Reform your faith

I was greatly honored to have received a wonderful text from progressive Christian Chuck Shingledecker. He encouraged me to reproduce it here which I did.

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Reform your faith
There is an important holiday celebrated on October 31st that has nothing to do with candy and carved pumpkins. It’s a commemoration of the day when a young Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It is Reformation Day.
Luther spent many years trying to follow all of the right disciplines of the church. He went to confession, prayed, fasted, served liturgy. But something inside of him was dissatisfied, tormented by what he held dear as the kingdom of God corrupted by the trappings of an oppressive secular power. Luther began to question what he’d been taught and all that he believed, first privately but then publicly by nailing a letter of 95 complaints about the church’s practices onto the doors of the Castle Church. Western Christianity has never been the same since.
Yet how many of us dare to do as Luther did? Sometimes we may talk about the need for reform in our church. But how many of us contemplate reforming our own faith? It turns out that a lot of us do.
Televangelists will tell us to look to Jesus for all our answers. To trust in God. To pray, fast, light candles, and do all of the feel-good things that give others, and ourselves, the illusion that we are changing on the inside. But that’s not real reform. At least not the sort that matters.
I’m talking about confronting our own faith in such a way that, perhaps for the first time in our lives, we dare to look at Christianity and all we hold dear and question it through the eyes of a skeptic. Let yourself be the troubled, hurting Christian who wants to believe but also to know the real truth. It’s what John Loftus calls the “outsider test for faith.”
That’s what Luther did on that late October day in 1517, at least when it came to the only faith he’d ever known. He certainly didn’t go as far as some of us in the modern world do. But it was a remarkable step, given his time, culture, and place. He questioned important aspects of the faith he loved and served.
I know how hard it must have been for him, because, though I’m certainly no Luther, I’ve done it, too. For many years I was tormented by my faith. I put on a good public display about it all, pretending to believe all of the right things and performing all of the right rituals. But my heart wasn’t always in it, must as it wanted to be. My mind wouldn’t allow it. I’d constantly ask myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here? Do I believe any of it?”
The only answer I could give was that I was supposed to be there, supposed to believe the right things. My faith was dead, or at least dying. Until I did what no one good Christian is supposed to do, embrace the doubts and ideas that only “backsliding” Christians accept. Everything became subject to question: the Bible, the doctrines and authority of the church, and even whether or not I truly believed in God.
Yes, those are all forbidden things to question for many Christians. But so were Luther’s questions in his time. And just like the Reformation of the church, my own spiritual reformation hasn’t always been an easy thing for me. It has led to turmoil, both internal and interpersonal. I’ve lost some friends. And my faith is not what it once was.
It’s a faith that some would call incomplete or thin, no faith at all. And you know what? Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes I have no faith. Sometimes I, like the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby who recently said, “There are moments, sure, when you think, ‘Is there a God?’‘Where is God?’” (bbc.com/news/uk-29255318), I’m unsure of whether or not God exists.
Sometimes I believe in God but not the Trinity. Sometimes I believe Jesus was simply a Jewish prophet whom Gentiles co-opted and made into a gentile savior. Other times I’m not sure what it is I believe. But that’s okay. Let me say that again. It’s okay.
I don’t say that to make myself feel better. I say that because I understand what torment it is to Charles Shingledecker – Reform Your Faith.
1 think it isn’t okay. And if you are tormented by your doubts about your faith, I want to say that you are not alone! There are tens of thousands—probably millions—in this country alone who feel just as you do. And if you’ve decided to slowly embrace those doubts, despite how scary it can be, then congratulations. You’ve nailed your own 95 theses to the door of your heart. It won’t always be an easy journey. But in the long run, it will be liberating, because you will no longer be afraid of doubt.

St. teresa of avila quote
A dear friend once told me to not fear my doubts. That was the first step on a long, continuing journey that I’m still on. Do not fear your doubts. Do not fear questioning authority, that of the church or even of God. We are not God’s slaves, but his children. And we are all in need of reform.
This is the lesson I take away from Reformation Day. Luther was far from perfect. At times,
especially later in life, he could be a bigoted and authoritarian asshat. But he did what few others in the history of the church ever would: He challenged its self-proclaimed authority, its long-standing practices, and he brought about reform. Not only of the church, but of his own faith. If he can do it, you can too.
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Chuck’s book Freedom to Doubt is available for the Amazon Kindle and in trade paperback. See FreedomToDoubt.com for excerpts and links. From October 30 to November 3, the Kindle version is being offered at a discounted price of just $0.99.

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I do hope this text will help some of my readers. Otherwise you might also appreciate my own advice for a struggling Christian.

 

 

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Right-wing Christian “rats”?

Progressive Christian writer and activist John Shore just wrote a post I found really worrisome.

Do I smell a right-wing Christian rat behind Ohio State’s psych quiz “controversy”?

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Yesterday I published Ohio State University teaches Christians are stupider than atheists. I came across the story on Google News, thought, “Here’s a bit of fluff I can have some quick fun with before I get back to writing my novel,”—and blip I wrote what I did.

The website that originally “broke” this story is Campus Reform. This morning, poking about the Campus Reform website, I found this on their Mission page:

As a watchdog to the nation’s higher education system, Campus Reform exposes bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses.

Our team of professional journalists works alongside student activists and student journalists to report on the conduct and misconduct of university administrators, faculty, and students.

Campus Reform holds itself to rigorous journalism standards and strives to present each story with accuracy, objectivity, and public accountability.

A few clicks later I learned that Campus Reform is owned and operated by the hyper-conservative The Leadership Institute. Here’s a bit about them:

The Leadership Institute identifies, organizes, and trains conservative college students to promote and defend their values on campus.

Institute programs prepare thousands of conservatives each year. Conservatives learn how to:

· Form independent conservative student groups
· Manage grassroots-oriented campaigns
· Publish independent conservative school newspapers
· Communicate a conservative message using the media

Gee, I wonder why the complaining OSU “anonymous student” knew nothing about the Psych 1100 class that had so offended him or her (see below)—and why exactly they were quoted as having said:

I understand that colleges have a liberal spin on things so it didn’t surprise me to see the question … . Colleges will tolerate pretty much any religion other than Christianity.

I smell a rat. A lowdown, lying, cheating, right-wing Christian rat trying to drum up a little cheese for itself.

Ugh.

It pains me to have at all contributed, however cursorily, to the lie that there was any credibility whatsoever to the original story. Me, helping to further the agenda of hardcore right-wing Christians!

So sad. So wrong. So … what can totally happen when you’re trying to keep two blogs going and write a (major) first novel.

After reading my post yesterday my good friend Dan Wilkinson got interested in what the story behind that story might be. Dan getting interested in something is like a coke-detecting police dog getting interested in a suitcase. It’s kinda scary. But awesome to watch.

Courtesy of Dan “Sniffy” Wilkinson, here is what’s really going on with OSU’s Psychology 1100 classs:

First we have the class syllabus. As you’ll see, it’s a totally normal, duly formidable college class.

One of the tools used in the class are the online LearningCurve quizzes. As you may recall, the particular Learning Curve question that has caused such a stir is this one:

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Here are a few other LearningCurve quiz questions (which taken altogether comprise only 10% of the grade for the class):

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smarts

liberal

Notably, all of the quiz question are pulled directly from Psychology, the textbook used in the class (which Dan managed to get hold of, and which is on Amazon here—for only $159.48!). Each includes exactly where in the book information informing that question can be found. So literally none of the quiz questions should be a surprise to any student in the class.

While the above questions might at face value seem inflammatorily ill-informed, within the context of the class they make perfect sense. And those are only four of the (it looks like) hundreds of questions derived from the chapter of the textbook dealing with what intelligence is and isn’t, the history of testing intelligence, the uses, abuses and shortcomings of such tests, and the complexity of entire issue.

The authors of Psychology thoroughly explore the findings that certain groups consistently test higher or lower on intelligence tests, carefully considering the factors that contribute to that result:

Although the average difference between groups is considerably less than the average difference within groups, Terman was right when he suggested that some groups perform better than others on intelligence tests.

But do group differences in intelligence test scores reflect group differences in actual intelligence? …

Some groups outscore others on intelligence tests because (a) testing situations impair the performance of some groups more than others and (b) some groups live in less healthful and stimulating environments. There is no compelling evidence to suggest that between-group differences in intelligence are due to genetic differences.

Interestingly, intelligence test scores also seem to be fairly good predictors of a person’s political and religious attitudes: The more intelligent people are, the more likely they are to be liberal and atheistic (Deary, Batty, & Gale, 2008; Lynn, Harvey, & Nyborg, 2009; Reeve, Heggestad, & Lievens, 2009; Stankov, 2009). All in all, intelligence tests scores are excellent predictors of a remarkable range of important consequences. IQ clearly matters.

In short, there’s nothing whatever wrong or suspect about OSU’s Psychology 1100 class.

I wish I could say the same for the pathetic Leadership Institute.

Here was my response:

Hello dear John.
While I’m myself a progressive Christian actively supporting the acceptance of Gay couples into the Christian Church, I realize I can no longer endorse your tone and rhetoric.

I’m also against the Christian Right and expose quite often their false priorities and distortion of the Gospel.

But in spite of everything, I view them as human beings created in God’s image and NOT as right-wing rats . As a German liberal theologian rightly pointed out: “Fundamentalisten sind auch Menschen” = “Fundamentalists are human too”.

Even if it might be a daily struggle, should it not be our duty to love our fundamentalist foes as ourselves? I’m not pretending to be a better person than you because I fall short in countless other respects.

But I think it’s really a pity if your laudable and praiseworthy defense of Gay people degenerates into self-righteous hatred.

So I really hope you’ll back away from your rhetoric and adopt a more constructive tone because you’re unlikely to change the hearts of fundies while using such words.

Otherwise, I also feel pretty irritated by the psychological Quiz. It is extraordinarily reductionist in that it defines “Christians”, “Atheists” and “Liberals” as homogeneous groups. This is very far from being the case, there are numerous conflicting groups, ideologies and movements within Christianity and atheism and merging them together has a very poor scientific value.

I’d be interested if such IQ comparisons were carried out between VERY specific groups (such as “Secular Conservatives” against “Evolutionary theists”) to see what come out of it.
What is more, it is far from being certain that there is such a thing as intelligence which can be fully grasped by a unique measure such as IQ. Its assessment also depends a lot on psychological factors such as motivation, impulsiveness and anxiety.

Anyway I wish you all the best and hope you’ll begin to see Conservatives as fellow humans.

Rick Santorum’s rise means the GOP must fight– and lose– the culture war

Lovely greetings.

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Did Jesus leave his grave behind? An interview with Mike Licona.

There can be little doubt that the Christian faith stands and falls with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who claimed this would be the Way His heavenly father would defeat evil forever.

He is Risen

For many people having grown up in post-Christian Europe, this alleged event is nothing more than one of the numerous legends the ancient world was littered with.

SanktClausIn what follows, I had the immense privilege of interviewing Mike Licona, an amazing Biblical scholar and historian who thinks that an intellectual honest man of the twenty-first century can and even should believe that the Son of Man truly rose from the dead.

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In our conversation we touched upon many topics and also wondered if it’s really the case that materialism (the worldview according to which everything is material) is almost certainly true.

 

 

 

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Theology from Exile

This book aims at providing liberal Christians no longer able to believe in most elements of traditional Christianity an useful resource for finding a faith and an identity.

It heavily relies on the ideas of some influential members of the Jesus Seminar such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

Borg

Rejection of traditional Christianity

Rejection of dogmas concerning salvation

They rightly observe that the extent of our love for our fellow human beings is going to hugely depend on our view of God, called Gottesbild in German. They are correct that many theologies hinders justice from unfolding within our earthly world.

They emphasize that the return of Jesus is NOW and that isn’t punitive.

2ndcoming

Light isn’t Jesus but Jesus is part of the light. The authors often speak of “Cosmic Christ” in that concept.

There are no personal sins, all sins ” meaning “missing the mark” ” are committed against one’s human and natural environment.

Paul himself was a mystic who perhaps went as far as requiring all other Christians to become mystics.

God’s covenant of Justice was not about vanquishing our personal sin but inviting us into a new community of distributive justice.

The natural man cannot participate in just social and economical systems, he needs to be born anew vis a vis these unjust structures

They rightly point out one can find conflicting interpretations of God’s moral nature in the Bible and side with Jesus who did not use violence against the Roman occupants.

They are also appalled by the fact many American leaders orient their politics towards Israel according to their literal interpretation of the last books of the New Testament.

They swap the faith notion they’ve grown up with “suspension of belief” with “Commitment to Justice”.

They also sharply advocate the separation between the Church and the State because unhealthy interaction can begin taking place otherwise.

Rejection of the supernatural

“God” has become the Cosmos which necessarily means there will be no second coming.

The Great Evolution we’re a part of replaces the incarnation. The resurrection is  a metaphor expressing the fact that our universe is a symbiotic system where one part dies so that all the others may live.

The authors seem to frequently confuse the word “Postmodernism” (which means a great skepticism towards ALL knowledge claims) which Modernism according to which we live in an objectively existing universe utterly bereft of meaning.

postmodernism

There is nothing outside of the world defined by cosmology.

The New Covenant should be between Humanity and Nature which is called “God” in the latter case.

We ought to reinterpret our resurrection imagery because today we “know that nobody rise from the dead”.

We should therefore rather see the Easter Hope as a political transformation of extraordinary scope.

Irrational theology

They speak of “the love and compassion of the universe”  but this is completely absurd. A complex material bunch of particles cannot feel anything, let alone convey anything relatively close to compassion.

Given this definition of God, the phrase is “God gives all to all” is technically correct but also terribly incomplete:  it also entails that God gives cancer, genocide, aids and starvation without any chance for the victims to get their suffering compensated.

Thus a faith in the “goodness” of the created order seems to be nothing more than an irrational leap in the dark.

When they write that “those who love their enemies have no enemy” , this seems to be nothing more than a semantic trick since the  person hating them hasn’t most of the time lowered his hatred.

The authors try to paraphrase the apostle Paul in Corinthian 13 as follows:

“We are not pitiful if we are raised for the new social order”.

The problem is that it is an astronomical watering-down of Paul’s statement back then.

According to Sea Raven et al. there will be no vindication for all those who have laid their life for Justice’s sake. Their elementary particles will soon get back to the still emptiness of an indifferent universe which will have quickly forgotten them.

On contrast, the first Christians hoped on a God who would vindicate every one of them personally.

I think that what theologian  Francis Schaeffer wrote about the liberal theologians of his days is still valid in that context:

Often this answer — of beginning with the impersonal — is called pantheism. The new mystical thought is almost always some form of pantheism — and almost all the modern liberal theology is pantheistic as well. Often this beginning with the impersonal is called pantheism, but really this is a semantic trick, because by using the root theism a connotation of the personal is brought in, when by definition the impersonal is meant.

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Conclusion

I have no doubt that the authors of this book are kind people who really strive for making the world a better place. And in that respect they  might be far closer to Christ than countless culture warriors who neglect the works of social justice.

That said, I cannot view them as Christians because they neither believe in an afterlife nor in a personal God which are the hallmarks of the Christian hope. I think they have rightly pointed up many problems with the conservative Christianity they come from, but I don’t believe that rejecting the miraculous nature of our faith is necessary or sufficient for handling this problem.

The hope yearned by a world in a disastrous state is that for a perfectly good God, even if this causes the problem of evil of reconciling His just and loving Nature with what one can observe around us.

 

 Disclaimer: I received this book through a generous offer of Speakeasy. I confirm I reviewed this book objectively.

 

 

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The truth about the New Atheism: an interview with David Marshall

I had the immense privilege to interview historian, sociologist and Christian apologist David Marshall on militant atheists and their arguments. I truly hope you’ll appreciate it!

DavidMarshall

Lotharson: Hello David, thank you very much for having accepted my invitation. Could you please sum up your background for my readers?
David Marshall: Sure. I am from a Christian background, and grew up in Seattle. My academic background involves a lot of study of languages and research in history and Asian cultures, culminating in a PhD for which I offered what I believe is the best Christian model of religions, which I call “Fulfillment Theology.” I’ve written five books, edited another, and contributed to others, my most popular so far being “True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture” and “The Truth Behind the New Atheism.” (But the meatiest is Jesus and the Religions of Man.) I am presently writing two other books actively, and three more passively. Each is on a very big subject; I will try not to be glib. :- )
Lotharson: So, you seem to have quite a large field of interest 🙂 What rose your passion for the intellectual arguments between Christians and atheists?
David Marshall: I was going to blame C. S. Lewis, in my misbegotten youth, but then a line from a country music song came to mind, “Heck it could be my fault.” There’s a little atheist inside of me, and it’s easiest to squelch him when the big atheists outside of me throw up such softball challenges to my Christian faith. Also I agree with Clement of Alexandria, who perceived that there was some truth in almost every school of thought — truth that is fulfilled best by Christ.

 

On militant atheism and religious fundamentalism

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Lotharson: Your fascinating views on the relationship between God’s revelation in Christ and other religions will (hopefully) be the topic of a future interview. Right now, I’m interested by what you wrote on the New Atheists. Could you summarize what the “New Atheism” is? Is it (more or less) a synonym for “anti-theism” or “militant atheism”?
David Marshall: Atheists themselves differ on whether or not to accept or even glory in the term “The New Atheism.” Some say there’s nothing new about their views, and in a sense, I agree: the tone adopted by Richard Dawkins is very like that of the Left Hegelians in your own native Germany back in the mid-19th Century, culimating with Karl Marx. But I see four factors as distinguishing this wave: (1) Reaction to 9/11, along the lines of “That nasty Taliban! Now how can we use revulsion against radical Islam to dump on Christianity as well? I know! We’ll lump them all in the same bag!” (2) Particular concern over the supposed threat American Christian poses to democracy. (3) Focus on or exageration of the dark side of Christian history, “Hitler’s Pope,” that kind of thing. (4) Drawing on radical “historical Jesus” material, from the Jesus Seminar and Bart Ehrman, to more fringe characters like Hector Avalos, Robert Price and Richard Carrier.

 

Lotharson: A small correction: I’m a Germanic Frenchman from a historically German-speaking French region 🙂

So, is it fair to say that the New Atheism (or anti-theism) can be summed up by the two following sentences:

1) Religious beliefs are false
2) Religious beliefs are bad and ought to disappear?

David Marshall: Quite so.

 

Belligerent secularism and nasty rhetoric

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Lotharson: Okay. How does this play out in terms of rhetoric?
David Marshall: I am trying to think of a prominent atheist who identifies with that movement, who is polite, and really listens to the other side. Is that what you’re wondering?
Lotharson: Yeah kind of 🙂 Do you know striking examples of rude and bullying behavior which are characteristic of the whole movement?
Or examples of famous New Atheists calling their followers to use an aggressive and nasty rhetoric?
David Marshall: Sheesh. Read my blog post, “PZ Myers, Guru of Hate,” if you can stomach that sort of thing. That charts one internal conflict on their side — I take out all the swear words. It is tacitly assumed in many quarters that the real problem with such nastiness is that it is directed at fellow unbelievers, rather than the real enemy, us.
Lotharson: And by “us”, they mean ALL religious believers, right? Even progressive Christians opposing the Religious Right are viewed as their enemies, am I correct?
David Marshall: Of course “Gnus” are a diverse lot, and not all are as vitriolic as Dr. Myers’ followers tend to be. But yes, Richard Dawkins, in his (relatively) more civilized way, goes out of the way to emphasize that liberal Christians are also a serious problem, as do such people as Greta Christiana.

Lotharson: Yeah, they argue that the existence of moderate and peaceful religious believers NECESSARILY cause the existence of nasty fundamentalists and Islamists.

So, according to them the evil has to be cut at the root.

Do they have strong historical and sociological arguments for backing up this claim?
David Marshall: Well, of course not. The best they do is vaguely cite sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who is fond of Denmark, as who isn’t besides Hamlet? But Zuckerman himself is more careful, and shows (without meaning to) that a lot of the success of the societies he deems as most successful, derives historically from their Christian roots. (I challenged him on this in person, and he did not deny it, being an honest scholar.)
Lotharson: And there is one thing they don’t take into consideration: the greater happiness of Denmark in comparison to religious America might very well be due to factors unrelated to religion and atheism, such as their much more SOCIALIST economy and social system.

Is it fair to say so?
David Marshall: I wrote an article some years ago in which I gave some 20-25 problems with such arguments. They are multiply flawed in too many ways to give a simple summation: the popular versions of such arguments are junk scholarship. As a Burkean conservative with a father who owned an apartment with welfare Moms, though, you’ll have to torture me to confess the superior merits of the Welfare State. :- )

Lotharson: Okay, I won’t insist then 🙂

On sociological studies on the benefits of “Religion”.

Benefits of atheism and religions

I generally find it pretty frustrating that in most sociological and historical studies comparing religion with lack of faith, religion (as a whole) is directly compared with atheism (as a whole).

Given the HUGE diversity of atheists and religious believers out there, I view these studies as providing us with very few useful information.
I think that a good study would compare a lot of groups of different believers with different atheists, such as:

1) Conservative Catholics

2) Liberal Catholics

3) Calvinists

4) Charismatic Christians

5) Mystical Muslims.

6) Godless communists

7) Secular Capitalists

8) Buddhists

and so on and so forth.

This would really allow us to learn more about the subject, and I’m sure that we could find out that certain religious groups fare much better than others, and that the same thing holds for the very diverse atheistic groups present in our world.

So the question should not be: “Is religion (ON AVERAGE) better than atheism (ON AVERAGE) in terms of societal happiness, but rather “What are the impacts of the many specific worldviews out there?”

Do you agree?
David Marshall: Yeah. I also dispute the usual definition of “religion.” Peter Berger pointed out that the term is defined in functional as well as substantive ways: what Paul Tillich called an “ultimate concern” being to me the best definition. Everyone has an ultimate concern. And no, a few decades after the Marxist holocaust, we can’t just sweep those crimes under the rug, either. Nor do they seem to have been total aberrations.I also like the definition of Christianity as meaning, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” Christianity PREDICTS evil by its followers. But I argue historically that the Gospel has in fact utterly transformed the world for the better — and the Bible predicts that, too.

 

The intellectual depth of anti-theism

NewAtheismLotharson: The New Atheists also pretend we can know beyond any reasonable doubt that God does not exist, and most of them seem to also believe that we can be pretty sure that matter is the ultimate reality. What do you think of the intellectual depth of the arguments they deploy for showing this?
David Marshall: Miracles happen. God works in the world. Deal with it.
Lotharson: Okay, so are they as mighty as a fundamentalist proclaiming these three sentences without any evidence? 🙂
David Marshall: Well, of course it’s hard to come up with evidence for a negative. And SOME New Atheists try fitfully to deal with the positive evidence for Christian miracles and God’s work in the world. (John Loftus‘ friends are examples.) But they tend to stay near the shallow end of the pool, and don’t seem to know much about that evidence, really. I’ve never seen one analyze Craig Keener‘s massive study of miracles around the world, for instance — not that it isn’t vulnerable in spots. Some do try to undermine the Gospel narrative, and arguments for the resurrection — though the more serious arguers seem to mostly predate the New Atheist movement, and don’t seem often to identify with it. Richard Carrier has just published a book trying to prove Jesus never lived — he wishes to make that position intellectually respectable. He does at least have a PhD in Roman history — the history of science — from Columbia, and reads a lot, even if he doesn’t always report what he reads very circumspectly.

Lotharson: Of course, this raises a lot of questions about miracles we don’t have the time to go into here.

The nature of “faith”.

DawkinsChildAbuse

But I think this leads us to wonder about how the New Atheists view “faith”. What are your own experiences with this and how does it relate to the way you (and most of your Christian friends) understand “faith”?
David Marshall: They universally misunderstand it. Even those who know better. It’s a fascinating sociological phenomena. The most recent best-seller that does this is Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists — the whole ingenious work is based on the patently absurd notion that by “faith,” Christians mean “believing without any evidence.”
Lotharson: And why do you view this notion as “patently absurd”?
David Marshall: Of course they don’t have any evidence for that, because they haven’t bothered to do any research. I have. (See our recent book, True Reason, including one chapter with Dr. Timothy McGrew, also the relevant chapter in The Truth Behind the New Atheism.)

It’s the height of irony — every single New Atheist bases his critique of Christianity on the objection that Christians demand faith without checking the facts first — but none of them bothers to check the facts about THAT first. Alister McGrath and I both highlighted this irony already in our books on the New Atheism, which were among the first to come out, but our objections haven’t stopped the flood or even quelled it a little.
Lotharson: How do you personally see “faith”?
David Marshall: Christian faith means “Believing and acting upon what you have good reason to think is true, in the face of existential difficulties.”
Lotharson: It goes without saying it is a lot harder to argue against this than against the straw man they attack. Is it fair to say that the New Atheists PICK AND CHOOSE the worst and weakest examples of religious believers and describe them as if they were characteristic of religion AS A WHOLE?
David Marshall: Dawkins is famous for this. Like the Pharisee Jesus spoke about who seeks the world for a convert, he flies across continents looking for the kookiest Christians he can find – founders of hell houses, terrorist wannabees, semi-literate spokepersons for obscure political fronts — then reports them as typical cases of the species. For a zoologist, he’s empirically lazy to a remarkable degree.

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On Anti-theism and atrocities.

Lotharson: Lol. I think this should lead us to wonder whether HIS PARTICULAR brand of atheism is as harmless as he professes.

I don’t think that atheism (understood as the belief there is no supernatural world) has caused atrocities, in the same way I don’t believe that theism (the belief there is a God) has caused atrocities in and of itself.

BUT I do believe that anti-theism (the belief that all religions OUGHT to disappear) has plaid a major role in atrocities committed by secularist regimes in Russia and in China against religious people and clergy persons.

CommunistsDestroyChurches

Do you think it is a balanced consideration of the situation?
David Marshall:It’s a very complex question. I have a chapter giving my own analysis of “Why Marx went wrong” in Jesus and the Religions of Man. I think his rejection of Christianity and of God was very important, and it impacted his morals in complex ways — I argue that communists had THREE moral systems, for different sets of people. But I also argue that the most deadly facet of Marxism-Leninism was the god it worshiped — the self — even more than its rejection of God, perhaps. Though of course the two go together. As someone said of Tolstoy, I think, he and God in the same heart were like two bears in the same cave. Marx wanted the cave for himself, and so did his chief followers.
The best work on this subject is David Aikman’s Atheism in the Marxist Tradition. Unfortunately it is an unpublished doctoral dissertation, but can be obtained by interlibrary loan.
Lotharson: When I present anti-theism in this way, some of its proponents get completely infuriated.

They say that the New Atheism does not seek to destroy religious beliefs but only to put an end to “religious privileges”.

Could it be really the case?

David Marshall: Again, I fundamentally disagree with the assumed definition of “religion” here. But many New Atheists are quite outspoken in saying they want to rid the world of religion — though not violently, through “education” in various senses. I could give numerous quotes, especially if I were in my library in the US, rather than in central China, right now.

But no doubt many atheists hold more modest ambitions. They however tend not to identify themselves as Gnus (New Atheists).

 

John Loftus and The Outsider Test of Faith

Lotharson: Okay. What else is there to be said about the New Atheism?
David Marshall: I’m glad for the challenge. Anything they say that is true, is useful. I am presently writing a book entitled, “How Christianity passes the Outsider Test,” turning a popular Gnu argument — promoted by John Loftus — on its head, to offer four more or less new arguments for the Christian faith, some of which I think have a great deal of force. I’m so glad John brought the subject up again.

Besides which, we need our critics. Hug a New Atheist, but also figure out why he’s wrong and tell him. (Most Gnus are men, sorry.)
Lotharson: Before I’ll stop stealing away your precious time 🙂 could you please briefly explain what the Outsider Test of Faith is and what is your own personal take on it?
David Marshall: Oh, Gee, that’s the book! But you can get an abridged version in a chapter of True Reason.

The basic idea is, we should look at Christianity from an objective, outside perspective and stop being hoodwinked by our (assumed) Christian conditioning.

The truth — the real, “inside” story of Christianity — is amazing, and I don’t think has ever been told quite like this. To put it in the vernacular, I am totally pumped about this book.

Lotharson: Thanks for this and for everything David! I wish you all the best for your next endeavors and am looking forward to your new book.

 

 

Is fundamentalism destroying Christianity?

The great liberal Biblical Scholar James McGrath just wrote a nice post about this troubling question.

 

Biblical Literalism’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

David Hayward’s cartoon above illustrates the reason why I consider Biblical literalism to be an attack on Christianity, rather than an expression of faithfulness to it. No matter how much they insist otherwise, no one actually takes the Bible literally – not even all the bits that are “clearly” non-poetic.

But that doesn’t stop preachers from telling people they have a stark choice: either accept everything the Bible says, or toss the entire thing aside along with any faith, beliefs, and values they associate with it.

If that were indeed the choice that confronts us, then there would be no alternative to walking away, other than increasingly feigning faithfulness and consistency while hiding one’s hypocrisy.

Both options are detrimental to a healthy spiritual life.

But they aren’t the only options. Christianity flourished before it had a Bible, and when the collections of texts that Christians had could not be read by most of them. And even among those who could study and interpret the texts in question, what we see them doing with those texts is anything but literalism.

It is time to make clear to the world that the situation is not one of faithful Biblical literalists and then others who are compromising “sort of” Christians. If anything, the situation is one of progressives who are seeking to continue the dynamic interplay between tradition and novelty to which the Bible and the entire history of religion (not just Christianity) bears witness, and people who deceive the gullible into first believing, and then pretending, that they are being faithful in ways that they aren’t, at least not consistently.

But the above two options are not the only ones. There is an enormous range of others in between them and beyond them. While there are choices we sometimes need to make between two options, rarely are those two options the only ones.

Despite what fundamentalist preachers will tell you.

 

You can read my response just below.

Dear James,

words almost fail me to express my deep admiration for this wonderful post who expresses so many profound truths at the same time and in a seamless manner 🙂

I am convinced that fundamentalism (and more generally Conservative Evangelicalism) are destroying Christianity by leaving us no other choice than sacrificing our intellectual honesty or giving up our faith in Jesus altogether.

fundamentalist-Bible-david-hayward

I started blogging in order to contribute to show that this is a false dichotomy , that one can be an enlightened religious believer hoping in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

Conservative Evangelicals (CE) keep saying that progressive Christians pick and choose from the Bible in an irrational manner.

But as I have (hopefully) made it clear, THEY are the very ones who are guilty of this inconsistency.

There is nothing wrong about selectively approving good parts of a book you don’t view as inerrant, everyone (atheists, deists, pantheitst, Marxists…) do that all the time.

On the other hand, Conservative Evangelicals are constantly PLAYING DOWN the conflicting character of the different voices in the Bible and they themselves decide

– which texts they properly interpret
– which texts they necessarily have to distort because they contradict the former ones.

And they delude themselves into thinking that extraordinarily implausible harmonizations are acceptable if they are just logically possible.

I don’t hate or despise Conservative Evangelicals but think it is my duty to strongly oppose their positions, because they are really destroying our faith and are building a house of cards which is all too ready to collapse.

It is certainly no coincidence that a great number of militant atheist in America are former fundies who have never given up their bigoted mindset.

They have kept (to an important extent) the habit of thinking of the Bible as having ONLY ONE VOICE on moral issues, as the following dialogue with an anti-theist illustrates.

I think that the best apologetic strategy an enlightened Christian should take is :

recognizing that there really are Biblical atrocities attributed to God
showing that the Bible does NOT speak with one voice on most issues
– pointing out that the central message of Jesus was progressive .

I’m really looking forward to reading similar posts of yours 🙂

 

 

Remythologizing Genesis

A review of Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, by J. Snodgrass.

CoverBook

There can be little doubt that the first book of our Bibles plays a major role in the North-American culture war and the countless bloody battles raging between fundamentalists and secularists.

 

Both camps keep proclaiming ad nausea that the truth of the Christian faith stands and falls with the scientific accuracy of the Biblical text and as a consequence many American young people see themselves confronted with the choice between embracing a pseudo-science made out of thin air and rejecting their faith in Christ altogether.

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This confrontation is gravely compounded by the very entrenched habit of viewing the Bible as an unified whole, which entails that errors in some parts imply errors everywhere.

 

In such a context, this book of J. Snodgrass, a liberal Biblical scholar, preacher and teacher came out as truly refreshing.

Many decades ago, the late German Protestant scholar Rudolf Bultmann set out to “demythologize” the Bible by exposing elements in the New Testament he viewed as utterly at odds with our modern scientific knowledge and replacing them by existential readings.

bultmann2

I think it is fair to say that Snodgrass’ agenda in this outstanding groundwork is not to demythologize the text of Genesis but rather to remythologize it, which basically means two things:
– overcoming the Conservative Christian tendency to misinterpret the text for making it look more rational, more scientific or more consistent with other parts of the Bible- surmounting the pervasive disdain of our Western culture against myths and their equation with worthless untruths.

 

In what follows, I want to explain why I think that this book is an extremely useful resource without betraying too much of its content and without concealing my own areas of disagreement.

 

Old Hebrew tales as parables and allegories

 

According to Snodgrass, many of the elements which have always been historically interpreted as supernatural events (such as the devil masquerading as a snake, God driving out two real persons from a wonderful garden, waters covering the whole world…) might very well have been intended to illustrate quite earthly things.

 

He begins by reminding us that unlike what many of my readers were taught in Sunday Schools, the book of Genesis is NOT a coherent document composed by a unique author (usually seen as Moses) but a mosaic work by different writers separated by large time spans and not sharing the same agendas.

He did a nice job explicating the scholarly consensus as to why the flood narrative (which leads a great part of the American population to reject significant portions of our scientific knowledge) is actually made up of two different tales clumsily woven together, as can be well visualized on the following page.

He also pointed out that the differences between Genesis 1 and 2 are best interpreted by conceptions of God at odds with each others.

Genesis 1 was all about affirming Israelite religious identity during the Babylonian exile and challenging the surrounding polytheistic creation myths.

cain-and-abel

Genesis 2 and 3 were written much earlier and are generally seen as early Israel’s explanation for its own origin, those of the people around Her and the problem of evil. Many critical scholars think it was written at the time of king Solomon, but Snodgrass call this into question, humorously  writing:

“The question of when and how the Eden stories were formed has been a puzzling one in Biblical scholarship. They are usually said to have
been assembled in the age of Solomon, a thousand years before the common era. But Solomon was a king who valued knowledge, enforced labor, and collected women – why would a story from his court have been so pessimistic about domination? If Solomon had supervised the writing, it would have gone something like this: ‘God made Adam and a thousand Eves, and commanded Adam to enslave the whole world, and kill anyone or anything who got in his way. Which he happily did. The End.”

This is but one of the numerous examples where the author conveys his scholarly thoughts in a remarkably witty way.

 

His intriguing idea is that Genesis 2-3 relates to the emergence of civilization (hence the title of the book) out of a populations of hunters and gatherers, who are themselves the ultimate source of the sacred writing and considered the rise of agriculture as a curse being far worse than only an unwelcome evolution.

He shows how this makes sense of many elements of the text, such as Cain and Abel symbolizing human populations rather than individuals, agriculture going hand in hand with environmental problems and related societal issues, such as a greater subjugation of women which was seen as a curse in Genesis 3, and so on and so forth.

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He then went on offering other interesting historical and natural explanations for the rest of the book of Genesis and other parts of the Hebrew Bible, spending a large amount of time analyzing the stories recounting the life of Abraham as well as those of his children and descendants.

Like the great liberal scholar and movie maker Thom Stark did in his book The Human Faces of God, Snodgrass made it clear that there are different portraits of God found in the Hebrew Bible, and that besides the genocidal imperialistic god of the first part of Joshua, one can also find a God of liberation and revolution at other places.

 

Viewing the Bible as an ancient book among others

 

It is extremely welcome that Snodgrass made an abundant use of the rabbinic Midrash and of Ancient Near Eastern myths throughout the whole book, showing how using the same analysis illuminates many aspects of the Biblical texts.

As I myself argued at other places, I fail to see why books contained within the Protestant Canon have necessarily to be more inspired than books located outside of it, and I am open about God’s actions (including miraculous ones) in extra-Biblical stories as well.

 

The impenetrable shroud of history and speculative assumptions

 

That said, there are some points about which I part company with the author. While I find most of his interpretations quite fascinating, I think they often remain nothing more than speculations: owing to the very few data we dispose about the precise identity of the authors and their motives, there are considerable degrees of uncertainty in any reconstruction one tries to reach.

And it is often possible to interpret the same textual situations in many different ways. While Snodgrass is obviously right that the Biblical writers (like almost everyone at that time) had a much lower of women that modern Westerners, it is debatable whether or not they always likened them to material goods or cattle.
As far as I’m concerned, I find that the Sara of Genesis acted as a pretty emancipated woman, leading several times his husband to comply to her will rather than submitting to him, as (ironically enough) she is described to have done by the authors of Hebrews in the New Testament.

 

Evil and divine hideness

 

One aspect I missed in the book is a wrestling with the problem of evil and divine hideness. Why did God create a world with so much pain, and why did he not inerrantly inspire chosen writers rather than letting them writing down their own fallible theological thoughts?

theologys-toughest-question

I certainly think there are tentative answers to these questions, but they remain the strongest arguments against Christianity, challenging both Conservative and progressive believers at the same time.

I found it great if liberal Christians were to take more time to defend their faith or hope in a good God against such objections, or perhaps honestly and pastorally struggle alongside their readers with these topics.

 

Another problem is that Snodgrass seems to explain human evil purely in terms of psychological and social factors and does not consider a genuinely indeterminate freedom.

 

A worthwhile theologically liberal book

 

These disagreements notwithstanding, I find that Genesis and the Rise of Civilization is really an outstanding scholarly book written for lay persons, and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the historical-critical scholarship of the Bible without expecting a patch of easy answers to appease the anguish of his or her soul.

 

 Disclaimer: this book has been granted to me through SpeakEasy so that I might review it impartially. I hereby swear I have striven for objectivity in my entire review.