Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pagan and Christian Theology In Dialogue

Answering Eric...

On Facebook I've been discussing the question of whether Christ's resurrection proves his theological ideas. That is, if we can assume that the Gospel accounts are true in the facts of the events – that Jesus was killed on the cross and rose again from death – does that amount to evidence that the theological opinions of Christianity are true? I take the basic position that it does not. Magical power (which is what would allow a spiritual practitioner to rise from the dead) arises in any and every religion. It does not depend on having a correct doctrine and is not evidence of doctrinal accuracy. The conversation has been ongoing, and the OP recently posted a long answer to my objections. Rather than type in FB's annoying boxes I'm doing this here, and linking to it. OP in italic, which begins by quoting a previous post of mine:

You said, "I reject the basics of the claims of Christ - One God, accountability to a creator, inherent unworthiness, the need for a savior etc.
The Bible is plainly inadequate as a source of religious philosophy for me, since I reject its basic premises.
Whether or not some guy whose stories got into the bible really lived or rose from the dead isn't very important compared to the plain falseness of the basic premises.
It's not possible to reason one's way to Christ, and I have no faith in him."

The entirety of Christianity is based on that single event of the Resurrection. Either it happened or it didn't. In finding the historicity of it, the after theological effects have to be taken out firsthand, to weigh "Didithappenornot." Then, if the guy did claim to be God, and did live to tell the tale of His death, then that would mean a whole lot.

Fist, I would say that it is entirely impossible to know with certainty, through scholarship, whether the Gospel accounts are literally true. No scholar is capable of providing that proof – it simply does not exist. There is a total lack of corroboration for the gospel accounts outside of the gospels. As we have said before, there is an element of coincidence in all of this. The writers of the gospels didn't intend for their work to become part of some single corpus called “the bible”. If any other ancient figure had as many 'books' (i.e. accounts) written about them historians would have no trouble assuming that that figure was historically present. That's why I reject the atheist folklore about Jesus being entirely a literary construction. It is plain that there was a historical guy on whose life and work the gospel stories are in some way based.

However the details of historical accounts from 2,000 years ago are in every case foggy. Did Caesar's assassination happen as described? Historians might say 'probably', but they don't have the basis to say 'yes it happened' with certainty. Political motivations, bad memory, transcription errors – all these apply to Roman history as surely as to scripture. As we have also said, the difference is that nobody's salvation depends on the work of historians. “Close enough for speculation” is close enough for real scholarship, because that's all that can be had. As you have said, it is not good enough for Christian doctrine.

So, it is simply impossible to be certain that the resurrection happened by examining the historical documents. The tales in those documents were denied from the outset by local observers, including the Judean authorities. There is no independent corroboration. Since scholarship will simply never (barring some remarkable new data) be able to prove or disprove the events it then becomes a matter of faith, not of reason or of history, whether one believes that Jesus rose from the Dead.

The resurrection cannot be proven to have happened. Neither can Caesar's assassination, the existence of Socrates or of Gautama Buddha. So, we shall set that aside, and return to theology, where the discussion really lies?

I strongly ask you not to appeal to consequences of belief. Believing in the Holocaust would mean that there have been, and may still be, evil people in the world, and I would rather not believe that. That does not detract from the historicity of what happened. Turns out, it did, so my "philosophy" has to follow like suit [after weighing all else of what I know as truth].

I'm not interested in the consequences of believing in indistinct historic events. It makes no difference to the world whether or not some wonder-worker in Palestine (or India, or Greece) beat death. I am concerned about the consequences of adopting specific doctrinal positions. Doctrinal positions are opinions, and opinions influence both the internal life of the believer and the believer's behavior in the world. Thus I find the doctrine of the reprobate nature of humankind to lead only to ill, and to be unworthy of adoption. Without reprobation there is little need for vicarious atonement, and thus little relevance to whether or not Jesus rose from the dead.

1) You tell me that the basic premises are plainly false. One God, accountability to a Creator, inherent unworthiness, the need for a Savior, etc. --How do you know that these premises are just plain false? What would lead you to know otherwise?

My examination of the world as it is tells me that there is no One God. When one examines the natural occurance of the divine inside human culture one plainly sees a multitude of beings who receive worship and give good blessings in turn. Jesus is no more likely to heal the body or the heart than are the gods of Hinduism or of Voodoo. Nothing in the history or ideas of Christianty sets it apart as superior to other religions of humanity, or as more likely to be true. Thus the One God doctrine falls by simple obervation of reality.

As to a 'creator', science sees no need for one, and most world religions do not tell of any single being whose will and work made the cosmos. In most mythic descriptions of the origins of cosmos we see groups of beings working together to make the world. Simply put, I see no need or reason for a single creator to exist, and no evidence for such a thing.

Inherent unworthiness is more complicated. Obviously humans are capable of good deeds and ill deeds. The measure of those deeds vary from culture to culture – there is no such thing as a universal or natural morality, rather all moral systems are products of human culture, plainly shaped by specific historical epochs. Thus I doubt that any omnipotent being created any of them.

Inherent unworthiness rests on the notion of the absolute moral purity and perfection of the 'God' of the system. If salvation depends on reconciliation with the creator, and the creator will not abide any impurity or imperfection, then no human can be naturally good enough to come into the realm of the creator. However the creator is also all-loving, and desires that all humans be saved if possible. This is just one of the many irrationalities and contradictions imposed by the demand for monotheism. Must I recite the common-sense refutation? “God made humans, but allowed them to be seduced to fall, giving them no inherent sense of right and wrong. He then cursed them and their world after they fell at the hands of his angel. He then arranged to be born among them and sacrificed, so that he wouldn't have to destroy them all for the error that he allowed (or caused) to happen.” Just too silly to be taken seriously, imo. Yes, I understand the various arguments about free will that are brought to mitigate the foolishness – they are inconvincing.

Here again observation of reality shows that moral purity is not required for experience of the divine. Spiritual experience comes to every kind of person, whether through the effort of practice or randomly by fate. Thieves, whore-chasers, drunkards, murderers have all reported the experience of the divine. This leads me to believe that one's moral condition is only vaguely related to spirituality.

You may have noticed that much of my reasoning is based on the notion that nature is a more reliable depiction of the divine than is special revelation. Since I don't believe that the world is fallen I think that it is right and true as we find it, and we can best know the divine by observing nature, both extra-human and human.

The need for a savior arose out of Hellenic eschatology. In Hellenic Paganism the common dead became empty shades, wandering the world hoping for a taste of the sacrifices. In order to have a more pleasant afterlife in the Elysian Fields one had to be admitted by a deity. Persephone and Dionysos were those most commonly called 'soter' (savior). A very few truly nasty offenders (mostly offenders against the dignity of a god) might be sent to 'Tartarus' and there be creatively and poetically punished. Christian eschatology combined this model with a more dire punishment for those who failed to gain salvation. In a model where the choice was complete salvation or total condemnation every non-Christian or failed Christian was thought to be exiled from Gods presence into what Jesus described as the 'outer darkness' where there would be 'weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth'.

I find all of this so unlikely as to be false. (Incidentally,so did early Christians, who invented 'purgatory' for those who had some misdeeds but still rated eventual salvation.) The gods are not, themselves, morally perfect and do not require moral perfection for successful communion. Obviously the Old Testament God is not morally perfect – he mandates slaughter and rapine, sets brother against brother and generally acts as if he's above his own law (the issue of whether God is constrained by his own laws is another deep irrationality in monotheism.)

2) If Jesus really did rise from the dead, would that affect the truth of these premises?

I'd say not much. If I were alive when such a thing happened it would certainly pique my curiosity. Being a seeker of spiritual wisdom and power I would almost certainly have sought out Christians to find out what was up with this sect of wonderworkers. However I'm also fairly sure that I would have found the claims as irrational and unlikely then as I do now (as did most people in those days).

I have been a seeker of spiritual things throughout my life. I have known the gods and spirits in vision, been escorted through their realms and helped to bring their might into the world. Theologically I consider the divine to be inherent in my personal spirit – an intrinsic divine spark that grants me spiritual freedom as well as the potential for greater development. Thus I consider myself as fit to judge the claims of Jesus as anyone else, and I find them wanting, whether or not he had developed a pile of spiritual power of his own.

Incidentally, for my favorite model of who the historical Jesus might have been I recommend Morton Smith's “Jesus the Magician”. It sets Jesus' life and work firmly in the context of the spiritual practices of his day. As context, Smith was a member of the Jesus Seminar.

3) What are you basing as reliable truth for your counters to these claims (i.e. no gods or multiple gods, no accountability, no need for salvation...)

As stated, the observation of nature, which I consider more reliable than special revelation.We could throw in the general philosophy of pre-Christian and non-Christian spiritual practitioners, such as Iamblichus, Hindu Tantrics and traditional Chinese Paganisms.

4) ... Inherent unworthiness: if God truly exists and made mankind (let alone, in His image), then it was worth it to God to make us. The cost/benefit of making mankind must have been more favorable to God than to not make mankind. Further, to send His Son to be that propitiation--"you have been bought with a price"--, then God places INCREDIBLE worth on His children.

You make a pretty good case based on the words of scripture. However isn't all that based on God's love for mortals, not on our inherent worthiness of his love? Doesn't it all come down to grace? To me, grace is in every way inferior to will.

... ... I would ask you to replace your concept of inherent unworthiness with "Total Inability." Our self-caused rebellion/pride/sin/transgression distances us spiritually from God. This pride, this sin, tears us away from seeing Him, enjoying Him, and walking with Him as we were designed. We have incredible worth, but we are to blame for tainting that worth. Christ the LORD Himself rectified this. Whether He rose or didn't rise is crux to our relationship with this supposed God. The need for a Savior is not to suddenly make us have a different design or Creator, but to restore that very worth that we were purposed for.

This is based on the mythic premises of scripture, which I reject. We might make a case for the historicity of Jesus, maybe even for the apparent resurrection. Surely you don't intend to make a case for the historicity of the Eden account?! As I said above, the premises of the Eden tale are just too silly to even consider. I simply don't believe in a fallen nature, either human or in the rest of the material world. The world is whole and holy as it is, and this is what we must live in and deal with. There is no escape, and nowhere to escape to.

I believe that the result of living well as a human is wisdom, love and power. We don't need to have these 'granted' to us by a deity. We are inherently capable of knowing the divine, inherently capable of growing in understanding and compassion, inherently part of the holy Order of the Worlds. Any belief system that attempts to separate us from the world can only separate us from truth, and from our better nature.


Dw3t-Hthr said...

It seems to me most generally that the idea of historicity as bound up with religion is a weakness, not a strength; it leads people into blind alleys like this one. Some people think that if they can prove some historical event happened, that will compel others to accept a theology, and other people think that if they can prove the event didn't happen, well, that disproves the theology.

What validates or refutes a theology is how it works in the world, really. And that world can be the size of a particular person: if Christianity leads a particular individual to be the best of all possible human beings, then that supports the functionality of its theology. If Christianity leads a particular individual to be Fred Phelps, that refutes that particular theology. Both Fred Phelps and the Christians who are uplifted and uplift others by their devotion exist; no general solution can be found.

(I have found that Christianity would make me less capable, less healthy, less able to look after myself and my family, and a greatly diminished person; thus, I leave it to those people who flourish under its care.)

As some people think some guy said once upon a time, "By their fruit you will recognize them."

Gabriel Lennon said...

In Buddhism, siddhis can manifest even without the siddha in question being fully enlightened.