Thursday, 2 August 2007

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 7: The Foundations of Belief 1 – A Basilica Built On Sand?

Entering a dialogue with any literature can offer a counterpoint, and a valuable opportunity to gauge our experiences from an alternative perspective. ‘Liberal’ Christians go somewhat further when they adapt or apply ‘authoritative literature’ – religious literature – to make it a servant of their current situation. South America’s ‘Liberation Theology’ seems to have made this work; it has acted to meet the here-and-now needs of victims of inequality, and it has made a big enough impact to antagonise the Papacy. That’s not too hard to swallow, but I can’t stomach Christians (or individuals of any religion) who elevate their text – or their Church – above their context. They attempt to bend and twist what “is” to somehow make it fit what they read, notably when they pass by what individuals do want (perhaps sex outside marriage, or even a same sex partner) and try to make them conform to what the Bible says they should want (the kind of male dominated marriage described in Ephesians 5). This is ever so unfortunate when it is clear, in so many ways, that the Bible is not even a good book.

Straddling the two worlds of academic theology and Evangelical Christianity abruptly opened my eyes, and showed me that many weighty persons who lay claim to familiarity with God frequently know little about the Bible: they call it Truth, but they don’t look into how, when, and for whom its component parts were written; they don’t ask questions – at least not without presupposing satisfactory answers – about the process by which Scripture was copied, altered, and eventually thrust together. Many six-day creationists aren’t aware that Genesis was compiled (from four sources) as late as the time of Solomon, and then without a thought or inking for “histo-scientific accuracy”; the plan was to write something stirring to rejuvenate faith in God’s Sovereignty, at a time when Israel was under threat. And still I’m acquainted with Christians – Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and others – who stubbornly maintain that the Genesis is to be taken literally; they cannot admit that the Bible contradicts itself throughout, even when I take it upon myself to point out the numerous examples.

Logically – a priori – God cannot have made Man last (Genesis 1) and created him first (Genesis 2): an obvious discrepancy, factual in character, which casts doubt on the Bible’s internal consistency and historical veracity. When events are located in history – in a time and place – inconsistencies are often most apparent, and difficult to evade without saying “black is white”; it just so happens that this is the case with the nativity stories and resurrection “accounts”. Was Jesus born before Herod died in 4BC (Matthew), or was he born after Cyrenius became governor (Luke), which would be 6AD? When “the women” (and the gospels aren’t clear on which women) are meant to have been surprised and alarmed by Jesus’ empty tomb they may’ve seen one “young man” (Mark), an angel (Matthew), two men (Luke), or two angels (John). Bewildered?

Another thing – bear with me, it’s important – in its original form the earliest gospel, Mark, doesn’t have a post-resurrection appearance or ascension. The later gospels engender confusion instead of making up for this unhelpful omission: are we expected to believe that Jesus, after coming back to life, met his disciples for the first time in “a room” in Jerusalem (Luke, John), or that he materialised before them on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew)? (Hard to verify either way, given that mountaintops and fated rooms both tend to be very private…) The point is, if there is sufficient doubt concerning fundamentals such as Christ’s birth, death, and fantastic (or incredible) conquest of death, even the most watered-down, soggy ‘Christianity’ is surely unfounded and untenable. Similarly, what about our deaths, and the terribly important question of our wondrous rebirths in the hereafter? It appears that earning redemption through good works is definitely out (Romans 4). Rather, Salvation is somehow both a blossom produced by free will, when we choose faith, and also a gift of grace, entirely predestined so that we absolutely nothing to do with it (Ephesians 1)? After two thousand years of vainly wresting with these irreconcilables, God alone knows what’s going on.

Another variety of contradiction makes things awkward for Christians when it comes to using the Bible as a guide to living: should slaves obey their masters “just as (they) would obey Christ” (Leviticus 25; Colossians 3; Ephesians 6), or break every yoke so that Christ is their sole Master (Isaiah 53; Matthew 28)? Interpreting “Thou shalt not kill” is awfully tricky since the Old Testament example really seems to be saying, “it’s okay to massacre certain groups” (Canaanites, Golden Calf Worshipers, or – heck – how about any group that has a whiff of ‘heresy’ surrounding it according to the trends of the day)? Another quandary: did Jesus bring new wine (Matthew 9), or did he really mean it when he said he didn’t want to remove so much as a pen stroke from the Law (Matthew 5)? Mind you, going wholeheartedly for the latter isn’t really an option, since we’d all be off stoning disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21) and butchering individuals who are adulterous or gay (Leviticus 20; Romans 1) – we just don’t do that sort of thing where I come from.

Here Christians necessarily face two unsatisfactory options: should they defend the Bible without a leg to stand on, or embrace its flaws and abandon the platform upon which their faith rests. There is no third way; no route for Christians between this bull’s two sharp horns .