Apology: Blind Faith and Stupid Christians

I saw a link to another blog just after I posted the last one, and it got me thinking about something I wanted to write soon enough anyways, so here goes.

There’s this silly idea roaming around that faith is blind, that faith is “believing without evidence“; I really don’t know where this comes from.  I know I’ve talked about the biblical definition of faith before, so I won’t go over it again here, but I’m bringing it up again because it points toward this other notion that comes from this “blind faith” silliness: the notion that Christians are stupid.  Christians refuse to believe in common scientific notions like evolution, for a typical example, and we believe in God for all sorts of silly subjective reasons.

I used to spend hours surfing atheist websites and getting embroiled in online debates about the existence of God.  Invariably, atheists would talk about a lack of logical, consistent, scientifically probable evidence, and could easily trip me up because I knew nothing about science; or else they would attack the Bible as being inconsistent or false in some mundane way that had absolutely no bearing on the actual meaning of the text, and attack my subjective and unprovable reasons for believing in God.  To be fair, I would fall into the equally ignorant line of attacks common to Christians trying to get a one-up on atheists.  Since then I’ve spent some time studying my own faith, and this kind of silly debate doesn’t interest me much because it almost always misses the point entirely, becoming a series of reactionary arguments that make less and less sense until we’ve proved the atheist point: that our faith is undefendable and we’re sensitive to this fact.

There are some great apologists out there.  I’ve heard good things about Lee Strobel and Josh MacDowell, though I’ve never read them, and I’ve attended debates with the likes of William Lane Craig defending the faith against atheist professors.  Debates are interesting, because in the end everyone always leaves with their biases confirmed.  When I saw Craig debate, his arguments were well-prepared, concise, and entirely logical.  His opponent, though he was unable to seriously challenge any of Craig’s arguments, eventually attacked the intelligence of theists; and though he didn’t actually argue a real point in his attacks, I heard the atheist crowd laughing it up after about how stupid Christians are.  Though I’ve never read anything by Christopher Hitchens, I’ve seen a few youtube videos in which he uses the same arguments; it’s interesting that his brother Peter just released a book depicting a worldview exactly opposite his, when it’s obvious that neither brother is an intellectual slouch.

The downside of apologetics is that 99.9% of apologeticists are not professionals who know their arguments well; most of them are silly kids like me, trolling the atheist sites or street corners looking for a debate they’ll never win.  When Christians are uninformed about their faith, they cling to pat-answers and subjective arguments that allow them to convince themselves of God’s existence, even when most of these arguments are complete bunk.  We polarize debates about scientific issues that, with the exception of a few certain views, have nothing to do with our theology – and in the process become known for denying the truth in defense of the Truth.

I’m sorry if Christians have given you the impression that having faith means abandoning logic and common sense, especially if they tried to debate you (it’s quite possible that I did, and I really am sorry!).  It’s quite possible to be a rational person who believes in a rational God; it’s even possible to be an irrational person who believes in an irrational God and still not be a jerk about it.

Apology: Sex

Puritans get a bad rap.  Many people really believe that Puritans thought sex was evil, and to be avoided by all means.  Now that I think of it, many people still think that about Catholics.  Funny though, that Catholics, old-order Mennonites, and other stereotypically “puritanical” groups of people tend to have double-digits of children…maybe they’re into sex after all.

Sometimes they’re criticised for having lots of sex, because people think that this means that even though they think sex is evil they’re doing it all the time anyways, making them huge hypocrites.  Actually, Puritans were pretty big on sex – but here are some things that they’re also big on: modesty, temperance, self-control, and family.  They don’t cover all of their skin because sex is evil, but because modesty is good!  They don’t approve of extramarital sex because they value things like family and loyalty, and they disapprove of premarital sex because (they know better than anyone) that’s how you have kids, and kids are best raised in a family.  They preach against lust because it necessarily leads to issues of modesty, self-control, and premarital or extramarital sex that’s damaging to the family.  So really, Puritans (and all Christians) LOVE sex…in a context that also upholds all of our other values.  Because trading many things you hold dear for a good lay just isn’t practical.

Proper context for sex is key in the biblical texts regarding it.  People you’re not supposed to have sex with are: people you’re related to (note the value of family) or people married to people you’re related to (family again) or people other than your spouse (yup, family values again) or people of the same gender (but that’s another post) or animals (I don’t think I need to clarify that one).  It’s really not that the Bible is somehow prudish; it just makes sense to put your family before your hormones, especially in a tribal culture in which EVERYTHING centred around family.

If ever you want proof that the Bible is pro-sex, simply consider that in the Old Testament, amidst the books talking about momentous historical events, miracles, judgments, wars, famines, plagues, deliverance, and worship, there’s an entire book of nothing more than erotic poetry.  Any notion of “puritanical” prudishness on the part of Christians comes more from a cultural misconception that Christians think sex is evil that has become so common place that many Christians have actually begun to believe it themselves.

I’m sorry if Christians led you to believe that sex is evil; we actually like it quite a lot.  And now, a theological sex joke:

Biblical Archaeology

Hey folks, sorry it’s been a while; I’ve been avoiding writing more Apologies, mostly because I’ve been doing homework – which means that I have something more on-topic to write about!  More Apology posts later though, if you’re into them, about Sex, Homosexuality, and maybe even some Anti-Intellectualism.  But for now, I’ve just finished a poorly-written paper about Biblical Archaeology, so let’s talk about that for a bit.

Archaeology didn’t really start until Napoleon got stuck in Egypt and his surveyors found the Rosetta Stone, around 1800.  From 1800-1900 there were some good finds (like Troy), but most archaeology was just digging up cool old stuff to fill museums.  In the late 1800’s, though, Bible scholars started searching the deserts of Palestine for Biblical sites to study, and they eventually developed the discipline of Biblical Archaeology.

The issue surrounding Biblical Archaeology is: how do you find a balance between what the Bible says and what the archaeological record seems to show?  At the time, the Fundamentalist movement was pretty big; in reaction to the source-critical work of people like Wellhausen, who broke up the OT into four main sources and basically said that none of it (or very little) was historical at all, Fundamentalists stuck firm to the (bad) doctrine of verbal inspiration – that is, that God verbally spoke to the writers of the Bible, telling them what to write.  The idea is that if the Bible is true in every respect, then there should be archaeological evidence to support its claims.  So suddenly every American dig in the middle east is funded by conservative seminaries or groups of (or even individual) fundamentalists.

The Fundamentalists had some very major presuppositions, and most Biblical Archaeologists denied any association with them, wisely keeping their distance.  Yet in the eyes of their critics, anyone who believes that the Bible is true, and that there may be some evidence of Biblical events to be found by archaeologists, is suffering from the same fundamentalist presuppositions.  Namely, the presupposition that the Bible gives historical information that can be verified by archaeology, and further that in the case of a conflict the Bible is to be trusted over the archaeological data. 

Fundamentalists would have agreed wholeheartedly with that description, but most Biblical Archaeologists would have moderated it a little bit, looking for a synthesis between the two sources of data.  The problem is that when you have such presuppositions, it’s really easy to see Biblical events in the archaeological data whether you should or not.  For example, they’ve found the city of Jericho and there is evidence of it being conquered and destroyed before being rebuilt later (as there is with every archaeological site, many times over); but what does that say about who conquered and destroyed it?  It could have been done by any number of forces, and cannot verify that it was Israelites who did it.  But for a Biblical Archaeologist in their heyday, it was as easy as putting 2 and 2 together: Jericho was obviously destroyed by Israelites, because the Bible tells me so.

This became a bigger issue when archaeological data arose that seemed to directly contradict biblical accounts.  For example, the central figure of Biblical Archaeology, WIlliam Foxwell Albright, had theories that would put the Patriarchal Narratives in a specific time period and give a lot of background as to the economy and customs Abraham would have lived with; but to make his theory work, Albright had to re-evaluate the archaeological data and change his own dating system.  Do you change the archaeology, or the Bible?  Another example is that there is little to no evidence that the Conquest of Canaan actually happened; most scholars today hold some view of a peaceful infiltration by the Israelites, while others think that they were locals all along.

So what if there wasn’t actually a Conquest of Canaan?  What if it wasn’t a real event?  What does that do to our theology?  If key Old Testament narratives are non-historical, does that mean that nothing in the Old Testament actually happened?  If nothing in the OT actually happened, is God real?

Some scholars are ready to throw out the historicity of the Bible in favour of the seemingly “hard evidence” of archaeology, but even archaeology is a text that must be interpreted: there are archaeologists with anti-biblical biases just as much as there are those with pro-biblical biases.  And there is much archaeological evidence of key biblical characters and events as well, with Bible students seeing it as confirmation of the Bible’s historicity.

The discipline of Biblical Archaeology has failed; it died in the ’70’s, and in its place Syro-Palestinian archaeology now uses all of the best techniques and approaches as the rest of the archaeological field.  But the question still remains of whether (and how) the two texts (the Bible and Archaeology) can be integrated.  Personally, I find it important to remember that both of them are texts that must be interpreted, and a failure to recognize our own presuppositions when we interpret a text will make sure that all we see in it is a reflection of our own biases.  Further, when we interpret the text of the Bible we are interpreting an interpretation of events that happened thousands of years ago, because even the writers of the Bible were interpreting events in theological terms – and it is their theology that they wrote for, not some modern notion of history.

So is the Bible actually historical?  I believe that it is based on real events, but I don’t believe that it ever was historical: it is theological.  And whether or not there ever was a Conquest of Canaan, the point the writer made was God’s faithfulness – and that has been proved by more than sacking a city.

Apology: Nationalism Cloaked in Bad Theology

Here’s a little gems someone shared on Facebook:

The image is a little bit blurry, but it’s a picture of a billboard that inserts the word “America” into 2 Chronicles 7:14.  It’s absolutely hilarious, until you realize that there are an awful lot of people out there who don’t know that America never appears in the Bible.  They don’t know that the Bible is not about America, because so many people are never adequately taught what the Bible actually says, and most won’t read it for themselves (or if they do, they aren’t trained in basic hermeneutics enough to pick out poor interpretations that are presented to them in billboards and sermons like this).

This billboard, as ridiculous as it is, is really only a sampling of the nationalism that masquerades as religion, particularly in the US.  Whenever I see American churches on the news, about half of them feature American flags, sometimes lining the walls, sometimes even next to the pulpit.  It makes the church look like a campaign headquarters, and for some of them they might as well be for all of the political pressure perpetuated from the preacher’s pulpit.  But this post isn’t even about that, it’s about the idea that God is on America’s side.

“God Bless America” is so cliche these days, but people can’t seem to get enough of it.  And why not?  That sentiment in itself, that a person wants God’s blessing on their land and people, is all very well and good.  What’s awful is that eventually that saying gets drilled into people so much that they seem to take for granted that God has blessed, is blessing, and will bless America forevermore.  I’d love to see a billboard or bumper sticker that said “God Bless Iraq”, or “God Bless North Korea”, or even “God, please bless America.”  Because the old plea for blessing has become synonymous with assuming that God has blessed America for a reason – like America is the promised land, or that America is a holy nation.  God blesses America because it’s a “Christian Nation”; I guess it’s about as “Christian” as a nation gets these days, with higher proportional numbers of confessing Christians than just about anywhere.  But really, all this is saying is that “America is so awesome that even God is on our side!”

How do we know that God blesses America?  Well, America is the strongest nation in the world, with the strongest military and the strongest economy.  They have the world’s best healthcare, schools, food production, technology, Democracy…heck, probably even some of the best weather!  Usually, it comes down to the big two though: military and economy.  The US is the world superpower because of a combination of their large military and their large economy.  Being the preeminent world superpower is obviously a sign of God’s blessing, right?  Except that the economy is built upon the world’s largest debt, the government is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and the global recession – which for all intents and purposes really started in the US – is about to enter round two, likely driving unemployment rates in the US even higher.

Military is a big sign of God’s blessing, a sign taken straight from scripture.  When God brought Israel into the land, they had to take it by force – but God would grant them victory unless they disobeyed him.  When they obeyed God, they had dramatic victories; when they disobeyed, they had dramatic defeats.  I’ve heard many Americans comment on their fantastic military record, and the link between it and God’s blessing is a pretty common thing; like we mentioned last week, the protestors at the funerals of American soldiers say that those soldiers died because of sin, meaning that they’ve lost God’s favour and blessing.  But let’s be honest, the American military record isn’t so good as it might seem.  Yes, they did well in the World Wars, and desert storm worked out okay, and I honestly know very little about Korea; but Vietnam was a disaster, and they’re currently fighting two wars simultaneously in which they’ve made little – if any – progress.  And don’t even get me started on the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, which have done nothing except detain, inconvenience, and even persecute their own people.

I say all of this not to bash America – I have no problem with them as individuals, and even as a nation.  Canada and the US are like brothers, most of the time.  What I have a serious problem with is the notion that somehow God is on their side.  As we’ve seen, the major indicators say otherwise.  In the Bible, God’s blessing means prosperity (economy) and peace (with military victory); America projects an image of being tip top in both of those areas, but it’s simply not true.  They’re just people, just like anyone else – and that’s the point.  There are very few nations that God has expressly helped in scripture, and that was always for God’s own purposes.  He helped Israel take the land, and he helped the Assyrians and Babylonians take it away.  America is not Israel (for that matter, Israel today is not the same thing as biblical Israel).  God will help (or use) whichever nations he chooses for his own purposes, and he doesn’t owe America a damn thing.

There’s a great quote out there by a famous politician, but I can’t think of it right now.  It’s something along the lines of being more concerned with being on God’s side than claiming God is on my side, and it hits the nail on the head.  Post it if you know it.  If God is on my side, then that means that I’m leading God – and even if that were possible, it’d be a really dumb idea.  I can tell you this though: God is on the side of people.  Not American people, or white people, or even particularly people who call themselves Christians (because Christians are just people who say that they are on his side).  God is on the side of people, without qualification.  We can either appreciate that fact or ignore it, but it doesn’t change the fact.

So I’m sorry, America, but you’re no more special than the rest of us.  Thankfully God thinks we’re all special (including your enemies).  And I’m sorry to anyone who has the idea that Christianity is about being American, or that all Americans are Christians, or that somehow Christianity and America mean the same thing.

Apology: Divine Retribution (Part 2)

I should expand a little bit on the doctrine of divine retribution, especially because I’m currently reading for a paper about Wisdom Literature, of which this doctrine is a distinctive.

The doctrine of divine retribution shows up throughout wisdom literature, but the term “divine Retribution” doesn’t really cover it well; much of the time, it’s an acknowledgment of cause and effect. “If you do this, good things will happen; if you do that, bad things will happen.” Another feature of wisdom literature is that it is usually quite general – so these statements of cause and effect are always very broad, general statements of what most people would call common sense. Everyone knows that if you’re associated with criminals, you’re very likely to be in serious trouble or danger; killers are often killed.

The divine aspect comes into play when a connection is made between this cause-and-effect order of the universe and the God who created it to be so. Some see this cause-and-effect relationship as a result of the order of the universe, put into affect at creation by God, and others see the consequences being directly (or indirectly) worked out by God. In the first view God is much more passive, but either way it could be said that people tend to get what they deserve as the just consequences of their actions, and this retribution comes about through an act of God, either directly or indirectly. Thus, it is still “divine retribution”.

Of course, another major feature of wisdom literature is that it often questions this ancient notion of a created order. Many of the sages recognized that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. This is the entire notion behind Job, and is reflected on heavily in Ecclesiastes and some Psalms. The question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is an ancient one, and it is not directly answered in scripture; we are left with the sure knowledge that God is our saviour and vindicator, that he knows justice, and in some texts, that there will eventually be a judgment day to bring these wrongs to right.

Even taking all of that into account, this notion that natural disasters are divine retribution is absolute garbage.

A few days ago I was listening to Q on CBC radio 1, and the interview was with one of the sons of the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church. He left home when he was 18, as soon as he was legally able to leave without fear of being brought back against his will – apparently there was all kinds of abuse and power mongering from his father. That was 30 years ago. Now, he’s an atheist who speaks alongside people such as Richard Dawkins, though he appeared to have none of Dawkins’ arrogance and venom. He said a lot of things about religion, and interestingly enough I agreed with everything he said until he said that we don’t need religion anymore. It became apparent that he and I both disagree with a certain representation of religion – the type he had fled, namely, and even some less radical yet similar notions of Christianity – and yet to him that meant that religion itself was wrong and unnecessary. It seemed that all religion had been boiled down to a few very conservative notions of Christianity (though I grant that I only heard one interview, not his entire position). It’s sad that he and I can agree on so much, and yet have such polar opposite responses to it: I am driven to know God more, to know what he’s REALLY like, while this guy has become convinced that God isn’t even real.

So to you, sir, and others who have been turned away from a Church that is so often judgmental, abusive, and backwards: I apologize. I hope that somehow we can make it right.