[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]
Bertrand Russel a famous British philosopher, when asked if he was willing to die for his beliefs is quoted as replying: “Certainly not, after all, I may be wrong.” He also said: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” I also very much like the following quote from the American journalist Neal Gabler: “True religion, I believe, begins in doubt and continues in spiritual exploration. Debased religion begins in fear and terminates in certainty.” So now that you have little idea of my worldview, you are free to continue reading or scroll down.
I recently attended a public lecture series exploring the Apostle Paul and the law, presented at my local library and sponsored by a Messianic Jewish group. I was interested in this topic because I have recently been reading and reflecting on the early Christian communities that sprung up after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. From what I have been able to glean from early writings and scholarly study, in the first years after the death of Jesus, the first version of the Gospel of Mark was published. The current version in today’s Bible was clearly altered in significant ways in the decades after its first publication. For example, the first version had no virgin birth, no resurrection, and no notion of the divinity of Jesus or the idea that he died for our sins. Rather, the account was one of a faith healer who challenged the strict interpretation of Mosaic law, and set about to relieve devout Jews of those restrictions. As a result he came into conflict with the Jewish leaders of his time, was crucified with two thieves, both of whom derided him. At his death the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. This was Mark’s way of saying that the old Mosaic law had been struck down. The followers of Jesus no longer had to burden themselves with strict detailed practices of the law, which in fact were virtually impossible for anyone to follow completely, which of course gave the Pharisees and Sadducees the power to control the population as they could enforce those provisions that they wished to enforce with those people they wished to control.
This reminds me of some of the housing code practices in Chicago when I lived there in the 1970’s under the reign of “His Honor The Mayor” Daley. The housing stock was old, and those housing codes were so strict that Daley or his minions could punish anyone they wished to punish simply by showing up and finding some code violations. Mayor Daley was once asked if he had considered running for president and he answered he had not because he had much more power as mayor of Chicago than he would ever have as president of the United States.
But I digress. Along with Mark’s Gospel, Paul’s letters are some of the earliest writings of the time. The first version of the Gospel of Luke wasn’t written until 66 C.E., and Mathew as a counter to Luke in 68. The Acts of the Apostles were probably written in 72 to counter Mathew’s account. The Gospel of John was written much later probably in the second century. The doctrine of the Trinity has no mention in the Bible at all, and didn’t develop until centuries later.
So as a result Paul’s letters are important. It seems clear that there was significant conflict between Paul and Peter. Peter represented the early Jewish communities who were followers of Jesus. They appreciated the importance of repentance. They practiced the baptism of John the Baptist, not the Baptism of the Spirit that included speaking of tongues as well as healing and prophesy powers. As mentioned above, they did not think of Jesus as divine or as having resurrected, and they had no notion that he died for their sins. Their sins were their sins and they needed to repent from them as John the Baptist said and Jesus repeated. They were forced to accept that Jesus was not in fact the Messiah who would liberate them from the occupation by the Romans and the oppression that resulted from that occupation. They however worked hard to build community, and they longed for the return of Jesus, hopefully in their lifetimes. Mostly, I expect, they felt liberated by not having to follow all the strict rules propagated by their religion leaders. They were good Jews, and they certainly did not want to bring Gentiles into their closely knit communities.
Along comes Paul, a Pharisee, a tent maker by profession, and a Roman citizen. It is unclear how anyone at that time could be a good Jew and be involved in the making of tents since most tents at that time were made of pigskins. Jewish law prohibited the touching of the carcass of any animal except for those that were slaughtered according to Jewish rituals, and to touch the carcass of a pig would never be permitted under any circumstances. Such an act would cause the the guilty party to be considered ritually unclean and would ban him from traditional Jewish worship. Paul never met Jesus of Nazareth, but claimed to have had a vision resulting in blindness whereby Jesus spoke to him. However, there are two separate accounts of this in the Acts of the Apostles that contradict each other. One states that his companions heard the voice but could see no one, and the other states they saw a light but could hear nothing.
What is certainly clear, however, is that it was Paul who propelled the early Jewish Jesus cult into a world religion by allowing Gentiles to join the group without having to follow Jewish law and in fact without even having to be circumcised. There is clear argument between Peter and Paul about this very issue, Paul arguing that circumcision was too heavy a burden to place on Gentiles and Peter arguing the opposite. Obviously Paul’s argument won out eventually. Had Peter’s position taken hold, it is unlikely that Christianity would have developed into a world religion. In addition Paul presented many of the views that are now accepted as doctrine in Christianity including the divinity of Jesus, that he died for our sins and resurrected from the dead, that believing in him will save us, and the power obtained through the baptism of the the Spirit.
So back to the lecture series. I attended hoping to have the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with others who had studied and reflected on these ideas. Boy was I wrong. Instead I found myself in a room of people who claimed to be speaking from the authority of God, who believed that the Bible was a book directly inspired by God, and who had the amazing ability to either ignore or possibly not even see the many contradictions which would be apparent, it would seem to me, to any thinking person. OK, I know there are people like that. I just didn’t know that that was the group I would be sitting with. What was even more bizarre though was that the presenter who wrote a book about this, argued that in fact Paul remained true to Mosaic law and that Christians today should also adhere to those laws. When asked about this he backed off a little saying that there were some laws we could no longer follow but that we should follow as many as we possibly could.
I tried to sit still and listen. However toward the end of his lecture, the presenter went off on a tirade about how terrible the idea of evolution is and all the Satanic influences in our modern culture. It appeared that the group was in concert with him. He then made the argument that since humans have many biological systems and if one system were to be eliminated then the person couldn’t survive and the this was an argument against evolution. In my view it is an argument in favor of evolution, but that is neither here nor there. He then said, (as a joke perhaps?) that if you took the brain away from a human he would turn into a Democrat. I was activated at that a point, full amygdala fight-or-flight reflex and I decided to call him on it. I told him I was a Democrat and was offended. To his credit he did apologize, but he couldn’t help himself, I guess, in arguing that either you believed in killing babies or you didn’t, that he had 13 children and didn’t believe in killing babies.
Let’s put aside the fact that abortion is not mentioned even once in the entire Bible, and the fact that it is isn’t at all clear what the early Christian position on abortion was. Some clearly believed that the soul did not enter the fetus until some time after conception perhaps at the quickening so that abortion prior to then would not be the killing of a human being. Nevertheless, the presenter claimed and others in the group agreed, that his authority to so proclaim these ideas came from God himself, and that if I wanted to argue with the Creator I could do so, but I would never win such an argument. One of the participants agreed with this position and noted that he no longer will even try to argue with someone who disagrees; rather, he goes back to “From what authority do you speak?” emphasizing that he speaks of course from the authority of God.
In talking after the lecture to the presenter, I argued that saying he speaks from the authority of God is problematic due to others claim the same thing but speak differently. I wondered if he claimed that God spoke directly to him, and he would not answer this question.
I am glad that I attended this lecture for several reasons:
1) It gave me a brief experience of being in a large group and being a minority, and feeling unwelcome. This gives me a small taste of what it is like to be in that position. My wife pointed out that even so, I was sitting there with male privilege and white privilege, so my experience is of course only a fraction of the experience that a person of color of of a woman might have. Also the presenter’s anti LGBT views that spewed out of his mouth would have been much more impactful if I had not been straight and cis-gendered.
2) Many have proposed that the polarization in this county is at an all time high and that we ought to work toward narrowing that polarization. In reflecting on my experience, I am even less hopeful that this might be possible. Of course we were all humans in that room. I have little doubt that if I had fallen to the floor with a heart attack that other humans there would have helped me, or I them if such a need arose. So we certainly are much more alike than we are different. However, to take a stance of speaking from divine authority leaves little room for discussion.
3) I do agree with one thing that the presenter said. He indicated that if one did not believe the first chapter of Genesis, then the rest of the Bible could also be dismissed. Ironically, he seems to not comprehend that there are two distinct creation stories in Genesis. The first ends after the first verse of Chapter Two and the second totally different story starts at Chapter 2:2. I wanted to ask him if how he came to believe in the first version but not the second, but I knew it would be futile. So thank you anyway, since the two creation stories cannot both be correct, it stands to reason that either one is correct and the other incorrect, or both are incorrect. Or more to the point, both stories are stories, not the inspired word of God. In either case, the whole Bible goes out the window.
4) I was intrigued that this group was kind of a maverick group in that they are arguing that the two billion Christians on the planet ought to adopt old Mosaic law in order to be saved. That is quite a goal, and the chances of that happening are so insurmountable that to continue to promote this must require an incredible amount of fortitude. So I guess I must give them credit for such an outrageous stance. Perhaps the hopelessness of such a task is part of the reason that they must hold on so tightly to their positions in spite of the inconsistencies.
5) This experience has helped me to understand that once a person or a group removes reason and science as important constructs to utilize in the discussion, that there is little left to talk about.
6) The far right in this country seems to be quick to call anyone who supports liberal views to be Trump haters. The presenter was not in that room to argue against abortion or gay rights. He was specifically there to present his ideas about the works of the apostle Paul. And yet, without any provocation, his anti-LGBTQ, anti abortion rights, anti-liberal views spewed out of him with an intensity that was a bit frightening. At one point he suggested that perhaps he shouldn’t be saying these things in a public forum and several people in the audience goaded him on to continue. So does this mean that these intense hateful views are just under the surface for this group generally? So even though this group is in the minority in the Christian and Jewish communities, that what unites them even more is this hatred? If so then my idea that they are to be reluctantly admired for their maverick stance may be understated. They can disagree with mainstream Christian communities, but hold on to some sort of a shared alt-right position? And how does that impact the Jewish community who suffers discrimination and often has liberal views in opposition to the alt-right, and is in fact discriminated by the alt-right?
As usual, I am left with more questions than answers. I do not intend to continue to attend this weekly lecture series. Why should I go where I am clearly unwanted and condemned as Satanic? Once was enough. I invite comments or discussion.
If you would like to study these issues more I would recommend Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years - Study in Early Christianity by E. Bruce Brooks and Alpha v1: Studies in Early Christianity edited by E. Bruce Brooks, Alvin P. Cohen, and Glenn S. Holland -- both published by Warring States Project at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.