Friday, August 07, 2009

Jesus for the Non-Religious: You Might Say This is About "Original Intent"

Four years of Roman Catholic seminary revealed to me that, to be blunt, modern Christianity is a Rube Goldberg contraption, full on contrary and peculiar ideas (e.g. Transubstantiation, the Trinity), founded in obsolete conceptual schemes (e.g. form vs. substance), larded with factually incorrect stories (e.g. the role of Bethlehem in a Roman census), held together by naked assertion of authority and above all, not well suited for addressing practical problems.
You can solve every moral question by first deciding what you want to do and then finding a supporting verse in the Bible; if you want to be subserviant to authority, there's a verse for that; if you want to defy authority, there's one for that too. (Governor Sanford recently cited story of David and Bathseeba.) What sort of guide is that?

More fundamentally silly is theism: the claim that there is a supernatural creature who fiddles around with natural processes and responds to prayers and sacrifices. If the latter were true, then God would be just another force of nature subject to scientific analysis; if it were false, then most religious ritual would be reduced to trying to earn a happy afterlife by cosmic suck-uppery; not inconceivable, but lacking in dignity.

Founding morality on the idea of pleasing God is completely irrational. If you do good out of hope of heaven and avoid evil out of fear of hell, you're not really good; you're merely calculating; it is far better to do good and avoid evil for its own sake, but this leaves God with nothing to do.

At any rate, I've come to figure that if God wasn't going to complain, I wasn't going to bother him; attracting divine attention is rarely a good idea.
But: Christianity is my heritage. I was not happy to give it up simply because its factual claims aren't true and its moral guidance is either trite or useless.

Lucky for me, a fellow former seminarian recommended Bishop John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious to me and I am glad to report that it has turned me into a Christian again. I am not a Catholic or a Protestant; I am an "Original Intent" Christian; I hold with the original intent of Jesus, as near as we can figure out, which is very different from the supernatual circus of the organized churches.

Seven decades of study, priesting and writing gives Spong the ease of a master craftsman, putting Christianity on the workbench and showing where two thousand layers of paint has left it a lumpy mess. He helps us sand off the accretions of centuries, looking for the "original intent" (if you will) of Jesus. It is a messy and disturbing journey but well lead; if one has the courage to go all the way, it is a relief to find that the message of Jesus is non-theistic, non-supernatural and above all, not founded on the perverse notion that we are all damned by an error of a mythical First Man.

It can be disturbing to realize the extent to which the Gospels are fiction. While the existence of an actual, historial Jesus of Nazereth is extremely likely, most of our favorite stories are more like litergical plays than history. This is less surprising if you recall tht the notion of history as an impartial record of facts is fairly recent. The purpose of history was, at the time, for the edification and improvement of students, so rewriting stories to that end our be program and natural. At any rate, many of the factual claims simply cannot be squared with what we know of the time, e.g. the census story, the Star of Bethelehem, the dead walking on Good Friday, the curtain of the Temple being torn top to bottom : none of these are true because they can not be true, given what we know of the time. This does not diminish their value as stories but it alerts us to the likelihood that the whole thing is a story.

It's worth noting that the fictions are not very helpful when it comes to making moral choices. If it were proven that Jesus were not born in Bethelhem, would you really start stealing candy from babies?
(It's worth noting that many of the miracle stories in the Bible are simply magic tricks known at the time: Sticks-to-snacks, multiplying objects, water-to-wine. See The Ancient Engineers by L. Sprague de Camp.)
To the fundamentalist challenge: "Jesus is either lunatic, liar or lord!" we can now reply, "No, he is a Legend."

So what is Jesus' key idea? What was he really going on about that so affected his followers? Spong's analysis is the universality of humanity. Until Jesus, religion and spirituality was dominated by tribal gods that set people apart for special favor (most especially including the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Jesus offered instead a Father of us all; all people are Chosen, none are inferior. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor freeman, male nor female: all are one.

This is a really good idea! but I can see why they may have killed him for it. If you base your notions of self-worth or authority on divine favor, you may not want some kid saying "nu-uh!" Original Intent Christianity also requires no reliance on a supernatural, external and meddling Being, so it's fair to say it's an atheist Christianity. For that, I thank the good Bishop and will recommend this book to anyone interested in religion.


Rick Lannoye said...

I would highly recommend Bishop Spong's books. The first of his I read, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, was liberating, informative and delightful.

Spong's point--about how foolish it would be to populate Heaven with people who are only there for the fear of how God might hurt them--is so poignant. The threat of Hell makes God into a Cosmic Stalker, one who feels he must force others to love him, and if they don't, punish them as much as he can.

I’ve written an entire book on this topic–Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell (for any interested, you can download a free Ecopy from my website:

rewinn said...

Thanks Rick! I'll put "Rescuing the Bible..." on my reading list!

I figured out how to get the link to your site hotlinked: