The Bible Geekthanks several Patreon supporters and answers the following questions:
What do you think of the theory that, since in Romans 1:3-4 Jesus is said to become God’s son via resurrection, and 1 Cor 15 says Christians will share that resurrection, hence sonship, thus becoming Jesus’ fellow-sons, brothers, that James the brother of the Lord simply means James was a martyr awaiting resurrection?
You once proposed the formation of a modern secular Lyceum. I was fascinated by the idea, and wondered if you could expound on it.
Is there any possible basis to the crazy-sounding theory that the Canaanites deserved to be exterminated since they were the offspring of demons and mortal women?
What do you make of John w21:1:19, in which Jesus speaks of love as “agape” and Peter uses the word “philea”?
Eisenman says that Paul was a Herodian and created a version of Christianity aimed at discrediting James-Christianity. Why would he go to that trouble? Why not just argue against it?
Did theJudaizing/historicizing efforts of emerging Catholicism invent the concept of the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, or can this concept be traced to nearby pagan religions?
Ignatius’s Epistle to the Ephesians says that “as [Christ] represents the mind of the Father, so our bishops … represent the mind of Jesus Christ.” Thus the “conduct and practice” of church members should correspond with the mind of their bishop. Certainly, this seems to place Christ lower in the hierarchy than the Father, doesn’t it? Either that or it seems to indicate the bishops actually have insights into the mind of the Father, through Christ, in which case it seems to raise the bishops’ stature. Is there any religious practice, either in an early Christianity, competing mystery school, or other religion from the time where the transmission of holy power is as described in John 20:22, through breathing it out onto the assembled devotees?
Do you have any idea how the book of Luke can end so nicely and the book of Acts end like a television series does when the budget is cut without notice?
Richard Dawkins has ventured the opinion that theologians are experts in a subject without any subject matter. I take him to mean they are engaged in nothing but “mental masturbation.” They are, he thinks, like a group of Star Wars fans I once knew who believed the events of the movie were real, but in a different universe (in which they would have much preferred to dwell). Or imagine a self-proclaimed zoologist who specialized in werewolves, unicorns, and dragons. There is a large element of truth in such comparisons and thus also in his disdain. And yet I can’t help thinking he is engaging in overkill.
I am sure Professor Dawkins does not discount the importance of numerous fields like Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology of Religion, much less the History of Religion, because these fields of study serve purposes valuable to secular intellectuals and to society at large. To put it bluntly: you need to know your enemy. The world is aflame with murderous religious fanatics, and we need to understand what motivates those who kill “infidels” with clean-conscience and abandon. We need to know the harm such jihads of madness have done in the past if we want to gauge dangers in the present.
Biblical Studies are, obviously, relevant if only to, as Robert Ingersoll did, demonstrate that the threatening gun is loaded with blanks, to render the Bible useless as a tool of oppression. It is imperative to debunk the notion that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and this is true even if you think what the Bible says is not so bad, because it is still used as a ventriloquist dummy to impart divine authority to those demagogues who claim its inerrancy for their own opinions. I can think of people on the Left as well as the Right who make Scripture into their own private Charlie McCarthy.
My friend Hector Avalos has called for “the end of Biblical Studies” (in his great book of that title). What, is he trying to put himself out of a job? No, he means to call the bluff of those who merely use scholarship to defend the Bible in the manner of apologetics—spin-doctoring. A good example would be the study of “Biblical Archaeology,” which was essentially founded as an elaborate campaign to defend the accuracy of the Bible against the skepticism of the Higher Critics of the Nineteenth Century. Now this axe-grinding pseudo-archaeology has been revealed as cut from the same cheap cloth as “Scientific Creationism.” The new Ark replica unveiled by Ken Ham is a prime example of both.
What is less obvious as a piece of biblical PR, and from an unexpected quarter, is the sophisticated (but sophistical) production of scholarly studies that attempt to show that the Bible really supports equal rights for women and homosexuals, opposes colonial imperialism, fosters ecumenism, etc. The goal here is twofold. First, there is the cynical, Grand Inquisitor-like attempt to use the voice of unearned authority to trick the pew-potatoes into voting for so-called “Progressives” because the Bible is “really” on the Left, and so you should be, too. It is propagandistic manipulation, what some Liberation and Feminist Theologians call “a useable past.” You know, like the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984.
But the flip side of that coin is that such scholars also seek to rehabilitate the Bible’s reputation by arguing that it has good “Progressive” things to say (and that the bad stuff is either irony or interpolation). Why do they want to do that? Possibly to justify clinging to a self-identification as a Christian of some type.
I understand Hector to be calling the bluff of both Conservative and Liberal scholars who are grinding “the axe of the apostles.” I don’t read him as demanding that the study of the Bible be banned or boycotted. Rather, I would describe the situation as analogous to a bunch of neo-polytheists urging everyone to take Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as infallible and historically inerrant. Classicists would enter the fray to demonstrate the mythic-fictional character of those works, but they would not discourage the study of these great old texts.
I think another friend of mine, John Loftus, means the same thing when he urges universities to drop Philosophy of Religion courses. So much of it has been (again) apologetics, propping up the faith of those would-be believers whose intellectual consciences forbid them to exclaim, “Oh, to heaven with it!” and just “believe.” (Still, you can teach Philosophy of Religion with a critical approach.)
I’m not sure Professor Dawkins stops there, however. I remember hearing him deride the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation as “a rabbi turning himself into a cracker.” The line got lots of laughs, but I didn’t join in the general hilarity. I knew from this joke that the noted atheist was not bothering to try to look at the question from the inside, the only place it makes any sense, and where it does make sense. It is its own language game, though most of those who play it are not aware that’s “all” they’re doing.
If you’ve been on the “other” side, whether religiously, politically, whatever, then switched sides, you know you can’t simply dismiss the old frame of reference as nothing but gibberish. You know there is a method in the madness, that it’s not just madness, even if you can no longer affirm it. I think of how, when I first read about Deconstruction, I thought it was crazy. But, as Mary Midgley said, when we call something “crazy” it just means we don’t understand it. And then I realized there had to be something to it that was not then apparent to me. So I read more, trying to see it. And I finally did see it.
In fact, I now see what first seem like absurdities as opportunities to expand my mind to see (and possibly embrace) new perspectives. I tried to convey this to a student in an Adult School course I later taught about Deconstruction. Though a very learned man, he went in with an attitude of unremitting determination to see and expose Deconstruction as nonsense. What a shame, because, if it wasn’t nonsense, he’d never be able to see it. You have to have an attitude of teachableness, and this man, for all his intelligence, did not. His loss.
Well, I have been on the side of theologians and believers. Though I have long since switched sides, I remember what it was like. And I know that theology is not a subject without subject matter, like Unicornology. Whether you are a believer or an atheist, you may approach theology as a subdivision of the history of thought that deserves at least as much respect as, say, ancient or medieval Philosophy. You most likely don’t find the views of Parmenides and Xeno to be persuasive. You don’t buy the idea that what the senses report to us has no relation to external reality, an infinite expanse indistinguishable by divisions or distinctions, and so on. But were the Eleatics just gushing verbal salad? You’re the fool if you think so.
In the same way, I just cannot look at the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas or the theological systems of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich and X it all out as a bunch of glossolalic gobbledygook. The interplay of competing concepts is exhilarating to explore! All the more if it is initially strange to you!
Theology thinks it is telling us about God. I don’t think there is a God. But theology has much the same attraction as mythology. Both are the cartography of dream worlds. Doesn’t that mean
Richard Dawkins is right after all: it’s just a stupid waste of time? No. Hans Jonas and Rudolf Bultmann explained how “every statement of theology is at the same time a statement of anthropology,” and that is the basis of demythologizing. To demythologize is to decode stories of, and beliefs in, God(s), to reveal the self-understandings of those who produce and who live by the myths. People who inherit or embrace (factually erroneous) myth systems assimilate their dictates and definitions. The systems of belief are projections of the “symbolic universes” (Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann) inside the heads of believers. This is the truth of the formula “As above, so below.” Theology does have subject matter: human beings.
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
I want to report some thoughts sparked by a recent rereading of a passage from Aleister Crowley’s novel Moonchild and hearing a lecture by Dr. Jerry Coyne on the topic of “The Illusion of Free Will.”
“But she is a sublime genius, the greatest artist the world has ever seen.”
“She has a genius,” distinguished Simon Iff. “Her dancing is a species of angelic possession, if I may coin a phrase. She comes off the stage from an interpretation of the subtlest and most spiritual music of Chopin or Tschaikowsky; and forthwith proceeds to scold, to wheedle, or to blackmail. Can you explain that reasonably by talking of ‘two sides to her character’? It is nonsense to do so. The only analogy is that of a noble thinker and his stupid, dishonest, and immoral secretary. The dictation is taken down correctly, and given to the world. The last person to be enlightened by it is the secretary himself! So, I take it, is the case with all genius; only in many cases the man is in more or less conscious harmony with his genius, and strives eternally to make himself a worthier instrument for his master’s touch. The clever man, so-called, the man of talent, shuts out his genius by setting up his conscious will as a positive entity. The true man of genius deliberately subordinates himself, reduces himself to a negative, and allows his genius to play through him as It will. We all know how stupid we are when we try to do things…. All this lies at the base of the Taoistic doctrine of non-action; the plan of doing everything by seeming to do nothing…
Nothing any man can do will improve that genius; but the genius needs his mind, and he can broaden that mind, fertilize it with knowledge of all kinds, improve its powers of expression; supply the genius, in short, with an orchestra instead of a tin whistle. All our little great men, our one-poem poets, our one-picture painters, have merely failed to perfect themselves as instruments. The Genius who wrote The Ancient Mariner is no less sublime than he who wrote The Tempest; but Coleridge had some incapacity to catch and express the thoughts of his genius – was ever such wooden stuff as his conscious work? – while Shakespeare had the knack of acquiring the knowledge necessary to the expression of every conceivable harmony, and his technique was sufficiently fluent to transcribe with ease.
The moment I first read that passage, some thirty years ago, sitting in a gas station in Mount Olive, North Carolina, waiting for my car to be fixed, I knew Crowley had hit the nail on the head. At least I knew he had described the creative process as I experience it. I had already noticed that elusive points became clear to me when I chanced to wake in the middle of the night. I had already noticed that new story ideas or project ideas would jump into my conscious mind as I took my morning shower, my head fresh from sleep. I remembered how on some days I would feel distracted, fog-brained, or out of sorts when sitting down to the keyboard—and wrote more fluently than when alert and clear-eyed! In all these cases, my conscious mind, my “trying” mind, was sort of off-line, or sitting on the sidelines, enabling my subconscious mind (Crowley’s “genius”) to work unobstructed. In his fascinating book Lost Christianity, Jacob Needleman says something similar: that spiritual awakening comes most readily when physical or emotional discomfort momentarily throws us off balance, knocking our defenses away and putting us in a state of vulnerability.
Crowley’s character Simon Iff goes on to say, “How often do we see a writer gasp at his own work? ‘I never knew that,’ he cries, amazed, although only a minute previously he has written it down in plain English.’” I know that feeling. I feel often that I am simply receiving what I write. From whence? From “me,” i.e., my subconscious mind.
What I am describing is what I think is going on with so-called “channelers,” at least with those who are not simply frauds. They think they are loaning their mouths to this or that discarnate entity (Ramtha, Abraham, etc.) who then speaks through them to their audiences. I am guessing that the sincere ones are in fact putting their conscious minds in park and letting the genie of the subconscious out of its bottle. I believe the creative writer (or other artist), when he or she is “in the zone,” is doing essentially the same thing.
David Hume argued that there is no unifying ego at the center of our thoughts. They merely pass across the empty stage of our minds like actors in a play. Thoughts are pretty much tantamount to (passive) perceptions, though they do not, like the latter, seem to arise directly from the senses. I have to take this possibility very seriously. Likewise the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, “no self.” So often I seem to hear the arguments “I” spew out during a discussion, without planning them out, as if listening to another.
This is also why it makes perfect sense to me to say, with Deconstructive theorists, that the writer is but one more reader of the text “he” has authored. His conscious intention by no means controls the meaning of the text. The text is autonomous: it speaks for itself, the author’s opinions about it notwithstanding. I remember once hearing Stephen King remark that his book Carrie was about women’s rising awareness of their power. Plainly, he was wrong. He himself had expounded the subtext of William Peter Blatty’s novel/movie The Exorcist as the parent-frightening onset of puberty in their daughters. How could King not see the more-than-obvious: that his own Carrie was a retelling of the same lesson? His creative genius, of course, knew better.
Where does Jerry Coyne’s lecture come in? Among other points, Dr. Coyne appealed to tests that showed by an analysis of brain activities that the decision-making area of the brain signals a decision being made seconds before we become conscious of making a decision, implying that we are confusing what is really our experience of having (already, unconsciously) made a decision with the notion of making that decision in the moment of consciousness. Hidden factors deep below the level of consciousness have produced the decision, not a conscious process of deliberation. We are in fact receiving the decision from our subconscious minds. Sounds right! I’ve just been saying the same thing about ideas. But does that mean it’s not me? I posit that the immediate continuity between the unexperienced decision-making nexus and the awareness of the result is a matter of explaining our choices, not of explaining them away.
Compare it to sight: it seems to us to be instantaneous: an object is in front of us, and we see it, bang! But of course, there is much more to it: light strikes the optic nerve, the brain edits the image a bit, and we see a photoshopped version of what’s (presumably!) out there. Does this mean we aren’t seeing it? Hell, no. Even so, I think our decisions are genuinely our own, and not, say, those of another being programmed into us. The subconscious mind and the conscious mind are both equally “me.” (Once Felix Unger said to Oscar Madison, “This is the real you, that’s underneath the other real you!”) The distinction is important in many ways, as Crowley, Freud, Jung, and a legion if others say. But so is the unity of continuity.
Dr. Coyne also suggested that determinism is perfectly compatible with deterrence policies, since the threat of execution may so impact the hearer that “he” will “decide” to drop his nefarious plans. Nor, Coyne says, is determinism incompatible with logical argumentation since a “compelling” argument “causes” the hearer to change his opinions in light of it. This seems fishy to me. Precisely how do effective arguments or threats “compel” assent? Hypnosis? Brain-washing? Mind-control? Or are not the changes of mind these arguments produce the product of the hearer weighing the implications and repercussions of planned crimes, evaluating the validity of arguments and the weight of evidence? Granted, these calculations may be taking place on a deeper level than we know, as when we instinctively toss an object into a trashcan across the room, and we hit the mark, whereas, as Crowley notes, if we had consciously calculated the necessary force, trajectory, etc., we would be less likely to make it. The “effortless” toss (the way clumsy ol’ me once astounded some neighborhood kids by sinking five baskets in a row) depends not on luck, but on a lightning-fast subconscious calculation on our part. The calculations are real, and they occur inside our skull, even though they are made on automatic pilot. But they are made. It is not the hand of fate.
Personally, Leibniz’s understanding of determinism and free will makes sense to me. Here is my version: Genetic and environmental factors create us and constitute us to an overwhelming extent. We cannot create ourselves. As Colonel Phillips says to Arnim Zola in Captain America: The First Avenger, “It’s just the hand you’ve been dealt.” Now see if you can win the game with it.
My likes and dislikes do not come out of nowhere. They were among the cards dealt me, whether earlier or later in life. But the fact remains that I do like what I like and dislike what I dislike. Various values are important to me, more so than others, perhaps than yours, and this, too, no doubt is a function of my genetic endowment and early life experiences. I did not choose them, nor did some deity. I do not feel betrayed, undermined, or disillusioned by this knowledge. I did not have the freedom to create myself because I wasn’t there to do the job. But I do have freedom now: the freedom to embrace the law of my own being, to be myself. And sometimes the way to do that is to get out of the way and receive whatever emerges.