So I caught The Master over the weekend. (For those who did not have the patience to read my full-length review from Saturday: inspired by sci-fi mediocrity and father of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, the “Master,” played almost poetically by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a mess of too-easily recognizable neuroses to be interesting, while his favorite disciple, played by Joaquin Phoenix in one of the most stunning performances in American film history, is too irreparably broken to be conned into believing that “The Cause” is a solution to anything. Finally, The Master is a slow road to nowhere that leaves you with questions that can never be answered because there’s no there there to the title character. An-n-n-n-d curtain.)
Upon leaving the theater, I headed to Barnes & Noble and bought two books: Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s third-person memoir recounting his years living under the Ayatollah’s fatwa, and The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, a 1950s analysis of mass movements, both religious and political.
I find endlessly fascinating the kinds of all-consuming ideas people latch onto. Why are some completely wedded to religious or political convictions that others find absolutely fantastic? Why do some people become livid when challenged, and even commit murder to suppress dissent, while others are perfectly content to allow their beliefs to be embraced or rejected in the marketplace of ideas?
That anyone finds Scientology in the least bit credible is itself incredible to me. But I believe that about almost every religion and political ideology ever to grace or disgrace world history.
Except my own, of course.
And so it got me to thinking (always dangerous): why do I believe what I believe? There are hundreds of millions who believe Christianity false (to the extent they’re seriously familiar with it), at least in its core distinctives, if not downright loony or dangerous. Virgin birth? Resurrection from the dead? An atoning death for sin? A final judgment with a literal heaven and hell? Monogamy? Seriously?
I’ve enjoyed cordial debates with Mormons, about whether the Book of Mormon is a genuine revelation from God. I’ve brought up the historical discrepancies in the Book of Mormon, the mentions of technology, people, animals, and languages that simply did not exist in the Mesoamerica that Jesus supposedly visited. I thought it was fair game to draw distinctions between a book that purports to record history and the archaeological and genetic evidence or lack thereof. There’s good reason to reject the Book of Mormon as evincing divine truth because it bears all the earmarks of a post-Reformation human creation. (I say post-Reformation because of the BOM’s use of distinctly KJV language.)
I could make similar arguments from history about Islam. Or for that matter Marxism.
So why don’t those arguments, when aimed at Christianity, affect my convictions? Because I’m convinced the Bible is the Word of God? Why? Because somebody told me? Who told them? And on what authority? And don’t others believe the same things about their scriptures and traditions?
If a non-Christian were to dismiss geological or geographical or archaeological arguments that challenged the histories conveyed in their holy books with “I believe in the Word of God not the word of man,” or “I believe that at the end of time all these supposed contradictions will be reconciled,” or “Those ideas are straight from the pit of hell,” wouldn’t we just roll our eyes, as if to say, “Wow, he’s really guzzled the Kool-Aid…”
In short, when asked about the foundation of our faith, do we sound like fanatics, or obscurantists, to non-Christians? Do we sound like non-Christians all too often sound to us? Do we just need to believe…in something? And Christianity just happens to be cosa nostra?
What, finally, would cause you to throw up your hands and say, OK, I can no longer believe this and have any kind of intellectual integrity?
Or are the findings of science and historical investigation just irrelevant, because faith is such a highly personal thing? Are the crush of differing interpretations among people who believe in an inerrant Scripture as Word of God irrelevant too? Does the appalling behavior of so many Christians throughout history irrelevant? (Read Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity or, if you dare, History of European Morals from Augustine to Charlemagnes, vols. 1 & 2 by Lecky.) Does it all come down to personal experience? The inner witness of the Holy Spirit? Answered prayers? (What about all the unanswered ones? After a while, doesn’t it all come down to playing the odds that, occasionally, life will break your way when you need it to?)
I’ll go first.
1. Produce a body. “If he is not raised, your faith is in vain.” Produce the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth and I’ll be happy to sleep late on Sundays. Now, of course, proving that you have found the remains of Jesus would take a miracle on the order of the loaves and fishes. We don’t have Jesus’s DNA. And the lack of a body doesn’t prove resurrection. But it is sorta the sine qua non.
2. Produce a collection of first-century manuscripts that argue more or less point by point why the Pauline and gospel accounts are fabrications, from contemporaries who were there and would have known.
3. I can’t rule out a personal calamity of such gravity that it would render the idea of a personal God who loves me and gave his Son for me such that I could have life and have it more abundantly a ludicrous notion. But past tragedies, while giving me pause, and even caused me to walk away from the church for a while, have yet to eradicate my faith. Evil is not an argument against Christianity, but one for it, as its reality is taken for granted in the Christian scheme of things. And yet …”let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
In my thinking about the faith, and presenting its plausibility to nonbelievers (leaving aside personal experience for the moment), I tend to work backward from the bare minimum of what we can know from history. For example, that there was a Jesus of Nazareth; that the earliest gospel we have demonstrates that he claimed to forgive sin, something his contemporaries believed strictly the province of God; that the earliest verifiable writings from a historically verifiable disciple, Paul, already repeats in rote form the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus identifies himself with the Passover lamb, the sacrifice for sin; that all four gospels, and Paul, testify to a bodily resurrection quite different from mere immortality, a spirit life after death. (See N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God.)
From there we can examine what we know about how the Old Testament and the intertestamental literature were understood (which is why I’m glad Concordia has published a new edition of the Apocrypha), and used, by the first-century biblical authors, to get a better idea of how Adam, Noah, Jonah, et al. figure in the writings of Paul, and how these tropes and images and names would have resonated with Jesus’s auditors. For that we also need a deeper understanding of the history of Israel and the role of the Temple(s). To that end, I find the ideas expressed in this video very compelling as part of a new apologetic. I know many of you will not. But you don’t have to. This isn’t Russia. (It’s not Russia, is it?)
Video via Scott McKnight