Posted: Nov 16, 2013 12:25 am
by Byron
I open by accepting and heartily returning Will's good wishes.

It has been a pleasure to debate, and debate hard, with such a gracious and inventive opponent. Will has not pulled his punches, and neither have I, and far from detracting from the debate, this friendly argument has been the making of it. When focused and controlled, structured argument is a crucible, that burns away the surface to reach the core. It was my privilege to contribute.

It's been a blast, man.

Thanks are also extended to the mods for their support, and to the peanut gallery. I trust we entertained!

All good things, however ...

I open by summarizing the core of my case for Christianity's irrationality, and why I believe it has been met. I give a final example, and then close by returning to what I said on the resurrection: it doesn't have to be like this.

The Sleep of Reason

I saw a slowly-stepping train --
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar --
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore. ...

... The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range. ...

... 'O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive? ...

Throughout, my case for the irrationality of Christian orthodoxy has rested on these three pillars:-
  • Christianity has no basis for its claims
  • its claims are incoherent
  • its claims contradict one another

Any one of these pillars would be fatal to Christianity's claim to be a rational faith: combined, it's a wipeout. Orthodox Christianity substitutes power-backed assertion for evidence-based reason. It demands obedience instead of holding debate. It doesn't search for the truth because it believes that God has already revealed it. It is the definition of irrationality.

Will says in his closing, "I set out to eliminate that dogma to rationally defend Christianity, instead of embracing the dogma that serves to keep Christianity in a sense of irrational perception, I challenged it in a manner which allowed me to use it." What greater testament could there be to the irrationality of the Christian faith than its advocate's refusal to defend its tenets? This is the gospel we receive, and unlike the gospel of orthodoxy Christianity, it convinces.

Will is not holding back in saying this. He has argued vigorously and passionately throughout. He is saying it, simply, because he is a rational person defending an irrational position, and that is where the evidence leads. If I was arguing his position, I'd have to say it, too. Christian irrationality is not a matter of opinion. It is an objective fact.

Bold claim? Yes, and here, for a last time, is an illustration.

It's A Sin Because It Is

... Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: "This is figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!" ...

Thomas Hardy, God's Funeral

As I said when we covered biblical reliability, Paul of Tarsus is not even wrong when he includes, in the first of his letters to the church in Corinth, his unjustified condemnation of all homosexual lovemaking. But don't take my word for it: here is Stanton L. Jones, the Provost of Wheaton College, writing a composite of meetings that he has had with gay people.* In response to the armor-piercing question, "Why?" Jones says:-
I am not sure I have a great answer for that. The Scriptures relate the commands but do not give extensive justifications of those commands. Here are my few tentative ideas.

The authority fallacy at its purest. God commands, we obey, ours is not to reason, just to shut up and do as we're told. Will has said that Christianity isn't much good at the "why" questions. No kidding.

OK, maybe that's just Mr. Jones. One of the charges laid at those who criticize the faith is that they seek out easy targets. They are taken to task for not seeking out sophisticated moderates.

Right, so let's do that.

Rowan Williams, scholar and former Archbishop of Canterbury, is as sophisticated and as moderate a Christian as you could hope to meet. What's his justification for condemning all sexual activity between people of the same gender?
I think ... the scriptural and traditional approach to this [gay sex] doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it ...**

His response, when the interviewer from the London Times asked for Williams' personal opinion: "Silence, then: 'Pass.' "

Well, by saying nothing, that says it all.

Williams, sophisticated, moderate Williams, is no different in substance from the evangelical (himself a "sophisticated moderate" within his own sphere). Gay sex is wrong not for any reason, but because a source of authority, be it scripture or tradition, says so. Lesbian and gay Christians are commanded to live frustrated, sexless lives of shame and self-loathing because they are ordered to do so by an ancient text buttressed by habit. Sophisticated moderates figure that this senseless cruelty is, somehow, made OK by words on a page. Just obeying orders, y'see.

Such is the working of the mind enslaved by dogma.

Call it might makes right, call it authoritarianism, call it power-worship: what you cannot call this unreasoned demand is rational. Reason offers proposition and justification, dogmatism barks orders. The command was irrational when it was penned, and it's irrational now. Only an irrational faith in thrall to power would compel its members to be bound by it.

The are bound because their dogma, a dogma that Will himself rejects, has frozen in time a dead worldview, rooted in the cosmology and assumptions of 2,000 years ago. If Christianity has a future, it must escape the chains of its beginning.

Let My People Go

... The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, ...

As I noted early in this debate, Orthodoxy Christians remain shackled by the chains of their faith's apocalyptic birth.

The failure and death of Jesus of Nazareth has led to an edifice of irrationality built to explain the unpalatable fact that Jesus was wrong. He predicted the end and it didn't come. As I said when discussing the claimed resurrection of Christ, early Christian writings -- the anonymous gospel attributed to John, the forged letters of Peter -- start to offer explanations for the tardy endtime, and they've been coming ever since. Christianity just happens to resemble a series of saving-throws for Jesus, the flawed human who inadvertently founded a religion that remade the world.

The orthodox can break free without abandoning their religion. They would, however, need to regenerate it. As I said in my first post:-
Liberal theology sought to reconcile Christianity and rationality by removing the supernatural. It did so because it recognized the conflict between authoritarianism and rationality. Christianity's tragedy that its majority have ignored this wisdom, retreating to a never-never land of evangelical fantasy and magisterial assertion.

Christian orthodoxy is not, as it claims, timeless truth, but a time-bound human creation. It might have enjoyed a measure of reason when we knew less. The idea of original sin is an understandable response to the tendency of humans to be enslaved by instinct. When you know that it is instinct, know that we are evolved primates, carrying with us the genetic heritage of our forbears, the rational course is to reject and replace the previous hypothesis. Christianity orthodoxy instead makes it a dogma, one it attempts, with varying degrees of success, to reconcile with new data.

This dogmatic mindset unites the fundamentalist and the evangelical and the moderate. They are different in degree, not in kind.

What if orthodox Christians did break free? What if they could admit that Jesus was a man who was sometimes wrong, that Paul was a man who was sometimes wrong, admit that the Bible is a human creation, in authorship and canonization, admit that revelation claims of all kinds rest on flawed human assertion? What if they finally, after twenty centuries of rapture, misery, exaltation, suffering, kindness and cruelty, and all in-between, admitted that orthodoxy is nothing but a human construct, based on power, not reason?

Would they still be Christians? Yes, why not? You do not reject authoritarianism in orthodoxy in order to employ it yourself. Words record usage, they do not dictate it. The definition of Christian can expand.

They could still meet, celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Jesus, still tell the stories of his life, and be inspired by them to make the world as it is into the world as they believe it should be. Not Christendom reborn, but a world where we are kinder to one another in that crucial measure.

These Christians would be living their lives in memory of Jesus. The example of his life -- and just as importantly, its effect on his earliest followers -- could transform theirs. He would, in no supernatural way, but in a way no less actual or profound for that, be their savior. Salvation obtained not through divine blood sacrifice but through example and the opening of a potential once unknown.

They could believe in an external god of some kind if they wanted. The undiscovered country beyond death is not open to inquiry, although the cold inference from reality as we perceive it gives little hope to many who refuse to proceed beyond where the evidence can lead. Those who feel differently would have faith, while acknowledging that such faith is tentative, and never grounds to over-ride evidence, however painful that evidence may be to accept.

This is not some fallacious golden mean. There is no middle way between dogmatism and rationality. The two are enemies, at-odds, and irreconcilable. As I have illustrated time and again throughout this debate, and once more in this closing, the "sophisticated moderates" are different from the Bible-thumpers in degree only. If you allow dogma an inch, you are enslaved, and either do harm yourself, or give aid and comfort to the harmful acts of others. What you can never be is rational. A rational dogmatist is not just a contradiction in terms, it's a contradiction in essence, since dogma and reason are at war in their function.

One or the other, but not both.

World Without End?

Perhaps the birth of a rational Christianity is a futile hope, and Christianity will go on has it has done, inspiring some, crushing others, in the name of its ancient creeds.

Maybe the prognosis is worse still. Perhaps rationality is a blip in our human story, and the flint of theocratic power-worship will rise again. Again perhaps, but if it does, it might crush its opponents, but it can never win the argument.

Christian orthodoxy is the creed of the heartbroken reborn, rooted in the emotions of women and men who experienced joy in the face of Jesus' failure. It is irrational to its core and will remain so, for rationality follows the evidence where it leads, and the foundation stones of Christian orthodoxy are denial, its walls dogma, its buttresses power.

Radicalism goes back to the roots. Christianity got it wrong at the beginning, but it does not have to get it wrong now. It can start over. A second resurrection, rooted not in denial, but acceptance and hope.

If this renaissance never comes, the best that can be hoped is that orthodox Christianity will stay in its ghetto, a ghetto that contracts under the weight of societal rejection, until it implodes, and is done.

If that's the path, it's a sad end, and not an end that I would wish on the faith.

For Will is right to say that dogma isn't its all. Christianity gave us pogroms, witch-hunts, the divine right of kings and the divine subjugation of the enslaved; and it gave us cathedrals, frescos, sacrificial love, the poetry of Milton and the courage of Maximilian Kolbe. It is a human construct in the best and the worst of ways. The good is separable from the bad.

Or that's what I believe, anyway. I cannot prove it. I claim no revelation to comfort me nor dogma to guard me. In the end I have only faith.

* * *

... Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

Thank you Will, thank you all.

* Jones, Stanton L., "Help, I'm Gay," Leadership Journal, Fall 2013 -- relevant quotes included at Patheos
** Williams, Rowan, interview with the London Times, September 2010