Monday, June 25, 2012

Both sides now...

"Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, I've looked at cloud that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now,

From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall.
I really don't know clouds at all."

(Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now)
I've been meaning to write this post for a while. (Indeed, I've been writing and rewriting bits of it, on and off, for a while too, sorry if it seems disjointed.) More or less to explain what's going on in my head for the benefit of regular readers who may think I've lost the plot recently. In some sense this is my 'apologia'. It'll be a long read.

For the past 20 years or so I've been a self-confessed evangelical Christian. Perhaps not always very good at the actual evangelism thing, sometimes not even good at the Christian thing, but there you go. Nobody's perfect.

When you're inside 'evangelical Christianity', particularly the Scripture Union (SU) / Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) variety of it that I was part of in my formative years, one of the things that is drummed into you is that you need to read 'sound' books and avoid reading 'unsound' ones. Perhaps the sound/unsound terminology has dropped from culture over the past couple of decades, but that was the gist of it in the early 90s. Reading 'sound' material (in addition to your bible, of course) will build you up in your faith, reading 'unsound' material will lead you to "backslide". There is no worse word for an evangelical than "backslider". Eeeek.

So I suppose this is where things started to go wrong for me (from an evangelical perspective) - I read some books that were not sound.

It started for me in 1994 when I read a book called 'The Unauthorized Version' which I found in the religion section of my local library. I was unemployed at the time and had plenty of time to read this big book. This book looks at the old testament (for the most part) and asks, quite simply, are the stories in it true? Before reading this book I had never seriously considered that they were anything but true. And yet here was what appeared to be good, solid scholarship demonstrating that some of the stories in there are myths and showing how some of the stories are at odds with what we know from archeology and secular histories of the same times and places.

I don't intend to go into all the 'unsound' books I've read over the past couple of decades, but suffice it to say I've read quite a few. Of course, I should also state that I've read a good many 'sound' books in the same time too. The thing is, in recent years I've begun to have serious issues with the unstated presuppositions of the sound books. Its only by reading the unsound ones that you realise the failings of the sound ones. In other words, if I'd been a good evangelical and had never read the unsound stuff, I'd likely have remained a good evangelical to this day.

But, of course, once Pandora's box is opened, you can't shut it again, and evangelical Christianity (as an ensemble, not necessarily individuals in it) knows this, and tries to prevent you from reading unsound or unorthodox things.

While much of the unsound material out there may be flawed, biased, fraudulent, or downright wrong, not all of it is. Some of it contains truth. A great man once said that 'the truth will set you free' - but set you free from what? And what great man was it that said it?

I've looked at evangelical Christianity from both sides now
from sound and unsound and still somehow
its evangelical Christianity's illusions I recall

I really don't know evangelical Christianity at all...

That's the problem. As another great man (Socrates, I think) said: "The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know" - when you explore the issues around Christian belief, you find out that there is no good reason for believing many of the things that once you believed strongly in. By reading a lot of stuff and learning a lot, my faith is weakened and my beliefs became less certain.

Fundamentally, evangelical Christianity knows that this will happen if you read some of the non-approved materials, which is why it tries to stop you reading them. That's OK, as far as I am concerned, if its preventing you from reading deceptive material, but it also tries to prevent you from reading the truth as well, and I have big issues with that. I would rather know the truth and be cast out, than conform by believing a lie.

So what truth and what lies am I talking about? Well, how about this one for starters:

The bible is not inerrant. Indeed, it is quite clearly errant, biased in parts, and possibly entirely made up in other parts.

I discovered this truth many years ago, but never really considered the full implications of it until recently. As I've said in other posts on this blog, the problem boils down to how to distinguish the 'inspired' bits of the bible from the non-inspired bits. There is no reliable method, so all Christian denominations basically end up picking their favourite bits and disregarding (or explaining away) the bits they don't like.

The above is a big claim, so I'd better offer some evidence in support of this. The evidence I present is the four canonical gospels themselves. They disagree. They disagree in major ways. Fundamentally, they disagree on who Jesus even is. OK, they may all use the terminology 'Son of God', but they actually disagree on what it means. If you read the gospels from within an evangelical perspective, you fundamentally assume that they must agree, so you will find ways of explaining the differences away. If you read them from an outsider's perspective, you will see that they don't agree. Indeed, the reason there is more than one of them is that the writers of the later gospels disagreed with what the writers of the earlier ones wrote and set out to correct them.

Look at the opening verses of Luke (1v1-4):
"Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we had been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. Honorable Theophilus, I have done this to let you know the truth about what you have heard."
Note the tone of this: Many people tried to tell the story. I did a careful study. I tell you exactly what happened. So you know the truth. The clear implication of this is that Luke (or whoever wrote this anonymous gospel) had access to at least two older gospels (certainly Mark, possibly Matthew as well, maybe others we don't know), but thought they were imperfect, careless, inexact and containing untruths. He also implies that the original (i.e. pre-Lukan) gospels were not eyewitness accounts. We know he used Mark, sometimes using chunks of text without changing them, sometimes modifying them slightly, sometimes completely rewriting them, sometimes even changing the entire sense of the passage, sometimes omitting bits and frequently adding bits that Mark didn't have.

If Luke wrote an inspired and inerrant gospel, then Mark did not. Or vice versa.

Its easier to believe - and I would now say that the evidence suggests - that both these gospels are merely human attempts to tell a story. But both tell stories with personal biases and how can we break through these to see how much truth about Jesus lies behind them?

I've looked at the bible from both sides now,
from believing and critical points of view and still somehow
its the bible's illusions I recall
I really don't know the bible at all...

Faced with just the evidence of the four canonical gospels themselves, we find that it is actually very hard to conclude anything about Jesus whatsoever. Most scholars would point to Jesus's baptism with John and his crucifixion as two fixed points in his life which are beyond doubt, but when you put the four gospel stories up against each other, even these two 'facts' come into question.

Mark has Jesus coming to John to be baptised as a sign of his repentance, and the story conveys that the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus (for the first time?), marking the start of his ministry. It appears that Mark used the story of Jesus baptism as a way to start the story off, to explain how the Spirit of God came to be in Jesus.

Matthew and Luke disagree with Mark here, they take Jesus filling with the Spirit back to his birth or conception, but retain the baptism story (perhaps because it was a well known story) and modify it to make it clear that Jesus didn't need to repent of anything.

John changes it so much that Jesus actually doesn't get baptised by John at all. (Read it again if you doubt that).

So this is a story which changes in the telling, the main point of the story in Mark is lost in the later tellings, and the main event in the story vanishes in the fourth retelling. Given that, it looks like the three later tellings are somewhat dependent on the first, which was included for dramatic effect. Can we be sure that this contains history?

The other point of consensus is that Jesus was crucified ("under Pontius Pilate"), but look again at the four tellings of this story. All the details in the first telling (Mark) come from the psalms (mostly number 22), this doesn't appear to be an eyewitness account, it appears to be someone attempting to tell the story of a death about which he knows next to nothing. Matthew and Luke pretty much copy Mark, while adding in extra details which don't agree with each other and also don't sound like the authors have access to any eyewitness testimony. The fourth gospel goes as far as to invent a character in the story whose very presence is completely denied by the other three gospels.

So did the crucifixion happen? Well, it might have done, but the four accounts we have are very shaky ground upon which to try and base a historical reconstruction.

I've recently read (parts of) a book called "The Christ myth theory and its problems" by Robert M. Price. One of the longest sections in the book shows how virtually every episode in each of the gospels has a parallel in the Old Testament. Price sets out to demonstrate that everything in the gospels could have been constructed entirely on the basis of the OT stories without any need for an actual historical Jesus. I'm not sure I agree entirely with this theory, but it certainly does appear that many of the stories of things that Jesus allegedly did were based on things from the OT. Again, if that's the case, how do we distinguish the 'true' history of the 'real' Jesus from the myths based on the older stories of Elijah, etc.? We have no way of distinguishing the two.

I think I'm now at the point where I have to accept that some, at least, of the stories about Jesus are mythical in origin. I don't necessarily think that they are all mythical and there is no historical kernel there, but I can see no method of separating the truth from the myth. If there was a real historical character, who may or may not have been named Jesus ("saviour"), he is probably forever lost under the many strata of myths which have been deposited upon him.

I've looked at Jesus from both sides now
from man and myth, and still somehow
its Christ's illusions I recall
I really don't know Jesus at all...

It appears (to me, at least) as if the character of Jesus, as presented in the bible, entirely hides the 'real Jesus' of history to the extent that we can never know him. Critical study of the gospels makes it appear unlikely that the real Jesus of history was anything other than a charismatic, but entirely human, teacher and preacher. Or possibly even a revolutionary freedom fighter, but not a God, or the son of a God. But there is another Jesus to consider - the Jesus of faith, the Jesus that contemporary Christians believe to be in a 'personal relationship' with them. From observation, this Jesus is generally an extrapolation from the character presented in the bible, combined with inferences from Christian experience. So the question for me is does this composite 'Jesus of Faith' actually exist? The biggest issue I've faced over the past year or so of trying to reconcile my thoughts on Jesus and God is this:

Even though the bible gives a flawed and man-made picture of God and Jesus, this doesn't mean there is no God at all. If there is a real God behind the man-made facade, what is he like?

You see, while I can be convinced that I have believed flawed and incorrect things about God and Jesus, it is hard to reconcile my past experiences (and the experiences of others) with non-theistic worldviews. Not that I've had a great many 'supernatural' experiences, although people I know and reasonably trust claim to have had greater experiences than mine.

In my experience, there is something transcendent that can be experienced in times of worship. I have had what I once considered to be answered prayers. I have met people who seem to have been healed in inexplicable ways (legs growing longer in a matter of moments, eye cataracts vanishing instantly with prayer, etc.). People from my church are involved in a weekly healing 'on the streets' ministry, and every few weeks they come back with stories of something 'miraculous' having happened. I have no reason to doubt these claims. And yet, I do doubt the mechanism behind the apparent healings.

If Christ is mostly myth and is not God, yet someone seems to answer some prayers, then something 'supernatural' may be going on, but it might not be Christ.

Alternatively, there might be 'naturalistic' explanations for all these things, and we are misinterpreting the signs and inferring the actions of a God where there is none.

What are the necessary characteristics of an entity to make that entity a (or 'the only') God? You see, the way I find myself thinking is this: suppose there is a being who hears prayer and sometimes effects 'miraculous' healings on people, does that mean that this being was also responsible for creating the entire universe? Of course not. Does that mean that this being has a plan and a purpose for your life or mine? Of course not. Does that mean that this being is the source of morality? Of course not. Does that mean that this being will be the judge of the living and the dead? Of course not. Does that mean that this being would be able to do anything about the postmortem existence or eternal destination of any people? Of course not. Our experience of this being, if he even exists, does not and cannot inform us about most of the big claims made about God in the bible or by Christians.

You see, I kind of want to be scientific about this - what can be tested about God? Existence? Perhaps. Characteristics in the present day? Perhaps. Claims about the far past or the distant future? Absolutely not.

So where I find myself is this: I believe there might be a god (let's go for a small 'g' for now) with the ability to hear and answer some prayers and the ability to effect some minor healings. But this god bears almost no connection to the God of the bible. So many myths and undemonstrable claims have been added to the original kernel of this god that it is now virtually impossible to discern the real god from the myths. 'He' might be there, but he might be a lot smaller than most believers think. I have no way of knowing. Sigh.

I've looked at God from both sides now
from omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent creator and sustainer of all things and not, but still somehow 
its God illusions I recall
I really don't know God at all...

So the big problem now is where I go from here, and how I should live? Don't worry, I'm not about to go on a wanton immoral activities spree because I don't necessarily believe in the eternal consequences of my moral actions, but what you believe has consequences for how you live. Presently I go to church on a weekly basis and give a significant percentage of my income to the church. Should I change that? Beyond that, I have a great number of family members and friends who are Christians. What should I say to them (only a tiny minority of them read this blog, so most are quite unaware of the way I find myself thinking these days)? What if I'm wrong? What if Matthew 18v6 is true? If I'm in error, I don't want to drag anyone else into the same error. But then again, if I'm not in error, then I don't really want family and friends to waste their time believing in myths and other unjustifiable things.

One of my favourite verses in the bible has always been John 10v10b, which says: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." I still want to experience life in all its fullness, but is this best achieved by believing the unverifiable and following the mostly mythical, or can this be achieved by turning away from all that and heading out into uncharted territory without a guide?

Friday, June 22, 2012

The great schism...

And so it begins.

On Monday last week, St George's Tron Church in Glasgow formally left the Church of Scotland because of the stance on homosexuality (particularly in the clergy) adopted by the General Assembly of the kirk. This is the first church to leave the CofS over this issue, and I suspect others will join them soon.

This doesn't surprise me. Indeed, what surprises me is that its taken so long. I can distinctly remember having a conversation about this circa 1995 when I was fully expecting things to come to a head over this issue and the breakup of the kirk to begin.

According to Wikipedia, there are at least 62 CofS congregations who are members of the "Fellowship of Confessing Churches" (who have a website, but it seems to be dead at the moment), who are united in their disapproval of the CofS stance on gay clergy. The ministers of many of these churches are also part of the "Crieff Fellowship" (who have almost no web presence, but you can download their sermons here), which is an informal network of 'conservative evangelical' churches in Scotland (mostly, but not exclusively, CofS, I think) which dates back to the golden era of the 1970s when Willie Still was minister of Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Jim Philip was minister in Holyrood Abbey Church in Edinburgh and George Philip was minister in Sandyford Henderson Church in Glasgow.

You'll note the surname Philip is prominent here. Willie Philip (sorry, the Rev Dr William Philip; but I've known him since I was a boy, so he's still 'Willie' in my head), who is minister of St George's Tron is the son of Jim and nephew of George and, I suspect, named after Willie Still.

With St George's Tron leaving the CofS, I think it won't be long until Holyrood, Gilcomston and others have jumped ship too. I'll be interested to see if they form their own new denomination of if they stay independent. Accountability is important to these folks, so I think an organisation will form sooner rather than later.

But are they right to jump ship? I have a whole heap of mixed feelings about this.

I've made several comments on my opinion on the whole homosexuality in the bible debate on this blog in the past (here, here, here and probably elsewhere too) and my opinion hasn't really changed much since I wrote the old posts. So I'm broadly in favour of what the CofS is doing, and broadly against the attitudes of the Fellowship of Confessing Churches.

But (and this is a big but) I am also in broad agreement with what St George's Tron Church have just done, and agree with their reasons for doing it. You see, the CofS has crossed a line in the sand. It has said, in essence, we will allow contemporary culture to guide us in reinterpreting the message of the bible. Of course, they don't say that in so many words, but that's effectively what they are doing.

Changing your stance on an issue is fine, if you can justify why you have changed your stance. But the CofS seems to be changing stance on their opinion on the bible without admitting that they have done this. St. George's Tron have decided not to change their stance, and so they have to part with the CofS. The real issue here, for them, is the attitude to the bible, not the attitude to homosexuality. I approve of the attitude of St George's Tron, even if I no longer hold the bible to be as inspired and foundational as they do.

Anyway, I'll be intrigued to see what the fall out of this split is over the coming months and years.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Old earth vs Young earth vs Infallible bible...

I've just listened to a debate between old earth and young earth creationists on the Unbelievable podcast feed. Fascinating stuff. But I think the debate helped reinforce my belief that both sides are wrong.

All four speakers in the debate were well educated, intelligent and erudite people. They all knew an awful lot of science and an awful lot of theology, and all of them could quote and cite loads of appropriate scientific studies and bible verses to support their side in the debate. Their performance in the debate was excellent. I have no doubt that I'd lose a debate against any one of them!

And yet, the thing that clearly shone out of the debate for me was the amount of intellectual acrobatics all four of them had to go through to get their presuppositions to fit with the facts of science and the verses in the bible.

I'll leave their thoughts on science to the side and focus on their attitude to the bible, as that was what fascinated me the most. All of them believe the bible to be the Infallible Word of God, and yet all of them accept that the Infallible Word is subject to flawed human interpretation. In other words, all of them accept that the Infallible Word does not speak clearly on any of the issues on which the debate touched.

This brought me back to a question that has troubled me for some time. How can anyone believe that the bible is infallible when they admit that it doesn't speak clearly?

This set me wondering, if the old earth vs young earth thing is totally open to interpretation, and things like the global (or local?) flood are totally open to interpretation, then what is there in the bible that actually isn't totally open to interpretation? What did Jesus' death on the cross actually achieve? Well, there's at least four incompatible schools of thought on that one. How and when will the world end? Again, several different schools of thought.

If you were to take away all the things that different groups of Christians interpret in incompatible ways, what would you be left with? Not much, I suspect. Would it actually be enough to build a belief system on? Well, given that there appears to be no such belief system built upon it, I suspect not.

All different systems of Christian belief are built on the shaky foundations of interpretations which some other Christians will disagree with. I'm sorry, but that's not good enough for me anymore. I can't find one system which appears more justifiable than the others.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Blind Faith...?

"blind faith and blind obedience are morally wrong. I must at least be a critical follower of the party line, judging for myself on each occasion that the line being handed out as good in itself. Obedience as such is not a morally good thing. Prudent, maybe - but not morally good."
Don Cupitt, in the introduction to "Taking leave of God".

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Jesus the Magician?

I've just read a fascinating article online about the depictions of Jesus and the apostles in early Christian carvings on sarcophagai. The most surprising thing, well surprising if you accept the orthodox views on the beliefs of the early Christian church, is that a great number of such carvings depict Jesus and Peter (the 2nd most common character depicted) as using a wand to carry out miracles.

Such a thought is totally alien to Christians today. This clearly demonstrates just how far Christian perceptions of Jesus have shifted over the centuries.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Criterion of Dissimilarity and the Son of Man

The Criterion of Dissimilarity, which is related to the Criterion of Embarrassment, is a test applied by some critical scholars to judge the authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

It goes something like this: if a particular saying attributed to Jesus is similar to other sayings known to be in circulation at that time in history, then there is no good reason to claim that the particular saying originated with Jesus, it could have been a common Rabbinic saying which someone attributed to Jesus after his time but before the gospels were put into writing. However, if a saying of Jesus is dissimilar to all the other sayings from the time, then this is good evidence that it might have originated from him.

One issue I have with this is that it is common to include the sayings and teachings of the early church as part of the 'sayings of the time' with which Jesus's sayings are compared. In other words it is common to assume that if a saying existed in the life of the early church and it also appears in the mouth of Jesus in the gospel stories, then the criterion of dissimilarity suggests we cannot assert that the saying originated with Jesus.

Eh? So if Jesus said something and his followers were repeating it a few decades later then this criterion immediately casts doubt on it. So any words of Jesus which were put into action by his followers are immediately suspect... Doesn't sound like a very good criterion to me.

The flip side of this is the sayings which the criterion suggests are authentic because they are unique to the gospels and are not mirrored in the life of the early church are more likely to be authentic to Jesus. What? The stuff that Jesus apparently said that the early church ignored is the most authentic stuff? Not convinced there.

The classic instance of this is the  use of "Son of Man" - this phrase appears nowhere in the literature of the early church, nowhere in the epistles, nowhere in things like the Didache, it only appears in the Gospels. Because of this, the criterion of dissimilarity suggests that it is most likely that Jesus used this terminology to speak of himself in the third person. What?

Surely if there was a historical Jesus who taught his followers things, those followers would use the same terminology when they discussed and wrote things later on. They wouldn't ignore the terminology for decades, suddenly use it when they were writing gospels, then suddenly stop using it again. That pattern suggests that those words were unique to the Gospel writers, but didn't originate with the historical Jesus.

So the claim that Jesus was the Son of Man is a claim made about Jesus (some decades later), but is clearly not a claim made by Jesus.