Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nonbelieving Literati #1

I was supposed to have this posted on Saturday, September 15. I procured a new laptop on Labor Day weekend. And of course, me being me, I had to install Kubuntu Linux on it. Everything went fairly well. I got to the wireless to work and all the various bits of hardware. Then wireless stopped working. I spent a week trying to figure it out. In the end I had to take it back to the store. Yes, the wireless went out after one session. I took my refund and ordered a Toshiba Satellite P205-S6267. I spent almost a day getting a version of Kubuntu Linux set up on it. Then I found out that with the version of Kubuntu Linux due out in October, only one command is needed to setup wireless. Suffice it to say, I'm in Linux heaven: wireless works, sound works, video is lovely. Since I don't use a webcam, I'll wait on setting it up.

* * *

So, this month's reading assignment was Julian by Gore Vidal. It's a historical novel set in the time of the Roman Empire. I haven't had time to read the whole thing. I've only had time to thumb through the novel. I'm not big on fiction, historical or otherwise. I've always pretty much preferred philosophy and social science.

Thumbing through Julian, I was forcibly struck by Christianity's emphatic reliance on historical claims. It really is absolutely essential for the "faith" of the vast majority of Christians that there really lived and breathed a man who bore the name Jesus at a particular time in history.

If this belief in the historicity of Jesus were shown to be undeniably false and untruthful, what would Christianity lose? Or less awkwardly phrased what does belief in the historical elements of Christianity make possible? If, for example, the historicity of Jesus was shown to be part of a hoax perpetrated by the Romans to prop up the empire, what would Christianity lose?

I find this a really, really hard question. My inclination is to think that Jesus' historicity makes a number of things possible, or at least much, much easier. Rather than dwelling on the historicity or ahistoricity of Jesus' life and works, I suggest asking why insist on a historical savior and messiah?

Any answer that presumes an intrinsic value to truth begs the question. Why value truth? Why is truth better than error or falsehood? It's not at all clear that truth is always to be preferred to error and lies. Young children, for example, need praise for their efforts all out of proportion to the efficacy and competency of those efforts. Further, there is the expression "to tell a white lie." The point of these examples is to show that Truth does not possess absolute value and is always to be preferred to error, deception, and outright lies. Or if a more dramatic example is needed, consider the figure of Odysseus.

Of course, the Christian response to this is to interpret the necessity of deception for human life as prima facie evidence of Original Sin and of Adam's Fall from Grace. The hatred of deception can also interpreted as prima facie evidence of a systematic hatred of humanity, life, and of an unrelenting compulsion to self-condemnation.

It's a sign of how far removed I've become from my Pentacostal roots that I'm simply not interested in fairy-tales about Jesus or any other figure from the Bible. Those stories don't strike me as particularly relevant. The stories would be about as relevant as stories written by a Hindu several centuries ago about an incarnation of Vishnu.

* * *

I've been reading The Promise of Politics by Hannah Arendt. She talks a lot about the significance of the founding of Roman to the Roman Republic and to the Roman Empire. The founding was the source of authority for the Republic. The importance of Jesus giving the keys to Peter captures something of this. The historicity of Christianity's core beliefs is the foundation of authority of the Popes and of the Roman Catholic Church. The priests, the bishops, and other officials of the church all trace their way back -- according to the Official Story-- to the original disclosure of divinity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

If that disclosure were shown to be either a mistake or a fraud, then the Roman Catholic Church has no special mission other than to perpetuate itself. And Protestants? With Protestants claims of historicity have a repressive effect: they exclude argumentation. After Kierkegaard the tendency is to treat the Incarnation and historicity of Jesus as an empirical phenomenon: it can't be proved nor disproved. Faith proves itself. Or as I would put it: the neurotic insistence on the historicity of Jesus is another rationalization for not thinking and avoiding reality.


  1. This is a very thoughtful essay, Bob. Thanks for taking part in Nonbelieving Literati.

    You ask: If this belief in the historicity of Jesus were shown to be undeniably false and untruthful, what would Christianity lose?

    I think you've essentially answered this in the rest of your essay: Christianity would lose ... Christianity.

    The religion must have its historical claims, because it's rooted in the sacrifice of a person who really lived. Other religions don't need such scrupulous adherence to historicity because they aren't necessarily tied irrevocably to events that actually occurred.

    Of course, the mere fact of Jesus's historicity does not prove that he was divine. So to us atheists, the question of whether or not a Jew named Yeshua was crucified by the Romans is totally immaterial.

    On the other hand, if Jesus was not a historical character, the whole New Testament disappears in a puff of smoke.

  2. Hi!

    Found you via atheist blog roll. You should come give my blog a visit, I counter creationist organizations, such as Answers in Genesis.



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