2007-04-24

Would it really be a problem if there were no historical Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

Some years ago (around the time I seized the opportunity to personally thank Bishop Spong for helping me on my way to atheism 😉 ) I asked a well respected anglican cleric what his response would be if it could be reasonably established that Christianity did not begin with a real historical Jesus. My query was via email so he had a little time to think before responding. His words in effect were:

Well it seems the Jews can still get along without a literal historical Abraham so I suppose Christianity could still find a way to survive without an historical Jesus.

Thoughts?

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2007-04-25 00:53:18 GMT+0000 - 00:53 | Permalink

    Yeah it would be a huge problem. Sorry to hear someone burnt you to the point of you becoming an atheist – happens all the time it seems.

    Truth is, Jesus is central to our faith – no Jesus – no faith.

    That Anglican cleric has mothballs in his brains. I hate modern christianity – sucks beyond measure. Political correctness is killing the minds of most Christians.

    Honest Christianity is in your face and real. Makes you feel uncomfortable and challenges mindsets and views.

    The proud and the stubborn are condemned by it. The seekers and the humble are set free by it. Wish you were in the second camp again.

  • 2007-04-25 12:35:29 GMT+0000 - 12:35 | Permalink

    True believers do not let anyone or any trial burn them to the point of losing faith. Trials only strengthen the faith of a true believer. I was a true believer.

    True believers also believe that the only way people can leave the faith is if they were never really “of us” to begin with — 1 John 2.19.

    But you will never believe or even comprehend my story because it contradicts your beliefs.

    Your beliefs (as mine once did) prevent you from comprehending the bulk of humanity (and even yourself) as they (and you) really are.

    Will you ever have the courage to truly question the grounds of your faith? It does take courage. It is much easier to let trials and challenges (i.e. reality) only strengthen your faith.

  • 2007-04-25 15:34:23 GMT+0000 - 15:34 | Permalink

    These are tricky issues which do not easily lend themselves to simplistic rhetoric on either side. The question of who is a true believer is paradoxical because by definition it is not one who has left the faith. Is there such a thing as a former true believer? Sure there is. I have no problem with the fact that you truly, sincerely believed (in what?) at some point. But I am less willing to draw firm conclusions either way simply from the psychological trajectories either of those who were once unbelievers and became fervent believers, or those for whom the opposite happened. Rhetoric is used on both sides. The former unbeliever will give his testimony: “I always thought God was just wishful thinking, and I had never really taken the time to thoroughly examine the evidence or let God challenge me. But now that I have I can assure you, He’s very real…etc”. Likewise the former believer will say: “Once upon a time I was a firm believer in Jesus Christ. I truly felt His presence and just KNEW in my heart that I had to tell everyone about Him. I was never afraid of following the evidence, because I was sure in my heart that truth would speak for itself and that God didn’t need defending…but the more I examined the evidence, the more I began to see just how shaky the grounds of my faith were. I began to notice horrible things in the Bible which made me doubt that it could have been written by a God of love…etc.”

    You get the picture. And you’re also not very consistent, Neil, because if as you say trials only strengthen the faith of a true believer, and if you yourself were a true believer, how could trials have done anything except strengthen your faith? Let’s be honest and admit that, frail creatures that we are, we can only go so far in controlling our nexus of belief and practice. For some people, trials strengthen their faith. For others, it makes them abandon faith. Naturally you tend to think of wherever you end up as the right outcome. If you were a believer and lost your faith, it was the honest thing to do, and honest intellectual inquiry can only lead in that direction (i.e., as you say to the first poster, “your beliefs prevent you from comprehending humanity, including yourself”). If you go from unbelief to belief, you are sure that your eyes have been opened and that if a person’s cognitive faculties are properly oriented and they have the right affective disposition, they can only end up in a position of faith (i.e. as the first poster says, “The proud and the stubborn are condemned by it. The seekers and the humble are set free by it”).

    Please, a little more humility on both sides. From the standpoint of belief, let the believer say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am”. From the standpoint of unbelief, let the unbeliever be grateful that she has found the truth, that she has emancipated herself from restrictive religious doctrines, but also acknowledge the vitality and richness of a worldview which she has left behind (or was never a part of in the first place).

  • 2007-04-25 16:02:28 GMT+0000 - 16:02 | Permalink

    In response to: “And you’re also not very consistent, Neil, because if as you say trials only strengthen the faith of a true believer, and if you yourself were a true believer, how could trials have done anything except strengthen your faith?” . . . .

    The only inconsistency is in the eye of one who believes that trials alone can demolish faith. For the true believer every perceived “spiritual failure” can and must only be comprehended in terms of a biblical explanation and none else.

    The bible warns true believers against this problem, but then it also says that anyone who fails the tests was not truly “of us” to begin with. The bible contains many contradictory statements that a believer must learn to accept side by side. It’s called “cognitive dissonance” in the psychology lit.

  • 2007-04-25 16:11:35 GMT+0000 - 16:11 | Permalink

    I’d call anything that demolishes faith a trial, i.e. examination i.e. testing of the faith. I guess neither of us were clear on what constitutes a trial.

    The psychology ‘lit’ has come a long way since Festinger. Cognitive dissonance, far from being an anomaly or problem which only affects religious believers, is in fact a common feature of cognition in most aspects of life, in both religious and other issues and has to do with the relationship between our self-image and the rest of the world.

    You talk as if the Bible was written as a modern anti-skeptics manual. You also talk of the Bible as if it were a single entity which speaks with one voice on every subject, so inconsistencies must be attributed to conspiracy or malevolence. I think you’d recognize yourself in anthropologist Brian Malley’s portrait of the evangelical Bible reader (whether you believe in it or not) in his “How the Bible Works”.

  • 2007-04-25 18:20:26 GMT+0000 - 18:20 | Permalink

    You wrote: “I’d call anything that demolishes faith a trial, i.e. examination i.e. testing of the faith.”

    My response: This is a perfect illustration of what Edmund Cohen terms “logicide” — a faith-based changing of the normal meanings of terms to comply with faith’s precepts. To Cohen’s list of words whose normal meanings are twisted by this faith perspective (life, death, truth, wisdom, righteousness, justice, liberty, bondage, love, hate, will, grace, witness, word) I can add “trial”.

    You wrote: “You also talk of the Bible as if it were a single entity which speaks with one voice on every subject, so inconsistencies must be attributed to conspiracy or malevolence.”

    My response: I point out where it speaks with different voices yet you say I talk as if it speaks with one voice on every subject. I have made no breath of a hint of a whisper about conspiratorial or malevolent minds behind it so where does this charge come from? Why am I reminded of the faith-based view of a similar mind behind anything that opposes the faith-based perspective? I wonder.

    You have given your game away with these posts. You are not debating science or psychology or history with me. You are trying to argue your faith with me and using as a support (or even as a front-line cover) anything you can find in psychology or history or ‘scholarship’ that supports or supposedly “proves” that faith.

  • 2007-04-25 18:30:14 GMT+0000 - 18:30 | Permalink

    Pity. I had hoped for some more cerebral responses to my anglican cleric friend’s analogy with Abraham becoming a mythical figure to many Jews. Do Christians really place their faith so completely in the literal and the earthly?

  • 2007-04-26 00:24:40 GMT+0000 - 00:24 | Permalink

    “You have given your game away with these posts. You are not debating science or psychology or history with me. You are trying to argue your faith with me and using as a support (or even as a front-line cover) anything you can find in psychology or history or ’scholarship’ that supports or supposedly “proves” that faith.”

    That’s a convenient way to avoid wrestling with the wider issues of the psychology of faith. You completely misunderstood my point about you assuming that the Bible speaks with one voice. There are only contradictions in the Bible if you assume from the beginning that the same author is saying the same thing in response to the same situation at the same time. If you are aware of the different authors and contexts, ‘contradictions’ take on a whole new meaning.

    Far from having ‘found me out’, all you do is hide your own smug complacency behind empty rhetoric. Do you think scholarship which tends to assume that religious cognition is a by-product of everyday reasoning is automatically faith-supporting? Or that religious doctrine is a mechanism of in-group evolutionary cohesion is a boon to apologetics? But since the issues are so important I try to engage honestly with the literature, trying to learn as much as I can. You apparently do not.

    And if you think psychology, history, or any kind of scholarship is about debate instead finding the truth, you are sadly mistaken. What I have tried to do in these posts is provide a sketch of recent psychological findings relevant to the mind of anyone who engages in faith-related issues, whether she is a believer or not.

    But instead of engaging with the more substantive comments I made in my first post, you chose to haggle over my definition of trial. Jesus talked about people like that: “You strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel”.

    I hope you haven’t just read Eric Hoffer (“The True Believer”) and Edmund Cohen (“The Mind of the Bible Believer”) and think you have us all figured out. Read some real literature on the subject, like Barrett or Jason-Slone or Malley or Berger or Paloutzian.

  • 2007-04-26 11:26:46 GMT+0000 - 11:26 | Permalink

    I’ll thank you not to try to argue me into religion, accompanied as your efforts are by condescending judgmentalism.

  • 2007-04-26 12:34:04 GMT+0000 - 12:34 | Permalink

    Measure for measure, Neil: “You have given your game away with these posts. You are not debating science or psychology or history with me. You are trying to argue your faith with me and using as a support (or even as a front-line cover) anything you can find in psychology or history or ’scholarship’ that supports or supposedly “proves” that faith.”

    I was certainly not trying to argue you into religion. In fact, I wouldn’t want to, if your own statements of what you were like as a true believer are accurate.

    For the last time: all I was doing in these posts is pointing out some of the psychological characteristics both of ‘true believers’ and ‘true skeptics’ with the accompanying caution of inferring anything substantive about the rationality of certain viewpoints or even more so the intelligence of the beleiver or non-believer simply on the basis of the facts of conversion and de-conversion alone. I wasn’t proselytizing, and I didn’t say that all skeptics are deluded or anything like that. It is what you will find in any decent psychology of religion textbook.

  • Susan
    2007-04-28 13:53:30 GMT+0000 - 13:53 | Permalink

    I became an atheist after years of being religious and nothing burnt me
    to the point of becoming an atheist.

    Been reading your posts and thoroughly enjoy your intelligent
    writing Neil.

  • D. Crundle
    2007-05-08 10:56:59 GMT+0000 - 10:56 | Permalink

    Speaking as a former fundamentalist Christian whose world fell down after a study of the origin of Scripture and the quest for the historical Jesus: I can answer that, yes, there is a problem for a conservative Christian who suddenly concludes there was no historical Jesus. I can also answer that that I believe Christianity would be a much saner place if it came to view Jesus in a different light: as a mythic device to help explain the mundane on what ideally should be a higher spiritual level. Kind of like the Just-So stories of Kipling. There are, after all, “liberal” Christians and Jews who don’t take the Bible literally. As a result, they’re much more civilized (more Christian?) than many fundamentalists. Concluding that the Jesus of the Bible is a myth leads one to consider other ways to understand. (By the way, and for what it’s worth, I am not an atheist.)

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