Category Archives: Divine Revelation

What did Jesus teach?

One approach to figuring out what Jesus of Nazareth taught is to assume that the canonical Christian Gospels are infallible. Although the word ‘infallible’ covers a variety of views, the basic idea is this

If Jesus is depicted as saying something in a canonical Gospel, then he said that.

The questions on this approach mostly revolve around getting a proper translation and interpretation of what he meant.

This approach has strengths – it is fairly simple and gives us some fairly detailed ideas.

Often, people seem to argue that the primary weakness of this approach is of reconciling the different Gospel accounts, where it seems there are some discrepancies as far as the accounts that overlap. However, I don’t think this is an insuperable problem for an infallibilist – the inconsistencies are mostly minor details, involving supposed chronology, say. These can be explained as the result of copying errors, or by noting certain texts don’t say they are in exact chronological order, and so on.

Rather, the primary weakness of the infallibility approach is this. It’s not clear why one should assume infallibility, as one’s starting position, when it comes to these texts. The working position with regards to most any text isn’t to assume infallibility – one doesn’t do this anywhere else. If, after significant work on the texts, one comes to the conclusion that they’re completely correct, that’s different – but it should be borne of significant research, study, divine guidance, and so on. In short, it should be a conclusion, not a premise, just as the idea that these texts were inspired seems to have been a conclusion reached by the early Christians who put the canon together in the first place.

If you don’t start with an infallibility assumption, then what approach to understanding what Jesus taught makes sense? I think it is to look for larger trends of thought in the work.

What are some candidates? Jesus taught to focus on the inner spiritual life instead of the outer (prayer, for example, is about what you actually think and feel, not about being seen to be pious and uttering words in a rote manner). He taught a ‘dying to oneself’ in order to live in God (i.e., aligning one’s will with God’s, and then acting on God’s guidance). He taught loving one’s neighbour as oneself. He taught the attainment of inner peace (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you”). He taught the importance of a kind of ‘faith’ (active trusting) in achieving certain results (“Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.”). He taught loving God with all one’s heart, mind, and strength. And so on.

The point is that broad trends can emerge. When you can see certain basic points of his thought, it also can make sense of passages that originally seem baffling.

If you are taking an infallibilist approach, then it’s easy to get tripped up by this line or that in the Gospel accounts. Taking an approach that looks for basic ideas, though, you can ask what teachings appear in multiple points, across texts, make sense of otherwise baffling sections, and so on, and then put them into practice to see if they actually work.

A problem with The Bible

For someone coming to Christianity through The Bible, there are a few problems that can easily trip one up.

1. ‘The Bible’ means ‘The Book’, but The Bible is more accurately a collection of texts. It is in a sense better understood as a library than a book.

This means you have different authors, writing in different times, with different intentions, styles, and so on.

These texts were selected because early, prominent Christians thought they were important and at least in some sense divinely inspired.

2. The Bible is arranged roughly in a chronological order. It is not arranged in order of importance to a Christian. For example, the first book in The Bible is the First Book of Moses, known as the Book of Genesis (‘genesis’ = ‘creation’, and because The Bible is arranged roughly chronologically, it’s at the beginning).

Yet, the First Book of Moses is not central to most Christians’ theory or practice. Rather, it is the four Gospels (near the end of The Bible) describing the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth that are the most central, then probably followed by the letters (‘Epistles’) of St. Paul and St. James. This is because what is central to Christianity is not Judaism (from which you get the Old Testament and therefore the bulk of words in The Bible) but (not surprisingly) the Christ, which is the focus of the New Testament, and which occurs late in a chronological ordering.

A more natural ordering of The Bible would array things in an order of importance.

The standard Universal view is that the Book of Genesis is a mythological work – of spiritual and moral allegory. Starting with that book and trying to figure out Christianity would probably not be much easier than starting with the last work in The Bible, The Book of Revelation, which is (more obviously) full of symbolism and allegory.

3. It’s easy to not be able to see the big points amid the details. Befitting what is actually more a library than a book, there are lots of details in The Bible. Different settings, people, themes, literary genres, and so on.

As a start, The Bible is about the character of Moses (Law) in the Old Testament, and Jesus of Nazareth (Love) in the New Testament. Yet, if you were to start reading the Old Testament, it would be easy to not even get to the parts about Moses.

4. Similarly, it’s easy to try to understand The Bible in a legalistic, point-by-point fashion, instead of trying to understand the arc of the narrative, and how parts in one place are answered in another place. For example, in the Old Testament there are ordinances against eating certain things, and reading just that you would think Christians are against eating pork or shellfish. Yet, in the New Testament Jesus says that it is not what a person eats that makes them unholy. It’s very easy to miss context, especially when the relevant context ranges over a large number of books, contexts, authors, and so on.

Which is all to say, it’s important to get the gist of Christianity vis a vis The Bible first, then work on the details, and those while focusing on what is more central to Christian practice.

However, here it is important to keep in mind that different versions of Christianity have different takes on what the gist is. Calvinism is different from Mormonism which is different from Catholicism which is different from Baptist views which is different from New Thought, and so on.

Why was the idea of the virgin birth seen as important at that time?

Why was the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth seen as important at that time? Two reasons are

1. It was seen as a fulfillment of a prophecy concerning the Messiah (Isaiah 7:14), and so was seen as evidence strengthening the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. This was important historically because the major initial audience of potential converts were people of Jewish backgrounds. So, far from disconfirming belief in Jesus as Messiah (because a virgin birth might have sounded implausible), it was supposed to be evidence in favour of a Jesus-Messiah link.

2. The idea of half-gods who were born from a god and a human woman seemed commonplace in that time and area. Many Jews were Hellenized, meaning they had adopted large parts of Greek culture. The Greeks, in turn, had many such stories (and the Romans had also adopted large parts of Greek culture, including their gods and goddesses). The idea of a virgin birth, therefore, would suggest divine origin and, therefore, that Jesus was in some important sense divine. So, again, this would tend to be seen as evidence that strengthened claims of Jesus as Messiah.

Nowadays, the situation is different. Probably, most people in secular society view the claim of a virgin birth as tending to weaken the claims in the Gospels, instead of strengthening them. Yet, what’s primary in Christianity are the things the virgin birth is supposed to support – Jesus is the Messiah, he is in some unique sense divine, that Mary was open to God’s will – and not the idea of a virgin birth itself.

Indeed, secularists do not think of themselves as theists, and so there is a prior conceptual movement, at least logically, before one gets to debating issues like whether Jesus is the Messiah.

So, if the idea of a virgin birth is acting as an obstacle to those things, then it’s doing the opposite of what it was intended to do. I.e., it was intended to be evidence in favour of those things instead of an obstacle to them. Indeed, you can believe all the important things listed above while not giving credence to the story of the virgin birth.

If this is so, why do some people hold that it’s very important to believe it? I think this largely comes from an idea often held in Christianity about the texts which have come to be known as The Bible being in some sense infallible or inerrant. The next question, then, is why people hold these texts to be inerrant (in whatever sense they hold them to be so).

Here, too, as a methodological issue it seems the idea of the inerrancy of The Bible (of whatever sort) can be an obstacle to people exploring Christianity (even if that idea is attractive to other people), because it is against the investigative spirit (as seen in what has come to be known as science – which is really just investigation). Yet, again, inerrancy-of-scripture is not required to be a Christian, and if it is acting as inimical to what is primary in Christianity, it is probably best to not worry about it!

Since the evidential situation regarding issues like the virgin birth leaves at best probabilistic arguments, where the matters are difficult to investigate, probably the best way to proceed – assuming there is something like a Christian God – is by personal revelation. So, once a relationship with God has been developed, asking for clarity on the issue. This can come later – it doesn’t need to happen at the beginning (or indeed at anytime!).

Again, for those who are seeking to build a better way, and think Christianity might have some of the answers, but find ideas like the virgin birth (or inerrancy ideas) an obstacle, don’t worry about them – set them to the side, or perhaps to be understood as useful in mythical or illustrative senses, and so on. Focus on what’s important.

What is the basic idea with God and the right?

In Christianity, what is the basic idea about God and the right?

The basic idea is that God is or is aligned with the good, and seeks to bring into existence a universe in which the good is manifested.

This involves the idea that there is an ordering of the universe (and functioning of the beings in it) that is good (or closer to the good than otherwise).

Furthermore, according to Christianity, we can act in ways that get us closer or further away from this, and God can guide us in so doing.

There is debate about the exact relationship between God and what is right (is it right because God says so, or does God say so because that’s what’s right). Yet, it is sometimes easy to obscure the above basic aspect. Whatever the exact relationship between God and the right, according to Christianity the good is not something willy-nilly or an arbitrary thing.

I.e., according to Christianity, if what is right is right because God says so in some sense (as some think), then God saying so is part and parcel of His being as Goodness.

Furthermore, according to Christianity we have faculties which enable us to see what is good or right, and so if God were to say something contrary, we would be able to see that.

In this sense, then, the debate in the Christian context over the exact relationship between God and the right is to an extent academic.

God and organism

In Christianity, one metaphor that is often used to better understand God and our interaction with him is organic – that of God as having a ‘body’. Just as a human body is composed of cells, God’s ‘body’ is composed of humans (at least in part).

This points to a larger notion in Christianity – that God is coordinating action such as to bring about a certain result, just as cells are coordinated to do things.

What evidence is there to support such a notion? There are two main sources. The first is a sense of communication (and so relationship) with God. The second is non-chance co-incidings that occur and seem aimed at a result (‘miracles‘ in Christianity).

The first involves a cycle of ‘speaking’, ‘listening‘, discernment, and then action. The idea is that God can guide us – gives us signs or intuitions. It is in this context that the idea of Christian ‘faith‘ takes on probably its most important sense – trusting that what God wants us to do (after we have applied discernment – a skill or know-how that is developed over time, like any skill) is what we should do.

(So, faith here is not blind trust that God exists, but rather trust in what God wants us to do – trusting it is what’s the correct course of action for us and more generally speaking. Why does it make sense to trust? The typical Christian reason is that one builds a relationship of trust, trusting and then seeing what the result is. In this sense, the warrant for ‘faith in God’ is empirical, based on one’s own experiences and the experiences of others.)

In Christianity, what God is doing is attempting to ‘bring about the Kingdom’. A Kingdom itself is, in a sense, an organic metaphor. It is an organization of humans, functioning to achieve certain ends. The basic idea in Christianity is that, beginning with the Logos incarnating in human form (Jesus of Nazareth), this ‘Kingdom’ has begun to take shape. Our purpose is to help to bring about this state of affairs – the full development of this organic state.

(God is not really understood in traditional Christianity as being separated from the universe – this is more a deist re-reading of parts of Christianity in wake of certain intellectual developments in the last few hundred years, where ‘miracles’ are understood as God ‘interfering’ with natural laws, instead of probably a more traditional and perhaps plausible understanding of God’s causal role as more closely involved with the universe.)

How does God ‘speak’?

When I was growing up, I thought God ‘speaking’ meant he literally spoke – one could hear His voice, like any other, although perhaps only oneself could hear it (it was ‘subvocal’). I never heard any such voice, however, and so concluded this was a useless idea, and nonsense.

Old idea: God speaks to people in a way such that they hear Him as a human voice, which clearly almost never happens, and so is useless.

It turns out that Christians don’t mean this when they talk about God ‘speaking’ to one. A different take is:

New idea: God speaks through a specific kind of intuition, or through events that occur which point (are signs) to something.

So, for a Christian, developing a ‘relationship’ with God often involves developing an ability to sift through their intuitions, note which ones probably come from God, and then what they mean. They become good at this by noting whether the intuitions turn out to be good ones or not, and then refining their perception of their intuitions (intuitions that come from God, so the idea goes, will be of a certain sort, or have a certain kind of feel to them).

It also involves seeing ‘signs’ in the natural world – through people or events – that point towards God’s intentions for something one should do. For example, they will repeatedly run into an image where it seems unlikely for them to have done so. (Similarly, the word ‘miracle’ in the English version of the New Testament is often translated from a word that means ‘sign’.)

The intuitions and signs often come in consequence to ‘prayer’, itself a vague word that contains many practices in Christianity. The basic notion, though, is that Christians can develop certain practices for increasing communication with God, and in particular practices for listening so one can understand what God is ‘saying’.

This makes a little more sense, and seems more plausible in that people do have intuitions that occur in response to prayer or what have you and that they attribute to God (whatever their source), and which turn out to be useful, and that there are various events in Christians lives that they could interpret as having more significance than is typically given to such events from a secular framework, and which, similarly, upon following up turn out to be useful.