The Judgement of the Dead

There are a number of reasons Christianity seems absurd to many people. In the third century, the pagan philosopher Porphyry blamed its speciousness on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the “disgusting idea that bodies will be raised fom the grave,” with bits of desiccated flesh flying through the air like a fast rewind of an Egyptian plague. He poses the case of a boatload of Christian fishermen (recalling the fact that Jesus’ followers earned their keep that way) being wrecked at sea, their bodies eaten by sea creatures, regurgitated or defecated and swirled into the ocean depths where they mingle with sand and broken shell. Will these be raised up? Does the Christian God not have better things to do–because the Greek gods certainly did.


Since Porphyry’s day the treasury of Christian doctrine has increased dramatically, largely though not exclusively on the Catholic side: entries like the Real (physical) presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forgiveness of sin, and, related to both, the stature of the priest as an avatar of Jesus. Then there’s the Assumption of Mary (proclaimed 1950) not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (proclaimed 1854, and about her, not Him), and the doctrine of Purgatory, a tribute to why bad things happen to good people, based on a medieval credit-rating system where almost everyone had scores between 300 and 550 and had to pay back the debt in millennial installments of woe and agony. –Unless the Church intervened. And yes, still very much on the books.

Mind you, most Christians and many Catholics don’t believe these things anymore. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, 45% of Catholics hadn’t heard of the real presence, which means that almost half of practicing Catholics have no idea what they’re practicing. To hide their embarrassment, parishes are laying on weekly “Eucharistic Adoration” opportunities, the kind of labor my birthright-Irish grandmother found intrusive to her complacent religious life, thus not likely to attract the Facebook crowd to fall on their knees. Large numbers of Catholic girls think the Church’s teaching on abortion has an opt-out provision, or varies from diocese to diocese or priest to priest. They confuse it obviously with the celibacy rules.

I’ve often thought I’d like to give a course called “What You Don’t Know That You’re Expected to Believe Anyway,” as a balance to the Church’s course in “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, So Let’s Not Talk About It.”

Which is exactly what’s happening in the Church. Since there has to be some connection between doctrinal literacy and belief, it isn’t shocking that the Church, along with its evangelical allies, has chosen to fight the battle for relevance in the forward trenches of sexual ethics and not on behalf of positions its adherents find boring–so early-second millennium.

Of the number of women having abortions who self-identify religiously, the statistics for Catholics and Protestants are dead-even at around 32% each. For Jews, less than 2%, but for other reasons. No wonder the cunning and soon-to-be saint John Paul II started his Gospel of Life movement, a recipe for being against war, capital punishment, murder, violence, and (by cross-ranking inclusion) abortion. His sainthood will be based on changing the subject from obedience and doctrine to love and peace. (For it!) and creating the illusion that almost everything else is a mystery and a symbol–though in this he has a very long tradition to fall back on. Hating abortion is the key symbol, and has hence become the core doctrine.

With respect to traditional doctrine, the sort of thing that had to do with fighting the devil and getting your soul to heaven, Catholic Christianity has become an episode of Fawlty Towers –the one where (confronted with German tourists but trying his best to be English about it) Basil reminds his staff, “Don’t mention the War.” Likewise, in these inattentive times, when Christianity is all about loving God through hating a woman’s right to choose, it’s important not to mention eschatology: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell, the core of Christian faith.

So I want to mention it. Eschatology. The four last things.

Let’s talk about the second, since the first is pretty obvious and the third and fourth depend on the second. They are worth talking about because this is what the Church has a right to talk about, and also because in a shruggish kind of way many Jews believe it too, and in a much more robust way Protestants and Muslims believe it. We will be judged.

Let’s say that if you don’t believe in this, no fair calling yourself a Christian, whereas whatever you think about abortion is contingent on a theological principle. Its moral character is not self-explanatory without other ideas behind it. Abortion is a real decision, made by real people in real time, with real consequences. The church can declare it is wrong, sinful and hateful to God, but without judgement, the teaching is a bit toothless, isn’t it? You see my point.

The Christian church worked itself into a corner very early. The early and medieval church couldn’t promise heaven right away because they knew that the bodies of dead Christians weren’t spared the ravages of the grave. They looked just like dead pagans and Jews after six months. The doctrine of the soul, which the church copped from various writers and cobbled together over time (it isn’t biblical, not even New Testament) and blended with Jewish ideas of “resurrection,” was a great help: Bodies die, souls fly off somewhere, but if this is true they need to be judged quickly for what they’ve done “through the body.” Through the body–whose corrupt state pretty much tells you all you need to know about human nature.

Thus was born the Two-Judgement Theology of the Western Church. We are so important to God that he has time to judge us twice. A first, or particular judgement at the moment of death, a final judgement when body and soul are recombined on the Last Day.

The Last Judgement is not an appeal process. It’s reckoned that first and last will be identical in verdict and punishment, though the soul gets a head start on the body in enduring everlasting pain. The only reason for there being two is the distance between the reality of death (now) and the uncertainty of the time of the end of the world and Christ’s coming (then, when?). The Now is dull, personal and predictable. The Then is fiery and spectacular (cf. Mk 13) and brings with it that realignment of soul and body parts that caused Porphyry to break out in fits of laughter.

If this sounds complicated, imagine the capacity of an unpaid Irish nun to explain it to a skeptical twelve year old. Scenario: “Well, Joseph, you just ask too many questions, don’t you?”

The particular judgement has no textual support though there is a “source” that Christians tried to introduce into the mix by making people think it was old and Jewish, called The Testament of Abraham. It probably comes from the third century CE (AD) though some scholars want it to be older. It’s an entertaining fantasy of how an aged Abraham gets visions (very Christian visions) of angels and heaven–and judgement. He meets Michael, the “captain of the angels” (archangel) who is perpetually darting back and forth between the Oak of Mamre and heaven with messages. Heaven has gates. A tiny gate for the chosen few, a big gate that seems to be an elevator door to the netherworld:

“And Abraham asked the chief-captain Michael, What is this that we behold? And the chief-captain said, These things that thou seest, holy Abraham, are the judgment and recompense. And behold the angel holding the soul in his hand, and he brought it before the judge, and the judge said to one of the angels that served him, Open me this book, and find me the sins of this soul. And opening the book he found its sins and its righteousness equally balanced, and he neither gave it to the tormentors, nor to those that were saved, but set it in the midst.”

The tale even has reality TV-emanations: Abraham witnesses the judgement of a woman who is condemned for having sex with her daughter’s husband, killing her daughter, and then claiming she remembers nothing. Boooo! said the ancient studio audience.

The later history of the “particular judgement” is bland. It includes Tertullian’s idea that the distance between death and final judgement is a waiting period for the soul, full of excruciatingly conscious thoughts about where it fell short–but leaving open the possibility of a surprise reprieve; Hippolytus’s notion that the judgement is really like sorting beads, for future reference, when God decides to make the necklace; and–of course–Augustine. Liking structure more than evidence, he decides that at death souls are sorted into bundles (four in all) ranging from blessed to damned–but unlike Tertullian, no waiting–first come first served for the unambiguously saintly or beastly, like the 4.45 PM Seniors’ Special at a Florida restaurant. But note: there is no agreement here. Not one of these writers has any idea what he’s talking about. There is no control group, there are no interviews. Not even a good text worth debating. It is belief heaped on belief.

The discussion of Judgement up through the medieval period looms large. It connected to every other important doctrine, from saints, to sacraments, to what the Church could dispense to you through its “treasury of merits”–a fund of superfluous grace achieved by holy men and women who didn’t use up all they had–and the sale of indulgences. At the Reformation, largely due to Calvin, the growth of speculation and imagery was brought under control, but the belief that souls are judged after death (Calvin said, “consciously, so that they know their fate”) was retained.

Indulgence Certificate

The Big Deal, of course, is not merely what happens after you die but what happens when everything explodes and the Son of Man appears in the sky to call you home. That much, at least, is biblical–the core of Christian belief in the second coming, complete with a perennial Protestant temptation to pinpoint doomsday (the Old English word dome/doom means judgement) and humiliate your opponent with statistics drawn from the Book of Revelation, which he will call Revelations.

The Last Judgement was at least “Biblical”–which means simply that the idea of it could be located in scripture. Matthew 25 contains a significant passage about separating the sheep and goats, and there is a disturbing passage in Revelation 20.11-13 about the “dead” coming before a great white throne. As to how you get there, St Paul worried that the Corinthian Christians were asking too many questions. In one piece of guesswork (1 Thessalonians, maybe his literary debut) he thinks that we will all be swept up “to meet the Lord in the air”–frightening prospect; in another, that we will need a change of clothes before the interview, and so “will be changed [into a new kind of flesh] in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15.51-2). Either way, spectacular.

The Church fathers were limited in their guesswork by scriptural controls that didn’t apply to the “particular judgement” and the central belief that certain passages in Daniel and Isaiah could be used to prove that, at the time of judgement, the dead would be raised for the purpose of giving an account of themselves. Matthew gets so excited by the idea that (27.52-54) he has a few of the dead being raised “prematurely” at the time of the crucifixion, but then puts them on hold until the resurrection of Jesus, when they’re permitted to enter Jerusalem in their burial cloths.

And so, back to Porphyry. Why are the dead raised? To be judged. Why are they judged? Because death is not bad enough. The God of life, who made you to die, wants more from you. Wakened from a neural sleep they are roused to undergo torture or experience the pleasures of heaven–always unimpressively and unenticingly described in Christian thought.

Paradise, Persian

There are no virgins, or their male equivalents, or grapes, or nonintoxicating intoxicating beverages–no Paradise in the voluptuous Middle Eastern sense, not even in the Genesis Garden of Eden sense. Nothing that would make you want to be there for a minute, let alone eternally. The “vision of God,” that later became the reason for wanting to go to heaven, was Christianized platonic faddle from the early Middle Ages. Mark Twain had it right.

Worst of all, there will be lines. Long queues extending for centuries. Maybe the angels will let women who were at least six months pregnant when they died go first. –The ones who died because they killed themselves rather than tell their parents they were pregnant will go to hell. The ones who ended their pregnancies will go to hell. The ones who died because they were told they had to deliver a child, and ended up with pulmonary insufficiency because they couldn’t sustain a pregnancy at twelve years old will go to heaven. Such is the divine mystery. Such is the will of God.


What I ask is that the Church start talking about this again: something it has taught for two millennia. Something it claims to know about because it invented it. Talk about the texts. Talk about the disagreements, the stories, the history, the imagery. Talk about how Judgement happens, what to expect. Talk about the evidence. Do not say it is a mystery of faith, like the Eucharist. If it is, then say you don’t understand it either and stop talking about it. You cannot talk convincingly about the price of “sins” like abortion if you can’t explain this.

If I convert to Islam or profess my atheism loudly enough, can I be diverted to the Wide Gate and get started on my punishment? I would prefer that.

If I feel that I’m at least as virtuous as my church-going neighbor but happen to be a Buddhist, is there room for appeal?

And before anyone says I am asking silly questions and it is all much more complicated and mysterious than I am making it: ask your friendly priest or minister to explain what he believes, what his church teaches, and then get back to me.

Me, The Tree, and Genesis Three

People who read this site know that I am no friend of biblical fundamentalism.

I’ve quipped that fundamentalism is text without context. Even that to have a fundamentalist outlook is to have the adult equivalent of a “teenager’s fear of vampires.”

Which makes this morning’s class in the books of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Bible) all the more exhilarating.

It seemed that everyone who came, Bible in hand, to rustle through the stories of the creation and fall had been carrying another book and reading a different story.

“Of course,” I said, turning a little aside from my PowerPoint screen, “as the introduction tells us, there are several accounts of creation.” After decades of saying this, my voice is usually flat on this riveting point–like saying “Bread can be made from several different kinds of grain.”

“Are you saying this isn’t true” a student named Jancie said, without looking up from her cell phone. Her Introduction to Business Studies book is on top her desk where her Bible was supposed to be. Both books are fat and have green covers.

“No,” I said. “I’m saying the story is composite–more like a magazine than a book with a single writer.”

“We learned in my Church that Moses is the author,” said an earnest boy who sits as far back and close to the escape door as he can get. “So, that isn’t what you’re saying?”

“It isn’t anything I said,” I said. “Moses is certainly an important figure in the books after the Book of Genesis. He doesn’t really have a walk on part in Genesis. He isn’t what Genesis is about.”

I also wanted to quip that if he’s the author of the first five books of the Bible he’s the only one in history to narrate his own death and departure. I bite my tongue.

“Genesis is about how we fell from God’s grace and why God sent his son into the world.” Laetitia, radiant, smiling, immune from having read the assignment.

“Well, that is certainly how a lot of people read the story,” I began. “But that really is not the story. Or stories. Maybe if we just forget about who wrote it and what our church teaches about it, we can look at the story.”

They looked disappointed. Years before, I had taught in places where, by this point, books would be open, cross references and footnote defenses of conservative interpretations in the Scofield Reference Bible would be checked. The Christian apologetics machine would be whirring away.

But that was then. Now, things are different. Attitudes and minformation (minimal information) have replaced informed zealotry. The students do not know that the Bible was written in Hebrew. They cannot distinguish between ancient Near Eastern civilization and the Crusades. One suggested that when the First Couple was thrown out of the Garden they went to live in a nearby castle. Another asked if Navi’s was spoken in Hebrew times.

For them, the Bible doesn’t belong to a stream of literature and pop culture that includes talking dragons, miracle workers, feats of superhuman strength, bloody battles, teenage pregnancy and torrid, hopeless love. But the Bible has all of this–had all of this–before Disney and MGM had it.

“I’m going do do something different today,” I say mysteriously.

No response, though the hope might have been walk out the door and give us a long weekend.

“I’m going to read you the story. You’re going to follow along.”

Looks-askance, muffled groans. He can’t be real. I start. Genesis 3.1.

“Now the serpent was the craftiest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made…”

“What page are you on,” asks Antony, the boy at the back.

“It’s not a page, Tony: it’s Genesis 3.1–we use chapters and verse numbers to find our way through the Bible.”

He scrummages around, ending (from what I could tell) somewhere near the Book of Revelation. “It’s the very first book of the first part of the Bible. First sentence —next to to the big 3 in the column.”

“Got it,” he says.

I press on. I raise and lower my voice in doing the parts of the Sepent. I make a slightly hissing sound which defeats the whole purpose of my lecture. –Slightly ditz when I play the role of Eve, then realize the very angry girl in the third row thinks I’m making fun of women. I make a note to myself that the next time through, I will cast this using the class as the dramatis personae. That way I get to be God.

I climb to verse 8: “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…”

“Why’d he need to cool off,” Laetitia interrupts.

“Because he hot,” says Geraldo, who had never uttered a word before and usually sits with one ear plug hanging out and one hanging in.

There are a few laughs.

“The Lord God called to the man and said, ‘Where are you?’ and the Man said, ‘I heard the sound of you in thre garden and I was afraid because I was naked….”

Dorothea (Thea) who seems to have passed through Catholic schools without much impact, wonders out loud if he is afraid and hiding because he is ugly.

Geraldo tells her that he is afraid because, you know, it’s like getting out of the shower and finding a stranger in your apartment, hellooo? Exactly, I say. Not exactly, I think.

I move on to the curses: “To the serpent he said, because you have done this thing, cursed are you before all cattle, and above all wild animals. Upon your belly you will crawl, and dust you will eat all the days of your life.”

A pale boy named Brian, who instinctively dislikes me because he thinks I only pretend to know things, says, “Nice curse, a snake has to crawl on its belly. That’s like telling a duck he has to swim.”

Feeling ever so slightly eager to increase Brian’s antagonism, I caution, “No, the serpent’s not a snake. He’s a mythical beast, more like a talking dragon. Think small dragon–feet, wings, smart.”

“She like him,” Geraldo says. “I can tell she like him more than Adam. She a dragon lady.”

“That’s certainly possible,” I said. “This story has been interpreted lots of ways. Maybe that’s there, too. But notice, he’s morphed into a snake, and for many ancient people, snakes are loathsome things.”

“My dog killed a snake once,” Brian says proudly. “I think it was poisonous.”

“No one give squat about your dog. Let the man tell the story.”

“To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pain in childbearing; you will bring forth children in agony, and yet you will desire your husband. And he will rule over you.”

Laetitia is frowning. “So this book says that the reason women have to put up with so much shit sorry so much stuff is because God wants us too? That’s just crazy. I reading no book that has that kind of crazy idea.”

Geraldo is nodding. Brian is reading chapter four hoping for a way around all the trouble.

“And to the Man he said, because you have listened to the voice of your wife and eaten of the fruit of the tree…cursed is the ground because of you; in sweat you will eat of it all the days of your life…You are dust and to dust you will return.”

“My book says earth,” says Tony.

“Same thing,” says Thea, nailing the plot. “It’s all dirt. That’s what the story is saying, you do dirt you get dirt.”

We moved on to how God sends them out of Eden, out of paradise, out of the place where the fruit falls from the trees into their naked laps, the animals obey when they are called, where there is no sickness or disease, and no one ever sweats, where if they had played their cards right, they would never have grown old.

We explore why God is anxious to shut the gate:

“Because the man has become like one of us [gods], knowing good and evil, and might now put forth his hand and snatch the fruit of the tree of life and eat it and live forever.”

“How many trees are there?” I ask.

“One,” says Tony.

“Two,” says Geraldo, “man can’t you count. “They out of there.”

He drove the man out and to the east of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the tree of life.”

No one spoke. Even Brian had rejoined us in chapter three. Laetitia said we had ten minutes and could we read more. Geraldo finally shook his head and said.

“Professor, did anyone ever believe this stuff?”

Lateitia, who looked the most worried over the forbidden passages we had just read came up with a better answer than I was ready to give.

“It’s the only story they had.”

The Birth of the Messiah Legend: A Post-Epiphany Reality Check

In Honour of America’s Annual Nativity Feeding Frenzy

(First published as First Century Pulp Fiction: CBS at the Manger
A review of the recent CBS 48 Hours special “Birth of Jesus”

Once again the American media and a few scholarly mercenaries have tried to focus attention on New Testament mythology as though startling historical facts are waiting to be discovered beneath the layers of legend.

It happens every year, at Christmas and Easter: new revelations, startling discoveries (often described as “archaeological” to give a scientific ring), the latest scholarly finds, expert opinion. Given the lineup on CBS’s recent 48 Hours special on the birth of Jesus—John Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Michael White, and Ben Witherington (appropriately the gamut from skeptical to credulous in their approaches)—the ready supply of expertise (read: informed opinion) is no more in doubt than a burned out bulb in a marquee display.

But the opinions are. Quote Witherington, for instance: “[Mary] was very young at the time of the annunciation, barely a teenager. We’re talking about a small town girl here.” But the basis for this is nowhere to be found in the gospels; it’s based on guesses about marriageable age in Jewish tradition, spliced together with a prophecy from Isaiah 7 about a “young woman bringing forth a child,” spliced further with an event which defies historical explanation: an “announcement” of a virgin birth by one of God’s favorite messengers.

As with so much network (and general) docu-drivel, the scholarly shovels are out digging holes in air as though solid ground were beneath them. Other Class One errors: Elaine Pagels playing the Gnostic card, saying that the Gospel of Philip questions the entire concept of the virginity of Mary. Actually, the GP says that Mary is the “virgin whom no power defiled” and denies the historical Jesus (including his physical birth) completely.

Relevance to this discussion: nil. Witherington on the slaughter of the children by Herod described in Matthew’s gospel “From what we can tell about the ruins of first century Bethlehem, a few hundred people lived there. I think we’re talking about six to ten children [slaughtered] max.”

Queried as to why the event isn’t recorded outside the gospel account Witherington says “it was a minor event” by the standards of the time. So minor, in fact, that no other gospel writer mentions it, and New Testament critics have known for ages that while Herod may have been a no-gooder, the “massacre of the innocents” is just another case of Matthew milking prophecy to exploit his notion that Jesus was the “true” king of the Jews, Herod an evil imposter.

Slaughter of the Innocents, Giotto

In another instance, CBS took its crew to Egypt (receipts, please: no poolside drinks) to ask the visually tantalizing question, “Did the holy family actually live there for a while?” Matthew says they did. He says so because he is “reenacting” the Exodus scenario and gives his hand away by linking the sojourn to Hosea 11.1. Great story. Terrible history.

The problem with all such television exercises is that most of what is claimed is simply not true, or new, or revolutionary. The vast majority of biblical scholars know this; shame on them. It is the seasonal game to boost ratings, with Jesus Christ Superstar heading the pack—this year in tandem with ABC’s provocative query, Where is Heaven, How do I get There? Since archaeology is especially useless in answering that question we can leave heaven to one side, or up there as the case may be, and focus on the Christmas story, rightly beloved by children because it was a children’s story from the beginning.

Here is what we really know:

1. The Nativity Story is late—very late: The original gospel was communicated orally, chiefly by illiterate peasants. It possessed no story of the birth of Jesus because no one was interested in that part of the story until later. Paul has never heard of Jesus “of Nazareth,” or Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, or kings from eastern provinces, or a distant guiding star, or a virgin named Mary. He knows a story about a semi-divine messianic “man from heaven” (Philippians 2.5-11) whom he names Jesus Christ, “born of a woman [unnamed, unhusbanded], under [Jewish] law” (Galatians 4.4).

2. The earliest gospel and its copies possessed no birth story: When the basics of the story of Jesus were written down, the earliest literature still contained no story of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and (we think) the latest gospels–Mark (ca. 70, at earliest) and John (ca. 95, at earliest)–also know nothing of the birth of Jesus. Well, that’s almost right: the Fourth Gospel, John, knows a story similar to the one Paul knows, fancified a bit using ideas borrowed from popular Stoic philosophy, so that the semi-divine man becomes the “divine Word” of God, “who became flesh.” But still, no manger, no virgin birth–a mother he addresses, in fact, as “Woman” (John 2.4) , no angels singing Gloria, and instead of Bethlehem, active embarrassment that he hails from Galilee (John 7.40-2).

To add to the confusion, Matthew knows nothing of Jesus being from Nazareth; the family resides in Bethlehem and end up in Nazareth because it’s part of an escape route (Matt. 2.23). Luke on the other hand has the family living in Nazareth and ending up in Bethlehem because of an otherwise unknown Roman tax census (Luke 2.4f.). There is no historical memory here, and not even the Nazareth tradition is secure since despite all the very energetic attempts to find references to it no such “village”—not even an outpost of Empire–existed in the first century. (Yes, I know the contravening evidence; it is not compelling).

Discussions of the inscription from Caesarea Maritima have not alleviated our ignorance of this location and thus discussions of the implications of its proximity to the Hellenistic mini-city of Sepphoris are completely conjectural. The solution espoused by some scholars, of making this man of mystery Jesus of Bethlehem from Nazareth near Sepphoris makes him less a mystery than a cipher.

In fact, the birth in Bethlehem is legendary and the “hometown” (or refuge) of Nazareth was, if anything, a large farm.

3. The Stories are legends based on other legends: The birth stories are pious tales appended to the gospel of Mark by later writers whom tradition names “Matthew” and “Luke,” – but probably not by the authors known by those names.

Scholars know that the original gospel of Luke did not have its familiar nativity story because our earliest version of it, used by the famous second century heretic, Marcion, did not have it.

And as Marcion was writing and quoting away from his version of “Luke” in 120 AD or so in complete ignorance of the tale (just like Paul), we can assume that the nativity story came later. It arose at around the same time many other legendary accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus were being written: The Pre-Gospel of James, for example, or the (in)famous Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which are full of entertaining stories about the birth of Jesus. In Infancy Thomas Jesus makes sparrows out of clay, then brings them to life, and smites his playmates—dead—for being rude to him. In some of the apocryphal tales he performs cures in the manger as a newborn. The tendency in the early church was to make Jesus “miraculous” from the get-go. The sources of these stories are tales told about emperors like Alexander the Great (whose mother was thought to be a virgin), Augustus (emperor, allegedly, when Jesus was born), Vespasian, heroes such as Herakles/Hercules (another virgin birth), Apollonius of Tyana, and Jewish folktales, like those associated with Chanina ben Dosa.

The story of the star is taken from Virgil’s praise-hymn (Eclogue IV) in honor of the “Peace” of Augustus. Nothing in the story is original, but its popularity was ensured by having its roots in a hundred other famous myths and legends. The point was to show Jesus the equal of the cultural heroes of the time.

4. What about the Genealogies? Another reason for knowing that the nativity tales are legendary is that, like all legends, they are uneven, flamboyant (even by the standards of miracle tales, which were the favorite form of first century pulp fiction) and contradictory. The two tales, Matthew’s and Luke’s, were not written very far apart in terms of chronology–perhaps Matthew’s coming first. But they were written to satisfy different audiences, different tastes, and for different religious reasons.

There are too many of these discrepancies to list here but there’s no need to dig very deep: Both Matthew and Luke provide “genealogies” of Jesus designed to defend their saviour from the Jewish calumny that he had been the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier (another proof of the lateness of the tales). But the genealogies themselves are out of synch: Among many discrepancies, Matthew (1.16) knows Jesus’ grandfather as Jacob, Luke (3.23) as Heli, and neither writer seems aware that the whole genealogy is negated by the doctrine of the virgin birth, which makes Joseph’s paternity irrelevant in any case. This shows to biblical critics that the genealogies originally served a different purpose from the virgin birth story—the first to prove the Jewish/Davidic pedigree of Jesus, the second to prove his divinity, mainly to gentile converts. Even the earliest Jewish Christians, the Ebionites, rejected the genealogies as forgeries, and the gospels of Mark and John know nothing about them.

5. Virgin Birth, Manger, and the Rest of It: As Christianity forged ahead, the church became less interested in the Davidic/Jewish pedigree of Jesus than in arguing his divine status–as son of God (filius dei, the designation used by Roman emperors from the time of Augustus, and conditioned by their belief that Jesus was their true lord and king). The miraculous birth was the culmination of this belief, the stage at which the virginity of Mary is introduced into the picture (Matthew 1.13-25 and Luke 1.5-8).

Matthew tells a Jewish story, more or less, and links the birth to prophecy by misusing, or misunderstanding, a verse from Isaiah (7:14, which in Hebrew simply reads, “A young woman [not a virgin] shall conceive and bear a child.”) Luke tells a Greek story, with awe-struck shepherds and harp-playing angels singing in the provincial skies. The Christians who adhered to the earliest tradition long enough to be regarded as heretics in the second century, the Ebionites, regarded the virgin birth story as heresy.

The earliest Christians seem to have followed Mark’s opinion that Jesus was promoted by God to lieutenant godship at the moment of his baptism (Mk 1.11), but the idea of a divine child sent by God for the salvation of his people was a part of the mythological picture of the late first and second century, Christianity’s formative decades. It was too tempting to leave aside: Wondrous manifestations of light, cave-births, hidden divinity made manifest to trembling onlookers. They were all part of the story of the birth of the gods and heroes before Christianity came onto the scene to share them.

Virgin birth of the Buddha

In Buddhist tradition, at Gautama’s birth, in equivalently odd circumstances, a great light shines over the world. Persians marked the birth of the Sun, symbol of the god, in the cave of Mithras at the winter solstice, and the Roman co-option of the cult of the sun god, Helios (combined with Mithras in the pre-Christian pantheon) made the solstice the date the birth of Jesus, “the light of the world.” In Greek tradition, Zeus as the Sun divinely illuminates the birth chamber of Herakles in the stable of Angras. And the poet Ovid presents Hercules as the child Horus, who shares a midwinter birthday with Zeus, Apollo, and other calendar gods. The Greek god Hermes was born in a cave in swaddling clothes. The story of the annunciation in Luke 1.30-33 is itself a borrowing of the Egyptian idea that impregnation can be effected through a ray of light falling from heaven, or a word (logos) spoken in the ear, a legend associated with the birth of Apis. The list goes on.

In summary: The stories of the birth of Jesus are late, legendary, and totally without historical merit. They are the additions of devotional writers who are at cross-purposes over whether to understand Jesus in messianic or heroic context and end up doing both. The failure to iron out contradictions is not their problem, because they were doubtless unaware that such contradictions existed. That the contradictions do exist, however, gives us important insight into the mythological foundations of the nativity tale.

Real scholars need to pay closer attention to the origins of religious myth and story and in communicating their opinions to have fuller regard for their role as reporters of reasoned conclusions. Looking for the manger, like looking for Noah’s ark, will probably continue to transfix believers once a year, but historians and biblical scholars should have no part in that quest.

Defining Fundamentalism

“To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.”

A New Oxonian Oldie

I’ve been puzzling about this recently: whether there is anything that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have in common. I’ll leave the Jews and the Sikhs and Hindus to one side for a minute. Just because I want to.

First of all, you have to have a book to be a fundamentalist. It’s no good trying to say you take your religion seriously if you don’t have a page to point at or a verse to recite.

Theoretically, various gurus can exert the same sort of control that a book can exert over the mind of a true believer. But usually gurus begin by pointing at books as well.

That’s what both Jim Jones of People’s Temple, Inc., and David Koresh of Branch Davidian fame did. They were just the messengers, albeit the ones you had to sleep with to get the keys to the kingdom.

They became convinced that they were the fulfillment of texts they’d read one too many times. In the same way, the music of rote repetition seems to inspire Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar and the late and invidious Baitullah Mehsud as well. Fundamentalists read texts written 1000 years ago as though they were hot off the press–like this from the world’s most famous MIA:

Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)….The Arabian Peninsula has never–since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas–been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. All this is happening at a time in which nations are attacking Muslims like people fighting over a plate of food.” (1998 fatwah)

It’s so easy to forget the Crusades, isn’t it? Especially since the last one ended in 1291 with the interlopers in full retreat, barely managing to keep the booty in their saddlebags as they galloped away.

But to review, two things pop out at us immediately when you think of fundamentalism: you have to have a book that you take deadly seriously, and you have to forget that the book has a history.

The second point is massively important, because it permits the fundamentalist to ignore science, cultural change, and prevents the possibility of seeing the book as being, in any sense, out of date, irrelevant, or out of touch with current political or ethical contexts. If people had prophets then, who’s to say they can’t have prophets now?, say the David Koreshs and Dale Barlows of this world. We say so, say the Omar Bakri Mohammeds and Abu Izzadeens right back. After all, we’re reading different books. We can’t all be right. Fundamentalism is always particular to the truth claims of a group: one man’s fundamentals are another man’s pornography. Both responses to books written a long time ago are manifestations of historical illiteracy.

Revd Hagee

Another thing, an important feature: fundamentalists have to be right. Not in the sense you and I might be right if we scored a Daily Double on Jeopardy. Right in the sense that there has to be a slope-shouldered, humiliated wrong sitting next to it. Right in the sense that there can’t be a middle way between good and evil.

Fundamentalists have no trouble doing this because the world of late antiquity where their ideas were forged in an atmosphere of petty monarchic rivalries and mythic theomachies–mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, by the way–was an easily divisible cosmos. Us and Them, equated easily to good and evil, in political and hence in religious terms. That’s what Mani taught, what Zoroaster taught before him.


It’s also what Muhammad and his followers preached, what the Qumran War Scroll is all about (1QM, 4Q491-496) and (no good trying to wriggle out of it: read Mark 13.13) what Jesus taught, in his eschatological rhapsodies at least.

The notion that in the end, “all of Darkness is to be destroyed and Light will live in peace for all eternity” is very appealing. But there’s a good chance the person next to you belongs to the other side. At least that’s what you’ve been taught. To be a fundamentalist is to have the religious equivalent of a teenager’s fear of vampires.

That’s what makes the next two characteristics of fundamentalism so important: extermination (in two forms) and conversion. The People’s Temple, the Yearn for Zion (YFZ) Mormons and the Branch Davidian “cults” created or were ready to create manufactured mini-holocausts to vindicate their beliefs.

When the sheriffs’ cars rolled up on the edge of their compounds, the sacred boundary between purity and corruption, they were ready to go home. Everything about the outside world was smutty, dirty, and unchaste–huge horrible spaces swarming with unbelievers who mocked them and raced home in a satanic frenzy to watch smutty, dirty and unchaste television shows.

They had a point of course. The culture is filled with crap and we do tend to regard people who wear gingham dresses (and worry so much about chastity that they will only have sex and babies with a purified leader) as a bit off the beam. It’s a tired observation, I know, but fundamentalism is self-marginalizing:the blessings of secular culture and the contempt of its protagonists for nonconformity serve as proof to every child eight and up that daddy and mommy are “right” because difference is the ultimate distinction.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, self-extermination, a form of martyrdom, is a way in which Christian crazies can vindicate their readings of sacred writ.

Homicidal martyrdom is the trademark of Islamic fundamentalists, a much messier way to do business. You begin with the same premise as the one quoted above from bin Laden, the exemplary coward who has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of his fans, as when he sings the praises of young men who behead unbelievers:

The youths also reciting the All-Mighty words of Quran: Smite the necks…(Muhammad; 47:19). Those youths will not ask you for explanations, they will tell you, singing, there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck smiting….They have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner. (bin Laden, 1996)

Pleasure to know, moreover, that the martyr-fundamentalist does not experience the excruciating pain of his bleeding or burning infidel victims; they have the word of no less an authority than Saheeh Al-Jame’-as-Sagheer, who lived “in the seventh generation” after the Prophet and attributes the saying to Muhammad. “A martyr will not feel the pain of death except like [sic] how you feel when you are pinched.”

The idea that the martyr dies painlessly while others are screeching around him is meant to be reassuring to the half-hearted volunteer, whose rational soul tells him that he has never witnessed a death free from agony and that comrades who have been wounded in engagements with the unbelievers suffer immensely. Still, they have the word of as-Sagheer ringing in their ears: “With the first gush of [your] blood, [you] will be shown thy seat in paradise, decorated with jewels.”

Finally, fundamentalism is all about conversion, heavily infatuated with growth. It isn’t enough that the fanatic kingdom-comers of the world erect temples. They want to put people in them. That requires a recruitment program.

The statistics speak for themselves. In our stunningly up-to-the-minute culture where we can instantly communicate mathematical solutions and the latest groundbreaking article in medical research from The Lancet around the world with the flick of a key, people who think death can be like a loving pinch or noogie are clocked (in terms of percentage increase since 1989) as follows:

Islam in North America, +25%
Islam in Africa: +2.15%
Islam in Asia: +12.57%
Islam in Europe: +142.35%
Islam in Australia: +257.01%

This is not all “conversion,” of course; but conversion is a geographical and cultural mandate in Islam, and conversion from more lenient to more literal forms of Islam is also on the rise. According to an October 2009 estimate, Taliban numbers of fighters alone–those who are attracted mainly by martyrdom rather than philanthropy and virtue, went from 7,000 in Northern Afghanistan to 25,000. (Reuters, Saturday Oct. 10, 2009).

By comparison, it is becoming more difficult to define what a “fundamentalist” Christian is, potentially because the ground under his feet is more prone to cultural shift. But if we think of biblical literalism, an intolerance of  “soft” forms of Christianity (often equated to a kind of mainstream liberal heresy), the importance of conversion (in this case, evangelism), and prophetic fulfillment as the non-negotiables of fundamentalism, the following statistic is, you should pardon the expression, revealing:

Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have grown by 37% since 2001; the Churches of Christ by 48%; the Assemblies of God by 68%. (United) Methodists and Northern Baptist by 0%, Jews, -10% and Catholics, through a healthy infusion of Hispanic and Latino votaries, a mere 11%. The undeniable appeal of taking God’s word seriously is unslaked by contemporary life.

Which causes me to muse: Did you ever stop to think that no matter how many times you read Peter Pan as a child you could never quite persuade yourself that you could jump out of a third story window and fly, just by thinking wonderful thoughts? Maybe you tried launching yourself from the top bunk–just once, but never the window.

I hope I make my point.

Atheist Nation Celebrates the Holidays

The Intellectual Highground

Nothing puts atheists in a worse mood than the holiday season. All these dimly-lit people and brightly-lit window displays, making merry over things that never happened, spreading lies, propagating falsehood, singing their rancid carols, and worst of all teaching impressionable, if rather preposterous, children to believe in intellectual crap when they could be playing Megaman 11 or Worms Reloaded–which they got last Christmas. How obscene, how humiliating: Behold, little Buddy praying by his bedside for Megaman, versions, 12-16 (“conveniently boxed as one item” from to a non-existent deity, having just lodged the same request with the sex-offender in the Santa suit at the mall. No wonder America is going to the red dogs and blue dogs. “Isn’t anybody listening to the Voice of Reason?”

God to a six-year old

Help is on the way.

To combat the forces of Darkness and Superstition, the American Humanist Association and some allies have launched a new ad campaign to put the Grinch back into Christmas. An article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times charts the new ecumenical spirit of the quest, spearheaded by the same blithe folk who brought us the “Good without God” bus-o-rama and the “Just be Good for Goodness Sake” billboard extravaganza. The campaigns are financed by “a few rich atheists” with money to throw to the wind, and buoyed by research being done by the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life (Trinity College), headed by the eminently reasonable Mark Silk and based on Barry Kosmin’s American Religious Identification Survey, showing that as many as 15% of Americans are “Nones,” i.e., have no religious identification or association.

It is pretty obvious and at the same time hopelessly obscure how Nones relate to atheism (atheists hope they do: this is largely, sad to say, a recruitment push for membership and dues), but as Goodstein points out in her article, the combined membership of the sponsoring organizations numbers only in the thousands. The best course might be to see whether Nones can be divided into groups: Certainly Nones, Possibly Nones, and None Just Now, Thanks–but I mix my politics and religion, which is never a good thing.

Possibly None

I will be blunt: This whole business is idiotic. It is hard to imagine that people like Todd Stiefel, one of those well-endowed atheists with cash to burn, are really on a rampage because of passages like the one he cites from the Bible:

“The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (from Hosea 13:16, New International Version).

Reassuringly if a little obtusely Stiefel says that “It [our democracy] has not been based on [verses like these] and should never be. Our founding fathers created a secular democracy….We must denounce politicians that contend U.S. law should be based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” I agree. Anyone who wants Hosea 13 added to our Bill of Rights should be tied to a chair, gagged, blindfolded, and made to listen to Diane Rehm read slowly through the whole Book of Leviticus. Presumably (or is it implicitly?) he is willing to throw serous money at billboards so that America does not become a country that kills babies. He will find many friends among Catholics and Evangelicals on that score.

Diane Rehm

If you think ripping open pregnant women is bad, read the story of the wandering Levite in the Book of Judges (ch. 19) where a consummately self-absorbed kidnapper–a Hebrew–offers his concubine to some Village- of- the- Damned- crazed youth who want to have sex with him, gang rape her, leaving her for dead–whereupon the Levite butchers her semi-conscious person into twelve pieces and forwards a limb to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Please: Don’t quote Hosea to me when there are passages that would make Tarantino wince.

The Levite's Discovery

But to be serious: Do the sponsoring organizations (which include besides AHA the American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation) think that these stories are read to Christian (or Jewish) children at bedtime? Is it bloody likely that a craven priest in Spokane is going to substitute the Legend of the Lethiferous Levite for St Luke’s Nativity story on Christmas Eve? I know that atheists feel they know a great deal about the mindset of the religious principles they reject, but one has to wonder why this isn’t reflected in their anti-Christian strategies?

Or are the campaigns only a reflection of the sponsors’ shocking ignorance of ancient myth and legend, whereof the Bible is a treasure hoard. I get the sense that the sponsors need to begin with the Brothers Grimm and then read backward in literary time to get a sense of how the grotesque has been used in history for both entertainment and moral instruction. Most “reasonable” people who are slightly sophisticated about the contours of culture know this. Many very nice religious people know this. They know that scaring people to death has been used by religion and nasty aunties for a long time to get people to change their wicked ways, clean up their act, and lead a better life. The question is, why don’t atheists know it? The shock of discovery seems entirely their own; it will not surprise the educated or awaken the irreligious passions of a Certainly None.

We don’t do that any more–scare people to death to make them good. Even very religious people don’t do that any more. The last really good sermon on hell was preached in 1917 by the torture-obsessed priest in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. And I can’t name the last time I heard a robust sermon on Hosea 13.16. Given that real life lascivious priests are frightening enough, it seems unnecessary to reach back to the first millennium BCE for material.

Hell as you like it...

The intellectual isolation of the atheist from wider cultural movements and shifts in perception is one of the great stories of our time. Almost no one is covering it. If the question they are asking about religion is, Don’t these damned believers know what’s in the Bible, the answer is somewhere in the range between probably not to possibly so; but even if they do, they probably know that the Bible is not recommending carving up your girlfriend. And probably can guess that when you find blood and gore of this magnitude the story is about something else. Phrases and words like “symbolism,” “surface meaning,” “allegory,” “folk legend” and “myth” come to mind. Put it under the heading “Things Atheists Missed in College,” along with a good course in comparative religion, ancient history, mythology, and anthropology. It’s only people who have never studied myth who can write in such a yawningly banal way about religion being one.

I find myself constantly challenged on panels with atheists to lecture them on their understanding of words like “superstition,” the “supernatural” and above all “myth.” They in turn find me niggling and pedantic. But really, does the average atheist, village or city style, assume that the toxic texts of scripture are “in” the Bible for moral edification or because they reflect a time and culture different from lunchtime in Chicago?

Richard Dawkins lectures me, London 2007

Which brings us to the question, Who are these ads for? We’re told that a key reason for the aggressively confident style of the campaign (not to mention the unusual spirit of ecumenism that currently reigns in the atheist camp), is owing to their determination to get their “market share [of the Nones].” Leaving the most grievous puns aside, they are also inspired by the need to resist the Myth of the Not Lying Down Dead Horse, that America is a Christian Nation. And as we all know, there is nothing like a Billboard over the Lincoln Tunnel that announces, “You know it’s a Myth. Believe in Reason.” to get uncommitted people thinking and committed people scrambling for the nearest AHA meeting. Add a Hosanna to that and you’ve got something. (Tip for vandals: Spray paint “I’m Lucifer, and I approve this message” on the sign.)

In a particularly poignant way, weary commuters will also be treated to the cheery salvo of The United Community of Reason (not to be confused with Christians United to Oppose Rationality), a group in Washington. Their idea of decorating for the holidays includes spreading the good news of Reason on billboards and ads on bus shelters in about 15 cities: “Don’t Believe In God? Join the Club.” Fortunately, number-wise, the club can actually meet in the bus shelter. Add a few Nones and they can meet at a subway stop, except in cities where there are subway stops no one gives a rat’s whisker about organized atheism.

Far be it from me to lecture atheists. But please accept, along with an eggnog salute, the following advice. Grow up. Learn a little about what Being Clever means. I know we live in a world defined by short attention spans, coffee mugs, T-shirts and bumper stickers. But it’s completely unclear to me whether your ad campaigns will change a single mind, or even whose single mind your campaign is designed to change.

This is not a “struggle.” The upward march of unbelief is not the forces of liberation against the sources of slavery and oppression. I’m afraid religion beat you to that metaphor. It’s called Exodus. No one is paying attention because no one except your club members actually cares about the private conclusions of people who want to turn being disagreeable into a civil rights event.

Launch of Consider Atheism Campaign: Attended by Several

The slogans are insipid and can only have been vetted by very small committees of Like-minded People–and that’s a real problem, The modern atheist seems to get off on being distaff, minority, contrary, and ornery–the legate of a long free-thought heritage. Would your heart beat faster if you could persuade society that overturning a Salvation Army worker’s collection pot is an act of charity–extra points for snatching the bell? Would you praise a convert who defaced a nativity scene at Christmas, or saved a turkey’s life at Thanksgiving. Don’t be ridiculous, you say: that’s not what this is about. Don’t be ridiculous, I say: this is what you have made it.

Two last things in this little lecture:

Give up using the name humanism. You’re ruining it for people like me who don’t mean by it what you want it to mean. Equating atheism with humanism is a cheap trick, a cop behind the billboard (maybe one of yours?) kind of trick. Be proud of being an atheist. I know I’m not. You are not the American Humanist Association. You are full- frontally and outwardly the American Atheist Association.

And stop this ridiculous invocation of secular saints from Socrates to Einstein. Virtually none of the people you pray to became famous for being atheists and you know it. Not even Darwin. Certainly not Socrates. And Einstein: who knows?

“Yes, you can call it that,” Einstein replied calmly. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.” (Quoted by Isaacson in Einstein, 2007)

1933, on a deserted beach in Santa Barbara, California

But the point is, you cannot claim the intellectual upper hand in arguing against “God and religion” and then resort to the authority-argument to win your case. Even if you were joined by all the Nones in America, yours is a lonely lot. Especially at Christmas. Accept it. Live with it. And take down those absurd posters.

Sins of Omission

Catholic theologian and former priest Paul Collins, as every one who has previewed this book has recognized, has a tough job. After saying flat-footedly that “those of us born after World War II will be among the most despised and cursed generations in the whole history of humankind,” it behooves him to say both why this is so and what we can do about it. (Judgment Day, University of New South Wales Press, 291pp, $34.95)

Ecotheology has been around for more than a generation and its themes have become stereotyped. They depend on a particular reading of the creation myth of Genesis that understands mankind as being placed in a stewardly or custodial rather than a dominant position towards nature. It was given to us in perfect condition: we messed it up.

Using myths in this way is perfectly permissible as far as I am concerned, as long as we understand that the Genesis story doesn’t actually teach us anything you can take to the bank or use in constructing environmental policy. According to Genesis 1.26-32, God is quite emphatic to Adam about fertility, productivity, and “dominion” over the earth. –A whole school of theology has taken its name from verse 28, which sees this dominion or authority extending beyond the natural world to politics and society. Whether out or not, most conservative Christians, especially the Tea Party variety, espouse some form of dominionism. Their numbers will grow in the wake of the American congressional elections of 2010.

According to a different account of creation in Genesis 2.15ff., Adam was created as a live-in caretaker of the Garden God had planted for his own pleasure and relaxation. He likes to stroll there in the cool of the morning (Gen. 3.8) and can be heard humming. Adam’s benefits (in kind) include free use of the property except for the tree of life (2.9) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–two trees whose magical fruit mythically explain God’s moral powers and longevity to the Hebrew writers who tell the story. And just to mention it, the story is not entirely consistent. Adam’s job description is that of an unskilled labourer, in or out of the garden. His punishment for being a bad caretaker (what if some other god or a mere mortal got hold of the fruit?) is just to transfer him to Arkansas with a shovel and a scolding. His status remains unchanged. The real estate changes.

Scholars see the second creation story as an etiology, a story told to explain not just the origins of agriculture and “sedentary” (non-nomadic) existence, but of the tribulations of crop failure and lack of irrigation. Things were much better back in Babylon, even Egypt-land according to Genesis 12.10ff; not so good in Canaan.

Paul Collins is deeply sensitive to his own better lights in seeing the biblical story, and the traditions it spawns, as a kind of “creation theology.” After all, didn’t God say that what he had created was good, and aren’t we the ones who have made it bad? What Collins especially dislikes is “development”, a trend he sees extending from ancient China in the east and Sumer in Mesopotamia (close to the mise en scene for Genesis 2) when the human race became “irrigation crazy.” And for Collins, irrigation is just the most primitive form of technological and industrial development.

It’s no good saying that at any stage along the way we have ever given a thought to the environment: not in the Middle Ages when the vastness of the earth was being intuited; not in the Age of Discovery, when greed for gold and possessions ruled the heart and inspired armies; not in the Renaissance when our planetary smallness became obvious, nor in the industrial era, nor in the nuclear age, and not nearly enough today. The term biocide did not exist before the twentieth century, but religion (not only Christianity) has been one of the great facilitators of killing the planet in the Name of its creator.

Is material development moral? Should leases be given to BP and other “oil giants” for deep water drilling, after the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe in which–it becomes increasingly clear–human greed and shortcutting and not merely human error played a significant role. How do you go about convincing a fickle electorate that the sin-deaf political party that gave us Dick Cheney (who gave us the vamped up Halliburton behemoth that gave us the cement that led to the rig that Jack built exploding in Jack’s face) should not be returned to power, just when we are becoming aware of the price the earth has had to pay for bleeding so much oil for so long, for so much money?

Collins’s thesis is that everyone should be indignant, but Christians (he thinks) especially so, because they have a mechanism for dealing with what’s going on. It is called sin. And sin is what God looks at, according to traditional theology, when he judges the world–and what we have done with the world.

Because we are both selfish and fickle, but don’t regard selfishness as particularly sinful, it is easy to think of sin as an equivalence-game–to focus on other people’s trespasses compared to our own meager wrongdoing and lapses. Who me? No, that’s you, not me. Better yet, it’s him, not us.

The planet is a very big thing. BP is a very big thing. But private sinners are something you can get your head around–or at least your nose into their business. It is why we love reality TV, Desperate Housewives, Jersey Shore, the Kardashians. They have the courage to be so much more sinful than we have the time or money to be, brave enough to make their private sins public so that we can enjoy them with tortilla chips and beer. Thievery, murder, backbiting, bare-faced lying, serial adultery–the “individual sins” that Protestants are grateful Jesus paid the price for (it saves us so much work), and Catholics can reference on mental index cards during their infrequent confessions–enumerated, of course–are hugely entertaining. Add to these hatefulness and attitude. It is difficult to judge what we have come to love, or the things that have seduced us, as Augustine once sighed reflecting on a boyhood theft at the age of sixteen: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself” (Conf. 2,5)

But the thrill of other people’s sins, and the voyeuristic mind-set that ensures its success as entertainment, is really not what sin is about. Collins is deeply sensitive to the way in which the Church has trivialized and individualized sin. Christian teaching is that the world itself is under judgment. We are under judgment for how we treat it–world both in the metaphysical sense (“world, flesh, devil”–delight) and in the physical way–its beauty and bounty. Sin is not just who you’ve slept with, you bad boy, or lied about not sleeping with, you clever dog, but lying to yourself for your own irresponsibility for the social, political and corporate sins you conveniently overlook. All sin in encapsulated in crimes against the idea of “world.”

It is difficult for the modern believer to vindicate God’s destruction of the “world” by flood “in the time of Noah,” except for this: it never really happened, and the story is told —de pilo pendet–to show that creation hangs on God’s favor, a grace that mankind has abused recklessly through that most biblical of words, “wrongdoing.” No one would argue with the story if, for God, we substituted the word “Planet” and saw the catastrophe as the consequence of inaction, greed, and stupidity. Only the most obtuse literalist can take exception to the need for stern correction of a race that has fallen miserably short, like the mythical Adam, of the role creation requires of it.

Once upon a time, there was a healthy sense of this: In Paul’s declaration that “The good I would do I do not and the evil I would not do, I do.” And in Cranmer’s eloquent rendering of the sentiment in the Book of Common Prayer, turning it into a general confession of responsibility:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,: we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and have done those things which we ought to have done.”


Or in the Catholic church’s ancient catechism,
“…quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere, et omissióne — “in thought word, deed, and omission.” Or in Martin Luther King’s aphorism, that “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

The numerical approach to sin favored by conservative Christians and dominionists will always be at odds with the social construct, the idea of a world under judgement for social failures and private indifference, especially when verses such as Genesis 1.28 can be used as an entitlement to wear and tear–drill, pollute, waste and wreck, or Adam’s punishment can be interpreted as an argument for better tractors and antiperspirants. “Development” is no more a neutral word than the word “weapon,” which forces to our consciousness the correlation between a greedy man and a murderer.

It is a tribute to the stupidity of Adam’s children that we can wring our hands over whether we are passing a trillion (three trillion, six trillion?) dollar debt to our grandchildren, but not worry too much about clear lakes, blue skies and green pastures. As Collins recognizes, generations of Christians (including a great many in the “dark ages”) used these very symbols as a cipher of God’s grace, beauty and bounty. Many of the Psalms could not have been written without a sense of the transcendental power of God in nature.

“… Sing praises to our God on the lyre, Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who provides rain for the earth, Who makes the grasses grow on the mountains, who gives the beast its food, and food to the young ravens which cry…. He makes peace in your borders; He satisfies you with the finest of the wheat.”

No one needs to believe in this sentiment descriptively, or in this God prescriptively. But it seems to me, the image of a God who provides for and cares about the world is at least as important as the image of a God who cares about stealing, adultery, how you feel about your neighbor’s wife. Or oxen. As the Church’s attention to sin has now shrunk to focus almost entirely on the uterus, the social, political, and environmental sins against the world receive proportionally less attention. Conservative Christians who believe in the “uterine sins” but cannot turn their attention to the skies, the air, the melting glacial fields, the rapid spread of ignorance and poverty by irresponsible parenting really need to have their baptismal certificates revoked. The only problem is, the Church condones and encourages their ignorance. It tells them to be good Christians by not having sex, or being very careful when they do. When this does not work–in Uganda or Bangladesh or Wasilla, Alaska, it is–reproachably–attributed to the will of God. And yet no one keeps track of how many deaths the culture of life evinces through poverty, disease, starvation, ignorance. The Catholic Church and missionary protestantism do not answer the door when the collection agent presents the bill for the culture of life.

The biblical writers made a close association between sin and destruction. A tormented first-century writer, Paul of Tarsus, sees the whole world order “passing away” as the eschatological reality of his time. It’s corrupt like an apple is rotten: to the core. There is nothing permanent about it.

The literature of judgement–called apocalyptic–can be amazingly detailed about how uncreation will work at the time of judgement; the images range from stars losing their place in the sky to mountains crumbling and seas overflowing the boundaries that were set for them in the beginning, a dizzying succession of events that resembles a super-fast rewind of creation saga. Instead of births, there will be miscarriages–because there will be nothing left to take care of. We will have become unnecessary. The world will end, but badly.

The apocalyptic vision, all of it frantic and fanciful of course, continues to fascinate the most literal believers because of this grotesque detail. They see themselves being scooped up to heaven with the angels because they were, after all, better than the desperate housewives and avoided the fleshpots of Reno. But for the creators of the genre, and the Christian copycats who followed them, it was all about sin and judgement. The world had got very bad. People had lost focus. The Law was being forgotten. The prophets had stopped prophesying, their work done. The unjust triumphed over the oppressed and the weak. Politics then as now, was rough, raw, corrupt, and open to the highest bidder. Eden’s apple lay rotten on the ground as a token of what cost our ancestor his job: abject failure to tend the garden. “Let thy Kingdom come” is a perfectly rational prayer under the circumstances.

It did not come. Jesus did not come. Salvation of the sort expected anyway–the incursion of a divine power from above–did not come. As Loisy once said the Church came instead. But what Christianity in the widest sense did possess is an ongoing sense of judgment and accountability.

It has not solved the problem of the cheap-grace Christian who is still obsessed with the uterine sins and calls herself “pro-life.” The church is now, and has been for a long time, in the reflexive mode of taking counter-cultural positions that it deems unpopular and therefore correct. It has pronounced secular culture evil and knows that other voices are competing for listeners. But in focusing on the “uterine sins,” it has lost track of the larger idea of sin and salvation and traded the chance to be a truly prophetic voice for the far easier task of singing the song it has always sung.

But secularists should take no comfort in the Church’s failure and shortsightedness. A consciousness of judgement, something equating to the ancient religious vision, might be necessary in assessing what anthropologist Thomas Berry calls “our inability to deal with the devastation of our planet.” Ironically, this failure of cognizance and will comes at a time when we know more than we have ever known about our wasteful and wanton habits, the effects of millennia of predation on the earth’s goodness and bounty.

It may be difficult to fathom, knowing what we know about the dangers of overpopulation, starvation, disease and poverty, why conservative religion’s remedy for this failure is to preach against birth control and family planning. But but is also difficult to know what the secular-moral alternative is. In a review of Collins’s book by John Birmingham, published in The Australian for October 9th, 2010, the following paraphrase struck me as significant:

Secular humanism and rationalism, which led us to the edge of destruction, offer little in comparison because, having driven God from our moral discourse, that discourse has become difficult in secular democracy, which has ‘neither the ethical apparatus nor the rhetoric necessary for it’.”

Is it the case that there are no good naturalistic arguments against raping the planet for fun and profit? Or, if it is too easy to say “Don’t be silly” to that question, is it the case that the dual role of applied science in the contemporary period has been contradictory and conflictual, especially for those of us who are not scientists but reap its benefits every day: to guarantee our pleasure, our longevity, our convenience and comfort by extending the outreach of technology, while pausing occasionally to warn us that the reach cannot be extended indefinitely. The warnings are not usually framed as moral caveats. They seldom involve the idea of “judgment”; they are framed as arguments about non-renewable energy resources and diminishing capacity. They are arguments for greater ingenuity and more development.

Drill, Baby, drill!

I do not see a consistent ethic of responsibility on the secular side. And like Collins, I find the vocabulary so far developed to be vacuous and uncompelling. It lacks what philosophers might once have called a “telic focus”: we need to know why oiled pelicans off the coast of Louisiana are an evil. We need to know why it is ever so much worse to pass on black rain and unbreathable air to our descendants than a trillion dollar deficit. We need to to know that in some way we are judged, not just that we need to be careful when we buy our next car.

sins of the flesh

Science as a facilitator of human pleasure, the life span, the ethics of convenience, can issue perfectly sane warnings about this urgent state of affairs–much as the ancient apocalyptic writers once made promises of judgment to overreaching kings and idolaters. But now, as then, consequences postponed do not constitute effects. Long range predictions are not threats. They are merely mystifying to most people in a distractable age. The delay between an eternal God’s anger and his punishment for wickedness extends back three millennia and promises to reach into futures we cannot imagine, because it will never take place in history and time. Our situation with respect to judgement for sins against Nature is more dire because there is no God to save us and no God to judge us. Scholars have found that the favourite prayer added to the numerous litanies developed during the Black Death in Europe was a a modified version of the ancient prayer, “Agnus Dei“: “Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, spare us O Lord.” But we have to help ourselves.

The consequences that science envisions are real enough. And without the moral equivalent of God, we need to develop ways and words to make the consequences and the judgement of our own irresponsibility plain and real: a people guilty of lethargy, hardheartedness and inaction–the sins of omission, a world under the judgment of universal conscience, a betrayal of the knowledge we might possess, and do possess, shoved to the margins of our collective vision.

Letting Go of Jesus: Reprise


“But I tell you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also. Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again.” (Luke 6.27f)

Let’s pretend the year is 1757 and you have just come away from reading a new treatise by David Hume called an “Enquiry concerning Miracles.” Let’s assume you are a believing Christian who reads the Bible daily, as grandmother taught you; or perhaps a priest, a vicar, a Methodist minister. Part of the reason you believe in God, and all of the reason you believe that Jesus was his son, is tied to the supernatural authority of scripture. You have been taught that it is inspired—perhaps the very word of God, free from error and contradiction–passed down in purity and integrity from generation to generation. –A reliable witness to the origins of the world, humankind and other biological species.

You know many verses by heart: Honor your father and your mother. Blessed are the poor. Spare the rod, spoil the child. The love of money is the root of all evil. Lots of stuff about disobedient children and the value of being poor, confirmed in your own experience: there are many more poor than rich people, and children often don’t listen to their parents. You think the Bible is a wise and useful book. If you are a member of an emerging middle or merchant class—whether you live in Boston or London or Edinburgh—you haven’t read enough history to wonder if the historical facts of the Bible are true, and archeology and evolutionary biology haven’t arisen to prove them false.

The story of creation, mysterious as it may seem, is a pretty good story: it will do. As to the deeper truths of the faith, if you are Catholic, your church assures you that the trinity is a mystery, so you don’t need to bother with looking for the word in the Bible, where it doesn’t occur.

If you are a churchgoing enthusiast who can’t wait for Sunday mornings to wear your new frock or your new vest, it doesn’t bother you that there’s no reference to an 11 o clock sermon in the New Testament. If you are a Baptist and you like singing and praying loud, your church discipline and tradition tells you to ignore that part where Jesus told his followers to pray in silence, and not like the Pharisees who parade their piety and pile phrase upon phrase.

But what really convinces you that what you do as a Christian of any denomination is the right thing to do is what theologians in the eighteenth century, the great period after the Newtonian revolution of the 17th, called Christian Evidences.

The phrase was introduced to make the supernatural elements of the Bible, and especially for Christians the New Testament, more up to date, more in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Reasonable men and women who thought the medieval approach to religion was fiddle faddle—something only the Catholics still believed, especially the Irish and Spanish—had begun to equate reason with the progress of Protestant Christianity. Newton had given this position a heads up when he suggested that his entire project in Physics was to prove that the laws of nature were entirely conformable to belief in a clockwork God, the divine mechanic.

Taking their cue, or miscue, from Newton’s belief in an all powerful being who both established the laws of nature and could violate them at will, as “Nature’s God,” it seemed as though miracles had been given a new lease of life. No one much bothered to read the damning indictment of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, twelve years Newton’s junior, who had argued that belief in a god whose perfection was based on the laws of nature could not be proved by exceptions to his own rules. –You can play basketball on a tennis court, but it doesn’t explain the rules of tennis very well.

Anyway, you’re comfortable with Newton, the idea of Christian “evidences”, and all those lovely stories about impudent wives being turned into pillars of salt, the ark holding good old Noah and his family teetering atop mount Ararat (wherever it was) those vile Egyptians being swept up in the waters of the red sea, and the miraculous acts of kindness and healing and bread and fishes recounted in the New Testament. As a Christian, you would have seen all these stories as a kind of prelude to the really big story, the one about a Jewish peasant (except you don’t really think of him that way) getting himself crucified for no reason at all, and surprising everyone by rising from the dead.

True, your medieval Catholic ancestors with their short and brutish and plague-besotted lives needed the assurance of a literal heaven more than you do in the 18th century. But in general, you like the idea of resurrection, or at least of eternal life, and you agree with Luther—

“The sacred Book foretold it all:
How death by death should come to fall.”

In other words, you believe in the Bible because it’s one of the only books you have ever read–and perhaps not even it, cover to cover. And in a vague, unquestioning, socially proper kind of way, you believe the book carries, to use the language of Hume’s contemporary Dr Tillotson—the attestation of divine authorship, and in the circularity that defines this discussion before Hume, the divine attestation is based on the miracles.

Divinity schools in England and America which ridiculed such popish superstitions as the real presence and even such heretofore protected doctrines as the Trinity (Harvard would finally fall to the Unitarians in the 1850’s) required students for the ministry to take a course called Christian Evidences. The fortress of belief in an age of explanation became, ironically, the unexplained.

By 1885, Amherst, Smith, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, Dartmouth and Princeton mandated the study of the evidences for Christian belief, on the assumption that the study of the Bible was an important ingredient of a well-rounded moral education.

Sophia Smith, the foundress of Smith College, stated in the third article of her will that [because] “all education should be for the glory of God and the good of man, I direct that the Holy Scriptures be daily and systematically read and studied in said college, and that all the discipline shall be pervaded by the spirit of evangelical Christian religion.”

But all was not well, even in 1885. Hume’s “On Miracles” was being read, and was seeping into the consciousness, not only of philosophers and theologians, but of parish ministers and young ministers in training and indolent intellectuals in the Back Bay and Bloomsbury. Things were about to change.

Within the treatise, Hume, like a good Scotsman, appealed to common sense: You have never seen a brick suspended in the air. Wood will burn and fire will be extinguished by water. Food does not multiply by itself with a snap of my fingers. Water does not turn into wine. And in a deceptive opening sentence, he says, “And what is more probable than that all men shall die.”

In fact, “nothing I call a miracle has ever happened in the ordinary course of events.” It’s not a miracle if a man who seems to be in good health drops dead. It is a miracle if a dead man comes back to life—because it has never been witnessed by any of us. We only have reports. And even these can be challenged by the ordinary laws of evidence. How old are these reports? What is the reliability of the reporter? Under what circumstances were they written? Within what social, cultural and intellectual conditions did these reports originate? Hume’s conclusion is so simple and so elegant that I sometimes wish it, and not the ten commandments, were what Americans in Pascagoula were asking to be posted on classroom walls: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish….”

–So what is more likely, that a report about a brick being suspended in air is true, or that a report about a brick being suspended in air is based on a misapprehension? That a report about a man rising from the dead is true, or that a report about a man rising from the dead is more easily explained as a case of mistaken identity, or fantasy—or outright fiction.

The so-called “natural supernaturalism” of the Unitarians and eventually other protestant groups took its gradual toll in the colleges I have mentioned. At Smith College, beginning in the 1920’s, Henry Elmer Barnes taught his students:

“We must construct the framework of religion on a tenable superstructure. To do so is to surrender these essential characteristics of the older religion: (1) the reality and deity of the biblical God; (2) the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus and His special relevance for contemporary religion; (3) and the belief in immortality.” Sophia Smith’s college had taken a new turn.”

At Williams, John Bissett Pratt began his course in philosophy by telling his students, “Gentlemen, learn to get by without the Bible.” At Yale, the Dwight Professor of theology in 1933 repudiated all the miracles of the Bible and announced to his students that the Jesus Christ of the Christian tradition must die, so that he can live.”

Perhaps I should add that when I got to Harvard Divinity School in the 1970’s I was told by the reigning professor of theology who out of deference will remain anonymous, that my way of speaking about God was too literal—almost as though I “believed the metaphor was a real thing.”

This little reflection on Hume and how his commentary on miracles changed forever the way people looked at the gospels is really designed to indicate that in educated twentieth century America, between roughly 1905 and 1933, the battle for the miraculous, Christian evidences, and the supernatural was all but lost—or rather, it had been won by enlightened, commonsensical teachers in our best universities and colleges.

Of course it was not won in the churches and backwoods meeting houses of what we sometimes call the American heartland, let alone in preacher-colleges of the Bible belt, or the faux-gothic seminaries of the Catholic Church.

Hume’s logic and the theological consequences of his logic barely penetrated the evangelical mindset

When the tide rolled out on miracles, what was left standing on the shore was the Jesus of what became, in twentieth century America the “social gospel.” He wasn’t new—actually he had a long pedigree going back to Kant and Schleiermacher in philosophy and theology. He’d been worked through by poets like Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, who detested dogma and theological nitpicking and praised the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and ethical teaching—his words about loving, and forgiving, caring for the poor, and desiring a new social order based on concern for the least among us.

In Germany and England and finally in America where ideas, especially religious ideas, came home to roost more slowly, something called the “higher criticism” was catching on. Its basic premise was that the tradition about Jesus was formed slowly and in particular social conditions not equivalent to those in Victorian England or Bismarck’s Germany. Questions had to be asked about why a certain tradition about Jesus arose; what need it might have fulfilled within a community of followers; how it might have undergone change as those needs changed—for example—the belief he was the Jewish messiah, after an unexpected crucifixion, might have led to the belief that he was the son of God who had prophesied his own untimely death.

The social reality that the community was an impoverished, illiterate, persecuted religious minority might have led the community to invent sayings like “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are you who are persecuted,” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” But if this is so, then the gospels really weren’t the biography of Jesus at all. They were the biography of what the community believed about him.

The Victorian church was as immune to the German school of thought as Bishop Wilberforce was to Darwin’s theories—in some ways even more so. Even knowledgeable followers of the German school of higher criticism tried to find ways around its conclusions: Matthew Arnold for example thought the gospels were based on the misunderstanding of Jesus by his own followers, which led them to misrepresent him; but then Arnold went on to say that this misunderstanding led them to preserve his teaching, although in a distorted and conflated form. They added their words and ideas to his, but in their honest ignorance was honesty. Arnold’s influence was minimal.

The deeds were gone; now people were fighting over the words.
When the twentieth century hit, few people in the mainline Protestant churches and almost no one in the Catholic Church of 1905 was prepared for the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus—a long, not altogether engaging survey of the 18th and 19th century attempts to piece together a coherent picture of the hero of the gospels. Schweitzer pronounced the quests a failure, because none of them dealt with the data within the appropriate historical framework. No final conclusions were possible.

We can know, because of what we know about ancient literature and ancient Roman Palestine, what Jesus might have been like—we can know the contours of an existence. But not enough for a New York Times obituary.

Beyond tracing this line we get lost in contradiction. If he taught anything, he must have taught something that people of his own time could have understood. But that means that what he had to say will be irrelevant or perhaps incomprehensible to people in different social situations. His teaching, if we were to hear it, Schweitzer said, would sound mad to us. He might have preached the end of the world. If he did, he would not have spent his time developing a social agenda or an ethics textbook for his soon-to-be-raptured followers. (Paul certainly knows nothing about ethics—just some interim rules to be followed before the second coming of Christ.)

Schweitzer flirts most with the possibility that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in an era of political and social gloom for the Jews. But Schweitzer’s shocking verdict is that the Jesus of the church, and the Jesus of popular piety—equally–never existed.

Whatever sketch you come up with will be a sketch based on the image you have already formed: The agnostic former Jesuit Alfred Loisy (d. 1940) after his excommunication wrote a book called The Gospel and the Church, in which he lampooned the writings of the reigning German theologian Adolph von Harnack (d. 1930) who had published a book called The Essence of Christianity.

In the book Harnack argued that the Gospel had permanent ethical value given to it by someone who possessed (what he called) God-consciousness: Jesus was the ethical teacher par excellence. Loisy responded, “Professor Harnack has looked deep into the well for the face of the historical Jesus, but what he has seen is his own liberal protestant reflection.”

In America, Jesus was undergoing a similar transformation. In New York City around 1917 a young graduate of the Colgate Divinity School named Walter Rauschenbusch was looking at the same miserable social conditions that were being described by everyone from Jane Addams to Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in literature.

Rauschenbusch thought that the churches had aligned themselves with robber barons, supported unfair labor practices, and winked at income disparity. So, for Rauschenbusch, the gospel was all about a first century revolutionary movement opposed to privilege and injustice. In his most famous book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he writes, “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”

Like Harnack before and dozens of social gospel writers later, the facts hardly mattered. Whether Jesus actually said the things he is supposed to have said or they were said for him hardly mattered. Whether he was understood or misrepresented hardly mattered. Liberal religion had made Jesus a cipher for whatever social agenda it wanted to pursue, just as in the slavery debates of the 19th century, biblical authority was invoked to defend buying and selling human beings. Having given up on the historical Jesus, Jesus could now be made to say whatever his managers wanted him to say.

Unfortunately, ignoring Schweitzer’s scholarly cautions, they failed to demonstrate how the words of a first century Galilean prophet, fixated on the end of a corrupt social order, could be used to reform a morally bankrupt economic system.

For many of us who follow the Jesus quest wherever it goes, it’s impressive that the less we know about Jesus–the less we know for sure–the longer and many the books that can be written. In what will surely be the greatest historical irony of the late 20th and early 21st century, for example, members of the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 to pare the sayings of Jesus down to “just the real ones,” came to the conclusion that 82% of the sayings of Jesus were (in various shades) inauthentic, that Jesus had never claimed the title Messiah, that he did not share a final meal with his disciples (there goes the Mass), and that he did not invent the Lord’s prayer.

They come to these conclusions however in more than a hundred books by Seminar members, of varying quality and interest, each of which promises to deliver the real Jesus. The “real Jesus,” unsurprisingly, can be almost anything his inventor wants him to be: prophet, wise man, magician, sage, bandit, revolutionary, gay, French, Southern Baptist or Cajun. As I wrote in a contribution to George Wells’s 1996 book The Jesus Legend, the competing theories about who Jesus really was, based on a shrinking body of reliable information, makes the theory that he never existed a welcome relief. In a Free Inquiry article from 1993, I offended the seminar by saying that the Jesus of their labors was a “talking doll with a repertoire of 33 genuine sayings; pull his string and he blesses the poor.”

But all is not lost that seems lost. When we look at the history of this case, we can draw some conclusions. We don’t know much about Jesus. What we do know however, and have known since the serious investigation of the biblical text, based on sound critical principles, became possible, is that there are things we can exclude.

Jesus was not Aristotle. Despite what George Bush thinks, he wasn’t a philosopher. He did not write a book on ethics. If he lived, he would have belonged to a familiar class of wandering, puritanical doomsday preachers, who threatened the wrath of God on unfaithful Jews—especially the Jerusalem priesthood.

We don’t know what he thought about the messiah or himself. The gospels are cagey on the subject and can yield almost any answer you want.

He was neither a social conservative nor a liberal democrat. The change he (or his inventors) advocated was regressive rather than progressive. But it’s also possible that we don’t even know enough to say that much.

He doesn’t seem to have had much of a work ethic; he tells his followers to beg from door to door, go barefoot (or not), and not worry about where their next meal is coming from. He might have been a magician; the law (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]) which punishes sorcery with death speaks of the witch and not of the wizard, and exorcism was prevalent in the time of Jesus, as were magical amulets, tricks, healings, love potions and charms—like phylacteries.

But we can’t be sure. If he was a magician, he was certainly not interested in ethics. After a point, the plural Jesuses available to us in the gospels become self-negating, and even the conclusion that the gospels are biographies of communities becomes unhelpful: they are the biographies of different perspectives often arising within the same community.

Like the empty tomb story, the story of Jesus becomes the story of the man who wasn’t there.

What we need to be mindful of, however, is the danger of using greatly reduced, demythologized and under-impressive sources as though no matter what we do, or what we discover, the source—the Gospel–retains its authority.

It is obviously true that somehow the less certain we can be about whether x is true, the more possibilities there are for x. But when I took math, we seldom defined certainty as the increase in a variable’s domain. The dishonesty of much New Testament scholarship is the exploitation of the variable.

We need to be mindful that history is a corrective science: when we know more than we did last week, we have to correct last week’s story. The old story loses its authority. Biblical scholars and theologians often show the immaturity of their historical skills by playing with history. They have shown, throughout the twentieth century, a remarkable immunity to the results of historical criticism, as though relieving Jesus of his obligation to be a man of his time and culture–however that might have been–entitles him to be someone who is free to live in our time, and rule on our problems, and lend godly authority to our ethical dilemmas.

No other historical figure or legendary hero can be abused in quite the same way. We leave Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Cleopatra in Hellenistic Egypt, and Churchill buried at the family plot in Bladon near Oxford.

The use of Jesus as an ethical teacher has to go the way of his divinity and miracles, in the long run. And when I say this, I’m not speaking as an atheist. I am simply saying what I think is historically true, or true in terms of the way history deals with its own.

It is an act of courage, an act of moral bravery, to let go of God, and his only begotten Son, the second person of the blessed trinity whose legend locates him in Nazareth during the Roman occupation. It’s (at least) an act of honesty to say that what we would like to believe to be the case about him might not have been the case at all.

To recognize that Jesus—whoever he was–did not have answers for our time, could not have foreseen our problems and moral dilemmas, much less rule on them with godly authority, frees us from the more painful obligation to view the Bible as a moral constitution.

The history of Jesus-scholarship is a progression of narratives about what might have been the case, but probably wasn’t.

If men and women in the New Testament business wish to pursue the construction of counter-legends as though they were doing history, there is no one to stop them. If they announce to an unsuspecting and credulous public that they have found “new historical materials,” better “gospels,” the “real story,” or the bone-boxes of Jesus and his wife and family, they simply prove the axiom: Jesus may not save, but he sells.

It has been a long time since theology’s dirty little secret was first whispered: “The quest for the historical Jesus leads to the door of the church.” But that is still where it leads. We leave him there, as Schweitzer lamented, “as one unknown.”

Deficiently Humanistic?

This from Ed Jones, concerning the recent post on Religion. He cites Schubert Ogden, once one of my intellectual heroes, from The Reality of God, 1967: 40-41:

The characteristic deficiency of all nonthestic moral theories is that they leave the final depth of morality itself utterly unilluminated. Although they may well focus our moral action and the immanent standards by which it is governed, they fail to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots.

Often enough, this failure is not lacking in a certain irony. Proponents of nonthestic moral theories typically pride themselves on their right to give a fully rational account of man’s moral experience. Nothing in this experience, they contend, is to be left merely at the level of unexamined belief or tradition. but must be raised to the level of complete self-consciousness. Ironically, however, this demand for rationality is not extended to the basic confidence that all our moral experience necessarily presupposes. Hence, for all their vaunted “Humanism” such theories are, in truth, deficiently humanistic. While they may cast a bright light on the foreground of morality, they leave what Whitehead calls its “background” wholly obscure. They allow the original faith in which all our action is finally based to remain a merely incompleteness, quasi-animal kind of faith.

The basic point Ogden makes here, it seems to me, is unarguable. The demand for a totally rational morality must either be grounded in some theory of the human person–which takes us into the vaporous realm of metaphysics–or in some pragmatic view of consequences for the person and society in the absence of moral conditions.

If for example we are speaking of “law” in a secular and civil context, it is pretty easy to conclude that it is grounded in the latter of these conditions (“If men were angels,” Hamilton famously said, “no government would be necessary.”) The coercive and restraining power of law is therefore based on consequences imagined to arise if law did not exist. But this makes it virtually clear that law does not arise from a view of human action as innately (if that word means anything any longer) virtuous or placid. It arises from the idea that human action is brutish and mean. But hearken: Law has a problematic relationship to morality, and most theologians and philosophers have thought that its role is not to make a man moral but to make him pay his taxes or get him out of the ditch.

But by the same token, religion has never regarded humanity as innately virtuous either. Quite the reverse. A virtuous creature does not need saving from original sin, does not need the counsel and prods of the church, does not need commandments or pastoral care, does not need the promise of heaven or the threat of hell.

Ogden does not of course take such symbols literally: his God is much too “real” (meaning much too misunderstood) for that. But it has to be acknowledged that religion–in the broadest sense–but the book faiths in particular–virtually invented the language of legalistic morality and penal atonement. Its main difference from more mundane law is that the laws of religion are forecast in relation to a personified divine being, a sovereign king and judge, who can be personally offended by the violation of his rules and who has established specific ways of coping with transgressions. In theology, mankind is caught between heaven and earth; the best he can hope for is to be free from sin. In secular law, he is caught between the state and his own instincts; the most he can hope for is to stay out of trouble. There is no virtue and no morality in either scenario, though in traditional Christianity, the rewards for being good are infinitely greater.

Thus when Ogden says a secular morality “fails to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots,” he is trading in obscurity. It is the denuded theological doublespeak of an era that rewarded vacuity. Especially since this transcendent ground appears to be a not terribly clever circumlocution for God. Moreover, why should this transcendent ground be given any consideration in moral decision making if it is in no sense personal, cannot be offended (or pleased, or pacified), has no stake in the outcome of our decisions and actions, and could do nothing about it if it did?

Secular morality–Ogden is right–is greatly deficient because its instruments are not mathematically precise, its premises are negotiable and its outcomes approximate. Given its evolution as a rebellion against theological certainty, it could be nothing else. It is true that the absolute “standard”–or ground if you prefer–has been sacrificed to modern consciousness of real rather than transcendental ends and means.

But secular morality is not humanistically deficient, anymore than a religious morality is theologically perfect. It’s merely human. And its theological deficiency is nothing to apologize for.

Cheap Grace… Plus Postscript


Having been accused of “faitheism” by more than one reader of this blog, let me offer the following:

I have been a fairly vigourous opponent of the new atheism, manifesto-atheism, organized secular humanism (if that is not an oxymoron) and the quaintness of the term “freethought.” (Send it to the attic, it doesn’t apply to anything on the contemporary scene).

But you need to know why I am critical, and to understand that, you need to understand a bit of history–especially the history of men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a victim of German-style National Socialism.

To my twenty-something readers who have just come out as atheist, or gay, or something, at Oberlin, or somewhere. Good for you: if you mean it. But please mean it. Because if this is just to irritate your parents, it’s hardly worth the trouble. It’s true that gays and blacks and resolute women have been a persecuted and marginalized class in American society.

But two things are not true: (a) That atheism is the last buttress against the know-nothings of American democracy (“A Mighty Fortress is No God”?) and (b) that there has been a consistent “persecution” of atheists in American history. Not getting elected to office because you do not believe in God is not, I am sad to report, persecution.


The fact is, atheists have seldom taken a moral stance about anything. Their core position–that religion is immoral and that they are therefore opposed to its influence and its effects–is not a moral position but a dog satisfied to have caught its own tail.

Perhaps that’s why years ago at Harvard I spent my spare time reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer. No atheist, clearly, but an ardent believer in the improvability of the human race, a race that for all intents and purposes God had deserted. Naturally critical, he floated between theological positions and even spent a year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930.

After studying with the best we had to offer– Reinhold Niebuhr–he concluded, “There is no theology in America.” He meant, of course, that there was no rigorous inquiry into the sources of belief nor any critical examination of Christian theology in general, the sort of thing the German faculties had developed as Wissenschaft –serious scholarship. In fairness to the softness of the American cultural landscape, however, we also had no Hitler.

For Bonhoeffer, “serious” theology had consequences, and these led him through an almost unimaginable circuit of events to being arrested, condemned and executed for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy.

Bonhoeffer was hanged at dawn on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany. By decree of the SS and with Hitler’s explicit instructions, the execution was particularly brutal. He was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he was hanged with piano wire. An odd fate for an academic, a poet, a pastor and someone who saw the Church’s mission as entirely compatible with humanist ends.

I am beginning to dislike atheism. I dislike it because it is historically illiterate, and because it sees its crusade against the “powers of darkness” as a crusade against a record that all the blasphemy and all the parody in the world cannot change. I mean those moments of sanctity, light and grace where for reasons beyond the normal course of political events men like Bonhoeffer stood down the real powers of darkness.

For reasons different from the philosophical messiness of religion, atheism is a mess.

In making religion its sworn enemy atheism–organized atheism and secularism especially–ignores the religionless elements that transfused both the Nazi and Soviet movements. When will atheism have the will and the confidence to admit that a world without God is no better than a world with God? If the twentieth century proved anything, it is that.

Bonhoeffer used the phrase “cheap grace” in his most eloquent meditation, The Cost of Discipleship, to describe the Christianity of his day–an idea he derived from Kierkegaard. In contrast to the energy and vision that had inspired the early Christians as a religious minority, European Christianity had become fat, lazy, and politically malleable. It required neither risk nor affirmation: to be German and Christian was equivalent to what it once was to be Roman and pagan. (The Jews got the short end of the equation in both cases).

His premise was simple: any intellectual position comes at some expense. At one extreme, it is worth lying for, conspiring for, and if all else fails, dying for. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….”

Hitler’s enemies were not atheists. They were his co-religionists, Catholic priests and confessing protestants like Martin Niemoeller. They were his religious Others–the Jews, and had Europe then had a substantial Muslim population (I am sorry to disappoint my pro-Teutonic Muslim friends with this information) they would have joined the inmates at Buchenwald and Auschwitz as outsiders as well. The early anti-secular noises made by the Nazi party to pacify the churchly despisers of Adolph Hoffmann, whose picture appears in my family album, were decisively exposed as political by Hitler’s closest mentor, Martin Borman, in 1941:

When we [National Socialists] speak of belief in God, we do not mean, like the naive Christians and their spiritual exploiters, a man-like being sitting around somewhere in the universe. The force governed by natural law by which all these countless planets move in the universe, we call omnipotence or God. The assertion that this universal force can trouble itself about the destiny of each individual being, every smallest earthly bacillus, can be influenced by so-called prayers or other surprising things, depends upon a requisite dose of naivety or else upon shameless professional self-interest

Borman followed this with a 1942 memo to Gauleiters, that the Christian Churches “must absolutely and finally be broken,” as their views were fundamentally opposed to the total world view of democratic socialism.

Bonhoeffer’s reaction was not against proposals that (among others) would have banned the teaching of theology in the universities or removed the Old Testament from the Bible, or eliminated subsidies for churches and religious schools, or forbidden school prayer. The total menu of punitive actions against religion was much larger than this–and similar proposals have been the staple of democratic socialism in both Europe and America for more than a century.

Bonhoeffer’s nausea was evoked by the quasi-religious and spiritual trends of the Nazi inner circle: Germanic pagan imagery mixed with ancient Roman symbolism and emotion in propaganda for the German public, the naive acceptance of social Darwinism, a strong belief in the providential role of science, as Science, and a commitment to the idea of German intellectual supremacy. He saw forming behind the scenes a new myth, fashioned to replace the old one by summoning the tribalism of an ancient imperial past, and a Church so naive that it believed it could accommodate the “new ideas.”

Bonhoeffer died as a Christian, as someone opposed to the symbols and reality of the state-produced Man. If you want to see the most effective and still chilling visualization of this, watch the first fifteen minutes of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film, Triumph of the Will–Hitler descending like Woden or Jesus (either is correct) as the expectant people (sitting in darkness, awaiting the light) clamour for the landing of his aircraft.

So the question arises, why in a world so allegedly hostile to their ideas have atheists never been held to account? Why are there no illustrious atheist martyrs, no equivalents to Socrates and Jesus–and Bonhoeffer? Given the insistence of the atheist and secular humanist movement that their position is heroic simply because it is (as yet) unusual in the world–perhaps especially in salvation-starved America–
what approaching army advances? What hideous penalties do they threaten? Do any involve being strung up at dawn by piano wire? And who will be the first to lay his life on the line for the glory of Unbelief.

In fact, modern atheism is the moral equivalent of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Just as the comfortable Christian could count on the fact that the price of his sins had been paid for in advance by a God who operates as an endless source of moral credit, atheists know that the cost of their rage is slight. They count on the fact that the free speech they savor has been underwritten in constitutions and codes dating back two centuries–just as the Protestants of Bonhoeffer’s Germany counted on the fact that their greed had been atoned for in advance. They follow a narrow orthodoxy that punishes nuanced, critical and accommodationist views–just as the Churches of Bonhoeffer’s day embraced a gospel that perfectly reflected their social values and political lassitude.

Kishinew Pogrom

In other words, the cost of being an atheist is simply to proclaim being an atheist, with a wink to the atheist at your side. What, no applause? No police force, no secret agents are going to round you up for that. For that to happen, there would have to be something more to atheism than the purely negative impact of not believing in God or believing that religion is evil.

It would have to develop real ideas, agendas, and principles–preferably different from the ones that emanated from the first great organized wave of atheist ideology, Soviet communism.

And since atheists often adopt a Missouri posture in such matters: Show me your martyrs. Show me the principles for which they died. Show me the agenda that naturally flows from unbelief, and the positive consequences of taking that position. Show me the future of the world you believe in when the world no longer believes in God.

Otherwise, atheism is simply the additive inverse of cheap grace.


It’s hard to imagine that I managed to get through this whole piece without using the word “complacency” even once. One reader awoke me to the fact when he asked whether Jesus and Socrates had died for their religious opinions or were victims of political circumstance. The flippant response is that most people who die for religious reasons were victims of circumstance, including the heretics. Atheism as we use the term today is really an intellectual fashion of the seventeenth century when the Church in the west no longer had the power to roast people for their apostasy: Around 1650 an anonymous manuscript appeared (probably in France) entitled Theophrastus redivivus which appears to be the oldest extant atheistic document. But, of course, there was classical precedent for denial of the gods, as well as satire of their behavior and trivialization of their role.

The atheist “heresy” is in creating an apostolic succession of unbelievers (Socrates and Galileo are, somewhat ludicrously, often numbered among them) that never existed, but put forth on the premise that very bright people must (at least privately) have been unbelievers. The religious heresy is the complacent belief that unbelievers are beyond the help of the church and thus, as Anselm regarded atheism, a form of insanity or “foolishness” (Psalm 14.1).

But my real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests–whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why atheists feel they have the right to feel more agitated and annoyed by the noise of the religious right, which after all is simply a bigger and more influential sideshow, than liberally religious, studiously ethical, or indifferent men and women–where I think the real and growing numbers of “converts” are. Most absurd of all is the persistent effort of younger new atheists, the Dawkinsians and Flying Spaghetti Monstratarians, to see their “cause” as equivalent to the civil and sexual rights movements of the twentieth century.

For the sort of serious approach to the subject that American atheists (chiefly) might want to know about and would surely benefit from reading, Cambridge University’s “Investigating Atheism Project” will repay the effort of a little historical homework a thousand times over.

Religionless Morality? On the Folly of Global Ethics

“And God spake unto Moses saying: This will you say unto the children of Israel: Be Good! And Moses went down from Sinai, and the children of Israel said: What hath the Lord said unto you? What is his plan and purpose? And Moses lifted up the tablet of the law, whereon was writ: Be Good! And they laughed and said unto Moses. What is this ‘good’? We need more.” (Exodus, The New Last Chapter)

I’ve touched this topic before, but it may be time for a summertime lite version of my comments. Especially as Scipio has just read a monstrously bad piece on the subject.

In a previous post, I argued the familiar theme that not only is religion not necessary for morality but that dogmatic religions are antithetical to the development of an ethical program. They interfere with two things that make a genuine morality–a program that results in the cultivation of virtue and the avoidance of injury–possible: conscience and choice. Before ethicists became classifiers, taxonomists, and quantifiers, in fact, these two ingredients were linked to the idea of practice. Following Mill and his wretched spawn, the do-gooding ethics of utilitarians, consequentialists, pragmatists, situationalists and others tended to obscure the fact that ethics has more to do with the examined life than with mathematics.


A moral life in the modern world has to be lived without religion. It does not need to be anti-religion. It has to be lived without religion because the idea of a law-giving god has become preposterous to most people, even to people who cannot acknowledge that the world we inhabit is post-Christian (and by extension, post- every other religion). By that I simply mean that the world we live in would be incomprehensible if we adopted the cosmology of the ancient world, the world of the Bible and its literary cousins. And to the extent we don’t or cannot, it’s foolish for us to imagine that it has intellectual or moral authority over us and over the decisions we face.

It has been a long time since Bultmann, the titanic biblical scholar of his generation, reminded his profession that the biblical world is based on a myth that has ceased to have a purchase not only on the mind but on the imagination of the modern world. And while it is possible to wish otherwise and therefore to think otherwise, “wishful ethics,” in my view, does not have much of a future.

So there is no reason to consider the God of the Bible as a source of virtue or standard of right conduct in the twenty-first century, and in fact, a little study of biblical history would show that he was not so regarded by the shapers of Jewish tradition either: it’s only when Christianity (and elements of Judaism) become saturated with Greek ideas that biblical precepts and customary law acquire the force of “ethics” and get themselves philosophized into religion.

As part-time philosophers, it was part of a theologian’s job description to make room for “ethics,” but whether we are glancing back at Augustine, or (later) Aquinas or Abelard, we are looking at men who were making the recipes up as they went along: One stick Plato, melted, three parts commandments, a dash of Epicurus, and a cup of Aristotle; cover and let simmer for one thousand years; remove from heat and sprinkle with beatitudes.

Abelard teaching: The first Naturalist?

“Jesus,” as a former archbishop of Canterbury once said to me, “was a very nice man, but he wasn’t an ethicist.” We can be grateful for that. Neither was Moses, and neither was Job. So to continue to think of the suzrerainal Yahweh as anything more than a heavenly king enforcing tribal customs on a wayward people (the tougher the better, lest Israel go astray), or Jesus as much more than the condensed version of what many Jews wanted to hear in the graeco-Judaism of first century Palestine, would really be to miss the point. It is important to let the Bible be a book of its own time. That’s not how it loses but how it acquires relevance.

You can’t get to ethics, however, simply by (a) tossing religious ethics out the window and (b) keeping the good bits–using slogans like “being good without God,” perhaps the most irksome, historically challenged and simplistic phrase ever coined in the name of secular morality.

You certainly cannot get there if you assume that there are universal and trans-historical norms that were as true in ancient civilization as today. For example, there was no prohibition against lying in Hebrew law (“bearing false witness” is a juridical sanction). If there had been, the Abraham who tries to pass his wife off as his sister and the God who commands Abraham to use his son as a sacrificial goat would not have speaking parts in Genesis. But just as significant, a thousand things we regard as repugnant–blood-hunters, infanticide, the execution of disobedient sons and the selling of family members into slavery–were widely practiced in ancient society. A little history and anthropology teaches us that religion, law, and morality were not three strands but a knot, the ends of which are sometimes difficult to untangle.

Being good was not the goal for Aristotle, was it? Habituating yourself to virtue through the practice of reason was. You can habituate yourself to other things of course, but you will always fall short of the “defining virtue,” which can only be the exercise of the one essential thing that makes you human. Some of us share with garden slugs a love for lettuce. But we can’t stop there. Some of us are good with wood. So are termites and beavers. I think my point is clear: the right use of reason, which is always painfully hard work and always requires judgment about things like the relationship between action and reflection (the classical mode assigns this to the “soul”) is the only source of ethics. And to be ethical is never therefore to be good. It is to be the sort of person who does the right sort of thing.

A little meditation will convince us that this excludes the possibility of God–not as a philosophical postulate but as a practical matter. God the father wants what is best for his children; but the biblical god at least leaves them in no doubt about what that is and what the consequences are for not acquiring it. He is the worst father ever: the kind who would let his own son die for crimes he caused to happen himself.

Thy will be done.

This concept, which most people would identify as the heart of religious ethics, is personally and morally insidious. It is fine for the eternally stupid Adam, whom God endows with the reasoning powers of a three year old, and fine for other heroes who beat their chests and whack their heads trying to figure out God’s justice. Of course, the moral thing to do would be to run away from home, away from the abusive father who makes unreasonable demands for unreasoning obedience to his arbitrary dictates.

Curse God and die.

Ethical responsibility requires at least that–to be, as H. R. Niebuhr strikingly phrased it a “responsible self.”

But there comes a time when the ethical framework invites the incorporation of lessons learned through religion as the story of our moral background, our infancy.

If letting go of God is part of that story, in the same way that coming to adulthood requires us to understand the pains and tremors of infancy, we should be prepared to answer to other tribunals, identify other sources of value, specify the norms we regard as relevant for leading a good life.

Is moral life always culturally specific? If we cannot identify trans-historical and universal norms from the past, why do we suppose we will be able to construct a global ethic for the future–or is the desire to do so simply another case of the totalizing conceit that we thought we abandoned when we left religion behind us?

These are the sorts of questions we need to be asking about an ethical program for the future, and I suggest that religion has a lot to teach us about where to look for answers.