Quodlibet: Good without God?


Being good is not the same as being ethical, or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life.

Let me begin with two stories. The first comes from Voltaire, who is reported to have said to his mistress, Marguerite, “Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.”

Another, told by the writer Diderot in the 18th century, is about the journey of Catholic missionaries to Tahiti–a dialogue between a chief named Orou and a priest, who tries to explain the concept of sin.

Orou says that many of the things Europeans find sinful are sources of pride in his island.

He doesn’t understand the idea of adultery, since in his culture generosity and sharing are virtues. Marriage to a single man or woman is unnatural and selfish. And surely there can be nothing wrong with being naked and enjoying sexual pleasure for its own sake—otherwise, why do our bodies exist. The horrified priest delivers a long sermon on Christian beliefs, and ends by saying,

“And now that I have explained the laws of our religion, you must do everything to please God and to avoid the pains of hell.”

Orou says, “You mean, when I was ignorant of these commandments, I was innocent, but now that I know them, I am a guilty sinner who might go to hell.”

“Exactly,” the priest says.

“Then why did you tell me?” says Orou.


These stories indicate a couple of things about the relationship between religion and morality—or more precisely, the belief that God is the source of morality. The first story suggests that belief in God is “dissuasive.” By that I mean, religion is seen as a way of preventing certain kinds of actions that we would do if we believed there was no God. The kind of God religious people normally think of in this case is the Old Testament God, or the God who gives rules and expects them to be obeyed.

Not all religious people believe these rules were given by God to Moses or Muhammad directly, but most would agree that it’s a good idea, in general, not to steal, commit adultery, hate your neighbor (or envy his possessions obsessively), or kill other people. For at least a thousand years busy theologians have tried to put these essentially negative rules into more positive form: for example, by saying that people should act out of love for each other, or love of God, and not out of fear. Most Christians would say this is the essential difference between the laws of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the New. But they are only partly right. Both books of the Bible and all of the Qur’an emphasize fear of God, judgment, and the rewards and punishments of the hereafter as goads to repentance, leading a better life, giving up your rotten ways. Even the books of the Bible that are tainted with Greek thought—like the Book of Proverbs–emphasize that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So it’s mischievous to say that fear and trembling aren’t used for moral leverage throughout the Bible.

Modern Christians, Jews, and the Muslims who focus on God’s compassion and mercy, are required to ignore a whole cartload of passages where God reminds people, like any ancient father (and not a few modern mothers), that his patience is wearing thin. Jeremiah 5:22 (NIV) “’Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?’” The answer is a deafening: “Yes.” Remember the flood? Remember the first born sons of the Egyptians? Remember the plagues and famines? Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? You love this God because you ignore his commandments at your peril. He has chosen you; you have not chosen him, and he can withdraw his favor whenever he wants. (As Jackie Mason used to say, you look at Israel and you have to wonder if “maybe the Samoans aren’t the chosen people”).

The theme of the oldest books of the Bible is very plain: God “loves” (more precisely, he watches out for) the ones who keep his commandments and punishes those who don’t. — A simple message that theology has had two thousand years to massage. In fact, the New Testament belongs to the history of that massaging process. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first spin doctors–re-writing the script, transforming Yahweh into a compassionate conservative. But let’s be clear that the hero of the story is a typical Near Eastern tyrant: powerful, vengeful, jealous by his own admission, proprietary (“His is the world and all that dwells within”), and though slow to anger, fearsome when his wrath is provoked, watchful to point of being sleep- deprived (Ps 121.4). There is no unconditional love here. God is not a model for progressive parenting; he’s not interested in the self-esteem of his people, has not read Dr Wayne Dyer, and will not break down weeping on Oprah! for being compulsive. The message of God the Father is, “Do this or else.”

A larger question posed by Voltaire’s little story is whether the motivation of fear is ever ethical. If you do something because there is a threat of pain and suffering if you don’t, or if you hold off doing something you would really like to do—for the same reason—are you being moral?

What Voltaire is really saying—as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud would later say—is that religion is useful for keeping certain kinds of people in line. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- century European society could be neatly divided into those who knew better and those who served the ones who did. Marx went so far as to suggest that the social deference the moneyed classes paid to religion was simply intended to convince the lower classes that religion is true—in fact, that’s exactly what Voltaire is saying: Religion is a mechanism used by the knowledgeable to keep the unknowledgeable in their place. It has social advantages—Marx’s Jewish father conveniently “converted” from Judaism to the Prussian State Church in order to go on working as a lawyer. And we all know the younger Marx’s most famous verdict on the topic: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

What’s missing from this critique, of course, is the question of whether a “religious act” can ever be a “moral act.” Clearly, belief in God (or a specific kind of God) provides behavioral incentives. As a system of control based on fear, religion keeps people from “being bad,” or at least doing things considered bad by the controller. But it does this inefficiently. Clearly it offers people an explanation for why they behave in certain ways, ranging from the “Bible tells me so” to “Papa dixit”—the pope says so. As a means of consolation, it teaches people to deal with the fear and insecurity created by oppression. But it does this at the expense of self-fulfillment, wholeness. It is the security of an abusive relationship, where comfort consists in being able to predict and manipulate eruptions of violence. In fact, to look back to the sacrificial origins of religion, this was precisely its social role. Even the story of the crucifixion, which many people believe is all about love and forgiveness, is the story of a God so angry at the sinful imperfections of humanity that he transfers his violence to his only son, who becomes the redemptive victim—the buy-back price—for sins he didn’t commit.

Let’s call this religious approach to behavior “Being Good.” Being good is not the same as being ethical or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life. It’s a mother wagging an imperative finger at a three year old and saying “You’d better be good.” It always involves threat and reward. Two generations ago, the image would have included threats of belts or woodsheds spankings, going to bed without dinner. I guess, unfortunately, in some places it still does. But you don’t get ethics out of this. You get obedience and submission.


What about Diderot’s story about the missionary and the tribal chief? If the story about Voltaire suggests that religion is dissuasive and coercive, Diderot’s suggests another reason why religion doesn’t sit well with ethics: Religion is prescriptive, and like politics, it’s local. In 2000 years of massaging the message, it has changed because we have changed our minds. Most of the biblical rules about property, goods and chattels, adultery and incest were typical throughout the Middle East; in fact, as Freud recognized, the taboos against murder and incest are the earliest form of laws in some tribal societies. But the books we call the basis of the “Judaeo-Christian -ethic” weren’t written by tribes—tribes don’t write. And the body of laws we call the Ten Commandments contain lots of rules that have been quietly put in trunks and sent to the attic.

For example, we all applaud the wisdom of the commandment that says, “Honor your father and your mother.” It has a nice ring, especially during school vacations. But Deuteronomy 21.20 says that disobedient sons should be stoned in front of the elders at the gates of the city. And Exodus 21.17 says that anyone who insults his mother and father shall be put to death. As for adultery, which belongs to ancient property law in the Jewish system, the punishment is stoning—normally only for the woman (Deut. 22.21). In Deut. 22.28, the penalty for raping an unbetrothed virgin is a fine of 50 shekels–plus taking her on as a wife. There are laws protecting the rights of the firstborn sons of unloved wives when a man has several wives (Deut. 21.15) and even laws about how long a Jewish warrior must wait (one month) before he can have intercourse with a woman he has captured in battle (21.10). According to Leviticus 19.23, raping another man’s female slave is punishable by making an offering to the priest, who is required to forgive him. There are laws covering how long you can keep a Hebrew male-slave—6 years—but if you sell your daughter as a slave to another man she cannot be freed, unless after the master has had sex with her he finds her “unpleasing”—in which case she can be put up for sale (ransom) (Exodus 21. 7ff.). On it goes—throughout the books of the Torah—the Law.

The sheer ferocity of the God who gives, or rather shouts these commandments to his chosen people is distant from our time. The voice is unfamiliar: Failure to do what he says results in terror: In fact, that’s the very word he uses: “I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease, recurring fever, plagues that will blind you….those that hate you will hound you until there is no place to run; I will multiply your calamities seven times more than your sins deserve. … I will send wild beasts among you and they will tear your children from you. … If you defy me , I will scourge you seven times over. …I will send pestilence …cut short your daily bread, until ten women can bake your bread in a single oven. … I will punish you seven times over. … Instead of meat, you shall eat your sons and your daughters.” Don’t take my word for it: read Leviticus 26. It has literary flair. The God of the Old Testament is a three dimensional figure—far bigger than Zeus and twice as malignant. (Perhaps Zeus was able to give freer rein to his sexual appetites, whereas Yahweh limits himself to one Galilean virgin?) And look though you may, you will not find these laws “repealed” in later books, at least not in the way modern laws can be amended and repealed. But it’s absolutely certain that anyone who tried to obey these laws in twentieth century Europe or America would be slapped into jail, and the defense “The Bible told me so” would not be an adequate defense. –Try posting these commandments above the blackboard in your neighborhood school.

One way of charting the so-called progress of western civilization is to trace how human values eventually triumph over the ferocity of religious law. The kind of morality that Diderot’s priest represents, like the morality of the Bible, and even the reductionist versions of biblical and Quranic teaching that modern religious denominations espouse, is not ethics. It is not ethics because ethics can’t be grounded in what I’m going to call “irrelative prescriptive dissuasion.” If you say to me, “Well: no one believes these things any more,” then I say “Good for us for not believing. Then time to stop letting the Bible be the source of moral authority when the conduct of its hero is not up to our standards of civil behavior.” If you say, “There is great wisdom and poetry in scripture,” then I say “Please then, let’s treat it like other great books that express ideas, customs, and values that have no authority over how we lead our lives.” I have no quarrel with those who want to appreciate the Bible as a product of its own time and culture—with all the conditions that attach to appreciation of that kind. My quarrel is with people who want to make it a document for our time and culture.

And I suppose my quarrel extends to people who consider themselves experts, when what they are expert in is reading around, into, or past the text. Liberal theologians are immensely gifted at reinventing the God of the Bible in the light of modern social concerns. But the project is a literary–not an ethical one. At another extreme, which is really a false opposite, are the fundamentalists who claim to defend the literal truth of the Bible while ignoring two-thirds of the text and focusing on the “literal” truth of bits and pieces.

Can the Bible make you good? If you accept the framework, beginning with Adam and Eve, and the creation of a race doomed to be perpetually three years-old and scolded into obedience, I suppose it can.

Reduced to basic form, the temptation in the Garden of Eden is a story about a cookie jar and a sly, accusing mother. But it takes more than avoiding mousetraps for a choice to be moral or an action to be ethical. A moral act is one in which you can entertain doubt freely, where a person confronts human choices and human consequences, personal and social.

To be fair: the Bible and its cousins are important records of those human choices and their social consequences, coming from an age which is no longer relevant to us. To make it a book for our time is an abuse of the book and a misunderstanding of its importance. More depressingly for some, perhaps, there will probably be no book to replace it. Not even one by a secular humanist. But there will be wisdom, and reason and choice-making, and that will make us humanly better, if not exactly good.

Looking for Islam in a Funny World

A couple of years ago I made the offhanded remark in an article that the real problem with religious extremists is that they hate sport and jokes. Nothing has more agitated good-natured Muslims recently than the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009, and the subsequent ostracism of Pakistani cricket at an international level.

If you want to fuel the fires of terrorism, take away footballs and cricket bats and ask sixteen year olds to find something else to do with their spare time.

The last sentence was an example of irony, the kind that is wasted on religious zealots, because they hate humour more than they hate sports. Both (they think) are Unislamic. They seem to rely on an unfamiliar hadith that proves the Prophet never played football and never smiled. Historically, those who have thought religion was a serious business have not thought that life was a funny business. Frowns and smiles, after all, are symbols of two approaches to the human predicament. Am I right in thinking that the standard image of the Muslim, at least the gun-toting sort, is symbolized increasingly by the disapproving frown.

Humour as a means of stress-relief is a structured activity.The joke is its highest form, and the self-deprecating joke, whose payoff depends on a religious or ethnic punchline (Yiddish, “zinger”) made at the teller’s expense, is the most sophisticated level of the highest form. Generally speaking, in the hierarchy of humour, protestants of the Calvinist persuasion aren’t good at it. Catholics are, Jews are better, and Muslims–well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

The first recorded instance of the religious joke (if Genesis 2-3 isn’t a long one) is the tall tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt–a story so good it’s told three times, the last with Isaac and Rachel in the starring roles. It’s a cruelty joke, but the punchline is uproarious: You can almost hear the set-up from three thousand years ago:

Did you hear the one about Abraham and Sarah in Egypt? No? Abraham and Sarah are going to Egypt. Abraham says to Sarah, let’s tell Pharaoh you’re my sister, not my wife. He’ll say, “What do you want for her,” I’ll say, ” What do think is a fair price?” When I’ve got the goods, I’ll tell him the truth, he’ll have to let you go, and we’ll be rich.” Sarah says, “But won’t he be angry?” “That’s the best part,” Abraham says. “He’ll be so busy dealing with the plagues God’s going to send that it won’t matter.” (Genesis 12.10-20, 20.1-18; 26.6-9).

It’s all there: the wandering Jew, the deceit and cunning, the greed, and the punchline. Never mind that Pharaoh doesn’t do anything wrong. These are chosen-people-times. Pharaoh is a Putz who can ess drek und shtarbn. In fact the whole story is funnier in Yiddish.

Three thousand years later, the evolved form is this: A rabbi is driving down the street when he crashes into a car driven by a priest. Both cars are wrecked but amazingly neither driver is hurt. After they crawl out of their cars, the rabbi sees the priest’s collar and says, “So you’re a priest. I’m a rabbi. Just look at our cars. There’s nothing left, but we are unhurt. This must be a sign from God. God must have meant that we should meet and be friends and live together in peace the rest of our days.” The priest says, “I agree with you completely. This must be a sign from God.” The rabbi continues, “And look at this. Here’s another miracle. My car is completely demolished but this bottle of wine didn’t break. Surely God wants us to drink this wine and celebrate our shared good fortune.” So he opens the bottle and hands it to the priest. The priest thanks him, takes a drink, and tries to give the bottle back. But the rabbi politely urges him to have another drink, so the priest takes another. Then he tries to give the bottle back again, but the rabbi shakes his head. The priest asks, “Aren’t you having any?” The rabbi says, “No, I’ll just wait for the police.”

The two-thousand -year history of mordant humour even reaches into the death camps–on both the Jewish and the Catholic side: A Catholic priest, a homosexual and a Jew are scheduled to be executed at Auschwitz–a privilege only given to distinguished “guests.” They are asked what they want to have for their last meal. The priest asks for filet mignon, eats it, and is taken away. The homosexual asks for a ham sandwich, eats it, and is taken away for execution. The Jew asks for a plate of strawberries. The guards tell him strawberries are out of season. “So, I’ll wait.”

In July 1944 Father Josef Möller was sentenced to hang by a Nazi court for “one of the most vile and dangerous attacks directed at our confidence in our Führer.” The priest had told two parishioners this joke. “A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant a final wish: ‘Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side–that way I can die like Jesus–between two thieves.’” If Jews can laugh at what is arguably the bitterest moment of their religious history, why are Muslims not producing any good Taliban jokes, because only if people who take themselves murderously seriously can be shown to be as ridiculous as the rest of humanity is there any hope of accepting them into the human race. No, I don’t expect the Taliban to write jokes in the privacy of their caves. But I don’t see other Muslims answering the call to satire either.

If there were an official litany of comedians who are good at self-mockery and religious satire dozens of names would leap to mind. On the Jewish side, Groucho, Milton Berle, Alan King, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Lenny Bruce, John Stewart, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld. An embarrassment of comic riches. With a little more struggle we can add the names of Catholic wits–Steve Allen, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Kathleen Madigan, Dennis Miller, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Maher. But the subject was Muslim humor. Start with a joke which makes the rounds in Middle Eastern comedy clubs:

A man is taking a walk in Central park in New York. Suddenly he sees a little girl being attacked by a pit bull dog . He runs over and starts fighting with the dog. He succeeds in killing the dog and saving the girl’s life. A policeman who was watching the scene walks over and says: “You are a hero, tomorrow you can read it in all the newspapers: “Brave New Yorker saves the life of little girl” The man says: – “But I am not a New Yorker!” “Oh, then it will say in newspapers in the morning: ‘Brave American saves life of little girl’” – the policeman answers. “But I am not an American!” – says the man. “Oh, what are you then? ” The man says: – “I am Pakistani.” The next day the newspaper says: “Islamic extremist kills innocent American dog.”

First of all, this is not funny. It rates the same on the comedy scale as Borat’s attempt to learn how to be a stand-up comedian. Not. Second, the humour is not self-deprecating. It’s derisive, a sort of failed lampoon of western views of Muslims. Third, it’s violent. Never kill dogs in jokes if you can just throw a rock. The conclusion is: there is not much humor in the Muslim world, not much that would cause fits of hysterical laughter, and what there is is either clearly derivative or not very funny. Why is this so?

Start with the point that the Quran does not contain many stories. This is not a criticism but a fact: it arises out of an oral tradition in which hundreds of stories circulating widely and familiarly among Jews and Christians of the Middle East were also familiar to Muhammad and the brethren. There was no need to repeat them unless corrections to certain bits were being made, as sometimes happened. But the general habit in the Quran is that a simple mention or allusion is worth a thousand words. For example, the story of Noah (Nuh) in the Koran (surah 71) contains almost none of the details of the Genesis 6-8 account, but simply assumes that the story is known and accepted–torrents of rain and drowning unbelievers are mentioned–the serious stuff. But no mountains, boats, animal-pairs, doves, no postdiluvian drink-fest. The fun stuff. Not that the Arabs weren’t good story-tellers (you don’t survive the ways of the desert without entertainment), but it is not a significant feature of the Quranic tradition. Second, as I already said, religion is a serious business. Maybe if the Jews had spent less time laughing they would have listened to God more carefully. No wonder they drowned.

But anti-comedy goes deeper than that in Muslim culture. The eighth century caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azeez warned, “Fear joking, for it is folly and generates grudges.” The basic criticism of jokes and joking is that it is foolish, leads to hurt feelings within the ummah, wastes time that could be devoted to serious study, and “hardens the heart against Allah.” Joking is not quite sin, but it is a misuse of leisure and makes the joker appear frivolous and (frankly) not too smart. Islam developed as a religion that depended on chains of authority. So it no surprise that there is a chain of authorities (beginning with Abd al-Azeez) regarding jokes. In a famous hadith, preserved by Fath al-Baari the Prophet is said to have said: “If you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much.” al-Barri explains:“What is meant by ‘knowing’ here has to do with the might of Allah and His vengeance upon those who disobey Him, and the terrors that occur at death, in the grave and on the Day of Resurrection.”

Don’t even smile. Judgment is no laughing matter, which is why in the Middle Ages, when Catholics still believed in it, there were very few jokes, and why in the twentieth century when many fundamentalist Christians still believe in it, there are very few jokes. The louder you laugh, the less likely you are to hear the summoning trumpet. The big joke is on the people who miss the wake up call. Plenty of time to laugh then.

The Quran was especially fond of “warners”–which is why the stories of Noah and Jonah (Surah 21 and 37) are both preserved. There is also, with due seriousness, a strong emphasis on destruction or judgment stories like Sodom and Gomorrah (Quran, surahs 57-77) and the killing of Korah (Numbers 16-21; Quran 76-82). Another hadith records the Prophet saying, “Do not laugh too much, for laughing too much deadens the heart.” (Saheeh al-Jaami’, 7312). In other words, laughter develops a certain callousness–and leads one to disrespect himself and to lose face due to the perception that a man is puerile and jejune (Umar ibn al-Khattaabith).

There have been loads of psychological studies showing that the morphology of humor is related to the morphology of cruelty, so there is wisdom in some of this. But there is little recognition that laughter also serves as a coping mechanism, locates the source of otherwise incomprehensible injustice not just in what “other people” think about Catholics, Jews and Muslims, but in the images they have projected of themselves, their customs, and their beliefs. The Muslim tradition of “satire” lampoons (as far as I can tell) other people’s images of Muslims. Creating images from within the tradition that can then be satirized–images that can be the targets of wordplay, self-ridicule and irony–that has not happened on a large scale.

Maybe some of the problem has to do with proportion. Islam is a very big religion (1627.61 million), getting bigger, and wants to be taken seriously. The momentum of history seems to be on the side of its rather grim view of human destiny and purpose. The religions that have developed a strong tradition of self-mockery are not flourishing. Judaism is a very small religion (ca. 14,000,000), growing smaller through attrition and assimilation, historically and culturally important far beyond the numbers of Jews alive today, or in any era. True, religious Jews take a very serious view of history as well (and something tells me do not joke very much), but in general Jews have told jokes because they have a different view of success and of destiny.

A perfectly respectable Islamic website states this: “Nowadays, although the ummah needs to increase the love between its individual members and to relieve itself of boredom, it has gone too far with regard to relaxation, laughter and jokes. This has become a habit which fills their gatherings and wastes their time, so their lives are wasted and their newspapers are filled with jokes and trivia.”

There may be a reason why Islam, along with some small sectors of Christianity and Judaism, still regard salvation as a humorless business. It’s a matter of how seriously you take God. The Seinfelds, Woody Allens and Bill Mahers of this world don’t. And in a presumptively secular world where even “religious” people don’t take heaven, hell and judgement as dinner table topics, they are fit matter for jokes. No amount of persuasion is going to convince a religious citizen of the post-religious world otherwise. Even comedians who consider themselves religious can’t let religion or their religious eccentricities off the hook.

In his gentler days, George Carlin used to ponder out loud that Catholic cheerleaders had to be smarter than other cheerleaders, “because they have to be able to spell Immaculate Conception High School.” Jackie Mason asks if people realize it was Jews who invented sushi. “Who else,” he asks, “would buy a restaurant with no kitchen?”

The failure of Islam to produce a comic tradition–there is pantomime and unbearably dumb slapstick in the Muslim world, most of it so broad it can’t have amused its creators–may seem a small thing. But I think that the anti-laughter culture of Islam is a significant thing. It bespeaks a mindset that leads to beheadings, public floggings, the stoning of “miscreants,” It comes from the same place that the torching of girls’ schools and video stores comes from. The high seriousness of Islamic doctrine is the public declaration of religious exceptionalism. Only rarely–among the medieval flagellates and the New England puritans– has laughter been outlawed and the sources of laughter been regarded as satanic. In both cases, history and contact with corrective forms of the Christian religion had a leavening effect on the morbid fear of fun. I do not hear that conversation happening in Islam, not yet. For it to happen, however, Muslims who want to see a healthy, this-worldly, socially engaged Islam need to do something, as Eric Idle intones in The Life of Brian as he’s being crucified: “Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Quodlibet: The Jesus Project

jesusWhat can you say about a thirty-three year old Jew who died.  History suggests, a lot.  The Jesus Project, previewed here, isn’t so sure.

Even before the Jesus Project had resolved itself into a critical mass of scholars with ideas, goals, and vision, bloggers of various persuasions pronounced its fate. It was quickly bloggled into one of three things: More of the Same Old Thing, A Radically New Thing, or a Thing that Wouldn’t Make a Difference whether old or new. To chop these positions finely: the first group consisted of apologists—those who believed that the questions proposed by TJP, or their formulation was impertinent, so were happy to declare the question dead at asking; but also of skeptics who had seen the grunts and groans and fissiparation of previous quests and seminars and were skeptical that anything really new would come from another set of scholarly calisthenics. The second group, which might have included me but didn’t, was giddy at the prospect that stalwart scholars were going to blast the timidity of the Jesus Seminar when it came to the edge of the Big Question, and march on to Baghdad, if the analogy between Gulf I and Iraq isn’t an inappropriate one.

I was not the inventor of the preposterous slogan “What if the Most Influential Man in Human History Never Lived?” but I should have been its destroyer. I was however the “creator” of the suggestion that the non-historicity of Jesus is a testable hypothesis and can no longer be ignored and I still believe it. The second group also included, along with people who wanted to ventilate their “myth theories” in a serious forum, many who were interested in the formative power of myth in the creation of social groups and religious movements. The third group, mainly post-Christian and post religious skeptics wondered why in the twenty-first century anyone would worry about such an issue: whatever motives underlay the founding of TJP they were not (surely) as important as such pressing matters as getting God out of the Pledge and getting evolution back into the schools. For two years seriously concerned people wrote, emailed and phoned asking whether I had nothing better to do with my time.

In this space, I want briefly to address each of these positions directly—not to put straight a record that has not yet been written, but to alert both scholars and onlookers that we have everything to gain from confronting our critics as well as our theories. TJP was never construed as a sequel to the Jesus Seminar. (I have now written that sentence eight times in different places.) That has not prevented linkages in the press of the “Mars-is-to-Earth …”variety. It did not begin as a corrective or a replacement to the Jesus Seminar.   I recently wrote that the Seminar asked some of the wrong questions in the wrong order, skated past others, and that to accept any critique of TJP methodology, as it evolves, from a seminar whose own methods were often seen as risible would be–risible. Hence without being dismissive of the Seminar Jeremiahs who’ve been there, done that, TJP cannot proceed without an evaluation of what the Seminar accomplished, failed to accomplish, and the reasons for its performance. While I take the term “scientific” as it is used in the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion both cum grano salis and in its most German sense as “scholarly,” it’s my impression that all of those so far associated with the project take “scholarship” very seriously indeed and want this to be, at the very least, a faith-free process. My colleague April Deconick has recently offered her own superb assessment of the Seminar in a blog-series called “The Jesus Seminar Jesus is Bankrupt” (http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/).

Critique is always a postmortem enterprise, and I believe the post-mortem has begun. From what has been said above, it follows that the other part of the category who see the JP as a rehash of the Seminar, the apologists, need to look again. There are certainly associates who hold to a “myth theory,” and there are others who hold to a non-super-naturalist or radical historicist position. There are textualists who believe that a careful and positivistic reading of canonical sources will provide more information than a “fuller” view of Christian origins, and others who believe that there is only a notional difference between what canonical and non-canonical sources have to offer. There are advocates of Matthew Black’s famous view that we need to get behind the text to an Aramaic context to understand what it going on in the translations (if that’s what they are) we possess, and others who think a Galilean folk hero has been inserted into a Greek myth. Obviously that degree of non-unanimity is discomfiting to those who think the New Testament is self-authenticating text without context, but it can hardly be seen as business as usual to invite a free and open discussion of these positions knowing that they cannot all be right.

As to the idea that TJP is “radically new,” let me be the first to say calm down. There has been nothing “radically”—that is, theological-foundation-shatteringly—new in this area since Strauss, and almost no one reads Strauss anymore. Even if they did he’s virtually impenetrable without reading the heroic Hegel first. There has been, to be sure, a great deal of jockeying to say something radically new, as though Jesus-research is no different from looking for a new isotope.  At a certain point in contemporary New Testament scholarship the quest to be the puzzle-solver largely replaced the quest for the historical Jesus—another caution we can take from the Seminar. In a culture of celebrity, the slow pace of scholarship is painful; in a dozen interviews about TJP, the first question, almost without fail, is “What are you people trying to prove?” or “What’s the conclusion?” Presumably, if I had said that we had stumbled on impressive information that, prior to his ascension Jesus gave to James the instructions for making a camera, and that we now had photographic proof of the event, they would have hung up. But if I say that new papyrus discoveries, combined with some pretty impressive canonical clues, substantiate the claim that the followers of Jesus were a first century gay alliance, they become more interested. Reporters will call you back.

As a matter of fact, TJP needs to be new, but new also in eschewing sensationalism and exhibiting a certain lack of intellectual concupiscence as we trudge on. It is not enough to be “non-theological” since what is not theological is not eo ipso “right”; the Project also needs to be bold enough to say that some conclusions will be out of its reach, either for lack of evidence or lack of measurement. Again, the analogy is the sciences. There is nothing about the world of the twentieth century (save global warming) that is physically different from the world of Thomas Aquinas’s day. Our mode of describing the same things about that world has changed dramatically, however, and with it our understanding of how life evolved and human beings assumed their place on the planet. There is nothing in the nature of old evidence that cannot provide better understanding if the right methods of description are developed. TJP, if it is new, will be new to that extent.

And finally to the indifferent, the skeptics-with-portfolio (as distinct from the “detractors” in group one). The question “What does it matter?” is a fair question. It’s a sort of distaff to the view that Jesus matters as a self-evident proposition—matters to the life of faith, to the heart, or, as a moral teacher, to our conduct—not just the necessary presupposition of the movement that bears his title, but as the centerpiece to the religious life. The slogan “What if [he] had never lived” was somewhat bluffly and mistakenly directed at them, as though the sole legitimating reason for the Project is to disabuse religious men and women of their beliefs. Yet why would a Jesus who “did not exist” be of more value to unbelievers than a Jesus who existed in the “ordinary” way and died in an ordinary way? And why would religious folk be troubled by any conclusion reached by any group with such a siloistic objective? That Jesus matters in one sense is a statement of faith, therefore he cannot matter historically anymore than any other event can matter. It is not legitimate to read back into his original story, whatever that may have been and however it may have evolved, a significance that was three hundred years in the canonical and doctrinal making and millennia in the revising. It seems to me that women and men who have decided that most historical questions have no bearing on the meaning and purpose of life are dead right. That disjunct will have to be acknowledged and almost all scholars do acknowledge it today. But to say that “Jesus does not matter” is a different sort of statement and strikes me as immensely uncurious if not downright tiresome. Does it mean that the question itself is uninteresting because the asker has decided that religion, being bogus anyway, causes us to indulge in inherently silly pastimes? Or does it mean that the question lacks what Aristotle called “Magnitude”—greatness—as might be claimed, for example, for the question of the origins of the universe, or human life, or language? I have to say that people who have asked me the question seem shocked when I ask them why they are asking it. As if to say, “You seem like an intelligent man; why don’t you know the answer yourself?” But it seems to me that intellectual curiosity cuts in two ways, and that people need to be able to say why they are bored by something as much as why they are intrigued by it. As you may gather, from this little discursus, my sense is that the people in group three are displaying hostility rather than boredom. I remember telling my mother once that I was working on a research paper on the history of Christian marriage and had become fascinated with how relatively late the Church decided to ecclesize nuptial arrangements. Her immediate “Catholic” response was that such inquiries are better left to bachelors and maidens and she hoped that I wouldn’t publish the paper. That kind of hostility.

As to magnitude, I think it has to be said that the “big questions” are always etiological and hence always to a certain extent historical; where things come from matters, and without subscribing to historicist or originalist positions, I would find it odd to maintain that the origins of a religion—any religion—are not at least as deserving of investigation as the origins of the English language or the trans-Asian migrations of the early Americans. Some things are worth knowing not because they are matters of fact or de coeur, but because they have achieved magnitude by assent or influence. I would regard it as more informative to know why the “question” of Jesus is not interesting than to explain its interest. And so to “knowledge.”

TJP might begin where Descartes did in 1637 with the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason. Those who have kept their sophomore philosophy anthology on the shelf will remember that Descartes had professed “perfect confidence” in the ability of reason to achieve knowledge. His own “project” involved a preparation which he compared to the architectural destruction of a whole town. Towns, he recalled, had not developed “rationally” but in fits and starts creating a chaos of a landscape. This he compared to the state of knowledge in the seventeenth century, heavily dependent on everything that had come before, when nothing that had come before achieved the systematic standard he set for himself. “We must begin,” he wrote, by “deliberately renouncing all of the firmly held but questionable beliefs we have acquired through experience and education.” And as we know, while Descartes was not occupied with the question of scripture, having learned a thing or two from Galileo’s fate, he was immensely interested in the question of God.

No one who lives in a post-Enlightenment and postmodern world can believe that Descartes fulfilled even his own hubristic agenda, but he did provide a “method” that TJP might consider (and is considering) as it moves along. In his seminal Book III, the philosopher proposes that a proper investigation should always include four parts:

1. “To accept as true what is indubitable.” That is to say, ascertain to the extent possible what is factual, and what is based only on the prestige of authority. This requires a method within the method. No other field of investigation is so authority-laden as Jesus-research. Thus the question has to be, ‘what sort of authority is it and does it have bearing on the kind of investigation TJP wants to be?’ Do scholars in Christian origins regard anything beyond the mere fact of early Christian literature and aspects of its context as “indubitable”?

2. “Divide every question into manageable parts.” This seems self-evident, but it has not been the pattern of previous investigations. Neither the question “Did Jesus exist?” nor “What did he ‘really’ say?” was manageable. Formulating the sub-questions and prior questions is likely to be a painstaking business. If it is not done systematically and in a free and open debate, the Project may as well disband now.

3. “Begin with the simplest issues and ascend to the more complex.” It seems to me that this is the one step we have a grip on—the early reports came from communities. Their historicity cannot be doubted. That is a simple fact. These communities were called into existence by an event or sequence of events, the precise nature of which scholarship has spent over two centuries trying to reconstruct. I do not think those reconstructions, from the most radical to the most “traditional,” can escape our scrutiny. The road from simplicity to complexity cannot be shortcut by an appeal to the sanctity of consensus. The scientific nature of TJP is on trial precisely at this point; can we be as iconoclastic and skeptical as the Cartesian method requires us to be or do we look for safe havens in the competing correctnesses of our educational or political investments?

4. “Review the process consistently, so that the objectives of the process (the “argument”) is always in view.” The “argument,” it follows, should not be a conclusion, a favorite hypothesis, an agenda. What Virgil says of “Rumour” (Aeneid, IV, 173) can be applied here to “Reputation.” It flies aloft, moves with a strength of its own—threatens every collaboration, and it threatens this one. The ability to keep an objective in view derives from the successful execution of steps one through three. The Seminar evoked attrition because it lost sight of an objective and became a cloud of unknowing rather than a cloud of witnesses. It is important that TJP does not become a sounding board for private or exotic fantasies about Who Jesus Really Was

In short, TJP must not become an opportunity for its members to proselytize others to their point of view. Above all, Descartes understood the importance of deconstruction, landscape, and using precise measures for “what is known.” His naïve faith in certainty comes to us from a different world, with a different sense of “measurability” and expectation of success. But I submit the process still has on its side simplicity and intellectual candor, and that is what I personally would like TJP to display.

Quodlibet: Religious Minimalism


I recently became associated, if that is not saying too much, with a band of reprobates called the Biblical Minimalists. Some have called it a “school.” In fact, it is at least one classroom and a belfry short of being any such thing. Its premises are wobbly, its methods diffuse, and its conclusions so weak that members will drink to almost anything that seems controversial.

Tell a minimalist the ostracon of Joseph of Arimathea has been found with a note saying “Gone Fishing” and he will titter. Tell them that someone misplaced Nazareth on the map of the Roman empire and they will say, ‘”So that’s where it’s gone to.” Tell them that Joshua not only did not fit the battle of Jericho but probably would have found it in ruins, if he lived to find it in any condition, which is highly doubtful, and they will swoon. And toast you.

Biblical minimalists, you see, are skeptics first and unorthodox second. They feel that insufficient, faith-based archaeology and a commitment to an older, theologically-charged school of biblical studies has multiplied the number of “safe conclusions” you can achieve in the history of the biblical record beyond a tolerable level. No self-respecting minimalist will tell you what the right level would be, but most would agree it has been exceeded.

Thus, avoiding creed and allegiance, they (we?) are bound to the principle of non-multiplication of unsupported details. In a word minimalism. Show us your Solomon, divulge your David, pony up your prophets. Can’t do it? You burned.

No, this is not a group of flakes who think the Bible was written during a Jewish layover in Babylon by a group of unemployed scribes. (On the other hand, don’t rule it out). It is a group that asks for consistency in method as between the study of biblical documents and other areas of ancient and classical study where conclusions are not anchored in a two thousand year history of assuming the documents inscrutable except through the eyes of faith. On the other hand, there is no bugle call to fight the forces of faith. Its proponents, strangely enough headquartered at the University of Copenhagen and at the University of Sheffield take themselves far too unseriously to be militant. Battles are fought on Facebook, where recipes are also exchanged. Meetings are not held, per se, or if they are no one has invited me.

This brings me to Religious Minimalism. I suspect there is a “movement” out there by that name. I refused to Google it because I want to think of this as my idea and to discover it is really someone else’s would have a depressing effect–thus no blog. So let us assume this is my idea, even if there is a posted reference to a substantial movement by the same name that started in 2001.

The problem with religion, it seems to me, is that by its nature it becomes more and more specific. The accumulation of doctrines in Christianity between the first and fourth century is inversely proportional to the relatively small number of books selected for the New Testament canon. Twenty seven, at last call. Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible was no less cumbrous. And forget what you heard about the simplicity of Muslim belief. It’s about as true as the aphorism that Christianity boiled down to loving God and loving neighbor, and then being told–Oh, one other thing: the hypostatic Union. For every Islamic pillar there is a body of doctrine (i.e. opinion) about it big enough to fill a barn. I will not speak of Buddhism and Hinduism because it is already past five p.m.

But you see the point: whether religion is a good thing or a bad thing, it is too much of a thing. It is corpulent and unwieldy, full of distractions and formulas, defiantly undeconstructible–a superhero made of putty and able to absorb most threats to its person by adding a few extra pounds. It is full of highsounding unarguable slogans about the oneness of god, the inspiration of scripture, the salvation of souls, everlasting reward (and its opposite, marriage), what not to eat, and moral activities that are unIslamic or Unchristian, or otherwise damaging to your soul, recreationally known as sin.

I take it for granted that adherents of religious tradition take their faith traditions seriously. And most religious leaders cannot be aware that most of what they say is swill. But what about those of us who are unchurched not because we think religion is a bad thing but because we simply think there is too much of it, and that excess is giving religion a bad name. It isn’t religion I don’t like, it’s the grotesque behemoth human ingenuity has made of it.

A minimalist principle is that the larger the accumulation of any body of beliefs the more likely the majority of those beliefs are to be wrong. If we were minimalists, for example, we would see the trinity as an example of christian exaggeration, letting Jesus be Jesus whoever he was. We would regard as absurd the Islamist position that the Koran is a blueprint for governing complex modern societies or contains all the science anyone needs to lead a productive life. We would challenge the relgiocentrism that permits Jews to invoke an imaginary past populated by imaginary heroes–most–as though it were their historical past. I will not speak of Hinduism or Buddhism because it is now past 6 PM.

I am not advocating Quaker simplicity, Amish withdrawal, or killing the Buddha. Religious minimalism needs to be more aggressive than pacifist, more intellectually demanding than sapppily “humanistic.”

It needs to lay claim to the religious life and spirituality, the sense if not the definition of God, and to ask the otiose religions (that’s about all of them) of the world the following question:

“Why do you think you know better?”

And make it short.imaginenoreligionmedium

Quodlibet: Atheist Attitude

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

I’ve written on this theme before, but thought I’d wait until the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism rode by to snipe at them from behind.  Who, after all, wants to be in the sights of the formidable Professor Dawkins or the acid Mr Hitchens?  Not me.

In their heyday, the Horsemen’s books were sitting on the coffee tables of every secular/humanist/atheist household I visited, and I visited a few.  In one case last year in Los Angeles, a proud browser had Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens on view on side tables, but confessed he “hadn’t read them all the way through.”  That’s no crime, I said happily.  “They’re really not very good.”  How could I say that, he asked, somewhat confused: “Aren’t you the head of some humanist outfit?”  Atheists are mostly pretty old and they use “outfit” thinking back to their service days.  I assured him (a) I was not the head of anything and (b) I did not check my critical reading skills at the door when I joined the humanist outfit.

When I wrote on this topic before (“Of Brights and Dims: Why Hard Science won’t Cure Easy Religion,” Free Inquiry, 2006) I mainly had Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion in view.  I still do.  Without oversimplifying an already simple thesis, Dawkins feels that religion is essentially for stupid people–people who don’t like or understand science and who think big bangs come from Pa’s shotgun.  They like their religion literal, illogical, and their savior handy in case of distress.  Think of the Palin clan, back in Wasilla.  Nevermind that it gets them into all kinds of messes, like smiling in the face of the proven insufficiency of abstinence-only birth control:  it’s easy to understand and you don’t have to wait in line.  God cleans up the messes we make because he’s in the business of wanting personal relationships with people (he’s in the forgiveness business), and as a bonus he created the big mess we call the world in the first place.  Religion is for Dims.  Science is for Brights.  Religion (saith RD) is the default position for the scientifically challenged of the world.

Now AAFCPS, this is not an argument against religion.  It’s proof of stupid people.  I meet such people every day. They doze through my classes, can’t make change, even with talking cash registers, burn out their credit by the age of 24 and think their preacher is the smartest man in town–after Rush Limbaugh.  Dawkins, it will come as no surprise, comes from the faraway land called England, but his model of a Dim is almost exclusively American.  This is where dim dives to new wattages.  This is where dim is dimmest.

Richard Dawkins wants these people to know they are deluded.  To help them out, he reminds them of their Thomas Aquinas and Anselm’s famous ontological argument.  Nevermind that even the intellectually radiant Pastor Bob has never read these thinkers either.  It is important that their dimness include ignorance of the Middle Ages, which it almost certainly does.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an argument against religion either: it’s blaming medieval scholastics for living in the Dark Ages.  Everything was pretty dim.   But what reason do we have to suppose that Aquinas would not have accepted the idea of a primordial implosion as a worthy substitute for “In the beginning God,” if he’d lived next door to Dawkins in twentieth century Oxford.  (And as it happens, Anselm lived just down the way, in Canterbury, but alas, in the 10th century, and too dim to make the journey to the twenty first).  The lesson seems to be however, that before dims can achieve a higher luminosity they must first foreswear the arguments for God’s existence that they have never heard of.

Next, they must confess, as an act of faith, that the science they were too dumb to learn proves them dim.  Most of the scientists I call friends have never read the Origin of Species, but they are permitted this omission because they take evolution as scientific theory, meaning subject to falsification, meaning that if Pastor Bob can produce photographic evidence of Genesis 1-3 Darwin can suck eggs.  But until he does, Darwin is right, and Pastor Bob and all his Darwin-dissing ID by-any-other-name friends are a threat to society.  Moreover, creationism cannot be scientific because creation clearly exists and is thus not falsifiable and with it goes the need for a creator.  Whoops, category error.  Who spotted it?

Once there was a fifth horseman, a physicist by trade, a nice but plodding prose style, the author of seven books or one book in seven versions, the latest being God, the Failed Hypothesis.  At a 2007 lecture anticipating his book Why is There Something rather than Nothing? Victor Stenger said, “Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence.  The laws of physics are shown to correspond to what one would expect if the universe appeared from nothing.  There is something rather than nothing because something is more stable.”  And all the congregation, bedazzled with an hour’s worth of sparkling equations and no toilet break, said Amen.

I felt my light flickering: was I dimming out?  Surely, I thought quietly, not wishing to be outed, we can only say something is more stable than nothing because we live in something-land.  (To say Nothing does not exist is a tautological giggle).  And what strange quantum hubris entitles us to say in the passive voice, “No laws of physics were violated in bringing the world into existence”–because the cosmos we see is the one we would expect to get from nothing.  I said nothing of course. (Perhaps the something I might have said would have been the sort of thing one would expect). The audience were in full and energetic agreement.  A few were even trading equations on business cards.  For my part, I resolved to enroll in a low-numbered physics course at a local community college.

What physics has shown is that a table is in full conformity with a square-topped four-legged entity used for eating, writing or similar function.  Just as we expected before we made it.  From wood.

I have missed so much.