Sunday, April 08, 2007

What I DO Believe

In round one of my little anti-theocratic miniseries, I focused on how science has always stood in the way of me accepting the existence of God. In round two, I focused more on history, and gave a glimpse into my somewhat complex and highly unorthodox views about early Christianity. This round I will try to focus on those religious precepts I do accept, and why.
Let's begin with an outsider's look at one of the theological questions that has been with Christianity since the very beginning. Is one justified by belief, as Paul proposed, or by works, the position taken by James the Just? The bible states that James was Jesus' brother, although traditionally the church has opposed this view. That to me is a curious thing, that a religion supposedly based on scripture should take a position explicitly denied by that same scripture, but that is a quibble for another time.

In the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, I think Jesus comes down very strongly on the side of James' idea that a person is justified by his deeds.
The Samaritans were a sect of Judaism that had their own temple and were reviled as heretics by the three prominent branches of normative Judaism mentioned in the New Testament; the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. What!?!, you might ask - 'I never heard of the Essenes being in the New Testament.' I think maybe you have, in the person of John the Baptist. The Essenes, whose practices were revealed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to have had beliefs very close to our locust-eating precursor of Jesus.
In the parable (Luke 10, 25-37), the Samaritan is shown to be a good person - in contrast to the priest and the Levite also mentioned, not because of what he believed, but because of what he DID. By tending to the man's wounds, bringing him back to civilization, and even paying out of his own pocket so the man could recover in an inn, he justified himself. Jesus said so, and I agree.

The theme is amplified elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly associated with the idea that a tree should be judged by the fruit it produces. (Mt. 8, 12, Mt. 12, 33, and cetera.) I like that imagery. In a nutshell, this is what I believe. Those of us who are willing to give to others in need are good people, no matter what they believe, or even why they do what they do. To believe otherwise is to give in to the thought police. What you THINK should be your own business, I really don't care what St. Paul says on the issue.

Let's go back to November 12, 2001, and a speech George Bush gave in response to the 9/11 attacks where he said to the world, "Those who are not with us are against us." This choice of words is lamentable, and may be attributed to Bush's lack of facility with the English language, but I remember it sending a shudder through me. My catastrophic expectation was that Bush's definition of 'us' was already pretty narrow, and bound to become more so over time. I think it has become clear to everyone that he didn't mean all of America by 'us', more like just him and his ultra-rich buddies.

The thing is, the wording was carefully chosen to sound like it came from the bible, and to send a subtle message to Bush's fundamentalist base on the Christian Right. But the biblical passage is a little different in wording, and vastly different in meaning. From Mark 9, 40, it goes, "Anyone who is not against us is with us." For me the difference invokes images of Venn Diagrams and the truth tables that define the outputs of logic gates. (for those who don't know, logic gates are the building blocks of digital circuits.) Where the quote from Bush is exclusive, the passage from Mark is inclusive. It is a world of difference.
UPDATE: h/t Wordsmith from comments. When I was writing this, I knew that the Bush quote with its exclusive wording DID come from the bible, and further that both variations occurred in the same gospel somewhere, but couldn't find the passage. I was looking in the wrong gospel, Mark. At Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23 is the passage Bush chose to quote, but Luke gives Mark's inclusive version too, at Lk. 9:50.
One of the lamentable and apparently unavoidable characteristics of organized religion is its tendency to create an us versus them mentality, with a strong and often arbitrary dividing line between the in group and the out. (You can see I'm still thinking in Venn diagrams.) That dividing line is usually defined by some kind of shibboleth - a litmus test - reciting the Nicene Creed, say, or being circumcised, or not eating pork, or some other SILLY, meaningless thing. Usually the import of this litmus test has only one concrete objective - the demonstration of obedience to an hierarchal authority. 'Oh, I oppose abortion, so I'm a good fundie! Look at me, I'm circumcised, I'm a good Jew! I only eat fish on Friday, I'm a good Catholic!' It's ridiculous.

If you look at the etymology [from the Greek, 'true meaning] of the word faith, it derives from the Latin fidelis, which doesn't really have anything to do with a blind acceptance of one set of ideas - what it has to do with is fidelity, fealty, loyalty to some other HUMAN BEING who then gets to tell you what and how to think. And if you show that loyalty, and subsume your own intellect to the authority figure, you are admitted to the in group. Congratulations.

Let's go back to the Gospel of Thomas, because I think a demonstration exists of how the early leaders of the church betrayed Jesus' ideas in order to consolidate power over their congregations.
His disciples asked him, and said to him:
"Do you want us to fast?
And in what way shall we pray and give alms?
And what observances shall we keep in eating?"
Jesus said:
"Do not speak falsely,
and what you hate do not do. [the Golden Rule]
For all things are revealed before heaven."
In my interpretation of Christianity's early history, Jesus' role was as a liberator from the idea that some authority figure was required for people to know right from wrong. It's very existentialist, the impulse to do good coming from within. Jesus simply said, 'do away with all the arbitrary regulations. It doesn't matter what you eat. It's what comes out of your mouth that defines who you are, not what goes in.'

Paul struggled to turn the movement back to what he as a Pharisee AND Sadducee was familiar with, an authoritarian structure of hierarchy; rules and regulations. By the time the Gospels were written, Paul's view of things had supplanted the original, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John interpreted the plain meaning of Thomas' Jesus accordingly. For more reading on the subject I recommend Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels. Clicking the title will bring you to a page that will locate it in the library nearest you. I'm going to have to do the same, because it looks like I must have loaned my copy out to someone and never got it back.

The tension between a theology that liberates and a theology that creates a congregation in thrall to the clergy had been recognized by some scholars long before the discovery of the Gnostic materials. Most of it can be seen right inside the canonical New Testament if you look closely. Thomas and to a lesser extent some of the Dead Sea texts tend to bring it out in higher contrast.

It was over a decade ago that I was immersed in this, and sadly, I kept my notes on an Amiga computer that is long gone; but I seem to remember that it was Robert Eisenman who was most responsible for promoting the idea that Paul had taken the early Christians back into a belief system more amenable to his Old Testament world view. That Pauline belief system would eventually attract the attention of the Roman Empire for use as a control mechanism. What could be better for them than a doctrine that promised freedom to slaves? - but only if they were obedient to their masters, and only after death. That doctrine is exclusively the brainchild of Saint Paul, a Roman citizen whose life was saved by the Romans at the end of Acts - when the faction led by James was calling for his death. Christian tradition has it that Paul was executed by the Romans after a period of house arrest, but there is no biblical support for this notion, nor is it mentioned in any document at all prior to the third century. I find that to be very suspicious.

When Gibbon talked about the 'the inevitable mixture of error and corruption' the church fell into I think he was most likely referring to the era of Constantine the Great. A lot of historians feel a great deal of doctrinal tinkering was done at the Council of Nicea. I happen to think the Romans were trying to infiltrate and influence the Jesus movement almost from its inception.
"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as USEFUL."
-- Seneca 5AD-65AD --

Well, that didn't turn out to be quite the repentance I thought it would, more of an unburdening of my own religious philosophy.

Over the last couple days I've read a lot of excellent posts in the Blog Against Theocracy swarm, and one that disturbed me quite a bit was the post by Quaker Dave, which drifted off the anti-theocracy theme to criticize those atheists who consider all believers to be brain-damaged nutjobs. I wonder could I be included in that group? I really admire and respect Dave, and his thinking is very close to mine in a lot of ways, especially this quote from the post,
"... That fact alone gives the lie to the idea that the fight over gay marriage, for one example, is about 'morality.' It's not, not really. It's about power. Who gets it, and who gets to use it. And who will be victimized by it."
To recognize that there are Dominionists in this century but believe that there weren't any in the first or second century seems a bit naive to me. The temptation to use religion to gain power has always been there, and the rich vein of that power-oriented theology is being mined by the Religious Right as we speak. This is why I totally agree with Dave. The so-called secular left desperately needs to find common ground with liberal Christians of all stripe, or there will be HELL to pay. Anyway, I know lots of believers, Dave included, who are very much justified by their works in my judgement. Blue Gal, who has done such an incredible job co-ordinating the swarm, and our own RevPhat fall into the same category. Anyone who knows me can testify that I have worked pretty hard to make Les Enragés a 'big tent' blog. I think it is very important, essential, critical that folk on the left put aside any differences they might have to fight against what I see as a movement within the government to suspend democracy in favor of a fascist state held together by the twin evils of theocracy and rampant corporatism.

Some may say that I have drifted off the anti-theocracy theme myself, and all three of my posts are more broadly anti-religious in general. Maybe so. Ultimately I have adhered to my own criteria, which is Thomasine, "Do not speak falsely, and what you hate, do not do." And I think I have created an opportunity for people to get a glimpse of what Christianity might have been, and into my own belief system - not forced on me, not stumbled upon, but achieved through a deliberate process and no small effort.

Maybe I've fallen into my own honey trap. It has been said that Jesus can act as a mirror, each of us defining Him at least to some degree as a reflection of ourselves. I may have had to go a much further intellectual distance, but ultimately the Jesus I found was like myself; an empiricist with existentialist leanings. Who would have predicted that? Certainly not Condi. But I doubt if she could predict Wednesday on a Tuesday night.

If you have any argument or new information to try to sway my opinion, I'm always open to reason. I'm a true liberal.
"The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment."
-- Bertrand Russell --
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