There Is No Slippery Slope

There is no slippery slope.
One of the most common arguments used by “fundamentalists” (or whatever one may wish to call those who claim to accept the Bible as inerrant and that it is all to be accepted and believed) is that rejecting their view of the Bible puts one on a “slippery slope” down which one will inevitably slide to liberalism, unbelief, or whatever horrific things are said to lie at the slope’s bottom.
The biggest problem with this argument is that, when it comes to Biblical literalism, Biblical inerrancy (understood in any straightforward sense), and related viewpoints, there simply is no place one can actually stand at the top of the slope.
The Bible is a diverse and varied collection of writings. One can say that suffering comes upon those that deserve it, or that there is no direct connection between sin and suffering, and find support in the Bible. One can blame suffering only on the individuals who suffer or on the groups and communities to which they belong and find Biblical support.
And so the irony is that the only truly biblical viewpoint is one that recognizes the Bible’s diversity. If one claims the Bible is inerrant (which seems to assume that it has a unified teaching on the subjects it addresses) then one is already being unbiblical, and thus presumably already sliding down the slope.
And so when someone talks of the “slippery slope” it is perhaps best to remind them that the only place that is unsafe is in fact the “top” which is inhabited by self-proclaimed Biblical literalists and inerrantists who are doing dangerous exegetical and hermeneutical acrobatics to try to maintain a stable high ground that isn’t really there. That’s presumably why those who hold such views (as I once did) live in fear of the slippery slope. Unlike those who hike and ski safely upon the slopes, knowing the dangers and proceeding with knowledge and caution, the fundamentalist occupies an illusory peak while doing interpretative summersaults that are liable to cause landslides.

So there is indeed a danger – but for those who think they stand safely on the peak. The rest of us can go skiing and hiking and explore the mountain, and find places all over its slopes that one can remain if one chooses. That isn’t to say that the slopes can’t be slippery, just that there is no obligation to slide to or stay at the bottom, and no stable pinnacle that one can dwell on for any length of time.

I realize some may be offended by what I’ve written. But I hope that most readers will understand that what I’m mainly offering is an affirmation that (metaphorical) skiing is fun, and I hope you’ll find the courage to join in and explore the slopes of our human existence!

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  • Josh

    I'm a little disappointed, because I thought I had successfully slid down the slippery slope, took a few bruises, and landed on my feet. Now you're telling me there is no slippery slope."So there is indeed a danger – but for those who think they stand safely on the peak. The rest of us can go skiing and hiking and explore the mountain… "OK, I think you are right, and that sounds like a pretty good deal too. Great post, that is one of my favorite sayings to deconstruct. Thanks! :^)

  • While I generally agree with the points here, I would disagree with your categorization of fundamentalists. Otherwise, I tend to think that literalists are themselves on the slippery slope

  • James

    I never would have thought for a moment that I'd agree with Watts against McGrath. But hell, if Watts wants to say the fundaments that matter do NOT include the literal truth of everything all sixty-six authors of the various books of the Bible–if Watts want to say the real fundaments lie deeper than this huge implausibility, then I can only wish the Calvin man Godspeed. Now, if only Professor Witherington would find a place or two in the New Testament where it turns out the literal truth is not to be found….

  • 66 authors? 'Literal' truth is rarely what the author's intended, I believe, and indeed, for those of us who believe in inerrancy – of various, more liberal stripes – it would behoove us to find that context and acknowledge that a book written on a culture far removed from us by several different authors, in many different situations, in a huge number of audiences is harmed by a literal reading.And please, Calvin? That's just insulting 🙂

  • A well-articulated post, James. I have preferred Heikki Räisänen's term for the illusion of standing on an imagined peak, the pious self-deception, and compared to the connotations of that I don't think you have to worry about offending people with your upbeat visualization of skiing downhill.I'm unsure of your suggestion that "the only truly biblical viewpoint is one that recognizes the Bible's diversity". Surely no biblical author would agree, and the interpretative somersaults are, in fact, a common feature in both OT and NT, say, when Paul twists Deut. 25:4 (You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.) to mean something entirely different in 1 Cor. 9:9-10.It may work as a rhetorical riposte to a person claiming to stand on an imaginary peak, hardly otherwise.

  • I think that in general even the majority of conservative New Testament scholars agree with the point made here. I think issues like this one usually involve a double edged error: Either "fundamentalists" end up assuming that anything other than fundamentalism is a sure path to liberalism, or else anti-fundamentalists assume that anyone who isn't as open minded (liberal?) as them are fundamentalists. Either mindset is a hindrance to clear thinking about Scripture.Oh, one comment to Timo – Paul's use of that verse is hardly a twist, and it certainly doesn't end up meaning something "enitely different" when he uses it. All he means is that the same principle from one specific law also applies in another context.

  • The thing is, being a fundamentalist about scriptural inerrancy (or 'absolutism' – I've been reading Robin Gill) isn't finally about our view of the Bible. For a start, for those who hold to it inerrancy is a theological position, based on the understood character of God who does not lie.Secondly such views are, as all know, a response to modernism, and the perceived moral and theological relativism that follows on from that.You posted a video by Fr Matthew. I can just see the response to its call: "Come to the Episcopal Church for clear views on scripture, and get a signed Gene Robinson photo!" Not that that expresses my own viewpoint, but you see the point. Fundamentalism is a social phenomenon found in Xty, Islam, Marxism, Hinduism, etc. You are not going to shift people's adherence to it with gentle mockery, or calls to 'come on in, the water's fine.'For myself, the slope did indeed come across as very slippery, and I was out of control. After 4 years, I have found books by authors who have given me more confidence on the slope, like Lucas Grollenberg and Howard Kee. But that's just me; I left behind people who didn't want to know, and never will know.Increasingly, the divide is between the churches and academia (and those churches dependent on academia). You guys are not trusted, despite SBL's survey.JLW is right, the literalists (Calvinist and Dispensationalist) are on a slippery slope. The worry is, they will take the rest of us with them.

  • You feel free to not trust God. I'll trust what God has written.Well, at least now I now know I dont want my kids attending Butler University…

  • Quod erat demonstrandum

  • Anonymous

    To suggest that a slippery slope doesn't exist when considering whether or not the scriptures are inerrant…is to tell children it's safe to play in the street. Your metaphor of pleasantly skiing down the slope and enjoying all that can be discovered is inane. The slope is muddy, dirty, moldy, and mossy. And once you begin to slip there's no catching oneself, there is no sure footing available. That's the point in the metaphor. So it's damn dangerous, but you pretend it's fine, nothing is to risk. But God has indeed established boundaries, and you arrogantly and foolishly claim there are none.

  • James, I have a question about this statement you make:" The rest of us can go skiing and hiking and explore the mountain, and find places all over its slopes that one can remain if one chooses."I'm assuming that mountain means the Bible, with all its diversity. Are you saying that we can choose which viewpoint in the Bible we go with? For example—right now, reward and punishment in this life may make sense to me, but, once tragedy strikes, I'd be drawn to the nihilism in Job. But which corresponds to real life? Which represents how God does things?

  • Funny how literalist/absolutists hold to the same view of scripture as orthodox muslims and jews, ie, it is the literal, unchanging, unerring word of God come down from heaven via human writers who were merely dictaphones for this message. Docetism in regard to scripture is as damaging to Xtn life and theology as it is in regard to the person of Jesus Christ. The difference is that the latter has been dealt with over the centuries, although it still reaers its' ugly head, whereas the former has been left unchallenged until some Germans came a long a few hundred years ago and asked questions.The fact is God has not established boundaries, as a comparison of the various canons of scripture from post-exilic judaism down to the split between Prot, RC, and EO churches indicates. Even Luther rejected James and Revelation.There are trajectories through scripture. To use the skiing metaphor, some of these paths are 'off piste', and not germain to the main thrust of scripture, though they contain useful additions to our understading of being the people of God.How do we determine what is the main path? For me, it's obviously Jesus, and his ministry. Apart from him, it's just ancient history; he had something to say and do, and something wonderful happened because of it. When you move away from that, you not surprisingly end up rebuilding a form of 'Judaism' that often afflicts conservative prot churches.

  • I think a great deal of times, people have placed their faith more in the written word than that which was given by God, the Logos. Further, I haven't seen much in the bible which demands a believe in inerrancy. As a matter of fact, we cannot even find the concept applied to the written word in Scripture – I would say mainly because the written word was far from the minds of those who were speaking it. We do find where Paul said that Scripture was God-breathed. Of course, we must come to understand that inerrancy and literalism does not go hand in hand. Literalism is destroying the belief of inerrancy and indeed, destroys what the authors intended.For me, I am inerrantist, but no literalist in the modern sense of the word. I am amazed that we find this doctrine developed only recently as a reactionary stance against scientific achievement. If Augustine knew better than to pin inerrancy and literalism together. Literalism is an interpretative method and as such is faulty. I find that Augustine's approach adequate and indeed, biblical. I cringe when people quote certain sections of Job as doctrinal truth – forgetting who was speaking. Context is important.

  • Mr. Moore,Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I hope you won't mind me responding, since you expressed yourself briefly and I am not sure if I have correctly grasped your meaning.First, although I am offended by the suggestion that my views and conclusions reflect a lack of trust in God, I am more than anything else puzzled. What is it that you believe that "God wrote"? The Bible mentions God writing commandments on tablets which were then broken, and perhaps you also had in mind Jesus writing words in the sand which were not recorded, as recounted in a story that is not found in our earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John. Are those the things you had in mind? Or are you using "what God wrote" as a metaphor? If the latter, I can't imagine why my exploration of what the Bible literally claims about itself – such as that Paul wrote letters rather than them being (for example) the "first and second letters of God to the Corinthians."You are of course free to send your children to any university you choose, or to allow them a role in deciding for themselves, as you see fit. But I am also troubled by the notion that what one professor says on his blog, a forum for personal expression of his personal views rather than the activity of classroom teaching, and then decide on that basis whether the university is a good choice. I suspect you would be hard pressed to find a university where the views of all professors can be verified as agreeing with your own, since very few universities if any are institutions where every single individual holds identical views about every subject.But even if you could find such a university, I'm not sure it would be a good choice as an educational institution. No school that presents only one viewpoint on matters about which experts are divided deserves to be called a "university" since it is through investigation and discussion that most disciplines in the humanities make progress.I would appreciate it if you could take the time to clarify what you meant by your rather brief comment. I look forward to the conversation that may ensue once I've understood better where you are coming from.

  • Anonymous, I am not convinced that you are correct either that there is a safe place to stand without danger of slipping, or that one cannot stop and dwell comfortably in various places and with various views.Of course, there are certainly places that it is dangerous for children to explore, and I don't advocate presenting children with dangerous material when they are too young to deal with it. But since I assume this is a conversation primarily among adults, I adopted an approach that relates to what adult Christians and adults in general might do and might conclude.

  • Timo, thank you so much for your comment. My point is that those who claim to be "Bible-believing Christians" often adopt one view found in Scripture and then either ignore others or assert that they cannot mean what they seem to since Scripture would not contradict Scripture. My point was that, if one thinks being "biblical" means accepting the whole Bible, then presumably the only way to be biblical is to embrace its diversity – something that you rightly point out that its authors don't always do. But perhaps that suggests it is impossible to be "biblical" in that sense, since you cannot agree with Paul against Matthew and at the same time with Matthew against Paul, and all the while assert that only one is right…

  • James, presumably if answering such questions with certainty were possible, we might not have the diversity of views in Scripture that we do! :)But if nothing else, presumably the diversity of Scripture on topics like suffering and divine wrath suggest that people who have had different experiences may view the same topic in different ways. And perhaps that's OK…

  • Antonio Jerez

    James, although I can sympathize with skiers who prefers to ski around the biblical mountain without much sense of direction, loving or hating whatever spot of the mountain according to ones own personal preferences, I think that Christian skiers like that tend to forget, disregard or even deny that there is a very particular way of skiing around the mountain and seeing that mountain. It is a way of skiing that makes Christian skiing very different from lets say Rabbinic skiing. It´s about hermeneutics. Christian hermenutics is about how Jesus himself and his first followers understood and thought about the biblical mountain. The problem from my outsiders (although a former insider) perspective with most liberal Christian skiers is that they think that one can change viewpoint of the mountain or path through it (hermenutics) just as easily as some people change shirts from day to day. OK, these skiers say, it really isn´t important if Jesus thought the biblical mountain was bright red and 90 000 meters high. No, these skiers say, since we know that the biblical mountain isn´t really bright red and 90 000 meters high we can safely see the non-literal colour and height of the mountain through the eyes of lets say folks like the orginal authors of Genesis 1. That the hermeneutics of the orginal authors of Genesis are not the hermeneutics of Jesus or his early followers is ultimately of no importance to these kind of biblical skiers. If the hermeneutics of Jesus doesn´t suit us or are uncomfortable we can always use some other hermeneutics from some other biblical writer who makes things fit better with our personal view of the world or morals. And so these skiers jump from hermeneutics to hermeneutics making up a path through the mountain that they think they can safely ski through. I think it is worth again bringing up a peculiar way of looking at the biblical mountain that is at the very roots of Christianity. I am thinking of the "prophecies" about Jesus in the OT. I don´t know how James handles that particular hot potato. But I do know that the fundamentalists despite all their follies are both logically and factually right when they claim that the works of people like Joseph Fitzmyer are undermining the very foundations of Christianity. If the Spirit or the Paraclete led Matthew or John astray in matters like the "prophecies" about Jesus in the OT then anything goes…

  • I've explored the prophecies Matthew quotes here. I don't see how anyone can claim that the texts in question were predictions about Jesus. The two main options are (1) Matthew didn't mean "predictions coming true" when he wrote of "fulfillment" or (2) Matthew was misguided or pulling a fast one, but either way doing something that we cannot do today with these texts if we are honest.

  • Professor McGrath, I would tend to think that Matthew wrote not of predictions coming true but of fulfillment.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,thanks for the tip about your essay on Matthew. But I wasn´t actually thinking on those particular "prophecy" fullfillments. What I have in mind are the OT "prophecies" about Jesus death and resurrection that I believe texts like Matthew 26:24, Acts 8:32 and John 9:39 are referring to. I think both you and me know pretty well how things worked in those first decades after the birth of Christianity. We can see Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John and the others walking around the Mediterranean with their minds stuffed with OT prooftexts like the one Luke mentions in Acts, doing their best to convince Jew and gentile that their novel interpretation of the OT has a divine imprimatur. I also think you and me can agree that those particular prophecies in the OT that Paul and the others thought were about Jesus aren´t really about Jesus. That is no problem for me, since I think Paul and the others are free to make up any follies they want. But I do believe it becomes a problem for a Christian since Paul and the others in this particular instance very clearly state that they aren´t fooling around with us (the fools are actually folks like me who don´t see things their way..)but have been given the Spirit or the Paraclete to teach them how to read OT verses like the one Luke refers to the right way. And if Paul and the others are actually claiming that the Spirit of God is talking through them in instances like this I don´t see how a modern Christian is going to get around the problem of their often weird reading of the OT by claiming that we can blame those weird readings on their human nature. I really can´t blame Paul and the others for being wackos or making outrageous readings of the OT. But I do blame them for the often disastrous concequences their outrageus readings of the OT has had through the centuries for the Jews. Paul, John (he is probably the worst offender of them all)and the others rubbed and rubbed their outrageous readings right into the face of more "orthodox" Jews – calling them "blind", "fools" and even worse things. And later followers of Paul and the others have through the centuries continued rubbing those outrageous readings of the OT right into the face of the Jews, often even to the point of death. It is time for repentance and calling things by their proper name. And I think it is time for people like Joseph Fitzmyer or Crossan who really should know better to stop repeating the Creed every Sunday when they can´t get along with parts of it.

  • Antonio, for me personally it's not very different than saying Newton was completely off base about alchemy yet brilliant when it comes to physics and math.If there is a difference it is that religion's moral teachings and spiritual focus on an ineffable transcendent reality are always couched in poetry and metaphor and always constrained by and expressed in terms of the worldview of the time. That means that the way early Christian authors expressed things is (1) just what I'd expect in their context, (2) not something I can carry over into my context, but (3) something I can appreciate when I take the change in historical and cultural setting into account.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,what kind of analogy is that? As far as I know Newton wasn´t arguing that he was possessed by the spirit of God which would inevitably lead him to the truth when he made his alchemical "discoveries". Nor was he openly proclaiming on the Streets of London that he had seen the TRUTH behind many alchemical texts and that all who didn´t see them the way he did were fools, and even worse, fools doomed to eternal damnation. I usually judge people by the claims they themselves make about themselves and things. I don´t judge them by the claims others like you make about them. And since Paul and the others claim to have access through the Spirit to information that blind fools like me can´t see I judge them a lot more harshly than a normal village fool in the Palestinian countryside if the information they claim to have is blatantly false. And James, the example I mentioned of the "prophecies" about the SOM in the NT isn´t a question about morals or metaphors constrained by its time and place. It is about a bunch of renegade Jews making som very specific claims that can in principle be proven right or wrong. There is no difference whatsoever beetween the claims made by a proven wacko like Joseph Smith and his "egyptian" script and the special "abilities" claimed by Paul and the others to "read" the biblical texts. The only difference may be that Joseph Smith knew that he was fooling others while Paul and the others genuinely believed their own follies. While the fundamentalists that James is so often prone to criticise have follies in abundance I think they are at least more honest and logical than the Christian liberals in acknowledging that if those claimed "prophecies" in the OT are not about Jesus then the game is up. If not even the Spirit that Paul and the others claim to possess can be trusted then Christianity is built on quicksand and fundamentalist Christian missionaries can just as well close the shop since their preaching would be just as empty as muslims missionaries who preach that the Paraclete in Gohn is really about the prophet Muhammed. So from my viewpoint I think both the fundamentalists and James are sitting in the same sinking boat. The only difference being that the fundamentalists claim that there are absolutely no holes in the boat, it´s not even sinking, while liberals James acknowledge that there are some holes but that none of the wholes is large enough to sink the boat.It will go on flaoting no matter what…

  • Who needs a boat when you can walk on water?That's just a joke, by the way…;-)The problem with "undermining Christianity" is that it assumes a fairly cemented definition of what "Christianity" is. Most of us, even the conservative ones, would probably be considered heretics of one stripe or another by our fellow Christians hundreds of years past.So does that mean we are no longer "Christian"?Religion is a live and growing organism, Christianity is no less so.I wonder if Jesus saw himself as undermining the very foundations of Judaism. I wonder if Paul and Peter thought or cared about whether they were undermining Judaism.Did the writer of Leviticus and Deuteronomy think he was undermining The Patriarchs when including prohibitions against men marrying fellow sisters?Is there a point at which Christianity will become so watered down and obtuse that it becomes nothing more than a trite collection of moral axioms? ….that's possible…..but I think that the only reason we could even think that is because we have already assumed so many of Christianity's basic premises, that we think they have always been and always will be….like some universal, neutral setting.You don't know you're wet if you spend your whole life in water.I think that's why fundamentalism becomes appealing to people. It marls them out from the beige background and makes them feel like they are "really believing" something….that their version is the correct version because it stands in opposition to the surrounding culture of what they view as "nominal Christianity".However….I believe that Christianity is still radical in its scope to provide room for people to continue to grow and explore it. Turning the other cheek, praying for your enemies, forgiving others, storing treasure in heaven instead of earth.Find some people living like this and you will find Christianity's lifeblood. Can those ideas be undermined? Can a person's belief that God has as the highest goal the idea that people love Him by loving others be undermined?MAybe they could be undermined……but it will take a lot more than questioning how much influence the writers of Scripture exert from their own backgrounds, coloring certain concept.

  • bad typing on my part…once again.thank goodness I never took up the job of copyist

  • I mainly want to say "What Terri said." I'll only add that I suspect that Newton did believe that he was being granted divinely-bestowed insight into God's creation. Should that be the basis on which we evaluate his contribution to human understanding?If Sibelius thought his 5th Symphony was literally inspired for God, let's say, is accepting or rejecting his view of inspiration the only or even an important matter for deciding whether you can appreciate his contribution to human culture?

  • Antonio Jerez

    Terri wrote: "Most of us, even the conservative ones, would probably be considered heretics of one stripe or another by our fellow Christians hundreds of years past.So does that mean we are no longer "Christian"?" In a sense I´d say so. If a founder of a religion wouldn´t recognize himself and his teachings at all in the beliefs of later followers then I would say that we are talking of not being "Christian" any more. I certainly think the beliefs of folks like Robert Funk, Bishop Spong and Dominic Crossan have mutated to the point were it really isn´t meaningful of calling them "Christian" any more. The fundamendalists may be whackos in my eyes but I think it is a kind of whackiness that I think Jesus, Paul and the others may have felt more at home with.

  • OK, but then let's be consistent and say that there is no longer music, since so-called music today no longer sticks to the rules that once governed it. And of course, philosophy is gone since the analytic philosophers have an approach that is discontinuous with what philosophy meant in ages past. The problem is that if we invent a new name every time there is a development, we may mistakenly think that there is no continuity alongside the discontinuity.Each approach emphasizes something and downplays something, but both have some truth to them…

  • Antonio Jerez

    Terr wrote:"MAybe they could be undermined……but it will take a lot more than questioning how much influence the writers of Scripture exert from their own backgrounds, coloring certain concept."So could you give me some idea of what kind of thing it would take to really undermine Christianity? Because I get the impression that with yours and James very broad and vague definition of what constitutes the "lifeblood" of a religion like Christianity I guess that no religion can ever be falsified.

  • I'll let Terri answer in her own way, but I do want to suggest that, while a fundamentalist would agree with you that Christianity is all about fact-claims and then try to defend them at all costs, for many others in more mystical streams of the Christian tradition, religious language is more like poetry. And I'm not sure that it makes sense to evaluate poetry in terms of falsifiability…

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,the rules of music will always change. That is the nature of things. The problem is if a composer like Schönberg claims that he is faithfully following in the footsteps of his teacher Mozart when he is actually doing nothing of the sort. Fortunately Schönberg didn´t do anything like that. He knew that he was founding a musical school of his own. He was becoming a Guru of his own.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,I think you are misunderstanding me. I am not claiming that Christianity is all about fact-claims that can be either verified or falsified. Christianity is both about fact-claims and religious poetry and feeling (mysticism). What I object to is when mystics try to explain away some of Christianities fact-claims by confusing religious poetry with pretty simple and straightforward fact-claims.

  • As long ago as the Gospel of Thomas in the second century, if not earlier (perhaps for instance in 1 John, when the faithful have no need of anyone to teach them because they have an anointing, making them "anointed ones" or "christs"), there were those who understood Christianity in this way – as Jesus introducing others into a relationship to God and a way of living that may be mediated by him, but which is not focused on him but on the God to whom Jesus always pointed attention (even in the Gospel of John). The way the Gospel of Thomas puts it is "Jesus said: I am not thy master, because thou hast drunk, thou hast become drunk from the bubbling spring which I have measured out."If this has been one of the many forms Christianity has taken, and one that it took very early, then why can't there be a Christianity today that fits your Schoenberg analogy? Much that followed Schoenberg ended up being described as "neo-Classical"…

  • Antonio,I'd venture to say that I don't exactly line up with James and other "liberal Christians"(if we're going to try and label people)….and not Spong and others whom I couldn't conceivably agree with on many things. Which is not to say that I don't think that people I am not in 100% agreement with don't have some very valid points occasionally.And, to bring in something form the earlier thread…I am not averse to "hocus-pocus" in my own life, having had some definite experiences which could be classified as "mystical". However, I try not to impose my own personal "hocus-pocus" experiences on those around me, as if it's a rubric through which I can determine whether other people really believe in God…..or whether it's a message from God to an entire nation…like Haiti.I can't think of a way to undermine the concept of God…a higher good…..a "right" way to live….the concept of justice and mercy.To put it this way……if someone claimed that they could prove Jesus never existed, or that he never rose from the dead, or that everything was completely made up… would my life change?The short answer is that, in many ways, it wouldn't change at all. What teaching of Jesus would I reject and say,"Thank God I don't need that anymore! It's so nice to be able to be greedy, or unfaithful to my spouse, or hypocritical and judgmental, and not have to worry about making peace with my family, friends, neighbors…or enemies."I suppose you could say I have been fully indoctrinated! ;-)Truly, though….you could never convince me otherwise that these principles are wrong or incorrrect….and that alone is what feeds my faith on days when I am not so sure what exactly I think about eveything.I would say that trying to make sense of all of it only works from the inside….from a point of view that's trying to actually "do" something with what it all means.Simply theorizing about it all, without actually trying to put any of it into practice or work it out in real life, is a bleak practice.

  • I think Terri and I agree on a core point. I realized it in particular in conversation with an atheist, asking the helpful question "What would it take to make you lose your faith?" I realized that, even if I had a time machine and went back to first century Judaea and discovered certain key things about Jesus that were at odds with a Christian view of him, that would change some of my beliefs but it wouldn't thereby necessitate that I give up having any sort of religious/moral/ethical/transcendent view of things. My "faith" is an intuition, a belief that it is worth living life as though it has meaning, treating others as though they have value, and looking for beauty and transcendence in the universe. That "faith" is not dependent on the truthfulness of this or that doctrine.It is probably true that Terri and I have different views about some of those doctrines. But it sounds like we have in common a belief that there is a core to our Christian worldviews that is not ultimately about those doctrines but something deeper and greater.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Terri and James,what I was trying to get at is that Christianity is about more than morals that may feel right and useful, mystical experiences or a vague(or strong?) feeling that there is some kind of Higher Being whom one really can´t describe or say much about. Christianity is also about some very specific fact-claims that make Christianity very different from let´s say Shia Islam which also has morals that may feel right and useful, mystical experiences and a vague (or strong) feeling that there is some kind of Higher Being whom one really can´t describe or say much about. What liberals like Funk, Spong, Crossan (and I suppose James) don´t want to acknowledge is that there are some crucial fact-claims which if they aren´t factually true make Christianity one among countless other religions which may have useful morals and can induce a positive feeling for the beauty of human life and the Universe but are factually untrue. I think one of the "founders" of Christianity, Paul, understood things a lot better than latterday followers like Funk, Spong, Crossan and McGrath when he claimed that if Christ hadn´t REALLY risen then he was the most miserable of humans. Paul at least had the honesty to acknowledge that despite all the fine morals and mystical excperiences that his religion gave him without some crucial fact-claims that he preached REALLY being true his preaching was empty and vain.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,a further thought regarding your comments on Gospel of Thomas. I suppose anybody is free to anchor his Christianity around the doctrines found in GThomas. But I am sure a Christianity without a belief in bodily resurrection is not something either Jesus, Paul and the others would have approved of. And I suppose it is the founders of a religion (or a musical school) who are in the best position to judge if their "pupils" are truly following in their footsteps. When renegade "pupils" stray too far from the path of their master they´d better set up their own workshop and change the logo.

  • Antonio,To be clear, I haven't given up on bodily resurrection. I agree that Christianity's fact claims are important, but that some of them are more important than others.The problem is that I have no way to "prove" fact claims about something that happened 2,000 years ago. I don't have a time machine. This is not a problem just for Christianity, but for all sorts of historical questions.The Pyramids have been in existence for thousands of years, everybody knows of them….yet scientists and historians still have a lot of unanswered questions about how they were built and by whom they were built. There are lots of ideas out there, but no definitive historical source which describes the process from beginning to end. It is lost to history.Something happened to give Paul and others the motivation to do what they did and say what they did.Food for thought….what other religions have seen such an explosion in belief and widespread acceptance in the way that Christianity has? Mormonism….which could not exist without Christianity, Islam which could not exist without Judaism and Christianity, and maybe Scientology is starting to edge up there….but I think Scientology "cheats" because it doesn't tell its adherents the full scope of what Scientology is all about until they have reached certain levels within the church.Mormonism has slowly begun to cast off its more distinctive parts, like polygamy. They have also reworked some of their ceremonies to get rid of certain parts that were seen as offensive. I think that Christianity has become very constraining for most believers. We have a story for everything and have developed doctrine and theology that is so exact and precise that it is stifling…..because no one needs to think about anything else, because someone else has probably already done it, had their ideas debated and had them either been approved or discarded by whoever was in authority at the time. All we get to do now is simply accept what the story has become and try to stay in those boundaries…and worry if we or someone else strays out onto the "slippery slope".Christianity has become cumbersome in that way, and 21st century believers have a lot more baggage to deal with than believers did 1500 years ago.When you, or anyone else, insists that Christianity is defined in very strict terms…which makes it easier to dismiss or accept….you are glossing over hundreds and hundreds of years of history and opinions and people.Time can simultaneously make some things more evidently clear, while also complicating issues as more people weigh in on them.I am sure my answer is not satisfactory to you….and too amorphous to satisfy your demand for a Yes or no answer.I'm not purposely trying to be obtuse. I simply can't talk about my religious beliefs in only "factual" language….because there are all sorts of "facts" that impact what I think about it. Many of those facts are not scientific facts, but experiential and practical facts. They are all integrated together in my mind and support each other in ways I, myself, don't even realize.It's kind of like thinking about whether there is such a thing as a God who has some sort of design, or goal, or plan….and then smacking up against the enormous complexity of humanity. The complexity doesn't "prove" anything……but I can't look it in the eye and think that it is all for nothing….that we have enough sentience to question our very existence and expend our energy in a never-ending quest to know things….and yet there is really nothing to know. I just can't accept that.The same principles operate in for in Christianity.

  • I agree with James on this article. To use the literal meaning of the Bible as your guide is to throw your self into confusion. Ultimately those who claim to hold on to this idea turn to clever interpretation to make the text agree with what they think it should be saying, so they are not accepting the literal truth of the Bible. The notion that the bible is the word of God rest on nothing. Certainly a prophet would say their prophesy is the word of God, and no doubt Paul believed the Torah was the word of God but who established all the books of the Bible are all the word of God? It is only consensus that we believe all these books are inspired by God and I think every generation of believers is free to evaluate for themselves what works are inspired by God. Did Paul believe all his letters or only the ones that are now in the Bible were scripture inspired by God? I would bet if you could ask him he would say none of his letters were infallible scripture. How many preachers now would say their sermons should be read forever as the word of God? As evidenced by Matthew and Luke, early Christians did not think Mark was the infallible word of God (or Mark of Matthew if you accept the priority of Matthew). My position on Biblical inerrancy is that the Spirit of God, not the book's of saints is the ultimate guide to the will of God.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Mike wrote:"My position on Biblical inerrancy is that the Spirit of God, not the book's of saints is the ultimate guide to the will of God."Which makes one wonder how we know through which person the true Spirit of God is speaking at a given moment. Is it through Pat Robertsson or is it through the Pope? The problem is that Christians have NEVER been able to agree about when and where the Spirit of God is at work. What is the Spirit of God at work for some Christians is the Spirit of Satan at work for others. And since the Spirit of God never appears to be able to speak on itself I think those arguing that the they KNOW when or where the Spirit is at work are facing an impossible job.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Terri,thanks for your lengthy reply. It is a pleasure to discuss with you (and with James). Terri wrote: "I agree that Christianity's fact claims are important, but that some of them are more important than others." I definitely agree with you that not all fact-claims Paul and the others made are of the same importance. I think Luke would have shrugged and said "Sorry, a small mistake of mine" if I had questioned him about his misdating of the census of Quirinius. He (like me) would have seen it as unimportant to the thruth claims of Christianity. But I do think that Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John would all have reacted strongly if I had questioned their reading of the "prophecies" in the OT that they had tied to their crucified Messiah. All of them very explicitely and clearly explain that when it comes to their interpretation of things like the Servant verses in Isaiah it is the Spirit of God DIRECTLY who has given them these insights which are not open to all mortals. And since the Spirit of God cannot lie Paul and the others would probably agree with me that the game was up if somebody could "prove" that their interpretation was mistaken. But I doubt that Paul and the others would ever get to the point where they acknowledged that they were mistaken. My hunch is that they would react much the way fundamentalists do today. And though I am not the one to lay out the rules of what constitutes "true" Christianity or what makes a "true" Christian I am quite sure that Paul and the others would have agreed with me that fact-statements like the bodily resurrection of Christ and all believers, and their prooftexting the "Messianic" passages in the OT being the only TRUE one, are essential beliefs for all Christians. Terri wrote: "The problem is that I have no way to "prove" fact claims about something that happened 2,000 years ago. I don't have a time machine. No, we certainly can´t "prove" or disprove a thing like the resurrection of Jesus. But I think James McGrath and many others are much to cautious when they claim that a historian can´t say much about a thing like that. If the resurrection really happened and we are to follow the claims made by Jesus followers we would expect a thing like the resurrection to have certain observable and verifiable repercussions here in our earthly dimension. If Jesus had really risen and become king of the Universe (which Paul and the others claim), and if Jesus or the Spirit or the Paraclete had spoken directly to Paul and the others we wouldn´t expect the risen Jesus to tell them that he was to return soon to earth and turn it into a paradise. And even if you were to blame predictions like that on fallible Christian prophets or a fallible human Christ while he was here on earth (the line taken by James McGrath ?) you would expect a truly risen Jesus to rectify mistakes like that while he was trying to keep in touch with his later followers on earth. I think it is asking and toying around with questions like this that show how improbable it is that we are dealing with a real resurrected Jesus or a real Spirit at work in the Christian movement. For obvious reasons you never see Christian "historians" like Wright, Bauckham or Witherington toying around with simple, practical questions like this. Instead you see them toying around with irrelevant nonsense by philosophers like Collingwood. No practical studies on the nature of miracles or parapsychology but endless speculations about what might or might not be possible on a metaphysical level. I´ll have more to say tomorrow. Don´t have time right know to go on. But Terri has certainly given me food for thought on matters from which I think I can talk from my own experience -:)

  • Antonio Jerez

    Terri, here is part 2: You wrote: "The Pyramids have been in existence for thousands of years, everybody knows of them….yet scientists and historians still have a lot of unanswered questions about how they were built and by whom they were built." I don´t really see how one can compare the unanswered questions about the pyramids at Giza with the unanswered questions about the resurrection of Jesus. Although we don´t know exactly by which technique the pyramids were built (although some people say they do) we have a pretty good idea about how and by whom the work was done. And we certainly know that no extraterrestials were involved. One of the funniest episodes in my life was actually a few years ago when my sister invited me to join a weeklong trip through egypt in the company of a group of spanish "seekers" and a spanish guide who claimed to be able to tell us the TRUTH about the pyramids and other sites from pharaonic times. I went along just because my sister (who is very gullible in spiritual matters) paid for the trip, because I love Egypt and because I just couldn´t resist the temptation to try to desinflate the puffupped balloon that I was sure that our guide was trying to serve us. I laughed when we stood by Cheops pyramid and our guide tried to convince us that it must have been built by the lost civilisation of Atlantis. I laughed when we stood by the unfinished obelisk at the granite quarry at Aswan and our guide told us that the ancient egyptians could impossibly have cut and transported an obelisk like that with normal tools from the iron age. It must have been the Atlantians and they must have used some kind of laser tools, said our guide and looked as dead serious as he always did when he served us his "truths".I also laughed when we stood by a cliff with hieroglyphic inscriptions Aswan which our guide argued couldn´t come from the old egyptians but was made by the Atlantians about 10000 BC. No matter what kind of solid counterarguments I gave him our guide continued preaching his "truths" without flinching a for even a microsecond. Not even when I told him that since the Romans managed to transport an obelisk from Egypt to Rome without the help of Atlantians it wouldn´t have been an impossiblity for the Egyptians either did our guide retreat. The tragicomic thing is that none of the "searchers" in our group questioned the statements of our guide. Most of them saw me as a kind of spoiler for questioning the wisdom of our brave guide. I suppose I would have had much the same feeling and experience if I had been in the company of Paul, Matthew or John and their disciples 2000 years ago. The only difference being that Paul, Matthew, John and the others would have added an ethical dimension to their wayward guiding be continued

  • Antonio Jerez

    Terri, and here is part 3:You wrote: "Something happened to give Paul and others the motivation to do what they did and say what they did." I am sure something happened to Paul and the others that made them believe that Jesus was resurrected. Although I am quite certain that that "something" wasn´t a real encounter with a resurrected Jesus. And I don´t base my judgement on me in principle denying the possibility of miracles. I base my judgement on the nature of the earliest Christian documents with their conflicting and highly unlikely stories, failed prophecies coming from the supposedly risen Christ, the later development of the Christian movement with their ever increasing splintering and infighting plus my studies in things like psychology, brain research, antrophology, parapsychology and some other fields that to an ever increasing degree show that what believers usually see as miracles have more down to earth explanations. A good example being things like glossalia. To give you another example. The fact that some cults "see" spaceships and extraterrestials is no indication that those spaceships or extraterrestials are real. Personally I don´t see much difference between people "seeing" extraterrestials and Paul and the others "seeing" the risen Christ. As for your instinctive feeling that there really must be something behind Christianity because of its rapid spread I think you are looking at things from the wrong perspective. If the "truth" of a religion is to be measured by the rapidness of its spread and the number of adherents, then I fear that Islam could lay claim to being the TRUE religion. Islam spread far more rapidly than Christianity the first 300 years and fear (yes, I really mean fear, because I don´t like Islam at all) that it is in the process of overtaking Christianity as the worlds largest religion within the next 300 years-One can always counter that Islam was spread by force and not by peaceful means like Christianity. But then you have to "forget" that Christianitys real success story didn´t begin until it became a Roman state religion and the spread was fueled by force and economic incentives. And we still haven´t seen the end of the success story of the Mormons. A cult, if ever there was one,totally based on fraud and selfdeception. Fortunately we are close enough in time to the founder of Mormonism to see clearly on what follies Mormonism is grounded. And the fact that Mormonism may have some good and useful morals does not take away the fact that it is built on delusions and follies. And although I really think that Paul and the others sincerly believed in the things they preached about there is no escaping from the fact that despite some useful morals Christianity is also built on delusions.

  • Anotonio,I don't have time to respond in length right now, and will get back to you…just wanted to say that when I was talking about the pyramids, I was referring to the debate about whether Egypt used foreign slaves or its own "paid" citizens to build them….not that aliens or Atlantians might have built them….though I see from the way IO originally wrote it how you could have thought that's what I meant.I should have been more specific! ;-)No worries…I am not making a tinfoil hat anytime soon.

  • The slope may not be slippery, but the term "alien" is in this context! 🙂

  • Antonio,I don't actually disagree with much of what you say.With a few caveats…Mormonism is seriously trying to "normalize" itself in the way it is perceived by Christians and the culture in general. I wouldn't be surprised if it continued that "normalization" process far enough along that it eventually becomes close enough to some mainstream versions of Christianity.I am referring to the institutional forms of Mormonism…not the 50-wives-on-a-compound-Mormonism which has become far removed from the lifestyle of most modern Mormons.Modern-day Mormons are virtually indistinguishable from modern-day Evangelicals. Obviously, there are vast differences in the belief systems between the two…..but many of the more exotic differences are pushed aside by the average Mormon.My points about the rapidness of a religion spreading were not to say that ultimately it "proves" anything. My point is that some of the largest, fastest growing religions are connected and come from a common root. Wipe out any religion connected with Judaism and Christianity and you have wiped out an enormous swath of religious belief. All that would be left would be the Eastern religions….some of which are loose philosophies and general attitudes about life, rather than hard and fast religions which demand specific acts, rituals, and adherence to precise doctrines.I think that's a significant idea."And although I really think that Paul and the others sincerly believed in the things they preached about there is no escaping from the fact that despite some useful morals Christianity is also built on delusions."Delusion is a very strong word, and one that I would disagree with.Funny story…on a road that I travel frequently there is a Pentecostal Holiness church, painted a bright blue with a huge LED-lit sign with scrolling messages. A huge sign is erected over the building which implores travelers to stop in and "Upgrade Your Salvation"…a reference to Acts 2 follows.I think this is funny because of the adoption of tech terms to describe religious experience. It's funny to think of one's spiritual state as a software package that could be upgraded to the premium version. Maybe being filled with the Holy Spirit could begin to be described as having the latest version of God downloaded onto your hard drive.The point of that story is that how people describe and experience religious belief makes concepts that are as old as dirt seem completely different….even though, in essence, they are talking about the same thing.Some of the deconstruction that is taking place in Christianity is simply a reformatting(more tech terms!) of the same information and concepts which have been in existence for a long time.Now…we can either stay staic in how we express those things…like Orthodox iconographers who must follow strict rules on how they paint and produce Orthodox icons, never straying from that stern, heavily lined face of Jesus surrounded by gold leaf…or we can re-express those things in terms we understand and which hold meaning for us today.Expressing those things in new terms is not the same as undermining Christianity or e purposely manipulating Christian themes to be more palatable.My "instinctive" feelings are not tied to simply one theory or "proof" that I have talked about….which I tried to explain before in our conversation. There are a whole host of "instincts" which work together for me….not the least of which is the positive impact that a belief in Christ has made in my own life.I don't expect that to prove anything to you, or for you to accept my own personal experiences as a basis for your acceptance or rejection of CHristianity.I can only ever speak for myself. That is all anyone can ever do.

  • Antonio Jerez

    Terri,wouldn´t expect you to confess that Christianity is a delusion 🙂 But staring at the facts with open eyes I don´t think one can escape from the fact that Christianity is just as much about delusion as Mormonism. If there aren´t angels, miracles or a New Heaven and Earth then I don´t see how the religion of Jesus and Paul (I am not talking about James McGrath´s homespun version :)) can be called anything else than a delusion. Just as if there never were any golden plates or an angel giving the book of Mormon to Joseph Smith or a Lucifer who is the evil brother of Jesus, Mormonism is a delusion. And you are quite right when you observe a movement within Mormonism to "normalize". That is what usually happenes in all religions. I am quite certain that Mormonism the next hundred years will have its fair share of Pat Robertsons (No, no, no! Joseph Smith was never mistaken), Crossans (No, Joseph Smith wasn´t really mistaken. It is Brigham Young who made mistaken prophecies and perverted the true message of Joseph Smith!)and McGraths ( Sure. There never were any golden plates and Joseph Smith´s belief in fairies, angels and the lost tribes of Israel travelling to America are mistaken. But all this is of no real importance since what counts is the morals Joseph Smith taught us…) And Terri, I am not doubting for a moment that both you and James have had some personal experience that have convinced you that Christianity is true even if a lot of evidence may point in a contrary direction. Being a former Catholic (a choirboy who loved swinging the incense at mass :)I´ve also had "mystical" experiences and encounters with what I at that time firmly believed was with God. It´s just that a point came in my life where I decided to study Christianity and other religions without taking things for granted. I read hundreds of books on religion, I spent many months with all from the disciples of Paul Brunton (a kind of theosophy) to Hare Krishna gurus. I read hundreds of books on diverse topics like astronomy, physics, anthropology, psychology, parapsychology, biology and not the least history. Then I stepped "outside" myself for a long, long time and tried to see myself from the outside. I revisited my life and looked at both my outer and inner experiences. What I found was that all (well actually not ALL. I dont think normal science nor me can actually explain yet the processes at work when I woke up one night in a hotel room in South America in 1991 with a deadsure "vision" and feeling that somebody had died in my family. I found out a few days later that my father had died in Sweden the same night I had my "vision")my experiences, both in my inner and outer world, can be quite easily explained without resorting to gods, angels or the miraculous. I also found that the experiences of my Bruntonite, Hare Krishna and Christian friends can be explained without resorting to gods, angels or the miraculous. And that is in a nutshell why I don´t believe in gods, angels and the miraculous.

  • Goodgirl

    ” A slippery slope” is a metaphor for a place that someone inhabits when they think they will not be called out for their wrong behavior. They have a false sense of security and then…oops, down they slide right into their karma.