Monthly Archives: February 2010

Jesus, The Mirror

I often try to notice the way people view Jesus: who he was and what he stood for.

My observation is that Jesus is a kind of reverse fun-house mirror. When we look at him we see ourselves, but a slightly better version of ourselves. Maybe ourselves as we’d like to be, or as we aspire to be.

I’ve heard conservative evangelicals describe (with ample citations) how Jesus was an economic and social conservative, whose agenda was to bring a radical moral code to a world that had slipped into liberal degradation. I’ve heard those with sympathies for liberation theology describe (with many citations) how Jesus’s message was a powerful challenge for social justice, focussing on the poor, the vulnerable and the despised. I’ve heard those who long to be taken out of the world evoke a Jesus (again, with lots of citations) who teaches political detachment, eagerness for the life to come and a neglect for earthly duties. I’ve seen people sport pictures of Jesus as Che, soldiers wearing “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets, and unmarried women with wedding rings from their Holy bridegroom.

And I’ve been amused for the last couple of weeks as Jim McGrath walked into a flamewar on the subject of Mythicism (the idea that there was no historical Jesus), and it occurs to me that when some atheists look at Jesus they conveniently see nothing there*.

I suspect this happens whenever you have a set of texts as rich, complex and theologically diverse as the new testament. No matter what you want Jesus to be, you can read along and the things that resonate will stand out, and the things that stand out will be what you remember. We pay more attention to views that support ours, and so, by a natural process, Jesus becomes more like us.

I think there was a historical Jesus, around who’s core reality was built the various tales, doctrines and theologies we see today. I think we can have some confidence that certain things he is reported to say, he did. I think some of those are odious, some deeply profound and moving. I think he died a failure, was not resurrected and spawned a most fantastically interesting cultural and sociological phenomena.

I have very good reason to believe each of these things. I can provide numerous citations…

* Okay, so the mirror metaphor breaks down here – but you see the point. Jesus is whatever you want him to be.

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Croudsourcing the Bible

Over at כל־האדם (“kol-ha’adam” or “all of man[kind]” ), Joseph has put forward an idea that has crossed my mind a couple of times: a central biblical resource featuring scholarly translation and apparatus. Done in such a way as to be useful to students and other researchers.

This would be nothing less than a new translation of the bible. It would have the opportunity to be a great resource, if its tendency to slip into partisanship and dogmatic infighting could be resisted.

I also think it could be commercially interesting: it could generate research funding, could spin off secondary materials and could charge a premium (much as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does).

Unfortunately it is *very* difficult for bible students to find translations that seriously try to engage with the text in a historical critical manner, and deliberately take steps to avoid being compromised by liturgical, cultural and theological idiom. The only answer is to learn the original languages, I think. For me that’s fine when I’m in the NT, but my Hebrew is pretty crummy. I’ve been pretty lapse about practising it. And I don’t see why, at least at undergraduate level, original languages should be a pre-requisite for doing some forms of higher criticism.

I’m switching off comments on this post, please head over to כל־האדם if you want to contribute or decry the idea!

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Page Rank Google

I notice I’m now 38th on Google for ‘Irreducible Complexity’. That was a big surprise. Its not like a month of blog posts could possibly mean this site is that central for a term which has a fair bit independent life!

I know Google rebased their servers to focus on the new, so I might sink fast in the next few months.

Still, I ought to think about writing the odd post refuting creationist arguments about Irreducible Complexity, see if I can get on the front page where it might be useful! Then again, there’s a lot of Behe’s and Dembski’s to beat to get there.

So, all of you who blog and comment, what search term shows you surprisingly highly?

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What is a Monotheist?

I was listening to an old podcast of Higgaion (a good, if recently quiet, OT blog by Christopher Heard) about the divine council, a topic I tangentially referred to a couple of weeks ago.

The guest presenter, Michael Heiser, is describing the recurrent idea in the OT that God is assisted or advised by a council of other gods or spiritual beings.

He discusses whether the ancient Israelites could be described as monotheist at all:

“The term was coined in the 17th C. So its a bit unfair to use it on Israelite religion. Yet that’s what scholars do. Opting for terms like henotheism or polytheism as well. Those are also modern terms. Frankly, we ought not to impose our terms on the ancients in such matter. What Israelites believed about God is better described than defined with a single word.”

And then goes on to talk a bit more about the problems with the word Elohim as ‘God’ in the sense that we think — a reference to a particular theistic supreme being:

“In the hebrew bible several different individuals or groups are described as Elohim. There’s Jahweh, the God of Israel. There are the Gods of the [divine] council, Demons in Deut 32:17…. And there are angels. And the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel [1 Samuel 28:13].”

(square brackets mine)

Both excellent quotes.

I would want to stress one thing that Heiser doesn’t go into, however: the chronological differences.

Although the text of the OT dates to only the first few centuries BCE, some of the source material is much, much older. And that will reflect a differing view of God. We have to be sensitive to those issues. Older passages sit alongside those centuries newer with no division or indication. And in those years the religion of the Israelites inevitably changed. This is particularly true of compilations of literature such as Genesis, the Psalms, or Isaiah.

Seems that the Higgaion podcast was a 5-episode run, shame no more were made – I was really enjoying them.

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Comments Subscription

Apparently the emails that notify you when a post has a new comment might not be being sent.

Anyone else notice this?

They seem to work for me, but that might be because my emails go through a different path (being the admin).

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The Atonement in Animals

My wife read the Life of Pi (by Yann Martel) on holiday. She thought this bit might appeal to me:

[The priest] served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled with every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.

And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine father saying to me, “… a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”

“Yes, father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.”

“Hallelujah, my son.”

“Hallelujah, father.”

She was right.

Atonement never has been very appealing to me. Particularly Penal Atonement – though the other accounts are scarcely any better. Here’s a cynically black and white interpretation that nonetheless does make a reasonable point.

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Making the Perfect Heart

Constructing a Perfect Heart Shape from a Square and Two Circles

Ian's constructive geometry method for the perfect heart. I assume everyone remembers how to draw a perfect square using just compasses and a straight edge, right? I imagine there is an age gap there!

We make Valentine’s cards for one another here. This year I went out on a quest for the perfect heart-shape. A good blend between proportion, curve, and size. The best I discovered was very simple. Take a square, and use two adjacent sides as the diameters of circles. The result, when rotated by 45 degrees, is a darn fine heart shape, though I say it myself.

And the best bit of all is it is really easy to program, when you want to create a card with ten thousand hearts on it, for example :)

Continue reading

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Nuanced Atheism

I was thinking this weekend about positions on the border between atheism and religion. There are a few, I think, and they have a range of features: some closer to atheism, some obviously heterodox forms of belief. Here’s my list.

Bear in mind I have a deep distrust of categories, so I think these are merely labels one might want to adopt from time to time, not pigeon holes to conform to. I, for example, have occupied most of them at some point. I am nearest to a Cultural Christian in this sense at the moment, but I think that hardly does my views justice either!

Please suggest more, and maybe we can grow this post into something more widely useful.

Religious Naturalism. Atheistic and rationalistic, but using God-language to refer to certain experiences such as ‘transcendence’ or ‘spirituality’. The idea that one can have features of the religious experience about the natural world.

The following four categories are relative to some particular established religion. I’ve used Christianity as the example in the first three, but I would imagine there are equivalents for any faith – let me know if there are terms that are in use in other faiths.

Christian Atheism. A follower of the teaching of Jesus, who doesn’t subscribe to the existence of a God, or any supernatural dimension to Jesus’s life. Many Christian Atheists are also independent of the Christian church and do not participate in Christian ritual.

Christian Humanism. A Christian who believes that human action is valuable intrinsically, and that positive change in the word requires human action. At the extreme end, this viewpoint rejects the ability or propensity of God to intervene.

Cultural Christianity. A person who values and participates in the tradition and ritual of the religion, without an associated belief in the existence of its God. This pattern is highly developed in Judaism, where it is called Humanistic Judaism.

Nominalism. Where a person identifies with a particular religion or denomination (on legal declarations, for example) without participating in that religion. This usually includes lack of belief in at least some of the religion’s teachings.

Reverent Agnosticism. A person who feels a sense of sacredness without claiming to understand its origin or dynamics. Reverent agnostics claim no knowledge of any divinity, but  face that ignorance with humility and reverence.

Deism. The belief in a divinity that has no immanent connection with the cosmos. This may be a God who is disinterested, wholly other, or that once existed but now does not. Deists may additionally believe that a God was once involved in the cosmos (as creator, for example).

And finally two positions which I think cross-cut the positions above. So one can be a Pantheist Religious Naturalist, for example.

Pantheism. The belief that God is another way of talking about the totality of the cosmos.

Panentheism. The belief that the cosmos is one part of a greater reality that might be called God.

Edits

2010-02-15: Added ‘Reverent Agnosticism’, on tysdaddy’s suggestion.

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Sunday Scripture: Purpose

Sunday is a busy day here, as its the only day we all get to spend together as a family. So in this weekly spot I’ll dig out some interesting bits of religious literature and will post them without much comment.

So what is the purpose of life, how should we act and what should we expect?

And we know that all things do work together for good, to those who love God and are called according to His purpose;

– Romans 8:28

Hat-tip to Sabio on this. I’d always assumed this was one of those passages that would be nice if it were true. Now I’m not so sure.

God’s purpose in creating the universe was to feel happiness when He saw the purpose of goodness fulfilled in the Heavenly Kingdom, which the whole creation, including man, could have established.

– Unification Church. Divine Principle I.1.3.1

This seems to be a common thread, flowing out of Judaism, as far as I can tell, that everything exists and occurs for the pleasure of God. Most religions would nuance this by saying that actions arising out of human corruption do not give God pleasure. But then what about natural disasters? And so on. It just returns us back to the problem of evil again.

But he who performs his prescribed duty only because it ought to be done, and renounces all attachment to the fruit–his renunciation is of the nature of goodness

– Bhagavad Gita 18:9

This is the anti-Romans. Not that everything will work out well no matter what you do. But regardless of what happens, you are only responsible for your actions. The ‘Gita has much to say on this topic.

And then there’s Qohelet, and one of the most famous poems in world scripture:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

– Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

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Non-Privileged Reference Frames

Once upon a time we believed we were the center of the universe. Around the earth circled the sun, planets and stars. If we observe light traveling in all directions, it travels at the same speed. But from Newton we know that can only happen in one frame: where nothing is moving. It seems we are in the most privileged situation in the universe.

By 1900, the evidence was pretty conclusive. And then there was relativity. One of the most startling discoveries of human history. It showed that, no matter where you are, you will appear to be special. It will look like you’re in the center of the universe. It will look like you’re the ones not moving.

Relativity was a fascinating beast. Faced with this realization it said: Isn’t cosmology great, its a wild ride, nothing is as it appears! Don’t be content to believe your little corner of the universe is at the center, we can figure out the universal picture.

It is the very opposite of relativism, which would say. Isn’t cosmology crap, it is pointless, nothing is as it appears. Everybody can go on thinking they are the center of the universe, but we’ll never know who’s right, so we’ll pretend nobody is.

Theology is struggling between those who think the earth really is the center of the universe, and those who think that everybody might as well have their own beliefs because we can never decide who is right. We have religious relativism, where is religious relativity?

[It only occurred to me after writing this post that, since this is effectively the question I'm trying to answer, that would make me Einstein :/ Which is pretty darn megalomaniac for a Wednesday afternoon!]

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