Read John 3: 1-21. It is the conversation whereby Jesus teaches the Pharisee Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (v.3, NIV).

The noted theologian (and I must say I am a fan boy) Bart D. Ehrman in his lecture available on YouTube notes that one form of textual criticism is to trans-

The dove from above. Yay.

The dove from above. Yay.

late the sayings of Jesus back into the Aramaic language in order to see whether accuracy is preserved. Ehrman points out that, in this case, the well publicized pun on the notion of being born again which so confused the Pharisee, does not work in the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke. Hence, Ehrman says, the two men could not have had that conversation. (Perhaps a more general one, but not those particular words.) Anyway, how could the writer of John know what the conversation was unless s/he (probably he) was an ear-witness or others who were subsequently relayed it to him?

‘John knew what had passed between them because the Bible is divinely inspired.’ Yeah, right. That’s just Christian apology.

Pascal's Wager: a good bet?

Pascal’s Wager: a good bet?

From Wikipedia: ‘Pascal’s Wager is an argument in apologetic philosophy which was devised by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or not. Given the possibility that God actually does exist and assuming an infinite gain or loss associated with belief or unbelief in said God (as represented by an eternity in heaven or hell), a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.).’

When younger i was fascinated by this idea. I thought, Well, what can make more sense to a rational person to behave as though there is a God just in case there is one. That’s a rational decision! And that rational person was me. Except as i grew up i realized that (a) i was not a rational being and (b) i didn’t want to be. I can remember once reading a book on Lenin, and being asked about it and replying that i wanted to know about atheism (yet converted several weeks later). Atheism is rational. Then again, so is Pascal’s Wager.

ImageI once accused my church elders of emotionalism. They were indignant and it just seemed to add to the different reason why i had been summoned to meet them; although any charge of emotionalism in Christianity is to be considered separately.

One definition from the Free Dictionary is that it is “conduct, policies etc that are based upon feelings rather than reason.” In this i would include ‘theology, experience of God etc’. It is not for no reason that the Christian church regards one’s experience of God as a relationship with God, because our relationship with other people involves emotions if not depends on them. Relationships often invoke emotions or extremes of emotions. Yes, i have felt Jesus with me, and walking beside me, and its a pretty amazing experience, and having emotions isn’t bad but using them to paper over cracks in theology is.

This emotionalism often pervades Christian music. One of my favourite Christian songs, Breathe by Michael W. Smith, from the WOW 2002 album, uses this emotionalism. No doubt the songwriter is unaware of the property and any use of emotionalism is unintended, but emotionalism pervades so much of Christian culture that it is taken-for-granted. Smith opines “I’m desperate for you” and “I’m lost without you”. I find it to be a beautiful song. But it by-passes my reason, like much of Christian theology and church teaching. The words ‘desperate’ and ‘lost’ are emotional words (and to be lost implies desperation). I think of Psalm 42 and the retort that ‘as the hind thirsts for water’ – an essential for life – ‘so i thirst for thee’.

Of course, the Song of Solomon is included in the canon. It is the tale of one person’s great love and desire for another, and no doubt included to inspire the believer’s desire for God.. Yet there is a significant component of sexual desire within the writer’s longing. Have you ever wondered, like i have, how that got past the self-appointed censors who assembled the Bible at the Synod of Hippo in BCE 393, and their emphasis on celibacy?

 

blessyouI was once a member of a church where the pastor said that he was heavily influenced by the Vineyard Fellowship of John Wimber, and in turn the so-called Toronto Blessing.

The Toronto Blessing is “a religious phenomenon characterised by charismatic experiences such as uncontrollable laughing or crying, prophecy, shaking, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and fainting or falling in the Spirit.”

Some people say that it is genuinely a movement of the (Holy) Spirit; others attempt to explain it as a psychological phenomenon, brought about by (and maintained by) mass hysteria. The psychology of human groups is interesting. Within such a group individuals behave in a way that enables them to identify with the group. Their behaviour ensures the cohesiveness of the group. Such mass hysteria is a form of mass hypnosis, of mass delusion. People identify with the group for fear of appearing exceptional. Being part of a group paradoxically ensures identity and individuality.

Some people have said that such phenomena as the Toronto Blessing are explained away by those who are ‘uninitiated’ in such matters as interpreting such phenomena in a spiritual way. But isn’t this precisely what cults do? That only the initiated can (and do) interpret social phenomena in a certain way?

I have stood through two and a half hours of a church meeting at a well-known church in London, listening to glossolalia (speaking in tongues) all about me. I felt an urge to join in. Was I resisting the movement of the Holy Spirit? Or was I simply not allowing myself to enter into the mass hysteria I was surrounded by? The friend I was with, who was not an evangelical Protestant Christian as I was, was discomfited and embarrassed by the whole experience. I remember turning to him several times that evening to look at him, and seeing his skin flush, and the muscles of his face freeze self-consciously. I felt rooted to the spot, afraid to leave the building lest I be singled-out for prayer by those members of the throng who had become zealously enraptured by events. I remember that I and my friend were standing in one of the front rows of the crowd, so that my back was constantly turned to the festival behind me, for I dared not turn around to look.

This is all I remember from the night. I do not remember how I felt afterwards, and I do not remember the journey home.

I am tempted to think that I resisted the work of the Holy Spirit on that night. Perhaps I have regretted ever since not really letting go, and how close I came to doing so. I remember thinking how sad that in heaven everybody else is having a good time but not me.

I think sometimes that I must let go of belief and reality and the concerns of this world and ‘step into the cloud’ that is God. In one of my favourite worship songs, Show Me Your Glory, Stephanie Frizzel sings, “I want to walk in your presence like Jesus did.” This line never fails to move me. How amazing would that be.

If I ever let go.

Oh, my God...HOW early is this...?

Oh, my God…HOW early is this…?

Foregrounding is the technique of highlighting certain aspects of a complex stimulus to make them the focus of our attention.

I stopped believing in prayer a long time ago. I didn’t know why but it just didn’t seem to ‘work’. If it did it proved God’s existence and that He cares about me. If it didn’t work it was either because God didn’t want it to, or because I was praying for it for all the wrong reasons.

What I never quite understood was how christians said that when they were in a car park they would pray for a parking space and then one appeared. Once one woman told me that she had prayed for a new dress from a charity shop because she didn’t have much money and then she found one in a charity shop. Or people sought the prayer of others to heal a sore elbow.

But when you pray you are foregrounding things – you are pulling those things into the front of your mind, meaning that you are more likely a) to notice them and b) to do something yourself about them. Perhaps that’s all prayer is: merely a psychological process and, if you are truly gullible, then an attribution of the supernatural to coincidence. Because we don’t want to believe that stuff just happens do we? There has to be a reason for everything, doesn’t there? I mean, think if the universe was actually just random – then we had have no control over things! And that would be frightening, wouldn’t it?

And if it doesn’t work out, then you have an apologism ready.

Some people pray for world peace etc. But everybody still fights each other and tortures each other and wages war. When I was a christian I was always immensely impressed by stories of Martin Luther getting up at four o’clock in the morning every morning in order to pray. I tried doing that at six o’clock every morning and I gave up after a week because I kept falling asleep. And I felt guilty in realising that if I couldn’t handle even that then obviously I wasn’t very spiritual after all.

And did Jesus say all that stuff about prayer, about asking God for stuff and He will give it unto you etc? Maybe he did, but then maybe Jesus – at that time in ancient Judaic history – didn’t know about the complexions that human beings can place upon coincidences in order for the event to correspond to their already-existing world view.

Jesus said pray to God for things, because that’s what people did then. Just have your excuses ready when it doesn’t work out, that’s all.

You don't have to be straight...but it helps....

You don’t have to be straight…but it helps….

“Pray the Gay Away?” is a 2011 episode of the American television series Our America with Lisa Ling. The programme is an attempt to reconcile homosexuality and Christianity.

In the Secret Gospel of Mark passages quoted by Clement of Alexandria in his effort to repudiate them have homo-erotic overtones. In the Secret Gospel specific reference is made to a young man who spends time with Jesus and who is naked but for a white linen cloth, and which can be cross-referenced with the passages Mark 14: 51-52 and Mark 16: 5 in the canonical Gospel.

The Secret Gospel of Mark was not included in the canon. So was Jesus homosexual? Or bisexual? Or at the very least accommodated the homo-erotic in his own life (and possibly teachings)? And does this matter? It mattered at the time, of course, since ancient Israel forbade homosexuality in order that a high birth rate should permit the spread of Judaism (and then Christianity) abroad.

The idea that praying to God can turn you straight from being gay is plainly ridiculous (as ridiculous as it is to pray to become gay from being straight). How can somebody suddenly change who they are? Pardon my naiveté but I thought that Christianity was all about someone becoming who they truly are?

One theory about the Mar Saba letter is that the scholar who found the document in the ancient library at Mar Saba, Morton Smith, who was homosexual himself, forged it in order to authenticate homosexuality. Conveniently the letter has disappeared since: either because it was destroyed or because it has been hidden by ascetic librarians who dreaded the sensation that surrounded the find.

It is therefore interesting that – whether or not the Mar Saba letter is a forgery – the exclusion of homosexuality from the canon (and certainly the vitriol against it contained within the canonical text – but certainly never from Jesus’ own mouth) seems to justify the mortal prejudices of many preachers, teachers and believers alike. It is they who have the problem – homosexuality itself is not a problem.

Some people say that if everybody was gay then the human species would die out. Well, not everybody is gay; just as everybody is not straight. And if Jesus is God, as the Trinity teaches, then at least one aspect of the Trinity did not condemn homosexuality and so doesn’t the Trinity fall down on this issue?

Or perhaps the Trinity is an erroneous teaching to begin with. People who condemn homosexuality because it says so in the Bible do so because if they accept that it didn’t matter to Jesus then the entire edifice of their religion falls.

And as they stand in the ruins of the rabid belief system that they held so dearly they are left only with who they are. And that’s a scary place to be.

Religion: stone age surgery...?

Religion: stone age surgery…?

In reading Leda Cosmides and John Tooby’s excellent Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer

recently i was struck by their observation that whilst it may take human biology (specifically the brain) millions of years to adapt to the environment, technological advancement has been so phenomenal during modern times that humans are still trying to cope with their fast-developing environment using a “stone-age mind”.

For me this explains the persistence (and in many respects the radicalisation) of religion in contemporary society. Firstly, religion can be explained as a stone-age attempt to understand and control our environment. Secondly, whilst religion per se has evolutionary advantages (such as social group cohesion, the persistence of functioning power structures between generations, improvement of the physical and moral environment etc), its resistance to technological (and psychological) advancements mitigates against actually adapting to any advanced environment.

Instead of merely acknowledging that there are things about human experience that we do not know nor understand, human beings of a stone-age mind want to understand them and to be able to control them – which is fine (if you are from the stone-age, that is) – no matter how bizarrely that may be (and religion explains quite a few such methods). Homo sapiens has succeeded in evolutionary terms because of its continual desire for knowledge and adaptation to its environment – yet the paradox is that religion dictates that the gaps in human experience and human understanding that have been filled by it are sufficient. Religion draws a line in the sand and declares, ‘To here: and no further.’

I'll huff and i'll puff... Mr Bauer's house of straw.

I’ll huff and i’ll puff… Mr Bauer’s house of straw.

The Bauer Hypothesis is the assertion that the early Christian church consisted of a plurality of understandings (which I agree with) and that each had the same importance (not necessarily the case).

I think that in principle Bauer’s hypothesis is interesting and relevant, but orthodox theologians and apologists waste a lot of time trying to repudiate him.

It is obvious to me that different versions of Christianity would inevitably hold sway in different regions of the area, due to local cultural influences, for example, just as they do today (for example, Protestantism, Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy – which are all situated in different areas of the planet.) Like any ideological movement, Christianity is inevitably influenced by its local culture and local political and philosophical currency. I think that understanding – and acknowledging the influences of – this is the value of Bauer’s hypothesis, and is to some extent enhanced by our contemporary understanding of postcolonialism. (That is, what Christianity as an ideology has done to maintain its power and authority once it achieved the colonisation of much of human culture.)

I have read somewhere that much radical (i.e. alternative) theology is predicated upon Bauer – but so what? Theologians and apologists who huff and puff trying to repudiate Bauer are missing the point: we have all moved on from his hypothesis! Who cares whether or not all versions of Christianity held equal sway in the early Church? Bauer’s hypothesis accounts for the fact that the Roman (and patriarchal) one took primacy because it was at the centre of (and had access to the administrative resources of) the Roman Empire, and therefore was most effective and efficient at promulgating itself. Other versions of Christianity did not have these advantages, and were either marginalised or ultimately extinguished.

So my advice to Christian apologists is: don’t waste your time on Bauer. On the other hand, keep distracting yourself so that you stay out of the way of those who really want to know the meaning of the teachings of Jesus.

Too many Christians seem to enjoy serfdom.

Too many Christians seem to enjoy serfdom.

I am always disturbed by the resort of Christian culture to feudalism; in particular the master-slave dialectic (which forms the basis of the meta-culture in which Christianity exists). One man conquers (or surrenders to) another. The conqueror becomes the lord because he has power of life or death over the other, and he decides to spare the vanquished, who becomes the bondsman because instead of death he works for his lord. This, argues the German enlightenment philosopher Hegel, is the basis of all human relationships.

The contemporary philosopher Judith Butler expands this causality by suggesting that a mutual dependence arises from this dialectic based on two levels. Firstly, identity, whereby the one needs the other for their own identity, an identity that they therefore perform (the power of the lord over the bondsman in service) – an identity that is performed in a certain way because that is what that particular identity does, and the very ‘performance’ of that identity reinforces and confers itself self-referentially. And secondly that through his labour the bondsman allows the lord to enjoy the fruits of his (the bondsman’s) labour, and this existence through consumption makes the master dependent upon the bondsman (and indirectly on the bondsman’s labour).

So when Christians address God as ‘Lord’ and as ‘king’ I feel that they are missing out on something about relationship. I don’t think God particularly likes people going around being grateful for their existence, for him having ‘saved’ them. The master-slave dialectic (on which Christianity – like other religions – is based – reasonably so due to its fundamental basis in all human relationships) immediately confers deference and gratitude upon the master. And so God depends on Christians to make him feel special, because that is how he is treated by them.

I am in favour of a more egalitarian relationship. I don’t know how that would work, except to know that it would be much more difficult to establish – which presumably is why so many Christians stop at the master-slave phase.

The master-slave dialectic was appropriate to feudalism and early Capitalism. But aren’t we better than that now? Tell that to any bible-quoting Christian, to whom a collection of experiential and narrative accounts more than two thousand years old seems to carry more weight than anything that has passed between then and now.

It sounds weird when you look at it like that, doesn’t it?

This picture says it all. Image

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