Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Apple Trees and Honey Bees and Snow White Turtle Doves

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.



--There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark, but he's an arrant knave
--There needs no ghost, my Lord, come from the grave to tell us this.



The Church of England has announced the True Meaning of Christianity.

Again.

Our old friends the Vicar of Putney and his boss the Archbishop of Canterbury both contributed essays to the Guardian over Easter. Or rather, they both contributed the same essay. It seems that, over the Easter Vacation, they have been studying the works of a French lepracologist named Girard. Girard believes that societies have a tendency to invent enemies, particularly at times of crisis, in order to create a sense of unity. This can be very uncomfortable if you are one of those who gets labeled as an 'enemy'.

Well, golly-gosh. I'm astonished no-one has spotted that before. Giles Fraser gets very excited about this new insight:

At times of tension or division, there is nothing quite as uniting as the 'discovery' of someone to blame - often someone perfectly innocent. For generations of Europeans, the Jews were cast in the role; in the same way women have been accused of being witches, homosexuals derided as unnatural, and Muslims dismissed as terrorists.

Rowan Williams puts it like this:

In recent years a number of Christian writers – inspired by the French critic and philosopher, Rene Girard - have stressed with new urgency how the Bible shows the way in which groups and societies work out their fears and frustrations by finding scapegoats.

Williams and Fraser take it for granted that this 'scapegoating' is a Very Bad Thing. They think that the Easter story offers some kind of solution.

Fraser says:

The crucifixion...is the story of a God who deliberately takes the place of the despised and rejected so as to expose the moral degeneracy of a society that purchases its own togetherness at the cost of innocent suffering.....The new society he called forth - something he dubbed the kingdom of God - was to be a society without scapegoating, without the blood of the victim. The task of all Christians is to further this kingdom, 'on earth as it is in heaven' .

Well. That certainly sounds religious. 'God-identifies-with-the-outcasts' is definitely the kind of thing we'd expect a Vicar to say. And the 'despised and rejected' bit – that comes out of Handel's Messiah, doesn't it? So if we aren't careful, we won't spot that Fraser isn't actually talking about religion at all. For him, Easter isn't about God or Heaven or Jesus risen from the dead or anything like that. Oh dear me no. Jesus died in order to make the point that selecting social or racial enemies is a really, really bad idea and that it would be much better if we didn't.

Clergy are always drawing social messages out of religious stories. There is nothing wrong with saying 'Jesus was an innocent person executed by the state – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if our state stopped executing innocent people?' or 'Babyjesus ran away to a foreign country because Herod wanted to kill him – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if we welcomed foreign people who came to our country instead of, say deporting them to places where they'll probably be hung'. But Fraser appears to be saying that this is the whole point of Easter, not a secondary message that you might want to draw out of it. Why did God 'take the place of the despised and rejected? In order to expose the moral degeneracy of society. The Crucifixion illustrates the point that picking on the fat kid in the playground is a bad idea. The Kingdom of God means 'the kind of playground where the fat kid doesn't get picked on.' For this I got out of bed on Sunday morning?

The Archdruid is marginally more coherent. He's been watching the BBC film version of the Passion and thought it was quite good. He says that, at the time of Jesus, the Jews and the Romans both hated and feared each other. That hatred and fear had become part of their group-identity. Their leaders tacitly kept it going. But:

Jesus offered a perfect excuse for them to join in a liberating act of bloodletting which eliminated a single common enemy. The spiral of fear was halted briefly.

The Jews and the Romans both thought that beating up someone would make them feel good for a bit and picked on Jesus as a likely candidate. For a short while, killing Jesus did indeed make them feel good (Pilate and Herod became friends, didn't they?) But this sort of thing doesn't work for very long.

It's a dubious reading of the Bible (and, indeed, of the BBC film). Far from thinking that a bit of blood-letting would be therapeutic, Pilate bends over backwards to get Jesus off the hook. Far from hating Jesus, Caiphas is a cold-blooded machiavell. He can only maintain his religious authority by appearing to accept the Empire's secular authority. If there is a big religious revival under Jesus, the Romans might see it as a threat and close down the Temple. By presenting Jesus to Pilate as a secular rebel (which he knows to be false) Caiphas can end Jesus' ministry and deprive the Romans of a possible pretext for a crackdown. True, he says that it's sometimes necessary for one man to die for the people; but so far as he knows, he's only talking about political expediency. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

But let's grant the Archdruid's fanciful idea that the Jews and the Romans decided to work out their frustration on Jesus as a kind of primal scream therapy. What follows from this? Williams' explanation lapses into that particular dialect of gobbledegook only spoken by clergymen:

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself. But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror....Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem. And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

Following C.S Lewis's advise, I propose translating this into English.

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself.

'When we are very scared of another group of people, we sometimes feel like hurting someone. Sometimes, this seems to help. But a lot of the time, the person we pick to beat up isn't even one of the people who we were originally scared of.'

But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror.

'As a matter of fact, Jesus didn't do any of the things he was punished for. God gives us good things regardless of whether we deserve them or not (= 'grace' ) ; and he doesn't do bad things to us even when we do deserve them. (= 'mercy'). Jesus was the best possible example of a person who gave good things to people who don't deserve them, and didn't do bad things to people who did. If we were all like this, then we wouldn't ever be scared of other people or hate them. So we'd never want to hurt or kill them. This would be a good thing.'

Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem.

'Picking on innocent people and hurting them doesn't really help, although it may seem to for a while. That's because the real problem is that we hate people and are scared of them in the first place. Picking on an innocent person doesn't change this.'

And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

'If you want change the fact that there are people who we hate and are scared of, then you should pay attention to what Jesus said -- that we should give nice things even to people who don't deserve to have nice things, and not do nasty things even to people who deserve to have nasty things done to them.'
Even in translation, I don't think this makes a great deal of sense. I don't see how you get from 'Jesus was killed for things he didn't do' to 'We'd all be happier if we stopped hating each other'. I don't see why it has become easier or more practical to stop hating because someone a long time ago was killed for things he didn't do.

He goes on:

The claim of Christianity....

Not 'a claim': the claim.

.... is both that this mechanism is universal, ingrained in how we learn to behave as human beings, and that it is capable of changing. It changes when we recognise our complicity and when we listen to what the unique divine scapegoat says: that you do not have to see the rival as a threat to everything, that it is possible to believe that certain values will survive whatever happens in this earth's history because they reflect the reality of an eternal God; that letting go of the obsessions of memory and resentment is release, not betrayal.

Which is to say, being interpreted:

'We all have people who we fear and hate; we all think that beating up an innocent person will make us feel better. But we can stop feeling that way if we want to. First, we have to admit that we ourselves have bad feelings. Jesus says: 'It would be a good thing if we admitted that we have no good reason to hate our enemies. Even if lots of bad things happen in the world, it's okay to carry on believing that good things are good and bad things are bad. If we stop hating our enemies, we will feel much happier.' We should pay attention to this because Jesus was a good man who was killed for things he didn't do.'

Or, more simply: 'the solution to hatred is to stop hating people'.

Verily, verily I say unto thee: duh!

There is nothing wrong with the occasional moral platitude. We all need to be reminded of the bleedin' obvious from time to time. But why does the Archbdruid think that bringing Jesus into it helps? How is his argument – essentially 'Hate is bad and love is better' -- made clearer by adding 'Because a good person who was killed by bad people said so'?

Again, in the original gobbledegook:

People may or may not grasp what is meant by the resolution that the Christian message offers. But at least it is possible that they will see the entire scheme as a structure within which they – we - can understand some of what most lethally imprisons us in our relationships, individual and collective. We may acquire a crucial tool for exposing the evasions on which our lives and our political systems are so often built.

By 'the scheme' he means: 'A long time ago, two sides in a conflict both picked a third person, who had no part in the conflict itself, said he was their enemy, and killed him in a horrible way. They thought this would bring their two tribes together. But it didn't do any good.' How is this supposed to help us understand 'what most lethally imprisons us' (presumably 'the need to pick common enemies'?) In what sense is this a 'tool' ?

And, finally:

The point of the Church's presence in our culture....

Not 'one of the points': the point:

Is not to be a decorative annex to the heritage industry, but to help us see certain things we'd rather not about common responsibility - and the costly way to a common hope.

Does he really believe this? Does he really think that the reason we have cathedrals, confirmation classes, creeds, jumble sales, synods, the monarchy, sacraments, archbishops, coffee mornings, Sunday schools, the Old Testament, hymns, Easter eggs, septuagesima and nativity plays is in order to remind everyone that 'Picking on people doesn't really do any good; much better to kiss and make up?'


In modern, informal English 'scapegoat' generally means 'someone wrongly blamed for something they didn't do' or 'someone held completely responsible when they were really only partially responsible.' When the police picked out, more or less at random, some Irish petty criminals and framed them for a series of terrorist attacks in the 1970s, it was said that they had been made 'scapegoats' because the cops couldn't catch the real villains. When the Hutton enquiry showed up all sorts of bad practices at the BBC, only Greg Dyke, the director, lost his job: people said he'd been made a 'scapegoat' for many people's failures.
But this wasn't the original meaning of the term 'scapegoat'. The Archdruid and the Vicar somehow neglect to mention that the idea of the 'goat-that-escapes' originates in, er, the Bible.

According to the book of Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, the following ceremony is to be performed:

But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness...Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and and all their transgressions and all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness

Now: Aaron didn't hoodwink the Israelites into thinking that it was really the goat who'd been responsible for the recent outbreak of ox-coveting. And I imagine that relatively few of the BBC staff thought that their sins had been supernaturally transferred onto Greg Dyke. The Biblical 'scapegoat' is a component in a magic spell which is believed to actually make a difference. By performing the ceremony, the consequences of all the bad things which the Israelites had done in the previous year were taken away. This was important to them, because they thought that only pure people were allowed to talk to God. Doing bad things – and also touching yucky things – made you impure. Everybody sometimes does bad things; so without this special ritual, no-one could ever talk to God.

Some of my more astute readers may possibly be able to spot where I am going with this.

The prophecy of Isaiah talks about a human being who takes on the role of scapegoat -- not in the modern sense of 'dude who gets blamed unfairly' (although he's that as well) but in the original sense of 'supernatural cleaner-upper.'


He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief....He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of all.

Christians have always said that Isaiah's human scapegoat is Jesus. (The point is made explicitly several times in the New Testament.) The Vicar of Putney, by quoting the 'despised and rejected' bit, indicates that he agrees with them. But he is only interested in Jesus as 'the person who unfairly got the blame', and not at all in the idea of a 'supernatural cleaner-upper.' Quoth Giles Fraser:

Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God. The crucifixion reveals human death-dealing at its worst. In contrast, the resurrection offers a new start, the foundation of a very different sort of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating.

Christians have always taught that Jesus is like the Old Testament scapegoat -- and also the sacrificial lamb, especially the one killed at Passover. There's really no getting away from this. John introduces him as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' and the Bible ends with the whole universe worshipping him under the title of 'the Lamb that was slain'. The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews (or, if Richard Dawkins is still reading this 'St. Paul') goes so far as to say that all the scapegoats and sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament were shadows or reflections: the Crucifixion is the Real Thing, the Original.

Granted, there have been lots of theories about how and why this works: some of them quite outlandish. Few modern Christians would find the idea that the incarnation was a clever ruse to fool Satan into exceeding his authority very helpful. I happen to agree with Fraser that evangelicals should be careful of using language which seems to present Jesus as a cosmic Tom Sawyer, volunteering for a beating in order to save Becky Thatcher from getting one. Push that too far, and God becomes a nasty old school teacher who isn't particularly interested in distinguishing the innocent from the guilty provided someone cops it. But all the theories agreed that the point of Easter was that it re-connected human beings with God. Even the weird fringes of Christianity which thought God was evil, Satan was the creator and Jesus was a hologram believed that. It's only this new Anglican version that has discovered that Christianity was never really interested in putting human beings in touch with God. It was only ever about demonstrating some principles about how human beings should interact with other human beings.

Of course, I agree with those principles. I agree that it is silly to pick groups of people as your enemies. I agree that cathartic blood-letting, even if you happen to have arrested the right man, never helps. I agree that it is shameful that some of our allies continue to practice torture and that our own leaders condone this. I think that love is better than hate. I am against wickedness and in favour of happiness. I just don't understand why it helps to use obscure theological language to state and restate the terribly, terribly obvious.

It must be hard to find yourself in charge of a religion that you never actually believed in. It must be horrible to get ordained because you sincerely want to spread the message that love is better than hatred and discover that you've actually committed yourself to a cult about apple-stealing and blood-drinking and persons with two essences but only one substance, or possibly vice versa. It must be awful to have to twist your very clever head so that 'Hallejulah, Christ our Passover is Sacrificed For Us!' really means 'Why can't people just be nice?' I can see how this might drive you to speak gobbledegook. I can see how, in the end, it might actually drive you insane.

But it's no excuse. I try to picture the Giles Frasers and Rowan Williams of this world running their little parishes. I try to imagine a church full of people with black ties and the remains of, say, a ten-year old kid in a box at the front. I try to imagine them getting to the bit where they have to say 'I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord'. What do they do? Cross their fingers behind their backs and say, 'Well, of course, 'resurrection' is gobbledegook for 'the foundation of a different kind of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating'. But next Easter, I shall change my mind and say that's it's gobbledegook for something else entirely.' 

How do they sleep at night?

22 comments:

AndrewSshi said...

I think that this starts out because clergy can generally blather on with some social justice garbage and not receive the opprobrium that they would if they were to actually preach, say, Christ and Him crucified. So they naturally fall into the habit of blathering on and on about social justice in hopes that the irreligious will be nice to them and pat them on the back, preaching sermons to their congregations that consist of "Aren't we (all three of us) such good, decent people for voting Liberal?" Eventually, after years of chasing after approval of the people who will hold them in contempt no matter what, they kind of just forget that the social justice impulses in the Christian faith flow from a lively faith in Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity and the next thing you know, it's all social justice all the time.

Rome tends to be much better than Canterbury for clergy who preach both social justice and Jesus Christ, but even they wind up having things like commie Jesuits in Latin America.

Andrew Reeves

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew:

I can understand your frustration (intellectually, anyway) but are you really that surprised and outraged to find well-meaning wooly liberalism in a Guardian column? These people were, after all, invited to write by the editors.

Also... perhaps they sleep at night because they honestly think that the Christian myths are more important as metaphors than as literal truths? You may think they're wrong, but if you mean to imply hypocrisy then I think you're a bit over the mark.



andrewsshi:

It seems to me that if you concentrate on social justice and ignore theology then you end up with secular liberalism; but if you concentrate on theology and ignore social justice the you end up running the orphanages in Franco's Spain. I'm all in favour of secular liberalism myself, but I think we might both agree that the opposite extreme is to be avoided.

Gavin Burrows said...

In Hitch-hiker's Guide, Jesus is presented as the guy who got nailed to a tree for saying "wouldn't it be great if people were more nice to each other?"

Here you're saying "while I might agree about the 'more nice' thing being… um… nice, there is more to the figure of Christ than this, thanks all the same.” Would that be a fair estimation?

I have to say, when Andrew Reeves laments "the next thing you know, it's all social justice all the time" I don't really see too much of a downside.However, I'd class it a 'happily agree to disagree' thing.

But I’m really not sure that there is the separation you’re seeing between the modern ‘outlet for hatred’ use of scapegoating and the old ‘ritual cleansing’ meaning. We’ve had demonstrated on previous threads here just how virulent and hysterical people can get over the question of asylum seekers. (And please please please let none of those people take that remark as an excuse to restate their opinions!) However, and while admittedly I don’t think that happened here, quite often people do slip into the language of ‘ritual cleansing’.

For example, during the foot and mouth epidemic, I remember a listener writing in to 5PM on Radio Four. He attested that it was impossible that the epidemic could be caused by our English farmers, those good solid yeomen who tended our lands for us, so decided that the virus must have been brought in on the clothing of illegal immigrants.

I don’t think it is just a matter of thumping the bloke that looks funny and getting to feel better. It’s thumping the bloke that looks funny and everything will be magically solved. The only difference is that the ritual for doing this used to be formalised, now it has to be extemporised.

Andrew Hickey said...

Gavin, there's a subtle but real difference. In the examples Andrew is talking about, people are wanting expiation for what they accept as their own sins, while in the modern usage they don't want to acknowledge their own responsibility at all. The first one is a mindset I don't really get but which says "I have done wrong, but if this innocent takes the responibility it will be all right". The latter is "now look what you made me do!"

Lirazel said...

Seeing as how I currently worship at a church with a Rector who is strong on the Social Justice stuff, I think the thing I appreciate about it is that the Social Justice emphasis, if it's done right, rather strongly directs one's mind to the here and now--the eternal Present which is the only time when we can act--and away from both the distant Future when God wipes all tears away and the Past Back Then that we don't have to really care about. As an Amurrrican, and originally an evangelical, I find it easy to get all excited about the Future; as a student and lover of history I can get very caught up in the Past. It's helpful to be reminded that Bad Things are happening now but that I (through God acting in me) have both power and responsibility to do what I can to change this.

I also heard an interesting thought on the radio this Easter, from a scholar whose name I forget. He said that the original Christians focussed far less than we do on the suffering of Jesus, even on the redemptive suffering; they focussed instead on the triumph over death, and on how we were then to live. And that while the sufferings of Jesus bring great comfort to us during terrible times (individually and collectively terrible times), we must take care not to make them the focus of our lives lest we lapse into a sort of holy sadism. I can think so much about how Jesus died for me, that I forget that Jesus died also for those people who don't look like me or talk like me or make love like me, and probably don't worship like me; I can meditate so much on the wounds and the bruises that I fail to see the wounds and bruises around me. (Although, to be fair, some of the best work in healing the broken world has been done by people whose worship life revolved around those things.)

The things I don't appreciate about Social Justice are exactly the things Andrew mentions: the glossing over of the death and resurrection, the inability to see Jesus as a real person with a real personality, the removal of passion. I don't, somehow, think that (as one example) Martin Luther King Jr. thought that human sin would cease the day that black and white children went to school together with no comment or fuss in this country; that human sin still needs a Savior, and his name is still the same.

Louise H said...

If the Crucifixion is a story about not killing someone out of hatred of Others then one hardly needs Jesus at all- there are countless other examples, many of whom were killed without even the limited justification of needing to put down an incipient revolution. It has to be more than that for the story to make any sense at all; otherwise Jesus is just another martyr and not even a particularly spectacular one, as martyrs go.

Obviously the Church ought to be in favour of social justice- so should everyone else- but if it's going to be even vaguely internally coherent I would have thought it has to have all the mystic stuff about Resurrection as well.

After all, if Jesus died on the cross to demonstrate to the world that social justice is a good idea, then it has failed spectacularly in the last 2,000 years. Not even Christians are agreed about it, let alone everyone else.

Another own goal for the ArchBish

Andrew Rilstone said...

If the Crucifixion is a story about not killing someone out of hatred of Others then one hardly needs Jesus at all- there are countless other examples, many of whom were killed without even the limited justification of needing to put down an incipient revolution. It has to be more than that for the story to make any sense at all; otherwise Jesus is just another martyr and not even a particularly spectacular one, as martyrs go.

Obviously the Church ought to be in favour of social justice- so should everyone else- but if it's going to be even vaguely internally coherent I would have thought it has to have all the mystic stuff about Resurrection as well.

After all, if Jesus died on the cross to demonstrate to the world that social justice is a good idea, then it has failed spectacularly in the last 2,000 years. Not even Christians are agreed about it, let alone everyone else.

Another own goal for the ArchBish


I couldn't have said it better myself, and indeed, didn't.

I think that we are being too kind to the Archdruid in saying that he was reducing Christianity to "social justice". A specific message about Christian Social Justice (years of jubilee, liberation theology, believers holding goods in common) one could have a discussion about. What the Bishop was reducing Christianity to was "moral platitudes about love being better than hate and waterboarding being a bad idea."

To say "Christianity isn't social ethics" isn't the same as saying "Christians don't care about social ethics" or even "Social ethics aren't important." You might think that environmentalism is the most pressing concern right now. You might think that it is more important to build windfarms than to build a society without laws or leaders. But the fellow who says "Anarchism is the belief that we should have more windfarms" isn't a hypocrite: merely an idiot.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Hickey said...
"Gavin, there's a subtle but real difference..."

You make this point well. However, I guess I'm questioning how 'real' this distinction is, how actual rather than theoretical. "Okay I may knock the missis about a bit, but at least I'm not one of those scrounging asylum seekers." etc. (Disclaimer: No-one has actually phoned in to 5PM with those exact words, insofar as I know. I'd guess them to have been uttered around a few pub tables, however.)

"...a mindset I don't really get..."

Me neither. I normally refrain from commenting on the more theological aspects of this blog for precisely that reason. As far as my knowledge of theology goes, I've read most of the New Gods but not made it as far as The Eternals. Interestingly (and perhaps amusingly), comments here seem to be bifurcating under 'theological' and 'social justice' headings, which was probably not Mr. Rilstone's original intention...

Andrew Rilstone said:
You might think that it is more important to build windfarms than to build a society without laws or leaders. But the fellow who says "Anarchism is the belief that we should have more windfarms" isn't a hypocrite: merely an idiot.

A nice analogy, only spoilt by the fact that anarchists increasingly seem to be saying windfarms should be pulled down! (Not a joke!)

Bowen said...

"I try to picture the Giles Frasers and Rowan Williams of this world running their little parishes. I try to imagine a church full of people with black ties..."

With this image, did you mean to recall Lewis in "Fern-seed and Elephants":

"I'm sure if I had to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with the seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn't exactly – except in some Pickwickian sense – believe them myself, I'd find my forehead getting damp and my collar getting tight. But that is your headache, not mine. You have, after all, a different sort of collar."

I suppose that the people who do this sort of thing adopt a rather experiential ethical system: in other words, they adopt (consciously or unconsciously) the attitude that telling people things that make them feel better – even if those things are untrue – is to do a good deed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Gavin said

In Hitch-hiker's Guide, Jesus is presented as the guy who got nailed to a tree for saying "wouldn't it be great if people were more nice to each other?"

Here you're saying "while I might agree about the 'more nice' thing being… um… nice, there is more to the figure of Christ than this, thanks all the same.” Would that be a fair estimation?


Yes, Douglas Adams sums up the English, Ethical Jesus very well. But the high priest of the Ethical Jesus was Charles Dickens, who also wrote a novel or two:

"My dear children, I am anxious that you should know something about the History Of Jesus Christ. Everybody ought to know about him. No-one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in anyway ill or miserable as he was.....He was always merciful and tender. And because he did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour...Remember! It is Christianity TO DO GOOD always -- even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbor as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving....."

To which the only possible response is to say that a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not have been good, kind gentle, merciful and tender. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is , the Son God God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But less us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a good, kind, gentle, merciful human being. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Sam said

Also... perhaps they sleep at night because they honestly think that the Christian myths are more important as metaphors than as literal truths? You may think they're wrong, but if you mean to imply hypocrisy then I think you're a bit over the mark.


I'm not saying that these non-religious version of Christianity see things as metaphors which I see as literal truths. I am saying that they have imposed more or less arbitrary socio-political meanings on the traditional stories, without much reference to the actual text. I mean, go back and read, say, St John's resurrection narrative (John 20 and 21): the stuff about Mary going to the graveyard to view Jesus' body and encountering a stranger who she takes for the gardener. Is the distinction between those of us who say "This story says that human beings can go on existing after they die" and those who say "This story says that we should work to create a more socially inclusive society" really that one side take is being "literal" and the other side is being "metaphorical."

"Hypocrite" would be a mild world for someone who really believes that the story of the Resurrection is about social inclusion, but allow his flock to believe that it has got something to do with -- I don't know, say, life and death. "Bloody liar, and, assuming that their offertory money goes partly to pay for the rent on the vicarage, bloody thief," might sum it up. Of course, I don't know anything about Fraser personally: maybe in Putney, what people expect to hear a funeral is some rip-roaring platitudes about not leaving anyone out just because they look different.

Bowen wrote
With this image, did you mean to recall Lewis in "Fern-seed and Elephants":...

I suppose that the people who do this sort of thing adopt a rather experiential ethical system: in other words, they adopt (consciously or unconsciously) the attitude that telling people things that make them feel better – even if those things are untrue – is to do a good deed.


Everything I say is intended to recall C.S Lewis!

Thing is, the people Lewis was writing about in that essay were the modernists, form-critics and demythologizers. They certainly denied the historicty of the Gospels. They looked at the story of the Resurrection and said "This didn't really happen: it's a story that the disciples told to express a real supernatural experience that they couldn't put into words in any other way" or, at worse "It's a story that the Very Early Church made up to express their conviction that Jesus is still alive."

But (on the whole) they really believed that Jesus was alive and really believed that the disciples had experienced a real supernatural event. They thought the stories were symbolic; but they believed in the things they thought the stories symbolized; and the things they thought the stories symbolized were (mostly) the same as what the rest of the Christian church believed in.

I can see how a clergyman might rehearse the traditional story without pressing the point that he didn't think it was historical. It gets quite dull to hear David Jenkins saying "Abrahimic Figure" when he means "Abraham."

Mr. Fraser, on the other hand, appears to believe that the traditional Christian doctrines are actively bad things which you shouldn't believe in. If Fraser had said "When we say 'Jesus took the punishment for our Sins' we are only talking metaphorically" I would reply "Yes, everyone agrees with you on that." In fact, he seems to say that the whole idea that Jesus died for the sins of the world is false; a distraction from Jesus ethical teaching; part of a nasty evangelical death-cult. If I've understood him properly, Fraser believes that there was a primitive, Jewish form of Christianity which was based purely on Jesus' teaching about social inclusivity and that "the Romans" (by which I assume he means Saint Paul) misappropriated it and made it about, er, God. He has certainly said that something called "Nicene Christianity" is a Bad Thing, suitable only for nasty Emperors like Constantine and George Bush. Have you noticed how, since Dan Brown, everything that you find irritating about the Church can be blamed on the Council of Nicea? I fully expect next weeks "Face to Faith" to confidently assert that St. Athanasius personally composed Kum-by-yah my Lord.

The problem with this

1: If there was a pre-Pauline version of Christianity, we don't have any information about it.

2: Giles Fraser has to recite the Nicene Creed in church every Sunday, presumably with a straight face.

Jacob said...

Andrew Rilstone said

To which the only possible response is to say that a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not have been good, kind gentle, merciful and tender. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell.

I think you (and other proponents of the trilemma) may be exaggerating it. To believe one is the Messiah requires far less self-delusion than to believe that one is a poached egg - especially 2000 years ago, in an age where mysticism was far more prevalent.

I can easily check just by looking down that I am not a poached egg (I have arms and legs, but not a white or a yolk). But who my father is, and whether or not he created the universe, is much less obvious. And while believing that I can perform miracles, and have done so, may require some self-delusion, in an age where everyone believes in such things and no-one understands the world around them it doesn't require nearly as much as claiming to have been poached.

I'd opt for "a mystic, either somewhat deluded or mendacious", but quite possibly neither clinically insane nor actively practicing to decieve (although I don't, of course, rule out either of the latter).

Andrew Rilstone said...

Oh, sure.

My point is that Charles Dickens, Douglas Adams, Giles Fraser, Rowan Atkinson, John Lennon, Queen Elizabeth II, Woody Guthrie, the Vicar of Dibley appear to believe that Jesus was merely a good-kind-gentle-tender fellow. Or, put more precisely, they think that the Jesus who was merely a good-kind-gentle-tender fellow has something to do with the Jesus of the New Testament. And that's not a view that could survive five minutes of actually reading the Bible.

I agree that a person who believed that they were identical with YHWH could, as a matter of fact, also be good-kind-gentle-tender. I certainly agree that it is possible that all of the followers of the good-kind-gentle-tender guy somehow didn't spot that he was good-kind-gentle-tender and instead made up some story about him thinking he was YHWH. I do think it rather unlikely, given that all of the writings about good-kind-gentle-tender guy have been so hopelessly scrambled, that two thousand and eight years on, some part-time journalist in Putney is going to be able to recover the truth

AndrewSshi said...

What's worse about my archdruid is that (as I've mentioned earlier), when he's writing to fellow believers, he gives some pretty strong indications that he does in fact believe those words that he says every mass. In Tokens of Trust he even takes a moment to speak against the Spongian Heresy (though he doesn't name it as such). It would be one thing for John Shelby Spong (*spits, crosses self*) to say that *the* meaning of Christianity is that we should be nice to assylum seekers or whatever. It is another thing for someone who claims at some level to actually believe all of this business to reduce the faith to a bunch of platitudes.

Sam Dodsworth said...

...go back and read, say, St John's resurrection narrative (John 20 and 21)... Is the distinction between those of us who say "This story says that human beings can go on existing after they die" and those who say "This story says that we should work to create a more socially inclusive society" really that one side take is being "literal" and the other side is being "metaphorical."

It seems to me that the first reading is literal and the second is metaphorical to the extent that it's not just wrong.

On the other hand, I notice that you're now talking about the Resurrection while Fraser and Williams seem to be writing about the Crucifixion. (Or possibly the Atonement, if I've got my terminology right.) Are you sure you're not angry at them for not telling us that Jesus rose from the dead when what they're trying to say is that He died for our sins?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I had in mind Fraser's remark that "In contrast, the resurrection offers a new start, the foundation of a very different sort of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating."

Are you sure you're not angry at them for not telling us that Jesus rose from the dead when what they're trying to say is that He died for our sins?

No, I am angry at them for explicitly denying that Jesus died for our sins, indeed.

usul_miller said...

Are you sure you're not angry at them for not telling us that Jesus rose from the dead when what they're trying to say is that He died for our sins?

I don't think they are saying Jesus died for our sins. They're saying Jesus died so that we could see what sin is and hopefully get over it....somehow.

This is quite strange, really. Normally we Lutherans hear about the Law serving as a mirror ("Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law."), whereas Jesus' death does something about sin once it's recognized. Here, Jesus' death serves as a reminder of sin and a good example of how we should overcome it, but doesn't do anything in the way of fixing the problem.

Put another way, this writing by Fraser and Williams is a bit like going to the doctor and being told exactly how much time you have left to live, but not much about the possible cure.

Physician, heal thyself.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew:

No, I am angry at them for explicitly denying that Jesus died for our sins, indeed.

I still don't see it, myself. Fraser's saying that the Crucifixion revealed the corruption in everyone complicit(*) and the Resurrection showed that this corruption could not prevail. That sounds like "Jesus died for our sins" to me. What am I missing? Is it too impersonal? Not supernatural enough?

(*) And, by extension, everyone else; although that's only implicit in Fraser's piece.

usul_miller said...

The trouble, Sam, is that they skip a very important step.

What I think the Fraser argument is:
1. I am a sinner. How do I know this? Jesus died on the cross to prove it to me. When you beat up an innocent guy, it's easier to see that it's wrong than when you beat up a guilty one.

2. I can overcome my sin. How do I know this? Jesus rose from the dead as proof that sin can be overcome.

This differs from my perspective, as well as Andrew's, I hope.

1. I am a sinner. How do I know this? I can examine myself according to the Ten Commandments, of course, or I can compare myself to Jesus' example. I also was complicit in Jesus' death, and killing an innocent person is very sinful.

2. Jesus' death paid for that sin. When Jesus said, "It is finished", he wasn't talking about man's inhumanity to man. He was saying that his job as a sacrifice and redeemer was over.

3. Because Christ rose from the dead, I will, too. The power of the resurrection also proves God's power to sanctify my life and make me a better person and yadda yadda. But its primary purpose is to show that Christians will have eternal life.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Sam:

You are very much better at Gobbledegook-English translation than me!

I still don't see it, myself. Fraser's saying that the Crucifixion revealed the corruption in everyone complicit(*) and the Resurrection showed that this corruption could not prevail. That sounds like "Jesus died for our sins" to me. What am I missing? Is it too impersonal? Not supernatural enough?

It is the "show" part which is the problem: Fraser thinks that the death (and Resurrection?) of Jesus illustrates a point; enables us to see something which was true in any case. Christians think that Jesus' death made a difference ; that it changed the relationship between God and the human race .

I was slightly sloppy in my language when I said that he "didn't believe that Christ died for our sins". I was using the formula "Christ died for our sins" to stand in for "what Christians believe about the death of Jesus". It would be possible to say that your excellent summary of Fraser's position is lexically equivalent to "Christ died for our sins": provided, by "sins" you mean "social injustice -- particularly that which involves making scapegoats" and by "for" you mean "as a result of" and "to draw attention to" and "to illustrate the wrongness of."

We can use this language is we want to. "The workman had to die for the bosses to start talking proper safety measure". But this isn't what Christians mean when they talk about "the atonement"

Consider any one of the standard, popular Christian statements about the death of Jesus:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of Sin
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in.


Oh, perfect redemption!
The purchase of blood
To every believer the promise of God
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.


In that Old Rugged Cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.


Is Fraser really expressing essentially the same idea in a slightly different language?


"The Resurrection showed that this corruption could not prevail" (your words, but a fair representation of the original gobbledegook) could be taken two ways. It could mean: "Jesus' body really vanished from the tomb; the disciples really saw him; he was really alive in a new way that had never happened to anyone else in history -- and, by the way, that meant that the baddies who killed him didn't really beat him, though it might have looked like it for a while." Or it might mean " Of course a dead man can't get up and walk around. 'The Resurrection' is a rather complicated way of saying 'baddies don't ever win in the long term, although it may look like they have.' "

(The latter position was expressed quite explicitly in this weeks "Face To Faith": those savages in the olden days might have thought that Jesus rose again, but that's because they didn't know any science. Why! They even thought the world was flat. 'Resurrection' is a complicated way of saying 'The disciples were awfully disillusioned for a while, but then they pulled themselves together and started preaching Jesus' message again, and they had really quite an astonishing impact on the world.' This rather retro, 1960s Bishop of Woolwich theory, seems to be to be almost literally nonsensical: surely the "message" they started preaching was precisely "Jesus is alive." It's as if I'd said "The idea that earth is being visited by alien spacecraft is childish and unscientific. But you should still pay attention to the stories of UFO sightings, because they represent, a very important truth: namely, that the earth is being visited by alien spacecraft." )

Dan G said...

The Christian message, as stated quite explicitly in the Bible, and with not a lot of modification in the last 2000 years, is not where I would start if I wanted a religion of social justice. Just for starters you've got reasonably nice people consigned to Hell for simply not believing that Jesus is who he said he was.

To be perfectly honest, being raised as I was in a post-modern western culture, if I didn't believe that the Christian story were quite literally true I'd be right out there with Dawkins and Hitchens denouncing it as something quite vile. If reduced to a myth, Christianity is nothing more than a cruel joke, and the story of the cross a horrid account of cosmic child abuse.

But, based on reason, logic, historical evidence, the testimony of the saints, the witness of my spirit, and the amazing (mostly charitable) accomplishments of Christ's followers down through history, I do believe that the Christian story is quite literally true. That it is, in fact, the one and only transcendent meta-narrative.

If truly true then the Christian story is a stunning story of amazing grace. If not, then those who hold on to its trappings, while rejecting it at as being quite literally what it claims to be, are to be pitied for settling for mere "lies breathed through silver".

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew:

You are very much better at Gobbledegook-English translation than me!

Thankyou, but I'm never quite sure if I'm actually translating or just putting together a coherent story out of the materials I'm given. That's something to bear in mind as I get increasingly speculative in my reading below.


It is the "show" part which is the problem: Fraser thinks that the death (and Resurrection?) of Jesus illustrates a point; enables us to see something which was true in any case. Christians think that Jesus' death made a difference ; that it changed the relationship between God and the human race.

Is it just the crucifixion that changed that relationship, or the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? There's still room for that in Fraser's version. (And in fact, if I was asked when the relationship between God and the human race changed then I'd say it was when God, knowing the consequences, became a man.)

On the other hand, I find it hard to argue with the "popular Christian statements" you quote - they don't make much sense to me, but they're certainly talking about a different kind of crucifixion than (my reading of) Fraser. If there's a real distinction there (and not, say, that Fraser was trying to express the same idea in a way acceptable to Guardian-readers) then I guess it would be that Fraser says that Jesus died because we are sinful, and not that he died for our sins?


"The Resurrection showed that this corruption could not prevail" (your words, but a fair representation of the original gobbledegook) could be taken two ways...

I've consciously chosen to take the most charitable interpretation of the original for the sake of argument, but I agree that the text supports both readings. I think it comes down to what he means when he calls the crucifixion a "story". Does he mean "just a story"? There's nothing in the text to suggest that he doesn't, but it's only the tone that suggests that he does. So why not be charitable?


usul_miller:

Thanks for your reply - I found it both useful and interesting but ...er... I don't think I've got much to say about it that I haven't already covered above.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Rilstone said:
And that's not a view that could survive five minutes of actually reading the Bible.

I may be taking your words rather literally here, but... isn't it more likely there's a social rather than doctrinal cause for the sort of sliding you're talking about? One summed up by the very name of the Church of England?

It's not just that, once upon a time, the Church of England lived up to it's name. It's theway people left. They haven't (in the main) taken to rival religions nor developed a cult-like devotion to Richard Dawkins. Their response to Christianity is most commonly "well I suppose it sounds like sort of a good idea... I've never really thought about it much... anyway Big Brother is on in a minute..." Christianity is probably still our biggest religion in accounting terms, but most of those numbers pay only the vaguest sort of lip-service. And this vague nodding acquaintanceship is a thousand times more damaging than a turned back.

In these circumstances what do you do to keep what remains of your pre-eminence but water down the wine? 'Fuzzify' everything, reduce it to its lowest common denominator, while continuing to insist on your own specialness. "Our Church has a novel and radical idea, which we have been holding on to for the last two mlllennia. It's to be more nice! Pretty innovatory, don't you think?"

Arguably, Anglicanism has now become virtually indistinguishable from the wacky New Age cults which rose to supplant it. It's become a spoiler product for its own spoiler products. But I don't think the reason for this is that its proponents haven't read the Bible, or weren't able to comprehend it's meaning. They're just spinning to keep their product it's prime position on the shelf.