Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Unique Strengths of Christianity

One trope you’ll find in Christian writings is that their religion is unique because of the life and teachings of Jesus. Invariably, these apologists take their scriptures at face value and rattle off a list of Jesus’ miracles, from his virgin birth to his curing of diseases to his resurrection and ascension. Amusingly, one such article compares Christianity to other religions, summarizing the teachings of Hinduism and adding by way of refutation, “Hinduism as it is actually practiced consists largely of superstition, legendary stories about the gods, occult practices, and demon worship.” There is, of course, no way to take that response seriously without casting an equally skeptical eye on Christianity. The palpable double standard shows that the trope of laying out a case for Christianity’s unique reliability is mere pretense and sales technique.

Obviously, if Hindus engaged in occult practices, why not say the same about Jesus’s magic healings? Or if Hindu stories of gods are legendary, Christianity’s could be the same. As demonstrated in just the last few centuries when critical scholars finally studied the Bible in an objective manner, the case for Christianity’s historicity was never as strong as the official presentation of the scriptures misled the world to believe. The four gospel narratives, for example, aren’t independent of each other, no one knows who wrote them, and they appear to have been written several decades or more after the events in question. Moreover, these narratives find fault with each other as the authors edit unwanted parts of the rival gospel. The earliest New Testament writings, Paul’s letters, hardly ever refer to Jesus as an historical person. Meanwhile, early non-Christian references to Jesus are now infamous for being forgeries (the Josephus passage), confused and irrelevant (Suetonius’ reference to the Roman expulsion of Jews who had been agitated by “Chrestus”), or of otherwise dubious evidentiary value (the second-hand references which show only that there were early Christian practices, not that the Christians’ beliefs about Jesus are accurate). 

If we should take partisan ravings for granted and mistake fiction or myth for history, why not accept that every cult leader was the greatest person to have ever lived or that Hercules was the strongest man because of his epic labours?

Jesus’s Moral Revolution

Leaving aside, then, the preposterous appeals to evidence for Jesus’s supernatural uniqueness, there’s still the question whether the religion’s natural aspects, such as its teachings and historical impact are unique. In particular, says the theologian David Bentley Hart, Christianity improved on the pagan world in that Jesus introduced the concept of the universality of personhood, bestowing on all humans the right to dignity. Originally, writes Hart,
at least in many very crucial contexts, “persons” were something of a rarity in nature. At least, as far as ancient Roman legal usage, one’s person was the status one held before the law, and this was anything but an invariable property among all individuals…To “have a person”—habere personam—was to have a face before the eyes of the law, to possess the rights of a free and propertied citizen, to be entrusted to offer testimony on the strength of one’s own word, to be capable before a magistrate of appeal to higher authority. At the far opposite end of the social scale, however, was that far greater number of individuals who could be classed as “non habentes personas,” “not having persons”—not, as it were, having faces before the law or, for that matter, before society. The principal occupants of this category were, of course, slaves.
To slaves we might add women, since they too were second-class citizens in patriarchal societies.

Now, the allegation that personal dignity wasn’t universal anywhere in the pagan world prior to Christianity is false. In Hinduism and Jainism, for example, everyone was considered potentially divine, being one with the essence of ultimate reality, and the separateness of our natural selves being illusory. Still, Christianity emphasized the equality of those natural selves in its tales of Jesus attending to the lowest of the low, including foreigners, women, prostitutes, slaves, the poor, the sick and even enemies such as a Roman soldier who was helping to oppress Jesus’ fellow Jews. Jesus said, “love your enemies, do good to them” (Luke 6:35), which suggests Christianity had a revolutionary view of how we should live. Jesus evidently wanted his listeners to see the world as God sees it.

However, the main problem with inferring on that basis that Christianity is unique is that Jesus only replaced one hierarchy with another rather than eliminating all lamely-anthropocentric hierarchies. Did the pagan world have social hierarchies in which men ruled over women and masters dominated slaves, for example? Sure, but Jesus’ message of our equal worth conflicts with his dichotomy between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned. Far from respecting everyone’s differences as so many choices made by dignified persons beloved by God, Jesus implies that most people deserve a fate worse than death, to be punished forever in hellfire. To say that God respects our freedom to choose to reject his offer of salvation through Christ’s sacrificial death, and that God punishes nonbelievers only to honour that choice is insufferable doubletalk. Rejecting a miracle you see with your eyes might indicate some waywardness that deserves punishment or at least correction, but rejecting one of thousands of competing hearsay miracle claims, centuries after the miracle supposedly happened and long after the universe has been shown to be natural and godless merits the eating of crow on the part of Christendom, not hellfire for skeptics.

Indeed, Christian exclusiveness narrows the ranks of those who fare well in the social hierarchy, since now salvation requires the right state of mind, not just token actions such as prayer or ritual sacrifice. All non-Christians are implicitly condemned not as beloved children of God, but as servants of demons whom the Bible depicts as being flayed right along with unrepentant sinners on Judgment Day. This is why Jesus reverses expectations when he says, “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt.19:30). The Christian revolution was always conceived of not as an elevation of all humanity, but as a reversal of the natural social order. Whereas the rich prosper in nature, in God’s kingdom they’ll suffer. And the Christian reversals go on and on: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt.5:3-6). So Christianity isn’t unique for eliminating social hierarchies; instead, this religion would replace natural hierarchies with the supernatural order of God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom those who succeed in natural terms fail, while those who failed in men’s kingdoms will be raised to the highest level. Instead of condemning women, the frail, the poor, and the slaves for their supposed earthly shortcomings, Jesus condemns all who reject God’s supposed offer of forgiveness. “Woe to the Pharisees!” said Jesus, since they missed the spirit of the Jewish law and will be held in contempt by God.

The Christian “Reasons” for Morality

What, though, of the reasons Jesus offers in defense of his moral revolution? Is Christianity unique in the strength of its arguments on behalf of those role reversals? Take, for example, Jesus’ command to love your enemies. Luke 6:35 reads in its entirety, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (my emphasis). First of all, the Christian god is hardly kind to the ungrateful and wicked, since they’re supposed to be roasted forever in hell. Notice, in any case, the blatant contradiction between saying we should lend without expecting to get anything in return, and saying such lenders will be rewarded by God in the afterlife. The explicit biblical reason offered for Christian altruism is consequentialist: Christians should be selfless in imitation of Jesus, not because other people are inherently worthy, but to impress a deity whose standards for some reason are higher than we can easily imagine. The concept of a deity who expects perfection from creatures he made imperfect, by making them something other than himself is manifestly defective. But Luke warms to the theme: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that” (6:32-33). So the goal of Christian altruism is to receive higher credit than the earthly kind. Now ask yourself whether it’s possible to love something if you have an ulterior motive. No, that love would be as phony as the conceit that a myth should be treated as provable history.

There’s also an implicit biblical argument for altruism, which is that we should take radical action because God’s kingdom is near. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). The primitive presumption here is that whereas God’s attention must have been focused elsewhere for thousands of our years, now finally God attends to us so that what we do in these final days before the end of all earthly kingdoms will be uppermost in God’s mind. Thus, we must raise our standards to ensure our salvation. Christian morality is still based only on a divine command theory, according to which morality is following orders largely out of fear of a much greater power. But Jesus adds that because the end times are near, we ought to go above and beyond, following the spirit rather than just the letter of the law. Of course, an omniscient god should have no trouble remembering what our ancestors did long before the Second Coming and Judgment Day. Thus, there should be no need for desperate measures just prior to God’s entrance into our world. God’s expectations shouldn’t be raised just because he’s “nearer” to us than he was “before,” because God transcends space and time, by definition.

In any case, the bigger problem is more apparent: the end of the world never happened and God’s kingdom never came! Thus there’s even less of a Christian reason to be radical altruists, because that eschatological argument rests on a false assumption. This embarrassment led Christians to reinterpret Jesus’ prophecies about the Second Coming’s nearness as being spiritual rather than temporal. Accordingly, God’s kingdom is near not in the sense that the days or years are counting down, but because we can so easily usher in an age of peace if only we take Jesus’ advice and love our neighbours as ourselves. Again, doing so isn’t so easy if the required motives conflict with each other, that is, if we’re supposed to love neighbours as altruists while thinking mainly of ourselves and our rewards after death. Perhaps it was just as well that God decided to save us the hassle of improving our welfare, by dying on our behalf—except that there’s no reason to think any such miracle happened, assuming the scriptural evidence is so problematic.

But this spiritual or metaphorical interpretation of Jesus’s eschatological talk raises another argument for Christianity’s uniqueness, which is that even if the moral revolution wasn’t radical and Jesus’s reasons for morality are weak or nonexistent, perhaps we should be impressed by the religion’s historical impact. Maybe liberalism and civil rights flowered in the modern West only because Jesus had planted the seeds by positing that the downtrodden aren’t disposable but are just as worthy of God’s attention as kings and queens. The problem with this argument is that its proponent must have recourse to a superhuman reserve of chutzpah, which itself is unlikely. Even if we assume that Eastern cultures have no signs of independent moral progress, calling attention to how modern liberalism and socialism arose poses the risk of making Christianity look shabby by comparison. Early modern philosophers knew how to put forward respectable arguments, because they modeled their discourse not on ancient myths but on scientific theories. They assumed that tradition carries little intellectual weight, because we’re prone to succumbing to cultural inertia and to deferring to biases and dogmas that grow further and further from the truth the more time passes and the more they’re revered. These natural philosophers were humanists not because they assumed we’re made with immaterial spirits in God’s image, but because they realized after the Dark Age that no deities are coming to our rescue and so we must rely on our meager resources to solve our problems. So they learned to reason their way to realistic philosophical conclusions, taking as inspiration the dialogues and humanistic naturalism of the ancient Greeks over which Christianity had allegedly triumphed.

For example, Descartes argued that knowledge is based on the axiom that skepticism is self-refuting, since even the skeptic has to concede that she can’t doubt that she exists as a thinking mind (since that doubt would prove as much). And Immanuel Kant argued that universal personhood is grounded in our autonomy which again is sustained not by any supernatural nature but by our rational capacity to make sense of our experience. Far from demonstrating Christian supremacy, the lunacy of comparing Western philosophical arguments for human rights, egalitarianism, and altruism with Jesus’s from the New Testament piles yet more humiliation onto Christianity. First the saviour was executed by the Romans, proving God wasn’t at his back. That prompted the early Christians to search for excuses for Jesus’s failure, and so they spread the legend that Jesus conquered death and will return soon in glory. (He had to return soon to comfort his earliest followers who would have been most distressed by the defeat.) Then Christians suffered the additional humiliation that the second coming never came, and they duly racked their brains for lame theological excuses to avoid the cognitive dissonance. Then Christianity won over the failing Roman Empire and Christians had to provide yet more apologies for that spectacular betrayal of Jesus’s message: Jesus said to love your enemies, not to become exactly like them in a formal alliance; he said to give to Caesar what’s his and to God what’s God’s, not to sell your integrity for earthly power. And now the Christian means to encourage a comparison between New Testament and early-modern reasoning, and we’re supposed to pretend that this religion isn’t an appalling farce? No, if Jesus planted the seeds of secular humanism, he acted only as a deaf and blind madman, hurling seeds hither and thither, leaving it to much later thinkers like Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill to ponder how farming really works, as it were, and what the real basis is of human freedom, dignity, and happiness.

However, these theological arguments are red herrings, since the likely initial reason for Christian moral universalism (regardless of whether Jesus existed) would have been unconscious. As Nietzsche said, Jesus heralded a revolt of the omegasThe point was to spread the word of morality to lower the social standards sufficiently for the weak to be given charity. The point was that the self-righteous poor were resentful for being kept under the boot heel of the mighty, so they devised a ploy whereby the rulers would sink to the slave’s level. Personhood had to be universal for even the Jews and especially Jesus’s illiterate, blundering fishermen to own this bounty. Civil rights would have to come later, because Christians didn’t esteem the kind of critical reflection that would arrive at this implication. Instead, they assumed God would graciously reward them for their longsuffering. Yet no grace or gift of mercy should have been needed if human nature deserves to be treated with dignity. If we’ve wallowed in error and depravity for millennia, that’s likely because God has been absent from the field and solving the existential conundrum of how to live in an absurd world is next to impossible.

In any case, Christianity’s true talents lie elsewhere, in a more blasphemous direction. Monotheism makes God irrelevant by defining “him” as transcending anything we can conceive of that might bear on the transpiring of a natural event. As the anthropologist Rene Girard explained in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Christianity implicitly refutes all religions, including itself, by revealing the illogic of human sacrifice which had been fundamental to the world’s religions. By religious magical thinking, society saves itself from self-destruction owing to human animalism, by scapegoating some hapless members, be they women or foreigners or witches of Jews or the physically disabled or Mexicans or whomever. Christianity features a Monty Pythonesque sacrifice in which the victim is perfectly innocent and those who sacrificed him—the Jews and Romans—were portrayed as decadent or antisocial and as heartless oppressors, respectively.

If the religious idea of human sacrifice makes no sense, Christianity effectively deconstructs the world’s religions and exposes itself, too, as preposterous. Christianity would be akin to a work of slapstick comedy in which the comedian holds up that base form to ridicule. To worship that final slapstick comedian would amount to missing the point that she means to take herself off the stage so the audience can proceed to more sophisticated entertainments. Thus, if Christianity implies that the notion of human sacrifice is barbaric, it strikes me as counterproductive to hold up the death of Jesus as the ultimate instance of such sacrifice. Perhaps the pseudothought here is that while human sacrifices are grotesque expressions of folly and vice, the self-destruction of a god ought to be revelatory. Perhaps, but we should wonder what such a death would reveal. Needless to say, a god that dies in one incarnation but not in that god’s potentially infinite other forms and that demands we be awed by such a staged and superficial demise would be a trickster deity to be waved away like some annoying gremlin. But genuine divine self-destruction would entail that reality is horrific, which would cast all pursuits of happiness as being themselves shameful and blasphemous.

With its fellow monotheistic faiths, Christianity’s true strength is in laying the groundwork for the grim dismissal of all theistic nonsense. Mind you, no Christian can afford to admit that the most responsible interpretation of the Christian message and record is that they’re omens testifying to the need for reality-based, anti-Christian thought. It's left, then, for the likes of American Evangelicals and cynical Catholic priests, who are simultaneously the phoniest and the most authentic followers of Jesus, to show inadvertently the way beyond our kind's clueless phase.   

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