Friday, July 12, 2019

The Source of Christian Audacity

Mysteries abound for the curious, from the counterintuitive behaviour of subatomic particles, to the origins of life and the nature of consciousness. One enigma which few would consider as profound as those, but which is no less baffling is the source of Christian audacity, especially in the United States. Most Christians living in poverty in underdeveloped countries are only ignorant, at worst, but the US is an outlier since most Americans, by comparison, are well-off, educated, and also religious. While that mismatch between the fruits of secular modernity and the clinging to obsolete traditions has perplexed sociologists, that isn’t exactly the mystery I have in mind. Perhaps even many religious middleclass Americans are ignorant of philosophy and lacking in the critical thinking skills needed to lay bare the stark incoherence of their worldviews.

The mystery, rather, is the obnoxiousness that’s palpable especially on the side of right-wing American Christians, who not only pretend that there’s no conflict between Christianity and the Age of Reason (science, capitalism, and democracy), otherwise known as “modernity,” but who luxuriate in their form of incoherence. That form is aptly called “Americanism,” and that’s the surface of the enigma in question, where the Christian aspect of Americanism is the blithe flaunting of theocratic or dominionist pretensions, using such instruments as the Republican Party, Fox News, talk radio networks, and Evangelical churches, together with this Christian’s obliviousness to the historical, theological, and philosophical gratuitousness of those pretensions. Americanism is partly a case study in the Dunning-Kruger effect, but the mystery can’t be resolved just by saying as much. The psychological causes of Americanism, of the gross contradictions in many Americans’ worldview, may be apparent, but what of the historical origin? Is the conservative Christian’s effrontery just a malady akin to a personality defect or is the Christian religion fertile ground for the sprouting of such a poisonous tree? Follow me on this journey down a path of dishonour, as we wend our way to the heart of the mystery.

The Gall of Christian Family Values

Let’s begin with a current example. Conservative American Christians pontificate about the necessity of family values. Meanwhile, Jesus and Paul taught the opposite, that Christians should flee their families and their jobs and practice asceticism, and that, should they prove too weak to devote themselves fully to God in that fashion, they should be chaste even within their marriage. The reason Jesus and Paul taught such a radical, subversive, utterly anti-conservative message is that they also apparently believed the world was going to end soon, that the signs were then impossible to ignore (namely Jesus’s resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE), so that was the time to cease all compromises and perfect oneself with absolute commitment to the highest possible ethical standards. No children or long-term social planning were needed, because God was about to break through the natural universe and establish a divine kingdom.

Conservative Christians can’t be easily forgiven for doubting that the New Testament’s message on those subjects is so one-sided, because the reason for the lack of clarity only deepens the mystery by adding to the Christian’s shamelessness. As Elaine Pagels points out in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, the Gospels include the radical message, but they also soften it as time wore on, the end never came, and churches had to begin to think strategically and practically about how best to organize long-term communities. For example, as Pagels writes, ‘Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ promise of great rewards to “every one that has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name’s sake” (19:29), with Jesus’ reaffirmation of the traditional commandment “Honour your father and mother” (19:19),’ as though there were no blatant contradiction between them. Matthew also softens Mark’s uncompromising prohibition of divorce, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11), by having Jesus say, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt.19:9, my emphasis).

As for the taming of Paul, this took the form of a more egregious fraud, with the forging of 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and likely also Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. Granted, it was common practice in the ancient world for followers to write in their teacher’s name; the Book of Daniel, for example, and parts of Isaiah were written long after the prophets were supposed to have lived. But that tradition doesn’t excuse how generations of subsequent Christians pretended they didn’t know better, left the fake letters of Paul in the New Testament complete with the false attributions of authorship, and treated the letters as authentic and as equally authoritative as the ones Paul probably wrote. Thus, in 1 Corinthians Paul says he’d prefer everyone to be celibate like him, since marriage splits your attention between God and your spouse (7:1-35), which can only threaten you with destruction, since “the appointed time has grown very short” (7:29). Even those who are married, says Paul, should behave as if they weren’t: “Let those who have wives live as though they had none” (7:29).

By contrast, in the fake 1 Timothy, Paul is made to say, “I would have the younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us” (5:14)—as though worrying about gossip were more important than securing everlasting life by pleasing the incoming Creator of the universe. Ephesians honours marriage rather than celibacy and asceticism, by comparing the relation between husband and wife to that between Christ and the Church. The Letter to the Hebrews, which is anonymous and was likewise not written by Paul, goes further in contradicting the authentic message of Jesus and Paul, based on the worldly preoccupations of later generations of Christians, by declaring that “Marriage is honourable unto all, and the marriage bed is not polluted” (13:4).

Writing in the second century, Clement of Alexandria domesticated Paul further by pronouncing Paul married (!), averring that, “The only reason he [Paul] did not take [his wife] with him is that it would have been an inconvenience for his ministry.” Pagels points out that, “When Clement attacks ascetic interpretations of Paul’s message, he finds in the detero-Pauline letters [the forged and contested letters] all the ammunition he needs.” After the moderation of Clement and Irenaeus in the second century, she writes,
What would prevail in Christian tradition was not only the stark sayings of the Gospels attributed to Jesus and the encouragements to celibacy that Paul urges upon believers in 1 Corinthians, but versions of these austere teachings modified to suit the purposes of the churches of the first and second centuries. Clement and his colleagues established, too, a durable double standard that endorses marriage, but only as second best to celibacy.
So two millennia later, Christians might be forgiven for their self-righteous advocacy of family values, were it not for the results of several centuries of higher criticism of the Bible, going back to Spinoza and Erasmus. How is it possible, even with only rudimentary knowledge of these historical facts, such as that the New Testament features anti-social, anti-family messages preached by Jesus and Paul themselves on the basis of what they wrongly considered the imminent end of the world, and that later generations of Christians neutralized those messages literally by perpetrating a systemic fraud complete with spurious documents (not to mention false attributions of Gospel authorship to eye witnesses) that are still included in the New Testament—I say, how is it then possible to condescend to “godless” liberals and atheists, with sanctimonious affirmations of family values in the name of Christianity? Don’t these “conservative Christians” realize that the fraud in the New Testament was evidently carried out because they, too, meaning all generations of Christians are quite godless? (The world’s end never came, after all, so the call for absolute asceticism was reckless, at best.) Welcome to the mystery of which I speak, that of the ultimate source of Christian impudence.

The Christian Theft of Judaism

The mystery deepens as we travel back in time, in our minds, to the clash between the Jews and early Christians. Take, for example, the flagrant gall Christians displayed by including the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible. Why was that done? One reason explains also why Jews rather than Romans were blamed for Jesus’s crucifixion: in the middle of the First Jewish-Roman War, Roman soldiers destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple, slaughtering or raping thousands of Jews. Thereafter, when the Gospel narratives were written, making common cause with Jewish trouble-makers such as Jesus and speaking ill of Roman authorities such as Pontius Pilate was obviously a dangerous undertaking. Followers of Jesus scapegoated Jews and exculpated the Romans, because Jews made for easy targets after 70 CE, and currying favour with Rome increased your chances of survival if you were associated with Jews.

Of course, none of this explicit demonization and whitewashing made any sense, as the Gnostics saw when in the Gospel of Judas they elevated Judas Iscariot as the most heroic disciple for having followed Jesus’s plan. If Jesus had to die to save the world, why condemn those who executed him? Sure, the latter may have had impure motives or may even have intended to obstruct God’s will, in which case God would only have been using them as unwilling instruments. But in that case it still made no sense to demonize the Jews or to glorify the Romans, since they would have been mere instruments. Take, for example, Matthew’s stomach-churning rewrite of history: ‘So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the [Jewish] people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:24-25). Matthew is talking, respectively, about innocence and guilt for the crime of killing an innocent and even holy man. But if the crucifixion was only a sacrifice that fulfilled God’s plan for avoiding the embarrassment of him having to admit that he’d failed in the art of creating a populated world and inadvertently condemned the majority of his intelligent creatures to everlasting torture in hell, there was no innocence, guilt, or crime, but only instruments that indirectly effected God’s will.

In any case, taking advantage of the Roman defeat of the Jewish rebels shows only why Christians felt they could absorb the Jewish scriptures, not so much why they should have done so. The main reason goes back to the quasi-gnostic Marcion of Sinope who in the middle of the second century CE threw down the gauntlet to those moderate Christians who would later consider themselves orthodox or universal. Marcion recognized the vast theological differences between Judaism and Christianity that were brought about largely by contemporary syncretic influences on the older religion, particularly from the Greco-Roman world. Thus, in forming the first Christian canon, Marcion took the honourable step of excluding the Jewish scriptures in their entirety, focusing on Paul’s quasi-gnostic letters and a stripped-down version of the Gospels. The Jewish God was evidently tribal and obsessed with taking revenge and with demanding strict adherence to an elaborate code of law, whereas the Christian message is about mercy and forgiveness, and is meant for everyone, including non-Jews. The transcendence of the Jewish God is the source of Jews’ trust in their traditions, and so they forbade idolatry in any form, even the making of images of God or the speaking of the Lord’s name. By contrast, Christians believed not only that Jesus was the messiah, but that this spiritual leader was God in the flesh. Taking their cue from the pagan dying-and-rising god religions, Christians affirm that God lived and died as a mortal, acting as a sacrificial offering (to assuage God’s conflicting interests in justice and love). And taking their cue from pagan polytheism, Christians eventually made sense of that theological rigmarole by dividing God into three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all of which was anathema to the strict Jewish monotheists.

Instead of following Marcion, the Catholics denounced him as a heretic and formed the Western Christian canon that prevailed to this day and that includes both sets of scriptures as the Old and New Testaments. These Christians had the temerity to insist that even though their religion amounted to something other than Judaism, Christianity brought Judaism to completion and made that older religion obsolete. Their approach to handling the conflicts between the Testaments was as shameless as their handling of the essential asceticism of the Christian scriptures: instead of removing the embarrassing passages and starting afresh, the redactors coopted, twisted, and supplemented them to conceal the conflicts. The four Gospels themselves begin this process by quoting extensively from the Jewish scriptures in an effort to present Jesus as the expected messiah. For example, the Gospels drew from the suffering servant passage in Isaiah, and they had the opportunity, at least, to write their narratives to conform to alleged Jewish prophecies. These Gospel authors even cited a mistranslation in the Septuagint in their effort to show that Jesus’s birth fulfilled Jewish expectations, depicting Jesus as having been born to a virgin. For his part, Paul said that living under the Mosaic Law isn’t needed to please the Jews’ God. On the contrary, the law, that is, the Jewish way of life only reveals the extent to which we’re slaves to sin (Rom.3:20); as the Gnostics contended, the Archons imprison us with natural laws and conventions. Jesus alone, according to Paul, has the power to free us if only we accept his sacrificial death.

(See Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion, p.252-3, on the Gnostic revaluation of the Greek concept of “cosmos”: “contrary to the modern analogue, the withdrawal of the divine from the cosmos leaves the latter not as a neutral, value-indifferent, merely physical fact but as a separatistic power whose very self-positing outside God betrays a direction of will away from God; and its existence is the embodiment of that will…Far from being chaos, the creation of the demiurge, that antitype of knowing, is a comprehensive system governed by law. But cosmic law, once regarded as the expression of a reason with which man’s reason can communicate in the act of cognition and which it can make its own in the shaping of conduct, is now seen only in its aspect of compulsion which thwarts man’s freedom. The cosmic logos of the Stoics is replaced by heimarmene, oppressive cosmic fate.”)

Now, the early Christians could claim to have only been following the Jewish practice of midrash, of reinterpreting the scriptures to keep them relevant to changing circumstances; without creative reinterpretations, the myths get stale and the religion dies. This creative reinterpretation of the scriptures took off mainly in the rabbinic period of Judaism, after the Romans’ destruction of the religion’s priestly institutions. Only then, out of necessity, were the Midrash and the rest of the Talmud formed, and did Jews entertain the most liberal, even comedic interpretations of their scriptures. Still, the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes had their oral traditions, or Oral Torah. In any case, midrash was meant to be done within a religion, not between two religions. In effect, the “Catholic,” which is to say the imperialist Christians exploited a loophole, since as skilled as the prophets and Jewish elders may have been in applying their scriptures and interpreting their laws, much of their scripture is poetic and therefore subject to infinite reworking. Only the elementary human concern for the indignity of the enterprise could be decisive in preventing, say, a Hindu from officially incorporating Judaism within the Hindu fold, insisting that because the Hebrew Bible can be interpreted as being consistent with Hindu teachings, therefore Hinduism supersedes Judaism.

Of course, all the world’s religions imply that each is superior to all the others; indeed, Hindus regard their religion as being all-encompassing. But Hindus have no need to base their religion on a point-by-point demonstration of Judaism’s obsolescence, since Hindus obviously have a wealth of independent texts and traditions to occupy their attention. Instead of embracing its budding industry of the writing of religious narratives, imperialist Christianity outlawed the Gnostic variety, persecuted heretics, and codified precisely the narrower religion that defined itself in terms of that Christian condescension to Judaism. Needless to say, the Church Fathers had to commit a host of howlers (see, for example, the above point about the origin of the virgin birth story) to provide the illusion that the two religions are harmonious—even when Jews took their revenge if only by surviving to the present day after persecution, pogrom, and Holocaust, maintaining their independence, and continuing to reject outright the Christian’s claim that Jesus was the Jewish messiah.

Masking the Horror of Jesus’s Defeat on the Cross

The pattern of chutzpah and obfuscation is clear: when faced with a mountain standing in their way (that is, some monumental set of anti-Christian facts), Christians pretend the mountain is a molehill, treating it as such until they forget what mountains are, and then they boast that when they step over actual molehills (such as when they “discover” that the life of Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophecies, despite the forgeries and redactions) they’re climbing mountains (they’re proving miracles). The ignobility of this pretense suggests Nietzsche’s diagnosis that the Christian suffers from class-based resentment. But again, this would be a psychological solution to the mystery of how such chutzpah is humanly possible. The historical source of this pattern lies just beyond that preposterous encompassing of Judaism, covered in the last section. The original act of Christian chutzpah must have been the nullification of the crushing existential significance of Jesus’s defeat on the cross.

Lay aside whether the Jesus of the Gospels was an historical figure, since the Gospels carry profound meaning even when read as fictions. There are two layers of meanings, corresponding to realistic and fantastic interpretations. What are the Gospel narratives really about? If we confine our thoughts to what likely happens, the most obvious subject matter is the tragic relationship between society and the individual. To flourish in society, the individual must lower her standards, compromise and degrade herself. Compromise is necessary for the greater good of avoiding chaos by establishing adequate means of cooperation. Society therefore consists mostly of followers of more or less demeaning conventions. At the top of the hierarchy are the leaders who may be model citizens on the surface but who tend to be the most sociopathic in the population, because they have to make the tough, dehumanizing choices to maintain the peace, even at the cost of sacrificing a minority’s welfare. In the first century Roman province of Judea, the Roman elites were at the apex of society and they led Palestine with the aid of the puppet Jewish regimes of the children of Herod the Great. The Jewish people were split between those who accepted Roman rule and those who sought to rebel for the sake of increasing Jewish autonomy, and they were divided also between religious moderates and absolutists or fundamentalists. The Gospels depict the Pharisees as moderates who follow the letter but not the spirit of Judaism, and Jesus as a charismatic absolutist who has a closer relationship to God.

Leaving aside the theology, the point is that the character Jesus represents a social outsider whose preoccupation with the question of spiritual authenticity or godliness alienates him from the society that’s had to compromise on its religious and moral principles. Jesus tries to teach the masses whose spiritual sensibilities had been deadened by their association with the pragmatic Roman Empire. Most who heard them fail to grasp the meaning of Jesus’s cryptic teachings. Even his disciples flee and lose their faith when the conflict comes to a head in Jerusalem and the Roman-Jewish social order has Jesus tortured and executed. Again, whether Jesus actually lived and acted or said anything as reflected in the New Testament is irrelevant to this literary, universal message. Indeed, Jesus could just as well represent Judaism as a whole, since Jews collectively were social outsiders for most of their long history, having been ruled over by foreign powers, having stood apart from pagans who regarded Jewish customs as antisocial, and later having suffered persecutions, scapegoating, and mass slaughters.

But whether it’s an historical or a fictional character named Jesus, or whether it’s the Jewish collective, that’s only one of many examples that could have been used to prove the relevance of the Gospels’ reality-based, sociological message. The message is that if you value mostly your personal integrity and your moral or spiritual principles, you’re likely to come into conflict with inhuman social systems, and may meet with a tragic end as a consequence. That’s what happened to Jesus, according to the realistic layer of meaning in the New Testament. Historically speaking, the Romans conquered the Jews and murdered scores of idealistic Jews like Jesus, but the conquered had the last laugh by outlasting the Roman Empire and restructuring their religion after the fall of Jerusalem. Jewish humour, however, might as well be the gallows variety since although Jews beat the Romans in some sense, the tragic message of the Gospels shines through, as I said, in the Jewish torments from their ongoing outsider status that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust and that persists in the bitterness and hostility of Israel’s Muslim neighbours.

That well-attested conflict, between the authentic, idealistic individual and the crooked social order is what confronted the early Christians in reality, and it’s what inspired the Gospel authors. (See, for example, John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus, which recaptures the Gospels’ fundamental, Heideggerian themes, especially in Mark and John where they’re starkest.) When faced with the historical reality, with the defeat of the Jews in the revolt and with the horrific murder of Jesus or of similar idealists on the Roman crosses, as presented unmistakably in the Gospel narratives, the early Christians had to choose how to respond. Some were unwilling to compromise their moral principles and they condemned the whole of natural reality. These were known as the Gnostics. Others were willing to compromise for the purpose of establishing what Kierkegaard called “Christendom,” that is, a Church or a Christian social order.

Remember that it’s essentially the social order that condemns and kills Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Roman, the Nazi, or any other regime: the universal, literary thesis of the Jesus narrative is that social systems in general corrupt the individual, so that the more steadfast the individual, the greater the struggle and the more likely that individual will be destroyed by society. The Church is hardly an exception to that rule. Thus, the duplicitous, imperialist Christians who persecuted the Gnostics were responsible also for the second layer of meaning in the New Testament. This more theological, consensus-driven layer carries the message of official Christianity, a message that any idealist or absolutist such as Jesus would wholeheartedly reject as a perverse bastardization of the deeper truth. The official message is that there’s no necessary conflict between society and the individual, because Jesus survived his ordeal at the hands of the ungodly, as he was resurrected and he ascended to Heaven, and God came to earth to establish the holy Church, a special social order guided by the Holy Spirit to preserve the memory of Jesus for the salvation of everyone. These strategic, Machiavellian Christians (including the authors of the Gospels) set about defusing the reality portrayed in the deeper layer of the Jesus narrative. For example, they interpolated the line about Jesus’s intention to build his Church on the rock of Peter, into Matthew 16:18. More extensively, the natural horror of Jesus’s life and death was concealed with a hodgepodge of theological fantasies. Instead of a charismatic and wise or na├»ve idealist, which would have been the likely reality, Jesus became a miracle-working prophet, saint, demigod and supernatural saviour of humanity.

Here, then, was the ur-act of Christian treachery. The existential truth of the Jesus narrative, which is akin to the truth found in any great work of literature, was overshadowed by Christian propaganda. Instead of siding with Jesus the idealistic social outsider, the winning Christians chose to side with society and even with the very social order that was most responsible for crushing Jesus, according to the narrative, namely the Roman Empire. But they chose to serve also the societies that these institutionalists would build for themselves, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Again, you might think this was the wiser course, since Jesus the idealist proved to be mistaken about the imminence of God’s judgment and kingdom, and so it might have been better to start an organization to preserve something of Jesus’s ideals than to let them fade away, as the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus in Dostoevsky’s parable. Alas, there can be no such concession, because if Jesus’s ideals were motivated by a wildly-false speculation, or if idealists who oppose the corrupt social order are inevitably misguided, the institutionalist can only be lying when she says that the idealist’s message deserves to be safeguarded or that she speaks in that (deluded) founder’s name. The idealism is coopted not to honour the discredited founder, but to disguise and rationalize the injustices perpetrated by the society that empowers and corrupts the institutionalist. Once the existential message is tainted by the accretions of theological fantasy, the result is a hybrid that serves as a con, as an ideology that deludes the gullible, conservative masses who just want to fit in and be happy—and not rock the boat like Jesus.

The best a Western Christian institutionalist could do in retrieving some realistic truth from the morass of official Christian frauds and obfuscations might be to say that what’s essential to Christianity is an analysis of the relation between God and all people where the latter are all equally defined as being omega-scale losers in relation to God. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory; no one can earn salvation from God’s judgment and hellfire (except for an incarnation of God); Christian salvation is a free, undeserved gift that alone can undo our original sin of existing as finite, self-interested creatures. The Christian is the one who recognizes our smallness and unworthiness in God’s eyes and who thanks God tirelessly for choosing to overlook our necessary imperfection. The New Testament therefore focuses on an ironic distinction between alleged human winners and losers. Again, all of us are actually losers, according to God’s lofty standards, but the haves are deluded by pride into thinking that they don’t need to be saved. According to Christianity, the last will be first and the first will be last, meaning that the first will discover that their earthly victories were illusory and that they were losers all along, standing together with the starving, the sick, and the homeless, deserving to be roasted alive forever in hell. Those who are losers in conventional terms (the earthly poor who are also “poor in spirit” in that they have little hope of succeeding in worldly terms) will be victorious in the afterlife. This is because these poor are more likely to be attracted to the Christian message, since they have nothing to lose on earth. Indeed, most rich countries today are secular and the most fervent Christian countries are impoverished.   

Notice that this vindication of the have-nots implies that even the Church as an institution shouldn’t be trusted, because it’s inevitably run by pragmatic, unspiritual winners, at best, whether they be rich, demagogic televangelists or bishops that try to save the face of the Catholic Church by protecting pedophile priests. In the Christian myth, Jesus represents the promise of the loser’s transformation into a winner, since as a man he was an ascetic, a quintessential omega male, but he was also divine at least with respect to his charisma and wisdom, if not also his theological power over creation and his identification with God. But the reality is that Jesus himself didn’t win; only the twisted memory of him carried on, doing untold damage in his name or in that of other such idealistic outcasts symbolized by him. If Jesus lived, he died on the cross as a captured and executed trouble-maker. Period. If he didn’t live in history, that’s still the end of the likely reality found at the bottom of the Christian fiction: the idealist’s torture and execution by the cruel state. There would be no resurrection of the flesh after death and no social progress in the sense of society’s purification that prevents the natural power dynamics from corrupting the “elites.” This is why idealists, such as Gnostics or Catholics or Marxists are so often dualists or utopians, because experience teaches them to be fatalistic about everything touched by the natural order, including human societies. That fantasy of escape leads the idealist astray, as it did to Jesus if he lived, which in turn is all the excuse the ambitious realist needs to build a new social system and to defraud the multitudes to protect that unholy creation.

In any case, this reaction to the sociological bedrock of Christianity is the source of Christian audacity, since once you’re trained to favour the theological overlay and to ignore the tragic lesson of the idealist’s defeat in this world, you’re stuck with that albatross around your neck. This failure to accept that what’s most real about the Jesus story is a tragedy prepares especially the well-off Christian, who defends the institutions that reward her, to commit all manner of audacious denials and distortions, to protect her comfort level with respect to that primary act of betrayal. Why not steal another religion’s scriptures and pretend to be the more authentic Jews, even while the real Jews endure and continue to denounce your Christian audacity? Why not keep the fraud in the New Testament going and exchange a “conservative,” pro-social message of family values for the radical, visionary and wholly opposite one of Jesus and Paul? Why not pretend Christianity is still worthwhile even after you’ve presupposed that the founders’ eschatological pronouncements, on which they based their extremist morality, are farcical? The snowball gains in size and gathers momentum as it rolls down the mountain…


  1. I think this is the best article you've written on Christianity, hands down.

    As someone who was raised in an apocalyptic sect of Christianity whose believers really do try to live as if the world could end any day now, I can understand why most Christians are hypocrites. It's easy and exciting at first, but after a decade it begins to wear on you. Though I wish Christians would just end the charade and admit Jesus was wrong, the fact that most of them don't even try to live his harsh asceticism testifies to their essential rationality. The few who do try to live up to Jesus' ideals are generally not very happy people in my experience; even if they seem so on the surface.

    Whether or not Jesus lost in the end is hard to say since it's never very clear what he was trying to accomplish. He says his kingdom is no part of the world and to give unto Caesar what's his, but then he storms the temple with a whip and assaults the money changers - an utterly pointless tantrum that finally exhausts the patience of his enemies and gets him nailed! Was he trying to redeem the world or redeem his disciples from the world? There was tension between prophetic Judaism (which culminated in Jesus) and temple Judaism for centuries before that; if Jesus represented the prophetic tradition, then it died on the cross with him, which means he lost.

    But what if the detail about Jesus conspiring with Judas to plan for his own arrest and execution is accurate? If so, then it gets more ambiguous. If Jesus wanted to be executed as a martyr, he accomplished his goal and should be congratulated as a winner. Maybe his whole point was that, the world being the domain of Satan, no good deed goes unpunished and his disciples should expect to be executed like criminals - since that is what any good person is in a tyranny. If the world is fundamentally corrupt - that is, beyond redemption - then the only value in doing good would be for the agent. The widow's mite was of trivial value from a worldly perspective, but was everything to the widow. Jesus' death was, from the worldly perspective, an almost comedic spectacle of misguided idealism shattering against the rock of Golgotha; and for the apostles it was a refutation of everything they had believed in and lived for; but what was it for Jesus? After all, he planned it; he made it happen. If he had lived longer, Jesus might have sold out and compromised with reality. Maybe Jesus died to save himself.

    "If we did good deeds merely for the gratitude to be gained for them, what good would these deeds do us in eternity? Good should be done not only despite the the fact that it will not be rewarded in this world, but precisely because it is a thankless task. The infinite value of good works stems from them not receiving an adequate reward in this life." ~ Miguel Unamuno | Our Lord Don Quixote

    "A good and glorious death enriches and glorifies an entire life, however bad and infamous it may have been, and a bad death spoils a life which has been apparently excellent." ~ Miguel Unamuno | Our Lord Don Quixote

    1. If the main character in the Gospels lived in history, we can never know much about him because the available evidence is late and tainted with theological agendas. Based on methodological naturalism, though, we can rule out a physical resurrection and other such miracles, which aren’t needed to explain the historical data.

      According to The Passover Plot, Jesus meant to stage his fake death and resurrection, to rule on earth as the messiah. But according to Mark and the gospels, Jesus intended, rather, to be killed as a sacrifice for humanity. He meant to provoke the power elites who were in league with Satan. That is, his life and death were carried out in the middle of a spiritual war. He meant to break the devil’s hold over the world, which is why he cured people and cast out evil spirits.

      In reality, though, if the Jesus story was based on actual events, the most likely scenario is one of the following two. First, the theological overlay about a spiritual war and a sacrificial offering would have been a rationalization to explain how such a bad thing (the crucifixion) could have happened to such a good man. Jesus would have been just one of many, many righteous Jews executed by the Romans, and the Jews as a collective rose up and lost in the Jewish-Roman war. In the aftermath, some Jews sought for a way of buoying their faith, so Jesus’ death and the destruction of Jerusalem were just signs that God himself was finally going to stride out on the battlefield and judge the Romans and the anti-Christian Jews. Although the Romans did eventually fall and a Christian social order rose up all over the world, there’s no need to invoke God to explain the Church’s victories and subsequent behaviour. Better to invoke the devil.

      The second scenario is similar to the first except that Jesus’ defeat might not have been so absolute since, as you suggest, he might have intended to die as a martyr, perhaps to rally his supporters. So the resurrection would have been just the memory of Jesus that inspired his followers to resist injustice and immorality, and to form Christian communities. In that respect, Jesus would have been successful, except for two facts: again, the end of the world at God’s hands never came, so that motivation for his absolute moral standards would have been bogus, and the Christian societies that formed weren’t in all respects superior to the pagan world, all things told.