Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christian Theology did not Come from Jesus

What do Christians believe? To answer that question it helps to know which group of Christians is answering. But the main theology is common among almost all Christians.

Here it is in a nutshell: Christians believe that if you have faith that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God who died on the cross for your sins and then was resurrected and ascended into heaven as a flesh-and-blood body, then you will be rewarded in heaven. Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human.

There are obviously some differences of opinion regarding what you must also believe and how you must act, but these are peripheral to the theology outlined above, which is common among all Christians, regardless of denomination. This view is called orthodox Christianity and any religion that believes differently is called heretical.

But this central belief of Christianity did not come from Jesus Christ. It didn’t even come from the Gospels. It came from Paul. The Pauline Epistles, of which there are 13 in the New Testament, are the sole source of modern Christian theology. And not all 13 of them were actually written by Paul; six of them are attributed to him but were written by someone else, likely after Paul’s death.

The first gospel, The Gospel According to Matthew, takes a view of Jesus that is especially contrary to what Paul wrote of him. Paul and Matthew definitely did not see eye to eye on their respective theologies. And Paul’s theology even runs contrary to what Jesus himself taught.

First, I must offer the disclaimer that what Jesus and his 12 disciples thought or did cannot be known for certain. The gospels and the Book of Acts are all we really have, since there is no independent corroboration of any of the events. And the gospels themselves were only attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were not actually written by them, but are anonymous. So when I speak of what Matthew says, I’m referring to what he is attributed to have said by his gospel writer.

That said, let’s look at what Jesus taught according to Matthew. Jesus was an itinerant Jewish preacher. He spoke in parables. His disciples were idiots who never got him, (although that view comes mainly from Mark), and most importantly, he was an apocalyptic prophet. He taught that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth by the Son of Man (not himself), and that he would be the one in charge after this happened. His 12 disciples (apparently even Judas Iscariot) would rule the descendents of the Twelve Tribes.

According to bible scholar Bart Ehrman, all Jews of Jesus’ day believed the Messiah would be an earthly king, anointed by God. The Messiah would take up his position on Earth after kicking out or destroying the Romans who were occupying Jewish lands at the time. Jesus taught that this Kingdom of God would be arriving very shortly, within the lifetime of the disciples, (Mark 9:1, 13:30). Jews did not believe that the Messiah would at all suffer a horrible death. He would be more powerful than that.

Paul agreed with Matthew and Mark that the Kingdom of God would happen very soon. He set up his churches in Asia Minor with the idea that their current congregations would be their only congregations until the end came. That’s why the churches became so disorganized; they had no hierarchy or leadership. Paul didn’t think they would need one since they wouldn’t be around that long. Only in the forged epistles that are attributed to Paul does he seem to change is mind about the timing of the End of Time. It was pushed into the future at some unknown time. This view came only after the apostles had started to die off without having witnessed the event. The Gospel of John echoes this same theology, since it was the last gospel to be written and the original apostles had not yet witnessed the coming Kingdom of God.

But the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth is about all that Paul and Matthew agree on regarding theology. Paul teaches that the only road to Salvation is through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul adamantly believes that the Jewish Law does not apply and, in fact, might even hinder one’s Salvation because adhering to Jewish practices such as circumcision would diminish your faith in what actually matters, Jesus’ atonement for sins through his death and resurrection. Paul claimed that Jesus was divine.

But is that what Jesus, himself, taught? Not according to Matthew and the other gospels. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. He preached that one must keep the Law (Matthew 5:18). To earn a place in heaven, Jesus preached that one must obey the Law, and especially the law about loving God above all else and to love your neighbor as you do yourself. Jesus never taught about his own divinity in Matthew. Like Jesus, Matthew was a Jew who believed in keeping the Mosaic Law, and his gospel is full of this message.

Paul, on the other hand, was a converted Jew who believed that Salvation could only be obtained by a belief in Jesus, that keeping the Mosaic Law was not necessary, and possibly even harmful. Paul’s theology was passed along to all those who heard his message. But it wasn’t the only message being taught. The Ebionites were a group of early Christians who believed that in order to be a good Christian, you must first be a good Jew. Gentiles who wanted to become Christian first had to be circumcised and start following Mosaic Law. The Ebionites were not a minor offshoot of orthodox Christianity, for orthodoxy had not been established yet. It was a mainstream theology. Ebionites believed that one’s adherence to the Law was necessary for Salvation. They also believed that Jesus was not divine, but fully human. They denied his resurrection. They believed that Jesus was a prophet, chosen by God, and that his teachings are what is important. The Ebionites had their own sacred manuscripts that supported their theology, though they also liked Matthew.

Other early Christians believed pretty much the opposite, that Jesus was divine and not at all human. Some believed Jesus could, if he wanted to, take on any form. Some even claimed Jesus sometimes appeared in the form of an animal. Some early Christian theologies taught that the God of Jesus was not the same as the creator god of the Jews.
Others, such as the Gnostics, were more like pagans, believing in many deities, but also believing that Jesus was chosen to deliver the message, or knowledge, of how one could escape the body that is imprisoning the spirit within.

But the theology that became orthodox, most likely because it was centered on Rome and was adopted by Emperor Constantine, claimed that Jesus was both completely human and completely divine and that one need not accept or follow Jewish Law to be a Christian and gain Salvation. In other words, the theology that would later dominate Christianity, and be called orthodox by its followers, was the theology espoused by Paul. And, as I’ve just described, the theology of Paul was not the same as that of either Matthew or of Jesus himself.

For that reason, maybe Christians should rename themselves Paulianites. The true Christians, according to what Jesus himself supposedly taught, were the Ebionites. But they no longer exist, their theology having been eradicated by the Roman Catholics back in the fourth century.

Of course, I’m not espousing the return of the Ebionite theology to replace mainstream Christianity. Whether it’s Orthodox, Ebionite, Marcionite, Gnostic, or any one of dozens of theologies that all claim or claimed to be the true Christianity, they all have one thing in common: They believe in a supernatural god and his son (or prophet) who was sent to save us from sin. It’s all just myth anyway. My point is to show that Christians today believe what they do because of which version of their religion won out; the one with the most power and influence. It didn’t even have to agree with the teachings of Jesus.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Contemplations on the Meaning of Life

A fly lives for about four days, reproduces, then it dies. If it somehow managed not to successfully reproduce, its existence was for naught. But even if it does reproduce, what does that really mean? Hundreds of other flies just like it will be produced (once they go through the larval stage). Then they live a few days, reproduce, and die. What’s the point?

But it is not only the lowly fly that fits this scenario. Flies are good examples because they are little more than tiny flying robots. They have nothing but instinct to guide them. They have no emotions. They think no thoughts outside the context of their instincts. We give little thought to swatting a housefly and discarding its shattered body.

Higher organisms, such as mammals, have a more complex brain and a longer life cycle. It is certain that they can feel pain; they can suffer. They probably have thoughts that are independent of their still-dominant instincts. They can make simple decisions. But, ultimately, the point of being born is so that they can reproduce, to leave behind copies of themselves to carry on the species. The only legacy a mouse or a raccoon has, like the fly, is its offspring.

It has to be that way. Once life began by whatever process is ultimately discovered for its genesis, it had to change as its environment changed, else it would die off and that would be the end of it. Environments change, sometimes rapidly, but more often slowly. The earliest self-replicating chemical entities randomly changed, too. They had no choice, since they derived from a dynamic environment. The changes were not planned. They did not change in order to fit with a newly-changed environment. But if, by chance, the changes in these exceedingly simple living entities happened to mean that they were more likely to survive and continue making copies of themselves in their new environment, they would continue to exist, although slightly altered.

This was the start of evolution by natural selection, the process that Charles Darwin discovered and described more than 150 years ago. It is elegant and simple, but it took the genius of Darwin, along with his inestimable patience, to formulate the principle.

In these earliest forms of life, for since they were self-replicating they were indeed alive, the process of reproduction was simple and based only in chemistry and physics. Replication was simply chemicals being chemicals. But as the first living entities began to change so as to fit an ever-changing environment, competition among them for limited resources, their primordial soup, made it so that the more efficient mechanisms of chemical replication were more likely to survive. Eventually, over untold eons of time, these simplest forms of reproduction blossomed into the robust and elaborate methods of reproduction employed by living organisms today.

And yet the purpose for reproduction remains exactly as it was for the first reproducing protocells in the ancient primordial goo: There is no purpose in it at all. Its purpose seems to be to carry on the species, but that would imply some sort of forethought or design. Reproduction among higher organisms is simply a much more complex version of the chemical reactions that kept the earliest forms of life from going extinct. And these chemical reactions occurred without purpose; they just happened because, again, that’s what chemicals do. It’s part of their nature.

These early forms of life were not concerned with surviving for they were not concerned with anything at all. To be concerned implies a brain with a mind. Brains with minds were left for higher organisms. But a mind is not really necessary for reproduction to take place. It is only necessary as an ancillary device used to enhance the likelihood of survival in a competitive world. Natural selection does a very good job of mimicking design. It is, of course, an active selective process, not random at all, though it does depend on random changes to supply the raw material. But it’s still natural.

Reproduction, then, even among higher organisms is not purpose driven, even though it seems like it is. It’s just simply chemicals being chemicals, but in a much more complex manner than the simplest protocells. But because it mimics a purpose, to continue the species, then maybe we should call it something, such as a pseudo purpose, phantom purpose, or better still, a geistzweck (German for “ghost purpose”).

Now, since even higher forms of life, including humans, have a chemically-induced geistzweck that drives reproduction instead of a real purpose for it, we can arguably conclude that our lives, much as the life of the fly, have no real purpose at all. Humans have spent thousands of years and millions of hours in deep philosophical thought looking for the meaning, the purpose in life, but there is none. Our geistzweck, our presumed purpose, biologically is to carry on the species. But that purpose is only a phantom. There was no choice involved. Chemicals have to react.

We are born, we live, we reproduce, we raise our children, and then we die. And the whole cycle starts over again. We may think that our purpose in life is to leave behind a lasting legacy. But even so, we’re not around to enjoy that legacy. And even the best of legacies, such as the great works of literature, art, music, and the greatest discoveries of science mean nothing to anyone when their lives end. Certainly they mean a great deal to those who are still alive, but I’m talking ultimate meaning here, not fleeting moments in an otherwise endless stretch of time extending from the moment life began into the unseen future.

Some theologians and philosophers posit that there must be ultimate meaning in the universe because, after all, it does exist, and it doesn’t have to. Or does it? Theologians hypothesize that since the universe seems to be created then it must have a creator: God. But who or what created God? Some say that God is infinite and eternal, without beginning or end. But if God can be eternal then why couldn’t the universe itself be eternal, without beginning or end? If the universe is eternal then it had no beginning, no creation, so there is no need for a creator. God becomes unnecessary in an endless universe.

But what of the Big Bang? Wasn’t that the beginning of the universe? Scientists cannot say that with certainty. It was the beginning of what we can observe as the universe, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing else before. A new and exciting field of quantum physics known as M-theory hypothesizes that our universe is one of an infinite number of such universes, all existing within the 11-dimensional multiverse. Our big bang was simply one of an endless cycle of big bangs. One happens about every trillion years.

But why, some ask, are all the constants of nature exactly what they should be in order for life, or even matter, to exist. These constants could have been anything, but as it turns out, they are what they need to be. Surely that points to a creator. But not when you consider that, if the multiverse is eternal and infinite, then there has been an infinite number of big bangs. So that regardless of how infinitesimally small the odds are that our universe was formed with just the right conditions to support itself and life, there would have to be an infinite number of just such universes. Our universe is not all that special; it is just one of an infinite number of universes that are exactly right for producing matter and life. The odds are meaningless when you have an eternity.

So what about God? If God is not necessary then why did we invent him? There are probably a number of good answers, including the fact that we humans have a compulsion to understand how things work. But in our early history, we understood very little. If we do not understand something, especially something profound, we attribute it to a god. This god is called the God of the Gaps. Any gap in our knowledge is happily filled with God to explain it.

But also, I think, humans are purpose driven. It’s in our nature. It helped our survival. And it's ironic. If we have no purpose except for reproduction in order to carry on our species, and if even that purpose is only a geistzweck, that would make us uncomfortable and ultimately unfulfilled. Our minds strongly desire a purpose in life. And God provides that purpose, even if it's an illusion: An infinite and eternal god created a finite universe (for us), adjusted its constants of nature so as to be able to support the formation of matter and life, and then provided an afterlife for us to dwell in when we die. Our purpose, then, is to do whatever our god wants us to do in order to be welcomed into his afterlife.

But since a creator god is not necessary in an infinite and eternal universe, then our presumed purpose is an invention. We are simply biochemical machines that happen to be able to contemplate ourselves and our origins. It’s not a very comforting notion. But then, reality has no obligation to be comforting.

But this nihilistic approach need not be distressing. Whereas the Christian, Muslim, or Hindu may view this life of ours as just a prelude to the true, meaningful life that comes after death, I believe the life we have on earth is all that matters, thus it becomes infinitely more precious. It may not have any ultimate meaning or purpose, but it certainly has value in the here and now. Philosophically, it is preferable to abandon our quest for ultimate purpose, for we will never find it, and concentrate instead on our own goals for this life. Improving ourselves, and our environment, so that our minds and the minds of others can feel the joy of existence, however fleeting, is a worthy enough purpose. It's a purpose created by us, for us. The only purpose that makes sense is the one we create for ourselves.