It’s been a while since I last posted here. Since I don’t imagine that I have any readership at all, but if you read my stuff, you might not have noticed that I took this site down for a few months. I was tired of getting nowhere so I took the site down. Well, I’m back.
So what happened? As Ben Shapiro recently pointed out single-factor analysis is stupid, so let me tell you what I’ve been reading and thinking about and then explain my latest realizations.
Ever since I started on this road of examining by beliefs, I’ve been bothered — nay, deeply disturbed — by the fact the locus of religious beliefs is squarely centered in the unseen.
More than simply just the unseeable to the human eye, such as in wind or bacteria, but the immaterial. The categorically non-existent.
I’ll give the pagans their due. Their gods were gods of nature and in nature. They had real physical bodies. Bodies of a godly sort, yes, but bodies none the less.
There is some really interesting research I read a while ago about the divine body of Yahweh. Some ancient Jewish thinkers believed that Yahweh had a divine body.
Whatever such Jews believed, the orthodox theology proper became that of an immaterial divinity, and that is the view that Christians and Muslims inherited from rabbinical Judaism.
And so unlike the pagans, the Abrahamic religions absolutely need the ability and the willingness to accept that the unseeable is more real than the seeable.
So when you seriously examine the claims of such an idea of God, you have a real ontological problem on your hand. How can you see the unseeable?
The answer for most believers is simply that they believe. Or not so simply, that they can’t imagine any way all of this could be an accident, ergo God.
So for me, I’ve come to the point where I see agnosticism in this matter as the only rational course of action. Whatever the actual nature of the cause of ultimate reality is, I can only perceive what I can perceive, and for the rest, I just say I don’t know.
Now if I apply this razor to the existence of God, then how can I not apply it to the Bible and to all claims of miracles in the past?
I don’t have a problem doing that, however, I’ve realized that knowing something in your head is not the same as coming to terms with it in your heart.
As I’ve said many times before, I still feel a fondness for Christ, even if I can no longer believe the orthodox interpretation of Christianity distilled through the millennia.
So for the past couple of months, I’ve really been thinking about how do I come to a healthy “adult” relationship with Christianity? Here are some ideas.
I started reading the much-lauded book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m not even a quarter of the way through, but what he writes about the cognitive revolution 70 thousand years ago deeply resonates.
Basically, anatomically modern humans have been here for around 250 thousand years. But the evidence we have shows that culture is a much more recent phenomenon.
And one of the crucial requirements for culture and the ability for humans to live in groups bigger than 150, is our ability to embrace fiction.
Small bands of humans can maintain social cohesion very well, particularly when most of them are your relatives. But when you get more than a couple of hundred humans living together, you need something to bind them together — you need a story.
Think about it. What does it mean to be an American? It’s definitely not genetic ethnicity. It’s that you buy into the story of America and do what good Americans do.
And the earliest stories were origin stories of a people group and the gods that created those people and what makes that people special.
These etiological myths were something that anyone who wanted to be a part of the group could buy into. They explained who the people were, what was moral, and gave them hope for the future.
There is so much more I could say about this process, but I’ll just say this. We know, we absolutely know, that humans created many gods, goddesses, fairies, nature spirits, ascended ancestors, and the like throughout history.
So we know that this is key to how humans have lived and how we could maintain social cohesion and unity.
So for me, to think that the story I grew up with from birth falls into the category of “really true, from God alone, and without any made-up bits” is just too much to believe.
It’s beyond clear to me that people have always innovated, and the next section shows it beautifully.
Heaven and Hell
I recently finished Heaven and Hell: A history of the afterlife by Bart D. Ehrman and I was blown away.
I’ve enjoyed Ehrman’s other work as well as his debates, but for me, this was on another level.
In the book he does what the tag line says, does a review of the history of beliefs in the afterlife. I can’t do it justice enough, so you should go read it.
But what I took away was that Heaven and Hell as taught today by orthodox Christians is entirely made up.
Okay, that’s too mean. What I mean is people have always been thinking about their current circumstances, and re-interpreting old beliefs to better speak to the present. And the doctrines of heaven and hell are the same.
It shocked me to find out how much modern church doctrine was shaped not by what Jesus actually said but by theologians in the 4th century.
It also drove home to mean why history matters and why you can’t just read a piece of literature without insight into that place and time.
But to get back to the main part of my article, the theme so far, is that it is part of human nature to imagine new things and then to believe that they are real.
And it’s not just heaven and hell. It’s everything.
And this fact has troubled me because deep down inside I really would like to hold on to my inner fundamentalist. Both in belief and in unbelief.
I’ve seen so many atheists who only engage religion in a fundamentalist way even though personally they are progressive in their thought.
But alas, after learning all of this I simply can’t be a fundamentalist nor do I feel like I can pick on fundamentalists who have such a narrow interpretation of what truth is.
Because religious truth is in the eye of the beholder.
In thinking about all of these things, I’ve been trying to find language to express how I feel about Christianity.
I mean, I’m not an atheist but I’m not a “true believer” either. Yet I still love the Bible and I still believe that there is a lot of beauty and value in religion, especially Christianity.
Then it came to me — I view the Bible as sacred art.
When you go to the Louvre and stare at the Mona Lisa, it doesn’t matter what a thousand art historians say about the piece, you have a personal experience with it and interpret what it means for yourself.
I’m sure there are some fundamentalist-type art critics who think their opinion is the gospel truth, but the beauty of art is that it is truth without the need for empirical facts.
In fact, fundamentalism is a reaction against the inroads that science made into the domain of religion. But what if religion, or at least one’s engagement with it, puts facts to the side and focuses on what humans have always needed: meaning and connection.
That is an approach to religion that I can live with. Because let’s face it, I’m never going to believe in a literal Adam and Eve because of evolution.
I’m never going to believe in a young earth because we have uranium-lead tests and moon rocks.
But I can be moved by the humility and the message of Jesus to love our neighbors and avoid seeking solely my own gain.
The domain of facts is science and the domain of meaning, beauty, virtue, community, and hope is religion.
My family and I just finished watching Season 1 of The Chosen. It’s a really great retelling of the story of Jesus, but because they’ve taken some artistic license with some of the dialogue, they’ve made a story we all know fresh and very compelling.
And I realized as I watched, this is why Jesus is attractive to people. There is such pathos to the story of God becoming Man to save you, and building a kingdom where the rules are reversed that speaks to the deepest parts of us that long for justice and for meaning.
But it isn’t just the story. It’s the continual reification of that story in church, books, seminars, and series like The Chosen.
Now if I am focused on the validity of the ontological claims Jesus makes or the historical evidence that supports the resurrection actually happened, I’m missing the point!
I mean, does not having any hard evidence for the resurrection make the Pieta any less moving? I think not.
And that is what people who don’t care so much about the facts are after — the experience of God by engaging with the story.
After all this, I don’t know if any fundamentalist Christian to still consider me a Christian. But like enjoying art, it’s got nothing to do with what other people think.
I feel like I want to walk the road with Christ some more, even if I don’t buy into the claims others have made about him, damn is he a compelling character.
And ultimately, it’s really all about the story you buy into.
And hey, if he partied with tax collectors and prostitutes, what’s one more skeptic for him?