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Fundamentalism: a New-Fangled Fallacy

Fundamentalists frequently claim that they believe as ancient Christians did: namely in literal Biblical interpretation. It is true that a lot of ancient Christians did so believe, but those earlier generations believed it in a far different way than do modern fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism – far from being a long-standing representative of unchanging Christianity – is a modern movement, a direct, conscious protestation against the European Enlightenment. Paradoxically adopting Enlightenment principles, however, modern fundamentalism states that “if X did not happen historically/factually, then X cannot be true”. Hence, ironically, Biblical literalism and Englightenment reductionism go hand in hand with their demand that “truth equal fact.” All of this devolves from Christian intellectual history (as so well delineated in the works of New Testament scholar and historian Marcus J. Borg):

The Christian attitude toward scripture actually unfolded in three historical stages (which also happen to roughly conform to stages in human psychological development):

1. First Period: “Pre-critical Naivete”: in a pre-scientific world, there was no particularly good reason not to take Biblical stories literally. But this was not fundamentalism. It was simply how most people believed prior to the advent of modern scientific thinking.  Science had not yet come along to disqualify the literal factualness of Biblical narratives.

Interestingly, not all Christians even in those times took scripture literally. From Patristic times,  scripture was freely and frequently interpreted allegorically in the Christian church.

2. Second Period: “Critical Thinking”: thinking conforming to scientific/Enlightenment models, which also happened to hatch the modern fallacy that Truthfulness = Factualness: “If it didn’t happen in history, it is not fact, and if it’s not fact, it can’t be true.” This fallacy is held by post-Enlightenment fundamentalists as well as their scientific/reductionist counterparts.

This perspective launched modern fundamentalism, which was no longer the old pre-critical, naive acceptance of scripture that was common to ages ignorant of scientific/Enlightenment  thinking. Rather, it was – and is – a deliberate protest and eschewal of Enlightenment principles – although as mentioned it ironically adopts the Enlightenment’s “Truth = Fact” model. It is a strangely anomalous, abnormal, archane continuation of defunct, naive pre-critical literalism, because it blindly maintains that literalism,  despite particularly good scientific, reasonable, evidential reasons not to so maintain it.

Thus the proposition / “Jesus walked on water” / is equally for fundamentalists and their scientific counterparts a matter of literal physical historical truth. Both agree that if Jesus did NOT walk on water, the story is worthless at best, a lie at worst. The only difference is that scientific reductionists lose nothing by denying the historical physical literalness of such tales, whereas fundamentalists lose their theory of the Bible’s literal inerrancy – and with it, salvation itself  (unless of course they convert to liberal, non-literalist forms of Christianity – which would only be salvation-loss in another form).

3. Third Period: “Post-critical Understanding”: the enlightened modern person of faith understands that most spiritual truth is neither reducible nor expressible by “the physical/factual” – that in fact most of it can ONLY be successfully imparted through a specialized spiritual language that frequently uses metaphor, analogy, and allegory to convey its message. Therefore progressive Christians hold that the literal truth or factuality of Biblical narrativeis often secondary and peripheral to the “soul-truth” that it communicates.

Indeed, biblical literalists’ concretizing of Biblical mythical material actually falsifies its authorial intent and skews the narrative away from allegory toward the fatal shoals of  the “Truth equals Fact” paradigm. In doing so, paradoxically, it is the literalists who often distort the Biblical message, and it is the non-literalists who often preserve it.

Christianity’s Real Roots

Neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Catholicism can trace themselves back to the church that Jesus instituted, for the simple reason that Jesus did not found  a church. He did initiate a Jewish sectarian reform movement based on the claim that his ministry embodied the radical inbreaking of God’s kingdom. This “church” was just one more q’hal – a “gathering/community” – among many other, sometimes competing, Jewish schools. When Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel talks about founding his church, he is talking about founding a Jewish reformist movement, his “gathering/community” that would exist among, and also in distinction to, other Jewish groups.

Later Christianity’s claim to “the Apostolic Succession” is largely mythical inasmuch as it is claimed by Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic communions.

The really legitimate apostolic succession was the one that devolved upon James, Jesus’ brother, who was the acknowledged head of the movement after Jesus was executed. The book of Acts says that at the Jerusalem Council, Peter gives an opinion, but it is James who leads the Council, ratifies that Noahide rules should apply to Gentile converts, sends out Paul and Barnabus with letters explaining his ruling, who later on sends delegates out to check up on Paul’s dubious practice of Gentile table fellowship, and who has Peter’s obedience and loyalty.

After James, the true (Jewish) apostolic succession continued to fall mostly to members of Jesus’ own family, and usually to Jews. Sometimes known as “the Jerusalem Caliphate,” this true (Jewish) succession was composed of Jesus’ Jewish relatives, and this institution was the real “Jesus Dynasty,” not the phantasmagoric succession from The Twelve/Peter, Paul (and sometimes John) put forth by current mainline Christianity.

Moreover, ancient Rome was aware of this situation, as was exemplified by the emperor Domitian when he sent a police squad to Judea to arrest relatives of Jesus for possible revolutionary crimes. The Emperor was acting pragmatically in doing this because even during his reign it was known that Jesus was of the House of David and that his relatives were still living in Palestine, connected to the executed Messiah and continuing to uphold his original “church” there.

Shockingly, the real – that is, the true Jewish – apostolic succession may not have existed in the West since the year 318 C.E. It seems that at that time, six years before the Council of Nicea, the entire Gentile church was excommunicated by Mar Yosip, “the Patriarch of Jerusalem in Exile”! According to some sources, the Jewish Jerusalem church had been petitioning Pope Sylvester for recognition of its apostolic Hebrew roots and the legitimacy of its bishopric. Sylvester refused and the Jerusalem patriarchy responded by excommunicating the truly heretical – that is, the non- (and sometimes anti-Jewish) Gentile church. Regardless of this story’s literal truth, Christian history seems to have devolved in a way consistent with the story’s core theme.

Since the time when this little remnant Jewish community of Jesus’ successors broke koinonia (communion) with the Roman-Greek  Gentile churches, the West has parodoxically been cast adrift from that original Judean group originated by Jesus

If mainstream Christianity really derives from an apostolic succession (or some reasonable facsimile thereof), then obviously, its current ecclesiology, soteriology, christology, and pneumatology rightly ought to primarily be Jamesian/Jacobite and Petrine/Jewish-sectarian… not the current amalgam of Pauline/Trinitarian theology and christology with which we are so familiar.

The original, true Jewish church and Jewish apostolic succession were swallowed up in a Paulinism interpreted by Greco-Roman bishops, developed by Hellenistic philosophers, embraced by pagan converts – and strangest of all – ultimately mandated by Roman imperial decree.

In that process, the historical succession was not only lost, but more or less consciously rejected, by non-Jewish Christianity.  But, thankfully, it can be partially reconstructed by reading between the lines of the NT,  deliniated in non-canonical sacred texts, retrojected from the descriptions of heresiologists, from archaeology, and from the work of scholars such as James Tabor, Alan F. Segal, Larry Hurtado, Henri Danielou,  Amy-Jill Levine, Raymond Brown, Joel Carmichael, Keith Akers, Marcus J. Borg, James Charlesworth, Geza Vermes, Hugh J. Schonfield, Bruce Chilton, Robert Eisenman,  and others.

Fortunately, then, it can be said that the small flickering flame of original, Jewish Christianity still burns bright enough to illuminate the search for the real Jesus and his original Jewish successors.

God: Transcendent, Transcosmic

Analogies are bound to break down, especially when trying to describe a transcendent transcosmic “It.”

Imagine a vast, egoless consciousness that is called “God.” By egoless I mean “no separate sense of individual selfhood with all the ego-defense mechanisms and ‘selfishness’ those imply; something not of the egoic mind; something not ‘below’ but ‘above’ the egoic mind.” I.e., no simian scrambling for alpha position in a hierarchy or pecking order; no “smiting” of enemies (in fact, no enemies to be smitten)…

Imagine a God who “performs work” but without an anthropomorphic, non-biologic volition.  Volition is a material-world motivator that gets things done in the physical world, so the transegoic transcosmic God cannot be said to be volitional.  Such a god can be said to “work” – but that idea is a human depiction and interpretation of a human experience of a transhuman “Other.”  This Other “works,” one imagines, like the Christian god is said to create, or have a “face” or a “strong arm” or “hands.” Metaphor is the best possible means of talking about it, and always with the ancient Taoist caveat that, although the Tao is real:

the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

So the Other’s “volition” is Its “working” within the subjective psyche,  in a way perhaps similar that  sun exposure causes the “working” of Vitamin D within the metabolism.

Unlike the received divine attributes of the Abrahamic faiths, the transcendent, transcosmic, transegoic God represents untamed, undomesticated Reality. It doesn’t conform to conventional wisdom, conventional religion, conventional society, conventional politics, etc. Whether or not that’s advantageous to conventionality is another question.

But it may be asked, of what use is such an extra-cosmic God?

Well, I think that human beings can benefit by “paying It mind” – because cross-culturally,  various divine union mystics extoll many positive effects deriving from that union.  “It” – although difficult to name, and possessed of such paradoxical attributes as Nonexistence and No-thing-ness – is almost universally experienced as infinite wisdom, grace, compassion, vast consciousness, “Big Mind,”  and other such terms, with a resulting internal transformation in the experiencer – such as, for example, a fresh, liberated life that is centered in “Spirit” rather than in convention, materiality or culture.

A crude physical analogy would be our paying mind to the sun, the atmosphere, or wind systems. They are what they are, with or without humans to pay them mind… but paying them mind in the right circumstances with an appropriate attitude can enhance living. A precious gem or mineral hidden in mountains or soil exists as-is without humans paying it any mind. But if by exploration  humans unearth the precious hidden treasure, it becomes a new and oftimes useful human acquisition. Similarly, if by employment of contemplative practices humans “discover” the hidden God – that “treasure hidden in a field” –  this disclosure becomes a new and oftimes  positive spiritual acquisition.

The analogy is similar to those picture puzzles that say: “Find the animals or the Presidents’ faces hidden in this forest.” The animals and faces are not immediately visible, but once spotted, one’s entire conception of the picture undergoes a radical change. The picture – in this discussion, the “givenness” of reality – doesn’t change, but one’s perception of it changes drastically.

Some say that the supernatural is the natural not yet understood. Similarly I’m saying that the “Other God” mysteriously exists as part of our reality-picture but is not yet (generally) perceived. Once perceived, our view of the reality-picture changes, with consequent positive spiritual benefits. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas:

“The Kingdom of the Father is spread out over the earth, but few see it.” 

Seeing It is the key.

God’s Unexpected Nature

What makes any being God? The name we place on it? Its function? Its theological or socially attributed traits?

The non-creating, non-interventionist god whose definition I happen to accept as “God” works for me personally – IF the definition and function placed on the term “God” includes:

Profundity, silence, simple Presence, undivided beingness, nonduality, serenity, infinite wisdom and infinite compassion, “Tao-ness,” unconditioned-ness, unborn-ness, non-materiality, non-object-ness, egolessness, “Tathagata-ness,” and many other divine attributes not usually, generally, or commonly ascribed to the Abrahamic and creatorist-interventionist gods.

Some folks  seem to reason that either the moon is made of green cheese or it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist… or that the moon would somehow become trivial or meaningless;

or that either anomalous flying objects must be extraterrestrial craft or they don’t, or shouldn’t, exist… or they become trival or meaningless.

Likewise, some people think that either God is a creator/intervener or god doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist… or God becomes trivial or meaningless.

But that kind of thinking is just arbitrary prejudice unjustified by common sense or by more formal standards of logic. It’s prejudicial to the truth.

For example, what  if ufos turn out to be mere illusions, delusions or hoaxes – or on the other hand what if they turn out to be completely new, unknown phenomena having nothing whatsoever to do with extraterrestrial craft?

In either case the truth -whether the “common sense/reductionist/naturalistic” Mundane or the supra-rational, mind-boggling Unknown – will trump the extraterrestrial thesis and disappoint its fans.

The same applies to the god-question. Some think that either god must be a creator/intervenor, or the whole question is uninteresting and trival;   and the god question so becomes petty and meaningless.

But I say:  Not so – if truth is really our motivator.

If god turns out not to be a creator/intervener, those who insist that “He” be so will surely be disappointed. But… so what?

Truth, not human expectation, is the issue. If someone wants the moon to be made of green cheese and finds out that it’s really a space rock, that individual is bound to be disappointed… but again: so what?  Truth trumps expectation.

An Emergent Non-Literalist Christianity

Most religious people don’t need to accept the Bible literally – only fundamentalists are so obliged. Moreover, and somewhat ironically, even a literal reading of the Bible argues against reading the Bible literally (!), since biblical stories often show their protagonists arguing with Yahweh, challenging him, even accusing him of breaking his own covenant,  wrestling with him in angelic form… and even casting doubt on the inerrancy of scripture itself – as Jeremiah (8:8) does: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, we have the Lord’s Law,’ when scribes with their lying pens have falsified it?”

How do educated Christians know what to take/not to take literally?  That can be a relatively concise task for the non-fundamentalists: they utilize the fruits of critical biblical scholarship, which analyses the texts into their respective formats. It determines which are folkloric, which are expanded or shortened texts, which are secondary editions, which are interpolations, which are derived from surrounding cultures, which are prescientific attempts at recording history, which are consciously constructed myth, which are parabolic, which represent various parties (such as Genesis’ multiple authors: Priestly, Elohist, Yahwist, etc.), which are products of the prophetic tradition, which are derived from the royal house traditions, which are more or less individual statements, which are more or less communal statements, etc.

Many sincerely-seeking, educated non-literalist Christians realize that there is no literary test for “Godness” and they realize that scripture is not the “Word of God,” but rather the word(s) of people about god. They maintain that, to the extent a particular scripture preserves an accurate description of human communion with God, that particular scripture can be said to be “inspired” – but not  an “inspiration” viewed as the inerrant word of God. Rather, this means that something of the ineffable Deity is disclosed in parts of scripture. In fact, something called “the emerging paradigm” is currently developing in progressive churches, which is a model of renewal that views the Bible as a disclosure, a lens, and a sacrament that conveys truth about God’s nature – without being a literal communication from God.

If anyone wishes to imbibe of enlightened, critical, non-literalist Christianity, s/he might (enjoyably) explore Marcus J. Borg’s The God We Never KnewJesus: A New Vision, and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  Non-believers who make blanket statements about Christianity’s purported irrationality will find their assumptions challenged by Borg’s work and the work of many other emerging-paradigm authors. The aim is not to make converts but rather to factually set out what a renewing, educated, critically-enlightened Christianity really has to say – as opposed to the frequently mistaken claims of fundamentalists and unbelievers alike.

Beliefs of Unbelievers

Unbelief is… well, unbelieving, the denial of beliefs (chiefly defined in this blog as unbelief in religious claims).  However, unbelievers in religion often( and sometimes famously) go well beyond simple denial. They frequently proffer replacement beliefs – beliefs that are meant to dislodge religious dogmas with the “true” and “better” beliefs… of unbelievers, some of whose claims are:

“…God is a delusion
God is a myth
God is a fiction
God is a bad dream
God is a means of intellectual and political oppression

God is an infantile idea that keeps theists in an infantile state

God did not create man; rather, man invented God

God was an invention of pre-scientific man and has been explained away in our modern age of science

God is an excuse to be illiterate, especially in science

God is an excuse to be socially and morally prejudiced

God is an excuse to hate, maim and/or kill others

Science is good and progressive
Religion is bad and regressive

Science proceeds from reason and doubt
Religion proceeds from unreasoning, blind faith

Science successfully explains the origins of cosmos, life, and humankind
unsuccessfully explains ” ” “

Religion makes extraordinary claims
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary investigations

Science helps mankind
Religion impedes mankind

Science educates and edifies
Religion obfuscates and corrupts

The soul is an illusion
The soul is a misidentification of neuroprocesses
Man’s “rational intellect” is his highest “gift”

The human brain is the “creator” of the “soul”

The human brain is the generator and mediator of consciousness: it is  the “enchanted loom,” the “three-pound universe”

Human uniqueness is a myth

Man is insignificant in the cosmos

Genesis’ creation narrative is a “primitive myth told around campfires by nomads”
The Bible is made up of “fables”

Jesus didn’t exist
Jesus was nothing more than a pagan myth
If Jesus
did exist, he was most likely a conservative-nationalist political rebel, and/or a hallucinating schizophrenic or a megalomaniac

It was Paul, not Jesus, who founded Christianity

The Christian testament was written hundreds of years after Jesus’ death…”

Some unbelievers simply think that religion is irrelevant, but they do not appear on the above list because they usually do not attack religion; because they seem to think that religious beliefs are not  important enough to merit active efforts toward attack or replacement.  Aside from that consideration, each of the preceding unbelieving propositions is open to debate.  But the relevant  point is that unbelievers often, and sometimes vehemently, publicly express their non-and-anti-religious beliefs, which they hold to be true and superior to religious beliefs.

In fact it is readily apparent that many unbelievers who promote replacement beliefs are actually motivated by these beliefs and are not content with simple denial of religious propositions.  So the frequently made claim, “unbelievers are defined by unbelief; since they don’t believe, their non-belief cannot be critiqued – for the simple reason that it is empty of content, and therefore non-existent.”  That’s true, as far as it goes.  But when unbelief is founded on stated beliefs,  cherished and strongly expressed in public forums – then it is obvious that unbelief is not necessarily founded on simple negation.  To that extent, the expressed beliefs of unbelievers are as vulnerable to criticism as the beliefs of believers.

Flaws of a Fundamentalist God

Some general considerations about the failings of “God” as fundamentalists see “Him”…

The primary fundamentalist opinion that things claimed in the Bible are true, “because the bible is God’s inerrant word,” is completely ineffectual – unless it is addressed to fellow believers. One needs  first to show how  the Bible is the Word of God. Insistent claims to that effect are by definition unpersuasive when one’s targeted audience is non-believing.  Perhaps only those of  a pre-existing fundamentalist mindset can be persuaded by the eternally circular argument, “The Bible is true because it’s the Word of God/the Word of God is true because it’s in the Bible.”

Further, all too many biblical literalists claim to believe the entire Bible but clearly pick and choose what they will believe – and what they will ignore.

An example of this is fundamentalists’ attitude toward sacrificial atonement. The Bible contains many instances of sacrificial atonement-conditional salvation.  But it also contains many examples of salvation not dependent on sacrificial atonement, illustrating the point that the Bible is ambiguous on some central religious issues. Fundamentalist denial of such ambiguiy can only be ascribed to the pick and choose method, which is usually biased toward Protestant fundamentalism. Fundamentalists, following Reformationists such as Luther and Calvin, insist that salvation is by faith alone (sola fides), and they do not like it when it is pointed out to them that the Bible – specifically and especially the Christian Testament – is ambiguous and inconsistent vis a vis salvation by atonement.  For example, even – already – in the Jewish scriptures Yahweh condemns Temple, priesthood, and animal sacrifice, going so far as to ascribe those institutions to sheerly human invention; and in the New Testament (NT) salvation comes not only by grace and/or Jesus’ redeeming crucifixion, but rather by love and good “works.”

In the name of Biblical fidelity fundamentalists ignore non-atonement scriptures.  But in reality they are motivated not by Biblical, but by Reformationist notions of fidelity. This places them – as claimed biblical literalists – in the paradoxical position of denying God’s Word in favor of man’s (Reformationist) theology.  So in a real sense the typical “anti-works” fundamentalists – inasmuch as they claim to base their soteriology solely on the Bible – are really Unbibilical Biblicists.

The Bible (in addition to its pro-atonement soteriology) in other passages explicitly states that observance of Torah ethics suffices for salvation. The Gospel (Matt 25:31-46) attributes this teaching to Jesus himself. When the Son of Man will return as world judge, the Matthean Jesus specifically states that those who have practiced kindness will be saved, while those who have not, will not be saved. Jesus’/the Bible’s statement is clear, stark, and unambiguous. If  fundamentalists were to (correctly) say in response to having this pointed out to them, “Yes, some scriptures say that salvation is based on works and love, while others say salvation is based on ‘faith-alone’ soteriology’ ” –  that would be fair. But they don’t.

Their denial of scripture’s multiple soteriologies invalidates any claim they make to being objective and attentive bible-readers.  They act this way in spite of the fact that scripture at some points plainly contradicts the tenets of Luther and Calvin, in whom fundamentalists’ loyalty really resides.

It can be reasonably said, then, that the Biblical God – even as read literally – contradicts the fundamentalist deity at an number of points.  Using their own terms, therefore, it is the case that the fundamentalist God must be the false one, since that God strays from the scriptural God.

Another fundamentalist flaw is the tendency to champion Yahweh’s worst behavior, based on uncritical, literalist readings of Yahweh’s exploits in the Hebrew Bible. But such examples of divine misbehavior have also managed to creep-and-crawl their way even into the NT, e.g., in the book of Acts where Ananius and Sapphira are struck dead by the ever-vengeful Covenanter, and in the book of Revelation where the returning Christ is prophesied to squeeze out his enemies’ blood like grape juice from his winepress.

Fundamentalists frequently claim their god’s superiority by stating that without the Hebrew God there can be no morality. Yahweh is seen as the font of morality, goodness, holiness.  Yet it is none other thanYahweh who directs the killing of Canaanite religionists, and the burning and vandalism of their shrines… is that moral? Yahweh directs killing even of Jewish magicians… can that truly be said to be  moral? Yahweh demands stoning of adulterers (only females, of course!)… is that moral? Yahweh directs wars of genocide in which even children are not spared… is that moral? Yahweh lies and instructs Moses to lie… is that moral? In one instance, Yahweh demands that a prophet persuade a neighbor to strike down the prophet; the neighbor morally and righteously refuses this violent act and Yahweh permits a lion to kill him.

Such examples go on and on, ad nauseum. “Without God there is no morality.” Better: “With Yahweh as God, morality itself is hopelessly compromised.”

Fundamentalists often ask, in relation to divine morality contrasted to human morality, why (for example) it is immoral for us to kill each other, but not immoral for a lion to kill a hyena.  Such questions are usually asked in opposition to evolutionism: if we are nothing but “evolved matter” (the argument seems to run) then why is killing one another not just as amoral and blame-free as one animal killing another? The reply that I would make is:  human killing human is immoral because, unlike the hungry lion who kills a hyena, we kill not just for survival, but for sport, jealousy, cruelty, power, religious-political domination, etc.

Here again, Yahweh fails the test: he says, “Thou shalt not kill…” – but then in effect he goes on to say, “… except for the Egyptians, the Midianites, the Canaanites, and anyone else I damn well feel like killing.” Since Yahweh – supposedly omnipotent – could invent or frame any other arrangement for pacifying Israel’s enemies, but instead chooses murder as his preferred method, it can reasonably be suspected that – unlike the lion – Yahweh does kill for power, religious-political domination and perhaps, even, sport. (Some “highly moral” god. Enlisting Yahweh as a master of sound morality is a little like enlisting Hitler in support of Jewish child care.)

Fundamentalists typically associate Yahweh’s commandments in the Hebrew Bible with his superior morality.  In the first case, this is to ignore the fact that – except for the requirements to worship only Yahweh and to keep the Sabbath – the rest of the Commandments are derived from the legal codes of nations that neighbored Israel.  And in the second case, it is to ignore the fact that Yahweh’s commands are indeed frequently immoral.  The Hebrew Bible is full of Yahweh’s judgments, commandments, commands, directives, instructions, injunctions, rules, prohibitions (and punishments for violations of same) that range from sensible to savage to downright silly. Not to mention the embarrassing fact that Yahweh himself frequently violates the letter and the spirit of things he has commanded. That he (rarely) “repents” of his own brutality only underscores Yahweh’s deeply entrenched madness and petty cruelty.

The flawed fundamentalist god and flawed fundamentalism mirror each other. The two fit like a glove.  Fortunately for religious studies in general, they are easily seen through and refuted, thereby leaving more time to explore other, more rewarding, issues.