What better advice can I provide this father’s day than spiritual guidance? Yet instead of telling my grown children what to believe by way of doctrine, I would rather provide some tips on how to avoid what I call the ‘scripture thumpers’. These are the folks who come armed with an authoritative book they use to justify their conclusions and/or hit you over the head with if logic isn’t prevailing. They are friendly enough, usually, and they know they are right. How they look at you depends on whether you’re a ‘saint’ or an ‘ain’t’ from the perspective of their sacred scriptures.
I was a Bible thumper in my twenties, so I know the pattern. I went door to door, preached in churches, in malls, in the streets – basically anywhere there was a relatively captive audience to frighten with notions of not being saved, of going to hell. Gratefully, I came out of that praxis. I learned a few things along the way I’d like to share with you. If you come across an bible thumping evangelist, here are some issues to bring up that can put them on their heels, and hopefully get them thinking about the positions they so confidently assert:
- Did the resurrected Jesus have blood? You see, blood atonement is the whole crux of the matter – if blood doesn’t atone for sin, then the crucifixion – and Christianity – has no basis. Blood atonement is actually a pagan concept that goes back to before the time of Abraham. It’s the idea that killing one creature can buy the life of another, in front of God. What kind of God needs blood to forgive sins? Does that make any sense? As if life is a zero-sum game. If the blood of Jesus was so precious that it could buy the life of all present, past and future believers, how could it be spontaneously regenerated at the resurrection? And if the resurrected Christ didn’t have blood, how did his body even function? If it was no longer human, then the resurrected Christ was by definition a radical discontinuity from the carnal human who died – i.e. a whole other being – in which case the question about whether it was the same body – with our without blood – is irrelevant. His new body is a fabrication, even if it was a close facsimile. If it can be fabricated like the Fed prints money, how is it so precious? The notion of corporeal continuity breaks down – you might as well believe in reincarnation.
- What kind of God would create people able to suffer eternally? This is an age old rebuttal that doesn’t lose cogency. Hypothetically, one can understand God permanently annihilating souls that didn’t make the cut – but keeping souls around just to torment them sounds like the conclusion of medieval theology and doesn’t pass the sniff test. A good God would not do that; and if God does that, he’s not worth believing in.
- A single book serves a single state – whether it is Constantine’s council of Nicea early in the fourth century, or King James’ Bible council early in the 17th century, any time there has been a single book created to prescribe the bounds of belief, it has been in the service of political hegemony. Plurality of beliefs is seen as divisive. In fact, cultures change, and so do their values and the mythical stories required to support those shifting values. Locking on an old book of explanations in the face of new and more differentiated understanding of the world makes the faithful archaic in their superstitions, narrow and intolerant. Rather, we should have a system that allows for the evolution of spiritual understanding, which necessarily means new sacred stories to support them.
- Why spend so much energy explaining conundrums? The Bible is full of them – free will vs. predestination; the role of women, of slaves; our posture towards government; teaching on divorce; polygamy, stoning and genocide. At some point the scriptures endorse, contradict or do both to these tendencies. Those who hold that the entire Holy Book (from end to end) is the Word of God have a lot of explaining to do, and it’s not entirely believable. The faithful need full time theologians to reconcile the points of view, have to continuously convince themselves about how these contradictions hang together, and have lots of meetings to drill in the teaching. That’s a huge amount of unproductive energy expended just to appease a conscience and provide a foundation for doing good works. Why not start from a position of peace and goodness, and nullify the need to reconcile conundrums?
- All intractable wars over the millennia can be traced back, for the most part, to one or more sides holding on to beliefs about an exclusive way to God. Think about it – if Christians, Jews and Muslims weren’t exclusive about how to get to God, we wouldn’t have religious wars. In an ever more crowded planet, holding on the exclusive beliefs that only alienate others and keep them from learning about other cultures is not morally justifiable. We have to genuinely not only tolerate, but find reason to share humanity with those who believe differently. The exclusive scripture mentality necessarily works against that and is, in my mind, a root of evil behavior.
- Creationists see themselves as ‘other’ than creation. The idea that nature is there for our benefit, to be exploited and exhausted because we’re entitled to it, and that God will anyway come back with a new earth, has led to abuse of the planet. The whole notion of Manifest Destiny that drove early American expansionism is an example of this. Buffalo herds decimated for sport. The attitudes continue today with our exploitation of forests and the hunting of species to extinction for vain reasons. On the other hand, if we see ourselves as being related to and directly dependent on a healthy ecosystem, we will act differently. Indefinite growth on a finite planet will not be assumed.
- Take the religious language out of the religious narratives and see if the stories are believable. For example, instead of saying that ‘the Christ was crucified, died, preached to the underworld, was then resurrected on the third day, and ascended to heaven, as witnessed by the saints, to be seated at the right hand of God the Father . . . ‘ try a narrative like this: ‘A middle aged blue collar carpenter turned street preacher who broke the law was tortured and killed as an object lesson to his followers. It is alleged that he came back to life by a handful of followers, without evidence. They say he was able to appear and disappear at will, and was eventually elevated into the upper atmosphere without a vehicle or space suit, where he sat down next to his dad on a platform in the sky. . . ‘ How does this story scan? It’s essentially the same narrative without the religious jargon. Did you find it barely suitable for a tabloid? If it sounds absurd, perhaps it is. If Jesus really did sit down in outer space, and he has a human body, how does he breathe? Where exactly is he? Why is he just sitting there for thousands of years?
- As a preacher you are asking people to make the most important decision they could possibly make, namely to commit their lives to a religious purpose, based on what? Something you can’t verify, which has no evidence beyond hearsay. For example, it was just a handful of grief-stricken witnesses who saw the empty tomb. If they had colluded or had been deluded, and somehow lied about that one event, the entire Christian believe system falls apart. Think about it – millennia of institution building with millions placing their faith in a religion and fervently believing in a resurrection that never happened! Our courts would not send a man to death row based on hearsay – how can you ask everyone to give their lives to a cause based on the narrative of those who had most to gain?
- Every culture experiences miracles – what makes the Bible’s miracles from God and the others’ from the devil? Read, for example, ‘the Autobiography of a Yogi’ and you’ll see India’s stories about people teleporting and being in two places at once. There are many mythologies out there that narrate miracles – how can your miracles be evidence that your way is the only way to God? If that were true, then their miracles would validate their way to God. So either both are true, or their miracles are from the devil. Great way to make friends! Miracles, even if true, cannot be seen as definitive evidence because they are by definition subject to interpretation.
- The ‘N-Level’ problem – even if Jesus and the disciples were not lying and colluding to create a cult, even if they did hear voices and experience spiritual beings and faithfully obeyed and reported what they said – there’s no absolute proof that those beings one level above them weren’t deceiving the prophets and their disciples. The same can be said for any number of levels above. For example, even if Jesus and the disciples are truthful, and the layer of beings above them were also truthful, we can’t prove that the next level up was not being deceptive. If our flawed society of finite people with conflicting and even questionable motivations can create scams, form groups of hackers who steal identities; if our own government can spy on us without congressional oversight and criticize foreign entities for putting ‘back doors’ in our computer hardware all the while they are intercepting hardware orders to do exactly that; if our own elected representatives and the government whom we finance with our taxes can so deceive us, what makes us think that more powerful beings one or two levels up in the ontology are any less corrupt?
So my friends, this is the advice of a father who has graduated – don’t let a scripture Evangelist tell you what to believe. Ultimately you know in your heart and being what you must believe. My advice is to be still, know yourself, think for yourself and be open to experiencing God. I left the scriptures behind that I had spent years memorizing. Yet during my missionary stint I did have spiritual experiences, and met men and women of God who exuded goodness in a way that cannot be justified by reasoning about doctrine. Godliness does not validate doctrine; it validates the human connection to God. There is goodness, there is a spiritual realm and humans are capable of living in harmony with each other and the planet. Find those values, create sacred stories around them, and share them in a community. This is true organic and agile religion.
— copyright © 2014 Roy Zuniga