Decking the secular halls

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

Misquoting Jesus

Some definitions for “faith”, from

a  (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God  (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b  (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof  (2): complete trust

America is rife with people of faith, and in my own strange way I consider myself one of them. America is particularly rife with Christians, particularly Christians who believe The Bible is a holy book, many of who sincerely believe that it is the inerrant and wholly consistent word of God. This faith in the accuracy of the Bible and for many that it is literally the word of God, forms the building blocks around which they orient their lives.

I for one am grateful that so many people have found divine wisdom in the Bible. While the Bible and Christianity have often been used for perverse ends, overall I think The Bible is a civilizing force. Regardless of whether you think it is divinely inspired or not, there is much wisdom in the Bible. Even though I have lived over half a century, I still cannot read The Sermon on the Mount without feeling profoundly moved and humbled by the power of Jesus’ words. And here I am, not even a Christian, but a Unitarian Universalist, which is a religion bereft of both a creed and a holy book.

I recently finished the book Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman. For the most part the revelations in the book, which concentrates on The New Testament and its evolution over the years, did not surprise me. Those who truly have faith that The Bible is the inerrant word of God, in the unlikely event they choose to read this book, will probably be unmoved by the revelations in this book (and I am not talking about The Book of Revelations). An absolute faith is impermeable to minor things like overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Underpinning this book is the wistfulness of its author, a recognized Biblical scholar and a premier “textual critic” of The New Testament. As Ehrman states in his introduction, he began his study of the Bible also believing that it was the inerrant word of God. He began his professional study of the Bible at The Moody Bible Institute, where to teach the professors had to sign in writing that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. After three years at the Moody Bible Institute, Ehrman moved on to Wheaton College, where he learned to translate ancient Greek, which is the original source language for much of The New Testament. This gave him the tool to examine many of the old Biblical books, scrolls and associated papers. Eventually the topic consumed him. He continued his education at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Today he teaches at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Reading his book it is hard to miss a note of melancholy from Ehrman as his once solid faith in the Bible simply could not hold as he examined and compared the ancient manuscripts that comprise The New Testament.

The book is a survey into why The New Testament is a testament to the failings of man. The failings were many. Mistranslations were common. In the days before the printing press, one had to depend on the accuracy of scribes who would attempt to copy previous generations of the work. For the first few hundred years, these scribes were not professionals, and their errors showed. Often they mistranslated in part because in ancient Greek words simply ran together, which meant their meanings were open to interpretation. There are numerous examples of scribes literally changing the meaning of the source they were copying. Our modern Bible is much like that childish game we used to play where we would whisper something quickly in the ear of one child, who would repeat it to another. The result is that the last message often suffered some major translation errors. As Ehrman shows repeatedly, the same is absolutely true of The New Testament.

For Jesus had the audacity to be born at a time when there were no microphones. If anyone was taking notes when he was wandering around Judea and Galilee they did not survive. In fact, not even a fragment of the original source material of any of the gospels or epistles exist. It all turned to dust millenniums ago. There are small sections of books of The New Testament in Greek from 200 to 300 A.D., but much of what survived is much more modern, as in generated from 1000 A.D. onward. There is simply no way to know how faithful the New Testament is to whatever its original authors wrote. What scholars like Ehrman can do is suggest that portions that are more likely to be closer to the original source than others.

If there is an accurate portrayal of Jesus, the closest would be the Gospel according to Mark, which scholars agree was written first. Indeed, as Ehrman points out it is clear that the other gospels rely heavily on Mark. Even so, Mark never met Jesus, so he was simply writing down the teachings that he heard or happened to believe personally. Mark’s perspective of Jesus, more than anything else, shapes the Jesus that Christians believe they know and revere.

However, I did find the book fascinating. In a way, it is amazing how much textual critics have been able to discern about the authenticity of various parts of The New Testament by comparing so many copies of copies of various translations and meticulously working their way backwards. Critics like Ehrman cannot reveal what is authentic, but they can say with some certainty which portions of The New Testament are not authentic. For example, the story of Jesus forgiving a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) is almost certainly incorrect. This is not to say it may not have actually happened, but by comparing older versions of documents with newer versions, the story mysteriously appears in newer versions.

Any honest critic of The New Testament simply must acknowledge parts that are inconsistent with other parts. This is a relatively straightforward process. You simply take each gospel, line up the story lines and compare the inconsistencies. The average reader of the Gospels of course does not take the time to do this. However, to assert that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is only possible if it unfolded in highly parallel universes that the authors conveniently traveled between. In that case, God does work in very mysterious ways indeed!

Perhaps one can judge The New Testament’s veracity on its impact, rather than the consistency of its story. One can certainly make a case for the Bible and The New Testament in particular as a civilizing and humanizing force, not to mention a source of great moral teaching. Of course, by being translated by fallible men, it was often used for evil purposes. What scholars like Erhman can assert is that based on scholarly study, the New Testament in particular is rife with errors, both inadvertent and deliberate. In addition, the Bible we revere today exists because over two millennium fallible humans have decided on which parts of it are holy and which were not.

Critics like Erhman challenge us, as the late advice columnist Ann Landers put it, to “Wake up and smell the coffee.” Perhaps those who assert that The Bible is the inerrant word of God should arise from their self-inflicted stupor and smell this coffee. They may find, like most of the rest of us, that while coffee has a bitter taste, is at least smells good.

Some words on faith

I receive a comment today from John O’Brien. It is attached to an old entry Unsaved that I made back in 2003. His questions deserve a fuller answer. I will not answer all his questions here, because I have put my thoughts in other blog entries where I touched on religion and faith. Readers are welcome to check out these entries:

I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I do not claim to have all “the answers to life’s persistent questions”, as the radio detective Guy Noir puts it. I simply have my thoughts, informed by my unique experience and through learning. I respect everyone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. In some cases, I may profoundly disagree with your beliefs themselves, but I do respect your right to believe in anything you wish.

Conversations on matters of faith are always iffy. Often there is a subtext to such discussions. It is, “I want to keep discussing things with you until you come around to my point of view”. This more often translates into “I want you to become a Christian/Muslim/Jew/Atheist/Moonie/Mormon just like me.” There are many people out there who want to save my soul. While I respect your wish to save my soul, I do not want you to save my soul. I do not open my door to proselytizers. I avoid public discussions of faith altogether. One thing I have learned painfully about the devoutly religious (and it probably applies to me as well): if you have your mind made up about the correctness of your faith, argument cannot change it. Only those without a faith can have an honest discussion on the merits of faith. Otherwise, you come into the discussion with a profound bias.

John wonders if there are parts of the Bible that I consider trustworthy. Yes, there are parts of the Bible: matters of historical record that have been proven as a result of archeology. I am very skeptical about certain alleged events like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but others like the Sermon on the Mount seem quite plausible, although I suspect Jesus was paraphrased. I doubt someone was standing in the crowd taking notes.

His question on what authority can be accepted in one’s life implies an absolute and external standard of reference. Clearly if you believe in God, it is easy to posit an absolute standard of reference. Clearly, the Bible is one of many out there. For myself, I do not place faith in any absolute authority, which is why I am logically agnostic. Bertrand Russell has an answer that works fairly well for me:

I am constantly asked: What can you, with your cold rationalism, offer to the seeker after salvation that is comparable to the cozy homelike comfort of a fenced dogmatic creed? To this the answer is many-sided. In the first place, I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained by the abdication of reason. I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained from drink or drugs or amassing great wealth by swindling widows and orphans. It is not the happiness of the individual convert that concerns me; it is the happiness of mankind.

John asks if I believe there an acceptable authority, either internal or external. I think we must each answer that question ourselves. As creatures of free will, we can choose to submit to someone else’s will, or we can choose to think for ourselves. I choose the latter, but I have no problem with those who prefer the former. They seem to make up the overwhelming majority.

Is there any absolute standard of life to which I can relate? I am not very sure what John means here. For myself, I notice that our universe is ordered relatively, not absolutely. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, for example suggest that everything made of mass or energy influences everything else. As you watch a train go by and you hear the pitch of the train’s whistle change as it passes, does the pitch actually change? It depends on the perspective of who is doing the listening. To the train’s engineer the pitch does not change. To someone watching it pass, it does change. Both are true at the same time. Einstein’s general and specific theories expand this idea to all the energy and matter in the universe. If I have a small article of faith, it is that I do not think I am really separate from anything else. I think our separateness is an illusion and we are both united and separate at the same time. For me, this renders the idea of absolutism absurd. I think the universe is an organism and we are part of it. For some this suggests that each of us is part of the mind of God. For more thoughts on this, check out my entry Our Wild, Wild Universe.

I hope this answers John’s questions though. I suspect though that it will more likely leave him confused.

Why do proselytizers think I am a moron?

As you may know I spent a week at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Since it’s in the middle of nowhere I never went off campus during my six days there. Let’s face it the nightlife in Shepherdstown left something to be desired. So my car sat there collecting dust and pollen. When I finally checked out on Friday morning I found a little brochure “Have you heard of the FOUR SPIRITUAL LAWS?” on my windshield. I thought for a moment maybe it was left by the same lady who wanted me to emigrate. But then I realized it couldn’t be her, because this brochure was inviting me to the Calvary Road Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. And that’s in the United States.

So this time it wasn’t the anti-Bush bumper sticker that got someone’s attention, it was my Unitarian Universalist bumper sticker instead. And this zealot must have been wise enough to grasp the obvious: I was (gasp) unsaved!

This was an accurate assumption. Where this proselytizer went wrong is that, like most of them, he or she assumed I was a moron. Apparently he or she assumed I had gone through 47 years of living and had not heard the “good news” about Jesus Christ. I must have been living in a cave somewhere all this time practicing Zorasterism or something. I flipped through their publication against my better judgment. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Jesus apparently was the one and only way I was ever going to get to heaven. Without the big J guy I was apparently hell bound.

As someone who was born and raised Catholic this was not news to me. In fact you would have to be either a very recent immigrant from some very remote country or have suffered a recent bout of amnesia to not possibly know that Christians believe Jesus is the only way to get into heaven. And yet this very obvious bit of knowledge doesn’t seem to penetrate the minds of these people. They assume those of us unsaved are unwashed and ignorant heathen.

But they must have been clever enough to know that I might be a skeptic and might need proof in their assertion that Jesus is the only way to get into heaven. Thankfully by page 7 of the brochure there it was: John 14:6. “Jesus saith unto him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.'”

Case closed! Hey, it’s in the Bible! There is of course the wee little problem that first you have to believe in the Bible before you will accept it as the word of God. And that’s the problem with this little brochure. If it is trying to convince me it is doing a damned poor job. So I would like to say to this member of the Calvary Road Baptist Church: If I knocked on your door and showed you a passage from the Koran that only through obedience to Allah’s will can you gain eternal life would this convince you to abandon Christianity?

Somehow I think not. Then why on earth would you think this sort of logic would convince me?

And before you leave brochures everywhere, how about learning a little about comparative religions first? Would it hurt to learn more about Unitarian Universalism other than “they’re not really Christians”? If you took a few minutes to explore the UUA web site you’d realize we’re not spiritual morons. We’re complex creatures comfortable with ambiguity. We celebrate religious pluralism and your right to practice your version of Christianity. In fact in my own way I have already been proselytizing. Yes, I took a class of Unitarian Universalists children to a few Christian churches as part of our yearlong religious education class. We also took our students to a Jewish temple, discussed paganism, went through the beliefs of Muslims and even practiced praying to Mecca six times a day. In short we encourage our youth to explore all aspects of religion and spirituality. We don’t claim Unitarian Universalism is the right religion for anyone. One of our few principles is never to proselytize. So don’t worry, we won’t be leaving brochures on your windshield telling you your only way to true happiness is by coming to a UU service and drinking too much coffee after the service at our long winded social hours. We respect you too much as a human being to shove our beliefs in your face.

Yes, I know you have to do it. Your faith informs you that you have to bring the good news of salvation to us heathens. Well news flash: your tactics suck. I don’t know how many people you actually get to come to Jesus from all these silly brochures. But I have to think that any that you do get must be morons, and if so I guess you and Jesus are welcome to them.

As for the rest of us, we’ve been around the block. We know about Jesus. We know about The Buddha. We know about Allah. We know about atheists, wiccans and the 50% of Americans who are “religious” or “spiritual” but can’t be bothered to go to church on Sundays. If you expect to win our respect you got to do it the old fashioned way. You have to earn it. You have to treat us like adults and respect our opinions. You have to behave in a way that is consistent with the deity you claim to emulate. And here’s another news flash: most Christians are about as Christ-like as Attila the Hun. Instead of praying in their closets they act like the moneychangers at the temple. Instead of turning the other cheek they cheer on President Bush when he unilaterally wages war on sovereign countries. If you want to earn my respect, don’t proselytize and act a lot more like Jimmy Carter. Let me see your faith manifest in good works. Let me feel I am your peer, not some unenlightened and ignorant fool. Then perhaps we can have a meaningful conversation and I can learn where you are truly coming from. And perhaps your mind would open just a crack to appreciate my perspective too.

Maybe we would both grow a little as a result. I think Jesus would approve. Meanwhile insulting brochures like yours only make me gag. Rest assured I won’t go anywhere near the Calvary Road Baptist Church. If you treat me like a moron you earn only my contempt.

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