — A Keeper

My “long and winding road” through three sortings (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012],  Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], and Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]) has led to what I personally think is a reliable biography of Jesus (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]).  This suggestive biography was made possible by the application of historical and biblical criticism developed for over a century and in continued development; Jesus’ life emerges as the outcome of a considered application of history as a tool of forensic science.  This critical application functioned as an expose and was expressed by the metaphor of stripping off varnish- or paint-like layers applied over time to an original table top representing the end of Jesus’ life, an end agreed-upon by both believers and non-believers alike.  Among that exposed was the epistemological bankruptcy of faith-based theology that presumably can be found in all religions, not just Christianity.  Jesus’ teachings were dual-themed, a theological half based upon the messianic Son of Man and an ethical half based upon one of many versions of the Golden Rule (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]).  I suggest from the biographical content that “survived” the table top stripping, that Jesus’ theological teaching was as the theology that was layered upon the table top to exalt Jesus eventually as part of the Divine Trinity — bankrupt, historically speaking.

The great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins suggests religious belief in bankrupt theology is akin to a form of mental illness that spreads like a cultural virus.  My position is a little different, although I do understand Professor Dawkins’ point.  The reason religious theology is bankrupt of historical reliability is because theology is a flawed product of the imagination, and, therefore necessarily nonveridical (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]). (In fact, a veridical theology just might be oxymoronic.)  Not all products of the imagination are similarly bankrupt, of course; it is just that the imagination generating theology is similar to that generating fantasy, with little or no correlation with the veridical data bombarding the brain from the “real world.”  There is no accountability for theology, just like there is no accountability for fantasies; if one imagines a conclusion in science (including the forensic science of history), it must correlate veridically, correlate with the real world; not so with theology and fantasy.  What makes the nonveridical theology of Christianity (and all the other major world religions) not only bankrupt, but also absurd in a scary sort-of-way, is that a.) it claims truth solely on the basis of faith and b.) that it originates in minds burdened by chronic stress (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]); there is no way truth can be veridically demonstrated in faith-based theology.  That faith is usually based upon some form of supernatural god or deity, which is by definition beyond veridical verification.  What makes the theology scary and toxic is there are in the theology veridical or, at least, veridically-sounding punishments that are concurrently conjured for not accepting the “truths” prescribed by the faith.  (Those who don’t believe are going to Hell.)  If those punishments were just expulsion into the group of “them” away from “us” (the “us-them” syndrome discussed in At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]), nonveridical theology might not be of such concern, but history has paraded before us example after example of religious wars, purges, pogroms, executions, persecutions, pillaging, and incarcerations (just to list a few) that existed and exist solely upon the basis of nonveridical, absurd, and toxic theology; in Christianity the nonveridical absurdity of Jesus being part of the Godhead has spawned very veridical atrocities (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, etc. etc.). [Voltaire needs to be re-quoted here:  “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”]

[Nonveridical theology need not be toxic, to be fair.  My good friend and retired Presbyterian minister Dr. Jim Burns (He has the same degree as I — Ph.D. in nuclear physics; I call him “Rev. Dr.”) and I have periodically a fun and intellectually stimulating discussion on whether the rewards of Heaven are individualized or not.  We do not try to convert each other, we agree to agree or agree to disagree, and nobody gets killed or maimed.]

Blind faith is a virtue in theology, a conclusion of pure fantasy.  If positive feedback is concurrent with blind faith, that is pure coincidence, pure luck.

I apologize to the reader for the above because it might make for the reader the “long and winding road” a little too redundant, a little too long, and a little too winding.  But I want to be sure my position is clearly understood and wanted to briefly summarize how we have come to this posting, which is to claim that Jesus’ ethical teaching, unlike his attendant theology, is more than worthy of keeping.

Jesus’ ethical teaching is centered around the so-called Golden Rule, or, the Ethic of Reciprocity, though it is made up of far more, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapters 5, 6, 7) and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22; Luke 6:24-26; Luke 11:37-54).  The Golden Rule is an idea that has been around since the beginnings of history among theologians and philosophers.  It is an idea, however, that appears transcendent of theology itself, in that it does not have anything to do with a god or gods.  It is based upon the idea it is better to treat one’s fellow human being, whether family, friend, neighbor, or stranger, in the manner you yourself would like to be treated.  It is solidly built upon an individual’s self-interest, for it implies that your kind action will receive an equally-kind reaction, making your life easier, better, and, therefore, happier.  Evil treatment among individuals tends to be weeded out with repeated application of the Golden Rule, as it is in the best interest of both parties, unless one or both is a masochist, to be nice to one another.  I particularly like it because it contains its own intellectual and practical motivation — treating someone kindly, respectfully, and courteously is its own reward.  A deity or deities is/are not needed to command you to be good; the East realized this unnecessary need-for-the-gods centuries before the West; the East separated religion and ethics way, way before the West, which waited until Enlightenment philosophy (18th century CE) to resurrect the ancient Greek separation of the two.  Ethics requires no blind faith; blind faith, because of its susceptibility to toxicity of the mind, is not a virtue in ethics; often, it is to be avoided like a vice.  Positive feedback is not only real in Golden-Rule-based ethics, it often is not long in forthcoming, as in the gratitude of a stranger to whom you have just done a simple act of kindness/courtesy.

[Note the Synoptic Gospel references in the above paragraph leave out quotations from Mark — the earliest, and, perhaps, the most “historically honest” Gospel of them all.  Near-absence of humanitarian parables as vehicles of ethical teachings in Mark does not bode well for my ethics-over-theology case, admittedly, but careful scrutiny of Mark reveals that benefactors of Jesus’ humane treatment (healings, etc.) needed to be receptive to have their needs met; they needed to have “faith” that Jesus could meet their needs.  (People needed to have the faith of a child, for instance.)  Though cynics might claim that Jesus merely took advantage of the credulous through the power of suggestion, it could also just as well be the case that Jesus was by example teaching the importance of “faith in the physician” or “bedside manner” — that following the Golden Rule reaps rewards only when the benefactor is humble enough to appreciate what is being freely given him/her.  This “receptiveness to kindness” might well be the best interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9; Matthew 13:1-9; Luke 8:4-8).  It was certainly important to Jesus that this parable be understood, as all three of these passages end with Jesus’ exhortation: “Listen, then, if you have ears!”

The “faith” in Mark is faith in one another to do good to each other, perhaps.  Mark, then, is just as ethical as the other Synoptic Gospels.]

Listed below is a litany of religious or religious-like recognition of the Golden Rule, which over time has apparently always been in our religious and ethical thinking.  Jesus was but one of many who saw the Ethic of Reciprocity as being necessary and fundamental to an ethical and fulfilling existence.  Listed in chronological order when the time is available, each quote’s setting is given; if a specific work is cited, the time of that work’s origin is given (if known); if not, then the approximate date of the religion’s or belief system’s origin is given.  Note how Jesus’ ethical Golden Rule center was also taught both before and following Christianity in history.  The “first” to record the Golden Rule may never be known; as shown in the most recent on the list, it is still being recorded, claimed, and cited:

* “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 – 110  [Ancient Egypt, 1800 BCE]

* “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. ” Sutrakritanga 1.11.33 [Jainism, 9th-7th centuries BCE]

“Let no man to do another that which would be repugnant to himself; this is the sum of righteousness. A man obtains the proper rule by regarding another’s case as like his own.” [Upanishads, Hinduism, circa 700 BCE]

“…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”, Leviticus 19:18 [Judaism, 7th century BCE]

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18 [Buddhism, 6th-4th centuries BCE]

“To those who are good to me, I am good; to those who are not good to me, I am also good. Thus all get to be good.” [Taoism, 6th-5th centuries BCE]

“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.” Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5 [Zoroastrianism, 5th century BCE]

“Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3 [Confucianism, 5th-4th centuries BCE]

“If you see a jackal in your neighbor’s garden, drive it out. One might get into yours one day, and you would like the same done for you.” [Bakongo people of the Congo and Angola]

The law imprinted on the hearts of all men is to love the members of society as themselves [Roman Paganism, BCE-CE]

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12 [Christianity, 1st century CE]

“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths [Islam,  7th century CE]

The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form.” Munetada Kurozumi [Shintoism, 7th century CE]

Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong, but yourself.” Pima proverb [Native American Spirituality]

No one is my enemy, none a stranger and everyone is my friend.” Guru Arjan Dev : AG 1299 [Sikhism, 1699 CE]

“Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.” “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u’llah [Baha’i Faith, 1844 CE]

“Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you.” [British Humanist Society]

“Try to treat others as you would want them to treat you.” [L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology]

Here are some versions of the Golden Rule or Ethic of Reciprocity from some famous Western philosophers in chronological order, along with their settings.  These can be considered secular sources, clearly free of a theological context, in contrast to the above list:

                       Socrates:Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.” [Greece; 5thcentury BCE]

                       Plato:May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.” [Greece; 4th century BCE]

                       Aristotle:We should behave towards friends, as we would wish friends to behave towards us.” (This is a restricted version of the golden rule limited only towards friends.)            [Greece; 4thcentury BCE]

                       Seneca:Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors,” Epistle 47:11 [Rome; 1st century CE]

                       Epictetus: What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.” [Turkey; circa 100 CE]

                      Kant: Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.” [Germany; 18th century CE]

                      John Stuart Mill: “To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” [Britain; 19th century CE]

Jesus-stripped-of-theology must be what Thomas Jefferson in his The Jefferson Bible was trying to achieve; I like to think, thanks to my long and winding road, I now know why he was striving so.  (Perhaps, too, Jefferson’s friend Thomas Paine was similarly motivated in writing Age of Reason [Prometheus,1964, ISBN 0-87975-273-4, pbk].)  Jesus-with-just-ethics is worth keeping; it is a blueprint of stress-free, confident, and happy living for both Christian and non-Christian alike; as shown above, it is transcendent of theology, and, therefore, free from absurdity, and, hence, non-toxic.  Anyone can follow the Golden Rule or Ethic of Reciprocity, regardless of what they believe, or don’t believe.  You don’t need a god or gods; you don’t need a guru or teacher to follow.  If one must have someone to tell them what to do, then pick out one the quotes above by a religious leader or secular philosopher and try to live by that quote.

Though the following reference may well be another long and winding road (Don’t worry, I’m not taking it, just noting its “entrance gate.”), the words from John Lennon’s song “Imagine” also seem to “fit in” here:  “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace.”  The absurdities and toxicity of political ideology clearly parallel the absurdities and toxicity of theological ideology, thanks to history’s lessons, but to talk about political ideology as has been done here with theological ideology is, as I said, another long and winding road not taken just now.

Theology, compared with secular ethics, has the tremendous disadvantage of apparently needing a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.  Time and wealth has to be invested in some kind of edifice of worship and veneration. (However, atheism, which I consider a nihilistic theology, at least does not require an edifice.)  Another disadvantage is the need for a clergy to “run” the edifice.  (Quakerism, of all the sects of Christianity, may be the only group to “get it right” when it comes to a clergy; it requires none, but does need a meeting place.  Atheism also requires no clergy.)  Imagine if all the effort and money that goes into building an edifice and supporting a clergy went instead into meeting human need when encountered, as Jesus taught in his ethics!  Modern organizations such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, (I like to think also the Red Crescent), Live Aid, and the Carter Center work to meet human needs with no “theological strings” attached; imagine liquidating all sacred wealth and channeling it into secular causes such as these (I’m sure the reader could name other worthy secular organizations in addition to these.).  Theologically-based organizations cannot possibly do as well serving mankind as the secular ones, until the costs of the “theological strings” are eliminated.  Sound too fanciful, like theology?  I don’t think so, as these organizations have obtained tangible, veridical results; none of these existed until the late 19th and the 20th century came along; how many more will emerge in the 21st?

Do not think this is uplifting atheism in the place of Christian theology, or, for that matter, theology in general.  As I said above, atheism seems to me to be a nihilistic theology of some sort; atheism seems itself to be too “churchy;” I’ve met atheists who seem as evangelical as Christian evangelists.  One can have a theology or not have a theology, but theology is a personal commitment or belief, not transferable to anyone else.  Dawkins may have a point:  to have someone agree with your personal theology willingly or unwillingly necessarily fosters the toxic “us-them” syndrome (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]), which is a “slippery slope” to human misery, according to history.  The toxicity of theology spreads from human mind to human mind, like a disease.

I have a personal theology, but feel no need for anyone else to feel and think the same.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I am a sect of one.”  I often express elements of my theology, but never with the purpose of “converting” anyone.  Any agreements or disagreements with my personal theology are purely coincidental and carry with them no necessary consequences; my theology has no “baggage” and no “strings attached.”  I would never “condemn” anyone to a theological heaven, purgatory, or hell; I think the paraphrases of Jesus’ words “Judge not, that ye be not judged…” (Mark 4:24; Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37) are ethical, not theological.

But in this personal theology, I am intellectually hamstrung.  I have no way of knowing whether or not my nonveridical creations of my mind correspond to the reality providing me in all my waking hours veridical persuasion that something is “out there.”  I cannot “check out” my theological impressions; I can believe in a religious way, but I cannot know if I am believing in something true, something independent of my mind.  In 1763 Voltaire said, “The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists.”  This is the “subjective trap.”  It is impossible to  verify in a scientific sense any nonveridical, faith-based theology.  In fact, I have to assume that others are in the same subjective trap, but I can never demonstrate that is the case beyond doubt.  On the other hand, behaving ethically yields veridical feedback, usually from the benefactor(s) of my kind and courteous acts — feedback so empirical it seems part of the natural world “out there,”  a world so “real” that doubt of that world existing outside my skull common sense reason refuses to allow.  In the same way the “hardest” of the sciences, along with all the other sciences, like forensic history, do not doubt the existence of the natural world.  All personal theologies, like all knowledge, are fallible.

Therefore, the destinations of my long and winding road here, my conclusions, may be wrong.  For instance, my position of the fate of Jesus after the crucifixion in At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015] may be shown to be erroneous if the ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb in Jerusalem mentioned near the end of Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012] are studied and turn out to be the actual remains of Mary’s and Joseph’s family, including their son Jesus.  But, just as in the sciences, I can live with the possibility of being wrong, of being content with tentative, temporary answers.  The journey never ends; “it’s not the kill, it’s the thrill of the chase.”  I trust that as new historical evidence is revealed, I will draw closer to the truth about Christianity and theology in general than at the time of this writing.  The great physicist Richard Feynman in a BBC interview stated, “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing.  I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”  Revealed religion, with its nonveridical theology based upon the quicksand of faith-based epistemology (as opposed to evidence-based epistemology) declares it is true and demands of believers unquestioning belief in that declaration; I say revealed religion offers no reason for either the declaration or the demand.

 

Evolutionary psychology suggests that anything that marks definitively human existence must have some time in our evolutionary past been beneficial to our survival as a species.  Perhaps this explains why we as a species are so “religious.”  The origins of human religion have, relatively speaking, just started as a serious study to be discovered.  Given the potential of lethal religious theology spawned by our minds, progress in this study seems not only needed, but imminently vital.

We must “own up” to the possibility in cultural anthropology that without the development of some form of theology that went unquestioned by the “believers,” preservation of “us” from the attacks of “them” on the other side of the hill, human or beast, would not have been possible; the “us-them” syndrome may have played a vital role in our survival.  “Don’t ask why, just have faith, praise god or the gods, and grab a spear or knife!” “Us” needed to have a vision beyond our visible, tangible leaders to conjure sufficient communal courage to meet the challenges of our hunter/gatherer past; we needed gods and “god stories.”  Communal bonding and identity developed around some local form of religion.

All who survived to the dawn of civilization, then, were probably predisposed to be religious.  Not that we had “religious genes,” but, rather, our genes worked in concert to make us tend to be religious.  As civilization grew from city states into nations and into empires, religion grew and consolidated into state or world religions.  Lethally, religions never lost their “us-them” syndrome.  Because Voltaire’s words above are so true (both quotes), we have molded our once-upon-a-time survival tool into potentially murderous madness.  We have met the enemy and it is us, or, rather, our gods and god stories. (Not to mention our nationalism, patriotism, and politics.)

But we who survived to the dawn of civilization were also probably predisposed to be ethical — to love one another and to treat each other with kindness and courtesy.  Ethics was at least as responsible for our survival as religion.  The Golden Rule never lost its value, and someone, somewhere, always recognizes that it and its implications can, if we will, trump the gods and god stories, if for no other reason than ethics is not potentially toxic like religious theology.  Ethics fosters no “us-them syndrome.”

Whether Jesus separated in his head theology and ethics as exemplified in the two preceding paragraphs may be never known.  What is known about Jesus is that there was a duality about his message.  The theological part of his message has not turned out so well in the modern world, just like the theologies of other world religions.  But the ethical part of his message resonates with the best that human beings can be in the modern world.

For almost three hundred years, enlightened rationality in lots of free, courageous minds has boldly separated the sheep from the goats, the theology from the ethics, the sacred from the secular.  Civilization’s philosophy may well need to redefine a “Great Commission.”  Instead of going out and teaching or conquering all nations, we need to go out and just be decent to each other — to live, in Lennon’s words, “life in peace.”

RJH

 

At Last, a Probable Jesus

After three successive sortings, Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], and Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015], it is now possible to recontextualize the biography of Jesus with some degree of historical reliability. What distinguishes this rebuilding is that it is fact-based, utilizing the modern forensic science of history, rather than being faith-based, as are just about all religions, creeds, and belief systems.  That is, it is as based upon historical facts (defined by communicating and debating historians) as close to “consensually factual” as biblical criticism can come; it is not “hard” science, and will change in future as new historical and archaeological evidence emerges.  (Even “hard” science is not “chiseled in stone,” as it can change in future as well, as new researched evidence emerges.)  To make this recontextualization plausible, I have inserted into the historical consensus (the paragraphs in italics) my own personal “take” on what-happened-when-and-why to give the biography a flowing narrative without, hopefully, weakening rational plausibility.

To those believers and non-believers who think this whole intellectual exercise is “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” that I am losing the essence of Christianity by ignoring most of Christian theology and tenants of Christian faith, I can only remind them of the quicksand that is the epistemology of faith.  If truth is purely faith-based and comes by miraculous, indemonstrable revelation, then one theology/faith cannot be shown to be more truthful than any other theology/faith; a believer can believe literally anything; one can put faith in literally anything.  (See the example of the Flying Spaghetti Monster “religion,” or FSM, in Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]) From the outset of my Christian experience, from my early independent thoughts on Christianity, I thought the strength of Christianity was in its historicity, not in its spirituality.  The zeal of non-Christian faith is as strong as the zeal of Christian faith, but if history could be brought to bear witness to the claims of Christianity, faith in Jesus would seem to have a “leg up.”  So, instead of immersing myself in Sunday School lessons on Paul’s letters, or coming up with mental or verbal personal testimonies about Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins anew every Easter season (and every Sunday, for that matter), I looked into the historical case of Christianity (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]).  The three sortings listed above are summaries of this personal case study, summaries that have brought me to suggest a probable, plausible story of the life of Jesus.

Studying the historical origins of Christianity is nothing short of a startling revelation in its own right.  The nuances of this shocking realization varies from person to person, I’d surmise.  For many who grew up in the Church who have had this surprising revelation, fewer years were probably required than the number for me.  Though I do not regret all the time I spent in church pews (I learned a lot.), it is now not surprising to me why attention of congregations is not drawn toward the historical origins of not only the denomination, but not drawn especially to the historical origins of the faith itself.  Congregations are drawn instead to focus upon community services and/or increasing the church membership, while being told the egregious “tall” tale that they are behaving like “the” single Church of the 1st century CE; in contrast, questions like I asked (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]) lead to the ludicrous centuries-long defining of who Jesus Christ was (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]) and to the realization Christianity has very little historical reliability I originally thought it had (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]).

The third sorting (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]) was made quick work thanks to Bart D. Ehrman’s recently published book How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  This work not only spelled out the contemporary consensus concerning Jesus by biblical criticism and archaeological studies, it suggested to me the “layer” metaphor and analogy, wherein each alteration and addition to Jesus’ life could be seen as an obscurantist layer painted upon the surface of a table top that represents the historical situation at the time of Jesus’ death.  What the Church describes as Jesus Christ revealed in the Scriptures is actually a “trumped-up” Jesus exalted and defined well beyond anything he himself intended.  In fact, Jesus was exalted during the latter half of the 1st century CE (after his death) eventually to the divine status of Son of God using the same “blueprint” that exalted another historical character, Apollonius, during the same time span (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]). The “layers” prevent us from seeing the table top; Jesus has over time been victimized by “bad press.”  I am not throwing out the baby with the bath water; the baby was taken out before the watery tossing, or was never in the bath water to begin with.  The reliable essence of Jesus is not in the theology of his exaltation or in faith in the theology.

The third sorting stripped all the layers above the table top down to just the original surface, a surface on which we can have some degree of historical confidence.  All we find on this stripped surface is i) a trial before Pilate, ii) an execution by crucifixion, and iii) a claim Jesus rose from the dead.  Now we need to work underneath the surface of the table, aware that much of the layers now stripped from above the surface had to do with Jesus’ life and ministry, but realizing there may be many layers below the table top needing to be stripped also.  What remains of Jesus’ life from birth to death that has historical credibility?  This posting is the answer to that question from my point of view, resulting in a believable, plausible, and probable Jesus  — my recontextualization of Jesus.  As in Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015], I shall attempt to employ the three criteria of “stripping” that determine what biblically is reliable and what is not:  1) as in The Jefferson Bible, ignore claims that smack of fanciful hyperbole and that appeal to those of strong credulity, 2) keep matters that orthodoxy finds problematic but had to leave in so as not to be charged with incompleteness, and 3) favor that which requires fewer, rather than more, assumptions; tend to select the simple as opposed to the nuanced and/or the confusing.

(Remember, the regular text is close to historical consensus; the italic text is my personal speculation that gives, hopefully, reasonable flow among the reliable events of Jesus’ life.)

 

It seems to me the life of Jesus went something like……..

Jesus, obviously conceived out-of-wedlock, and born in Nazareth, had a very understanding and supportive mother in Mary.  Joseph married her, saving her reputation from being tarnished even more, and together the couple had four boys and three girls as Jesus’ younger siblings.  To arm Jesus against the social stigma of being a bastard, Mary doted upon him, which resulted in Jesus standing out in comparison to his brothers and sisters, as he was in comparison a precocious child.

Mary was like an early version of a “stage mom,” paying particular attention to developing self-confidence in her eldest son.  She probably indulged his every inclination, giving him a sense of being “special” at a very early age.  Originally intending her son to be immune from the social scarring by the label of “bastard,” she found Jesus developing into a child with an early sense of purpose — almost a prodigy of early maturity.  [Incidentally, to me the only redeeming features of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ were the “flashback” moments of Mary remembering the moving and tender mother/child times she had had with her son, who was being condemned to death.  Otherwise, I thought the film was anti-Semitic Hollywood hyperbole that recklessly added to scripture and stretched the limits of credulity (e.g. anyone who bled that much would not have the strength to carry a cross to Golgotha).]  Perhaps his father (adoptive father?) Joseph did his part in raising Jesus as a “special” child.

To say Jesus was gifted would be an understatement; he was observant, introspective, and reflective.  The closest thing he had to a formal education were the teachings he received at synagogue, conducted by rabbinic Pharisees.  He became fascinated by at least two social issues playing out before him: a) the inhumanity of applied Mosaic law, especially in everyday domestic situations, and b) the prevailing apocalyptic view that God was going to intervene to deliver the Jews from the oppression of the Roman Empire.  He gathered a group of followers who became his disciples, each less educated than he; he was the teacher, the Master, regardless of his relative age to each; Mary had developed his sense of worth well.

By observing the Pharisees, the local Roman officials, and the local Greek intellectuals, he mimicked their leadership skills, following his natural tendency to “stand out,” to desire to be noticed.  He appealed to the less educated of his peers who also were fascinated with the uncomfortable inconsistencies of Jewish common law and with the idea that, as God’s “Chosen People,” the Jews would be relieved of their Roman masters by divine intervention.  Both Jesus and his chosen twelve found it easier to walk about in critical commentary of the social ills and myopia all around them than to stay in the “binding obligations” of working responsibilities at home or in the demanding vocations in which they had found themselves; for the disciples, the audacity of the charismatic Nazarene, with whose family they were probably familiar, gave them a release from the work in front of the rest of their lives.  Jesus and his disciples were very much like Socrates and his “pupils,” save Jesus was not blind; any Greek-cultured observers of a young “teacher” speaking to an attentive band in parables must have appeared pretty normal, in a Hellenistic sort of way.

Not only did Jesus discover that the vehicle of parables was an effective way to communicate with his unsophisticated and even illiterate audiences (including the disciples), he found them a great way to deflect direct attacks upon his apocalyptic agenda or upon his lessons in social mores.  Parables require interpretation, which can utilize reflection in an obscurantist manner.  Such reflection became in time necessary, as his apocalyptic, messianic teaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God transferred to Roman authority as potentially seditious, and his teaching of loving one’s neighbors transcendent of religious laws of conduct smacked of replacing the teachings of rabbis, Pharisees, and Sadducees with a “higher authority” of his own.  Jesus and his entourage of twelve were not always received well, and Jesus’ family grew concerned for his safety (Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21).  Jesus, the twelve, and Jesus’ message were rejected in his home town of Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6; Matthew 13:53-58; Luke 4:16-30).

If Jesus’ family members were in agreement with his teaching, that would have been emphasized in the Gospels.  Showing up out of concern could have indicated the family actively encouraged him to cease his teaching and return home.  And their concern was understandable, as I think Ehrman in How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee is correct that there were in the first century CE three different versions of the Messiah in Jewish culture, and Jesus was linking himself with one of the three.  1) The religious-political Messiah, often called the Son of Man, would come as God’s “right-hand man” to usher in the Kingdom of God by judging all of mankind — God’s prosecutor, in other words, 2) the “Temple-centered” Messiah, or God’s chosen “high priest” who would make things right from (probably) the Temple at Jerusalem, and 3) the political Messiah, who would by Maccabeean-like rebellion literally restore the line of David as the independent kings of God’s Chosen People.  Jesus was linking himself with 1), in all likelihood seeing himself as the Son of Man (Matthew 19:28).  He clearly  was not an official rabbi, nor Pharisee, nor Sadducee; as a non-priest, therefore, he could not be preaching a type 2) Messiah.  Because of the obscurantist nature of his open-to-interpretation parables, he was most probably misinterpreted as seeing himself as a type 3) Messiah, which played a large part in his fatal condemnation.  As for his teachings on moral conduct, they smacked of humane Epicurianism and Stoicism that had him calling the likes of Pharisees “vipers.”  Neither synagogue nor Roman authority could be pleased with what they were hearing from Jesus.

Personally, I like to think his Golden Rule-based humanism drove his dual-themed message, instead of the messianic, apocalyptic heralding of the coming of the Kingdom driving the double-headed agenda.  At first glance, the two messages seem difficult to reconcile and harmonize, but I am inclined to think he used the wide-spread notion of God’s intervention through the Son of Man as the “banner” around which to gather listeners, who were then regaled with the message of treating each other with love and respect, a not-so-bad idea even for the bloody-minded rebels wanting to throw off the yoke of Rome, if God’s judgement through the Son of Man was inevitably coming.  You want to appear as kind to your own, at least, even if the blood of your enemies stains your hands doing what you believe to be ultimately God’s will.  Despite his mixed messages of bringing a sword and leaving the family, his teachings emphasized peace and pacifism.  Of course, this is just my opinion; perhaps Jesus lived his entire ministry without ever reconciling the two themes in his head; perhaps many turned away from his teachings because they could not see the possibility of such reconciliation.

Perhaps Jesus was emboldened by the similar ministry of John the Baptist.  Perhaps Jesus was at first a follower of John’s teachings.  Whatever their relationship, and regardless of whether John baptized Jesus or not, Jesus’ ministry was shaken by the beheading of John.  When the tetarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, had John executed over John’s moral condemnation of Herod’s taking of Herodias as his wife in about 30 CE, Jesus and his disciples tried to “lay low” for a while and keep a lower profile (Mark 6:31, Matthew 14:13, Luke 9:10).  But his followers (undoubtedly joined by followers of John) would not allow this public absence; the vacuum of need left by John’s death had to be filled by Jesus, and he could not resist filling it.

The story of John the Baptist and the similarity of his and Jesus’ teachings are a great indicator that these teachings were the “talk” of many more self-motivated prophets of apocalyptic doom and/or love-over-law than John and Jesus.  It is highly probable Jesus saw John’s death as God’s sign he was God’s choice to pave the way for the coming of the Kingdom; the “torch” was passed to him from John as part of God’s will; it is possible he began to believe he was destined to be the Son of Man in that Kingdom as a part of this divine sign.  If such a belief came to him, whenever it came, it turned out to be fatal for Jesus.

By the time the Passover of about 33 CE came, Jesus was emboldened by  his followers, his disciples, and his acquired self-perception to go to Jerusalem, the “capital” of Judea, to go to the political and religious center of the Jews and to the heart of Roman power over the Jewish state.  Clearly, Jerusalem was the place where application of his dual-headed message would have the greatest, far-reaching effects.  His fame had grown beyond his control, even to being an advocate for women (a revolutionary idea for that society), as personified by his close relationship with Mary Magdalene, who in effect had become his closest feminine disciple as well as the thirteenth disciple added to the original twelve.  He figuratively was swept into Jerusalem by a destiny of his own making, all the time being scrutinized more and more by both Jewish and Roman authorities as his fame grew — a “dual watch” reflecting his dual message, which spawned dual suspicions of blasphemy and of subversion.  Knowingly or unknowingly, he was trapped between the two “horns” of his teachings.

Despite what the Church did to expunge Mary Magdalene from the story of Jesus, I think it highly probable not only was she the closest of his disciples, they had a sexual relationship; she was the “beloved disciple,” not John.  That Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was based partly upon historical evidence (2nd century CE gospels relating how Jesus taught Mary Magdalene beyond what he told the disciples, who were jealous of her) indicates her importance in Jesus’ ministry (March 2012 National Geographic).  Her clear importance to the origin of Christianity is forthcoming below.

My inclination is to think Jesus could not have anticipated what was going to happen to him and his disciples in Jerusalem.  He was not the only “troublemaker” attending Passover that year, given the atmosphere of religious reform and political rancor at the time.  It does seem obvious to me that between the time of John’s execution and this trip to Jerusalem, he gained some sense of direction for his ministry, even if only from following the suggestions of the most vocal of his growing followers.  Perhaps he believed his own “hype,” or perhaps not.  Surely, he was too famous to run away and hide, even if he wanted that.

The “cleansing of the Temple” of the moneychangers (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22) was pivotal.  Whether from careful, calculated planning or from a moment of uncontrolled anger, or from something in-between, Jesus suddenly acted as if he had religious and spiritual authority to bring about reform through a rebellious and revolutionary act.  No amount of calmly teaching in the Temple before or thereafter, actual or added by the Gospel writers, could sooth the apparent fact he had given his detractors the excuse they sought to bring his ministry to a close.  What was sold to the religious authority as blasphemous behavior in the Temple of the Lord was sold to the civil authority as disturbance of the peace at the absolutely most socially volatile time of the year (Passover).  The religious Jews had their moment of “heresy” to pin upon him, and the Romans had their moment of “sedition” or “revolt” to pin upon him.  He was taken into custody because of the two “horns” of his ministry.  His fate was sealed.

No amount of drama added by the writers of the 4 Synoptic Gospels to the time between the driving out of the moneychangers from the Temple to his arrest (e.g. The Last Supper) could rationalize his rash act at the holy site.  Attempts to do so resulted in convoluted conflicts within Jesus in which he knew he was going to die for divine reasons, yet he was full of human apprehensions.  Good drama, but hardly reliable history.  It is more likely he, as he felt the “heat” of public exposure of the incident, placed his hopes in his actions in the Temple as being lost among many similar incidents by other “troublemakers” during the tense chaos of Passover.  Had it not been for the betrayal of Judas, those hopes might have been well placed.

Ehrman, in How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, found the betrayal of Jesus by Judas difficult to understand.  I think it is easy to understand if you see Judas as a disciple who followed Jesus primarily because he believed Jesus to be a type 3) Messiah [Way after the betrayal, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke ironically fed the association of Jesus as a type 3) Messiah from the line of David by awkwardly and inconsistently listing Jesus’ ancestry; the two lists don’t agree (Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38).]  When Jesus showed himself not to be a political revolutionary starting a revolt against Rome, as some angry moments in Jesus’ teaching had indicated to the mind of Judas early on, but, instead, showed himself a religious reformer of some sort when he purged the Temple, that was the “last straw” for Judas.  Probably reading into the obscurantist “lessons” of the parables his own signs and wishes for a political revolt, Judas, when considering the Temple incident, “snapped” and acted out against Jesus, out of anger at himself and his own years-long self-deception.  How could all that time Judas not see that Jesus was a “religious nut,” and not the clever political firebrand Judas believed Judea desperately needed?  Judas realized Jesus was a pie-in-the-sky guru, not Spartacus.  Because he could not forgive himself for his own shortsightedness, Judas punished Jesus for not being the Messiah in whom Judas had placed his hopes and dreams.

As I earlier mentioned, had not Judas betrayed Jesus, there may not have been an arrest at all.  Judas was internally a firebrand rebel yearning for bloody revolution.  However, Judas was simultaneously a natural-born follower, a hanger-on willing to invest his life around anyone who would take up the responsibilities of the dangerous causes Judas happened to believe in, because Judas did not have the fortitude to risk the danger himself; externally, Judas was also a coward. Unfortunately for Jesus, he did have the fortitude to actually do something about his petty, selfish anger, instead of slinking off into the obscurity of his disgruntlement  —  he betrayed Jesus to the authorities.  Whether true or not, the suicide of Judas had to be the end of his story to placate the pious hounds writing the Gospels and howling for justice.

At last, the arrival at the “table top” from the bottom has come, a table top consisting only of i) a trial before Pilate, ii) an execution by crucifixion, and iii) a claim Jesus rose from the dead.  Clearly, many layers like which we saw on top of the table (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]) needed to be stripped from the bottom to arrive at a top that looks almost the same from both directions; now, the Passion Week needs to be stripped so that the bottom view is the same as the top view.

The heart of making historical sense of i), the trial, is to understand why it was important to the Christianity being spawned near the end of the 1st century CE, decades after Jesus had died, to place the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews and not the Romans.  This, despite the fact Roman authority had power and responsibility over life and death at Jerusalem at the time; the exploitation of Judea by Rome demanded nothing less.  Recall the 4 Synoptic Gospels were written during and just after the Jewish revolt against Rome of 62-70 CE, the one that ended with the siege at Masada.  It was dangerous to speak or write ill of the winners’ (Romans’) actions at this time or at any time prior.  Conversely, it was politically expedient to speak or write ill about the losers (the Jews).  Moreover, despite resistance the first Christians met in the Roman Empire (Paul’s letters), spreading the Gospel of Jesus had nothing to gain by speaking ill of the Empire regarding the death of Jesus; Christians benefited from being seen at worst as neutral when it came to the Empire.  This conciliatory policy toward the Romans paid huge dividends when Roman persecutions of the Christians ceased and Christianity became the state religion of the Empire under Constantine I (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]); with Constantine Christianity “crushed” other religions in the Empire like the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt of 62-70 CE.

But, complete alienation of the Jews within Christianity was not going to work for at least three reasons:  First, Jesus was a Jew.  What would it look like if Jesus started something that was contrary to his own people?  No matter how non-human and divine Jesus became in the minds transforming and exalting him into the Christ, he was a man in a particular ethnic and cultural group, making him appealing and fascinating to both Jew and Gentile alike.  Second, if Christianity was to become truly universal and embracing of all, the opportunity for Jews to convert to Christianity must always be available.  Third, Jesus’ cultural origin as a Jew was so well known, any condemnation of the Jewish people by Jesus or his Jewish disciples would make the Christian movement seem traitorous to its roots; complete alienation of the Jews by Christianity would make Jesus look like a Benedict Arnold, something antisemitism of later times “conveniently” overlooked.

Therefore, the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John inserted into the Passion Week stories of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and sentencing castigation upon Jesus’ own people in the capital, placing the ultimate blame for Jesus’ fate upon Jewish authority in Jerusalem (the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin — the Jewish high court).  Pilate, other Roman authorities, and the Roman soldiers who carried out the sentence seemed “reluctant” (Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair) to carry out the desires of Jewish authority.  Yet, not all Jews in Jerusalem wanted Jesus’ blood; the story of Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin?) providing a tomb and retrieving Jesus’ body is a case in point; the tradition that Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea with the body is another.

More likely, in my opinion, Pilate saw in the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus the opportunity to publicly demonstrate no toleration of disruption-leading-to-insurrection-leading-to-revolt, especially in the highly-charged atmosphere of Passover.  The Sadducees and the Sanhedrin saw the opportunity to rid themselves of still another religious troublemaker similar to John the Baptist, who, unlike John, was right in their midst drawing too much attention; they also saw in their assent to the execution the opportunity to demonstrate they were officially against the fomenting of anti-Roman sentiments, even religious ones, at least at that juncture. 

I think blaming the Jews as being at least partly culpable for Jesus’ death set up the template that guided Christianity centuries later into the horrors of antisemitism.  Not that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels and Acts were blatantly antisemitic; these writers, in their evangelistic zeal, did not and possibly could not foresee hellish interpretations of their writing; rather, as I said earlier, later antisemitism blatantly overlooked Jesus’ Jewishness.  As Jesus became the Christ, Jews became “Christ killers” in the twisted minds of antisemitism.  Even more horrifically, as Jesus became Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, and one of the Trinity, Jews were seen as turning their back upon their biblical God to become “God killers.”  That logic leads to the conclusion that Jews do not deserve to live, at least not to live well, and this became the theme of European antisemitism, culminating in the ultimate, unthinkable crime against humanity history calls the Holocaust.  I urge all readers to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. (if they cannot visit the Nazi death camps in Europe or memorials in Israel) to be reminded of the truth of Voltaire’s words: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”  History has shown religious and/or political power conjures the most inhuman absurdities spawning the most genocidal atrocities.

Curiously, as pointed out by archaeologist Simcha Jacobovici, for crucifixion to be allegedly so wide-spread throughout the Roman Empire, there is today remarkably little archaeological evidence for it.  Nor is there extensive writing on the process from its day, except for the great numbers of victims.  There could be many explanations for this interesting phenomenon, like perhaps during the centuries of the Christianized Roman Empire, most believers were illiterate and extremely credulous and could be persuaded that any piece of ghoulish evidence from a crucifixion, like a nail in an ankle bone, was from Jesus’ crucifixion; Christian relics of all sorts were “big business,” and in some cases, still are.  For literate believers, perhaps writers of the Empire found better subjects about which to write than the preferred method of executing criminals.  I prefer an explanation suggested by Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee) – crosses, nails, and ropes were used and reused, and the body was traditionally left to whatever carrion eaters were available; there was no need to bury crucified bodies, as whatever was left was thrown to the dogs; all traces of the crucified body usually disappeared, destroying the crucified from memory in time.

Hence, ii), Jesus’ crucifixion, was recorded well after the fact, replete with all kinds of circumstances attesting that there was a complete body to bury — his early death on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, etc.  Most of Christian apologetics are rationalizations of the undeniable fact that Jesus was executed as a criminal.  If the gospel writers could have gotten by without talking about the crucifixion, they probably would have done so.  Of course, they could not do that, as Jesus’ execution fills his story with drama and pathos, and if anyone knew anything about Jesus, it was his death on the cross.  Think of how his disciples, minus Judas, must have felt, not to mention his family and Mary Magdalene.  There was every reason to believe the ministry of Jesus was over.

Jesus’ ministry was over.  I think his body disappeared just as those of other crucifixion victims.

Perhaps in as little as days after the crucifixion (the Friday-to-Sunday tradition) some version of iii) apparently came about — the belief that despite Jesus dying, he was now alive, having been resurrected from the dead.  No need for creative scenarios like Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot (Bantam paperback, 1966), in which Jesus was drugged to appear dead; believers and non-believers agree that he died.  To be resurrected intact, there needed to be an empty tomb for the Gospel writers.  At the time, however, I agree with Erhman there needed to be no tomb at all, much less an empty one.  All the stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to individuals and to crowds were added decades after the crucifixion as scaffolding to “hold up” belief in the resurrection, including the story of doubting Thomas.  By the time they were added, chances were most who could have protested the stories’ authenticity were in no position to be skeptical, as they were among the multitudes victimized by the revolt of 62-70 CE; writers of the Synoptic Gospels and Acts had few critics to worry about.

So, how did iii) become the saving idea of Jesus’ following?  How did the belief Jesus rose from the dead ultimately make possible the “layering” of theology upon theology to create what became Christianity with all its attendant Christology?  Ehrman makes a strong case that “the resurrection idea” survived and “took off” because of just three “visions” or “appearances” of the resurrected Jesus — three separate visions before three who just might be the base-rock creators of Christianity, namely, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.  (Just remember the ’60’s folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary of “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” fame.)  The appearances before the disciples/apostles Peter and Mary Magdalene [Remember, I consider Mary Magdalene Jesus’ closest disciple, and therefore an apostle; Paul should not be the Apostle Paul, in my opinion (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], as he was not one of those who lived with Jesus during his ministry.] are the foundation or “immediate” visions, as Paul’s (a result of head trauma due to a fall off his ass, trauma to a mind already traumatized by guilt over persecuting early Christians as Saul) came well after Jesus’ alleged ascension into heaven.  [Paul’s is important because it “kickstarted” Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, the universal theme of Christian theology.  As I have said, a case could be made that Christianity would be more accurately called “Paulianity.” (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012])]

As we learn more about how the human brain works, studies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have given us insights into hallucinations, visions, and dreams.  Combining Ehrman’s terminology with my own recently-developed ideas on human perception, the following model can easily account for what happened to Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene:

What we perceive, what we “see” with the “mind’s eye,” is the combined product of empirical data coming to us from our five senses — from the real world “outside” — and manufactured concepts and ideas from our mind’s world “inside.”  These “inside” concepts result from processing the empirical data from the outside, “digesting” them back onto our perception through simplifying rules of pattern recognition and algorithms.  Thus our perception is part “in your face” outside world and part “made up” inside world.  The ratio outside to inside is probably different from individual to individual and from moment to moment.  Perception from outside empirical data is called veridical (or based upon the “real world”) and perception from inside the workings of the mind is called nonveridical (or NOT based upon the “real world”).  Human hallucinations and dreams are seen as nonveridical, and I agree with Ehrman the three visions that ultimately made Christianity possible were nonveridical; the three had the experience of “seeing something,” but what they saw was not from their immediate surroundings; they thought they saw and heard Jesus, but if others were nearby, as in the case of Paul’s vision, they would not have seen and heard Jesus.  (Incidentally, nonveridical properties of the brain are not all negative, as they are necessary to generalize and organize the flood of empirical data bombarding our senses; without them we probably would have gone mad and not survived dealing with the unfathomable number of datum from “out there.”  Moreover, our subjective imaginations are all nonveridical; ironically, any critique, including this one, is a nonveridical enterprise.)

Nonveridical visions are known to be associated with times the person is under stress.  Peter (who denied Jesus after his master’s arrest) and Paul (who persecuted Christians when he was called Saul) were both racked with guilt when they had their visions, and Mary Magdalene was racked with grief when she had hers, as she had just lost the most important person in her religious and personal life.  Who was the most consistent witness to the “empty tomb” across the Synoptic Gospels?  Mary Magdalene.  Why was an actual empty tomb not necessary?  She, at the time of Jesus’ death, was the most important and credible disciple (Some historians want to recognize her as the first evangelist, not Peter or Paul.); if she says she saw Jesus, then there is no need to find an empty tomb.  Who in their right mind among the believers would doubt her?  She, having had a vivid nonveridical experience, certainly believed she had had a visitation from him.  The same could be said about the credibility of Peter’s nonveridical visitation.  The scenes at Joseph of Arimathea’s lent tomb and stories like that of doubting Thomas were later added to the resurrection story by the gospel writers, as questions were asked over the centuries.  Questions like, “Why did the resurrected Jesus only appear to two of his disciples, and not the other ten?” (13 disciples, minus Peter and Mary Magdalene, and minus Judas equals ten).  The perception model I’m presenting here would answer, “Because those ten did not have nonveridical visions of Jesus after he died.”  (Moreover, Peter and Paul were dead by the time the Gospels were written, and probably so was Mary Magdalene, as tradition places her death about 100 CE, which would give her unusual longevity for a woman of that time.  Even if she were alive, lucid, and knew about the Gospel stories of her and the empty tomb, why would she as an evangelist repudiate them?)  As it turned out, the empty tomb “layering” became accepted Christian tradition, looking as credible as “layers” like Jesus’ plethora of post-death appearances and his ascension.  And, besides, should anyone have wanted to “check out” the empty tomb by reading the freshly-written Synoptic Gospels, probably nothing resembling such an empty tomb could be found due to co-lateral damage from the revolt.  Those who believed in the empty tomb had to take the writers at their word.  Later, in about three hundred years, Constantine’s Momma, Helena, gave the newly-empowered Church an actual tomb site to venerate (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]).

Almost any introspective person, I would suspect, has had nonveridical experiences of their own.  I will mention three of my own:  a) Just recently, my son and I were playing a 3-hole washer game in his back yard and had to stop due to darkness.  In the twilight, we had to search for a lost, dark-colored washer on the lawn; we finally had to get a flashlight to find it.  During the search, I saw in the dark, indistinct patterns of the grass in the twilight doughnut-like impressions, as if they were the washer we were seeking.  Clearly, the impressions were not really there.  b) Several years ago, I had a vivid dream about my long-dead maternal great uncle.  It must have been the dream right before I awakened, as I awoke remembering clearly details about his appearance and especially the words he had spoken to me in the dream.  I right away realized why primitive societies developed some form of ancestor worship; in a primitive society I might well have declared to my family and neighbors that my great uncle had visited me the night before.  I would have authenticated my “visitation” with the words I was told, which probably would have resonated with my listeners who happened to have known him.  If I and others had additional such “visitations” suggested by this first experience, then my great uncle might have joined our local “pantheon.”  c)  The third example is the most serious one, as it illustrates possible nonveridical origins of even dangerous absurdities.  Sometime in the early grades of my schooling, when I was just old enough to think I could be an independent helping hand to my parents on the farm/ranch they owned, and I now own, I got lost from my parents on a cold, drizzly winter’s day in the woods as we were spreading out from the barn trying to locate the herd of mohair goats we were running on the ranch then.  Being temporarily lost placed my mind into stress almost leading to panic, but I was too proud to shout out my location.  I moved to where I thought the barn and truck were, and sure enough a sight of a barn with truck appeared before me, complete with the stock tank dam on which I loved to play.  But I was so stressed over being lost, I convinced myself this was NOT our barn, truck, and tank, probably because I did not see goats nor parents.  I turned around and went back into the woods!  I had found safety, but convinced myself it was not; I was not lost anymore, but I thought I still was.  Luckily, I soon encountered in the woods some of our goats and then my parents; as we herded back in the direction from which I came, I saw now the barn as our barn, confused as to why I had seen it so differently earlier.  c) could have been a dangerous situation for me, had I really got lost and backtracked on a larger piece of land beyond earshot of my parents.  I had made an absurd interpretation of my perception a fact in my head, thanks to nonveridical capabilities.

Now that the table top has been made to look the same, top and bottom, this streamlined, plausible biography of Jesus still allows that for Christianity to emerge, long though it took, from such meager and credible historical sources, is still quite remarkable.  That does not make the theology of Christianity true, however.  If the theology is so bankrupt, then, why has the Church “hung on,” say, from the days of the Enlightenment and the establishment of biblical criticism?  Part of the answer is that Christian congregations have been “cocooned” from historical skepticism by their clergy, their own credulity, and their own intellectual laziness (It is easier and less trouble to believe what you are told.).  But another part of the answer is that even skeptics of Christian theology concentrate on the “other horn” of Jesus’ message, his marvelously humane ethical teachings based upon the Golden Rule as being “worthy of keeping.”  I agree, but ask why his ethics have to be taught through a vehicle shackled by the faith-based absurdities of the theology.  In an upcoming exploration, I consider “keeping” Jesus as one of many “Golden Rulers” whose teaching is spread by other ways than some kind of Church.

 

Hence, the creation of Jesus Christ, through an exhalation taking centuries to execute, is a huge historical distortion of a remarkable “common” man’s biography.  From this, I am tempted to induce that the nonveridical capabilities of the human brain can turn any human or humans into a person or persons worthy of some kind of religious veneration.

Looking at the broader picture, Christianity is one of the three Semitic (Abraham-based) world religions that have separately done just that “turning” — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in chronological order of origin.  There is at least one very dark consequence of creating nonveridically-derived religious venerates.  All three, perhaps in contrast with Eastern world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc.), paint themselves into a corner of intolerance, in that you cannot be an orthodox Jew and at the same time be of another faith; you cannot be a Christian and simultaneously be of another faith; you cannot be a Muslim and concurrently be of another faith.  In other words, these three world religions create an “us versus them” syndrome, with no way of comparing “us” with “them” save through a faith-based epistemology.  With no way, therefore, of demonstrating their “truth” save by faith, they must not tolerate “them” midst “us” if “them” claims to be as true, or more true, than “us.”  Again, “us” cannot tolerate “them,” and history has shown that encounters among the intolerant result in innocent people being killed — innocents murdered, in the final analysis, in the name of some nonveridical theology.

Another horrible consequence of both Christianity and Islam is the possibility of justifying, via their respective intolerance, antisemitism, as mentioned above.  This does not mean Judaism is “innocent” of murderous intolerance.  Look in the Old Testament what was done to “Gentiles,” whose only crime was not being Hebrew, not being “God’s Chosen.”  Nonveridical theology has indeed spawned evil in all three Semitic great world religions.

 

I hope now the reader has some understanding of why I took the “long and winding road” of the three sortings (apologies to the Beatles song “Long and Winding Road”) listed at the beginning.  Some important truths at the end of this road turn out to be unexpected, shocking, revealing, heretical, and/or blasphemous, so, therefore, it is imperative to “tread carefully,” making the argument to these truths step-by-step and carefully measured.  My long and winding intellectual path is necessarily a personal one; others who would arrive at similar or other conclusions as I would undoubtedly have a much different-looking path.  Religion is a subjective experience, a personal journey necessarily consisting of nonveridical mental exercises, some of which that can be “good,” “wholesome,” “kind,” and “loving,”  like conceptions of Jesus’ ethical teachings.  It could be said that I have personally undertaken the task of separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the reliable from the unreliable, or the ethics from the theology in Christianity.  I hope I have demonstrated this can be done for Christianity and any other religion; I hope I have inspired other freethinkers to do something similar.

Another personal reason for my “long and winding road” is that I can take that road without fearing consequences of doing so; I criticize Christianity and other religions because I can.  I can, thanks to the heritage we have living in a free society, a heritage bought with the blood of courageous thinkers and doers of our past — a heritage made possible by ancient rationalists, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution.  Because of this heritage, I understand and sympathize with the comment of a character in a French film, who sat down on the steps of the cathedral into which the rest of his family was going for a wedding, christening, or some such — sat down in personal conflict if he should go in or not.  When asked why he was hesitating, he said unequivocally, “There is no place for churches in a republic!”  Nonveridical theology does not mix well with liberte, egalite, and fraternite, or with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Or, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes on p 237 of her book Heretic, Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (Harper, 2015, ISBN 978-0-06-233393-3), we need “…to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.”  Well said, Ayaan, well said and so true.

RJH

 

 

 

 

Sorting Out Jesus

In Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], I related my personal odyssey of questioning the things I heard in Sunday School and from the pulpit concerning the origins of Christianity.  Using my Protestant heritage as a springboard, I sorted through history to discover I am more comfortable with Paul not even being seen as an apostle and with the historical recontextualization of early Christianity rather than its historical decontextualization.  To my dismay, I saw the original tenants of Christianity plucked from history in total disregard to very relevant non-Christian tenants contemporary with the decades following the death of Jesus, all in the evangelistic zeal of forcing the life and teachings of Jesus to be relevant to all periods of history, including today’s modern world.  Moreover, I saw this disregard and zeal as endemic to the faith-based epistemology of Christianity and most of the great religions of world history; by faith, one can believe anything, making believing in the truth more and more improbable.

In Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], after speculating a long while about where in time the “Paul-sorting” should take me, I decided to make sure the faith-based epistemology of orthodox Christianity is as bankrupt in intellectual integrity as I suspected.  Using a history of the Byzantine Empire as a springboard, I looked forward from Paul’s time at the most fundamental pillar of Christianity, the identity of Jesus, to contrast how different Jesus at his death and Jesus as defined at the First Ecumenical Council in the Nicaean Creed (325 CE or AD) are.  The implication given us in the church pews that what the Church teaches as the definition of Jesus Christ has come to us intact from the time of his crucifixion is emphatically and clearly false.  In fact, by the time of Charlemagne (800 CE), there were six more so-called Ecumenical Councils  after 325 involving Rome and Constantinople necessary to continue tweaking and changing who and what Jesus was historically and theologically.  And, as the Christian Church continued to splinter into countless divisions and sects (e.g. The Great Schism of 1054 CE and the Reformation of the 16th century CE), the failure of the faith-based foundation of Christianity was exposed, an exposure that continues to this day.

These two “sortings” beg an analogy to me.  Imagine the original situation at Jesus’ death as a newly-made table top, not necessarily homogeneous across its area, but well-defined as a singular piece of construction.  For almost 2,000 years eyewitnesses of Jesus, writers of letters to churches, writers of gospels of Jesus, bishops, archbishops, popes, monks, priests, and preachers have been adding their own “finish” to the table top, each addition an attempt to make the definition of Jesus “better.”  Every layer, whether a clear coat, a translucent stain, an opaque stain, a waterproof-er, a paint, a veneer, or a polyurethane protectant, potentially is declared the new orthodoxy and the previous coats declared heretical.  There is nothing in the faith-based epistemology, not even the revolutionary Protestant Reformation, allowing for a full “strip job” on the layers to expose the surface as it originally was; within the Christian faith, there is nothing to restore the table top.  These “layers” need “stripping” to restore the “table top.”

An example of what I mean by a “layer” that needs to be “stripped” from the “table top” is the very Protestant revival of the Old Testament God to Whom blood sacrifices were made, and the continual justification of interpreting Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice.  The “blood layer” begins as early as the 1st century CE by evoking Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, whose blood symbolically cleanses souls of their sins.  I remember singing in the pews in my early years (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]) such “Blood Cult” hymns as:

Lewis E. Jones’ There Is Power in the Blood (“There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r in the precious blood of the Lamb.”);  Elisha A. Hoffman’s Are You Washed in the Blood? (“Are you washed in the blood?  In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?  Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow?  Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”);  Robert Lowry’s Nothing But the Blood (“What can wash away my sin?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus……Oh! precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”);  William Cowper’s There is a Fountain (“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”).  The cult of Mithraism, very wide-spread among the Roman military in the first four centuries CE and systematically purged from the empire beginning with the reign of Constantine I ( Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]), traditionally had a literal blood-cleansing ritual, wherein the follower of the god Mithra was washed or baptized with the fresh blood of a sacrificed bull.  Salvation in the early church became a metaphorical Old Testament-like parallel of this literal Mithric blood sacrifice, in my opinion.  To broaden the appeal of early Christianity, the rationalization of Jesus’ criminal’s death was in those days whitewashed (layered) with a widely-recognized and respected (Old Testament, Mithraism), yet gory, religious motif.  Protestant reformers brought the Blood Cult parallels back into the midst of their pulpits and hymnals.

Returning to the two “sortings” outlined by the first two paragraphs , they also beg another sorting as well as a “stripping,” one which has occurred to most readers, I’m sure.  To get to the origins of Christianity, sort out Jesus himself.  This, then, is the third in the “sorting” series — the sorting-out of a Jewish preacher from Galilee.  As with the first two, this third sorting attempts to be historically-based, not faith-based.  Hopefully, Jesus will be sorted out by removing the layers from his biography, by a furniture-like stripping restoration.

 

The biblical criticism of the 19th century and the archaeological discoveries of the 20th (Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940’s and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels in 1945), I think, have combined to allow us to do as full a strip job on the table top as we possibly can in the early 21st century.  Soon after posting the second sorting, I discovered a scholarly book that helped me post this third sorting in a much shorter time interval than that between the first two.  In 2014 Bart D. Ehrman, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published How Jesus Became God, Harper-One, ISBN 978-0-06-177818-6.  As its sub-title suggests, this is a book that has already done my strip job for me — The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

Using Ehrman to furnish any necessary details readers or I might need (such as specific biblical chapter and verses relevant to the point being made), I think one can get a pretty reliable look at what that table top looked like before the first coat was applied.

I arbitrarily choose 325 CE and the establishment of the Nicaean Creed as the starting place from which to work backwards in time, although, as earlier shown (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]), the definition and doctrine of the Trinity upheld by the orthodox today was at that time a long way from being determined.  Looking down through the layers from 325 CE would be looking through a shadowy, nebulous accumulation of layers individually put down by a parade of founders and fathers of the Church for almost 300 years.  The accumulation at this time is already a sophisticated, theological speculative hodge-podge from a plethora of sources, few of which have anything to do with the life of Jesus (Just read the Nicaean Creed and compare with the Synoptic Gospels); the table top has become so nuanced as to appear completely altered, the result of many layers over about three centuries.  I shall list the names and dates of the members of this parade going back to the year Jesus died, circa 30-33 CE — each listing thought of as a “stripping” that gets closer and closer to the original table top.  Each contributor on the list was either a heretic for a lifetime, orthodox for a lifetime, or, for many, switched roles as both heretic and orthodox during and/or after their lifetime.  (Here I prefer using Ehrman’s definitions of “heretic,” meaning someone who believes differently from the “orthodox” of a particular time.  Because of faith-based epistemology, it is neither accurate nor fair to use “right” and “wrong” with words like “orthodox” and “heretical,” as I have been guilty of in the past.):

Eusebius of Caesarea (circa 270-340 CE), Arias of Alexandria (256-336 CE), Alexander of Alexandria (250-325 CE), Novatian (210-278 CE), Dionysius of Rome (?-268 CE), Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 200-265 CE), Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE), Hippolytus (170-235 CE), Tertullian (160-230 CE), and Justin Martyr (100-165 CE).  This list is not exhaustive or complete, but it illustrates the breadth and depth of the Christology (knowledge of Christ) that was invented, debated, and hammered out over a period of about 200 years.  These early theologians of the Church dealt ad infinitum (ad nauseum?) with such issues as 1) was Jesus human and in what sense was he human?  2) was Jesus divine and in what sense was he divine?  3) was he both human and divine and how can that be?  4) if Jesus is divine, how can that be compatible with the monotheism of Judaism?  5) is he divine and/or human in mode, essence, being, or some combination of these?  6) was he divine from the beginning or did he become divine at his conception? his baptism? his crucifixion? his resurrection?  7) what exactly is the Trinity? is it three-in-one, or one-in-three? how is it monotheistic?  8) is Jesus God? or begotten? or created? or exalted?  9) how can God die on a cross?  did divine Jesus die on the cross?  did only the human Jesus die on the cross?  10) where was the divine Jesus between death and resurrection?  Etc….etc.  (For the specific verses of Scripture used by these theologians, see Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.)

From the early 2nd century CE (100’s CE) to Nicaea (325 CE), then, the early Church struggled with who and what Jesus was.  And each contribution in that struggle added “another layer to the table top.”  For me, the question is begged, “Shouldn’t ‘God reaching down to man,’ as I’ve heard evangelical Christians describe Christianity, be clearer and more direct than that?”  Or, similarly, “If Jesus was who modern Christians believe he is, why was it so difficult, convoluted, nuanced, and sophisticated just to define him?”

This brings us to the period between the death of Jesus (c. 30-33 CE) and the early 100’s CE, wherein layers were added in the form of evangelical biographies and interpretations applied to Jesus, most familiar of which are the four Gospels of the New Testament, the three Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and the Gospel of John.  But there were far more than four layers:

The Gnostic Gospels of Nag Hammadi (c. 140-300 CE), the Gospel of John (c. 90-95 CE),  Acts (attributed to Luke) (c. 80-90 CE), Gospels of Matthew and Luke (c. 80-85 CE), Gospel of Mark (c. 65-70 CE), Letters (Epistles) of Paul (50-57 CE), Three “Source Sayings” used by Matthew and Luke, “Q,” “M,” and “L” (c. 33-60 CE), and, for a philosophical source for the Gospel of John, Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE).  Non-Pauline epistles from the New Testament and 1st century CE, such as Colossians and 1 John could have also been listed.  The earliest surviving writing even close to being biographical of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark; Paul’s letters are essentially non-biographical of Jesus, focusing on congregational struggles with theological issues like the meaning of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  The baseline and bedrock of this list is that we have nothing from Jesus himself.  So whatever the uncoated table top is going to look like, we know there will be nothing directly from the pen of Jesus; whatever Jesus is purported to have said, we know it had to be passed down in oral traditions over the decades to Mark and the Sources Q, M, and L.  Why was nothing definitively written down right after Jesus died?  We know that answer clearly:  first-century Christians saw no need to write down the traditions of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection because there was no need — they all believed he would return to issue in a new earthly order before their generation died out.  Two things spurred the writings about Jesus’ life on earth — spurred essentially too late to be assured of their accuracy, being by Mark’s time only from oral traditions and lost or obscure sources — 1)  it became uncomfortably apparent Jesus was not going to return before the generation of his contemporaries died out, and 2)  the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 62-70 CE, which all but obliterated the culture from which Christianity sprang and which assured that the prevailing interpretation of Jesus would be “Christianity-for-Gentiles” Paul, who did his work well away from Jerusalem and its environs (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]).  The Jewish cradle of Christianity was destroyed; the Jewish/Christian groups we know through the theological clashes between Paul and the Apostle Peter, like those headed by no less a light than Jesus’ brother, James, likewise faded into oblivion; those of these groups who survived the revolt became despised by orthodox Jews on one side and by Pauline Christians on the other — despised into insignificance.

In my opinion, the importance of the cultural devastation of the 62-70 CE Revolt to the origins of Christianity cannot be overemphasized.  When the Jewish fortress at Masada fell, there was a cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and epistemological vacuum created at the east end of the Mediterranean that no infusion of Roman propaganda or culture could fill.  The new version of the dispersion of the Jews, or Diaspora, caused by the Revolt, added to the confusion wrought by destruction and its attendant religious vacuum.  Into this vacuum could literally be placed by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John almost anything (not to mention the writers of the other 17 Gospels later written and even later found intact or in fragments — e.g. the Gnostic Gospels) — again, anything, and there was little justification to include anything, except for oral traditions that had come to define what Jesus said and did; to exclude certain oral stories about Jesus would erode the credibility of the evangelists who wrote the 4 biblical Gospels.  It was, in short, an opportunity to rewrite the story of Jesus any way they wanted.  The inconsistencies among the four Gospels testify that that is just what they did.  All four wrote in teleological fashion; they each had a message and an agenda, and, to me, none of their agendas included historical accuracy.  The writings of Josephus about the years leading up to and during the revolt have far more historical credibility than the Gospels, due to this vacuum.  (And, incidentally, the minute mentioning of Jesus by Josephus is often described as being added later by zealous Christian scribes.)

Thanks to the filling of this vacuum by writers of the Gospels, what was done to Jesus between, say, 33-110 CE, done by all these literary layers, was nothing short of a trumped-up biography of Jesus, all trying to apologetically divert attention away from the fact he died as a common criminal against the state, all trying to show he did not die in vain.  The Old Testament Judaic mythology was blended with the mythology of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Persia to exalt Jesus from a Jewish preacher from Galilee to the “pedestal” of Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, the Angel of the Lord, and/or God himself.  Anyone on such a pedestal could not be a forgettable failure.  (Note Jesus was exalted, not incarnated as in the Gospel of John, by the Synoptic Gospels.  That is to say, Jesus was seen as flesh become divine, not divinity from the beginning become flesh, as was the later foundation of the Trinity.)

To exalt a revered human being to such heights was not unheard-of in Jesus’ time.  In the second half of the 1st century CE, after Jesus had died, the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius was similarly exalted, complete with:   a mother with an annunciation concerning the Egyptian god Proteus, celestial signs of his birth, recognition as a son of Zeus, teacher of a group of followers, a performer of miracles such as healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead, accusations of being a threat to the state, and an ascendant up into the realm of the gods.  For details, see Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Philostratus.  The Roman emperor Caracalla (ruled from 198-217 CE) dedicated a shine to him in Tyana, and the emperors Alexander Severus (ruled 222-235 CE) and Aurelian (ruled 270-275) revered Apollonius as divine.  Such exaltation might have been in some sense traditional. The founder of Rome, Romulus, was considered a divine/human mixture, believed to have been taken up by the gods to join them.  In the Old Testament, Enoch and Elijah did not die, but were “taken” by God.

Look what Jesus’ biography had come to be by the year 100 CE.  Born through a divine annunciation to a virgin (“young woman” actually) (The Cult of the Virgin — The Mother of God — a concept comfortable to Hellenized Gentiles familiar with goddesses), birth announced by a celestial sign in the night sky, visited by Zoroastrian “wise men” as an infant, attributed with knowledge and powers that astounded his elders, confrontation with Satan himself in the wilderness, a performer of miracles (healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water, calming the storm, casting out demons, feeding the multitudes, etc.), talked of eating his body and drinking his blood (that Blood Cult effect, perhaps?), resurrected from a tomb after death by crucifixion, appeared alive-after-death before followers and before hundreds, ascended (taken up) to heaven, etc. etc.  These additions, along with the “pedestal” attributes listed above, were the nature of the literary layers applied in the 67-year interval of Christian writings pointed out above.  So exalted by the evangelists had Jesus become, the evangelist John would put into Jesus’ mouth some sixty years after he was crucified “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6), and the author of Acts (Luke) would put into the Apostle Peter’s mouth some fifty years after the crucifixion this description of Jesus: “Neither is there salvation in any other:  for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)  And these two examples do not include the layers added later by the Gnostics, layers giving Jesus powers and cosmic status not even considered by those who emerged contributory to modern Christian orthodoxy.

So, Jesus’ trumped-up biography is not unique, as centuries of Church purging of pagan literature tried to establish.  These literary additions, these “layers,” must also be stripped before we can see the table top “in the raw.”  But, to “strip for stripping’s sake” might strip away the table top itself.  How can we know what to leave as the “table top,” the historically credible situation at Jesus’ death?  Historians and philosophers have suggested there is no table top, claiming positions between Jesus never even lived (He was completely made up, like a character in Greek mythology) to the impossibility of knowing anything definite about the historical Jesus (Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus).  However, there are at least three ways of reasonably “leaving” a “table top” upon which we can have some degree of historical reliability:

1)  Take out of the Gospels the blatant theology and Apollonius-like trappings and fantasies, along with events that evoke wide-spread doubt, like the so-called “miracles.”  Thomas Jefferson did exactly and literally this, with a pair of scissors.  The result was The Jefferson Bible (1989, Beacon Press, Boston, ISBN 0-8070-7702-X), published, understandably enough, posthumously.  The result was a stoic, humane teacher preaching love and respect for one’s fellow human beings amidst trying times.

2)  Employ the technique of biblical critics such as Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee), whereby what is kept as authentic is that which is antithetical to the purposes of the evangelists who wrote the Gospels.  To leave these “embarrassments” to the writers out would evoke the condemnation of those oral traditionalists who see them not as embarrassments, but as accurate descriptions of what Jesus said and did.  An example would be the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, Mark 11:20-25, Matthew 21:18-22), an event that has given apologists for Jesus Christ “fits” for centuries, evoking strained and nuanced explanations.  Another example is the geographical origin of Jesus.  No matter how advantageous it would have been for the evangelists to have Jesus erupting from the “center of things,” Jerusalem, credibility would be lost among readers who knew directly or from the oral traditions he was from the relative “backwater” of Nazareth in Galilee.

3)  Apply the philosophical/epistemological technique of Occam’s razor.  When several explanations seem equally plausible, choose always the simplest, the one requiring the fewest assumptions.  This is also known as the principle or law of parsimony.  This technique is basic to the epistemology of science, as nature seldom fails to uphold parsimonious hypotheses (remembering, for our purposes here, that history is a forensic science).

When all this “stripping” and technique application is done, then, what is left?  In what can we be reasonably confident that describes the situation at Jesus’ death?  Ehrman gives a good answer, one I have little quarrel with:  the only part of the Nicaean Creed to which he can subscribe in good faith is “….he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.”  I might even leave out the “buried” part.  I would add, along with Ehrman, there were also a handful of his followers that believed he rose from the dead (Note believing that X occurred does not mean X occurred.)  That is not much of Christian orthodoxy left after the “stripping” — a trial, an execution, and a hard-to-believe claim.

The stripped table top is the historical, reliable Jesus at his life’s end; the un-stripped table top is the trumped-up, and, thereby, unreliable Jesus Christ.  A case could be made that Jesus’ real life was victimized by bad press, tabloid journalism, or around 21 gospel-writing “spin doctors” who never tried to write a consistent, collaborative biography of the preacher from Galilee.

 

The “layering of the table top” over the centuries has constituted and today still constitutes a decontextualization of Jesus from history.  By “seeing through” all this decontextualization, it now is possible to recontextualize Jesus back into his historical setting.  Applying techniques such as the three listed above do not leave a vacuum; there is a cadre of consensus among the forensic scientists known as biblical critics; there is a “table top” most historical observers can see.  That “table top” is life’s end for “a probable Jesus.”

Next, I will continue with a description of Jesus I think most probable, from his birth to the “table top,” a biography based upon what we know today.

RJH

 

Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma

In the first volume of his 3-volume trilogy Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich (1988, Folio Press), the author ranks Constantine I, Constantine the Great, Emperor of the Roman Empire from 306-337 AD or CE, right up there with the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Mohammed, among the most influential men in all history (p 2). Strikingly, the Emperor in question was not the founder of a great world religion, as are the other three. Ironically, the Emperor historically shares the founding of Christianity with Jesus Christ, as does the Apostle Paul (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]).  Consequently, Norwich’s anointing of the Emperor is historically accurate and not as odd as it might first seem.

Norwich is very clear why Constantine is so highly “ranked:”  1) He is credited for adopting Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and (2) he transferred the capital of the Empire from Rome to the strategically located old town of Byzantium on the waterways Bosporus and Sea of Marmara which help link the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea.  Interestingly, both acts are germane to defining what we know today as Christianity, not just the first.  He had a lot of help from a lot of subjects along the way, of course, but none greater than his mother, “Momma” Helena.

As the Apostle Paul contributed to the definition of Christianity as much or more as Jesus (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]), so did Constantine I and his Momma.

Set a “historical microscope” on low power on the history of Christianity, and a whole litany of important events never surfacing in detail in churches of any ilk appear.  And it is not hard to understand why almost all churches are better served having their congregations of believers ignorant of so much history (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]).  Look at the partial list making up the “Big Picture” of Christianity’s evolution:  The first century Jewish Revolt (62-70 CE) leaves Paul’s theology the primary interpretation of Jesus’ death; Constantine I calls for unity and consensus from a conflicting plethora of interpretations of Jesus’ life and death (325 CE); Christianity permanently splits in twain with the Great Schism or East-West Schism of 1054;  the Western Church has two different papal sees in Rome and Avignon (1378-1417) (also confusingly called the Great Schism); Western Christianity splits via the Reformation into Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century; advent of the Roman Catholic Inquisition lasts from 1232 to 1820; Catholics and Protestants try to kill each other off in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648); the Enlightenment of the 18th century ushers in higher Biblical criticism of the 19th century in Western Europe; Christianity continues to shatter and schism into ever more “shards” into the 21st century (Mormonism, Scientology, etc.).

Constantine I, bolstered by Helena, set Christianity on the road to the conflicts and break-ups just listed by calling, ironically, for unity and consensus at the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 CE.  The long litany of what is orthodox (“code” for “winning beliefs”) and what is heretical (“code” for “losing beliefs”) was launched.  Since all epistemological systems (What is true and how do you know it is true?) like religion are faith-based, no great religion nor intra-religion conflict or difference can be shown to be “better” or “truer” than any other.  Who has the power usually winds up claiming the orthodox label, and the heretical “loser” does not go away, usually, unless by exercise of that power; it seems to always be a case of “might makes right;” what is true and reliable knowledge, epistemology shows, has nothing to do with who has the “biggest stick.” Faith-based epistemology, as opposed to evidence-based epistemology, dooms settlement of conflict, sooner or later, into one group fighting or warring with another; consensus becomes impossible — only bloodshed and human misery are assured.

To be fair to Constantine, he probably never dreamed his Ecumenical Council was doomed, and he officially did not become baptized and an orthodox Christian until just before his death in 337, perhaps in deference to so many of his subjects who practiced a spectrum of non-Christian faiths, from Greco-Roman polytheism to Jewish monotheism.  Momma Helena, just after orthodox Christianity was declared the religion of choice, made a holy pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “discovering” all the important sites of Jesus’ ministry (site of His birth, site of His crucifixion, etc.) and returned to Constantinople (the new name of Byzantium) laden with holy relics, like a piece of the True Cross, among the earliest of Christian icons.  She was at the time, if not the most orthodox of the orthodox, the most powerful of the orthodox; her son was only too happy to back up her findings and declarations in the name of unity and consensus, which was, of course, unknowingly and impossibly out-of-reach.

And the long history of suffering and strife as listed above was started by Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, Son of the loving God?  Was God’s plan through Jesus to establish a Church whose members are inspired to kill off each other, as well as destroy non-believers?  I prefer to think not.  Christianity, in the multi-forms of the Church, has an epistemological problem exposed by history, always has, and always will.  No better way to define this problem than by setting a “historical microscope” on high power and look at the centuries-long struggle to find a consensus definition of the nature of Jesus for orthodoxy over just centuries, a smaller window of time compared to the span of millenniums of “low power.”  I have deliberately limited the smaller window of time to coincide with Norwich’s first volume of Byzantium, from the founding of Constantinople to the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 CE, which marked the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.  In a nutshell, who Jesus was theologically and in relation to God was far from settled even 450 years after Constantine I’s death!

Constantine I’s “shot” was, again, the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325.  It dealt primarily with the heresy of Arianism (The Father has primacy over the Son.).  Most of the Germanic “barbarian” tribes, like the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Vandals were Arians — Christians, but Arian, not orthodox.  The father of modern science and co-founder of calculus, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), was an Arian.  The 2nd Council, at Constantinople in 381, formally condemned the lingering and bothersome Arian heresy and declared the Constantinople see second only to that at Rome.  The 3rd Ecumenical Council, held in 431 at Ephesus, dealt with the Nestorian heresy (Christ is both the Son of God and the man Jesus, as opposed to Rome’s view He is fully God.)  The 4th Council was held at Chalcedon in 451 and dealt with the heresy of monophysitism (The nature of Jesus Christ is singular, not dual, and His singular nature is divine.).  Variations of orthodox Christianity that survive to this day, like Christian Copts, the Abyssinian Church, the Jacobites of Syria, and the Armenian Church, retain elements of monophysitism.  The 4th also declared the sees at Constantinople and Rome as equals, an early step toward the split between the Eastern and Western Churches.  The Fifth Council, the second at Constantinople, in 553 had more to do with the power struggle between the Eastern Church and the Western Church than with the nature of Jesus Christ, and was another step toward the final East-West Schism about 500 years later.  The Sixth Council, also known as the Third Council of Constantinople, was held in 680-681 dealing with the heresy of monothelitism (Jesus Christ had only one will even though He had two natures.)  The 7th and last Ecumenical Council chosen for this listing within my window of “high power” time, or the Second Nicaean Council, came in 787 in the wake of the early iconoclast crisis of the Eastern Church and restored holy images as objects of veneration (not adoration); it technically defined icons, not attempting to define Jesus Christ directly, though it restored to orthodoxy the sanctioning of Jesus Christ as a subject of art.  Later iconoclasm and puritanical Protestantism were to struggle against that sanction.

Thus, for slightly more than 350 years, the founder of Christianity could not be definitely defined.  And it could be argued the ambiguity of His identity continues to this day.  I suspect no great religion is free from such ambiguity, given all the branches and orders within them all.  Such is the bane of faith-based religions everywhere and at any time in history, I would say.  Such is the sword of evidence-based criticism of all sacred texts and of those who are the texts’ practitioners, in my opinion.

The sincerity of the Apostle Paul and of Helena should never be questioned; nor should the good intentions of Constantine I to unite the minds of his empire.  But they always overestimated the authority of written or spoken sacred texts or teachings and the seemingly unfailing willingness of believers to accept what they were told or what they themselves read as the truth.  They could not foresee a day when that authority would be questioned and held accountable; they could not imagine the blindness of mind that seems germane to faith-based religion.

 

The “sorting out” of the Apostle Paul (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]), Constantine I, and Constantine’s Momma begs the question:  can the trap of faith-based epistemology be avoided?  Are religions, or specifically that of Christianity, doomed to being just as good and just as bad as any other religion?  Not only is history the instrument of the “sorting,” it can help answer the begged question just posed.  Faith-based religions only dip into the surface of the history that defines and describes their origins; history is used only in so far as it suits the purposes of the organized religion.  Much like all faith-based religions, Christianity purposely employs de-contextualization — the plucking of lessons, facts, stories, and creeds from a bygone period of history out of their proper time period and force-feeding them to contemporary society; they may or may not be applicable to today; only by faith are they assumed to all be applicable; only by faith are they seen as from God or from some similar concept representing Reality.

Therefore, we should not de-contextualize; just as Christianity retains lessons from the Old Testament (God’s covenant with His chosen people) and rejects others (the sacrifice of animals to God), the same should be done to the New Testament, as shown by higher Biblical criticism.  What “fits” the modern world from Christianity (the Golden Rule and the parables) should be retained and what does not (blood sacrifice for the sins of mankind and the concept of Satan) should be discarded.  Atheism is not the inevitable outcome of the criticism of religion; but the retention of doubt to some degree is.  Doubt is the means by which the quicksand of unquestioning faith-based belief can be avoided.  Doubt is the way not to be shackled by the absurdities of Paul, Constantine, and Helena.

An example might help:  Thomas Jefferson, our 3rd President, compiled a book called The Jefferson Bible (1989, Beacon Press, Boston, ISBN 0-8070-7702-X), which was published posthumously (Avoiding all the furor among clergy and believers of all ilks had it been published before he died!) and the original of which is today a prize artifact of the Smithsonian.  He doubted that all the red-letter words of Jesus were historically accurate; he compared various translations in various languages and cut out and kept only those words that had authenticity from historians and were compatible and non-contradictory across all four Gospels; he avoided what reasonably could not be verified, such as miracles and theological interpretations of the red-letter words.  What was left was a literal cut-out version of the Gospels, but nonetheless a very humane and practical blueprint of how to live by the Golden Rule, a simple treatise on how we can treat each other according to love of our fellow man (philos).  The essence of Jesus, Jefferson was trying to say, is not found in the Passion Week and interpreting that week’s meaning, as Paul would have us believe, but, rather, is found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables.  To find and live by that essence is not to live by blind, unquestioning faith, but to live by purposeful, reasonable kindness toward each other.  And, moreover, the essence of Jesus can be found almost universally in other sacred texts.

What Jefferson did may not appeal to all, but what he did reminds us we are all free to interpret religion, or to reject religion, or to find our own religion; we can believe what we want or disbelieve what we want; what we cannot do is foist our belief or unbelief on others; what we cannot do is found our religions solely on faith; what we cannot do, in the case of Christianity, is follow the examples of Paul, Constantine, and Helena, not if we want the truth.

So, maybe it’s time to sort out Jesus Himself……

RJH

 

Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Words We Don’t Know Can Also Hurt Us, or, Jesus Was a Liberalist

The Long List of names I have been called and of labels directed at me for attempted attachment keeps growing.

Beginning as far back as high school, I have been called or labeled a progressive, a liberal, a pinko, a communist, a socialist, a fascist, a Nazi, a Democrat, a secular humanist, a scientific revolution freak, a political revolution freak, an agnostic, an atheist, a Christian, a Texas-phile, a Texas Aggie, a Marxist, a liberation theologian, a Southern Baptist, an anti-cleric, a nuclear physicist, an arrogant high school teacher, a great teacher of math and physics, an unqualified math teacher, a painter of Texas flags on barns and sheds, a history freak, an American Civil War buff, an unintentional expert on Cretaceous fossil fish teeth, a barbed wire artist, a country redneck, a designer and builder of porches and decks out of composite materials, a male chauvinist pig, a land owner, a student of comparative religion, a gadfly, a Teutonic freak, a Napoleonic freak, a lover of ’66 red Mustangs, a coon hunter, a rock mason using only unaltered, natural-shaped rocks, an optimist with rose-colored glasses, a member of a sneaky group of pranksters, an amateur dinosaur track hunter, a militaristic war-hawk, an Obama-phile, a dinosaur freak, a rock-and-roll freak, a painter of the Lake Cisco dam, a heavy metal music freak, a cancer survivor, an anti-creationist, an evolutionist, an anti-intelligent designer, a hippie, a PhD, an absent-minded professsor, an empiricist, a philososphy-phile, an epistemology freak, an incurable screamer of rock songs in karaoke bars, a beer connoisseur, a protester of stupid rules, a feminist, an insatiable reader of non-fiction books, a war gamer, a lover of all things Cisco, Waxahachie, or College Station, an astronomy teacher, a fanatical football and baseball fan, a driver of tractors and trucks, and a writer of “improbable histories.”

To this, since the latest of my Facebook postings and the formation of my website, have been added 1) an intellectual, and 2) an idiot (This last one brings me full circle, so to speak; this is exactly what I was called as a freshman in high school!). I must be doing something right!

Let’s see, today is Wednesday, so if I were to call myself something for the day (for it would change each day, you see), I would say I am a dealer of ideas. (Some of you are old enough to remember the old black-and-white movie and TV series “Dr. Fu Man Chu” — “They say the Devil deals in men’s souls; so does Dr. Fu Man Chu!” They say the Devil deals in ideas; so does Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings!

Let me take one of the ideas suggested by the list above, say, “liberal.” Problems occur right off the bat, because what Americans mean as liberal and what Europeans mean as liberal are slightly different things, and the difference, I think, is crucial. The word “liberal” was first used in reference to the Whig political agenda in Britain in the early 1800’s. It was not incorporated into American politics through the American Whig party, necessarily, but, rather, through American suffrage, grassroot, and populist movements of the 19th centrury.

The original political definition of “liberal” grew, in my opinion, out of the successes of the American Revoluton and the French Revolution, both in the 18th century. There was nothing conservative about these two revolutions! What I would suggest as “liberalism” was actually born out of these two pivotal events, embodied by the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the case of America, and “liberte, egalite, and fraternite” in the case of France (liberty, equality, and brotherhood). The Reformation ,the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment had combined to spark the minds of America’s founding fathers (Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Paine) and to set up the political landscape of revolutionary France just prior to 1789, defining the terms “liberal” — those who sat on the “left” side of the chambers in France — and “conservative” (aristocratic) — those who sat on the “right” side of the French chambers. Liberalism, as I will call it, is the equal balance of all three (liberty, equality, and brotherhood [humanity-oriented]) and is the political ideal to which I think history is showing us to aspire. Liberalism has existed in this ideal form in America only in the short interval from Washington’s first term to Jefferson’s first; it existed in France only from the moment the Revolutionary government was formed to the institution of the Terror.

I am not sure we’ve witnessed any equal balance since, at least not in the USA. We have not truly reaped the benefits of liberalism. All systems of government seem to have the three words out-of-balance in some way. Some easy-to-see examples will suffice: the French Terror exalted equality at the expense of freedom and brotherhood; Marxist-Leninist communism exalts an inequality at the expense of freedom and brotherhood, ironically the same as monarchies, fascist-regimes, and “Christian” regimes such as the Papal States and Cromwellian England. Modern-day socialism makes a similar mistake as did the Terror: pushing equality at the expense of individual freedom and of genuine brotherhood – only without the beheading; unfortunately, in my opinion, that is what most Americans today call “liberal.” It is essentially a misnomer. So, to be clear, I am pushing “liberalism,” not whatever is labeled “liberal,” like socialism. Perhaps, to avoid being mired in the prevailing view of “liberal” today, those who are of the persuasion of “liberalism” should be called “liberalists” instead of “liberals.”

The original definition of conservatism was to work for no change, to keep and defend the status-quo. Those already with power and wealth, the aristocrats, and later, the capitalist rich, had no need for change, for they deemphasized equality and brotherhood; they paid attention only to the “liberty” part. Today American conservatives interpret “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as “my freedom, my entitlement, and who-gives-a-shit about my neighbors.” American conservatives whitewash over this “official” OK for selfishness, greed, and inhumane treatment by appealing to the myth that we are a Christian nation, which, in their myopic minds, means the poor, needy, and working have-nots will be taken care of by Christian charity (remember the solicitors of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and his response to them?) (Incidentally, Christian charity through the organized churches cannot begin to meet the growing need of social services in our country.) Conservatives, as a result, are champions of some form of elitism: the smarter, the richer, the powerful, etc. etc. are better than the others. I know the book was about communism, but the conservatives of today remind me of the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm, remember? — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Conservatives, in my opinion, give only lip service to liberte, egalite, and fraternite, covering up their treason to the liberalist ideals that our forefathers ingeniously envisioned with feigned Christian piety, which is another treason — the treason betraying separation of church and state and the freedom to worship and the freedom from worship.

The progressive march of history is clear: conservative political philosophy cannot be sustained. With the price of the blood of millions since the 18th century, the imbalance of monarchies has failed and been dismantled, the imbalance of fascism has failed and been dismantled, the imbalance of communism has failed and been (almost everywhere) dismantled, and the imbalance of Latin American regimes of tyranny against personal liberty has failed and been dismantled. Guess what is going to happen in future to the imbalance of dictatorships, kingdoms, and sectarian states that still survive!

Look at this progressive march in the United States: universal suffrage finally became a reality, but it took into the 20th century to achieve it (Now, white males are joined by females and descendents of slaves at the voting polls.). The privileges of US citizenship are given without the shackles of discriminatory qualifications. (It doesn’t matter if you are blue, covered with green polka dots, and worship an anthill in your back yard, you have the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as the rich, powerful, and influential in this country.) For all this, you must pay a price, but a price well worth it, I believe: US citizenship means you have to work, you have to pay taxes, and you have to be a patriot in your new country — and, conservatives tend to overlook this, your freedom is qualified — you cannot climb the ladder of success at the expense of others! Your gain should not be someone else’s loss.

The three-pronged revolution of the 60’s (anti-war movement, Civil Rights movement, women’s movement) is all liberalist in spirit: perpetrated to extend (instead of restrict, as the conservatives want to do) all of the following — 1) power over your personal affairs, 2) influence in the leadership of your country, 3) your rights as a working, tax-paying citizen, 4) your rights not to be victimized by any form of discrimination, 5) your rights to educate yourself as far as your mind will take you, and 6) your grasp upon the promise of the liberalist, revolutionary agenda of our Constitution and Declaration.

So, when I go to the polls to vote for President, I vote for the candidate closer to the ideals of a liberalist, closer to the ideas upon which our country was founded. To vote for a political conservative is to me tantamount to voting against the ideals of the American Revolution; it would be literally un-American!

And, incidentally, to me it would be anti-Christian. Note that all the unflattering references I had above to Christians and Christianity had to do with church and those who attend church. They had nothing to do, in my opinion, with the teachings of Jesus. All those years I sat in Sunday School and in the church pews revealed to me how little emphasis, in the long scheme of things, was placed upon the teachings of the one supposed to have founded the church in the first place! Turns out, when you read the “red letters” of the four Gospels, or, better, the Jefferson Bible, what Jesus is supposed to have said doesn’t have much to do with the church, with organized religion. Jesus spoke in liberalist terms. The Sermon on the Mount translates almost verbatum into liberalist philosophy. Laws were made for people, not people for the laws. What is best for your fellow man trumps all other needs. The Golden Rule — so universal! Principles that can only be called humanistic are our guides, not some theology propping up some social class of clergy and a string of fancy buildings. He was a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. Jesus’ adversaries were the representatives of the established religion of his day. Any Son of Man can become a Son of God. I have discussed all this with minister friends of mine (names withheld here for obvious reasons), and in private they cannot disagree with me on most of these points.

Jesus was a forerunner of the liberalist principles of our founding fathers. He was a liberalist way before the liberalist “time” in the 18th century. The American Revolution was fought for purely secular, not sectarian reasons; when the French aristocracy fell under the blade of the guillotine, so did the Church and its clergy. One of my favorite quotes from a French film was “There can be no church in a true republic.” I don’t think we should burn down all the churches — I think we should stop giving Jesus credit for them; such credit insults Him.

If all or part of this moves you to do so, get back with me. All I ask is that you try to do a little more than just add to the Long List of names and labels.

RJH

Post Navigation