Subverting Rationality (Part 2)

“The only thing(s) real is that which is meaningful”

The Limitations of Objective Rationalism

Objective rationalism is a way of knowing and reasoning using empirical methods to deal with reality as opposed to subjective means. Objective rationalism has its basis in striving for impartiality devoid of bias and prejudice. It identifies knowledge as coming from outside sense data as opposed to internal structures that we use to interpret the outside world. It is a useful tool when, for example, a detective is trying to solve a difficult homicide case or when research is conducted to cure a deadly disease. In these examples, biasness and personal (subjective) opinion can skew the results.

 My argument states that objective rationalism is (1) limited, (2) is not how we construct our world, and (3) collapses on itself. Because of the myopic nature of objective rationalism, my contention is that ways of knowing and reasoning reality can be accomplished through pursuing that which is meaningful. In other words: that which is most real is that which is most meaningful.

 Objective rationalism is a limited way of perceiving the world because it dismisses the meaning of experiences; it tells us only ‘what is’ and not ‘why it matters’. When we analyze something or someone from an objective viewpoint, we focus strictly on the sense data (touch, taste, feel, sight, smell) and that which is falsifiable. It’s this method that speaks to the ‘is-ness’ of the situation, and that’s about it. In many situations this is useful, and in fact needed, for instance, when a medical examiner is conducting an autopsy and brut facts is paramount.

Objectivity, however, is limited in that it cannot tell us why it matters. The medical examiner can determine how the person died, but not why their life mattered. This is excruciatingly important given human beings are meaning-making creatures who are driven and motivated by that which is purposeful and significant. Our lives are narratives of meaningful and significant events linked together to form our personal life story.

Imagine how difficult it would be to recount your personal autobiography through only objective lenses? In other words, in recounting your past, you stripped away any subjective assessments and only articulated that which was demonstrably real. Not only would this be an impossible task as you focus solely on the ‘is-ness’ of everything in your past, but it is also a sterile account that would put most listeners to sleep. This is simply not how we live life. When we recount our past or construct an idealized future, we do it with meaning as our guide.

Because objectivity is so limited, we can make the argument that that which is most real is most meaningful. First, each of us creates a narrative (a story) of our ‘self’ and that narrative is constructed against the backdrop of meaningful and significant events. Each of us sees our life as a play, as Shakespeare articulated, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” We can’t help but view ourselves as the lead actor in our play, and more importantly, our script and plot strive to illuminate meaning. If you are skeptical of this point, simply think about this question: how would you like your life to be in ten years? I guarantee the way you answer that question will focus on that which is meaningful to you.

Second, meaning is what moves us forward to an idealized future. I touched upon this in my first point, so I won’t belabor this thought. So, here is another question to ask yourself: Why didn’t you commit suicide this morning? Once again, I can guarantee that your answer to that question will center on reasons that focus on meaning, purpose, and significance.

Third, our brains are wired to interpret the meaningful as real. Simply put, our brains are wired to react to things that have meaning before they construct the perceptions that you think of as objects. The reason for this is that the meaning of things is more real, in some sense, and more important than the viewing of things as objects. When you approach a cliff, you don’t see a cliff, you see a falling off place. It isn’t that it is an object ‘cliff’ to which you attribute the meaning of the ‘falling off place’ to. The ‘falling off place’ comes first, and the abstraction of the object ‘cliff’, if it happens at all, comes much later. Much later conceptually as well, given that babies can detect cliffs without knowing the concept of ‘cliff’.

All this to say: that which is most real is most meaningful. We instinctively construct our world through meaning – having done so for millennia – which is why our brain has predispositioned us to react to meaningful experiences before we have the chance to begin the process of objectively rationalization.

 Objective rationalism is not how we construct our world

 Knowledge does not begin in the ‘I’, and it does not begin in the object; it begins in the interactions. There is a reciprocal and simultaneous construction of the subject on the one hand, and the object on the other. We are not simply surrounded by things made of matter (objectively speaking), the things around us literally matter (subjectively speaking).

Our world is constructed through our daily experiences that unfold our perceptions; a type of perpetual un-concealing. Through this unfolding and un-concealing, we have interactions – some positive, some negative – that results in dis-covering the world around us. For example, the object ‘dog’ can be revealed to one person as a ‘friendly loveable canine’ and to another as ‘a vicious beast’. It is un-concealed as either ‘loveable’ or ‘vicious’ based on one’s interactions with it. This is why if someone is attacked at an early age, often all dogs will be regarded as a threat – because of the previous (dangerous) interaction between the subject and the object. It is through these interactions with objects, that our world emerges.

It’s not like you will learn everything from the world through your senses. And it’s not as if you only project onto the world as interpretation. It’s something in between and it’s a dynamic, like bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is the processes that occurs when, for example, your computer boots up. Your computer is first ‘off’, and when turned ‘on’, a bunch of simple processes occur, and from those processes more complex processes emerge, and then out of those some more complex processes emerge. Well that’s what happens to us with regards to reality – you bootstrap yourself. Each experience in life changes us, even in microscopic ways, towards new realities. This is akin to the lesson of Heraclitus that says no person can step into the same water twice. There is a constant flow to life that we are a part of, in which, we incessantly are emerging in an ever-changing way.

Why in the world is this important? Because as you act in the world, you generate information, and out of that information you make the structures inside of you and you make the world. Your reality is neither objective in that it is driven solely by sense perception. And your world is not simply whatever interpretation you project. Rather, your world emerges to you as it unfolds and unconceals itself to you; putting you in the position to interact and cope with the (positive or negative) physiological reactions to experience.

Objective rationalism collapses into itself

Objective rationalism collapses into itself because it assumes a God’s eye view of reality, when really, it’s just a slightly different angle at best. Let’s dig deeper. Objective rationalism purports to be able to uncover an objective reality. Its apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this “view from nowhere” to use Thomas Nagel’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real or closer to the nature of things.

Simply put: what we come to know consists not of things, but of relationships, each apparently separate entity qualifying the others to which it is related. Objective rationalism collapses into itself because while it privileges detachment from objects, it utterly ignores our relationship with the object. It focuses on isolation while excluding connection. Let’s fact it, everything has a particular context and within that context, we imbue certain entities with meaning. It is our context and connection with the world that constructs our reality. A parasitic dependence on objective rationalism is what you have with robots, and simply collapses with humans because of our complex ability to abstract experiences and process phenomena in meaningful ways. Therefore, one person may reasonably conclude that, for example, capital punishment is just, while another can reasonably conclude it is unjust, and thus murder. Objective rationalism cannot adjudicate this dilemma because people have different experiences, affects and interactions of phenomena.

 

The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction

The resurrection fails any scientific methodological process such as: parsimony, doubt and criticality, replication and quality control, and falsifiability. So it can be accepted on faith, but not fact. Before I explain my first point, I want to clarify the difference between faith and fact. Stephen Jay Gould provides one of the most agreed upon definitions of when he states that a fact is “confirmed to such a degree that it would perverse to withhold provisional assent.” Fact is similar to ‘truth’ which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy and correctness.”  Truth is simply what is: what exists in reality and can be verified by rational and independent observers. It is true that DNA is a double helix, that the continents move, and that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It is not true, at least in the dictionary sense, that somebody had a revelation of God. The scientific claims can be corroborated by anyone with the right tools, while a revelation, though perhaps reflecting someone’s real perception, says nothing about reality, for unless that revelation has empirical content, it cannot be corroborated.

I find it interesting that when Christians define faith, they dismiss the Bible’s definition and throw in post-Enlightenment qualities such as logic and reason. The Bible says faith is “the substance of the things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Notice its saying it’s a hope (or a confidence) concerning things not seen. While pistuou (faith) was an accepted understanding, albeit a direct contradiction to reason, Christian apologists are unsatisfied with this [as a side note we have extensive evidence showing that church history drew sharp lines between faith and reason from Paul in I Corinthians 2:14, Tertullian and Martin Luther]. The Oxford Dictionary definition defines faith as a “Belief in and acceptance of the doctrines of a religion, typically involving belief in a god or gods in the authenticity of divine revelation. Also (Theol.): the capacity to spiritually apprehend divine truths, or realities beyond the limits of perception or a logical proof, viewed either as a faculty of the human soul, or as the result of divine illumination.”

Note that what promotes acceptance of religious doctrine are revelation, “divine illumination,” and spiritual apprehension, leading to acceptance of “realities beyond the limits of perception or of logical proof.” Theologians don’t like this definition of faith, but it surly is, as is any system that requires supporting a priori beliefs without good evidence. In religions, not science, that kind of faith is seen as a virtue.

Let’s go back to my initial claim that the resurrection fails any scientific methodological process. Science is not in the business of trying to find absolute truth. Scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional; there is no bell that rings when you’re doing science to let you know that you’ve finally reached the absolute and unchangeable truth and need go no further. Absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic, not empirically based science. As the philosopher Walter Kauffman explained, “What distinguishes knowledge is not certainty but evidence.” We can define science as a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies and behavior, the cosmos, and so on) actually works. I prefer Michael Shermer’s definition: a collection of methods that produce “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” Contra to what Christians propagate, science is not a faith or a belief system. Rather, science is a process and/or methodology. Part of the methodological process that is relevant when discussing the resurrection concerns parsimony, doubt and criticality, replication and quality control, and falsifiability. The resurrection fails on all of these methods.

The resurrection first fails the test of parsimony. Simply put, parsimony states that scientific theories ought to invoke no more factors than necessary to adequately explain any phenomenon. If we can completely explain smallpox by infection with a virus, why even consider factors like whether the patient ate too much sugar or that it is divine punishment for immorality? With the resurrection, we are in a compromising position of having to inject an ineffable [and unknowable and un-see-able] God with a plan to rid a humanity of its disease of sin brought about by the first two humans ever created in Adam and Eve and if you accept the resurrection your belief can get you a ticket to eternity in a place called heaven where you can eventually meet God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit who, by the way, are three different entities yet really one. All of the extraneous theological baggage is unnecessary, whether it’s Jesus, the ascension of Romulus or the revelation of Joseph Smith. Without belief in Jesus’s resurrection, we have much remarkable advancements in understanding immorality, hope, eudaemonia, democracy, and I could go on and on. Redemption need not be found in the slaughter of a human a human being 2,000 years ago when we have the ability to experience forgiveness, compassion, and empathy in the here and now.

The second test the resurrection fails is doubt and criticality. Actually, the resurrection doesn’t so much “fail” this test as it really just illusively side-steps it. Both doubt and criticality are crucial in examining theories because in the process of scrutinizing and analyzing, theories can show up as either bogus or have validity. A striking example of the importance of doubt was the finding in 2011 that neutrinos appeared to move faster than the speed of light, discovered by timing their journey over a path from Switzerland to Italy. That observation was remarkable, for it violated everything we know about physics, especially the “law” that nothing can exceed the speed of light. Predictably, the first thing that the physicists (and almost every other scientist) thought when hearing this report was simply, “What went wrong?” And, sure enough, immediate checks found that the neutrinos had behaved properly, and their anomalous speed was due simply to a loose cable and a faulty clock. Although if such an observation were correct it would surely garner a Nobel Prize, one would risk a lifetime of embarrassment to publish it without substantial replication and checking. While we can indeed doubt and apply critical thinking to the resurrection, Christians can easily deceive critical thinking by invoking spiritual language claiming that “his [God’s] ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9)” and “the natural man cannot understand the spirit of God (I Corinthians 2:14).” Such language, in all of its vagueness and ambiguity, has provided Christianity (and Islam and Mormonism) a lasting legacy throughout generations while eluding criticality because it’s claims reside in a spiritual dimension. While we can test to see if neutrinos move faster than the speed of light, we cannot test to see if Jesus’s physical body ascended to heaven.

The third test involves replication and quality control. Results become true when they’re repeated often enough to gain credibility. The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, for which Peter Higgs and Francois Englert received the Nobel Prize the next year, was deemed prize-worthy because it was confirmed by two completely independent teams of researchers, each using rigorous statistical analysis. What is interesting about this is that not only can the resurrection not be replicated, but it (and its interpretation) has been under suspicion for centuries as evidenced of the countless church factions and current data showing over 30,000 different types of Christianities. In addition, the idea of ‘collectivity’ is paramount when assessing theories. One of the best parts of science’s toolkit is its international character, or rather, its transcendence of nationality, for although there are scientists throughout the world, they all work by the same of rules. The participants of the Higgs boson, for instance, came from 110 countries, with 20 of those nations being official collaborators in the project. Christianity, even with its major doctrinal themes, takes on completely different complexions from country to country.

A final method that the resurrection absolutely fails is that of falsifiability. Falsifiability as an essential way of finding truth. What it means is that for a theory or fact to be seen as correct, there must be ways of showing it to be wrong, and those ways must have been tried and have failed. The theory of evolution is in principle falsifiable: there are dozens of ways to show it wrong, but none have done so. In contrast, string theory is an example of something scientific that is untestable. String theory is a branch of physics claiming that all fundamental particles can be represented as different oscillations on one-dimensional “strings, and that the universe may have twenty-six dimensions instead of four.” But, alas, nobody has thought of a way of testing it. In the end, a theory that can’t be shown to be wrong can never be shown to be right. Whether we are talking about the resurrection, the Easter Bunny or string theory, they all fail the test of falsifiability. Thus, we can have faith, but that’s it.

Belief or unbelief in Jesus’s resurrection is a matter of faith, not of historical knowledge. In order to believe in an actual resurrection, one would have to subscribe to theological presuppositions that cannot be proven. Let’s discuss presuppositions first. Everyone has presuppositions, and it is impossible to live life, think deep thoughts, and have religious experiences, or engage in historical inquiry without having presuppositions, the life of the mind cannot proceed with presuppositions. The question, though, is always this: What are the appropriate presuppositions for the task at hand? When historians conduct research on the resurrection of Jesus, the aim is to look at the degree of probability that a resurrection occurred. The presuppositions that most historians bring to the table is that it is possible for us to establish, with some degree of probability, what has happened in the past. We can decide whether it is probably the case, or not, that the Holocaust happened (yes it did), that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (yes he did), and that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed (yes he did). Historians maintain that some of these things in the past (almost) certainly happened, other things very probably happened, others somewhat probably happened, others possibly happened, others probably did not happen, others certainly did not happen, and so on.

Unlike the historian, however, the Christian is in a difficult position of harboring biased presuppositions that involve unfalsifiable theological presuppositions. The belief in a Christian miracle – any Christian miracle – that happened in the past is rooted in a particular set of theological beliefs (the same is true of Jewish miracles, Muslim miracles, Hindu miracles, etc.). Without such beliefs, miracles cannot establish as having happened. Since historians cannot assume these beliefs, they cannot demonstrate historically that such miracles happened. Take the revelations of Joseph Smith as an example. A historian cannot establish that the angel Moroni made revelations to Joseph Smith, as in the Mormon tradition. Such views presuppose that angels exist, that Moroni is one of them, and that Joseph Smith was particularly chosen to receive a revelation on high. The same is true for Christianity.

Some presuppositions are decidedly not at all appropriate for historians who want to establish what happened in the past. It is not appropriate, for example, for a historian to presuppose her conclusions and to try to locate only the evidence that supports those presupposed conclusions. The investigation needs to be conducted without prejudice as to its outcome, simply to see what really happened. Similarly, it is not appropriate for a historian to treat evidence as irrelevant when it does not happen to be convenient to his personal views. Moreover – and here is where the rubber meets the road – it is not appropriate for a historian to presuppose a perspective or worldview that is not generally held. What is not a plausible historical conclusion is that God raised Jesus into an immortal body and took him up to heaven where he sits on a throne at his right hand. That conclusion is rooted in all sorts of theological views that are not widely held or shared among historians, and so is a matter of faith, not historical knowledge.

There is a major confirmation bias with believers because they easily accept the resurrection, yet reject all other faiths who present stronger evidence than the Biblical writers. Why do Christian apologists almost never consider “evidence” for other miracles from the past that have comparable – even better – evidence to support them?  Dozens of Roman senators claimed that King Romulus was snatched up into heaven in their midst; and many thousands of committed Roman Catholics can attest that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to them, alive. It’s always easy to claim anti-supernatural bias when someone does not think that the miracles of one’s own tradition can be historically established; it’s much harder to admit that miracles of other traditions are just as readily demonstrated.

Another way to highlight my point is to phrase it like this: Christians accept all of the unprovable (and unfalsifiable) theological underpinnings of the resurrection, yet when other faiths advance their miraculous claims, the Christian suddenly morphs into a historical scientist employing all of the rigorous methods of empiricism. For instance, we have eleven signatures attesting to the miraculous revelation of Joseph Smith, yet Christians disregard any of this as they point to the dubious character of Joseph Smith, the weird historical claims that a white Jesus was traveling through Utah hundreds of years ago, and of course using rules of logic to dismantle the Mormon’s view of salvation. There are hundreds of examples of the miraculous within other religions that meet all (and even exceed) the criteria of the Christian miracles. When you lump theological presuppositions with confirmation bias it becomes very easy to accept a resurrection while discrediting anything else that conflicts with the Christian worldview.

In no way are the details and main gist of the resurrection objective due to its burgeoning up amongst an oral tradition that relied solely on memory. Let me put it this way, our memories (and senses) deceive us all the time. The level of deception and error increases to the highest magnitude when you have people who are not eyewitness and tell and retell stories that happened 50 years previously involving different languages with people in other countries. To ignore this is commit intellectual dishonesty to the fullest extent and succumb to absolute gullibility. In order to unpack this fully, allow me to go deeper into how memory cannot be fully trusted in the context of the resurrection.

How does memory work? British psychologist F.C. Bartlett, conducted one of the most well-known studies in memory. He showed that memories are not snapshots stored in some location in the brain to be retrieved later. The brain doesn’t work like that. Instead, when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are storied in different parts of the brain. Later, when we try to retrieve the memory, these bits and pieces are reassembled. The problem is that when we reassemble the pieces, there are some, often lots of them, that are missing. To complete the memory we unconsciously fill in the gaps, for example, with analogous recollections from similar experiences.

Suppose you are trying to remember what the doctor’s office looked like on your last visit. You saw, heard, smelled, and generally experienced things there. When you try to remember the experience, you piece it together as well as you can; but your brain fills in the bits you don’t actually remember by recalling what you typically would find (and have found) in doctors’ offices, such as reception desks; chairs; tables; a corner for children to play; magazine; a TV overhead showing health videos. Now it may be that the last time you were in the office the TV was turned off, but you remember it being on. That’s because your memory is filling in the gaps with what you would be accustomed to seeing. The problem is that there is precisely no way to know when your mind is filling in the gaps and when it has retrieved the information from this or that part of the brain.

The net result of Barlett’s experiments is that when we remember something, we are not simply pulling up an entire recollection of the past from part of our brain. We are actually constructing the memory from bits and pieces here and there, sometimes with more and sometimes with less filler. In the process of this construction project, which we are undertaking virtually all the time, errors can happen. There can be massive omissions, and inventions of memory.

In discussing the importance of the transmission tradition of early Christianity – during the period when all stories were being passed along not in written Gospels, but by word of mouth – is another set of experiments that Bartlett did involving something he called “serial reproduction.” In this experiment, rather than a person observing something and then repeatedly trying to reproduce it, one person makes the observation and relates it to another, who relates it to another, who relates it again to another, and so on. The object that is observed can again be a short story, or a descriptive prose passage, or even a picture. As Barlett conducted the experiment, Subject A would, for example, read a very short passage twice. After an interval of doing something else for fifteen minutes to thirty minutes the person would be asked to recall the passage writing. Subject B would be shown the account as A wrote it, read it twice, do something for fifteen or thirty minutes, then write down what he remembered of it. And so it would go through, say, ten subjects.

In this case the alterations made during the serial recollection of the material tend to be very serious and get worse with each recollection, so much so that if you look at the original story (or description, etc.) itself, and the reproduction of it by the tenth subject, you would be hard pressed indeed to say that what she was reproducing was the story you had read. The differences tend to move in the same direction. Material gets omitted, from one reproduction to another; the accounts tend to become increasingly coherent, as links between thoughts are provided that were not in the original; and details get changed all over the map.

Barlett summarizes: “It is now perfectly clear that serial reproduction normally brings about startling and radical reproductions alterations in the material dealt with. Epithets are changed into their opposites; incidents and events are transposed; names and numbers rarely survive intact for more than a few reproductions; opinions and conclusions are reversed – nearly every possible variation seems as if it can take place, even in a relatively short series (Frederic C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, 175).

More than just serial reproduction, the early Christians were involved with what is called collective memory. Collective Memory is a term used by sociologist to refer to how various social groups construct, understand, and “remember” the past. One could say that what we know or think we know about Abraham Lincoln is simply a kind of semantic memory that lots of us have. This is true. But sociologists argue that the memories of Lincoln are not simply individual collections of the past. These memories are socially constructed. That is to say, our various social groups have shaped the memory. The societies we live in (all of us live in wide range of societies, or social groups) determine how we remember the past. These memories are thus not only about what happened, but also about the contexts and the lives of those who cherish and preserve them. That is why, for example, the Reformation is remembered so differently by fundamentalist Christians and hard-core Roman Catholics; of why the legacy of Ronald Reagan or of Malcom X is remembered so differently among different social groups in our country or why the Cold War is remembered differently by people in the state of Georgia and people in the country of Georgia. This invention of memories of Jesus is not simply a modern phenomenon. It has always been going on. From the very earliest of times. As far back as we have recorded memories of Jesus, we have widely disparate accounts of his words and deeds. And the events of his life. And the events of the lives of those who knew him.

I want to end this section with a knock-out punch to the Christian’s unreasonable reliance in the memories of early Christians. To do this, I will use a thorough empirical study based on a strict methodological process. The day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch gave 106 students in a psychology class at Emory University a questionnaire asking about their personal circumstances when they heard the news. A year and half later, in the fall of 1988, they tracked down forty-four of these students and gave them the same questionnaire. A half year later in spring of 1989, they interviewed forty of these forty-four about the event. The finding was startling but very telling. To begin with, 75 percent of those who took the second questionnaire were certain they had never taken the first one. That was obviously wrong. In terms of what was being asked, there were questions about where they were when they heard the news, what time of day it was, what they were doing at the time, whom the learned it from, and son on – seven questions altogether. Twenty-five percent of the participants got every single answer wrong on the second questionnaire, even though their memories were vivid and they were highly confident in their answers. Another 50 percent got only two of the seven questions correct. Only three of the forty-four got all the answers right the second time, and even in those cases there were mistakes in some of the details. When the participants’ confidence in their answers was ranked in relation to their accuracy there was “no relations between confidence and accuracy at all” in forty-two of the forty-four instances (Neisser and Harsch, “Phantom Flashbulbs,” p. 19).

You might think that after the second questionnaire, when the students were shown the original answers, they filled out just a day after the explosion, they would realize they had since then misremembered and they would revive their original memories. This decidedly did not happen. Instead, when confronted with the evidence of what really took place, they consistently denied it and said that their present memories were the correct ones. In the words of the researches, “No one who had given an incorrect account in the interview even pretended that they now recalled what was stated on the original records. As far as we can tell, the original memories are just gone.”

Despite the vast amount of empirical data on memories, the Christian will do anything possible to avoid the checkmate. And it usually follows like this: “Yes, it’s impossible to remember everything, but the main theological points are presented properly in Scripture.” As I have already stated, the numerous Christian sects in the early church and vast disputes as to the Trinity, Christology and soteriology provide enough evidence that little was agreed upon as to the main tenants. A cursory look at how the books of the Bible were added to the canon and how the Christology of the church was constructed will add enough doubt to anyone thinking like a historian. But all of this begs the question: So how do we decipher the details from the gist?

Jesus’ sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7 was recorded about fifty years after he would have delivered the sermon. But can we assume he delivered it? If he did so, did he speak the specific words now found in the sermon (all three chapters of them) while sitting on the mountain addressing the crowds? On that occasion did he really say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven,” and, “Beware of false prophets, who come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves,” and “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock”? Or did he say things sort of like that on the occasion? Or did he say something sort of like that on some other occasion – and occasion at all? Which is the gist and which is the detail? Or what about episodes from Jesus’s life, recorded, say, forty years later? Was Jesus crucified between two robbers who mocked him before he died six hours later? Are those details correct? Or is the gist correct? But what is the gist? Is it that Jesus was crucified with the two robbers? Is it that Jesus was crucified? Is it that Jesus died? The evidence throughout Christian scholarship shows that each generation harmonizes Scripture to fit their zeitgeist. Thus each generation decides what’s the gist, the main point or just a   detail.  The authors of the Bible have not decided this, rather, we decide and construct our theology. This is very apropos for faith, but not science.

Now that I have laid the foundation explaining the historical, psychological and anthropological reasons for the dubious nature of the resurrection, I will now shift to the actual Bible. The first claim that is important from the outset is that we have no eyewitness accounts of the resurrection. Instead, we have the Gospels written by people who received stories and were not even from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus. Keep in mind that the Gospels were written anonymously – the authors never identified themselves – and they circulated for decades before anyone claimed they were written by these people. The first attribution of these books to these authors is a century after they were produced. There is, however, one passage that is the “go-to” passage for many Christians that deserves attention. The passage is found in I Corinthians 15 and states the following:

By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)

Paul wrote this around the 50s Common Era, around ten or fifteen years before our earliest surviving Gospel, Mark. It is hard to know exactly when I Corinthians was written but it was around some twenty years after Jesus’ death. Paul indicates that he did not devise this statement himself but that he “received” it from others. This ought to be an immediate ‘red flag’ for us. Paul uses this kind of language elsewhere in I Corinthians (see 11:22-25), and it is widely believed far and wide among New Testament scholars that Paul is indicating that this is a tradition already widespread on the Christian church, handed over to him by Christian preachers. In other words, this is what scholars call a pre-Pauline tradition – one that was in circulation before Paul wrote it and even before he gave it to the Corinthians when he first persuaded them to become followers of Jesus. So this is a very ancient tradition about Jesus. Scholars have devised a number of ways to detect these pre-literary traditions. For one thing, they tend to be tightly constructed, with terse statements that contain words not otherwise attested by the author in question – in this case Paul – and to use grammatical formulations that are otherwise foreign to the author. This is what we find here in this passage. For example, the phrase “in accordance with the scriptures” is found nowhere else in Paul’s writings; nor is the verb “he appeared”; nor is the reference to “the Twelve.”

What we have here in I Corinthians 15 is a theological interpretation of what Paul “received” rather than a historical claim. After all, in vv. 5-8 he gives an exhausted list of all the people that were there as witnesses, but strikingly mentions no women. But in the gospels, it is women who enter the tomb. This passage in 1 Corinthians is our earliest account and does not mention an empty tomb, while our earliest Gospel, Mark, narrates the discovery of the empty tomb without discussing any appearances (Mark 16:1-8). What seems like merely ‘mistakes with the details’ to the Christian, actually amounts to a massive convoluted story. No wonder why Constantine in 325 ACE had to convene a council in Nicaea due to all the theological factions, disputes, and controversies.

There are too many significant discrepancies between the Gospel accounts that you cannot tell the difference between a detail and a main gist. While I absolutely believe that there is historically reliable information in the Gospels, we cannot overlook the numerous pieces of historically unreliable information. Let me give you a taste out of thousands of examples. The Gospel of Matthew says that the father of Joseph, Jesus’ father, was Jacob; his grandfather was Matthan, his great grandfather was Eleazar. The Gospel of Luke says Joseph’s father was Heli. His grandfather Matthat; and his great grandfather was Levi. Well, which was it? The genealogies differ.

As Bart Ehrman points out, one of the key motives of the Gospel of Mark is that the disciples don’t recognize him as the Messiah until chapter 8. But in John the call him Messiah right away; the first time they meet him chapter 1. Which is it? Was Jairus’ daughter sick but still alive when Jairus father came to Jesus and ask to heal her as he does in Mark 5:35-43; or did she die before Jairus came, so that he could ask Jesus to raise her from the dead as he does in Matthew 9? Hard to see how it could be both ways. The Gospel of John says explicitly that Jesus died on the day of preparation for Passover, the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten. The Gospel of Mark says explicitly that Jesus dies the morning after the morning the Passover meal was eaten. Don’t take my word for it, read it in John 19 and Mark 15 for yourself. Or look at the resurrection accounts sometime in the four Gospels and ask yourself how many went to the empty tomb? What were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they arrived or after? What did they see there? One man? Two men? Or two angels? What were they told to do? To tell the disciples to go to Galilee or not? Did they tell the disciples or not? Did the disciples go to Galilee or not? Well it depends what Gospel you read. You get a different story every time. We should not say that these are a bunch of details that don’t affect the larger picture. The larger picture is made up of nothing but details. And the big picture differs greatly between the gospels.

The apologist will retort that the discrepancies I have listed are mere details and do nothing to the gist of the story that provide the ‘non-negotiables’ of Christian theology.  I don’t want to stray too far away from the resurrection, but I will mention simply one major Christian tenet that is a main doctrinal tenet, yet the Bible is absolutely not clear: the Trinity. That God is three-in-one (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) shows up in I John 5:7-8, but that is a much later addition to the text. The doctrine of the Trinity was a confusing construct in the early church that had no consensus and was not formulated until the Council of Constantinople (360 CE). Christians make the mistake of thinking that the early church interpreted the major doctrines just as we do now in the 21st century. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when you look in to the plethora of sects in the first couple of centuries which include the Ebionites, Marcionites, and a plethora of Gnostic groups (to name just a few). The Christology surrounding the soteriology and theology of the resurrection would be later hashed out in several councils centuries after Jesus’s death by a voting process that was highly political and promoted many political agendas. I bring this point up to illustrate how Christology, just like the resurrection, are man-made constructions and developments that morphed (and are still morphing!) and evolved to fit particular worldviews with the goal of bringing about coherency to life. Quite honestly, Christian history was just a few votes away from having a completely different Christology. But let’s move to other New Testament conundrums.

Did Jesus say, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”? Nope. This was not in the original New Testament, and was inserted later by a scribe. Did Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you go and sin no more”? Nope. Does it matter whether Jesus said it or not – turns out it was in a textual variant and it was not in the original New Testament. Did Jesus say “go out into the world and preach the gospel to all of creation, he who believes in me will be saved but he who does not believe will be condemned?” – Nope, it’s only found in a later textual variant.

Did Jesus say, “These are the signs that will accompany those who believe, in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them, they will lay their hands on the sick and they will recover.” Nope. Does it matter if Jesus really said it? Did Jesus give the entire Lord’s Prayer, or just half of it – as in Luke? Does it matter? It depends on which manuscript you read. Does it matter whether or not the doctrine of the Trinity is taught in the New Testament? The only verse that comes remotely to teaching it is found in I John 5:7-8, yet, it’s a later addition. Does it matter if the Gospel of John never calls Jesus the unique God or not. It’s based a textual variant. Does it matter whether or not the Gospel of Luke teaches an atonement or not? The view that Jesus dies for the sake of others; well it depends on a textual variant. Does it matter that Jesus was in such agony before his death that he began to sweat blood? It’s found only a textual variant found in the Gospel of Luke. Does it matter that entire words, lines, paragraphs, and pages were left out by some scribes? Does it matter that there are numerous places in the New Testament where scholars cannot decide what the original text says. Does it matter that we will never know what the original author said? Many evangelicals claim that it does not matter. But I don’t believe them because many of these scholars devote many years to studying the manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter? Major evangelical seminaries raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for manuscript projects to study these manuscripts; why would they do that it if doesn’t matter? It does matter. How can the Gospels be a trustworthy and reliable guide if we have no idea what the original author even said? While the Gospels shed light on the Historical Jesus, they do not provide information that can be trusted enough to make the claim: the resurrection of Jesus is true, he ascended to Heaven to sits at the right side of God, and his death gives the believer redemption.

Final Thoughts

While the resurrection fails on any grounds of proof, reason, or logic, it never-the-less is a meaningful myth that can breathe truth into the life of a hopeless person. For all the goodness of humanistic ideals brought about by the Enlightenment, something great was lost in it: mystery and faith. Another way to say it is that mystery was traded for proof, and faith was traded for objectivity. Even more so, to say the word ‘myth’ will prompt people to think of ‘falsity’ and ‘not real’. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not about what can be logically proven, but rather, what does it mean. So when it comes to the resurrection, it can possess hope and redemption by seeing it through the lens of metaphor. There are deep life lessons in walking through your own Samaria for a greater purpose in life (like Jesus did) and taking up your cross because suffering produces perseverance and endurance. So contra to Richard Dawkins, I do not see Christianity as a delusion, but rather as a philosophy of mystery and hope that speaks to the heart of the human condition. And this can be true for Buddhism, Mormonism and other religions who utilize religion to increase their capacity to show love, compassion and empathy for themselves and others.

 

 

 

Faith vs. Knowledge

Written at Big Bear Café in Los Gatos with a café Americano at my side and no music because my bluetooth earbuds have no battery left.

faSeveral months ago was with friends of mine discussing faith and belief. At one point in the conversation I thought I was stating the obvious by drawing a distinction between faith and knowledge. I made the benign claim that faith is not knowing, if it was a type of knowing, then it wouldn’t be faith. Several Christians in the group quickly became defensive and the thought of their faith being distinct of knowledge. After the discussion, I reflected on how common and often Christians lay claim to linking faith and knowledge as synonymous.

Is there a difference between faith and knowledge? I believe there is a huge difference between the two. People of the Christian worldview, especially, are notorious for linking faith and knowledge. Perhaps the Christians insistence in linking faith and knowledge is because there is a visceral fear that faith without knowledge [or knowing] minimizes and waters down Christianity. This insidious fear, in this current age of reason, is what prompts the Christian to [try] and have their cake while eating it to.

So what is the difference? knKnowledge is the process building beliefs out of concepts and propositions that brings us to a place of knowing – conceptually – with our mind. Faith is confidence in something or something, a non-knowing process of trust; it is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing himself or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose. Faith is rooted in deeply meaningful abstract values and knowledge is rooted in concrete propositions.

Often times I am caught in the dilemma of sitting in Starbucks with all of my stuff laid out while having the strong need to go to the bathroom. So I try and find the most unassuming person close to me and ask, “Excuse me, do you mind watching my stuff while I go to the bathroom?” I have done this around, say, 75 times, and never have my belongings been stolen. When I walk away to the bathroom, I don’t know my laptop and Nook will be alright. I do, however, have faith (or confidence) that the person watching my stuff has my best interest in mind. The same holds true when flying. When I board a plane for Dallas, I have faith that it will arrive at DFW Airport, but I do not know that it will land safely.

If that’s faith, then what do I know? Well, I know that kicking puppies is wrong, that the earth is round, and that I have a brain. Claiming I have faith that I have a brain seems a bit strange. And if I want to maintain any semblance of intellectual honesty about the earth’s shape, I might restate my claim by saying: I know the earth is round based on the evidence presented to me, but I am open to changing my belief if future evidence proves otherwise. jyvgoybThe distinction between faith and knowledge is important because when knowing morphs into knowing absolutely, then we better hope that it doesn’t metastasize into an ideology. I do not worry that my supreme confidence that rape is wrong or that I have a brain will be polarizing will lead to sectarian violence. But when ideology is fueled with absolute knowing, then the whole world better watch out. Ideology is a system of ideas that informs the way we look at the world, values, and meaning. It is at this juncture that the distinction between faith and knowledge reaches the breaking point. It is one thing to say “I know I have a brain” and another to say that “I know God will cast to Hell those that do not worship Him” or “I know that everything in the Bible/Koran is true.” Ideology is just that: ideas. Ideas are best guided by faith rather than knowledge. Church officials refuse homosexuals the right to preach behind the pulpit because of something more than faith. Christians believe that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life because of something larger than a mustard seed of faith. It is a knowing. If it was an open-minded faith that engulfs the heart of Christianity then its history would not be plagued with wars, oppression and killings.

Even in the last 100 years, Christianity has been either lagging or hostile in the charge of giving compassion and rights to women, minorities, and homosexuals. The reason is because their boots are cemented in the knowledge of their inerrant sacred text which was written by their infallible God stating His objectives unequivocally. Thus, the history of Christianity has been a history of back-peddling and apologizing for past grievances because … they thought they knew but realized they didn’t. Confidence and faith, however, leave room for dialogue and open-minded reflection that things may not be what they appear.

I would love for religious people to have more intellectual integrity and leave room for more compassion and peace. I have always found it odd that Christians speak so objectively and concretely about a deity that is effable and incomprehensible. It takes a heavy dose of humility and honest reason to say: “I don’t know if what I believe about God is absolutely true.” Making this claim does not mean that the values and virtues of Jesus ought to be discarded as rubbish. It simply means that you choosing to elevate your mind above a totalitarian regime of dogma and doctrine that imposes its demands upon your reason. For this is where knowledge, functioning as absolute knowledge, wields is grotesque head and moves people in masses to become subservient slaves to bronzed aged ethics from stories told in peasant villages in Ancient Palestine. I say, “No thank you.”

ggI will place my faith in my ability to promote goodness and stand up to injustices when I can. My faith is my ability to see the virtues and value in humanity and all that is around me. My faith is in my upbringing and my past experiences that help me understand that living an ethical life takes continuous self-reflection and examination. And while I will always be a work in progress with many struggles, I have faith that if I keep striving to live a meaningful and compassionate life, peace will continue to flourish within me. This is where my loyalty dwells and where my faith remains.

~Wes Fornes 🙂