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IS CHRISTIANITY TRUE?
If one embraces the idea that God exists outside of and independent of any particular faith system, it seems a perfectly natural question to ask if Christianityor any established religion for that matteris inherently true. After all, if the divine is available to all people everywhere through the mechanism of personal intuition, then all religious creeds that mandate how God is and how He can be reached must be rendered nonsense or, at best, hugely mistaken. This is an especially salient personal point considering that I spent over twenty years of my life a professing, convinced Christian; one does not, after all, throw away a lifetime of beliefs and experiences without considerable forethought.
As such, I'm sensitive to the fact that Christianity remains the belief system of over a billion people on this planet, with elements of it being echoed in other monotheistic faiths around the globe. It seems presumptuous then to imagine all of it is just one huge mistake, yet it is obvious that Christianitywith it's firm doctrines and precise dogmas hammered out over two milleniacannot be empirically correct if God can be reached through the mechanism of simple faith in the divine as realized through the inner workings of the human heart. Either it is the cross and salvation through grace via confession of Christ as Lord and Savior (or, in other traditions, obedience to the laws and edicts of God) or it is discovering that divinity is inherent within all people and salvation is no further away than that realization. We must not quibble about it: it is either one or the other. We cannot have it both ways.
So the question of whether Christianity is true must be answered. It will not, however, be answered by appealing to its large following for evidence of its truthfulness or its often brutal history as proof of its falseness. Additionally, appealing to its modern aberrations such as the second coming or creationism has limited value in determining whether it's true or false: no one ever said that Christians aren't capable of sensationalism or scientific debauchery. Additionally, appeals to its life-changing (or, some might say, life-saving) abilities testify not to its truthfulness, but to the power of belief. Both good and bad, nonsense and wisdom, and positive and negative impacts on ones life can be attested to by any religion (as well as by many political or philosophical movements as well). While attesting to the wickedness of the Inquisition or the fact that Christianity saved Aunt Ruth from a life of alcoholism might illicit powerful emotions, neither will help us determine whether it is true or not. They are merely sidebars to a larger question, and as such must be put aside if our discussion is to go anywhere.
To determine if Christianity is true, it is only necessary we ask ourselves one simple question: who is Jesus of Nazareth? If a mythical figure or a mere man, Christianityfor all it's complex and brilliant theologymust finally come to naught; if God in human form who died in an effort to reconcile sinful man to a perfect Creator, any quest for inner divinity must finally end in complete futility and, the truth be told, utter folly. So how we answer this questionwho was this man named Jesus of Nazarethremains the only pertinent one to ask; everything else is merely window dressing.
First, it strikes me as foolish to suggest there wasn't at some point in the distant past an actual flesh and blood man known as Jesus of Nazareth. He is as firmly established in history as anyone can be, so it seems pointless to argue that he is a complete fabrication. Certainly, he is too consistently treated as a real person by even the earliest gospel writingswritten just decades after his deathto imagine that they had anything but a real man in mind. While it is true there are no clear mention of him made by the secular historians of the age (references to him allegedly made by the famed Jewish historian Josephus have been subsequently demonstrated to be later forgeries and, in any case, are third hand accounts written long after the Nazarene's death) that is not remarkable. He was not, after all, a king or a general or anyone of contemporary importance or interest to historians of the age and so was not likely to be noticed. In fact, I should be a bit suspicious if he were to appear in contemporary records of the time; the inclusion of an itinerant Jewish rabbi from the backwaters of the mighty Roman Empire alongside the exploits and intrigues of the great leaders and commanders of the age would be the greater mystery.
Yet there has to be something material about the man, for deification does not occur in a vacuum. Whether one accepts Jesus as a God man or merely a poorly misguided moralist, it seems obvious there must be something behind all the stories; if, after all, one hears a marching band in the distance, it would be profoundly disturbing if there were no flesh-and-blood musicians in evidence to explain all the racket. As such, if one wanted to make the case that Jesus did not exist, I believe they would have the more difficult time of it. Even fair atheists will usually grant the man his corporeal existence.
The real question is not did he exist, but who was he? A moral crusader who touched a few raw nerves and paid for it with his life? A seditionist who led a failed coup and suffered the traditional fate reserved for seditionists-death by crucifixion? Or was he merely a teacher who ran afoul of the religious authorities and had to be quieted before the status quo was threatened?
The first thing we must not do is run to the gospel accounts for our answer. I know this seems as if I am pulling the rug out from beneath the defense counsel just as the case is coming to trial, but appealing to a biased source for confirmation of one's position is akin to appealing to anti-Semitic literature of the 1930's to prove that Jews are an inferior race. Anyone who has taken the time to discover how the gospel accounts came to be writtenand by whomand how the modern Bible itself was put together cannot, with any degree of integrity, maintain that the Gospels are not thoroughly biased documents designed to do one thing and one thing only: demonstrate and reinforce the belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. They were written for no other purpose, and their selection from among a much larger body of writings of the era for inclusion into the New Testament were carefully considered by men who owed their very livelihood to the fact that Jesus was, indeed, the Christ. As such, their accuracy as historical narratives must be suspect, and their truth as to what Jesus actually said and did have to be seen as the religious propaganda they were designed to be.
Of course, when most people hear the word "propaganda" the immediate thought is that something is a complete work of fiction or, more properly, an outright lie. This, however, is not necessarily so. Propaganda is simply information specifically crafted to persuade a person towards a particular position. It may be entirely false (and frequently is) but it does not necessarily have to be. In fact, the most successful propaganda is that which is fashioned from the truth: the picture of a ravaged and denuded forest as a plea against logging, for example, does not need to have been falsified to be effective. In fact, if the photo is of a real forest that has been victimized by irresponsible logging it enhances its effectiveness as a propaganda tool.
What propaganda does is not necessarily "make things up" but simply tell only one side of the story. For example, the photo of the ravaged forest scene might be forty years old whereas in reality the forest has long since shown signs of a healthy recovery, or a diatribe against logging might omit the fact that the industry has subsequently embraced a determined program of reforestation or that thinning of old growth forests might actually be beneficial to the environment and reduce the damage and danger resulting from forest fires. Propaganda is interested in only telling one side of the story. That doesn't mandate that the side they tell is untrue but it will almost ensure that it's far from complete or balanced.
I think much the same is true for the gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth. They are a series of vignettes of an admittedly remarkable and controversial man told from the perspective of those who called him Lord and Savior. There is not a word from his critics and, more importantly, what the rank-and-file Jew of the day thought of the man is at best only hinted at. Did everyone believe he was incarnate deity as we are led to assume, or only a small number (certainly the fact that Christianity remained only a tiny sect of Judaism for several years must say something.)? Did Jesus really win every argument, heal every illness, utter every word attributed to him, and genuinely rise from the dead, or are we getting only part of the picture? I for one would have far more faith in the New Testament if it contained a few letters from Christianity's more thoughtful and articulate detractors alongside the evangelical writings of Paul. At least that would allow an air of debate to enter the picture rather than all discussion being stifled by an atmosphere of dogmatic assertion.
Additionally, the traditional notion that the gospels are largely written by eye-witnesses has long since been proven erroneous. The earliest gospel, Mark's, is generally recognized as having been penned no earlier that 60 A.D.-a full three decades after Jesus' death-and Mark (whoever he was) was not even named among the earliest disciples. Matthew didn't write his account until some fifteen years after Mark and while tradition has maintained that the book was written by the very disciple mentioned in the gospels (and described as a Publican or tax-collector-a type of state sponsored extortionist) this is merely church tradition without a shred of evidence to support it. Lukeanother later disciple who never personally met Jesus in the fleshdidn't pen his gospel until around 85 A.D., while John's gospel is the work of the early second centurylong after the disciple who bears its name was dead. As such, none of the gospels are eye-witness accounts of what occurred during Jesus' very brief ministry and while it is possible they were compiled from various written records that may have been initially set down by actual witnesses, this can in no way be established. The fact that the same stories as told in more than one gospel frequently exhibit small differences between them further suggest they are competing versions of an oft-told tale that may have "aged" with each retelling (as stories usually do.)
Of course, this argument is true of all recorded history as well, with many historic accounts embraced by modern scholars frequently being little more than rumor and innuendo disguised as fact. After all, it is human nature to see only a part of a much larger picture and accept only that which conforms to ones own understanding of reality. However, if this is true of secular historyand even the best of it is frequently suspect or, at best, incompletewhy would it not also be true for the Gospel accounts as well, especially if penned by people with very specific agendas in mind? In fact, we should expect the gospels to be even more prone to exaggeration or rumor posing as fact precisely because they are designed to convince and persuade rather than simply record. That, too, would at least be true to human nature.
So if we can't rely on the gospel accounts about Jesus of Nazareth to be objective, historical narratives, then what do we have to turn to in an effort to answer our earlier query? If we throw the gospels out, don't we effectively end the debate right there?
As I said, while the gospels are clearly and undeniable religious propaganda and second, third, and even fourth-hand accounts of what supposedly happened, that does not mean they have no value in clearing a few things up. They may be biased, but they also possess a certain degree of consistency within them (as should any competent propaganda) that can tell us a few things about not just Jesus of Nazareth, but the mindset of the culture and sensibilities of the time. They tell us, for example, what kind of world Jesus lived in and how he could be seen as a type of Savior by a population hungering for relief from oppressive Roman rule. They also paint a picture of a man who set himself up for martyrdom by continually challenging the authorities of his day and choosing to enter Jerusalem during one of the most sacred of Jewish holidays riding upon the back of an colt-an act understood by both Roman and Jew alike to be a clear proclamation of messiahship. Most important of all, it demonstrates how the legend of Jesus of Nazareth grew with each new version of events until his messiahship was finally completely co-opted by his divinity.
I suspect there are more than a few readers who found my last statement confusing. It has usually been assumed that Jesus' messiahship was his divinity, as if declaring the one was tantamount to declaring the other. This is not true, however, and remains one of the great misunderstandings of orthodoxy. Few Christians, for instance, realize that to the Jews of the age the term messiah did not mean incarnate God as we moderns interpret the phrase. To them, a messiah was a kind of warrior king specifically anointed by God to free the people from oppression and punish the enemies of Israel. He was not presumed to be divine in any sense of the word-any more than a prophet would be considered as such-but a man especially designated by God to destroy Israel's enemies; the chief difference being that his victories would not be realized through tactical skill and brute strength, but would be divinely instigated. In effect, the Messiah would be God's chosen tool specifically designed to punish His enemies. It's no coincidence that the greatest of the divinely anointed warrior kings-Joshua-shared his name with Jesus (which is, of course, its Greek equivalent.) Is it any wonder that the man was enthusiastically embraced as a modern Joshua, hand-picked by God Himself to lift the heel of Roman dictatorship and restore the Davidic kingdom to glory?
Had the Jews defined messiah (Christ in Greek) as a divine manifestation as we do now, there would not likely have been a crucifixion at all. The Romans had no problem with divine incarnations-their mythology was full of such manifestations. What they feared was armed rebellion, which is why Jesus was dangerous. It wasn't his alleged divinity the Romans (or the Jews, for that matter) feared, but the potential for rebellion his teachings could be interpreted to produce. Far from taking him lightlyas the gospels suggestthe Romans took him all too seriously. The suggestion that Pilate didn't even know who this Jesus was when brought before him is nonsense. A man who had just ridden into the city to the adoration of the crowds and had nearly stirred up a riot in the Temple courtyardduring a time when the city was overflowing with devout Jews all awaiting a fuse to be litwas unknown to Pilate? Surely the gospel writers weren't naïve enough to imagine no one would see through that crude bit of revisionism.
So was Jesus, then, simply another failed seditionist who was later deified? Was it all, in some strange (and, some might say, comical) way, all one big misunderstanding? That would be the simplest explanation but, I think, also the most simplistic, for it renders the entire gospel but one massive exercise in self-delusion and sloppy historical writing. Such, however, does a grave disservice to the quest for truth for in permitting Christianities' foes to dismiss the entire subject out of hand, it permits them to not deal with the underlying message of the entire narrative, which, in my opinion, is disingenuous and, to some degree, intellectually lazy. We must deal with the man at some point; ignoring everything he said is clearly not the way to achieve that. He said and did things and they must be examined, for they do have something to say to us. Whether we choose to listen or not is up to us, but we must not dismiss his words and deeds without a second thought.
So what of the claims Jesus made about himself? Clearly the most important words he spoke are those in which he claims divinity by referring to himself as the Son of God and even declaring himself the great "I am"a term no Jew could fail to understand as anything but blasphemous if spoken by a mere man. If he clearly made such a statement, this suggests there was far more to the man than a mere pretense of messiahship and the betrayed rebellion that went with it. Further, I think it a mistake to presume Jesus' statement about himself and his relationship to God be dismissed as purely religious invention. Whether they are verbatim statements or generalized variations on roughly what Jesus said I am undecided-probably it's a mixture of both-but there are some points to consider before one decides his statements of divine authority should be either dismissed or taken at face value.
First, it's curious that such claims are not clearly made until the gospel of John, written some seventy years after the man's death. They are only hinted at in Mark and Matthew, are more clearly suggested in Luke, but not finally stated unequivocally until John. Was Jesus' divinity not self-evident immediately, or is this a case of Jesus acquiring his divine stature progressively over the course of seven decades? Would this, in fact, not be precisely what we might expect were a man of flesh and blood eventually deified to complement the needs of his followers? The old canard that the fiercely monotheistic Jews would never have deified a mere man had they not been convinced of his divine nature fails to notice that by the time Jesus reached his full status as a god man, much of the original Jewish flavor of Christianity had vanished; it was a fully Hellenized, gentile church that greeted the incarnation (and with it, the virgin birth and resurrection) with open arms, for it was not such a foreign concept to them. In Christianity, are we looking at a Jewish sect that had been handed off to a Gentile world who promptly made it their own? Certainly the question needs to be asked.
Yet what if the Jews of the tiny sect known as Christianity did deify Jesus, though he be a mortal like themselves? To assume no Jew would ever do such a thingespecially considering their strict monotheistic understandingsis beside the point. They were mere human beings like ourselves who could be persuaded irrespective of their religious traditions. They may have been less likely to accept the idea that God could manifest in human form than their Greek colleagues of the day, but they were no less likely to accept the notion than a modern westerner would be today. No person, regardless of their religious (or, for that matter, scientific) beliefs would automatically assume divinity in a person or automatically discount it if presented with enough evidence. The Jews were no different in that respect and no less likely to deify a man than we are today. That doesn't prove that they did just that, of course, but the idea that ones Jewishness precluded even the possibility of doing so is untenable. People are people, be they Jew or Gentile.
That being said, it is nonsense to maintain that deification is common in history. It has happened, but it is not common. Even the emperors who either declared themselves (or were later declared) divine may have been worshipped, but it is unlikely few who bowed to their images really believed they were gazing into the visage of a real God. True deification is possible, of course, but it is largely reserved for martyred holy men and prophets. That's why the mantle of God could never stick to a Plato or a Socrates or even an Alexander the Great; such men were known and, as such, were understood to be mortal men. It was Jesus' relative anonymity that made his deification more likely; one is much more likely to assume greatness in a stranger than in their own in-law, regardless of how much either has accomplished.
Second is the question of what Jesus meant in declaring his own divinity. Even if we assume-for the sake of argument-that he actually uttered those words and that they are recorded accurately, what did he mean by them? Was he demonstrating that he was divine so that we might better understand that we were not? Was he maintaining his divinity to be unique and exceptional, or is there more to his message than we have considered up to now?
Perhaps if we read further on in John's gospel, we will find our answer. In the 17th chapter of John, Jesus is recorded as thanking God that the "Father is in him just as he is in the Father" (Jn. 17:21) and, even more extraordinary, that "he is in his followers, just as they are in him?" (Jn. 17:23) What can this mean if not that there is no difference between Jesus' divinity and our own? Can the ultimate blasphemy be that Jesus was not attempting to point us to his divinity, but point us instead to the divinity that resides within all of us? In other words, could Jesus have simply been pointing out the obvious; that he was divine, but no more or less divine than you or I? Imagine how Christianity and, indeed, civilization itself might have been different had this underlying message of Jesusonly partially successfully hidden from the written recordbeen understood and, more importantly, embraced by humanity. Jesus' message that we are all already little Christs would have changed the world, and it is why he was such a dangerous man; not to the Romans or even to the Pharisees of the era, but to the modern Christian of today. Jesus must be God made flesh in order for Christianity to survivea point even its adherents will freely admit.
Yes, I know he said that no one comes to the Father but through him, but what does that mean? Does that mean believe in his divinity and God will save you from eternal damnation, or believe in his message to realize the inherent divinitythe Fatherwithin? Do we worship the message, or the messenger? If the former, than we diminish the importance of Jesus; if the latter, then we diminish the importance of his message. After all, did not John the Baptist declare that he must diminish so that Jesus may flourish? Could the same not be said of Jesus?
Was Jesus' basic message that without recognizing our own inherent divinity-as well as the divinity of all men and women (and, for that matter, all life)we can never recognize the divine at all? Certainly the person who believes he has no musical skills will never sit down to the keyboard; belief must precede action, not the other way around. We must believe in our own divinity in order to find the greater divinity that permeates the entire universe. I can't personally think of a more dangerous belief than that, not only among the Jews of Jesus' day, but among the faithful today. I suspect if Jesus uttered those thoughts today, he would find himself crucified once again, not by the Romans for sedition or the Jewish authorities for blasphemy, but by the church for telling the truth.
We want Jesus to be uniquely divine and so we strive to make him as different from ourselves as possible. We deny him his humanity by insisting he enter the world through some supernatural process rather than through the natural process of two people in love so he might not soil his holy mantle; then we deny him the chance to leave this world through the natural and ageless process of death by inventing an empty tomb and a bodily resurrection so he might remain as divine as possible, all so we might keep him as a tangible symbol of the Divine that we might grasp on to. Have we taken a failed secessionist or a great moral crusader or even a miracle-working prophet and made him God Almighty specifically so we might get God into our lives, and is Jesus our bestand some might say, onlymeans of dragging him into it?
The point is that we create the symbols of the divine we require to sense the inherent divinity that resides within us. To a billion Christians Jesus is the way they interpret the divine; to the other five and a half billion of us, he is not necessary. There are other Gods and prophets and teachers that we can turn to-or no one at all, if we so desire. Some of us need Jesus. Some of us do not. That's simply the way it is.
But what of his miracles? Surely they demonstrate that Jesus was a very different sort of creature than we are. After all, we cannot produce miracles as he did, but if we are divine in the same way he was, shouldn't we be able to mimic his miraculous powers as well?
Actually, a careful reading of scripture suggests that very thing. Jesus tells us that it is "her faith" that made the woman with a permanent menstrual flow well (Mk.5:25-34), not "his faith" or "his power." It was the "lack of faith" of the people that prevented him from performing many miracle in his hometown (Mk. 6:4-6) and, conversely, the great faith of the Centurion (Lk. 7:2-10) and the Greek woman (Mk. 7:24-30) that permitted their servant and daughter to be made well. Doesn't this fairly scream out that Jesus' power to heal was not his, but ours? He was not performing the miracles; we were; a point he repeatedly tried to ram home by declaring that we would do "many more miracles than he did"and a point the church to this very day refuses to acknowledge. In effect, then, Jesus was attempting to minimize the differences between himself and ourselves, not emphasis them. He wanted us to be like him in every way. To love as he did, care as he did, heal as he did, be as he was. That was the underlying message of his teaching that has long since been usurped by efforts to emphasis his uniqueness and differences from ourselves. The only difference between Jesus of Nazareth and ourselves is that he understood that divinity resides within all life and his listeners did not (and most still do not today.)
So that takes us back to our original question as to whether Christianity is true. From what I've said, it certainly doesn't sound as if it is. In fact, it sounds like Jesus remains just one more option in a smorgasbord of spiritual dishes, with which delicacies we choose to partake in dependent upon our personal preferences, and in a way, that is correct; Christianity is, I believe, but one tool of the divine, and I remain convinced that was Jesus' true message, buried as it was beneath multiple layers of dogma and tradition.
But does that make it untrue? Not if we understand truth to be something that can and frequently does exist outside the context of history and the physical confines of time and matter. If Jesus' underlying message was that God is ubiquitous and self-realized, then the "facts" of his recorded ministry become irrelevant. In effect, Christianity does not have to be literally true to be figuratively true, and perhaps in that we find its real value; not as recorded history and innerant teachings, but as a means of recognizing the underlying potential of spirit that animates the entire universe and, most of all, the human heart. In that respect, it remains as "true" as anything can be and, in fact, far truer than much of what passes for truth nowadays.
was a messenger of timeless and ageless wisdom, and in him we find ourselves.
There is no greater truth.
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