During the episode I made a comment about the seeming weirdness of Christianity that I feel it would be helpful for my thinking to try to elaborate.
I've said in several posts here that I think that the new atheist movement is primarily political: it's not about advancing new arguments to philosophers, but about shifting the tide of opinion so that, for instance, an atheist could have some shot at winning an election in this country.
In the heat of conversation on the episode, I articulated something like this by saying that all I want is for Christianity to be acknowledged as, on the face of it, really weird. I'm wondering now whether I actually believe that and whether it makes any sense as a goal.
Don't get me wrong: I do think some of the main tenets of Christianity are pretty strange-sounding, no question. "Jesus died for our sins." That doctrine (though of course it can be and is explained in many ways) seems to imply:
1. A strong view of the moral character of actions, i.e. that they somehow accumulate like in a ledger, either merely in God's mind or staining our actual soul.
2. The idea that this sin is somehow transferable: someone else can work off my debt. This strikes me as running counter to the moral intuitions that go with #1, much like the doctrine (not at issue here, but certainly present in Christianity through the related doctrine of "original sin") that sin is inheritable.
3. The paradoxical phenomena of Jesus (a manifestation of immortal God) dying; and yet he rises from the dead, not because he's immortal qua God but through a miracle that provides a loophole so that the debt in #2 is paid even though he's not really dead any more... except that he ascended to heaven, where he'd be if he was dead regardless, so he apparently rose for our sakes as well...
I'm not saying that all this can't be explained, but man, it sure does require explanation, and it doesn't seem to me a doctrine that would have immediate appeal to someone not already raised in a culture steeped in this lore (who is also otherwise well educated, though I realize that stipulation is a bit problematic).
OK, so I've got this opinion stated above, and despite any attempts at self-deprecation, I'm an opinionated person, which means I think this is a legitimate observation (I wouldn't voice it if I didn't), and I think that others should recognize it to be so, even Christians themselves. I expect a thoughtful Christian to say, like Schleiermacher, "Hey, I know this all sounds crazy, but really there's a way of interpreting this that is not contrary to science or common sense, and in fact is very fruitful lots of ways..." What this amounts to, though, on Schleiermacher's part, is voluntary political marginalization.
It's like the ambivalence we P.E.L. podcasters sometimes exhibit about philosophy: yes, thinking about whether this chair is really here or about the foundations of arithmetic is pretty weird and esoteric, and we surely wouldn't wish it on everyone, but it's fun and rewarding to us, and maybe to you too, so check it out, eh? ...But then in other moods, we join Socrates in saying that the unexamined life isn't worth living, that philosophy should be a mandatory part of education, that philosophers should have a greater role in setting the terms of our political debates, if not actually ruling a la Plato's Republic. ...And of course, when a philosopher feels this way, the wish and expectation is again that if people were trained in critical thinking, surely they would see things my way, or at least in ways that strike me as less embarrassing.
Schleiermacher, in his First Speech, addressed in his "cultural despisers" something akin to what I've identified here as standing midway between a philosophical and a political sentiment:
Those of you who are accustomed to regard religion simply as a malady of the soul, usually cherish the idea that if the evil is not to be quite subdued, it is at least more endurable, so long as it only infects individuals here and there. On the other hand, the common danger is increased and everything put in jeopardy by too close association, among the patients. So long as they are isolated, judicious treatment, due precautions against infection and a healthy spiritual atmosphere may allay the paroxysms and weaken, if they do not destroy, the virus, but in the other case the only remedy to be relied on is the curative influence of nature. The evil would be accompanied by the most dangerous symptoms and be far more deadly being nursed and heightened by the proximity of the infected. Even a few would then poison the whole atmosphere; the soundest bodies would be infected; all the canals in which the processes of life are carried on would be destroyed; all juices would be decomposed; and, after undergoing such a feverish delirium, the healthy spiritual life and working of whole generations and peoples would be irrecoverably ruined. Hence your opposition to the church, to every institution meant for the communication of religion is always more violent than your opposition to religion itself, and priests, as the supports and specially active members of such institutions are for you the most hated among men.
So yes, reading S. is causing me to reflect on whether I'm being at all fair in harboring such sentiments; this inevitably partial self-examination is the most I can promise at this time.
P.S. the fish shoes image came from here, though I can't tell from a web search where the collection of weird shoes shown there originated at that site or who's responsible for them.
Mark, I would agree that some doctrines of Christianity are strange, but then again, reality is pretty strange too (quantum physics, consciousness, life itself…). You deal with these mysteries regularly in your podcasts. And you commented in an earlier post that causality is pretty mysterious but nevertheless most people use it on a daily basis.
Reason alone will not lead one to acceptance of the Christian religion and its doctrines. This will be no surprise to readers of the New Testament where Paul was ridiculed by philosophers in Athens for preaching the resurrection. Paul also spoke of his preaching as foolishness to many. That was true in his day and it’s true in ours. I would guess that the large majority of converts to Christianity get there not through reasoned arguments, but as a result of a subjective experience which doesn’t easily admit to philosophical or scientific investigation.
Tony G says
I agree Mr. Mark, it is very weird. The Bible states that God’s ways are very odd. The bible also states that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and that the weaknesses of God are stronger than men. In other words the bible is saying that God is intentionally confounding those that think they are wiser than Him and those that think they are stronger than Him. The etymological dictionary defines weird first as “Having the power to control the fates of men.” According to the calvanistic interpretation, God is intentionally saving those that He wants to save, through His pleasure, by giving them the power to understand and believe the foolish way that He has provided for salvation. If your not provided this power to believe in this foolish provision then you are a part of the group that He has not chosen to be save. The Arminians argument to this doctrine is the total opposite putting the power to be saved in the God given inherent free will of a man to choose Jesus as his substitute. Like you said, WEIRD. I am a Christian. I have been a Christian since April 11, 1992. I believe the Bible by faith, but the human side of me says it makes no sense that a loving God would be so arbitrary in his plan of salvation. I imagine the drowned babies floating lifeless in the great flood of the Old Testament and my humanity says “it makes no sense”. The foolishness of the Gospel makes no human sense to me. Yet, there is something about the life and death of Jesus that resonates sense to me. Needless to say, I am now diving as deep as I can into philosophy because my intellect and humanity is still questioning God’s method of salvation. I have enough faith to believe that if God’s plan of salvation is TRUE, that it is by God’s power that I am able to believe this fooloish Gospel, then no matter how deep I dive into questioning it, by seeking the thoughts and expressions of those that oppose it, I will never lose the faith that was given to me, by God, to believe in Jesus and His gospel. It (my faith in Jesus) should become even stronger because it has been tested by the greatest minds of reason that this world has ever known. If I should lose this faith then God does not exist and I would have satisfied my humanity. I still believe the former. I thank Jesus for PEL. (LOL) It has provided what I need fo this quest. I am doing a deep study on Martin Heideggers book, “Being and Time”, right now and my humanity is enjoying it greatly. I have not heard the current podcast on religion yet, but I am looking forward to it. Thank you Mark for PEL. Sorry for this long post, I just wanted to share my story and I hope it helped in some way in strengthening your argument on “HOW FREAKIN WEIRD THE GOSPEL IS!!!” Sincerely, Tony Gonzalez
The whole thing smacks of N’s Slave Morality. The intellectual contortions necessary for a thinking person to buy Christianity hook line and sinker is enough to at least make it suspect…but your podcast seems to be so much about being able to express thoughts and opinions freely (as long as they can be supported) which makes it very different from most forms of discourse (including standard brand Christianity) out there in the public domain.
I wonder if some of this comes down to what people like Karen Armstrong and Joseph Campbell suggest, that our mythological imagination is somewhat dulled.
Take the Trinity for example:
I imagine early Christians gathering, eating and talking all the time about Jesus, who and what he was, and what his death meant. My history books often sugest that in the Eastern Empire, every man and his dog had an opinion about the nature of the trinity, and there were, it seems, often as many ‘heresies’ as there were congregations. I think the Greek Orthodox church used to teach that the trinity was a mystery and a paradox that was to be meditated upon rather than asserted.
Now, the concept of the trinity is handed down as a fixed: rather than discussed, it is dictated.
Maybe some of the faithful could answer this: Do people actively discuss the trinity or other theological issues or is it personal reflection.
As an outsider the church does seem to hold some pretty whacky ideas, but I imagine if I were to talk about how I percieve the world they would tell me how off the charts I am.
Mark – I believe you mentioned in a podcast that at one stage when you were younger you were right into Christianity. If I am not deluded and this in fact true, what was you opinion then?
Tony G says
The Trinity and all of the other “weird” doctrines of christianity are discussed in an apologetic format to prepare the believer to make a defense for them when needed.
Are the apologetics themselves based upon a definite doctrinal position? Or does discussion allow for personal visions of what the various teachings of the NT might mean for you.
I often find apolgetics that I have read would only be convincing to someone already within the belief system. From my perspective it seems that the role is to bolster belief rather than convince someone of the veracity of belief. ie The defense seems to be self defense. Is that a fair comment?
Ethan Gach says
A lot of great points Geoff. And I tend to agree.
At one time Christianity was a much more lively, rigourously discussed and thought about narrative/doctrine/practice. But it has since lost a lot of that to the point where the only lively examples of its practice tend to come from the extreme fringe of the flock (e.g. Jesus Camp).
We tend to, unfortunately, focus more on the particulars that Christianity dictates rather than the universals it embodies.
I’m checking out your blogs section now after you linked to the one about the conservative persons email. I have this site favorited under the podcast tab so unfortunately I haven’t mosied over to the blogs here except one time before.
Anyway, Christianity is a strange religion, it definitely makes use of paradox. I don’t think the Jewish scriptures are much different in that respect, actually. I personally suspect that’s the moral behind Jacob wrestling with God. We all are wrestling with God in a lot of ways, but overcoming means being blessed and named “Israel.” That’s what I get out of that story anyway.
Christianity doesn’t make sense, but yet it makes the most sense at the same time. I think of it somewhat like Free will, in that it seems foolish to believe we have it and foolish to deny we don’t. I feel the same with Christianity’s “weirdness”, it’s foolish and yet difficult to deny it’s truth.
If you’re interested, GK Chesterton has a famous chapter called “Paradoxes of Christianity” (widely available in both audio and text on the internet) which may help illuminate how truth is approached in the Christian religion and why this approach makes this religion be widely perceived by most as “weird” and “strange.” I highly recommend it, it’s not long.
The Jewish Faith is more concerned with orthopraxy (right actions) rather than orthodoxy (right faith\beliefs).
I should add that this is significant since it probably does not require a ‘leap of faith’ that Christianity insists on. Interpreting Job from a Christian angle where it is a test of faith compared to a Jewish angle ( wikipedia isn’t really helping) would be interesting.
Christianity believes that belief precedes actions.
” For from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.”
That’s why belief is so important in Christianity. If you think like an adulterer, an idolater, etc, not only are you more likely to fall into those actions, you are already a transgressor of the law.
Which makes sense, a spouse who never acts out cheating except in his mind/heart is still a cheat and a hypocrite. His mind isn’t some isolated universe where he can escape God.
” I think of it somewhat like Free will, in that it seems foolish to believe we have it and foolish to deny we DO”
Sorry about that.
I can only speak for myself, but what attracted me to Christianity is not the doctrines, not the platitudes, not the philosophical trappings, but it was the person of Christ presented in the New Testament. It can be argued endlessly about the bible’s historicity and authority, but the Christ of scripture comes across as a real flesh and blood individual who provides meaning and inspiration to many in a mechanized, computerized, homogenized world lacking such. A person willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a cause beyond himself is rare thing in any age, and if idolizing such a person is a weird thing, then color me weird.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Very Schleiermacherian! (OK, no one should ever use that as an adjective again.)
Erik Douglas says
Heresies of a Christian mystic philosopher:
Honest discussion about Christ or God or any religion needs a lot of preface. There are political issues, as Mark notes, but then, since when was the US a democracy anyway? The perhaps more interesting levels of discourse turn on ethics and metaphysics spoken by those who dare to examine. Begin by asking not whether Christianity is correct, not even by what it means, but what it *could* mean. The philosopher really needs to throw his/her net wide and far to catch this fish, and not get too distracted by many, many fishmongers selling their wears as the best fish in town. I know this personally as I failed to do this for years until a kindly stranger pointed out some of my misconceptions: He did not use words, but actions and events. It is very difficult for the philosopher to approach… the mystical, because he/she assumes so much about the nature of reality and the primacy of reason. It is difficult to dispel such habits until the flood comes, or an angel breaks your arm, or circumstance otherwise really kicks you in the ass. Even then, it is hard!
Of course, without a foundation of reason, how is a book like the Bible to be read? Indeed, that is a pickle. I suggest treading softly with an open heart and an open mind, ask not whether it is true, or even what it means, but what it might mean or could mean.
And what about mathematics, tables, truth, evolution and consciousness? Do we need look further to believe in miracles actually?
And who is Jesus, God, and the rest of the crew? Well who are we then really? And who would we want to be?
In any case, it seems odd to get caught on issues of literalist scripture given that all words are intrinsically metaphors. And yes, I do think most self-proclaimed Christians are quite certifiable, but I am inclined to forgive a lot of neuroses if folks can keep their heart in the right place. Christianity for sure starts in the heart–or to put it in a Hindu venacular, it is very much a kind of Bhakti Yoga.
Schleiermacher does seem good reading. Other places to look for a deeper meaning of Christianity include CS Lewis (Mere Christianity) and for the real ascetics: The Cloud of Unknowing.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yay, Erik’s back on the board!
The danger in saying something like this, it seems, is that it places you in the realm of the fishmongers that you talk of:
Like many christians I have engaged with, this you seem to put the horse before the cart. For me, the question is not about the how, it is about the why.
Learning about how I should interpret the Christian messages seems much less important than why I should be bothered at all.
Daniel Horne says
Nice, Erik, but I would have pegged you more for Meister Eckhart over CS Lewis. If you have a recommended mysticism bibliography, I’d be keen to check it out.
Tony Gonzalez says
Yes Geoff, the apologetics that was taught to us was a systematic one. “Systematic Theology”, by Wayne Grudem. Personal visions always have to stay within the unity of biblical doctrine. Dogmatic, not Philosophical. It both bolsters individual belief and serves as a “defense”. Yes Geoff your comment is a fair one. Apologetics aims at convincing someone of the veracity of biblical doctrine, but it’s very teaching states that only God can bring life to the spirit of an individual, that is dead spiritually and deprived of the life giving faith of God, to receive this life giving faith of God to believe. In other words it is up to God alone to save you by His power alone. I hope this helps Geoff
Douglas Storm says
Any of you read Thomas Sheehan’s First Coming? I really enjoyed it. It argues throughout that the “church” and its teachings are not in any way like those of the man called Jesus…of course he begins by simply taking to task the name Jesus–he would have been Yeshua. And so on in that vein–“let’s be clear about what we can know about the period and the man…” and go from there. He argues strenuously in order to contextualize the words that we put in the mouth of Yeshua.
But what I found most compelling was the Heideggerian focus on “becoming”–Sheehan claims that Yeshua was proclaiming that it is only this NOW that is the Kingdom–all things, all actions, all relations are involved in becoming. Yeshua’s actions are always fully “in the moment” and out of orthodoxy (out of definitions that separate). Perhaps this is as much the idea that Zarathustra offers us.
However, what seems as relevant today is that the period of the birth of this religion was one of apocalyptic expectations and that this informs much of the presentation of Christ as the redeemer. This is then simply another wish for an alteration in the power structure of men on this world, in this time–if not now…then in eternity. (We’ll show you then!) This is clearly relevant to us now.
Tony G says
Yes Geoff…it’s a fair comment.
Mark Linsenmayer says
So the replies here would indicate that my political point is moot: Christians (on this board) already acknowledge that Christian doctrine is not just the default position that an unbiased rational observer would adopt, but requires some experience and/or effort on the part of the believer to embrace its paradoxes. This should lead, conversely, to Christians finding it totally unsurprising that lots of people (even a majority) will just not get it, and (now I’m stretching a bit:) can still lead conventionally moral lives, i.e. being an atheist does not make you a pervert or deviant unfit for political office or teaching or whatever.
If just this small concession were near-universally acknowledged by Christians, then I for one would be satisfied politically, and my interest in the issue would shift merely to the ground of the free exchange of philosophical views: Christian ideas are certainly worthy of participation in this arena (based on the number of very smart people who have professed them). I may still want to argue with them in that arena, but there’s not much politically at stake… you wouldn’t have religious suicide bombers or doctor-shooting anti-abortionists or any of the other threats that Harris is reacting to, nor the reactionary desire to put prayer back in schools or otherwise object to the separation of church and state (even when this means positively advancing this separation, as in undoing the cold-war insertion of “under God” into the pledge of allegiance, if that’s something to be used at school or other public functions), or categorically discriminating against open atheists (i.e. just on the basis of their atheism) when they, say, run for school board in a small town. Your tolerance here suggests that none of this politically motivated vitriol is necessary, because the modest goal of non-discrimination has already been achieved.
…If only this group were a representative sample of U.S. Christians instead of a self-selected group of people philosophically curious enough to be contributing to a discussion like this! 🙂
Bear Mathan says
I think this post confirms my statement about understanding mainstream Christianity. The majority view of Christian around the world is not the view of American Southern Baptists.
Note that Christianity has always been favourable to Reason and Philosophy — personally I can’t understand Christians who are hostile to either.
Most of the literature in English explaining Orthodox Christian doctrine is usually Catholic, so you may have to read something like the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” to have a better understanding. Many of my Protestant friends tell me that they agree with most of the content (with obvious exceptions, such as the veneration of the Theotokos and the position of the Pope).
Mark Linsenmayer says
Can you give us a sample detail here rather than just referring to an external source? Russ and Tony and Ace here seem to agree that there’s paradox involved that requires faith to buy into… that there are elements such as the example I gave in this post, or the trinity, or the virgin birth, or the miracles that don’t jibe with common sense or science. Is your tack to take an old style Aquinas line and flatly deny that? …Or are you saying that we have to read those things metaphorically, because God transcends any possible understanding (the apophatic point I was trying to make during the S. episode in the discussion of immortality)?
GK Chesterton himself was a Roman Catholic apologist (though not yet at the time of writing Orthodoxy,but he was already far more sympathetic to Catholicism over protestantism and eventually converted). Paradox (or mysteries of the faith) aren’t viewed by the church as unreasonable, but beyond our reason. There are many approaches (usually analogies) that Catholic apologists have used to make the mysteries easier to grasp, but it’s admitted by all that they’re insufficient. (such as using “accidents” when trying to explain the mystery of Eucharist, or “water/ice/steam” for the trinity, these are only analogies to help a person struggling, but its admitted by all these analogies are insufficient). But I agree with Bear that reason and philosophy are important to the Catholic Church and are not to be tossed out the window, but still, with that said, in respect to doctrine, I think this quote from Tertullian says it all:
“… the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”
Bear Mathan says
I was referring you to a source to learn more about majority Christian opinion.
Orthodox Christians believe that faith is rational and reasonable, although reason is not capable of explaining faith or the content of faith (then again reason by itself can not explain Physics or any other discipline). To believe that faith requires the buying into is a paradox is a Fideist position.
Observe that an appeal to “common sense” is hardly a strong argument, since we can also point to many “counterintuitive” results in Mathematics: uncountable infinities, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (along with his Completeness Theorem), Brouwer’s Theorem, to name a few. All of these violate “common sense”.
Outside of Mathematics other things jibe with common sense, such as the resistance to tyrants. Yet you would not condemn this.
Try explaining Plato’s forms to adolescents and see the dismissive look in their eyes as this clearly jibes with common sense.
As an example, if you look at the statement about Jesus Christ “The paradoxical phenomena of Jesus (a manifestation of immortal God) dying”.
No, this is NOT orthodox Christian belief. Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus Christ had two natures: a divine nature and a human nature — that He was God and man: this was not by the conversion of God into man but by the raising of a man into God. The last phrase being from the Athanasian Creed, which all orthodox Christians accept.
However, as other posters have observed, there is a lot of work involved to get to the substance of the discussion. Then the discussion will then become Theology (yawn) rather than Philosophy.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Alright, sir. I’ll think on this; you’re right that I’m not being very careful re. the theological distinctions here, though I don’t think raising man into God makes any more conceptual sense than an immortal God dying.
My only point re. the “weirdness” was the political one: Where Christianity (or any other religion), is dominant, it becomes the default, “reasonable” position (just in the way that you say that not resisting a tyrant is “reasonable,” i.e. why put yourself in danger?).
If we admit that regular old rational thinking in the age of science does not direct one to religion, but instead, religious folks become a self-selected group (i.e. not assigned by their parents before the age of reason) who are into this not indefensible but still pretty esoteric thing, then that changes the political landscape dramatically. Instead of Christianity being identified with the culture, it becomes one interest group that necessarily has to compromise with others, to look, for instance, at what they can agree upon with non-believers such as evident human well being instead of, say, on the ethical status of zygotes.
Bear Mathan says
No, I will not admit that in the “age of science” rational thinking does not direct one to religion. Basically because I have empirical evidence to the contrary, in that I know many people who have had reason lead them to religion. We can also point to noted modern Philosophers who moved from Atheism to religion.
But I think that I understand the problem here: Christianity is NOT only cultural, but has specific beliefs, and specific morals. So Christian can not compromise with others on certain issues, such as the one you mentioned.
For many moral systems, not just religious ones, to stand aside and allow some sorts of evil to occur is not necessarily acceptable. The moral requirement is to combat the evil.
You can argue about how Christians go about influencing society, but to demand that they live with a bad conscience and essentially condone what you believe is too much.
This is also tied up into the roles of society and the state, all of which have wide ranging Philosophical implications.
Mark, I think you may have jumped the gun a bit in your conclusion before. It’s one thing to say that some Christian beliefs are paradoxical and non-intuitive and another that there is no agreed upon set of doctrines and practices that a Christian accepts. An aspect of being a part of a faith community (the Church) means having a shared set of beliefs despite individual differences. This is true of any organized group or institution. A certain amount of autonomy is sacrificed for group cohesion and solidarity. And as you’d expect, within that group is a strong motivation to conform to the groups standards.
So while I acknowledge your frustration on the electorate’s view of atheists, I don’t know how you could expect any different. Democrat party members usually vote democrat, republicans – republican, union-union, etc – they tend to stick together. So why would you expect believers to be able to overlook a individual’s beliefs about an idea central to them – a belief in a supreme being and all that entails?
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yay, someone wants to talk about the political aspect! (Which was my point in the post…)
Jews have a strong sense of group identity, so much so that many won’t marry outside their faith, specifically (and this is based on conversations I’ve had) because non-Jews won’t have the shared experience of being raised in that ethical community. Yet that doesn’t translate to “anyone who isn’t a Jew can’t represent my political interests.” Maybe, given their minority status, that was never a reasonable expectation, so it never came up. Likewise, I don’t mind voting for someone religious, so long as their religion isn’t of the type that they think that God told them to bomb people. Yet for many Christians, it’s a litmus test, right? If you take a Schleiermacher-type approach to religion, though, you’d be extremely suspicious of those who bring religion into the political arena, and a belief in God would be neither necessary nor sufficient to advocating responsible, ethical policies. I mean, a religious person is not going to vote for someone like Harris or Dawkins that tells them they’re idiots for believing, but having an attitude whereby politicians have to compete to show how religious they are to win votes is just sordid.
Daniel Horne says
I kind of like your main point, while at the same time having reservations about its elements.
I disagree with your assertion that one needs to be part of a faith community, a Church, an organized group or institution, etc., in order to be a Christian. Nor is it clear to me that the autonomy one sacrifices for group cohesion and solidarity usually entails changing one’s beliefs. Often, it just means keeping quiet about one’s differences. I think many in the pews tend to disagree with the pastor on many things, or even most things. That’s certainly been my experience speaking with Catholics, and the Catholic Church tends to be the strongest on what one ought or ought not to accept as Christian orthodoxy.
I agree that it’s unsurprising that many Christians will take professed Christian belief as a litmus test for voting. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a wise practice.
First, it assumes that one’s religion will provide better judgment calls on what are essentially secular concerns: “Should we go to war?” “Should I veto this budget?” “Should we make health care or bank bailouts our priority?” If one sees the President as a cultural arbiter, I agree it makes sense. But if one sees the President as the chief administrator of dozens of massive bureaucracies, I’m not sure the logic applies very well. Or, put another way, I would guess that most Christians don’t make a manufacturer’s Christianity the litmus test of the car they purchase, or the house they live in.
Second, such voting behavior rewards those who most openly profess Christian belief and practice, at the expense of non-Christians who in fact conduct the presidency on terms indistinguishable from a Christian. (Whatever that might mean, of course; see my first point. I don’t think we can all really agree on Christianity means, or how it is to impact one’s behavior!) I’m thinking of Richard Nixon, for example. I can think of many non-Christians I’d rather see elected president before we see another Nixon in the White House. Or, put another way, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush I & II, and Barack Obama all held (hold) themselves out to be Christians. But I’m having a hard time seeing how their Christianity manifested itself in any common policy or personal behavior. So Christianity as a litmus test seems like a poor predictor for what the interested Christian is trying to “seek” from a President.
Daniel, I think I agree with you on your second point for many of the reasons you mention. Personally, I have grave reservations about linking politics and religion, primarily because the effect politics (i.e. politicians) can have on religion. The goals of religion and politics are rather different and when the politician’s goals mix with the Christian message, it often results in a distorted Christian message. More obvious is the tendency of religion to be used for political advantage which is not new. (Machiavelli should be required reading for all religious voters.)
I’m having a little more difficulty with your discussion of what it means to be a “Christian”. That’s a tough one. But I think it’s more than simply being a “follower”. For the following reason: The NT is filled with imagery of Christ’s followers as parts of his body, each with their own function, fulfilling his purpose of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. The church is that body: Christ the head, the body, his followers. If a follower isn’t interacting with the rest of the body (aka, the church), it’s going to be very difficult for the body to accomplish his purpose. I’m not sure how an individual detached from that body can accomplish his will, that is, without interacting with other followers. That’s all I mean by “church”.
As for a set of beliefs within the church, I would point to the following: The NT relates the problems that Paul had with the spreading of false teachings. It seems to me that there has to be an agreed upon set of core beliefs that a group of people have or the movement implodes. Eventually the church ended up with the apostle’s creed which has become the gold standard of Christian orthodoxy. Now, what I meant by giving up a certain amount of autonomy basically means I accept that centuries ago when this group of individuals got together to figure out who Christ was, his mission, and how he relates to me today, that they pretty much got it right. They also laid down some good guidelines for how to live one’s life. And hence, I accept that these doctrines are established in a community of believers rather than a single individual figuring it out alone, a rather daunting task.
Daniel Horne says
Well put, but who gets to decide what the NT says? Who gets to decide which parts should be read literally or metaphorically? Certainly much of the NT must be read metaphorically. (Mustard seeds, anybody?) And who decides what the metaphors mean? I see you referring to “the Church” and “Christ’s body,” but who speaks for the body? Who thinks for the body? The Byzantine Church thought they did, but Rome didn’t think so. Rome thought they did, but Martin Luther didn’t think so. And so on and so on.
In other words, should you and I happen to disagree about the meaning of a particular section of the NT (not that we EVER would! :-D), then who gets to decide whose interpretation is correct or not? It’s a matter of polite internet comment box discussion now, but people used to get killed over this kind of stuff!
Wow! All I can say, it sure is a good thing that my neck isn’t riding on any of what I said or I might be toast at some inquisitorial roast! What a dilemma! Ever since Luther, each of us are pretty much on our own trying to work it out ourselves, am I’m no different. Maybe the greatest character of English fiction, Hamlet, is thought to be the incarnation of such questioning and skepticism: the great protestant hero. I suspect you and I are agreement on this: that we’re better off with the freedom to come up with answers ourselves, but it’s still a daunting task!
David Buchanan says
What a deliciously tempting topic!
I think it’s beyond weird to demand religious compliance. Technically, such things are against the law, our highest law and yet we put up with it all the time, mostly in little ways. The money saying In God We Trust and the pledges “one nation under god” are bad enough and that’s very tame stuff compared to what goes on in the campaign rhetoric and such. If you have an ear for it, half the politicians are covertly using Jesus talk all the time. You know which half.
But I’m also interested in the weirdness of the doctrines and rituals themselves. Took a good amateur look at mythology, took a few classes, studied Joseph Campbell’s work especially and it seems pretty clear that the weirdness is a result of a systematic misinterpretation. When symbolic language is read as literal fact or as actual history, very strange things happen to the meaning.
So what Campbell does is compare the Christian story to other myths from other times and cultures and you can see how the Christ story fits into a larger pattern. This gives the story a much broader and richer context and at the same time it allow you to see the common elements.
Campbell’s original thesis in his first book, which he wrote instead of doing his Ph.D., was that there is one hero and he has a thousand different faces, which is to say there is a basic common pattern or structure, despite all the variations and permutations and cultural inflections.
I was especially floored by the similarities between Orpheus and Christ, for example. (Usually, I hear others rave about how much Jesus is like Mithra.) I learned there was a Japanese version of the Orpheus myth. I traced that one back as far and wide as I could. Finally I hit upon a passage while re-reading Campbell’s first book that sent chills down my spine. “Some elements of the myth may even predate the human species itself”, he wrote. If he’s right, we’re talking about a story that is as old as humanity itself.
If I’m rightly reading the symbols and myths (i.e., as symbols and myths), then these hero stories are about human growth and development. They show you how to transcend your former self, shed you old skin, die to your old self and this leads, step by step, toward the stuff that mystics talk about. Sometimes it’s just about the transition into adulthood or into a leadership position in society but then there are the heros like Buddha, Christ and Orpheus. But that epic, “spiritual” stuff is just further along the same continuum of development.
Maybe its ironic that this quasi-anthropological approach ends up redeeming the whole religion business as quite relevant and helpful after all, provided you don’t mistake the story as history or journalism. It’s more like poetry about expanding your mind and opening your heart. Plus it’s nice not to feel alienated by the weirdness because you can dismiss it as something that was just added by bad readers. It’s just an accident of history, really. And by reading stories symbolically and psychologically, every movie you’ll ever watch will be twice as much fun as it would have been otherwise.
I’m wondering if there is such a thing as something that is ‘not weird’ once you dissect it a few times….
Excellent point, PA! It might be easier making a list of things that aren’t weird. Would be a very short (and boring) list.
David Buchanan says
But gents, when almost everything is weird, weird is just normal.
Take the doctrine of the virgin birth, for example. Taken literally, that notion isn’t just weird. It defies everything we know about virgins and births. But when you look at other myths from other cultures you see that heros have all kinds of weird, “miraculous” ways of getting born. It’s said that the Buddha was born right out of his mother’s heart and there is a Greek god who was born out of his father’s thigh. If these events are taken literally, as medical facts, none of the stories are plausible. But if you read them symbolically, these events all convey the same basic idea. They say this person has not come into the world in the usual way. This new creature is more than just another mammal. This new creature has pure and lofty origins. And so they are all about the birth of a life form that is beyond animal life. They are about the results of human and divine intercourse, but not literally.
Ever see that Sarah Silverman bit wherein she used to date God and now he won’t stop calling her? Hilarious. And yes, quite blasphemous too.
In Jesus’ case his “lofty” origins are certainly a part of it, but I think there’s another lesson being conveyed as well. That there is nothing logically necessary about babies being born “the usual way.” Defying everything we know about virgins and births only means our expectations were violated. The virgin birth is not illogical or unreasonable in necessary sense. It just violates our expectations, and in my opinion it also reminds us that “the usual way” is pretty darn miraculous too..
A person who assents to believing this story (or any story of this sort) might in this act of faith have unknowingly had a seed of wisdom planted in his brain: that inferences from induction does not equal absolute “truth,” “fact,” or “law”. This could be partly why we see so many Christians give scientists such a hard time whenever scientists germinate that little seed of wisdom in Christians heads whenever they make their universal claims about whatever via induction, while we see so few atheists do so.
I’m speculating here, of course, but it’s possible. I know Christianity has made me a lot more sensitive to inductive reasoning, and have a healthier suspicion of scientists claims, especially so when there are philosophical, political, or moral implications. I don’t think that suspicion is a bad thing, if assent to belief in the virgin birth will help the average person to develop a healthy skepticism towards the modern-day wannabe truth dictators that claim to know what’s what about the world, then so be it.
The Wall Street Journal had an article titled “Look Who’s Irrational Now” where they show several studies that supposedly indicate that Conservative Christians are the least susceptible to superstition, pseudo-science, and belief in the paranormal. But, this article was quite plainly written in retaliation to the buzz over Maher’s “Religulous”, so it’s good to keep in mind that WSJ may have been selective in the studies they decided to showcase. 😉
Mark Linsenmayer says
It’s interesting that what you’re saying about induction sounds very much like Hume, yet Hume comes to the opposite conclusion re. miracles. All causality is mysterious, or rather, it’s just a mental expectation based on repeated experience, yet if you hear about something violating the “law of nature” (just shorthand for this set of shared, long-standing experiences) you have to compare the likelihood (based on experience) of the miraculous occurring (which would be, by definition, low to non-existent, there being no prior experience to support the violation) vs. the likelihood of people making up crazy stories, which is something we have plenty of experience about. So the verdict for Hume always comes down against miracles.
But criticisms against induction long pre-date Hume, and from what understood, Hume’s arguments against miracles have been dismissed because his reasoning was circular and question begging. Do you not think so? I’m not that familiar with Hume or the debate over his argument against miracles.
Besides, the only reason to assent to believing in the miracles in the first place is because aside from the miracles and possible element of “myth”, the rest can be known and deduced to be true, good, holy, wise.
Is it reasonable to reject the true, the good, and the holy, just because of the miracles and possible mythical elements? Given that the only reason a person would do so would be because of induction, that just doesn’t seem very reasonable to me…but it is kind of ironical.
None of us were there, but there’s plenty of evidence that Jesus made a pretty big impact in the first century, and ever since. And that’s a miracle that everyone has ample evidence for.
What we don’t have ample evidence for is that religious loons making up half-baked stories will produce good fruits will alter history in any significantly positive way – such as a consistent track record of the liberation of human beings, for example.
Why aren’t there more examples of religious looney tall tales having the positively meaningful impact Christ did? This comparison seems to work more in favor of Christian claims if your argument were so, rather than against them, because Christians tales have produced atypical results in contrast to deluded loons that like to make up stuff, don’t you think?
Anyhow, I believe in the miracles because I believe Christ and Christian message to be authentic. If I were to reject Christianity because of the miracles, then I would be rejecting what I know to be true for reasons that I can not know to be false. I hope that makes sense. (?)
1st time God paid a visit to earth and hooked up with a young Jewish girl it caused such a stir we are still talking about it 2000 yrs later.
I’m going to take a stab at something here.
In the post you say:
1. A strong view of the moral character of actions, i.e. that they somehow accumulate like in a ledger, either merely in God’s mind or staining our actual soul.
2. The idea that this sin is somehow transferable: someone else can work off my debt. This strikes me as running counter to the moral intuitions that go with #1, much like the doctrine (not at issue here, but certainly present in Christianity through the related doctrine of “original sin”) that sin is inheritable.
3. The paradoxical phenomena of Jesus (a manifestation of immortal God) dying; and yet he rises from the dead, not because he’s immortal qua God but through a miracle that provides a loophole so that the debt in #2 is paid even though he’s not really dead any more… except that he ascended to heaven, where he’d be if he was dead regardless, so he apparently rose for our sakes as well…
I’m really not sure that (1) is a great representation of the way Christians view sin (I am thinking that the view would be more along the lines of no person having the ability to not sin, or something like that – I’d agree that the inheritability of sin seems strange, but I’d also suggest there are passages in the prophets, later quoted in Hebrews that teach that sin does not exist in that fashion), and in (2), it’s not just anyone that ‘works off the debt’, it is God that takes on the debt. In regards to (3), It’s hard to understand what you mean. I’m not sure Jesus would ‘go to heaven’, it would be something like being reabsorbed into the Godhead, or something like that. I don’t think its unilaterally accepted by Christians that such a place as heaven exists, either (the emphasis tends to be on God’s creation of a new universe, a ‘new heavens and new earth’). Now, Christ’s ascension is something that does strike me as weird, but I imagine that could be cleared up by understanding the literature, style, etc. of the passage better. I know I haven’t said much here yet, but I hope enough to suggest that the examples you give in the post don’t really get at any strangeness. They at least don’t provide a clear picture of an intellectually rigorous Christian belief. It is no doubt easy to find any number of ‘bourgeois’ mutations of doctrines that are entirely weird. It also seems trivially true to observe that one belief or another affects oneself in such a way as to produce the feeling of weirdness. As brilliant as Peter Singer is, I find some of his philosophy weird, as I don’t particularly like leaving the door open for the sort of devaluing of human life his ethics seem to. This is hardly a blow against the coherence of his thought, though.
It seems also that getting a person to simply acknowledge a certain weirdness about their beliefs will not get one very far. That would only be getting them to acknowledge, from their own view, that reality was a bit weird. I’m sure all of us would own up to that. It seems to me, that what you are really getting at, the geniunely weird thing, is that beliefs are generally brought in to justify or incite political behavior that they have little or no relation to (at least no logical relation to, but it seems perfectly possible to whip a crowd up in such a way that a belief can be causally related to, but not logically related to, a certain action). Even then, from my understanding, the causes are generally political themselves, and not originating in beliefs as such. Just think about the culture wars in America. If you’re an thoughtful liberal or a thoughtful conservative, the representatives of either side will no doubt cause you to cringe more often than not.
I’m also pretty sure referring to Hume re: miracles is a bit cheap. Certainly a lot of people do it, but his rules of induction are far too stringent. Certainly miracles wouldn’t be part of our normal experience, but then if something like spontaneous conception, virgin birth, etc. were normal, then
ugh, I got cut off. scratch that last part about Hume, it wasn’t really related to your post anyways. If anything, all I should say there is that the miraculous would only strike a person weird who had some a priori dislike for bringing miracles in to explain things. But, we have to be more clear there too, because it’s not so much ‘miracles’ that are bothersome (or, low-probability events), it is acts of God that are bothersome.
Again, I’m totally with you regarding your political frustrations. I just don’t think that getting a person that you disagree with to acknowledge that their views contain ‘weirdness’ will get anywhere toward producing more a more ecumenical attitude.
that’s about it from me.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Matt, well stated (and welcome to the discussion). As I said, this is less an argument on my part and more a sentiment I found myself harboring and wanted to explore… I’ll save further elaboration of this on my part for our actual new atheism episode discussion.
Thanks. I certainly understand the sentiment. I’ve been reading a bit of Jacques elluls Anarchy and Christianity lately, in which he seems to suggest self-marginalization, civil disobedience, etc. is the proper Christian way. That was interesting to me in light of this article, and I think he probably took some cues from schleiermacher too. It’s weird to me, as a Christian myself, that Christians in general seem to be so polarized about the issue of political involvement. Either it is “take over the damn thing and christainize it” or “leave the damn thing alone, institutions are incorrigibly profane, just concern yourself with people” I do jive more with the second view, though, since it makes since to me to be more oriented toward my death, as it were, than to be oriented toward the death of another.
In other news, I came across this site because I was looking for some supplement to Being and Time. I’m reading it right now for my own benefit, but my graduate studies also involve a lot of continental philosophy (and I’m woefully behind the times). I was glad to find an accessible blog like this that deals with that, every other legit philosophy site I’ve come across seems fairly unconcerned with those pesky European types. So, thank you for giving time to that field of study!