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The Grand Recap

June 14, 2015

I know that this blog has been quiet for a while causing some of you to believe that this was the quiet of the grave. It’s not, although I’m realizing how little time I really have to spend on this blog with my other commitments. However, I’m working on some additional articles right now and I hope to get some real content up soon. While I did this I re-read a lot of the archives to see what I’ve discussed to death and what I haven’t covered. And so I think it’s worth sharing some general observations about the material I’ve posted on this blog over the years as I prepare to get my act back together.

1) I was surprised to note that in two articles I was searching for a creature that represented complete non-comprehension and both times I independently decided on hamsters. I owned a hamster as a child. I guess he didn’t strike me as any too bright.

2) Perhaps like Tolkien I don’t seem to care much for machines either. (For those of you who missed the Tolkien reference there’s a short bit of dialog in the Two Towers where Treebeard pejoratively describes Saruman as having a “mind of metal and wheels”. This is an excellent insult and I have a number of people I would like to apply it to.) A few examples are here, here, here, and here.

3) The three most popular posts of all time (by pageviews) are Women and Marriage in the Old Testament, A Man in the Land of Uz: Job I, and Women in Ancient Israel. These appear to be popular because it’s hard to find information on the Internet about women in ancient Israel/the Old Testament or about Uz. While it’s lovely to be doing well in some tiny niche these are hardly my favorite articles. In fact, one of my favorite articles I’ve ever written (What is Salvation?, which involved a crazy metaphor about fish) is ranked dead last in pageviews. It’s so low I don’t believe the numbers (there are literally less pageviews than people who wrote comments) and I think it must just have been published and viewed before most of the record-keeping that WordPress does. This article also happens to host the longest comment section of any article ever. This is unfortunate because it’s the sort of comment thread that makes you wish you’d just punched yourself in the face to use up that time instead.

4) “What is Salvation?” isn’t the only early post that continues to have echoes in my more recent ones. Three other posts written within the first six months of this blog’s existence that say things I continue to say (in one case in a departmental meeting last semester) are Two Questions, Glory, full of Grace and Truth, and Personhood.  I should point out that those are posts written and also published within the first six months of this blog’s existence. Like a large crocodile waiting just below the water’s surface I play for the long-haul. There’s a draft in my Posts bin in the admin Dashboard that I wrote in February of 2011 that continues to be held back to be the starting article for an entire enormous series I haven’t written. I published the Inerrancy series in September of 2013 and yet I knew I intended to write it and was laying the groundwork for it when I wrote the very first post of this blog in January of 2010.

5) Speaking of series, I’ve neatened up the blog categories so that every series[1] has its own category tag, There are between 19 and 21 series depending on how you count them (one series has a sub-series). However, not all series are created equal. A number of series are two articles but Women in the Bible is a mega-series of 27 articles and nowhere near done. (In point #4 I mention another series I have planned. This is also a mega-series and won’t happen until I finish Women in the Bible. Your grandchildren will enjoy reading its opening article as it posts, I’m sure.)

6) This blog also exemplifies some of the strange contradictions that make me who I am. The massive data-dumps of articles like Bloody Souls, The Spirits of All Life, Let Us Reason Together, I Feel it in My Kidneys, the entire Canon series, A Bad Answer is Worse than No Answer: Kephale and Authority 1, the entire Diakonoi, Presbuteroi, and Episkopoi series, Gehenna, She’ol, HaTaniynim (התנינמ), Judges, and Polygamy (which includes the line “I was able to locate twenty-seven characters in the Bible who are unambiguously polygynous…”) are probably why this blog has such a low readership (that and my recent inability to keep a schedule). However, they are also the works of a man who would like all the data in the world, the flicker of every firefly, the heartbeat of every whale, and the growth rate of every blade of grass normalized for a series of twenty-seven climatic variables. However, some of my very favorite articles are very, very different. What Do I Believe?, Grace for the wicked?, and We Didn’t Know it was You. I wish I could write the second sort of article all the time but I can’t. Sure, I could throw some crazy words together but I can’t always see a thing to describe to you in such an orthogonal way.

One of the reasons the articles hear haven’t been better, or more frequent, is exactly this lack of vision. I can still see the harsh bleeding edge that Neiztche calls “the will to power” and the great offense of the cross that subsumes this power in love. But the thing that lights up my mind like a nuclear flare and then wipes clean what it once made clear? The thing you grasped when you awoke from your dream and understood everything for a frail, fleeting second in which the sky rolled back and the all the gears of the world were laid bare for your understanding? The thing that propels me to write articles like Talking is not Knowing, Here Be Dragons: A Carthography of Mysticism, or Inerrancy Part III: What We Cannot Speak Of? If I saw that better we’d have better articles. Instead, you get a hamster attempting to explain calculus to you.

7) You can’t have gotten this far without detecting my strange sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me in trouble. I still get weird emails about Reading the Bible like it’s Science Fiction. I frequently suspect that the authors haven’t really managed to read the article in any genre. Other times it just produces some of my favorite article titles. There’s no way I can end this recap without mentioning Your Best Life Martyred or In Which the Baby Jesus Fights Santa Claus.

Much like John the Evangelist (but with fewer literary critics) I think seven is the right number of divisions to stop at. New content will come soon, because whatever else has changed in my life and made it harder to write I still think that Scripture is Beautiful.

However, just like John (and Tolkien) get to end the story twice I’ll end for real by saying that our sidebar of blog-friends needs cleanup. I know some of what we currently link to isn’t active. If you link to us and would like a link back (and aren’t crazy – I know at least one of our incoming links is) tell me.

[1] Defined as a minimum of two articles which are directly linked either by their title, by originally being a single composition, or by being incomplete on their own with the intention being to finish the whole thought in another article. It is necessary that this recap have at least one footnote since those have also been a long-running feature of my articles (and it’s even more fitting that this is a methodological footnote). Unfortunately, footnotes still don’t import properly into WordPress and so every footnote you’ve ever seen has been manually re-coded after WordPress screwed it up.

Good Thursday?

April 8, 2015

This Easter my father-in-law asked me if I was familiar with the arguments for believing that Jesus was crucified on Thursday instead of Friday. I was only vaguely familiar with this subject and promptly looked it up. It’s not even remotely difficult to find this claim. Search “Good Thursday” on any decent search engine and you’ll get plenty of hits. What is odd, though, is that almost none of the articles you turn up will argue against the idea. Think about this for a minute: most churches who mark liturgical time in any serious way mark Good Friday. Some churches even have special services or other religious obligations on that day. Despite this, it is much easier to find people arguing for the minority claim than the majority one. What’s going on?

The first answer is that the claim that Jesus was crucified on Thursday (or any other day except Friday) never seem to have made it out into the larger denomination ecosystem. Perusing the articles on the issue I began to recognize the sorts of subtle tells (largely word choices and a fondness for using the KJV) that suggest that many of the articles were written by people coming from a particular sub-section of the Protestant world. Many of the people who might argue most vociferously for Good Friday have probably never heard the Good Thursday claim.

However, the issue is much more interesting than that. Having reviewed the evidence I have decided that the Good Thursday claim is pretty badly supported and rests on a series of intelligent-looking mistakes. I am fond of finding intelligent-looking mistakes because these are the ones that fool most people. Mistakes that are obviously stupid are much more easily avoided.

Let’s start with the reasons for making the Good Thursday claim. There are two reasons to even start down this path. The first, and most often explicitly mentioned, is that Jesus says in Matthew 12:40 that the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Attempting to get three days and three nights out of a Friday death and a Sunday morning resurrection is pretty much impossible. The second reason is that combining John’s chronology with the chronology found in the other gospels supports the Good Thursday interpretation.

The first reason, the count of days and nights, is actually deeply problematic. The prediction “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” is known as the sign of Jonah. Jesus refers to it in this manner in the verse right before the one just quoted and also references it in Matthew 16:4 and also Luke 11:29. In neither of these other instances is an exact count of days given and in Luke the sign may actually consist of something entirely different as the discussion is about how Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites (none of whom are recorded in the book of Jonah as having witnessed Jonah getting barfed out of a giant fish). On its own this would be weak evidence – Matthew 16 may leave of the day count since it was covered in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 may leave off the day count because a different point was being made about Jonah. However, it remains that there are three mentions of a sign of Jonah and only one contains this three day and three night claim. There are, however, eleven instances in the New Testament where Jesus is predicted to rise/said to have risen on the third day. Three times in Matthew (16:21, 17:23, and 20:19) and three times in Luke (9:22, 13:32, and 18:33) Jesus predicts his death and resurrection and states that he will rise on the third day[1]. Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection on the third day (using those words) is also mentioned in Matthew 27:64 and Luke 24:7. In Luke 24:46 (post-resurrection) Jesus explains that the Scriptures said that he would rise on the third day. Finally, Acts 10:40 and 1 Corinthians 15:54 state that Jesus was raised on the third day.

The issue here is that you can’t both be raised on the third day and also be dead for even parts of three days and three nights without being killed at night. (Night 1, Day 1, Night 2, Day 2, Night 3, Day 3 and resurrection.) Since Jesus’ death is pretty clearly placed in the day this gives us no option for making the two ways of counting time reconcile – Jesus will be raised during day three before night three. Any attempt to shift the chronology of Jesus’ death from Friday to Thursday to get three days and three nights to protect the count given in Matthew 12:40 throws off eleven other verses.

Now, it is clear from reading some of the pro-Good Thursday articles that some of the authors are worried that atheists will claim that the three days and three nights discrepancy invalidates the Bible. I will point out that any atheist attempting such a tactic is faced with several problems. Firstly, the actual problem is that the book of Matthew itself contains two irreconcilable time predictions. Secondly, this is a magical contradiction – the fact that both counts exist in the same book indicate strongly that the original readers assumed that one of the counts of days (probably the one only mentioned once) was a loose allusion to the Old Testament and not a precise estimate.

As I mentioned earlier there is also the matter of John’s chronology. This is, I think, a far better argument since it involves a careful reading of John’s gospel and an attempt to tie it in to the other accounts rather than careless reading of a single verse. However, the problem here is also quite pronounced. John’s gospel is (usefully) very clear on when Jesus was crucified. In John 19:14 we learn that Jesus’ trial before Pilate is wrapping up at about noon on the Day of Preparation before Passover. In one regard this is the same chronology as is found in the Synoptics (the name for the other three gospels): these gospels also record that Jesus was killed on the Day of Preparation. However, Matthew 26:17 tells us that on the first day of unleavened bread Jesus’ disciples ask him where he wishes to eat the Passover, placing the Passover meal prior to Jesus’ trial. Some articles advocating for Good Thursday suggest that Jesus ate Passover early and was then killed the following day when other Jews were preparing for Passover (which would have begun at sundown of that day). If this were all of our data that would make some sense although it would be very odd for someone to eat the Passover early since the commands in Exodus 12 regarding the Passover are strict about the timing. It would also require us to ignore the most natural reading for “the first day of unleavened bread” which is that it is the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, which is Passover, and assume that it actually meant the first day on which leavened bread was banned, the day after the Passover meal. One site making this claim points out that the Greek reads “the first day of unleavened bread” and not, as most English translations say, “the first day of the feast of unleavened bread”. However, this is a weak case. We say “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” because we are unfamiliar with it. In fact, in some places English translations will also say “the Feast of Passover” when the Greek just says “Passover”. People who are familiar with the names of holidays generally don’t feel obliged to add adjectives reminding their audience what the type of holiday it is.

Moreover, both Mark and Luke add additional detail. In Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7 we run across the same “the first day of unleavened bread” formula but also a note that this is when the Passover lamb was traditionally killed/must be sacrificed. This is not a note about the behavior of Jesus and his disciples but a note about a point of time within the calendar of Jewish feasts and it clearly places the Last Supper on Passover. Mark 15:42 adds another important note by saying that Jesus died on the Preparation Day before the Sabbath. So, while all four gospels agree that Jesus died on Preparation Day they disagree on which Preparation Day (since Passover is also a Sabbath, although not always a Saturday). The chronology in John’s gospel has Jesus dying on the day before Passover (during the time period when the Passover lambs were slaughtered) and rising on Sunday (thankfully, all four gospels clearly mark the resurrection as “the first day of the week”, an unambiguous way to indicate the day we now call Sunday). This places Passover on Saturday (with the meal after sundown on Friday), making Passover a High Sabbath on a regular Sabbath. The Synoptic chronology has Passover happening on Friday (with the meal after sundown on Thursday) which makes Passover fall on what would normally be the Day of Preparation for the normal Sabbath.

There are two viable options that I see. One adopts the same fast-and-loose approach to the time of Passover exhibited by some of the articles that I criticize here. However, instead of assuming that Jesus celebrated Passover early we might assume that some Jews figured that since Passover fell on Friday they’d just celebrate it on the Sabbath that was already coming on the next day. This would have some Jews (perhaps hard-core traditionalists) celebrating when Jesus (who was a rabbi, after all) did while other Jews, perhaps laxer Jews who felt that they couldn’t afford to take two days off work in one week, celebrated Passover a day late on the normal Sabbath. This allows both versions of events to be entirely true – there were lambs being sacrificed for Passover on the day that Jesus told his disciples to prepare the Last Supper and also on the day when he died. The other option is just to assume that one chronology isn’t right. Now, this probably worries some people a lot but John’s chronology often doesn’t match that of the Synoptics and I’m not entirely convinced that John’s chronology is meant to be chronological rather than topical. (This appears to be an allowable way to handle chronology in some ancient histories.) Moreover, both accounts agree on a substantial amount of chronological details: Jesus died on a Day of Preparation and was raised on the third day which was Sunday. The argument is exactly when Passover fell amongst all of this and the disagreement amounts to one day’s difference. Eyewitness of events that happened last month can differ more than that.

While this is already a lengthy article there is one more issue of interest to me. It turns out that the Good Friday tradition is quite old. Justin Martyr (First Apology, Chapter LXVII, early second century) says that Jesus was crucified on Friday. The reason I find this interesting is that the rejection of the Good Friday tradition is the rejection of a very old tradition. However, it does not provide a very good explanation of where the Good Friday tradition came from at this early date. If, as I have argued, Jesus was crucified on Friday the tradition comes from receiving that information from those who knew about it or (since I think it’s not that hard to figure the chronology out from the gospels) deriving it from Scripture. The incorrect idea, Good Thursday, would come from people trying to deal with the sign of Jonah, but not very well, and this is why it is both recent and relatively poorly-known. If the Good Thursday people are right then presumably the church began knowing this and Justin would have had to be unaware of this despite very active engagement with Christian theology and writing, indicating that this knowledge had been more or less entirely forgotten. This is an odd claim, although not a lethal one, and it demonstrates one of the reasons I am hesitant to challenge traditions that date to within only a generation or so of the apostles.

What is a lethal blow to the Good Thursday theory is the chronology found in Luke and Mark concerning the timing of Passover relative to the Last Supper and the widespread agreement that, despite the sign of Jonah, Jesus was raised on the third day and not after three days and three nights had passed.

Read more…

Just Say No to Apologetics

March 25, 2015

When I was younger I was fond of reading books of apologetics – that is, books which focused on the reasons why Christianity was right and other ideas were wrong. In fact, when I was a teenager I considered it almost a Christian duty to read these books. More recently I’ve become significantly less fond of them.

Part of this is that many modern apologetics books aren’t very good. It’s not any too difficult to find a book claiming that it presents solid reasons to believe in Jesus only to discover that it presents solid reasons to suspect that the author needs to expand his knowledge of philosophy, history, and sometimes even basic writing skills. If this were all I wouldn’t dislike apologetics book in general, I’d just dislike a particular sort of apologetics book (and I do still have something of a soft spot for books that cover ancient and medieval apologetics). Instead, I find that I dislike the whole concept of writing an apologetics book.

It would be easy at this point to accuse me of hypocrisy. Several of my articles here could be considered apologetics articles. However, what I specifically don’t like is a focus on apologetics. The best apologetics are done by accident and attempting to do apologetics is a good way to do it poorly.

One of the dominant myths in Western society is the war between religion and science. This is a myth both in the sense that it gives meaning and structure to many Western beliefs about the world but also in the sense that it is wildly exaggerated. However, within this myth there is a simple story about knowledge: religion starts by knowing what it must conclude and figures out how to work to that point whereas science starts by knowing nothing, figuring out how to best learn things, and then uses those tools to reach conclusions. This isn’t true in general but if it were it would be a pretty damning charge – it would amount to saying that all of Christian intellectual life is devoted to propping up statements of unknown worth. However, the area that gets closest to this parody is apologetics. An apologist starts with some known conclusion and defends this.

To be clear, apologetics doesn’t exist solely in the realm of religion. There are apologists for and against global warming and vaccines, for instance. The people defending these various position feel that their position is so well backed that they can stop questioning it and move on to figuring out why arguments against their idea are wrong. This can be just fine – if I were to deal with a large number of people who argued that I don’t exist I would argue against them in much that style. I know I exist, the only real question is why someone would question the truth of my existence.

However, I still have an issue with apologetics. This issue can be explained in two points.

First, apologetics almost never starts at the beginning. An apologist is a Christian for some reason and it is very, very rarely because that apologist read a document anything like the one they are writing. However, the supposed aim of the document the apologist writes is to cause others to follow the apologist into faith. This is an odd way to go about things. It is a bit like climbing a mountain and then, from the top, advising people to take a different (untried) route up. Now sometimes in both mountain climbing and personal growth one does wish to say, “Now that I am here I see that I took the painfully long route to get here, try that route instead,” but it is odd how few people seem to end up Christian by following the route the apologists lay out.

I believe that the central issue here is that modern apologetics tends towards modern modes of thought. Most Christians are not Christian for reasons that sound good to others. They involve things like personal feelings and being swayed by the grace shown by other Christians rather than cold, hard, “serious” facts. (For that matter, many atheists take a similar track away from Christianity.) However, if that is actually what drives people (and I believe it is) then we should start taking it seriously. It does little good to say, “I wish humans were beings of pure logic and I will address them as if they are.” Instead, facing reality and addressing real people is the smarter course. If an apologist knows how they got to be a Christian they should tell us. If they know that what they then discovered studying Christian is fascinating and answers problems they should tell us that, too. But there’s no point in flipping the order of things and claiming that what one finds out after becoming Christian made one Christian.

Second, apologetics demands a stable point to defend. My own dislike of apologetics in its normal form came about through a slow death of one thousand cuts. I would take a position on a text, on a philosophical issue, on a matter of history in order to make a certain sort of argument. Later I would realize that the position I had taken was shakier than I had realized. However, I had now tied myself to that position through an argument that I had, in turn, tied to my whole faith. If I admitted that Paul’s missionary journeys might have taken a different route than I had first supposed (to pick a random example) I might end up pulling bricks out of the great structure that I insisted held my faith up. There are three choices at this point. One is to stop learning, to freeze the whole edifice of belief as it is right now. Of course, this means freezing some things into perpetual error. However, it does give one fixed points to argue from. Another option is to allow small cracks to destroy one’s entire faith. Were the casualties at the battle of Ai in the book of Joshua rounded? Well, time to abandon the faith! A third option is to realize that growth means that some points will move and that it’s a good idea to allow that to happen and rework ideas when necessary.

A short aside is necessary here. The whole idea of allowing points not to be fixed sounds to many people like saying, “Well, I may well be wrong about everything.” However, when we are actually sure that some things are true we don’t worry too much about treating them as fixed points. For instance, I’m not much concerned if someone needs to rework our current understanding of gravity to make it mesh with quantum physics. A good theory will eventually circle around to something that looks a lot like gravity because gravity is obviously there and in need of explanation. The explanation may change but the phenomenon is real. Similarly, there are articles of faith that I may end up explaining very differently in the future but I don’t worry too much about that because I’m sure a good theory will eventually have to get around to explaining them.

This brings me to my final point. All of my own best apologetics has come about by doing something else entirely. For instance, I may be thinking about why the Church has consistently insisted on the spiritual disciplines and come to some realization about the faith that then spills over into commentary about why I think Christianity explains something better than the other options. Some of my more recent articles probably look like they are aimed outward – they cover issues of what religion is and what gods are and undermine a common atheist claim to be unique and distinct from religious people. However, that line of thought came from thinking about how things other than God can demand allegiance in the Christian life. More specifically, some of those thoughts came from considering whether a rather common tactic in preaching whereby passages about idols are used to launch into discussions of modern “idols” like money, power, fame, or even your favorite hobby was the product of deep insight (these things really do claim the allegiance that ancient statutes of gods once claimed) or a sort of dumb way to deal with passages that were about ancient customs that we don’t practice anymore in the West.

Thinking deeper about Christianity will (if you believe Christianity is true) produce better apologetics naturally. Shallow Christianity is hard to defend. It is silly, bogged down in weird ideas that come from nowhere, and can’t get to grips with hard questions. Deep, thoughtful Christianity has answers to the whole first line of basic questions without doing any additional work. I think it is best to focus on Christianity first and its defense to the outside world second.

The Gods Behind the Names

February 18, 2015

In my last article I discussed the idea of identifying gods not by the overt claims made by their worshippers as to the identity of said gods but by their actions. This is to say that when someone claims to worship Jesus or to worship the creator of humanity (or, for that matter, the god of thunderstorms) this tells you less than you would hope. Learning what these gods demand is much more important in many ways.

Given this, we can now deal with “hidden” gods. By this I do not mean unfound, unworshipped gods. Polythesisms and animisms can lose track of gods (there are, after all, so many) or simply have never discovered some of them (if every habitat on earth is populated by a set of unique gods then it would be rather hard to find them all). Indeed, in some ancient societies the expectation was that some gods remained to be found. Cybele was imported into Rome from Anatolia (at the direction of an oracle) and while this was a rather big deal the big deal was not that the Anatolians had a goddess that Rome didn’t but rather that the Romans were generally sure that their versions of everything were best. If one had said to an ancient Roman that there were even more gods out in India or Russia or Chile the biggest issue one would face is explaining where those places were. The idea that they might have undiscovered gods would not seem surprising – the Romans had their gods (stolen from the Greeks, by and large) and other people had theirs.

However, when I speak of hidden gods I mean gods that are hidden in plain sight and are recognizable by the actions of their worshippers. Take modern neo-paganism. Where I grew up associating oneself with neo-paganism or Wicca (which may be different but my high school friends weren’t the ones to know) was a pretty popular way to piss one’s parents off. Now, granted that my knowledge of modern neo-paganism comes largely from high school students who were often recent converts but a couple of things stuck out to me. First, while modern neo-paganism claims to trace its roots back to ancient British paganism it mostly doesn’t. Old-school British paganism was properly polytheistic (i.e., the gods didn’t necessarily like each other and had real differences in attitudes and desires) and rather bloody. None of my supposedly neo-pagan friends ever sacrificed a horse let alone a human being. Moreover, my friends would express to me that their religion was a nature religion. Again, it was far to sanitized. Nature is, to be frank, terribly brutal. Snowy owls have more young than they can support in anything but a very, very good year. The oldest youngster solves this by killing, and sometimes eating, the youngest offspring, moving up the chain until there is enough food for all the young owls who are left. A significant fraction of fish swallow their prey alive, leaving it to die as it is digested. Rather more prosaically, note that we’ve never found an animal with a sensible “off” switch for pain. In a kind, merciful world a doomed animal would switch off pain and die without suffering. But that’s not the real world. In a larger scope, seeing “nature” itself as a sort of persona, nature makes things work mostly by allowing everything living to produce too many offspring and then killing off the ones who don’t fit. Nature greases its wheels with blood to such an extent that I think one of the best arguments against the Christian vision of the world is that the world is a terrible place full of things that will kill you for any mistake and care nothing for your suffering. And yet my friends who practiced a supposed nature religion were all about altruism and kindness, rather the opposite of nature itself.

Let’s be frank: my friends had not resurrected the old polytheistic gods to worship them. The old polytheistic gods don’t fit modern Western sensibilities. Instead, my friends had made a weakened (and often incoherent) version of the dominant monotheism in their culture (Christianity). Sure, Christianity had some moral rules they didn’t like so they borrowed some of the old god’s attitudes towards sex (properly sanitized of all the rape, of course) and maybe a few other things. They didn’t care for Christianity’s totalizing claims to uniqueness and so they went in for a world of multiple gods that might be kinder towards incorporating other deities but, in fact, was not. The true incorporation of other deities would have involved bringing in their viewpoints which would have left us with an old-style pantheon that fought within itself. Instead, I heard about various schemes in which there were multiple gods (the number ranged widely, from two to an uncountable multitude) who acted more like the appendages of one great being than separate entities. There was, in fact, a hidden god behind my friend’s attempts at novelty. Some great monotheistic, moralizing deity hid being the façade of polytheism and do-it-yourself religion. There were rules – kindness, love, respect – but they didn’t come naturally from the frameworks being presented. They belonged, instead, to the god my friends were fleeing from.

The same is (oddly) true of any number of attempts to be entirely non-religious. The simplest of these to explain is humanism. Humanism is about humans – that’s right in its name. However, humanism is not the science of discovering what humans are like but rather an assertion about the value of every human and an (admirable) attempt to uphold that value. Oddly, however, that value has no basis. In the world before Christianity it was taken as a given that some people were worth less and some were worth more. The gods were thought to not only accept this but approve of and support this. Sometimes this worked out as class structures (kings are worth more than peasants) and sometimes as tribal structures (everyone is your brother in this tribe but those people are nothing but animals) but the basic logic was the same. Indeed, it is basic logic. In a world with uncaring gods, or without gods, why is it actually worse for me to stab a human than stick the same knife in a block of wood? After all, from my perspective it is better that I stab him now than that I allow him to come to the same conclusion and stab me. It was Christianity that brought the idea of worth in low-class, useless others. If God loved even the deformed child of a foreign peasant then it wasn’t permissible to kill that child without thought. The argument “but that child is human” which had been no argument before now became the argument “but that child is made in God’s image and is loved by God”. And so again we have a hidden god. The humanist, or in many cases staunch atheist, who says that a human is ultimately reducible to a collection of atoms without a need to bring in anything else treats a human unlike any other collection of atoms.

Indeed, this goes so far that many attempts in the West to attack Christianity are attempts to attack Christianity using Christian ideas. Does Christianity oppress women? Well, why should anyone care unless God loves men and women equally? Oppressing women is, in fact, a natural occurrence that has happened in thousands of societies given some rather minimal preconditions (or, perhaps, non-oppression requires a strict set of conditions). Have Christians supported bad wars? Sure – but the only reason we care about this as a moral issue (instead of a logistical issue about what’s best for us) is because we believe that “the other” has value. And why? One of the most basic, natural instincts in humans is to band together in tribes and fight the other.

This issue of hidden gods is hardly restricted to the West. I live in the West and see it in the West but I know semi-Muslims and semi-Hindus who worship different hidden gods. I know many Westerners who have embraced semi-Buddhism, or have straightforwardly lifted a general idea of non-attachment from Buddhism and dropped it into a different context. To be sure, there are people who really do detach from the gods they were brought up with and don’t side with imported ones either. However, there are far more gods hidden behind other facades then are normally detected.

The Gods By Any Other Names

February 11, 2015

In my last article I mentioned, more or less in passing, the difficulties in identifying whether two people worshipped the same god. In this article I wish to expand upon that.

The difficulties come in two flavors. The first is the establishment of a “neutral” pantheon within which to assign gods. The second is determining whether two people’s gods match.

I’ve treated the issue of a neutral pantheon in more depth elsewhere but this issue deserves some recap here. When I say “neutral pantheon” (a term you won’t find in the article I just referenced) I mean that we need to attempt to match gods without favoring any set of claims. The more usual way to match gods is to pick a base set of claims and attempt to match gods on to that. This is how some people’s gods end up as other people’s devils – one group assumes that they are right and matches the other group’s gods to their own devils. I’d like to point out that this is perfectly sane. If you believe, as I do, that God’s basic nature is expressed in His self-sacrificial love then a god who is depicted as being in favor of human sacrifice (especially that of unwilling victims) must be either a terrible figment of the human imagination or a demon. Religious neutrality as such is often held to be a value in the modern world but it is ultimately also moral neutrality. You really don’t want to embrace most of the Mesoamerican gods with open arms.

However, in the attempt to match gods religious neutrality may be required to do the job right. If I were to seriously test the Islamic claim that we worship the same god but I’ve got the details wrong then I would need to establish a religiously-neutral intellectual space for me to work in. I would need to assume that either one of us could be wrong, or that both of us could be getting some third option wrong (note that the option “everyone is correct” doesn’t exist unless everyone agrees already). Now, this claim of religious neutrality is often made in modern society but it rarely actually done right. Instead, a less-defined but equally dogmatic religion is used as the reality to which all else must be matched. In many cases that base is essentially monotheistic, or even monist, and holds that most religions are basically wrong except where they all agree which will almost inevitably force the identification of all major deities with one another. This, of course, ignores central claims made by the religions being treated about what is actually important.

This leads naturally to our second issue. Assuming that we’ve done a decent job being properly neutral (and since we’re only human let’s not pretend we did better than “decent”) we can now ask whether god A is the same as god B. The classic place to start is names. This is often a fairly stupid place to start as well.

The first issue with names is the term “god”. Monotheistic deities and polytheistic deities both get called gods but are really entirely different species. Monotheistic deities are, by definition, the only gods. They are almost always omni-everything (omniscient, omnipotent, etc). Polytheistic gods are more like superheroes. (Of course, one of the better known polytheisms, Hinduism, isn’t like this because it isn’t technically polytheist. Instead, each smaller god is an aspect, sort of, of a larger god and eventually every single thing in the universe can be rolled into one thing. This is very different than a traditional polytheism where the gods squabble, kill each other, block each other’s designs, and exercise limited powers over particular types of issues.) Monotheistic gods also tend to get named “God” because they are the only one around. So, for instance, Christians in the West normally think of “Allah” as the name of the Islamic god but in some areas of West Africa it’s the name Christians use as well because it’s the only word that mean “monotheistic deity” available.

The second issue with names is that they aren’t necessarily unique identifiers. Revelational religions claim that a god (or gods) revealed themselves to humans and presumably used some names for themselves. In that case maybe the names are useful – unless one posits that these same gods used other names in other languages. In other sorts of religions is less clear that the gods are supposed to have directly passed along their names. Certainly the Romans and the Egyptians seem to have occasionally believed that other people worshipped the same gods as they did but under different names, in some cases apparently under the assumption that these people noticed the presence of these gods but didn’t know what to call them.

Given this it’s worth looking at other identifiers. If we were discussing a possible mutual acquaintance and were unable to determine if they were the same person based on name we might start with descriptions. Of course, descriptors like, “About six feet tall with red hair,” don’t work for a lot of gods in the modern world. Even in the ancient world where characteristics like, “The head of a wild cat and feathered wings,” might be thought to be useful identifiers there seems to have often been the impression that gods were able to choose to look different. However, even with people we often use non-physical descriptors – “Works as an IT specialist and builds intricate replicas of WWII aircraft in his spare time”. (With people and some flavors of gods one might also use familial relations.) These sorts of descriptors are what is actually useful for the identification of gods. This is one reason why no one is likely to identify a god who demands regular human sacrifice with Jesus, for instance.

The trick here is that we often deal with cases where gods are identified by rather useless characteristics. With people we know better than to say, “Two eyes, arms, has hair on his head, does not have fangs,” and expect that to be helpful. With gods it’s not uncommon to find people pointing to the most common characteristics of gods and using those to identify them. This is based on a failure to establish a neutral pantheon – if one walks into the task assuming that gods are all the same because gods often match in some basic characteristics then one will match almost all gods together but only because of one’s assumption. To do a better job the assumption that the commonalities between gods are important must be examined. It may be instead that the commonalities between gods are the result of natural forces. A religion that says, “Murder all your co-religionists,” disappears quickly while a religion that says, “Help you co-religionists,” has a better shot at making it. Similarly, religions that evangelize do better on the world stage than ones that don’t. Monotheisms probably have an inbuilt advantage over polytheisms when it comes to philosophical plausibility. Some of the ideas that are supposed to be evidence that all religions hold similar ideas are accidents of history. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share some ancestry and yet are also fairly familiar in the West. (Similarly, Hinduism is the root stock for Buddhism.) Comparing them and finding that they share characteristics is completely unremarkable. When biologists compare lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars (thought to share an ancestor relatively recently in geologic time) they are generally not amazed that all four cats have bones, legs, strong canine teeth, shortened faces, and whiskers but are instead interested to note the variety of color patterns and social organizations within this group as well as changes like a leopard’s rearrangement of some limb structure to allow it to climb better or a jaguar’s incredible bite strength. The differences between related descendants is what is most intriguing.

Of course, some similarities might be important. However, weighing similarities carefully is worth doing. For instance, I expect all monotheistic deities to be designated as creator of the universe. Failure to attribute the creation of the universe to a monotheistic deity would indicate one of two things: 1) a belief in an uncreated universe or 2) a rather sorry sort of monotheistic deity. I would not use that particular characteristic to match up gods.

Most importantly, we must recognize that even gods with the same name might not be the same. In the West lots of people claim to worship Jesus (as I said in a previous article being able to claim the tradition of Christianity lends gravitas to all sorts of religious claims). However, their worship can differ widely. Now, if we were discussing people this would be automatically suspicious. If both you and I took orders via email from a person named Richard Smith and I received emails urging me to be extremely cautious with money and you claimed to receive emails telling you to spend money wildly I would suspect that you were either lying or were in contact with a completely different Richard Smith. With gods this is, for some reason, often treated as a rather insulting assumption. If I get totally different orders from my god than you get from yours I think it is probably fair to question whether they are the same deity. However, in much of modern Western culture that is considered offensive.

This is particular idea can be extended again into another interesting realm, the detection of “hidden” gods. However, this article is far too long already and so I’ll deal with that topic next week.

Identifying Religions to Species

February 3, 2015

In my last article (rather longer ago than I meant – this is why I should have a buffer) I joked about identifying gods to species. The title came from my insistence that my students identify things to species – it’s not enough to say that something is a beetle, what kind of beetle? It’s a common way I insist that my students get beyond vague concepts and really identify functional units of ecology.

Ironically, identifying what religion a given religion is really is identifying a religion “to species”. I am not here discussing identifying what religion in general is. That is difficult but, as it turns out, almost no one believes in religion in general and so one is normally tasked with identifying a specific religion without having to identify that it is a religion first. This task has some of the same challenges as identifying biological species. Biologists find two issues difficult in identifying species: first, species can be internally quite variable and one can run across cases in which population A can’t breed with population C but both can breed with population B just to make things worse. Second, biologists are generally agreed that any good species definition has to deal with species changing over time. Religion runs across similar issues: some religions are hugely variable (e.g., Hinduism, which has more internal variance than exists between several religions normally considered to be separate religions) and in some cases we have group A who is sure that group C is a different religion (and vice-versa) but both A and C recognize group B as being slightly odd members of their religion. Religions also change over time, sometimes sort of accidentally and sometimes because they announce things like “a new age will come and everything will change” and then someone announces much later that yes, the new age is here.

Religions also get treated like species in another way. The Western world treats religions as both static and inherently worth preserving, much like traditional customs or biological species. We speak of preserving biodiversity (which I’m strongly in favor of) but we also want to preserve religious diversity. This is important because it involves treating religions as mere customs and not as statements about the truth. We allow statements about the truth to fight each other to the death and then we cheer the winner. (This is called progress.)

Before I treat the “how” let me deal with the “why do we care?” The answer is simple: people fight about this quite a lot. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses say they are Christian but many other Christians deny this. A friend of mine recently complained that one group of Christians had effectively disowned another, claiming that they were separate religions. I know someone who is for all intents and purposes a secular humanist but who insists loudly (and angrily) that he is a Christian. (This is hardly an issue for Christians only. I know several Muslims who appear to be Muslim deists and at least one self-identified Muslim who is probably close to Oprah on the religious spectrum.) Some people really fight about this: the Shiite-Sunni conflict involves what Westerners tend to call two branches of the same religion who are involved in a process of disowning and then killing each other.

I outlined above the issues of diversity and change. The diversity issue is pretty straightforward: there are lots of shades of religious belief and so there are a lot of disagreements. There are plenty of people who say they are Christians who I don’t want to share that label with, some because I think they are a horrible affront to Christ (the Westboro Baptists) and some because I think they just need to admit that they are something else entirely and stop using the name “Christian” to give themselves unwarranted gravitas. Some of these people also don’t want to share with me (the Westboro Baptists, I dearly hope) and some do. When they don’t want to share with me that seems simple enough: we’re different and we agree on that. We one of us wants to share things get tricky. One typical way to resolve that fight is to go to gods (one reason we can’t talk about religion without defining gods). If it turns out that we worship different gods we’d be different religions. But, of course, what makes gods different? If we both worship someone named Jesus is that good enough? What if we believe totally different things about this guy (see, again, myself and the Westboro Baptists)? We end up looking at a gradient trying to decide where “off-white” ends and “gray” begins.

A similar, but perhaps even crazier, thing happens when religions change. Most religions have some sort of change mechanism built in. Perhaps some of the Eastern ones with more fixed cosmos don’t but Western (i.e., really Middle Eastern) religions tend to have this idea that God is going somewhere and will occasionally butt in and update us on where we are now. (Take a moment to wonder how many prayers amount to “Are we there yet?” “Tell my brother to stop poking me,” is also a favorite.) Sometimes these change mechanisms are run through a hierarchy and the change seems well-organized and sometimes it comes from outside the official channels and makes a mess.

Imagine, for the sake of having a truly insane example, that a religion exists which holds as its one official and unchanging doctrine that every hundred years the gods rotate and so every hundred years some obscure group of priests identifies the new god on duty, anoints a new priesthood for that god, and then fades back into obscurity. Again for the sake of absolute lunacy we’ll imagine that this religion can change drastically in these shifts – one god might want us to be nice and kind and give to the poor and the next god might demand the still-beating hearts of infants on his altar every morning. Now, we’ll tend to identify this as one religion even through the shifts. Even if the religion changes its name at every shift we’ll give it some unifying name so we can discuss it across history. But now imagine that an issue arises. A change comes up and about a third of the people in this religion say, “You know, I’ve been part of this religion my whole life and I’ve always worshipped Numpy. I don’t know about this new guy T’Kinter and I’m just not too sure about this whole god-swap business. I’m not swapping.” Who belongs to the original religion, the ones who made the change or the ones who didn’t? Both will make the claim that they represent the old ways. One group will say, “We always knew a change was coming and we stayed true to that.” The other group will say, “We’ve always done it this way and we’re staying true to that.” Something like this happens every time a new group splits off an older religion. The new group claims to be the change everyone was waiting for, or a reversion to the way things always should have been, but some version of “doing it the right way that everyone should have known it should be done” and the old group claims to be doing it the right way just like they’ve always done it. This sort of thing leads to a lot of terminological fights.

The reality is that we actually deal with this sort of thing a lot. We just don’t do so in religion. If these were philosophies we’d have no problem identifying all the ideas presented no matter where on the spectrum they lay. “So-and-so is basically an existentialist, however he’s one of the new-school one who follow Bob’s re-reading of Kierkegaard and he’s got a few metaphysical ideas he borrowed from Chuck along with this odd idea about the nature of time that I think is all his own.” When schools split we name them things like “neo-Platonist” and move on.

However, we also treat philosophical schools seriously. We assume someone is right and someone is wrong. With religions the West more or less doesn’t think that any more (unless it thinks that all religions are charmingly wrong-headed). We attempt to line religions up as static entities with clear names but also to let people choose to mix and match from any of the options on the tasting menu and then to tell us what name to call them by. It’s a mess. We can’t do all of these things at once.

Identifying Gods to Species

January 5, 2015

In my last article I said that it was remarkably hard to pin down a simple meaning for many commonly-used religious terms including both “religion” and “god”. In this article I intend to discuss the term “god” as a category. Many people use the word “god” to refer to a singular monotheistic deity but this makes defining other gods rather tricky. Singular monotheistic deities are, well, singular. They encompass a vast number of things in their being and no one has to ask which ones make them gods since there are no other gods. However, when we use the term “god” generically it might be nice to identify gods as a class of supernatural organisms, rather like angels (also, as it turns out, ridiculously hard to pin down clearly in modern parlance). To do this I want to take a suggestion that I have halfway-jokingly fielded before, that Santa is a god, and attempt to determine how Santa differs from a god. For the sake of this exercise I shall assume that all beings normally considered gods should be counted as such (not that they are necessarily real, merely that if they were they would be gods) and that all beings generally agreed not to be gods (like Santa) are not but that some alien anthropologist has mistaken Santa for a god and that we need to set this alien straight.

Santa does clearly share several key characteristics with traditional deities. He has a set of supernatural powers that include the ability to deliver gifts all across the world in a short span of time, to be seen in multiple places at once, and (so it seems) to control to some extent whether or not he will be seen at all. He also has a form of supernatural knowledge about the naughtiness or niceness of children. Additionally, alongside many traditional polytheistic deities, he has an unlocatable abode in a locatable place. Just as no Greek appears to have ever been troubled by the fact that a climb up Mount Olympus would not actually get one into Zeus’ court no modern Santa-believer takes issue with the fact that the North Pole has been visited and no workshop with a stable of flying reindeer was found. (The term Santa-believer is cumbersome but since Santa is a deity of polytheists no one is a Santa-only believer, a Clausist, but rather members of a broader religion in which Santa is a minor seasonal deity. We might term this larger religion “Consumerism”.) This places Santa rather firmly into the world of supernatural entities but that is a well-populated world, full of gods, angels, demons, Fae Folk, Norse trolls, ghosts, animist spirits, and, depending on one’s bent, aliens and one or more sasquatch. (Of course, this displays one of the issues with the term “supernatural”. Would a telepathic alien count as supernatural? Why or why not?) So is Santa a god or one of these other creatures?

Monotheistic deities almost always issue moral codes. Does Santa? Sure – the naughty and nice lists presuppose a moral code which is enforced by Santa (although with less hellfire than some other deities use – but Santa is also a less-powerful entity). Moreover, many traditional gods do not issue moral codes, some do not act according to the moral codes issued by other gods (some of the Greco-Roman gods were quite fond of adultery), and some of the gods who might otherwise count as vaguely moral only enforce their own short-term interests. Of course, Santa’s moral codes do not affect one’s salvation in the sense of steering one towards or away from a particular sort of afterlife. But then again, many traditional gods have little or nothing to do with afterlives. Monotheistic gods do everything and so of course they are involved with this task but in many cultures most gods have nothing to do with the dead. Instead, a subset of gods handles the afterlife, perhaps with the aid of creatures like psychopomps (beings who guide the dead to their final destination). A Greek in Athens who primarily venerated the city’s titular deity Athena would expect to live (?) out an afterlife ruled over by Hades. Similarly, in Aztec mythology Mictlantecuhtli was the god of the dead (assisted by his wife Mictecacihuatl) and the dead passed out of the realm ruled by other gods and into Mictlantecuhtli’s realm (Mictlan – in case you needed more “Mict” names).

Surely, though, we can prove to our hypothetical alien anthropologist that Santa is not a god because gods receive worship, often in temples or other sacred areas, and Santa does not. Of course, it would be good if the Santa cult (I use the term “cult” in its anthropological sense and not its pejorative one) would stop erecting miniature depictions of Santa’s holy abode in shopping malls and would stop actively encouraging the belief in Santa by having its priests dress up as Santa and his helpers to receive messages to Santa to be passed on. Explaining why this Santa-focused activity, which ends in some households with a ritual offering to Santa of milk and cookies (often, as is also traditional in many communities of worship, eaten by the local priest of the cult) is not worship might be difficult.

Importantly, Santa is not regarded as real by really anyone in our society aside from small children. (Although our hypothetical anthropologist will be confused to see that some adults believe that Santa is made up but attempt to teach their children otherwise.) Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and the personification of death (the scythe-holding skeleton in a hooded cape) are cultural symbols that are widely held to be unreal. No adult believes that Santa brings gifts, that the tooth fairy takes teeth and leaves change, that a rabbit runs around laying candy eggs, or that a skeleton in a cape starts hanging around you when you decide to skydive using a second-hand parachute. This might be the make-or-break point. However, it exposes an issue with the definition of gods. Some traditional deities (including some or all of the Hindu deities) are personifications of forces of nature or ideas of the world. Claiming that Santa is the personification of the holiday spirit (wait, are we going to need an article on spirits as well?) would be a stretch but Death certainly seems to be exactly that. Now, again, I don’t think almost anyone really believes that Death has a persona, that this part of the world actually exists as a skeletal creature with a cape and scythe. However, it’s also unclear to me that a Hindu mystic would say that the Hindu gods “exist” in the sense of being the beings they are depicted as being. (In fact, given the variations within Hinduism, there is at least one mystic who asserts that the gods are personifications of realities that are not at all personified in reality and another mystic who takes these personifications quite seriously.)

So far we have a list that suggests that gods are supernatural, receive worship, and …… um….. might have invisible abodes. Effectively all we have is that gods are supernatural beings that receive worship. (A number of dictators have demonstrated that one can be an entirely natural being that receives worship.) So does this separate gods clearly from other supernatural entities? I think so – saints and angels may receive worship but only to pass it along. I originally had thought that hierarchy might be the key (i.e., gods might just be the apex predators of the supernatural ecology) and while this might help separate gods from animist spirits that might be unnecessary and the worship criterion seems to work better. However, this isn’t perfect. Indeed, it suggests that gods might be a bit of a murky category for supernatural entities. If you believed in a fairy queen who lived in the woods behind your house and who you offered kind, chanted words and occasionally food to would this fairy queen be a god? Not in normal thought but only because she is a fairy queen, which suggests that “god” is a wastebasket for supernatural taxonomy. If it isn’t an ancestral spirit, the soul-force of a tree, the messenger of a higher power, or something with a clear, physical form it’s a god. Not surprising, it appears that some ancient cultures used a variety of terms for gods that overlapped with terms for other things. The Hebrew el (אל) can be used for God, pagan gods, or even heroes. The Greek term that we translate as demon (διαμονιον) was widely used for all sorts of supernatural entities, good and bad, including even some of the main Greek gods.

So who cares? I suggest that there are two reasons that Christians should care about this. The first is that it is not infrequent to hear people attack the idea of gods and, as this article suggests, that’s a fairly vague term. People should be made to be more clear about this, especially since many Westerners assume that all gods are effectively monotheistic deities (this includes polytheisms where all gods work together like one).

The second reason is that the vagueness around gods re-opens the question of what else might be a god. It’s common to hear pastors preach on idolatry and deal with the fact that there are very few people in modern American society who actually bow down to carved depictions of gods by broadening the term “idol” to cover all sorts of things that one cares a bit too much about in life. Part of me has always felt like this might be cheating a bit – is your favorite sports team, your passion for good food, or the Internet (I’m talking to you, blog-readers) an idol? However, this might be fairly legitimate. Now, none of the things I listed is a god in the sense that I have described above but there do appear to be more American gods than we thought. Some children no doubt actually do worship Santa (the objection to Santa’s classification as a god is based on adults) although at least some of them understand him to be a servant of a higher god. The Market might classify as a god for some people – it’s invisible, it even defines some people’s moral code, and it can be an object of devotion. (Adam Smith even granted the market an invisible hand – the arm of the market, bared in the sight of all the nations [hopefully no reader has gotten this far without developing some ability to detect satire].) I’ve run into more than a few people who worship their countries (and read about many more in history). While countries have land (normally) there are stateless nations, there are dispossessed nations, and there are claims that the actual governments of nations have betrayed the idea of the nation, placing the nation firmly in the realm of invisible, worshipped objects. In fact, almost any large idea might potentially become an accidental deity. This would be nothing but amusing (to me) silliness if it weren’t for the fact that these gods do appear to be able to compete with the generally-recognized sort. Jesus rather famously says that no one can serve both God and money indicating that money can compete (sometimes successfully) for allegiance with God. (And money is nothing if not an idea that grew legs and started running around stepping on things.)

Part of the problem with deciding that some things just must be religious and that some things clearly aren’t is a blindness to the continuity between them. Just as I have elsewhere argued that separating religions from philosophies is difficult if not impossible I have argued here that separating one’s intangible, worshipfully-held ideas from gods might be nothing but wishful thinking. Even secularists live in a world full of gods. They’ve just renamed them to make them more respectable.