where did we come from

Requiem

Morning Study

Dear Russell and Friends,

One of my strongest reasons for belief is the approach that following Christ has given me concerning one of our universal human experiences – – death and loss.  Below is a lightly edited excerpt from my paper journal.  On Wednesday night, my mother went home ten minutes after I kissed her forehead for the last time.  After almost 17 months, the prayer was answered well.

Pascal

–1:16

8/31/13 – – Saturday, 0430 – –

“September tomorrow?  Yes indeed.  What happened this week?  Much.  On Thursday evening Mom fell in her bathroom.  I was on the conference call.  I finished it then headed to the emergency room.  Mom had been x-rayed – – no break — and was given 1/2 of a tablet of mild narcotic.  The nurses changed her and helped us transfer to a wheelchair.  Mom quivered in pain and I tried to occupy her mind with scripture recitation.  We pulled in at 9 pm.  By 9 am yesterday morning Dan was there with Debra.  We had already agreed to increase homecare services to Monday-Saturday 0900-noon.  We talked and I briefed him on her situation.  Previously I had asked him just what they could do for a non-ambulatory person and he described a split shift 0900-noon and 1500-1800.  We both thought she might need that for a while and he called to confirm when he had seen her.

So Lisa mobilized Rachel, who had helped Mom before.  I asked for help on Sundays too – – at least for now.  We went from 10 hrs a week to 42.  What have I been feeling this week?  A very real sense of Mom’s rapid decline and a growing desire that I hesitate to even think.  Father — please take Mom home.  We talked on Sunday after the very difficult church service (it took twenty minutes for my bride to help her to Sunday school after big church).  She was not sure of her salvation.  I sang Blessed Assurance to her.  I taught back scripture to her.  Grace is how we are saved.  It is all from you.  She is terrified.  Oh, to realize the human frailty of your parents.  Oh, to confront your own frailty.  And to fully recognize how weak we really are.  You are humbling me so that Christ may increase in my life.  The part of me that despises weakness does not honor you.  Forgive me please.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”  Exodus 20:12

Jason and I discussed this by phone yesterday.  We’ll have a chance to fellowship in person today.  We thought that this book addressed children as children when we were growing up – – more like – – children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.  Now we realize it is to us in middle age as we have the privilege of this responsibility.  Is it a burden?  Honestly?  Yes.  But you said – – come to me with your burdens – – I’ll relieve you.  I need that rest.

It is more than a burden.  It is a holy obligation.  Why do I pray that you would take her home?  I prayed it with Dad when his mind failed and his body started to waste.  That decline was occurring 5 years ago.  He died in March 2009.  So — September 2008 – – was it beginning?  I believe so.  We moved him to the nursing home in October or November.

Father, I understand (I’m still learning) that life is a precious gift.  You gave it and only you can take it away.  I struggle with the tension that is future minded – – the focus on an eternity with you – – versus present aware – – our creation on this earth is a glorious gift.  Mom is in pain and is not at peace.  She is chair bound and won’t read or even listen to the radio.  Please take her home and show her that your grace has always covered her.

Then I would lay her to rest next to Dad.  I will likely have her remains cremated.  I think that’s what I want for me.  From dust I came to dust I will return.  Cremation, then a headstone next to Dad.  I would ask Pastor to give a funeral message for our family and the ladies in her Sunday school class.  Please bring me closer to you through this.  Let me realize that my body and mind may fail.  Let me recognize that my strength is declining even as my sons’ strength rises.

Help me to be a wise steward of every resource that is yours – – strength, wisdom, favor, time, talent, treasure – – all yours.  Audit my heart and straighten my path.  Revise my desires to please you.  Given me the right desires.  Author them.  Make me a man that loves you and others.”

 

What Christmas Means to Me

640px-Nativity_tree2011

 

Good morning friends and readers – –

The morning twilight has begun although I’m 37 minutes away from seeing the sun rise.  Perhaps before I finish the post.  A plaintiff train whistle calls in the distance, followed by the low comforting rumble of constant steel wheels on tempered rails.  The house sleeps.

We have teenagers now.  They will likely sleep past the sun’s announcement.  How different it was in the footed pajama days.  They woke us up then.  We, tired from putting together the some assembly required toys which took two glasses of wine to manage.  We, happy to wake while tired, reliving childhood excitement in the eyes of our children.  We, remembering ourselves – – just what does this day mean to us?

I know that R&P has readers in both skeptical and believing camps.  I realize that the believers represent a plurality.  That’s the whole point as we grow.  So, if you trust me, let me share my belief with an open hand.  I know that I could be wrong, but I’m living as if I’m right.  I know that I can’t answer every question, but this is where I stand.

Christmas speaks of the difference.  I have begun a long journey to understand the faiths that are not my own.  A particular focus of these writings is my friendship with Russell, an atheist.  Skeptics, agnostics, and freethinkers may sit within this Venn circle and my heart is expanding for them.  What of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’i, Taoists, Jains, and others?  Where is the difference?  Are there not just believers and nonbelievers?  If the story of each faith (or lack thereof) was the same, then that would be true.

Christmas speaks of the difference.  God is spirit.  That statement puts me at odds with Sean Carroll and my dear friend Russell.  Spirit does not exist in the naturalist worldview.  Soul could be reduced to biochemistry and neuroscience – – mind, will, emotion mapped by functional MRI.  But spirit remains undefined, and for many unreal.  God is spirit.

We are made in God’s image.  Is Genesis and the garden literal?  Did God create life from chemistry from the physical laws that he authored and then superintend evolution?  There is room in my orthodoxy for either.  We are made in God’s image.  So we are spirits.  Our spiritual nature does not exist in the naturalist worldview.  I respect and understand that, but disagree.  Therein lies a clear divide in a sea of subtlety – – believers believe in spirit, nonbelievers insist that nature is enough because it is all and that the supernatural begs the gods of gaps to step in.

Christmas is the story of God’s spirit completely entering mortal body and soul in Jesus Christ.  God’s spirit navigated the humanity he created.  God’s spirit was willingly and intentionally contained in the frailty of a human body with human mind, will and emotions.  God’s spirit did what we do – – suffer.  Christmas is the story of compassion, literally suffering with.  The Buddha did not suffer with me, he taught me how to avoid it by divorcing attachment.  The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not suffer with me.  He taught me how to submit to God and how to conquer.  The pantheon of Hinduism did not suffer with me.  They taught of creation, destruction, and the fire that synthesizes the two in daily life.  Jesus suffered.

Russell and I have gone back and forth on passages as simple as Romans 1:1-7 – – the claim that Jesus was a historical figure, the claim that his differing genealogies in the gospels could be reconciled, the claim that his life could serve as a foundation for ours.  If he was a figment of Paul’s imagination, then I should not build my life on him.  I should not consider it joy to suffer with him as he suffered with me.  I should not offer false hope to others.  Rather, I should help them (and me) to construct a reason sufficient to imbue life with meaning – – or just not care about meaning at all – – I could be naive.

Christmas is not the story of an angry father brutalizing his son.  Christmas is the story of God coming himself and accepting the force of his own wrath in the only way that offers mercy without trampling on justice. Christmas means a lot to me.  What else does Christmas mean to me?  It means that I was deeply cared for and so I will care for you.  I was not brave enough to love before being loved.

I look forward to completing our first year together in writing.  I hope that our friends grow and are blessed by respectful conversation.  Ahh – – the sun is rising.

Merry Christmas,

Pascal

–1:16

“Nativity tree2011” by Jeff Weese – Flickr: Nativity. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nativity_tree2011.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Nativity_tree2011.jpg

Renouncing/refining my arguments

My arguments for God are not always good.  One  argument that I often felt, seldom expressed, was that atheists do not have the same sense of awe that theists do.  I was wrong.  I’ve learned that from friendship with Russell and it is very well expressed in this article by an atheist scientist.

640px-Sunrise-near-Tava-Reservoir-By-Lovleet

Loveleet Jain, CC license

I’m going to refine my argument based on the feedback of my friend and a thoughtful author.  Atheists are indeed awed by nature.  They have no one to thank for it.  Gratitude for me requires an object, and gratitude has been one of the most redemptive emotions that I have experienced.  Is my need of gratitude driving me to God?  I think it is a big part of it.

Pascal

–1:16

 

What if ?

What if Genesis told the story in a way that pre-scientific man could understand?  Could Adam and Eve be man and woman with sentience?  Can creation and evolution be used in the same sentence without angering believers and skeptics alike?  If God chose the Jews to be his people and to bless the world, would that anger a pagan gentile like me, or would I be glad to be included?

640px-Nicolas_Poussin_041  347px-Selection_Types_Chart

What if the flood was local?  Again told from the perspective of the ancients who did not know the heliocentric solar system or spherical earth.  Am I married to literal interpretation?  Am I allowed to consider the evidence of geology without accusing God of deceit or fantastic existence?  Will the skeptics hold me to a literal interpretation of all scripture when I don’t view it that way myself?  Can I ask these questions in church?  As a student?  As a teacher?

Jebulon own work CC640px-Quebrada_de_Cafayate,_Salta_(Argentina)

What if my childish question about Babel was right thirty years ago?  “Could a tower reach to heaven when heaven is not a physical realm?”  What if the story resonates with the neo-Babylonian ziggurat?  What if the story of language confusion is an allegory to explain pride and our disconnection?  Is God offended by me interpreting the story in nonliteral terms?  Are the skeptics handing me a revolver, compelling me to shoot, then insisting that I commit intellectual suicide every day I believe the Bible?  Are my questions welcome in the church?

640px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited640px-Ancient_ziggurat_at_Ali_Air_Base_Iraq_2005

What if the Nebuchadnezzer II that I read about in the book of Jeremiah actually existed in ancient Iraq?  How would I know if old books, written by fallible men, could not be trusted?  How do I know he destroyed Solomon’s temple?  Was I there?  When does story end and history begin?  If he existed, then why would I believe the writings of one who claimed to be a Hebrew prophet?  Why trust any writing at all?

Fotothek_df_ps_0002472_Innenräume_^_Ausstellungsgebäude Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon Nebukadnessar_II

Too many questions.  Here’s my answer.  I love history although I can’t test it all scientifically.  I love science although I can’t verify it all historically.  I love people, even when I disagree with them.  The Bible can be true and not be subject to the straightjacket of literal interpretation.  How can I avoid going too far?  That is a question that all thoughtful believers must ask.  The scripture is one of my four cornerstones of faith because it tells a story that I can believe – – man created, fallen, and redeemed.  It has immense explanatory power.  I realize that ancient religions were asked to explain phenomena that we now understand as natural.  But for the deeper questions – – the very nature of nature and love and hate and who I am and how I should treat you –  I still look to God.  In the few decades I have left on this earth, that is unlikely to change.

Pascal

–1:16

*all photos and illustrations; wikimedia commons, under public domain or CC license, generosity of the contributors much appreciated

The Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope Jonathan Billinger

Dear Russell,

We’ve talked several times since your last series of posts that explain your difficulties with the Hebrew & Christian scriptures.  You know that I’ve wrestled with this in large part because you are wrestling with it.  Several of your points have affected my thinking.  I’m not going to quote you but rather address the questions that your writing has raised for me.  Other readers will have different questions.  If we can help them, we will.

What is the effect of my upbringing in scripture and how can I compare that to what others have experienced?

My parents were older when they had me.  They were both 36.  By today’s standards that’s not that unusual.  40-odd years ago, however, it shaded to the right of the bell curve mean.  There are both benefits and challenges to having older parents.  One benefit – – by the time I was four, both parents had both feet firmly planted in middle age.  They, like me, were different people at 40 than they were at 20 – – mostly better for it.  One challenge – – they were not fit and active.  That, of course, can often be mitigated.

Mom was a new Christian – – about 10 years into her walk.  Dad was raised in the faith.  I still have my mother in the flickering light of dementia.  Dad died from cancer about five years ago.  I’m writing to his sister now to find out more about him as a younger man.  She is so gracious in her replies.  We actually use papers, envelopes, and stamps.  Mom adopted a charismatic faith in the 1970’s – – listening to Derek Prince, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Hagen.  Dad was raised a Baptist.  My aunt is still strong in faith and I’m eager to find out more about how they were raised.

Why this mini family history?  It has occupied my thoughts and journal more of late.  Where did I come from?  Why am I the way I am?  Surely my parents contributed both the DNA and the environment that so strongly influenced me.  What was the scripture in my house?  I saw different things from Mom and Dad.  Dad read the Bible stories to me and had a regular quiet time.  Mom devoured the scripture for herself and encouraged me to read each day as soon as I could.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

We are different ages when we realize the humanity of our parents, different ages when we learn to forgive them, still different when we gaze into the mirror and see their flaws and glory.  How did the scripture survive when they inevitably fell off their pedestals?  How will it survive in my children when I stumble off mine?  So much had to do with the content of the message.  For better or worse, the message of the Christian scripture is that man is broken and needs forgiveness.  That was a concept that took early in my life and insulated me from the inevitable disappointment of human frailty.  It has helped me to be gracious to others and to receive the grace that I need.

I try to read 20 books each year outside of my profession.  In many ways, I’m remediatiating a broad education as my work tends to be more technical.  I’m on pace this year to meet and even exceed the goal.  My stagnancy in updating the list is not disinterest.  I’m close to finishing two 1200 page + tomes.  One is A Suitable Boy by  Vikram Seth.  The other is Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.  I think about what we write here as I learn by reading.  In A Suitable Boy, I just finished a chapter relevant to this discussion.  What if I was raised with different scriptures?

The first book is the story book that my father used – – I began reading the scripture on my own in primary school, probably at the age of 8 or 9.  The entire Christian bible (hebrew scriptures old testament + new testament) is about 1000 pages depending on font and pagination.

Taylor's Bible Story Book Shia Children's Book children's ramayana

 The next two would be used by Muslim or Hindu parents to teach their children.  A Suitable Boy is set in post-partition India in the time before the first general election.  I have many Indian American colleagues in my field, often first or second generation, and the culture of India fascinates me.  I didn’t realize until reading this book that there even was a partition.  Pakistan and India became independent of British colonial rule on consecutive days in August 1947, forming independent nations.  Why split the subcontinent?  What is Pakistan’s capital since the 1960s?  Islamabad.  Pakistan and India were partitioned to separate Muslims and Hindus.  Muslims stayed in or moved to Pakistan and vice versa.  Minorities of both faiths remain in each nation, but minorities they are.  There are proportionally more Muslims in India than Hindus in Pakistan.

In chapter 15 of the book, I was introduced to both Hindu and Muslim traditions, prophets, and gods who were unfamiliar to me.  What if my first children’s book had been book two or three above instead of book 1?  I would then view the world through that lens.  Is it fungible?  Can you ever erase the indelible imprint of your childhood?  Can you ever examine it as an adult with tools of metacognition and logic?  I think you can. So many of my skeptical friends (yes Russell – – the list has grown) or friends of other faith have.

Can you choose to keep your childhood faith and make it your own or must it always be rejected?  I offer that it must always be examined and that doubt is not sin.  Every believer and every skeptic must understand why she believes or doesn’t and she must construct the answer in a language that resonates with her own personality, intellect, and experience.  She can’t borrow too heavily from me, John Piper, Russell, or Sam Harris.  Her belief or disbelief must be her own.  And if disbelief is the choice – – a choice that you know I respect – – a positive construction must follow.  Must?  Of course not.  The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Should.

Slippery slope?  I don’t mind them.  A good trail run to me often involves a muddy face or bloody knee.  The Bible is precious to me.  As I’ll explain in the next post, however, I’m not off put by learning of concordant creation or flood accounts.  I’m also not offended by scientific evidence that proves the world is old or that a flood was local.  I’ll explain why.

Why are my children’s stories more reasonable than the others?  I can only answer that as an adult – – with gentleness and respect.  But, I’m not able to now – – I’m just too ignorant.  Learn with me.

Pascal

–1:16

photo:  by Jonathan Billinger, CC license

Who was right?

Good evening my friend,

In Small(er) Bite #3 – – competing saviors you asked this question:

How do I know who was right? … Hundreds of millions follow faith different from mine. Hundreds of millions more are skeptical.

We were discussing Justin Martyr’s “diabolical mimicry” that I brought up in A Skeptical Response to the Bible – Romans 1:1-7. You thought “diabolical mimicry” was overly complicated and silly. However, the similarities between the Jesus story and the God-beliefs of his contemporaries are just the tip of the iceberg.

For a deeper context we must confront the many other similarities between the Bible stories and what appear to be preexisting beliefs held by other cultures during the times they first appeared in biblical sources. We could try to dismiss them all as “foreshadowings and echos of God’s intervention throughout human history across time and space,” as you have done. However, before we can make an informed decision, we must acknowledge both the predated similar stories and the problems with the Bible stories. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Creation story

Problems: The Bible’s creation story isn’t consistent and doesn’t agree with science (for many reasons we can discuss).

Predated by: Enuma Elish and others (I just picked out phrases from Enuma Elish to keep this post short-ish)

…heaven was not named…
the earth beneath did not yet bear a name…
chaos…
waters were mingled together…
heaven
way was evil
fixed the zenith…
caused to shine forth…
the night he entrusted to him, to determine the days…
six days,
And on the seventh day

He set a throne…in heaven…
Marduk…
My blood will I take and bone will I fashion,
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth
Who established … the bright heavens
ordained their path;
The Merciful One
who seeth through the innermost part!
Director of Righteousness
named the four quarters of the world
mankind he created

mighty one
Creator of the earth…
Chief of all lords…
supreme is his might!
Since he created the realm of heaven and fashioned the firm earth,
The Lord of the World,” the father Bel hath called his name.
This title, which all the Spirits of Heaven proclaimed

Bel and Marduk are mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 46:1Jeremiah 50:1-3, Jeremiah 51:44) so we know the Bible authors had access to those legends at some point.

"Chaos Monster and Sun God" by Georgelazenby - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Chaos Monster and Sun God” by Georgelazenby – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Garden of Eden and The Fall

Problems: There are many. Example: What does the garden story mean if we evolved and there was no Adam? I have 2.6% Neanderthal DNA. Did they “fall” too?

Predated by: Both The Southwind Myth and The Epic of Gilgamesh

…biblical scholars have long been aware that the Genesis account is based on cosmological legends and mythological elements known to various peoples of the ancient Near East—in particular the image of a garden of the gods containing trees with mysterious powers. The anthropomorphic conception of a god strolling in his garden, as alien to the Hebrew tradition as is the walking and talking serpent, probably also came from another source. Notably, most of the characteristic motifs of the Genesis account are to be found, albeit in wholly different configurations, in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh. …the harlot tells him, in words anticipating the biblical serpent’s, “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!” Clothing him with half of her garment, she leads him to Uruk… …the epic contains virtually all the elements of the biblical account of the Creation, Temptation, and Fall…” (p. 13–15. . The Sin of Knowledge. Princeton University Press. 2000)

"GilgameshTablet". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GilgameshTablet.jpg#mediaviewer/File:GilgameshTablet.jpg

“GilgameshTablet”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Flood

Problems: The story conflicts with itself and science. Either a global flood didn’t happen or God hid all the major evidence. A local flood is not a possible interpretation of the text.

Predated by: Epic of Gilgamesh. This is from a Christian site:

COMPARISON OF GENESIS AND GILGAMESH 

GENESIS

GILGAMESH

Extent of flood Global Global
Cause Man’s wickedness Man’s sins
Intended for whom? All mankind One city & all mankind
Sender Yahweh Assembly of “gods”
Name of hero Noah Utnapishtim
Hero’s character Righteous Righteous
Means of announcement Direct from God In a dream
Ordered to build boat? Yes Yes
Did hero complain? Yes Yes
Height of boat Several stories (3) Several stories (6)
Compartments inside? Many Many
Doors One One
Windows At least one At least one
Outside coating Pitch Pitch
Shape of boat Rectangular Square
Human passengers Family members only Family & few others
Other passengers All species of animals All species of animals
Means of flood Ground water & heavy rain Heavy rain
Duration of flood Long (40 days & nights plus) Short (6 days & nights)
Test to find land Release of birds Release of birds
Types of birds Raven & three doves Dove, swallow, raven
Ark landing spot Mountain — Mt. Ararat Mountain — Mt. Nisir
Sacrificed after flood? Yes, by Noah Yes, by Utnapishtim
Blessed after flood? Yes Yes
"Noahs Ark" by Edward Hicks - http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~aaronson/zoo.html. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Noahs Ark” by Edward Hicks – http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~aaronson/zoo.html. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Yahweh

Predated by: El

Yahweh seems to be an adaptation of the Canaanite God, El (husband of the Asherah, the Queen of Heaven). There is a lot of evidence for this in archeology, other texts, and the Bible itself (Exodus 6:2-8, Jeremiah 44:17-19, 25, 2 Kings 23:15). I have a few thousand words written on this if you want to discuss it. According to The Oxford Companion to World Mythology,

It seems almost certain that the God of the Jews evolved gradually from the Canaanite El, who was in all likelihood the ‘God of Abraham’… If El was the high God of Abraham—Elohim, the prototype of Yahveh—Asherah was his wife, and there are archaeological indications that she was perceived as such before she was in effect ‘divorced’ in the context of emerging Judaism of the 7th century BCE.

"Canaanite God El" by Camocon - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

“Canaanite God El” by Camocon – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus

Predated by: Buddha, Greek gods, Indian gods

Why was the Golden Rule mentioned close to 2000 years earlier in Egypt with the Wisdom of Amenemope, likely before Leviticus’ version that Jesus paraphrases (Jesus’ version also being preceded by other nearby Egyptian, Greco-Roman and Chinese philosophers)?

It appears that many of God’s new ethics to be taught by Jesus were already taught around 500 years earlier by Buddha. You can find the source information for the following list at the bottom of this site (the few I checked backed up the dating of the Buddhist versions). Remember that the translations from different languages cause some differences.

JESUS: “A foolish man, which built his house on sand.”
BUDDHA: “Perishable is a city built on sand.” (30)

JESUS: “Therefore confess your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed.”
BUDDHA: “Confess before the world the sins you have committed.” (31)

JESUS: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.”
BUDDHA: “Let all sins that were committed in this world fall on me, that the world may be delivered.” (32)

JESUS: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
BUDDHA: “Consider others as yourself.” (33)

JESUS: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”
BUDDHA: “If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon all desires and utter no evil words.” (34)

JESUS: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
BUDDHA: “Hatreds do not cease in this world by hating, but by love: this is an eternal truth. Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good.” (35)

JESUS: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
BUDDHA: “Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.” (36)

JESUS: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.”
BUDDHA: “Do not look at the faults of others or what others have done or not done; observe what you yourself have done and have not done.” (37)

JESUS: “You father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
BUDDHA: “The light of the sun and the moon illuminates the whole world, both him who does well and him who does ill, both him who stands high and him who stands low.” (38)

JESUS: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
BUDDHA: “The avaricious do not go to heaven, the foolish do not extol charity. The wise one, however, rejoicing in charity, becomes thereby happy in the beyond.” (39)

"Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra)". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra)”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

See Justin Martyr’s claims about Jesus that were already attributed to the Greek gods at the time (which we discussed).

Problems:

Birth: Why are the stories surrounding his birth so conflicting, uncorroborated when we’d expect them to be corroborated, and often claiming prophecies that don’t appear to have been prophecies?

Teachings: When we look closely at the Sermon on the Mount, was the advice always of divine quality? Can we dismiss all these challenges?

Death: With all the historians writing about eclipses, why are there no records of the eclipse at Jesus’ death? Why are there no records of the many dead saints who rose from the grave and were seen by many throughout Jerusalem, and why does only one author record this event in passing?

Ascension: Recorded only by one author (Luke/Acts) who, by his own admission in Acts, wasn’t there.

Failed prophecy: The generation is over and everyone he was speaking to has died. Why hasn’t Jesus returned? Do any of the reasons you’ve heard sound likely?

Existence: Why is there compelling evidence that Jesus didn’t even exist?

Other problems:

I can’t make sense of the Tower of Babel (a few similarities to predated Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta). God’s justifications are very strange and his attributes don’t sound like the God from most of the rest of the Bible.

Did Moses even exist?

The existence of Moses as well as the veracity of the Exodus story are disputed among archaeologists and Egyptologists, with experts in the field of biblical criticism citing logical inconsistencies, new archaeological evidence, historical evidence, and related origin myths in Canaanite culture.

Who wrote the Torah?

"P1050763 Louvre code Hammurabi face rwk" by Unknown - Mbzt 2011. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“P1050763 Louvre code Hammurabi face rwk” by Unknown – Mbzt 2011. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Why did God’s laws (old testament predated by the Code of Hammurabi and The Egyptian Forty Two Commandments in the MA’AT – Right and Truth, New Testament predated by Buddha and leaders in China, Greece, and Egypt), always seem to follow rather than lead the ethics of the time?

Why did Solomon copy sayings from a long-dead follower of another God (discussion and examples)?

If the Bible is consistent with itself and nature, why does it (with a natural reading) cumulatively describe the universe something like this. At the bottom there’s an abyss. Above that is God holding up the earth. What he’s holding are the foundations or pillars of the earth which are made of water. Above the water sits the flat, four-cornered circle of the earth. Heaven is a hard bowl-shaped material with lights scattered around it and some windows. The sun, moon, and stars are just lights place in/on this bowl above the earth. The sun and moon travel along the disk every day in their circuit, while the earth stands still, neither spinning nor moving beneath it. I can provide many verses to demonstrate this. Here’s a concerning quote about biblical cosmology:

“The authors of ancient cosmologies were essentially compilers. Their originality was expressed in new combinations of old themes, and in new twists to old ideas.” (p.107. W.G. Lambert. “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis.” [1965], in Richard S. Hess & David T. Tsumra, Editors. I Studied Inscriptions From Before the Flood. Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 1994)

Your other questions from the post and comments

What might be a natural explanation for why so many cultures have a creation and messianic story? I’d love to talk about how god-beliefs are a natural, probably inevitable part of human psychology, but I want to keep this post short. In brief, early cultures found themselves in the mystery of existence and came up with a reason for how they got there. They were often scared and alone, without an understanding of the patterns to weather, earth events, and other parts of nature. Humans are builders and creators so we project those attributes on the things in nature we anthropomorphize. We want to be rescued from the seemingly random forces that control our fate. We crave the psychological relief that comes from turning our troubles onto a mysterious force(s) out of our control that we believe we can trust. Some forces, like thunder or volcanoes, seem to have certain qualities different from others, like the sun, so we create separate versions of gods (polytheism). We imagine something like us controlling those forces of nature, but they are greater than us and (like us) somewhat unpredictable. Like an alpha-male, controller of the heard, or other dominant human, we usually have to earn its favor or protection by doing something for it.

In another post I’ll be happy to talk about the natural explanations for why polytheism almost always leads to pantheism or monotheism (Judaism was a henotheism throughout much of the Old Testament, not a monotheism). Things are driven that way by culture for understandable reasons. The ultimate deity is the one who is personal and gets us. The one who has the power to give us what we desire most (love and everlasting life), while only requiring something any of us can give (faith).

I think these basic examples provide some glimpse into a natural explanation for creation stories and messianic figures.

What about a natural explanation for flood accounts? Most ancient cultures thrived around rivers. Archeology shows rivers flood every few years, flood catastrophically on scales of tens or a few hundreds of years, and have even more devastating floods periodically on longer time scales.

Why did Judaism and Christianity survive when Jupiter and Mercury did not? A natural explanation would be the one thing Judaism did as well or better than any other culture. They’re belief demanded extreme, absolute, worship to a single God. Dictatorships are often more effective in war than republics or democracies, and the Old Testament bore that out. I don’t mean the following in a disrespectful way. I just want to report what I read. Time after time the solution was to utterly wipe out the neighboring clans. If there was a hint of any other worship than that of Yahweh, the followers of the opposing religions were slaughtered down to the woman and child (with a few exceptions, Numbers 31:13-18 is a sad one). The Jewish culture was so closely nit as a community, bound to each other their observance in their law, rituals, care for one another, devotion to their God who demanded all worship, and separation (holiness) from outsiders, they formed the perfect mechanism for preserving their religion in the long march across their promised land. That is why they survived the exile and came back as one people. Their culture is that close, and that made all the difference. The other major reason is procreation. I’ve heard that religions that don’t encourage procreation end up as footnotes. Judaism was encouraged this in several ways (“be fruitful and multiply,” etc.).

A natural explanation for why Christianity survived is based (off the top of my head) on four things. First, it was updated for the modern era and open to outsiders. The message of love and peace and blessings for the poor and poor in spirit had a large audience. Second, the new promise and threat of eternal bliss or torture based solely on a belief (of whether the story they were hearing was true) was very compelling. Potential converts didn’t want to be wrong, after all. Third, the conversion of rulers and kings who allowed and then demanded conversion of their subjects (there is much evidence than many of these rulers saw Christianity as the best way to achieve good moral behavior and subservience from the common people – this includes people from Constantine to some of the US founders – you could probably imagine the appeal). Fourth was the spread by the sword (Crusades, etc.) when rulers decided it was God’s will (or used that as an excuse to convince the masses – Kings and Popes were believed to have been chosen by God after all) to follow God’s Old Testament examples by eradicating and/or converting the heathens.

I’m not trying to be hard on Judaism or Christianity. If we want to look honestly at history, it just is brutal. These thoughts aren’t pretty and I don’t like them, but there are sufficient, natural answers to your challenge of why it has survived.

About my approach

In one of the comments on Small(er) Bite #3 – – competing saviors you mentioned strong rationalism again. I think you’ve used that phrase four times, but since then I’ve explained that it doesn’t represent my philosophy. In another comment you said I require proof. I do not. Please understand that all I require is evidence that outweighs the counter-evidence. I’m only looking for a higher probability of likelihood, not a certainty. What I’m after is the “seems” you speak of.

Our logic is the same. The only difference I can see is that I do not rely upon the presupposition of biblical inerrancy so I read the Bible like I would read anything else. I believe as you do – if it is to be worthy of complete trust, it must stand up to a critical examination. I believe that if one doesn’t presuppose the Bible’s answers must be right, one will come up with a more reasoned, skeptical conclusion.

The fairly recent Creationism vs Evolution debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye had an interesting final question. This is a one word summary of their answers.

Question: What would change your mind?

Bill Nye (agnostic): Evidence.

Ken Ham (Young Earth Creationist): Nothing.

Do I really want to trust the Bible or am I looking for reasons to doubt it? I really do want to trust it, but I have to follow the evidence the best way I know how. I’d have to confront these issues head-on and solve them before I could trust the Bible.

DarkMatter2525 is an atheist YouTuber with some wildly popular videos. In, The Real God: An Epiphany, he claims

Desirability is not a requisite of the truth.

I tend to agree. In, God’s God, he claims we created these gods, not the other way around. I won’t link to God’s God because, honestly, I’m not a fan of curse words or making fun of faith, but he does bring up points that I’ve considered for many years and that you echoed. There are so many ways to view this, and so many competing claims. How do we know who to trust? Who is right?

Conclusion

I’ve examined each of these issues over the last few days and written over 15,000 words (yes) in response (which I almost posted, but I value you’re friendship and I made a promise to CC to at least try to keep these shorter). For some of them, I was able to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. For most, it remains unclear whether the Bible authors may have been adapting existing stories to fashion the beliefs in their God.

In a classic example, the evidence of the Gilgamesh flood story can be shown to be far older than any record of the Genesis story, but believers must conclude that Gilgamesh is the copy. Why? Biblical inerrancy must be preserved.

It is within this backdrop that we must consider Martyr’s claims of the similar attributes of other contemporary Greek gods to Jesus (virgin birth, baptism, called the “Son of God” and “Word of God,” turning water into wine, healing the blind, paralytic, and lame, Eucharist, raising the dead, crucifixion, death, resurrection, etc.), and his claim of diabolical mimicry.

Based on similarities, how do you know who was right? You don’t. None of us possibly could know. While there is debate, from the evidence I saw almost all the examples I provided are believed by most scholars to have predated the Bible and been available to the Jewish culture when the relevant parts of the Bible were being formed. But we’re talking about ancient history. The “earliest archeological evidence” cannot demonstrate conclusively that another culture (e.g. the Jewish one) didn’t already have similar beliefs that left no trace (that we’ve found). Even if these other beliefs did predate the beliefs of the Jews, we cannot know conclusively that the Bible author’s knew of them or used them as inspiration. My skepticism works both ways. We can’t know. It’s also difficult for any of us to know which scholarly works are more accurate and there’s almost always debate. Unfortunately, my observation has been that the “conservative vs liberal” scholarly divide usually breaks down to those who presuppose biblical inerrancy (and thus use motivated reasoning) and those who don’t. I don’t rule them out based on that analysis. I take it at face value, compare, and try to go with the consensus.

In the end, the texts that are similar to the Bible and predated it do several things.

  1. They raise questions that need to be considered when we evaluate the level of probability we each want to assign to our beliefs about the reliability of the Bible. They prevent us from being certain that the Bible versions came first, and that God was “doing a new thing” in the world at each of these points in the Bible. The notion that, “the Bible must be from God because how could man create such things,” rings a little hollow considering much of it at least hast he possibility of being adaptations rather than new inventions.
  2. In the absence of all other evidence, they make the Bible’s claims less likely. We can go further than saying we don’t know which was right. We must conclude that it is more likely that the Bible copied at least some of these ideas, rather than that the other cultures were the ones copying in every case. You can call these other similar pre-occurrences “foreshadowing of God’s interventions,” but such a statement is self-defeating. Why would God foreshadow his revelations in a way that would make them less believable when His actual interventions took place? If such foreshadowings inevitably lead to skepticism about His real events, how is that different that something the Devil would do (i.e. diabolical mimicry)?

Based on the problems, how do you know who was right? None of them. The natural explanations are sufficient, so we should defer to them anyway (Occam’s Razor). But beyond that, there’s another reason to think the natural explanations are more likely. It’s not just the Bible’s similarities to preexisting ideas that make it less likely to be entirely trustworthy – many of the claims have the added problem of not making sense. The idea of progressive revelation is very convenient, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s one thing to not speak about a subject, but why indicate that some (or maybe even all) of certain types of illnesses are curses or demon possessions? Why paint a conflicting picture of the universe? Such ideas inevitably hold back progress in these areas and cause people to doubt the Bible later. In my opinion, the Bible’s problems (barely touched-upon in this post) make it unreasonable to believe that the entire work is trustworthy. At least some mistrust should be the default position anyway. Why would we ever assume, except for the desire to maintain our existing beliefs (usually taught to us as children and then preserved and amplified by The Problem), that any complex ancient work is entirely trustworthy?

Couldn’t some creator still exist and be behind this? Absolutely! Queue iMultiverse. 🙂 That’s why I don’t believe there isn’t a God. I just have to remain neutral and wait for enough evidence (that outweighs the counter-evidence) before holding a positive belief position in any claim. If the God of the Bible does exist, I just can’t use “the obvious inerrancy of the Bible” to demonstrate His existence.

The Bible may look solid on a surface reading if we want to believe it and we let our desires influence us. But if we look closely and objectively, the way we would examine other documents, it has the same problems we’d expect to see in any other ancient religious text. Unless we can face and honestly solve all the problems without using the assumption of inerrancy, I don’t see a way to objectively justify the belief that the Bible is entirely trustworthy.

I hope this clarifies more of my issues and way of thinking. Sorry, again for the length. It was great seeing you the other night! I’ll contact you soon with a day I can meet over breakfast. 🙂

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

And

And is a powerful word.  I’ve been wrestling with that concept for years.  I’m more inclined to think or, perhaps even but.  Yet and keeps coming up.  It last surfaced as Russell and I discussed our concepts of mystery.

I re-posted an excellent discussion of nature and nurture here and promised to return with comments once I had thought about it.  In the interim, a new reader shared this article with me about the Darwinian Paradox of homosexuality.  I’m thankful to Patrick Clarkin, who posted on developmental plasticity and to JS who expanded my vocabulary with the word fecundity.

What do these posts have in common?

Genes are important and environment is important.  The opposing photographs of Christian Bale illustrate this strikingly.  Genotype is the hardwiring of your DNA – – set at conception.  It is true that the blueprint can be copied (transcribed) in different ways by epigenetic (above the genome) mechanisms, but much more is at play.  Immigrants from healthier nations where most people are thin achieve American obesity within a generation – – far too short a time frame for evolution.  So – – the survivors of the human race have been selected for a very long time.  In conditions of scarcity, taking on excess calories and storing them as fat allowed you to live until the next meal.  In conditions of cheap food of poor nutritive value, that adaptation in the genes leads to diabetes.  Same genes, different conditions – – developmental plasticity.

What of the Darwinian Paradox that JS pointed me too?  It helps to answer a question that isn’t obvious.  If homosexuality is largely genetic (I maintain that it is), then why is it preserved in the gene pool?  The reason for my question was this – – same sex pairings do not produce offspring, so how is the trait passed on and maintained?  The article reveals that the trait may be related to increased fertility in maternal relatives.  That would work scientifically.  Homosexuality is not directly advantageos vis a vis natural selection.  Reproducing children certainly is.  The analogy I would draw is this – – sickle cell trait is protective against a common type of malaria.  Sickle cell disease is not desirable and has no selective advantage.  The trait (one copy of the altered gene) is maintained in the population because it allows more children to survive malaria and reach reproductive age.  In this analogy, increased fecundity (fertility) in the maternal relatives of gay men is the driving evolutionary reason (cause).  Homosexuality then is the effect.

Is it that simple?  Likely not.  Much has been written about other associations (not sure if causality has been proven) with homosexuality.  So the and conjunction comes back again.  Due to genetic and environmental reasons 5-10% of people identify as LGBT and often have the first inklings of this identity in childhood.

And.  God made us and we are not mistakes.  Yet we are fallen and God has high expectations.  I’m not talking about gay people.  I’m talking about all people.  How are we fallen?  In myriad ways, but primarily because we worship created things rather than the creator.  That is the core of Romans 1 and the chief sin of man.  I’ve taken my fellow Christians to task for making Romans 1 only about homosexualty.  It is so much broader and worse than that.  It is about being human and the desperation that comes from being able to realize you fall short.  Romans 1 is not about gay people.  It is about people.

If one is born gay, then how can scripture prevent that person from expressing himself or herself naturally?  Isn’t that cruel?  That is a fair question.  Can Christ call someone away from their very nature and ask them to deny a part of themselves to meet his inexplicable expectations?  It depends on who he is.  How could a good and loving God do this?  It depends not on how you define good or loving, but how you define God.  Here is a reasonable point of departure for many justice loving, people loving, moral atheists.  I know and respect several.

And.  God loves all people yet calls them to put him first in all things.  He calls me to himself against my nature.  I struggle with that.  Forgive my rambling, but that’s my current synthesis on how one Christ-follower should view gay friends.

Pascal

–1:16

Romans 1:18-20

 

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  Romans 1:18-20 (ESV)

I consider Romans 1:16 to be the fulcrum of the first chapter of a letter that encapsulates Christian theology.  That said, I constantly reference the life of Christ in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) as I read Paul.  Paul’s words would mean much less to me if I didn’t have a chance to meet Jesus.  I suppose that all philosophy, civil or religious, is trying to both define and answer a question.  Is there a problem?  What is the problem?  Is there a solution?  What is the solution?  Although there must be people who say there is no problem, I have not yet met them.  My skeptical friends argue, sometimes rightly so, that the religious are the problem – – words say love, actions say bigotry.  My religious friends will decry the godless atheists (ironic, no?) and militant gay agendists.  Surely the kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven if only the abortionists and gays would go away.  No.

Is there a problem?  Yes.  What is the problem?  According to this passage of Romans, the problem is that God is angry at our actions that suppress the truth.  Is he angry at us or our actions?  Without semantic gymnastics, I am uncomfortable separating the two.  I remember angry mother, father, teacher or friend and find a difficult time in recognizing if it was me or my actions that received the wrath.  So – – the text says that I am not godly and not righteous – – and that by my unrighteousness I suppress the truth.

How do I suppress the truth?  Pause here to recognize the difficult assertion that there is capital “t” Truth.  Consider that in respect to what Russell has recently written about the solutions of science.

I suppress the truth by not acknowledging God.  How can I know anything about God?  There are two threads in Romans 1 and in fact in Christian thought – – words (scripture) and creation.  Russell and I know scripture well and we’ll open the discussion about reliability here.  Are these the words of God given to man?  Billions of people feel that way about very different words in different religions.  Let us only agree now that words have power for humans.  I would place spoken and written language in the top 10 accomplishments of evolution and technology.  Pascal – – why did you locate creation and evolution in the same paragraph?  Keep reading.

I believe (true or false belief I acknowledge) that God created this universe.  I also believe that truth with a capital “t” is truth.  Can I have it both ways – – specially pleading for God’s truth and science’s truth?  Not if I want to be consistent.  I desperately want to be consistent – – and I ask that from you.  So, in my philosophy, truth is truth.  If God is the author of truth, then science is not the Devil’s Workshop.

How old do you think the earth and universe is Pascal?  Is that not the shibboleth of the authentic Christian?  Do you find your answer here or here?  Who made it?  How?

For question 1, I answer with the truth of science and start with Google.  For question 2, I answer with philosophy and start with Genesis.  For question 3, I honestly go to both – – more on that later.  According to Romans 1, what can be known about God by pre-scientific man?  His invisible attributes:  eternal power and divine nature.  Thats not a lot to go on.  But somehow I get it.  I’ve seen stars away from city lights.  I’ve hiked a 14,000 foot peak.  I’ve felt so small at the edge of the ocean.  Either I am a happy accident, or I was a part of created plan.  How insecure of me to desire the latter.  How human of me to have desires at all.  Welcome to my wish fulfillment Dr. Freud.  More about my Daddy issues soon.

Pascal

–1:16