Friday, August 15, 2014

Open Dialogue over the Faith Boundary

He drew a circle that shut me out—
  Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
  We drew a circle that took him in!
—Edwin Markham, “Outwitted”
The traditional approach
Note: The presentation reviewed here was made more powerful by an example of its author practicing what he preaches; the bottom half of this post contains a gracious reply I received to my open letter.

During its annual Summer Services last month, my old church’s pastoral director Keith Waaraniemi gave a talk entitled “How to approach another person.” It was based on a work presented a year earlier at a large gathering of the church’s sister organization, the SRK.1

The presentation was excellent. There is much in it to praise, even for someone as vocal as I have been about issues confronting the church and its doctrines.

Laestadianism does not emphasize individual preachers, and I try to avoid doing so as well when critiquing their sermons and writings. My points are about the organization and what it teaches, not the people doing the teaching. This time is different, though: I want to offer credit where credit is due, and have decided to do so by name.2

Keith Waaraniemi

Indeed, the whole point of this remarkably thoughtful presentation—encouraging human contact and understanding, even between people of differing views—makes me a bit hopeful that a personal approach would not be unwelcome for this blog post. So, I will take it a step further and address Mr. Waaraniemi directly, with an open letter.

Keith (as I will presume to refer to him from this point on) and I are an unlikely pair for undertaking any correspondence, even without a thousand or so people looking on. I left my childhood faith after forty years, and in a very public way that caused a great deal of upset among people in the church. Keith has dedicated his professional life to the Laestadian Lutheran Church (LLC), serving for many years as a preacher and in leadership roles of its central organization. But hopefully my letter will be taken as it is intended—friendly, complimentary, with a few points gently made along the way to advance mutual understanding.

———

Dear Keith,

I really liked the presentation you gave at Summer Services recently. It was warm, compassionate, balanced, and showed a great deal of understanding about human needs. I know this sort of praise is unusual to hear, even from believers, but hope you won’t be unsettled by it.3 The sense of service and humility on the part of preachers in the LLC is quite refreshing, actually. It’s something I think you guys really do get right, in the midst of a country full of ego-driven, money-grubbing televangelists and megachurch pastors.

Slide #20

For me, one of the highlights of the talk was where you and Aimo Helén provided a simple and reasonable summary about the way to maintain human relations: “We care for them by coming close, and talking” (28:20). I appreciated how you encouraged contact not just with believers, but non-Laestadian neighbors as well (28:50), and elsewhere, how everyone is actually your neighbor.

Including me! An open letter from this outspoken LLC apostate is probably one you read with some reluctance, and that is entirely understandable. Thanks for doing so, though. It’ll be fine.

There is, I know, another motive for believers to engage in such unequally yoked contacts, the desire to “convey living faith to another person” (19:40). That’s understandable, too. You have a message that you feel is of great urgency to people’s eternal salvation, so of course you will want to share it! “We have been given the task of being ambassadors of Christ. God speaks through us,” you say, adding that you and your listeners have been entrusted with the message of forgiveness. “God makes his appeal through us, through his own. We implore the world on behalf of Christ, that they would be reconciled to God” (20:20).

Slide #38

The desire almost always comes from genuine concern—especially for the people closest to you. During the talk, you indicated that many of those listening could think of some loved one they would’ve liked to have alongside them. No doubt that’s true. It’s a natural human drive to share what we value; I do it, too, though of course with very different viewpoints from yours.

One thing we should all keep in mind, though, is that our loved ones do not want to become our conversion or de-conversion projects. When I visit with friends or relatives who are happily living their lives as believers, it hardly ever seems appropriate for me to bring up issues involving the church. They all know that I’ve left it for my own reasons, and if they want to know why, all they have to do is read my book or blog posts. Similarly, those who have left the LLC know the positions held (or at least professed) by those who remain, including about them.

Now, that doesn’t mean the church can never be mentioned. Doing so in a neutral way can actually defuse tension in the room. I’ve had enjoyable conversations about shared memories, humorous stories, and ongoing church activities. Someone who will always remain close told me with a laugh about hearing that people “who think like me” are “Ed-heads,” and I laughed, too. On another occasion, two of us—one a believer, one not—fondly recalled the old songs that we both grew up singing. I miss them sometimes. There was no preaching about how I really must feel a longing to repent (I don’t), just understanding about my continuing to value, in a way, something that was so much a part of my life for so long.4

Slide #16

Your slide No. 16 is headed, “Approaching without prejudice.” You point out how believers might have stereotypes or fears about approaching someone different, and I smiled at your lighthearted mention of the “irritating bunch of skateboarders” hanging out by the library. And so, you acknowledge, the approach often is made “with prejudice, pre-conceived notions.” But, you added, “we find when we do approach, that we find people, and that our fears are often unjustified” (26:40, my emphasis).

Indeed. May I make one point about doctrine here? If we as mere frail humans can both realize that we are all just people, shouldn’t an almighty God be able to as well? We have some mutual friends, Keith, and I have heard about your good humor and big heart. My faith in people, yourself included, remains strong—much stronger than any faith in an angry, judgmental God who cannot behave as well toward us as we do (in our better moments) toward each other.

Aimo Helén’s original paper (p. 3) includes something that is very encouraging for us “unbelievers” to read. I was very glad to hear you pretty closely repeat it in your talk (35:00) and see it on your slide #20.

Authentically respecting one’s neighbor means giving him or her human value irrespective of his or her characteristics. The love that God gave as a gift teaches us to accept ourselves and our neighbors as unique persons created by God. We can value humanity by respecting different cultural and religious customs and by treating our neighbor as an equal regardless of his or her differences and possible inadequacy. However, valuing diversity does not mean approving of sin and an indecent life.

“Treat all people as equals created by God,” is how you put it. “We respect different cultures and religious customs, but not at the expense of faith and good conscience” (35:45). What more could anyone ask, without becoming dogmatic themselves in an opposite way?

Later in your talk (53:30), after an interesting and useful discussion about helping someone with difficulties (including mental health issues), you return to the issue of understanding us unbelievers:

The kind of upbringing that we’ve had, the kind of parents that we’ve had, the kind of place that we’ve lived, values that we’ve developed, may be different than others. But we want to try to understand one another. We of course can’t accept everything, but we want to respect our neighbor for who they are. All neighbors, even unbelieving neighbors.

As your Finnish colleague puts it (p. 5), this is done out of “true neighborly love,” which “gives us readiness to meet even a diversity of cultures with an open mind. We cannot approve of everything, but we can value our neighbor as an equal irrespective of his or her background and different way of thinking.”

Bravo! And consider how important this sort of treatment is to you, too. Imagine, for example, how you would feel in this hypothetical situation: A young woman who left the LLC after having just two children comes to a wedding at church and afterwards belittles the pregnant mother of the bride for continuing to have children. Now, I’ve never heard of a former believer behaving so thoughtlessly. But, I must gently add, I’ve heard plenty about people in the LLC belittling and mocking the changed beliefs and lives of people who have left the church. Your presentation will hopefully go a long way toward helping to improve that situation. I really do appreciate what you and Aimo Helén have done.

The issue of acceptance is somewhat different when it comes to people who are still in the organization. You note, I think accurately, that “some of [your] friends—that is believing friends—think differently about matters of faith and life than is taught in God’s Kingdom. They still claim to be believers, even though their tie to the congregation may have been severed. They may want to believe on their own terms” (1:00:00). That is, of course, the right of every person in a free society, but so is the right of the LLC and SRK to maintain norms of behavior and belief for those who wish to be members. You may be surprised to hear that I respect that.5

Personally, it was important to me to make a decision about what I actually believed and then act accordingly. I didn’t want to cloud things by trying to live one way and profess belief in another. The “temptations of the world” were never that big a deal for me; the issues were. Of course, now that I’m no longer concerned about conforming to the LLC’s standards, I enjoy movies, TV shows, and a wide variety of music. Why not?

Now, there are people who don’t want to leave the church, even though they find no good reason not to partake of such activities, or to back away from the heavy demands of nearly annual childbearing. This is where I will be most critical of a work I find encouraging and excellent otherwise: Your advice to fellow believers to “search for answers within God’s Kingdom,” the so-called “pillar and ground of truth,” which you feel is guided by an “unerring advisor” (1:06:00). Do you realize, as an insider, that those answers all tend to be of the form, “It has been revealed in God’s Kingdom…”, or “God’s children have seen it good that…”? The invitation to be “free to ask questions” when it doesn’t work out that “the spirit that is in each child of God answers the spirit that speaks in the congregation” (1:07:00) rings a bit hollow when the spirit always seems to just wind up referring back to its own authority.

Slide #41

So why don’t these people just leave, to stop sowing weeds in your midst, as you and Helén put it? I can’t speak for them: They are individuals, with their own private thoughts and emotions. But I think you provide one answer yourself: the longing for contact, for love, for fellowship (1:02:00). Thoughtfully, you recognize that it’s not just difficult for believers when their loved one leaves the church, but “it’s difficult also for the person who has left” (1:09:00).

You like to call it “the Father’s house,” and Laestadianism also makes a lot of references to “the mother.” And of course, there are “brothers and sisters in faith.” These analogies illustrate the very deep emotional bond that is established when people grow up with each other in a distinctive subculture, do almost all their socializing with each other, and reinforce their ties by seeing each other as a group on a weekly basis. It doesn’t hurt that many of you really are extended family, either. The connections run deep.

I am glad, though, that you recognize, “Each person must make their own choices in life, even giving up faith” (1:08:00), that you must “accept their decision, though so very hard” it is to do (1:11:00). And it was wonderful to hear those “very important words” your wife’s believing friend told her about your own son who had left: “Love him, love him, love him” (1:09:00). That is what you desire to do, you said, and so do we.

Thank you for this presentation, Keith, and Aimo Helén as well.

Fond regards,
Your former brother,
Ed Suominen

———

I was happy to receive a thoughtful response from Keith, which he gave me discretion to quote from or post in its entirety. He expressed his thoughts well, and with considerable trust that I’d treat them fairly. So here they are, verbatim—everything after his initial salutation and a friendly line about this being a busy summer for him. I really appreciated the reply, all of it, and encourage you to read it as well.

First of all, thanks for your complimentary comments about the presentation. For the most part, I borrowed what Aimo Helén presented a year earlier in Finland. For that reason, I want to credit the original source and above all thank God for the words that He has given. In answer to your question about using my photo and quoting from or posting this message, I will leave that to your discretion. In any case, I prefer not to personally comment or participate in online public forums where questions of Laestadian Christianity are discussed.

Yes, it was a surprise to get a message from you! I’m happy that you felt free to write to me. I want to carry you in prayer and love. Regarding the critique you have given, I do not see a need to answer point by point. The presentation is what it is. All glory and honor goes to God. Any weaknesses are mine.

I hope that Laestadian believers, former believers, and all people for that matter would remember that carrying bitterness towards another person hurts the carrier more than anyone else. As you pointed out, we have the freedom to believe as we wish. No one is forced to believe. It would be good to remember that our focus needs to be on the issues at hand and not attack the person. Luther’s explanation to the Eighth Commandment reminds us not to speak evilly of our neighbor, “but apologize for him, think and speak well of him and put the best construction on all he does.” Who of us can say that we have been exemplary in this? I certainly cannot. Our human corruption is close.

You gave a hypothetical example, “A young woman who left the LLC after having just two children comes to a wedding at church…afterwards belittles the pregnant mother of the bride for continuing to have children.” You stated that you have never heard of a former believer behaving so thoughtlessly. Well, I must say that I have seen anger, thoughtless words, evil speech, etc., both from believers as well as former believers. In our Christianity we endeavor to speak about the evil deeds of that little member, the tongue. It’s hard to keep it in subjection. Regarding former believers’ speech, I’d ask you to consider their blogs. Do they speak well and put the best construction on the words and deeds of their former friends in faith?

You take issue with the kingdom of God being the pillar and ground of truth and our belief that we have an unerring advisor, the Holy Spirit. I would point out that it is a kingdom that holds the Bible as the highest authority for doctrine and life. The Spirit is the key to understanding the Bible. The spirit of Christ resides in the body of Christ, the congregation. For that reason it is unerring. How could God’s Spirit speak against itself, or disagree with itself? I believe that as God is God, He doesn’t make mistakes. That is why the congregation is unerring.

It is so, as you state, that each person is free to believe or not to believe. Those who believe have not been able to do so of themselves, but have been called by God. Luther teaches in the explanation to the Third Article of the Creed: “I believe that I cannot of my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith, even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus’ Christ in the true faith; in which Christian Church he daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.”

We can believe only through the grace of God. I am thankful to be a partaker of this grace, which I have not deserved. I am happy to be a child of God. My sins are forgiven and I have the hope of reaching heaven one day. I join with the Apostle Peter when some could no longer follow Jesus due to his teachings. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” I cannot find the peace of God anywhere else than in His kingdom, among His own upon earth. That which I have received, I desire to make known to others.

You are in my thoughts and prayers, Ed. 

Sincerely,
Keith 

———
Waaraniemi’s thumbnail portrait is from his entry on the “Contact Us” page of the LLC’s web site. Thumbnails of the “Approaching Others” presentation were exported from his PowerPoint file. The “traditional approach” composition, using a photo of my own plus a thumbnail of the By Faith book from the LLC’s online store, is Copyright © 2014 Edwin A. Suominen; you may freely use it for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Notes


  1. Waaraniemi’s first slide says it is based “on Aimo Helén’s presentation at 2013 SRK Speakers and Elders Meeting: Toisen ihmisen kohtaaminen” The MP3 audio, is quite legible at 2x speed if you want to save time. Also, check out the Powerpoint slides

  2. Waaraniemi’s name is on the work, after all, and on the webpage where it is publicly available. 

  3. I use the term “believers” here to refer to Conservative Laestadians—as they refer to themselves—along with “unbelievers” to mean everyone else. A lot of non-Laestadians don’t like being distinguished in that way, as most of them have sincere religious beliefs of their own. Personally, I don’t mind, especially when engaging in a dialogue with Laestadians. 

  4. Believers might also consider the converse side of such an open dialogue, one that is a bit challenging for them: politely acknowledging some of their friend’s “worldly” activities. I’m not talking about burning incense on an altar to Satan in the middle of the night, but things that are an everyday part of life for most everybody outside the LLC. If the friend lets it slip that junior hurt his knee at soccer practice last week, an expression of sympathy, perhaps a little joke about Laestadians saving on medical bills in that regard, at least, can go a long ways toward keeping a long-valued relationship intact and mutually respectful. Sure, there is a possibility that the ex-LLCer might wonder, “Hmmmm, maybe he doesn’t think school sports are such a big deal.” But consider the other thought that occurs to the one lucky enough to have such an understanding friend: “I’m so thankful he is secure in his beliefs and doesn’t need to be a fanatical sourpuss about everything.” 

  5. I would suggest, however, that you guys dispense with the charade about there being no rules. Of course there are—many of them! If there weren’t, then people could do as they pleased. And it wouldn’t bother them much at all, without the pressure to conform, given how ordinary and harmless most of the supposed sins really are. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii. Standing 13,803 ft above sea level, its peak is the highest point in the U.S. state of Hawaii. However, much of Mauna Kea is below sea level; when measured from its oceanic base, its height is 33,100 ft—more than twice Mount Everest’s base-to-peak height of 11,980 to 15,260 ft.
—Adapted from Wikipedia
Pacific Ocean and Clouds from Mauna Kea Summit  [Flickr page]

In the predawn darkness of an early morning many summers ago, standing on a 35-foot sailboat off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, a young man watched in awe as the sun lit up a mountain nearly three miles high.

He’d been awoken from his cramped little berth in the bow of the boat a few hours earlier. It was his final turn at standing watch for a 25-day passage from San Diego with a 75-year old skipper and a crewmate in his 40s named Roy. Recalling that magical morning upon his return home, the young man wrote:

I crawled out into the cockpit and was startled by the sight of flickering pinpoints of light clustered near the western horizon. I spent the next several hours before dawn watching the panorama of lights unfold around the boat as it drifted toward the island.

“It was an enchanting sensation,” his flowerly prose said, full of youth and vivid memory, “after a month on the open, forlorn sea, to stand out in the cockpit, trying to steer the boat through an almost dead calm, contemplating these silent announcers of civilization.” The towns north of Hilo appeared to him as

neat little arrangements of lights on the slopes of the island, whose only sign of existence was a faint outline of black land against starry, black sky. An airport beacon flashed at regular, hypnotizing intervals. Tiny navigation lights blinked red, white, and green directions.

I felt a sort of distant kinship for the faceless humans who slept beneath those lights, some 15 miles away. I had stared at two haggard, bearded faces for a month, and hungered for the smiles, laughs, and speech of the people of the island of Earth.

Now, with the arrival of sunlight skirting past a bulge of ocean clinging to a round planet, the long-dormant red lava at the top of Mauna Kea glowed like a torch. The boat was still in the earth’s shadow; it was dark everywhere else he could see but that blazing mountaintop. The young man grabbed the 35mm camera he’d borrowed from his mother and snapped this picture:

First Light on Mauna Kea  [Flickr page]

Then he watched the light creep down the mountain as the earth’s shadow retreated, toward a patchwork of sugar cane fields on the lower slopes and finally the surrounding sea. “The massive island off our starboard beam began to glow with the sunshine, shining its beautiful deep green shades through the morning mists. Furtive sheets of clouds raced across the higher mountains, shrouding them from our sight.” At this point, the boat was about a mile off the coast.

I was seventeen years old.

180-degree panorama at the top, 7531px high-res  [Flickr page]

Last summer, my wife and I drove a rented Toyota Forerunner to very nearly the top of that massive island. We parked it next to the silver dome of the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility at 13,674 feet above the sea level where we’d awoken that morning. It was within a hundred and fifty feet of Mauna Kea’s summit elevation, a long ways to climb in such a short time even with a four-wheel drive vehicle doing all of the work. The engine had gotten slow and hesitant above 12,000 feet or so, and our brains were, too.

White Mountain Goat  [Flickr page]

A few days earlier on Maui’s Haleakala Crater, I’d experienced the slightly panicked sensation of being winded while just standing still. And that was nearly a mile lower, 10,023 feet above sea level. We staggered out of the Forerunner with 40% less oxygen in every breath than we’d had with this morning’s breakfast, and we were feeling it.

When I knelt down to take pictures, I could feel the immediate effect of my legs pushing up against my chest cavity and preventing deep breaths. This wispy air demanded consumption in big gulps. Gasp, gasp, click. Stand—dizzy, unsteady—and breathe fast without feeling like the body’s getting caught up.

Mauna Kea Moonscape  [Flickr page]

But what scenery there was! The Pacific Ocean stretched out miles below and away from us, dark solid blue below its patchy clumps of cloud cover. And we were well above those clouds. So, more pictures. Gasp, gasp, click. And gasp some more.

“Shortness of breath” and “impaired judgment,” warns the visitor information station. “Reduced atmospheric pressure at high altitudes may cause altitude sickness or result in the development of other life threatening conditions such as pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid on the brain).”

My wife was a reluctant visitor to this godforsaken outpost in the sky, much preferring the tourist-friendly packaged comforts of Honolulu. She looked around for a few minutes and sat down in some patch of man-made shade. She did not join me in expressing awe about the view or the grandeur of the planet. She wanted to go down, now.

Opened empty at the summit

“Also,” the visitor information station sternly continues, “because the summit is above much of the atmosphere that blocks the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays, you risk exposure to serious sunburn and eye damage.” I kept my sunglasses on and applied generous amounts of sunscreen.

Was the sky really a bit darker blue up here, or was that my imagination? It also didn’t feel as cool as it should have, given how much lower the Forerunner’s thermometer was saying the temperature was than it had been down at sea level. Were the sparser air molecules doing noticeably less of a job at ferrying heat away from my body? That might’ve been my engineer’s imagination, too. But limited convection was a real concern for the rental agency when it came to overheating the brakes on the drive back. Use the engine to slow down, their brochure said, because the brakes can’t cool off enough in the thin air.

I saw (and heard) more tangible evidence of how thin that air was from a water bottle that I’d emptied and opened at the top. Its flimsy plastic walls crunched and popped as the atmosphere thickened outside it during the drive back down the mountain. We stopped to use the bathroom at the visitor’s center and took easy breaths of air that felt rich and generous at 9,200 feet. Closed and still crumpled up at the 2,000 foot elevation of my Eastern Washington home, the bottle now sits on my shelf as a souvenir.

In the space of six hours, I went from the bottom of Earth’s atmosphere to a point where there’s less than half of it left, and then back again. It was quite a day.

Panorama partway up, 3000px hi-res  [Flickr page]

What will never fail to impress me after taking a month to do a Pacific crossing is the gigantic scale of it all. That huge, dramatic mountain-that-is-an-island, rising nearly three miles above the Pacific and much further still from the seafloor beneath, is just a barely visible zit on the surface of our remarkably smooth ball of a planet.

Imagine a blob of Silly Putty that you’ve smooshed into an irregular, flat pancake with a couple of little lumps near the middle. It’s a relief map of Hawaii’s Big Island, and the tallest bump (not by much) is Mauna Kea. (The next biggest one, 99.1% as high, is Mauna Loa.) Your flattened blob-map is about seven inches across at its widest and only a quarter of an inch high.

To mash this onto the surface of something representing the earth, at its proper scale, you’d need a very big globe. Really big. Its diameter would be about 63 feet.1

Mauna Kea is just a flat little bump. You couldn’t even tell it was there if you looked at this giant globe from fifty feet away, just far enough to see the whole thing in profile. Earth deviates from a spherical shape by 43 km, an equatorial bulge at the planet’s waistline from the centrifigal force of twirling around once a day. That wouldn’t be noticeable, either, but it’s a full ten times as much as Mauna Kea’s height.

We don’t appreciate such enormities, because they dwarf us. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained,” asks the Psalmist, “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Ancient cosmology aside, he was onto something there. We are mere specks. The bacteria your hands would have left on that blob of Silly Putty when forming it are about the same size, on this scale, as I was standing on that mountain.2

Keck Observatory  [Flickr page]
For most individual images, you can click to enlarge or check out their photo pages in my Flickr photostream. All are Copyright © 2013-14 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. With one exception: I am holding onto the lit-up-lava picture I took in the 1980s as All Rights Reserved, for some reason I can’t quite articulate. I suppose I’ll never go back to that spot and see that sight again.

Notes


  1. The scale is 662,520. In metric, and with more precision, the dimensions of the model island would be 18.4 cm across by 6.35 mm high. (That might require a couple of eggs’ worth of Silly Putty.) The globe would be 19.23 m in diameter. 

  2. Bacteria range in size from half a micrometer to five μm. The height of a scaled-down human, say 2m orginally, would be 3 μm. The enormity of scale continues as things get bigger: A model sun would be just over a mile across and about 140 miles away (2.1 km and 225.8 km, respectively). 

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Christ-Myth Carol

Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.
—William James, “The Will to Believe” (1896)
Raphael Lataster [Photo credit: Emma Crancher]
Book Review: There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. By Raphael C. Lataster (2013).

The directness of Raphael C. Lataster’s new book is indicated by its title: There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. It’s an easy and informative read, but by no means a lightweight one. The scholarly rigor is there, as evidenced by an abundance of footnotes.

The book includes a discussion of the age-old question of God’s existence, but it’s the larger first half that I find of particular interest: Was there a Historical Jesus on which to build the “Christ of Faith” that we non-Christians reject as supernatural? In just over 150 fast-moving pages, Lataster explains why he thinks there wasn’t.

Criteria Crunch

After some introductions and a brief discussion of Bayesian inference, Lataster begins by describing the “criteria of authenticity” that are “used by Bible scholars to judge the reliability of certain aspects of the Bible” (p. 18). There really isn’t that much judgment going on, though. These “criteria” are waved around by apologists to distract the audience from the Bible’s very real problems and give the show the air of intellectual respectability. It’s a dodge, and Lataster explains why.

Multiple attestation? “Few individual units of the Jesus tradition are multiply attested, and even then, establishing independence is incredibly difficult” (p. 18). Embarrassment? That’s “highly speculative,” for several reasons (pp. 19-20). Coherence? “Without a solid base of certain sayings and deeds that do stem from a historical Jesus, using this criterion would be circular” (p. 21). And on he goes for a couple more pages, dismantling stuff like vividness of narration and the contradictory criterion of least distinctiveness.

Lastaster notes the biased nature of this effort. With one little-used exception, there “are no definitive criteria for inauthenticity” (p. 23). The Bible defenders touting their checklist offer “no criteria that confidently assert that Jesus could not have existed historically” (my emphasis). The game is rigged. It’s all in the direction of “proving” what they desperately need to show.1

Lord, I Believe, Help Thou My Scholarship

Jesus scholars tend to be a goal-oriented bunch. The evangelists’ slogan “You need Jesus” applies to almost all of these guys in a very practical way. Without him, their entire subject of study—and, almost always, their faith—disappears. He’s not just some itinerant preacher and healer wandering around the Levant two thousand years ago. On his historically dubious shoulders rests the full weight of a religion claimed by nearly a third of the world’s people. Being embedded in, and dependent on, a culture with such crying need to assure itself of the past reality of a single man cannot help but influence even those who don’t share that need themselves.2

One Bible scholar who defends the existence of a historical Jesus without worshiping him or even being convinced of God’s existence is Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina. Erhmans’s popular work Did Jesus Exist? is a legitimate point of reference and discussion for any recent book about the Historical Jesus, and Lataster does not shirk from doing so. Yes, is Ehrman’s answer to his title question, but based on arguments that have been fiercely panned by critics.3 Lataster points out (p. 38) problems with one—Ehrman’s claim in Did Jesus Exist? that we “have numerous, independent accounts of [Jesus’] life in the sources lying behind the Gospels.”

Which lurking sources are these? In my view—that of a well-read layman whose rejection of Christianity does not depend on the absence of a historical Christ—they seem about as tangible as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The intellectually guilty consciences of devoted Jesus scholars seem to be giving them nightmares, causing them to see rich visions of source material instead of the handful of decades-late manuscript fragments that actually appear on their followers’ barren tables. The poor faithful souls bowing their heads in prayer over these scraps don’t know how bad off they’ve really got it. The more sophisticated Christian apologists, the elites of the Jesus-Industrial complex, are trying their best to keep it that way.

The scrawniness of the Gospel goose is evident in Ehrman’s own words. A non-Christian, he is “all too happy to discredit the Gospels when it comes to opposing the resurrection of Jesus,” Lataster says, citing a 2009 debate between Ehrman and Christian apologist Michael Licona. Yet

somehow (and inconsistently) when it comes to the existence of Jesus, he concludes that the gospels “make a convincing case.” Suddenly, these terrible sources are quite good! He completely trashes the Gospels as unreliable, yet feels that at least on Jesus’ existence, he has access to some absolute truth. [p. 33]

So quit complaining and eat up, kids. We’ve got ourselves a fine dinner here:

Ehrman is even able to turn these few Gospels into numerous independent sources, by making reference to oral tradition, hypothetical sources such as Q, M and L, and the “second degree” hypothetical (and supposedly multiple) sources behind these hypothetical sources, which is hardly an acceptable historical method of dealing with the issue of a lack of primary sources. These sources don’t exist. [p. 33]

The sad fact is that the food sucks, and we are entitled to expect better. This Jesus character was an astounding figure, after all: “the King of Kings, who wrought many miracles, died for our sins, and according to the Bible, was known throughout the land.” Yet, as Lataster notes, he “fails to produce even one single primary source” (p. 43). Jesus rose from the dead, for God’s sake (actually, ours), and then appeared not just to a few disciples behind locked doors, but, according to 1 Corinthians 15:6, to five hundred people. And what do we get? A few contradictory and yet mutually dependent accounts, written by devotees at least several decades after the fact. The earliest of them—Mark without its tacked-on later ending—does not even mention a resurrection.4

The Sound of Silence

If this were “a historically significant figure,” Lataster observes, “someone would have written about him, in a time when there were ample historians and authors (such as Philo of Alexandria), and especially considering the Biblical claims of Jesus’ fame, controversies, miracles and other great achievements” (pp. 41-42).

But none of them did. The scholar who summarizes this situation best may well be Ehrman himself, and again Lataster is at the ready to point that out for us. “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him?” he quotes Ehrman.5 “Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references—nothing.”

As Lataster himself observes,

there exists only one non-Christian attestation to Jesus within approximately one hundred years of his birth: an author who was born after Jesus’ supposed death (Josephus, who was obviously not an eyewitness), and whose two small passages on Jesus attract the suspicion of critical scholars and historians. [p. 26]

Lataster goes into some detail about issues with the Josephus references, as well as a later, problematic one by Tacitus. Both, I learned from Lataster (p. 62), were ignored by the early Christian writers Origen and Tertullian. Those guys would not have hesitated to tout the two historians’ references to the founder of Christianity—what a PR coup that would’ve been! But they didn’t, probably because there were no such references. “Lying for the Lord” is not a new phenomenon; the early fourth-century historian Eusebius, Lataster says, “is well known as a defender of pious fraud” (p. 57).

The crux of the matter, as Lataster summarizes it, somewhat incongruously among his pages of comprehensive arguments:

One of the most curious problems the historian faces when researching Jesus is not posed by the sources, but by the lack of sources. There are no extra-Biblical references to Jesus that are contemporary and by eyewitnesses. Absolutely none. Even when including the Biblical books, there are no primary sources whatsoever, for the life of Jesus. The books of the Bible were penned decades after Jesus’ death, and do not provide us with direct eyewitness accounts. [p. 37]

Paul does not provide as much help as apologists would like to claim, either. Lataster quotes (p. 94) Gerd Lüdemann for his observation of this remarkable fact: “Jesus’ teachings seem to play a less vital role in Paul’s religious and ethical instruction than does the Old Testament… not once does Paul refer to Jesus as a teacher, to his words as teaching, or to Christians as disciples.”

Lataster also raises (though not claiming credit for it) the fascinating “possibility that Paul’s Jesus is a ‘celestial Christ’, who appeared in visions, and may have existed in outer space rather than on Earth” (p. 119). Paul, he thinks, adapted into his own Jesus concept the “purely supernatural figure” of the Logos, which Philo of Alexandria posited not too many decades beforehand (p. 120).

The sources are so bad, Lataster concludes later, that “it is entirely rational to doubt the existence even of a stripped-down, insignificant, non-miraculous Historical Jesus” (p. 123). And nobody should fault us for doubting, either. “If the great Apostle Paul was only convinced due to the miracle on the Damascus Road, and supposedly lived around the same time as Jesus,” Lataster asks, “surely we lesser mortals, raised in an increasingly-secular and rational world, far-removed from those impressive times, should be given at least the same opportunities?” (p. 148).

But we’re not so fortunate, concerning Jesus, as we’ve seen, or indeed even concerning the existence of God. For reasons that Lataster discusses in the second half of his book (not reviewed further here), God “gives us no good reason to accept his existence. He just refuses to come out of the closet” (p. 148). The Historical Jesus is right in there with him.6

A Recommended Read

I highly recommend this book, though with a couple of complaints. First, Lataster really could have benefited from some editing, for grammar and punctuation. It was also a bit jarring to see this problematic statement right up front: “Ehrman is an atheist (formerly a Christian) who believes in a historical Jesus, [Robert M.] Price is a Christian who promotes the JMT [Jesus Myth Theory], while Carrier is a sceptical historian previously critical of the JMT” (p. 10).

Ehrman is actually an agnostic who says, “I no longer know whether God exists.” Bob is a friend of mine, and I know how much fondness and respect he has for Christianity, as well as other religions. He has attended an Episcopal church “for the music and the stained glass,” though not much anymore. But he doesn’t believe in God or the probable existence of even a historical, non-miraculous Jesus. To call him a Christian would be stretching that label far beyond any real meaning, indeed farther than I think he would himself.

But, those quibbles aside, this is an excellent work. It’s full of valuable insights and information, and presents them in an engaging way. It’s also a bargain at $2.99 for the Kindle version. With that reasonable price, Lataster seems to know what he’s doing in the marketing department as well as Jesus scholarship: There Was No Jesus, There Was No God has been selling very well ever since it came out in September of last year.

Its success is justifiable, and gratifying to see in an ocean of bestselling nonsense. If you wish (and dare!) to learn a bit about why some of us aren’t too convinced about even the most basic historical grounds for Christianity, take a look at this book.

Notes


  1. For further reading on these bogus criteria and the motivated reasoning of apologists, see my posting Myth, Method, and the Will to Believe

  2. “The worst-kept secret in the academic world,” says Lataster, “is that the majority of Biblical scholars (as well as Philosophers of Religion) are Christians who believe in the Christian God and in the Biblical Jesus” (p. 133). 

  3. See, e.g., my review of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, Frank R. Zindler and Robert M. Price, eds., American Atheist Press (2013). 

  4. As discussed later in my review, there are also a few vague spiritual references by “Paul,” traditionally dated to within a decade or so of Jesus’ death. But it has been argued that the Pauline epistles were written late in the game, too, and by people other than Apostle Paul. 

  5. Lataster’s cite is: Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 56-57. I haven’t checked the source, but I’ve read something similar elsewhere in Ehrman’s writings. 

  6. Such divine caginess is not inconsistent with the disturbing principle that Jesus describes in the Gospel of Mark. He spoke to the public only in opaque riddles, explaining things to his disciples in secret. Only to them were the mysteries revealed. To “them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them” (Mark 4:11). So much for Jesus’ claim, in the words of a later Gospel, that he “spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:19-20). Did Jesus lie, or is one of the Gospels in error? Christians who know about this must pick one of two unpalatable options, besides dealing with the cruelty and absurdity of a savior who would deliberately withhold the opportunity for salvation from all but a select few.