The Humanist’s Dilemma: Accepting the Christ Christians Believe in

The Humanist’s Dilemma: Accepting the Christ Christians Believe in April 21, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. It’s Resurrection Sunday in Medellín, and for the last week I’ve experienced the profound difference of living in a culture with no separation of church and state. On Palm Sunday, processions marking Christ on the Road to Calvary blocked Metro bus lines in my neighbourhood. On Maundy Thursday, the evening air was filled by church processions blasting solemn orchestral music interspersed with sermons–an event, I’m told, that fills the air all the city over.

I saw this week a great deal of family outings, too, with three or four generations gathering together in the streets, and local vendors making sage use of the huge church attendance to set up shop with balloons, roasted corn, popcorn, empanadas, candles, incense, ice cream, chips, and other sundry. Bouncy castles and activity stations in the parks allowed children to manage their restlessness while adults watched screens set up outside the cathedrals for the inevitable spillover. Champions League football games blasted from nearby tiendas, but no one was watching. Restaurants usually frequented for afternoon beers held, on these strange few days, almost no clients at all.

And now it’s Resurrection Sunday–the day in which Christ supposedly returns from the dead as per his promise, and so repays humanity’s debts so that all can be saved and enter into eternal life.

How could anyone–even an atheist–not appreciate the positive message in that?

The Biblical Christ

Now, I’ve said quite a few times here that I have trouble reading the Bible without getting angry, because it’s just packewith awfulness–and that awfulness makes it harder for me to think like the humanist I want to be. In the comments to this column, more strident atheists sometimes argue the likes of “No, you shouldn’t be treating them [the people] with respect: you have to mock them, you have to condemn them, you have to show them the sheer stupidity of their beliefs.”

And, uh huh, I think, selfish venting because it feels good to be more righteous than others. Gotcha. Meanwhile, the research shows that condemning other people–for any belief I disagree with–is more often than not going to backfire, entrenching them in their positions. Why? Because it’s not logic that gets us into our beliefs; it’s emotional (in)security, coupled sometimes with ignorance about the consequences of our beliefs as they stand. As such, rare is the day that logic alone will dissuade someone from their pride in belief-without-evidence, and leave them itching to run from the deep well of community that their religion constructs.

(NB: It’s worth remembering, though, that the person arguing against belief-without-evidence might themselves still serve as reminder that there’s another way to live. However, it’s important in those circumstances not to conflate correlation with causation. Just because a person discussed a topic logically with you, and you changed your mind, doesn’t intrinsically mean the logic is what persuaded you. The character of the speaker is an argument as well.)

And yet, on a deeper level, there are times when I am tempted into similar self-righteousness.

Days, like Resurrection Sunday, when I feel the Darth Vader-esque pull of baseline atheism over humanism.

Why? Because on Resurrection Sunday, the day on which ever so many Christians believe that the road to eternal salvation became assured, I find myself dwelling on Luke 8, and the massive reminders therein that the character of Christ was not a person preaching for the benefit of all.

Now, this isn’t the only place in the Bible where the character of Christ makes plain that he’s working only for the benefit of some… and to be fair to Christianity, there are many Christians who likewise accept Christ at his word in these sections, and assume that some are just slated to be saved and others to burn. (Yay for the honesty of Calvinism!)

But… this is the section that I feel makes the whole notion of a feel-good, universally caring Buddy Christ impossible from a Biblical perspective. And as such, it’s the section that challenges me most, as a humanist, to accept the Christ that Christians make for themselves on this day of days, instead of the Christ that exists in their own sacred text.

The Moral Repugnance of Luke 8

US Public Domain: "The Temptation of St. Anthony" by Martin Schöngauer c. 1480-90. Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There’s a lot in Luke 8, of course. It’s the section where we find out that Mary Magdalene had seven devils exorcised by Christ or his disciples. And since here the line separates “evil spirits” from “infirmities” we aren’t even talking about the usual ignorance about disease and its sources that plagues much of these ancient texts. We’re talking literal devils, which Christ believes in but many Christians today choose simply to ignore in this text because, well, it’s a touch awkward to disagree with someone you believe is a god.

But the more invidious part of this chapter lies in the character-of-Christ’s explanation of a parable to his listeners. This is the Parable of the Sower, and it’s used to explain why some people are going to receive salvation and some are not. Specifically, from the KJV:

 A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.

And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.

And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.

And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

And as our protagonist continues,

11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.

12 Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.

13 They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.

14 And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.

15 But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.

Ah, yes, that pesky devil again.

By Fastfission - from Edward Grant, "Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages", Isis, Vol. 78, No. 2. (Jun., 1987), pp. 152-173. See also: F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg, "Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide", The Catholic University of America Press, p. 365 (on-line text here)., Public Domain,

You know, the medieval physician and philosopher Paracelsus had a similar rationalization in the 15th century, one which handily followed the 2nd-century Ptolemaic model of the universe. Paracelsus argued that disease and evil entered the world via, essentially, the lousy throw of his god, who emanated his will through the cosmos, only to have some specific instances get sullied, in transit, by their passage through other, bad-humoured celestial bodies before arriving on Earth. (Yay astrology!) Now, obviously, Paracelsus didn’t use the term “lousy throw”–but I raise the example to remind readers this was how people viewed the universe for centuries. When the gospels were first written by their anonymous authors, these were their baseline models–pre-modern-astronomy, pre-modern-medicine–of how the universe functioned.

And so here, again, on the surface, I can see how the parables of Christ are plainly the fruits of street prophets from the period. Heck, maybe even from a street prophet named Jesus, too, if the James Ossuary is any indication of a literal family wherein Jesus (the one listed under “James, brother of Jesus”) is also listed in a bone box for “Judah, son of Jesus”. (Which, if true, kind of complicates Christian narrative with nuisance archaeology, and which in consequence has left a lot of Christians–initially excited by the find, when it related to James!–now avoiding it like a Biblical plague.)

Moreover, the ministry of such street prophets is not nearly as predatory as similar would be today. True, they claimed the ability to exorcise and to heal, and probably benefitted in their efforts not only from hearsay and exaggeration, but also the actual adrenalin rush of seeming recovery that even a deeply ill person can achieve in the frenzy of group attention. However, when they were performing such acts, there weren’t really any alternatives yet. Germ theory of disease was still, oh, 19 centuries off, so just calling certain difficult-to-keep-cool foods “unclean”, as sacred texts and social practice wisely did, was about the best healthcare plan you were going to get.

But even if not predatory, it’s still darned manipulative, as Luke 8 illustrates perhaps best of all. After all, here’s the character of Christ praising those before him for having the good fortune to be, well, of “good ground” to begin with. Where the bleeding heck is the challenge of that? He’s also given to say, by the writer of this anonymous gospel, that “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.”–as clear an argument as they come that parables, in his practice, were meant to mystify and complicate the message for outsiders. Classic cult behaviour.

By also, why not confound the message for outsiders? After all,

Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have.

All will be given to those who already have (i.e. are already in the club). And anyone who has nothing (i.e. isn’t in the club) will have even his illusions of possession taken from him. Nasty, punitive, self-congratulatory stuff–and a perfect reason that the Bible works so well with the prosperity gospel that many Evangelicals in the US use to justify their support of absolutely abominable public policy.

Put another way, then, this section quite literally boasts of impending punishment for people who weren’t on the right “ground” to begin with. Or for those whose only fault was having a “devil” intervene, snatching away their access to eternal life.

And why? Because the sower has shitty aim.

The Humanist’s Christ

Now, this kind of rhetoric works well to establish cults: build an in-group through disdain for the out-group. But it doesn’t work so well, two thousand years on, for folks trying to do better. For folks, that is, trying to build a world that really will offer more to all, no matter the conditions of their birth.

So here’s the problem I face every year on Resurrection Sunday. The great majority of Christians I know do not agree with that nastiness in Luke 8, any more than they agree with the existence of literal devils in need of exorcism. And how do I know they don’t agree with it? Because when they “hear the word of God, and do it”, these Christians apply their sense of faith to actual improvements in the world. They spread goodness, and love, and charity, and social-justice advocacy, all throughout their communities. They are wonderful humans–good parents, good friends, good partners, good family members, good citizens: and on all five accounts are still striving to do better.

Indeed, for that striving alone, they are already better than their Biblical Christ. (And better, by far, than the sower who blames the seed for falling astray, and makes no effort to improve his aim or recoup his losses.)

And so today many of these good human beings, fortified by other sections of their Bible perhaps, will gather in the good will of this most auspicious date on their church calendar, and they will reaffirm their commitment to do and be better.

To rejoice in the affirmation of hope their story of Christ’s resurrection gives them.

To seek to be worthy, even when intrinsically unworthy, of that better world still to come.

And why not?

After all, we don’t have many days on the secular calendar that even approximate what joy this holiday gives our Christian friends and fellow citizens…

But we could.

We could absolutely work to develop more secular celebrations of peace and hope.

And if we did? If we fostered more emotional security through such events–more collective assurance that our species is joined more often by our optimism and fraternity than it is divided by our cynicism and our tribes?

Well… on that day of days, I think we might have a stronger argument for dismissing the role of spiritual faith in our communities. But until that day arrives?

It’s a little after 8a.m. on Resurrection Sunday. The air around my home, in Belén los Alpes, Medellín, is already thick with gospel, further booming sermons on the streets as families gather to be present with one another; to apply the general sentiment of this day to a deepening of hope and gladness for themselves and for their communities, even if they may not feel worthy of any better world to come.

No one here is gathering with the intention of sowing poorly.

Everyone has simply been awaiting the fulfilment of a promise that they might yet belong to a better story.

…And in that we stand united, don’t we?

We humanists, that is, of every stripe and creed–until simple vanity, from Christians and pedantic atheists alike–next drives us, instead, apart.

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