Liberal Christian scholars tend to offer more devastating critiques of the Bible than its atheist critics simply because they know more. For example, few Biblically literate atheists would know that the Pharisees only constituted 1.2% of the Jewish population during Jesus’ time rather than being its dominant face as portrayed in the Bible. However, by the time the gospels were written decades later, they had become Judaism’s dominant face and Christianity’s chief critics, making it probable that Jesus’ attacks on them were interpolations. Likewise, few atheists would know that the signers of the Nicene Creed couldn’t agree on a definition of the Trinity, and that half of them changed their minds it even existed and asked that their signatures be removed from the Creed. Neither would most atheist critics of the Bible know as much about Biblical archaeology, the languages in which it was written, or its social and historic background. Yet, liberal Christian scholars use their knowledge of the Bible to build a new faith while atheists use theirs to substantiate non-belief. Maybe religion really does have a genetic component.
One of the most interesting books that I’ve had the good fortune to come across lately is John Morreall’s newly released Questions of Christians in which he tears down organized religion and dogma, yet offers a positive appraisal of Jesus. One sentence of his book struck me as particularly powerful: “In Jesus’ preaching and in his life, there are ten recurring themes.” I was stimulated by this sentence because anyone who is willing to read the gospels impartially can easily point out statements that Jesus supposedly made that are cruel, absurd, bigoted, grandiose, hypocritical, or contradictory, but it had never occurred to me to put such isolated statements aside and to instead focus upon his “recurring themes.” Yet if someone were to critique my beliefs, this would be only fair way to do so because I say silly things all the time, although they don’t reflect my best thinking. Here is Morreall’s list of Jesus’ “recurring themes”:
Tenet 1. Love God and Love All People
Tenet 2. All Human Beings are Brothers and Sisters, with God as Their Father
Tenet 3. Each Person Counts the Same
Tenet 4. From Each According to Their Ability, to Each According to Their Needs
Tenet 5. Leading People Should Not Mean Dominating Them, but Serving Them
Tenet 6. Celebrate Your Loving Relationships
Tenet 7. Minimize the Number of Rules, and Apply Them Flexibly to Benefit People
Tenet 8. God Alone is Judge
Tenet 9. Be Ready to Forgive Anyone for Anything
Tenet 10. “Do Not Resist an Evildoer” (Matthew 5:39)
So, what does all this mean to me? It means that my upbringing might have influenced my adult thoughts about Jesus more than I realized because the only options I was given were to view him as insane, or a charlatan, or the Son of God, when he was probably more like you and me except that: (a) he never recorded his thoughts, and (b) those who did record them didn’t know him personally; wrote their accounts decades after he was dead; and often put words in his mouth in order to give credibility to their own views.
I believe that Morreall’s tenets might very well be true to what Jesus meant to convey. I believe this on Biblical grounds, and because I would like to think better of Jesus in order to justify my continued presence in church. Morreall’s interpretation of Jesus is as different from that of almost all churches as springtime is from winter. It reminds me of a scene from Religulous in which Bill Mahr is standing in front of the splendor of the Vatican saying, “What does any of this have to do with Jesus Christ?” Indeed, what does it have to do with Jesus Christ? Then again, what does Protestantism have to do with Jesus Christ? Here in America, at least, both Catholics and Protestants (with evangelicals and fundamentalists taking the lead) are more likely than secularists to favor capital punishment, corporal punishment, waterboarding, going to war (it doesn’t matter which war) and compulsory prison sentences. They oppose helping the poor because they blame the poor for being poor, but they have no problem with tax breaks for the rich whom, they believe, wouldn’t be rich if God didn’t favor them. They oppose gay marriage, but have no trouble with making a three-way marriage of judgmental religion, militant patriotism, and conservative politics. They believe that a gun-toting, abortion banning, capitalistic democracy is God’s favorite kind of government; America his chosen nation; and themselves his chosen people.
Not all Christians fit my description—the Christian readers of this blog don’t—but the dominant face of Christianity in America does, so, yes, I like Morrell’s view that Christ might have been better than the rank and file imagine him to be, and better than I imagined him to be. I also like Spong’s view that atheism is compatible with Christianity; and the common liberal view that Jesus’s use of the word belief has nothing to do with the credulous acceptance of unverifiable propositions (most notably, “Accept Jesus as your savior or go to hell”) and everything to do with trusting in that which is good, with Jesus serving as an example and metaphor for good. It’s the difference between saying I believe that, and I believe in. Unfortunately, I can’t regard Jesus as my primary example of good simply because too little is known about him. His biggest recommendations in my mind are Morreall’s list and that the status quo killed him. Since the status quo regularly destroys that which is good, the latter is an awfully big recommendation, and the former at least portrays Jesus as having a good heart.
P.S. Maybe I should explain my near absence from blogland. I’ve been pulling up an old fence and building a new one. I take narcotics during the day, Neurontin and Ambien at night, sleep ten hours, wake up hurting and exhausted, and go at it again except on days when I’m too tired and in too much pain to do anything but nap. Yesterday, I finished everything but the gate of one section of the three-section fence and will save the rest for next year. I’m sad that this work is proving so hard, but elated that I can do it at all.