Friday, October 12, 2007

Parties and religions don’t exist absent people. They are products of people. I don’t think you judge a movement based on people per se, but you can judge it based on how its constructed by the people who make it up. The republican party of Lincoln is not the same republican party today, no more than democrats today are the same as democrats from the New Deal era. Sometimes this is subtle changes designed to attract new followers and other times it a whole sale shift in values such as democrats on civil rights or republicans on nation building.

With Christianity it’s no different. Christians today have little theologically in common with say Aquinas or even Paul. At a basic level they share some similar beliefs such as the existence of Jesus, but concepts such as the trinity, the nature of Jesus, original sin, and the method of salvation, have undergone wholesale revision from time to time. A lot of which has to do with changing understandings of morality and the nature of the world. For example, the idea of Jesus can be seen as a response to the growing difficulties with the sacrificial system of atonement. Remember in ancient Jewish society the way you made up for wrong acts was through the killing of ostensible innocent animals, and occasionally captured people. Like most tribal societies they had a god who enjoyed sacrifices, controlled events, etc. Not really different form Baal, Ra, or any other.

What Christianity added to the mix was the novel idea of a universal sacrifice. No more did one have to off some goats to appease god. The problem is that it relies on the same odd understand of how to make up for wrong doing. The idea that the suffering of the innocent can absolve the guilty is a crime itself. Not only that, but at a threshold level it just doesn’t make any sense. If you did something wrong to me, say stole my car, how would killing my kid, or, ostensibly, part of myself, in anyway absolve you from stealing my car.

Even if we grant that such suffering does absolve wrongdoing, Jesus just doesn’t seem to cut it. In a sense god took part of himself, a part that had always and would always be part of him and sent him to earth for an incredibly short period of time. Short from a natural history perspective and from a 30 years vs. infinity perspective. After a relatively happy 30 years he underwent a few days of admittedly painful torture, though not nearly as long or as a severe as others have gone through. He then was dead for three days before returning to Heaven. Again, how that makes up for others wrong doing, either before Jesus, or especially after, doesn’t really make sense. Instead it just seems like an easier way of being Jewish. No sacrifice, no weird dietary/clothing laws, no actual punishment.

Personally I only really care what people believe when it affects me or society. If someone wants to believe that they get to live forever because god’s kid had a bad weekend, that’s fine with me. However I do care when they use that to try and restrict the rights of my gay friends, force me to accept their beliefs, or suppress our efforts to discover scientific truths. Whether its Muslim fundamentalists or born again Christians both can’t seem to grasp that the rest of us are quite happy even though we don’t think as they do.

This generation has exponentially more access to knowledge than any other in history. If anything the effects of this are only beginning to be understood and so far I think people are underestimating them. The Barna study sheds some light on what’s to come though.

For example, I can right now access the entirety of human genome, read every scientific article ever published, and see all the pictures ever taken by the Hubble space telescope. I don’t accept evolution and big bang cosmology because an expert told me so, I accept it because I have seen the evidence myself. What was once the providence of god (weather, sickness, eclipses, the existence of life) now have explanations, and we are close to understand so much more.

This makes the job of religion ,with its simple stories of minor miracles, mediocre creation, and ancient fables, quite difficult. What might have impressed a stone age farmer, or even a 19th century peasant, just doesn’t impress those of us with access to the real knowledge provided by reason and science. Even though we might not ever understand it all, the wonder created simply by trying is so much more satisfying the complacency created by saying ‘god did it’.

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