Monday, February 8, 2010

Man vs. myth 4

I'm responding to emails I’ve gotten on the subject begun with Man vs myth.

How do I bridge Christian faith with universal spirituality? By distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. For a full answer, go to God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky: Cherishing Christianity without Its Exclusive Claims, but you can also find answers by clicking on titles in my index. Try “Christ divine,” “Historical Jesus,” and “Myth.”

I often find myself in the middle of religion discussions, challenged by both sides but also bringing them together. And I feel progress from comments like the following. An atheist said,
I do feel that you have more in common with atheists than with fundamentalists of any religious bent. Evidence and reason matter to you as more than fallbacks to buttress beliefs placed beyond inquiry.
Another atheist shifted from scorning spirituality to valuing it:
Thinking spiritually does not mean giving up critical thinking, nor giving up reason and rationality.
Joy wrote,
I am discovering that educated and thoughtful Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have more in common with atheists than with the Christian right (or Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy). I do see the value of community and ritual and ceremony in religious traditions. But, again, religious dogma is not required to experience community or to create beauty with ceremony and ritual.
I personally cannot participate fully nor find meaning and beauty in community, ceremony and ritual which is based on and honoring faiths I do not believe in. However, I am learning that many can and do, and I can respect their reasoning. That saddens me a bit, however, because I believe it keeps some hearts and minds from becoming educated and thoughtful.
And a religious sister stated she had “no trouble agreeing” that educated and thoughtful Christians have more in common with atheists than with the Christian right. And here’s a response from another religious sister:
I resonate with your confession of belief [in Man vs. myth 2]. Thanks for articulating it clearly.
I couldn’t ask for a better endorsement.
Here’s a general reflection on religion from Ron:
Life evolved over millions or billions of years to where it is now, and will continue to do so. As homo sapiens developed powers of reasoning, a search for ‘why are we here, and how was all of this created?’ became a determination that some higher power was responsible, and that higher power or force field was humanized. A few thousand years ago, writing developed, and stories told around the fire ( after someone figured out how to do that ) were written down and passed along. Fables and myths became fact. Imagine if future generations happen upon a video of one of our soap operas and take it as fact.

Groups of people recognized that capturing this concept of a God and life after death was powerful stuff, and a great and profitable method of crowd control. Fear of death prompts the ease of acceptance of a life beyond existing life, a need to gather every week in a particular place at a particular time, and grovel before a greater power or force field with a need to be constantly reassured that we like it.

The Bible is a great book of fiction, hopes and dreams, nothing more. Jesus may not have actually existed. When you die, you die, and go to that same place you existed before you were born. But, a deep devotion to religion helps make us feel better about the whole prospect. Sorry, that's how I see it. Of course, others think I'm crazy and there “just has to be something to it. . .”
I agree with much of Ron’s analysis but also that there’s “something to it.” If sacred scriptures like the Bible were only great books of “fiction, hopes and dreams, nothing more,” we wouldn’t have wars started by religion. I have had deep conversations with atheists for years and notice they really don't believe in "nothing more." They believe in Something more and their moral commitment to it drives their atheism.

Lance, responding to my statement of belief, wrote this:
I think it is possible that Paul, who said that what he wrote about Christ was revealed by God and not given him by men, borrowed themes from other religions to cobble together a Christ figure whom he conceived as having performed a salvific role on a plane of existence not on this earth, and that subsequent writers used midrash to create an earthly Jesus who was born, who taught and performed miracles, and who was crucified here.
I repeatedly state that Paul “borrowed themes from other religions.” Their myths of dying and rising saviors helped to form our myth of Christ. But I do not agree that Paul and other writers created an earthly Jesus. I believe there was a man behind the myth and state the reasons for my belief in my chapter “The Man Jesus.”

Atheists often argue that no Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. They can’t prove that and I can’t prove that he existed. But whether a historical man underlies the myth of Jesus Christ is less important than understanding the distinction between man and myth. Most Christians believe the myth literally and that’s the problem. The myth says this man Jesus was different from every other human being who ever lived or will live—he had exclusive, exceptional, never to be repeated divinity. This tells persons in other spiritual systems that ours is better than theirs, and it prevents us from finding common ground with them.

We Christians need not be ashamed of our myth of Christ or its origins, but we need to accept it as myth; we need to learn how religious myths work in our lives so that we can stop the exclusive claims and embrace a universal spiritual outlook.

Lance wondered how I can call myself Christian if I don’t believe the myth literally.
If you think Gandhi and Buddha and Joe and Nelly also are manifestations of God, are you any more a Christian . . . than a Gandhian/Buddhist/Joean/Nellian?
It’s an accident of history that I belong to this great religion whose sacred scriptures are the New Testament and whose God-image is Jesus. They are familiar and evocative to me, and I know that Christian language, like all religious language, is properly understood symbolically, not literally.
Thank you all.

The man Jesus was quite a guy, a troublemaker who denounced religious officials, overturned common beliefs, and shook people up with exaggerated speech.
• If your eye gets you into trouble, gouge it out.
• If your hand gets you into trouble, cut it off.

I like and respect this provocative man more than the idol worshipped in church, where up-down language prevails.
• He came down from heaven.
• He descended to the dead.
• He rose from the dead.
• He ascended into heaven.
• He is seated on the right hand of the Father.
• Glory to God on high.
This comes from Hellenistic cosmology, which pictured the universe in three layers—heaven on top (where the gods dwelt), earth in the middle (flat, of course), and under the earth the abode of the dead. Like other Hellenistic gods and goddesses, the mythical Jesus traveled up and down these levels (on a “celestial elevator,” said one of my sources).

Traditional believers imagine Jesus born at the winter solstice of a father in heaven impregnating a human virgin, narrowly escaping death as an infant, dying violently, being resurrected and going back up to heaven. I’ve just described Hellenistic gods, but the only detail in this list that’s true of the man Jesus is that he died violently. Why imagine Jesus as a Greek god?

We can’t recreate the historical Jesus; we can only imagine him. I’m aware that my image differs from that of most Christians, also my beliefs about Jesus. I expect Catholicism in the future will have many groups going their own way, like the group of African Catholic priests who chucked the celibacy rule and the right fringe groups whom John Paul and Benedict have bent over backwards to include. There'll be less and less control from the top despite desperate Vatican efforts to maintain it.

Why should devotion to Jesus follow specifically Roman ways? Catholicism cannot remain a monarchy and withstand the tug of democracy forever. I expect it will go the way of Buddhism and Hinduism, which have disparate beliefs and practices.

A fascinating Catholic way that’s not Roman is the practice of Vodou in Haiti where persons go into a trance and are ridden by a deity. They release themselves completely to the spirit, so that when they come out of the trance, others have to tell them what they did and said. Spirituality foreign to most Americans, but is it wrong? No. Thinking so is our ethnocentric blindness, our desire to make other cultures think and act like us. (I learned that Vodou practice doesn’t really stick pins into dolls.)

In the post-Christian age we’re entering, I expect, not that Christian churches will disappear, but that more and more Christians will surrender their exclusive claims. Gradually they’ll learn to respect the God-images of our religious neighbors and stop insisting that Jesus is the only way to spiritual sustenance.


Green Monk said...

I look forward to such a day. It is happening albeit very slowly!

Florian said...

"Why imagine Jesus as a Greek god?" asks Jeanette. Christians don't say that Jesus is a Greek god, so there is no reason to complain of Jesus being a Greek god.

My honest, objective impression is that you, Jeanette, are overblowing the parallels between Christianity and the other religions of the Roman Empire. Parallels or similarities do not always mean that there is a real connection, so not everyone will draw the same conclusion you do, no matter how much you insist that your conclusion is "obvious". And you do not have to attack the intellectual integrity of others because they draw a different conclusion. For example, Hugo Rahner's conclusions may well have been honest and objective, and not unobjective because he was in the "clutches of the Christian myth" or something like that.

So let's look at
our up-down language again:
• He came down from heaven.
• He descended to the dead.
• He rose from the dead.
• He ascended into heaven.
• He is seated on the right hand of the Father.
• Glory to God on high.

You claim that "this comes from Hellenistic cosmology", but scholars on the whole do not come that conclusion. The conclusion reinforces your belief that the up-down language is just myth; but it may be fact.

Indeed, you do concede that one of these up-down claims is fact. You admit that Jesus died a violent death. Okay, if one of them is fact maybe others are as well. For example, why isn't "He rose from the dead" fact? You know there is just as much authentic testimony to the resurrection in the New Testament as there is to the crucifixion. The only reason you are not open to that fact is that you are not open to nature miracles. And you are not open to nature miracles because you are still somewhat in the "clutches" of your former atheistic materialistic worldview, even though you have admitted that it is wrong.

If Jesus resurrected then he ascended into heaven. Where else would one go after being resurrected? So, as you see, step by step, the Christian can reach the conclusion that the up-down claims are basically factual, not merely mythical. The theory of the connection with Hellenistic mythology then becomes irrelevant; for theories can't change facts back into myths.

Florian said...

"Spirituality foreign to most Americans, but is it wrong? No. Thinking so is our ethnocentric blindness, our desire to make other cultures think and act like us."

You are jumping too quickly to the conclusion that Christians would say that it is wrong. You are also jumping to the conclusion that it is not wrong. It is possible to find something wrong with a religious practice after becoming more familiar with it.

Not every condemnation of a foreign religious practice is due to "ethnocentric blindness". Have you ever thought that there could be reasons for condemnations? For example, don't we condemn the Aztec practice of human sacrifice? It was a practice foreign to us, but our condemnation of it has almost nothing to do with ethnocentrism.

But, of course, that is an obvious example of a foreign religious practice being wrong. Even in non-obvious cases though, it is possible to eventually find something wrong. In this case of Vodou, the church would conclude that it is wrong if practicing it involves one with demons.

Jeanette said...

Florian, obviously a traditional believer, comments often. I'll let readers answer his statements for themselves.

One correction: Nowhere do I "attack the intellectual integrity of others" but, when Florian attacks mine, I don't publish his comments.