Tag Archives: christianity

Ping Spong

The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love is Shelby Spong’s 2005 effort to deal with several problematic themes in the Bible. Divided into sections, each section contains several chapters dealing with:

  • The Bible and the Environment (Overpopulation and the Catholic imperative to procreate)
  • The Bible and Women (Misogyny in the Bible)
  • The Bible and Homosexuality
  • The Bible and Children
  • The Bible and Anti-Semitism
  • The Bible and Certainty
  • Reading Scripture as Epic History

Spong flip-flops on how to explain these problematic passages. Sometimes, he seems to say “We’ve been misinterpreting this all along”; with other passages, he seems to say, “Well, primitive times, backwards thinking.” But with certain core items, he simply disregards them as being unscientific and unable to teach us anything.

He deals with the major passages about homosexuality in the first manner. The command in Leviticus not to lie with another man as one would a woman has been misinterpreted throughout the millenia. What it means, Spong explains, is not to treat men in a subservient manner, not to treat a man like a woman. In explaining it this way, Spong is essentially saying, “This is not a homophobic text; it’s a misogynistic text!” Whew — what a relief. Apparently, the writer of Leviticus just meant “Don’t treat your lover as if he’s lower than you” or “Don’t treat him like a woman.”

The other method of dealing with troubling texts is to employ the “they didn’t know better; they were primitive people back then” argument. He does this with the misogynistic passages. He gives great detail about all the double standards in the Old and New Testament for women (women are ceremonially unclean longer when giving birth to girls; woman are not to hold positions of authority or even ask questions in church; when are to be sequestered when menstruating), and he seems simply to brush it aside by saying, “Well, we know God couldn’t be misogynistic, so these texts represent the times and culture they’re written in.”

Yet Spong occasionally dismisses whole episodes in the Bible because they simply can’t be true. For instance, the core of traditional Christianity is wrong:

Let me state this boldly and succinctly: Jesus did not die for your sins or my sins. That proclamation is theological nonsense. It only breeds more violence as we seek to justify the negativity that religious people dump on others because we can no longer carry its load. […]

We are not fallen, sinful people who deserve to be punished. We are frightened, insecure people who have achieved the enormous breakthrough into self-consciousness that marks no other creature that has yet emerged from the evolutionary cycle. (173, 4)

One reads this and thinks, “Well, what’s the point then.” The logical guess is that Spong will explain, “It’s not Jesus; it’s what he taught.” Yet many of the says of Jesus — particularly the “I am” statements in John — didn’t happen:

Of course, Jesus never literally said any of these things. For someone to wander around the Jewish state in the first century, announcing himself to be the bread of life, the resurrection or the light of the world would have brought out people in white coats with butterfly nets to take him away. (234)

There are so many problems with that that it’s difficult to know where to start. At the most basic level, this shows a profound ignorance of the nature of first century notions of mental health. We only have to look at other passages in the Bible to realize there were none. It was all attributable to demons and mystery. And there certainly wasn’t anything resembling a “funny farm,” even if we strip away the nineteenth century cliches of Spong’s metaphor. Unless Spong has some archeological evidence he’s keeping hidden, it just doesn’t have any credibility whatsoever.

If it almost seems like Spong rejects the existence of a personal God, it’s because he does.

Whoa! Spong doesn’t believe in a personal God, the kind of God that the monotheistic religions have been preaching for millenia? That’s fine — I don’t particularly believe in that God either, but what’s the point of rooting around in scripture to explain this or that when Spong doesn’t even believe in the God most theists hold to be, in one way or another, the author of that scripture?

That’s why reading this causes a certain sense of cognitive whiplash — and I’d assume it’s an experience common to most of his books. “We don’t have to throw out the Bible because of the homophobia that drips from its pages because those passages have been misunderstood for so long; but we do need to throw out the God who supposedly wrote the Bible because no one ever comes back from the dead.” Isn’t faith in that very thing the heart of Christianity?

Spong isn’t trying to revise Christianity as much as he’s attempting to create an entirely new religious system, one that puts all holy books on the same level as the Iliad or the Odyssey. I’m fine what that; that’s the level I put most holy books: instructive, but in no way more authoritative than any other book. But then to insist on calling oneself a Christian seems ridiculous.

And what’s the point of it all? No Christian who believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the actual existence of Adam and Eve, and the need to be saved from Original Sin is going to say, “Hey, Shelby — good point. I’m convinced.” The only people who will be convinced are fence-riders like Spong himself, people who want the cultural comforts of belonging to a religion without any of the bothersome necessities of believing in God, Jesus, etc.

Additionally, no atheist is going to be convinced. To non-theists, Shelby seems to be taking a Trans-Am, gutting it, moving the engine to the back, and turning it into a boat and yet insisting on calling it a Trans-Am. It’s not a Trans-Am, and Spong’s creation is not Christianity.

Spong hints at what he’s after:

Creation must now be seen as an unfinished process. God cannot accurately be portrayed as resting from divine labors which are unending. There was no original perfection from which human life could fall into sin. Life has always been evolving. The Psalmist was wrong: we were not created “a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8:5, KJV). Rather, we have evolved into a status that we judge to be only a little higher than the ape’s.

This is a very different perspective. There is a vast contrast between the definition of being fallen creatures and that of being incomplete creatures. […] We do not need some divine rescue accomplished by an invasive deity to lift us from a fall that never happened and to restore us to a status we never possessed. The idea that Jesus had to pay the price of our sinfulness is an idea that is bankrupt. When that idea collapses, so do all of those violent, controlling and guilt-producing tactics that are so deeply part of traditional Christianity.

It is like an unstoppable waterfall. Baptism, understood as the sacramental act designed to wash from the newborn baby the stain of that original fall into sin, becomes inoperative. The Eucharist, developed as a liturgical attempt to reenact the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross that paid the price of our sinfulness, becomes empty of meaning. […]

The first step is found, I believe, in acknowledging our evolutionary origins and dispensing with any suggestion that sin, inadequacy and guilt are the definitions into which we are born. […] We might be a dead end in the evolutionary process, a creature like the dinosaur, destined for extinction. We might instead be the bridge to a brilliant future that none of us can yet imagine. (177-9)

Basically, Spong is talking more Arthur C. Clarke/2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else. Yet recall that the sequel, 2010, ends with a very Garden of Eden-esque situation:

“ALL THESE WORLDS
ARE YOURS EXCEPT
EUROPA
ATTEMPT NO
LANDING THERE
USE THEM TOGETHER
USE THEM IN PEACE”

Or maybe Spong has something else in mind. Maybe Spong doesn’t really know what he has in mind. Except that he’s a Christian, but only insofar as he reads the Bible and thinks Jesus was damn fine man (in as much as we can tell from his sayings, after we scrape away everything he obviously never said).

Spong calls himself a Christian, but it leaves me wondering what kind? It’s seems that, having been an Episcopal priest and bishop for so long, he simply can’t let go.

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Rethink Church

The tag line is intriguing: “What if church wasn’t just a building, but thousands of doors?” That appears to be a motto for the United Methodist Church, which is running advertisements in Times Square through September. One ad reads, “What if church was a literacy program for homeless children? Would you come?” Another: “What if church considered ecology part of theology?”

Their web site reads,

We are doers. Committed to social justice, ending hunger, eradicating diseases of poverty, and being the healing faith community as God calls us to be.

We accept you for who you are, and guide others searching for deeper meaning. We respect other religions and welcome diverse opinions.

We offer thousands of ways to experience church so you can find a journey you can call your own.

We aren’t striving to be all the same, but we are striving to work together to make a significant difference in the world.

There’s a small discussion forum, which is nothing spectacular or novel, but the lead question is: “How do you think high profile deaths can connect people?”

The site allows users to locate places of need using Google Earth. Some of the topics are a little vague:

  • Health & Well-being
  • Breaking Ground
  • Transforming Lives
  • Advocacy
  • Helping Hands
  • Support Groups
  • Disaster Response

I’m not sure what “transforming lives” or “breaking ground” might be. Still, a wonderful idea.

The site also incorporates Google’s Friend Connect, providing something of a sense of community, and one only has to read the book of Acts and some of Paul’s epistles to see how important community was in the early church.

It’s a promising idea, one that’s sure to make nonbelievers think, “Hey, now there’s a church that’s following Jesus’ example and helping people on an existential level.”

Source: Blogging Religiously.

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You’ve Been Left Behind

When Jason received the email, he was panicked. He’d heard his father talking about the rapture for all his life, but he’d never really bought into it himself. Then, suddenly, an email from dad:

Dear Jason,

You must be wondering what happened to me, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not the only one to disappear. I’m also certain that you’re well aware of what has happened. And sadly, I’m sure you understand why you’re still here, left behind.

I have arranged to have this email sent so that I might have one last word with you, one last plea for you to take a look in your heart and see how much you really need Jesus as your Lord and Savior. There can be no doubt in your mind about the troubling times that are looming now that the rapture is history, but those troubles are nothing compared to what you will face if you don’t fall to your knees and pray this simple prayer.

Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. But I believe that you died upon the cross for me. That you shed your precious blood for the forgiveness of my sin. And I believe that on the third day, you rose from the dead, and went to Heaven to prepare a place for me. I accept you now as my Savior, my Lord, my God, my friend. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and set me free from my sin. And, because you are my Savior, Jesus, “I shall not die, but have everlasting life”. Thank you Jesus!

Please, son: do this for your own soul’s sake!

Jason sat stupefied for a moment, wondering whether or not he’d been wrong all this time about his father’s “silly religious rantings.” It seemed that he was wrong, and he was about to get down on his knees when the phone rang.

“Hi son,” said the familiar voice.

“Dad? I thought, I mean, the email, the rapture — I thought you were gone!” Jason stammered, on the verge of tears.

“Oh, did it get sent. God damn it, those people assured me there was no chance of an accidental, pre-rapture sending of all those emails. You know, son, you just can’t trust anyone these days, not even Christians. Or so-called Christians.”

What torment it will be for those caught up in the Rapture to spend the Tribulation with Christ yet knowing some of their loved ones didn’t make it. Wouldn’t it be a great relief if these poor, tortured, saved souls could have one last shot at reaching their loved ones for Christ?

There is Hope: youvebeenleftbehind.com.

Their service is simple: for a low yearly fee, they’ll save documents for you that will be emailed after the rapture.

We have set up a system to send documents by the email, to the addresses you provide, 6 days after the “Rapture” of the Church. This occurs when 3 of our 5 team members scattered around the U.S fail to log in over a 3 day period. Another 3 days are given to fail safe any false triggering of the system. (You’ve Been Left Behind )

How about a stack of letters on your desk? Wouldn’t that accomplish the same thing without the risks involved (i.e., storing significant amounts private data on a server)?

And that’s not the only risk. Emails accidentally sent could, theoritically, be amusing, but it could also damage relationships. Imagine someone gets one of these “You’ve been left behind” emails from a close family member yet she always considered herself a prime rapture candidate. Can’t you hear the heated phone call.

“You mean all this time you’ve thought I wasn’t saved? How dare you judge me like that!”

I told my Polish Catholic wife about it, first explaining what the rapture was —  there are not many Polish Catholics who know what the rapture is, let alone the difference between pre-trib and post-trib and mid-trib and late-trib and early-trib and all the other -trib varieties out there. Her response: “Only in America!”

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Father Knows Best

Free will is overrated, at least as framed by Christianity. It’s not that I want to feel compelled to do this or that, but I’m willing to give up certain “freedoms” for the betterment of humanity.

Take the freedom to kill or torture children, for example. According to the Christian notion of free will, we must have the ability to do such an awful thing else we’d be robots.

This ability to torture the innocent wouldn’t really be a theological/philosophical problem were it not for the insistence that the Christian God is, among other things,

  1. completely good,
  2. all knowing, and
  3. all powerful.

Put those three together with the world’s suffering and we have a problem. In order to explain the suffering, we have to compromise. Maybe God isn’t all knowing, and isn’t aware of the suffering. Maybe God isn’t completely benevolent and doesn’t want to do something about the suffering. Or perhaps God knows about the suffering and wants to alleviate it, but being limited, there’s nothing he can do about it.

Since none of these alternatives are acceptable to most believers, Christians explain suffering by invoking free will and saying that it couldn’t be any other way if humans are to be more than robots.

But free will doesn’t fly, especially considering the patriarchal God we see in the Bible.

God is seen, among other things, as the perfect father. “Our Father who art in heaven” pray Christians every Sunday; Jesus, in the Gospel narratives, cries out to “Abba” — “Papa” — while being crucified. God is the ultimate father.

This post was inspired by Thud’s “The Org Chart God.”

I too am a father, and if I imagine treating my child (eventually children) like the Christian God treats his children, I shudder.

A thought experiment: in the future, my wife and I have a second child. At some point, our first-born daughter gets the notion that it would be a pretty good idea to see if rocks can bounce off little brother’s head. If I’m standing by and do nothing about it, what kind of father am I? That kind of behavior would rightly be labeled child abuse.

“But, Your Honor,” I protest before the judge, “I was just giving my daughter the ability to practice her free will.”

In the real world, “free will” doesn’t cut it. We might have the Twinkie legal defense and any number of other, bizarre explanations/excuses for behavior, but I don’t know that any lawyer has ever tried the “free will” defense, and for good reason: it’s absurd.

Why am I so stuck on the problem of pain as it pertains to children? After all, suffering is suffering. It’s simple: as adults, we have the cognitive ability to turn suffering into something positive. “What does not kill makes one stronger” is how it’s often expressed.

Children, however, do not have this advantage. Suffering cannot take on a higher meaning with children; it is only confusing pain.

And yet Christians use the free will defense daily to get their God acquitted.

A correlative defense is the “God’s ways are not our ways” defense. This raises just as many questions as it is supposed to answer, but suffice it to say that any being whose ways include non-intervention when children are suffering is not a being I have much respect for.

The bottom line is that there really is no adequate answer for the problem of evil. Indeed, some of the more traditional answers seem quite outdated, as John Hagee discovered recently when he suggested that God allowed, even directed, the Holocaust through Hitler. Yet this was nothing new. Jewish theologians have been saying similar things for centuries.

Pastor Hagee’s view that an omnipotent God must sanction the evil in our world actually has deep roots in Jewish thought. To cite just one example, the Talmud teaches us that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of “sinat hinam,” or baseless hatred. In other words, our own Talmud teaches that God used the Romans to perpetrate the greatest tragedy in the history of the Jewish people (until the Holocaust) because of Jewish sins. (haaretz.com)

The defense of God’s actions — or apparent lack thereof — is a distasteful activity to begin with, so it’s not surprising that we can so mangle ideas that they come out sounding offensive to casual listeners. Then again, why should finite humans get stuck defending an infinite being?

The problem of evil is what ultimately led me away from theism, but that’s somewhat surprising considering how theists frame the question in relation to their faith: there is no answer, but I have faith that there is a reason, that it will all make sense. Yet it seldom does make sense during our Earthly lives.

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Catholic mystic’s body

Padre Pio’s body will be displayed in Italy.

Among the stories that surround the monk, who was born Francesco Forgione and died at the age of 81, is one that he wrestled with the devil one night in his monastery cell.

Some believers also say Padre Pio was able to predict future events, was seen in two places at once and could tell people their sins before they confessed them to him.

Pope John Paul II made him a saint in 2002 at a ceremony attended by one of the biggest crowds ever in the Vatican after the Church said it had found evidence that the miraculous cure of a sick woman was the result of intercession by the dead monk.

However, he was dogged during his life and after his death by accusations that he was a fraud.

A new book last year suggested he was a self-harming man who might have used carbolic acid to cause wounds in his hands mimicking those of Jesus when he was nailed to the cross.

Church officials have denied that he was a fake. (Faithful await display of Catholic mystic’s body)

It’s odd how people so want to see the earthly remains of those regarded as saints, from Lenin to Pio.

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Don’t Call Him Brother Romney

Interesting article on Romney’s Mormonism at “Get Religion”:

If you’ve not followed the decades-long theological debate between apologists for evangelical Protestantism and apologists for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, brace yourself. You’re probably in for an extended mass media discourse on those differences, at least until the primaries settle who will be the Republican nominee for president. Don’t call him Brother Romney just yet — GetReligion

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It’s the End of the World as We Know It

In Trinity Broadcast Network’s take on the end of the world, we see at the climax of the film the great battle known as Armageddon. Satan is there in full gargoyle attire, directing the Forces of Evil to destroy all that stands in their way. The bright light of Jesus comes and in a montage we see, among other things, Jews praying at the Wailing Wall.

The Real Video version of the video is available here. If you like B-movies, this one is for you. It’s worth it at least to watch the final minutes, so cue it to 1:29 and make sure you don’t have to urinate…

Huh? A great battle within a few miles and they’re praying instead of running for cover?!

This “oversight” is symptomatic of the general Fundamentalist view of the Book of Revelation and the end of the world. The whole scenario is laughable: the Satan unites the duped world into an alliance with him. Those who resist meet on the plains of Megiddo and fight the greatest battle the world has ever seen, cut short by Jesus’ second coming and the banishing of Satan to a bottomless pit.

It’s Lord of the Rings. But to some people, it’s a sure thing. In fact, you can see the rumblings of it already, with the United Nations or the European Union, depending on which breed of Fundamentalist you’re talking to. Soon, a powerful leader will rise and start working miracles and uniting the world with his…

Wait. Let’s think about it for a moment. It’s the twenty-first century. What’s going to happen if someone starts working “miracles?” Anyone hear of James Randi? What’s going to happen if some world leader starts calling on people to worship him?

As for the apocalyptic battle that rages in the Middle East, the notion that all the armies are going to gather on the plains — when was the last time you saw modern warfare conducted like that?

But that basic logic clashes with what the Bible “clearly” says, and so the True Believers stumble on saying that the end is just around the corner. Yet even Jesus seemed to get his timing wrong. Speaking of the end of the world in Matthew’s gospel, he says,

bq. Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. (23.34-36)

Later, he utters the same thing: “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (24.34). So for almost two thousand years folks have been saying, “This generation won’t die without seeing the end of the world!”

But that’s neither here nor there. No man knows the hour and all that, but we do know the signs: rebuilding the temple; resurrected Roman Empire; 666; miracle-working world leader who calls himself a god. Or do we? There’s so much hopeless confusion and contradiction in the various end of the world scenarios that it’s difficult to keep a straight face hearing such nonsense.

No one seems to wonder, “Well, if all the pieces of the puzzle can be put together in such different ways, maybe the puzzle itself is broken. Or our understanding of it.”

I’d say it’s a little of both.

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Payment Required :: Salvation, Mercy, and Logic, Part II

This is part two of a discussion on the Christian notion of salvation. Christians and apologists are encouraged to comment.

Willful Expose, in response to the last post, summarized the Christian understanding of salvation in fairly traditional terms. In other words, in terms of justice and omnipotence. She argued thusly:

God is omnipotent in that he is all-powerful, but not that he can “do anything” per se. For instance, God cannot sin, because sin is not in his character. It is because of this same character that God requires payment for sins. That payment had to be someone perfect, and only Jesus could be perfect.

Not to pick on Ms. Expose, but I’m not sure I see the logic behind connecting

  • God not being able to sin, and
  • God requiring payment for sins.

This “requiring payment for sins” is not an attribute of God, then, it’s simply a fact about it. I require my students to make up missed work within two weeks, but that requirement is not an attribute of my character, and therefore I can change it as I see fit. The same would be true of God. He might be perfect, but he doesn’t have to “require payment for sins.”

Further, it’s not logical why that payment had to be from someone perfect, someone “innocent.” If innocence is required, then I would think all the infants who have died in the world would more than make up for it.

Ah, but there’s a rub in that — “Original Sin,” a topic I’ll return to in part three on Monday.

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Salvation, Mercy, and Logic, Part I

I would like this to be an interactive discussion, so *Christians and apologists, please speak up*!

The paths to salvation in the Christian religion are almost as numerous as the denominations. Fundamentalists like to talk about “once saved, always saved,” and the moment they assured their salvation by “accepting Jesus” as their “Lord and Savior.” Catholics talk about their “hope” for salvation and the necessity of living a Godly life.

What all semi-traditional Christians agree on, is that salvation, whatever the form, is

  • necessary (It’s often framed in terms of “Original Sin” — the notion that humans have inherited a blemished, sinful soul from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden.); and,
  • available only through Jesus.

Coupled with the dual nature Jesus supposedly possessed — completely human and completely divine — this raises the question of whether Jesus was affected by Original Sin.

Quotation marks are not meant, in this piece, to indicate derision but rather semi-direct quotes of traditional Christian formulations.

Catholics solve this problem with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: the notion that Mary was born free of Original Sin, and therefore did not pass it on to Jesus’ human nature. Protestants, as far as I know, barely discuss it.

It highlights the one of the strangest aspects of Christian theology, namely the convoluted nature of God’s act of salvation. It’s a many-stepped process:

  1. Jesus had to live a perfect life and therefore not “deserve” the penalty of death.
  2. Jesus had to die in an excruciating manner.
  3. Believers have to know of Jesus’ sacrificial death.
  4. Believers have to do something about this knowledge (and at this point, Catholicism and Protestantism part ways significantly).

And all this for forgiveness?

It just seems an unnecessarily complicated method for an omnipotent God essentially to say, “That’s okay — I forgiveyou.” And not only that — it’s conditional. The condition is Jesus. Without Jesus, Christianity says, you’re unacceptable to God.

It seems an omnipotent God would just forgive — simple as that.

“Dad, I’m sorry — I screwed up.”

“That’s okay son.”

Part two of “Salvation, Mercy, and Logic” will appear on Saturday 11 December.

The older I get, the more liberal I get in my theological outlook. Once a staunch atheist, I now admit that there are a great many things that are not explainable in a purely material framework, and I’ve reached a point that I can honestly say, “Who knows — there might be a God.” But one thing is for sure — if there is a God, and he/she/it is one tenth of what theists of any and all stripes say about their God, he won’t be doing any damning. He would be too wise, too patient, and too loving for that.

In other words, if there is a God, then there’s a heaven, and if there’s a heaven, we’re all going there.

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Review: Christianity on Trial

I’m not sure whether the thesis of this book could best be summed up as, “Christianity isn’t all that bad” or “Christianity has made the world the wonderful place it is today.” That depends on whether you’re trying to summarize the intended or actual thesis.

This purports to be basically a book of Christian apology, in a sense: not defending the faith’s tenants, but defending the faith’s acts. It rightly points out that there is a lot of criticism directed toward Christianity that, were it directed toward any other religion, would be construed as bigotry. That’s true enough, and a fair criticism. On the other hand, the book seems to imply that the majority of contributions Christianity has made to civilization are positive – that the scales tip toward the good. That’s fine and good, but it doesn’t provide enough proof of that. We never get any idea if the people and groups in each chapter are exceptions to the rule, or the standard. I got the feeling that the authors didn’t know either, but were trying to pass them off as the latter.

This is particularly noticeable when we consider the two topics conspicuously missing from the book: Christian anti-Semitism and Christian misogyny. The environment, democracy, and science all rightly get chapters, but nary a word about misogyny, and only lip-service to anti-Semitism (“Okay, okay, Luther was anti-Semitic, but look at all the good things he did!”). The closest thing to mentioning misogyny, on the other hand, is perhaps a reference to the (to use their woefully inadequate understatement) “unfortunate” Salem witch trials.

On the whole, I remain unconvinced of Christianity’s virtues through the centuries. It’s a human institution, filled with the hatred, bigotry, and stupidity common to all people.

Still, it did make me realize that condemning the Apostle Paul for his views on slavery is to use an anachronistic morality to judge him. This is a common theme in the book, and somewhat rightly so. We can’t condemn society X for being cruel when it was no crueler than any other contemporary society, even if it is vastly more vicious than our own. We can comment on it, but it doesn’t make them immoral.

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