Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Religion Kills"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is one of the so-called “New Atheists” who have written bestsellers in the last five years. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.”

I thought it might be neat to offer my reactions to Hitchens’ book as I read it, chapter by chapter. I am reading the book to better understand Hitchens and those who think like him, not so that I can fight with him (as if he cares I am writing about his book).

Chapter two of God is not Great is titled, “Religion Kills.” (Chapter one is an introduction.) Hitchens notes that most religions speak of a benevolent deity who created us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. He protects us in this life and offers us eternal bliss in the next. “Why,” asks Hitchens, “does such a belief not make its adherents happy.” He offers his own psycho-analysis:

The level of intensity fluctuates according to time and place, but it can be stated as a truth that religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents to other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one.
He then goes on to remind us of the atrocities committed in the name of religion—from violence between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, to the events of September 11, 2001. Hitchens concludes that “The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.”

In conclusion, Hitchens compares religion to racism. Even though it speaks of heavenly rewards, etc. it is really a tool that the powerful use to promote tribalism and secure more power for themselves and for their clan.

Hitchens is right.

Powerful people use religion as a tool to promote tribalism and secure more power for themselves and their clan.

But does that make religion itself bad? (Perhaps this conversation is not unlike the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” discussion.) Shouldn’t we say instead that religion is one thing among many that bad people use to manipulate others to do what they want? (As C.S. Lewis remarked, “Of all bad people, religious bad people are the worst.”) Could we add nationalism to this list? How many wars or acts of violence can be sourced to one person’s pride in their own nationality? Does that mean we should eliminate nations, because national distinctions promote nationalism, which has been shown to lead to violence? What about greed? How many wars have been started because one nation has encroached on what another nation supposes to be its rightful property? Does that mean we abolish private property? What about love? How many people are killed every year in lovers’ quarrels? Should we abolish love, since it drives people to violence?

Hitchens asserts that religious people “may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one.” Really? All religious people? Kip Dynamite would respond to Hitchens, “Like anyone could know that.”

Ultimately, I think we have to say that people kill for whatever they are passionate about—and people are certainly passionate about religion. But if we want to eliminate everything that people use to justify violence, we will have to eliminate everything that makes us individuals or that gives us passion for living.

I’m not interested in a world like that.

I will never deny or justify terrible acts of violence done in the name of religion—even in the name of Christianity. In some cases, violence is inherent to a religious system. In the case of Christianity, it is not. While Hitchens could spend 20 pages recounting acts of violence done in the name of religion that he has personally witnessed, I am sure he could spill just as much ink recounting acts of love done in the name of religion. You can’t point out one side of it without mentioning the other.

The final irony of chapter two is that accusing religious people of tribalism is in itself tribalism. We could summarize chapter two, “Religious people are crazy and prone to violence." Implicit in this judment is a call for them to be eliminated or at least marginalized. Otherwise, why write the book? Is it too far-fetched to imagine that such rhetoric could provoke violence?

Mad Men

I am appalled at my grandparents' generation . . . and yet I cannot look away. The smoking, the drinking, the sexism, the kids without seatbelts--it's all wrong. This is definitely the best show on TV (or on DVD--the way I have to watch it).

My favorite line so far has been when Don went to the underground poetry reading with his girlfriend, and he had the following exchange with a beatnik poet:

Beatnik: So, you're one of the Madison Avenue advertisers that's responsible for creating this culture of consumption. How do you sleep at night?

Don: On a bed made of money.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

John P. Meier on the Holiness of God in the OT

In explaining the purity laws of the OT, and why things like touching a corpse or menstruating made one ritually unclean, John P. Meier writes:
To breach this God-ordained separation between flesh in an unclean state and the holiness of God would be as dangerous to the ancient mind as mixing unstable, explosive chemicals or removing shields from around a nuclear reactor would be to a modern mind. The chemicals and the nuclear reactor are in themselves good, even useful, when properly handled--just like the processes of birth, sex, and death. But a lack of proper separation, a failure to cordon off things meant to be kept separate, could have disastrous results. It was precisely to protect his people and prevent such disasters, and not because natural biological processes are evil, that the God of Israel commanded that his realm of the holy, especially the temple, be kept separate from the realm of human birth, sexual activity, and death. (A Marginal Jew, 4:345.)
In other words, God isn't born, He doesn't reproduce, and He doesn't die. Those are fleshly things. He is a holy thing. The two need to be kept separate.

In addition to ritual impurity, Meier also sees categories for moral impurity, genealogical impurity, and impurity as a result of eating the wrong food.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Michael Kruse on Christian Economics

Michael Kruse is a guest blogger on Jesus Creed discussing Christian economics. It's fascinating stuff.

His first article was on the concept of scarcity--the basis of economic theory. Economic scarcity is the idea that there are not enough resources in the world for everyone to have everything they want. (Note that this is different than what most people mean by the term "scarcity," i.e., "rarity." Economic scarcity does not mean that there are not enough resources for everyone to survive, but not enough for everyone to have as much as they want.) The discussion revolves around whether ecnomic scarcity contradicts Christian belief in God's provision, so that theology and economics are against each other from the start.

The second article is on the distinction between "positive economics" and "normative economics." Positive economics deals with the system as it is. Normative economics deals with the system as it should be. Kruse says that too often theologians enter the discussion wanting only to discuss normative economics, so that they are written off by economists as impractical idealists.

I will definitely be following this series.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Parables

Two more of my parables have been uploaded to the church's website. You can listen here. My latest additions are the Parable of the Sower and the Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven.

In related news, I think I might try to turn the parables (and the one that I am doing on October 4th) into a book. This was not my original plan, but I have been encouraged by many people to do it.

One change that I will have to make is adding longer explanations. In the sermons I only spent about five minutes explaining the parables, but in the book I would expand these sections to be as long as the parables themselves. I think I will divide the book up into an introduction, conclusion and five sections. Each section would be on a topic and would consist of two chapters--a parable and an explanation. Here are the titles of the sections, all related to the kingdom of God:

I. Good News (The Parable of Great Banquet)
II. Awaiting Redemption (October 4th Parable)
III. Transformation (The Parable of the Good Samaritan)
IV. Faith (The Parable of the Sower)
V. Grace (The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed would go in the introduction.

John Meier on Jesus and the Law

All too often in the past, Christian questers for the historical Jesus have created an opposition between the 'ritual,' 'cultic,' or 'legal' elements in the Law on the one hand and the 'moral' or 'ethical' elements on the other. One can see the problem immediately. This sort of distinction usually carries with it implicit value judgments that owe more to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century and American individualism of the 21st century than to Jewish views on the Law in 1st-century Palestine. To many modern minds, as they evaluate matters religious and spiritual, what is external, ritual, ceremonial, public, legal, or institutional is of little importance, is easily dispensed with, or is downright dangerous and to be avoided. In contrast, what is internal, private, personal, spontaneous, emotional, or unstructured belongs to true religion or spirituality, and it is in this sphere that true morality is to be found.

...For the ancient Near East, human beings were not Platonic souls entombed for a while in bodies; human beings were bodies enlivened by a vital force having a mind, will, and emotions. A religion that remained locked up in the inner recesses of the psyche, a religion that had no bodily expression in visible and communal actions, was quite literally non-sense.

...To sum up: an implicitly hostile opposition between 'cultic,' 'ritual,' or 'purely legal' elements of the Mosaic Law on the one hand and the 'truly moral' or 'ethical' elements on the other would have been alien to the mind-set of ordinary Palestinian Jews of Jesus' day. For such a Jew, what was 'moral' (if we may use that term) was to do God's will and to walk in his ways as laid out in the Torah God had given to Israel. (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 4:43–45.)

Put that in your theological pipe and smoke it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Marginal Jew and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

For the past few months I have been plowing through John P. Meier’s monumental A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Originally slated to be four volumes, Meier has written four books totaling 3040 pages and still has to cover the parables, Jesus’ self-designation, and his arrest and crucifixion. But, his work will no-doubt survive as the authoritative work on the historical Jesus.

The purpose of Meier’s project is to find out what a hypothetical “unpapal conclave” consisting of a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, and an agnostic would say about Jesus if they were locked in the library basement at Harvard University and were not allowed to come out until they had produced a document on which they could all agree. On what can everyone agree about Jesus, regardless of their faith?

Meier is careful to distinguish this “historical” Jesus from the “real” Jesus. Just as there was more to George Washington than what is available to us through the historical method, there was more to Jesus than what we can recover through historical investigation. Meier is a Roman Catholic priest and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, so he has beliefs about the real Jesus that go beyond what he can prove through historical investigation. He would call these beliefs “Christology,” a sub-discipline of theology, not history.

For example, the unpapal conclave would be able to affirm the line from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate and suffered death” because this statement is verifiable by historical inquiry. However, they could not affirm the full version of the statement, that Jesus “for us human beings and for our salvation . . . was crucified under Pontius Pilate for our sake, [and] suffered [death].” The above italicized phrases are theological claims not verifiable by the historian.

Is work like Meier’s valuable to the evangelical community?

First, there are some reasons why it is not.

  1. Meier’s method rejects the inerrancy of the Scriptures. You may wonder how Meier has managed to write 3040 pages on Jesus, when the Gospels only take up about 100 pages of most Bibles. In addition to interacting with relevant extra-biblical materials, Meier spends a lot of time discussing which biblical statements about Jesus are authentic, and which are inauthentic or unverifiable. For instance, Meier accepts that Jesus was a miracle-worker, but rejects the story of Jesus walking on water. He claims that this story was invented by the early church. Because evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, they cannot agree with this conclusion. So, given the evangelical presupposition that the Scriptures are inerrant, Meier’s project is doomed to fail before it begins.

  2. Meier presupposes a distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” He writes, “the quest for the historical Jesus is by definition a strictly historical endeavor. Of its nature, it prescinds or brackets Christian faith. This does not mean that it denies, rejects, or attacks such faith. The quest simply prescinds from Christian faith in the way that a world-class astronomer who happens to be a believing Christian would prescind from a theology of God the Creator when she is examining the outer reaches of the galaxy.”

    However noble Meier’s motives in making this distinction, it is methodologically problematic. What if the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are one and the same? Does presupposing their distinction compromise the investigation? In distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, are you adopting a worldview alien both to Jesus himself and to his followers? It may be outside of the realm of historical investigation to prove that Jesus is the second member of the Trinity, but the truth of that theological claim influences the way in which one approaches the historical Jesus.

Second, there are some reasons why Meier’s work is valuable to the evangelical community.

  1. Apologetics are only valuable when they are meaningful to those outside of the community. I had a professor in college who used to say, “I can prove everything I believe if you grant me two presuppositions, neither of which can be proven or disproven: (1) There is a God, and (2) The Bible is the Word of God.” Now, it’s great to be able to defend your beliefs, but who would you be defending them to with those presuppositions? Does anyone accept those two presuppositions without also accepting the claim that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”? If not, then you are limiting your dialogue partners to those who are inside the community of faith. If you limit yourself in that way, are you truly doing apologetics? No. In order for evangelicals to have a meaningful apologetic, we have to be able to defend our beliefs without presuppositions like “there is a God” or “the Bible is inerrant.”

  2. The Christ of faith is the Jesus of history. We are not Docetists. When we worship the second member of the Trinity, we are worshipping a Jew from Nazareth who walked the earth 2000 years ago. Belief in God only makes sense if that God intervenes in history. (Why would it matter if there were a God if He didn’t intervene in our reality?) We believe that God intervened in history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To reject the Jesus of history is to become a Gnostic or a Deist.

  3. Evangelicals’ belief in inerrancy should not continue uncritically. Note that I did not say that their belief in inerrancy shouldn’t continue, but that it shouldn’t continue uncritically. If you’re going to believe something that the rest of the world rejects, you should have a good reason for doing so—not just because it makes you more comfortable. If the Scriptures are inerrant, then we have nothing to fear from people who claim they’re not. If they’re not, then we need to be alerted so that we can wake up from our delusion.

Personally, I find Meier’s work to be fantastic. I love the skeptical approach. I have written here before that I find Wolfhart Pannenberg’s apologetic to be the most satisfying. The truth of any god’s existence is directly related the “truth” of the god’s religious claims. If a god claims to be able to raise the dead, and the dead are not raised, then that god is not the true god. In theological dialogue, the prophets of Baal call down fire, Elijah calls down fire, and whichever god brings the fire is the true god.

The God of the Bible claims to be able to raise the dead. He promises victory over sin and a kingdom of justice and peace. He claims that these things are coming about through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The extent to which we can prove that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead is the extent to which we can prove that God exists. Meier’s research on the historical Jesus is a huge leap in that direction (although he might cringe at my using it to that end, as he wrote in A Marginal Jew 4:6).