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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

I’ve commented on this blog in the past about evolution (that is, that humans evolved from earlier life forms) and how there isn’t as much support for it in the United States as the rest of the developed world. Much of the opposition to evolution is because of the strong influence of evangelical Christianity which staunchly opposes it because it contradicts its interpretation of its holy text. This interpretation is not universal among all Christians; for example, many Catholics believe in evolution, as do many mainline Protestants. However, evangelical Christians are committed to opposing it.

This is to evangelical Christianity’s detriment for two reasons:

  1. It creates a major credibility gap.

    The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s not as if there is a debate in the scientific community about whether or not it happened; it did. Instead, the debate is about how it happened and the factors that influenced it.

    By trying to portray the science as arguing about whether or not it really occurred, rather than the specific factors, the against-evolution movement undermines their own credibility. It makes them look like they are willing to sacrifice clear evidence in order to maintain a specific religious belief that is not grounded in reality.

  2. It misses out on some powerful insights.

    By looking at evolution, Christians who reconcile their beliefs with our own species’ developments gain insights that you just can’t get by believing in a “The world was created as-is” model. I’ll explain what I mean below.

I just finished reading the book The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. In it, he looks at the development of our own species and how similarly we are related to chimps and pygmy chimps. The reason we humans are called the third chimpanzee is because our DNA is 98% similar to chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee DNA. We are more closely related to chimps than we are to gorillas; but chimps, too, are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas.

The book looks at the evolution of human sexuality, humanity’s great leap forward, and why we get addicted to drugs. However, the part that recently blew my mind what the section on genocide.

One of the things that irks me about evangelical Christianity is its insistence of pointing at itself as a compass of human morality but then gets certain things about morality completely wrong!

Specifically, it gets genocide completely wrong.

There are parts in the Old Testament where God orders the destruction of foreign people by the Israelites. He orders the mass killing of men, women, children, and infants of the Amalekites in Joshua 15:1-3.

He also orders the destruction of city after city after city in Judges (it was such a common occurrence that each destruction gets a single verse; only Jericho has more to the story because it is unusual that Joshua left some people alive – for some of the inhabitants helping the Israelites). For any group of people that borders Israel, the Israelites are to destroy every single inhabitant including the animals. For distant cities, they are to kill all the men but can keep the women and children for themselves (Deut 20:10-14).

Modern Christians often gloss over these passages, and rightly so. They are hard to read and we usually dismiss them as “Well, that was a different time.” Skeptics challenge Christians to say “How can you believe in a God that orders these types of atrocities?” Christians are frequently forced to demure or say “Only God knows” which is an honest answer, but seems to concede the point to the skeptics in hopes that there is a really good reason for it somewhere out there.

Unfortunately, there are some Christian theologians who defend God’s actions. One of these is Norman Geisler, one of evangelical Christianity’s theological All-Stars. He’s written numerous books and appears in Lee Stroebel’s “A Case for Faith.” In the book, Stroebel flat-out asks Geisler how he could believe in a God that order such cruel atrocities.

Geisler then gives what I think is one of the most cringeworthy defense in modern Christian apologetics.

“God didn’t order any atrocities.” He goes on to say that the Amalekites were evil so God has to destroy them. Furthermore, he even has the audacity to say that it was an act of mercy.

In that thoroughly evil and violent and depraved culture, there was no hope for those children.  This nation was so polluted that it was like gangrene that was taking over a person’s leg, and God had to amputate the leg […] In a sense, God’s action was an act of mercy

That is, killing all the men, women, children, and infants was an act of mercy.

When I read that, it makes me angry. It makes me madder than a yak in heat.

Steaming mad

It makes me angry because genocide is always wrong. It makes me think “What the hell is wrong with you? How can you call something so evil as something that is actually good?” The targeted killing of an ethnic group is not an act of mercy, it is a whitewashing of history; the Israelites wanted the land so they killed the locals and then later rationalized it by saying that God told them to do it.

Geisler has to do the same thing. Because he believes in Biblical inerrancy – an ideology – he has to rationalize his own beliefs. He believes:

  1. The Bible never makes a mistake.
  2. God is good.
  3. God ordered the genocide of the Amalekites.

Since we usually think of genocide as morally wrong (which it is), Geisler experiences cognitive dissonance. When our brains experience cognitive dissonance, it throws out what is causing it. Since the “genocide is wrong” is causing the dissonance, Geisler tosses it out and rewrites it as “genocide is okay” and then comes up with a bunch of reasons to justify it. This is common in human psychology and is known as “confabulation.”

But notice what happens here – clinging to Biblical inerrancy is more important to Geisler than standing up against genocide. He’d rather maintain his ideology than stand up for morality.

And that’s what sometimes makes me so mad about evangelical Christianity – this clinging to ideology. If you can’t even get it right about genocide (which is pretty much black and white) because ideology is more important to you than anything else, how can we trust you to get it right about any other moral issue? How do I know that you’re not blinded by your ideology on every issue?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But hold on, it doesn’t stop there.

I was reading Jared Diamond’s book and there’s a section on genocide. It turns out that genocide is common in our species’ history. It has occurred time and again before Columbus’ discovery of the New World, afterwards up to World World 2, and even since then (Rwanda in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s, Cambodia in the 1970’s, Bosnia/Croatia/Serbia in the 1990’s, Bangladesh in the 1960’s, and so forth; there are too many to name). Many of these have over 100,000 victims.

It is so common in our species’ history that it can’t be considered an anomalous aberration. It seems to be a regular occurrence (but fortunately is declining according to The Better Angels of our Nature) and is probably encoded in our genes, a byproduct of evolution that we are still living with today.

The problem of genocide is that we bystanders are not good at stopping it. Think about it for yourself – out of all the victims of genocide, how many do you identify with?

There’s probably only one group – the Jews when they were massacred by the Nazis in World War II. You may also sympathize with the only other group that gets attention these days, the Armenians who were targeted by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. All the other groups we have some sympathy for but not a lot.

Why do we sympathize with these two groups?

Diamond has three reasons. The first is that the victims in World War II were white, just like us. The second is that the people doing the atrocities were our enemies in war so we are conditioned to hate them. The third reason is that there are articulate survivors in the United States who go to a great deal of effort to make us remember.

So that’s depressing. I admit that I don’t identify with too many other groups of genocide survivors other than the victims of World War II.

What causes it?

There are a few things that unleash genocide:

  1. The first is that we humans are good dividing the world into groups of “them” and “us.” We take care of members of our own group and view members of “them” with suspicion. However, over time, attacking people because they are “them” but not “us” has fallen out of favor.
  2. The second way that we justify our attacking other people is by blaming the victim. We sometimes use self-defense as a reason for pre-emptive attack. Even Hitler claimed that the Poles were attacking the Germans as a reason to attack Poland.

    Another way we blame the victim is saying they don’t possess the right race or religion or political belief, or that we are civilizing them. Because they are wrong or backwards, they need to be destroyed so we can cleanse that society. This is one of the reasons that the Germans attacked Russia – because the Russians supported communism. But it’s also a reason that the Khmer Rouge emptied their country of intellectuals – they didn’t believe in the same things the regime believed in and therefore had to be purged.

    If you read through some of the American leaders’ views on the native Americans, they justified their extermination by saying that they weren’t civilized. The British settlers in Australia said the same thing about the native Aborigines and Tasmanians. They succeeded in eliminating the native Tasmanians in the 1800’s.

Look at how Geisler’s defense of genocide perfectly aligns with modern times. He both identifies with the aggressors (the Israelites) by dividing them into “them” (the heathen) and “us” (the chosen), and then rationalizes the genocide by saying that the others didn’t have the right set of beliefs, and denigrated their own customs and cultures. They were not civilized.

Geisler’s defense of genocide is not an example of how God’s orders were really an act of mercy, it is instead an example of how people rationalize their own actions even when they are evil, and the patterns Geisler uses are no different than anyone else’s.

In other words, Geisler is just another human.

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But, here’s the thing. My point in all of this is that Norman Geisler is just another human.

Like you.

And like me.

Evangelical Christianity thinks that these passages are in the Bible and need to be defended as morally right.

I have a different interpretation. It’s probably not the right one, but it’s the one I am going to use.

These passages are in the Bible as an example of how bad human nature can be – we people are capable of committing acts of evil and then rationalize that they were good by attributing them to God. These acts of evil are part of our nature, they are hardwired into us.

Thus, these passages are not warnings to the heathen nations that they are on thin ice with God, but rather that we are on thin ice with ourselves because we are all human. We all inherited the same nature because it’s encoded in our genetic profile. It’s something that has stuck with us from evolution. Time and circumstance has shown repeatedly in our history that this is something we do over and over again. Worse yet, we use God and morality to justify it. These passages show us what can happen if we don’t actively curb these impulses.

I think Norman Geisler and evangelical Christianity are wrong to defend these passages as morally good. Instead, we should look at them as a warning to ourselves as that which lurks beneath the surface.

It’s almost as if the writers are saying “How well do you know yourself?”

If you think these passages mean that God punished the wicked, you don’t know yourself well at all. If, however, you think that either one of these groups of people could have been you, then you know yourself a lot better.

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Lest you think you and me are off the hook, we’re not.

Why don’t we identify with the victims of genocide? The answer seems to lie in the fact that genocide introduces a deep psychological numbing on the victims and the perpetrators. Victims often experience Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, and perpetrators become numb to doing it. While attackers at first have to overcome their inhibitions, over time they don’t need to anymore. They are like robots that go through the motions. Trained psychiatrists have a hard time dealing with and after hearing it over and over again, they experience less distress and more distancing of themselves from the stories. If trained professionals can’t handle it, how can we expect the average layperson to deal with it?

Yet deal with it we do by rewriting history. We romanticize the old country by envisioning cowboys and indians, something I did (I think) as a kid. But more than that, I think of cultural and anthropological genocide as something my ancestors did, and I was not responsible for. I wasn’t around to do it, even though I’ve benefited by the 90% reduction in native population that resulted from my ancestors landing in this country (or, to be more fair, arriving in the 1900’s to find the land mostly empty – wait, did I just do it again?). After all, what were the natives doing? Were they developing the land?

But these rationalizations are how I distance myself from genocide. I am doing the exact same numbing thing that everyone else does.

I myself am a normal human.

I used to think that since I didn’t agree with people like Norman Geisler that while I may not know everything, at least I didn’t think that genocide could be morally justified.

But it turns out that I do distance myself from historical genocides, both in my own country and from the sufferings of others around the world.

And that gives me pause.

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A few weeks ago, I was at my wife’s friend’s place. While we were there, one of the kids there – about 12 years old – asked the following question.

Kid: Dad, God made everything in the whole world, right?

Dad: Yes.

Kid: Okay, so if that’s true, then who made God? Because it can’t keep going back to having someone create something, because then who created God? It doesn’t make sense.

Dad: Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it?

Indeed, it is the big question. And fortunately, the question works the same way if you’re religious or if you’re not. If you’re religious and you believe that God created everything, then who created God? The answer is that God required no creator. But then what was God doing before there was a universe, or was God, or was… well, you can see the point. What’s before the beginning?

And for the non-religious, it all started with a Big Bang. All matter in the universe was infinitely dense, compressed way together. And then it started expanding rapidly and 13.7 billion years later, here we are. But what was before the Big Bang? When did it all start? What happened before that start point? The answer to that question is that there was nothing before the Big Bang but that’s not any more helpful than asking the question who created God which is the same way of asking what was before God?

Asking that question hurts my brain. I can’t even imagine what was before the beginning because presumably that’s when time began, too, as time is a way that we measure events relative to each other. But what if there’s no time?

Some questions don’t get any easier as we get older.

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On Facebook, I have many friends who are religious and friends who are completely irreligious. I have noticed that the irreligious ones are far more prone to posting religious rants than the religious ones. For not believing in a higher power, they sure can be preachy sometimes.


But that’s not what I want to talk about today.


I do have some Christian friends that like to post pictures or articles countering a particular viewpoint about Jesus in the New Testament and how he isn’t like Personality Trait A, B, or C. Instead, we should believe in Jesus as he really is. This isn’t just something on Facebook, though. There are numerous books and videos that make the same points – the modern church interprets Jesus that best fits our current lifestyles, and not what he really taught which would make us much less comfortable.


I think that everybody has their own particular interpretation of religion, and consequently, who Jesus is and what he stood for. When people hear a particular religious belief, they articulate it in their own words when they repeat it to others, but also when they repeat it to themselves. Thus, I don’t hold it against anyone when they interpret the message of Jesus in the light of their own personal experience.

But there is one thing I do take issue with – when my Facebook friends or other Christians post articles claiming that Jesus wasn’t a political revolutionary and that he was more interested in matters of the “heart” (i.e., how people relate to one another and how we relate to God) rather than matters of politics.


To support this view, people often quote Mark 12:17 (and its parallel passage in Matthew 22:21 and Luke 20:25). If you’re a Christian, you know the story. Jesus is in Jerusalem and a group of Pharisees try to trap him by asking him “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?”


If Jesus answers yes, then the religious leaders can say he’s perfectly okay with the foreign occupiers of Rome occupying the Holy Land. But if he says no, then the religious leaders can say that Jesus is advocating not paying taxes to Rome which they can take to the Romans so they can arrest Jesus as a revolutionary.


Instead, Jesus asks for a Roman coin and asks whose sigil is on it. Why, it’s Caesar’s. Jesus then replies “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”


Many people take this as clear evidence that Jesus was okay with the government of the day. Furthermore, my Facebook friends use it as further evidence that Christians should not get involved as politics. Just as Jesus advocated that it was right to pay taxes to Caesar (by giving him that which is his, i.e., taxes decreed by legislation), we should give to God the things that are his since those are more important. After all, if Jesus wanted to say we should rise up against the government, that was his chance to do so!

Ergo, Jesus was not a political revolutionary in any sense. And neither should we be.


Except that I think that interpretation is completely wrong. Indeed, I think that this verse does show that Jesus was a political revolutionary, the exact opposite of what some (most?) think it does.


The gospels are pretty clear that Jesus taught about the coming kingdom of God, its arrival was imminent, and the foreign powers would be booted out. For example:

  • John the Baptist was a fiery preacher that preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist for a time. The Jews believed this Kingdom was a literal kingdom on earth.

  • Jesus tells his disciples that they would sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28).

  • Jesus tells his disciples that some of them would not taste death until they saw the Kingdom of God come with power (Mark 9:1).

  • During his trial, Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews, and Jesus answers in the affirmative (Mark 15:2).

  • Jesus entered Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion while the crowds proclaimed him the Messiah (Matt 21:1-11).

It is while Jesus was in Jerusalem (after bullet point 5) that he cleanses the Temple by overturning tables, and then has the Caesar/taxes showdown with the religious leaders.

These verses above, and many of the rest of the passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke, show that Jesus taught a literal kingdom of God on earth, not “merely” in heaven (just like in the Lord’s prayer, as it is on earth in heaven). A literal kingdom of God on earth meant that there was no room for Rome. Indeed, Rome would be booted out when God meted out justice.

So where does this leave Matthew 22:21?

According to the Greek, the words “render unto” means to give back because it’s theirs. They are entitled to receive because they are the rightful owner of the thing being paid. In other words, Caesar is entitled to receive back his coin because it’s his picture on the coin. He can have it.

But God is entitled to get back the land because it’s His land; the Romans are occupying it (“the land is mine”, says the Lord in Leviticus 25:23).

I paraphrase it this way – Give Caesar his coin back. God gets his land back.

That is the exact opposite of the interpretation that Jesus is perfectly fine with paying taxes to the occupying government. Instead, this passage is saying that it’s not okay to pay taxes to a government that is against God, and instead we should strive to ensure that God’s will is done if it means kicking that government out!

Lest you disagree with this interpretation, the Pharisees used this as evidence to get Jesus arrested, and Rome executed Jesus because they believed he was an insurrectionist – that he was going to lead (or was leading) an uprising that would try to usurp Rome.

That doesn’t mean I agree with my Christian friends who are all about mobilizing voters and pushing through legislation that supports their causes. Modern day America is quite far removed from first-century Palestine.

Instead, I use this story to say that I definitely disagree that Jesus’s message was apolitical in nature as demonstrated by this passage, because it wasn’t.

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One of the doctrines espoused by some of my more conservative Christian friends is complementarianism – the belief that men and women “complement” each other but have unique roles within the church. This belief system states that women cannot hold positions of leadership in the church (no women ministers, deaconesses or elders), nor can women hold teaching positions in the church where they would oversee men (teaching kids is okay).

When I was growing up, I heard a little about this but it didn’t come up very often. In church, I frequently had Sunday School teachers that were women and I thought nothing of it. The pastors and deacons of the church were men but I didn’t think anything of that, either. I thought that men were pastors because (a) women didn’t want the job, and (b) leaders tended to be men in most areas of life anyhow.

This view wasn’t really enforced until one time in my late teens, a Sunday School teacher reiterated this position and said that women and men are equal in value, but unique in roles. This is the only time I ever heard it explained this way. I don’t think that this view is reflective of most people in that church, but it was reflected in this particular teacher.

I’ve been in numerous churches and this rule is not enforced everywhere. There are some churches that have women pastors, and others that do not. Even the ones that do enforce it don’t enforce it, it’s more of a convention. Their view on this teaching is that it was more of a cultural thing at the time these biblical passages were written.

However, I have a few friends who actively enforce this position. Women cannot be pastors, elders, or teachers. They are adamant about this. These are hard-and-fast rules dictated by God, to be followed for all time. Churches who are soft on this are… soft (this is my perception of their beliefs). Furthermore, they can quote all sorts of studies that “prove” their views are correct.

This hard line stance strikes me as the wrong view. Here’s why:

#1 – Genetic variance means that some women would be good at it

I do not believe that men and women are interchangeable. After reading Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, I think that there are real genetic differences between men and women:

  • Women are more interested in child care than men. This is true in all cultures.
  • Men are more competitive than women. This is true in all cultures.
  • Men are better at abstract reasoning than women (i.e., manipulate shapes in their head).
  • Women are better at language than men.

Thus, I believe that men and women are not the same with artificial constructs put on us by society. We naturally gravitate to different domains.

However, that doesn’t mean that women cannot be leaders. We have many women heads of state and leaders of large businesses (e.g., German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg). Conversely, men can provide childcare and some are very good at language.

Thus, while many women don’t want leadership positions, some do. And some would be good at it.

Most women probably wouldn’t want the positions of church leadership (many men do; it’s the testosterone that drives us to take leadership positions in general). But some do; because of genetic variance, closing leadership positions off to 50% of the population doesn’t make sense to me. You’re losing the opportunity to learn from good people.

That’s one reason I don’t agree with the hard line position.

 

#2 – Self-serving rationale is not a valid justification

My hard line friends probably would agree with me that some women may be good leaders or teachers in church. But it doesn’t matter – the Bible says that they can’t. That settles it. And here’s a whole bunch of reasons why they can’t.

Here’s the problem:

  • The people who wrote the passages saying that women could not be teachers or leaders were men.

  • The people who now say that women can’t be leaders are men.

  • The people who write modern interpretations proving that women cannot be leaders are men.

In other words, the people who deny the positions of authority to women are men in positions of authority. I can’t remember seeing any women writing books or blog posts that say “Women, we can’t be teachers or leaders! So let’s learn to live in our roles.” That just doesn’t happen at the same scale that men make the reverse claim.

Humans have something call the self-serving bias – we interpret events in a ways that benefit ourselves. For men to interpret a passage in a way that benefits them is unsurprising because that’s the way all of our brains are built. But it doesn’t make it correct.

#3 – The rationale “feels” wrong

The term “complementarianism” sounds like a mechanism that was created to justify inequality by attaching an official term to it. Men and women complement each other, and therefore should have different roles.

These roles are equal in value, but unique in nature. Just because women can’t be leaders, this does not mean that they should be valued any less or that their roles are less important.

To me, this sounds like “Complementarianism sounds sexist, but it really isn’t.”

Yes, it does sound sexist. Is it really? Or not really?

What if we changed it to the following:

Black people and white people are equal in value, but black people cannot be leaders or teachers in the church. But just because black people cannot be leaders, they should not be valued any less. It sounds racist, but it really isn’t.

Yes, it is racist (or, it would be if that doctrine existed). You can insert any two races in there and it would sound racist because it is racist. It’s not really “not racist” because of a clever re-interpretation. It doesn’t matter what two groups of people are in those two classifications, one will appear to be subservient to the other because that’s what the text implies.

Thus, when I say that the rationale “feels” wrong, what I mean is that the text sounds like one group of people is subservient to the other and no linguistic gymnastics gets you out of it without resorting to mental biases to creatively re-interpreting things.

 

That’s why I think the hard-line stance of complementarianism is wrong.

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The last part of Hinduism I want to talk about is coming back full circle to the questions I had at the beginning.

What’s the deal with the religious ceremonies?

Why did the Hindus have a religious ceremony at the top of Mt. Batur?

Bali_2_d

My theory is that this is a form of bhakti yoga, the way of devotion. It is the self-surrender to one of the gods through acts of worship (the ceremony), ritual (burning incense) and pilgrimage (climbing the mountain).

What about the stone carvings outside the home?

Bali_3_e

I think that this is part culture but also partly about the religion. Hindus are free to choose their own gods and through acts of worship – bhakti yoga – they can achieve moksha (salvation).

I don’t know how seriously they take this. Do they really believe in devotion to the gods? Or is it socially reinforced?

Probably a mixture of both.

What about the sacrifices Hindus make outside their homes three times a day?

IMG_3940

We saw these sacrifices everywhere outside people’s homes. I think this is bhakti yoga which has rituals and sacrifice as part of its ordinates. However, it also plays to dharma. Hindus believe that they must repay their debt to the gods for their blessings, and this is done through rituals and offerings.

Why build Angkor Wat?

Cambodia_5_a

Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Once again, I think this is a form of bhakti yoga. The king was showing his total devotion to Vishnu, and perhaps trying to minimize his bad karma.

Does yoga in the west have anything to do with the Hindu version of yoga?

This past weekend, I saw a yoga place called “Moksha yoga” which means “salvation meditation.” However, yoga in the United States is basically a way to stretch and gain flexibility. There’s nothing in it to minimize your bad karma, achieve knowledge, or devote yourself to the gods.

What is the deal with that 20 foot angry monkey?

Bali_3_f

I can’t figure this one out. I didn’t get the sense in Hinduism that the gods are angry.


And that concludes my series on Hinduism.

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I thought I would wrap up my summary of Hinduism with some odds and ends about it.

Namaste

Namaste is a greeting where you bend your elbows, fold your hands, bow and say “namaste.” It is a way of saying “I bow to you”, that is, negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another.

I can’t remember if we saw this in Bali or not, but I saw it all the time at the hotel we stayed at in Cambodia. Cambodia is primarily Buddhist, but perhaps this tradition was inherited from Hinduism.

Om

Om is a sacred syllable representing Brahman. It helps to realize the unknowable and is meant to attune sympathy with the cosmic vibration. A picture of the symbol (the red part) is below:

clip_image002

Castes

Even though I have heard of castes all the time, I didn’t find a lot about it when reading about Hinduism.

Castes are essentially classes of people, divided officially into four divisions in descending order of importance:

  1. Priests
  2. Kings or Rulers
  3. Businessmen or merchants
  4. Slaves and Labor.

Technically, there is a fifth class – the untouchables. These are people whose jobs are very low such as people who deal with human waste (e.g., sewer workers) or garbage collectors.

In India, there used to be a strict enforcement by birth in previous societies although today it is mostly downplayed. It was officially abolished in India in the 1940’s. I’m not sure what led to its importance in society although it was probably used as some sort of way of creating order in society, even though it was unfair to the lower classes, and bestowed undeserved status upon the higher classes.

Castes are still used to arrange marriages. Parents of the same class will often get together to marry off their children. Even though in the west we think we don’t do the same, we do. It’s just not intentional nor reinforced culturally. According to most sociological studies, most people marry within the same class. The “rags to riches” story is romanticized in the west but occurs rarely. 

Yoga

Yoga is meant to help achieve enlightenment, it is a form of meditation. Salvation (moshka) can be achieved three ways:

  • Karma yog – The way of self-less works. This was described in my previous post about karma. You minimize your bad karma to increase your good karma, and eventually you break the cycle of samsara and your atman merges into Brahman.

  • Jnana/jyana yog – The way way of knowledge. This type of yoga dethrones ignorance and achieves a state of consciousness where we realize our identity with Brahman. It is done through deep meditation as part of yoga.

    This is what we westerners often associate with yoga – deep meditation.

  • Bhakti yog – The way of devotion. This is the self-surrender to one many gods of Hinduism through acts of worship, rituals and pilgrimages. The majority of Hindus practice this mode of Hinduism.

The number of gods in Hinduism

Many websites and sources claim that Hinduism has 330 million gods. While I was researching this, I said “Come on. There is no way anyone could have counted up that many and made a list. It is impossible for a person in a single lifetime to do it, and in the time before computers a team of people couldn’t keep a list of them.”

So where does this number come from?

In the Vedas, 33 deities are listed followed by the Sanskrit word koti which is used for “class” but can also be a number meaning 10 million. Some believe this is a misinterpretation of the actual meaning of the word (i.e., 33 classes of gods vs 33 x 10 million gods). Others think that 330 million is a large number indicating infinity, i.e., there are indefinite forms of Brahman. Still others think that the number 10 million was the largest number the original writers had at the time, and that there were 10 million living things and that all of these living things were representations of Brahman.

In any case, the original Vedas most likely don’t claim 330 million gods but instead that Brahman can be represented many different ways.

This has an analogy in Christianity. In Revelation 9:16, we hear about an army numbering 200 million. Some expositors think that this can only be a reference to China and its huge population base. However, the literal meaning of the phrase comes from a military term – a double myriad of myriads. A myriad can refer to 10,000, and so 10,000 of 10,000 and then doubled is 200 million. However, it is simply a colloquial term for “a lot.”

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series about Hinduism, here are some more of my notes.

 

The purpose of life 

In Hinduism, there are four major beliefs which are the purpose of your life:

  1. Dharma

    Dharma means “law”, “teaching”, and “religion”. It is one’s destiny or purpose. It is often defined by vocation or career. If a man’s father is a tire maker, his purpose is to make tires.

    Dharma also means righteousness, or living morally and ethically at all times.

    I found a website that said that Hindus believe they are born into debt to the gods and must repay those debts. I only found it on one website, but these debts are:

    – Debt to the gods for their blessings: Paid by rituals and offerings.

    – Debt to parents and teachers: Paid by supporting them, having children of one’s own and passing along knowledge.

    Debt to guests: Repaid by treating them as if they were gods visiting one’s home.

    – Debt to other human beings: Repaid by treating them with respect.

    – Debt to all other living beings: Repaid by offering good will, food or any other help that is appropriate.

    Looking at these, everything that people do in response to these debts – the actions they produce – are good things. Treating people with respect is good. So is offering good hospitality. In Hinduism, behaving morally is built into the religion as something you need to do.

    Christianity is different. These same behaviors are viewed as moral in Christianity, but whereas in Hinduism they are required to repay your debts, in Christianity they are quasi-optional although this depends on the denomination of Christianity.

    Christian belief is by “faith alone”, that is, what makes you a Christian is what you believe. Afterwards, you are expected to do good works and behave morally. Doing these good works is not required but instead is an outward sign that you have changed and are living your life according to God’s (optional?) moral commands.

    I use the term “optional?” because while you don’t have to do them, if you don’t people will question whether you actually made a commitment to become a Christian since a real Christian “naturally” wants to become more like Christ, and becoming more like Christ means following his teachings which is to behave morally. So they are more than “optional” but not quite “required.” But it’s close.

    It’s complicated, so I’ll move on. The point is that in both religions, good works are required.

    BTW, after learning about dharma, the name Dharma Initiative from the TV show LOST makes no sense. It had nothing to do with this.

  2. Artha

    Artha means Prosperity. It is success in worldly pursuits. While the ultimate goal of Hinduism is enlightenment, pursuit of wealth is seen as appropriate in this lifetime.

    This strongly contrasts from most religions, not just Christianity where the pursuit of wealth is not actively encouraged.

  3. Kama

    Kama means Pleasure, and also means Desire. It is romantic love and sexual pleasure. It is seen as appropriate to pursue.

    This is where the term “kama sutra” comes from.

  4. Moksha

    Moksha means Enlightenment. This is the ultimate goal of Hinduism. It is the liberation from the endless cycles of rebirth (due to reincarnation). It is self-realization or awareness or union with God/ultimate reality (sometimes said to merge into nirvana).

    I did a bunch of reading on this and the descriptions of moksha are vague. It is not exactly like the Christian concept of heaven.

    Once you achieve moksha, you escape limits of worldly existence like time, space, and karma. It is the highest purpose in life, but it is difficult to achieve in a single life time.

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series about Hinduism, below are some more of my notes.

Karma

Another one of the central tenets of Hinduism is karma. Even we in the west have some idea what this word means because it makes its way into our vocabulary – “I’m trying to resolve my bad karma.”

In Hinduism, karma is the intentional, moral actions that affect one’s fortunes in this life and the next. It is free will with consequences.

It is Cause-and-effect, that is, a way of explaining evil and misfortune. It explains that people’s bad luck in this life is because of actions they did in a previous life. Karma can affect your class in the next life. Hindus try to minimize their bad karma in this life to get a better next life.

Karma is a fundamental law of nature that is automatic and mechanical. It is not imposed by gods as punishment or reward.

When I think of karma, I contrast it from Christianity, the religion I am most familiar with. I found it hard to wrap my head around karma being a law of nature that is automatic, and not imposed by gods. In Christianity, there is some assertion that bad outcomes in this life are because of punishment by God for one’s actions. There are other Christians who claim that bad actions are not because of one’s actions, but because God is testing people, or not giving them more than they can handle (e.g., natural disasters). However, not all Christians assert this although many say that there is hidden meaning behind suffering.

On the other hand, nearly all Christian denominations do claim that your actions in this life time will affect your next one, just like Hinduism. However, God takes an active role in Christianity by punishing the wicked and imposing suffering (depending on the version of Christianity) whereas in Hinduism the gods do not cause suffering.

In fact, in all of my research I never found any doctrines that state that the Hindu gods do cause human suffering. Maybe it’s in there somewhere and I need to get more familiar with it, it’s just that I didn’t find it.

But on the other hand, I also think that the idea that one’s suffering in this lifetime is due to the cause-and-effect of bad karma is also a weak explanation. It “blames the victim”. My own view is that suffering is complex and has to deal with many environmental factors (overpopulation, living in dangerous places, human violence) that is not easily explained by someone doing something that caused their circumstances (as asserted by Hinduism, and some in Christianity) or that there is a secret purpose to suffering (as claimed by some in Christianity).

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series on Hinduism, Hindus have a number of sacred writings.

The most important set of scriptures are the Vedas. There are four main types:

  • Rig Veda, or Royal Knowledge
  • Sama Veda, or Knowledge of Chants
  • Yajur Veda, or Knowledge of Sacrificial Rituals
  • Atharva Veda, or Knowledge of Incarnations

Hindu was mostly an orally transmitted religion for centuries until the Vedas were written down. They are viewed as authoritative but their contents are not really known by most modern Hindus since they were originally written in Sanskrit.

I thought I would say that this contrasts from Christianity, although it’s not true. I think many modern Christians know some parts of the Bible but much of what we know has been transmitted to us by teachers and other Christians (in Catholicism, this is through priests and sacred tradition, whereas in Protestantism it is through ministers). Still, the Vedas are the source of Hindu thought and basis for rituals.

Next up are the Upanishads. These are later-written texts expounding on more ideas and thoughts about spiritual wisdom from the Vedas. They were not just written by priests but instead also contain content from others, such as poets who had flashes of insight.

There are 108 Upanishads (I think; I couldn’t find a source for this), of which 10 are the most important. Most were written between 800 and 400 BC.

Of these, the Mahabharata is the most important. It contains stories and poems and also contains the Bhagavad Gita which is the most famous poem. It is a 2nd century BC poem about the nature of God and of life. It (or maybe the Mahabharata) is sometimes called the fifth veda.

The Bhagavad Gita (or maybe the whole of the Mahabharata) is the most widely read spiritual text; it is a conversation between Krishna and the god Arjun and acts as spiritual guidance for humanity.

Briefly, the Ghagavad Gita tells the story of Krishna and expounds upon Vishnu who had 10 incarnations – a god becoming a being. Whereas in Christianity, God becomes human, in Hinduism, a god becomes a creature known as an avatar. They are not necessarily human. Some are animals, some are human, and some are combinations of the two. Krishna was 9th or 8th avatar of Vishnu, although this depends on how they counted. Rama the one avatar before Krishna. Some Hindus believe Buddha (the founder of Buddhism) was an avatar of Vishnu.

The reason Vishnu incarnated is in response to the struggle between good and evil, to restore the balance when evil started to get the upper hand. In response to this, Vishnu became a physical creature known as an avatar to restore the balance between good and evil. After its purpose was fulfilled, the avatar dies and is absorbed back into Brahman.

Hinduism does not go into a lot of proof about this (which contrasts from the Christian field of apologetics). Some say that the footprints in the sand are invisible.

Hindus also have a belief in the power and authority of the Brahmans class.

This is a priestly class that has the highest rank and authority. Furthemore, individuals called gurus are needed to know the Transcendent Absolute.

Also, the priesthood is less important in rural India. Non-Brahmins carry out rituals and prayers in the local villages.

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series about Hinduism, there are a few modern ones that you are familiar with.

Mohtama Gandhi, famous Indian revolutionary who campaigned for change through non-violent resistance:

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M. Night Shymalan, famous movie director with only two good films:

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Dhalsim, famous street fighter:

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That is Hinduism’s present. What about its past? Here’s what I have discovered.

The Origins of Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It started at least 1500 BC but some estimate it to goes back to 6500 BC (and every point in between). There are some who claim that it goes back to 10,000 BC. Either way, it’s one of the world’s oldest religions.

Hinduism has no one central founder which differentiates it from many other religions. On the other hand, this may contribute to the many different versions of it (although, to be fair, there are many different versions of Christianity even though it has a fairly narrow set of founds).

Hinduism is both a culture and a religion. It started in the Indus River Valley in India. “Hindu” is the Anglicized name given my European explorers; the religion does not name itself.

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Doctrines

There is no formal set of Hindu doctrines similar to the way Christianity does. For example, while Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity have major differences, they also have agreement on many things. However, Hindus do agree on some things:

  • Tolerance – All religions are genuine paths to understanding, no one religion is totally correct. Thus, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are genuine paths to understanding. They are different versions of getting to the truth.

  • Life is sacred – Because all life is sacred, they are non-violent. I don’t know how well they practice this, but this is reflected in Gandhi’s social movements during the 1960’s through 1980’s.

  • Concept of God – Hindus believe there is an all-encompassing impersonal power known as Brahman and all other gods are representations of this god.

    I sort of liken this to pantheism – the belief that “god is in all” – as opposed to theism – “there is a god separate and distinct from the universe. Earlier versions of Hinduism had elements of henotheism which is a belief in many gods but there there is one that is the most powerful.

    Brahman is "the eternal, conscious, irreducible, infinite, omnipresent, spiritual source of the universe of finiteness and change.”

  • Concept of gods – The main or highest gods (called “devas”, which are personal representations of the impersonal Brahman) believed in by Hindus are Brahma, the creator (not Brahman); Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer (yet sometimes compassionate because he/it creates anew. You must destroy an old building in order to construct a new one).

  • Denominations – Hinduism is divided into different denominations. The main ones are Saivism (Shiva is God), Shaktism (Goddess Shakti is supreme), Vaishnavism (Vishnu is God) and Smartism (more for liberals – you can pick your own path).

    Each denomination has its own sages, rituals, and temples but more or less agree on the basics.

    Rama and Krishna (popular names I was previously familiar with) are popular incarnations of the Divine (Vishnu).

  • Doctrine of Spiritual Competence – Hinduism grants its practitioners the freedom to choose or invent a form of Brahman that satisfies one’s spiritual cravings.

  • The nature of reality – Hinduism further breaks down into believing (1) the physical universe is reality, or (2) the universe is an illusion (maya).

    Nondualists believe that Brahman is real and the world is illusory (this strongly contrasts from western physics).

    Qualified dualists believe that Brahman is real and the universe is an extension of Brahman.

    Dualists believe that Brahman and the universe are distinct.

  • Reincarnation

    Reincarnation is one of the key concepts in Hinduism. The ultimate goal of Hindus is the release (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation (samsara). That is, Hindus believe that the soul (atman) continues to reincarnate, moving from one life to the next; this is called samsara. Breaking this cycle of reincarnation is called moksha.

    This cycle is called the purification of atman. In addition, Brahman and atman are in some sense the same. There is a saying in Hinduism: the air outside the jar is the same as the air inside of it.

    This concept of reincarnation Hinduism is reflected in its stories about the origin of the world. The world (or universe?) has gone through numerous cycles of birth, death and rebirth, and this was activated by one of the gods.

More in my next post.

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A religious small group that I attend (orientation is Christian) has recently been taking a look at other religions: Mormonism, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. I volunteered to discuss Hinduism.

I had two weeks to get ready. To prepare for it, I read about 30 or 40 different websites about Hinduism. Even now I only kind of understand it but it was fascinating to study. It’s completely unlike western religions.

The reason I wanted to talk Hinduism is because last year (2012) I had a chance to visit Bali. Bali is a small island in Indonesia; Indonesia is almost entirely Muslim but Bali is almost entirely Hindu. It’s a world unto its own, and I was fascinated by the Hindu culture. I hoped that by learning about the religion that I might better understand what I saw when I was there.

What sorts of things do I want greater understanding?

  1. Religious ceremonies

    The wife and I did a sunrise hike. It’s a very touristy thing to do but it’s difficult; it takes at least two hours to get to the top and you have to start early – in the middle of the night. It’s not something you just pick-up-and-do. However, a group of locals also did the hike and at the top, they held some sort of religious ceremony.

    Climbing a mountain to do this is non-trivial. On the way down we passed more people, and one of them was carrying a small goat. I surmised they were planning to sacrifice it once they got to the top.

    Bali_2_d

  2. The stone carvings

    In Bali, there are carvings of Hindu gods everywhere. Wealthier families have them outside their homes:

    Bali_3_e

    But they are also in the middle of the roads in intersections. And they are huge! 20 feet in height! It takes a long time to make these stone carvings. It requires lots of time and energy to invest in making these decorations. But they’re not just decorations, they put them out there for a reason because there’s a cost involved.

    Bali_3_f

  3. Angkor Wat

    If you’re not familiar with Angkor Wat, then you’re in for a treat. It’s a massive temple complex near Tonle Sap lake, built by the Khmer empire sometime in the 12th or 13th century. It was originally a Hindu temple (now used by Buddhists) constructed by the ruler Suryavarman and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.

    Angkor Wat is absolutely amazing, one of the most amazing places I have ever been. It takes forever to go through it. But the point is that it is a religious temple, and obviously the Khmer’s felt that the cost to building it was worth the return. If Hinduism was that important to them, then I wanted to find out why.

    Cambodia_1_a

    Cambodia_3_d

    Cambodia_1_c

So you see, I was amazed about Hinduism because of these things. If I could learn a bit more about this religion, maybe I could put the pieces together.

By no means is this an exhaustive study of the religion. I feel like I barely scratched the surface. But I think I know enough to make sense of some of these things.

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A few weeks ago I went through the New Testament and made notes about how many insults there are directed at the writer’s unnamed opponents.

While I was doing this, I noticed how similar to the books of Jude and 2 Peter were. Today, I decided to go back and see just how similar they really are.

I made a list of all the passages in Jude and their equivalents, or near equivalents, in 2 Peter. Three quarters of the verses in Jude have something similar in 2 Peter. Moreover, 2 Peter follows the same order as Jude. The order is never switched around except for once (Jude 1:5).

Below is my list of comparing both books to the other. I have highlighted the red text where the passages or wordings are nearly the same.

 

Passage in Jude

Equivalent in 2 Peter

Jude 1:1 – Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:

2 Peter 1:1 – Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

Jude 1:2 – May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.

2 Peter 1:2May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

Jude 1:3 – Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

2 Peter 1:12Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have

Jude 1:4For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 2:1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.

2 Peter 2:2 – And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.

Jude 1:5Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.

2 Peter 1:12Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have

This is the one exception to ordering.

Jude 1:6And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the Judgment of the great day—

2 Peter 2:4For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the Judgment;

Jude 1:7just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

2 Peter 2:6if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

Jude 1:8 – Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.

2 Peter 2:10 – and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones,

Jude 1:9 – But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, "The Lord rebuke you."

2 Peter 2:11 – whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord.

Jude 1:10But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively.

2 Peter 2:12But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction,

Jude 1:11 – Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.

<No equivalent in 2 Peter)

Jude 1:12 – These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted;

2 Peter 2:13 – suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you.

Jude 1:13wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

2 Peter 2:17 –These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.

Jude 1:14 – It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, "Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones,

<No equivalent in 2 Peter>

Jude 1:15 – to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him."

2 Peter 2:18 – For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.

Jude 1:16These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.

2 Peter 2:19They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.

Jude 1:17 – But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 3:2 – that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles,

Jude 1:18 – They said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions."

2 Peter 3:3knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.

Jude 1:19 – It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.

2 Peter 3:4 – They will say, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation."

Note: this is not an exact match. In Jude, people are causing divisions and it is unspecified how, whereas in 2 Peter they are stirring up trouble by asking where Christ’s second coming is. Presumably in Jude, they were saying something but we don’t know what.

Jude 1:20 – But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit,

<No equivalent in 2 Peter>

Jude 1:21 – keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

2 Peter 3:13 – But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Jude 1:22 – And have mercy on those who doubt;

<No equivalent in 2 Peter>

Jude 1:23 – save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

2 Peter 3:14 – Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.

Jude 1:24 – Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,

<No equivalent in 2 Peter>

Jude 1:25 – to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

2 Peter 3:18 – But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

Note: What is striking is how elaborate both closing doxologies are in giving glory to Christ. There is no other book in the New Testament that has this much praise for Jesus (they are short “Grace be with you through Christ” type closings).

The only other one that comes close is in Romans, but there Paul gives glory to God for evermore through Jesus, not to Jesus directly as in Jude and 2 Peter.

 

To most people, this is pretty dull. But I find stuff like this very interesting.

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Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the origins and meaning of religion. Not one religion in particular, but all religions.

Religion can be very polarizing. To people on the outside, religious adherents are thought of as spiritual, devote and moral. On the other hand, to outsiders, religious people are also thought of as intolerant, with bizarre beliefs and should keep those beliefs to themselves. Some, such as those in the New Atheism movement, claim that the beliefs are dangerous and in response are creating an atheistic social movement. I call this “Evangelical Atheism.”

By contrast, the religious themselves find great comfort in their faith (depending on the degree of their adherence). They follow in their paths because they believe in the underlying doctrines of their faith, its future promises, and it provides them real, tangible benefits. They ask the question “What do you mean what is the purpose of religion? It exists because…”

To the skeptical, the question must be asked why religion exists today. It is alive and well in all regions of the world, although it is declining in influence Europe and parts of the United States and Canada. But if all religion did was impose a serious cost to people with little benefits other than for the ruling elites, why has an atheistic society never arisen by chance and outcompeted religious ones?

Take a look at the following pictures:

 IMG_1457

What you see are images of a Buddhist temple complex, a Hindu temple, a Christian church and a Muslim mosque. All of these took years to build in the time before modern construction and machinery. There was a real cost to building these.

These costs are known as opportunity costs. By spending the time, money and labor necessary to building these structures, societies could not spend them doing something else. If religion were completely spurious then why didn’t other less religious societies arise, spend money on more useful projects and outcompete them for resources?

The answer is that religion served an important function whose returns were more than its costs.

When I read criticisms of the web of Christianity (I don’t spend any time looking at other religions), many instances they make light of Christian beliefs as being illogical. How could axe heads float? How could the entire world be flooded? How could a man survive the bite of a poisonous snake? How could someone accuse another of lying and the accused instantly fall dead?

Still other criticisms accuse religion of inventing stories to explain the world (for example, that God controls thunder and lightning and this was a sufficient explanation until we learned about electricity), or of inventing theories to control human behavior (for example, drawing lines of morality around sexual behavior). These ideas were invented before science explained them and now we should discard them.

But how accurate is this? Did religion make things up? Or did they arise more organically?

image

When anti-theologians (i.e., atheists and your friends on Facebook who post derogatory messages about religion) criticize faith they usually attack people’s beliefs and their behaviors. The beliefs are outdated and wrong and the behaviors they rationalize are immoral.

Yet when sociologists study religion, they usually examine the underlying social structure of religion and the purposes that they serve to the people within the faith structures. In other words, there is a gap between the people who flippantly dismiss religion and those who apply the scientific method as to its purpose.

I’m going to write a few more posts to try to address the question: What is the meaning of religion?

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Continuing on from my other two posts, here is Part 3 – The Rest of the New Testament.

  1. Hebrews 13:9, 10

    Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings… We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.

    I don’t know what the strange and diverse teachings are, but evidently they are known to the readers. The writer goes on to say that “they (the readers) have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.”

    That looks like a reference to the Jews who practice sacrificing of animals after the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD (they used a tent since there was no longer a temple). It could be that the diverse and strange teachings of verse 9 is something to do with this.

  2. James 2:17-18

    So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

    Paul stresses that it is by faith that we are saved, not by works. Yet here the writer of James says that faith without works is dead.

    I don’t think this is a criticism of Paul. Instead, it is a criticism of what some people taught about what Paul taught. For Paul, “works” refers to “works of the Jewish law”, not “good deeds.” Yet here, the writer of James is saying that “faith without good deeds” is dead. I think Paul would agree.

    I think this passage attacks a misrepresentation of Paul’s views which evidently existed at the time of the book of James’s composition.

  3. 1 Peter 5:13

    She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.

    1 Peter is a difficult book to find an overt criticism or insult against an opponent. There are allusions to many things that people shouldn’t do. To me, this means that people were doing them and that they were wrong (e.g., 1 Peter 4:3-4 which talks about how Gentiles participate in debauchery).

    Instead, I went with 1 Peter 5:13. “She who is in Babylon…” Babylon in the New Testament is a code word for Rome. The city of Babylon comes from Old Testament as symbol of evil, it is something opposed to God (this comes from when the Babylonian empire destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC). The writer of 1 Peter is calling the Roman empire evil and opposed to God.

  4. 2 Peter 2:1

    But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.

    The writer of 2 Peter goes on to say that these people would be destroyed in verse 21. In fact, if you read 2 Peter chapter 2 and then the book of Jude, you realize that the two of them sound very similar, as if one borrowed from the other.

    This is why many biblical scholars think that the apostle Peter did not write 2 Peter, but instead used the book of Jude as a source (paraphrased and expanded) and then signed Peter’s name.

  5. 1 John 4:2-3

    By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

    This is an anti-Gnostic polemic. The Gnostics were a group of Christians who believed either (a) Jesus was a spirit and his body only appeared human, or (b) Jesus was a man and the Christ spirit entered him at his baptism (in the form of a dove) and left him at the crucifixion. The human Jesus was not really Christ.

    This verse rejects that view and affirms that Jesus (the human being) really was Christ, the son of God. Affirming Gnosticism is Antichrist.

  6. 2 John 1:7

    For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

    This is the same as 1 John.

  7. 3 John 9-10

    I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.

    Here, the writer of 3 John is criticizing someone name Diotrephes who would not welcome certain people who testified of the good work Gaius (the recipient of the letter) was doing. I wonder what Diotrephes’s side of the story was?

  8. Jude 1:4

    For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

    Jude goes on to give examples of what these people are doing in verse 10 and that they would be destroyed in verse 15.

  9. Revelation 18:2

    "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.”

    There are too many to name in Revelation, but nearly the entire book (the vision part) is an apocalyptic criticism of the Roman empire (the beast in chapter 17, the woman in chapter 18) and a prediction of its downfall.

 

So there you have it. Some books are more pointed in their criticism, but most of them have something.

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Continuing on from my previous post, Part 2 – The Letters of Paul.

Not everyone thinks that Paul wrote all of these letters, but whoever did, they had things to say about other people in the early Christian community.

  1. Romans 9:18-20

    So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?"

    This is a stretch, I admit. Romans doesn’t have insults the way some other books do. However, what Paul does all the time in this book is make a statement, ask a question, and then address it. I think the questions he poses are real questions that people ask him in real life when he preaches a sermon. He then has written them down in a letter to the Romans.

    Each time he addresses the questions, but not this time. He says something, someone asks a question, and his response is “God can do what he wants!”

    That’s not really an answer to the question; it’s something you could say to every question. “Who are you – small person – to talk back to God?”

  2. 1 Corinthians 1:12-15

    What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name.

    This one is controversial because in the entire book Paul is correcting poor behavior on the part of the Corinthians. But this one is subtle: Paul is saying “You people are so immature that I’m glad I never baptized any of you (except those two) because you’d just use it as an excuse for more divisions!”

    There are plenty of other candidates in 1 Corinthians you could similarly pick.

  3. 2 Corinthians 11:11-12

    And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

    Even in the early church, not everyone agreed with Paul and the things he taught. What’s their side of the story? We don’t know except that they were probably much better speakers than him (verse 5-6).

  4. Galatians 5:11-12

    But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

    Galatians has plenty of insults and criticisms, but Paul felt very strongly about those who preached you had to keep the Jewish law.

  5. Ephesians 5:6

    Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.

    I couldn’t find any insults in Ephesians with the possibility of this one – a reference to empty words. I point it out here because of its similarities to the warnings against empty words and vain teaching in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus.

  6. Philippians 1:27-28

    … I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.

    We are not told who the Philippians’ opponents are, but at the time Paul wrote this (late 50’s or early 60’s AD), Christianity had not yet come under persecution from the Roman empire. I speculate that these opponents were within the church (possibly Christians who claimed you had to keep the Jewish law, Philippians 3:2).

  7. Colossians 2:4,8

    I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments… See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition,

    One theme that Paul says throughout his letters is that he did not receive the gospel from any man (or apostle) but from Jesus himself. Other gospels preached by other people could delude its listeners from the truth. They are also of no value (Colossians 2:23).

  8. 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6

    For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed–God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.

    The way I read this, Paul is talking about how humble they (he and his fellow workers were), not coming out of greed, or with words that would please men, or seeking glory although they could have.

    As if others had come previously, he heard about it, and was differentiating himself? Paul does that in his other letters (Corinthians).

  9. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3a

    Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way.

    This one is very subtle. In 2 Thessalonians, the writer urges the readers not to be too bothered about the time of the end because certain things must occur first.

    Furthermore, they must not be shaken or disturbed even if a letter from us (e.g., Paul) was written to them indicating that it was fairly soon.

    Evidently, the Thessalonians received a letter from Paul (which is why I have underlined it above), or from someone claiming to be Paul, which had caused some alarm amongst them. Here, the writer is rebuking that other forged letter claiming it is false.

  10. 1 Timothy 1:3-4

    …so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.

    Here, the writer of Timothy addresses Timothy that some people (his opponents) are teaching followers in the church endless myths and genealogies (and this these people are wrong; see 1 Timothy 4:7). We aren’t sure who these people are, but some thing this may be an anti-Gnostic text since they were known for fantastical origin stories.

    He attacks their teaching again in 1 Timothy 4:1-3.

  11. 2 Timothy 2:16

    But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness,

    This sounds similar to the opponents from 1 Timothy above.

  12. Titus 1:10

    For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party

    It’s possible that the same historical situation here (or similar) is reflected in the book of Matthew. The “circumcision party” refers to the Jews (Pharisees?), or to Christians who taught that people had to keep the Jewish law. Either way, they were deceivers.

  13. Philemon

    Paul’s shortest letter, there is nothing in here that is insulting or criticizing.

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I was reading through the New Testament books of Jude and 2 Peter the other day when I noticed something: the writers of the New Testament are liberal with insults directed at people they don’t agree with.

This is something I always knew in the back of my head, but it wasn’t until I read Jude and then 2 Peter that I started thinking about it. Those two books have strong language. But what about the rest of them?

I mentally started making a list of all of the New Testament books. I can come up with something insulting to opponents of the writer in almost every one.

The first five books of the New Testament are easy because the insults are overt. They get more creative in many of the other letters.

Here’s my list.

Part 1 – The Gospels and Acts

  1. Matthew 23:33

    You [the Pharisees] serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

    In the book of Matthew, Jesus spends a lot of time insulting the Pharisees. This has led some scholars to speculate that at the time the book of Matthew was written, there was a painful division between Christians and Jewish Pharisees. The book of Matthew contains Jesus’s quotes condemning them.

    One reason why scholars believe the book of Matthew was written around 80-85 AD is because there is little mention of the Sadducees who had most of the political power in Jesus’s time. However, after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD, they lost it and the Pharisees were all that remained.

  2. Mark

    I’m going to skip the book of Mark because it’s similar to the book of Matthew – there are plenty of stories against the Pharisees. However, they are much softer than in Matthew.

  3. Luke 15:2

    And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."

    Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees is a consistent motif over and over again in Matthew, Mark and Luke (but not nearly as overt in Mark and Luke). In this context, the Pharisees are criticized Jesus’s hanging out with the lower classes of society but the tables are turned on them multiple times in that it is their (false) self-righteousness that condemns them.

    There’s a lot of different examples to choose from.

  4. John 8:44

    You [the Pharisees] are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.

    The condemnation of the Pharisees is very strong in the book of John, especially in John 19:15.

  5. Acts 5:17-18

    But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.

    Since Acts is written by the same author as Luke I almost didn’t bother to do one here. But once again it is the Jewish authorities who are responsible for persecuting the early church.

    I quoted this verse because in contrast to the book of Matthew and many stories in Luke, here it is the Sadducees and not the Pharisees who are responsible.

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Every once in a while, I read some article or some excerpt on a friend’s Facebook page taking pot shots at young earth creationists. This is usually in reference to a politician (usually a Republican) taking a stand on the topic, and how having this type of person in office is “dangerous.”

Growing up, I was heavily exposed to the young earth creationist idea that the earth is only 6000 years old or so. It was taught in seminars and books and it’s something I believed in. However, in school and the textbooks, we were taught that the earth is billions of years old. I was never able to reconcile these two beliefs, but on the tests I quoted what they wanted to hear.

As time passed, I lost interest in the creationist/evolutionist debate. However, eventually I abandoned the young earth position as I started reading more and more about the science behind it. As it turns out, the overwhelming evidence falls on the side of a planet that is billions of years old and a universe that is even older. Astronomy, geology, paleontology and anthropology all confirm it.

Reading about human development is really interesting when you understand that humanity has taken a very complex biological journey to get where we are today, and an equally complex migratory journey to populate the earth.

Just for fun, I decided to check out the Answers in Genesis web page. This is a web page that is dedicated to defending young earth creationism. The website is very consistent, although I disagree with most of what they have published. In my view, their faith in a literal six day creation according to the first two chapters in Genesis colors their interpretation of science. Because they interpret these chapters literally, they discount the evidence that says that the earth is old and accept evidence that says it is young. I believe that this is clear evidence of their Confirmation Bias.

One article I checked out is entitled The Australian Aboriginal. This is something I have a minor degree of expertise in after having read Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel which theorizes about reasons for the divisions of wealth between nations.

Answers in Genesis addresses the question of the Australian Aboriginal and why they were so far “behind” when they were discovered by European settlers several hundred years ago. Here are some excerpts from the article:

When Captain Cook arrived in Australia some 200 years ago, he encountered a dark-skinned race of nomadic people with a stone age culture. Evolutionists say these Aborigines came to Australia at least 40,000 years ago from unknown origins. The evolutionary view which is taught in schools and promoted in the media is really saying these were a people who hadn’t evolved as fast as other types of man.

This isn’t correct. From the picture above, you can see that humans migrated out of Africa and crossed down through southeast Asia about 40,000 years ago. We know their origins. We also know that modern humans are the same as the ones that migrated out of Africa 50,000 to 200,000 years ago. It is incorrect to say that they haven’t evolved as fast as us because they are like us.

The question is why was their society so primitive compared to European society? Answers in Genesis talks about how since the Noahic Flood, everyone on earth had the same ancestors (eight people) and followed the same God, and therefore had the same technology. Thus, as recently as 4000 years ago, we were all on equal footing. They put it this way:

Their ancestor Noah had the knowledge of the true God. He also had ship building technology, farming ability, knew how to work alloys, etc. Remnants of this true knowledge of God, of creation and of Noah, can still be seen in their mythology, e.g. they have many legends of a world wide flood.

All of which means that somewhere in their history, this knowledge has been forgotten, lost, or deliberately discarded. The culture Captain Cook discovered was spiritist. They did not have the knowledge of the true God and only had a “stone age” culture.

So what happened?

Someone, somewhere in their history, has turned away from the true God, devised their own religion and successfully persuaded their fellow Aborigines to accept it. They have suffered the consequences of this. Instead of being a culture regenerated by God’s standards, they have degenerated from them.

Societies get this way, because they turn their back on God and degenerate away from His standards. They no longer have a respect for the life of man made in the image of God, because they no longer respect God.

Thus, by turning away from God, the aboriginal culture “degenerated” and what happened is an example of when human societies turn to to their own ways. They go “backwards.” In other words, it’s their own fault. They had technology but lost it.

Anthropologists and biologists look at this much differently. In my view, the reason why AiG makes statements like this is because they are forced into it because of their views. They only have 3700 years to explain how the aboriginals went so far backwards compared to Europeans. Of course they are so primitive! Without God to supernaturally guide or enlighten them, that’s what happens!

But it isn’t nearly this simple.

There are plenty of cultures that were not Christian or Jewish that built very advanced societies: the Mayans in Mesoamerica, the Khmers in southeast Asia, and the Incas in South America. They were isolated from the West and they had very advanced cultures before they collapsed. A dearth of spirituality does not explain why a society does not advance because obviously it doesn’t happen everywhere. Some cultures, like the Chinese, advanced further than Europe but they did not have the same, or even similar, religious beliefs.

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So what happened to the Aboriginals?

50,000 years ago, all human societies were the same. There was no region that was further ahead than the other in any part of the world. The reason why some societies advance further than others is due to a combination of multiple factors:

  1. The best land

    Regions of the world with the best agricultural land make it easier to grow crops for subsistence farming. If you’re not spending all of your time hunting and gathering, you can settle down and produce a food surplus. This means that instead of 100% of your population devoted to gathering food, you have a surplus of people who can spend time building an army, or inventing things like technology.

    Australia is a very difficult country to live in. Most of the land is not arable. Crops do not grow natively there (there are only five places in the world where agriculture arose spontaneously: the fertile crescent in modern Mesopotamia, New Guinea, China, Mesoamerica and the modern northeastern US; everywhere else it was introduced). Not only did the Aboriginal people not have agriculture at the time they landed in Australia (that wouldn’t be invented anywhere for another 30,000 years), it was never introduced to them.

    This means that they lived in a harsh climate where they spent most of their resources just trying to survive. They didn’t have time to invent things. They only had rudimentary tools.

    By contrast, the Europeans lived in a part of the world with good climate and good land. It rains a lot there. The soil is productive. It’s easy to grow things. That’s two distinct advantages the aboriginals did not have.

  2. The best animals

    Another reason that the Europeans advanced is because they were able to harness animal power. When growing crops, it’s easier to tether a yoke to an ox and have them do it than it is to pull it yourself. It’s easier to advance on an army of horses than it is field an army of only foot soldiers.

    There are only fourteen mammals over 100 lbs that have ever been domesticated by humans (horses, cows, pigs, ox, llamas, and nine others). Of these, 13 are native to Europe.

    What? Only 13?

    Yes, only 13. We typically think of Africa as the continent of large mammals. But zebras, hippos and rhinos have never been domesticated. Lions and tigers are carnivorous and are not suitable for domestication, not because of their temperament but because they need too much meat. It takes 10x as much meat to sustain a lion as what it weighs. They are too inefficient.

    Europe had 13 large land mammals. South America had 1 (the llama). Every other continent, including Australia, had none.

    Because they were able to harness animals for agriculture, Europeans could produce food surpluses to support a class of kings and military. They also harnessed animals for military to build superior forces to other continents.

    Australia had neither. The humans who invaded the land 40,000 years ago either hunted the suitable mammals to extinction, or the rest of them (kangaroos) they never domesticated.

Because they had no animals and poor land unsuitable for agriculture, the Australian aboriginals never moved beyond the hunting-and-gathering stage. Societies composed of hunters-and-gatherers never generate large populations. The land doesn’t support it. It’s estimated that there were only 300,000 aboriginals who inhabited Australia when Captain Cook landed in the 18th century.

Thus, the reason why Europe advanced is because of… luck. The reason why Australia didn’t advance is because of bad luck. The native Europeans were able to grow food easily and use animals to grow it faster. People could spend time developing society. Inventions arose. Society advanced.

This created a multiplication factor – when you get a little bit of head with better tools, you can use those tools to get ahead a little bit more. This gives you a double advantage over those who have neither. But then your better tools give you an even bigger advantage because you can use them to make even better ones!

The aboriginal people didn’t lose anything (knowledge of science and technology), they never advanced to it. To say that theirs is an example of what happens when a society turns to spiritism or lacks God is unfair because it doesn’t compare apples-to-apples. One society had a set of advantages that contributed to its development that the other lacked. Had they both had the same set of conditions, that would be fair. Or what if it were the other way around? What then?

Compare this to the Answers in Genesis version – societies had technology but lost it, whereas Jared Diamond’s version is that everyone started off on an equal footing (of having nothing) but some moved ahead much quicker. There was nothing to lose.

This model fits much better with the available evidence than the one proposed by Answers in Genesis.

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If you’ve been following the news recently, you may have heard about a new discovery – the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

This discovery is fragment of a papyrus fragment of a Coptic (Egyptian) text that dates to somewhere between 150-200 AD. It is only visible on one side, there are three letters on the other side and the rest are so faint that they can’t make it out. The big brou-ha-ha is that it refers to a wife of Jesus.

The text is fragmented and there is very little content, here it is:

Papyrus fragment: front. Karen L. King 2012

Papyrus text: front. Karen L. King 2012

As you can read from the translation, there’s not much to go on. The disciples say something to Jesus (about Mary?). Jesus says Mary is worthy of something and then in the next line, Jesus refers to his wife. He continues to say something and that Mary will be his disciple.

Does this prove that Jesus had a wife?

In my view, no. There are several reasons for this:

  1. On the one hand, some believe that Jesus must have been married because he was Jewish, and all Jewish men got married. The gospels are silent on this, but there may have been oral traditions preserved, but not written down, that didn’t make it into the gospel. However, they made it into this fragment. This increases the likelihood that Jesus was married.

  2. However, it proves nothing of the thing. For you see, this is a second century fragment of what appears to be a Gnostic text. There are many Gnostic texts (and pseudo-orthodox texts) that have characters from the bible that say and do things they almost definitely didn’t do. For example, in the Gospel of Judas, Judas (Iscariot) sees a spirit of the body of Jesus laughing at the people who crucified him. In the Gospel of Peter, the resurrection story has a giant Jesus standing on the shoulders of two giant angels as he emerges from the tomb.

    It was common to forge gospels in the names of the apostles, even Jesus and his brothers, having them say and do things they didn’t actually do.

  3. There is another forged text (the Gospel of Mary?), that shows Jesus and Mary being very close, and Mary is even closer than the rest of his disciples and the disciples are disturbed by this. This seems to be a Gnostic text elevating the status of Mary in order to elevate the status of women.

  4. There are no early traditions of Jesus being married in our earliest texts – Mark, Luke, John, Matthew and Paul’s letters. We don’t even have any forgeries from later centuries from Jesus’s wife or any of his children (to my knowledge). If Jesus were married, and it were well known, I’d have thought that someone, somewhere, would have referred to it. This is an argument from silence, I admit.

Given these, the fact that it dates from so late and sounds similar to an existing Gnostic text (she will be able to be my disciple, Mary is worthy of it), it’s just another forgery.

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Last week I read a study out of the University of Eugene, Oregon and the University of Kansas entitled Divergent Effects of Believes in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates.  The study took a look at how belief in certain religious concepts affect people’s morality.  I’ll recap the study here (it’s pretty short but I’ll do it anyhow in case you are too lazy to click on the link like the lazy Internet reader that you are):

  1. They tested people’s religious beliefs.

    The researchers tested the people according to their belief in heaven, a place of divine and everlasting bliss, and their belief in hell, a place of everlasting punishment.  How does belief in one thing affect how they behave vs. belief in the other?

  2. They primed Christians to see how they acted.

    To test this, they had Christian participants spend 10 minutes writing about the nature of God’s loving and forgiving nature.  They also had another group of Christians spend 10 minutes writing about God’s punishing nature (they also tested a neutral control, a forgiving human, and a punishing human but these produced no discernible effect).

    Next up, they had the participants perform a task where they accomplished something simple and then paid themselves money according to how successfully they achieved it.

    The results?  Christians who wrote about God’s forgiving nature tended to overpay themselves, while those who wrote about God’s punitive nature produced no statistically significant behavior from the neutral control.  This means that belief in heaven produced less moral behavior than belief in hell.

  3. They checked crime rates.

    Next up, they checked the effect of religious attendance, belief in heaven and hell and the affect on national crime rates.  Belief in hell predicted lower crime rates while belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates.  They checked this against third variables and adjusted for income inequality, national prison rates, life expectancy and urban density.  Despite these, only beliefs in heaven and hell emerged as the strongest predictor of crime rates.

    The authors point out that belief in heaven does not necessarily mean a belief in hell.  There are many people who believe in one (usually heaven) but do not believe in the other (usually hell).  This was helpful in determining the degree of correlation.

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The question the authors ask is why does this work? They posit that people who believe more strongly in God’s forgiveness think that they can get away with a lot more because God will forgive them.  However, those who believe in hell believe that even if they get away with it and no human will punish them, God will pay them back eventually and this compels them to act more morally.

Therefore, believing in a good, loving God does not make people behave more morally, only believing that God will perform retribution does.

Way back, I used to read essays by Christian universalists who would say that the doctrine of hell was invented by people who were just trying to control the population.  Opponents of universalism would say that without hell, what was the point of being moral?  Universalists would say that using hell as a scare tactic is a cheap way to win a religious convert.

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But as it turns out, the people who believe in hell were right. The threat of hell does produce more moral people.  We have the observational study/experiments to prove it.

This contrasts with Richard Dawkins’ statements about religion. From Wikipedia:

Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense.

Dawkins is famous for his opposition to Christianity, and in the above quote he calls it harmless nonsense.  Yet while he says that religion can be used for evil, this study contradicts that statement in that it can also be used for good in the form of lower national crime rates.

I’ve sometimes wondered why people associate so strongly with religion.  But that also extends to why people identify so strongly with groups – why, for example, are people so proudly nationalistic during the Olympics?  You don’t know any of the athletes competing, but I bet you feel a source of pride when your home country wins a medal, and the agony of defeat when they lose a close race.  Why is it that sports fans celebrate and cheer together and feel good when they find a random person on the street that likes the same team?  Why do we love politicians when they say the things we agree with but despise them when they change political parties?

Why do humans so closely value group identity within a group of strangers?

I’m not sure, but my theory is that it’s evolutionarily programmed into us.  For larger groups of people, it would be reinforced into our ancestors that we needed to bind ourselves together in order to survive.  It was only by acting as a team that we could survive an attack by a larger tribe or group of animals.  We could defend our resources from raiders who attempted to take them from us.  A lone wolf could not defend his land better than a group of wolves.  Similarly, a tribe of people could defend themselves better than a single family.

People who ventured too far away from the tribe were outcast and died without access to group resources.  Those who stayed within the tribe lived to pass on their genes to their ancestors.  And this was reinforced from generation onto generation.

Some social psychologists reason that religion is one way that people bind to each other and find group identity.  If previous tribes would punish the outcasts (leaving the tribe is bad because it weakens it and everyone doing it would threaten its survival, and therefore had to be discouraged), then religion, too, would need a mechanism to discourage leaving it.  Belief in divine punishment would be a way of getting people to conform to a set of beliefs.  It’s not quite that simple and religion is more complex than that, and this is only a theory, but it kind of fits with what we know about human evolutionary behavior and group identity.

If you leave the group (immoral behavior) and there are no consequences, then you are more likely commit immoral behavior.  But if leaving the group meant you would suffer harm, then you are more likely to continue on with moral behavior.

Maybe this instinct of the fear of consequences is what leads us to behave morally in real life.  After all, if anything goes, then why not anything?

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I heard a sermon the other day which mentioned certain prophecies in the book of Isaiah.  I thought I’d write about it because it’s my blog and I find theological topics interesting.  The minister who gave the message was using the traditional interpretation of the book of Isaiah and amongst conservative Christian circles, the passage is well understood.  I’ll rehash it quickly here.

  1. The book of Isaiah was written entirely by the prophet Isaiah.  It’s a fairly long book, 66 chapters.

  2. It’s a very prophetic book.  Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, and at the time the most threatening nation in the world was Assyria.  Much of Isaiah contains oracles about the nation at the time. 

    Yet eventually, 150 years later, Judah would be invaded by Babylon and taken into exile.  Isaiah prophesied over 180 years that the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, would declare that the Jews could return to Israel (Isaiah 45).  This was a very accurate forecast.

  3. The later chapters in Isaiah, especially chapters 52 and 53, are predicting the death and suffering of Jesus on the cross nearly 600 years after that, an even more accurate prophecy.

Thus, in the conservative interpretation, Isaiah deals with immediate concerns, distant concerns and much more distant concerns.

However, there is an alternative interpretation taken by critical scholars.  This interpretation denies that Isaiah contains prophecies but instead is about issues pertaining to Israel/Judah at the time.

  1. The book of Isaiah contains (roughly) three parts – 1 Isaiah, which was written around the time that Isaiah the prophet lived and deals with contemporary issues – Judah’s relation to Assyria.  1 Isaiah is chapters 1-39 of the book with some passages thought to be from a later period.
  2. 2 Isaiah is chapters 40-55 and was written while Israel/Judah was in exile after Babylon invaded and destroyed Jerusalem, or shortly after the exile.
  3. 3 Isaiah is chapters 56-66 and looks towards a future restoration of Israel as a light to the nations.  It dates either late in the exile or is post-exilic (after Cyrus the Great allows the Israelites to return to their country).

As you can see, conservative and critical interpretations of the book of Isaiah are quite different.  The conservative interpretation takes its view because it adheres to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy – the book says it was written by Isaiah, and since Isaiah lived in the 8th century BC, it must be a prophecy-before-the fact.  New Testament writers assert that the suffering servant in Isaiah 52 and 53 is Christ.

Critical interpretations take their view for the following reasons:

  1. Writers write about what is relevant to their audience at the time.  When George W. Bush was president, lots of authors released books decrying about how much they hated him, criticized him, etc.  Now that he’s out of office, who writes books about former President Bush?  Nobody.

    But lo and behold, now that President Obama is in office, plenty of books are written by right-wing authors criticizing how he’s a terrible president, a socialist, and so forth.  How many books about Obama do you think they’ll release in 2017 after Obama has been out of office for a year?  I’m betting almost none.

    Why is this?  Because people don’t write about irrelevant things; no one cares when the president is out of office.  They write about things that are relevant to them.  Thus, 1 Isaiah being written by Isaiah himself makes sense because he’s dealing with his contemporaries.  2 Isaiah is totally irrelevant, and so is 3 Isaiah.  What does it matter something that is 150 years in the future?  People back then would have cared about it as much as people today would care about things that will occur in 2162.  But an author who lived during and just after the exile is very relevant to the situation of the day, and therefore writes about life events.

    Somehow his writings get added to Isaiah’s original book, but the situation is this – 2 and 3 Isaiah are not future prophecies but instead commentaries by people living at the time.

  2. What motivated the writer of 2 Isaiah?  The Babylonian exile was a critical turning point in Israelite history.  How could the god of the Babylonians be stronger than the God of the Israelites?  The cruelty of the Babylonians is reflected in the bitterness of the writer of Psalms 137:8-9 where the author says “Blessed is the one who takes Babylonian babies and smashes them against the rocks.”

    To the Israelites, this catastrophe forced them to re-evaluate their view of their God vs. others’ gods.  Rather than others’ gods being more powerful than theirs, it was the God of the Israelites who was responsible for this situation, even that bad things that occurred.  This is reflected in Isaiah 45:7 where God is responsible for light, darkness, good and evil.

    There are no other gods, only the God of the Israelites.

  3. But the question is why did God allow the Babylonians to destroy their city? 

    God knows very well that his people were oppressed and that he allowed it.  But he would redeem his people.  In chapter 52, God would demonstrate his power and his servant would prosper, and all the ends of the earth would be amazed.  His servant, in context, is national Israel.  The writer is using a literary technique where the nation of Israel is personified as the suffering servant. 

    In chapter 53, it talks about the suffering of the servant so that the many descendants (vs. 10 and 11) could prosper and achieve righteousness.  The nation of Israel would be redeemed from the suffering they felt at the hands of Babylon.  This is reiterated in 54:8 where God declares he was angry but that he would have compassion.  In 55:4, God declares that he would display his power among the nations by taking his people who were crushed and then raising them up.

    Thus, the suffering servant is national Israel whom God allowed to be punished but then he would reverse their fortune.

  4. As an aside, Isaiah 55:11 is the verse where God says that his thoughts are higher than human thoughts, his ways are beyond anything humans can imagine.  People frequently use this verse to say that God acts in mysterious ways and we can’t understand his logic (they use the term “You can’t put God in a box”), but the context of this verse is that if people repent, God will have mercy. 

    This is counterintuitive – why would God be merciful and make them prosper? Because that’s who God is; this undeserved mercy (i.e., grace) is what makes God’s ways higher than ours because us humans prefer to dole out justice as we see fit.

That’s a very brief summary of the critical scholar’s interpretation of the book of Isaiah.  Rather than a future prediction of Cyrus the Great and Jesus, they have to do with historical events that the writer was living in at the time.

I leave it up to the reader to decide which version they agree with.

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