Tag Archives: Jesus

The Theist-to-Mystic Sidestep

Let’s start by defining terms. As you know, I don’t believe in fixed definitions, so obviously these are my definitions, made to help us communicate on this post:

A Theist: a person who believes is a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, intervening in the world and who responds to prayer.

A Mystic: a person who believes the possibility of union or communion with some god, or absolute or higher level of truth or some such thing. Mystic who believe in a god, don’t necessarily believe in the Theist’s god. (see my post “Monkey God vs. Cat God“)

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When I left Christianity, I tried Reformed Judaism for a year — a stripped down Christianity. Then I started reading Christian mystics: Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross and especially Thomas Merton. But I could tell that all these mystics were trying desperately to hang on to their Jesus. So I started reading Buddhism and Taoism — as filtered through the Western forms of these. (see my post on “The Making of Buddhist Modernism“)

Both of these (my Christianity and my mysticism) were largely fed by my weird experiences in life. (see my posts on “My Supernatural/Mystical Experiences“)

But slowly I began to realize that I was trying to add an extra layer of wonder, an extra layer of meaning, an extra layer of hope to both my ordinary and my extra-ordinary experiences. I was valorizing my experience — I was creating a fantasy of deep meaning and hope. Finally, I came to rest with not taking this extra step. And with such a move, my habits of mind became more clear and both the ordinary and not-so-ordinary became more brilliant.

Theism is hard to escape and mysticism offers a much more benign ground to live in. But mysticism comes with its pitfalls of idealism and romanticism all built to support our fears. But heck, all positions come with pitfalls, don’t they.

Mystic Pitfalls:

  • feel that real meaning, real knowledge comes from union with the absolute (be that a god, the universe, Buddha-mind, The One or any such thing).
  • homogenizing, idealizing, romanticizing the world of a myriad of things
  • negating or minimizing the body, normal mind, or normal experiences
  • judging others as not having your amazing connections, perspective and insight
  • valorizing your experiences and your temperament

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Please feel free to criticize or try to correct or add to my thoughts above.

 

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Which Jesus Behind the Stories?

Which JesusMatt Brisancian did a fine infographic on the Easter story. At the end of his graphic, he proposes five ways of looking at the Jesus story. Of these five ways, Atheists tend to take the #4 or #5 options:  4. Growing Legend, 5. Christ Myth.

But the contrast between these views may not be as strong as some imagine. To illustrate my point, above I made an imitation and expansion of Matt’s options #4 & #5 to show a 4 a,b,c and d.  With these, I try to illustrate that depending on how much truth you feel the Jesus legend version (#4) contains, it can so easily approach the Christ Myth version (#5) in a way as to be almost indistinguishable.

I tried to capture the same idea here in my post & graphic called “The Jesus Pie” — see my own personal pie here.

Question to Readers:  Where do you tend to stand?

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Jesus and Big Fish: film talk

Jesus fishSeventy some years after Jesus supposedly died and a few stories of him had already been penned, the writer of the Gospel of John decided to tell his own tale and to make it very clear that Jesus was a god.  John tells us that his Jesus even existed before the universe was created and that Jesus himself created our universe.

Wow, what a big fish story!

As the gospel writers tell us, fish were indeed a speciality of Jesus.  All the writers share a similar story of Jesus helping his disciples catch fish, and not surprisingly, John’s story is the biggest fish story.  Whether these are two different real stories or just a shared myth is debated, but the stories are remarkably similar.

Mark 4:1-2 and Matthew 13:1-3 tell us that Jesus taught from a boat. Luke 5:1-11 uses a boat story to illustrate the calling of some disciples. And Luke adds a miraculous fish catching section to the story so as to teach his readers that Jesus wants his disciples to catch people and not just fish.

Ducio's (1300s) Miracle of the 153 Catch

Ducio’s (1300s) Miracle of the 153 Catch

John uses the fishing story differently: instead of using it as a literary tool to explain Jesus’ early-career gathering of his disciples and call to missionary work, John’s fish story has Jesus appear to his disciples after his execution. In John’s story Jesus isn’t in the disciples’ boat but yells to them from the shore, “Boys, you haven’t caught any fish yet, have you?”  Then, as in Luke’s story, Jesus directs them to throw their net over the right side of the boat and wham!, they catch so many fish (153 to be exact) that they couldn’t haul in the net due to their weight (while Luke has the net break).

In John’s story, the disciples didn’t know who was talking to them until they caught the fish because Jesus was in his newly-resurrect, special celestial body (1 Cor 15: 35-58). But after the miracle, the ever-so-bright Simon Peter wakes up and says, “Duh, it’s our Master!”

OK, I paraphrased John’s story, but I think it is close.  But are these stories true? Did the original hearers of the stories even care if they were true? What purpose did the stories fulfill? These exegesis dilemmas are addressed differently by different types of Christians. These are questions any fish story demands.

big_fish_08Speaking of fish stories, yesterday my daughter and I watched and thoroughly enjoyed Tim Burton’s film Big Fish (2003) — based on Dan Wallace’s 1998 fantasy novel. It is a tale about a father tells his life story by weaving together huge, complicated fish stories.  These stories estranged the father from his son but though angry at his father, the son returns home when his father is dying, and realizes two important truths:

  1. Fantastic stories can contain important seeds of truth.
  2. Sometimes exaggerated stories are fun and help fill both the speaker and the excited audience with a sense of identity better than bland stories.

Though the father’s relentless fictions alienated his continually protesting son, the movie wants us to look down on the son as being cold, literal and unimaginative.  Further, the writers clearly want us to forgive the self-centered, grandiose, poor-listening father because of the beautiful things he accomplished in his life, the people he inspired and for the wonderful stories he wove which would survive him.  The son realizes that his fathers fantastic stories indeed offer him a sort of immortality.

I enjoyed the film and it made me wonder of some of the strategies of Progressive Christians to redeem the stories of their Jesus.  Instead of viewing those strategies with contempt, the Big Fish movie helped me envision them with a little more sympathy. For like most folks, I too love a great story.

I’m trust my readers see all the parallels I am trying to allude to in this poorly woven  post.

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Also see: my other movie reviews here.

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Criterion of Embarrassment

Embarrassed ManLots of Christians love the “Criterion of Embarrassment” to bolster supposed evidence for the credibility of their sacred  documents. It seems (see Wiki) that this approach dates from the 1800s. The argument goes like this: if the Jesus story were fabricated, it wouldn’t have all sorts of embarrassing details like Jesus being an illiterate laborer, or Jesus being killed as a common criminal. The approach is highly limited, but like many bad arguments (consider Pascal’s wager), we hear it recycled constantly by Christians.

Even New Testament confessional Christian scholar Mark Goodacre has done a fine short podcast showing the weakness of this mistaken criterion.

Clapham, one of my Evangelical commentors, just applied the same criterion of embarrassment on his blog comment to try and add credibility to the stories in Jewish Tanakh (his “Old Testament”). Here is what Clapham said:

Sure they [the OT stories of Moses and Abraham] could have been made up – but why would you only make up those bits? Abraham generally comes across as a cowardly muppet, Moses similarly hardly covers himself with glory. If you were going to make it up surely you do it properly?

I replied with yet another criticism of the flimsy criterion of embarrassment by using a comparative religion approach and said:

In the Mahabharata [Hindu scripture written around the same time as the Tanakh], the stories of the heroes are full of their foibles, mistakes, wrong doings and more. If I remember correctly, it is the same with the Iliad and the Odyssey (Greek) — written close enough to a similar time.

So the data shows fiction is often written with imperfections and such to make the story believable, more interesting, relatable and more. Well, certainly back then. Well, unless you believe the Mahabharata and Odyssey the same way you believe the ancient Jewish stories.

Clapham generously replied:

having less knwoledge than you on those subjects I’m not going to try make a comparison, but I do take your point.

I hope he and other readers will reconsider this faulty criterion. The criterion of multiple attestations is another favorite of Evangelicals and is likewise horribly mistaken. But mistakes can be stubborn — take astrology, for instance.  Marc Goodacre has another podcast criticizing it too, btw.

I have taken this conversation to my blog because Clapham’s thread was becoming unwieldily due to nasty hierarchy. 🙂

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Jesus as an ex-Lover

Jesus_ex_lover

Jesus is certainly fictionalized in the various stories about him that survive. See my post, “How do you view the Bible’s Jesus?” where I illustrate the variety of images non-believers and Christians have of Jesus.

One of these views is that Jesus’ story was not based on a real person but made up out of whole cloth– they are called “mythicists”. Naturally, Christians wholeheartedly reject this theory, but I am often surprised at how vehemently some ex-Christians also reject the theory.  Today I came up with a theory as to why their feelings may be so strong:

When someone breaks up with a lover, I have seen the following responses to be common:

  1. They think he/she was a complete jerk / idiot (or some other such thing).
  2. They get angry at the person who introduced him/her to the ex-lover.
  3. They get angry at that ex-lover’s friends who remain his/her friend instead of also rejecting him/her.
  4. They get very depressed and self-loathing – hating their own stupidity.
  5. They say, “Oh well, moving on.”

For ex-Christians who are vehement about not entertaining mythicism arguments  I wonder if part of it is because doing 1, 2, or 3 is far less painful than 4, though 5 is obviously often the best goal.

If Jesus as an ex-lover of yours, it may be too hard to admit that you totally deceived yourself and easier for you also to do 1, 2, or 3 above.

Question to readers: What do you think?

Caveat: Yes, I realize that warning others about the dangers of religion can also be good and not necessarily tied up with psychological complexities.  I’m just saying, we have complex minds.

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Blah : Jesus’ Teachings

This is the title of a book I have long daydreamed of researching and writing–but alas, like many dreamy bloggers, I won’t. So, instead, I will slowly do some of it here on my blog. This is the intro–I will put up an index page later.  But before you begin this post, consider responding to the poll on the right. Most of you will probably not find an answer that matches your opinion. You probably would want to add lots of caveats, corrections or other options. But please play the game and choose the closest answer to your opinion.

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According to most versions of Christianity, the Jewish god, Yahweh, impregnated a 13 year-old Palestinian peasant girl in order to make a version of himself called “Jesus”. Yahweh did this because he had a mission or missions for Jesus.

The various flavors of Christianity see Jesus’ mission(s) differently but most of them fall into one of three categories:

  1. Salvation: to save people from sin and damnation
  2. Kingdom: to establish a new Kingdom: God’s kingdom
  3. Teachings: to give moral teachings

The four accepted Jesus stories (the “gospels”) are then peppered with magic and supposed prophecy fulfillment all along the way so that the reader accepts the credibility of Jesus’ missions.

Each sect of Christianity does a different mix of these three missions.  I have written elsewhere the obvious problems with his first supposed mission: Salvation.  As for his second mission, the Kingdom, it is obvious that no Kingdom has arrived even though both Jesus and his disciples expected it in their lifetimes.  So in a panic, hundreds of generations of Christians have spun various Kingdom theologies to try and correct for this obvious problem.

Though nonbelievers mostly laugh off Christian salvation and heavenly kingdom myths, the third mission gets occasional approval even from nonChristians. I have often heard non-believers kissing up to  Jesus’ apparent third mission: The Great Teacher.  Perhaps this is to be expected of believers in other great gods, gurus or teachers, but I have even heard casual atheists saying, “Well, I don’t believe Jesus was a god, but I believe Jesus was a great moral teacher.”  Mind you, blogging atheists (not the casual type), go the other extreme.  Check out the poll results.

But really?  If you look at Jesus teachings, they are a mix of nonsense, blandness, and occasional good virtuous ideas which were said by teachers and philosophers all over the planet before his time.  Jesus was not unique.  Often times his teachings were just “Blah”, outright wrong and even crazy.  Jesus was not a great teacher.  Well, at least that is my opinion.

In future posts, I hope to illustrate and support my above preposterous claim.

Question to readers:  First, please take the poll then add a comment with your caveates, objections and more. They will help me in considering future posts.

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Lying my way into Christ

Social_CirclesChristianity was the dominant, privileged religion of my childhood family, my neighborhood, my town, my state and my country.  It’s not like I had a lot of choices.

My family was nominally, casually and culturally Christian. We dressed up and attended church on important days, celebrated religious holidays and pledged allegiance to God and Country.

I played the game until I was fourteen years old and then declared I was an atheist. My parents grounded me for a while for refusing to go to church, but six months later the whole family stopped going to church (but no recompense!). With Sundays now free, our family spent more time at the boat, camping and more. Yeah!

In Junior High School (“Middle School” to my kids), I was very shy and had no real friends. Two years later, in High School, I made two friends — my only friends.  Those new friends, both from my advanced Math class, just happened to have been Baptists from the same local church.  And as good Christian friends do, when they take hell seriously, they gently, but dutifully, tried to convert me back to Christianity — the cultural norm.

Sabio with Baptist GF

Sabio (16 yo) with that Baptist GF — Dressed for the Prom

By the time I was in High School our family spent less time together. For just like many teenagers, I preferred spending time with friends to being with parents. Besides, my parents were having their own issues by then.

To spend time together my two Baptist friends invited me to their Christian activities and I accepted. The activities were not blatantly Christian (one of their techniques) but the leaders always took time at the end of each activity to ask us to think about Christianity.  So at sixteen years old I started re-investigating Christianity. Mind you, it helped that one of those buddies’ neighbors was a cute Baptist gal who I was considered dating.

OK, I was a superficial pig, but I didn’t know it. I was not intentionally devious. Well, my mind may have been intentionally devious — my mind was deceiving “me”.  My mind convinced “me” that I was sincerely interested in the truth, and thus, in Christianity.  And sure enough that Baptist girl bought into it:  she though, just like I thought, that I was sincere — a real seeker.

salesmanNothing is more convincing than a salesman who believes his own bullshit. Indeed, the placebo effect is known to sit at about 30% but when both the patient and the practitioner of an ineffective therapy believe in the sham treatment its effectiveness can jump up to around 70%.  Thus self-deception has clear adaptive evolutionary advantages. But which came first, other-deception, or self-deception. Either way, therein lies the reason we can’t trust our own stories: our stories of our success, of our personalities or of our conversions in or out of a religion.

Self-deception occurs, time elapses and we usually forget the original settings of our change and thus the chance to see behind our self-deception slips away forever. And as we discover other benefits for believing an idea/religion and more self-deceptions pile up, we may lose our chance to admit the carnal, basic, embarrassingly simple reasons we originally adopted our ideas/religion.

Of course some of you are much more noble than me — you actually discover real truths, embrace ideas for selfless reasons–merely because they are true.  And I know you won’t like this, but I will continue wondering if you are as full of as much shit as me. I may hide my doubts of your self-story, because it would not be useful for you to know that I doubt you.  I want you to think that my questions are sincere, mutually exploring and kind.  I don’t want you to see through the deep doubt I have of your stories.  And if I didn’t convince myself (lie to myself) that I am sincerely interested in your webs of self-deceit, you’d never believe that I am sincere.  So I think I am sincere here.

The problem with Sabio that he is schizo: he steps out of his social-proper-self at awkward times, showing his inner lies. Damn — I am so unconvincing.

My conversion to Christianity — my way into Christ — was of course much more complex. (I hope to illustrate the complexity in another post).  Previously I shared when I found one of my best friends dead and heard God’s voice.  That experience obliterated the memory footsteps of my half self-lies to date the pretty girl and bond with friends.  After the death of my friend, my reasons “changed” for becoming a Christian.  I would not uncover these memory footsteps until much later, when the self-deceit was no longer useful (note: some may say “until the honesty no longer hurt”, but I think that is usually a half-lie too.)

Question to readers: Share one of the few self-lies you’ve been able to remember.  And please reassure me that you don’t think I am a superficial, manipulative bastard.

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