Wednesday, December 29, 2004

a kinder, gentler god

As I've mentioned before, I'm spending a good deal of my free time over Christmas break reading Doubt, a history, by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I highly recommend it, as it's descriptions of the ideas of doubters (both believers and disbelievers) have been very gratifying to read and sometimes challenging to my own ideas.

Something I read today--actually just a few moments ago, triggered an idea in my head for a theory that has been brewing for some time now, every since I've read about the incitements of Christianity that were written in the last couple of centuries by the likes of Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and Anne Newport Royall. According to Hecht,

In [Royall's] The Black Book (1828), she scorned the missionaries swarming "like locusts" across America, stumping for cash, and getting it, often from the poorest and most sadly superstitious people. She warned that if the champions of a national religion managed to "get two-thirds of the states to alter the Constitution...then let the people get their throats ready . . ."

In Royall's own words:

Do they think we have forgotten how they [the Church] drenched England in blood, created a civil war, (what they are in a fair way to do here) and, when they could no longer retain the power of killing there, came over to this country, and began it afresh--dipping their hands in the blood of a harmless, unresisting people?..Do they think we have forgotten how they put innocent men, women, and children to death, in cool blood, under the pretense of witchcraft?...Children of ten years of age were put to death; young girls were stripped naked (by God's people, the ministers) and the marks of witchcraft searched for, on their bodies, with the most indecent curiosity.

This doesn't sound like the Christianity I grew up with. In my Church and home it was the love of God that was emphasized, and Hell was scarcely ever mentioned-though it was believed in. I was told that you cannot expect true conversions to happen though the use of coercion and fear. I suspect that this much is true. But how have we come to this point of a warm, all loving, daddy God after all the coercion and bloodshed of the past?

I have a theory that when scientific advances push back religious explanations of the world, when there is a lot of cultural and religious plurality, and when the Church (both Catholic and the various forms of Protestantism) does not have the power to force belief (or, at least, consent--if that is the right word for it), then God gets nicer. This, I think, is because under such circumstances a benevolent view of God is vital for the very survival of the Church.

I thought of this before I went looking through Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason for support, I found that he had some very similar thoughts (which may have actually triggered my own thinking on the subject about a year ago, but I'm not sure). Here is what he had to say:

Some Christians pretend that Christianity was not established by the sword; but of what period of time to they speak? It is impossible that twelve men would begin with the sword; they had not the power; but no sooner were the professors of Christianity sufficiently powerful to employ the sword than they did so, and the stake and fagot, too; and Mahomet could do it no sooner. By the same spirit that Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant (if the story be true), he would have cut off his head, and the head of his master, had he been able.

I think this is a good thing to keep in mind in a day when the religious right is doing all they can to knock down the wall between church and state. I couldn't help but think of the present situation in America when I read that quote from Royall about the religious right of her day changing the Constitution. That could have been written yesterday . . . even in the loving and somewhat tolerant Christian atmosphere in which I was raised, I shudder at the possibility of the Church taking over the state once again. Would God remain so kind and loving if the Church was, once again, all powerful?

I have heard the defense that the evils done in the name of Christianity were not really done by "Christians," but by bad people who were in control of the Church (usually meaning the Catholic church, though grisly persecutions were commited by the Reformers as well). However, this creates the problem of defining exactly what a "Christian" is--if you simply remove any "people who did bad things in the name of Christianity" from the definition, I guess the defense would be right. But redefining the terms to fit your belief is a cop-out.

Since I am flipping through The Age of Reason to find quotes and refresh my memory, I thought I'd end this post with another quote from Tom Paine on the topic of understanding Christianity and the Bible:

It has happened that all the answers which I have seen to the former part of "The Age of Reason" have been written by priests; and these pious men, like their predecessors, contend and wrangle, and understand the Bible; each understands it differently, but each understands it best; and they have agreed in nothing but in telling their readers that Thomas Paine understands it not.


coffee goddess said...

Hi! Think you might enjoy Tom Harpur's, The Pagan Christ. Great read by the way, will have to stay and Blurk awhile.

Jason said...

As a repsonse that does not require braking an intellectual sweat, Today I was reading Kathy Wilson's latest column in Cincinnati's CityBeat weekly newspaper (of the alternative persuasion) and came across this line:

"[C]hurch and state are the postmodern Reese's Cup but the two great tastes don't taste great together."

She's come up with better lines, but I like that one.

Travis Prinzi said...

Some interesting things to think about, though I do have to respond to the concluding quote. While many differences in doctrinal detail have existed through church history, a fundamental "rule of faith," i.e., key doctrines of Christian belief, (the ones that make it unique from all other religions) has existed for almost 2,000 years now.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

What are the things that make christianity different from all other religions? What it have that other religions didn't have before?

(You may want to check out the link to "Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth.")

Travis Prinzi said...

What's exceedingly strange about websites like "The Pagan Origins" is that most of that stuff was debunked over a century ago and is simply popping up on websites and in oddball groups like "The Jesus Seminar," or in Dan Brown's silly book. The similarities between Christianity and pagan or mystery religions are almost entirely superficial.

The differences between Christianity and pagan religions are too numerous for a "comments" section, but one is significant. While "divine men" have existed in other religions, no one else has ever been claimed to be both "fully" God and "fully" man in one single person. If someone can find faith in this truth, the rest of the story is easy.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

The "fully god" and "fully man" thing is just an attempt at an explanation of how Jesus could be called god.

And that "if" you mentioned, that is one big IF.

Travis Prinzi said...

Agreed on the "if" being a big "IF." It's really the cornerstone teaching of Christianity.

But it's certainly not "just an attempt" to explain how He could be God. It's been Christian doctrine for almost 2,000 years. It wasn't invented somewhere down the line. Jesus Himself claimed in no uncertain terms that He was God. So really, when it comes down to it, the "if" above is the result of answering the question of whether or not one believes the claims Jesus made about Himself.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Sorry to inform you, but Jesus' status as "fully god" and "fully man" is not something that has been universally agreed on by Christians for 2,000 years. Nor is it univerally agreed on now. Nor is that teaching specifically and exclusively seen in the Bible, even.

Thanks for the idea though. I may do a bit of research and write a post about this issue.

Travis Prinzi said...

Might be a good idea to do some research. You'll find (unless there are some neat ways to twist history, which there usually are) that Jesus still remains the only "fully God and fully man" religious character in history.

Also, really, you can't say that Christians have been disagreed on the deity of Jesus, since the deity of Jesus is the defining teaching of Christianity. Anyone who does not agree with that is not, indeed, a Christian in the orthodox sense. You must let a religion define itself, and then deal with its own definitions. You can't say, "well, people have called themselves Christians and not believed in the deity of Jesus." If I were call myself a Universalist, but think that a large number of people will spend eternity in hell, calling myself a Universalist wouldn't mean much, would it?

Mikayla Starstuff said...

And who defines orthodoxy?

Mikayla Starstuff said...

And I'd like to add that there are more options to the Jesus nature question then him being either "fully god and fully man" or only man, as you assume. There have been viscious disputes over whether he has one nature or two natures. The issue of Jesus humanity or divinity was not really set in stone until the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451. That is even where the phrase "truely God and truely man" pops up. Hardly 2000 years ago. And naturally, anyone who disagreed, such as the monophysites (belivers in a single nature), was simply branded as a heretic. Therefore they were no longer "Christian" by the dominant church and just split off to form their own church. How conveniant.

And if you get into interesting territory when you start considering whether Jesus had a human soul, or if his soul was the spirit of god . . . it gets all very convoluted.

And I've not said that at least most Christians have not said that Jesus is divine from the start. I'm saying that the issue is a lot more complicated then you make it out to be. There was not a univeral consenses from the beginning. The "fully god, fully man" thing comes back to being an explaination of how Jesus could have been said to be God and how God could have been said to die. And who was Jesus praying to? And who raised Jesus from the dead? (That is, if Jesus is God.)

Travis Prinzi said...

I'm actually not ignoring the complexity of the issue. Rather, I'm using simple terms to state the issue, because I don't have time to get into a whole history of Christianity at the present. Unfortunately, you're showing a lack of understanding of many of the basic issues here, which makes this difficult. Just because specific terms were used in later councils does not mean the belief was not held prior to that council. Councils were called to make clarifying statements and use clearer words to explain what was already believed, not to invent new beliefs.

The "complexities" you state are basic complexities you would have to deal with if, indeed, there is an all-powerful God of the universe. Basic logic is not going to contain Him, and so while I've heard many people ask those basic "sunday school" questions about "who Jesus was praying to," do you really think that question hasn't been dealt with?

I gotta rush back to work, but I'll try to write more later.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Actually, I think those basic sunday school questions deserve serious consideration. But I'm not really going to have time to go into all of church history myself either. LOL Got to get ready for a new school semester to start, and then I will have very little spare time.

Thanks for your input on this issue, and I apologise if I got to polemical. Personal beliefs are things that are held for personal reasons, and it has been my observation that they cannot always be explained logically. Also, if I belived in a god, I wouldn't think that he would be totally comprehensible to my limited mind. The universe is just bigger than that.

Anyway, I have a strong feeling that there is little point in continuing this debate, though you are free to add more imput if you so desire. And then we will just have to agree to disagree, as they say.

coffee goddess said...

WOW, quite a string you two have going here!

was going to post, but I see the string has been restrung up above...