The Dish

Book Club: Can Christianity Survive Modernity? Ctd

All of these readers seem to answer “yes” to the above question:

I was raised a Christian in a tiny, Midwestern town where everyone went to either the Catholic church or the Protestant church. I was surrounded by unquestioning believers until I left for college. I had lost my faith in my early teens and it stayed lost for the next 40 years or so. But I now consider myself a Christian, with all the attendant doubts and questions. I credit books like Ehrman’s and groups like the Jesus Seminar for my change of heart.

Why? Because their research and scholarship affirmed the actual existence of Jesus and his horrific death. Up until then, Jesus was just a mythical being, like Zeus or Thor. I felt I finally had something solid to stand on, and so I started my faith journey.

I didn’t mind the messiness and contradictions in the gospel accounts at all. It makes it feel more authentic and vivid to me, like I was witnessing all those men and women trying to make sense of something new and strange. I would have been extremely skeptical if the New Testament had been a smooth and seamless account, because I can’t imagine actual humans responding to such wild events in a smooth and seamless way. I mean, it must have been so weird, y’know?

Another is on the same wavelength:

The problem comes when a screwdriver is used to drive a nail into the wall. Logic as we know it is not at the core of religion. This is not a diss; religion is akin to non-Euclidean geometry, or to quantum physics. It goes by a different creed, ethos, set of “rules” – whatever.

Ehrman’s textual analysis is great, and I’ve loved his books. To see his scholarship as weakening Christianity, however, is to sell religion short. The story of Christ is a portal, a doorway to enter religious life. Its literal truth or untruth is of little to no interest. People who insist on the inerrant truth of this or that need to watch Rashomon a few times, take mushrooms, and chill out. The Gospels are full of Jesus telling parables; get the hint?

Another:

I am a practicing Catholic who attends Mass almost every Sunday, prays every day and even prays the Liturgy of the Hours as often as my hectic schedule allows. I love the Catholic Church despite having some great misgivings about some of its priorities and teachings, especially in the areas of sexuality. I concluded long ago from reading Ehrman, Geza Vermes and others, that the New Testament is almost an historical novel, with many (but by no means all) of the words of Christ having been made up by the authors of the Gospels. Since I believe that the fall of man in Genesis cannot be true, I cannot believe that Christ died and was resurrected as a sacrifice to expiate original sin.

So why am I a Catholic?

You wrote: “But since the scholarship is pretty much indisputable, it seems to me that it is not Christianity that should be abandoned in the wake of these historical revelations, but a false understanding of what the Gospels and Letters actually are.” This sums up why I still consider myself a Catholic. As Ehrman lays out in his book, the beliefs of the early Church evolved as the theologians and philosophers tried to figure out who and what Jesus was. They couldn’t know, because even people who knew, loved and followed Christ apparently didn’t fully understand him. All the Church fathers had were the writings of others and oral traditions. What they achieved was a tour de force of logic and intellect as they refined their understanding of Christ.

Is this refined understanding accurate? Of course not, and neither is Ehrman’s, but it is the best we can do as mere humans. A Church that at least proclaims the hope and love exemplified by Jesus is my home.

Interestingly, Ehrman has written elsewhere that he is agnostic not because of where his scholarship has led him, but because of the issue of theodicy.

In Ehrman’s words:

About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. … We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.

Another reader:

“Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?” I have wrestled with this same question after reading Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot. What his book and Ehrman’s book point towards is that Christianity as we know is a Romanized version that is far removed from the actual lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth. But for me, both books gave me a stronger faith in Jesus. This may be because I have always been quite liberal in my interpretation of Christianity. For me, follow the Golden Rule, help the least fortunate amongst us, and trust in the teaching of Jesus have always been the central tenants of my faith.

I am often told that to be Christian you have to believe in the Resurrection. You have to believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and was resurrected to sit by God. Both of these books ultimately arrive at this point as well. Is one a Christian if they do not believe in the Resurrection? If there is no Resurrection, is there Christianity?

This is a question I have grappled with and continue to grapple with at this time. However, I think the answer to both questions is that the Resurrection does not have to be literal, as is true of other parts of the Bible. Why would it diminish the faith if Christianity/the Resurrection were interpreted to be that Jesus taught us how to live a better life, temper our sins, have a relationship with God, and died for these teachings and went to Heaven as the Son of God, as all of us will as the son and daughters of God? This would only diminish the faith in so far as it would not appeal to 3rd and 4th century Roman authorities and fulfill a literal interpretation of the Messiah prophecies.

I don’t know about you, but the former provides me a stronger faith for living in the 21st century and is more accurately backed up by historical research. This is why I say both of these books should give us comfort as Christians living in the 21st century, as we can embrace a historical Jesus that is divorced from the politics of the creation of the religion that is named after him. As Aslan writes, this is a Jesus worth believing in and following towards a relationship with God.

Another:

Let me start by saying that I am at least a non-theist and very probably what almost anyone would describe as an atheist.  I also have a Jewish background and very strongly identify with the Jewish community.

So does Ehrman “debunk Christianity’s core claims…”?  Absolutely not.  What he does do is make it clear that these Gospels were written by human beings who had very human motivations, and not all of those motivations were directly related to pure belief in Jesus.  They had political motivations, personal feelings, and all the limitations of humans – not to mention very little or no understanding of the physical world that our science has begun to give us in the past 300 or so years.

It is of course possible that the core claims of Christianity are not true, but just because the gospels were written by flawed human beings doesn’t make them so.  It is certainly possible that the understanding of Jesus evolved along exactly the lines that Ehrman describes and slowly and gradually approached the current “truth” – or maybe even that the understanding of that truth can evolve further.  It is possible that the followers of Jesus simply did not or could not grasp the full truth immediately and that it took them centuries to get there.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to distinguish this process from another process – the development of a false religion over hundreds of years as its doctrine grew.  How can we tell the difference between a true religion in which theology developed and a false religion that added layer after layer of false theology?  I don’t think we can from examining the historical record of how the theology grew.

So Ehrman neither debunks nor proves Christianity, but I think he does make believers face the fact that the Gospels were written by humans (with all that implies) and theology is rarely completely static and fixed.  There I think he does a great service to Christians, if they will allow it.

Another atheist reader:

Your question of whether Christianity can survive modernism grabbed me.  It is a serious question whether any Church can survive, without another schism, the conflict between fundamentalists and “modernists” we see being played out in the world.  Pope Francis may have found the answer – de-emphasize the doctrinal elements of the faith and emphasize the compassion in the rituals and good works inspired by the faith.  A wonderful balancing act, in which I wish him all the best.

(Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account. Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here.)