Monday, February 22, 2016

A Christadelphian Reading List

In a previous post, I mentioned the "enormous amount of material" I'd read to learn about the Bible, and my community's views on the Bible. This post will summarize that, in case you're curious. It really is "enormous," so you probably won't read much of it, but you might find interesting bits to skim. I'll summarize them here, and give links you can read online. (Note: various folks post these books on their web sites; linking to them doesn't mean I agree with them or that they represent the Christadelphians.)

1) Elpis Israel, John Thomas, 1848. (read online)

This is the "original" Christadelphian book: the Christadelphians grew out of the readership of a magazine by John Thomas, most of them Campbellites. Thomas gradually parted ways with Campbellite teaching over a couple of decades, until he was finally expelled. Somewhere along the way his readers asked for a summary of his views, and he responded by writing this book.

As the first book it's highly respected, but it doesn't dictate Christadelphian belief (except in the eyes of a very small minority). There are things in the book that few would agree with today. Although someone who agrees with John Thomas will certainly not be considered a heretic, however in the minority he may be.

That's especially true of Part III. It's a good overview of Thomas's views on Bible prophecy. Till recently a majority of Christadelphians agreed with him. A growing minority disagreed with almost everything he said, and they were free to do that without repercussions. At this point I'm not sure whether Thomas's views are the majority view or a minority view.

2) Christendom Astray from the Bible, Robert Roberts, 1884. (read online)

Originally called "Twelve Lectures," this book is based on a series of lectures by Robert Roberts spelling out the basic teachings of the Christadelphians. As the title implies, it mostly talks about "standard" Christian beliefs that Christadelphians disagree with, like the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, a supernatural devil, heaven-going, hell, etc.

3) God's Way, John Carter, 1947. (read online)

When my family started our first Bible study with the Christadelphians, this was the book we used. It's shorter than either of the previous two. It's more readable than Elpis Israel, which is very much a 19th Century book. And it's more upbeat than Christendom Astray: instead of attacking mainstream Christian teachings it first positively advances Christadelphian teachings. And then it attacks mainstream Christian teachings. Each chapter has a "Part II" that compares the teaching in Part I with mainstream Christian teaching.

4) Phanerosis, John Thomas, 1869. (download PDF)

The linked PDF is prefaced with about 30 pages defending the book from critics. The book itself begins on page 29. As you can guess, some of the material is controversial.

This book outlines what Thomas saw as the core teaching of the Bible: that God's entire purpose is to make people into "His image," reflections of Himself, and that He operates through agents who get to speak in his name, or even in select cases be equated with God himself. Jesus, and the angel in the burning bush, would be two examples of this. Both are called God and/or referred to themselves as God, but neither actually was God. This doctrine drives Thomas's interpretation of Bible passages that seem to identify Christ with God, since Thomas rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.

While Thomas's view here is defensible, and some modern theologians who aren't Christadelphian would agree with him, there are defects in this work. In a way, these defects speak to a fundamental handicap of most Christadelphians. Thomas bases his idea on careful arguments about the original languages, mostly Hebrew, but Thomas himself was not a Hebrew scholar. He was a layperson who was decently competent with reference materials and at least somewhat read in the scholarship of others. Not all of his arguments hold up. To this day few Christadelphians are scholars of the original languages, and we continue to labor out of our depth in this area.

5) Other misc. works by John Thomas (see here for quite a few of them)

John Thomas wrote rather prolifically, and a well-read Christadelphian would be at least familiar with a lot of it. He also edited more than one magazine, over more than twenty years, which are still available. See here for example; they have eleven years' worth of his Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come.

I've read almost all of this material over the years. Obviously most of it I've read only once, and I probably skimmed a fair bit of it, so only so much has stuck with me, but as you can imagine it's enough to keep one busy for a very long time.

One of the funniest things in the collection is an actual catechism written by Thomas. It's funny because a lot of his writings savaged the Catholic church, especially for its creedal nature. The Christadelphians also adopted a statement of faith (i.e., a creed) in 1877 (PDF), six years after Thomas's death.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Making of a Christadelphian, Part 3

This post is really part four. This series starts with an Overview of the Christadelphians, followed by my own story leading up to my baptism, and then a description of our theology masquerading as the story of my early post-baptism Bible study.

I was somewhat (but not terribly) unusual because I got baptized at age eleven. I was even more (but still not terribly) unusual because I was a convert, who got baptized at age eleven. This put me in a weird position in our community. As I said in my overview, we are a lay, patriarchal, millenarian, unitarian, evangelical, apolitical, community of Bible students.

The first problem was what to do with an eleven-year-old brother in a patriarchal community. Kids my age attended Sunday School, and Sunday School was generally taught by women. But the rule in our community is that women don't teach men, by which we mean baptized males. So as soon as I was baptized I was pulled out of my Sunday School class--but nobody really knew where to stick me. For a while they tried putting me in the adult Sunday School class, but I didn't enjoy it much. Then they found a brother willing to teach me for a while, which lasted until he finished his degree and moved away. Then they decided the solution was to make me a Sunday School teacher myself, and from then on I taught a precocious five-year-old one on one. This lasted about a year, until my family moved away and we stopped attending for a while.

The second problem was what to do with an eleven-year-old brother in a lay community. Every baptized brother (remember, patriarchal) is normally expected to take a turn leading the services on Sunday, giving the sermon, leading Bible readings, etc. This problem was handled by ignoring it: they simply didn't ask me to do those things because I was "too young." That's sensible enough, but it came up surprisingly often. Do you? You don't? Why not? When will you?

After a year or so they started calling me up to do the scripture readings. That was all, until I was about sixteen. A few things happened around that time. I started attending Community College full-time at 15 1/2 (a story for another time); I found a nursing home that would hire me as a nurses' aide at 16; and the church decided that it was about time I started giving sermons. This lasted a couple years, until I transferred as a junior to Brown; at that time the church secretary, who disliked my family, unilaterally dropped me from the speaker list. ("Oh. I didn't realize you'd be coming home every weekend and attending church. Too late now, though.")

Over the years between ages eleven and eighteen I was doing the "catch up" Bible study described in my previous post. On the one hand I covered an enormous amount of material (which I'll give links to in a future post for the curious). On the other hand, it was pretty much all Christadelphian material. So while it felt like an enormous education, and in some ways it was, this education took place in a bit of an echo chamber. There was an enormous amount of material I wasn't learning, which I'll get to in the next couple of posts.

The effect of all this was that I wasn't only learning about the Bible; I was also learning about my community and its views and standards. And I wasn't only learning about these things; I was also starting to enforce those standards on myself and others. That's what I'd like to look at in my next installment.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Making of a Christadelphian, Part 2

This post is really part three, to be technical: the first part was really an overview of the Christadelphians. Part 1 of my own story summarizes how I came to be baptized at age 11. In a nutshell, I always believed in God (apart from a one-day flirtation with atheism at age 5 or 6), and was always some sort of Christian (a half-baked Catholic who did not often attend church, but when I did it was Baptist). I believed the Bible was God's word. When we discovered the Christadelphians, their emphasis on Bible study--and the fact that their beliefs seemed well-supported by scripture--made joining them the obvious choice. We joined them because they encouraged us to question and doubt what they taught, and because they agreed that even believing the Bible or believing in God's very existence was conditional on evidence.

Not that I spent much energy questioning the Bible or God's existence. I already believed those things. When I did, it was focused mainly on evidence supporting the Bible; if the Bible is divine, then God's existence follows automatically. So I read about archaeology proving that the Bible was historically accurate, like the discovery of Sargon's Fortress (Dûr-Sharrûkin) that proved King Sargon of Isaiah 20:1 was a real historical figure after all. And I read about prophecy, especially the prophecy that Israel would be reestablished, as Christadelphians had been saying at least since Elpis Israel was first published in 1848--exactly 100 years before it happened. And I savored Undesigned Scriptural Coincidences, which listed dozens of examples of internal consistency in the Bible. All of this was mostly recreational reading for me, though, since I already believed.

What really consumed me was general Bible study. I read the Bible daily with my family, following the daily reading planner used by most Christadelphians. It took us through the Old Testament once, and the New Testament twice, every year. Christadelphians are certainly Bible readers. All of them have read the Bible through several times. The ones who "do the readings" faithfully will read it dozens of times before they die. They can remember any story you care to mention, and can quote swaths of it from memory. Christadelphian kids by age eleven have read the Bible, or had it read to them, a half-dozen times already. Becoming one at that age meant I was already behind the 8-ball.

Catching up meant doing those readings, paying attention in Sunday School, and reading on my own. I read lots of books, mostly written by Christadelphians. Elpis Israel was the first book ever written by a Christadelphian, and still considered a classic about our main beliefs. Christendom Astray (PDF) was another early work that contrasted our beliefs with those of most other Christian denominations. The list is long, so I won't give it here. Many of our books are available online, if you'd like to peruse them.

As I mentioned in previous posts, we are heavily biased against studying theology. A look at the contents of Christendom Astray will tell you why. We believe differently than most other denominations, and we generally assume that their flawed beliefs are the result of flawed theology. How would it help us to study flawed theology?

Nor did we create an alternative theology of our own. Well, anyone who thinks about the Bible is doing theology, whether they want to or not, but we refused to try and systematize it. That smells too much like dogma to us. We don't like dogma, and for that matter we don't like hierarchy. We believe that anyone can "understand the Bible for himself," as our lectures and pamphlets say, and we don't believe in interfering with someone else's conscience. If your conscience leads you to different beliefs than ours, we may not let you join our churches, and we may confidently tell you you're wrong, but we don't claim authority over your conscience.

But we do have a theology whether or not we systematize it. We teach it by example instead. Reading Christadelphian books and magazines gives plenty of worked examples of Bible study. So do our weekly Bible classes and evening lectures. We all learn how it's done by imitation.

The first thing I learned was to "read the plain sense." If the Bible is a book for all times and cultures, meant to be understood by ordinary people without fancy degrees, then its message must be relatively plain. So if the Bible seems to be saying something clearly, then it is.

The second thing I learned was to "read the Bible in context." If a verse says, "Oh, Lucifer, look how you've fallen from heaven!" we don't leap to the conclusion that "Someone named Lucifer was up in heaven, and he fell down!" We read the verses before and after it (it's in Isaiah 14), and we notice that the first four verses say, basically, "When you return from captivity in Babylon, you will sing this taunt against the king of Babylon." It's clear from context that the bit about "Lucifer" is part of the taunting song, so it's clear that it's the king of Babylon who is called "Lucifer" (for whatever reason), and his "fall from heaven" refers to the fall of Babylon's power.

When we talk about "context," we also talk about historical context. We try to inform ourselves about the history, customs, and geography of Bible times. Many of us subscribe to Biblical Archaeology Review. We're somewhat uneven in how deeply we go into it, but we try.

The third thing I learned was to "compare scripture with scripture." This is where it gets interesting. We know that you can find verses that contradict each other ("...when taken out of context!" we hasten to add). We know that some passages are more obscure than others. But we assume that IF the Bible is God's word, THEN it must ultimately have a consistent message. The points and counterpoints must fit together, like brushstrokes, to paint a picture. Our job is to collect the verses, back up, and look at it until the picture comes clear.

By the way, didn't I just contradict myself? I said at the top of this post we demand evidence before we believe. Aren't Bible contradictions evidence against the Bible (and therefore God)? And didn't I just say we assume them away? And doesn't that mean we reinterpret the Bible to paper over contradictions? Which we then claim somehow proves God?

If we're not careful, then yes. If we really want to, we can explain almost anything away. There's a whole blog out there devoted to the ways we fool ourselves.

On the other hand, apparent contradictions are a fact of life in general. If I tell a story twice, details will probably differ. Some overly-literal people will ask me which time I was lying. (No, really, that's happened to me. I've come to the conclusion that the wisest course is just to avoid people like that once they've outed themselves.)

This is standard stuff for historians (as I understand it; I'm not one). When we read copies of copies, of translations of translations, of stories that may be preceded by long oral traditions, how do we sift fact from fiction, or truth from error? There are ways, but it's not easy.

It's also standard stuff for ethicists (as I understand it; I'm not one). Isn't it a contradiction for "pro-lifers" to be pro-death-penalty? Yes, if you oppose all killing (including the unborn). No, if you believe that certain crimes forfeit the right to life. Isn't it a contradiction for a pacifist to eat meat? Yes, if you oppose any violence against any creature. No, if you distinguish humans from animals. Isn't it a contradiction to say, "Thou shalt not kill," and then command people to go to war? Yes, it certainly sounds like it. But no, if you read it as, "Thou shalt not murder," and you believe warfare isn't murder.

So there's no way around "comparing scripture with scripture," and it's a delicate business to resolve seeming contradictions while remaining open to the possibility that there are genuine contradictions there. I think closing our eyes to this possibility is a common way to lapse into fundamentalism.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Making of a Christadelphian, Part 1

My previous post was just over a year ago. On rereading it, I'm still pleased with it as a fair and balanced description of the Christadelphian community overall. From there I originally planned to branch off in two directions: first, to go into more detail about Christadelphian beliefs; and second, to go into more personal detail about my growth in the community. I'd like to tackle the second first.

This isn't my "personal testimony," if you've seen that sort of thing before. It's also not meant to be autobiographical, except to the extent I can't help it since it's about, well, me. The point of this post is to sketch how one person came to join "a lay, patriarchal, millenarian, unitarian, evangelical, apolitical, community of Bible students," what that person found when he got there, and where it led him.

I do intend to be painfully honest about my shortcomings, including doubts or weak spots in my faith. It's not because I want other people to doubt along with me. It's because I'm not trying to convince anyone that I'm a hero of faith; I want to be honest about my doubts as well as my beliefs. You're free to take comfort that you're not the only doubter, or set me straight, or decide that I'm an inadequate Christian, as the case may be.

Childhood: A (not-very-good) Catholic

My Dad's side of the family is Polish, so naturally I became a Catholic by default. I was christened, and a well-to-do relative (whom I've never met, unless he was there for my christening) was named my godfather. After that I have no memory of ever attending church--when I was about 7, I went to a Catholic funeral with my Dad, and when he genuflected I rushed to grab his arm and help him back up, because I thought he had tripped.

Needless to say, I was never confirmed or given first communion. My parents sent me to catechism class for about a year when I was 5 or 6, though I don't know exactly why, and we didn't go to church that year either. There the nuns taught me to cross myself, say the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, and to give things up for Lent. We were working on the Act of Contrition when my parents moved, and my religious education came to an end.

Although I never saw the inside of a Catholic church--as far as I can remember, apart from weddings and funerals--I did go to church with my cousin sometimes. We regularly had that conversation (I'm a Catholic. Well, I'm a Baptist.) but neither of us knew what the difference was. My cousin went because his mother made him, and I went because I was sleeping over.

Around the same age, sleeping over my cousin's house, I announced that I didn't believe in God. I'm uncertain what prompted it, but I believe it was watching a rerun of the premier episode of "All in the Family," in which Michael and Gloria said, "We just don't see any evidence of God." Naturally, my cousin tattled at Sunday School the next morning. The teacher turned her full attention to me and asked me why, so I repeated what I'd said the night before. She said, "Oh yes, there is a God, and he loves you very much!" I answered, "Oh, OK," and from then on I believed in God.

Also around the same age, I had my first brush with death: my Aunt Gertie died, shortly after attending a big family dinner at my great grandfather's house. I didn't know her; my memory of her was an old lady walking around the yard with a big, heavy cane. But when my Mom got off the phone and announced that she had died, it sparked the usual conversations about what that meant, leading to the realization that it was going to happen to me, and triggering my first bout with depression (though I was too young to articulate what was going on, and I don't think anyone knew). Funnily, my parents had a music box of a dancing bride and groom that played "Theme from the Godfather," which Mom wound up every night to put me to sleep. For years afterward, hearing that waltz would depress me.

That age also marked my first and last attempts at Bible reading for some years. I had the usual book of Bible stories for kids, which I read to myself. It led off with Adam and Eve bringing death on themselves and everyone else by eating the apple that God for some reason stuck in their garden, after a conversation with a snake that God for some reason put there. The story made me mad at Adam and Eve, and a little mad at God, but mostly it triggered more depression. I avoided reading the Bible for the next four or five years.

Later Childhood: A Convert to the Christadelphians

When I was about 10, my parents took a fresh interest in religion. My mom signed up for catechism classes. For some reason they didn't sign up my sister or I, but they did get us the books, so I started to read them. I also started reading the Living Bible, and my sister started reading the NIV. I read the gospels over and over again, and also started (hesitantly!) reading from Genesis. I got all the way through Kings that year. I still found Genesis 3 to be painful, and to that I added Genesis 11, which in the "Living Bible" gives the distinct impression that God sabotaged human progress because he was afraid they might someday pose a serious challenge to him.

I was ahead of my years in that I read the material easily and learned it quickly. I was also way, way behind, for lack of any meaningful religious education. I was quickly learning at age 10 what children normally learned a few years younger. I was also reading my Mom's adult catechism. A lot of the material has slipped away in the years since then, but at the time I was catching up quickly on the theory, such as the sacraments. Memorizing prayers wasn't much fun, so I didn't learn much liturgy.

At the same time as we attempted to re-join the Catholic church, we were shopping around a bit. I read Watchtower publications that my great grandfather bought from passing JW's just to be polite. I read the weird, new-agey Science of Mind magazine, which my grandmother received for some reason. I read books on Eastern religions, and books by Wiersbe. There wasn't much structure to my reading, and I ended up with a smattering of everything rather than any real depth in anything.

In the midst of all this, we ran across the Christadelphian booth at the New England Fair. It was strategically located near the Vitamix demonstration, which is a story in its own right. The Christadelphians appealed to us almost instantly, because their core values were about the same as the ones we'd developed by this point. Within a year of meeting them, I began taking regular Bible classes with them, and was baptized in early 1982, aged 11. My parents were baptized a month or two later.

My Core Values and Beliefs

At the time I was baptized, the following were my core values and beliefs. As you'll see, they're in logical order, but not quite in order of importance.

There is a God

As I said above, I just believed this ever since a baptist Sunday School teacher assured me of it when I was 5 or 6. I didn't subject this belief to rigorous reexamination, and wasn't equipped to if I wanted to at the age of 10. I was bright, but not that bright. But the usual apologetics were good enough for me--mainly, the argument that the Bible is His word, and therefore he must of course exist. Which brings me to:

The Bible is God's Word

It sounds like I just set up a circular argument, but the argument that the Bible is God's word doesn't have to assume there's a God in the first place. Again, the usual arguments were good enough for me. The Bible is full of uncanny fulfilled prophecies--notably the reemergence of Israel, which Christadelphians had been confidently predicting for almost exactly 100 years before it happened. It's a self-consistent document, meaning that what contradictions there are either (a) can be explained away fairly easily, or (b) just aren't that important. It was ahead of its time, with clever advice like avoiding pork or shellfish, and practicing good hygiene. Etc., etc. The conclusion is that the Bible is a "supernatural" book, which implies a "supernatural" author. Therefore God.

The Original Meaning of the Bible is the Correct One

In other words, whatever people in Jesus' day understood the New Testament to mean, that's what it means. Whatever the people in Moses' day understood the Torah to mean, that's what it means. This seemed self-evidently correct to me, and it naturally led me away from Catholicism. There's no question that biblical interpretation evolved over the history of the Church. For example, any good scholar--including Catholic scholars--will admit that the first century believers didn't have any conception of the Trinity as it came to be formulated over the next three centuries. This isn't a problem for Catholics, because nothing says their understanding of scripture can't evolve. It was a deal-breaker for me, however, because I was only interested in understanding scripture the way the first disciples understood it. Rejecting post-apostolic beliefs effectively ruled out a post-apostolic church.

We can Understand the Bible for Ourselves

That is, we can figure out how the first believers understood the New Testament, and how early Israelites understood the Torah, without the need for theologians or priests to interpret it for us. This is the other belief that led me away from Catholicism, since the Church reserves to herself the prerogative of interpreting Scripture.

Truth is the Most Important Thing

A common refrain among Christadelphians is (or was, at the time), "If you can prove this Bible wrong, I'll throw it away." Variants included, "If you can disprove God's existence, I'll stop believing in Him," and, "If you can prove my beliefs wrong, I'll trade them in for whatever's right." The key idea here is that, in principle at least, our goal is to pursue whatever is true regardless of the cost.

This last value actually takes priority even over God's existence (again, in principle at least). I believe in God, and that the Bible is his word, but I'm willing to let go of both beliefs if they turn out not to be True. You might ask what would ever convince me they weren't true, and that would be a good question, but the fact remains that I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong about God's existence, and I'm willing in principle to give up my religion if that turns out to be the case.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Pleased to Meet You! Hope You Guess My Name!

On this blog, and elsewhere on the Internet, I talk about my religion. This post is a thumbnail sketch of the community I belong to.

My denomination is a very small community. It's found worldwide, but all together we have about 60,000 members total. We call ourselves "Christadelphians," and we believe that we've managed to recreate the first-century Christian community. Well, we haven't recreated their practices, and I think most of us know that. Our practices come from our founding, in the 19th Century, and resemble the Puritans and other Protestant denominations like that. But we believe that our beliefs are extremely close to those of the 1st Century. I'll talk about our beliefs another time.

Within our community, almost everyone knows almost everyone. And we have some fairly strict social norms. For the vast majority of Christadelphians, we are a lay, patriarchal, millenarian, unitarian, evangelical, apolitical, community of Bible students. What does that mean?

A lay community. That means we're a community of laymen. We don't have any clergy. Everyone takes turns leading the service on Sunday, or delivering the sermon, or performing baptisms or weddings. Everyone teaches, and everyone preaches, with few exceptions. Nobody is "ordained." In fact nobody ever seeks an education in theology, Bible scholarship, or any related subject, with extremely few exceptions. We're not only laymen; we're self-taught.

Patriarchal. That means we're laymen. The men teach, preach, perform baptisms, etc. Women do not fill those roles. The few Christadelphian churches where women do those things, are considered extreme. In principle, it also means that the husband is the head of the household. In practice, most Christadelphian men would blush to "rule" their household in the way that a 19th-Century husband would consider a matter of course. But the average Christadelphian household is definitely an unequal partnership.

Millenarian. That means we believe that Jesus Christ will literally return to the Earth, literally resurrect the dead, and literally set up a world-wide kingdom that will last for 1,000 years (that's the "millenium" in "millenarian"). This, or something close to it, was generally believed in the 1st Century. Millenarianism  has enjoyed surges of popularity over the centuries, including the 19th Century when our group was founded, but today that belief is at a low ebb, and we are one of fairly few denominations that actively believe this. (Technically, the Catholic Church teaches a version of this, but it's so severely de-emphasized that even most Catholics are unaware of it.)

Unitarian. That means we believe that Jesus is distinct from God. We call ourselves "biblical unitarians," to distinguish ourselves from "unitarian universalists." They believe that Jesus was just "a man with a unique relationship to God." We believe he was much more than that: he was literally the son of God, with only one human parent. That makes him more than human, and in fact makes him divine--without making him God himself.

Evangelical. That means we believe in preaching the gospel. Like most "evangelical" churches, we consider preaching one of our highest values. Often, this is to the exclusion of things like giving to the poor, doing charitable work, etc. In practice, fewer of us preach, and preach less of the time, than we'd like to believe about ourselves. That's not surprising, though: our ideal is so lofty that it comes with a heavy load of guilt, and to some extent we reduce the guilt by kidding ourselves. We try our best, though. (Note: we are not associated with the evangelical movement, even though we fit the general definition with regard to evangelism.)

Apolitical. That means we don't vote, don't campaign for political candidates or parties, and don't seek positions of rulership over others. For some, it means that we also refuse jury duty. For most, it means that we wouldn't even run for a spot on the local school board--I'm not sure whether any given Christadelphian ecclesia (i.e., church) would tolerate that or not. We consider ourselves "separate from the world," and politics is the epitome of "the world." We are also conscientious objectors to military service, for the same reasons.

...of Bible Students. Our very highest value is Bible study. Naturally, as with evangelism, that means we also deal with some guilt and some kidding of ourselves. Our study doesn't quite measure up to our aspirations, nor to our self-image. Nevertheless, as Christian denominations go, we are unusually committed to regular reading of the Bible and to thoroughly learning general Bible knowledge and also learning at least enough apologetics to preach and defend our beliefs. This makes us stick out from the rest to such an extent that our "Learning to Read the Bible Effectively" seminars usually attract lots of visitors from neighboring churches, and many of them continue attending our Bible classes for years--without ever leaving their present church--because, "Our pastor just doesn't know the Bible like you do." We're not very sophisticated students, sometimes, but we're very sincere and, often, very devoted students.

I believe that sums up my community in a nutshell. If anyone has something to add, or ask, or disagree with, then please feel free to comment below. Respectful comments only, please.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The perception IS the event

A discussion recently happened in a private Facebook group that forced me to express something deeply meaningful to me. The group is for religious discussion within my denomination, and one participant said that he struggles with the discrepancies between the four gospels. To him a discrepancy between two witnesses means that one or both of them is wrong or lying.

Others had already replied with the standard response to this--because of course, Christians have a standard response. Eyewitness testimony seldom agrees perfectly. In fact when it does agree perfectly, jurors usually take it to mean that they cooked up their story together, and are lying. Discrepancies are a mark of authenticity. They show that someone didn't go through afterward and "fix" all the accounts to make them match exactly. Scribes must have been tempted to do it--in fact there are a few known cases where they did do it--but for the most part, they copied the text as it was, discrepancies and all.

I do find that argument persuasive. By itself it doesn't prove that the gospel records are true. But it disposes of the notion that discrepancies are a priori proof that one or more of them is false. The next thing to do is to look at the discrepancies and see if they're the sort of discrepancies you'd expect from eyewitnesses or not. But that's not the road I went down. Instead I replied (in part):
The problem here seems to be (1) a conviction that there's only one "true" version of an event, and any other version is therefore false, and (2) that inspiration involves God forcing people to report the one true truth. That view will lead you to throw your Bible away, because it's perfectly obvious that the Bible doesn't fit that description.

I'd suggest that every competent witness's version of events is equally valid, reflecting a different vantage point and different knowledge. Why would God force them all to recount things from His (probably incomprehensible to us) vantage point, rather than their own?
This didn't sit well with the other person, who suggested I was describing a completely novel definition of "inspiration." He asked, rhetorically I think, "Is it: 'the Bible is a record of people's human impressions of events' or 'the Bible is a record of events'?"

I see a false dichotomy here, between "human impressions of events" and "events." The events that we're talking about are human events, as opposed to, say, astronomical events. They relate to the interaction of two or more people. Or rather, an interaction of two or more persons' perceptions.

Think about an event in your own life. Ideally, an event involving conflict. To be concrete, suppose you're a man who has invited over some dinner guests, expecting his wife to do all the preparations, only to find her in pajamas, in a messy house, with no dinner ready.  Your perception is that she disrespects you, or dislikes the guests, or is lazy, or something along those lines. Perhaps her perception is that she has a stomach bug, or perhaps it's that you never asked her before inviting these guests and she already told you that she wouldn't put together this dinner. There's an infinity of perhapses behind both of your behavior. Perhaps you planned the party in the first place to show her who's boss by making her prepare it. Perhaps she's in pajamas because it's your anniversary, which you forgot again, and now she's depressed.

The facts are thin soup: guests; messy house; wife in pajamas. Give 100 people those facts, they can write 100 completely different short stories. All of the meat of this event consists in both of your perceptions and motivations. That's what's interesting to the rest of us, hearing or reading about your I-Love-Lucy-style party disaster. And if you both wrote a synoptic account of this event, they would be different--perhaps unrecognizable as referring to the same event.

So what would be the "God's eye view" of this event? Possibly something on another plane entirely, like our perception of two hamsters fighting. But leaving that aside, I suspect that "God's perspective" on the "actual event" would be precisely to lay both of your accounts before us. It would be amazingly instructive to notice how both of you are "right," and both of you are "wrong," about the details of the event--but the event itself is the recounting of both of your impressions. That's what happened. Two sets of impressions collided.

The Bible sometimes reads like a dry list of facts, like a history textbook at its most boring. A parade of kings plods by, each one waging this war, or committing that sin, or fighting with the other prophet, and finally being "gathered unto his people" with a royal funeral and being "laid with his ancestors" (or sometimes not). But even those dry sections are full of editorial spin. Who says this king was "wicked"? Who says that king was "righteous"? Why is king Ahaz to blame for the three-year drought, rather than the prophet Elijah who actually caused it? Why is Ahaz hardhearted for refusing to conform to the Jewish temple worship, while people died of the drought, but Elijah is not hardhearted for refusing to relent on his curse until Ahaz breaks? See--it's all editorial spin. We're being told that Ahaz was bad and Elijah was good. We're supposed to take sides, and we're told which side to take.

The Bible is full of this, at every level. Practically everything interesting in the Bible is about someone's perception of events. Usually, we're supposed to agree with the author's perceptions, but not always. The book of Judges is one long mind-bending "what's wrong with this picture?" puzzle. We read about a man's concubine being raped all night long, and her husband cutting her corpse in pieces and mailing it all around Israel, like we're reading the score of last night's baseball game. The author deadpans the entire event, without a hint of judgment or even mild disapproval. We're left to ask ourselves, "Wasn't it bad to send his concubine out into a mob of rapists?" or, "Was it really appropriate to dismember her corpse?" or, "So, was the near-genocide of the rapists' tribe a suitable and proportional response?" The book of Judges raises all the interesting questions while refusing to answer any of them, and we're left frustrated--because we realize that the facts are not what's really important. What's really important is the perceptions of the people involved, and how we interact with them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Life was GOOD in the Third Reich

Seriously, it was. Obviously, it wasn't if you were Jewish, or Romani, or openly gay, a Jehovah's Witness or disabled. But how many people are we talking about here? The population of "greater" Germany, including Bohemia, Moravia, Prussia, etc., was 87.1 million people in 1939. The 1939 census of the Reich counted 318,000 Jews, including people deemed to have Jewish blood who would not be counted under Jewish law. Propaganda of the day estimated their numbers at closer to 1.5 million. There were something like 30,000 Romani living in Germany at the time. The number of homosexuals in Germany is difficult to determine, but it's estimated that up to 15,000 homosexuals were sent to the camps. Jehovah's Witnesses were banned, and some were sent to the camps; there were about 25,000 JW's in Germany. It's estimated that about 70,000 disabled were put to death by the Reich. So the persecuted population of Germany would be approximately 458,000 people. For good measure lets double that: 916,000 people. That's 1% of the population of Germany in 1939.

We never think about the 99%. We think about the 1% who died horribly, in a methodical program of extermination, and well we should. But if I asked you, "What was life actually like in Germany under the Third Reich?" you would probably talk about cattle cars, and gas chambers, and forced labor camps. If the experience of the 1% is what life was actually like, then life in America is all about flying private jets to Paris for a romantic breakfast of caviar and champagne. But no, I didn't ask about the 1%. I asked about the 99%. What was life like in Germany for the 99%?

You can get a glimpse of the answer in Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free. But the broad outlines are obvious: 99% of Germans never stepped onto a cattle car, never looked out through barbed wire, were never interrogated by the Gestapo or hauled off to Berlin, and certainly never died in a gas chamber. For 99% of Germans, life under Hitler in 1940 was no different than life under Friedrich Ebert in 1920. In fact it was immensely better! Under Ebert they experienced a hyperinflation so severe that the paper Mark in 1924 was worth one trillionth of its value in 1918. Under the Third Reich, the government resisted the urge to devalue the currency and so kept inflation in check. Hitler's nationalism inspired the ordinary German, not because the ordinary German was a homicidal maniac, but because he was sick and tired of being held completely to blame for WWI, of being forced to pay ruinous WWI reparations, of watching the plight of Sudeten Germans under Czech rule, etc.

In short, hyperinflation was a thing of the past. Reparations, an immense national debt, were repudiated. Guilt over WWI was repudiated, and Germans--the 99% of Germans we're talking about here--felt pride in their nation. Unemployment was down from 30% in 1932, to full employment in 1936, to a labor shortage in 1938. Economically, life in the Third Reich was the best it had been since before WWI.

And remember, these 99% never saw the inside of a concentration camp. They knew that Jews were being "resettled," but the "final solution" was not publicized, and certainly not any of the gory details. No German needed to think about where the trains were headed, once they left the station. The ordinary German was shielded from these horrors, and could easily live in denial that they were going on at all.

Similarly, we imagine Germans being challenged constantly with, "Ihre papiere, bitte!" But did they perceive this as the proof that they lived in a police state? Ask an American, who produces his driver's license on demand for police, who shows identification and removes his shoes and belt before boarding a plane, who shows his passport to return from Canada or Mexico, and who applauds the movement to demand proof of citizenship from hispanics, or the practice by New York City police of randomly stopping and searching people without probable cause. Ask this American whether he lives in a police state; it's obvious how he will answer. These measures are there to protect us from "terrorists," and "illegals," and "gang bangers"! Showing our papers doesn't make us any less free--in fact it's the price we pay for our great freedom. Just so, the Germans thought they were free.

Life was good, for Germans in the Third Reich. For 99% of them, anyway. If any chicken little should object that they were living in a police state, they could rightfully scoff. "Have you ever been taken to Berlin, or loaded on a train, or gassed?" No, of course not. "Has any relative or friend of yours experienced any of these things?" No, most likely not. "So how can you call this a police state?" Germans got up in the morning, went to work, went to the pub, came home, and went to bed. For most Germans, there was no visible sign of a police state, anywhere they looked.

I've been asked before whether I've ever been spirited away to Guantanamo, or tortured, or held without charges, or killed by a drone. I can honestly say I haven't. Nobody I know has experienced any of these things. I've been frisked, rather intimately, in airports; I've had my electronic communication monitored (as has everyone else, whether they realize it or not); I've had to get a passport so I can visit Canada or Mexico; every package I've ever ordered from China or Israel has arrived opened; all of these things are true. But that's just the price of freedom--those measures are all for my own good.

What I wonder is, if the United States were ever to become a police state, how would we know?