(I sent this in email to my Christian friends--its kinda half tongue in cheek but if we got Christians to carry out these reforms our quarrel with them would be rendered mute. Perhaps you may wish to email this to whoever you know or mail them similar ideas.)
Recently I have been considering, again, the almost eternal debate concerning religion. Again, recently I came to the conclusion, or rather realisation, that it is the negative consequences of much religious doctrine and practice that has motivated much of the current war of words. As opposed to say, just having a barney for the sake of it, a financial opportunity or that it (New Atheism) is just a fad that has developed arbitrarily. This is hardly an original analysis but worth baring in mind--for all sides ( many miss this point), for not all religions are the same and not all are worthy of the same respect or disrespect-should the circumstances require it.
The following proposals that I will outline here may seem the most controversial suggestions since the reformation. So it is here that I will nail my thesis, not to any door but to your very computer screen. For my part, I consider what follows is basically sound and cut from the cloth of common sense. My proposal is this: That good Christians, real, moral and educated Christians should reject both the impostor St Paul or Paul of Tarsus and utterly abandon the Old Testament. (Abandon its theology and morality-not perhaps its poetry in places)
Why and how?
These are words no doubt, forming on your very lips at this second. I will answer both why and how in what follows. So, are you tired of being called deluded? Are you fed up of going about in fear of being buttonholed by some pedantic gadfly who lassos you with the historical and theological Christian support of slavery and the nonsense of a creator God who makes the world in six days and puts his feet up on the seventh? Do you wish that atheists would just leave you alone and go annoy someone else? Well if you do--then I have the solution for you.
I recognise, that this and what follows can almost be seen as satire. For the paradox is this--I will outline what I believe I have not seen any religious apologist do, which is to make the strongest case for Christianity possible (in both theory and practice for the 21st century). What would follow I believe, would actually make it more influential (for a time) it would though like a vaccine shot, make the spread of resistant anti-bodies to dogmatic and lunatic forms of religious belief harder to take hold in a population. As any good doctor will tell you, Natural Selection has adapted us to a certain amount of germs--it just depends how much and how strong a germ or virus we are exposed to and what consequences it brings. Or as Zen Roshi Joan Halifax humorously states “it’s not the case that we don’t drink poison in our lives--its knowing how much.”
So I will both play the role of Louis Pasteur and Robert McKee (the Hollywood script doctor)-- “We have a good story to tell here, perhaps the greatest one ever told, it comes in three acts, act one is too long and the violence and barbarism is too much for a modern audience these days--they would be sick into their popcorn, and this third act, bit too cheerful for the coming destruction of the earth, and this bloke St Paul, bit too much of baddie to be a hero I’m afraid, no no, it wont do--lets be radical, lets abandon the whole three act thing and simply base our story on the entire second act, one this rather fine fellow you call Jesus.”
You may be raising eyebrows at this point--saying that if I can make a case for Christianity in such a way as to make it more likely to spread through the population--have I not contradicted myself--what stops me then becoming a Christian?--well I will say a few words on that point in my closing remarks.
There were of course debates in the early history of Christianity as to whether or not to drop the Old Testament. They kept it--for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. However I believe this was a mistake--a profound one, for the blood drenched odour of Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Second Samuel and the implausible Genesis and mythical Exodus has followed Christians around like a bad smell.
Of course the reason they tagged the Torah on was that it contained prophesies that Jesus supposedly fulfilled. Especially the doctrine of the virgin birth. Surely, good people can see that the value of a person lies in what they do and say, not in what was possibly ordained or prophesised for them. Take the case of the virgin birth--Jesus never had any control-- just like you and me of how he was conceived--or not. In today’s society we value and judge a person by what they do and say not by their background--especially how they were born. Do we for example deem people of caesarean birth more special than those who only slipped out of the birth canal? Or someone conceived by in Vitro fertilization is special in a way they cannot be by the more natural methods of procreation?
Lets say if we grant the premise that there is a God-one who designed the gravitational constants, the laws and intricacies of mathematics (which even today the best and brightest are still puzzling over) the wonders of deep space and deep time, the planets, the stars, the universe and everything in it. Frankly, it cheapens a God of this statue that he would announce the most immense moment in the history of the universe by bestowing a virgin birth for his son to an illiterate woman in bronze age Palestine.
Good, intelligent, Christians should have no need of tricks, either they build their faith on the noblest aspirations or not. Either they claim their faith on the verifiable and realistic actions of their leader or else they will suffer the ridicule and opprobrium that they rightly deserve.
The second reason for Christians to hold firm to the Old Testament is this.
“Don’t think that I have come to destroy the law of Moses or the teaching of the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but the bring about what they said. I tell you the truth, nothing will disappear from the law until heaven and earth are gone. Not even the smallest letter or smallest part of a letter will be lost until everything has happened.”
Matthew 4, 17
Ok so how do we deal with this?……
Firstly its clearly ambiguous, what law? Which version of the ten commandants? (there were two contradictory ones remember) also remember, that much of Jesus’s ministry was in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy of the day. Also it should be said, that apart from a few ambiguous lines--Jesus never did violence or called explicitly for violence against anyone. Unlike the laws and behaviours of both God and the patriarchs of the Old Testament. If this is not enough then consider this. It might not work in theory but everyone accepts, indeed expects it in practice.
“It is said “anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written divorce paper” but I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife forces her to commit adultery, the only reason for a man to divorce his wife is if she has sexual relations with another man. And anyone who marries that divorced woman is guilty of adultery.”
Matthew 5, 31.
Of course, no one takes this seriously anymore, except a few bookish, elderly virgins in the Catholic church. It was this dogma of course that forced King Henry the 8th to break with the “king with the pointy hat who sits on his throne in Rome” (if only at least for Henry’s more creaturely reasons--well I suppose divorce is better than losing ones head…)
So here we have a ringing, sparkling, flagrant breaking of scripture. I could of course list countless examples of such concessions to modernity and common sense but I don’t need to. The example of this should demonstrate that our moral sense has changed-- reasonable good men and women both Protestant and Catholic reject the above commandments of scripture--the words of Jesus himself. If that is Kosher (I’m mixing my monotheisms here) then it is only a small hop, skip and jump to abandoning the Old Testament. After all-- if we don’t listen to Jesus on specific and rather clear issues then its hardly a grave sin to reject a book that has little to do with the core message of Christ. If you are further in need of persuasion on this point I kindly recommend you ask an unbeliever what he or she thinks of the morality on display of some of the more notorious books of the Old Testament, or better yet and with more kindness--you read them yourself.
So now we come to Paul. Who is this fellow anyway? Surely after the visitation of Jesus--God’s work was done, why did he have to blind Saul on the road to Damascus? Surely the testimony and actions of Jesus was all the proof that was needed? Why didn’t Jesus foretell of Paul and his role in early Christian history? What do you think is more likely- that God needed Paul to spread the word (which would mean that his own son had failed to convince) or that Paul was maybe mistaken in his visions? Or if you want to take a more sinister line--maybe Paul was doing it for underhand reasons-- a racket perhaps? Or simply to have power and influence? Or maybe as some serious scholars have suggested that Paul who suffered from epilepsy which they claim, produced the experience of being in dialogue with the divine. (aside note I am aware of “experiments” involving theologians taking LSD and “communing” with the divine, obviously cultural influences play a role in determining the content of a persons spiritual or drug experiences. For example South American Indians trip out to Ayahuasca and commune with their spirits, which needless to say have nothing to do with the spirit world and everything to do with the affect of certain chemicals on the brain)
I believe that I have stated sufficient reasons for rejecting Paul. I will though say a few more words on his ethics. Clearly, I believe, you can see that Paul’s attempts to return to the more oppressive and rigid Old Testament ethics are clearly in contrast with much of Christ’s ethics. There are many passages of homophobia in his writings, he supports slavery, believes women to be subservient to men “Christ is head of the church so man is the head of the house” that women be disallowed from talking in church or holding positions of responsibility. Clearly, Jesus never advocated any of this.
So here is where we “should stand and do no other”. Again recalling the protestant mantra “back to the bible” should be replaced with “back to Jesus” and all else should be safely placed back upon the shelf.
To clarify my proposals: we can conceive of two types of Christians.
Here is an idea to spread, don’t call Pauline Christians, Christians at all call them perhaps Paulians so that will leave good Christians like yourselves to reclaim the word Christian. An analogy with the gay movement is easy to see here--where they reclaimed the word Gay as a positive word, not one of abuse.
So it is easy to see here, two traditions and two lines of demarcation.
In the Paulian camp we have figures such as Ratzinger and all the Popes of the antiquity. We have Augustine and Aquinas, Robertson and Robinson, Bush and Blair, Luther, Falwell, Paisley, Warren and the Bishop of Carlyle. The consequences that such men have wrought is variously war both national and sectarian, inquisitions and witch hunts, oppression and torture, homophobia, child abuse, undermining science and obscuring ethics.
In the tradition of Imitatio Christ we have Martin Lurther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bishop George Bell (who opposed the carpet bombing of Germany in the war years) and countless unseen and unheard Christians who to paraphrase sceptic Michael Shermer- do thousands of acts of unseen kindness every day.
I hope and trust that you know what side you belong to or would wish to. A Christian or a Paulian? Let me reduce the issue further to its most simplest components. A good way to see a proper follower of Christ and a follower of Paul and Leviticus is to observe the reactions to this question--- In terms of your religious beliefs, what is your view regarding homosexuality? If as Iris Robinson (along with many others) would say that it is “vile” an “abomination” and one of the things that will damm you.(in the tradition of Paul)
A proper Christian would reply “I have no religious opinion on the matter in question, for Jesus never speaks on the matter, so I am indifferent, God will judge I wont.” I could formulate the same question regarding creationism or slavery or war or many other issues that beleaguer the world.
It is only when one cuts away the theological obscurantism and barbarism that the inspiring figure of Jesus emerges. Jesus is nothing if not a troublemaker. A gadfly, a maverick, an angry young man, a friend of the left and social justice, a contrarian, a punk and a hippie, he is the messiah and he is a very naughty boy. Jesus, if he were alive today would not be sitting in on Friday nights drinking tea with pious old ladies--he would be out, mixing it up with the best of them, raving and revelling but teaching that there is more to life than such exciting pursuits. In this craven age where potential voters in political elections are asked which candidate would they like to have a drink with, at least, unlike say George Bush we could at least and would want to have a drink with Jesus.
So now you ask--what could possibly be wrong with this man? Well I should note the reasonable objection, that no man, no matter how ethical or insightful testifies to nothing other than he is ethical and insightful. It does not prove or remotely indicate that he is divine or the son of God. No man also, even if he did posses magic powers as the Gospel claims- would only mean he would be nothing other than a person of extraordinary ability and just that--it would not prove he was the son of God. (and only if such miraculous events were further corroborated with sound scientific methods of investigation--repeat, double blind experiments, observation, reasoning to the best explanation of phenomena-- which unfortunately we cannot do in this case)
However I wish to repeat what Bertrand Russell wrote. He places Jesus lower in his ethical estimation of great historical figures such as Socrates and the Buddha. Socrates loved argument and was put to death for it. He displayed indifference to people who disliked or disagreed with him, he never threatened like Buddha and unlike Jesus anyone with hell fire and eternal damnation.. Nor it should be said that Socrates never attempted to persuade anyone other than through his reason (no promise of heaven or to render it more jarring-- Sugar Candy Mountain--as George Orwell has the animals of Animal Farm imagine their own idea of eternal repose--where every day is a Sunday, with an endless supply of sugar cubes and hay to gorge on.) the use of force, bribery and manipulation are not logical or noble reasons for accepting propositions and for these reasons Russell places Jesus lower in the pantheon.
So there we have it. Here is my proposals for your religion in the year 2009. Please do share this with your fellow Christians and the ideas expressed within--if only for arguments sake--and what wrong with that? Either we sort out our problems with talk or we sort them out with bullets and bombs. I’m all for the former as are most non-theists while many religious people, muslims especially are not. As Sam Harris concludes “we cannot expect to survive our religious differences with weapons of mass destruction indefinitely”
Best wishes and be well in the new year.