The Value of Theology for Atheists

Richard Dawkins. Photo courtesy of Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science
Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has ventured the opinion that theologians are experts in a subject without any subject matter. I take him to mean they are engaged in nothing but “mental masturbation.” They are, he thinks, like a group of Star Wars fans I once knew who believed the events of the movie were real, but in a different universe (in which they would have much preferred to dwell). Or imagine a self-proclaimed zoologist who specialized in werewolves, unicorns, and dragons. There is a large element of truth in such comparisons and thus also in his disdain. And yet I can’t help thinking he is engaging in overkill.

I am sure Professor Dawkins does not discount the importance of numerous fields like Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology of Religion, much less the History of Religion, because these fields of study serve purposes valuable to secular intellectuals and to society at large. To put it bluntly: you need to know your enemy. The world is aflame with murderous religious fanatics, and we need to understand what motivates those who kill “infidels” with clean-conscience and abandon. We need to know the harm such jihads of madness have done in the past if we want to gauge dangers in the present.

Biblical Studies are, obviously, relevant if only to, as Robert Ingersoll did, demonstrate that the threatening gun is loaded with blanks, to render the Bible useless as a tool of oppression. It is imperative to debunk the notion that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and this is true even if you think what the Bible says is not so bad, because it is still used as a ventriloquist dummy to impart divine authority to those demagogues who claim its inerrancy for their own opinions. I can think of people on the Left as well as the Right who make Scripture into their own private Charlie McCarthy.

My friend Hector Avalos has called for “the end of Biblical Studies” (in his great book of that title). What, is he trying to put himself out of a job? No, he means to call the bluff of those who merely use scholarship to defend the Bible in the manner of apologetics—spin-doctoring. A good example would be the study of “Biblical Archaeology,” which was essentially founded as an elaborate campaign to defend the accuracy of the Bible against the skepticism of the Higher Critics of the Nineteenth Century. Now this axe-grinding pseudo-archaeology has been revealed as cut from the same cheap cloth as “Scientific Creationism.” The new Ark replica unveiled by Ken Ham is a prime example of both.

What is less obvious as a piece of biblical PR, and from an unexpected quarter, is the sophisticated (but sophistical) production of scholarly studies that attempt to show that the Bible really supports equal rights for women and homosexuals, opposes colonial imperialism, fosters ecumenism, etc. The goal here is twofold. First, there is the cynical, Grand Inquisitor-like attempt to use the voice of unearned authority to trick the pew-potatoes into voting for so-called “Progressives” because the Bible is “really” on the Left, and so you should be, too. It is propagandistic manipulation, what some Liberation and Feminist Theologians call “a useable past.” You know, like the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984.originally appeared: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/molly-worthen-wanted-a-theology-of-atheism.html?_r=0

But the flip side of that coin is that such scholars also seek to rehabilitate the Bible’s reputation by arguing that it has good “Progressive” things to say (and that the bad stuff is either irony or interpolation). Why do they want to do that? Possibly to justify clinging to a self-identification as a Christian of some type.

I understand Hector to be calling the bluff of both Conservative and Liberal scholars who are grinding “the axe of the apostles.” I don’t read him as demanding that the study of the Bible be banned or boycotted. Rather, I would describe the situation as analogous to a bunch of neo-polytheists urging everyone to take Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as infallible and historically inerrant. Classicists would enter the fray to demonstrate the mythic-fictional character of those works, but they would not discourage the study of these great old texts.

I think another friend of mine, John Loftus, means the same thing when he urges universities to drop Philosophy of Religion courses. So much of it has been (again) apologetics, propping up the faith of those would-be believers whose intellectual consciences forbid them to exclaim, “Oh, to heaven with it!” and just “believe.” (Still, you can teach Philosophy of Religion with a critical approach.)

I’m not sure Professor Dawkins stops there, however. I remember hearing him deride the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation as “a rabbi turning himself into a cracker.” The line got lots of laughs, but I didn’t join in the general hilarity. I knew from this joke that the noted atheist was not bothering to try to look at the question from the inside, the only place it makes any sense, and where it does make sense. It is its own language game, though most of those who play it are not aware that’s “all” they’re doing.

If you’ve been on the “other” side, whether religiously, politically, whatever, then switched sides, you know you can’t simply dismiss the old frame of reference as nothing but gibberish. You know there is a method in the madness, that it’s not just madness, even if you can no longer affirm it. I think of how, when I first read about Deconstruction, I thought it was crazy. But, as Mary Midgley said, when we call something “crazy” it just means we don’t understand it. And then I realized there had to be something to it that was not then apparent to me. So I read more, trying to see it. And I finally did see it.

In fact, I now see what first seem like absurdities as opportunities to expand my mind to see (and possibly embrace) new perspectives. I tried to convey this to a student in an Adult School course I later taught about Deconstruction. Though a very learned man, he went in with an attitude of unremitting determination to see and expose Deconstruction as nonsense. What a shame, because, if it wasn’t nonsense, he’d never be able to see it. You have to have an attitude of teachableness, and this man, for all his intelligence, did not. His loss.

Well, I have been on the side of theologians and believers. Though I have long since switched sides, I remember what it was like. And I know that theology is not a subject without subject matter, like Unicornology. Whether you are a believer or an atheist, you may approach theology as a subdivision of the history of thought that deserves at least as much respect as, say, ancient or medieval Philosophy. You most likely don’t find the views of Parmenides and Xeno to be persuasive. You don’t buy the idea that what the senses report to us has no relation to external reality, an infinite expanse indistinguishable by divisions or distinctions, and so on. But were the Eleatics just gushing verbal salad? You’re the fool if you think so.

In the same way, I just cannot look at the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas or the theological systems of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich and X it all out as a bunch of glossolalic gobbledygook. The interplay of competing concepts is exhilarating to explore! All the more if it is initially strange to you!

Theology thinks it is telling us about God. I don’t think there is a God. But theology has much the same attraction as mythology. Both are the cartography of dream worlds. Doesn’t that mean

Richard Dawkins is right after all: it’s just a stupid waste of time? No. Hans Jonas and Rudolf Bultmann explained how “every statement of theology is at the same time a statement of anthropology,” and that is the basis of demythologizing. To demythologize is to decode stories of, and beliefs in, God(s), to reveal the self-understandings of those who produce and who live by the myths. People who inherit or embrace (factually erroneous) myth systems assimilate their dictates and definitions. The systems of belief are projections of the “symbolic universes” (Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann) inside the heads of believers. This is the truth of the formula “As above, so below.” Theology does have subject matter: human beings.

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

(Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat, LXVI)

So says Zarathustra.

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Schleiermacher’s Forgotten Religion

The essence of religionI don’t know if you will be familiar with the name or the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and if you’re not, that helps prove my point: that this nineteenth-century thinker (one of my greatest heroes) had something to say about religion that clarified it in his day and would clarify it again today if it were more widely known. He was the first to turn the Wheel of Dharma for theology after the Copernican Revolution in epistemology wrought by Kant. Let’s back up.

Immanuel Kant, raised as a Lutheran Pietist in the century before Schleiermacher, demonstrated the impossibility of gaining true knowledge apart from the senses (and the processing of sense data through our built-in array of the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment). There could be no “revealed knowledge” such as theologians had always claimed as the indispensable basis of their doctrines. So what sort of reconstruction of religion might be possible?

Kant himself (like Hegel, I believe) viewed religion, with its miracle stories and ancient myths, to be essentially a symbolic language for morality. If all that stuff helped you learn the lessons of righteousness, great. But if it became an end in itself, if it distracted from morality, or worse yet, as in the devastating wars of religion (still fresh in memory in Kant’s day and new again in our own), if it prompted horribly immoral behaviors, then to hell with it. Religion was like a cartoon version of morality for children, and eventually the time arrives to put away childish things. So Kant decided that “enlightened piety” consisted in morality. Ethics is the essence of religion.

Schleiermacher believed Kant was right about the unavailability of extra-sensory knowledge, the lack of revelation. But he could not agree with Kant’s view of the essence of religion. In his view, Kant had reduced religion to ethics. Just ethics? Sure, morality is indispensable, non-negotiable in importance. But if religion simply boils down to morality, religion is revealed as superfluous. And Schleiermacher thought that completely inadequate. Kant was selling religion short. He had missed the essential thing about religion. And what was that?

Schleiermacher distinguished between three aspects of religion. First was knowledge. This was information about God and his unseen world. It could not be discovered but had to be revealed. But, in the wake of Kant, it turned out there was no such knowledge. The second was practice, specifically ethics. We have seen how Kant subtracted knowledge, emptied that category. Ethics was what was left of religion. Schleiermacher thought Kant had jumped the gun, skipping a third aspect of religion, one which should now be recognized as the essential aspect, in fact, the very essence of religion.

morality for dummiesThat aspect is piety, which Schleiermacher defined as “a sense and taste for the Infinite” and “the feeling of absolute dependence” upon the great totality of Being, God understood in pretty much a Pantheistic sense (Schleiermacher was much influenced by Spinoza). Schleiermacher explained that all life is contingent upon a web of many factors: your parents happening to fall in love, your food not being poisoned, the roof above you not falling in, etc. And much depends upon you in turn. We are all relatively dependent upon all these factors, but upon the great overarching Whole each of us is absolutely dependent. Everyone is, but not everyone lives in conscious, grateful awareness (“feeling”) of it. Those who do are pious in Schleiermacher’s sense. This awareness is intuitive, a thing more fundamental than cognitive knowledge, i.e., knowledge of discrete things, available to us through the senses.

Schleiermacher thought we could draw certain inferences from our subjective religious experiences, experiences of “God.” These would count as “knowledge” only in the sense Kant described as the fruit of “practical reason” as opposed to “pure reason.” This was the way Kant arrived at his “practical” argument for God’s existence. Technically, Kant admitted, we cannot know there is a God, but if there is no God to guarantee moral standards, then the whole thing is an illusion. Are we really prepared to accept that? It seems a better bet to proceed on the working hypothesis that there is a Creator who instilled within us the universal moral law and provides an afterlife in which our character development may be brought to completion. This is, roughly speaking, the kind of inference Schleiermacher thought we can derive from religious experience, from “God-consciousness.”

So what’s the difference between Kant and Schleiermacher on this point? For Kant, this experiential argument was just a way to secure a reason for morality, while Schleiermacher saw it as a source from which some sort of religious doctrines might be derived. To use traditional terms, Schleiermacher was willing to be satisfied with faith and not to lay claim to genuine knowledge. Henceforth, for Liberals, theology was no longer a matter of systematizing revealed knowledge (e.g., from scripture), but rather of interpreting religious experience.

But soon after Schleiermacher, Liberal Protestantism took a more purely Kantian direction, defining religion as essentially moral. Albrecht Ritschl, the second founder of Liberal Theology, moved the rudder, and the result was the influential Social Gospel Movement championed by Adolf Harnack, Wilhelm Herrmann, and especially Walter Rauschenbusch. As I understand the current religious climate, Liberal (what used to be called “Mainstream” or “Mainline”) Protestantism as represented by, e.g., the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterians, the United Methodists, the United Church of Christ, and the American Baptists, have moved much, most, or all of the way in the direction of Rauschenbusch, Ritschl, and Kant. Religion has become essentially moral, specifically political. For these denominations, Christianity has become a subset of the Democratic and Green Parties.

As you know, much of Conservative Protestantism has likewise become heavily politicized. I believe that only a tiny fringe repudiated by the vast majority even of fundamentalists wants to impose a theocracy, a Christian counterpart to Islamic Sharia (though I have heard of a small movement of radical Christian theocratic terrorists in Latin America).

For the purposes of the point I am trying to make here, let me distinguish Conservative and Liberal political Protestantisms this way. The Conservatives still (erroneously) believe there is revealed information, infallible commands from a deity. This would seem to make them more potentially dangerous than their Liberal counterparts, but in fact there turns out to be little practical difference since Liberalism is not Libertarianism. Liberalism tends to impose, to regulate, to centrally plan, to patronize, to ostracize and vilify because the end is held to justify the means.

That is the ironic result of “situation ethics,” once a banner of personal freedom. This is the same danger inherent in the larger approach of Teleological ethics, which seeks to escape/avoid the legalism of Kantian Deontological ethics. Results, not rules, make an action right.

But there is an ironic vestige of the otherwise discarded faith that “calls things that are not as though they were.” We expect Liberal Protestantism, in the wake of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, to be pragmatic, bare-knuckled, disabused of illusion in its pursuit of its social ideals. But there remains a worrisome Hegelian confidence in humans’ ability to discern what God is up to in the unfolding of history and whose side he is on to achieve his aims. That is implicitly theocratic, isn’t it?

And this species of hubris begets another: the faith that ignores likely consequences and that acts against the odds, assuming a diplomatic stance of “believing all things” that one’s nation’s enemies may promise one. That is no more noble, and is considerably more dangerous, than the “faith” by which Jim Bakker pursued various construction projects for which he lacked the funds, believing God would send him the money. I call it “political snake-handling.”

Is there a contemporary version of what Schleiermacher called piety? I should think

Alex_Grey_Over_Soul1
Oversoul by visionary artist Alex Grey

devotees of contemplative prayer, “practicing the presence of God,” would qualify. They are certainly striving for God-consciousness. But, within the Christian fold, those who take this approach are more likely to be Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. I am dealing with Protestantism here, the quadrant of Christianity Schleiermacher lived in.

As Unitarianism represents the extreme of the Kantian religion-as-morality trajectory, I should call New Thought (much of which has gone beyond specifically Christian symbolism) the stripped-down version of Schleiermacher-style religion. Of all Christian varieties, New Thought believers focus most clearly on a rather abstract, near-pantheistic God understood as a universal Source of abundance. One strives to remain open and receptive to that fund of endless possibility. This spirituality combines the feeling of absolute dependence and constant God-consciousness.

Nor is this a matter of coincidence, or of reinventing the wheel. It is instead a case of heredity. You see, New Thought owes a significant debt to the New England Transcendentalists and their belief in the Oversoul. And the Transcendentalists’ great source of inspiration was–guess who? Schleiermacher. New Thought seems to me the last redoubt of Schleiermacher’s spirituality. It may be judged a bit debased, often reducing God to a genie to conjure with, but even then it is refreshing in its lack of the hypocritical pretense to “radical discipleship” made by some political Christians.

So says Zarathustra.

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Hystereotypes

All home invaders are white guys

I have often suggested that moral decadence need not be a decrease in morality. I understand it also to refer to a kind of cancerous growth of hyper-morality. I could just call it that, but I use the word “decadence” to differentiate what I mean from the fanatical zealotry in an individual resulting from some psychological quirk, like neurotic hyper-scrupulosity, a moral version of Obsessive Compulsion Disorder. I use the word “decadence” to denote a dangerous cultural senescence or senility in which a civilization loses perspective and begins to embrace fanciful sentimentalism as a moral code. This is especially dangerous when there are serious, real-world issues that demand attention but get neglected because of this ethical fiddling while Rome burns.

A few examples may help. I regard it as decadent, cancerously mutated, morality when people crusade for Animal Rights. (Don’t worry; I do not want to paint vegetarianism with the same brush. That is a separate and eminently defensible point, though I am far from a vegetarian.) There is a foolish confusion here. We humans have the duty to treat animals kindly, not to be cruel to them. But rights belong uniquely to human beings because we are located in a framework of social relations, even if we are pre- or post-rational (babies and the senile and comatose). Animals are not. Is it murder for a lion to kill and eat an antelope? Is the lion violating the rights of the antelope?  Can they sue one another over grazing territory or prey-poaching? Do they talk and say, “What’s up, Doc?” But look at the antics of PETA activists. Somewhere along the line they have made a wrong toin in Alba-quoi-que.

It’s even worse when Animal Rights zealots are happily pro-abortion when it comes to human beings. But it’s not exactly inconsistent. Both positions stem from an “Earth First” anti-humanism. Leftists have a neurotic (and dangerously decadent) hatred for their own country. Like a freshman Anthropology student, they espouse value-free cultural relativism—except for America. It is a reverse “American exceptionalism” whereby one hates America as uniquely evil and despicable. One has to, like Noam Chomsky and Saul Alinsky, fabricate libels and myths of “Amerika” to justify this hatred. The sins of Muslim terrorists and Socialist Totalitarians can be forgiven or explained away, but not only are America’s sins excoriated, but her many virtues must be denied.

“Internationalism” and “World Citizenship” are foolishly and even nefariously naïve, imagining that the “collective” opinion of all nations should be our lodestar, when in fact international bodies tend to be tools manipulated by the Anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, economy-destroying states that dominate them.

Well, the PETA fanatic hates his own species in precisely the same way. Some go so far as to say the earth would be better off without humans, and that we are a plague on the world which should be wiped out, though few go so far as to advocate any action toward that end (like the red-haired scientist in the movie Twelve Monkeys). But the tendency is in that direction, something you need to point out in order to show how wrong-headed some things are. Animal Rights believers are in effect saying that biological Darwinism is just as reprehensible as Social Darwinism and, come to think of it, is actually the same thing.

Hyper-moral decadents live in a world of paper games and official statements. When the disastrous results of that kind of economic and foreign policies become tragically evident, there will be more vacuous idealistic bluster to shift the blame and to make lemons into NutraSweet Lemonade. As Freud said of religion (of which hyper-moral decadence is a certainly a variety), “Progressivism” is an exercise in projecting a wish world onto the real world. This is cultural senile dementia.

Another symptom of hyper-moral decadence is to always make the exception into the rule: the tiny minority rules. Everything must be changed for them. In my view, groups like the ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation are busy pulling on the loopholes of the social order in order to unravel it. Criminals have more rights than their victims. Separation of Church and State is interpreted as restricting any public display of religious symbolism, implying that tolerating it and promoting it are the same thing. Military combatants must be read “their” Miranda Rights.


Because a microscopically tiny group of self-described Transgender kids feel they are in the wrong body (why isn’t that considered Body Dysmorphic Disorder?), adolescent boys and girls must have Unisex showers. I suspect that whole condition is like “Recovered Memory Syndrome.” I wonder how many kids would become gender-confused if school counselors, promoting certain ideologies, did not lead them into thinking so. I’m not a mind-reader or a medical man. I don’t pretend to know.

But I do know this: many will automatically denounce my question as definitive proof that I’m a bigot. Thus, they highlight another aspect of today’s hyper-morality (and in this case, I’d call it “post-morality”): an impatience with rational debate, an attitude I am used to encountering with unreasoning and ax-grinding religionists. Silence the bigot! Shout down any non-“progressive” heresy! “We already know we’re right!” This is the essence of Fascism, but the unbelievable historical amnesia of today’s youth forbids them from learning the lessons of history. If they’ve ever even heard his name, they probably think Santayana lives at the North Pole.

Yet another symptom of today’s cultural dementia is the abandonment of logic as a tool of Dead White Male oppression. Radical Feminists have explicitly argued that, since Aristotle was a male who lived in a patriarchal culture, formal logic can be dismissed as oppressive. How convenient! Using the genetic fallacy as the excuse to topple a system of logic that would have shown you how abysmally stupid the genetic fallacy is! Just the other day I heard Geraldo Rivera brushing off the evidence marshaled against Hillary Clinton because it was presented by a “Right-wing” organization. In other words, because I don’t like their results I can simply assume they fudged the whole thing. Oh, I know that, as my beloved ultra-Leftist history professor Robert Beckwith taught me years ago, “Figures don’t lie, but liars sure figure!” But you have to examine the evidence no matter who marshaled it or why.

Another very chic logical fallacy is that of hasty generalization. The whole Black Lies Matter movement, founded upon debunked falsehoods about police murdering black youths (“Hands up don’t shoot!”), is based on vilifying policemen in general because of the actions of a tiny minority, the logic being that if any black youths are killed by police, this must mean that all cops are at war with black youth simply for being black. In practice, according to this ideology, there can by definition be no black criminals because to accuse one is to accuse all, and that would be racist. Any criticism of any blacks becomes racism. Since it would be racist to suggest that the disproportion of blacks in prison is due to the fact of disproportionate black crime would be racist, too, since we know that is impossible. Crime rates must be equal for all ethnicities. If you suggest that, no, there really is a disproportionate crime rate among blacks but that the reason for it, far from the absurd claim that blacks are genetically predisposed to crime, is the decay of the African-American family because of disastrous government welfare policies, even that will be condemned as racist. Merely pointing out a difficulty in the black community is racist, implying blacks can do no wrong. And the resulting Politically Correct hatred of the police, leading to their refusal to fight crime lest they be pilloried and even arrested for it, shows how absurd things have become. Just as absurd as W.B. Yeats saw that they would.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Ever notice that muggers and burglars on TV are almost always white? This is, obviously, because the depiction of a black criminal would supposedly implicate all blacks as criminals. That in itself would be a ludicrous hasty generalization. But the “solution” is to imply that the reverse is true: criminals must never be depicted as black. Either all of them are, runs the murky logic, or none are.

In the same way, hyper-morality decrees that no one criticize Muslim terrorists because to do so would be to vilify all Muslims. Of course, it would not, but the PC cries of “Islamophobia!” imply (unwittingly and falsely) that all Muslims are terrorists. If to condemn some Muslims is to implicate all Muslims, which we must not do, then to defend all Muslims even if some are terrorists, is to imply all Muslims are exonerated. If we say any are evil, we are saying all are, and since that is obviously false, then all Muslims must be innocent, right?

Our multicultural hyper-sensitivity functions as a Trojan horse for the open society to be subverted by its enemies. Decadent, naïve societies, engaged as they are in a Mad Hatter’s tea party, are inviting and facilitating their own demise. They are spreading their own blood on the water: “Come and get us! We’re ripe!”

“What if they gave a war and nobody came?” You may not show up, but rest assured, they will.

So says Zarathustra.

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It All Boils Down to Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius on his death bed
Marcus Aurelius on his death bed

Last night I was watching The Flash and heard Barry Allen say to his foster-father something to the effect of, “You’ve always said that everything happens for a purpose, and I’m beginning to believe it.” I’m not convinced (though, admittedly, I have no connection to the Speed Force, so what do I know?). Let me see if I can demythologize the notion.

Back when I was an Evangelical Christian, I noticed something suspicious about all the big promises about answered prayer and discerning the will of God, plus the teaching that Christians could rest assured that we would lead a charmed life. We could be confidant that God would take care of us. Naturally, it didn’t take very long to realize these promises were false, because equivocal, though we discovered that the hard way. What I mean is that no one had told us about the fine print. Did God always answer prayer? “Well, er, yes, he does, but, heh-heh, sometimes (in fact most of the time!) the answer is a big fat No.” Oh! So that’s the way it works! Bait and switch, no?

But no Christian can dismiss the whole thing as a con game and still qualify as a Christian. His fellow believers, suspecting this, would assure him it wasn’t an option. If you’re a Christian, you have to pray; it’s part of the job description. (And this pops another theological balloon: salvation by grace, since prayer turns out to be a non-negotiable practice of piety.) So what do you do? You keep on praying and you utilize the magic word “faith” as permission to ignore the clanging bell of cognitive dissonance. That is, you undertake to ask God for this or that blessing, for healing, for guidance, etc. You can find some scripture verse that assures you God wants this for you, so you can approach him with confidence! Believe and you shall receive! B…u…t… you don’t. It doesn’t happen. And there’s another cliché designed for that disappointment: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” How foolish you were to think you, a puny mortal, could know the will of the Creator God! So you reproach yourself in proper Christian humility. But you know what’s going to happen the next time you need something from God. You will quickly forget the human incapacity for reading the mind of God, and you will be back on your pious knees, asking God for some boon. And round and round you go.

There was a clue that should have tipped us off, but we ignored it, were implicitly taught to ignore it. We were told to add to any request the proviso, “if it be Thy will.” Aha! If! In other words, God must already have had a plan for you, and you, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, were willing to acquiesce in it if necessary. Why kick against the goads? But if you thought about it long enough to put two and two together, you saw the irony: surely God must know what he’s doing; he needs you to tell him what to do? If God decided to set aside his plan and answer your prayer instead, it would become like “The Monkey’s Paw,” backfiring in ways you hadn’t foreseen. You might as well stop telling God his business.

This is why Meister Eckhart said a praying Christian should say no more than “Thy will be done.” What is such a prayer designed to effect? You’re no longer asking God to grant a request. So what would you be doing when you prayed such a prayer? You would of course be trying to sensitize yourself to the leading of the Spirit, to reorient yourself to be willing to accept what comes to you from the hand of God. And that, friends, is Stoicism.

Zeno cartoonStoicism is an ancient Hellenistic philosophy founded by Xeno of Citium in the third century B.C.E. It was a mutation from Cynicism and upheld the Cynic tenet of “living in accord with Nature by reason.” Stoics were pantheists and believed that the divine Logos permeates all things (kind of like the Force) and controls all things. The only good thing is virtue, and everything that happens to you is, and should be viewed as, a kind of chisel to chip away at your character. You are entitled to enjoy the pleasures of life; just maintain a degree of inner detachment to possessions, hobbies, relationships. That way, you will not feel devastated when you lose these things, as you sooner or later will. Ultimately, these are adiaphora, indifferent things. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Because ultimately, virtue is the only real good. Tragedy strikes? Hey, go ahead and cry, but buck up! You can choose how you will react to it. You can decide that this unpleasant event will nonetheless be an opportunity for character growth if you accept it as such. “Why kick against the goads?” was a Stoic proverb. How foolish to curse your luck; do you know better than God? He sent it to you, smart guy. Acquiesce; you’ll be glad you did.

And this is what all the Christian talk about God’s providential care boils down to: he approves or sends all events your way to assist in the process of your moral sanctification. Sure, you may not like it in the moment, but you will thank God for it one day, all the sooner if you cooperate. “Good” things are all that will happen to you, that is, things conducive to your sanctification. That makes plenty of sense; it’s just not what they told you at first. But you should have suspected as much if you’d ever read James 1:2-4. “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Today’s idea that “everything happens for a purpose” is more vague, kind of slippery. It does not necessary entail theism. It might fit better with Pantheism, since there seems to be no thought of a personal Controller weaving a tapestry, every thread in the right place, with a definite finished product in mind. No God plotting out everything as a vast novel. It sounds more like the impersonal Dominoes game of Karma. But even this is not demythologized enough for me.STAY STOIC

I think that the idea of events being somehow aimed at you (“Special delivery for Mr. Price!”), a form of the doctrine of predestination, is the result of our confusing two very different things. We look back at what has happened to us and we know we can’t change the past. We are stuck with it. But we seem to be inferring that it couldn’t have been avoided beforehand even if we had known what was on the way. This assumption becomes theologized as God’s word (his promise or command) which shall not and cannot return to him void, i.e., having failed in its purpose. I think Stoicism shares this confusion. But, fortunately, the value of Stoicism does not require it.

Forget about second-guessing the past: what if you had done things differently? Why did God make this happen to me? Who cares? The thing is: it has happened, tragic or trivial. Now what are you going to make of it? What are you going to do with it? You’d be wise to cut your losses, to calculate, “What can I learn from this?” “How does this reshuffle the deck?” “What’s the lay of the land now?” “Where do I, where can I, go from here?”

What new opportunities might suddenly have opened up before you? Opportunities for lessons learned, for introspective self-scrutiny, character growth. Why not? The Stoics were right: why waste the opportunity? Why fail to make lemons into lemonade? Is it better just to curse the luck? I don’t see how. This is just common sense. Use the big word “philosophy” if you want. Try to inflate it into theology if you prefer. But I think that is a distraction. It makes you agonize over insoluble pseudo-problems. Or put it this way: theology breeds questions that, as the Buddha said, “tend not unto edification.”

So says Zarathustra.

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CINEMapocrypha

I am thrilled to greet the arrival of several new movies that celebrate my faith! You may have viewed some of them and may be eagerly anticipating others: Batman Versus Superman, Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse. But there are other flicks which I am planning to avoid like the plague: Killing Jesus, Risen, The Young Messiah, Miracles from Heaven, and God’s Not Dead 2. I am about to do what you’re never supposed to do: comment on these flicks without having seen ‘em. Well, not exactly, because I intend only to make a few

broad remarks based on what the commercials reveal about them. If I am somehow misrepresenting them it is because the commercials are misrepresenting them, and I doubt that. But please feel free to correct, chide, and excoriate me if I get any of them wrong.

You probably know what I think of Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Jesus. I wrote a detailed refutation of it, a book called Killing History: Jesus in the No Spin Zone. I very much doubt the movie version is any better. The book lent itself to easy adaptation because it was already fictional in form, though it loudly claimed to be pure history. It was anything but. By the way, unless I am mistaken, O’Reilly sneeringly dismissed my book without profaning his lips with my name or the book’s title, but I’m pretty sure mine was the only book he could have been referring to.

Risen looks to be a fictional apologetic (is there any other kind?) meant to buttress the faith of fundamentalist viewers in precisely the same way that End-Times movies (Left Butt-cheek, er, I mean, Left Behind, Distant Thunder, etc.) do. The Rapture flicks (one can hardly dignify them with the term “films,” and many are so amateurish that I even hesitate to call them “movies.”) try to reinforce the ever-disappointed expectation of the Second Coming by seeming to depict the eschatological events in a contemporary setting, so the viewer may think, “Yes! This is what’s going to happen! It looks so real, not just some fantasy!” It’s all an ad hoc stop-gap that encourages the drooping faith of the faithful. Well, Risen does the same thing with the resurrection of Jesus. This drama of a Roman soldier being dragged kicking and screaming to faith in the resurrection substitutes for the sketchy, fragmentary, and contradictory Easter accounts of the gospels. A connected narrative with well-delineated characters like us, people who might be convinced that Jesus rose from the dead if there were any real reason to think so. Apologists ask, rhetorically, how the skeptic can explain the origin of the gospels’ “eyewitness reports” if there was no event to give rise to them. But none of the gospel resurrection stories read like anyone’s memories. Instead, they closely resemble myths of Pythagoras, Asclepius, and Apollonius of Tyana. Some are cobbled together from out-of-context and unacknowledged quotations from Daniel. Several quite different Easter tales claim to represent the very first appearance of the risen Jesus. Some include important features (e.g., guards posted at the tomb) that no other gospel has but must have had if they were facts. What the gospels offer us is not convincing, so why not pretend we are looking over the shoulder of someone who might have been present on the hypothetical scene? It is, in fact, all pretend, faith based on fiction.

The Young Messiah might as well have been called “Jesus in Smallville.” This Jesus must have arrived on earth in a rocket launched from heaven before it exploded. In one scene, it has Mary tell the boy Jesus not to display his super powers till he is grown and embarking on his ministry—just like Pa Kent tells young Clark in Man of Steel. Of course, parallels with Superman are unavoidable since the Man of Tomorrow was obviously a Christ analog to begin with (though created by two Jewish lads, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster). But the point is that Superman becomes a mirror in which we see what Jesus really is: a mythic superhero.

Interestingly, Jesus’ legend, like Superman’s, developed back-to-front (“The first shall be last,” I guess). Superman debuted in 1938 as an adult hero, but he sold so many comics that his publishers decided to create Superboy, “the Adventures of Superman when he was a boy.” Again, enormously popular, so next we read the exploits of (ready?) Superbaby! The same thing happened with Jesus Christ. In Mark, Jesus’ miracle-working ministry and divine Sonship began when he was an adult (Luke estimates Jesus was “about thirty”). But Christian imagination started filling in the gap of “the missing years.” So Luke tells a story of Jesus at 12 years old, confounding the Temple scribes with his prodigious wisdom. Several Apocryphal Infancy Gospels depict Jesus’ boyhood adventures, e.g., striking dead a playground bully. And Jesus becomes Superbaby in Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity stories, where the Wise Men and the Shepherds visit Jesus’ rocketship, er, manger. The Young Messiah is a cinematic Infancy Gospel.

Miracles from Heaven is based on a medical anomaly that, however, would not even command Fox Mulder’s attention: some kid with neurological problems falls out of a window (or something) and is not only unhurt, but cured. I am not convinced this is other than a pious fraud, but if it really happened—great! But isn’t it jumping the gun to declare it a miracle? Believers constantly turn ignorance into faith (which is why they turn out to be the same thing): “We can’t explain how this happened, so it must have been an invisible deity at work!” That’s like concluding that space aliens must have built the pyramids since we can’t quite figure how the Egyptians could have done it. Similar ancient engineering feats, once baffling, have since been cracked, so it seems worth waiting to see if there is after all some mundane reaction. After all, there’s no reason to attribute epilepsy to demons anymore.

There’s another problem in the premise of this flick. Does it not occur to these people that, if their daughter was really the recipient of a miraculous healing granted by God, it would seem to mean he ignored the prayers of very many other afflicted children? The fact that it didn’t implies that calling it a miracle is really a mystification of saying, “Wow! I can’t believe the luck! Whew!”

And calling it “an act of God” really means the same thing it means in an insurance policy: it was simply an event, dumb luck, not a deed. To say, “God did it” is like saying, “God knows!” In other words, no human being knows. No one did it. But believers, ever eager to claim pretty much anything as evidence for their faith, blur the distinction and wind up thinking the Omnipotent Lord of the Universe broke into the immanent chain of natural causation just for the benefit of one crummy mortal—and not for the rest of the poor saps in the same boat. (You might want to follow up this reasoning in D.Z. Phillips’s book The Concept of Prayer, which shines a Wittgensteinian light on religious language.)

God’s Not Dead 2 looks to be perhaps the silliest of all these flicks, if only because the ax-grinding fraud Lee Strobel is featured in it. It vilifies college professors who undermine the faith of fundamentalist students. In the commercial, the mean old atheist professor informs his flock of tender lambs that the goal of the course is to prove that “God is dead!” (I hate to see Ray Wise in this piece of propagandistic Bullgeschichte. I liked him so much in Robocop, Twin Peaks, 24, Agent Carter, and AM1200.) Of course this is a ludicrous caricature, which Billy Graham’s film Three, which had a similar theme, avoided. But why draw such a vicious distortion? Unless you have some nutty professor who is himself a furious, warpath-treading ex-fundie (and I guess there must be some), God’s Not Dead 2 seems to be demonizing the appropriate task of college education: professors are supposed to challenge their students to consider new perspectives, and this is naturally upsetting for many students. Their alarms start going off (“Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!”), and in their defensive panic, they imagine the professor is fiendishly trying to deprive them of their precious beliefs. Sadly, the same closed-mindedness is everywhere permeating college education these days, and not just vis-à-vis religion. Hyper-sensitive PC students retreat to “safe zones” where they need not fear even hearing views against which their ideology predisposes them. Against the cowardice of fragile fundamentalists and “hear no evil” Leftist ideologues, those who want free and vigorous discussion must repeat Kant’s challenge, “Dare to know!”

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price Patreon CampaignPatronize me! Please!
As several of you have advised me to do, Qarol and I have set up a Patreon account. This is a wonderful way of bringing into the 21st century the venerable tradition of patronage: donors supporting artists, philosophers, and scholars, leaving them free to devote more time to their valuable work. In the past, it was only wealthy aristocrats who patronized creators, but Patreon democratizes patronage, inviting interested supporters to contribute whatever they can each month. As Father Guido Sarducci said about those “thirty-five cent sins,” “they mount up!” As you know, I am busy at (too) many things: this blog, my many book projects, the Bible Geek podcast, debating and speaking, and editing fiction anthologies (plus writing my own stories). I have no teaching position because my well-known writings have made me notorious, but I still must share what I know, share it with you.

It would be a very great help to me and my family if we could receive enough support on a regular basis to pay our bills and to allow Carol to leave her (low-paying) job to become my partner and administrative assistant. I would also love to pay my volunteer Bible Geek producers for their heroic efforts on my behalf and yours. Also, Qarol and I would like to share our Heretics Anonymous discussion groups with you, on-line and in person. Your generosity will help us cover our current projects and enable us to expand our efforts. I  hope you will consider it! Thanks!  https://www.patreon.com/robertmprice

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God Cop, Bad Cop

The poor, sweating bastard had no idea why he had been unceremoniously grabbed off the street. “But why? What did I do?” He’d yelled this repeatedly, but all the two cops would say is, “If you weren’t an evil doer, we wouldn’t be arresting you. Now come along quietly, buddy.” Both men were businesslike, both bearded, which seemed a little strange for police officers. One was visibly older, with snow-white hair. His expression suggested a habit of fierceness. The younger man’s brow betrayed a note of discomfort with what they were doing.

Now the nondescript man, sitting alone at what must be an interrogation table, unadorned except for a few nicks and coffee cup circles here and there, took stock of his Kafka-esque situation, wondering what might happen next. Wasn’t he owed a lawyer? He didn’t know any, and he suspected that any provided for him would really be on the side of the authorities, not him.

But now the door swung open, and the two policemen walked in, sat down across from him. Both held coffee cups. Neither offered any to him. For a moment, they stared at him in silence. Then the older man spoke.

“You’re some poor excuse for a good citizen, and you know how I know? It’s your atheism. You don’t make any secret of it, do you? And atheists have no moral code. They can’t. You might do anything. You might have done anything already. Isn’t that so?”

Stunned, the man replied: “Uh, look, it’s true I’m not religious, I’ll admit, but I’ve never hurt anybody. I’ve never broken any law. What’s more, I don’t plan to! You can’t arrest me for not believing in God…”

Smack!

He recoiled from the blow, feeling the blood trickling from his mouth.

“What the hell was that for? Look, I know my rights, and you…”

Smack again. His nose was bleeding this time.

“Yeah, smart guy? And who gave you those rights? You got no God? You got no rights.”

Blinking the pain away, the prisoner began calculating his chances if he tried to defend himself. As if they’d read his mind, the older cop nodded to his younger partner, who stood up, produced a pair of cuffs, and bound his captive’s wrists. Sitting back down, he leaned over and addressed the other.

“Sarge, are you sure this is necessary? Look at the poor sad-sack! He doesn’t even understand what he’s doing here!”

The senior officer sat back and gave the younger man a look that was hard to interpret: was he annoyed? Impatient? Was there even a note of contempt?

“Okay, sonny boy, you take a crack at him. I’ll give you some room and go for a smoke break.”

Both the prisoner and his remaining interrogator watched the big man leave. Then they turned to look one another in the face.

“I’m sorry about that. I really am. And I’m gonna be even sorrier for what he’s probably going to do when he comes back if I can’t get anywhere with you.”

“Uh, wh… what do you mean?”

The policeman rubbed his brow with eyes momentarily closed.

“Ah, he’s liable to get pretty rough, and I mean rough, as in ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’”

“But how does he get away with this crap? You guys haven’t even read me my rights!”

“There you go, talking about ‘rights’ again. You know, he’s got a point. Without a theistic frame of reference, you don’t even have any rights. Nobody does. Why don’t you reconsider your position, my friend? It would go a lot easier for you if you did. And I’m not just talking about avoiding some missing teeth and broken bones here today. Think of the ways your life could improve if you became a believer! You’d have a spring in your step every day, knowing you’re doing God’s work, obeying his will. And you’d have a whole new family of fellow Christians to love and support you. It’s great! Really. That’s the way you should look at it: the benefits are great! And he,” thumbing in the direction of the door, “wouldn’t have to spill any more of your blood. Won’t you think about it, my friend?”

The man hand-cuffed to the metal chair lowered his head to his chest to think.

“That’s it, pray. Pray and God will hear.”

But the head came back up to eye-level, and the prisoner spoke unwaveringly. “I’m sorry, officer, but it just doesn’t work like that. Any decision I made would be phony, don’t you see? It’s not like buying a new car. I can’t suddenly start believing things because I’d probably feel better if I did. And if I tried to believe just to save my skin, well, I’d know I was kidding myself and so would you. Don’t you see that? You seem like an intelligent guy…”

The policeman slowly shook his head.

“I’m so sorry to hear you say that, my friend. So, so sorry. Because now I’m going to have to do this.”

The blow connected with blinding force, all the more shocking because it came as a total surprise. When the prisoner’s sight cleared, he could see the other cop, the white-bearded one, coming back into the interrogation room, rolling up his sleeves. The younger one was fitting a pair of brass knuckles onto his hand. Worse yet, a third cop was wheeling in a metal cart on which the captive thought he could see a collection of scalpels, pliers, hammers and bone saws. Just before he fainted, he heard one of the cops say, with a harsh chuckle, “Just remember, buddy boy, God loves you, and this is gonna hurt him more than it does you.”

*

Oh, dear reader, did I forget to tell you the characters’ names? The older policeman was Sergeant Jehovah. His younger partner was Officer Jesus. And the prisoner? Well, what’s your name?

*

If you’d like to read more about this nasty theological scenario, may I invite you to purchase a copy of my new book, Blaming Jesus for Jehovah: Rethinking the Righteousness of Christianity, published by Tellectual Press and available from Amazon.com.

So says Zarathustra.

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Newspeak Lexicon

PC cartoon brancoPersonally, I do not much care for the prospect of changing the way I refer to things or people when word comes down from the home office of Political Correctness that it’s time for a vocabulary change. I once tried to fall in line, rejecting the generic use of “men,” “man,” and mankind.” I tried my best to find gender-neutral equivalents.

The easiest trick was using “one” instead of “he” when I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind. (“One will find that one nearly always agrees with Price.”) And it’s not too hard to use plurals instead of singulars that are going to entail a singular pronoun later on. (“Readers will find that they love this column.” Instead of “The reader will find that he loves this column.”) I didn’t mind alternating “she” with “he” when I did use a generalizing singular. (“The reader will find that she loves this column.”)

But after a while I decided I’d had enough. The lords of PC made such a big deal out of it, especially in the academic and publishing circles in which I move, that I figured I’d buck the party line and go back to the more classical sounding “the reader… he” and “man-made” usages. When PC fascists try to enforce Newspeak, I have to react. It becomes my duty to defy them. I won’t say their passwords. It reminds me of a favorite Jesus saying from Sufi sources. Satan appears to Jesus and proposes, “Say, ‘God is one.’” Jesus answers, “It is a true saying, but I will not say it at your behest.”  Exactly. Thanks, Jesus. Don’t let the bastards get you (or me) down!

I find other officially approved jargon to be merely mystifying, self-contradictory, and hypocritical. Get this: you can’t call anyone “colored people” (not that I want to; I never have), but you should call them “people of color.” What’s the hell’s the difference? And if you don’t play that game, you are accused of racism. More Newspeak.

But I find it creepy to use pigmentation as a category description at all. I admit, that does smack of racism to me, because it still implies that the color of the skin matters. We know better than to refer to anyone as “darkies” (God forbid!), but I admit, calling folks “blacks” appears equally racist to me. (I’m not saying you’re a racist if you say that; it just hasn’t hit you yet.)

So I welcome the neologism “African Americans.” It revives the short-lived 60s designation “Afro-Americans,” which is just as good. It is properly descriptive. We are used to denominating various other ethnic groups according to their pre-American heritage, and when we do, we speak of “Irish Americans,” “Italian Americans,” etc. That’s fair and not at all contrived. So “African Americans” does not strike me as in the least forced or ideological. A few more syllables, but who cares?

Has it ever occurred to you that racism is implicit whenever you call President Obama “the first black president”? Of course he is actually biracial. If you flip the coin and decide to label him “black,” this seems to me to hark back to the bad old days of classifying mixed-race individuals (as “octoroons,” etc.) according to how much “black blood” they are “polluted” with. If any African blood makes one “black,” it implies African heritage is a taint. But it ain’t. I am not trying to tell anyone what to say or not to say. But this example seems to me to show what a futile exercise it is to try to “purify” language. After a while, you’ve got to make the best of it and use the tools you have, even if they’re nicked or dull.

liberty gaggedCall me a curmudgeon, but I resist and resent the meaning of words getting ideologically redefined. I guess I’d have to call myself an “anti-sexist.” I’m not entitled to the tag “feminist” because apparently you don’t qualify if you’re not pro-abortion or a member of the Democratic Party. Some would even say politically conservative women do not qualify as true women because they do not hold the party-line on “women’s issues.” The same people will say Bill Clinton was “the first black president” because he was liberal, while Dr. Ben Carson is not really “black” because he is a Republican. (Again, “black” is not my preferred usage, but I am commenting here on current, familiar usage.) I have trouble identifying as an atheist because I am not a liberal, and it is generally accepted that “critical thinkers” can only be liberals. Condescending, propagandist nonsense, I say. Boy, stereotypes just ain’t what they used to be!

How about new terms aimed at eliminating sexism? I’ve always hated neologisms like “chairperson” and “spokesperson,” at least when you’re speaking of a particular individual whose gender you know. Why not call her the “chairwoman”? Why not refer to him as your “spokesman”? You wouldn’t have called Frank Sinatra the Chairperson of the Board. He’d have slugged you. But I do kind of like the egalitarian term “Spokeshole,” don’t you?

But calling the police “police officers” instead of “policemen” makes good sense to me. For one thing, it is already an established usage, just an older one. So you don’t have to feel like you just graduated, properly chastened, from a Communist self-criticism camp. And for another, “police officer” has a nice ring of appropriate dignity. The fact that it is gender-inclusive is icing on the cake.

I also like “fire fighters” better than “firemen.” (I think “fire fighter” is British.) Anyway, I remember how, as a little kid, I heard someone refer to “firemen” and thought they meant arsonists! So I appreciate the extra clarity.

I’m not as used to this one yet, but I wouldn’t mind letting go of the familiar “mail man” in favor of the British “letter carrier.” Again, it sounds classier!

By contrast, I remember once hearing a Politically Correct speaker referring to the college janitor as the “gardener.” I cringed. The speaker felt he was showing respect to the guy who does the clean-up and repairs by using a euphemism to cover the “shame” of what he really did. As if the guy were a member of the lowly Hindu Shudra caste, rendered ritually unclean by his menial labor. Hey! What’s wrong with being a janitor? Nothing I can think of. It’s hard, honest, needful work. The speaker was committing the not uncommon Liberal sin of showing contempt for the very people they pretend to favor.

Another one that riles me is “Native Americans.” I was born in America. That makes me a native American. The American Indians were born here, too, and they are equally native with me. Like mine, their ancestors traveled here from another continent. Mine came from Europe, theirs from Asia, across the Bering Strait. If you want to get more authentic than that, you’re talking about buffaloes.

Yes, but these folks are not from India, so why call them “Indians”? Good question. Columbus mistakenly thought he had reached India when he had gotten only as far as the Western Hemisphere. But they are Asian in origin. I say, that’s close enough, especially since anything you called the whole bunch of them would be incorrect anyway. They exist in many and varied tribal identities.

It would be best if eventually we called non-Europeans by labels as specific as “Italian Americans” and “German Americans,” namely “Ute Americans,” “Ashanti Americans,” “Japanese Americans,” “Apache Americans,” etc. That’s what I’m waiting for.

So says Zarathustra.south park pc speech

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Ad Nauseam

 I have always detested TV commercials—with the too-rare exception of clever, funny ones. Alka Seltzer used to have some pretty funny commercials, like the cartoon with the guy and his stomach sitting in two chairs opposite some kind of counselor, trying to talk out a conflict: “I happen to like pepperoni pizza!” “Do you like indigestion? Cause you’re going to get it every time you eat pepperoni pizza!” You know the solution. I guess my favorite was one inspired by the 1960s Monster Boom. Count Sore Throat Pain was begging viewers not to avail themselves of Isodettes throat lozenges. “Vat do you vant from me, a song and dance? It’s like sticking my heart vit a golden stake!” But most were just boring, tedious, trying the patience till the show you were watching came back on. Not much has changed.

There are still comical commercials, even more of them. These days I get a chuckle out of Geico ads with Peter Pan showing up at his 1965 high school reunion still an annoying adolescent jerk, with the Kraken grabbing golfers out of a water hazard, etc. I like seeing the Coneheads shilling for State Farm and Norm MacDonald impersonating the late Colonel Sanders (who can be expected to start haunting him pretty soon now). But it would never cross my mind to reward these advertisers by switching to Geico insurance, signing on to State Farm if I weren’t already with them, or buying KFC. (It ain’t bad, mind you, but why bother when there are joints around here that serve real Fried Chicken? KFC is to fried chicken as Arthur Treacher’s was to real fried fish.)

In all these cases what you have is really corporate sponsorship of half-minute comedy skits, essentially no different from them sponsoring half-hour sitcoms. The cleverness of their comedy writers is no reason to buy their product. The one has nothing to do with the other. In fact, it reminds me of what Voltaire (I think) said about the epistemological irrelevance of miracles: if I tell you to watch me prove that 2 plus 2 equals 3 by making a ball disappear from my palm, and I do in fact make it vanish, 2 plus 2 still make 4. The one, no matter how impressive, has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

But my enjoyment of these “comedy-mercials” is more than offset by my indignation at other recent advertising trends. It really galls me, for instance, when we are shown numerous individuals, supposedly satisfied customers, all using some contrived, punning slogan (“This is my body of proof!” “This is how I own it.”) as if it were common conversational usage. Are they trying to create a Newspeak of advertising jargon so to ingrain their ads and their products in our subconscious? Well, you know where they can stuff it.

A related, larger gimmick is on display in a zillion commercials in which we are asked to accept the ostensible testimonials of satisfied customers in what are obviously scripted fictions. Take the Aleve commercials, where the voice-over informs us that coach So-&-so has chronic knee pain but soldiers through his day aided by a mere two Aleve pain pills, and “we” asked him to trade them for the day for a bottle of Brand X, as if the whole thing were a medical experiment. And every time (there are loads of versions of this one), the Aleve addict grouses that he/she has to interrupt his/her day constantly to take handfuls of Brand X to do the same job as a mere pair of Aleve. Or we see a series of dizzy models being asked to apply some non-sticky deodorant, eliciting excited praises. Or some computer dating site shows satisfied customers offering grateful testimonies—and then you remember their faces from other commercials they appear in. My point is that those who produce these commercials do not even try to cover their tracks. The ads have the spontaneous genuineness of a scene from a soap opera or a sitcom. They are not even trying to deceive you. They know you know it’s phony. So why do it? It’s as if they’re saying, “Here’s what we wish customers were saying about our product/service.”

It comes to the point that the audience not only knows what they are hearing is not true, but that they even realize it couldn’t be true, just like the cheery government propaganda in Iron Curtain Europe about successful five-year plans that will revive the economy, etc. Of course, government propaganda in our day has sunk to the same depth. It is all spin. What is said is not meant to inform but to manipulate. In the case of TV ads, my guess is that the goal is to model behavior among viewers. Hearing these bogus testimonials again and again, obedient consumers will begin to “think” they ought to behave the same way, whether the products deserve their accolades or not. It is like the laugh track on a sitcom: it tells you what’s supposed to be funny because you couldn’t guess it from the content. You hear the machine guffawing and so you think, “Okay, that must be funny—time to laugh.”

And I rankle at the manipulative slippage of pronouns, like on the Liberty Mutual insurance ads. “You loved your car. You named it Brad. You screwed countless guys in Brad’s back seat. But then you wrecked Brad. You cried. ‘Nothing can replace Brad!’ But then Liberty Mutual calls and you break into your happy dance.” Really? It’s odd that I have no memory of these things! Or Ty Young congratulates me because I saved money and successfully invested it. I did? Obviously, these actors are telling me what they did, but they want me to identify with them, to picture myself doing these things, buying these things, and so to allow myself to adopt these behaviors.

How about the ones where, beneath the talking head giving the testimonial, it says, “Not an actor, but a real customer,” but their testimonial is obviously composed of ad slogans that real customers, even actual satisfied customers, would never naturally use. The captions ought to read, “Actual customer reading a script.”

I remember how, when you, er, I mean when I first read Orwell’s novel 1984 and got to Eric Fromm’s afterward, I bristled when he opined that Orwell’s fictionalized dystopia was not just a satire of the Soviet Union but applied equally to the Capitalist West. I didn’t understand then, but subsequently I have come to realize he was quite right: Television commercials betoken a socio-economic system which seeks to catechize and manipulate us via a constant fusillade of lying propaganda. Maybe being a curmudgeon is the only way to fight back. It is a battle in which I am constantly engaged. And of course my two weapons are the mute button and scathing mockery yelled at the screen. Won’t you join me in the fight?

So says Zarathustra.

TV ADS

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Me-incarnation

I am not concerned about whether the doctrine of reincarnation is true. I am not even sure if it is a coherent notion. Let me put it this way: if it were true, would it make any difference to you? I think it would not, for it is not the “you” you are thinking of that gets reincarnated. It’s not “your” next life. Even if reincarnationism is true, “you” will only be going around once. Why? It’s a question of exactly what is supposed to be reincarnated. It may not be what you think—or who you think.

In ancient Vedic Hinduism, reincarnation began as a belief that some souls were not entitled to spend a blessed eternity on the moon, the destination of the saved. They had some unfinished business down on earth, perhaps some guilt (bad karma) to work off. But then somebody thought of the possibility that while you were back here you might do something else you’d have to atone for. And if there was enough of a new karmic debt, guess what would happen? But if you did more good deeds than you needed to pay off the debt, once you were out of the red you would start accruing good karma, and that would entitle you to rewards. The rewards might come to you in the same life in which you earned them. But if not, you’d have to come back again in order to receive the goodies that were coming to you. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is how reincarnation became a virtually endless cycle of returning.

Look, how many times do you want to endure homework, teen romantic angst, a terrible boss, getting socks for Christmas, getting dentures, losing control of your bladder?  Not such an attractive prospect, is it? This is why the goal of Hindus and Buddhists is to stop being reincarnated. It’s not their version of salvation. More like damnation. The point of Yoga and meditation is to reach a state of “mere witness” in which you cut the nerve of worldly motivation and you transcend worldly concerns. Voila! No more karma, good or bad, and thus no more incarnations! Yippee! Final enlightenment ensues, liberation from the ego, from individuality! The water drop rejoins the ocean.

As the doctrine developed, finer distinctions were drawn. Vedanta Hindus distinguish between the atman and the jiva. The first is the divine spark, unconditioned, unaffected by experiences, aloof like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It is, as Felix Unger once said so well, “the real you that’s underneath the other real you.” The other real you, however, is not really so real. The jiva is the psychological self, the ego-self, the self that shows up in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the one you see in the mirror. This one is conditioned by experiences. It is always changing. It is the one that suffers and rejoices.

What is the relation between the two? The sages say it is like a monkey swinging from tree to tree, a banana clutched in his fist: the monkey is the jiva, and the banana is the atman. It is carried to and fro, blissfully oblivious of the vicissitudes of life, any life, all lives. You see what this means, right? The “you” that enjoys life, that suffers sometimes, that grows and learns, that believes in reincarnation or doesn’t—that’s not the one that survives into a new life. I liken it to a series of runners succeeding one another, each taking the Olympic Torch a bit further along the path to the altar. “You” are merely carrying that bit of fire for a while until it passes into the hands of someone else.

I’m guessing the doctrine of the atman developed as an explanation of the fact that nobody seems to remember a previous life. It’s obvious to me that so-called “past life regressions” are simply what Jung called “active imagination.” Daydreaming. Suggestible people have, under the manipulative questioning of therapists, dreamed up “repressed memories” (fabricated memories) of anal probing aboard a flying saucer, of their parents and neighbors sacrificing infants in the basement. “Past life regressions” are just more of the same.

Americans who abstract what they think is reincarnationism from the Eastern religions which formed its original context, in which it made a certain kind of sense, have made a different kind of sense of it, having embedded it in their own Western set of assumptions. Mistaking reincarnation as a process of self-realization, they have fostered the very confusion of the jiva with the atman that, ironically, causes the suffering from which Hindus and Buddhists desperately seek to escape by escaping reincarnation! As Harvey Cox observed in his 1977 book Turning East, Westerners (e.g., New Agers) have taken a doctrine dedicated to the extinction of the personal self and mistaken it for a technique of therapeutic self-realization.

If “I,” my atman, does get reincarnated, “I,” (the me I know and love) won’t even be there to know it. Because it won’t be the me I identify with. Well, I say, to hell with the atman. It’s somebody, it’s something, else. Yielding it up to “my” next incarnation is no different, in my opinion, from donating a kidney to some sick child after I’m dead.

But I think there is a truth hidden somewhere in all this. Let me back up a bit. Buddhism posits the anatta doctrine, the teaching of “no-self” or no atman. This, of course, raises the question: what the hell is it that reincarnates (or is reborn)? They teach that the psychological self, the ego self, is a composite of skhandas, or component parts: perceptions, desires, thoughts, etc. These are constantly mutating throughout one’s life. Your appearance, your opinions, maybe even your legal name, all change. You don’t even have the same physical body you used to have, since all the cells periodically get replaced! So why wouldn’t the same thing happen from one life to the next? The skhandas are what get reincarnated, changing all the time. (Otherwise it would be resurrection: the very same guy coming back.) But the “self” they constitute is not what finally gets liberated. What does? The Buddha Nature underlying all sentient beings. Me, I identify with the skhandas. But how do they survive death?

By our having children, that’s how. When I look at Victoria and Veronica, see them grow up, constantly talk with them, it becomes obvious that they have received my (and Carol’s) genes, my DNA. Not exactly in the same combinations, of course; they’re not clones. After all, the skhandas, the ingredients are constantly changing like a kaleidoscope.

That takes some of the bite out of knowing I am going to die. The girls are my reincarnation, and in a literal sense. They are my “me-incarnation.” Sounds good to me. I can live (and die) with that.

So says Zarathustra the godless.

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The Austerity Gospel of Gordon Fee

Gordon FeeThe following is not my typical column but rather a recent article I want to share with you. – RMP

I am a grateful student of Gordon Fee, having studied with him from 1974 through 1978.

[1] He is a fine biblical scholar and a keen and powerful preacher. Theologically, he calls himself a “Presbycostal,” because, though committed to his home denomination of the Assemblies of God, he long ago embraced basic aspects of Calvinist, Reformed theology. Most Pentecostals tend to be theologically Arminian, so he is unusual, but there is no inconsistency in his position, and his hybrid views attest his independent thinking. Despite, or rather because of, his Pentecostal orientation, Fee takes a very dim view of certain prominent aspects of today’s Charismatic Movement (which overlaps the Pentecostal denominations while not being simply synonymous with them).

Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels by Gordon FeeSpecifically, Fee detests and disdains the Prosperity Gospel. I want to summarize his objections as put forward in his succinct booklet, The Disease of the Health & Wealth Gospels.[2] It will become evident that, while I have very serious disagreements with my old mentor’s reasoning, I think his main contention is right on target.

[T]he bottom line… always comes back to one continual reaffirmation: God wills the (financial) prosperity of every one of his children, and therefore for a Christian to be in poverty is to be outside God’s intended will; it is to be living a Satan-defeated life… Because we are God’s children, the King’s kids, as some like to put it, we should always go first-class—we should have the biggest and best, a Cadillac instead of a Volkswagen, because this alone brings glory to God (a curious theology indeed given the nature of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion). But these affirmations are not biblical, no matter how much one might clothe them in biblical garb. (p. 3)

Fee aims his guns at Evangelical Charismatics, not at New Thought Christians. There are significant points of difference, e.g., in terms of God-concept, Christology, and biblical interpretation, as we will see. But much or most of his argument is applicable to both camps. Remember, the Prosperity Gospel espoused by prominent Evangelical TV preachers is the result of an earlier generation of Pentecostals, influenced by Charismatic Baptist E.W. Kenyon, having embraced New Thought doctrines.[3]

The Bible as Ventriloquist Dummy

Fee is first and foremost a New Testament specialist, dedicated to the determination of authorial intent in every Bible passage. If one esteems the Bible a source of inspired and authoritative teaching,[4] one must try to determine what the author was trying to convey. And in this Prosperity preachers appear to have little interest. “The most distressing thing about their use of scripture… is the purely subjective and arbitrary way they interpret the biblical text.” (p. 3)

There is a small set of scripture passages to which Prosperity Gospel teachers regularly appeal, and Fee cannot shut his ears to the screaming of the texts at the abuse they are forced to undergo. The most important is 3 John, verse 2, usually (and conveniently) cited in the archaic and easily misunderstood King James Version: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Aha! See that? The Bible says you ought to be prosperous! Uh, not so fast!

This combination of wishing for “things to go well” and for the recipient’s “good health” was the standard form of greeting in a personal letter in antiquity. To extend John’s wish for Gaius [the addressee of 3 John] to refer to financial and material prosperity for all Christians of all times is totally foreign to the text… We may as well argue that all subsequent Christians are out of God’s will who do not go to Carpus’s house in Troy in order to take Paul’s cloak to him (2 Tim. 4:13). (p. 4)

Appeal to 3 John 2 in this manner is tantamount to superstitious incantation. Fee is right. Nor is this the only such text pressed into service for the Gospel of Wealth. Another is John 10:10, “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Did somebody say “abundance”? As in wealth? “What’s in your wallet?”

It should be noted further that “abundant life” in John 10:10, the second important text of this movement, also has nothing to do with material abundance… The Greek word perrison, translated “more abundantly” in the KJV, means simply that believers are to enjoy this gift of life “to the full” (NIV). [Fee explains the Johannine connotation of “life” as “eternal life,” “divine life,” i.e., saving grace.] Material abundance is not implied either in the word “life” or “to the full.” Furthermore, such an idea is totally foreign to the context of John 10. (p. 5)

Reverend Ike in his opulent officeReverend Ike and his Rolls Royce Once Prosperity preachers opportunistically rip these verses out of context, they employ them as a lens through which to view (i.e., to distort) all others. Fee takes Kenneth Copeland to task: for Copeland to take the Rich Young Ruler story (Mark 10:17-22) to mean that “Jesus is affirming his wealth as the result of his lifelong obedience, and was only testing him to give it away, so that he might regain all the more… is… plainly contrary to the intent of the text” (p. 5). Indeed, one cannot keep from cringing. Such an interpretation “is almost totally subjective, and comes not from study but from ‘meditation,’ which in Copeland’s case means a kind of free association based on a prior commitment to his—totally wrong—understanding of the ‘basic’ texts” (pp. 5-6). Here the Bible has become little more than a Rorschach ink blot test.

New Thought Christians may not handle biblical interpretation in precisely the same way as Copeland and his colleagues, but I think Fee’s rebuke applies to them as well. Insofar as the allegorical method is used in service of the New Thought version of the Prosperity Gospel it, too, discards the criterion of authorial intent. This may not seem to be the same sin committed by Copeland, Kenneth Hagin and the rest, since New Thought disavows the biblicism, the biblical literalism, these men claim to embrace. But the result is the same: biblical ventriloquism. The purpose of allegory, whether applied to the Iliad and the Odyssey or the Bible, is to make bad texts look good, to render useless texts useful, by pretending they say something other than what they do say. And this means making the texts seem to parrot our doctrines, which we proceed to read into them, not out of them.

Does God Play Favorites?

Does the Bible really leave one with the impression that the life of piety is the secret of prosperity and worldly success? I think it is fair to say that Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic History (Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings) based on it do point in that direction. The Moses character presents Israel with a list of blessings promised by Jehovah if the nation upholds the statutes of the Covenant, along with a table of curses (misfortunes) if they don’t. But this impression is mitigated somewhat once we realize that the whole thing is actually a centuries-after-the-fact theodicy. That is, this “Deuteronomic philosophy of history” is a contrived and artificial fabrication designed to get the Almighty off the hook for apparently abandoning Israel and Judah to the depredations of their Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors. “Gee, I guess it must have been our fault, huh? Otherwise, we’d have to blame God, and that’s even worse.”[5]

Some point to Job as an example of an upright man amply rewarded by God for his perfect piety. If God could reward him with extravagant fringe benefits, why not us? And the whole membership of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship? Uh, keep reading! The whole point of the Book of Job seems to be that the righteous need not expect God’s blessing and protection, and that they may never know why. Ouch. Just the opposite of any Prosperity Gospel, one would think.

Fee points out that Luke 13:1-5 assures us that the rain and the sunshine fall upon just and unjust alike,[6] while Hebrews 11:32-39 cites Old Testament figures who were faithful and yet did not receive any reward, even any vindication, in this life. Hebrews 10:34 speaks of believers acquiescing in the seizure of their property in times of persecution, i.e., because they were righteous (p. 7). From all this, my old mentor derives what I call his “austerity gospel,” the “good news” that Christians should drop prosperity from their agendas and expectations.

Martyrs Perpetua and FelicitasHere, however, one must suspect that Fee is making the exception into the rule: must Christians be so paranoid as to expect, even provoke, constant persecution, martyrdom as a “life”-style? In the same way, might the New Testament admonitions to renounce one’s possessions have this very circumstance (an atypical one) in view: persecution? Walter Schmithals[7] thought so. Thus Luke 14:33 and similar passages might be analogous to Luke 14:26-27 and Matthew 16:24 which urge Christians to “hate” their families, i.e., to turn a deaf ear to their pleas to save oneself from martyrdom by renouncing one’s faith (as in The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas). The everyday Christian life would hardly be in view here. Schmithals says, “Thus what was recommended to [e.g.,] the disenfranchised Matthean churches as realistic behavior in the concrete historical situation of persecution… would be grossly misunderstood as a timeless principle of ethical behavior.”[8] But that is precisely how Fee understands these passages. It is tantamount to telling all Christians it is their permanent duty to retrieve Paul’s cloak from Carpus’ house.

Fee outlines his alternative view of biblical teaching, one diametrically opposed to that of proponents of the Success Gospel.

In the full biblical view wealth and possessions are a zero value for the people of God…. Poverty, however, is not seen to be better. If God has revealed Himself as the One who pleads the cause of the poor… He is not thereby blessing poverty. Rather, He is revealing His mercy and justice in behalf of those whom the wealthy regularly oppress in order to get, or maintain, their wealth. (p. 7)

This carefree attitude toward wealth and possessions, for which neither prosperity nor poverty is a value, is thoroughgoing in the New Testament. According to Jesus, the good news of the inbreaking of the Kingdom frees us from all those pagan concerns (Matt. 6:32). With His own coming the Kingdom has been inaugurated—even though it has yet to be fully consummated; the time of God’s rule is now; the future with its new values is already at work in the present… In the new order, brought about by Jesus, the standard is sufficiency; and surplus is called into question. The one with two tunics should share with him who has none (Luke 3:11);[9] “possessions” are to be sold and given to the poor (Luke 12:33)… Therefore, if one has possessions, prexcisely because they have no inherent value, he can freely share them with the needy. But if one does not have possessions, he is not to seek them. God cares for one’s needs; the extras are unnecessary; the rich man who seeks more and more is a fool; life does not consist in having a surplus of possessions (Luke 12:15). (pp. 7-8)

It is no surprise to see Fee conclude: “The cult of prosperity thus flies full in the face of the whole New Testament. It is not biblical in any sense” (p. 9).

It’s a Fee, Nothing, Fee, Nothing, Fee, Nothing More[10]

I regret to say that I have several objections to Fee’s alternative view of the “true” gospel message. First, I believe that he unwittingly espouses the very notion he repudiates, namely that God does not prefer poverty to prosperity. The “mercy and justice” he is so sure God will exercise on behalf of the righteous poor is not likely to be in evidence on this side of the grave. Great. Fee promises no one seventy-two virgins waiting in Paradise, true, but ultimately, what’s the difference? Eschatological goodies: “I want a mansion just over the hilltop in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.” But until then, we’re stuck chewing the stale crusts of pious austerity, mere sufficiency. In my book, that’s just another name for poverty.

The further one reads, the clearer it becomes that Fee, along with many of his more “sophisticated” contemporary Evangelicals, has embraced an inexcusably naïve Christian Socialism (if not actual Anarcho-Syndicalism). He disdains the Prosperity message as

an Americanized perversion of the Gospel [which] tends to reinforce a way of life and an economic system that repeatedly oppresses the poor… Seeking more prosperity means to support all the political and economic programs that have made such prosperity available—but almost always at the expense of economically deprived individuals and nations. (pp. 10-11)

Socialism has impoverished every society where it has been adopted. In economic matters, Fee is happy to walk by faith, not by sight.[11] Socialism looks good to him or to anyone else only because of the failure to understand that one need not cut ever-thinner slices of the pie for everyone to get some, because Capitalism makes it possible to increase the size of the pie.

No scarcity symbolI think I see Fee’s Pentecostalism showing itself here. Just as Pentecostals reject Bultmann’s demythologizing,[12] insisting that we still inhabit the ancient world of spirits, demons, and miracles, Fee stubbornly retains the ancient belief in the “limited good,” the notion that there is only so much supply to go around, so that if anyone is wealthy, it must be because he has deprived the poor of their fair share.[13] That was true in the ancient and medieval world, before Capitalism, before industrial and modern agricultural production. Now there is something new under the sun: an affluent middle class. But for liberals, it is not good enough that many or most can be affluent. No, if there are any poor, the whole thing is unjust. Better that everyone live with less than that some have more than others. If universal poverty is the price of universal equality, so be it.[14]

We have seen that Fee rejects the belief that God rewards his darlings with prosperity. I think that, unfortunately, Fee is consistent in applying the same attitude to modern economics. Like all Socialists, Fee seems to deny that industrious, and thus successful, people should be rewarded. We can see the disastrous results of this absurdity in the policies of the present administration. So, for Fee, the Kingdom teaching of Jesus does mandate poverty as a virtue.

Deconstructing Fee’s Austerity Gospel

Gordon Fee’s wide and deep scholarship seems to me to be hampered and hamstrung by his conservative Evangelical doctrine of an inspired and infallible Bible. It gives him an irresistible tendency to harmonize all opinions found in the Bible into a single normative “biblical theology,” which he uses to browbeat the Prosperity Gospel. But I think it is not so simple. I think Fee unwittingly synthesizes three distinct socio-ethical perspectives found in different strata of the canonical New Testament. Combining them, Fee produces a Chimera, a hybrid beast that, like a mule (which combines the genes of a horse and a donkey), is sterile.

First, there is the apocalyptic business about the “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.” Fee has embraced the understanding of gospel eschatology developed by scholars of the post-World War II generation, including Joachim Jeremias, Oscar Cullmann, Rudolf Bultmann,[15] Gȕnter Bornkamm,[16] and Norman Perrin.[17] The idea was that Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God (entailing the Final Judgment, the banishment of all worldly regimes, and the resurrection of the dead) was so soon to dawn that the first rays of it could already be seen and felt, beginning to illumine the spiritual and moral darkness of the fallen, Satan-ruled world. These first signs of the Kingdom’s arrival were the miraculous healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.[18] Reminiscent of Gandhi’s dictum, “Be the change you wish to see,” Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, etc., urged his hearers to live by the standards appropriate to the Millennial era already in the (short-lived) present. This constituted an ethos of indifference toward material possessions, the willingness to love and forgive, the sharing of resources with the poor, etc. Those living such a life among one’s brothers and sisters would be getting a head start on the eschatological Kingdom.

Debacle-ypse Now

In case you haven’t glanced at the calendar lately, the eschatological hope failed to materialize. Mark 9:1 and 13:30 set a time-frame for the end of the present age. It must take place within the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries. But even without such an explicit deadline, the time-frame was implicit in the urgent appeal to repent given the near approach of the Eschaton. Unlike today’s desperate fundamentalists, who twist the texts in order to deny that Jesus set a deadline, Fee’s mentors freely admitted there had been a surprising (i.e., embarrassing) delay of some two thousand years. Cullmann[19] sought to make sense of this by using the analogy of D Day and V-E Day, still fresh in the minds of his readers. Once the D Day invasion occurred, the outcome of the European war was no longer in doubt. The Nazi regime was doomed. But that didn’t mean the war was over there and then. No, there was still a long and difficult “mopping-up operation” ahead. That continued until V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day. That’s when the parades started. Cullmann said that the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the decisive turning-point of D Day, and that the Second Coming would be V-E Day, the final triumph of Christ. Jeremias[20] called this schema “inaugurated eschatology” or “eschatology in the process of realizing itself.” In the meantime, the Church, the Christian community, functions as the embattled beach head of the Kingdom in the midst of its doomed foes. Fee locates the radical ethics of discipleship in that isolated Christian colony amid the blasted heath of Satan’s kingdom.

This is all quite ingenious, but I do not think it can survive the two-millennia-long delay of the Kingdom. Albert Schweitzer[21] understood why. The extreme character of “Kingdom ethics” made sense only on the (now-failed) assumption of an early Second Advent. To take but one example, one is both free to and obliged to give one’s possessions to the poor precisely because there is not going to be any earthly future to keep them in reserve for. Very soon there will be no need for financial resources, savings, provisions. The redeemed and resurrected will dine on the roasted Leviathan and the bread of angels at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Money will be worthless, like Confederate dollars after the Civil War. In the last days before the soon-coming end, it is good for one thing only: to feed the desperate poor who are still hungry during the short interval remaining. Which you’d damn well better do if you hope to prove yourself worthy to survive the Final Judgment. In ordinary circumstances no one blames you for not giving all your savings to feed the poor since you’re going to need the money to feed your family and send your kids to college. But if the end is at hand, your priorities suddenly change. Schweitzer called this the “interim ethic” of Jesus.

Judgment Day BillboardBut suppose no Kingdom comes. You’re left holding the bag. Just like all the poor fools who spent their savings on billboards announcing the end of the world on October 21, 2011, as Harold Camping predicted. Yikes! I guess you and your fellow disappointed zealots can huddle together and pool the little cash you’ve got left and hope you can make ends meet till the Kingdom does arrive some day (fingers crossed!). Then, congratulations, you have become a sectarian conventicle, reassuring yourself that the Kingdom did come in, er, a spiritual sense—or something. Sometimes the members of such a community will consistently embrace the ethics appropriate to life in the (imagined) Millennium, notably celibacy (Luke 20:34-36; 1 Cor. 7:1-2), and then it is doomed to perish by attrition, staving off the inevitable by the expedient of trying to recruit new members, a pretty neat trick with such a gospel! The Shaker sect is extinct for just this reason.

But if they don’t, they’ll have children and gradually return to the norms of “worldly” (i.e., conventionally religious) society. In Weber’s and Troeltsch’s[22] terms, a sect will have become a church. The best you can do to preserve the once-radical values is to accommodate them to real-world (i.e., this-worldly) conditions, what Paul Tillich[23] called the conditions of ambiguity, or of finitude. You have to try to approximate the original ethics as best you can. You have to grapple with “the relevance of an impossible ethical ideal” (Reinhold Niebuhr).[24] And if the Kingdom of God will not come to you, you’ll have to be satisfied with coming to it, when you die and wing your way skyward. So the way I see it, Gordon Fee is trying to hold on to the Interim Ethic of an apocalyptic Jesus, though it does not fit the real world—any more than Pentecostal insistence on supernatural miracles does.

Lone Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

The second aspect of gospel ethics that Fee mixes into his recipe for radical discipleship is the ascetical regimen of the wandering “brethren” (3 John 5-7; Matt. 25:31-46), variously described by scholars as “itinerant charismatics” and “itinerant radicals.”[25] On into the second century there was a class of wandering missionaries who circulated among the Christian communities teaching, prophesying, etc. They were nearly indistinguishable from the wandering Cynic philosophers and were often confused with them.[26] These were the Christians who preserved (and, we may suspect, produced) the Missionary Charge texts of the gospels (Mark 6:7-11; Matt. 10:5-23; Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-16). They pointed with pride to their radical itinerant lifestyle: they had actually left home, family, lands, and money to spread the word of Christ (Mark 10:28). Any who dared laugh off their thundered preachments would surely face the wrath of the Son of Man when he should come to wipe the snide smiles off their faces (Mark 8:38). Who but these strange, homeless scarecrows would ever have preserved sayings like Luke 14:26? Who else would have had an interest in admonishing Christians not to have dinner parties for their friends and family but instead to invite the poor and homeless (i.e., the holy itinerants themselves!), as in Luke 14:12-14? (Of course, the Rich Young Ruler story must have been a “discipleship paradigm,” a recruiting story for the itinerants, who were “looking for a few good men.”)

As Stevan L. Davies[27] recounts, these “apostles” eventually lost the support of theReligious pilgrim communities who gave them a meal and a night’s shelter because they had less and less to say that was relevant to the increasingly bourgeoisie households and congregations to whom they sought to minister. Think of the Kafkaesque protagonist of the anonymous The Way of a Pilgrim, who wandered through Russia chanting the Jesus Prayer. I think, too, of the sackcloth-clad Children of God who used to crash suburban church services, beating their wooden staves on the floors and rebuking the complacent pew-potatoes.[28]

Christian communities quickly found such “radical discipleship” eccentric, fanatical, and impracticable, as modern Christians do. We would cut these distressing verses from the gospels if we dared, but we can’t, so most of us politely ignore them. But not Gordon Fee, who uses them as ingredients in his recipe for world-negating, poverty-inducing Christian Socialism. But it doesn’t fit reality any better than it ever did.

At Ease in Zion

The gospels show an awareness of a third, separate ethic, this one for the settled Christianbuddhist monks communities on whose support the itinerants depended. We are told to “give to him who asks of you” (Matt. 5:42), which inculcates a habit of generosity and philanthropy, but such advice makes no sense addressed to people who have repudiated all possessions in one fell swoop, as Jesus summons the Rich Young Ruler to do. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha (John 12:1-2) are not counted as sinners and villains for retaining enough money and property to provide charity and hospitality to an itinerant like Jesus! Had Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna and the rest (Luke 8:1-3) simply dumped all they owned, they would not have been in the position to subsidize Jesus and his men in their travels, would they? And the talk about receiving a prophet’s reward if one gives the prophet a glass of water (Matt. 10:41-42): surely the point of this is to buy good karma by subsidizing those who actually have embraced the rigorous discipline of the itinerant[29] (just as Buddhist laity donate food to the monks who go begging house to house).

Fee’s synthesized “gospel of the Kingdom” fails by ignoring the serious difference between this more domesticated Christian ethic (on full display, for example, in the Pastoral Epistles) on the one hand and the apocalyptic Interim Ethic and the Dharma Bum regimen of the itinerant radicals on the other. Fee does not see the difference between the three varieties because of his conservative antipathy to form criticism which teaches us to bracket the editorial placement of originally isolated sayings into secondary narrative contexts.[30] Form-critical scrutiny reveals the three very different ethical models, and the different types of Christians for which they were originally intended. The harmonized hybrid Fee creates winds up holding settled, workaday Christian families responsible to keep heroic standards never intended for them. The result is just a new version of traditional, judgmental Christian browbeating, reinforcing hopeless guilt by imposing burdens the laity can never hope to bear (Luke 11:46; Acts 15:10).

 

Charismagic

I have leveled an array of serious criticisms against Gordon Fee’s “austerity gospel” and the biblical basis he offers for it. But I cannot help thinking he is quite right in his most damning judgment on the Prosperity Gospel.

Despite all protests to the contrary, at its base, the cult of prosperity offers a man-centered, rather than a God-centered theology. Even though one is regularly told that it is to God’s own glory that we should prosper, the appeal is always made to our own selfishness and sense of well-being. (p. 10)

Kenneth Copeland
Kenneth Copeland
Joel Osteen
Joel Osteen

This seems to me hard to deny. The Evangelical version of the Prosperity Gospel espoused by preachers like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen remains theistic. They still believe in a personal deity, and the result is that they reduce God to a servile genie eager to grant wishes. New Thought, on the other hand, has moved over to Monism and Pantheism, diffusing the deity into a mist of divine potentiality or distilling God into an impersonal set of supposed cosmic laws to be wielded unto the fulfilling of one’s desires. This marks the retrogression of religion to magic as distinguished long ago by James Frazer.[31] As he understood the matter, magic is “occult science,” the attempted effecting of boons by means of the supposed hidden laws implicit in the universe, no different in principle from the long-unsuspected forces and laws of physics. By contrast, religion is the adoration of invisible Persons of whom one humbly makes requests in prayer and sacrifice. The logic of religion is “Thy will be done,” while that of magic is “My will be done.” New Thought, as I understand it, falls into the latter category. There is no real God to worship. There is only the Force to manipulate. New Thought qualifies, in sociologist Bryan Wilson’s terms, as a “gnostic-manipulationist sect.” James C. Livingston (who lists Scientology and Transcendental Meditation under this rubric) defines such a sect this way:

What is distinctive about this kind of group, sometimes called a cult, is the fact that it fully accepts and pursues what others would see as worldly goals. What it seeks is not withdrawal from or an indifference toward the world but, rather, appropriation of the right spiritual means or techniques by which to cope with [the world] or to achieve worldly goals. Salvation essentially means health, happiness, success, status, wealth, or long life.[32]

Don’t get me wrong; I am all in favor of “visualization” and “manifesting” as means of achieving one’s financial and material goals.[33] I just think that to place these things in a religious or theological context confuses matters and risks cheapening religion. Remember, the Buddha remarked that, though praying to the traditional gods for rain and a good harvest might actually get you the desired results, none of that had a thing to do with liberation, the proper business of religion. I’m with Fee on that one.


[1] Not that it makes any difference, but for the record, I first sat under Fee’s teaching at a college youth retreat in 1974, which led me to seek him out at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he became my academic advisor. I took courses with him between 1976 and 1978.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health & Wealth Gospels (Costa Mesa: The Word for Today, 1979).

[3] D.R. McConnell, A Different Gospel (Peabody: Hendrickson Publications, 1995).

[4] There are, of course, other roles that scripture plays in different types of theology. See David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).

[5] Fee would never see the Deuteronomic History as tendentious fiction; he is too much of a conservative Evangelical for that. But I think this more critical approach underlines his broader point.

[6] Though I can see Prosperity Gospel fans pointing to James 5:16b-18 as implying that God’s favorites can control the weather as they prefer by means of prayer!

[7] Walter Schmithals, The Theology of the First Christians. Trans. O.C. Dean, Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 346: “Luke’s paraenesis [hortatory instruction] regarding poverty and possessions is directed toward Christians who are oppressed by the experience of persecution.”

[8] Schmithals, p. 345.

[9] Though, technically, that’s John the Baptist talking, not Jesus.

[10] Tim Rice, “Damned for All Time/Blood Money.” In Jesus Christ Superstar (Universal City: MCA, 1970).

[11] I call this sort of “faith” politics “political snake-handling.” Obey what (you think) the Bible says and let the chips fall where they may! For Christian Science believers and “Doctor Jesus” Pentecostals, it can mean trashing your child’s insulin; for Fee, Ron Sider, and their fellows, it means collapsing the American consumer economy. Jim Wallis once admitted to me he thought the collapse of our economy would be a good thing.

[12] Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology.” Trans. Reginald H. Fuller. In Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (NY: Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 1-44.

[13] Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), Chapter 4, “The Perception of Limited Good,” pp. 71-93.

[14] Fee insists that his readers run right out and get a copy of Ron Sider’s leftist screed Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I would suggest that, when they finish Sider, they take a look at David Chilton’s counter-blast Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. (Okay, Chilton is a Christian Reconstructionist nut, but he’s right about Sider.)

[15] Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word. Trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero (NY: Scribners, 1958).

[16] Gȕnter Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth. Trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson (NY: Harper & Row, 1960).

[17] Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus. New Testament Library (London: SCM Press, 1963).

[18] Reginald H. Fuller, Interpreting the Miracles (London: SCM Press, 1963), pp. 39-42.

[19] Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History. Trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), p. 84. In the classroom, Fee would regularly use Cullmann’s analogy.

[20] Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology. Trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1971), Chapter III, section 11, “The Dawn of the Reign of God,” pp. 96-108.

[21] Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion. Trans. Walter Lowrie (NY: Schocken Books, 1964), Chapter III, “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 94-105.

[22] William H. Swatos, Jr., “Church-Sect Theory.” In Swatos, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary (Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 1998) (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/cstheory.htm).

[23] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology II: Existence and the Christ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 4, 80, 131-133, 144, 162.

[24] Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (NY: Meridian Books, 1956), Chapter 4, “The Relevance of an Impossible Ethical Ideal,” pp. 97-123.

[25] Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity. Trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 8-30; Theissen, Social Reality and the Early Christians: Theology, Ethics, and the World of the New Testament. Trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), Chapter 1, “The Wandering Radicals: Light Shed by the Sociology of Literature on the Early Transmission of Jesus Sayings,” pp. 33-59.

[26] F. Gerald Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 2000).

[27] Stevan L. Davies, The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), p. 36.

[28] Ronald M. Enroth, Edward E. Ericson, and C. Breckenridge Peters, The Jesus People: Old-Time Religion in the Age of Aquarius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 24, 34; Michael McFadden, The Jesus Revolution (NY: Harrow Books/Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 89-90; Daniel Cohen, The New Believers: Young Religion in America (NY: Ballantine Books, 1975), p. 6.

[29] J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Financial Aspects of the Resurrection.” In Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005), p. 397: “In that world the idea reigned that if one pays another to be righteous one becomes righteous oneself.”

[30] Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition. Trans. John Marsh (NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 11, 39-40.

[31]  See the discussion of Frazer’s dichotomy in Mischa Titiev, “A Fresh Approach to the Problem of Magic and Religion.” In William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach (NY: Harper & Row, 3rd ed., 1972), pp 430-433.

[32] James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion (NY: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 147-148.

[33] Shakti Gawain, Creative Visualization (NY: Bantam Books, 1982).

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