New Atheism = Fundamentalism
‘In that same that religious fundamentalists refuse to see anything good or truthful in any religion but their own, there is a form of atheist fundamentalism that refuses to see anything good or truthful in any religion.’1
Both liberal and conservative theologians love to characterise the most outspoken critics of religion – speakers and writers like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – as militant or fundamentalist, in a similar vein to their religious equivalents. This is a cute but ultimately a disingenuous ploy.
Religious fundamentalists, conservatives, and traditionalists commonly believe in the exclusive truths of their religious beliefs and see others as deluded, immoral, blasphemous, or evil. I would argue that, from a world perspective, many if not a vast majority of active religious people think like that. Just to be clear, I am ignoring the religiously indifferent, those who nominate themselves as part of a religious faith or denomination, but who rarely engage with its beliefs and practices. I am considering those who ‘live’ their religions and would expect their numbers to run into the many millions. Contrast this with the so-called ‘New Atheists’. They seem to be the same six or so writers who are targeted by the religious defenders as atheist fundamentalists. So we are talking a vastly different populations of those who claim exclusive truth in their religions and those who deny any truth (if that is truly their claims) in those same religions.
Let’s look at book sales. Dawkins or any of the other ‘New Atheists’ would be over the moon with book sales in excess of 100,000 copies. Christian evangelical writers regularly sell millions of copies to fellow Christians promoting end of the world prophesies and the like. Again, the reach of the religious critics seems minuscule compared to the polemic writings of the religious folk.
So what’s the issue? Religious people seem overly sensitive to any form of overt criticism. In some way they want nullify strong criticism by discrediting the authors like Dawkins and others, as if the general public cannot decide for themselves the value of the writings. Instead of using ‘New Atheism’ as a pejorative term, they should deal with the issues. Analyse church behaviours, acknowledge the failings like systemic Roman Catholic child abuse, and argue the overall benefits.
Myth = Non-factual Truth Trumping Evidence
‘Myths may or may not contain literal and factual truth, but this is not the point of them. Attempts to understand them in this way ignore the intention behind them and create controversies about issues that may well be less important than the points that the myth is intended to make.’2
The author continues by arguing, as an example, that statement ‘Jesus walked on the water’ is less a claim of facts than a declaration of the divine power of Jesus. Hill also argues that we should be aware of the actual claims being made before criticising them. Fair enough. Unfortunately for Symon Hill and other liberal religious writers like Karen Armstrong, the vast majority of practising Christians around the world do believe that these biblical stories really happened (in our physical sense). There was a physical resurrection of Jesus after his execution, the core belief of Christianity. It is not seen as purely a metaphor for rebirth and new life. This claim and other ‘miracle’ stories are contrary to our best understandings of the physical world and need to be refuted whenever such physical claims are made (and they are made regularly). Stripped of their popularity and awe, their physical claims are simply preposterous.
It is worth making the point that the more mythic or nuanced understandings may be prevalent in our secular societies. Credibility almost demands that. However we are in a minority from a world-wide perspective where the biblical stories are taken more literally. A good acronym to remember is that we are WIERDs, from Western, Industrialised, Educated, Rich, and Democratic societies. Our societies are secular and in the world-wide minority.
Finally, I do believe there are benefits to be had in religious belief, a support and sustenance of a closely-knit community that we commonly lack in everyday secular life and the opportunities to find (or make) meaning of aspirations beyond our immediate needs. Unfortunately so many religions world-wide package these potential benefits in environments that are self-righteous, moralistic, exclusive, controlling, delusional, and demeaning.
Around 110 CE Emperor Trajan appointed Pliny the Younger, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, as Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey. He was to investigate financial and administrative problems and deal with political unrest. Pliny was a successful middle-ranking bureaucrat from the Equestrian order, the lower of the two aristocratic classes, below that of Patricians. Remarkably, Pliny collected many of his letters and responses, made over his lifetime to friends, superiors, and juniors whom he encouraged. His letters were organised as a series of books in which number ten contained official correspondence with Trajan, where Pliny sought administrative advice during his time in Bithynia-Pontus.
One such problem was dealing with Christians. Pliny told Trajan that Christians, who were recognised as a problem elsewhere in the empire, prayed to a Christ as a form of divinity. Some had been worshipping so for some twenty years. He discussed their religious practices of praying in morning followed by a later common meal on fixed days. Pliny noted that they were otherwise law-abiding. Though Christians were disliked and distrusted by Roman authorities and the society in general, Trajan rejected systematic persecution, especially based on unsubstantiated claims.
What do these letters provide us? Mostly they offer a wonderful look at the administrative concerns and processes of early second century Roman empire. However the two letters, reproduced below, showed there were groups, identified as Christians, who worshipped Christ as a form of a god. The letters was written around 111CE with Pliny dating some of their worshipping up to twenty years previous. We need to remember that Paul, according to orthodox Christian traditions, evangelised throughout this area some 50 to 60 years before. He had a similar message of Christ as god. However these letters say nothing of the historical Jesus; only people believed in his divinity 80 years after his death.
A more interesting question is why Christians beliefs and practices were considered illegal by the Roman authorities? Unlike Christian and Jewish beliefs, the dominant pagan religions of the empire were polytheistic, usually accepting and modifying gods with different origins, like Greek, Roman, and Egyptian. Unlike today, religions emphasised ritual practices towards the gods rather the acceptance of correct beliefs. Life was precariousness 2000 years ago with common-place occurrences, like tooth absences, being death sentences and, so, protection of the gods was of prime importance.
Communities had to be particularly careful to appease the local city gods to ensure the city’s well-being. Regular public festivals were for precisely that purpose and everyone was expected to attend. Not doing so would be like Americans today refusing to take the pledge of allegiance. Ironically Christians were, in some respects, similar to followers of other eastern mystery religions: they typically believed in salvation through special knowledge and cultic practices Even though these mystery religions were of great fascination to Romans, the Christians were different. Their religious practices were exclusive and, more importantly, they would not participate in the public religious festivals. Local communities resented Christians and feared the consequences of insulting the city gods and, not surprisingly, most persecutions came from broader communities than from official actions.
(Letters below – I separated sentences for easier reading.)
To the Emperor Trajan
It is my invariable rule, Sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance?
Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them.
Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt.
In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished: for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction.
There were others also brought before me possessed with the same infatuation, but being Roman citizens, I directed them to be sent to Rome. But this crime spreading (as is usually the case) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred.
An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so.
They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them.
Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error.
They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ.
They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.
From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate’ in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.
I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you.
For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, which have already extended, and are still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes.
In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress.
The temples, at least, which were once almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred rites, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for the victims, which till lately found very few purchasers.
From all this it is easy to conjecture what numbers might be reclaimed if a general pardon were granted to those who shall repent of their error.
Trajan to Pliny
You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you.
It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them.
If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous informations ought not to he received in any sort of prosecution.
It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.No comments
Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clements, wrote some wonderful American literature. After watching a documentary I decided to check out some of those challenging Christian quotes from Mark Twain (http://twainquotes.com/Christianity.html):
One of the most astonishing things that have yet fallen under our observation is the exceedingly small portion of the earth from which sprang the now flourishing plant of Christianity. The longest journey our Saviour ever performed was from here to Jerusalem – about one hundred to one hundred and twenty miles. The next longest was from here to Sidon – say about sixty or seventy miles. Instead of being wide apart – as American appreciation of distances would naturally suggest – the places made most particularly celebrated by the presence of Christ are nearly all right here in full view, and within cannon-shot of Capernaum. Leaving out two or three three short journeys of the Saviour, he spent his life, preached his gospel, and performed his miracles within a compass no larger than an ordinary county in the United States. It is as much as I can do to comprehend this stupefying fact.
– The Innocents Abroad
Collier’s Weekly Magazine for
November 3, 1900
from the Dave Thomson collection
For England must not fall: it would mean an inundation of Russian & German political degradations which would envelop the globe & steep it in a sort of Middle-Age night & slaverly which would last till Christ comes again–which I hope he will not do; he made trouble enough before.
- Letter to W. D. Howells, January 25, 1900
I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored, from pirate raids in Kiaochow, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philipines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and towel, but hide the looking glass.
– “A Salutation from the 19th to the 20th Century,” December 31, 1900
There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him–early.
– Notebook, 1898
The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetics in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve.
– Mark Twain, a Biography
This is a Christian country. Why, so is hell. Inasmuch as “Strait is the way and narrow is the gate, and few-few-are they that enter in thereat” has had the natural effect of making hell the only really prominent Christian community in any of the worlds; but we don’t brag of this and certainly it is not proper to brag and boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that certainly five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate.
– Mark Twain in Eruption
I found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble.
– Mark Twain in Eruption
If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be–a Christian.
– Mark Twain’s Notebook
Christianity will doubtless still survive in the earth ten centuries hence–stuffed and in a museum.
– Notebook, 1898
You can never find a Christian who has acquired this valuable knowledge, this saving knowledge, by any process but the everlasting and all-sufficient “people say.” In all my seventy-two years and a half I have never come across such another ass as this human race is.
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography
The so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive…but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition. The Greeks surpassed us in artistic culture and in architecture five hundred years before Christian religion was born.
– Mark Twain, a Biography
One of the most astonishing things that have yet fallen under our observation is the exceedingly small portion of the earth from which sprang the now flourishing plant of Christianity. The longest journey our Saviour ever performed was from here to Jerusalem – about one hundred to one hundred and twenty miles. The next longest was from here to Sidon – say about sixty or seventy miles. Instead of being wide apart – as American appreciation of distances would naturally suggest – the places made most particularly celebrated by the presence of Christ are nearly all right here in full view, and within cannon-shot of Capernaum. Leaving out two or three three short journeys of the Saviour, he spent his life, preached his gospel, and performed his miracles within a compass no larger than an ordinary county in the United States. It is as much as I can do to comprehend this stupefying fact. – The Innocents Abroad
Collier’s Weekly Magazine for November 3, 1900 from the Dave Thomson collection
For England must not fall: it would mean an inundation of Russian & German political degradations which would envelop the globe & steep it in a sort of Middle-Age night & slaverly which would last till Christ comes again–which I hope he will not do; he made trouble enough before.- Letter to W. D. Howells, January 25, 1900
I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored, from pirate raids in Kiaochow, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philipines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and towel, but hide the looking glass.- “A Salutation from the 19th to the 20th Century,” December 31, 1900
There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him–early.- Notebook, 1898
The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetics in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve.- Mark Twain, a Biography
This is a Christian country. Why, so is hell. Inasmuch as “Strait is the way and narrow is the gate, and few-few-are they that enter in thereat” has had the natural effect of making hell the only really prominent Christian community in any of the worlds; but we don’t brag of this and certainly it is not proper to brag and boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that certainly five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate.- Mark Twain in Eruption
I found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble.- Mark Twain in Eruption
If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be–a Christian.- Mark Twain’s Notebook
Christianity will doubtless still survive in the earth ten centuries hence–stuffed and in a museum.- Notebook, 1898
You can never find a Christian who has acquired this valuable knowledge, this saving knowledge, by any process but the everlasting and all-sufficient “people say.” In all my seventy-two years and a half I have never come across such another ass as this human race is.- Mark Twain’s Autobiography
The so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive…but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition. The Greeks surpassed us in artistic culture and in architecture five hundred years before Christian religion was born.- Mark Twain, a Biography
Alex McCullieNo comments
Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion and death?
Yes, then you hold a belief that is contrary to our scientific understanding of the world and our view of physical death. You believe, presumably, that God can override at will any natural events. This again is contrary to everything that science represents. You seem to hold a very anti-scientific attitude about our world.
No, then you deny the actuality of Jesus’ resurrection. Did he really die or was he really executed at all? If you believe either of these, how did he die for our sins? Or, did the early Christian simply create the resurrection story, not in Mark by the way, to explain his early death? Where do you take Christian beliefs from here?
Alex McCullieNo comments
Who was Jesus according to Mark?
The New Testament gospels are our only real source of information about the activities and sayings of Jesus and each gospel presents a different persona, especially between the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and that of John. And when you include the non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, you are presented with many different and often irreconcilable versions of Jesus.
I decided to look at Mark’s gospel. Beware I’m an ordinary reader and not a theologian nor a New Testament scholar. Historians mostly agree that Mark’s gospel is the earliest canonical gospel and both Matthew and Luke use it for their writings. Mark’s gospel was written around 70CE, some 40 years after Jesus’ death, and it draws from stories told within Christian communities. As an aside, most scholars agree that the New Testament books were written in Greek and the Old Testament books were written in Hebrew. Jesus and disciples probably spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language similar to Hebrew.
We know little of Jesus from non-Christian sources. Jesus was born in Judea or Galilee around in 4 BCE and was executed by the Romans between 29 and 32CE for insurrection. He founded a small Jewish religious sect that continued after his death and expanded to become the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine. Our knowledge of Jesus’ activities and teachings come from the canonical and non-canonical gospels but cannot be verified by external sources. Even though you’d think that their efficacy should be treated as religious faith alone, scholars are able to apply secular techniques to establish likelihoods of their accuracy. As one example, the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal New Testament scholars, attempts to identify the actual sayings of Jesus. The Seminar estimates that 20% or less of Jesus’ sayings can be actually attributed to him. Other examples of fine secular research are the extensive and impressive writings of Professor Bart Ehrman.
Let’s be clear about the purpose of a gospel. It was not a biography in any modern sense but proclamations about the ‘good news’ of Jesus for Christian communities and potential converts. Some took a predominately narrative form like Mark and others were simply sayings like Thomas. So the intended readers or listeners were Christian and already believed in Jesus as the son of God. Mark sprinkled his gospel with explicit references to Jesus’ divine nature for the faithful. I’ll simply look at how Jesus was presented to his contemporaries and perhaps understand his mission.
Firstly here’s some background about Mark and his gospel.
Traditionally Mark’s gospel has been attributed to John Mark, a companion and personal secretary to Peter. This attribution made 60 years after writing is probably more about credibility within early Christian communities than any real historical accuracy. All we can guess is that the author was a well-educated Greek-speaking Christian: very few people in the first century could read or write let alone write a full book. It is also worth noting at this point that Jesus and his disciples came from the lowest parts of Jewish society and therefore were most probably uneducated and illiterate. For simplicity, though, I’ll refer to Mark as the author of this gospel.
Mark’s gospel is a rapid-fire narrative covering the last year of Jesus’ life – (1) Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist; (2) his gathering of disciples; (3) listing miracles he performed and parables he delivered; (4)disagreements with local religious leaders; (5) entry into Jerusalem and rampaging of the Temple; (6) the last supper at the Passover and his arrest; (7) his trial and execution; and (8) the empty tomb after execution. Curiously there is no mention of Jesus’ virgin birth. This does not seem to be oversight as his family later saw Jesus as mad (3:21). It’s hard to explain that if his mother already knew of Jesus’ divine nature at birth. Another amazing omission is his appearance to disciples after resurrection, which is arguably the core part of the Christian faith. Most historians agree that the reappearance stories in Mark (16:9-20) were added by later copyists and editors of the gospel. Finally, after my first reading I couldn’t help wonder what was Jesus doing for his previous 29 years prior to this final year of ministry. Again the gospel is not a biography and so this history wasn’t theologically important to Mark. Again, it’s important to remember that a gospel is primarily a theological document more than a historical one.
Now let’s look at Mark’s Jesus. He was an itinerant rural Jewish healer who preached an apocalyptic message of the imminent overthrow of Caesar’s rule by that of God. A future “son of man” would replace Roman world of power, privilege and corruption with a loving kingdom of God. Jesus expected this to happen within the lifetimes of his disciples (9:1). He taught this message to his closest disciples as secret knowledge but ultimately the knowledge that would lead to his execution for sedition. Is this the true secret that Judas Iscariot betrayed to the authorities as suggested by some historians? Throughout most of the gospel, Jesus’ preachings were neither truly understood by his closest followers nor accepted by most Jews including family and friends and local religious leaders. Jesus’ demand for secrecy on one hand and his preaching in confusing parables exasperated the situation. Ironically he would then express frustration and disappointment with his disciples for their lack of understanding.
Despite some local crowds in rural areas Jesus went relatively unnoticed by Jewish authorities until he entered Jerusalem during the Passover festival – a politically very difficult time for the Roman occupiers. The Passover symbolised a previous time when the Jews were freed from foreign oppressors. His predictions of ending the Roman rule and co-operative Jewish elite with his disturbances at the Temple inexorably lead to his arrest by the local Jewish leaders and his subsequent execution by the Roman authorities. This was a typical way of handling a perceived public threat.
As a messiah Jesus appeared vastly different to most Jewish expectations. Jesus fell short of their King David-like hero who would rid the Jews of the Roman oppressors by military force. And, frankly, he doesn’t fit the modern day hero concept either. Only years of Christian teaching encourage us to define a saviour or messiah as one who suffers and not one who is strong and powerful enough to oust oppressors. We are unable to see this dissonance.
Even after Jesus’ death, Christians worked hard to avoid the linking of his death with the Old Testament curse of the hanging man (Deuteronomy 21:20-23). Ultimately I couldn’t decide how Jesus saw himself. Was he the “son of man” and heralding the kingdom of God or was he awaiting the “son of man”? And did he see himself as the unique son of God? Many historians do believe that Jesus believed he was or would be “king of Jews” even though that expression wasn’t later used by Christians.
Overall Mark makes the “suffering and misunderstood messiah” the major motif of the gospel. I felt that Jesus’ position is largely self-imposed. However it is easy to relate to Jesus. He appears more human than divine by displaying many of our qualities and weaknesses – compassion to help the inflicted; acceptance of the shunned; annoyance and anger with confused supporters and enemies; fears of his pending death; and finally doubts with God at Jesus’ death with his famous cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34 from Old Testament Psalm 22:1)
A famous turning point in the gospel when Jesus had to prompt their understanding:
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) – at last thought Jesus.
Even then they didn’t understand the purpose of Jesus’ intended suicide to save humanity. At times the gospel is like a comedy sketch where the audience knows the purpose of the protagonist but the stupid characters do not. We feel like shouting out. I guess that makes for good story-telling and was part of the Mark’s motivational techniques for the faithful.
Finally here are some observations.
Mark seems preoccupied with human weakness, suffering, ignorance and fickleness. He shows this through the very human Jesus, the afflicted, the disciples, local religious leaders and even Jesus’ own family and friends. Humanity, without Christ and forgiveness, is full of anger, fear, distrust, stupidity and fickleness. Only at the end of the gospel does Mark offer hope through the “rising” of Jesus as announced by the unknown young man in the empty tomb (16:6).
I find Mark’s Jesus a very confusing character. His healings and teachings seem erratic as he and his disciples wander rural Galilee almost deliberately avoiding the cities and crowds. Despite separate instruction his disciples were for the most part unable to understand Jesus. Family, friend and former acquaintances rejected his teachings. Even Jesus doubted his own mission. Today we would see him as well-meaning and very disturbed person who needs help not punishment. Perhaps that is Jesus’ legacy to humanity – prefer to help and support others in distress and not to punish them.
Alex McCullieNo comments
9 I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:9-15, New Testament NIV translation)
Is this the inerrant Word of God?
These quotations present problems for Christians. If they view the Bible as strictly God’s Word and therefore inerrant, how do they can they possibly reject authority of this passage from 1 Timothy of the New Testament. Hopefully most believers do using modern sensibilities about how to treat women. But doing so negates the belief that all the books of the Christian bible are strictly the Word of God. Implicitly they are acknowledging that the Bible books have been written and edited over 1000+ years by people who have the usual range of human weaknesses. It comes down to personal choice which parts believers accept or reject. It sounds like the dreaded “relativism” that religious leaders so commonly rail against.
On the other hand if believers accept this quotation as truth, heaven help women.
As a further note many use this passage to proclaim Paul as a misogynist even though his other writings support women having active roles in the early Christian church. Today many biblical scholars believe that 1 Timothy and the anti-female text of 1 Corinthians were not from Paul but fraudently added or assigned at some later period (St. Paul and Women: A Mixed Record).No comments
Today’s mainstream churches worry about the declining numbers of “bums on seats” especially amongst the young, the so-called Generation Y. Some commentators write off the support by Gen Y as a sign of their superficiality and self-interest. This may be so. Perhaps the churches should also look at the relevance of their theology and teachings for some sort of credibility gap with people in today’s secular age.
Traditional believers are asking modern, or post-modern, young people to believe that there is a physically undetectable supernatural world – a superior world – where a reasonably well-defined God with infinite knowledge and power is taking a personal interest in our individual welfare in ways we can’t understand. By the way our lack of understanding is commonly stated as a human short-coming. To connect to this God we need to accept the literal truth of the Bible, two compilations of books written, edited, translated and published over the last 2 500 years by many people with diverse interests, histories and motives. The justification for acceptance is that these writings are the true Word of God and that God directly worked through those many writers, editors and publishers.
It is reasonable to assume that many people are seeking a spirituality in their lives beyond their everyday existence. Even though many like me find that special quality in the natural world, others want the greater meaning from something beyond the physical. However most of these same people see traditional Christian claims and beliefs as coming from a series of naive and unbelievable fairy stories from a primitive past still being perpetuated today.
This is nothing new. Many Christian scholars are arguing for an overhaul of Christian beliefs (see references below), in particular, shifting away from a literalistic interpretations to treating the Bible as powerful metaphors relevant to the human condition. This puts the big-ticket items of Christianity under the spotlight:
- Was Jesus really the son of God as well as part of the Trinity?
- Was he born of a virgin birth?
- Did Jesus die and was resurrected to (re)join God and, thereby, save us from our original inherited sin?
- In fact, did Jesus exist at all as one person or was his Bible persona some sort of idealised compilation of preachers?
- Therefore, is the Bible really a mixed collection of historical stories with powerful metaphorical messages written by a diverse range of people rather than the inerrant Word of God?
- If these are wrong or, at least, doubtful, then what does it mean to be a Christian?
- Are there other ways to achieve salvation than through one specific set of religious beliefs?
Asking these questions even in recent times would have been considered heresy. But they are being asked now in progressive religious academic circles. However despite these discussions and questioning amongst theological scholars it is hard to imagine substantial changes at the pews even in a very secular Australia. Many traditional Christians would be unacceptably threatened by these thoughts. Most could not entertain the blasphemous idea that Jesus is not truly the son of God but was only a gifted preacher.
Still these changes seem necessary if Christianity is to be relevant in the 21st Century to younger and future generations.
A quick search for ‘Christianity’ returns a vast number of evangelist US based web-sites that promote a fully traditional, literalistic view of the Bible. However here are some alternate search names to check:
- Jesus Seminar – a progressive academic research body seeking the historical Jesus
- Val Webb – author of Like Catching Water in a Net, which covers much of the progressive Christianity mentioned here
- Marcus Borg – prolific author and theological scholar with many popular publications
- John Dominic Crossan – historian of Jesus
- A previous posting with progressive Christian links
It’s easy for atheists to brand all Christians as anti-scientific, irrational, deluded and bible-literalistic. Like all stereotypes this is dangerously simplistic. Here are some links to progressive Christians and their sites who often take a more open-minded and pluralist approach to their faith and beliefs. We may not agree about there being a non-physical divine presence, but it’s valuable to see what they have to say.
Progressive Christian Network of Victoria (Australia)
Centre for Progressive Religious Thought (Australia)
Center for Progressive Christianity (About us)
BeliefNet (a mixture of religious opinions)
Religious Tolerance (a mixture of religious and non-religious beliefs)1 comment