Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man

As usual, fools rush in, etc., etc. Which means: I'll bite:

Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it “moral” to teach people to abandon their families, give up on thrift and husbandry and take to the stony roads? How is it moral to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs? Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a ­fanatic.
Hitchens is right, actually. It's a question seminary students struggle with. And the answer is: it depends on who Jesus was talking to.

Seriously; that's not a cop-out. There is a general presumption that whatever Jesus said, it was for general application and was meant to be applied to all persons in all circumstances. But it is an incorrect presumption; and here arises the first great distinction of Christian doctrine, based on precisely how one understands soteriology (which may or may not be the Euler's Identity of Christianity, although many seem to think so; but I am not among those "many", as we shall see).

First, credit where it is due, Hitchens' analysis of Pullman's position on Christianity is a fairly insightful one:

The difficulty that Pullman never quite confronts is that this involves what is vulgarly known as fundamentalism: an unmediated contact with the original message. Atheist though he is, Pullman turns out to be a Protestant atheist.
Although I'm not sure how a Protestant atheist differs from a Roman Catholic one, Hitchens does do something here I think he never intended: he locks Christians and atheists together in a way that makes them the twin sons of one mother Pullman posits in his novel. It's probably a more unintentionally revealing sentence than Hitchens has scribed in a long time. As a self-described atheist he is Lazarus from the original Star Trek, doomed to be locked in battle with his "evil twin" for eternity. Or at least until he gives up caring about Christianity.

What I find funny about books like Pullman's are the matters atheists find so important; things like this: "His method [writes Hitchens] is to show Jesus more or less as we “know” him, giving moral lessons to ever larger crowds." On the other hand, "Christ [the "evil" twin] goes on to witness and write up a non-miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand (everyone simply shares the extra food they have brought) and to suborn a disciple of Jesus to give him secondhand accounts of events at which he cannot himself be present." Does it never occur to atheists to question the "ever larger crowds," especially a gathering of 5000 people to hear a man speak in first century Palestine? What, did Jesus commandeer an amphitheater, or steal a megaphone from somebody, or point a stick at his throat and mutter "Sonorous!" like the wizards in Harry Potter? Atheists do this all the time: strain at gnats and swallow camels. The same gospels that describe miracles like the loaves and fishes, also describe crowds larger than most of the villages Jesus walked through; yet one is impossible, the other quite acceptable. It's funny, really. Seminary students learn to accept this for what it is: first century propaganda. Atheists, meanwhile, skeptics to a man as they claim, swallow it whole. Huh.

Take the Sermon on the Mount, which Hitchens mentions here. Matthew has it on a mountain, a la Moses. Luke has it on flat ground (scholars call it the "sermon on the plain") and clearly says Jesus "looks up" and addresses his disciples, a/k/a, "the Twelve." How anybody else hears what Jesus says is a mystery. (Mark and John don't have it at all, but that's another matter.) That's the problem with seeking an "unmediated contact with the original message." We really don't have one. The one we do have is so mediated, we can't separate the dancer from the dance. And if we did, would we really have anything?

Which makes the conclusion of Hitchen's review downright funny:

I said earlier that Pullman was a Protestant atheist. Even so, he may well have been annoyed at the welcome given to his book by the clerical establishment in the person of the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, who has described the “Jesus” character as “a voice of genuine spiritual authority” and the book itself as “mostly Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical.” Pullman himself, echoing the common modern question of “W.W.J.D.?” — a question that in most modern contexts comes with no answer at all — claims that “my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said.” We in the infidel community do not pronounce anathemas or proclaim excommunications, or make the easy distinction between religious faith and “organized religion,” but this latest attempt to secularize Messianism is a disappointment to those of us who can never forgive the emperor Constantine, not just for making Christianity a state dogma, but for making humanity hostage to the boring village quarrels and Bronze Age fables that were drawn from what remains the world’s most benighted region.
The whole bit about "humanity" being "held hostage" is laughably ethno-centric, not to mention historically dull-witted; but no matter. It's Pullman's assertion I find the funniest: “my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said.” Really? On what basis is that claim made? You studied a translation, maybe a parallel gospels edition? You really want to dance with Biblical scholars who may not be all that religious themselves, but who know these texts and their transmission, historical context, translation (Jesus spoke Aramaic; the gospel are all written in koine Greek), etc., to a level of detail that would make many an expert in other fields wonder if they knew enough about their subject? You did a more thorough job than the Jesus Seminar? Somehow, I doubt it.*

As for Hitchens, I love people who think they know more than "organized religion," as if modern bureaucracy were merely another version of "the Church," and all organized forces were the true source of evil in the world. I'm not terribly impressed when people act in groups either; war, after all, is a group effort, and churches can engage in truly un-Christian acts. But then I consider the lone serial killers who slaughter without mercy, or the paranoid individuals who simply chase away census takers every 10 years at the point of a gun, and I think individuals acting alone aren't necessarily Nature's last word, either.

But let me not leave Hitchens' opening question dangling. "[H]ow is it “moral” to teach people to abandon their families, give up on thrift and husbandry and take to the stony roads? How is it moral to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs?" I'm not sure of the immorality of condemning a fig tree, or infesting pigs with demons, so I'll leave that aside as mere rhetorical flourish. As for claiming a monopoly on access to heaven, I reject the versions of Christianity which do, so I won't defend that as "moral," either. It is the first question, then, that is interesting, and it raises the pertinent question: who did Jesus call, and how did he call them?

That's not an idle question. Jesus did tell the man who wanted to follow him to "leave the dead to bury their dead," and that no man who put his hand to the plow and looked back was worthy of the kingdom of God. There are two points here: what is morality (is it merely Aristotle's "ethic," what the community accepts as good? And if so, Euripides wants to know where Medea's complaints fit in?)? The second is: who was Jesus talking to? You? Me? Hitchens?

Sometimes Jesus says easier things, you see. Like the woman caught in adultery, or the woman who washes his feet with her hair in Simon's house. In neither case does Jesus say "Sell all you have, and come, and follow me." He just says: "Go, and sin no more." That's a moral directive, of course, given in the context of Jewish/Hebraic (the historical context muddles things a bit) of the situation. But it's not the same directive in each case. Is this an inconsistent morality? Or a question of who is being addressed, and what they are being told to do?

Today we understand this distinction as the difference between ordained clergy, and the laity. One has a more serious burden of discipleship than the other, although theologians like Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer want to erase those distinctions a bit more than some others might. We certainly hold our clergy to higher standards; and we certainly don't imagine that all laypersons are to be the examples of discipleship that clergy should be. So is there really a moral inconsistency in the examples Hitchens cites? Not unless you take the Christian fundamentalist view of soteriology, there isn't.

Ironic, no?

*My New Testament professor in seminary is a member of the Jesus Seminar. He all but bragged about voting to reject as authentic almost every statement of Jesus found in the Gospels. There was a group, and they voted, and the majority ruled. I'm trying to imagine Pullman using a similar process in the privacy of his study, to evaluate what Jesus would have said. This is the problem, you see, with "organized religion." Especially when it isn't so organized along the principles you imagine it to be organized along.


  1. Pardon the levity involving such a well-thought out post, but I cannot help it ...

    How anybody else hears what Jesus says is a mystery.

    Blessed are the Cheese-makers?

  2. "Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."

  3. They simply have a hard time rejecting underlying assumptions and remaining consistent. Hard to get around the fact that atheism, too, is a belief. You deny that, or refuse to deal with it, you wind up making claims to knowledge and logic that are wholly unwarranted unless you give up all attempts at consistency, which vitiates the whole enterprise.

    I was reminded, perhaps unfavorably, of the bumper sticker: 'Jesus loves you, but everyone else thinks you're an asshole'...