Mormonism documentary

June 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Christianity, is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, religious experiences)

I just watched “The Mormons“, a long and informative documentary which I found through Staring at the View. It was really quite interesting both to learn about a faith that I knew very little about, and also because of how well it illustrated the various different sides of religious belief in general. I found myself facepalming an awful lot, but also occasionally feeling happy for the comfort beliefs can give people. That is the paradox of religion.

The last couple of minutes of this clip was particularly interesting. Here are two quotes from 9:08 onwards that talk of the collision between faith and reason due to the historical claims of religion:

“History as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ’s resurrection was a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That’s the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that’s a reality that we just can’t flee away from.”

“All religion, western and eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what would eventually be Judaism; the origins of Christianity; the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation, all revelation is supernatural; if you wish to be a hard-rock empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.”

It really is much easier to dispute religious claims when you are not in the religion, and when the religion is comparatively new. Somehow we seem to think that because something happened a long time ago, it has more veracity – maybe because religions become such stable systems that are much bigger and more “complete” than they started out. But as these people are saying, the historical origins of all religions involve highly improbable things, things that you would never believe if you didn’t have some other emotional kind of motivation for believing. The critical comments on the Book of Mormon – its textual style and the lack of any evidence to support its content – certainly felt familiar from my own critical responses to religious texts. I really think faith in religion requires a determinedly uncritical approach.

Joseph Smith came off to me like an eccentric cult leader that somehow created a movement that went big. He reminded me of other cults where the leader has absolute power and can even get away with sleeping with other men’s wives. He also reminded me of Muhammad (who had more than his fair share of women too) with a very similar mode of revelation, bringing a new holy text, creating a theocracy, aggravating the existing communities where they settled and even engaging in military conflict, and making a “hijrah” of sorts.

The reports of a pentecost-like period when the first temple was constructed were so fascinating. Many people reported seeing angels going through its windows and all sorts of things like that. This stuff really fascinates me. The fact that it happens in different and mutually exclusive religions would have to mean that at least some of the time it is just people’s collective imagination, which is easy for me to accept but I wonder how Christians for example feel about these reports from the Mormons. I think when I was into Christianity, miracle claims from other faiths really worried me because what if those miracles are real, and even if they’re not, how do I know the miracles reported in my own faith were real?

Just like Islam, Mormonism has evolved past its origins and become mainstream, and has had to wrestle with some of its darker sides such as the polygamy and the exclusion of black people. I found it very interesting how the leaders described feeling led by God to revise doctrines such as the latter. Of course I don’t think it was divine guidance, I think it was that they allowed themselves to follow their conscience, and then ascribed it to God. But it gives me hope that if only people allow themselves to break with the rigid tenets of tradition and follow their conscience, things do get better.

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Ehrman: messages and doctrines in the books of the NT

February 28, 2010 at 12:04 am (Christianity, God)

I have finished Bart D. Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted”. It was a good read, and there were a couple of interesting points from it that I wanted to note down.

Firstly, he brought attention to the differences between the different gospels in terms of the overall message. Luke in particular has an interesting message. The passages where Jesus is being taken to be crucified show him being very calm and collected, not distressed in any way. He is presented as the perfect martyr, and the purpose of his death to the author of Luke – as expressed through the book of Acts which is written by the same author – was to make people see they had erred, they had crucified an innocent Messiah, and to prompt them to repent. The centurion at the crucifixion scene states that Jesus was innocent, driving this point home. Luke’s gospel was based on Mark’s gospel, but Luke removed the part that said Jesus was to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), and the curtain in the Temple rips while Jesus is still alive – so not to demonstrate that his death provided a way for man and God to commune freely, but to signify that God had abandoned the Jews for crucifying their Messiah. I thought that was interesting.

Secondly, he showed contradictions between letters attributed to Paul, which are used by scholars to demonstrate that Paul didn’t write them all. For example:

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

“having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:12)

Little things like that interest me, because I assumed Christian doctrine was all clear-cut and thought I knew exactly what it was. Now I see that it really depends which book of the New Testament you read. When I read it, I will bear this in mind and not try to force it all to cohere.

There was also some interesting stuff in the book about the development of early Christianity and all the different movements that believed different things, and how the movement was transformed from Jesus’ religion to a religion about Jesus. I’m not going to quote anything but I recommend the book to anyone interested in that.

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God and morality

February 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm (absolute goodness, Christianity, God, is religion good or bad for you?, morality, philosophy, suffering)

I guess what I’m thinking is that God doesn’t dictate morality. God may have created us with morality, but certainly did not write the moral code on the back of our hands so we’d know what to do. He wrote it in our hearts perhaps. In other words… gave us the ability to work out how best to live, and it’s up to us whether we do that.

As for what God thinks of our behaviour, or what God wants of us, I’m going with “I don’t know”. 😀 I don’t feel good about thinking that God wants to reward or punish our behaviour like some sort of cosmic adjudicator. The effects of that belief can be so ugly. I’d rather be motivated to do good based on understanding why it’s good and wise and beneficial. And we all say God wants us to question and to understand and not just follow things blindly… so why should I assume God wants any particular behaviour?

If you think that God wants you to behave a certain way, then you will want to know what that way is, and so you will sooner or later construct a moral code out of a set of dubious historical documents supposedly having something to do with God… and follow it to the letter. Even though that makes no sense. Because the fear of hell does that to people.

The thing about grace and mercy is, it takes away the need to please God. I think this is why Christians have a much less elaborate set of rules than some other religions.

And yet, there is still the belief in Christianity that God hates sin and loves righteousness, so sin is still bad, and there is the expectation that a believer will bear good fruit, and there is still the need to struggle against sin – not to earn salvation but presumably to please God… even though this is not supposed to be necessary. Which can lead to some of those ugly effects again: guilt, shame, hiding, denial, dishonesty, keeping up appearances, shallow moral thinking…

What would it be like if we didn’t believe that God was displeased by our wrongdoing? Taking grace even further so that not only is sin forgiven (and/or atoned for), but it’s not even offensive to God any more?

People who are very into judgment-based religions would say, all hell would break loose. But there are plenty of atheists with good morals… do we really need to believe that doing bad displeases God? Or can we be good without that motivation? (Does that motivation even help at all? I think we’ve all met immoral religious people…)

Honestly, I don’t know. I think the way I am going to answer that is by studying the really great people of the world and working out what motivated them. I suspect spiritual beliefs have led us to make great insights, but whether it was all motivated by pleasing God I don’t know.

Sin is behaviour which hurts somebody. If God hates sin, why did God create and put us in a world that hurts us (disasters, disease, etc)? And why is it that sometimes things that hurt us seem to do us good? Why is it that the same natural processes give rise to life and take life away? This does not seem like a fallen world. It seems like a world full of paradox. I have a horrible feeling there is no meaning behind it. I want to believe that to God, it is all good, in some way that we can only glimpse at occasionally.

Sometimes I think the world is so amazingly good, and especially humanity. But sometimes it all looks a terrible mess that we’ll never be able to fix. The world is not heaven and it is not hell, but it is both all mixed up together.

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Honesty about the Bible

February 17, 2010 at 11:00 pm (Christianity)

I’ve started my next book: “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” by Bart D. Ehrman. I bought this at the same time as the other Jesus book, by E. P. Sanders, as I wanted the truth about Jesus and these two authors seemed to be widely regarded as prominent New Testament scholars. Ehrman has many books that sound interesting, but the reviews indicate that there is a lot of overlap between them, so I thought I’d just buy the most recent one.

Here are a couple of quotes from the first chapter:

“One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realize that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did, they find that there are other books that were at one time considered canonical but that ultimately did not become part of Scripture (for example, other Gospels and Apocalypses), they come to recognize that a good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonymous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered. They learn all this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf.”

“The views I set out in this book are standard fare among scholars. I don’t know a single Bible scholar who will learn a single thing from this book, although they will disagree with conclusions here and there. In theory, pastors should not learn much from it either, as this material is widely taught in seminaries and divinity schools. But most people in the street, and in the pew, have heard none of this before. That is a real shame, and it is time that something is done to correct the problem.”

I have to agree with Ehrman that it is “amazing and perplexing”. Why is there such a huge divide between what is taught in church and what is taught in college to prospective church pastors?

The historical-critical method is, let’s face it, a rational method looking for objective, factual truth. It’s like science. There is no wonder I am attracted to books like this; it’s no secret that I have been after literal truth. When I read Sanders’ book, it was so refreshingly thought-provoking, I thought even then, why haven’t I ever read stuff like this before? Why don’t churches promote this type of knowledge? Why don’t these books get pushed in Wesley Owen? Aren’t churches missing a huge opportunity to reach out through this research to people who have been conditioned to use their minds and won’t respond to traditional platitudes?

We are a long way from an Islamic equivalent of this research, never mind its dissemination. But unlike the Quran, large chunks of the Bible were never meant to be written by God; inspired by God, sure, but not necessarily perfect. Even when in the grip of evangelical faith I was able to see that the New Testament is mostly letters from one person to another(s), and I could never entertain the notion that the writers of the letters ever meant their words to be taken as God’s. Ehrman says that the knowledge he is presenting in the book does not destroy Christian faith; he lost his own faith over the problem of suffering, and it was nothing to do with his developing an honest, objective picture of the Bible.

At a time when I’m struggling to hold onto my regard for religion, reading something like that puts another nail in the coffin. I feel like people are being cheated out of truth. I can’t see any justification for knowingly peddling myth (here, the myth of Bible inerrancy) as literal truth.

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Jesus’s death

February 6, 2010 at 7:05 pm (Christianity)

It’s strange, but I don’t think I ever actually knew why Jesus was executed! Sanders puts forward his view in chapter 16 of “The Historical Figure of Jesus”.

Jesus and his followers went to Jerusalem for Passover and Unleavened Bread (two feasts, one long event) – all Jewish males were required to go, it was like a pilgrimage. They would sacrifice a lamb at the Temple and eat it at the Passover meal. Jesus did more teaching during that week, but he also did 3 symbolic acts: the triumphal entry on a donkey, which fulfilled scriptural prophecies; the turning over of the money-changers’ tables at the Temple; and the last supper with his disciples.

1. He made a triumphal entry on a donkey in which people greeted him as “king”. Probably not huge numbers of people, as he would have been arrested there and then if that were the case: “Passover was a prime time for trouble-makers to incite the crowd, and both the high priest and the Roman prefect were alert to the danger.” By the way, the high priest Caiaphas was sort of the governer of Jerusalem; he answered to the Roman prefect, Pilate, who was not normally involved in local governance but made a point of coming during the pilgrimage incase there was trouble to deal with.

2. He turned over the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the pigeon-sellers. This was a symbolic act but is difficult to interpret. Sanders is sceptical of the sciptural quotations Jesus is supposed to have made at the time of this act, which are often interpreted as meaning that he wanted reform of the system; Sanders instead links the act with a prediction Jesus made that the Temple would be destroyed. This predictive statement is likely to be authentic as it does not describe exactly what happened later (the Temple wall actually still stands). “…we can say that Jesus did not otherwise (as far as we can tell) spend his time … attacking the commerce that was necessary to the functioning of the Temple. He did, however, have quite a lot to say about a looming dramatic change to be wrought by God. This inclines me to think that the actions of overturning symbolized destruction rather than cleansing as an act of moral reform.”

Further, at his trial, Jesus was accused of threatening to destroy the Temple; this accusation also appears during his crucifixion, and mention of the threat even resurfaces in Acts. Sanders says about this: “The authors of the gospels are at pains to assure us that Jesus did not really threaten to destroy the Temple. … They protest too much. It is probable that he made some kind of threat. … It is more likely that Jesus said and did something that onlookers believed to be a threat and that genuinely alarmed them. They reported it to the authorities. But when they were examined in court, they – like other eyewitnesses – gave slightly different accounts. We cannot know precisely what Jesus said. I shall assume that he threateningly predicted the destruction of the Temple; that is, he predicted destruction in such a way as to make some people think that he was threatening it.”

He probably believed God would destroy and rebuild it as a newer, better Temple.

It was this act of turning over tables, along with whatever he said about the destruction of the Temple, that Sanders believes earned Jesus his execution. “If the high priest Caiaphas and his advisers knew that Jesus had been hailed as ‘king’ when he entered Jerusalem, they would have already worried about him. The Temple action sealed his fate.” It wasn’t that they thought Jesus could physically destroy the Temple, or that they thought he had amassed a secret army; it was simply that they feared he could incite the large crowds at the pilgrimage and cause unrest. Sanders cites other similar cases recorded by Josephus, a first-century documenter of history, that show it would be fairly normal to execute someone who did what Jesus did.

3. The last supper is very well-attested and was symbolic of what things would be like in the new kingdom. Sanders makes little commentary on the statements about the wine being Jesus’ blood and the bread being his body, but says it is very likely Jesus knew he was “a marked man” at this point. He didn’t run away, though. “He hoped that he would not die, but he resigned himself to the will of God.”

It is this resignation to the will of God that I can’t decide whether I think is impressive, or horrifying. This attitude continued through his arrest and his trial: “Conceivably he could have talked his way out of execution had he promised to take his disciples, return to Galilee and keep his mouth shut. He seems not to have tried.” I guess he was so committed to his truth that he was prepared to die for it. He wasn’t going to take back anything he said, or be dishonest, just to save his life.

A couple more interesting points:

The bit where the high priest, Caiaphas, tears his clothes in response to Jesus’ supposed blasphemy (verse 63 here) – if it really happened – was an exaggerated overreaction designed to get the advisers on board with the execution. Blasphemy was not the reason for execution.

Interestingly Pilate (the Roman prefect) is made to look sympathetic in the gospels, so as not to offend the Roman authorities who would read them! In reality Pilate would just have OK’d the high priest’s recommendation to execute Jesus – he “probably regarded him as a religious fanatic whose fanaticism had become so extreme that it posed a threat to law and order.”

Finally, chapter 17 briefly deals with the resurrection accounts. Sanders rules out that the accounts are all fabricated, since people were willing to die over their convictions that they had seen the risen Jesus. He believes at least some followers had “resurrection experiences”, but the accounts differ so much that we can’t even know who had the experiences, or how they experienced Jesus to be like. “The reader who thinks that it is all perfectly clear – the physical, historical Jesus got up and walked around – should study Luke and Paul more carefully. The disciples could not recognize him; he was not ‘flesh and blood’ but a ‘spiritual body’. He was not a ghost, or a resusciated corpse, or a badly wounded man limping around for a few more hours: so said Luke and Paul, and John (20.14f.) agrees.”

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”

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Jesus’s life

February 6, 2010 at 12:19 am (Christianity, God, moral issues)

I have finished “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E. P. Sanders, and it was very interesting and enlightening. In this post I will share what I’ve learnt about Jesus’ life and mission, saving the part about how he died for another post.

Jesus started out under John the Baptist, before embarking on his own ministry. He called 12 disciples, close followers; the number 12 was symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel, and he said that they would judge the 12 tribes when the kingdom of God came. His main message was that the kingdom of God was coming very soon (i.e. within his own generation), and this was a common theme of the day. It seems to have referred to a dramatic intervention by God to establish a kingdom on earth ruled by God himself (the eschatological stuff), and also, referred to heaven. He taught about what the kingdom would be like. He had many followers and supporters but he expected only a few to give up everything and join him in his highly insecure existence. Even after his death, his followers continued to expect the kingdom, and gradually adjusted their expectations when it was not forthcoming.

He performed miracles, mainly healings and exorcisms, which earned him local fame. His ethics were perfectionistic, but his main emphasis was not on presenting rules but on showing mercy and compassion. He was not a social or political reformer – he believed the kingdom was coming soon and that God himself would establish it, so there was nothing people could do to bring it about.

Jesus saw himself as representing God – it is unclear whether he took on any titles like Messiah or Son of God, and it is unclear what “Son of Man” meant, which is how he sometimes described himself. It is unclear whether the Son of Man who he predicted to descend on a cloud when the kingdom came also referred to Jesus himself, but it might have. He seems to have thought of himself as “king” in some sense; he was fully aware when he rode on a donkey into Jerusalem that he was making this identification of himself (because it fulfilled scriptural prophecy). It’s worth pointing out that “Son of God” did not imply “more than human” or “divine” where it was used in the Jewish tradition; that and the virgin birth story came with the influence of Greek culture. To the Jews it always meant a person who had a close relationship with God.

Here is some more info under various headings – sorry it’s so long! If you’re pushed for time, “Ethical teaching” and “Sinners” are the most interesting parts, so skip to them. 🙂


Jesus’ miracles were mainly healings and driving out demons. He was not the only healer or exorcist, and it was not taken as a sign that Jesus was more than human, but it meant he was viewed by some as a holy man and his fame arose from it. He saw the miracles as symbolic of the kingdom being at hand.

Some of the miracle stories are probably exaggerated or even made up. The biggest example is the exorcism where demons go into swine which then jump into the sea. Mark sets this story in Gerasa and Matthew sets it in Gadara, neither of which are on the sea.  “The apocryphal gospels of later centuries sometimes depict Jesus as performing equally fantastic and grotesque miracles, some of which are even crueller than the destruction of swine, such as killing his childhood playmates and then restoring them to life, or turning them into goats. That is, sometimes Christian authors wished so strongly to present Jesus as a being able to employ supernatural power that they depicted him as being no better than a god of Greek mythology in a bad mood. For the most part, the canonical gospels are free of this tendency. Here, however, Jesus’ spiritual power over demons is so emphasized that it has resulted in an unattractive story.”

Also, the dramatic incident of feeding the multitudes seems to provoke no response from the crowds in the gospel stories, in contrast with other gospel stories where his fame spreads due to a single exorcism. You would think such dramatic miracles would result in mega-fame but this doesn’t pan out through the stories. Perhaps the feeding of the multitudes didn’t really happen. “…it could be reasoned that historically there was little response because there were few major miracles, while in the gospels there are great miracles but inexplicably little response. Possibly Jesus’ actual miracles were relatively minor and excited the public only temporarily. This is a speculative, though I think reasonable solution.”

Gentiles (non-Jews)

“All of the authors of the gospels favoured the mission to Gentiles, and they would have included all the pro-Gentile material that they could. … What is striking is that the evangelists had so few passages that pointed towards success in winning Gentiles to faith. They could cite only a few stories about Jesus’ contacts with Gentiles, and even these do not depict him as being especially warm towards them. … We must suspect that the most favourable statements about Gentiles … are Matthew’s creation. Consequently, we cannot be absolutely sure what Jesus’ own view about Gentiles was. On general grounds, I am inclined to think that he expected at least some Gentiles to turn to the God of Israel and to participate in the coming kingdom. The general grounds are these: a good number of Jews expected this to happen; Jesus was a kind and generous man. That is, the alternative to thinking that Jesus looked forward to the conversion of Gentiles would be that he expected them all to be destroyed. This is unlikely.”

Ethical teaching

Jesus had an idealistic moral perfectionism: turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, and so on. His prohibition of divorce is the most well-attested pericope. Paul modified it to permit divorce with a non-believer; Matthew has Jesus give an exception – divorce is permissible following adultery. “We can hardly think that the early Christians invented the prohibition: they found it very difficult and had to modify it.” I got the impression that while he was an ethical or moral perfectionist, this didn’t extend to ritual perfectionism, like it maybe did with the Pharisees and Essenes who were super-strict in that way – although he did follow the ritual laws.

But although he expressed these high ethical ideals: (1) He didn’t teach very much about inner thoughts – Matthew has two instances of this here and here, but that is all; most of what he taught is more about actions than inner thoughts. (2) He emphasised “compassion towards human frailty”. (3) He was not a puritan – he “came eating and drinking”. (4) He made friends with sinners (see below).

This passage shows that to Jesus, real perfection is mercy – being like God who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.

Attitude to Jewish law

Sanders proposes that Jesus does not ever oppose or “abrogate” the law, but requires a stricter code of practice (ethical perfectionism as discussed above). Even with divorce – Moses’ command to give a divorce certificate becomes unnecessary but is not declared “wrong”. In regard to this one, the law does not actually command hatred of enemies and this was not generally taught in Judaism, so that is not a law being abrogated. “Eye for eye” sets a limit for retaliation, and non-retaliation is not forbidden by law. In regard to Jesus supposedly declaring all foods clean in Mark, Matthew does not have this – and according to Sanders, what Jesus meant was that not only what goes in (food) defiles a person, but also what comes out (wrong talk).

Sanders justifies this theory by explaining that there would be more of a sense of opposition to Jesus in the gospel stories if he really advocated abandoning the law. “Had he gone around Galilee, teaching people that it was alright to work on the sabbath and to eat pork, there would have been an enormous outcry. A man who claimed to speak for God, but who taught that significant parts of God’s law were not valid? Horrendous! Nowadays, non-Jewish readers may not see how terrible this would have been.” Sanders explains that Mark is retrojecting this into Jesus’ story from the point of view of 2nd-generation Christianity, where the law has been abandoned. “Mark calmly tosses in the sentence, ‘He declared all foods clean.’ Paul’s letters crackle with the rage and hostility that his position on circumcision and food laws occasioned. Paul experienced the debate about the law firsthand. Mark (a second-generation Christian) did not, since it was largely over, nor did Jesus, since it had not yet arisen.”

Apparently it is highly unlikely that small-scale legal disputes would have caused some groups to plot to kill him as it states in Mark 3:6. In particular, no group would have considered that healing to be a transgression of the sabbath law. “In Jesus’ day and age… people did not kill one another over the sorts of issues that figure in Mark 2.1 – 3.6. The level of disagreement and argument falls well inside the parameters of debate that were accepted in Jesus’ time.” I didn’t entirely understand why the authors made it look like people were plotting to kill him over these petty legal disagreements, but I think he is saying that it was written from the point of view of the later legal disputes in early Christianity.


His association with sinners – blatant law-breakers – did actually offend people. And Sanders makes the point that he must not have been trying to reform the sinners, because that wouldn’t have offended anyone. “If Jesus had managed to persuade other customs officers to do what Zaccheus did, he would have been a local hero. But it seems that he was criticized. How can we understand this?”

Repentence as a theme in Jesus’ teaching is really only prominent in Luke and Acts (which are written by the same author). Matthew and Mark have surprisingly little about Jesus teaching repentance. John the Baptist certainly preached repentance, but it seems not to have been at the forefront of Jesus’ teaching.

“Jesus, I think, was a good deal more radical than John. Jesus thought that John’s call to repent should have been effective, but in fact it was only partially successful. His own style was in any case different; he did not repeat the Baptist’s tactics. On the contrary, he ate and drank with the wicked and told them that God especially loved them, and that the kingdom was at hand. Did he hope that they would change their ways? Probably he did. But ‘change now or be destroyed’ was not his message, it was John’s. Jesus’ was, ‘God loves you.'”

I found that particularly interesting, and really quite moving. In fact it was my favourite part of the whole book. The parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep is one of the best examples to illustrate the point: God, the shepherd, goes out to find the lost sheep and bring it home. He does not wait around for the lost sheep to return. The emphasis is on God reaching out in love and mercy, not on the sinner repenting.

“In a world that believed in God and judgement, some people nevertheless lived as if there were no God. They must have had some anxiety about this in the dark watches in the night. The message that God loves them anyway might transform their lives.”

How does this square up with the moral perfectionism? I guess maybe Jesus understood these sinners, understood why they were that way… didn’t judge them, supported them as society’s underdog, and even saw good in them. I imagine he lived in a very colourful world – not black and white.

I think there is a huge difference between on one hand, having idealistic morals but being realistic in dealing with real people (sinners); and on the other hand, having realistic morals that allow you to feel (dishonestly) that fulfilment of your obligations is within your grasp. It’s a completely different kind of realism. And I love Jesus’ realism. I love the fact that there is honesty about what real true goodness is and is not, while at the same time, people who fall short of it are not doomed but are loved despite their failings. It’s a truly astonishing balance.

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January 20, 2010 at 9:00 pm (Christianity)

I’m currently reading “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by prominent New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders. I am loving it! The first 7 chapters have all been introductory, so I am only now about to get into learning about the historical Jesus. This is a reflection of how thoroughly transparent the book is about its sources and their issues, and the methodology. It is brilliantly well-written and a pleasure to read because of how clear it is.

Here are some interesting things I learnt about the gospels, from chapter 6.

  • Gospel material started out as oral traditions pretty much like hadiths – very small stories called “pericopes”. They were not used to tell the biography of Jesus, but to make various points to various people – so the stories were all removed from their original context.
  • After some decades (probably in years 70-90), the gospels were written from these small stories. There may have been stages in-between the “isolated sayings” stage and the full gospels, such as collections of sayings grouped by topic.
  • Expressions such as “at that time…” and “then…” and “immediately…” were used to string the stories together in the synoptic gospels. These are narrative devices and do not represent true knowledge of the order in which events occurred (this even differs from one gospel to another). Beacuse they are constructed from pericopes, the gospels are “stark” and do not read like biographies.
  • New material crept in – particularly into John’s gospel – because the lines got blurred between the historical Jesus and the spiritual Jesus that the believers experienced as speaking to them through prayer. “John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them. The author of the Gospel of John would be the first to point out that this does not mean the discourses that he attributed to Jesus are ‘untrue’; he would not have agreed that historical accuracy and truth are synonymous…”
  • The gospels were written anonymously: names were not attributed to them in any literature until the year 180. Author names were assigned at that point through detective work on the texts, which was “shrewd” but ultimately the identity of the real authors is uncertain.
  • The apocryphal gospels – those that didn’t make it into the New Testament – probably contain very very little authentic material. (That’s a relief – I won’t bother reading them all!) Only the infancy gospel of James and the gospel of Thomas were written early and contain interesting material. The rest is pretty much just legends. The four canonical gospels also contain some legendary elements, but they are the main sources for historical truth.

Much of this was deduced through textual “detective work”. I find that quite fascinating. I must admit it would be interesting to see scholars analyse the Quran in this way. My impression when reading it was that it was constructed in part from something like these pericopes – historical oral traditions, such as Lot leaving Sodom and Gomorrah – there are even several versions of that story in the Quran with slight variations; for example sometimes it says Lot’s wife was left behind, sometimes it says an old woman was left behind. It’s not a contradiction but it does seem like it came from two different traditional accounts.

It’s interesting as well to realise that the gospels are more like hadith collections than a “divine writ given to Jesus”. Knowing that that’s how they are constructed, somehow answers questions I never knew I had… to me, the gospels never read as if someone had sat down to write the story of Jesus’ life, but I didn’t know why until now. Amazing!

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Idolatry is the best we can do…

December 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm (Christianity, God, Islam, myth and metaphor)

… and we ought to just be honest about it.

I have read the first two chapters of Karen Armstrong’s “A History Of God” and I am already blown away. I was actually quite alarmed when I first started reading, because it begins with the words: “In the beginning, human beings created a God…” I suspect this, and my title, will alarm some of my readers too. But please bear with me. There is a very important point to this and while it may threaten religion, it does not in any way threaten belief in God.

It’s easy for us, with our modern fully-evolved theology, to say that the concept of a single transcendent creator is totally different from pagan worship of created things. I used to think that the knowledge of a creator is primordial and natural to our consciousness, but it turns out the early ideas about God(s) even in the Hebrew tradition actually had nothing to do with creation. I still think spiritual insight is natural and inborn. But it leads people to experience and express reality in very different ways.

The God that Abraham and his immediate descendents encountered was called El and was quite different in nature from the God Moses knew, who was called Yahweh. El appeared to Abraham as a man, and wrestled with Jacob as a man. Yahweh on the other hand was perceived on Mount Sinai in the midst of what seems to be a volcanic eruption, and in a burning bush, and could not be seen directly. It is suggested in this book that these ideas or concepts or pictures of God had different origins. In a sense they were different Gods.

Also, a huge news flash to me – early Judaism was polytheistic! They believed in the existence of the other gods. The whole point of the covenant Yahweh made with Moses and his people was that they would forsake all the other gods and worship only Yahweh. This only made sense in a polytheistic context. If they didn’t believe in other gods, there would have been no need.

I always wondered how those Israelites could forsake God as soon as Moses’ back was turned and worship a golden calf. But they were just doing what came naturally to them; different Gods had different roles, for example some were warriors, and some were for fertility, and so they turned to whichever one they felt would benefit them. And they weren’t worshipping the calf itself, but using it as a symbol to invoke one of the Gods they believed in, much like how Muslims use the Kaaba. There was never any worship of overtly man-made things.

It took some time for their conception of Yahweh to evolve to the God that we know today: tawheed, a single transcendent creator.

And so the idea of one single unchanging God who has revealed himself to every prophet from Abraham onwards has been blown out of the water for me. Karen Armstrong drives this point home in the first chapter: throughout history we have always “created” our Gods, in a sense. We have expressed our sense of the divine through our human ideas. This is what I think the word “idolatry” actually means in her writing. And she says (emphasis mine):

Despite the bad press it has in the Bible, there is nothing wrong with idolatry per se: it only becomes objectionable or naive if the image of God, which has been constructed with such loving care, is confused with the ineffable reality to which it refers.

This is where it gets really interesting. She goes on to tell how in around 622 BCE, when the idea that there really is only one God was developing, King Josiah violently suppressed worship of the other Gods. At this time an ancient manuscript was discovered which basically became Deuteronomy, part of the Torah. (It is hinted that this was not so ancient actually. 😉 ) The result of this discovery was that the history of the Exodus – Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land – was revised, to include all the nasty stuff about wiping out the Canaanites because they worshipped Gods other than Yahweh. This new intolerant slant, this belief in being a chosen people favoured by God, was a reflection of the ethos developing at this time under King Josiah. She says about the violent events of the time:

This wholesale destruction springs from a hatred that is rooted in buried anxiety and fear.

Isn’t that fascinating?

It makes me think of, “the lady doth protest too much”. They hated other peoples’ expression of their sense of the divine, because in the backs of their minds, they knew that their own God was just that: an expression of their own sense of the divine.

Pagan polytheism was much more tolerant because the idea of another God did not in any way threaten a person’s own God or Gods. They could all be true. In the same way, universalism such as developed in Hinduism – the concept of an impersonal overarching reality that transcends everything including the gods – was very tolerant. In the first century CE monotheism reached that level of universalism too, in Jewish thought, where theology was considered a private matter and not dictated from some authority on high. But fundamentalism – the belief that your own particular ideas about God are totally right and that other belief systems are wrong – always tends to lead to intolerance and antagonism and ultimately, holy war.

Karen Armstrong suggests that it is perhaps a pitfall of having a personal God, that such a concept lends itself to the “election” of a chosen people. People can project their own egotistical desires onto a personal God in a way that they can’t for an impersonal ultimate reality. However, the concept of a personal God also seems to stimulate social justice in a way that didn’t happen in India for example.

I never really understood why in Islam associating partners with God is the biggest sin. Now it all makes sense. And this is why I am repelled from religion time after time: I prefer to express what I don’t know about God, than to be so sure of my own beliefs in unseen, unprovable ideas that I allow myself to feel superior or more enlightened than others.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the book!

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God’s love

December 22, 2009 at 8:53 pm (Christianity, God, Islam)

It is often claimed that God is not as loving in Islam as in Christianity. It’s not so obvious, though.

The thing is, love is a word in English that is not easy to define – it has a whole range of meanings. It could even be equivalent to rahma (mercy) in Arabic, in which case God is definitely loving in Islam.

The Quran has verses which are translated as “God loves…” or “God does not love…” followed by types of people. These always made me bristle because I previously assumed God loves everybody. But the Arabic word for love used here is yuHibb, which can also be used to mean “he likes”. This is just my uneducated opinion, but it seems to me that these verses may be talking about what pleases or doesn’t please God, as opposed to an equivalent of what we mean by “love” in English.

Real love is not necessarily gushing and emotional stuff. Real love could be more like, an honest, constructive and encouraging appraisal, with a commitment to never turning one’s back. God is something like this in Islam. A sinner can always repent and be forgiven.

There is also the aspect of caring for the welfare of someone… that is part of love too. I think this type of love is only extended to believers. (See this article.) That is probably the main difference in God’s love between Islam and Christianity, because in Christianity the caring love is extended to everyone. But in Christianity it is difficult to reconcile God’s caring love for sinners with their eternal punishment in hell (if they don’t believe).

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Jesus in the Quran

November 20, 2009 at 9:00 pm (Christianity, Islam)

My intention in this post is to give some Quranic verses and commentary from Muhammad Asad about Jesus. My intention is not to present my own views about Jesus. I would prefer not to get into any debates about the divinity of Jesus or other headaches like that.

The reason I want to post these is that they give what I think is a very reasonable account of Jesus within the context of the Islamic picture. (Whether it’s reasonable generally, I’m not going to say.) The interpretation differs from some Islamic concepts I’ve heard about Jesus, but I had difficulty assimilating those concepts into Islam, so I was interested by what I read here.

Firstly, the Quran seems to use Christian language – words that could be translated as “holy spirit” and so on – but seems to mean different things by it than what Christians mean, as explained. I’ve noticed this in other passages; it seems to reproduce previous scripture while narrowing and refining the definitions.

2:87 For, indeed, We vouchsafed unto Moses the divine writ and caused apostle after apostle to follow him; and We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration.*

* This rendering of ruh al-qudus (lit., “the spirit of holiness”) is based on the recurring use in the Qur’an of the term ruh in the sense of “divine inspiration”. It is also recorded that the Prophet invoked the blessing of the ruh al-qudus on his Companion, the poet Hassan ibn Thabit (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dd’ud and Tirmidhi): just as the Qur’an (58: 22) speaks of all believers as being “strengthened by inspiration (ruh) from Him”.

Here we see Jesus referred to as God’s word, but meaning really just the fulfilment of God’s promise:

4:171 O FOLLOWERS of the Gospel! Do not overstep the bounds [of truth] in your religious beliefs,* and do not say of God anything but the truth. The Christ Jesus, son of Mary, was but God’s Apostle – [the fulfilment of] His promise which He had conveyed unto Mary – and a soul created by Him.** Believe, then, in God and His apostles, and do not say, “[God is] a trinity”. Desist [from this assertion] for your own good. God is but One God; utterly remote is He, in His glory, from having a son: unto Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth; and none is as worthy of trust as God.

* I.e., by raising Jesus to the rank of divinity. Since here the Christians are addressed specifically, I render the term kitab as “Gospel”.

** Lit., “His word which He conveyed unto Mary and a soul from Him”. According to Tabari, the “word” (kalimah) was “the announcement (risalah) which God bade the angels to convey to Mary, and God’s glad tiding to her” (a reference to 3: 45) – which justifies the rendering of kalimatuhu as “[the fulfilment of] His promise”. (See also note on 3: 39.) As regards the expression, “a soul from Him” or “created by Him”, it is to be noted that among the various meanings which the word ruh bears in the Qur’an (e.g., “inspiration” in 2: 87 and 253), it is also used in its primary significance of “breath of life”, “soul”, or “spirit”: thus, for instance, in 32: 9, where the ever-recurring evolution of the human embryo is spoken of: “and then He forms him [i.e., man] and breathes into him of His spirit” – that is, endows him with a conscious soul which represents God’s supreme gift to man and is, therefore, described as “a breath of His spirit”. In the verse under discussion, which stresses the purely human nature of Jesus and refutes the belief in his divinity, the Qur’an points out that Jesus, like all other human beings, was “a soul created by Him”.

The virgin birth was something I could not understand in an Islamic context. Somehow I managed to completely miss the footnotes the first time around, but I already started to notice that the Quran doesn’t explicitly say Jesus was born to a virgin. It turns out on closer inspection that Muhammad Asad concurs with this.

19:19 [The angel] answered: “I am but a messenger of thy Sustainer, [who says,] ‘I shall bestow upon thee the gift of a son endowed with purity.’ ” 19:20 Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – for, never have I been a loose woman!” 19:21 [The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but! thy Sustainer says, ‘This is easy for me*; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from Us.’ ” And it was a thing decreed [by God]: 19:22 and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place.

* Cf. the identical phrase in verse 9 above, relating to the announcement of John’s birth to Zachariah. In both these cases, the implication is that God can and does bring about events, which may be utterly unexpected or even inconceivable before they materialize. In connection with the announcement of a son to Mary, the Quran states in 3:47 that ‘‘when He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it, ‘Be’ – and it is’’: but since neither the Quran nor any authentic Tradition tells us anything about the chain of causes and effects (asbab) which God’s decree “Be’’ was to bring into being, all speculation as to the “how” of this event must remain beyond the scope of a Quran-commentary. (But see also note on 21:91.)

It says to see 21:91, so here that is too. This is a verse that could easily be misconstrued as supporting the virgin birth if it was read with that in mind as a preconception:

21:91 AND [remember] her who guarded her chastity, whereupon We breathed into her of Our spirit*
and caused her, together with her son, to become a symbol [of Our grace] unto all people.

* This allegorical expression, used here with reference to Mary’s conception of Jesus, has been widely – and erroneously – interpreted as relating specifically to his birth. As a matter of fact, the Quran uses the same expression in three other places with reference to the creation of man in general – namely in 15:29 and 38:72, “when I have formed him… and breathed into him of My spirit” and in 32:9, “and thereupon He forms [lit., “formed”] him fully and breathes [lit., “breathed’’] into him of His spirit”. In particular, the passage of which the last-quoted phrase is a part (i.e., 32:7-9) makes it abundantly and explicitly clear that God “breathes of His spirit” into every human being. Commenting on the verse under consideration, Zamakhshari states that “the breathing of the spirit [of God] into a body signifies the endowing it with life’’: an explanation with, which Razi concurs. (In this connection, see also note on 4:171.) As for the description of Mary as allati ahsanat farjaha, idiomatically denoting ‘‘one who guarded her chastity” (lit., “her private parts”) it is to be borne in mind that the term ihsan – lit., ‘‘[one’s] being fortified [against any danger or evil]” – has the tropical meaning of “abstinence from what is unlawful or reprehen­sible’’ (Taj al-Arus), and especially from illicit sexual intercourse, and is applied to a man as well as a woman: thus, for instance, the terms muhsan and muhsanah are used elsewhere in the Quran to describe, respectively, a man or a woman who is “fortified [by marriage] against unchastity”. Hence, the expression allati ahsanat farjaha, occurring in the above verse as well as in 66:12 with reference to Mary, is but meant to stress her outstanding chastity and complete abstinence, in thought as well as in deed, from anything unlawful or morally reprehensible: in other words, a rejection of the calumny (referred to in 4:156 and obliquely alluded to in 19:27-28) that the birth of Jesus was the result of an “illicit union”.

OK, so potentially no virgin birth… what about death? I’m sure we’ve all heard the Islamic concept that Jesus did not die, but take a look at this.

3:55 Lo! God said: “O Jesus! Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me, and cleanse thee of [the presence of] those who are bent on denying the truth; and I shall place those who follow thee [far] above those who are bent on denying the truth, unto the Day of Resurrection. In the end, unto Me you all must return, and I shall judge between you with regard to all on which you were wont to differ.

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? But then in the following verse the Quran appears to deny the crucifixion. At a Sufi workshop I was told that this verse had, in the past, been understood to mean that Jesus went willingly to the cross (and so nobody forcibly killed him). The interpretation by Muhammad Asad, on the other hand, is that the crucifixion did not happen at all and was a legend, and so the means of Jesus’ death is left unspecified.

4:157 and their boast, “Behold, we have slain the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, [who claimed to be] an apostle of God!”  However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so;* and, verily, those who hold conflict­ing views thereon are indeed confused, having no [real] knowledge thereof, and following mere con­jecture. For, of a certainty, they did not slay him: 4:158 nay, God exalted him unto Himself** – and God is indeed almighty, wise.

* Thus, the Qur’an categorically denies the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. There exist, among Muslims, many fanciful legends telling us that at the last moment God substituted for Jesus a person closely resembling him (according to some accounts, that person was Judas), who was subsequently crucified in his place. However, none of these legends finds the slightest support in the Qur’an or in authentic Traditions, and the stories produced in this connection by the classical commentators must be summarily rejected. They represent no more than confused attempts at “harmonizing” the Qur’anic statement that Jesus was not crucified with the graphic description, in the Gospels, of his crucifixion. The story of the crucifixion as such has been succinctly explained in the Qur’anic phrase wa-lakin shubbiha lahum, which I render as “but it only appeared to them as if it had been so” – implying that in the course of time, long after the time of Jesus, a legend had somehow grown up (possibly under the then-powerful influence of Mithraistic beliefs) to the effect that he had died on the cross in order to atone for the “original sin” with which mankind is allegedly burdened; and this legend became so firmly established among the latter-day followers of Jesus that even his enemies, the Jews, began to believe it – albeit in a derogatory sense (for crucifixion was, in those times, a heinous form of death-penalty reserved for the lowest of criminals). This, to my mind, is the only satisfactory explanation of the phrase wa-lakin shubbiha lahum, the more so as the expression shubbiha li is idiomatically synonymous with khuyyila 1i, “[a thing] became a fancied image to me”, i.e., “in my mind” – in other words, “[it] seemed to me” (see Qamus, art. khayala, as well as Lane II, 833, and IV, 1500).

** Cf. 3: 55, where God says to Jesus, “Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me.” The verb rafa ahu (lit., “he raised him” or “elevated him”) has always, whenever the act of raf’ (“elevating”) of a human being is attributed to God, the meaning of “honouring” or “exalting”. Nowhere in the Qur’an is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has “taken up” Jesus bodily, in his lifetime, into heaven. The expression “God exalted him unto Himself” in the above verse denotes the elevation of Jesus to the realm of God’s special grace – a blessing in which all prophets partake, as is evident from 19: 57, where the verb rafa nahu (“We exalted him”) is used with regard to the Prophet Idris. (See also Muhammad ‘Abduh in Manar III, 316 f., and VI, 20f.) The “nay” (bal) at the beginning of the sentence is meant to stress the contrast between the belief of the Jews that they had put Jesus to a shameful death on the cross and the fact of God’s having “exalted him unto Himself”.

Again, I don’t want to discuss whether or not this is plausible. I just wanted to show what the Quran says and how this might be interpreted. My main point is that what Asad calls “fanciful legends” about Jesus within the Islamic tradition find no basis in the Quran. Another concept which is absent from the Quran is the idea of the second coming of Christ. I would guess that comes from hadiths, whether strong or not I don’t know.

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