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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

I don’t know quite how it happened, but I was born into a Christian culture that has transformed into a post-Christian one. This change is a basic fact of my time, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about it.

I am too young to remember fully Christian times. However, from what those a few years older than me say, when I was born, Christianity – or Protestantism, to be exact – was considered the default. Shortly before I was old enough to take an interest in such matters, the expectation was that any respectable man or woman would go to church on Sunday. If anyone wanted to succeed in business in a recognizable community, they made sure they attended regularly, and, if they were really ambitious, they became involved in their local church. Naturally, too, everybody was married in a church. Everybody knew the bible, too, or at least the stories in it.

These norms were so pervasive that I attended Sunday School at the United Church until I was about twelve, even though my mother was only moderately religious and my father an agnostic or atheist, who probably only attended holiday church services as a family outing

By the time I quit attending, I had absorbed that Catholics were an odd, barely tolerated sort of Christian, no better than the Christian Scientists that I passed on my way to Sunday School. I had encountered only one family of Jews, but I often wondered what made them so different. As for Sikhs or Hindus or Muslims, they were mostly a distant rumor to my young ears, but I understood that any I encountered were to be trusted only to the extent that they acted like good Protestants.

Even my grandfather, who I rarely saw be impolite to anyone, belonged to the Orange Lodge. Admittedly, in British Columbia, this was a much watered-down version of the organization that had been involved with religious violence in Ontario and was still in the middle of the chaos in Ireland. Yet my kind and gentle grandfather apparently believed that the mostly theoretical Catholics of the neighborhood needed opposing, because their loyalty to the Pope meant that they were denied religious freedom.

Looking back, I realize that things were already changing when I was a child. The minister, a pale man who always did his best to sound earnest, talked about social service and good causes as much as about Jesus – and never about hell. But the remnants of a Christian culture were still strong enough that few questioned them openly.

And now? When polled, a majority still will say they still believe in God. In the United States, people are still reluctant to vote for anyone who is an open atheist. Yet despite such hypocrisy, church attendance has sinking for over two decades. When morality is discussed, it is rarely in terms of the bible or Christianity, or any other religion. Asked on a census, many still call themselves Christians, but by their actions and attitudes, clearly Christianity does not steer their actions, and very few would be considered Christians by the standards of fifty years ago.

But probably the greatest sign that we are in a post-Christian world is that religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter have become secular holidays, and governments are careful not to endorse even a generic Christianity over any other religion. A few of the remaining devout Christians complain about these changes, citing the occasional excessive zeal of non-denominationalists as proof, but what they really seem to object to is the loss of any special status in the culture.

My own beliefs parallel these changes, since I have been agnostic since I was a young teen and drifting towards atheism ever since. If anything, I am more at home in the culture of my middle-age than I was in that of my youth. Generations younger than me seem to have caught up with my thinking as a young man.

At the same time, while decidedly a non-Christian, I am glad that I was lucky enough to be educated in its basic tenets. After all, no matter what I think of Christianity today, at one time it was an undeniable creative force.

How, I wonder, do those brought up entirely non-Christian appreciate the cathedrals of Europe without the understanding that they were physical prayers to God? How can they listen to Handel’s Messiah and understand how it develops? Or read the works of Christina Rossetti or Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose styles and phrasings were where they worked out their relationships with their deity?: Even great agnostics like George Eliot or Thomas Hardy make little sense without a thorough knowledge of Christianity, because their passing references and analogies draw upon the common Christian mythology. I would only be short-sighted and false if I attempted to deny that Christianity was a major influence on much of our cultural history.

Knowing Christianity, I have a sense of the continuity in my culture that most people no longer have. But, as for the decline of Christianity as the foundation of the culture – for that, I feel nothing except relief, tempered by only a mild ambiguity stirred by the cultural accomplishments of the past.

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I am not a Christian. Nor am I follower of any other religion, or even a theist. For years, I have wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But I thought I had made my peace with being a non-believer in a culture whose origins were Christian, making myself tolerably familiar with the Bible and the history and philosophy of belief throughout European history.

Then, some years ago, I was blind-sided by a statement of the obvious.

Although I hadn’t been Christian since puberty, I had always thought that the most recent parts of the Bible had a historical background. Probably things hadn’t happened quite as described in the New Testament, but I assumed that the descriptions were roughly true. After all, the New Testament accounts mentioned historical figures like Pontius Pilatius and Herod Antipater.

So didn’t it follow that a historical Jesus had existed? Of course, he probably bore about the same relation to the stories as the historical King Arthur bore to the writings of Thomas Malory, but after you discarded the religion doctrine and traditions like the sacrificed god, there would be a core of truth.

Then, I read a book called The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. The book is poorly written, and has the obsessiveness that marks a crank, but it introduced me to the idea that the whole of Christianity was a neo-Platonic myth, most likely originating among the Jewish population of Alexandria that had started being taken literally.

I learned, too, that there were reasons to question external references to Christianity like those in Josephus, and that reputable references to Christianity did not occur until well into the second century of the common era. Even some of the references to the modern story of Christ in the later books of the New Testament were metrically suspect.

These ideas are not universally accepted. But the fact that they can be reasonably held at all shows how shaky the conventional views actually are. More importantly, they give reasons for some aspects of Christianity that I had never heard adequately explained, such as the neo-Platonism on the gospel of John, and some of the references to the Christ figure that seem strangely vague if they are supposed to be about a man who had lived. Although not proved, the ideas were at least plausible.

To my surprise, I found myself reacting as though I’d been tackled by someone I hadn’t seen. I suspect that belief in a historic Jesus is the last refuge of an agnostic or atheist who used to be a Christian, a minimal adjustment of their thought that allows them some continuity with their past and cultural history. Even in our disbelief, we cling to a sense that the stories of Christianity must have some degree of reliability. But, suddenly, even that minimum belief seemed questionable.

I realized, too, that I was angry. I’d been lied to, which always makes me self-righteously indignant, told false certainties were established fact. The fact that, on reflection, I realized that the liars had probably lied to themselves first did not make me any less angry.

If my reaction could be summarized in three words, those three words would have been: How dare they?

But the closer you look, the more dubious the founding legends of Judaeo-Christianity become. Despite the record keeping of the Egyptians, no evidence of anything remotely resembling the Exodus has ever been found. What evidence exists points to the Ancient Hebrews being offshoots of the Canaanites – locals rather than invaders. Similarly, no reference exists in any of the surrounding cultures of the empire of Saul, David, and Solomon. The few references to the kingdoms of ancient Israel that have been found suggest that, at best, for most of its history it was a satellite kingdom of the surrounding superpowers, a fact that should have been obvious from one look at a map.

Yet I remember seeing maps of Solomon’s empire when I was growing up, and other maps showing how the twelve tribes settled Palestine (in fact, look up Judea, and you can still find this map on Wikipedia). The maps, that are supposed to value accuracy, are works of fantasy, charting as certainties facts that are questionable and unsupported by the archaeological record. In fact, the more archeology that is done, the more the Biblical accounts look like fiction embellished with a few sprinkles of fact for verisimilitude.

Was anyone surprised when the James Ossuary, allegedly the container for the bones of Jesus’ brother, proved suspect? I wasn’t. It was exactly the same as every other effort to reconcile fact with the Bible: unproved, the product of wishful thinking at best, and of outright fraud at worst.

And when I consider that European culture is built on such foundations – well, don’t come trying to convert me is all that I can say. Because if you try, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do.

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