Saturday, July 28, 2007

Trying Another Perspective

Can I suggest to my theist readers a thinking exercise? Try to look at the world and understand it under the assumption that there is no God. What can you think of that makes more sense that way? What makes less sense? What just makes different sense? What would you do differently? What would you do the same?

(It is very important for purposes of this exercise not to try and imagine how the world would be different if there were no God. The idea is to take the world as it is, not as you imagine it might be.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Was Paul a Heretic?

In the debate between Christians and skeptics over the truth or falsehood of Christianity, one fact that is entirely uncontroversial is that Christians exist, and have existed in some form or another since the first century. However, a wide variety of beliefs have been held under the umbrella of Christianity, including diverse heresies (at least, so called by the supposedly orthodox). Part of the challenge facing both Christian apologists as well as skeptics is to trace those beliefs back to their origins — accurately. Christian apologists are generally attempting to show that the surviving orthodoxy is an accurate reflection of the truth. Skeptics are generally trying to show that the development of Christianity can be explained (and in fact, can be best explained) without recourse to supernatural involvement.

These tasks are complicated by several confounding factors. We have no contemporaneous records of the life of Jesus, at all, certainly nothing written by him. The sources we do have are almost entirely from Christian writers, and many of the writings that were judged heretical were destroyed, so in fact we have only a subset of the Christian writings. Further, among the surviving Christian writings, we know of many that were pseudonymous, that is, not written by whomever was claimed as the author. And not only were entire books and letters forged, but scribal alterations both intentional and unintentional were common as well, raising questions even about works whose authorship is generally considered authentic. In most cases, the earliest copies we have of most of the New Testament (other than tiny scraps) are from several hundred years after they were written. Finally, it can be difficult to dissociate ourselves from the views that have become generally accepted over the past 1600-1900 years to see how earlier interpretations may have differed.

Careful work can overcome some of the difficulties. For instance, by analyzing the commonalities and differences between various manuscripts, some variant readings can be rejected as (very probably) inauthentic. In other cases the choice between variations is more difficult. Rather than exploring that kind of difficulty, though, I would like to describe something more along the lines of overcoming interpretations that have held sway for most of church history. The particular event I have in mind is the resurrection.

The bodily resurrection of Jesus is arguably the linch pin of modern conservative Christian belief, an importance than I would guess extends a good way into moderate Christianity as well. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:14 that if Christ was not resurrected, the Christian faith is in vain. And there has been a correspondingly substantial amount of verbiage generated by people on both sides of the question, presenting arguments about whether this event occurred. Certainly this was an issue that I felt important to look into both during and after my decision to give up my Christian beliefs.

Now, I mentioned the difficulty that can be associated with overcoming a settled picture of what really happened. I definitely had the idea (an idea commonly repeated in church) that the Bible was a harmonious collection of writings that revealed the truth about God, Jesus and ourselves. We may not always understand the meaning, but we knew it was true. (Think about the implications of that for a moment.) That mental stance works against raising certain kind of questions.

One of the questions that I never thought to ask was, why does Paul, who wrote so much of the New Testament and especially the earliest parts of it, say so very little about the life of Jesus or even anything that Jesus was reported to have said? And, specific to the question of the resurrection, does he say anything that supports the events as portrayed in the Gospels?

The most important passage from Paul's writings in answering this question is 1 Corinthians 15, especially verses 3-11, in which Paul says Christ died, was buried, was raised and then appeared to a number of people, including Peter, the twelve, then to 500 people, then James, then the apostles and finally to Paul himself. (I will say, parenthetically, that some scholars suspect that some parts of this list, or perhaps all of it, may have been due to later non-Pauline additions, the reasons for which are a bit convoluted and not at all conclusive. That is not important to the approach I am describing.) While brief, this seems to provide support for the later reports in the gospels. There are, however, two important points to be made about this description.

First, Paul says that Christ appeared to all of these people, and the word used for all of these appearances is the same; that is, Christ appeared to everyone just as he appeared to Paul, which we know from both Paul and the author of Acts to have been a vision, not a physical, embodied interaction. Second, while Paul mentions death and burial followed by a resurrection, there is no mention of any empty tomb. This might seem like a minor omission, but in fact it is significant. Among the various Jewish sects, for instance, some believed in a bodily resurrection, while others believed in a purely spiritual resurrection (and still others did not believe in any resurrection), so it is an entirely legitimate question to ask if Paul might have been envisioning a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection, a resurrection in which there may not have been physical evidence. The fact that Paul describes Christ's appearance to all of the witnesses listed in this passage in the same terms as his appearance to Paul (which was clearly a vision) already provides some support for this possibility.

In fact, the end of I Corithians 15, starting with verse 35, provides additional evidence for this position, as Paul describes the difference between our earthly natural bodies and the spiritual bodies we will be given by God. This was the subject of a chapter written by Richard Carrier in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (a collection edited by Robert Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder). Since Carrier's treatment of this issue covers fifty pages, I will not pretend to provide anything like a fair summary in one or two paragraphs. I will, however, mention that parts of his argument involve words he believes have been poorly translated from the Greek, so that English translations are misleading on some points. As an example, in verse 51, English translations typically read something like "we will all be changed" which might appear to support the idea that our one body is changed at the resurrection. Carrier writes that a more proper translation would be "exchanged", an important difference in this context. If this were the basis of his entire argument, that might appear pretty thin, but (as you might expect from a fifty page explanation) he brings in quite a bit more support than that. I mention that because someone going and reading the passage in English might conclude that some of those verses provide clear evidence against Carrier's position, when in fact he does address those objections.

An important part of his argument, though, is to look at what kinds of concerns the Corinthian church must have had to lead Paul to answer as he does. There does not appear to be a question on the part of the Corinthians that Jesus was resurrected. Rather, their question appears to be how they can be assured that they will also be resurrected. Carrier attempts to demonstrate that if Paul was describing a bodily resurrection, he would have provided a different sort of answer than he does, an answer more similar to the answers offered by (for instance) the Pharisees who did believe in a bodily resurrection (a belief presumably shared by Paul before his conversion). Because Paul does not answer in this way, but instead develops an entirely different line of argument centered around the differences between two kinds of bodies, Carrier concludes that Paul did not believe that our earthly bodies would be resurrected, but that we would be given new spiritual (heavenly) bodies. Further, Jesus' resurrection was of the same kind as ours will be (Paul says), so his resurrection was also a spiritual one. However, in this view, there would have been no physical evidence of resurrection, since the empty shell of a physical body would have been left to rot, thus explaining the lack of substantial description of any post-resurrection events.

Carrier then looks at the gospel accounts of the resurrection, and notes that by the time of the latest gospels, Luke and John, there is an increasing emphasis on a bodily resurrection. In these later accounts, Jesus displays his wounds and allows them to be carefully examined, strongly implying that his resurrection body is the same body that was killed. This appears to be a departure from the view Paul held. When Origen later wrote in support of the idea of a resurrection into a new, spiritual body, these views were considered heretical. Yet Origen's views appear to be essentially similar to the views Paul himself propounded.

In fact, it is difficult to explain how Paul could hold to a two-body resurrection scheme if he were aware of the stories of bodily resurrection that were later recorded in the gospels. On the other hand, if those stories are later legendary developments, Paul's position is much less problematic. Of course, then we were left with explaining how those stories might have developed, which, as it happens, is what Carrier spends the second part of his chapter doing. (That takes a further forty pages, by the way. There are also thirty-five pages of end notes for that single chapter.)

Nor is this the only discrepancy between Paul's theology and that described by the later gospels and by other apostles. These kinds of difficulties make a great deal of sense when we view the development of Christianity as a human effort lacking divine guidance or, in some cases, evidential basis.

By the way, Richard Carrier has an FAQ for his chapter, available online here. One of the more interesting things he describes there is how Origen's position was purposefully and admittedly misrepresented by another early church figure (Rufinus) to give it a more orthodox flavor.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A History of God

Today, after reading it on and off for several weeks, I finally finished A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong started her adult life by becoming a Roman Catholic nun, but left after seven years, earned a degree at Oxford, taught modern literature, and became a well-known commentator on religious affairs. "A History of God" traces the various conceptions of God in the Abrahamic religions from the precursors of Judaism to the present day.

To summarize the book very briefly, the initial chapters describe the polytheistic belief systems out of which Jewish monotheism emerged roughly in the middle of the first millenium BCE, especially during the period of captivity in Babylon, though of course the process was a gradual one and it would be impossible to point at a particular time when it occurred. Armstrong does not devote much attention in the text to describing how this picture of the development of Judaism came to be, a picture substantially at odds with what I was taught in the church, though I have since gathered a similar picture to Armstrong's from other sources. Readers only familiar with what is taught in conservative churches would likely find this picture and its lack of justification (in the text of the book) unsettling, but I think that in broad outline it accurately reflects modern scholarship.

In any case, Armstrong moves on quickly to the emergence and early development of Christianity, and then the disputes over the doctrine of the Trinity. This includes not only the disagreements in the Latin branch of the church that came to a head in the fourth century and led to the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed which affirmed that Jesus was "of the same substance" as God (against the views of Arius), but also the diverging views of the Greek branch of Christianity that adopted a radically different conception of God, a view that emphasized an ineffable, unknowable view that was grounded more in experience than doctrine.

After a chapter describing the origin and early history of Islam, Armstrong shifts from describing the major religions mostly (but not entirely) in isolation to describing parallel developments in the conception of God within those religions. The first of these she describes as "The God of the Philosophers", wherein God is conceived in abstract terms and is distant, almost entirely separated from and unaffected by reality as we experience it. In contrast, "The God of the Mystics" represented almost a polar opposite view, where God existed only subjectively in human experience, mostly inaccessible to reason. In both cases, it was often Islamic thinkers that led the way, perhaps because Islamic societies were enjoying a great deal of economical and political success and stability.

Later, the Reformation prompted a "return" to earlier, simpler beliefs among Christians, even as the beginnings of a technological revolution in the West were changing the structure of society. Similar changes occurred in Islam, though in that case the causes were related more to the Mongol invasions as well as conflict with Western Christians. Jews saw at this time renewed persecution by Christians, being expelled from cities across Europe, and this led to revisions in their beliefs as well.

The last few chapters of the book describe the effects of the Enlightenment and exploding scientific understanding that, for the first time, led to serious consideration of the possibility that God may not exist. While some thinkers were happy to leave the idea of God behind entirely, others developed fresh conceptions of God that (somewhat like the mystics) rejected a literal, objective, separate existence. Still others clung ever more tightly to the idea of a supernatural person, regardless of the philosophical and evidential problems associated with the idea, culminating in the modern fundamentalist Christian movement.

Armstrong herself seems particularly sympathetic to the mystical, experiential conceptions of God, berating (very gently) the philosophically naive conceptions that typify both modern believers and those who reject God entirely based on those same naive conceptions. And I must say, I was previously unaware of the full diversity of beliefs that have been held under the names of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I was frequently surprised by the early recognition of various difficulties by early theologians and the sophistication of their solutions. Early Islam in particular was very successful not only in bringing improvements to the developing Arab culture and in co-existing peacefully with Jewish and Christian believers, but also in examining and refining their views of God. And yet...

As I wrote the previous paragraph, I used the word "sophistication" and noted to myself its shared origins (I assume) with "sophistry". Throughout the bulk of the development of the religious traditions that Armstrong is describing, the existence of God was basically just assumed, and all of the effort was expended to describe God, or to say why God could not be described. Various people attempted to solve the problem in radically different ways (viz. the difference between the philosophical and mystical conceptions), and occasionally individuals would vacillate between them as they came to understand the deficiencies of each view. The philosophical God existed, but could not be described and could not interact with a world that was so far below its (not "his") perfect, timeless simplicity. The mystical God, on the other hand, existed only in our minds. The personal, immanent God (and especially the doctrines of Incarnation and the Trinity in Christianity) more familiar to us today ran afoul of apparent philosophical and logical difficulties. Solutions to one problem introduced others.

Further, Armstrong describes how these various developments were affected by their historical context. The development of monotheism in Judaism occurred as the Jewish nations were overcome by first the Assyrians and then Babylonians. Christianity developed during a time of apocalyptic expectations of Jews under Roman rule. Islam developed out of the social ills that were plaguing the Arab transition from nomadic life to their success as merchant traders. As I mentioned before, important developments were related to technological and cultural changes, invasions, persecution, colonization and other non-religious factors.

As I see it, the early conception of a supernatural, personal God was correctly recognized to be untenable by those that gravitated to the philosophical and mystical understandings. It would be difficult for me to say that the God of the mystics does not exist because their conception of God, one which has no objective existence, is so foreign to my own conception. Still, belief in this purely internal, subjective entity grew out of experiences aimed at understanding a God that originally was thought to exist objectively. Without that foundation to start from, this move to mysticism seems misguided. Still, I acknowledge that a mystic might mean something so radically different by "God" that we could not easily have a meaningful conversation on the subject.

Similarly, the philosophical view effectively removes God from examination. Proponents of this view were reduced to describing everything that God is not, eventually settling on describing God as Nothing (a view fairly similar to some forms of Buddhism). Practically, while an intellectually stimulating exercise, this form of God-belief seems otherwise somewhat sterile, and the reasons to believe in such a God reduce to philosophical arguments like the necessity of a First Cause.

These kinds of beliefs were formed mostly during periods of relative economic, social and political stability. They were challenged by periods of unrest, when people wanted a God who could act in the real world. Sometimes, especially for the mystical variants, they were re-adopted when it seemed apparent that God was not acting in the real world. (Jewish Kabbalah mysticism is one example whose growth was stimulated by the tribulations of Jews in Christian Europe.)

The changing conception of God, then, has reflected the context and the needs of believers. To my mind, this reflects poorly on the reasons to believe in God, but Armstrong looks at the problem from a different angle. The summary from the inside jacket sums it up nicely:

Armstrong suggests that any particular idea of God must &mdash if it is to survive &mdash work for the people who develop it, and that ideas of God change when they cease to be effective. She argues that the concept of a personal God who behaves like a larger version of ourselves was suited to mankind at a certain stage but no longer works for an increasing number of people. Understanding the ever-changing ideas of God in the past and their relevance and usefulness in their time, she says, is a way to begin the search for a new concept for the twenty-first century. her book shows that such a development is virtually inevitable, in spite of the despair of our increasingly "Godless" world, because it is a natural aspect of our humanity to seek a symbol for the ineffable reality that is universally perceived.

While I do not agree that any present despair is due to being godless per se, I do agree that belief in God will likely persist and change for some time. In any case, Armstrong has produced a valuable and thought-provoking account of the history of belief in God, and I recommend reading it.