006: THROWING THE BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER

“Welcome to Zingcreed, the totally unique Christian/Atheist blog, where there are more questions than answers! In this personal polemic I think aloud about religion and life. I hope you get something out of it!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

The firing squad

(a)The bible
(b) Paradigm shift
(c) Recovering residual Jesus
(d) Titans and demons
(e) From ivory towers
(f) Jesus Yes, Christ No!
(g) Not just for church-goers
(h) “His Dad’s the boss!”

(a) The bible
The christian atheist view of the drama that unfolds in the bible is as follows:-
(i) Act One introduces the cruel god jehovah and his prophets. This act provides the context for later developments which cannot be fully understood without it. However the main character, Jehovah himself was no more a historical reality than Zeus or Thor were.
(ii) Act Two is the simple gospel narrative. The preceding and following Acts pale into insignificance beside it.
(iii) Act Three describes how St Paul and the apostles muscled in on Jesus’ act, putting a spin on it and creating a new religion – christianity. There is no evidence that Jesus would have approved of any of this, but it was out of his hands by then.

(b) Paradigm shift
If this view of the bible became more widespread a christian atheist might reasonably assert that the birth pangs of a paradigm shift were being felt. Although at the time of writing there is no sign of this, it might be interesting to speculate on what form any such paradigm shift might take. Like a dialectical process there would be 3 stages:- (i) thesis, (ii) a contradictory antithesis, (iii) a synthesis of (i) and (ii). In the christian atheist case
(i) christians assert that Jesus was divine
(ii) as atheists reject god and everything else claiming to be divine they automatically reject Jesus’ claim to divine status and relegate him to the wheely bin of history along with father christmas and the tooth fairy
(iii) christian atheists too reject Jesus’ claim to divinity but do not reject Jesus outright.

(c) Recovering residual Jesus
Rejecting Jesus outright would be tantamount to throwing out baby Jesus with the divine bathwater. Instead christian atheists have had a second look at him, this time with adult eyes, not with uncritical sunday school eyes. To use a biblical metaphor they are attempting to winnow out the supernatural chaff from the grains of Jesus’ life and teachings. This is not a task the untrained layman can undertake. It is not a matter of trusting in divine guidance when you open the pages of the good book. Nor is there a magic demythologizing wand to hand for us to use. The man we are trying to get a handle on, Jesus, was utterly steeped in first century palestinian judaism. He was a creature of his time – the late iron age; just as we are creatures of ours. As the german theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote
“Can the christian proclamation today expect men and women to acknowledge the mythical world picture as true? To do so would be both pointless and impossible. It would be pointless because there is nothing specifically christian about the mythical world picture of a time now past which was not yet formed by scientific thinking. It would be impossible because no-one can appropriate a world picture by sheer resolve since it is already given with one’s historical situation.” (“New Testament and Mythology and other basic writings”, 1984 p.3)

(d) Titans and demons
A comparable case of a historic teacher whose axioms have been obscured by their proponent’s obsolete world view might be the buddha. According to Stephen Batchelor (“Buddhism without Beliefs”, Bloomsbury, 1997) his teachings were “refracted” (good word) through the “symbols metaphors and imagery of sixth century B.C.E. India.” Parts of the Buddha’s world-view became hardened into dogma as buddhism spread outwards into other cultures.
A similar example from each man would be the Buddha’s belief in the existence of monsters called titans and Jesus’ belief that demons caused human sickness. Both views are upheld by some of the faithful in each camp to this day. Neither need be.

(e) From ivory towers
The good news is that in the groves of academe various dedicated men and women (of all faiths and none) have been merrily winnowing away for the last 200 years. They have done the spadework for us. Some, especially in the US, have come out of their ivory towers and written popular books in non-academic language. Welcome to the world of radical theology and biblical criticism!
Although like all good scholars they disagree amongst themselves about the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” as they call it, there is still (in my opinion, having read many of their works) a surprisingly large concensus that can be built on with some element of confidence.

(f) Jesus Yes, Christ No!
Christian atheists make the case that
(1) Jesus was real not mythical,
(2) Jesus was 100% human with no divine component at all (and, as such he was as flawed as the rest of us),
(3) He was not the Messiah or the Christ (which means “anointed”) but just plain Yeshua, to use the aramaic name he was known by in his lifetime,
(4) He merits consideration alongside other great teachers from the past like Confucius, Plato, Paul, Marx or Gandhi,
(5) He has to stand or fall on his own merits as a teacher, not because of who his dad was.

(g) Not just for church-goers
Jesus’ teachings are for everyone to consider, not just christians. His insights into the human condition are relevant to people of all religions and none. They are as important today as they were 2000 years ago. You don’t need to believe in God to be inspired by Jesus.

(h) “His dad’s the boss!”
Jesus never made a direct unequivocal claim to be the son of god. Not surprising really as he was a perceptive person and he must have known he wasn’t! Having the people around him believe he was may have cramped his style. Taking away his divinity can make him more credible as the following comparison suggests.
Imagine a child whose parent is Head of the school they both attend. Deliberately or unconsciously the child gets treated differently – perhaps bullied by a few, but favoured by most. More favourable treatment and fewer punishments will be his or her lot, always seen by teachers and fellow pupils alike as “the Head’s kid” and not as a normal pupil in his/her own right.
There are 2 possible reactions to this- lapping it up, it’s an easy ride; or preferring to be judged on one’s own merits. What would Jesus have done? Might there not have been moments when he was so irritated that he wished his father was not the “boss”? or even that God was not there at all? Not so much an incipient atheist, more striving to break free from the blinkers put on him by tjhe prevalent supernatural world view. Perhaps he was limited by an unsophisticated peasant language as he struggled to articulate the truths he felt about the world in his all-too-human heart.

I maintain that we can assess Yeshua more accurately and more fairly if we stop reading things into his life and teachings that we think ought to be there because of who his father was reputed to be.

Image:
The Deserter” by Boardman Robinson (1916)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Realist and non-realist views of God
The default position: a brief argument for atheism
About: Zingcreed FAQ
Theology for the masses — time to Pick’n’Mix?
Terminology
Nuggets gleaned from Jesusite websites

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