Tag Archives: Bible

The Amazing Thing About Christian Belief

The amazing thing about Christian belief is that, somehow, among the billions of possible planets, and the billions of people on this one, divided into innumerable sects and shades of belief — somehow, against all odds, my group got it right! Isn’t that amazing? God could be gods, or no god; they could have four heads or five hooves, or could speak only in the language of Zoltran — but no! None of that! By a coincidence beyond “inconceivable,” somehow, when it comes to God, I’m the one who wound up being completely right! about everything!

Nothing arrogant about that, right? I mean, obviously, this core belief is as good a reason as any to get mad at people — the ones who don’t recognize my superiority, that is — and call them names, ridicule their claims to know more than I do, even kill them. Not that contemporary Christians would do any of that, or at least not the killing. That’s medieval. That was when Christians had the power to do such things. They don’t anymore, and they won’t, and that’s too bad — because, aside from the tortures and the murders and the bad science and all that, at least the Middle Ages did give people the Kingdom of God. Right?

And so the question at hand is, how can we get back to that? Because that’s what God would want and, of course, he can’t do these things without our help.

Well. I’m no authority, but I’d say the first thing to do is to make sure God stays in his place. So let’s start with theology. The science of God! Gotta chuckle about that one. Theology tells us that God has to be a Trinity, even though the Bible itself doesn’t say so, and nobody can make sense of that — because, without a Trinity of just the right configuration, certain Bible passages will contradict each other. And that’s not acceptable because that would mean God wrote an imperfect Bible. Which, in turn, is not acceptable because it would mean that God didn’t actually write it and/or that we should not treat it as a legal document, replete with numbering of chapters and verses that God, himself, forgot to add. Neither of those options is acceptable because, really, how can you ever hope to have a religion that completely departs from practicing its founder’s most important message about the treatment of other people, if you don’t have an infallible scripture with which to overrule him?

So, like I say, the first thing is to help God explain who he is (the Trinity, I mean), and help him provide that explanation in a form that we can lawyer into submission — because, rather pathetically (for an all-knowing deity), he failed to realize that we would need this, so as to have specific reasons for burning people at the stake. Frankly, there are a lot of things that God forgot to put into that Bible, starting with a list of the books that it should include, so that our forbears wouldn’t have to spend centuries (continuing to the present) disagreeing about which books those should be, and also including an explanation of how the Bible can be the word of God when it says that, no, Jesus was the word of God.

The question posed by Ms. Olmstead is this: “To what extent are we called to flexibility and empathy in our doctrinal choices?” In other words, if the Bible says something, can we disregard it? For virtually all Christians in America, the answer is a resounding yes, if it happens to be something we don’t wish to make part of our religion. There’s that classic scene in The West Wing about that, but really we don’t need TV for this: everyone knows we can come up with reasons not to stone people, regardless of what God’s supposed laws might say. I mean, you have to keep the divinity in his place. He has his laws, and we have ours, right? Am I right?

Ms. Olmstead’s title asks, “Where Should Christianity Draw a Line in the Sand?” Because you can only put up with so much guff from these people who (like oneself) selectively decline to treat the Bible as it does not ask to be treated. Because, as I say, by some unbelievable (and I do mean unbelievable) coincidence, when it comes to drawing lines in the sand, it’s like Phil Collins says: Jesus, he knows me, and he knows I’m right!

* * * * *

This post was submitted as a comment on an article by Gracy Olmstead in The American Conservative (2018).

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Seeking Conclusions About Fundamentalist Christian B.S.

Background

Four years ago, I met a fundamentalist couple. This was not my first encounter with people who want to believe that the Bible is God’s word. To the contrary, as detailed in another post, I had been raised as a conservative Lutheran, had become a Lutheran pre-ministry student, and had spent several years deeply engaged in the Jesus movement of the early 1970s.

I say this man and woman (let’s call them Jack and Jill) were fundamentalists. I have seen other terms for their general kind of belief — “evangelical,” for instance, and “biblical literalist.” Maybe those words would be more accurate. I will stick with “fundamentalist,” here, because it is the word I used in a prior post that I will be citing shortly.

We got along well, these two fundamentalists and I. It seems this happened largely because I listened to their views and did not make much of an effort to present any other perspective. I suppose diplomacy is almost always a part of friendship, and deception is always a part of diplomacy, at least in the sense of choosing what one dares to say and how one dares to say it. These are uncomfortable realities, but they seem to reflect how most people approach interactions with persons of differing viewpoint.

The Internet is often criticized for removing important human dimensions of communication. In Facebook, email, and other digital interactions, we experience each other primarily as collections of words, attitudes, and opinions. We don’t necessarily get the smiles, the body language, the things left unsaid. Such media can promote misunderstanding; they can downplay some of the best aspects of the experience of communicating with an appreciated acquaintance.

And yet such media can also be liberating, and can facilitate learning and awareness. The side of me that wants to be honest seems to fare better in this digital realm. Here, online, those of us who stay diplomatically silent in person are sometimes more inclined to demonstrate that we have thoughts and ideas too, and that those thoughts and ideas deserve as much respect as those of the person who dominates face-to-face conversation.

So when I was with Jack and Jill, I tended to sit and listen as they — Jack, especially — went on and on about various topics. He did very much dominate the conversation. Then, and in our subsequent online conversations, he showed little interest in my life or my views. To the contrary, he frankly admitted that he did not consider himself openminded. He knew what he wanted to know, and that severely limited what we could talk about, and how much respect I would get.

I appreciated that Jack seemed to feel that I was a decent guy. But I think that was because I did not make a serious effort to stand up for myself, to explain why I had concluded that his form of belief was false. As many have found, you become less enjoyable when you stop serving as someone’s admirer.

Fundamentalist Christian B.S.

I am not very well equipped to be an admirer of someone who promotes fundamentalist Christianity. As I discovered in my own pilgrimage, that sort of religion requires an extraordinary determination to lie to other people, and to oneself — or, at best, a remarkable inability to realize that one might be mistaken.

In those years of deception and self-deception, I did meet people who tried to get through to me, as I came up with Bible passages to explain other Bible passages, and explanations to explain other explanations, and so on ad nauseum, in a never-ending circle. The problem is obvious to me now: I was afraid of going to Hell. To avoid that, I had to “believe in Jesus” — which meant, bizarrely, promoting a kind of religion that was not remotely what Jesus stood for.

The religion I was promoting was a legalistic one, based on lawyerly interpretation and analysis of Bible passages — whereas Jesus had made clear his opposition to the lawyers and the scribes of his day. Consider these remarks from Matthew ch. 23:

Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. . . .

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. . . .

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town . . . .

Perhaps God did send us sages, in the form of scientists who contributed to our understanding of our world. How do Christians react to science? They reject it and cling to the Bible, as they always have done, from Galileo and Copernicus right down to evolution and global warming. Believers like science, when it says what they prefer — which is another way of saying that believers don’t like science at all, because science is all about questioning and seeking to replace one’s previous beliefs with better explanations.

(In these remarks, I don’t mean to suggest that secular science or liberal perspectives are always superior. I address that side of the table in 1 2 other posts.)

The fundamental problem of fundamentalist Christianity is that you can’t teach someone who does not want to understand. As soon as so-called Christians gained power in Rome, within a few hundred years after Jesus, they began to torture and kill people who did not interpret the Gospel their way. In the words of Jesus, these Christians were whitewashed tombs, seemingly righteous and yet full of lawlessness. And they only got worse, as elaborated in another post: they took over Europe and held control for a thousand years, from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment, when people finally began to throw off the Christian yoke.

There was no humility in that sort of Christianity, no willingness to be the student. Bible-believing Christians always have been, and continue to be, proud of their ignorance. Indeed, they turn Jesus on his head, excusing and even glorifying their status as know-nothings, because Paul observed that not many members of the church at Corinth were wise by worldly standards. In the words of one interpreter of that passage, God “does not depend on education, philosophy, science, or any human device for doing His will.” As I learned during my fundamentalist years, real education is OK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your Bible study.

If you were to think seriously about Jesus, you might focus especially on his message of love. “Love your enemies,” he said; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You might contemplate that message as you consider what people have done in his name — as they have diligently pursued the textual, lawyerly, scriptural project that he had nothing to do with. Think about it: he could have enlisted his disciples in the task of writing a scripture; he could have written one himself. That didn’t happen. But that was what his Gentile followers wanted, just as his Jewish would-be followers wanted him to be the conquering Messiah. So, like the Jews of his time, the Gentile believers of later centuries rejected who he actually was, and what he actually said, in favor of building their own preferred religion. From there, it was only a series of small steps to the point where, guided by Bible passages that he neither wrote nor authorized, his so-called followers would proceed to murder others, and each other, by the millions.

My other post discusses that in some detail. It speaks about the tortures, the abuses of prisoners and the mentally ill, the tolerance of slavery, and some of the other ways in which Bible-led Christians abused their centuries of power. Certainly the Middle Ages had their achievements — their Gothic cathedrals, for example, and their Gregorian chants. But, overwhelmingly, they represent a time that nobody wants to go back to. They demonstrated that a Bible-led society is a really bad idea.

And yet there I was, during my Bible-believing years, standing up for the Bible-based church. It’s not that I really approved of tearing people’s skin off in Christ’s name. Rather, like most fundamentalists, history was one of those subjects on which I was confidently ignorant. I didn’t necessarily know much about what had happened; but, whatever it was, I was sure that, now, we were past all that. We were on to something powerful and holy.

And yet, even there, I look back and shake my head. The Bible, itself, didn’t add up. For instance, fundamentalists see no problem in the fact that God forgot to number the chapters and verses of the Bible — that he needed human assistance to make those thousands of changes to the original texts of the manuscripts and letters now gathered together as so-called books of the Bible. God also forgot to even mention the Trinity, much less explain it — but that didn’t prevent the lawyers of fundamentalist Christianity from spending centuries sorting it out, burning Unitarians at the stake along the way for their failure to embrace this theological invention.

Bible believers do not ask themselves why, if God was unfolding his divine plan, the process of forming the official list of Bible books would require centuries of dispute — why, indeed, we still have disagreement among Christians as to which books belong in the Bible. Such believers are comfortable with the fact that, in a vast number of instances, surviving biblical manuscripts do not agree with one another — mostly in small instances, but sometimes in major ones. Somehow, Christians who find it exceedingly important to study the original Greek and Hebrew texts, so as to get to the exact meaning of God’s alleged word, are not in the least dismayed by the obvious fact that there have been hundreds of different translations of the Bible into English — disagreeing, again, on many small points and on some larger ones. To the kind of person who can swallow all this, it’s fine that the “original” Greek texts were, themselves, translations — that, historians tend to agree, Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic and probably knew very little Greek. The message is, never mind that, let’s study Greek anyway — as I did, for two years, during my own pre-ministerial studies.

Faced with such realities, an honest person will conclude that this Bible was not the work of a God seeking to provide a perfect text. Either God was not involved, or he was seeking something other than the human invention of biblical inerrancy — the notion, that is, that “the Bible is without error in all that it affirms” (BillyGraham.org). Certainly a person seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, after reading his reported words about lawyers (e.g., “the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” and “Woe to you, lawyers!” — in Luke 7:30 and 11:46), will marvel at the legalistic acrobatics that theologians perform, in their desperate attempts to lawyer the Bible into submission.

Consider, for instance, how Bible.org tries to rationalize the many, often glaring, contradictions among Bible passages: it says biblical inerrancy “allows for variety in details in explaining the same event” and even “allows for problem passages.” To explain the latter admission, Bible.org says,

[I]t is impossible to provide solutions to all the problems [among seemingly contradictory Bible passages]. In some cases the solution awaits the findings of the archaeologist’s spade; in another case it awaits the linguist’s research; in other cases the solution may never be discovered for other reasons. The solution to some problems must be held in abeyance. The answer, however, is never to suggest there are contradictions or errors in Scripture.

So there you have it. The answer is never to suggest that the Bible contains errors or contradictions. Never is a big word. It means that no evidence of any sort will ever be allowed to shake the determination to make the Bible into something that the Bible, itself, does not claim to be. Because, let us be clear, what Bible.org says is not remotely found in the Bible itself. Unlike any halfway competent human writer, we are to believe that God did not have enough intelligence to simply list the books that he wanted in his Bible, provide authoritative copies of the originals, and give us what Bible.org has given us: a straightforward, definitive assurance that this Bible contains absolutely no errors.

There is no source other than the Bible that Christians commonly consider controlling in matters of faith, and the Bible itself fails to support the notion that its constituent books were all inspired or otherwise contributed or even influenced by God. Religious Tolerance offers a brief review of the passages most commonly cited in support of scriptural inerrancy — pointing out, for example, that when 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God,” it could only have been referring to the Old Testament, because the New Testament did not yet exist. Defending Inerrancy illustrates the dishonesty of Christian theologians in such matters, claiming that certain statements by Jesus “speak to the Bible’s infallibility” when, again, the New Testament (focused substantially on the gospel of Jesus) would not come into existence until long after he had left the scene.

By this point, you might agree that, as I pointed out in another post, these Christians are guilty of blasphemy (commonly defined as speech conveying great disrespect) against their own God. According to Wikipedia, “Blasphemy has been condemned as a serious, or even the most serious, sin by the major creeds and Church theologians.” And that’s exactly what it is, when you make God out to be some kind of idiot, who failed to grasp the obvious need for these basic materials and statements, and thus has always been desperately dependent upon his so-called followers to help his religion remain viable. In fundamentalist Christianity, the followers are actually the leaders. They have thought of things that completely eluded their God; they are way ahead of him. No wonder they enjoy their religion — it tells them that, in their own way, they are the real masters of the universe.

Some Christian fundamentalists would reply that we should not second-guess God. But, in writings like this one, we are not second-guessing God. We are second-guessing Christian fundamentalists. If there is a God, it would be inordinately stupid to treat him as though he were stupid.

Rather than make the Bible into something that it patently is not, the humble and sensible thing is to take the Bible as it is. It is a collection of manuscripts, some pertaining to the Jews of the Old Testament, some to the Christians of the New. For those who find particular value in Jesus, the most important message of the Bible may have to do with his gospel. There is no denying that Jesus was, and remains, an extraordinary person with a remarkable message.

Goodbye to the B.S. Artist

As I say, I met Jack and Jill four years ago. A year and a half later, I wrote a blog post about some of my subsequent online interactions with Jack. Among other things, that post examined the practice of “lying for the Lord,” as I had once heard some Mormons call it. I summarized one section of that post in these words:

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

Another section of that post offered some examples of online interactions with Jack and Jill. The main difference between them, for my purposes, was that Jill might express a view against vaccines, for instance, apparently based on nothing more than rumor; but if I questioned it, she would not waste my time inventing goofy arguments, playing games with words, or evading obvious points. Jack, by contrast, was a bullshit artist; as noted earlier, he had no interest in intelligent discussion. He knew where he wanted the discussion to go, in advance: it needed to reach a conclusion consistent with his fundamentalist beliefs — and he was going to get us there, by hook or by crook.

That, I think, was probably why I got out of Christian fundamentalism, whereas Jack will probably always stay in it. For all my attempts to invent scripture-based rationales supporting various conclusions, at the end of the day I was reachable. As described in another post, a professor did in fact get through to me: he listened to my arguments; he replied intelligently; I tried to work through what he was saying; a crisis of faith resulted; through strenuous efforts continuing for about a year, I concluded that he was right; and eventually I ceased to be a fundamentalist Christian.

When I realized that Jack was completely insincere, in the sense of seeking a predetermined outcome rather than the truth of a given matter, I unfriended him on Facebook. I hesitated to do that, but ultimately I had little choice: as illustrated in the other post, he kept inserting his irrationality into otherwise earnest discussions between people who were trying to explain their disagreements to each other. More than two years later, I still think that was the right thing to do. If you can’t or won’t be reasonable, I don’t want to help you bother people.

During the two years after I unfriended Jack, I continued to be Facebook friends with Jill. It was the usual Facebook interaction: she would “like” things that I posted, and vice versa. I would occasionally challenge her more extreme views, but those exchanges were invariably brief and to the point.

I assume Jack continued to be Jill’s Facebook friend throughout these past two years, and as such I assume he saw at least some of our interactions. He generally seemed to be a pretty mellow guy. My guess was that he saw that I didn’t care to interact with him anymore, and he was content to leave it at that.

For some reason, that changed recently. Jack decided to join in an exchange between Jill and me, probably because it was about a Bible passage and he is a minister. (He could inject himself into that exchange, on Facebook, because Jill had both of us as friends.) And immediately it was like old times: once again I was getting, from Jack, these long, rambling posts, unreasonable claims, and the same obvious desire to “win” rather than discuss. Here’s how it went in one such case:

  • First exchange: I posted a two-line response to Jill; she posted a two-line reply; Jack jumped in with two posts totaling 42 lines.
  • I did object to that verbosity. But eventually I took the bait and replied at some length. Jack (no advanced degrees) proceeded to explain things about the law to me (a lawyer). When I questioned that, he said he meant only to be discussing the law of Moses — on which he (having never studied theology, and having no substantial exposure to Jewish culture) felt that I (12 years in NYC; Jewish ex-wife; former theology student) had only “marginal knowledge.”
  • Seeing that Jack wanted to approach the Bible as a lawyer, I asked him for (a) “a straightforward statement of God’s intentions, regarding which laws are to be observed” and (b) a summary of the arguments against his position. Jack ignored those requests, choosing instead to bury me in another long, rambling reply.

I made those last requests, in part, because I wanted to see whether my impression was mistaken. It seemed to me that Jack just liked to hear himself talk, but I realized I could be wrong; he could be driving toward a coherent point in some way that I wasn’t recognizing. If he did have something specific to say (as distinct from trolling for interminable debate), it seemed reasonable to ask him to state, not his own point (which might have been construed as inviting yet another longwinded discourse), but rather the opposing points, on which he would presumably not expostulate at length. On the other hand, my exposure to counseling psychology suggested that, if he couldn’t say what his opponents argued, he might not be listening to them.

I might have had more patience with Jack if we hadn’t already gone down this road. I had written that previous post — I had rambled, in that previous post, I think — because I was trying to come to terms with, in some sense to gain some perspective on, this unpleasant kind of individual.

I don’t want to overstate the unpleasantness. In his (long) last remark, Jack did make some positive remarks about me. Unfortunately, he mixed them with some attacking remarks and some inaccuracies. It seemed to me that he may have found that he could keep people enmeshed in his debates by holding out that kind of olive branch. By that point, though, I really only cared that he had disregarded my reasonable request for a summary of what, exactly, he was disagreeing with.

Conclusion

From time to time, we must all deal with people who seem to be (or really are) disagreeable or unreasonable. In such situations, it seems best not to rush to judgment: sometimes those whom we find most annoying are those who have the most to teach us. At the same time, the person who strives to keep an open door and an open mind is at risk of being dragged into fruitless debates, or worse, with people who may be insincere, manipulative, or mentally ill.

I have recorded these reactions to this episode here because, as with the previous post about Jack and Jill, it gives me a point of reference that will remain readily accessible, long after the Facebook debate is buried — and also because, for more complicated or extensive issues, Facebook’s little posting space is not adequate. I hope these materials are useful, in the future, not only to me, but also to others who grapple with questions of faith, and with the frequently false statements that some believers make.

The Failure of Philosophy on the Big Questions

Philosophy is commonly associated with the big questions of life. For example, a Google search leads to a number of books, articles, and other materials linking philosophers with such questions. The question here is, does philosophy deserve that association?

What Are the Big Questions?

Granted, people may differ on what they consider most important at any moment. If your boat is sinking in the middle of the ocean, your big questions may include “Can we plug the hole?” and “Is there a life raft?” But under ordinary circumstances, lists of really grand questions in life tend to be short and similar, from one source to another. Here, for example, are the topics listed in the contents of a book by Solomon and Higgins (2013):

  • The meaning of life
  • God
  • The nature of reality
  • The search for the truth
  • Self
  • Freedom
  • Morality and the good life

Similarly, the table of contents from a book by Sample, Mills, and Sterba (2004) lists these as “the big questions”:

  • What can we know?
  • What can we know about the nature and existence of God?
  • Are we ever free?
  • Does our existence have a meaning or purpose?
  • How should we live?

Blackburn (2013) phrases similar concerns in somewhat different terms (and adds some that may be better answered by scientists than by philosophers):

  • Am I a ghost in a machine?
  • What is human nature?
  • Am I free?
  • What do we know?
  • Are we rational animals?
  • How can I lie to myself?
  • Is there such a thing as society?
  • Can we understand each other?
  • Can machines think?
  • Why be good?
  • Is it all relative?
  • Does time go by?
  • Why do things keep on keeping on?
  • Why is there something and not nothing?
  • What fills up space?
  • What is beauty?
  • Do we need God?
  • What is it all for?
  • What are my rights?
  • Is death to be feared?

There is not terribly much difference among those lists. A student, assigned to boil them down into the Top Ten Issues, might mention something like existence and nonexistence, reality and knowledge, consciousness and beauty, goodness and freedom, and God and the universe.

How Is Philosophy Doing on the Big Questions?

Imagine a world in which contemporary philosophers had arrived at answers to the big questions, and were effectively communicating those answers to the college students sitting in their classes. In such a world, the self-help sections in bookstores (and the self-help websites online) would probably be much fewer, smaller, and less popular. Religious nuts, spouting nonsense, would get nowhere with a public familiar with philosophy’s answers to the big questions. Politicians would be philosopher-kings, succeeding only to the extent that they could engage educated listeners with reasoned defenses of their preferred views on those questions.

Sad to say, the train went off the tracks somewhere. Self-help has long been a booming business. Religion and politics are the jokes that rule us. Hardly anybody thinks that philosophy, of the type taught in universities, has much relevance to the real world. Yes, a few times per century, some philosopher exerts far-reaching albeit gradual influence upon society; and yes, within other fields of knowledge, there is the occasional intellectual who understands philosophers’ insights, and applies them to his/her own work. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. There is an enormous contrast between what could be happening, as illustrated in those exceptions, and what is actually happening in the overwhelming bulk of philosophical study and writing.

As a practical matter, philosophers have long been pulling a bait-and-switch — holding out the promise of useful education, so as to get people to take their classes and buy their books, but then disappointing generation after generation of students with extremely complex texts that, very often, degenerate into hairsplitting trivia. Students can certainly pick up some ideas, and some familiarity with forms of intellectual debate, that may be useful in their future careers in other fields — although there are no guarantees, as philosophical discussion and reasoning can be very alien to the working world.

The point here is not that philosophy is a complete waste of time. It is that philosophy is a failure for purposes of providing answers to the big questions.

It is not that philosophers have not tried to answer the big questions. It is that, as we learn in philosophy class, every answer has its assumptions, its limits, its weaknesses. The real bait-and-switch is that, with few exceptions, those complex and trivial texts build to a single conclusion: there are not really any answers to the big questions. There are only unsatisfactory ways of attempting to provide such answers.

I do believe that that conclusion is correct — that the philosophers have not been lying to us, that for the most part there truly are no completely satisfactory answers to the big questions. Then again, that is precisely what someone like me would believe — someone who has followed the occasional philosophical debate far enough to arrive at the conclusions expressed in the preceding paragraph. With the aid of a bit of background reading, I, or someone like me, could probably poke holes in just about any big answer that someone might suggest. Persons with this kind of education tend to function as skeptics toward the very notion that there might actually be a useful answer to a big question.

Here’s an example. Take the first topic on the first of those three lists (above): the meaning of life. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “the meaning of life” says that that topic has interested philosophers since the time of Aristotle. But that entry also says that, somehow, “it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared.” How is that possible? Nor has that deeper contemporary debate led anywhere in particular. The encyclopedia entry suggests that — consistent with philosophy’s established track record — it has yielded, not answers, but rather more questions:

When the topic of the meaning of life comes up, people often pose one of two questions: “So, what is the meaning of life?” and “What are you talking about?”

The entry goes on to state that some people have debated the meaning of life’s “meaning” — but this, too, has not yielded definitive insight:

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field.

In further discussion, the entry indicates that some philosophers ascribe meaning to life as it relates to God, while others prefer a sense of life’s meaning that relates in some way to one’s eternal soul. Still others focus on life’s meaning in non-supernatural terms, having to do with either the subjective individual perspective or something else, external to us, that confers meaning upon life regardless of subjective mental state. Finally, there are nihilist or pessimistic perspectives, in which “what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.”

So there you are. There, in a nutshell, is philosophy’s answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer is, it depends on which philosopher you agree with. Very helpful. That and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

The true state of affairs is not that philosophy grapples with the big questions in a serious and responsible way. The true state of affairs is that, in the words of a New York Times article, philosophy suffers from “an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.”

Certainly there are people who enjoy philosophizing for its own sake, sitting around and batting ideas back and forth. For that sort of person, big questions can actually be unrewarding, as they tend to involve messy combinations of fact and feeling. Indeed, most important questions in life are like that. When you have a real-life problem, you might entertain various abstract notions, but at the end of the day you need a practical answer.

Suppose, as a relatively simple example, that you’re trying to decide whether to adopt a child. That’s not one of the big questions. But it illustrates a kind of situation in which someone does have a burning need for an answer. It’s not something that you can futz around with for years, and in the end just shrug and say, “Well, I guess there are no absolutely right or wrong answers.” People who bring personal interest and immediate need to the big questions are not wanting someone to diddle them for a while. They are wanting workable conclusions to inform their lives. And the need can be urgent — in the case of someone who is losing his/her religion, for example; in the case of someone considering suicide, or struggling with deep personal loss.

Philosophy tends to provide everything except that sort of working conclusion. In that sense, the bait-and-switch description may not be quite right; perhaps the better characterization is that philosophy is a subterfuge, a means of identifying the people who are most likely to seek out and live by specific answers to big questions, and persuading them that it is silly or at least unrealistic to seek such answers. Philosophy is, indeed, a debilitating subterfuge, insofar as its study tends not even to equip the student with a sophisticated alternative. Most students will not clearly and permanently digest and remember what the philosophers have actually said on a specific question. Instead, what the students tend to retain is a general belief that there is probably some good reason why any attempted answer to such a question is flawed and should be ignored.

If the student ever does arrive at a point in life where s/he needs real answers to big questions, s/he is likely to be found in the self-help aisle, or looking into the words of various physical and social scientists or religious leaders — more or less as s/he would have done if s/he had never read a word of philosophy. In the works of those self-help, scientific, and religious writers, the student may encounter references to various philosophers, and may once again be reminded that philosophy claims to be at the root of the big questions; but for the most part such references will be historical in nature. They will be reminders that, if you want to pretend to wrestle with big questions, you should consider wasting a few years in philosophy classes.

Philosophy vs. Metaphilosophy

Philosophy used to be done by people like Plato and Aristotle, who would try to articulate relatively straightforward solutions to big questions. But then readers noticed problems with the way that Plato et al. formulated or answered such questions. Over time, it developed that reasoned approaches to grand philosophical questions were invariably problematic. There was always some devil lurking in the details. Thus philosophy became more of a historical affair, like the history of the Roman Empire or of ancient Christianity, in which the early deeds of great leaders gradually devolved into the baffled and increasingly ineffectual scrabblings of minor devotees. At a certain point, attempting to get an overview of all that material, you grasp that it is essentially a history lesson — and perhaps an unnecessarily complicated one at that — and you move on, in search of better alternatives.

We see, in other words, that philosophy as currently taught in college courses, and as conveyed in books about philosophy, is a largely bloodless affair, conducted by people with no skin in the game. Is there a God? Maybe, maybe not — but it’s not something that this sort of philosopher will lose any sleep over. It is an activity in which the dominant voice is that of the spectator, sitting back and watching what other people have tried to do, in their variously brilliant or foolish struggles with the big questions.

One could characterize such armchair philosophizing as “metaphilosophy.” Officially speaking, “meta” implies self-reference (i.e., about oneself). So — according to Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — metaphilosophy is philosophizing about philosophy.

But the concept of metaphilosophy has drawn a lukewarm reception. Most philosophers seem to feel that meta questions (e.g., “what is the purpose of philosophy?”) are just a part of philosophy itself. And of course philosophers consider themselves qualified to decide what lies within the proper scope of their professional activities, as do other kinds of professionals (e.g., police officers, generals, prostitutes, politicians). Ironically, though, the claim to possess an accurate overall understanding of philosophy, sufficient to reject the label of metaphilosophy, is just what one would expect from a metaphilosopher.

It does not appear, in fact, that philosophers have a very good grasp of the proper scope of their profession. They have positioned themselves as experts in their field, but not as experts on public need. As experts within their own concept of expertise, they have presumed to dictate what the general public should find interesting, or what the general public should be able to understand. Such positioning amounts to elitism: we will speak to the more intelligent people (i.e., those who are more like us), and leave the others to fend for themselves. Certainly some concepts are difficult to understand. But leaving those unlike us to come up with their own beliefs is, in effect, leaving the door open to liars and quacks — and that, we have discovered, is a great way to undermine public support for philosophical inquiry.

While metaphilosophy is certainly not the ordinary word to describe philosophy professors’ everyday teaching and writing about philosophy, it does seem to be the appropriate word. There are real philosophers, who are motivated to resolve big questions with practicable answers that can make a difference in real lives; and then there are various historians, analysts, and teachers who are content to talk about what the real philosophers are trying to do. Traditionally, both groups are called “philosophers.” But that seems lame, for a profession so oriented toward detecting distinctions. We do not confuse football players with those who merely talk about football, or who record the history of its games. We do not confuse the people who study sex with the people who actually participate in it. Let us likewise cease to confuse philosophers with metaphilosophical teachers and historians.

This is not to deny that the garden-variety teacher of philosophy may consider him/herself — perhaps with good reason — to be a philosopher of the first rank, prevented by circumstance rather than lack of brilliance from changing the world with the things that s/he would publish, given time and funding. The line between direct philosophical practice and indirect metaphilosophizing may be vague, contested, and in flux. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the possibility of a useful distinction between the people, ideas, works, situations, or statements that seem to count as solution-focused engagements with the big questions, and those that do not.

In that light, one might look more carefully at the definition of philosophy. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers a contrast between, on one hand, “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” and, on the other hand, “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” or “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live.” That contrast amounts to a difference between the general study of ideas offered by various philosophers down through the centuries, suitable for metaphilosophy, and the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a specific issue (e.g., a big question). The former is philosophizing about philosophy — adding the teacher’s or historian’s interpretation on top of what famous philosophers have said — while the latter is the actual practice thereof.

Reconceiving Philosophy as (Especially)
the Pursuit of Answers to Big Questions

It is possible to define teaching to include every instructive activity taken by every crow, dog, and human on the planet. But for purposes of people who are trying to educate small children, the definition of teaching quickly becomes much more narrowly conceived and closely monitored. The same is true of history: there is a difference between logging every random factoid (with or without commentary) and an attempt to provide a concise and readable explanation of what happened in, say, America’s war in Afghanistan. It is neither helpful nor appropriate to indulge the freedoms implied in the broad definition, when circumstances call for an outcome consistent with narrow application.

Likewise in the case of philosophy. The key question (above) is whether the putative philosopher is engaged in the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a big issue. As one moves away from that sort of thing, one appears increasingly likely to be engaged in metaphilosophy — in, that is, classical philosophy’s interminably indecisive dabbling in ideas about ideas, lacking commitment to delivery of working solutions within an appropriate timeframe.

One can belong to various groups; one can share interests with a wide variety of people. It will not be surprising, though, if a philosopher, vitally engaged in the study of a big question, has less in common with metaphilosophers in his/her university department, and more in common with poets, sociologists, and lawyers who have become engaged in some aspect of that same big question. In other words, “philosopher” will no doubt continue to be a term applied carelessly to anyone with a PhD in the field; but, again, for purposes of people seeking useful answers to big questions, there may be a world of difference between real philosophers and abstruse metaphilosophers.

If philosophy is reconceived as the focused pursuit of useful answers to big questions — spinning metaphilosophy off into, perhaps, a subgroup within the university’s departments of history or literature — then it immediately becomes somewhat less appropriate to adjudge philosophy, as a whole, to be a failure with respect to such questions. It also becomes clearer that it is OK if you have not mastered the classic philosophers. Instead, the question may be, how well is this or that contemporary philosopher doing, in his/her up-to-date struggles with the particular big question on which s/he is focused.

Assuming this reconceptualization of philosophy — along with a determined effort to present philosophical findings intelligibly — it could develop that, at some point in the future, philosophy will cease to be a failure with respect to the big questions. That is not to anticipate that philosophers will have all the answers, or that they will have magically ceased to reach conclusions rife with contradiction, error, and impracticality. It is just that, at such a time, their reconceptualized and more tightly focused discipline may at least have bridged part of the gap between what they do and what the world needs from them. Success in this regard may have arrived when the average person seeks guidance from a philosopher — rather than from a minister, astrologer, or self-appointed expert — because the philosopher’s guidance is more palpably based in a superior combination of science, experience, and reasoning, and less dependent upon random opinion.

Next Steps

This article has proposed a distinction between metaphilosophy (understood as the bloodless recounting or analysis of what various philosophers have said) and philosophy (understood as the immediate pursuit of conclusions on big questions within a realistic timeframe). That distinction does not imply that metaphilosophy is worthless. No doubt there are many purposes for which it is well suited. Among other things, the Internet offers tons of material on the history of philosophy, and of course there have been many books as well. Well-known examples include Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Copleston’s History of Philosophy series.

Under the rubric of applied (a/k/a practical or popular) philosophy, one finds many (and potentially engaging) philosophical investigations of specific issues arising in the daily news. Such investigations span subjects ranging from health care to hate crimes. Here, again, such subjects can readily entail exploration of topics outside philosophy (e.g., law, in the case of hate crimes). One source distinguishes applied philosophy from accessible philosophy, where the latter consists of efforts to present the ideas and/or works of mainstream philosophers in more readily digested form. My own plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic would be an example. Daniel Fincke and Brendan Myers offer related thoughts and materials. Philosophy Bites appears to be a recognized source of both applied and accessible philosophy.

Yet applied and accessible philosophy seem to be beside the point — the former, because it appears oriented toward small questions, not big ones; and the latter, because it appears to offer only a simplified route to understanding the ways in which philosophy has failed to reach useful conclusions on the big questions. In other words, the situation seems to be that (with or without accessible treatment) either we accept the rationality-based approach of western philosophy and its lack of convincing solutions, or we reject that approach and go with something else instead.

One rejectionist route is that of religion. Religious organizations and thinkers offer answers to big questions. These are not traditionally considered part of philosophy because they draw upon sources of alleged knowledge that are not open to rational analysis. For example, in Christianity, which has been the primary focus of debates on religion and philosophy in Western culture, key beliefs tend to require uncritical acceptance of unverifiable stories, presented in a scriptural book of mixed reliability.

Before turning to religion, the person seeking workable answers to big questions might consider adopting a single school of philosophy and making a go of it, warts and all — concluding (as one must also do in a religion) that the chosen philosophy has its difficulties and its quandaries, but is nonetheless time-tested and worthy for practical purposes. As a start in this direction, one might look at Wikipedia’s lists of Western and Eastern philosophical movements, along with Listverse’s list. Several of the items on those lists (e.g., existentialism, pragmatism, utilitarianism) appear capable of providing guiding principles sufficient to chart a course through many of the big questions. For instance, Koshal (2010, p. 105) construes Rorty’s pragmatism in these words: “[Pragmatism] maintains that unless we take something for granted we shall never settle any question . . . . The [propositions] we should rely on are those for which we have the most evidence for and little or none against.”

Where the chosen philosophy falls short, one might supplement it with eclectic selections from one or more other philosophies. A reasonable objective, in such an approach, might be, not to arrive at a single quasi-religious God’s-eye answer to all questions, but rather to develop conceptualizations that work and make sense for one’s own purposes. Unlike a religious approach, this objective would appear compatible with, and potentially open to, discussion with and learning from people who have adopted other philosophies.

As these suggestions imply, giving up on philosophy as a source of big answers does not necessarily entail giving up on philosophers as sources of good clues. Perhaps one’s personal philosophy is best developed inductively, starting with applied philosophical discussions of specific topics and allowing one’s reading and thinking to grow toward larger hunches and speculations.

It may turn out that there is not, and for the indefinite future there will not be, a single Bible-like compendium of definitive words, straightforwardly answering the big questions in terms satisfactory to a given reader. In that case, the point of this article might be that one need not therefore lurch to the opposite extreme. There may be strategies, oriented toward development of a working personal philosophy responsive to the big questions, that do not necessitate the undergraduate philosophy major’s bewildered stagger through a thicket of bickering eggheads. Ultimately, it is possible that a carefully reconceived profession of philosophy can succeed where today’s multifarious profession has failed.

Illustrations from the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible

Before I started this blog, I put a number of religion-related entries into my ideas blog.  I have gradually been moving them here.

This particular post contains the verbatim text of several of those posts.  They were focused particularly on the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (SAB).  An inescapable conclusion from review of that work is that it is unrealistic — I have argued that, in fact, it is blasphemous — to blame God for the Bible.  Not to deny that the book contains literature, history, great stories, and so forth; but, clearly, the Bible is not what some have claimed, in their efforts to construct their religions and cults.

I might have continued with the exploration of the SAB — I did flip around in it, here and there — but eventually it becomes obvious:  the Bible is not, and does not even claim to be, a perfect work, inspired by God.  I certainly wanted it to be God’s divine word, but in the end, truth is not about what you or I want.  Unless we wish to spend our lives lying to ourselves and to others, we’ve got to face the realities, and open our minds to whatever God, or the gods, or the universe — whoever or whatever there is — may actually be trying to communicate to us.

So I did quickly decide not to make much of the SAB, beyond the few excepts shown here.  There just didn’t seem to be much point in going on and on about it.  People who are being honest with the facts will get the picture quickly enough, and those who don’t prioritize honesty that highly — preferring tradition, or hope, or some other virtue instead — will never get it, no matter what you put in front of them.

Given that perception of the situation, it did not seem necessary to spend time to weave the following texts together.  I am just presenting them, as I say, verbatim, in the form that I previously posted them in that other blog.  There assuredly is a great deal more where this came from, for those who have time and interest in exploring the SAB further.

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Previous Post No. 1:  When Was the Sun Created?

Genesis:

1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

BUT:

1:14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
1:15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

Evidently there was no “light upon the earth” before this point.  So the division of light from darkness cited above, as well as the evening and the morning, were occurring somewhere other than Earth.

AND:

1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
1:17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
1:18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
1:19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

The creation of the Sun (1:15) occurred on the fourth day.  How could there be three days before this?

From The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which also provides the following link, among others:

In response to the theory that each so-called “day” actually represented an entire epoch, Dr. Jason Rosenhouse quotes Rabbi Natan Slifkin at length, including the following excerpts:

[A]lthough this approach reconciles the difference between a time span of six days and a time span of fourteen billion years, the events of those six days cannot be correlated with the scientific account of what took place during the fourteen billion years. . . .

There have been very ingenious attempts to make the content and sequence of Genesis concord with that of science, an approach known as “concordism.” Such efforts are, however, beset with serious difficulties . . . . [Among other things,] they render the true meaning of Genesis as something only comprehensible to modern man. And yet we see that, although the Torah is binding for all generations, God presented it in a form that would be meaningful to the generation that received it.  The laws of damages refer to donkeys falling in pits, not trucks ramming into cars. It is unreasonable to believe that God gave an account of Creation that mankind was completely incapable of understanding for thousands of years.

If Genesis can only be reconciled with science via obscure theories, reference to irrelevant phenomena, drastic and very difficult textual reinterpretation, and ingenious intellectual gymnastics, then it is not a very impressive scientific account. The most reasonable conclusion is that Genesis was never intended to be a scientific text . . . .

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Previous Post No. 2:  How Many Gods Are There?

Genesis 1:26
And God said, let us make man in our image.

Genesis 3:22
And the Lord God said, Behold, then man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.

Genesis 11:7
Let us go down, and there confound their language.

Exodus 22:28
Thou shalt not revile the gods.

Exodus 34:14
For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

1 Samuel 28:13
And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.

Psalm 82:6
I have said, Ye are gods.

Zephaniah 2:11
The Lord will be terrible to them: for he will famish all the gods of the earth.

John 10:33-34
The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God. Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?

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Previous Post No. 3:  Adam Didn’t Die That Day

Genesis 2:16-17:  “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:  But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

Genesis 5:5:  “And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.”

 

Religion and Politics: Further Ahead by Losing

One time, I was fighting traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, heading into Manhattan.  I saw an opening and jumped into it.  Another driver felt that this move wronged him.  He pulled up next to me on my right side, yelling and threatening.  I pointed off to the right, past him.  He ignored my gesture and kept yelling.  I pointed again.  Eventually, he looked.  So finally he saw that the lane off to his right was completely clear.  He was so busy worrying about me that he had overlooked a wide-open opportunity.  Instead of being so eager to get stuck where I was, he could have been long gone.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when talking to people about religion and politics.  They get so concerned about winning every battle that they set themselves up to lose the war.  Everybody has to be right about everything, all the time.  But if that’s how it has to be, when are we going to get a chance to make some mistakes, so that we can learn something?

This question comes to mind when I think about evangelical Christians in American politics.  The classic example:  why does Mississippi vote Republican?  You’ve got a state full of people who are dependent on Medicare and other governmental programs, and they consistently vote for politicians who strive to reduce if not eliminate such programs.

The answer seems to be that the very religious voters of Mississippi see the Republican Party as the party of God, and they see it that way for social rather than economic reasons.  In their view, God does not worry about money nearly as much as he worries about abortion and gay rights.  Mississippi voters are going to save those fetuses.  That is the call of God.  Providing postnatal healthcare for them and their mothers is not.

Many consider this to be the kind of thinking that one should expect from the least literate state in the union.  The blunt word is “stupid.”  But I would emphasize a different word:  “proud.”  I would say this is the thinking of the arrogant.  The voters of Mississippi think they know a Truth that others cannot see.

That belief would be understandable if God had plainly said, in the Bible, “protect those fetuses” and “support the Republicans.”  He did not.  The preoccupations with fetuses and Republicanism are due entirely to interpretations that not all Bible readers share.  The illiterate are telling the literate how to construe a text.  Arrogance seems like a good word for this.

Of course, Mississippi’s preachers are not illiterate.  Ultimately, though, they are not the ones with the power.  It is the individuals in the pews who elect the politicians and choose the ministers.  It is they, relatively unskilled in textual interpretation, who know what they want the ministers to say.  We have, in other words, a tail wagging a dog.

The idea seems to be that God has revealed himself to the people of Mississippi, and that they can therefore disregard common sense.  It is no surprise that a state such as this would be dead last in health, poverty, and other social indicators.  There’s probably a story that would make that sound like the work of the God who gave his people a land of milk and honey, and there are may be many who are eager to believe such a tale.

It would be one thing if Mississippi had some rational basis for concluding that its eccentric path were the right one.  But when a state’s people reach the very bottom of the barrel, and respond by striving persistently to stay there, one must wonder whether the result is due to emotion rather than intellect.  It seems that it might be a situation in which a person makes a terrible mistake, and then tries to save face by pretending that this was exactly what s/he intended to do.

Sometimes, as in my Lincoln Tunnel story, people will become preoccupied with fighting, instead of being smart and moving ahead.  It could be embarrassing for Mississippi’s believers, and their ministers, to smell the coffee – to wake up and realize that they have been screwing themselves for decades.  It may be emotionally more tolerable to keep insisting that they were right all along, even as things keep getting worse.

The message to Mississippi is really a message to fundamentalists in every religion.  God has not spoken to you.  You may like to believe he has.  But we know you by your fruits – including those that you conceal or conveniently overlook.  You are as human as the rest of us – no more, no less.  You make mistakes as often as the rest of us do.  And in the case at hand, the people of Mississippi have made some serious mistakes in their mixing of religion and politics, just as the rest of us have done in various ways, at various times.

The question is not whether mistakes have been made.  The question is whether a person is going to learn from them.

In a sense, this post is about the ethical restraint of fundamentalist self-righteousness.  No cause or principle is a law unto itself.  Virtues tend to be counteracted by other virtues.  For instance, justice is important, but so is mercy.  Truth is important, but so is humility.

Virtues do strive for supremacy.  The person preoccupied with truth may think that nothing else matters.  Ironically, such a belief tends to be false.  The reason is that life is complex.  There are always many things going on, on multiple levels.  It is tempting to get on a roll – to treat one virtue as supreme, and to flatter oneself on one’s superiority in that regard.  For instance, a person might like to believe that s/he is more honest than others.  That is the path of arrogance and, at the same time, of ignorance.  Even in that one virtue, we are usually not as admirable as we may wish to believe.  We are less likely to go astray, with an overemphasis on one virtue, when we keep other virtues in mind.

The point is not that virtues overrule the text of the Bible.  They probably do, for people who entertain reasonable doubts.  But even the Bible-believing Christian must recognize the attention given, in that text, to competing virtues.  Jesus provides a number of examples in his complex remarks about law and gospel.  The Bible contains many calls to prioritize competing virtues.  Do this, but also do that.

A crusade that glorifies one principle above all others is very likely to conflict with biblical guidance in multiple ways.  Crusades can be emotionally gratifying, but they tend to result in a great deal of non-Christlike behavior and unanticipated collateral damage.

The people of Mississippi would benefit from greater humility about what they know, and what they do not know.  I recommend curiosity, including a willingness to question what people tell us on either side of an issue.  That is not always the right path.  But it tends to reduce the urge to proclaim one’s rightness in every battle, to the point of precluding actual learning.

How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian

Contents

Pentecostalism
The End Times
Lying for the Lord
Fellowship
A Christian College
A Crisis of Faith
L’Abri
Give Away All That You Possess
Honesty

.

Pentecostalism

I was raised and confirmed in the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in northern Indiana. This is not to say I was an exceptionally good child. I was probably more profane than most, got in more trouble than many, and fought many a Sunday morning battle with Mom over whether I had to go to church, the equivalent of a city block away from our rural home. Religion was not a subject a person would ordinarily talk about. It felt awkward.

In the summer of 1971, after my sophomore year of high school, I started reading the Psalms in the Bible, and continued into the book of Proverbs. I’m not sure why. I had heard of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I don’t recall being particularly oriented toward that sort of thing. Maybe I was just curious. Psalms and Proverbs would have been relatively safe for me: they didn’t have the overly religious feel of the familiar old stories about Moses and Jesus and such.

This Bible reading may have predisposed me to be interested when my friend Neal told me (probably while we were hanging out outside the church building rather than submit to the deadly tedium of another Sunday service) about the so-called coffeehouse, the Adam’s Apple, run by Calvary Temple, in Fort Wayne. I went with Neal to Adam’s Apple for the first time that October. It quickly became a habit: for much of the next two years, I attended the Apple frequently and Calvary Temple occasionally, to my parents’ dismay. It was not their brand of religion. Dad, in particular, felt that Calvary Temple was run by a fraud.

Adam’s Apple put a whole new face on Christian belief. In stark contrast to the stiff religiosity on display in the pews of Zion Lutheran Church, people at the Apple would hug each other. There (and sometimes at other places in the vicinity), a young audience would sit on the floor and listen, laugh, clap, and pray while regular musicians like John Lloyd and Nancy Henigbaum (“Honeytree”), and guests like Phil Keaggy and Larry Norman, would play. I’ve posted a video that captures some of the sounds from that place.

godspell

Pentecostalism can be pretty heady: speaking in tongues; saving souls for the Lord; believing that the Devil is constantly trying to snare you; telling my high school composition teacher that I was not going to college because the world was going to end soon. I could not waste time on flawed human knowledge when there was so much important work to do for the Lord in those End Times. I was street-witnessing (i.e., stopping passers-by to ask if they had found Jesus), not only in nearby towns, but also as far away as Dayton, Ohio (with the Adam’s Apple group), Indianapolis (with Campus Crusade for Christ), and the Warren Dunes in Michigan (on a church youth group camping trip). I had my Dake Bible; I read it from cover to cover a half-dozen times, and investigated countless cross-references among Bible passages; I memorized several of the shorter New Testament books verbatim. They called me Preacher Ray, there at DeKalb High School.

The End Times

These things were unfolding in the context of something called the Jesus Movement. Many of our leaders, in that movement, had been the long-haired “hippie freak” type. When they turned to the Lord, they became known as “Jesus freaks” or “Jesus people.” As a younger brother of two older siblings who had been more directly involved with the ’60s counterculture, I very much looked up to these colorful, interesting people and influences. The Jesus movement had an influence on the larger culture – in, for instance, the Doobie Brothers’ song, “Jesus Is Just Alright” and the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Reach Out New Testament_Page_1

Of course, the movement was also influenced by that larger culture. We had our rock and (more commonly) folk musicians singing our songs, just like our secular classmates did; our graphic artists were using Peter Max-type psychedelia; we had the “One Way” hand sign (an index finger pointing toward heaven) as a response to the two-fingered, V-shaped “peace” sign of those times. (The “one way” concept derived from a Bible passage, John 14:6, in which Jesus said that he provided the only way to God the Father. We knew that the two-fingered peace sign was Satanic, since we were (incorrectly) told it was based on the upside-down cross on which St. Peter was crucified.)

Other than that investigation of Psalms and Proverbs, I had never done much Bible reading. But now I discovered the book of Revelation and, wow, that was exotic. It had been pretty much ignored, in my Lutheran upbringing, and that seemed wrong. I found it very moving. A friend got a recording of a New York preacher, David Wilkerson, delivering a sermon on what God had told him, as later recorded in his book The Vision (1974, pp. 11, 28, 75-76):

A second vision came to me this summer [1973]. It is a vision of five tragic calamities coming upon the earth. . . . Never again in the history of the world will there be a time of complete confidence and trust in world economies. . . . I see a time coming when nearly all evangelical missionary projects, all religious radio and TV programming, and all incorporated missionary societies will be so closely monitored, questioned, and badgered that they will be cautious of expanding in any area.

The passage of 40 years has made clear that what Rev. Wilkerson predicted would occur “soon” did not, in fact, occur. Anyone who has lived through these four decades since 1973 – who has seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average keep hitting higher and higher peaks, who has witnessed presidential elections being heavily influenced by the Christian Coalition, who has observed the rise of the megachurch – may be inclined to question Wilkerson’s claim that God showed him the future. This certainly was not someone who zeroed right in on exactly what was happening, as one would expect from a prophet of God.

At the time, though, Wilkerson and other eschatological predictions convinced me that it would be foolish to invest years in college or otherwise to build a career, a home, or a future, when Jesus was going to be coming back very soon. Notwithstanding this impact on me, Wilkerson was better known for The Cross and the Switchblade, about the positive impact of the gospel on the life of former New York gang member and heroin addict Nicky Cruz. I met Nicky Cruz, when his touring took him through Indiana, and found it very exciting that the Lord was changing lives like his.

There were other dramatic developments in the Christian press around that time. The most electrifying story of doing battle with the Devil emerged in Mike Warnke’s Satan Seller. Warnke told of his extraordinary experiences as a Satanic high priest in southern California, before he found Jesus. He described how the Devil gave him power to cause buildings to burn by putting a hex on them (pp. 74-75), and to order demons to torment people and cause car accidents (pp. 105-106); he said that he had even witnessed astral travel (i.e., the instantaneous transfer of a woman into his living room, and then away again) (p. 87).

Lying for the Lord

Warnke’s fraud would finally be exposed, many years later, by Christian journalists. But at the time, stories like his and Wilkerson’s fed both my commitment to God and also, over time, a subtext of uncertainty. There did seem to be a dramatic difference between their experiences and mine – a difference that I was unable to surmount despite enormous efforts in Bible study, self-scrutiny, prayer, and fasting. For some reason, I was just not having out-of-body experiences, seeing visions, or otherwise encountering firsthand the incredible supernatural power that people kept telling me about.

I did, however, have a different type of experience reminiscent of Wilkerson and Warnke. One time, years later, in a discussion with my co-workers in a Mormon-owned photocopy shop on upper Broadway in New York, I heard a very apt phrase. It was not one that we evangelicals had used, but it did speak to the problem. That phrase was “lying for the Lord.” I knew the experience well enough. As I discuss further in another post, we who tried to persuade people to join our religion would often make claims that weren’t true, or would advance arguments that did not jibe with our own beliefs and our actual experiences.

For instance, we would tell people that they could place their burdens on God, that Jesus would give them clarity and peace. But if they did take our advice and ask Jesus to enter their hearts and lives, they would soon find themselves transitioning into a Christian lifestyle of complexity, struggle, and anxiety. No peace for you! There was the Devil to worry about, as just noted, and the End Times developments in the daily newspaper to speculate upon; there was the Bible to read and interpret and apply, and assorted faith-related interpersonal complexities to deal with, and temptations to fight, and things to pray for, and anti-Christian schemes to detect, and so on ad infinitum. You would seriously not believe the number (and the astounding, frequently preposterous range) of things that seemed to be going on in the heads of myself and (even now) my Bible-believing Christian friends.

Of course, there are all kinds of people in this world. There are calm people in every profession, every religion. Generally, though, our worldview was not a path to Bob Marley-type mellowness. Yet we went right on speaking as though our lives did prominently feature an idyllic peace – and, adding to the stress, we expected ourselves to be enjoying that sort of thing, even when there was no reasonable prospect of it, given the many things we had to worry about. And yet, on the occasions when we did happen to experience a bit of it, we saw it as proof that we were on the right track.

Part of the explanation, I think, was that we were not allowed to doubt, and as a result we did not tend to critique our own upbeat claims about faith. This meant that, in the spirit of Wilkerson and Warnke, and perhaps as an unwitting invitation to habitual liars, we really didn’t have many constraints on telling people whatever might sound good. It was supposed to be like that for us; it was going to be like that for us; we just hadn’t quite gotten there yet.

Fellowship

Despite these shortcomings, let me emphasize that being a born-again Christian teenager was a fantastic experience — not in every way, but definitely in some important ways. I have never experienced fellowship like that which I experienced in our high school prayer group. Some of it was definitely mixed up with naivete and virginity; it was probably more fun for me than for some, given my status as an informal leader; maybe it resonated for me particularly, as an echo of the insular community of my childhood; but, still and all, it was special, and most of us seemed to be together in it.

On that foundation, temporary though it was (with many of us pairing off into couples, approaching graduation, and otherwise eventually drifting away from the shared group experience), we had some really great social and spiritual times. For starters, when I stopped going to my exploratory teaching gig in a nearby elementary school (in a profound fit of senioritis that the high school’s administrators never did detect), I discovered that I was left with a 100-minute lunch period. The other members of our prayer group would cycle in and out of the cafeteria, according to their individual schedules; but I was there the whole time, anchoring our group’s table and getting to see virtually every other member of our fellowship on a daily basis. Talk about redeeming the time! My expanded lunch break did not seem to irritate any teachers, as I had done when Mr. Stackhouse discovered that my midafternoon independent study hour was functioning as naptime in the library. In all regards, this extended luncheon opportunity provided an edifying social addition to my high school experience, and of course I must enthusiastically recommend it to future high schoolers.

It was also really special to have a life of semi-mystical experiences — looking up at the nighttime sky and thinking about God and eternity, believing that shooting stars signified love between me and the preacher’s daughter (don’t ask me where I got that connection), finding meaning in the sunsets and the trees and the waters. Everything was so rich. Sometimes even the secular song lyrics were like words directly from God: “Are you reeling in the years / Storing away the time.” Admittedly, some of the most intense experiences were on the dark and spooky side, involving the power and presence of Satan that many believers seemed so preoccupied with. Was I really alone, late on a snowy, moonlit winter’s night, as I warmed myself in our darkened kitchen?

In all this fellowship, I had experiences I have not had since, like when four of us guys got together, all with guitars, and spent a night singing and praying, talking and thinking, in an empty church lit only by a candle. There was another unchaperoned all-nighter, sponsored by a local church for the benefit of a couple dozen Lutheran high schoolers; but this time our adventures ran the gamut from solitary prayer in the sanctuary to rambunctious physical games (not limited to hide-and-seek) around the church grounds. Somebody probably caught hell for letting us tear the place up like that. And yet, on another level, this stuff pretty much kept me out of trouble. Of the three country boys I was hanging out with before I got the Jesus fever in my junior year, one is dead, one suffered serious brain injury in a suicide attempt, and the other nearly died in, and is profoundly impaired due to, an alcohol-related automobile crash. I might have survived anyway, without the Christ-oriented lifestyle, but then again I might not.

A Christian College

So those were some aspects of my experience as a born-again believer. Meanwhile, for better and worse, life went on. After graduating from high school in May 1973, I took a job, running a drill press in a local factory. In my free time, I was dinking around on my guitar, reading the Bible, and hanging out with fellow Christians. My parents were afraid that I was not going to get a proper education. Finally, in August 1973, Mom told me that they would pay the tuition if I would attend a Lutheran college.

Some months earlier, I had visited what was then Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, Michigan; but, as noted above, I had decided not to apply. But in late July, the union organizer at the factory demanded a decision on whether I was going to pay the membership fee and join the union. I thought about it and finally said no. Despite enjoying the occasional horseplay, I was a very diligent and productive worker, and that did not seem to impress the stolid union members who had been standing at those machines for years. It was not the place for me. I was going to have to find a new job, or something. So now, as other recent grads started to peel off for their various campuses, it seemed I had probably better rethink this college thing. With just a few weeks of summer left, I applied, was accepted, and entered Concordia’s pre-ministerial program.

Concordia was certainly a religious place, but it was not pentecostal. I don’t remember exactly how that struck me. I will have to try to reconstruct the situation sometime. I think I must have been transitioning to a more thoughtful kind of belief, perhaps in reaction against the more dubious aspects of the Jesus movement. For whatever reason, I suddenly rediscovered an interest in being a good student, after years of a public school mental hiatus since leaving the one-room schoolhouse. Being at college, or perhaps being able to study religion, motivated me to take extra courses and also to test out of a couple of classes. Through such efforts, I completed most of the coursework required for the two-year degree in that one year. So there was no point staying around for a second year, accumulating credits that would not move me closer to a bachelor’s degree. Several years later, I sent Concordia a transcript from elsewhere; they granted some transfer credits; and on that basis they awarded my associate’s degree.

So now that I was finishing that first year at Concordia, there was the question of where to continue my education. I decided to transfer to Indiana University (IU), where I would qualify for in-state tuition rates. There, I continued in my ministry-oriented studies: I enrolled in second-year courses in German and ancient Greek, started Hebrew, and also took a couple of philosophy courses and a course on the New Testament.

A Crisis of Faith

That New Testament course at IU would play a pivotal role. As I discovered, people did not necessarily take an evangelical view of the Gospel in that big, secular university. I suddenly found myself as the stereotypical Bible-thumper, raising my hand to explain to the religion professor (Dr. Sampley, as I recall) how he did not have the proper view of Jesus and the biblical text. He was an agreeable guy, ready to listen to what I had to say. After class, on a couple of occasions, I gave him fundamentalist tracts and other materials to read, so that he would understand where he was mistaken; and then, after the next class session, he would explain to me why my materials seemed to be leaving questions unanswered.

The reasonableness of his approach threw me off balance. By midway in that fall semester, it was beginning to seem pretty obvious that I had taken a lot of things for granted. I had just accepted the Bible as being straightforward and obvious, and was now discovering that people who did not come from my religious background might not share that impression at all.

That was extremely disconcerting. I did understand the professor’s reservations. So it was not, as I had imagined or had wanted to believe, a simple matter of introducing people to God and letting the Holy Spirit work magic in their hearts. There were also these intellectual issues. And I did not have answers for them. I had not been certain how my pre-ministerial education was going to play out anyway; now it began to appear that it might not play out at all, certainly not until I could get past these barriers to faith.

Meanwhile, the previous summer, I’d had an experience that threw another wrench into my college education. I had taken the Greyhound bus to suburban Los Angeles, and had stayed with my older sister and her husband — along with my older brother, who had moved out there to join them some months earlier. That had been a lot of fun. So now, as the Indiana skies turned literally and spiritually gray and cold for me, it seemed that I might as well do my spiritual rethinking in sunny southern California. With a considerable sense of academic failure, I decided to drop out. When I told the religion professor of this decision, on my last day in his class, he looked at me and said just one word: “Courage.” His way of wishing me luck. A cool dude, all around.

So I left Bloomington and caught a train for the coast. But life is never simple. In L.A., it develops that my sister is letting two godforsaken Jehovah’s Witness ladies visit her living room on a weekly basis, and I am therefore obliged to argue Bible passages with them. Of all the irritants found in weird cults and heathen religions, I felt, this was perhaps the most annoying of all: that people didn’t have enough common sense and decency to recognize when their beliefs were just ridiculous, and were thus unable to straighten themselves out. These weren’t intelligent religion professors with compelling questions; these were just heretics who, in my view, were obviously misusing the scriptures. It was absurd that these people actually claimed that *I* was the one in error. My arguments didn’t have the least effect on them. So I got exposure to a different kind of reaction to the Bible: that not everybody who reads it is going to be a rocket scientist, and that some of the rocket scientists who do study it extensively will come up with unexpected and incompatible interpretations that their followers will cling to tenaciously.

I shouldn’t convey an impression that these occasional interactions were the sole source of doubt for me. Doubt was an inevitable thread throughout those years. It had been convenient enough, back in high school, to dismiss the doubters and the heretics, the songs like “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Tull’s “Hymn 43.” The music was good, but the message was flawed; and besides, as I say, it wasn’t as stimulating as the more directly Satanic stuff, like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and (so we imagined) almost anything by a group that would dare to call itself Black Sabbath. For me, the surreptitious, truly evil nature of doubt was captured especially well in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. And yet, despite the romantic energy of these stimuli, over time the more corrosive kind of doubt was that of the everyday American life, out there in what I considered “the so-called real world.” People out there didn’t seem to have much interest in this stuff. For some reason, the Lord was simply not smiting any Sodom and Gomorrahs. I wasn’t seeing plagues; nobody was even coming down with the pox. It was as though L.A.’s endless strip malls and McDonald’s restaurants might have a better grip on reality than I did.

L’Abri

Just in case, I did in fact get a job at a Mickey D’s, right there in my neighborhood. I also got a partial tuition refund from IU, slept on the floor in a utility room at my sister’s house, and saved my pennies for a flight to Switzerland. That next step occurred in February 1975. Switzerland was where an evangelical minister and thinker named Francis Schaeffer had set up shop, creating a Christian commune called L’Abri (French for “the shelter”), in Huemoz, a village up in the Swiss Alps. I had been reading Schaeffer’s book, True Spirituality, and I had come up with a long list of questions for him. So now I flew over to meet him.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there. It seems that, if you are raised in the middle class, with experienced travelers to ask (or, nowadays, if you have an Internet), you learn that you are supposed to arrange these things in advance. So now I know this. At the time, however, the only people I knew who had ever been to Europe were World War II veterans and one local farmer who had been in the Army in the 1960s. They hadn’t needed to make reservations. So I just figured I was going to Schaeffer’s place; he would be there; and I would ask him my questions.

What happened instead was that I got to harass his assistant pastors, nice evangelical ministers who no doubt found me bothersome. My questions were apparently not easy to answer and, in fact, neither they nor the accumulated Francis Schaeffer materials in the L’Abri library (such as it was) seemed to have even begun to grapple with most of the things I was asking about. I was perplexed that these questions, some of which now seemed obvious, had apparently never even crossed the minds of these people who were supposedly advising thoughtful Christians from around the world.

After hanging around L’Abri for a while, mostly living on bread and jelly (and tripe, my new discovery, which tasted good at first, after a couple of weeks without much real food, but didn’t taste so good when I bought another can of it), I finally got admitted into L’Abri’s program of study, which I could have waltzed right into if I’d made reservations like the American Christians who had done this properly. But they still had to pay as much to live in one of the L’Abri buildings as I was paying in my humble hostel a few blocks away, and they also had to slave in the communal garden. Since there did not seem to be any prospect of getting answers to the questions that had taken me there, it seemed time to move on.

One of the other Americans was also leaving town, heading back to his mom’s home in a fishing village called Looe, on the English Channel, in Cornwall. I invited myself along with this guy, name of Ron, and that was the end of L’Abri for me. As it turned out, Ron’s brother was named Randy; Randy spent all his time in his room with his guitar and a huge tape recorder, trying to prepare an album for a record company up in London; and a couple years later, one day in New York, I turned on the radio and heard Randy VanWarmer singing “You Left Me (Just When I Needed You Most).” Ron later told me it hit No. 3 on the pop charts. Eventually, Randy even had a Greatest Hits album. So, you know, good for him.

Give Away All That You Possess

After several weeks of thinking, hiking along Cornwall’s craggy cliffs, and debating, alone and with Ron, I landed back in Chicago with about $10 in my pocket. I took the South Shore railroad as far as I could, and then hitchhiked and walked all night to make it to my folks’ place north of Fort Wayne. Before flying to Switzerland, back in February, I had driven from L.A. to the folks’ place; but then, too caffeinated to sleep, I had decided to drive over and see a friend. That was not a judicious decision. I fell asleep on the way and hit a tree. Kind of a close shave: awoke at the last second and cranked the wheel, thereby shearing off a fender instead of my head. So now I had to repair the VW and head back to L.A.

When I did get back to Los Angeles, my sister’s husband wasn’t terribly eager to have my brother and me stay there anymore. It was time for us to find our own places. Maybe I could have done better than my new job at another McDonald’s, or at least I could have worked two jobs to afford an apartment. But I was still concerned about spending eternity in hell for my doubt, and was thus still devoting a huge amount of time to Bible reading and agonizing over the logical inconsistencies I was finding in the Bible and in the commentaries of Christian writers. I was still attending various churches from time to time, hoping that maybe I was overlooking something; maybe somebody would have answers that would clear up everything and prevent my concept of Christianity from being simply false.

In a bid to make more than minimum wage, I bought a couple of run-down VWs and gradually fixed them up to resell. My finances would basically cover rent for a garage on Cherry Avenue in North Long Beach, where I could do autobody repairs on one car indoors while leaving the other outdoors. The indoor car kindly shared space with me. I had a couch in there, one that Bob (a fortyish Volkswagen mechanic) and I had rescued from the alley behind his house, and I slept on that. I had a board propped up on some crates; I used that as my desk. There was a bathroom at the Douglas Burger down the street, not to mention a cute redheaded employee whom I was too shy to approach. Once in a while, my brother, living downtown, would let me use his bathtub.

For about three months, I lived in that garage. I spent many hours rereading and rethinking Bible passages. I wrote out my thoughts, hoping that seeing them in black and white would make things clearer.

I kept trying to figure out a solution, but eventually realized there just wasn’t one. As detailed in another post, I was trying to make the Bible into something that it wasn’t, something that it didn’t even claim. Like many fundamentalists, my faith was more in the Bible than in God. Behaving like the religious experts that Jesus warned against, we had converted the writings of ancient writers into legalistic texts, adding chapter and verse numbers that God had apparently forgotten to include. And we used that revised text to place burdens on people that they could not bear, like those described in this post — burdens that intelligent, goodhearted people would appropriately reject.

Honesty

We went through all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to persuade ourselves that the Bible, a patently flawed book, was perfect. We did that because that’s what we wanted, not because of any specific instructions from God. We held to this approach even though it required us to ignore the Bible’s obviously imperfect processes of formation, transmission, and translation. We basically decided to accuse God of something inconsistent with his supposedly perfect nature. It was like the police charging a man with a crime when everyone could see that he was nowhere near the scene. In the end, we made God look like an idiot, and we took pride in behaving likewise. If there was a God, then this was blasphemy; it was just plain wrong.

What I concluded was this: it was impossible for an intelligent individual to have an honest belief that the Bible was the literal Word of God. As a fundamentalist, I had essentially been telling people that God would put you in Hell for all eternity if you earnestly sought the truth and faced up to the problems that I had encountered. In the end, I concluded, that was not right. There might have been a god behind that sort of threat; but if there was, it was not a good one. If anything, it seemed that we, in our pride and arrogance, had decided we were smarter than the Prince of Darkness; that we had been completely fooled; and that we were doing all this hard work just to make things worse. We wouldn’t listen to reason, and that made us the perfect patsies for whatever nonsense might come trundling down the pike.

As described above, I had been trying to find a way out of this for quite a while, and I was continuing to devote a lot of time to it. But at a certain point, I just couldn’t afford to do that anymore. Along with the ongoing emotional and intellectual turmoil, my financial situation was desperate. I got a nudge on Christmas Day, 1975. I got sick, maybe because of the autobody chemicals, and the Douglas Burger was closed. I found myself barfing in the alley back of the garage. It was a moment of clarity.

More than four years had passed since my first visit to the Adam’s Apple. During those years, I had experienced excitement and fellowship, and also theological study and religious disputation. During the past year especially, I had confronted and endured emotional upset: a fear of losing both my eternal salvation and all those marvelous experiences and beliefs. The trip to L’Abri had been an extraordinary yet failing effort to obtain answers that a divinely inspired scripture would have made plain — and now the encounter with L’Abri itself was nearly a year in the past.

The essential facts were before me. I did not seem to be overlooking anything significant. It was time to decide how to proceed. And after that Christmas Day experience, I did proceed. Within a few weeks, I returned to full-time college student status, at California State University, Long Beach – once again taking philosophy and German courses, but this time without religion. Ultimately, my religious beliefs coalesced into agnostic polytheistic fundamentalism.

 

The Universal Scripture Wiki

Some of the claims that religions make are unique to them, and to the religions and sects that derive from them.  The specialness of the Jews and the divinity of Jesus are examples.  But many of the things found in religious scriptures are, or could be, shared among multiple viewpoints.  One need not believe in any god, or follow any religion, to support a commandment against stealing, to agree with the sage advice found in a proverb, to accept a historical account of some ancient event, or to feel the emotions captured in a psalm.

Moreover, even the narrowest religious content is subject to adaptation.  One does not have to be a believer in the Bible to echo its sentiments toward one’s own preferred god(s).  And when religious people use their own scriptures, they often do so in diverse ways.  Christians have fought wars over things like the significance of Communion, and present-day believers within a given religion, denomination, or sect can be divided over such topics as abortion or the qualification of priests.

In short, the nonbeliever-believer dichotomies commonly cited these days (e.g., atheist versus Christian) conceal a more complex reality.  The people who claim to believe in “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible” often turn out to be quite selective about what they really believe within that scripture; and meanwhile, as suggested above, the people who supposedly do not believe in a scripture probably do sympathize with much of what appears in it.

These observations raise the possibility of developing a universal scripture.  Not everyone would agree with everything it said, but that is true of the Bible or any other scripture.  Not everything that it said would necessarily be consistent with other things it said, but that, too is familiar:  people will sing songs or adopt beliefs that can be somewhat unclear, illogical, or self-contradictory.  Religion is not science.

In essence, people who turn to a scripture have a right to home in on what they want or need in a particular situation.  With a universal scripture, as with any other, scholars could still debate technical points; indeed, people could probably continue to engage in substantially the same kinds of activities that any existing scripture supports:  counseling, analysis, reflection, and so forth.  A universal scripture would thus provide substance for skeptical, uncertain, or nonbelieving users who may wish to contemplate or advise upon spiritual matters in moments of crisis.  It might, in fact, provide a common ground, supporting efforts by noncommitted mediators to assist in the reduction of tensions among warring religious factions.

It seems that a universal scripture could bracket content that would only interest people of a particular religion.  An example of bracketing would be to say that the following chapter presents the story of Jesus, as understood by his followers.  That is, bracketing would take a step back from the content, perhaps offering it with various elaborations and caveats (e.g., “On this point, Roman Catholics believe that …”), rather than simply presenting it straightforwardly as a part of the scripture, as might be appropriate with history, proverbs, and songs.

It goes without saying that the potentially clunky, uninspiring way in which a lawyer might phrase such matters could be open to more inspired treatment by poets and other gifted writers.  In other words, this would hopefully be a scripture, not an encyclopedia.  Technical commentary about a given passage would best be relegated to a supporting role, in footnotes, concealable sidebars, or accompanying documents, to make room for creative wordsmiths who might offer more personally meaningful, liveable phrasings.

Before the advent of the Internet, it would have been impracticable to attempt to meld significant portions of the world’s scriptures into a single book.  A wiki can now accommodate a project of that nature.  An important goal of the wiki might be to work toward getting people on the same page, so to speak, with respect to various religious topics that now tend to be walled off in separate fiefdoms.  So, for example, if the universal scripture wiki has a major section called “Songs,” it might serve to introduce Christian songwriters to adaptable content from other faiths.

A universal scripture wiki would surely require decisions on such matters as structure and format.  There would be many challenges.  Some might require years to work out satisfactorily.  Nonetheless, a source of this nature could be enormously valuable in many ways.

Introduction to Bible Study

There is a reason why most people are not Mormons. They listen to the stories about how the religion was formed and what Mormons believe, and they conclude that key parts of it are nonsense.

That’s pretty much the story for most religions. Religions tend to focus on very big-picture things, like the purpose of life, the origin of the universe, and what happens after death. If they were focused on everyday stuff, like how to make a good salad or what to do this weekend, the reactions would probably be more flexible. But when one person tries to tell another person what to think and how to live, some resistance is likely. And so most Muslims do not become Christians, most Christians do not become Buddhists, etc.

People tend to think that their religions are serious and important. Everyone else’s religion is nonsense; but their own religion is different. Their religion — typically, the one they were born into — leads to Truth.

Yet a funny thing happens when nonbelievers do take the religion seriously. It turns out that believers don’t really want that either.

Christianity provides an example. There are all kinds of Christians; there is, in fact, a lot of disagreement about the definition of “Christian.” But if you look particularly at the various Christian denominations that call themselves “fundamentalist,” “Bible-believing,” “evangelical,” or otherwise based on the Bible, you quickly see that they do not want you to study the Bible. They want you to study only a few aspects of it, and they want you to see those aspects in just one way.

Consider the Mormon example again. Christians often object that the origins of Mormonism are sketchy if not downright ridiculous. How could the religion be true when Joseph Smith was such an obvious fraud? But if that is a legitimate line of argument, why don’t we apply it to Christianity itself?

In Bible study, the first problem is completeness. Suppose I wanted to plan a vacation to Greece. Greece is a place of ancient culture. So of course I would want the most ancient tour book I could find. A copy of something by Pausanias, perhaps, written more than 2,100 years ago. This would be a pretty silly way to plan a vacation, no? I mean, Greece may have changed a bit over the centuries. Yet this is the Christian approach (using “Christian,” henceforth in this post, to refer specifically to fundamentalists and the like). This approach causes a lot of grief to believers and unbelievers alike. The Bible is extremely old. It is not a practical guide to contemporary life. That is part of the reason why there are Christian bookstores, filled with the latest publications in a 2,000-year tradition of discussing things that the Bible, itself, does not explain. Believers often find that those Christian books (like any other books) are imperfect, sometimes very wrong, often mutually contradictory — but what’s the alternative?

The second problem is honesty. Christian students of the Bible learn that they are supposed to invent excuses for God’s failure to provide the kind of book that they want him to provide. As many first-time Bible readers have observed, the Bible is riddled with inconsistencies, bad ideas, and hokum. The Bible itself does not claim to be the word of God — the New Testament, in particular, makes clear that this is not the case — but Christians go through tremendous contortions to avoid admitting it. The Christian preoccupation with the Ten Commandments is an especially visible example of what happens when people try to blame God for writing something that he didn’t write, and didn’t claim to write: there is both an embarrassing focus on those few commandments while ignoring many others, and a blatant disregard of the words of Jesus — who, according to the Bible, really is the Word of God.

The third problem that arises in Bible study is blasphemy. There may or may not be a God, or gods. He/she/it/they may or may not have had anything to do with the writing of the Bible. If they are gods in any ordinary sense of the term, they are capable of expressing themselves pretty clearly. If they have declined to do so, presumably they have their reasons. In that case, the human attempt to put words in their mouths — to hold them responsible for wars and other horrors, crimes, falsehoods, and the many other things that arrogant people attribute to their deities — is blasphemy. It makes God look absurd; it gives sensible people good reasons to choose atheism. You might as well draw a cartoon of God, with a word bubble that contains any crazy or evil statement you can imagine. That is what Christians are doing, when they portray the Bible as God’s word, and then intrepret it according to their liking.

The fourth problem is history. As in the Mormon example, the Bible did not just fall from the sky. It came into existence through centuries of fighting among people who decided what they did and did not want it to say. Those people were actual human beings, just like people living today, and in these regards they behaved just as today’s humans would behave. In other words, there is no sign that God stood over the process and steered it — unless you think that he was responsible for the fact that Christians have murdered each other by the thousands, down through history, because of their disagreements about that book. The origins of the Bible are just as relevant to its meaning as the origins in Joseph Smith are to the meaning of Mormonism.

What Christians call Bible study is actually the study of deception. Inconvenient matters are avoided; preferred views are promoted. It is very much like the practice of law: there is already a conclusion that we want others to reach, and the only question is how we can help them — trick them, if necessary — to reach it.

That is not real study and learning. If you want to really understand something (as distinct from making up a story about it), you are best advised to approach it humbly, realizing that many of the things you think you know are likely to be wrong. You build up your knowledge about it, while remaining open to new information that could contradict your preferred beliefs. If you come across something that doesn’t fit, you slow down and examine it carefully, because that has often been exactly where people have discovered the most important learning.

There are many ways to interpret the Bible. Nonbelievers will probably find Christianity more appealing when it becomes less proud, less lawyerly, and more honest. In the area of Bible study, in particular, nonbelievers will probably not be able to sit down at the table with believers until the latter become more realistic and respectful. The nonbelieving student of the Bible is probably not possessed by the Devil, probably not stupid, and probably not trying to avoid divine insight. Based upon what the gods do seem to have communicated to humans (assuming, again, there are any gods at all), the nonbeliever may even be ahead of the Christian, in the effort to listen to heaven — even if the nonbeliever just calls it philosophy or science.

Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God

This item was previously posted on October 24, 2007 on my other blog. It drew a few comments there. I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

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Everyone agrees the Bible is a book, written by humans. Some think those writers were inspired by God; and of those, some think it is appropriate to examine the words of the Bible with great precision. This is not the message of Jesus, however.

Jesus emphasizes that the religious lawyers of his time were on the wrong track. “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered” (Luke 11:52). The writers of the New Testament books took a similar approach. They did not number the passages of their writings (that was a human addition), and they generally did not argue specific passages with anything like the precision that now appears in many Bible commentaries.

Jesus himself does not seem to have been too concerned about literal precision in his own statements. There are many instances when he says something, and then later contradicts it or seems to be saying something quite different. For instance, John’s gospel has him saying, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (John 5:31) but also “I am the one who bears witness about myself” (John 8:18).

If Jesus was a human being, then surely he was aware that you can’t freeze statements in stone — that the thing you say on one occasion turns out to be only partly true or relevant on another occasion. It would have been a mistake for him to insist that his words could reliably serve as a guide to every other person, at every moment in the future.

Some Bible interpreters go to great lengths to argue that Jesus and other Bible writers never contradicted themselves or each other. But the Bible does not actually command these interpreters to do this, nor does it explain which procedures they should use. In pursuit of that self-appointed mission, they rely on entirely human ideas, not clarified in scripture: that a certain passage is literal or figurative; that God inspired the original Greek or Hebrew statement but not the translation into English; and so forth. Indeed, they take it upon themselves to develop detailed creeds and carefully worded statements to explain what God meant. Again, the implication is that God himself was not capable of doing the job properly without their assistance — that the Bible is actually not complete and perfect. Thus, Bible commentaries disagree with one another on many things — yet each is nonetheless sure it is right. Inevitably, the Bible — in the interpreted, commentated form that readers contemplate — becomes a truly complex mass of disagreements, contradictions, and falsehoods.

People sometimes come to a form of Christian faith because they believe Jesus taught a simple gospel. Maybe he did. But when that gospel gets mixed up with the attempt to have a completely perfect, divine Bible, the simple gospel loses out. As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). If you insist upon the text, with all its history, complexity, and imperfection, you will lose some aspects of Jesus; and if you focus on Jesus, you will move — with him — away from a preoccupation with texts.

The approach of focusing on the text has created a collection of conservative Christian denominations and beliefs that sometimes erupt in bitter and even bloody fights. As shown at various times in Christian history, people will kill for the sake of a Bible passage. This is very far from the concept of a unified body of Christ that appears in some New Testament passages (see e.g., Romans 12:5). When matters reach such a point, it is reasonable to conclude that people have departed from the Jesus who praised peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

The books of the New Testament do not claim that they, themselves, are God’s word. There is one passage that makes the briefest possible reference to the concept: “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). That passage is not helpful. The Bible itself does not clarify which materials “scripture” should include. God, himself, either failed to understand the importance of this question, failed to answer the question intelligently, or did not consider it an important question. In other words, humans created the issue, and then had to fight about it over a period of centuries, before arriving at a state of permanent disagreement that continues today.

Sometimes, people pretend to be speaking about someone else, when in fact they are drawing attention to themselves. A classic example is Mark Antony’s speech in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones

So it is with people who try to help God by creating a Bible of the sort they prefer. The attention gets shifted to the interpreters. The preachers and interpreters may claim to be humble people, and in some ways, many of them are. Yet there is a monstrous pride and arrogance in their enterprise. “I am humble,” they seem to say, “but I happen to possess the truth of life and mankind — and it’s a good thing someone like me was there to add the chapter and verse numbers, and the many explanations, that God forgot.” Thus, the spotlight turns to them, to help people understand a God who (in their telling) is unable to explain himself adequately. They have the answers — but, in fact, they don’t. All too often, what they say is nonsense.

There is another, better way. The better way is for the preachers and interpreters to stop making claims that do not stand up to reason, that were not clearly authorized by God, and that have the blasphemous effect of making God out to be an idiot.

Imagine you are God. You are watching humanity try to figure out which books to include in the Bible, how to interpret them, what passages to emphasize. You can see that the disagreements begin almost immediately. Your solution? Screw it. Let them fight it out. But make sure they keep preaching about love and forgiveness. That’s the God that the Christian Bible-thumpers give us.

There may actually be no God of the kind that conservative Christians imagine. If there is a Christian God at all, he’s supposed to be far more competent than these Bible interpreters are willing to allow. That, anyway, is the message of the gospel of John. In its very first words, that gospel makes clear that a textual orientation is absolutely the wrong orientation. The Bible, John says, is not the Word of God. Here is John 1:1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Not, “In the beginning was a Book, and God ordered reprints.” According to John, God did not make the mistake of thinking that a written text (which is the most they had, in New Testament times) would capture things as clearly as audio or video recordings could have done.

God did not attempt to convey his message in words that lawyers would argue about. Instead, according to John, he conveyed his message in flesh and blood. Jesus came into the world as God’s Word to mankind. Obviously, if God wanted people to keep getting the message loud and clear, then Jesus needed to stick around. That didn’t happen, and that raises some questions about God, Jesus, and John.

Those questions are a starting point. To think about difficult things and unpleasant possibilities: that is the challenge of growth. But, of course, a person could insist on staying with what s/he knows. That’s what the Jews largely did. And so, if you believe the Bible passage (Matthew 7:23), Jesus is going to come back someday; and when he does, he will be approached by all kinds of people who will say, Master, remember all the things we did in your name? And he will say, Get away from me. I never knew you.

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