Monday, December 29, 2014

Are you now or have you ever been a member of......

I suspended my practice off taking Sundays as a day of rest during Advent because 1. Sunday is so much a part of the structure of Advent, 2. there were so many settings of the Magnificat I wanted to post I needed the extra four days to do it.  I will be returning to taking Sundays off beginning next week.

I should deal with a question I'm sometimes asked, usually not in the form of that set question from the inquisitors of the House Unamerican Activities Committee but in the same uh, spirit, if you will.

"Are you a Christian?"

Such a simple seeming question but one which, if you answer it, will be wildly different things, depending on the concept of what a Christian is of the person who hears the answer.  These days, the person who usually makes that challenge, and it generally is, believes a Christian to be a right-wing, Republican, creationist who is a racist, hates LGBT folk and who is ignorant and a liar and everything uncouth under the sun.  Considering the mouth on most of those guys and their propensity to believe in and spread lies and nonsense as if it is solid fact, that is a hoot.  All of which makes a yes or a no a less than adequate answer.

In one interview Chris Hedges gave he pointed out that there was no Christian church whose definition of "Christian" he'd fit into.  In looking up that interview, I saw it was undated so I have no idea how it matches his recent decision to take ordination in a church, agreeing publicly with its code of belief.   In the interview, he pointedly says something that I can certainly agree with, so much of the doctrine is something he doesn't think is important.   He talked about the historicity of Jesus, saying that we had no historical evidence outside of the Gospels that he existed.  I'd point to Tacitus and possibly Josephus as additions to that but I do get Hedges point.  I'd point out that is, actually, more evidence than than we have for any definable version of Socrates.  Considering Socrates was a member of an aristocracy in a city whose aristocratic class left a considerable written record of the kind that the mostly peasant and destitute class from which Jesus came and in which he largely worked in did not, the scant evidence for what Socrates was and what he said doesn't seem to bother the same class who go into paroxysms of rage and derision when people accept the historicity of Jesus.   I think the clear set-up job in which Socrates seems to only talk to people who can't think their way out of a paper bag Plato presents is more of a problem for discerning a real Socrates than the inconsistent Gospels and other canonical texts do with trying to image an accurate Jesus.

I have no doubts, whatsoever, as to the historicity of Jesus and what his central teachings are and that they are right.  Also that he was a prophet in the same line with the other Hebrew prophets.  He was Jewish, that is about the most certain thing about his identity.  Those all important teachings include,  if you will be perfect you have to love your enemy and pray for him.  I am obviously in need of working on that one, especially when it comes to treating my opponents in argument without irony or derision when pointing out their lack of consistency or other violations of their claimed sci-ranger rules.  For people who get so hung up on the historical record of Jesus they seem to be entirely uninterested in their own historical accuracy, or literary accuracy, too, for that matter.  So, see what I mean about me needing to work on that one.  I doubt that my limericks are exactly in keeping, either.

Since the general accusation is that people believe in Jesus out of weakness, there is nothing easy about trying to live up to his teachings, you couldn't be rich and do it successfully, you will be guaranteed to have a hard life if you do, you can't maintain a contemporary sense of dignity and respectability if you do.  People who turn the other cheek and let themselves be taken advantage of, even not being able to keep their clothes from those who would have them from them are not people who are deemed respectable.  You couldn't be fashionable or chic or kewl and follow them.  No, there's nothing easy about those teachings, the opposite, in every instance, is easier and more instantly gratifying, the real reason that aristocrats and oligarchs have either had to pretend they weren't there, have academic scribblers invent loopholes for them or, in the Brit and other atheist type of practice, outright attack and vilify those who believe in them and things like the historicity of Jesus.   That is the actual motive of most of contemporary atheism and the reason that the PR of the neo atheism has had such approval in our thoroughly degenerate late-stage empire media.  They have the same goals.

I doubt that anyone has ever actually lived up to the doctrinal creeds of any denomination, I doubt every or perhaps even any Pope has believed, fully, in the vast official code of belief the Catholic Church has set out.  I doubt that even the greatest saints have managed to achieve the ideal of perfection that Jesus set out in his teachings.  So I have to conclude that among other things, a Christian is someone who has at the very least, articulated the intention of working on that and is putting in an effort. Under my definition of a Christian,  I guess I'm one.



When someone makes that challenge in the form of an accusation, that you are a Christian, one of the first things they'll bring up is The Virgin Birth.  Since I've just spent the better part of a month on the Magnificat, I suppose I've got to go into that again.  In terms of belief, I go both ways on The Virgin Birth, I don't happen to actively believe in it or think it's all that important to believe in it, nor do I have any particular problem with the possibility that it could have happened.  If someone could tell me why my belief that I am to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, what no less a figure than Jesus, agreeing with Hillel, said "was The Law and the prophets", depended on believing in The Virgin Birth, then I'd spend more time worrying about it.

About that point in the explanation your atheist who, atypically, has enough minimal knowledge will aggressively break in to derisively assert that human parthenogenesis is impossible, generally calling it "a proven scientific fact". Well, one thing I know when someone says something like that is that they weren't paying attention in high school biology class or they'd know The Virgin Birth isn't an alleged description of parthenogenesis because humans have X and Y chromosomes which determine sex assignment and Jesus was a boy.

More typically, the claim will be that believing in The Virgin Birth violates scientific law which, again, only shows that the person making that claim has little to no understanding of science, what it is, what it does and what it is for. I wrote an early piece going through why Richard Darwkins exposed just that rather shocking ignorance when he claimed that the question of The Virgin Birth was a matter for science to deal with.  It can stand for any claimed miracle so I'm just going to repost it right now.

Science Without Physical Evidence, Dawkins Brings Us Back To The Middle Ages.

"Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question." Richard Dawkins, quoted by H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books, Jan.11, 2007.

The first thing to notice about this odd passage is “Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide....”. Why “whether”? It is an absolute fact that there is no physical evidence available.  None.  No medical records, not even skeletal fragments.  No physical remains of the woman or son or possible father in question are available nor is their possibly surviving lineage known. It's unlikely in the extreme that those will ever be identified.  Why try to obscure the fact that there is none of the evidence necessary to examine the question with science when it is indisputable that there isn’t?  So, Dawkins proposes examining the question scientifically without any physical evidence.  He proposes determining the paternity of a child without anything to go on, whatsoever.*

Perhaps somewhat more understandable, since it’s Dawkins, he says that you can deal with the assertion of something that is claimed to have happened miraculously, outside the usual order of things and exactly once in the entire history of the world in the remote past, with science.  With the claims made by those who believe in the Virgin Birth, even argument by analogy can’t address it. When an event is claimed to be unique, there is no possibility of making a comparison with another or even every other event proposed to be similar. Any scientific comparison with any other event would be irrelevant to the claims of a miracle unless you had physical evidence of it**

The total lack of evidence and the claim of uniqueness renders it clearly and most certainly NOT a question science can deal with.  And this from the Oxford University Professor of The Public Understanding of Science. Certainly among the first things to understand about science are when there isn't enough evidence to practice it and when there is. That is something that hasn't stopped Dawkins in the past, however.   His specialty, after all, depends on doing exactly that, making science out of a total lack of relevant physical evidence. 

Much as it must frustrate those who would like to deal with some religious questions with science, much cannot be. They might not like that fact but that is just too bad. When the physical evidence necessary to study those is lost to history or non-existent, that is simply impossible. Pretending that you can proceed without the evidence it is dishonest and, beyond doubt, unscientific. You can believe or not believe the claims but using the prestige of the name science to back up your assertions can be done honestly only under specific conditions. It also carries a serious responsibility.

No one has to believe in the Virgin Birth, this short piece isn't about that. This is about how one of the most famous and arrogant personalities of science can get away with saying something so stunningly absurd. With his status in contemporary culture, it’s just amazing that a person holding a position like Dawkins’ conveniently ignores something so basic to science.

If biologists are content with having Dawkins being the face of their science, they are exchanging short term glamor for long term problems. It is growing clearer that in the political climate in democracies that science can’t support the dead weight of extraneous ideologies unnecessary for it. I will make a prediction that you can check out later, if Dawkins truly becomes the face of evolution it will continue to face fierce opposition by many of those he insults gratuitously. Its research funding will not be secure. In the face of his arrogant condescension, a large percentage of the public will not understand the science or want to.

* While it might be fun to point out, going into the need to give God a paternity test only heightens the apparent absurdity of Dawkins claim that this is “a strictly scientific question. Science not only can't deal with these kinds of things, it makes a mockery of science to try it.

**. Your only hope to determine the accuracy of a claim of a miracle is to look at whatever evidence of the specific event is available and see if the claimed result happened. Modern claims of, for example, miraculous cures of physical diseases, could, very possibly, be investigated by science but only by examination of the physical evidence. Without that, science can’t be used to investigate the claim.


  1. My NT professor in seminary was a member of the Jesus Seminar, and a Biblical historian. The first text we read (not just the gospels) was Crossan's "The Historical Jesus."

    And yet I'm still not THAT interested in the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. It's an interesting subject, and enlightening, if only to establish for me that human existence is not fundamentally changed by either culture or technology, but only by philosophy ("How should we then live?"). If I place the parables (esp.!) of Jesus in historical context, I understand them far better than if I remember my Sunday school lessons about them.

    The argument that Jesus never existed is, as you say, rather pointless. For Socrates we have one reference in a Greek comedy, and Plato's dialogues. For a figure as central to Western civilization as Socrates, that's a pitifully small amount, given the canonical and non-canonical texts we have for Jesus (everyone forgets there are non-canonical texts, too.)

    The "virgin birth," btw, is of primary concern to Catholics, who venerate the Virgin Mary as being the product of the Immaculate Conception (so, without sin, she could bear the Christchild; it has to do with Augustine's idea of Original Sin, mostly). Really, trying to establish that as a scientific question is like trying to establish the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth as a scientific question. Even the most atheistic Biblical scholar realizes that issue is a confessional one, not a scientific one.

    You might as well say you can establish through science that I love my wife and daughter, or the music of Bach. It's an absurd statement.

    The latter part of your post underscores my problem with the historicity of Jesus. As a confessing Christian it is useful information to me (as I said), but it isn't central to my confession of Christ as Lord, or as God. My confession arises from my experience, which you are free to call mad or irrational. But you might as well call my love for family and friends mad and irrational, too. I doubt I would like Dawkins' friends, or love his wife; but the fact he does have friends and loves his wife, in no way diminishes my life or existence.

  2. I have to confess that the original reason I wrote that post was to point out how the Oxford Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, His Dawkinsness had such a childish notion of what science was, what it could do, what its limits were even as he was being held up as Mr. Science - in the period before NdT became The World's Greatest Genius.

    I really have become convinced that the neo-atheism is, as the old atheism was, primarily a relative aristocratic or would-be-aristocratic cult who wants to be free of any moral obligations. The literature of atheism is drenched with that, though sometimes just below the shimmering surface. In his obituary of Christopher Hitchens, Alexander Cockburn said:

    I used to warn my friends at New Left Review and Verso in the early 90s who were happy to make money off Hitchens’ books on Mother Teresa and the like that they should watch out, but they didn’t and then kept asking ten years later, What happened?

    Anyway, between the two of them, my sympathies were always with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Bombay, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? You’d get one from Mother Teresa. Hitchens was always tight with beggars, just like the snotty Fabians who used to deprecate charity.

    I think that's always the motive for the style of atheism current here and in Britain, though some Germans don't seem to be so dreadful, in translation, at least.

    1. There is a lot of that, isn't there? Hand in hand with the neo-Puritan atheists who aren't at least glad they aren't the superstition-ridden Papists/believers of all stripes!