Monday, November 29, 2004

Who Was Jesus Christ?

As a general rule, I am willing to respect and entertain the possibility that views with which I disagree may be correct. However, when pressed for an honest answer as to what I believe, I will not equivocate. On this note, I confessed my lack of faith in the Bible as a canonical source of Christian wisdom in a previous blog post entitled Are You a Christian? To wit, it seems self-evident to me that many of the events that are narrated in the Bible have not been recorded accurately, and I have no doubt that this confession will alienate me from many people who consider themselves to be "true Christians." So be it.

As most biblical scholars know, the Bible is not one book, but a collection of books. Moreover, there are many versions of the Bible, and biblical scholars frequently debate issues such as which books should or should not be included in the Bible and what certain biblical passages actually mean. Wars have been fought over such issues, and it should be self-evident to anyone who has actually read the Bible that Jesus Christ would not approve of blood being spilled in His name by those who claim to be His followers.

Who was Jesus Christ? The Bible claims that Jesus was the son of a woman named Mary who was a virgin at the time that Jesus was conceived. This is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary proof, and I have never encountered anyone who has given me that proof. I'm not saying that this claim is untrue, but neither am I willing to accept it at face value. Moreover, I don't understand why some people seem to think that I need to accept this claim to be a "true Christian."

I am willing to accept as true the fact that Jesus Christ was an actual historical figure. However, I think that the gospels give a rather glorified and exaggerated version of His purportedly miraculous birth and the various miracles that He is supposed to have performed during His life. As for the story of Christ's resurrection and ascension into heaven, . . . once again, I believe that such extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and I have yet to see such proof.

Was Christ God? Interestingly enough, I think that this particular extraordinary claim is one that has a certain amount of empirical evidence to back it up. To wit, whether or not the Bible contains a complete and accurate account of Christ's life and teachings, Christ spoke to His followers with an authority that resonates strong and clear to this day through the Bible. Moreover, I have seen many people pray to Christ for spiritual guidance and actually get that guidance. On the other hand, I have seen just as many people delude themselves with wishful thinking.

In the final analysis, I believe that those who are seeking salvation without any sort of hidden agenda will find salvation no matter where they look. This sentiment is summed up quite well in the gospels of Matthew and Luke:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 11:9-13.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Are You a Christian?

I grew up in a household where the correctness of Christianity was a given. However, as I grew up, I began to realize that Christianity was many things to many people, and that many intelligent and thoughtful people entertained reasonable doubts about Christianity. Consequently, I began a lifelong quest to figure out what Christianity really was and whether I could in good conscience consider myself a Christian.

Like most people whom I knew growing up, my earliest attitudes about Christianity were informed not by deep reflection, but by the social norms that a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male encounters while growing up in a middle class suburban neighborhood in Southern California. For all intents and purposes, this type of Christianity was simply a moral code of the common man, more or less bereft of all but the most common traditional Christian symbolism and rituals. Missing from this secular brand of Christianity were the conflicts that one typically finds between religion and science.

Growing up in Southern California, I experienced Christianity as a system of shared values through which I was socialized and schooled in the commonly accepted traditional notions of right and wrong. It wasn't until junior high school that I first realized that the Theory of Evolution had brought the validity of the Bible into question for many people in Western Culture, thus bringing the validity of Christianity into question for many people. Even so, the underlying assumption that Christianity was synonymous with morality remained more or less intact for me, and it took me a few more years to reach the point where I was prepared to perform a critical examination of my Christian faith.

As fate would have it, my parents enrolled me in a Lutheran high school when I entered the tenth grade, and getting a recommendation from my current pastor was part of the matriculation process. As a matter of course, getting such a recommendation involved attending church services on a regular basis for the first time in many years. Moreover, attending a Lutheran high school involved attending chapel services two mornings a week at school and religion classes virtually every day. None of these religious activities invoked a religious epiphany, but they did prompt me to ponder theological questions and think more about what Christianity really was.

Strangely enough, my first true religious epiphany came when I was reading a book by Erich Fromm entitled Man for Himself: An Inquiry in the Psychology of Ethics. Truth be told, it was not a single religious epiphany that I experienced, but a series of religious epiphanies brought about by Fromm's critical analysis of various moral value systems, what Fromm referred to as his "science of man." As a precursor to his science of man, Fromm offered his interpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve as an illustration of authoritarian ethics, an interpretation that gave me a template for the interpretation of scripture as Christian mythological allegory.

Before I encountered the work of Erich Fromm, I encountered an essay by Clarence Darrow entitled Why I Am an Agnostic. While I was greatly impressed by Clarence Darrow's essay, it left a huge gulf between the authoritarian values that had always been part of my Christian socialization process and the rational humanistic values that were advocated by Fromm. For me, Fromm's work provided a necessary intellectual bridge between these disparate value systems. Consequently, in lieu of simply rejecting traditional values, I was able to filter out the propaganda and find common moral ground with other people based upon reason and thoughtful reflection.

Equipped with the intellectual tools that Fromm's work gave me, I explored the Bible as a source of traditional Christian wisdom, and I found more questions than answers. To wit, I came to realize that even the most authoritative version of the Bible was incomplete, inaccurate, and controversial; I also came to realize that there were sources of Christian wisdom other than the Bible. Even so, notwithstanding all of the rational doubts that I entertained and still entertain about the Bible, I came to realize that the vast majority of people who consider themselves Christians consider the Bible to be a canonical authority on Christianity.

If there is a book in the Bible that informed my Christian values more than any other, it was the Book of Job, from the Old Testament. In a previous blog post entitled Why Does God Let Good People Suffer? I mentioned that whenever I encounter a self-described Christian, I ask them if they have read the Book of Job, and then I ask them for an explanation as to why an all powerful and benevolent God would allow Satan to persecute someone who was as virtuous and blameless as Job was. As I stated in that post, it is rare that I get a thoughtful or considered response.

By the time I get done discussing the Book of Job with the average self-described Christian, I can see that said Christian is going through an agonizing reappraisal of his or her Christian faith. With very few exceptions, such people are profoundly disturbed to find out that God gave Satan permission to persecute Job. In my humble opinion, this type of uncertainty is the beginning of true religious wisdom. I also believe that if people started their reading of the Bible with the Book of Job, they would continue reading it.

To be clear, I entertain rational doubts about the accuracy and completeness of the Bible, and I do not accept it as a canonical authority on the Christian faith. Rather, I see the Bible as a narrative exposition of Western Culture's constantly evolving understanding of the nature of God. To this end, I see Jesus Christ as a reformer of a vengeful legal code that is exemplified by the treatment that Job received at the hands of the prosecuting attorney known as Satan, and I believe that the only way to obtain salvation is for people to transcend the self-righteous lust for vengeance that is so common to people who call themselves Christians.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Why Does God Let Good People Suffer?

Many years ago, I stumbled upon a book written by Harold Kushner entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I read it cover to cover in one sitting, then coincidentally found a friend at my front door who was in serious emotional distress. Thanks to Harold Kushner's book, I knew what to say to my friend, . . . and what not to say.

At the heart of Kushner's book is a theodicy based on the Book of Job. Truth be told, I was not particularly impressed by Kushner's theodicy, but this did not detract from the value of his theodicy as a basis for dealing with people experiencing psychic pain. To wit, when people ask, "Why me?" they are not asking for a theological exegesis of the Book of Job; they are crying out for help and comfort.

Comforting people in pain is a tricky business. Feelings of guilt and shame are universal among people who have suffered a tragic loss, and almost anything you say to comfort someone at such times will be construed as an accusation or a moral judgment. Truth be told, it is human nature to blame the victim, so you have to censor even seemingly innocent thoughts when consoling a victim and guard against making pointless accusations and moral judgments.

Consoling victims is all well and good, but once you help a victim find closure through whatever means are available, you are left with the existential angst about why God lets good people suffer. To remedy this angst, I turn (once again) to the Book of Job. On this note, whenever I encounter a self-described Christian, I ask them if they have read the Book of Job, and then I ask them for an explanation as to why an all powerful and benevolent God would allow Satan to persecute someone who was as virtuous and blameless as Job was.

It is rare that I get a thoughtful or considered response to the question of why God allowed Satan to persecute Job, but on occasion I do. On this note, the most intellectually satisfying theodicy that I have encountered to date is found on a Web site published by one Rob Sheldon, The Book of Job: A multiperspectival approach to the problem of evil, the suffering of the righteous, and the justice of God. A theodicy.

Why does God let good people suffer? The short answer is that Satan moves God for permission to persecute the righteous, and God grants Satan that permission to prove that the righteous love God whether or not God rewards them. To wit, Satan throws down the gauntlet, and God picks it up. As I said, this is the short answer. For a more meaningful answer, one must dig much, much deeper.

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The Christian Church Calendar 2004-2005

In traditional Christian churches, Christmas and Easter are celebrated as seasons of the church year. Rather than just being specific days, these are the seasons around which the Christian calendar is organized, and traditional Christian churches typically recognize these seasons as the two major centers of Sacred Time. The first season includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and the second includes Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, concluding at Pentecost. The rest of the year following Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time, from the word "ordinal," which simply means counted time (i.e., the First Sunday after Pentecost, etc.).

Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve. If Christmas Eve is a Sunday, it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent, with Christmas Eve proper beginning at sundown. Advent marks the beginning of the Season of Christmas, and it is the beginning of the Church Year for most churches in the Western tradition. The four Sundays of Advent represent the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Christ.

January 6th is known in Christian tradition as Epiphany, and it is the Twelfth Day of Christmas that we sing about, sometimes called Twelfth Night. The origin of the Twelve Days is complicated, and is related to differences in calendars, church traditions, and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures. In the Western church, Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the time the three Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus.

In some places it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. In Hispanic and Latin culture, Epiphany is known as Three Kings' Day, and in the Eastern churches it is known as the Theophany. Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in these cultures, January 6th is the day for giving gifts. In Eastern Orthodox traditions, Christmas is actually celebrated on January 6, and Epiphany is January 19. The one or two Sundays between Christmas Day and Epiphany are sometimes called "Christmastide."

For many Protestant church traditions, the Season of Epiphany extends from January 6th until Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent leading to Easter. Depending on the timing of Easter, the Season of Epiphany includes from four to nine Sundays. Other traditions, especially the Roman Catholic tradition, observe Epiphany as a single day, with the Sundays following Epiphany counted as Ordinary Time.

Carnival, which comes from a Latin phrase meaning "removal of meat," is the three day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the Lenten Season (some traditions count Carnival as the entire period of time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday). The three days before Ash Wednesday are also known as Shrovetide ("shrove" is an Old English word meaning "to repent"). The Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday, or is more popularly known by the French term Mardi Gras, meaning "Fat Tuesday," contrasting to the fasting during Lent. The entire three day period has now come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.

The season of Lent spans 40 weekdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and climaxing during Holy Week, the week immediately preceding Easter Sunday. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent, and are referred to as the Sundays in Lent. Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, is the first day of the season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers' heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God.

Holy Week is observed in many Christian churches as a time to commemorate and enact the suffering and death of Jesus through various observances and services of worship. It begins on Palm Sunday and concludes on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Some church traditions have daily services during the week. However, usually only Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are times of special observance in most churches.

Palm Sunday observes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, marked by the crowds who were in Jerusalem for Passover waving palm branches and proclaiming Jesus as the messianic king. This Sunday is also known as "Passion Sunday" to commemorate the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ final agonizing journey to the cross. The English word passion comes from a Latin word that means "to suffer," the same word from which we derive the English word patient.

Thursday of Holy Week is known as "Maundy Thursday." It is remembered as the time that Jesus ate a final meal together with the men who had followed him for so long. The term maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get the English word mandate. The term is usually translated "commandment," from John's account of the events of that Thursday night.

According to the Fourth Gospel, as Jesus and the Disciples were eating their final meal together before Jesus' arrest, Jesus washed the disciples' feet to illustrate humility and the spirit of servanthood. After they had finished their meal, as they walked into the night toward Gethsemane, Jesus gave his disciples a "new" commandment:

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)

Friday of Holy Week has traditionally been called Good Friday. On this day, the church commemorates Jesus' arrest – by Jewish customs of counting days from sundown to sundown it was already Friday – his trial, crucifixion and suffering, death, and burial. Since services on this day are to observe Jesus' death, and since Eucharist is a celebration, there is traditionally no communion service observed on Good Friday.

Holy Saturday is the seventh day of the week, the day Jesus rested in the tomb. In the first three Gospel accounts this was the Jewish Sabbath, which provided appropriate symbolism of the seventh day rest. While some church traditions continue daily services on Saturday, there is no communion served on this day. Some traditions suspend services and Scripture readings during the day on Saturday of Holy Week, to be resumed at the Easter Vigil after sundown. While Good Friday is a traditional day of fasting, some also fast on Saturday as the climax of the season of Lent. An ancient tradition dating to the first centuries of the church calls for no food of any kind to be eaten on Holy Saturday, or for 40 hours before sunrise on Sunday.

The exact date of Easter changes every year, but it can never occur before March 22 or later than April 25, except in some Eastern Orthodox Churches that follow a variety of practices. It is always a Sunday, and it is usually the Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or after March 21st, the observed vernal equinox. However, the exact date for Easter in a particular year is determined by ecclesiastical rules that do not always comport with astronomical measurements. To wit, ecclesiastical tables do not account for the full complexity of lunar motion, and the vernal equinox has a precise astronomical definition that is determined by the actual motion of the sun, not the calendar date.

Easter starts when that date starts for your time zone. Astronomical phenomena occurs at a specific date and time all over the Earth at once. Inevitably, the date of Easter occasionally differs from a date that uses an astronomical full moon and the astronomical vernal equinox. In some cases this difference may occur in some parts of the world and not in others because two dates separated by the International Date Line are always simultaneously in progress on the Earth.

Following the Season of Easter comes the Season of Pentecost, from the Greek word for "the fiftieth." Pentecost was originally an agricultural festival from the Old Testament, called the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), celebrating and giving thanks for the "first fruits" of the early spring harvest on the fiftieth day after the beginning of Passover. In the Christian calendar, Pentecost falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, and closes "Eastertide." In the Western Church there are special observances, e.g., a penitential vigil, and in ancient times neophytes were baptized at this time. From the white garments of these converts comes "Whitsunday," an English name for Pentecost.

While the Epiphany following the Season of Christmas focuses on the mission of God’s people to the world, the Pentecost season following Easter focuses on the church as the witness to the resurrection of Christ. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus, in the form of tongues of fire accompanied by the sound of a rush of wind, and gave them the power of "speaking in tongues." The Christian feast of Pentecost is an annual commemoration of this event, and it is solemnly observed as the birthday of the church and the feast of the Holy Spirit.

The Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, and the weeks until Advent are counted from Pentecost or Trinity.
  • Advent – Sunday November 28, 2004 through Friday December 24, 2004

  • Christmas Day – Saturday December 25, 2004

  • Epiphany – Thursday January 6, 2005

  • Mardi Gras – Sunday February 6, 2005 through Tuesday February 8, 2005

  • Ash Wednesday – Wednesday February 9, 2005

  • Holy Week – Sunday March 20, 2005 through Saturday March 26, 2005

  • Palm Sunday – Sunday March 20, 2005

  • Maundy Thursday – Thursday March 24, 2005

  • Good Friday – Friday March 25, 2005

  • Holy Saturday – Saturday March 26, 2005

  • Easter Sunday – Sunday March 27, 2005

  • Pentecost – Sunday May 15, 2005

  • Trinity Sunday – Sunday May 22, 2005