Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Christianity: True or False

Christianity, if false, is of no importance and, if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important. --C. S. Lewis

As I understood it, here are Dr. Timothy Paul Jones' main points from his talk Sunday:
  • Believing because of Faith is not as good as believing because one knows the gospels to be verifiably and historically factual.
  • When we look at the historical evidence for Jesus Christ, it is as compelling or more compelling than similar historical events that occurred at similar times.
  • If this were not true, then Christianity would not just be unimportant, but pernicious, actively negative.
I must note that I have not had the opportunity to read his book “Conspiracies and the Cross” or Dr. Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus” to which Dr. Jones was replying. At this moment, I am giving my reactions to his talk, and if any misunderstanding of Dr. Jones arguments is the result of the inadequate 30 minute presentation format, that will be corrected in the future. I’ll start with his assertion that the ideal way to approach belief is objective skeptical inquiry.

The idea of a Doubting Thomas has been quite symbolic for me for years. In my experience, the apostle Thomas is an example both of the unavoidable skeptical nature of human beings and what Christianity has painted as a failure to deal with this (a lack of Faith). To the Catholic Church in which I was raised, ‘Doubting Thomas’ is a caution, not a compliment. What is "blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" supposed to mean if not that faith is a better alternative to skepticism?

Faith in Christianity and allegorical interpretations seem to be the results of the fact that it is understandably difficult to be convinced that a woman who never encountered a Y-chromosome gave birth to a male, that 12 baskets and 5,000 people can be filled with a few loafs and fish, or that human beings can reanimate after days of decomposition. Especially when such convincing is based on mutually contradictory accounts written down as early as 3 decades or as late as 7 decades after the fact or when these accounts are more likely than not based not on primary sources (eye witness accounts), but instead on an oral tradition that had developed in the years since the man in question died (or ascended).

Maybe I should find this a welcome development--on it’s face I surely do. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s anything else going on here. I just cannot understand how Dr. Jones has taken the path he says he’s taken (objective and skeptical inquiry) and arrived at the destination he says he’s arrived at (total acceptance of Jesus Christ in the Gospel). Nonetheless I will continue to evaluate with as open a mind as I can manage.

It is my assumption that the Jesus Dr. Jones is claiming to be well supported is the full monty, Jesus + His miracles + the resurrection though he failed to distinguish exactly which he claimed the Gospels, the Epistles and the oral tradition on which they are based historically and reliably verify. What I mean is that proving that a rabbi named Jesus taught in the 30s AD is one thing. Proving that he taught the novel morality we find in the Gospel is a slightly different thing. Proving that people were under the impression he was a miracle worker is still different. And proving that this man actually died and rose to atone for my transgressions whether I like it or not is an entirely different thing. The evidence, and more importantly the quality of evidence, required to support these different claims is as different as the plausibility and significance of each.

The idea that evidence should scale with both significance and implausibility is common sense. If your straight-laced father told you that he played bass for the sex-metal band Death Screw in college (something quite implausible), you would want to see pictures. If someone came to your family’s door saying that you were being evicted (something quite significant), you would want to see papers.

So when Dr. Jones compares the historical evidence for Alexander the Great with that for Jesus the Christ, this analogy is not only being stretched because the type of evidence offered is quite different, but also because the evidence required to make a compelling historical argument for each is quite different.

Dr. Jones looked at the historical records of Alexander the Great. The earliest we have available was penned 300 years after his death by Diodorus (there were other, more proximal sources that have since been lost). As you may know, the Synoptic Gospels are the earliest record of Jesus’ life other than Paul’s letters (which contain almost no historical information beyond birth, death and resurrection) and they were written at least 30 years after Jesus’ death. But this one-dimensional glance at the issue ignores so much. Alexander’s life was most likely detailed in many historical records that, while now lost, were well preserved at the time our oldest available record was written. Additionally, he directly influenced the lives of perhaps millions at the time and the cultural impact of his conquests can still be seen.

What we have to realize is that the records that we have of each man are not factual details of their lives as a biographer would write today but representations of what effects of each man’s life were present as the historical record was written. Saint Paul never witnessed Jesus Christ, so the evidence for Jesus in the Epistles reflects the oral tradition present as the letters were written. Additionally, it is very unlikely if not impossible that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels; the Gospels most likely are a record of the oral tradition that resulted from Jesus’ ministry.

What I’m getting at is that the missing link in his argument is the sub argument: “the oral traditions of the 30s AD are reliable enough to support even the most incredible claims”. Dr. Jones made a compelling case that such an oral tradition is more accurate than we might think, but that still doesn’t bridge the great gulf.

If the oral tradition can’t get something as simple as the nativity story right, how am I to believe it whenever it contradicts the firmest knowledge I hold about how the world around me works? Without resorting to Faith this seems impossible.

Furthermore, if Dr. Jones and C. S Lewis are to be believed, then he is staking the total importance and even potential perniciousness of the Christian project, which has, perhaps, affected more lives for good or bad than any other human project on the testimony of this oral tradition.

I’d like to share my gratitude toward the Campus Church. I’ve attended U of L for 3 years and I’ve been invited to two talks that encouraged skeptical inquiry of religion, both were put on by the Campus Church.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Zen and the Art of Running

I was once running with a bunch of guys discussing what was going through our minds as we ran. Some thought about their day, some tried to figure through things like calculus problems or a particularly inscrutable female; we were better able to understand things while our minds weren’t clouded with the normal chaos of the day. Other’s concentrated on “nothing” or the furthest visible point. The most talented and focused runner I’ve ever run with was there. I can’t forget his response: “I’m breathing”.

When we run, there is a well known psychotropic phenomenon often referred to as the 'runner's high'. We often run in peaceful environments, or at least environments that are not distracting, for long periods of time. And as we run, there is a sharp distinction from what our bodies are telling us, and what we are telling our bodies, though I realize this is not as simple or complete as 'inner self' vs 'outer self'. Still, there’s this important mixture of a physical brain state that detaches one from the body and enables greater levels of focus and contentment, the context of a peaceful environment and much time, and the simple, clear distinction between the intentions at different levels of self that allows for—if not transcendent states of mind —then very internally important states.