Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dear Celsus,

An Amazon user posted this on the 'christianity forum' on amazon.com. Please take a look at Celsus's argument before going on. The title is "PROOF THAT BIBLE GOD DOES NOT EXIST".

Celsus's argument goes something like this: because the Christian God is traditionally held to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, to prove His lacking of one of these qualities is to destroy the Christian conception of God. I don't think I do any violence to his stance in wording it as such.
His argument proceeds thus: Let us see why the Christian God cannot be omniscient.

1. He allows "erroneous, contradictory, and foolish messages" to "infuse his inspired scriptures". Multiple examples follow.

2. He allows "his perfect Word to be corrupted by forgeries and interpolations." Examples follow.

3. He allows "messianic prophecies presented in the New Testament to be based on misquoted or non-existent Old Testament text." Examples.

4. Jesus makes "false prophecies concerning his second coming." (Lewis's take on this issue makes for irony here.)

5. He (God in general again, not Christ) steals "his main doctrines from pre-existing faiths." An elaboration follows.

Celsus also notes at one point that these arguments are against a literal, Fundamentalist reading of the texts--this is a demographic among which he was apparently once numbered.
Again, I hope you read Celsus's post before this. However, now I go on.

I'm not looking to refute Celsus's examples in the sense that he might think, but I will make a few comments on some of them.

First and with exasperation--at this line of thinking, not at Celsus himself: to look for scientific facts in Old Testament texts is simply to misunderstanding the nature of the text. More on this later.
Matthew 19 does not see Jesus 'recommending self-castration.' The line "let the one who is able to receive this receive it" is harkening back to verses 10 and 11. Please read context. Unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but I hate to see Jesus looking that kind of crazy. 
Target audience must be kept in mind with Mark 16.18. Besides, according to the tradition, the apostles suffer some ridiculous things; St. John is even supposed to have survived being boiled in oil, and that's a Hell of a lot more impressive than surviving some poison. The Emperor Claudius did that much (once). If you want to attack some claims, go for wilder ones that are purported as historical, I say.
I'll refrain from going on in this vein, though I could. That's not the sort of discussion I'd want to have.

The real issue I take with Celsus's thought is not overtly stated, but is underlying: there's a misunderstanding of the concept of inspiration. This does not mean that God himself typed the manuscripts (...levity...), but rather that His Spirit guided fallible men in the writing of the scriptures. This is essential.

This misunderstanding may of course be wholly the result of Celsus's conscious aim towards the fundamentalist reader with these arguments; I don't know. If it is not, then let me say this, though it may be too late in the game for Celsus to care much: there's another, larger Christian tradition out there that can answer these questions.  The fundamentalist tradition, I'm afraid you're right, simply cannot. When faced with contradictions, the fundamentalist will tell you frankly that they don't exist. When faced with science they will tell you that the Word of God knows better than some men in white coats. The ones really torn over this will immediately advocate ID or quietly lose their faith. All the while, the other traditions can simply look back through the centuries for wisdom: people like Origen (and appropriate name for this conversation) and Augustine were dealing with these issues from the earliest centuries of the church. 

Of course the real problem with the literalist's attempts to defend the scripture from this or that 'assailant' is that this is in fact not faith at all. Faith is the "assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Anything more concrete than that is simply the modern-empirical worldview parading itself as the proper way to read the Bible. 
These texts are supposed to be the Word of an all-knowing God, yes. (Once we've established this I wonder if we should even continue to speculate; as if we actually understand the term 'omniscient' and how to properly define it.) But they're a variegated bunch of texts--laws, poetry, epistles, apocalyptic literature, biographies, proverbs, and more. They were all written in different times for different purposes. Maybe some political propaganda; some songs... for singing! some maintaining of oral tradition when societies have been scattered or when the years still, unexpectedly, go by; some admonishments to young leaders. Regardless of what some people think or unconsciously take for granted, the end is not that the scriptures are all somehow the same kind of work, to be read in the same kind of way, that way being the proper, modern way of reading supposedly-objective texts. 
To judge them in this manner is to hold the texts to a false standard. To remove the human element from their composition is to ignore what they are. 

Celsus, in closing I just wanted to say that I'm sorry that you fell victim to a tradition which, for all of its good, reads the scriptures as it does, forcing anyone under its influence to read the scriptures as it does, and which seeks to buoy the claims of the Bible on science and history. These disciplines may be important when the texts make scientific and objective historical claims, but the former I'm not sure ever happens and the latter is done more seldom than most would think. This is all a fine example of why I find the fundamentalist reading so dangerous. Let the text be what it was meant to be; remember what Lewis said a few posts back.

I'm sorry to see that this is the sort of 'faith' that you had to adhere to, Celsus, and I understand why it wouldn't work out for you. I hope that one day you'll (as well as a great many others, non-Christian and Christian alike) be able to reconsider Christianity in a different way, and see that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, "the Lordship of Jesus is not deduced but encountered". Christ, is ultimately and despite all of our demands to touch his wounds, not to be touched, but simply to be called "my Lord and my God!" in faith.

post-script:
I also need to apologize to Celsus for my sloth in finishing this post. It's amazing how often 'more important' things, like Indiana Jones day or Seinfeld on DVD, will delay you from a task. Sorry about that.

7 comments:

Bill said...

(Tangential inquiry) I've heard in a video that I was watching that a literalist approach to the Bible is a relatively novel phenomenon, originating around the onset of the 20th century. While I find it hard to swallow that there's anything quite that new under the sun, is there any veracity at all to that assertion? I don't quite know where to look to find that answer.

Nance said...

The sort of intentional literal reading that we get from mainly the fundamentalist churches is largely a response to a growing historical consciousness that lead to attacks on the faith in the 19th century--Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche. The modernists started demanding historical evidence for the faith, and the church, in its zeal to oblige them, started to give that evidence the same sort of un-Christian credence that the modernists themselves were. What I think is funny is the thought that most fundamentalists seem to have that anything other than the literal reading is some new, accommodating philosophy, when in actuality you can see it way back in Augustine, Origen, Philo of Alexandria, maybe even pre-dating Philo in the Jewish tradition, I don't know.

I understand that all the popular rapture theology is about that new too. ;)

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

There was in the early Church a sort of tension between the school of thought at Antioch (which was more "literal" in its approach to scripture) and that at Alexandria (which delighted in the depths of spiritual and allegorical interpretations). Though neither school was attempting (as the fundamentalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were attempting) to accomodate Biblical Revelation to a post-Enlightenment and empiricist theory of knowledge. This was, I believe, a grand mistake that it was only natural for them to make.

I will say to Celsus' objections #4 and #5 - #4 is most likely based upon a widespread failure to understand what Jesus meant by "the coming of the kingdom" (as reference to its inauguration in the Resurrection, rather than its fulfillment in the Last Day as is usually supposed); and #5, as Lewis pointed out, would be perfectly consistent with a God who was writing his ways on the hearts even of pagans and revealing little glimpses of his plan in nature (and human nature) as a (we might say, remarkably effective) preparation for the revealed gospel of Jesus Christ.

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I should also point out that both Alexandria and Antioch were seats of one of the five popes, or patriarchs, of the early Church (two - at Rome and Constantinople are still very influencial to this day, the others lost their influence after being conquered early on by Islam) and were therefore very influencial across the ancient Church catholic.

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

oh, I should also add, regarding Mark 16:18 there are two questions we might want Celsus to consider:
1) there are textual issues regarding this verse: is it or is it not part of the canonical New Testament since there are (at least) 2 competing endings to Mark in different early manuscripts. The Roman Catholic Church I believe has said "yes" to the longer ending's canonical authority, but I know of no Protestant Churches who have made a judgement here (and until they do, I suppose I will follow the Romans).
The second thing is that I believe everything mentioned in the verse does actually happen to someone in the book of Acts and may not be intended as a universal Christian experience, but rather a particular prediction that will come to pass in the near (for them) future (contra snake-handlers).

Jordan said...

"Christ, is ultimately and despite all of our demands to touch his wounds, not to be touched, but simply to be called "my Lord and my God!" in faith."

yeah doubting Thomas allusion. very nice quote. thought provoking.

"as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, "the Lordship of Jesus is not deduced but encountered"."

Doesn't NT Wright make those deductions e.g.--the early Christians believed in a bodily resurrection, the tomb was empty...and eventually the deduction that Jesus rose from the dead and that therefore Jesus is Lord. Paul said without the resurrection our faith is meaningless so I'm sure the early Christians deduced from historic tradition the resurrection and naturally following from that deduction the Lordship of Jesus.

Nance said...

That's sort of the pattern that Wright follows, though he's quick to point out that this sort of rational processing of data is not the essence of faith. But yes, in his mind nothing from early Christianity makes sense without the bodily Resurrection of Christ. Some nay-sayers (or at least 'I don't know about that'-sayers) will point out that the empty tomb seems be imposed onto Paul's writings, like in 1 Cor 15 in his 'summary' of the gospel message that lacks it, by deduction, and that such deduction is wholly uncalled for. Wright's arguments seem to make clear that the empty tomb is implied. Also, in the afore-mentioned early MSs of Mark with different endings, we always end up with at least the empty tomb. It was certainly in the early tradition.