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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On Religion

Roger W. Gardner

My Personal Beliefs

I believe in a Higher Power whom, for lack of a better name, I call God. My belief in God is both intuitive and pragmatic. Intuitive in the sense of its feeling right and proper, like a beautiful equation, while the alternative option seems to me awkward and incomplete.

I believe in a God engaged in human affairs. I do not believe God helps me find a parking space. However, I believe that the only convincing explanation for certain epiphanies in my life have come from this higher source.

My belief in God is also pragmatic; I believe in the logic of a Prime Mover, and in the efficacy of prayer. I believe that prayer -- that is, the act of praying itself, humbling oneself before a superior power and asking for help, is beneficial both intellectually and spiritually. It is a sharing of the burden of mortality, and offers us a vestige of hope.

The Historiocity of Jesus Christ

I believe that Jesus of Nazereth, called the Christ, existed. I believe this fact has been adequately confirmed by historical triangulation from the writings of Josephus, Tacitus and Dio Cassius -- special weight being given to Tacitus' offhand references, given their derisive and demeaning tone.

I believe in the essential factual elements of the Gospel of the New Testament, from the approximate date (though off by 4 to 6 years) of Christ's birth, through his last 2 or 3 years, up to and including his crucification.

I do not believe in the Immaculate Conception, the miracle of the loaves, walking on water, etc, or, most importantly, in the Ressurection; all of which I consider to be later constructs in an elaborate process of deification.

However, despite heavy censorship which most assuredy took place in the 4th and 5th centuries, I believe that in general the extant records of Jesus' teachings and sayings are essentially accurate, and certainly worthy of the founding of a great religion. It is in this sense that I consider myself to be a Christian.

There were, it must be remembered, many purported Messiahs during this period of Judaic history. This Jewish longing for a strong Messiah Warrior King (such as King David) came as a natural response to their having been conquered and subjugated, in turn, by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and now the Romans. In this respect, Jesus the Nazarene proved to be a disappointment to many Jews -- in particular to Judas Iscariot. Rather than being given a Messiah Warrior King, who would lead them to victory in battle against their hated Roman foe, they were presented with a man of tolerance and peace. A gentle man, who believed himself to be the Son of God -- not the jealous, vengeful God of the Old Testament, but a kind and loving God.

Five centuries after Jesus' death the Arab world would get their own Messiah Warrior King, and we are still dealing with the unhappy consequences of that fateful event.

Unlike the fire and brimstone prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus only sparingly deals with sin, never the dark concept of Original Sin; but rather he openly embraces the prostitute, the Roman Centurian, even the onerous tax-collector.

I believe that Jesus, called the Christ, believed himself to be the Son of God, and that those surrounding him believed the same. I believe the actual degree of Christ's divinity is unknowable, whereas his effect on mankind is vast and quantifiable.

If faith is belief without proof, then my faith in the historiosity of the New Testament is qualified. The character of Jesus is, to me, the most intriguing and mysterious in history. His life and his teachings have forever changed the course of the Western World.

Although Jesus most assuredly represented an existential threat to the conservative Jewish religious establishment of Jerusalem, most particularly the Elders of the Sanhedrin, it appears the Romans had the final say in his execution for sedition. It was therefore a civil/political decision, well within the bounds of Roman jurisdiction, and thus, despite centuries of traditional anti-semitic rantings, does not constitute a "Blood Libel" on the Jews.

The Importance of Saint Paul

Although obviously centered on the figure of Jesus Christ, in fact it seems that the entire foundation of the Universal Catholic Church rests squarely on the solid shoulders of the inimitable Saul of Tarsus (Saint Paul). Indeed, it can be said with some degree of certainty that without the efforts of Saint Paul, Christianity would most likely have eventually dwindled away, becoming just another strange Middle Eastern cult. Regardless of the significant contributions of Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, et al, it was Saint Paul who was primarily responsible for the birth of the Christian Church, An indefatiguigable proselytizer and a profoundly original theologian -- he was not, however, above bending the rules (e.g. that all Christians must be converted Jews), if this would bring in new Christians from the vast untapped resources of the gentile Graeco-Roman world. It was the formidable brain of Paul that first formulated the whole concept of Redemption -- that Christ had died on the cross not as a common criminal, but in order to redeem our sins, thus turning his inglorious end by crucifiction into a divine act of monumental martyrdom. The importance of Saint Paul to the course of Western/Christian history cannot be overstated. It was Saint Paul who organized the foundations of the Universal Church, created its dogma and its heirachy. By the time of Paul's death, in 64 AD, the nascent Catholic Church was already becoming a viable, well-structured corporation, subject to the personal and political aspirtions of it leaders.

The Jewish Christians

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the so-called "original Jewish-Christians", under the leadership of Jesus' brother, James the Just, continued on in stubborn isolation for a few decades before disappearing from the pages of history.

It is worth noting that these newly converted Christians sought to get along with the Roman authorities, and were eager to distance themselves from their troublesome Jewish cousins. As Christianity grew, this split between the Jewish-Christians, the gentile Christians, and the Jews became ever wider. This in part expains why the writers of the Gospels were reluctant to put the blame for Jesus' execution on the Romans, placing it intead on the Jews.

East vs. West

One of the most pivotal events in Western history must surely have been the now rather obscure Iconoclastic Controversy of the mid-8th century. For it was over this theological rift that the the Eastern [Orthodox] Church, centered in Constantinople began its inevitable split from the Western Catholic Church, centered on the Pope in Rome. The major bone of contention was over the interpretation of the use of "graven images", that is whether or not realistic portraiture depicting indentifiable characters -- most especially, God, Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary -- constituted a heresy. Constantinople declared all such artwork to be heretical and banned its production, and the later Islamic World followed suit. On the other hand, the Church of Rome decided the contrary position, not only accepting naturalistic art as being non-heretical, but warmly embracing it, eventually becoming its primary benefactor.

The Middle Eastern and the Graeco-Roman Western world had gone their separate ways. In the West the arts and sciences flourished, and the spirit of discovery -- when not threatening the foundation of the church itself -- was nurtured and encouraged. Thus the successful growth of an open, liberal, progressive culture denoted the character of the West, while the Middle Eastern, later Islamic world, would focus their arts, however beautiful, exclusively on rigid, formulaic, mostly geometric motifs. Restricted by religious law, discovery and innovation were discouraged, in favor of strict adherence to tradition. While the West prospered and grew, albeit somewhat sporadically, the Middle East tended to stagnate and fall behind. As the West moved on, continually expanding its intellectual and artistic frontiers, culminating in the glories of the Rennaisance and, later, in the Age of Enlightenment, the Arab/Islamic world languished, virtually unchanged from the 7th century. No Rennaisance. No Reformation. No Age of Enlightenment -- the closest thing to a Reformation in Islam being, arguably, the 18th century Wahabbi Movement, which only succeeded in turning in on itself, further alienating Islam from the constantly evolving West, where innovation was not only encouraged, but generously rewarded.

Church and State

Perhaps the next most determinate events in Western Christian History were the beginnings in the 11h century of the ongoing battles between church and state, between the Pope in Rome and various emperors and kings. Although the results of these contests were never entirely conclusive, the end product would be a stalemate, and a tentative agreement on their separate spheres of authority, spiritual and temporal. This imperfect balance between church and state has generally served Western Civilization quite well.

However, problems develop when a religion, such as Islam, is overtly and aggressively politically motivated, but protected from objective scrutiny by its religious shield. Thus Islam can spread its evil tentacles into our Western society, its sanctity assured by our own Constitution. Unless and until we find a way around this self-imposed barrier and begin treating Islamism as just one more "ism", such as Communism of Fascism, we will continue losing ground in this veritable Clash of Civilizations.


In contrast to the militant hubris of the confirmed atheist, or the condescending self-righteous fervor of the born-again-Christian, I humbly accept the fact that many of my carefully considered conclusions, put forth in this small essay, could be completely mistaken. However, they represent an honest expression of my thoughts at this time.

Finally, I beleive that faith in a kind and loving God is a gift. The degree to which one accepts the literal narrative of the New Testament, whether one embraces minimalism or maximalism, is of course a matter of personal choice.