"laestadian, apostolic, gay, lgbtq, ex-oalc, ex-llc, llc, oalc, bunner" LEARNING TO LIVE FREE: Oven Mitt on a Hot Topic

Friday, February 15, 2013

Oven Mitt on a Hot Topic

This is a guest post by "Oven Mitt."
Recently there have been comments on extoots about the historicity of Jesus, suggesting that in reality he never existed, and I thought it would be interesting to consider what the controversy means. 
In short, I believe those who reject the reality of events in scripture and those who say their faith is valid are talking about two different things—radically different things—but things that are not incompatible or contradictory. The apparent contradiction comes from the meaning of “real.” Let us, for the moment, look at reality from the point of view of the doubters; let’s look at what real means, in their sense of it. 
Reality enables us to do our jobs. It allows us to build bridges and bake bread. Reality is shared. 
For example, when you respond to an email the subject line starts with "RE:" —meaning regarding. Or “about.”  “RE:” -ality is an “about” quality.  RE: means messages are being exchanged. This exchange is the heart of reality, in this sense.  Reality consists of things that can be confirmed; reality happens when the perception of one person is communicated to another, and the other responds in a way that says, yes, what you said matches my experience. Moreover, the first person’s perception can be tested by other people as well and found to be real.
But this reality is different from truth. It is different from truth because it is only one kind of truth. There are other kinds, consisting of things that cannot be shared and tested directly by others. 
For example, scientists have discovered, by observing the actions of infants in utero, that babies respond differently when people around their mother are speaking the language she speaks, than when they are speaking a foreign language. The researchers have communicated their findings to other researchers, who tried the experiments again and confirmed the findings. 
We can read about it in the newspaper. So far as any of us can remember, experiences in utero are not part of our own personal experience; they can only be something we have read about. But the “reality” of it is now part of our experience, just like the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It has been shown to be true by trustworthy sources. 
Now consider the babies in utero. For them the situation is the exact opposite of ours: for them language recognition is pure experience. It is just something that is happening. No one can show anything to the child, and the child has no way to say anything about his or her experience, except insofar as the researchers have been able to detect it. Babies in utero can't confirm anything and can't be told anything. From this point of view, using this meaning of reality, the babies' experiences are not real. To participate in reality in this sense, they have to wait to be born. 
The babies are an extreme case: their lives are 100% pure experience and 0% “reality.” But a moment's reflection will reveal that our lives are not the opposite of that, but a shifting combination of “reality” and entirely personal experience.
Let us explore this meaning of reality further. 
Perhaps you have a new boss who makes you nervous and makes you wonder about your future. You have your feelings, and you have your tasks. Your tasks are part of reality because they have agreed-upon due dates and expected content. But your feelings are yours. A professional from Human Resources could observe your circumstances and behavior and be able to describe your feelings in organizational or psychological terms. A coworker could do the same thing in terms of received notions and gossip. But that person’s observations and descriptions of your experience are not the same thing as your experience. 
Or consider a person who has fallen in love. Let's say a wedding is in the offing. The arrangements for the ceremony, the reception, lodging for guests, are all part of reality, but the person’s feelings are not. 
Joan of Arc described talking to angels perched in the branches of trees, and some have suggested that this was an expression of schizophrenia, an organic disease that causes delusions. What was the truth of Joan’s experience? She testified that they were messengers of God.  
We can ask ourselves what aligns with our experience and the experience of others. But we cannot know the actual substance of others’ experience, whether they are a baby in utero, a worried worker, a bride or groom, or Joan of Arc. 
In the Buddhist tradition, some of the sutras of the Mahayana tradition are clearly not the words of the Buddha (sutras generally present themselves as dialogues with the Buddha). There is a legend to cover this discrepancy that stretches credibility, but this is not a problem for most Buddhists. If the message of the sutra provides insight into the human condition, who wrote it is unimportant. 
For many Buddhists, in fact, if it were proved that the historical Buddha were actually a myth, it would change nothing. They have a personal experience that is their own, fostered by traditions represented as his. 
Valentin de Boulogne via Wikimedia Commons
There are many analogies. In the Christian tradition, it said that in three of the synoptic gospels, the episode of the money-changers in the temple comes at the end of Jesus’ career, but in John, it comes at the beginning. Does the truth of John consist of the timeline of events, which is subject to being proved historically false if evidence surfaces, or is the truth of John to be found in the deep meaning it has conveyed to many of those who over the centuries have contemplated it? Are the spiritual experiences of a believer less real if research confirms that the gospel has errors of fact, or of authorship? 
 Photo credit: Andrew Lih via Wikicommons
Some theologians have gone so far as to say, like a Buddhist, that nothing would change for them should Jesus prove to be a myth. 
There is no doubt that most faith traditions make claims to fact. But this does not mean that their primary value is found there, and that once the claims are discredited, the value disappears. 
My feeling is that this controversy persists because it is a handy weapon for those who want to shake the foundations of religious faith. But, of course, why should they persist in doing this?  Especially when you consider that centuries of their fact-checking has not put an end to religious practice. I believe that their real complaint, which is very well founded, is that in the name of religion believers have been exploited and manipulated by religious leaders and religious communities. Obviously, not all religious leaders are guilty of this and not all religious communities are complicit. But enough are. 
But this problem, which is a real problem, is not about the factual quality of scripture or the validity of religious experience but about ethics. This kind of exploitation is just as prevalent in business and politics as it is in religious communities. The examples of Enron, with its manipulation of energy prices and fraudulent accounting; of the tobacco companies, and their cover-up of the dangers of smoking; or of any number of political leaders and cliques who have led their peoples to war on false pretenses, all of these readily come to mind. 
My perspective is that there are real problems that arise in questions of religion but they are not religious problems; they are the same kind of problems that arise in business and politics, and when those problems arise, whether they are in a vast, worldwide organization or a very local one of which we are very personally a part, they are particularly difficult to address; countering manipulation and exploitation can be dangerous to those who dare to do so. 
Perhaps because manipulation and exploitation are so difficult to address, those who dare to oppose them, out of personal hurt or a thirst for justice, are tempted to take up the handiest tool, which often appears to be “realist” fact checking. It’s a handy tool but not actually useful.  
I would urge readers to consider that those who are nourished by spiritual traditions do not deserve our disdain and those who seek revenge or justice through a “realist” critique often deserve our compassion and respect.


  1. Oven Mitt,

    Thank you for this contribution. It is well-thought out, and well-written, and it brought up a number of good points to ponder. However, I must reject much of your premise if not your conclusion.

    I understand where you’re going with the notion of subjective truth and “reality” in relation to ego. And I would agree with your premise if that’s what Christians understood as well. But they don’t. The vast majority are placing their faith in the “confirmed reality” of the Bible.

    You write, “There is no doubt that most faith traditions make claims to fact. But this does not mean that their primary value is found there, and that once the claims are discredited, the value disappears. “
    I must disagree; again, I would argue that the primary value of Christianity and the ”fact claims” are intertwined. Consider, what is the “primary value” of Christianity? Most Christians say it is faith that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, died for your sins; and that having this faith will save you from eternal damnation and earn you a place in heaven, correct? If you accept this premise, then de facto, you are assuming historical veracity in his existence and actions, otherwise you’re just placing faith in, what, exactly? The Allegorical “moral” of the stories? … That would be fine, and indeed it seems like that might be your take on it, but the vast, vast majority of Christians would disagree – I seriously doubt there are many Christians who would say nothing would change if Jesus were proven to be a myth.

    “But this problem, which is a real problem, is not about the factual quality of scripture or the validity of religious experience but about ethics.” Again, the two (factual validity and ethics) cannot be separated, if you accept the above definition of Christianity. And so the “handy tool,” as you put it, of realist critique, becomes a useful tool if wielded properly. Admittedly, that is easier said than done, and I am certainly guilty of using it as a hammer when a file is called for.

    I don’t disdain anyone who seeks nourishment through religious traditions. My wife is a believer, and I still revere the Forgiveness of Sins although it means something a little different for me now than it once did. But though truth is elastic, and reality subjective, facts are facts, and I cannot in good conscience let falsehoods go unchallenged. (Speaking generally of Christian historicity, and not of your writing).

    Please don’t take this critique as an attack. Indeed, I am invigorated by this intellectual discourse, and whatever holes you see in my theory I welcome your analysis.

  2. I agree Freethinker and would say further that for christianity to be "real" or "true", Christ needs to be the son of God, and can only be if the immaculate conception/crucifixion/resurrection happened. So reality matters.

    And, I agree w/Oven Mitt about this idea of experience. If christianity is not true and it's probably not, Jesus as a figure is still a compelling part of our experience and gives inspiration not unlike buddhism, for moving people to love radically.

  3. I was talking about this with my husband and he asked me, what if we somehow found that all spiritual experience was completely internal, not inspired by any greater, higher deity or power, that there was no afterlife, no reward or punishment for this life and that our death is our end? Would I still have faith? I said yes because my faith is based on experience and internal revelation and is spirituality based. I do not need to know what inspires it, I only need to know what is morally right for me to do and that is what my faith tells me. Whether one believes Jesus actually died for their sins or whether one believes it is all an epic story to teach us how to treat one another, it doesn't matter. What matters is how we are towards each other. A God that is far more intelligent, loving and wise than we, would not punish a person if they live a good life, treating others with respect, love and kindness. A God that would punish a person because they did not believe that Jesus. Christ was sent here by Him, although they had no evidence whatsoever of a greater deity existing, even though they lived their life treating all they know with love, kindness and respect, well to me, that kind of God sounds morbidly human.
    For my kind of faith, which I can only describe as a connection to my internal moral compass, the reality of any person or deity having existed or not, is not neccesary nor is any kind of reward or punishment system. For some it may be. The bible says the law is not for the righteous but for the unjust. Perhaps the same is for many religions. If someone has no moral compass and believes this life is all there is, how can those people be controlled (Im thinking especially back when many religions were started...) There was very little explanation to much of what we saw and when we look at our world, a rainbow for example, we see much wonder and beauty as well as power (tsunamis, tornados) It only makes sense that we would believe it came from a living being greater and more powerful than us, especially considering the things we ourselves could do.. Make tools, build, houses, grow crops.. We are the ruling creatures of the earth.. What better way to control the unruly population but than to tell them they will be punished by something far more powerful than man? Government cannot oversee every detail of every persons life, but God can. Perhaps it was intentional, perhaps it was a revelation. Either way, it has done that job for many, I believe. (altough it has not for many others and perhaps has served as foundation for some of the unjust themselves to rule. ) This, I believe is why so many people are afraid to explore the possibility of there being no God. For the righteous and unjust alike. -m.d.