Tag Archives: God

My High School Essay on Why I Was Not Going to College

By the time I had finished two years of public junior high school, my Lutheran upbringing had proved ineffectual for practical purposes. My primary companions were three boys with a penchant for getting into trouble. There were brushes with law enforcement; one of the three would eventually develop a criminal record. For two of the three, there would eventually be automobile crashes, involving alcohol or attempted suicide, resulting in both cases in permanent brain damage. The third one would die of a readily detectable form of cancer that our health classes did not teach us to detect.

Perhaps I lead off with those words because of my exposure to the Christian coffeehouse that I discovered in 1971, near the start of my junior year of high school. It seems a little contrived in retrospect, but at the time it was compelling to hear the stories of longhaired former drug addicts whose lives turned around when they discovered Jesus. I never did manage to become a drug addict, but at least the boy who would die of cancer was able to nearly kill me when the tractor he “borrowed” for transportation one day (from someone else’s farm) proceeded to flip over on us.

So, yeah, I was badbutt. (I was raised to consider “ass” impolite.) And then Jesus saved me. Kidding aside, he really did, even if he remains as dead as a nonbeliever might assume. The Jesus movement was religion on steroids. It was exciting. God was doing amazing things in the world. The End Times were at hand. It seemed ridiculous to waste years in college when there was such an urgent need to save souls.

We arrived, then, at my last semester in high school. Mrs. Walton, teacher of my composition class, assigned us to write an essay about our college choice. I don’t remember the exact assignment. It was probably just to say something about which college we had chosen or, if we had no college plans, why not, or what we intended to do instead.

In response to that assignment, I wrote an essay. I no longer have it, only an image of an old photocopy. Some of the words are no longer legible. But here is the text that I have been able to resurrect (sorry) from that photocopy. I provide this material because I’m sure others continue to face that sort of choice. As indicated in the post about my experiences as a Jesus Freak, I did ultimately go to college after all, with consequences for my faith that some would deplore and others would applaud.

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Not Going

There is one thing that has kept me out of college. This one thing is my knowledge of God. If it weren’t for this I would have decided to continue my education and would have gone on like the rest of the world, searching for fortune. But I do have this knowledge. The things contained in this knowledge are: knowing that God scorns worldly knowledge, knowing that a religious person does not strive to make money, and knowing that in those years I might have spent in college I can accomplish far more of lasting value and can derive infinite satisfaction for myself and others by telling the Word to everyone. So, this knowledge of God is enough by itself to keep me out of college.

The knowledge that God scorns worldly knowledge is probably the main reason why I decided not to go to college. Basically, this speaks for itself. If I was to go to college I would be taught many things about this world.* But since I am a religious person I know that it won’t help me to know these things, and that really this knowledge may get in my way, may be a barrier between me and others. Since God scorns worldly knowledge he scorns those who search for it, so I will spend my time with a better purpose in mind.

I have said that I am a religious person, and that I know of God and some of the things that he has said.** Often, probably more than for any other reason, a person goes to college to learn a trade or skill that [will equip?] him to make a good deal of money. But since [I have?] my religion I believe that the proper attitude for me would not be one of [digging?] for treasure, but instead of giving away my treasure and knowledge of God. [Illegible] would be [Illegible] religious [Illegible] money is [surely?] not worth the time that such a person has been given.

This gift of time, I feel, can [be wisely invested if I do not go to college?] [illegible] [spend four years?] [illegible] working to obtain a degree or title which would give me recognition and honor among men. I would be a man of intelligence, according to [illegible]. This is not what I seek. Instead, I will spend those years among the poor people who haven’t heard the Word of God. Those years ahead are a blessing beyond measure if used to the best, and a curse if not, and I will have the blessings when I am on the street helping the down and out, people who live [hard and lonely lives?]. I seek honor and recognition from God, where it should come from. Men may laugh at me, not [illegible] while they have the gift of time on earth. So I will spend my time wisely while I am on earth. I will bring the Light to those who are in darkness, both rich and poor, [college?] graduates and the rest.***

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Mrs. Walton’s Comments

* What if you went to a college which trains you to help others and spread your [rest of comment lost].

** Avoid this change of ink if possible. [Apparently I switched pen colors: the old image is less legible from this point forward. Words and question marks in brackets offer my best guesses as to what the actual written words were.]

*** Nicky Cruz wanted to do the very thing that you do but he discovered that it was difficult to communicate without advanced study; therefore, he went to college to train to spread God’s word and gain other knowledge which would aid him in helping people. You know of the impact he has had on this country. Others could also be named such as Billy Graham – I think you should weigh your decision strongly before you completely reject college. You have a lot to offer society and the more you know the more you can offer. I learned [rest of comment lost].

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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!

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

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.”

 

A Basic, Troubling Question about Life

Almost everyone who is alive loves life.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.  Even those of us who think we hate it, and jump off bridges to get out, are apparently at risk of realizing our mistake on the way down.  You can put people in really terrible situations, with no arms and legs or living in a filthy gutter in the poorest city in the world, and almost always they will cling to life anyway.

You might say life is like an addiction.  Addiction is usually a bad word, but not always.  A person can be addicted not only to drugs or booze, but also to oxygen or work or success or kindness.  Anything can be taken too far, but this world could benefit from more sweetness junkies.

The difference with life is that we can’t tell what the alternative is like.  We can cure someone of an addiction to overwork; we can point to other people who aren’t like that.  But all we can see of nonlife is that either the person didn’t come into existence in the first place, like the never-born children of a girl who died before she could have them, or else the person was here for a while but has died.  It appears that we cannot know what, if anything, occurs after life.  Some claim otherwise, but have few verifiable specifics to share.

One odd feature of life is that it is so ugly.  I don’t mean that some people are happy and some are miserable, or some have good attitudes and some don’t.  I mean that, at its very heart, life depends upon terrible behavior.  Doesn’t it seem suspicious that living things have to fight and kill for the resources of life – that we love to eat eggs, seeds, and green shoots, and that the delicate flesh of the young has the best flavor?  Why could we not all just eat sand and gravel?  Life thrives upon the heartless exploitation and killing of the weak and delicate, and of the happy and the peaceful.  Survivors tend to learn to be wary, tough, and grim.

Of course, plants and microbes have limited capacity for wariness and grimness.  Yet even at their level, survival commonly means crowding out others.  There is usually not enough soil, sunlight, and water for everyone.  When a space does open up, living things grow and proliferate until they come up against competitors.  Likewise, but on a scale people find more horrendous, our wars, industrial farms, and office politics demonstrate, every day, the kinds of growth, predation, and cruelty that contribute to survival.  Individuals and even nations can enjoy relative lulls in the strife, but the circumstances permitting such lulls tend to depend upon relatively unusual and temporary conditions, and extend in any case only to a limited portion of the human experience.

The excuse for our awful behavior is that this is what we need to stay alive – or, when that is not true, this is what we prefer to satisfy our cravings.  We don’t know for a fact that death is worse than who we are, and what we do, during our lives.  We just assume so, based on fear of the unknown.  We are overwhelmingly in favor of continuing in this pattern even though we can plainly see how bad it is.  We can feel somewhat better about it by at least working for the benefit of others rather than just of ourselves; nonetheless, we remain very much part of this grand scheme that pervasively victimizes living things that needed protection from us, but could not find it.

These remarks are not in the usual tendency of human thought.  We tend to take these aspects of life for granted, or to dress them up or ignore them in favor of concerns that become interesting or compelling once one has assumed the importance of staying alive.  In our choice of things to think and worry about and act upon, we are like the person who hunts for his lost keys under a streetlight – not because that is where he actually lost them, but just because the light makes it easier to search there.

Strictly speaking, before we get to all the concerns and perspectives of daily life, there is the question of what we are doing here in the first place.  We treat that as an imponderable, and shrug it off to the philosophers, but it is really quite simple and obvious.  It is staring each of us in the face.  What gives you the right to treat people and other living things as you do?

The answer – that this is what we must do and/or prefer to do, in order to survive at all, and to survive in the manner we find most agreeable – is based, as just noted, on ignorance of what comes after life.  If we suddenly saw past the grave and observed people enjoying a much better form of existence, without all this killing and exploitation, most of us would no doubt promptly decamp for those shores en masse.  Given that we lack such knowledge, there is perhaps a second factor:  that we find ourselves in this strange and highly nasty situation, and may be in some sense obliged or expected to make the best of it.  We were not responsible for putting ourselves here; maybe we are somehow supposed to be here; maybe we should not presume to remove ourselves from here.

In this perspective, we seem to be located within a sort of game whose rules require awful behavior of various sorts.  We can’t change the rules; we can only choose whether and how to play.  Those who think about dropping out of the game altogether – about killing themselves, that is – usually seem to suffer from extreme pain, exclusion, or other physical or psychosocial difficulties that tend to push them out.  That is, people do not generally pay much attention to the sorts of concerns discussed above unless there is something wrong with them, relatively speaking.

The ordinary course of business in life – what the gods could be expecting from us – may be to stay alive and make the best of things, doing what we can to avoid causing unnecessary pain or, perhaps, accepting the ugly realities about ourselves and simply focusing upon becoming strong and comfortable (or perhaps goodhearted, within a certain selective definition of the term).

As I say, the vast majority of people seem to assume something of this nature.  But it would remain reasonable for a god (or perhaps our own consciences), sitting in post-life judgment, to ask why we willingly continued to participate in such behavior when we knew better.  By extension, it seems that we must sit in similar, if repressed, judgment upon ourselves throughout our lives.  And yet a response, to the god and to ourselves – a response much preferred by the potentially deceptive life addiction within us – is that this is the role presented to us, and it is not clear that we are able and entitled to throw it in the trash and leave.

Why I Am Not Thankful on Thanksgiving

To explain why I am not thankful on Thanksgiving, let me begin by saying that I am thankful on Thanksgiving.  That is doubletalk, of course – I must either be thankful or not thankful – and yet, at the same time, it is not doubletalk at all.

Let us review.  Aristotle teaches that, according to the principle of noncontradiction, contradictory propositions cannot be true simultaneously.  Now, before I go any further, let me mention that (as elaborated in another post) this is both correct and incorrect – but, in this case, not because of anything having to do with noncontradiction, but rather because of Cicero’s principle that there is nothing so absurd but that some philosopher has said it.  In other words, whatever the case may be with noncontradiction, I can probably find some reason to be at least partly right about this; and so can you.  In such circumstances, I really think philosophy should be considered the most openminded of all disciplines.

But about thankfulness.  Of course, I am thankful on Thanksgiving, and on a good many other days as well.  I have a lot to be thankful for.  I am thankful, for instance, for the fact that I am not like you.  I don’t have any specific meaning in mind, there; it is more of a general sentiment that virtually everyone indulges on a regular basis, without which our lives would be miserable indeed.  If I wanted to be like you, I would make an effort to do exactly that; and to the extent that people actually do pursue such objectives, or believe that they should, they tend to make themselves unhappy.  I am indeed glad that our stars and our paragons are looking good and enjoying themselves, but I am also glad that they, and not I, are in their assorted studios and tombs.  Better them than me.

The only problem I have with Thanksgiving is the “thanks” part.  Oh, and the “giving” part.  Such notions imply that there is someone on the receiving end.  This is not “positive feeling” day.  This is “thank you” day.  There is a “you” whom we thank, or so we want to believe, even when it is not true.  For instance, those naive Native Americans, having no inkling of their fate, who sat down with the Pilgrims (at least in mythology) and gave thanks, were not giving thanks to *our* God.  We would not have allowed that, not for a minute.  They were thanking their Great Spirit, or something like it – their god who was completely unacquainted with Jesus Christ, and therefore ultimately had no business existing, as things turned out, in a predominantly Christian nation.  You cannot give thanks to someone who is not there.  Or maybe you can, but your gesture will be nugatory.  Nothingness needs nothing that you can offer – so please do.

To generalize:  if you cannot thank a nonexistent Great Spirit – if your words are just empty syllables dying away into the atmosphere – then you also cannot thank a Zeus, an Allah, a Yahweh who has turned his back on his supposedly chosen people, or a big-boobed goddess of fertility.  What you are really doing is uttering sounds that others, overhearing you, can describe as a giving of thanks to some deity, just as they might say you were giving instructions to a tree, if you were so inclined.  Such gestures are not completely lacking in simple charm, but investing them with deep significance can quickly become ridiculous – except, of course, where it does not.

Having provided these remarks, the only thing left to clarify is why I am not thankful on Thanksgiving.  The reason is not, as some might assume, that the giving of thanks would be inappropriate for an agnostic polytheistic fundamentalist – although, as I think of it, that might be a good reason too.  The actual reason is that giving thanks to the Lord on Thanksgiving is blasphemy, or comes so close to blasphemy, so quickly, as to be avoided like the plague (unless, of course, it is a plague from God).

Thanksgiving certainly does not *seem* like blasphemy.  How could so many nicely dressed people, smelling of the world’s best fragrances and talking so sweetly, be compared to coarse maligners of the ineffable?  And yet that is the situation we face.  The Christian Thanksgiving is an attempt to overlook the Bible’s claim that “God cannot stand the prayers of anyone who disobeys his law.”  Even granting an exemption for those whose sins have been forgiven, what can these Christians be thinking of, in promoting a holiday in which millions of nonbelievers are encouraged to think that God is listening to them too?

If there are gods, they have made clear that they are sitting this one out.  And there is a very good reason why they should do so.  That reason is the principle of noncontradiction.  In our world, truth is a complex, tangled, unreliable thing.  Any god foolish enough to get dragged down into it would quickly be viewed as part of the problem.  That is exactly what has happened, over the years, as countless people have become disgusted with the idea of a twofaced god who would stick us with a situation like this and then have the nerve to consider himself holy.  The possibility that these people are disgusted merely with a false representation of some actual divinity is irrelevant.  Either way, the damage is done.

A claim to thank the gods, on this or any other day, is necessarily a claim that we know what is good, and that it makes obvious sense to thank heaven for what it has bestowed upon us.  So we thank God for the land that we stole from the Indians, and for today’s dinner – courtesy, perhaps, of a pig whose life we were pleased to support with the least possible protection against pain and misery.  Historically, we have often thanked God for helping us to kill foreigners whom we disliked.  If you haven’t spent time around Christians, you might be surprised at the things they thank God for.  Some are prepared to thank God for the fantastic sex they had last week with their neighbor’s spouse; some have thanked God for smiting homosexuals with AIDS.  Once you open that thanks-giving door, you just don’t know what might crawl in.

The giving of thanks to gods who provide no indication that they appreciate our warmth of spirit is as offensive as the act of blaming some hapless divinity for writing a book that we are determined, despite all evidence, to make holy.  As Paul said to Jesus in Kazantzakis’ interpretation, “I don’t need you anymore.”  That is, we don’t need for there to be an actual god who receives and appreciates our thankfulness.  This is not about him.  This is about us.  We want to look and feel thankful.  And on this day, by God, we do.

Despite all that, I am thankful on Thanksgiving.  As I say, I do have a dim sense of how good I’ve had it.  If I can bring myself to convey a flavor of that gratitude to people who have made my good fortune possible, then I should.  In addition, if I am willing to take the chance that I won’t be doing much additional harm by whispering a token of appreciation to anyone out there who may be listening, then I might feel like doing that too, and screw the contradictions.

But I don’t see that today should be special in these regards.  This seems to be a fair guess at how I should be acting throughout the year.  In this sense, Thanksgiving is not a special day of behaving decently for a change; it is more a wrap-up, a review of how I have hopefully been conducting myself all along.

I am usually pretty thankful on Thanksgiving; and if I don’t feel very thankful toward some people, or for some developments, then perhaps the official capital-T hack-the-turkey Thanksgiving holiday can operate as a sort of kick in the ribs, a reminder that I need to straighten up and act civil toward the various people with whom the universe has blessed and cursed me, to the maximum deserved extent and sometimes beyond.  This seems fair enough, or at least manageable.  But if Thanksgiving means blaming some god for something that may have been very good for me but absolutely awful for someone else, then I must conclude that, when it comes to giving thanks unto the Lord, the devil is in the details.

Why I am an Agnostic Polytheistic Fundamentalist

I am an agnostic. I don’t believe it is possible to know that God does not exist. He could be hiding on Mars, or in my shoe, or playing video games on the boardwalk. It might be possible to know that he’s not relevant (“dead,” in the old phrase), or to believe that he has turned his back on humanity. But being completely certain that he absolutely does not exist is not possible.

On the other hand, if he does exist, it is possible to believe many incompatible things about him. He is a force, or a person, or several persons; he is terribly absent, or terribly active, in the world as we know it; he loves us all, or he hates us, or some mix thereof. It is confusing, and a lot of people are confused.

Which brings me to the second point. There is this human urge to consolidate and simplify. We crave a sort of God Central, like a federal government, that stands at the top of the heap and calls the shots. God can do anything, except possibly to make a rock so big he can’t lift it. My God can beat up your God. It’s overkill. If nature teaches us anything, it’s that living things diversify. We have many kinds of humans and birds and cockroaches. So if we have any gods at all, we probably have multifarious kinds of gods.

So I’m an agnostic polytheist. I don’t know if there’s a God; but if there is, there’s probably more than one. This is a reasonable position. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why it would not be a reasonable position. And that’s why I am a fundamentalist: I’m sure I’m right.

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If you like this, you might also like The Amazing Thing About Christian Belief.

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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