Strange Doctrine

In my previous post, I rather crudely described a painful experience I had with Christianity early on. As a divorced man, I was invited by my Christian friends to become a totally non-sexual being. I apologize for my rude language on that post. Generally, I try to keep things nice here, but of course that one got the better of me.

In this post, I would like to more thoroughly explore why it is that many Christians (including myself, in times past) believe some manifestly ridiculous and absurd notions, including the whole sex / divorce thing. I need to nuance this though: I have readily admitted on this blog that Christianity also probably saved my life. Certainly, I received lots of love and support from other Christians during my early Christian experience. (Later on, not so much.) So my experience with religion has not been completely negative. OK, let’s move on.

Why is it that Christians often believe very unlikely things? Simple: It comes from an obstructed view of the bible. I will use myself as an example. While I was enmeshed into the system of Christianity, I viewed the bible entirely through the lens of Christian theology, as shown in the following graphic:

Strange Doctrine 1

Note that I unified my approach to the entire bible: Like any other Christian, when I was is reading the bible, I attempted to reconcile the various books of the bible with each other. Thus, I approached the bible as a single work by a single author, because that is what I believed it was.

Also, notice that I looked at the bible alone. If I read anything other than the bible (and there were many years when I read nothing else), they were works by Christian authors that basically trumpeted the Christian point of view, quoting heavily from the bible in the process. Not very helpful in other words. I certainly did not consider the bible in the context of the culture in which it was written. (Heaven forbid!)

This approach worked for me for a while, but eventually I found it very frustrating. The contradictions were simply too numerous to count. I also found myself believing propositions which frankly are mind boggling. More on this later. Once I became aware of these issues, I considered the following idea: Whatever else the bible is, it is certainly a work of human culture. So why not simply approach the bible in that manner? This required me to remove the lens of Christian theology from my view of the bible.

In the process, the bible became deconstructed into its various books. Of course, once I ceased to approach the bible as a single unified work, I became aware that the bible is simply a collection of ancient documents, nothing more. I ceased trying to reconcile the author of the Gospel of Matthew (who was undoubtedly a Jewish Christian who believed that you must follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised in order to be saved) with the author of the Gospel of John (a gentile believer who was deeply influenced by pagan Greek philosophy). The following graphic illustrates this approach:

Strange Doctrine 2

Now for the final step. Once I had deconstructed the books of the bible, and approached them individually, and simply as works of human culture, I then began to investigate the other works of human culture (especially literature) which were contemporaneous with and adjacent geographically to the books of the bible. These works amplify and illustrate the books of the bible in a manner than simply cannot be replaced any other way. The final graphic shows this approach:

Strange Doctrine 3

This is, of course, the exact approach used by academics who study the bible and other ancient documents as their profession. Eventually, I discovered academics like Richard Elliott Freidman, Karen Armstrong, and the like, and those have certainly helped me on my way.

Now, let’s examine the process whereby my Christian friends concluded that I, as a divorced man, would never be allowed to marry or have sex ever again. This is based upon a very literal and restrictive reading of several passages in the New Testament, such as 1 Timothy 3:2 which reads:

Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,…

This passage describes the qualifications for an overseer (Greek: episcopas), which includes the injunction that he must be the husband of one wife. Given that Christians hold a theological position that God’s plan for marriage is for one woman to be married to one man, and to remain faithful to each other their entire lives, their interpretation of this passage is colored by this doctrine. It is manifestly obvious, once you look at the context of the culture of the times, that what was being referred to here was that the overseer could not be the husband of more than one wife simultaneously. That is, he could not be a polygamist. Before you react, bear in mind that polygamy has been by far the most common form of marriage in human history. To this day, many cultures are polygamous. Only in the former Roman Empire and colonies of powers which were previously part of the Roman Empire (such as the US), did monogamy prevail as the norm. In the case of 1st century Palestine, of course there was widespread polygamy, including among Christians. What the writer of this passage is saying (it is rather unlikely that the author of this passage was Paul, so instead he is generally referred to as pseudo-Paul) is that an overseer must be a monogamist. That is not to say that polygamists were not welcome in Christian churches. They were, and we know this from abundant contemporaneous literature from that time. But pseudo-Paul was simply expressing the prevailing Christian view that monogamy was best (as a result of the influence of Roman paganism, from which monogamy emerged).

Now, in my case, this very restrictive reading (again in the light of the Christian theology regarding marriage) meant that we had to read polygamy out of the passage: That is not what that passage could possibly mean, because we know that God would never countenance polygamy! (Never mind that every single patriarch in the Old Testament with the possible exception of Isaac was a polygamist, including Adam.) If we read the passage in the light (or darkness!) of this strange doctrine then the reading becomes obvious: In order to be an overseer, you must be the husband of only one wife in your entire life.

Now, how do we get from this to an injunction against anyone becoming married for the second (or third) time. Simple: God must want us all to be able to qualify as overseers. It is therefore God’s will that we maintain the highest standards of excellence, especially in the area of sex. Thus, I was told: You can get married if you want, but that’s not God’s will for you. If you pray hard enough, you will eventually learn to live as a eunuch for God.

Never mind that I am aggressively and stubbornly heterosexual, and deeply passionate. No problem. God will give you grace. Eventually, you will become able to bear this burden.

Hence my FtS reaction in my previous post. I simply refused to go along with this absurd notion. In the process I was attacked physically once, and was pretty roundly persecuted for a while. But eventually, I found my amazing and wonderful wife, Ruth, and we discovered each other. The rest is blessed history.

This is not the only ridiculous notion that I allowed myself to believe for many years while living as a Christian. Others included:

  • Evolution is a theory, nothing more.
  • The earth is only a few thousand years old.
  • We all descended from two individual humans who were miraculously created by God.
  • The entire universe was created by God in seven days.

You get the idea. Once you remove the lens of Christian theology, these will eventually fall away. At least they did for me.

More later.

Payoff

In my previous post, I talked about the notion that the bible (which is of course merely a collection of ancient documents) is the “Word of God”, and how this notion has become a critical component to Western European Evangelical Christianity. In several conversations with my friend Ray (who is Christian, of course), I think Ray and I may have teased out a possible reason why this notion became so central to this particular religion. One in which I and many of my loved ones have been enmeshed for so many years.

Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”. I have also heard this referred to as “Pray Reading”, and various other similar terms, depending on the religious context. The assumption is that the spiritual organ that lies within each of us, and connects us to the divine, gets turned on, and suddenly we are able to believe things for which there is no logical evidence. And the first thing you must believe, and for which there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, is that the bible is in some sense the “Word of God”.

Looking at this phenomenon from outside religion, of course, it appears to be very much like mass delusion. There is, after all, no scientific evidence to support the existence of a Human Spirit (at least not without serious questions). Thus, the act of believing propositions for which the evidence is seriously lacking seems, well, illogical.

Enter what I call Suspension of Disbelief (SoD). It is very similar to going to the movies, reading a book, or any other similar form of entertainment. You simply decide to believe what is presented to you, and you are good. You can only enjoy Harry Potter, Star Trek, and the like, by engaging in SoD to at least some degree. I am very good at this maneuver, actually. Anyone who has been to an action movie with me will laugh when they remember how agitated I can get during the fight scenes. This is because I actually lived in a fantasy world for several years (during the time my father was in Vietnam), and thus I have a very overdeveloped imagination.

Anyway, to become a Christian, you simply decide to believe. That’s it. The bible does say that it is “God’s Word” in several places (or at least you can interpret it that way). If you simply do the SoD thing (which, again, in the religious context can be called such things as “Reading by Faith”) then you can accept the bible, warts and all, as the utterance from the mind of God. Believe me. I know. I have done this very thing: I have believed this myself.

Now, the question: Why did I do this? Simple. There was a big payoff. In fact a payoff so huge that it could be said that it saved my life.

The payoff was love.

I was 28. It was 1983. My sister committed suicide by shooting herself in the head with a 38 caliber pistol. I got fired from my job and had basically no way to support myself. My wife was insane and abusive, as well as on her way to becoming a stumbling alcoholic. And I was joining her there. In the midst of all this stepped this older man named Frank.

Frank reminded me of my Dad, actually. I do not know as I sit here if Frank is still alive, although I have regularly tried to contact him. Frank, if you are out there, please let me know.

Frank was a Christian, and he took an interest in me, this young, intelligent, budding attorney who worked at the same natural gas pipeline company that he did. Frank took me under his wing. He offered me love. He offered me someone to talk to.

And he offered me the bible.

As I have said before, Frank was a very bookish guy. He seriously believed the proposition that the bible is the “Word of God”. And he dedicated an hour per day of his time to a practice based upon that belief: He read the bible cover to cover 4 times a year.

Now, of course, Frank was not reading the bible in the way that I do now. I read the bible as a piece of human culture, nothing more. Frank, on the other hand, used the same technique as my wife. I describe it above. Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”, which is the term I will use, or RbF for short.

The thing is, like I have said previously, most Christians only read about 15% of the complete content of their bible, max. And that’s the good stuff. Bear in mind that the bible is truly fabulous stuff at least 15% of the time. That’s the part that, for want of a better term, I call inspired (in the secular sense of course). The rest of the bible falls into three categories:

  • Appallingly violent
  • Miserably depressing
  • Crushingly dull

At least, it does for me. Your mileage may vary. Depending on your tolerance level, and your commitment to reading the bible. Which in the case of Frank, was very high.

During my long association with Frank, I noticed that he did not ignore the uncomfortable parts of the bible like other Christians did. He read it all. I imitated Frank, and read the bible cover-to-cover many, many times. In the process I learned a lot about the bible. And gradually I got a better picture. The way that Frank and I were reading the bible was driving us crazy. I certainly knew that was what it was doing to me, and I also saw a lot of the same thing in Frank. At the very least, this practice was giving both of us a lot of stress. I personally observed Frank tortured to some extent by one of the more difficult passages in the bible. The early history books like Genesis and Exodus are great for this. Just open one and read a bit. You almost can’t miss it. But one example that I will pick on is Genesis 19, a truly miserable story in the OT, and the passage that was bothering Frank one day long ago.

In Genesis 19 we have Lot, Abraham’s nephew, living in Sodom with his wife and family. Two figures described as “Messengers of Yahweh” (frequently translated “Angels of the Lord”) arrive to warn Lot to flee Sodom. Apparently, the people of Sodom are homicidal, sexually crazed maniacs. (I have never found anyone in my all of travels who remotely resemble the men of Sodom, but whatever.) The men of Sodom try to break down the door to Lot’s house to drag out these two total strangers “so that they could know them” (literally “have sex with them”).

At that point Lot has a startling response. He brings out his two young daughters and declares

No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof. (NIV)

Soooo, it would be “wicked” to have sex (presumably rape) with these two strangers, but it’s fine to rape my two young daughters to death? What is Lot thinking here?

Now, of course Frank had a strong response to this passage. Not only does it seem remarkably cruel, evil even, but it makes no sense. It does not seem to particularly move the narrative along. It just seems to be stuck in there.

The thing that really bothered Frank was that this was in the bible. He didn’t get it. With each and every verse in the entire bible, Frank was trying with all of his heart to extract meaning and significance. And despite years and years of trying, and accreting massive amounts of “insight” onto his understanding of the bible, many, many verses eluded him his entire life, at least up to the point I knew him. And he was fairly elderly then, so this practice had been going on for many years.

What I saw in Frank, though, was a man with a purpose. A man who stood for something. And, most importantly, a human being who was willing to expend energy on me, who was willing to take his time, and give it to me freely.

What he saw in me was a successful, very intelligent young man who was utterly shattered and broken, but who still had enormous potential. Frank invested huge amounts of his time in conversations with me. Over the course of my conversion, which took the better part of a year, Frank and I spoke for hours, many times a week. However, even at Frank’s inflated hourly rate (Frank was also an attorney) this investment was wildly profitable to the Christian Church (if such an institution can be said to exist). I have given wildly, profligately in fact, during my period as a Christian. Thus, strictly as a business decision, the contribution of Frank to my life was a good one. However, I seriously doubt that Frank thought about it in that way. To him, I was merely a young atheist who was in his life, and who he was working with to share his faith. He had done the same thing many times before, and did it after he worked with me. To Frank, it truly was a form of love.

Because of this, the offer that Frank made was completely irresistible. I was exactly what has been described by Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity as the ideal recruiting prospect for early Christianity: Isolated, lonely, desperate, and starved for human contact. It is possible that Christianity may have saved my life, as it did for many of the early Christian converts during all of the plagues in ancient Roman cities that Rodney Stark so eloquently describes. More on Rodney and his incredibly important contribution to my life in a later post.

The deal I made with Frank, which I suppose I secretly knew when I did it, was to receive access to a community, a support system, and most especially an emotional support system, in exchange for believing a few extremely implausible (but not provably wrong) propositions. Like that the bible is the “Word of God”. Which is, as I like to say, the Mother of Them All (TMotA). In terms of “foma” at least.

And why is that particular foma so important? Simple: Because it leads to all the rest.

If you believe, I mean truly believe, that the bible is the “Word of God”, then you will believe all kinds of improbable things. I have done it. Many folks in my life have done it. Entire doctrinal and theological card castles have been built around this initial single foma.

My daughter recently told me about some of the heated theological debates which were occurring in the Baptist church where she and her boyfriend sometimes attend. I suggested that she simply make the following statement during this sort of discussion:

You realize, don’t you, that the bible is a work of human culture and not the “Word of God” in any sense. Right?

At that point, all theological disputes should disappear. Because SoD will cease, assuming that this statement is believed. At least, that has been my experience. I was no longer able to buy the notion that the bible is the “Word of God” at some point in my journey (I have tried to figure out when this occurred, but so far it escapes me). My studies of the bible and the manuscripts upon which it is based eventually spilled over, and my faith in the bible as the “Word of God” simply collapsed. Once that happened, all of the other foma fell away as well. This included the following improbable notions, all of which I believed passionately up to this point:

  • Evolution is just a theory.
  • Marriage is an institution ordained by God in which one man and one woman live together their entire remaining lives and raise a family.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ is the only legitimate expression of God’s love on the Earth.
  • Your Hindu housekeeper is going to Hell because she has not accepted Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior.

More later.