Friday, January 22, 2010

Passing thoughts, pressing dreams

Below is a post I wrote last night for our new blog, Without Any Gods:

Tonight I attended a Campus Crusade for Christ (or CRU) event on campus with my non-theist friend Liz. CRU is doing a lecture series on skepticism and Christianity. I missed last week’s talk on hell (shame too, apparently there was compelling evidence discussed for its existence). Tonight’s topic was “Can I trust the Bible?”

Essentially it was a crash course for Christians in how to respond to skeptics of the Bible. The three subquestions addressed were 1) authenticity, 2) corrupt copies, and 3) canon. I really don’t feel like wasting my time re-sharing the tired old retorts that the Bible is real because it’s god’s holy word and that even mistakes over the years haven’t changed the overall message. Instead I want to briefly share with you why the speaker claims that the apocrypha (non-canonical gospels) do not belong.

“The gospels of Thomas, Peter, Judas, Infancy Gospel, etc. are not canonized because:

1) They are not self-authenticating

2) They were published later - 2nd century and beyond

3) They falsely claim apostolic authorship

4) They contain strange/comical ideas”

(The above part is verbatim from the handout that accompanied the lecture)

This list is absurd. My biggest problem is with the first point. The suggestion that something should be defined as true because it says it is true, is a basic premise that we reject everywhere else in our lives - so why not here? Because the Gospel of John claims to be the word of god, then we should believe that it is, and if other gospels don’t explicitly claim to be the word of god then they clearly aren’t. Hmmm - this reminds me of a strange Jedi mind trick … but I thought that was science fiction? I don’t really think I need to belabor this absurd idea - I won’t because I’m sure that you get how ridiculous this circular reasoning is as a criterion for inclusion.

The second point is not true. The first edition of the gospel of Thomas was written at the same time as the earliest letters of Paul, BEFORE the canonical gospels were written (^ a b Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The five gospels. HarperSanFrancisco. 1993. “Stages in the Development of Early Christian Tradition” p. 128). John was possibly written in the 2nd century itself. The speaker’s second criterion is not being applied consistently.

The third point is absurd - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not have eponymous authors … ALL were written by other people, and attributed to them. How is that any different from the Infancy Gospels or the Gospel of Judas.

Lastly, the only reason the speaker thinks that there are strange/comical ideas in non-canonical gospels is because he didn’t grow up believing in them. A man who gets killed and rises from the dead after three days is pretty much a zombie, but Christians think that is a sane belief to hold because they’ve been taught it since childhood. A Jesus who brings clay birds to life or curses a live boy to turn into a corpse (Infancy Gospel of Thomas) is apparently absurd … rather “strange/comical”. In the book of Matthew, Chapter 21, Jesus curses a tree to die because it didn’t have fruit for him when he was hungry … this isn’t strange/comical??? As my friend Liz pointed out, wouldn’t it have been even more miraculous if he had blessed the tree to bear fruit instantaneously, or moments later, or a day later? Why did he destroy it? And why isn’t his decision to do this strange or comical? Simple because we’re used to the story.

As the speaker closed the session, Liz and I watched as the lights dimmed, the guitar was strummed, the drums began to beat, and voices were raised in song. Throughout the room of people who were mesmerized by the music, the feeling of fellowship, and the idea of a shared experience, I was left alone to my thoughts - pondering how deep a rabbit hole can burrow before running out of dirt to displace. Instead of stress and frustration, my mind cleared as a sharp realization gave me cause to smile, and while sitting amongst the believers I wrote the following in my notebook:

The joy of knowing that we are stardust, that our very material essence was forged in the fires of one of the most awesome powers the universe contains, overwhelms my disdain for those manifestations who choose to remain in stark ignorance. The irony that it is the universe itself, refusing to acknowledge its own consciousness, has not escaped my attention. I find solace in the knowledge that the fate they await is ultimately equal to mine: a dream, a death, and then a diffusion.


The Word for Today said...

Hey Matt, good to hear that you're doing so well in life. Just wanted to make a few comments on your post here referring to the "list" given by the Campus Crusade guy.

#1. They are not self-authenticating. I believe this point refers to a book of the Bible claiming to be from God. While I totally agree with you concerning circular reasoning and its fallacies, the reason the apocrypha books aren't part of the canon that is today's Bible is due to their lack of a claim to be from God. Sure circular reasoning isn't by any means a good form (any form) of logic; but the Bible needs to be consistent with its claims. To complete the work, the governing council decided the compilation of books in the Bible must be consistent, which means they need to have some sort of claim to be from God. It doesn't need to defend itself, because it never doubts its information. From beginning to end it assumes everyone reading will take its accounts, ideas, stories, and lessons at face value.

#2. They were published late - 2nd century and beyond... Looking at a books date of writing is important, but unfortunately this is not a very good form of critique simply because there is a lot of debate (as you pointed out). However, when the governing council (in Carthage 397 AD) decided upon the 27 books of the New Testament, they were not able to know what we know today. Then the question comes, "Should we change the current canon to include more works?" While some say this is possible, It is a general consensus among Christian Scholars that the council was Godly inspired so the canon they created should remain intact. I'm sure you'll say this doesn't make much logical sense; but if someone believes in divine inspiration then their motives, and actions will be based on that presumption.
Yours obviously aren't. (more on this later).

#3. They falsely claim apostolic authorship. I don't really see the reason this is used so no comment.

#4. They contain strange / comical ideas. Hummm, I wouldn't put it that way at all. Like you said, there are a lot of ideas all throughout the Bible that can seem very strange, and comical (even to a believer). However, I would say that the Christian Bible does not include the apocrypha books not based on strange concepts, but on ones that either contradicted other (more trusted) books, added no new concepts to the ones already stated in other books, or had little or nothing to do with Jesus or God at all. (the example of a boy Jesus turning clay birds into real ones is not a valid miracle because it contradicts John 2:11 which states that Jesus turning water to wine in Galilee was his first miracle. That is one reason why Thomas' gospel was thrown out.)

-Also, your friends reference to Jesus cursing the tree seems like a good question. But, like a lot things Jesus did, this has more to it than meets the eye. Jesus said and did things as examples and parables to show others a message (like an illustration). This particular instance represents the life of a person who claims to be something but doesn't bear any fruit. Matthew 7:17 talks about knowing if someone is genuine by the fruit that they bear. Just because someone claims to belong to something, doesn't mean they believe it in their heart and truly follow it. (this is a big problem in the Christian community today). Jesus cursed the tree because it did not bear fruit, just like those who do not bear fruit during their life (are truly a Christ follower) will be punished. You may think this is crazy, but it represents what the Bible teaches time and time again.

(continued in 2nd post)

The Word for Today said...

The overarching theme of the Bible (whether believed or not) is God's ultimate love for man, and his attempts to have a eternal relationship with him. Anything that contradicts that or doesn't promote that theme would not be consistent with the Bible's existence. Sure there are things that happen throughout the Bible that deviate from this theme, but they always have consequences which are later revealed (such as Israel's disobedience, and their later captivity and suffering).

Matt, as you can tell I am a believer in Christ and very solid in my belief system. Although I don't agree with your logic and reason, I find no fault in your deep desire to know the truth and your attempts to express your findings. We share different worldviews that shape and mold us into what we believe and who we are. But, no matter what science may say, we both share the common element of faith. My faith is based on something that cannot be proven and might seem just downright ridiculous to some; but is none-the-less acceptable to me, my life, and my experiences. Your faith, while logical and well represented in your mind, is still based on a lot of unsupported theories and a huge lack of evidence. Sure my God cannot be rationalized by concrete evidence; but neither can your views of science. Your worldview tells you that my beliefs are silly, and the past abuses (numerous accounts) of my "religion" are enough to disprove it. However, my worldview points to the lack of evidence in science to both disprove God and prove man's beginning. Both views have ideas that they feel are merited, but neither can be proven, so faith is required. The question then comes which begs to ask, "Which faith is more appropriate". The answer to that again, is found based on someone worldview. The person who already presupposes that God does not exist will laugh at the idea to even have faith in such a thing.
Yet, does that mean it has no validity whatsoever?

If you wish to reply, comment, or hit me up for some chat (related or unrelated) you can contact me by email or on facebook. Either way, love ya man and keep striving for knowledge, and understanding. When we settle for the understandings obtained by others, we die to our own abilities to know more than was known yesterday.

-Michael Coleman