Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
I often think of humankind as a long procession whose beginning and end are out of sight. We the living… have no control over when or where we enter the procession, or even how long we are part of it, but we do get to choose our marching companions. And we can all exercise some control over what direction the procession takes, what part we play, and how we play it.
On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.
Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?
These ways of thinking—cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on— have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.
National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours—huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction—what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.
Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.
That self-deception started early.
When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession.”
When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”
On the eve of the Mexican War, an American journalist declared it our “Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.” After the invasion of Mexico began, The New York Herald announced: “We believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country.”
It was always supposedly for benign purposes that our country went to war.
We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, “to civilize and Christianize” the Filipino people.
As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”
We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture.
Yet they are victims, too, of our government’s lies.
How many times have we heard President Bush tell the troops that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded, it is for “liberty,” for “democracy”?
One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on September 11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And nationalism is given a special virulence when it is said to be blessed by Providence. Today we have a president, invading two countries in four years, who announced on the campaign trail in 2004 that God speaks through him.
We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.
We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.
If there are contradictions in a book found in the Bible that means that the common fundamentalist understanding that the text is inerrant is almost certainly wrong. I have tried to word that statement carefully. I’ve noticed that often in these kinds of discussions, people don’t listen carefully to wording that is careful. So let me stress what I am saying, by highlighting the key words: The common fundamentalist understanding that the text is inerrant is almost certainly wrong.
Contradictions would show that ONE way of understanding the inspiration of the Bible is probably wrong – the common fundamentalist understanding of the inspiration of Scripture is probably (not certainly; though I would say almost certainly) wrong. That does NOT necessarily mean that the Bible is not inspired. It means that the common fundamentalist understanding of inspiration is probably wrong.
This common fundamentalist understanding is that the Bible has no mistakes of any kind. No scientific mistakes (the earth was created in six days; there really was an Adam and Eve; God really did make the sun stand still in the Book of Joshua; and so on); no historical mistakes (there really was a Tower of Babel, Moses really did lead millions of Israelites out of Egypt at the Exodus; there really was a census of the entire Roman world for which everyone had to register in the ancestral home during the reigns of Caesar Augustus in Rome and Quirinius in Syria; and so on) — no actual contradictions or discrepancies of any kind.
In this view, anything that seems like a mistake or a contradiction only seems to be. It’s not really a mistake. There is an explanation for everything, because God made sure that the Bible would be completely without error, a perfect revelation of the past and of his will to his people.
There are different ways various fundamentalists have gotten to this understanding of things over the years. For example, to pick just two options: some think that God actually dictated the words of Scripture to the various authors; others think that God dictated the thoughts of the authors and made sure that even if they wrote things down in their own words none of the words were in error or contradiction. There are a number of ways to explain inerrancy, but the basic point, in this common fundamentalist understanding is that the words – however they got on the page – are without error.
If you want to read the entire article on Dr. Ehrman’s blog, you will need to have a membership. Cost? $24.95 per year, with all proceeds going to charity. I am a member, and I find the regular blog entries by Dr. Ehrman to be enlightening and helpful.
Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that: created sick, and then ordered to be well. And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy, exigent—exigent, I would say more than exigent—greedy for uncritical praise from dawn until dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there’s no cure: salvation is offered, redemption, indeed, is promised, at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties. Religion, it might be said—it must be said, would have to admit, makes extraordinary claims but though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore, we might begin by asking, and I’m asking my opponent as well as you when you consider your voting, is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our skepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs? To appeal to our fear and to our guilt, is it good for the world? To our terror, our terror of death, is it good to appeal? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship, is this good for the world? And asking yourself all the while, are these really religious responsibilities, as I maintain they are? To terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just of themselves, but of their parents and those they love. Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation, is that good for the world, and can you name me a religion that has not done that? To insist that we are created and not evolved in the face of all the evidence. Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect, now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord”?
In 2018, human rights are neither a topic of public discussion nor an apparent interest of American government policy. Both the president and his secretary of state think that torture is an acceptable practice as a part of our global military endeavors everywhere. The president really seems to like the North Korean dictator, a killer of his own people and his own family. President Trump “sword dances” with the new leader in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, while both give orders to dispatch warplane sorties that are destroying the poorest nation in the Middle East with bombs, blockades and ensuing famine.
Salman, the crown prince of oil, sand and a very decadent Saudi royal family, is on the offensive these days. Support for this effort comes from the United Arab Emirates and the United States. For the skeptical reader, yes, this war on Yemen was started by President Obama. The war is now three years old and being waged against a sect of Islam that is close to the Shia sect of Islam. The Saudis first tried to raise a pan-Arab coalition, but that melted away faster than ice cream in the sun. The Saudis next turned to the Americans, and with their help in the form of aerial fuel-tankers, Saudi warplanes were able to refuel and to do double duty on destruction of Yemeni targets.
For an historical perspective, Salman ought to read the Pentagon Papers. Relentless bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia did little to bring the USA a victory in Vietnam. Saudi supporters are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel just like President Johnson did, but there may be none. During the Vietnam War, the light at the end of the tunnel ended up being the Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese Army. Within a few years, the Americans were going home after losing billions and billions of dollars and losing at least 69,000 brave and wonderful young men and women. I believe that a similar quagmire could happen to Saudis in their war on Yemen. Not so much in terms of the pointless loss of young Saudi pilots’ lives, but in terms of lost capital and political embarrassment as killers of over 10,000 poor in Yemen.
Make no mistake. This war in Yemen is truly one of the rich against the poor. The combined resources of the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are almost beyond count. Yemen, on the other hand, has virtually no wealth and a currently dismal future because the country’s small resources are all practically leveled by now with the Saudis bombing mosques, hotels and factories. Famine has ridden in along with the Saudi onslaught. According to the United Nations, the only way to avoid the famine is to successfully move the “three amigos” of the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into a peace agreement with the Yemeni Houthis.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.
There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
Even though you seize the day, it still will flee; therefore, you must vie with time’s swiftness in the speed of using it, and, as from a torrent that rushes by and will not always flow, you must drink quickly.
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.
The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.
Churches are becoming political organizations… It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave. All laws for the purpose of making man worship God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the auto da fe, and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition. All laws defining and punishing blasphemy — making it a crime to give your honest ideas about the Bible, or to laugh at the ignorance of the ancient Jews, or to enjoy yourself on the Sabbath, or to give your opinion of Jehovah, were passed by impudent bigots, and should be at once repealed by honest men. An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment. It strikes me that God might write a book that would not necessarily excite the laughter of his children. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that a real God could produce a work that would excite the admiration of mankind. Surely politicians could be better employed than in passing laws to protect the literary reputation of the Jewish God.
My conservative opponents sometimes press the fact that we are well informed about the text of the New Testament in a ridiculous way – ridiculous possibly because they simply don’t know any better. They point out that with all this evidence for the New Testament, if I (crazy liberal that I am) don’t think we can know exactly what the authors of the NT wrote (in places) then I’d have to say the same thing about Plato, or Homer, or Cicero, or … or any other author!
Their view is that any such claim would be on the face of it completely bizarre and that this is why, in their view, no one says any such thing. Which shows that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.
Most of my conservative opponents were trained in theological seminaries and teach in conservative evangelical settings, not in research universities, and their academic ties tend to be with scholars who work in theological fields: church history, systematic theology, and the like. They don’t work in a secular setting where the natural ties are more in the fields of classics and ancient history. Anyone who says that scholars don’t have any questions about what Plato, Homer, Cicero, or any other author actually (which words they used) is simply ignorant.
I don’t mean that they are being willfully stupid; I just mean they (apparently) just don’t know any better. Reconstructing the words of any ancient author is massively complicated, given their problematic textual histories, and there are indeed scholars who devote their lives to the task for one author or another. It’s *much* harder to establish the text of Homer than the text of the New Testament, and no one is completely confident we have the “original” wording of the Iliad or the Odyssey. That’s true for all ancient books. (And by the way, is especially the case with the Hebrew Bible!)
My second response to this claim that we already know what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote is that I simply can’t see how that could be true. Take Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote it probably in the early to mid 50s of the common era. The first copy we have it of it is called P46 (called this because it is written on papyrus – hence the P – and is the 46th papyrus to have been discovered and catalogued). It dates from around 200 CE. That is, the letter was copied, recopied, and recopied for 150 years before we have a copy. And P46 is not a complete copy. The first full and complete copy of Philippians we have is codex Vaticanus from the middle of the fourth century – some three hundred years after the original.
So it’s great (really, I mean it, it’s *great*) that we have so many hundreds of copies of Philippians from the Middle Ages. That shows us how the letter was being copied, say, seven hundred or a thousand years or more after the original. But what we are interested in is knowing how it was copied, say, one year after the original. And for that how much evidence do we have? We have zero evidence.
How old was the copy that the 200-CE P46 itself was copying? Was it from the year 190? 150? 130? We don’t know. How old was the copy *that* copy was copying? We don’t know. How old was the copy that *that* copy of a copy was copying? We don’t know. And worse, we don’t know how close to the original wording any of those copies was, how accurate its scribe was in what he copied, or how accurate the copyist of the copy that he copied was.
Suppose Paul sent his letter to Philippi in 56 CE. Someone there wanted a copy and so made it. Two other people decided they wanted copies of that copy. So they copied that copy, rather than the original (maybe the original had been sent do Thessalonica or someplace). And then copies of those copies were made. And the original – this is hypothetical, but *any* reconstruction is hypothetical – was lost in a house fire. That would mean that all the copies of the copies of the copies go back not to the original but to the first copy. What if the first copyist changed things? What if he changed a lot? What if he decided to whomp up a section or two of Paul’s prose? What if he really didn’t like one paragraph/passage (or more) and so simply omitted it? We would have precisely NO way of knowing. The entire manuscript tradition in this case descended from the copy, not from the original.
That is one hypothetical to show how we don’t *KNOW* what the original said. I could easily come up with a hundred other hypotheticals without thinking hard that would lead to the same result.
Quote from Sean Carroll’s article in the upcoming Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics:
It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue that any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation.
Carroll goes on to say:
As you can see, my basic tack hasn’t changed: this kind of question might be the kind of thing that doesn’t have a sensible answer. In our everyday lives, it makes sense to ask “why” this or that event occurs, but such questions have answers only because they are embedded in a larger explanatory context. In particular, because the world of our everyday experience is an emergent approximation with an extremely strong arrow of time, such that we can safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” The universe, considered as all of reality (i.e. let’s include the multiverse, if any), isn’t like that. The right question to ask isn’t “Why did this happen?”, but “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” As far as the universe and our current knowledge of the laws of physics is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — is a relic piece of metaphysical baggage we would be better off to discard.
This perspective gets pushback from two different sides. On the one hand we have theists, who believe that they can answer why the universe exists, and the answer is God. As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. The problem with that is that nothing exists necessarily, so the move is pretty obviously a cheat. I didn’t have a lot of room in the paper to discuss this in detail (in what after all was meant as a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of physics, not the philosophy of religion), but the basic idea is there. Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” (Theism could possibly offer a better account of the nature of reality than naturalism — that’s a different question — but it doesn’t let you wiggle out of positing some brute facts about what exists.)
In my graduate course last week, we analyzed the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi — a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….). It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels. Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; it is interested in explaining who she was. Why was *she* the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God? What made her so special? How did she come into the world? What made her more holy than any other woman? Etc. These questions drive the narrative, and make it our earliest surviving instance of the adoration of Mary. On the legends found here was built an entire superstructure of Marian tradition. Most of the book deals with the question of how Mary was conceived (miraculously, but not virginally), what her early years were like (highly sanctified; her youth up to twelve (lived in the temple, fed every day by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, an elderly widower with sons from a previous marriage, the discovery of her pregnancy and the “proof” that she (and Joseph) were both pure from any “sin” (such as, well, sex).
The book was originally composed in the second Christian century. There are a number of intriguing passages, none of which is more famous than the one I translate here (the original language is Greek). In this striking narrative, when Mary is about ready to give birth in a cave just outside of Bethlehem, Joseph runs off to find a midwife who can help. They arrive too late. The child appears without any human help or intervention (is the child really a newborn? Jesus appears to walk over to his mother to take her breast; and he performs a healing miracle!).
It’s an amazing passage, that everyone should know about. (The first bit is given in the first-person, with Joseph himself talking). Here it is:
(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s Temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.
(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”
(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”
(1) The midwife went in and said to Mary, “Brace yourself. For there is no small controversy concerning you.” Then Salome inserted her finger in order to examine her condition, and she cried out, “Woe to me for my sin and faithlessness. For I have put the living God to the test, and see, my hand is burning, falling away from me.” (2) She kneeled before the Master and said, “O God of my fathers, remember that I am a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not make me an example to the sons of Israel, but deliver me over to the poor. For you know, O Master, that I have performed my services in your name and have received my wages from you.”
(3) And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Salome, Salome, the Master of all has heard your prayer. Bring your hand to the child and lift him up; and you will find salvation and joy.” (4) Salome joyfully came and lifted the child, saying, “I will worship him, for he has been born as a great king to Israel.” Salome was immediately cured, and she went out of the cave justified. And behold a voice came saying, “Salome, Salome, do not report all the miraculous deeds you have seen until the child enters Jerusalem.”