2015-07-20

De-Sacralizing Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently we looked at Tom Holland’s interest in “de-radicalising Muhammad” and today part one of an online interview with Hector Avalos has appeared in which he discusses his new book The Bad Jesus in which he exposes the “low-down” on Jesus. Just as Holland argues for the importance of promoting an understanding of what can and cannot be known about Muhammad, Avalos argues that the Christian bias of New Testament scholars has driven them to put a superior ethical spin on acts and sayings of Jesus that are in fact antithetical to today’s ethical norms.

Avalos explains that The Bad Jesus is actually a sequel to The End of Biblical Studies.

Biblical studies is still part of an ecclesiastical academic complex, very biased toward the Christian viewpoint in particular, and religionist throughout. Biblical scholars are there to promote the value of the Bible because in part it is self-serving. It furthers their own profession to be biblical scholars. And if the Bible has no value then what use is there for Biblical studies. . . 

A religionist, “in particular Christian orientation”, permeates the field of Biblical studies and Avalos observes that the subfield of Christian ethics is the most biased of all. The ethical superiority of the purported founder of Christianity is the lodestone of the scholars involved. In Avalos’s mind the reason for this is that most scholars continue even today to view Jesus through the lens of Chalcedon and Nicea. Though they claim to be studying the historical Jesus they nonetheless still see Jesus as divine.

This should not be a controversial statement to anyone who has read a wide range of historical Jesus studies. Even “liberal Christian” scholars have made little effort to hide their belief that Jesus is alive today and that they regularly commune in some manner with him.

An interesting biographical detail we learn is what led Hector Avalos to undertake formal studies in the Bible after becoming an atheist. He wanted to know where such an influential book came from and how it came to be so influential. That was my own primary motivation for engaging in a serious (albeit amateur) study of the Bible after I likewise became an atheist.

Another point that struck a chord with me in the book and reiterated in the interview is the observation that God does not really command us to follow him at all. My own take is that God actually asks more of us than he expects of himself or of Jesus. I’m referring to the biblical commands to forgive without limit those who wrong us. But that’s not what the Biblical God himself does. God and Jesus, we read, are quite within their rights to reach a point where they eventually snap and lash out in the most cruel violence those who merely defy their will. And the punishment they inflict is far more cruel than anything we read about in the Old Testament.

The interview also addresses Jesus’ pro-imperialistic stance (contrary to scholarship that argues Jesus stood in opposition empire). Yes, he did oppose the Roman empire, but not imperialistic domination itself.

One more detail that has particularly interested me for some time now and that I have raised in several posts is the nature of early first century Judaism and the way it was not at all uncommon for Jewish factions to be declaring their fellows with different views and practices to be “non-Jews”. This Second Temple landscape appears very often to be overlooked in many scholarly analyses of the supposedly “anti-Jewish” sentiments in the gospels.

Meanwhile another two-part review of The Bad Jesus by New Zealand Marxist scholar Robert Myles:

I have no problem with a Marxist analysis of the way the world works today or of Marx’s understanding of the factors that lead to alienation in capitalist societies. But I do believe that where the sciences have progressed to the point of surpassing what was understood in the nineteenth century about evolution, human nature and psychology then in those areas Marxism needs to be revised or discarded. On the other hand if you do view the “privatised family” structure as a capitalist construct designed to serve bourgeois interests then you might agree with Myles’s critique of at least one aspect of Avalos’s view of Jesus.

Robert Myles suggests that Jesus’ command for his followers to leave their families may well be interpreted as a positive ethic for those on the political Left since it challenges the capitalist system’s power structures. I wonder if Hector Avalos would add that not only Christian scholars have a professional need to assert the contemporary relevance of Jesus but that even secular Marxist scholars have a professional interest in the same that is no less strong.

I myself see the nuclear family structure as a human universal independent of any particular economic system. I also see values in terms of human feelings and wellbeing (psychological as well as material) and not as a matter of decisions over the juggling of socio-economic forces.

Hector Avalos does identify himself with the New Atheists and it is true, as Robert Myles notes, that the likes of Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, the later Chris Hitchens, are all embedded in the political Right. I don’t know whether Avalos does likewise. If he does, and if Myles has a point about Avalos’s Jesus being “bad” because he fails to live up to capitalist bourgeois values at least to some extent, I think there is still much else in Avalos’s critique that sits well with more universal humanistic and post Enlightenment ethics.

 

 

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31 thoughts on “De-Sacralizing Jesus”

  1. … it is true, as Robert Myles notes, that the likes of Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, the later Chris Hitchens, are all embedded in the political Right.

    Really? My reading of Dawkins and Coyne is that they are both left of centre in their respective countries.

    1. Myles’ actual remark was:

      “Avalos self-identifies as a a New Atheist. This perspective holds that theism is generally destructive and unethical. It is embodied for example in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. What Avalos doesn’t explore is how this movement has also tended to form strong associations with a neoconservative political ideology, perhaps expressed most triumphantly by the late Christopher Hitchens.

      In making his assertion, Myles cites this article https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/new-atheism-old-empire/, in which the author states:

      “At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.

      In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.

      Whereas some earlier atheist traditions have rejected violence and championed the causes of the Left — Bertrand Russell, to take an obvious example, was both a socialist and a unilateralist — the current streak represented by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris has variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of the latter, genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.

      Its leading exponents wear a variety of ideological garbs, but their espoused politics range from those of right-leaning liberals to proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.”

      1. Please let’s be much more precise about who and what. Some so-called “proto-fascists” of the so-called “European far-right” are also “anti-Zionists” and “anti-neocons”. Some of the morally worst ones like Breivik “identify” with Israel. Many “liberals” sympathetic to Israel also identify “fascist” elements in some Arab and Muslim writings – from the Grand Mufti to Sayyid Qutb. Historically “fascism” did not fit easily into a previous “left-right” parliamentary spectrum, but regarded itself as superseding it; cf. the studies by Gregor, Sternhell, Bardeche and Mosley.

        Some Zionists regard the New Testament and the Qur’an as “anti-Semitic”, though the current strategy is to play down the “Christian” origins of “The Holocaust” in order to cultivate US support from evangelical “Christian Zionists” and Europeans who sympathize with persecuted Christians in the recent Middle East turmoil. The World Jewish Congress has just demanded that Amazon stop selling and advertising books of which it disapproves.

        Life is getting too complicated for old terminology and new abuse.

        1. Some of the morally worst ones like Breivik “identify” with Israel.

          Breivik never identified with Israel. He wrote to a number of newspapers a year ago to explain that it was never about Jews or Islam. He is in fact one of the few genuine neo-Nazis, but he deliberately cut-and-pasted from a lot of anti-Islam debaters in order to discredit them, while keeping his real friends at Stormfront out of the spotlight:

          Breivik called his ruse the “hug-your-opponents, kick-the-ones-you-love”-tactic, and according to himself he did it to fool the “media-psychopaths” (otherwise known as journalists). His ruse must have worked perfectly because none of the MSM has mentioned this email except for the left-radical expo.se. I didn’t hear about it before today, but the letter has been excavated and typed-out by Gates of Vienna: Breivik’s “Double-Psychology”.

          In a letter sent out to various email outlets, the Butcher of Utøya told the world that his purported admiration for Fjordman, Robert Spencer, Bat Ye’or, et al. had just been a ruse on his part, and that his real ideological commitment was to what he calls “ethno-nationalism” or “nordicism”. He had embraced the Counterjihad in order to damage it, and to draw attention away from his allies among white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

          In his own words: “I know a lot of people will be dissapointed when reading this, but my love for Israel is limited to its future function as a deportation-port for disloyal jews“.

          1. Thank you for this clarification. I relied on the NYR Daily article by Malise Ruthven, August 9, 2011, and his reference to Ben Hartman in the Jerusalem Post; also the IRR “Briefing Paper” No.5. I should have followed my usual practice, and unsolicited advice to others, to treble check everything if possible. Personally I have little sympathy either for “Islamism” or for compulsory “multiculturalism”. Breivik, Roof and other such killers probably belong as much in the psychopathic category of narcissism as neo-nazism.

      2. That article, by the way, is a complete hatchet job by someone wanting to denigrate the “New Atheists” as much as possible, so is not reliable on this point.

        There is absolutely no way that either Dawkins or Coyne have advocated: “aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture” (nor Dennett, nor Stenger, nor Grayling, nor Krauss, nor Pinker, to name another notables who could be called “New Atheists”).

        Even with respect to Harris and Hitchens it’s hardly a fair assessment. Further, it’s totally unreasonable to associate such ideas with “New Atheists” since there is a big range of opinions about such things among them, and Harris and Hitchens are the ones more out of line.

  2. “My own take is that God actually asks more of us than he expects of himself or of Jesus.”

    That is a new thought for me – and so true. Thanks.

  3. I see much of what the “New Atheists” as positive but at the same time some of what they promote is ignorance and bigotry. I think that ignorance (ignorance re the nature of religion and what it very often means for believers) undermines their message for all but fellow atheists.

    I am no fan of religion but it is a mistake to blame some single essentialist idea for the carnage and oppression associated with religion. Of course we should do all we can to promote reason and science but we need the tools of understanding to do that the most effectively.

  4. I found Myles critique quite humorous in that it makes so many convenient assumptions in order to “critique” Avalos. If one says Jesus neglects that his followers are being asked to leave their families high and dry, does that necessarily mean they are a pro-The System guy? No… Is saying, “That’s a bad solution” mean that the active system is good? Or does it mean that a better solution is needed? Insert convenient assumption here.

    Myles clearly just has a hard-on for Jesus as a supposed economic revolutionary despite the Jesus we actually find in the gospels. Myles needs to check his biases. Jesus was an economic space cadet who believed in disowning everything because the Good Sheep(TM) were going to be beamed up to the proverbial mothership any day now. Via Faith(TM) you could count on Yahweh to always provide until then (so don’t get a savings account). That’s not Marxism (Myles’ pearl of great price). It’s just delusional. Jesus was basically a-economical via magical thinking with a pinch of exploitation. And by that, of course, I mean Jesus was a revolutionary! hehe

    And apparently if one identifies with the New Atheist movement (even second wave New Atheism) that necessarily means they agree with all the stuff Christopher Hitchens said that Myles hates on the subject of capitalism. Hello yet another convenient assumption!

    Just more motivated reasoning masquarading as scholarly. Which would be yet another body on the pile of carcasses Avalos dispenses with in the book The Bad Jesus. I’m looking forward to Avalos taking Myles to task.

    1. I think your aim is off, that you need to read more on the topics at hand. For example, Myles need only look to the writings of Mises to find support for the assertion that Jesus was not a social reformer, let alone a revolutionary. Render unto Caesar . . .

      More generally, I have a hard time understanding how anybody could scoff to the idea that the teachings of Jesus have been used systematically to support and perpetuate capitalism. That idea is proven true every day by the religious right in America. This has been true since the beginnings of the USA, when the Federalists engaged the clergy to aid their cause.

      As to the “New Atheists,” it is obvious for everybody to see that Harris and Dawkins single out Islam as the most evil of the Abrahamic religions and by so doing provide intellectual cover for rational racism against Islam’s adherents. Personally, I find it irrational to single out Islam, the youngest of the Abrahamic religions, only after Islam’s older brothers have worked their worst instincts out of their systems and are less obvious in the evil they do. Islam is a domestic cat with a bell around its neck, while Judaism and Christianity are jungle cats that roam freely and silently with public approval. Which is more dangerous?

      I guess what I am trying to say is don’t get all tribal with the New Atheist tag and attempt to defend the indefensible. Sam Harris absolutely deserves to be painted as a crypto Right wingnut. Dawkins? That is more open to debate, but I still find him to be a bit of a crank worthy of heavy discounting when it comes to credibility for intellectual honesty. There are other New Atheists far more worthy of your support.

      1. When Jesus says to “render unto Caesar” he’s blowing off the problems of the world because he’s an apocalyptic prophet who thinks he’s going to destroy Caesar shortly anyway. He’s not promoting any kind of sustainable economic advice or trying to reform any system. It’s mostly about individual virtue explosions (selling all your stuff) designed to up your martyr stats and make you perfect for the imminent Kingdom of Heaven.

        “I find it irrational to single out Islam, the youngest of the Abrahamic religions, only after Islam’s older brothers have worked their worst instincts out of their systems…”

        It’s irrational to say what you’ve said without betraying the premise that Islam hasn’t yet worked out its worst instincts and is therefore (logically) currrently “the most evil of the Abrahamic religions.”

        “while Judaism and Christianity are jungle cats that roam freely and silently with public approval.”

        Dawkins, Harris, and Bill Maher regularly (and mostly) lampoon domestic Christianity. How many trivially obvious facts do you have to misrepresent to make your case?

        “…it is obvious for everybody to see that Harris and Dawkins single out Islam as the most evil of the Abrahamic religions and by so doing provide intellectual cover for rational racism against Islam’s adherents.”

        What is obvious is that the charges of racism and Islamophobia are being contrived by those who refuse to recognize the conflict of legitimate social justice interests between calling out racism as well as calling out religion.

        “There are other New Atheists far more worthy of your support.”

        These New Atheists are worthy of my respect. That doesn’t mean others aren’t as well. I don’t know anyone out there that I don’t have intellectual grievances with. And Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett have (and had) a great deal of spot on things to say that a lot of people need to hear. Their secular detractors want to dismiss them entirely because their interests happen to be in conflict with their own choice issues to champion. Not because the majority of their content was bad.

        1. The “render unto Caesar” remark, which some regard as a banal truism, is the climax to a practical joke Jesus plays on his detractors by getting them to produce a foreign coin in the vicinity of the Temple. This “non-existent” guy had a sharp sense of the ridiculous, a mordant humor, and a sarcastic repartee, which endeared him to his audiences and infuriated his opponents; an Oswald Mosley a cette epoque.

          1. David,

            Plese tell me how anything about this (what you said):

            “The “render unto Caesar” remark, which some regard as a banal truism, is the climax to a practical joke Jesus plays on his detractors by getting them to produce a foreign coin in the vicinity of the Temple. This “non-existent” guy had a sharp sense of the ridiculous, a mordant humor, and a sarcastic repartee, which endeared him to his audiences and infuriated his opponents; an Oswald Mosley a cette epoque.”

            …contradicts anything about this (what I said):

            “When Jesus says to “render unto Caesar” he’s blowing off the problems of the world because he’s an apocalyptic prophet who thinks he’s going to destroy Caesar shortly anyway. He’s not promoting any kind of sustainable economic advice or trying to reform any system. It’s mostly about individual virtue explosions (selling all your stuff) designed to up your martyr stats and make you perfect for the imminent Kingdom of Heaven.”

            Thanks.

              1. Ah. I’ve seen that very same point used as misdirection before as though there cannot be both inept and irresponsible elements to what may be somewhat clever given the false premises. It’s a great way to miss the forrest through the trees of all the Harold Camping-like irresponsibility from Jesus as a false prophet. I’m glad you didn’t fall prey to that.

      2. A “cover” for “racism”? Evidence?

        “Absolutely deserves to be painted [sic] as a crypto Right wingnut”. Meaning?

        Refutation better than “reputation”.

      3. Calling Sam Harris a crypto-right-winger is an insult to right-wingers. Every time I hear Harris talk about foreign policy, it’s all about the ethics and practicalities of blowing up other countries to make them more progressive (spoiler: per Harris, it is ethical – we just need to work out the practicalities). He’s like Woodrow Wilson with ‘roid rage. Maybe he sounds more conservative talking about domestic politics; I don’t remember hearing him say anything memorable about that.

        1. “Human rights” at the point of a bayonet, “democracy” at the end of drone, “party politics” achieved by mass bombardment (clue, Hamburg, Berlin & Dresden)? Why not have a worldwide war to impose the widely neglected universal right of men to bugger other men? How much “liberal interventionism”, however, is really about protecting the St,ate of the Chosen People?

          1. What is in question are the claims by the “New Atheists” made when they are attacking religion and addressing what they believe to be the appropriate response to what they see an an essentialist religion (specifically Islam as a single essential ideology) problem. Here is where they clearly express support for State Power and justifications for wars of aggression. In that sense they are very much aligned with the “Right”.

            My posts have attempted to show that no religion can be understood in the way they understand Islam — as a single essentialist ideology — hence the ignorance they express and fan. I also in other posts have attempted to approach the issues of terrorism from a scholarly-research perspective which means examining the motivations for the claims of both perpetrators and victims. The result inevitably (as in all such scholarly analyses) will be to introduce an understanding of both sides and not only that of the victims. The New Atheists who address these issues see them only in terms of the victims and ignorantly paint Islam as a Monster.

            In other words they throw out scholarly understanding when it comes to attacking religion and support populist sympathies which promote international State violence against their Monster.

            1. I think this is “right-wing” only in the sense of “stuff I don’t like”. At this point, however, I can see that my quibble is semantic, since I agree with the substance of your opinion.

              1. Adolf Hitler and Ayn Rand are “typically” described as “right”-wing and/or “far” right. One would assume that their political philosophies were actually poles apart. The word “right” seems here to be a pejorative connoting dislike of some presumed notion of “inequality”.

                It is so important to find more precise definitions of ideas, and more accurate information about them. Emotional reactions are not intellectual refutations, although some ideas and practices will evoke a visceral detestation among relatively “normal” people.

                No more wars over words, please!

            2. Here is where they clearly express support for State Power and justifications for wars of aggression.

              Out of Dawkins, Dennett, Coyne, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, Krauss, Stenger, Pinker, Myers, to name a few, for how many can you cite quotes expressing support for wars of aggression?

              1. Wars of aggression? Harris supports wars of friendship. Explosions of love. Kind of like Richard Gere’s love bomb for use against China, except that these explosions would actually kill and maim people. Sometimes love hurts, but it’s worth it.

  5. Not sure if Mr Schuldt is accusing me of deliberate “misdirection” for some reason or other. If so, he is wrong. Even if he were telepathic, or a competent conspiracy theorist, he would realize that I was simply illustrating an alleged event, thus described hitherto to my knowledge only by Conrad Noel. So there is no need for an “Ah” or even an “Aha”!

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