Return to Theological Thoughts

An Answer to Simon

"What does it mean to be a Christian?"

Contents

Introduction

In the tradition of Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Trypho", this is an attempt to respond to an original article written by a friend, Dr Simon Robinson. Extracts from his text (here reproduced with his permission) are given here in green. Those who find this interesting may also care to inspect a simiar document I have written about the role and purpose of the Church.
I have a strong scientific training (PhD in physics) and have thought about the issues in the light of that training - but even so this is the sort of area where in the end you have to go with some assumptions that just 'feel right'. That applies to atheists and theists alike. Hopefully this article will give you some idea of why the idea that there is a loving God, along the lines promoted by Christianity, 'feels right' to me.
I both agree and disagree. As an objective-realist, I believe that certain things are true and others false, and that what matters is establishing what is true as best we may. Feelings are suspect, though a valid and indispensable component of the whole process of arriving at an estimate of truth. This the case in any area of human endeavour; theoretical physics as much as theology and metaphysics. The main difference is that most professional physicists play down the intuitive and aesthetic aspects of their work.

The clash between Christianity and Science

I think fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity is incompatible with science.
I agree, if by "Fundamentalist" is meant "Biblical Literalist". I'm not so sure about "Evangelical", as this term for me signifies a doctrinal stance in the area of "Salvation Theory" (soteriology) rather than anything related to physical reality.
Science has told us a lot. Cosmology and high energy physics are revealing amazing stuff about the origin of the universe... biology, medicine and psychology are steadily revealing more information about how our brain works. Feelings and  emotions can be correlated with chemical or electrical activity in parts of the brain. There are even suggestions that so-called religious or spiritual experiences can be explained in this way. It's very tempting to think because of this that there is no need to invoke a God on the one hand, or separate human souls on the other hand to explain life and the Universe.
See my articles "To Be or Not", "The Meaning of Life" and "Who and What". [Or better ** buy my book **] In brief:

Miracles

Here I must take exception, regarding miracles. Dr Robinson introduces the word "unlikely". This is disingenuous. If miracles cannot and so do not happen, they are not unlikely: they are impossible. If in fact they do occasionally happen, they are neither likely nor unlikely but infrequent.

The whole point of miracles is that they are not reproducible events. They cannot be the object of scientific analysis. They are exceptions to rules. Science cannot say anything about them: not even whether they are possible or not! They are certainly not possible scientifically. However, all that that means is that "exceptions are not the general rule", which is true - but not at all to the point! Of course, given the credulity and ignorance of people in general, very many events reported as "miraculous" can be expected to turn out to be explained in terms of fraud or wishful thinking or genuine mistakes. This does not mean that many miracles do not happen. After all, there is no certainty that we notice all the exceptions to regularity that occur in our lives. Some may be so subtle as to pass notice, and yet have profound impact on our well-being, along the lines of the "butterfly effect" in chaotic non-linear systems.

Creationism

And another frankly frightening example of the way churches ignore science has been the various campaigns to get Creationism taught in schools in some US states. This despite the fact that we now know pretty conclusively from science that Darwin's theory of evolution is broadly correct, and that the story of creation as told in the Bible is - quite simply - wrong. The evidence from physics, biology, genetics and cosmology is just too overwhelming.
I agree, except that I don't think it any more sensible to say that the Biblical "story of creation" is "wrong" than to say that Newton's theory of Gravity is wrong or that Blake's wonderful poem "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is wrong. I think that Simon means that the Genesis Creation Story is not true in a straght-forward way, as an account of historical events.
Incidentally it's fairly common knowledge that Genesis is wrong on the age of the Universe. What's less well known is that Genesis has also got genetics of men and women the wrong way round. The Bible claims, 'Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man.' Trouble is we now know from modern genetics that the basic human template is female, and it is men that are created out of and as variations of women!
I'm not sure exactly what my friend means by these words. Genesis is not trying to teach genetics in any case! The main point of this part of the creation story is that male and female are consubstantial and co-equal. The point is made that mankind is attuned to living in fellowship. The individual pines for (an)other(s) of its own kind. This is shown by Adam's experience of loneliness, even when he has fellowship with God. In order to show this, the Genesis story had to feature a first lone human that was either male or female, else that individual wouldn't be recognizably human (though, of course the gender of Adam isn't made explicit until much later on - it would be possible to maintain that Adam and Eve were both neuter or hermaphrodite until after the fall!) Adam is implicitly presented as male for two reasons. First, the culture within which Genesis was written was patriarchal, so the male was culturally prior to the female. Second, it seems to me that the female form of the human species is more specifically adapted towards reproduction than the male: the male differs less from a conceivable "neuter-human" than does the female.

Dogmatic Baggage

Churches and Christians do their religion a huge disservice by ignoring scientific evidence and invoking religious dogmas. However, I don't believe that this means that the most fundamental tenet of Christianity, the existence of a loving God, is wrong. The problem isn't the basic belief in God. It's all the dogmatic baggage that people have added to that idea over the centuries.
Well, this all depends on the character of the "dogmatic baggage"; whether or not it was "added" and if so in what way: with what purpose, legitimacy and truth! Moreover, it is unfair to characterize the existence of a loving God as "the most fundamental tenet of Christianity". Some would argue that the "Christian God" isn't loving at all, but only said to be so. Others would argue that many other religions (in particular Judaism and Islam) believe in "a loving God". I think that my friend is importing his understandable suspicion of "authoritarianism" as a premise. He suggests that because "Conservatives" relate to and use "dogma" in a certain way, it follows that "dogma" is a bad thing. He forgets that "dogma" just means "teaching" and all fields of human knowledge are full of "received truth". Physics is full of dogma: and this dogma evolves as our understanding progresses. The same is true in Theology. The disproof of "Newtonian Gravity and Mechanics" by Einstein, didn't invalidate the content of the theory asserted by Newton; it only opened our minds to further possibilities that hadn't previously occurred to us. As Theology progresses, old dogmatic positions may have to be adjusted or - more often - seen in a different light when their context shifts, as Holy Spirit leads the Church into "All Truth". Some cherished - but undefined - official teachings simply have to be jettisoned. They were always mistakes and outside Gospel Truth. Others will prove to be profoundly robust and in the fulness of time be defined as irreformable. Some defined teachings will turn out not to signify exactly what it was thought they did!

Physics and Metaphysics

There are two areas where I don't believe science as we currently understand it will ever be able to go, and it is to these areas that we should look to spirituality to complement science. The first is the question of why anything exists. Yes, we may ultimately figure out the laws of physics. We may even be able to use them to show how the Universe got created. But that is not the same as explaining why the laws of physics themselves (and therefore the Universe) exist at all. What's the problem with - simply - nothing ever existing at all? A well known principle by which physicists work is that the best explanation for something is always the simplest one. Well wouldn't the simplest thing be if nothing whatsoever existed? No Universe. No laws of physics. No us. Unfortunately that simple explanation doesn't seem to correlate too well with the available evidence!
I exactly agree.
The second problem is with consciousness. Science may be able to explain how my brain works. It may be able to explain my thoughts - why my past history and state of my physical body and brain lead me to think certain things, feel certain emotional states and act in certain ways. I wouldn't be surprised if we are able to eventually construct some robots or other machines that are able to simulate the same thought processes. To be honest I wouldn't be surprised if we are eventually able to show how certain individual neurones firing matches certain thoughts. But none of that explains why I am actually aware of all this. I feel myself, as a single unit, looking at my Notepad document on the computer screen at this very instant. There is something intangible there that is me. Something very personal, which can never be shared with anyone else - my consciousness. And the interesting thing is that that consciousness appears to be totally immune to investigation by scientific methods.
I exactly agree.
You see, science depends on other people reproducing results. But how can anyone ever be sure that they are reproducing any of my experiences as I experience them? To paraphrase a well known problem, how can you be sure that, for example, when you look at a blue surface, you are not experiencing what I experience as - say - yellow - but because we've both been taught to call it blue, that's what we both call it. Physical things are potentially subject to independent experiments and so can be tested by scientific methods. But it's hard to see how the same can be done for our experiences of consciousness.

Now at that point I'll concede the arguments become vague, and I'd have a hard time writing them down. I'd also concede that many people have considered the same kinds of issues and come to different conclusions. I've heard for example the suggestion that consciousness is just some kind of illusion and is not real (but that just doesn't seem right to me). All I can say is all my ponderings of these kinds of issues have lead me to the conclusion that it is some consciousness, rather than the physical Universe, that is at the heart of existence, and that the Universe (and the laws of physics) somehow result from that consciousness. And that that consciousness must be what so many people call God.

I agree, but would wish to proffer the "Five Proofs" of St Thomas Aquinas as a formalization of what Simon is hinting at.

God is Love

So far I've looked at the question of the existence of God. So what about Christianity? What's wrong with a Muslim God or a Hindu God or a God that doesn't accord with any known religion? Well three of the central tenets of Christianity are that: God is love; it is possible to have a personal relationship with God; and that human beings are intrinsically not good, but are forgiven anyway. For me it's a question of whether those tenets make sense. And to me intuitively, they do. Let's break them down:

I don't think that many people would disagree with the vague notion that love is desirable, along with all the things that tend to go with it: Peace, helping others etc. Given our experience that love is intrinsically good, and an expectation that good things would be associated with any universal consciousness, the statement God is Love makes sense to me.

I think that this is Dr Robinson importing his own Christian up-bringing as a premise. Buddhist teaching, for example would have it that all this kind of talk serves only to bind him to other individuated beings, and that salvation consists of developing a profound indifference to all things - including one's own self.

The possibility of a "Personal Relationship" with God

The idea of a "personal relationship with God", I guess really comes from experience. And it's potentially a dangerous one because as I suspect any psychologist will confirm, the human mind is incredibly adept when it comes to imagining as real things and experiences that are in fact not real. So many times I've heard Christians say something along the lines of "I think God told me that..." or "I feel that God is calling me to..." when there are so many other possible explanations why the thought may have popped into their head.
I profoundly agree with my friend's suspicious attitude. While I believe that on occasion God may give specific and individual guidance, encouragement or revelation to an individual, I do not believe that this is an ongoing and regular occurrence - the substance of the authentic Christian life! I believe that it is more authentic to encounter God as "the Cloud of Unknowing" rather than a scholmasterly friend who keeps on giving good advice. After all, we have plenty of general guidance as to what is right and proper and true and just: both externally, as the Apostolic Tradition; and internally, as Conscience - the voice of the Natural Law in our hearts. There is normally no need for specific and individual guidance and admonition from God. All that is required is a willingness first to educate oneself a little and second to honestly face the reality of ones situation.
But having said that, the kind of attitude to life that comes from following the Christian idea of a relationship with God does in my experience seem to work. You trust (or as Christians would say, have faith) that things will work out, you end up more relaxed, you are able to live your life in a better way.
I have to disagree with Dr Robinson, here. I do not believe that "things will work out", if by that he means "in this earthly life". For too many people, they manifestly do not do so in any terms, and all of us face the ultimate dissolution of death. God gives no guarantees of an easy or pleasant life; only that He will never be far away from His suffering servant (though his Face be hidden, as it was from His own Son, on the Cross!) The Old Testament prophets and Patriarchs had no such assurance: for them it was enough to know that they should do what was right, simply because it was proper to do so; and that they should remind God to do the same, if He ever seemed about to deviate from the narrow path of Justice and Mercy.
I would also say that I have a strong suspicion that in many cases, Christians will talk about following faith and non-Christians will talk about following their instincts, and both are really talking about the same thing.
I hope that Christians would follow the teachings of the Gospel and everyone the "Natural Law".
Once you make the idea of love for others to be your ideal, how many of us live up to that? I know that for all my ideals I spend almost all my waking life thinking working to do things that increase my own happiness and my own prosperity. And I find it hard to believe that there is a single person in the world who doesn't do exactly the same thing. In most cases even when we help others or act in kind ways you can probably trace the subconscious motivation down to the fact that that's what makes us feel good.
Indeed, and what is wrong with this? Nothing else is sensible. Without love of self there can be no love of others. Altruism is a false aspiration that corrupts because it is impossible. All that it engenders is guilt and conceit. Love for others is not the true goal. Love itself is the true goal. Passionate love. The love of engagement that is ultimately self-fulfilling. A sharing in the ecstatic joy of the Godhead, to which all (wo)men are called. The more that participate in this party, the better! Each individual brings to it his or her own contribution that adds to the joy and wonder of all.

Self Sacrificial Love

By human standards, I don't think that I'm a bad person. I still endeavour to be (and I hope, largely succeed in being) at least as considerate, fair and kind towards others as is expected by our society. Hopefully a bit more so than the average person (well that's what I like to think anyway!). But that's still a long way from the ideal of self-sacrifice represented by the Christian God.
Self-sacrifice in the sense that my friend hints at is neither required nor "represented by the Christian God". Jesus died not because He thought that our good was more important than His, and that He should take our place in Hell so that we could go to Heaven. He didn't either seek to destroy Himself nor to deny His own purpose or aspiration or desire or values. He knew all along that He would rise from the dead. His very purpose and ardent desire was to restore right relations between God and Man. Man's slavery to sin was ultimately objectionable to Him and He was dead set on doing anything and everything that He could do to eradicate it. Jesus' death affirmed all His values. It was a martyrdom, like that of Socrates: a matter of non-negotiable principle, a matter of personal integrity and pride. Of course Jesus' death was horrid! The death of any (wo)man is horrid, and especially one involving such protracted and severe pain. Moreover it was wicked beyond all wickedness: because Jesus wasn't just a human being (like Socrates) but substantially God! We're not just talking murder, but rather God-slaughter here!

I know that Jesus talks of "denying oneself" and "taking up the cross", and that this is typically understood in terms of going out of one's way to seek out ways to suffer or disbenefit oneself, preferably in order to benefit others. I think this kind of interpretation is quite wrong. I believe that Jesus is talking about the process of repentance. This is a turning from and rejection of the "old self" which is irrational and sub-human, the slave to ingrained bad habits and prejudices. Moreover it is a turning towards or better recreation of the "ideal self". This is a faithful representation of what it is to be a (wo)man; characterized by a true intuition of what is real and important and a clarity of purpose and health of will to do what is just, which is that which is necessary to effect and attain what is good. The process of healing or sanitization or sanctification involved is hard and painful, and the "old self" can object quite strenuously it - just as a junkie suffers and protests when their supply of heroin is withdrawn.

God created us all to enjoy our life together, first in this life, then in Heaven, then in the New Creation that God has planned. There is no place in the Eternal City for any kind of suffering or death or "sacrifice", self-inflicted or otherwise. All that matters is Love!

Response to Personal Sinfulness

Now there are two ways I can respond to that conclusion. I could sink into a pit of despair, thinking I'm worthless. Or I could accept that that's how I am, and do my best to improve, to try to live the kind of life that will leave a good mark on the world, while accepting that that's not perfect by a long way, but at least it's something. That is the way to live that is encouraged by Christianity. And I believe that that is really what is meant by the idea - to use the religious language - of us being sinners, once you strip off the dogmatic baggage that so many churches have stuck on to it. (Incidentally, most churches would probably use somewhat more 'religious' language, talking about being forgiven where I talk about accepting yourself). Again in this case, Christianity makes a lot of sense to me.
I have no problem with Simon's language here, except that I think he is still carrying Evangelical and even Calvinist baggage. I think that he is trying to move towards the kind of position that I have argued for, but feels indebted to a more "conventional dogma", the kind which he generally deplores!

Non-Christian Religions

Of course none of the above arguments necessarily invalidate other religions.
Exactly so! I am not impressed by Dr Robinson's arguments for Christianity. They seem to be evanescent left-overs from a Christian upbringing that are maintaining themselves, for a while, by a form of "self boot-strapping". In the end, it has to be admitted that the "message of Christianity" (apart from the baggage bits that my friend repudiates) is common to many religions and philosophies: certainly Platonism!
Perhaps religions like Islam and Hinduism encourage the same kind of attitude. What I would see as a good, spiritual, attitude to life.
Perhaps they don't!  Perhaps many versions of Christianity don't, either!
I simply don't know enough about them to say either way. But I know that in my experience Christianity does, and that's good enough for me to say that it is the Christian tradition that I will choose to follow. Though I stress that that doesn't mean I condemn other religions.
Condemn is a bad word to use. To say that an idea is wrong (e.g. 1 + 1 = 5) is not to condemn the person that holds it. I do not condemn my friend's ideas, though I think they are defective. I think that my friend is a good man and close to The Kingdom of God's Friends. Neither do I "condemn" Hinduism, though I believe it to be seriously defective.
Science is full of situations where there are several theories that are mutually contradictory, but at the same time are all good enough approximations to reality to be used appropriately (Newton's Laws in Newtonian space, special relativity in Minkowski spacetime, or general relativity are all theories that could be used for example to work out the movement of a car along the road. These theories are mutually incompatible, yet all are used routinely by scientists because they are all useful in different situations).
Dr Robinson overstates this. These theories are not "mutually incompatible". Special Relativity is a special case of General Relativity, valid when the Energy-Density Tensor is negligible. Newtonian Mechanics is a special case of Special Relativity, valid when all relative velocities are small compared to that of light. Typically, a physicist uses the simplest approximation that gets him a sufficiently accurate answer. Using a more complete theory involves more trouble than it's worth and might even so complicate the workings that he'd get confused and come to the wrong conclusion! It is not similarly sensible to say that Islam is an approximation to Christianity that is valid in certain circumstances and that Judaism is an approximation valid in others!
Churches are fond of reminding us that our understanding of God is imperfect.
Indeed, just as is our understanding of matter, electric charge and quantum-mechanical spin. God is a much bigger deal than all the fundamental concepts of Physics put together; but I have a better intuition of God than I do of any of them! Because God has revealed HimSelves, via Abraham, Moses and the prophets and became Man in Jesus the Messiah. He who has seen and spoken with Jesus has seen and spoken with God.
Indeed, many atheists would argue - with some degree of truth - that "there are things we don't understand" has become the standard response whenever a Christian is faced with an awkward question or some evidence suggesting his theology isn't correct.
Just because such an answer can sometimes be given when it is inappropriate, doesn't mean that sometimes it isn't the correct answer. In particular, for the Catholic, it is necessary to distinguish between the case when a palpable contradiction between two theological tenets is demonstrated (in which case something is definitely wrong and no amount of ignorance will serve as a defence!) and the case when a question simply has no clear answer. The Lutheran/Evangelical doctrine of "utter depravity" allows the idea of "ignorance" to serve in both cases, because it teaches that human reason is utterly unreliable and that logic is not to be trusted - and certainly not in matters relating to God!
So in that case what is the difficulty with accepting that perhaps different religions just represent different attempts by people to understand God, and that two people can choose different religions without either of them being wrong in their choice? I don't see a problem with that.
The problem with this is only that the Judaeo-Christian Tradition has it that God didn't just leave people alone in their attempts to understand reality, but actively and specifically revealed HimSelves to various holy souls. Of course, these don't have to be thought to have been just the Hebrew heroes that feature in the Bible! Socrates, Plato, the Pharaoh Aken-Aton, Zoroaster and others may have been the recipients of revelation, it is difficult to be sure.

The Fundamental Tenets of Christianity

I suspect a good few readers - especially Christians - have been reading up to this point, will be thinking that I've left out two of the other fundamental tenets of Christianity - the Bible as being God's word, and the fact of Jesus' having died on the cross and then been resurrected. A corollary of that is that you're supposed (at least in evangelical circles) to believe that the resurrection happened 'coz otherwise you won't be saved.
My friend reveals his ex-Evangelical heritage most clearly here. He seems to have no awareness of the two central doctrines of Christianity: the Trinity and Incarnation. Instead of these two foundational Catholic dogmas, we have: I do not blame Simon in any way for this analysis. It is typical of the populist protestant distortion of Christian theology to which he (and I) have had the misfortune to be exposed.

Resurrection

Well I'm afraid those omissions are deliberate. I see no way that those particular dogmas can be made compatible with our understanding of how the Universe tends to work that we have learned from science. So when I asserted earlier that I believed science and religion were perfectly compatible, there was a catch. I stand by that assertion, but would also add that there are certain religious dogmas that do appear to be incompatible with science - simply because they seem to contradict our understanding of the Universe. People who die generally tend to stay dead!
Dr Robinson here, I think, reveals his own awareness of the flaw in his argument by his use of the word "generally". Indeed, people who die do generally tend to stay dead! In fact this is something of an understatement. Generally, when people die they stay so, not just tend to do so!  However, such a general statement might admit of exceptions. Scientifically, it has to. Science only deals with what is usual, repeatable and controllable. It is quite compatible with the general rule that "them that die stay dead", that Elisha raised the son of the Shunnamite woman; that Jesus raised both Jairus' daughter and Lazarus; and that Jesus Himself rose from the dead. These would all have been exceptions - in need of some kind of explanation, but not contradictory of the general rule; unless it is itself elevated to the status of an unbreachable metaphysical principle.
I regard the widespread rigid adherence to those two dogmas as being the biggest problem the Christian faith has at the moment. And the reason why Christianity is in many countries dying.
I strongly disagree! However, I note that my friend has neglected to give any explanation of what he understands the assertion that "The Bible is the Word of God" signifies.
The story of Jesus as reported in the gospels is a beautiful story.
Before we get on to the Gospels, we should consider the Hebrew Bible, Deuterocanon and Epistles, but never mind.
God, all powerful yet all loving, comes to Earth and in a sense sacrifices himself for the sake of love for mankind. As I've hinted earlier, that kind of willingness to sacrifice is what life is all about. But the overwhelming evidence is that the story is just that: A beautiful story that can be used to inspire us. In terms of literal fact, it didn't happen.
What evidence?
I recognize that many, even more liberal minded, Christians, would regard a literal belief in the resurrection as the fundamental tenet of whether you are a Christian - and I have sometimes been accused of not being a Christian because I interpret the resurrection as a story rather than as fact.
Well, the Apostle Paul did say that if Jesus didn't rise from the dead then the faith of Christians was in vain! I agree with him.
I find that accusation very strange. [Why should -ed] my Christian-ness and, by implication, my spiritual worthiness depend on my opinions about what happened in a particular location so long ago that it is impossible to verify the facts?
Interesting, this one! Simon previously entertains the possibility that many differing religions or philosophies might be equivalent or variously appropriate approximations to the truth; yet now seems to equate "Christian-ness" with "spiritual worthiness", even after admitting that he is something of a failure at the kind of "life of sacrificial love" that he equates with both! If he had the strength of what I understand to be his convictions, it seems to me that he would give up pretending to the description Christian! After all, for him it seems to mean nothing beyond "theism" coupled with "a frustrated aspiration to love others". As for myself, I don't mind whether he calls himself a Christian or not. That word is so disvalued today that I don't generally use it of myself, much preferring the description Catholic. In any case, I believe that my friend has a lot more of "Christianity" within him than he is willing or currently able to explicitly profess. I suspect that his bad experience of "Christianity" has caused him to over-react against what his intuition tells him is somehow right, even when his reason tells him it is very wrong.
Surely what is more important is a person's commitment to spiritual values, their devoting their life to the promotion of good to the best of their ability, and perhaps their willingness to live and work within the Christian community?
Indeed. Except that the phrase "what is more important" must be analysed. True: all that God really cares about is whether a (wo)man has "good-will". If a (wo)man aspires after that which is good, just and noble, then God will in no-wise reject them, but account them as Their friend and welcome them into the Eternal Habitations. However, if certain propositions just happen to be true such as "God so loved the World, that He gave up His Only Begotten Son...." then they are objectively true - whether my friend believes them to be so or not; and the salvation of my friend is caught up in and dependant upon the drama of Gethsemene and Golgotha, and the glory of the first Son-Day - whether he knows it or no. In the end, he will see clearly, no longer through a glass darkly and all the secrets of the Gospel will be revealed to him.
To anyone who says that I'm not a Christian because I have attempted to match up the claims about those historical events with our scientific understanding of the universe and drawn the obvious conclusions, I would simply say, "sorry, you're wrong. I am."
Simon is here being un-necessarily defensive. I simply do not understand why, as a matter of reason rather than emotion,  it is so important to him that he be allowed to call himself and in fact be called a Christian. Why does he not equally aspire to the epithet Platonist(as I do: because I believe that Plato and Socrates were historical people, because I revere them both and accept much of what they taught) or Catholic or Protestant or Jew or Muslim or Hindu? After all, "A rose, by any other name would smell as sweet!" I know my friend to be a good man. A sensitive soul. A kind man. A gentleman. Why does this not suffice for him? Why does he want to be known as a Christian?

Of course, he is correct in his implication that an attempt to match up the claims of the Christian Tradition against a modern scientific understanding of the world does not disqualify one from being an Orthodox Catholic! This is largely what I have attempted to do in my life. On the other hand, some of the conclusions that he has drawn are far from obvious, as far as I am concerned!

At the same time I've on occasions heard extreme atheists claim that Jesus never existed. I find this claim equally daft. There's also a lot of evidence that Jesus existed as a man.
Such as? There are a couple of references in contemporary secular sources. More than for most folks, such as Socrates, but hardly "a lot of evidence".
That someone called Jesus Christ lived in Israel about 2000 years ago and went around preaching a message that religion should be about loving others, rather than, as previously believed, about rituals.
Dr Robinson should read more of the Hebrew Bible. If he did he'd soon discover that the Jews of Jesus' day were quite clear about the right relationship between "loving others" and "ritual worship". The aberrations recorded of the Pharisees in the Gospels, were just that: aberrations from the Mosaic tradition. Moreover, they should not necessarily be taken as representative of the whole of that class, either!
As so often happens to people who challenge the existing order, he got executed, by crucifixion, a common method at the time.
Given that this message didn't challenge the existing order, why was he killed by the Romans?
The evidence for this comes from a variety of historical sources.
Such as?

The Gospels

Of course, traditional Christian dogma then proclaims that Jesus then got resurrected. The only evidence for this claim lies in the gospels - a series of books that it is generally believed amongst historians were written much later on: they were not contemporary eye-witness accounts.
The Gospels are our main source of knowledge about Jesus' life. The idea of the resurrection is, however, amply attested in St Paul's epistles, which were written quite a bit earlier. Moreover, St Paul himself professed faith in the risen Christ who he'd met on the road to Emmaus (as recorded independently in the Acts of the Apostles) and said that his faith was a waste of time if he was wrong about this! Moreover the fact that the Gospels, as we now have them, were written between about 70 AD and about 100 AD doesn't mean that they were not "contemporary eye-witness accounts". The events they describe must have been just as indelibly inscribed on the minds of the authors (and sources behind) these documents as the much less significant events of my three years in Bristol are seared on my memory. More significantly, the Gospels are self professed propaganda!
Since the gospels widely contradict each other in their detailed accounts of historical events, their accuracy is clearly suspect even for their descriptions of routine everyday events. When such books go on to make claims that are completely at odds with all our everyday experience of the world in which we live, I think most impartial observers would conclude those books are likely to be wrong.
Quite the opposite. It is an argument in favour of the integrity and honesty of the Gospel authors that they didn't tidy up all the (apparent) inconsistencies between the differing accounts of Jesus' life. Accuracy is not really the criterion here, though it is important. The real charge against the Gospels is that they are fantasy rather than accidentally garbled history.
The story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection is important for the values it conveys. And that's how I believe it should be seen. A lot of people draw a lot of inspiration from the story and that is good.
The example of Socrates would loose much of its value if Socrates was just an invention of Plato. It is the fact that a real man existed with the nobility, intuition and integrity of Socrates that challenges and motivates the Platonist in me. If Socrates never lived, or was nothing like the man that Plato portrays in his early dialogues, then Plato was an even greater and more imaginative man than I think he was - but much of the point of his message would be lost. Plato's life work was an act of love for the one who inspired him and taught him to see and think and wonder and value. It is because Socrates did exist and was the kind of man that he was that I dare aspire to imitate him in some minor manner.
As long as the story of Jesus helps people so much then it's fine to promote it and use it extensively in the Christian community. But it should nevertheless be recognized as being a story. The significance is in what it teaches us, not in its historical accuracy or otherwise.
The problem with this position is that the strength of the Christian message of hope: of great good coming forth from great evil rather depends on it being true. If God is not active in the world to make sense of all our suffering, and to justify all our pain then it is no comfort to think that this might have been true in some other alternate Cosmos. The "teaching" (dogma) is worse than pointless if it is wishful thinking.

If God is active: if He is LOVE (not just loving), then is it so unthinkable that He might not just bring HimSelves to act in exactly the way that the Christian Tradition asserts that He did - by sharing in the finitude and frustration and farce of our lives, in order to ennoble and ratify then and so rescue them from despair?

As a trained scientist, I find it very hard to see how it can have literally and physically happened.
As a trained scientist, I have no idea how or in what way Jesus "rose from the dead" or how he could live while his body still bore the mortal wounds inflicted on him at his execution. It is more than "hard to see how it can have literally and physically happened", it is quite impossible! Nevertheless, just because it is impossible for me to see how something can have happened doesn't mean that it didn't happen! Neither my subjective ignorance nor my lack of imagination is any constraint on objective reality. Innumerable things that I cannot begin to understand happen all the time. Moreover Jesus' resurrection isn't supposed to have been anything other than miraculous - which means something that one can't give any naturalistic account of! The argument that "because a miracle is miraculous it can't have taken place" is specious, unless one adopts the supplementary premise (which cannot possibly be established, and is entirely a matter of faith) that miracles never take place!

As a trained scientist, I have no experimental subject on which to conduct any tests. All theorizing must remain vain speculation, without any possibility of falsification or corroboration. Unlike the Blessed Apostle Thomas (patron of all reasonable and careful sceptics) I have no prospect of "placing my hand in his wounds". Like the same Apostle, I have no hesitation in proclaiming Jesus to be Messiah, Sovereign Lord and Incarnate God.

As an amateur philosopher, I believe that Jesus Messiah participated in the Form of God, and that in Him God experienced first-hand our pain and loneliness and isolation and refused to opt out and walk away. If God was made Man and died upon the gibbet of Calvary, it is unthinkable - an affront to metaphysics itself - that He could stay dead! He who is LIFE set aside His human life for a while, so that He might "preach to the dead" and harrow Hell - but He took it up again on the Third day. Nothing else was remotely possible!

A personal Christianity

So where does that leave us? Hopefully I've explained why I am a Christian. I believe that involvement with the Christian faith can help a lot with your own personal spiritual and life development. To that extent most churches do a lot of good.
I fear that I disagree with Dr Robinson here too. Apart from my early experience with Methodism, and my brief time as a Catholic at Cambridge (both of these stages in my life are now, of course, viewed through rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia) I have found involvement with organized religion an almost entirely negative and destructive experience. I rather suspect that Simon has too, but for some reason doesn't want to admit it.

The drawbacks of organized religion

But sadly, a lot of harm is also done by many churches. On the Roman Catholic side we see ridiculous doctrines advanced by the Pope (such as the ban on contraception - how much suffering in developing countries has that particular ruling caused?)
While I agree with Dr Robinson's conclusion, I cannot approve of the tone or style of his argument. The Papal condemnation of contraception (as the whole panoply of Roman teaching on sex, reproduction, gender, relationship and friendship issues) is indeed ridiculous. However, it does have a certain rationality from an Aristotelian point of view. Those that criticize it - and especially those who wish to see it changed - would be well advised to first understand why it is maintained and to consider the wider impact on the life of the Church that any modification of it would have. There is a time and place for the correction of error. A "gung-ho!" attitude to pulling up the weeds from the midst of the corn can do more harm than good, I am very sorry to say. The example of Luther is cautionary.
On the Protestant side we see intolerance towards minority lifestyles that have resulted from trying to put rigid interpretations of the Bible into everyday life.
I suspect that Simon is obliquely referring to the "gay" issue here. First, I must say that the Catholic and Orthodox Church is a worse culprit here than Protestantism as a whole; though fundamentalist Evangelicals can on occasion exceed the combined vitriol of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Moscow! Again, while I agree with his conclusions and welcome his good will (which I greatly value and appreciate) I cannot agree with his argument. It seems to be that he would have it that just because some "minority lifestyle" (such as militant and aggressive Cannibalism or Satanism or organized "pedophilia") exists, it should be tolerated. This is nonsense!

Being gay isn't a "lifestyle", any more than is being left-handed, it's just a fact about oneself. It isn't something to be tolerated, but rather dismissed and discounted as of little consequence. This is because it is moral - unlike the other examples I referred to. No harm is done to anyone, especially those gay folk who express their romanto-erotic feelings in a manner analogous with how heterosexuals legitimately express theirs - and for largely similar reasons. Moreover, the "rigid interpretations of the Bible" that Dr Robinson refers to are not in any sense authentic or strict, but rather extrinsic, mistaken and perverted.

Personally, despite my proclaimed allegiance to the Christian faith, all too often I find myself squirming with embarrassment at the daft proclamations of 'Christian' spokesmen. Although I believe that atheism is incorrect, I have to say that on many specific issues, atheists often show a lot more sense, and a lot more thought, in their arguments than do conservative Christians. Which I find very unfortunate since I'd say it is the Christians who have their basic premises right.
Here I end by entirely agreeing with my friend. I note that he rightly criticizes "conservative Christians" and then says that "Christians" (without the epithet) have their basic premises right.

Pax!



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