FRDB Archives

Freethought & Rationalism Archive

The archives are read only.


Go Back   FRDB Archives > Archives > Biblical Criticism - 2001
Welcome, Peter Kirby.
You last visited: Today at 05:55 AM

Notices

 
 
Thread Tools Search this Thread
Old 03-19-2001, 09:04 AM   #1
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post Taking history seriously

I found a wonderful article written by John Robson, a very funny columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, and one of my personal favorites. I wanted to offer it, and invite comments.

From Why taking history seriously can make you very cross by John Robson:

As C.S. Lewis noted, people tend to see history as "a shadowy and unimportant region in which the phantasmal shapes of Roman soldiers, stagecoaches, pirates, knights-in-armour, highwaymen, etc., moved in a mist." Hence the Australian Olympic medals show the Roman Colosseum. And hence we take wildly improbable events for granted, like Allied victory in the Second World War. (Academic depictions of history as the logical result of mechanical forces like "the rise of the middle class" are equally inimical to a sense of wonder at history.)

For Lewis himself (you may think this whole column is cribbed from him, but it's not; much of it is cribbed from Chesterton) the main historical issue was Jesus. But in lecturing to Royal Air Force members, he "had supposed that if my hearers disbelieved the Gospels, they would do so because the Gospels recorded miracles. But my impression is that they disbelieved them simply because they dealt with events that happened a long time ago: that they would be almost as incredulous of the battle of Actium as of the Resurrection -- and for the same reason."

Yet if we do take history seriously without taking it for granted, isn't the triumph of Christianity the strangest thing that ever happened? Rome under Tiberius was not some ignorant backwater but the most cosmopolitan society the world had ever seen, and the eastern Mediterranean was its intellectual centre. And where Greek philosophy, ancient religions and Roman pragmatism met, some fishermen, a tax collector and a guy who had a seizure on the way to Damascus persuaded their neighbours, people in distant cities and then the Empire itself that a dead Jewish carpenter was God. How weird is that? Ask the Mithraists.

Before Christians take offence, note that in 1 Corinthians Paul writes: "we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness ..." Unless you see how foolish it is, you can't see how remarkable it is.

Remember, this God didn't smite his enemies and ride around in glory. "He told people to be meek and then the authorities nailed him to a stick on a dung-hill. And the great thing is, he died." That sales pitch converted Rome? Yes.

And England in the Dark Ages, including savage Norse raiders whose bloody gods promised them victory. How does a Irish guy with a shaved head, or his successor after he's martyred, convince them a dead Jewish carpenter is God and to lay off the slave women and be nice? But he does. It's a historical fact that the monk wins the argument. One simple reason is that he can explain what Thor's priest cannot: why the Norse win some battles but the Christians win others. I won't go into the theology further here.

But I will insist on the historical fact that it put a quick, final end to polytheism. And to god-kings; no ruler has advanced a new claim of divinity since Jesus. Nor has any new religion had any lasting success since Jesus except two in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Islam and Mormonism. Given the explosive abundance of human religious imagination to that point, why? And why did the Old Testament stop accumulating?

Christians can ascribe it to divine intervention. For non-believers it's not so simple. If they wish to call Christianity illogical, they must explain why there aren't dozens of similar faiths. Why didn't they martyr Zoroastrians? Why did they have to feed Christians to the lions, and why didn't it work? Can one say "foolishness" was bound to win?

But the alternative is to say that it wasn't foolish, that Peter, Benedict and Luther aren't phantasms in a mist, and that this business about a dead Jewish carpenter satisfied intellects like Aquinas and Augustine, converted Norse raiders and C.S. Lewis, and vanquished Nero and Stalin. True, it has at times been carried on the point of a sword. But only after converting the swordsman. It survived for 280 years before Constantine converted, and it survived Julian the Apostate. Can any explanation be furnished, let alone defended, save that it is intellectually satisfying and works when put into imperfect but sincere practice? So it's either true or very persuasive.

Even if this distinction makes any sense, our unbelieving historical investigator has a problem. He must read the Bible to see why it convinced so many people, often (as with Lewis) against their will. But judging by the record, if the barbarian consents to listen to one silly monk, he will be converted.

Weird, isn't it?

 
Old 03-19-2001, 11:58 AM   #2
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

Originally posted by Nomad:
But I will insist on the historical fact that it put a quick, final end to polytheism.

Yes, I've noticed how successful Christianity was in ending polytheism in Africa, India, SE Asia, Japan.......

And to god-kings; no ruler has advanced a new claim of divinity since Jesus.

Except in Polynesia, Africa, S. America....also, the Merovingians of France are supposedly descended from Jesus, no?

Nor has any new religion had any lasting success since Jesus except two in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Islam and Mormonism.

Except Sikhism, many African religions, many S. and Central American ones.....of course, most religions are disadvantaged compared to Christianity, they don't get to kill their enemies. Hard to start a new religion when you get killed.

Given the explosive abundance of human religious imagination to that point, why? And why did the Old Testament stop accumulating?


Is this a serious question? Why does any book stop accumulating? Political and social decisions determine that it stop at such and such a point, and that is that.

Christians can ascribe it to divine intervention. For non-believers it's not so simple. If they wish to call Christianity illogical, they must explain why there aren't dozens of similar faiths.

What does similarity have to do with anything? Why must we explain it? The historical sucess of Christianity is explainable within mundane terms, as is the success of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism, Islam, and numerous other religions.

Can any explanation be furnished, let alone defended, save that it is intellectually satisfying and works when put into imperfect but sincere practice? So it's either true or very persuasive.

Or very useful. Or simply less stupid than its predecessors. Or dangerous not to believe in it. When you wipe out the competition, its easy to claim victory by default.

Goes both ways. It failed in India, China, Central Asia, Africa and numerous other places. It is going out in N. Europe. It failed against Mao and Stalin was beaten by death, not Christianity (the Christians supported Stalin during the war).

But judging by the record, if the barbarian consents to listen to one silly monk, he will be converted.

Yes, like in India, China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia.....all deeply Christian countries today.

You know, after reading this post of yours, my opinion of your abilities has plummeted.

Michael



[This message has been edited by turtonm (edited March 19, 2001).]
 
Old 03-19-2001, 12:24 PM   #3
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">
And England in the Dark Ages, including savage Norse raiders whose bloody gods promised them victory. How does a Irish guy with a shaved head, or his successor after he's martyred, convince them a dead Jewish carpenter is God and to lay off the slave women and be nice? But he does. It's a historical fact that the monk wins the argument. One simple reason is that he can explain what Thor's priest cannot: why the Norse win some battles but the Christians win others. I won't go into the theology further here.
</font>

This is pretty silly. If there is one thing that the Norse sagas make abundantly clear, it is that victory in battle is never certain and the gods are very fickle. Odin is taken to task for this precise problem.

Furthermore, the history of Christianization in Scandinavia unfolded vastly different than this bumper-sticker summary that Nomad posted. Why am I not surprised.
 
Old 03-19-2001, 12:41 PM   #4
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">
But I will insist on the historical fact that it put a quick, final end to polytheism. And to god-kings; no ruler has advanced a new claim of divinity since Jesus.
</font>
Every Scandinavian ruler (such as Harald Fairhair) traced their ancestry to the Ynglings, who were the offspring of Freyr (Yng). The Swedish royal family still traces their ancestry in this fashion; there was a statue to Yng at the old temple at Uppsala, Sweden.

And the Japanese emperor was considered a living god, until the end of WW2.


Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">
Christians can ascribe it to divine intervention. For non-believers it's not so simple. If they wish to call Christianity illogical, they must explain why there aren't dozens of similar faiths. Why didn't they martyr Zoroastrians?
</font>
A lot of religions have martyrs. Gee; that was hard.

I'm not sure which is more surprising - the scrawny level of scholarship by Nomad's source, or the fact that Nomad didn't catch any of the obvious flaws.
 
Old 03-19-2001, 02:24 PM   #5
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

Oh dear. Just when I thought John had been clear enough for ya'll, I find out that I was mistaken. Hopefully I can help clarify a couple of points for you.

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by turtonm:
John R: But I will insist on the historical fact that it put a quick, final end to polytheism.

Yes, I've noticed how successful Christianity was in ending polytheism in Africa, India, SE Asia, Japan.......</font>
I admit that Robson did not specify the Western world for you, but I expect he had assumed his readers would understand that. After all, if we are talking about Christian history (which we are), we are talking about Western history.

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">John R: And to god-kings; no ruler has advanced a new claim of divinity since Jesus.

Except in Polynesia, Africa, S. America....also, the Merovingians of France are supposedly descended from Jesus, no?</font>
Same point as above, and last time I checked, once Christianity came to dominate a region, god-kings became pretty much passe. Heck, I would even think your average every day atheist would think that this was a good thing.

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">John R: Nor has any new religion had any lasting success since Jesus except two in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Islam and Mormonism.

Except Sikhism, many African religions, many S. and Central American ones.....of course, most religions are disadvantaged compared to Christianity, they don't get to kill their enemies. Hard to start a new religion when you get killed.</font>
Still ranting are you Michal? Stay calm please. Perhaps Robson should have been clear that he was talking about Western history, so his point remains, and if you'll note, Christianity took over the Roman Empire and barbarian Europe without the benfit of armies (unless you count a monk or two as an army of some kind).

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">John R: Given the explosive abundance of human religious imagination to that point, why? And why did the Old Testament stop accumulating?

Is this a serious question? Why does any book stop accumulating? Political and social decisions determine that it stop at such and such a point, and that is that.</font>
Actually, I think Robson goofed here, and should have checked with a rabbi before writing this bit. The OT stopped accumulating because the Jews believed that the time of prophesy had stopped, and would not resume until the coming of the Messiah. Robson's bad here.

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">John R: Christians can ascribe it to divine intervention. For non-believers it's not so simple. If they wish to call Christianity illogical, they must explain why there aren't dozens of similar faiths.

What does similarity have to do with anything? Why must we explain it? The historical sucess of Christianity is explainable within mundane terms, as is the success of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism, Islam, and numerous other religions.</font>
I've started another thread on this one, and if that's your view, that is cool. I am looking for other thoughts as well however, and welcome any theories any non-believers have to give.

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">John R: Can any explanation be furnished, let alone defended, save that it is intellectually satisfying and works when put into imperfect but sincere practice? So it's either true or very persuasive.

Or very useful. Or simply less stupid than its predecessors. Or dangerous not to believe in it. When you wipe out the competition, its easy to claim victory by default.</font>
I like the idea that it is more plausible to accept Christianity, but if there is a competing theory that accounts for all the elements in the story, I am willing to hear it out and examine it.

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Goes both ways. It failed in India, China, Central Asia, Africa and numerous other places. It is going out in N. Europe. It failed against Mao and Stalin was beaten by death, not Christianity (the Christians supported Stalin during the war).</font>
Hmmm... so the truth depends exclusively on whether or not it has enough believers? Do you really want to go there Michael?

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">John R: But judging by the record, if the barbarian consents to listen to one silly monk, he will be converted.

Yes, like in India, China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia.....all deeply Christian countries today.</font>
I thought you said Christianity's success was mundane and common? I do wish you could make up your mind. On the other hand, perhaps Islam or Hinduism really is true. Or Buddhism for that matter. All of them look pretty theistic to me, so where does that leave atheism? An intellectual dead end wouldn't you say?

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">You know, after reading this post of yours, my opinion of your abilities has plummeted.</font>
Don't sweat it Michael. We both know what we think of one another, and I detect a serious case of disingenuousness here from you in any event.

On the other hand, if you have rational explanations for all of your beliefs, that is cool with me. I come here to find out what other people think and believe, and if you are not interested in sharing yours, I cannot force you to do so.

Peace,

Nomad
 
Old 03-19-2001, 03:05 PM   #6
Toto
Contributor
 
Join Date: Jun 2000
Location: Los Angeles area
Posts: 40,549
Post

So how does Nomad explain the rise of Wicca, neo-paganism and the like? Or the fact that the Christian church in Europe is an empty shell (according to the believers?) Or the number of Christians in the USA who believe in Christianity-lite, and might as well be secular humanists? It looks like Christianity is spent in its heartland.

Maybe Christianity survived by incorporating pagan practices, currying favor with whatever prince was in power, and burning its enemies at the stake. Or do you have an alternate reading of the middle ages?

I hope that Nomad is not really serious about this argument. It falls apart when you try to examine it.

And the last time I looked, Buddhism was considered an atheistic religion by the Pope and others. No god required.
Toto is offline  
Old 03-19-2001, 03:30 PM   #7
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Toto:

So how does Nomad explain the rise of Wicca, neo-paganism and the like?</font>
Religions pop up all the time. Not many survive for very long, and even fewer effectively wipe out the competition without having to kill a good chunk of their opponents. Christianity did all of this this, and my question is how?

(BTW, I happen to think that some kind of paganism is the default position in what the great majority of us believe, but that would probably be a topic for another thread).

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> Or the fact that the Christian church in Europe is an empty shell (according to the believers?) Or the number of Christians in the USA who believe in Christianity-lite, and might as well be secular humanists? It looks like Christianity is spent in its heartland.</font>
Hmmm... are reports of Christianity's demise greatly exaggerated? Don't put too much stock in a relatively brief ebb or flow in a social trend Toto. Maybe Christianity is dying, but the evidence is far from conclusive. In any event, you are trying to change the subject, and I would rather not.

Why do you think Christianity succeeded largely without the benefit of state support and conquoring armies?

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Maybe Christianity survived by incorporating pagan practices, currying favor with whatever prince was in power, and burning its enemies at the stake. Or do you have an alternate reading of the middle ages?</font>
The Middle Ages are too late so far as this discussion is concerned. Christian take over in Europe took place largely before Constantine converted (when we look inside the Roman Empire generally c. 33-300AD) and through the efforts of unarmed missionaries in barbarian lands (when we look outside the Roman Empire c. 500-800AD).

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">I hope that Nomad is not really serious about this argument. It falls apart when you try to examine it.</font>
Well, you haven't examined the argument yet Toto, nor have you advanced one of your own. If you don't have one, that is alright though. I am merely curious as to what atheists actually believe on this subject.

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">And the last time I looked, Buddhism was considered an atheistic religion by the Pope and others. No god required.</font>
An interesting side point, but do you have any actual Church statements on this?

Thanks,

Nomad
 
Old 03-19-2001, 03:36 PM   #8
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">
I admit that Robson did not specify the Western world for you, but I expect he had assumed his readers would understand that. After all, if we are talking about Christian history (which we are), we are talking about Western history.
</font>

BWAHAHAHAAA! What a jokester you are, Nomad.

1. In the first place, he made no such limiting statement whatsoever.

2. And in the second place, if he had put such a limitation on it, what would that say about his conclusions as to the inherent truth or "right-ness" of christianity? "Well, folks, all these things are true, providing that you don't try to apply them outside of Europe and North America." Imagine that: the truth of the Almighty God's viewpoints are stuck within geographic boundaries.

3. In the third place, he didn't even get his facts straight with regards to Western history.

Care to try again?
 
Old 03-19-2001, 03:41 PM   #9
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

Quote:
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">
Christianity took over the Roman Empire and barbarian Europe without the benfit of armies (unless you count a monk or two as an army of some kind).
</font>

Right. Which is why there were forced conversions at the end of a sword, with pagans being burned in Europe. Oh, and followed by Crusades.

BWAHAHAAAA! This just gets funnier and funnier.
 
Old 03-19-2001, 03:44 PM   #10
Guest
 
Posts: n/a
Post

"John R: But I will insist on the historical fact that it put a quick, final end to polytheism."


bunches of gods down, one to go.

Seriously though Nomad you make some interesting points, but still to me it seems like people in those days had such an odd unscientific world view that they'd eat up most anything, people overlook the fact that in the days before widespread literature theatre etc. religion also served as entertainment & the only social activity available to the majority of folks.
 
 

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -8. The time now is 12:18 PM.

Top

This custom BB emulates vBulletin® Version 3.8.2
Copyright ©2000 - 2015, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.