Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category
Consider this perhaps familiar scenario: A controversial theory is made that challenges the core beliefs of a faith rooted in history, embedded in an attractive, popular and entertainment-oriented format which masquerades as scholarship…
Like the cultural fallout of the The DaVinci Code, James Cameron’s documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” makes strident claims about the central figure of Christianity, Jesus himself, yet takes them even further than even Dan Brown. The substance of the claims of the documentary is that an opulent tomb containing 10 ossuaries, 6 of which are inscribed with Biblically familiar names, actually contains the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family- including his wife, Mary Magdalene (or in this case, “Mary, the Master”) and their child, Judah! No doubt the discussion will be passionate, and perhaps last as long as the post-DaVinci Code activity did. However, central to any discussion will likely be the same question: Who was Jesus?
I have already seen numerous opinions written in the last several days that in response to the discovery of the so-called “Jesus Tomb,” Christians should do the reasonable thing and accept the facts, “Jesus’ bones have been found. He was not bodily resurrected. He is dead. You’ve been duped! But, I suppose you can still be a Christian. After all, Jesus is more powerful as an idea rather than a person. Ideas change people. That’s all we have!” I must strongly disagree. If it were to be proven somehow that these remains are in fact those of Jesus and his family, and that he was not resurrected, the reasonable response would not be to adapt the Christian faith and reconstruct its theology to fit the predicament and worship a symbol. The reasonable response would be to abandon the Christian faith altogether (what this would mean for theism is another argument). The apostle Paul spoke to this idea when he wrote in his first letter to the church of Corinth, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
Ultimately, faith cannot be in a symbol. Symbols are interpreted in light of many things, often subjective in nature. They can mean vastly different things to different people. Yet, the Christian faith and its understanding of who Jesus was has always been based upon specific events in history and the people involved in those events. The primary meaning of these events is not subjective, but the foundation upon which Christian theology is understood. The meaning and power of these events and people have no value if they are not true! There are many beautiful stories that were never intended to be anything other than fiction, and though their ideas and symbols have persevered through the generations, placing faith in them in the way Christians do in Jesus Christ, would be absurd.
In the same way, no man, no matter how wise a teacher or influential a revolutionary, aught to be the object of faith or worship; for so long as he is a man, he can reach no further or do no more than those who may mistakenly place their faith in him. The man who accepts worship and acts as if he were God without having a shred of divinity is, as famously put by C.S. Lewis, either a lunatic or a liar, neither of which is worthy of worship. But, if He truly is Lord, then worship Him we must!
While we have little reason to think that this particular find bears any threat to the truths of the Christian faith, we must not entertain any notion of diluting it simply to avoid the challenges we are sure to face. We must consider it yet another opportunity to respond to the question that Jesus asked of His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Mithraism, as it is germane to Christian historical discussion, was a mystery religion adopted by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. (I am careful with my words here, as Mithraism has a previous historical incantation in ancient Persia, though its relationship to the Roman tradition, in practice and philosophy, is unclear at this point.) Some critics claim that Christianity borrowed from the traditions of Mithraism as a means of attracting followers, though these allegedly adopted Mithraic traditions were not actually authentic to Jesus. I believe it is safe to say that, on the basis of historical scholarship done by secular, Christian and Mithraic-oriented scholars, this claim is thoroughly without serious basis.
According to Mithraic scholar Franz Cumont, the first mention of Mithra was made in a treaty from 1400 B.C. (Other, more recent, scholars place this date at around 700 B.C.) At this time and after, Mithraic tradition indicated Mithra as a deity who gave orders and guidance to the military, as well as dispensed justice to those who broke political treaties. As the religion developed, the Mithraic story grew richer. Mithra became known as the provider of rain, bringing vegetation and health to the people. However, to the Persians who held to this tradition, Mithra was not the supreme deity, but subservient to another god, Varuna, who was specifically associated with the culture’s rice harvest. Some descriptions of Mithra have been translated, “Lord of the Contract,” “Upholder of Truth,” “Peaceful, benevolent protector,” and “Not easily provoked.” Even later mentions of Mithra characterize him again as a warrior, though at some point they seem to have reverted again to depicting him as a pacifist deity. When Zoroastrian religion developed in Persia (estimated at around 440 B.C., according to Herodotus’ The Histories), Mithra’s previous association with treaties developed into his role as a “mediator” between the gods of good and evil, Ohrmazd and Ahriman, respectively. He was considered part of a larger pantheon of seven deities that served the gods of the upper spiritual echelon. In this Mithraic-Zoroastrian incantation, Mithra’s role in the cosmos also included delivering the condemned to hell and the saved to heaven. By the first century B.C., Mithra was still associated with these themes, in addition to having some sort of relationship with the gods Apollos and Hermes.
The Roman Mithraic tradition seems to only be linked to the Persian Mithra by name, though in the Hellenistic and Roman traditions, he is referred to as Mithras (the Greek masculine form of Mithra). The Roman Mithraic story involves the heroic slaying of a sacred bull by Mithras, perhaps an astrological allegory, though the Persian details, treaty enforcement, agriculture, and escorting of souls, seem to no longer apply. According to Roman tradition, Mithras’ heroic slaying of the bull gained him the favor of the sun god. Other than tracking the evolution of the name of Mithras across the two traditions, scholars in the 20th century have failed to establish a substantial link between the two Mithraic traditions in terms of their actual beliefs. Rather, the latest scholarship in regard to Mithras suggests that the Romans founded their version of Mithraism in response to the astrological discovery of the movement of the heavens (now referred to as the precession of the equinoxes). Scholars who advocate the astrological thesis suggest that the Persian name of Mithras was given to the god who they believed orchestrated this movement (Perseus in the Roman tradition) due to an alliance at the time with a leader from Asia Minor named Mithridates and the influence of Mithraic Cilician pirates.
Despite what seems to be an obvious lack of related details between the Mithraic tradition and the origins of Christianity, critics nonetheless allege that certain details of the Christian tradition were adapted, if not outright “stolen” from Mithraism. I will examine some of the more inflammatory claims below:
Like Jesus, Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave. His birth was also attended by shepherds.
Many Christians are well aware that there is no Biblical basis for setting the date of the birth of Jesus on December 25th. History shows that this date was introduced as significant to Christ later by the post-apostolic church, no doubt influenced by the multiplicity of sacred festivals occurring at this time. According to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was not born of a virgin in a cave. In fact, Mithras was said to have been born, fully grown, from solid rock; the event leaving a cavity behind. There was no mention of a virgin. Interestingly, the story continues to describe Mithras being helped out of the rock by shepherds, who offer him a pick from their flock. Yet according to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was created prior to the creation of mankind. Consequently, the Mithraic “shepherds” cannot be legitimately compared to those of the Christian tradition. Lastly, the earliest existing record of this narrative is from around 100 years after the manuscripts of the New Testament, leaving no room for claims that the Christian tradition copied the story and attributed it to Jesus. (Note also that the later Persian Mithraic traditions recount his conception through the incestual copulation of the god Ahura-Mazda and his mother. The Christian virgin birth story is principally concerned with the humanity of Mary and God’s role in the creation of Jesus through her. There is no parallel between this and the Mithraic story.)
Mithras was also considered a great traveling teacher and master.
This particular attribute is probably one of the most common identifiers of just about every spiritual leader in history. However, there is no mention in Mithraic tradition of Mithras being an itinerant teacher like Jesus. If this claim is to be taken seriously as evidence that Christian tradition appropriated from Mithraic tradition, one must also take into account the travels and teachings of other spiritual figures like Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed, etc.
Mithras had 12 disciples.
The Persian Mithra was often associated with the god Varuna, such that one might infer that they were considered a pair. However, in this tradition Mithra is short 10 companions. In the Roman tradition, Mithras was accompanied by two entities, created after his own image, named Cautes and Catopatres. They have been said to represent day and night or spring and fall or life and death. Mithras was also associated with the snake, the dog, the lion, and the scorpion, likely due to the astrological origin of the Roman tradition. Still, Mithras’ companions only add up to 6 at most, taking all into account. Some claim that a Mithraic stone carving, which depicts the famous bull scene with one vertical row of six images on each side, proves the “12 disciples” connection. However, most current Mithraic scholarship attributes these to zodiac representations. In addition to acknowledging that since the carving itself dates to well after the time of Jesus, any connections to the Christian tradition of 12 disciples would have to implicate Mithraism as the copycat, not Christianity. In the other direction, one would have to claim that Christianity stole the number twelve from astrology- likely a much more difficult case to make.
Mithras offered eternal life to his followers.
Like the “traveling teacher” connection, this claim no more implicates Christianity as it does just about every religious tradition that posits life after death. Incidentally, the only specific mention of a Mithraic offer of eternal life to his followers exists in a piece of writing dated to 200 A.D., which has been translated, “and us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood.” In Mithraic tradition, the blood is not the blood of Mithras, but that of the bull he slaughtered, and “saved” referred to being approved to ascend through other levels toward immortality. It was clearly not the same type of salvation that is taught in Christian theology.
Mithras performed miracles.
While both the Iranian Mithra and the Roman Mithras traditions recount acts of great power done by Mithra(s), this is hardly an incriminating fact. Like the teaching and offering of immortality, this is another common attribute of any religious figure. To make this claim worthwhile, one would have to show similarities in type of miracle (i.e. Mithras walked on water, healed the blind, or raised the dead).
Mithras sacrificed himself for mankind.
Some Mithraic scholars have tried to depict Mithras and the bull he had slain as one and the same, construing the story to represent that Mithras gave his own life. However, the narrative in no way suggests this. At best, Mithras could be considered heroic for his victory over the bull, though more likely is the modern interpretation that the bull slaying story corresponded to astrological themes. However, this has no comparison to the Christian claim that Jesus died as atonement for the sins of mankind.
Mithras was buried in a tomb, and after three days, He rose again.
In Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian writes, “if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan), sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crow.” This is the only reference from which some Mithraic scholars claim a correlation between Mithraic and Christian traditions. Unfortunately, having been written after the New Testament, there is no evidence that what it describes predates Christianity. Nor is there really any compelling aspect to Tertullian’s description that would indicate that these practices were authentic to Mithraism or even appropriately compared to Christian tradition.
Mithras said, “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”
There is no evidence for this saying being attributed to Mithras. Scholars have, however, found this saying attributed to Zarathustra, though in a medieval document (remember that Zarathustra, the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, is thought to have lived some time around 2000 B.C.). Though followers of Mithras were known to have fellowship meals, at which was eaten bread, water, wine and meat, such circumstances were common to meals shared by many people in many different contexts.
It should be emphasized that none of the alleged similarities between Mithras and Jesus can be shown to apply to the Persian Mithra, but only to the Roman Mithraic tradition, which did not really flourish until after the time of the New Testament. That said, the alleged connections are quite dubious, as I explained above. In fact, no archeological evidence for this tradition can be argued to exist from any earlier than A.D. 90. This seems to suggest that the re-emergence of Mithras in the Roman context preserved the name of the Persian deity, yet adopted a new set of traditions more closely linked to the many mystery religions of the time. In any case, the overall Mithraic tradition should actually be thought of as two distinct movements, having little to do with one another beyond having a god of the same name.
The driving force of these comparisons appears to be a deliberate application of language resembling that used in Christian tradition to traditions that never actually used that language in the first place. For example, referring to the “birth” of Mithras to a “virgin” is absurd given that, according to Mithraic tradition, he was not “born” in the human sense at all, but came into being out of lifeless solid rock. Perhaps one might claim that the lifeless solid rock, having never before had an entity emerge from it, was “virgin-like,” but that would be an extreme stretch in language and meaning, and more akin to an intentional characterization of Mithraic tradition in Christian terms. Similarly, if Mithraic tradition could be shown to teach that Mithras instructed his followers to gather together in a fellowship meal, it would be misleading to refer to this as a Mithraic “last supper.” Even if Roman Mithraism did hold to traditions similar to Christianity, it would be false to assume that simply because the two traditions existed similarly and contemporaneously one must have preceded or caused the other. Like liberal Biblical scholars that give priority to Gnostic sources on Jesus, though they date long after the canonical Gospels, those that desire to establish a link between Mithras and Jesus must contend with the fact that the existing sources for Roman Mithraism are all post-Christian and cannot be said to have influenced Christian doctrine.
I do find it strange that these allegations persist despite the overwhelming fact that the historicity of the character of Mithras is incomparable to that of Jesus of Nazareth. Given that Mithras is obviously a mythical character, and that no evidence exists to show that a man name Mithras actually lived at some point in history and had followers in the same sense as the Christian disciples, the notion of Mithras actually participating in historical events and teaching actual people is significantly questionable. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence, attested to by multiple independent sources, that Jesus was a historical figure that actually lived in first century Palestine, assembled a group of followers, the teachings of whom were recorded by multiple sources, and was actually put to death by Roman authorities. Given the amount of historical knowledge that exists about Jesus of Nazareth, the suggestion that the Christian tradition “re-branded” Jesus with Mithraic characteristics implies an unfathomably large conspiracy without a bit of evidence to back it up.
Some sources on Mithraism
Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont
The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief that Shaped the Christian World by Caitlin Matthews and Payam Nabarz
The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries by Manfred Clauss
The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, by David Ulansey
Lately it seems as if some of the most volatile and debated issues of philosophy, religion, politics, and science have become even more polarized then they have ever been. I do recognize my own limited point of view in this regard and accept that such a statement is likely hyperbolic to the extreme. Yet, in recent history, our culture has certainly tended toward partisanship, especially in matters of faith and culture. This may be a small and fleeting moment in the grand scheme of things, but it is one that we are in and must discuss rather than allow the continued fragmentation of society based upon misunderstanding and mischaracterization of so many issues. As the title of this post suggests, my purpose in writing is primarily to discuss the compatibility of science and faith, though I do want to stress that I believe that this issue is only symptomatic of a larger trend of radical polarization of ideas in our culture.
So, again to the question: are the realms of science and faith compatible? Can one be a faithful adherent of religion, acknowledging the supernatural, and still understand or even practice science? The short answer should be an absolute “yes!” However, many do not agree. Some claim that the very basis of faith, that there is what cannot be proven empirically, flies in the face of science. Or, in other words, that what cannot be proven empirically cannot be said to exist! Such a notion is obviously false. One need only question the reality of abstract ideas, numbers, metaphysics, or aesthetics to recognize that many things that our culture (and even science itself) depends upon to be true are not empirically verifiable. (See my series, Science and Faith, for more elaboration on this point.) What is really the problem here is that science, by nature of what it is and how it operates, illegitimately excludes that which cannot be proven empirically from truth as a whole.
Perhaps, then, the realm of science is being inappropriately misunderstood as a comprehensive epistemology rather than a method? Science is not a category of knowledge, nor its primary source. It is a method by which some knowledge is apprehended. Religion, on the other hand, is also not the primary source of knowledge. Religion is a practice which generally attributes its method to the influence of the supernatural (Though a case can be made for non-supernatural or secular religions, my point here is to focus on the relationship between religion of the supernatural kind and science). While the supernatural catalyst of religion, especially in the theistic sense, may have the properties of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc., no one (that I know of) claims that religion can lead to the apprehension of the same qualities.
However, both science and religion allow for conclusions to be made about reality. This is where the conflict occurs, since the conclusions tend to be characterized as contradictory. D.J. Grothe, in a recent interview with Dr. Michael Shermer on the program ‘Point of Inquiry,’ said:
“Science and religion are incompatible if religion makes any claims about the universe inconsistent with science…but not…if you’re a religionist who’s willing to give up all of the supernatural claims.”
This statement may require some time to register as the falsehood that it actually is. Grothe claims that science and religion only conflict when religion disagrees with science! In other words, science is always correct. But can science always be correct? Surely a look at many incorrect theories should prove otherwise. Yet, what I am more interested in questioning is the characterization of science as something that can even be characterized as “correct” or “incorrect.” Science is a method that should lead to a correct determination provided that steps are taken without error, similar to the mathematic process of addition. However, can it be said that “addition is always correct?” Of course not! The process of addition provides the correct sum when it has been conducted without error. What Grothe is doing, perhaps unwittingly, is establishing science as an inerrant and comprehensive teleological source, rather than using it as a method through which to apprehend knowledge. Moreover, Grothe, most likely wittingly in this case, neuters religion to only that which is non-supernatural. Clearly, this undercuts the very purpose of the religions which he claims contradict science. Again, he has stacked the deck in his favor.
Grothe’s guest, Dr. Michael Shermer, responded by saying:
“There’s no evidence through science [for the effects of faith]. Wherever there have been attempts to prove it, those attempts have failed- most recently with the prayer and healing studies with the 1800 cardiac bypass patients with which there was no effect at all. This is a big mistake that religious people make…trying to use science to prove something. They’re going to fail. They always do.”
What Shermer says may be true, if not for the time being, possibly forever. Perhaps science will never prove the effects of faith, or the existence of the supernatural. However, this is really not the issue at hand. In fact, it seems to be a red herring meant to categorize the faithful as misusing science to somehow prove faith. Surely this is not true of all people of faith, nor is it germane to the compatibility of science and faith. Incidentally, I recall reading an article in the New York Times about the study mentioned by Shermer and wondering just what exactly the parameters were for tracking the relationship between prayer and health. Were the people praying all accounted for? Were they all praying for the same thing or to the same god? Were the patients themselves praying? Was there any relationship at all between the faith or skepticism of the patients and those who prayed for them? It seemed to me that the conclusion was: not enough people got better, therefore prayer doesn’t work. I would ask whether prayer is, in this case, being limited to the act of supplication rather than being understood for the rich, nuanced and multifaceted practice that most who pray believe it to be. Regardless, even the perceived failure of such a study has little to do with the compatibility of faith and science.
Decades ago, when presumably the polarization of science and faith was less severe, atheist George Wald spoke on the relationship between the two in an address to the John XXIII Institute Conference on Theology and Ecology. He said:
“I think the struggle to know is epitomized in science. One could add a word and say an unending struggle to know God. I think the big question is, if one added that word, would one have changed the meaning of the sentence? For me, no.”
While I may disagree with his atheistic position, I do agree with his statement. Wald sees both science and religion as in pursuit of knowledge, yet he has chosen to pursue one over the other. It seems he is content to make that choice, yet in speaking this way he makes no claim that his decision was compelled by a valid restriction of religion by science. In fact, he went on to characterize his own secular scientific position as religious.
Is it possible then, that the question itself of whether science and religion are compatible is actually contributing to the false dichotomy of “science or religion, but not both?” The very birth of scientific practice is rooted in the belief in a teleological universe which should be ordered in such a way as to be studied systematically. Without such a philosophical grounding, one has no basis to believe that the systematic approach of science would be at all effective. In other words, science began with faith. So long as the faithful in this world practice science, in whatever capacity, the notion that one can either be faithful or scientific but not both is a false dichotomy.
It is fairly likely that much of the criticism put forth by skeptics in regard to the scriptures is due not to some evidence which exists that proves the scripture to be false, but actually a misunderstanding of the nature of the scripture itself. Indeed, the Bible is a throroughly unique book, both in subject and authorship, yet if both attributes are not properly understood, skepticism is likely to follow.
In one sense, the Bible is a quite human book. It was written by many authors and recalls many accounts that underscore the humanity of its characters. Nowhere does it claim to have been written by anyone other than a human being. Yet, the combined narrative of the many authors is a remarkably singular and cohesive account. On the other hand, it is also a quite spiritual work. It contains the law delivered to Moses from God. It contains prayers and prophesy; sometimes the very words of God. Its writers also claim such spiritual power on behalf of scripture. Consider the author of Hebrews 4:12, who writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” However, it has always been and always will be considered a testament of God. In other words, scripture is an account by many witnesses of the work of God in history. It is not an account written by God’s physical hand and dropped on Earth from Heaven, nor should anyone expect such an account to exist.
This distinction is important to make given much of the nature of skepticism toward scripture. It is often said by skeptics that the Bible is untrustworthy because it was written by men and used to promote their worldly agendas. Or, that God, if He really existed, would make Himself known in some other fashion, preferably one which all people at all times could interact with and would be beyond dispute. Often, I wonder if what skeptics really want is for God to dictate scripture to them personally- only then could they trust its contents! However, one of the key points of scripture is that God acts in history. Unfortunately for us living in the twenty-first century, time progresses and leaves history in the unreachable past and accessible only by that which remains. The Bible, then, is precisely what we would expect to find: a collection of accounts of God working in history intentionally preserved by those who believe in Him for posterity.
Yet, skepticism persists. Incidentally, as I was considering this topic I ran across a quote from Mortimer Adler, in his book “How to Read a Book,” which provide good examples of how skeptics receive the scriptures. He writes:
“Dogmatic theology differs from Philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. A work of dogmatic theology always depends upon dogmas and the authority of a church that proclaims them. If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician. But you must always keep in mind that an article of faith is not something that the faithful ‘assume.’ Faith, for those who have it, is the most certain form of knowledge, not a tentative opinion. Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based upon them, the reasoning they support, and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 292)”
At first glance, Adler seems to offer a sound and logically consistent defense of theology. In fact, he suggests, in a way, that the core theological tenets of a certain religion be thought of much like premises in a logical or mathematic syllogism. Therefore, as he writes, modern readers (or perhaps better said secular readers) err in rejecting such tenets as they read theology. Indeed, theology would be quite useless and irrelevant without at some point acknowledging some core premises or doctrines. In other words, Adler encourages even skeptical readers to patiently allow the theological point to be developed, rather than prematurely rejecting it before it has been fully articulated. While I heartily agree, it should be pointed out that Adler’s advice seems to assume that a theologian can do such a thing with clarity and intellectual honesty. Again, I would concur. However, Adler proceeds to write what can only be received as a blunt contradiction of this point:
“Consider any institution- a church, a political party, a society- that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to teach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. They do not- even cannot- question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the ‘sacred’ text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 293)”
If the faithful are, as Adler argues, intellectually impotent in regard to the study of theology, one must conclude at least two staggering possibilities. The first, though logically tied to both of Adler’s statements, is hardly likely: That the theologians who teach the faithful through preaching, teaching and writing are themselves not among the faithful. In other words, Adler’s first statement assumes that theology is worth studying. Yet, in his second statement, he claims that the faithful are so intellectually “debarred” that they cannot discern truth from “nonsense.” If both ideas are true, then the theologians must themselves not be believers. Frankly, theologians who do not believe what they teach are no more than liars, or at best, concoctors of fairy tales. Perhaps, then, Adler is confused. The second, and possibly more troubling conclusion one could make from Adler’s statements, is that only religious skeptics, or unbelievers, are in the position to accurately develop theology. Clearly, this is absurd. Theology is the study of God. Without an interactive belief in God, theology could not be received by Him and taught. That is, of course, unless the theology amounted to a belief that God does not exist.
To be fair, I think that these thoughts are somewhat misplaced in “How to Read a Book,” if not definitely undeveloped for publication. Indeed, Adler redeemed himself intellectually, specifically in regard to philosophy of religion, since in his book “Truth in Religion,” which he demonstrates that the three religions “of the book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are the only world religions which do not dismantle themselves through logical contradictions. However, this type of faulty thinking is quite prevalent among intellectual skeptics, many of whom take the position that the Bible was not simply written by men, but its contents were completely invented by men as well. It is almost as if they believed that if God truly existed, he would appear before them individually, on their terms, explain Himself (and everything else, for that matter) leaving them compelled to belief. Yet, this would mean that God would have to do such a thing to every single person in history, probably simultaneously, however impossible, to satisfy those who do not believe in Him. Otherwise, at some point, one would have to rely upon the testimony of another who was present to witness what God did, which is precisely what we have in the testimony of the Bible.
I don’t expect that my brief treatment here will dismantle every type of skepticism that exists toward the scriptures, so perhaps my title is a bit broad. However, the misunderstandings and illogical claims that I have mentioned are often at the root of most skeptical criticism that I have encountered in my study of the scriptures. When the character of the Bible is properly understood, in terms of its content and also its historical context, it seems to be exactly what one might expect to have at the root of a religion which affirms the existence of God and His activity in history.
As often as I hear talk of the need for the Gospel, I also hear of the need for “relevance.” While it is true that the word can mean a variety of things depending upon the context in which it is used, there is one particular meaning (which I dare say is most frequent in my hearing) that I believe runs contrary to the very Gospel message itself.
(As a disclaimer, I would like to set aside an immediate issue that is likely to already be on the minds of many readers. I am not certain at this point if the meaning in which Relevant Media Group uses the word “relevant” is of the same concern, though I would venture to say that it is not. In fact, in stating the obvious, Relevant Media Group’s mission statement can hardly be disputed at face value: “Relevant Media Group is a multimedia company whose purpose is to impact culture and show that a relationship with God is relevant and essential to a fulfilled life.” Clearly, Relevant’s declared purpose is not to make the Gospel relevant, but to show the relevance of the Christian life by modeling an appropriately Godly perspective amidst current culture. I can’t really argue with that. However, I must admit at this point that I am not necessarily a fan of Relevant Magazine or the seemingly commoditized Christianity that it portrays. Truly, it is the “rebranding” and “packaging” of the church, and even of the Christian, that I fear is an already accepted result of the new concept of being relevant.)
Some may be asking, as I have also often asked, “What does relevant mean, anyway?” According to Webster, to be relevant is defined as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” Therefore, Relevant Media is right in declaring its mission to “show that a relationship with God” has significant and demonstrable bearing “to a fulfilled life.” So in this regard, there is nothing wrong with relevance.
Yet, this is not the context in which I often hear the word being used. I would argue that the word relevant is becoming a term descriptive of a movement, or a genre, or a flavor, within Christianity. Yet, as I discussed above, the word intends to relate the value of an idea to a particular context, not to convey a particular descriptive idea of its own. In other words, relevance means nothing if it does not objectively link an idea to the context in which it exists.
So, then, what is meant by such common phrases as, “looking for a church that’s relevant,” or “the church must become relevant,” or “we are a relevant church?” I hope, for our sake, that it does not mean a certain style of music in worship, or a certain casualness with which a service is delivered, or a lack of structure, or a focus on youth, or even an emphasis on certain doctrines. If a church affirms that which is true about God and the Gospel, worships God in Spirit and in truth, and seeks to fulfill the Great Commission, how could it possibly be irrelevant? What exactly is an irrelevant church or an irrelevant Christian? Can we really suggest that churches or individuals that do not operate or appear comfortably within the status quo of contemporary culture are “resisting relevance (another phrase I have heard often)?” Without knowing the mind of God through and through, any suggestion as to the relevance of a church or individual, especially on the basis of the fleeting and fickle trends of popular culture, would be a presumptuous and woeful error.
Frankly, the idea that we could possibly make Christianity relevant to culture through our own doing is shortsighted. How dare we assume that we have any power or influence to actually make God’s plan and work relevant to humankind? It is humankind that should seek to be conformed to the will of God, revealed by God through His Word and His Spirit, and not conformed to the world.
On a purely philosophical level, I am not very comfortable with even putting the words God and relevant in the same sentence; not even to say what seems to be harmless and obvious, that God is relevant. If God exists, and for the purposes of this argument I am assuming that He does, then created, contingent, mortal beings have no place to assign relevance to the eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent deity from who’s being the creation of the entire universe resulted. Rather, the simple but utterly profound statement, “God is,” is a more appropriate affirmation.
If God is, than what is relevant is relevant in relation to Him, not to that which He has created.
In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s radio program On Point (listen to the program here), author John Updike discussed his latest novel, Terrorist, which depicts the life of an eighteen year-old American Muslim turned terrorist. Within the discussion, which reflected not only upon the book, but also upon issues related to religious extremism and its effect on our current culture, Updike made several comments specifically in regard to religious fundamentalism. While I have not yet read Terrorist, though this program has certainly encouraged me to do so, I would like to address some of Updike’s comments as I think they are particularly indicative of a modern misunderstanding of fundamentalism in the philosophy of religion.
Updike introduces the novel by reading from its opening passage, which describes his main character, Ahmad’s, point of view toward his American peers and authority, and describes those who claim to be religious as weak and unauthentic. While he describes Ahmad’s attitude toward the insipidness of American religion and culture as being “extremely disgusted,” Updike himself would only claim to be “moderately disgusted.” Incidentally, a caller, who reminded Updike that for the Muslim (and I would argue also for the Christian) there is no and should not be any separation between the sacred and the secular, really propelled the conversation toward religious fundamentalism. Updike attempted to brush off the comment by asking to see an example of a thoroughly religious and morally perfect society- indicating that this should be the result of fundamentalism. Of course, this is obviously not realistic. Later, Updike responds to another caller who indicts fundamentalism as the root of all modern problems by commenting in agreement,
“I am myself a Christian and go to church, but there does seem to be a point at which fundamentalism Christianity becomes a dangerous and really crazy, crazy thing. These mothers who kill their children to send them to heaven…take a shortcut to heaven… are the kind of thing that also motivates suicide bombers. Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation.”
Not unlike many who comment on religious fundamentalism, often casting it as a direct catalyst of ignorance, hate, violence, and oppression, Updike demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the meaning of the term. On the one hand, Updike expresses disgust toward fundamentalism, but on the other, disgust for the shallow and vapid confession of many religious followers. It would seem to me that to be fundamentalist in regard to religion would be the antithesis of the shallowness and fickleness that many, like Updike, rightly criticize. However, I think the pejorative connotation, clearly intended within this discussion, of fundamentalism that has lately subsumed the actual meaning of the term, is unjustified. Rather, fundamentalism should be thought of as the comprehensive approach to religious life.
Religious fundamentalism is based upon the belief that certain religions affirm particular core fundamental beliefs. To call oneself a Christian, for example, in the fundamental sense, would mean that one believes certain particular things about Jesus Christ, his divinity, our relationship to Him, and the Bible. To believe otherwise would make the label ‘Christian’ dubious. Likewise, a fundamentalist Muslim would also affirm certain doctrines in regard to God, Muhammed, and the Koran. In neither case is extremist violence or force a part of the fundamentalist identity. While I won’t deny that these things have sometimes resulted from the irrational behavior of self-confessed fundamentalists, it does not follow that all fundamentalists are inherently irrational. In fact, I would argue that fundamentalism is a reasonable approach to the philosophy and practice of religion and reiterate that it would facilitate a comprehensive and thorough religious life.
Actually, Updike’s quote shows that his own view of the relationship between sacred and secular is backward. When he states that “Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation,” he seems to suggest that religion should take its cue from humanity, rather than humanity from religion. If religious belief is at all authentically theological, then this idea is obviously absurd. Religion is the human practice in response to the nature of God, through which humanity rightly aligns itself to that nature. But what does Updike mean by moderation, anyway? He appears to suggest that certain moral values are the result of a fundamental virtue of moderation. I would ask, moderation in regard to what? Moderation in and of itself is meaningless. If he means moderation in regard to the revelation of God, then he foolishly casts aside the intent of his own maker and arrogantly prioritizes his will over the will of God. If he means moderation in regard to truth in general, and therefore how truth applies to religious dogma regardless of its theistic authenticity, then by what measure are we to affirm moderation as an objective virtue? This moderation appears to be the same type of vapid creed by which Updike is “moderately disgusted.”
The call for religious moderation implicitly denies the possibility that certain religious doctrines could actually be objectively true. Since this assertion is impossible to justify, I would reverse the inertia of this discussion to again suggest that fundamentalism is actually the reasonable approach to religion. In other words, if a particular religion is true, then one aught to believe it and practice it comprehensively, not with some sort of ambiguous and arbitrary moderation. How could one be “moderately Christian,” anyway? Might one say, “I don’t believe that Jesus actually existed, nor do I really think there is a God in the traditional sense, but I am a Christian because the religion has taught me morality?” If so, on what basis does a religion founded upon a lie credibly instruct anyone on morality? Perhaps one could say, “I believe in Jesus, but I also believe that Buddha was right too.” In this case, one must either misunderstand Jesus or Buddha, as the contradictions between the two teachings are irreconcilable. Moderation in regard to religion denies either truth, power, or both.
Now, I certainly don’t take Updike for a fool. After all, he has produced Terrorist in the twilight of a long and critically successful literary career to which any American is culturally endebted. Despite his intellect, it is also true that some of the most brilliant thinkers make some of the most foolish blunders in thinking when it comes to matters of faith. Perhaps this is not the case for Updike. Perhaps it is more a blunder in semantics, and what he really had in mind was a behavioral moderation. If so, this is certainly something I could get behind as it relates to terrorism, which seems to be more of an outworking of emotion and irrationality then a fundamental approach to religion. But again, this is not moderation for moderation’s sake, nor moderation of religion or reason, but moderation in regard to rash human fallibility.
On March 28, 2006, the College of the Holy Cross sponsored a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, titled "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" Since I was not able to actually attend this much-anticipated event, I have been able to review the transcript of the proceedings, which can be found here. Normally, I wouldn't endeavor to analyze or throw my 'two cents' in after the fact, but the debate raised several issues that are particularly germane to philosophical and historical apologetics and which I think merit some attention. I won't necessarily be defending the historical resurrection in this article as previous ones have made clear my position on this matter. However, I would like to examine some philosophical ideas related to the discussion that often cause damage to a debate such as this one.
Aside from a rather unfortunate and embarassing introduction from the moderator, which recounts a medieval debate between a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Monk over whether Jesus was the messiah and seems to suggest that the resulting bedlam is characteristic of Christian 'sore losers,' both Craig and Ehrman seem to have conducted themselves in gentlemanly and scholarly fashion.
Dr. William Lane Craig, representing the affirmative position, is a Christian philosopher by profession, though it should be noted that he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and his apologetic work tends to focus on issues relevant to the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the historical resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, representing the negative position, is a Biblical historian and textual critic with a doctorate in theology who has been in the limelight recently after the publication of his latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which discusses the transmission of the Biblical texts and how they were changed over time. In summary, Dr. Craig defended his position that there is, in fact, historical evidence in light of which the resurrection of Jesus is a probable event. He began with what is a classic approach of his, what I will call the 'Four Facts' argument, which propose that there are four facts which must be adequately explained: 1. the burial of Jesus, 2. the discovery of his empty tomb, 3. the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 4. the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection. On the basis of his argument, he concludes that the best explanation of the facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, Dr. Ehrman argued that history is methodologically limited to dealing with information that can be verified through reliable sources and suggests only natural events. It is on the basis of this assertion that Ehrman declares such an event as the resurrection of Jesus non-historical, and therefore not germane to any discussion he would conduct.
This particular methodology, which Ehrman claims carries no bias toward theological issues, does not allow for a historical presence of the supernatural. Thus, the logical conclusion is that supernatural actions of God in history, are by nature non-historical. However, this just seems somewhat difficult to defend. If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. Without a direct communication from God affirming this point, one really has no basis to assume it. However, one does have, again assuming theism, a precedent upon which to expect God to act in history- namely the creation of the universe itself, which must be a historical event though no one was there to write it down or snap a photo as it was happening. Yet, since even the ‘natural’ was created at that point, the act itself must have been supernatural. In any case, suffice it to say that I believe Ehrman’s position on the matter to be a bit of a stretch of the credulity of any philosopher. He may be playing by the rules of historians, but that says nothing of whether a supernatural event actually occurred.
In response to the classic 'four facts' argument put forth by Craig, Ehrman suggests a couple of alternative explanations, which, while he does not subscribe to them personally, he argues are more probable explanations than that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For example, one he suggested first was that after Jesus' death by crucifixion, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. However, His family, motive unknown but preferring to have the final say in where Jesus was buried, broke into the tomb at night and removed the body. While transporting it, they encountered some Roman guards who summarily put them to death and cast all the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. Later, the disciples would obviously find the original tomb empty and legend would flourish.
While this explanation is rife with problems, the more important issue at play is, again, the arbitrariness with which it is assembled. The issue here is to find an explanation which satisfactorily deals with all the information available. In other words, and often stated by Craig, such an explanation must have appropriate explanatory scope and power in order to be the most probable and suitable to settle upon. Ehrman's suggestion not only fails in this regard, but it is absurdly ad hoc and ends up not satisfying the actual evidence but creating a list of other points to ground it that are either entirely contrived or at best speculative. For instance, his explanation follows the Gospel narrative in general but inserts an event previously unknown to account for the empty tomb. Not only is this event completely contrived, but it presents a new problem that the explanation does not itself solve. Specifically, had the relatives of Jesus (presumably Mary, and/or his brothers) attempted to move the body and been killed in the process, surely there would be some mention of their absence or at least an explanation of their deaths. In fact, history shows that at least James and Jude could not have been involved in this plot (assuming the authorship of the epistles of James and Jude are not spurious).
Craig, of course, continually returns to his 'four facts' argument and reminds the attending audience that they have not been adequately refuted. Given Ehrman’s inability to diffuse the ‘four facts’ argument, it seems that the issue of the debate sadly came down to one of professional methodology. On the one hand, we have a philosopher, adhering to the laws of logic and the fundamental notion of following the evidence where it leads, while on the other a historian willing to play by rules that satisfy operating in a bubble but seem almost absurd when exposed to the scrutiny of common sense. Needless to say, I was disappointed by this debate. Had the format of the proceedings themselves allowed, the scholars might have had opportunity to unpack the issues of historical and philosophical methodology in a depth necessary for really coming to any worthwhile determinations on the matter. While I find the ‘four facts’ argument to be strongly persuasive, it is only because I am also persuaded that historical methodology must allow for any event, including the miraculous, to occur. What would make for an interesting sequel to this debate would be to have the scholars return to discuss this issue in particular and then perhaps readdress the conclusions in regard to Jesus.