Friday, October 28, 2005

The Heirs of Christ

The New Testament was written about 800 years after the Old Testament. As was the Old Testament, this was a codification of ideas which had been expressed for the first time centuries earlier. Comparison between the ethical philosophy of Jesus and the ethical stance of most of the Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that the teachings of Jesus were a significant advancement and refinement on the previous tenants of Judaism. Nor was Jesus unique to his day; there were many sects at the time who embraced similar positions, most notably the Essenes. Jesus was typical of a new breed of lay preachers who sought to reform Judaism, and although Judaism rejected as idolatry the elevation of these preachers to any special status, their ideas did enter the mainstream. The spirituality of the Peoples of the Book (as Jews, Christians, and Muslims are called by Islamic scholars) is a work in progress--it must be understood in evolutionary terms, as opposed to triumphalist terms. Nothing is final. Refinements continue to this day, and must continue if we are to learn from past mistakes. Within the context of these religions, to do anything less is to permit human beings to claim a certainty that rightfully belongs only to God. This is the greatest of all mortal sins.

By this timeline--a testament every 800 years or so, we are at least a couple testaments short. Given the long dry trough represented by the fall of the Roman civilization and the dark ages, the third testament could be expected to be delayed until such a time that a sufficient prevalance of civilization, with its dividends of leisure and the accumulation and preservation of knowledge, could be reestablished. The ideas of third testament, then, could probably be considered to arrive at about the time of rennaisance, and carried through in part with the reformation, with codification occurring two centuries later in the form of the Enlightenment. This was the birth of the modern age. But the Enlightenment brought with it even stronger formulations of the prohibition on idolatry. Another testament was not possible, because the very idea of a text to be accepted on faith alone, or of anyone with the authority to write such a text, was cast into doubt. The Enlightenment introduced the free market of ideas, and made fair play the challenge of all interpretations of existing scriptures. The all-too-human character of any author was too easily discoverable; there would no longer be prophets who enjoyed the luxury of obscurity. The modern idea of fame was taking shape, and even the glamour of royalty was not immune to the dark side of fame, which we now see in tabloid rags. Achievement brings fame, fame invites attention, attention leads to scrutiny and judgement. History was now written in real time. You could expect your epitaph to be written before your body was cold.

Nevertheless, the legitimate heirs of Christ can be found amongst the participants of the Enlightenment. That they often stood outside and against the church is to be expected. Christ met his end in part at the hands of over-zealous priests. Heretic is just another name for a voice crying out in the wilderness. Left to its own devices, no church would ever reform. I have already noted that the Enlightenment refined and strengthened the concept of idolatry. It also introduced an idea of truth more demanding than any that had come before, debunking claims of authority in favour of an empirical standard that was universally applicable. Furthermore, the Enlightenment encouraged a promise inherent in the the teachings of Christ but denied by the imperial inclinations of the church: the invitation to follow in Jesus' footsteps rather than to worship him as a distant celestial figure.

Most significant, though, were the ethical advances. The ideals of "Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood!" may not have been realized in the French revolution, but they continue to echo to this day, with few exceptions, to good effect. Torture and slavery, common before the Enlightenment, are now universally outlawed in the West. Equality, while not a reality (and perhaps not even a possibility) in economic terms, is considered the ideal before the law. Jesus' emphasis on love continues to ring throughout the culture as the ideal in human relations. But perhaps the biggest surprise has been the spread of freedom and the sheer number of benefits that this freedom has wrought. Indeed, freedom itself may prove to be the ultimate measure of civilization, as it both relies upon and encourages self-discipline in ordinary citizens. Freedom in the West has transformed it into an economic, cultural, and scientific dynamo the like of which the world has never seen. It is not only desirable as an end in itself, but as a necessary precondition to the discovery and spread of knowledge. Freedom is power--it releases creativity, and encourages personal involvement and investment in the political and economic process, thereby encouraging responsibility, the goal of all moral systems.

The Bible was compiled at the Council of Nicea, also the authors of the Nicean Creed, the cornerstone of Catholic Theology. Inherent in Catholic Theology is the notion that power comes from above. This is made clear by persistent support of Fascism by the Catholic Church before and even after WWII; few reckonings of Fascist dictatorships include the reign of Maurice Duplessis in the province of Quebec, but this too was a Fascist stronghold, aided and abetted by the Church. The ideology of the early Church was inherently anti-democratic. To see this, consider the position of Christ in the Christian pantheon. If Christ was merely a man with a strong spiritual bearing, any man of any social stature could challenge the powers that be. This was not acceptable for Emperor Constantine. If he could not be a god, then he could be the closest thing to God. And so, in the tradition of Ancient Paganism, Jesus was made the son of a god, and not just any god, but the One True God, below which stood the Kings and Bishops, and below them, the people. To the Jews, one of which was Christ himself, this was an abomination. It holds no spiritual pedigree, but though they balk at the doctrine of Papal Infallibility (Why? The pedigree of the Bible is derived from this!) even Protestant denominations insist upon the infallibility of the Council of Nicea, by insisting upon the infallibility of the Bible itself. For it was the Council of Nicea that whittled twenty gospels down to a mere four, and determined what the content of those four would be. Inherent within the Bible itself are the totalitarian ambitions of Constantine and the Council of Nicea. This is the greatest threat to democracy in the West today, and yet 80% of Americans have given witless assent to it.

The latest testament lies in the efforts of scientists. Within the scientific paradigm, there is no escape from the truth. It cannot be bribed, negotiated, or tricked. Science pays obedience to the evidence to an extent that the ancient prophets could only have dreamed of. What you want to believe is of no consequence. If God is, as is stated in the Bible, "I Am Who Am," then God is reality itself. The Jews have taken this as a given, and it has served them so well that fools all over the world accuse them of having an unfair advantage. Science serves and obeys reality. Whoever denies science out of personal fiat denies God. Theories may be questioned--if there is sufficient evidence, and no, there is absolutely no evidence for Intelligent Design. ID is a lie, and the servants of Satan are quite correctly called "People of the Lie." Satan isn't real; the Father of Lies is a lie himself, but there are no shortage of people eager to serve lies, if they believe they can turn the lies to serve themselves in turn.

Science does not deny wonder, poetry, inspiration, beauty, or art. Indeed, science affirms and enhances all these, and the bastardized style of religion proffered in the mega-churches scarcely pays lip service to them, if even that. The more I know about evolution, cosmology, neurobiology, and all the sciences, the greater my wonder at the world becomes. Don't try to sell me on the wonders of being a religious believer. I've been a religious believer, but in retrospect, the experience of the world as a believer seems trite and banal compared to seeing the world through informed eyes. Superstition is no substitute for knowledge. It's the difference between a MacDonalds Happy Meal and a gourmet filet mignon.

"When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things." There is such a thing as learning and progress. Fundamentalists deny this; they fail to understand that spirituality evolves, that the god that Abraham ascended the mountain with was not the same God he came down with. Moloch demanded the blood sacrifice of children; Jehovah did not. But Jehovah too was a primitive god. Jesus said that others would come who would be greater than he. Israel means "He who struggles with God and wins." To struggle with God and win means that you change, and God changes. What you believe God to be says nothing about God, but much about you. It depicts in clear terms what you would be like if you had power. To idolize a vision of God that is vain, jealous, and angry is to place personal fault beyond question. It is a refusal to learn, to challenge your own limitations and grow. It is a pact with darkness.

Christianity has moved on. Anyone who would claim to be a Christian must move on with it. There is no going back. Fundamentalism is a lie.