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NewsReal Sunday: What Good is the Bible if you Don’t Believe its Supernatural Events are Historical?

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Posted on December 5 2010 12:30 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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Who’s up for a friendly, Inter-Faith exchange on spirituality on this Sunday morning?

From Walter’s post last night defending his arguments from his great post challenging Bill Maher’s “Religulous”:

Here I respectfully part with Jefferson. If the “magic” of the Bible is removed, it is a story of no significance. If Jesus is not who he says he was, if he is not Emmanuel – God incarnate, if he did not conquer death and rise on the third day, then there is no reason to elevate his philosophy above my own.

I find this delousing of the miraculous from religion – particularly from Christianity – truly perplexing. Why would you lend credence to the teachings of a madman or a liar? Why would you sift through a book of metaphors in search of an unknowable “higher truth?” Why would God, if he wanted to deliver a message to creation, provide a rhetorical Rubik’s cube instead of plainly stated truth? Decoupling the miraculous from religion leaves us with inconsequential nonsense.

I’ll answer this step-by-step from my position as an Inter-Faith, mystical agnostic and former Evangelical:

1. “If the “magic” of the Bible is removed, it is a story of no significance.”

Not reading the Bible as a book of journalism describing actual events does not remove it of its significance. It is still a book about humanity reaching out  to the transcendent. And it still can act as a guide for our own pursuit of a more divine life. That’s significant.

2. “If Jesus is not who he says he was, if he is not Emmanuel – God incarnate, if he did not conquer death and rise on the third day, then there is no reason to elevate his philosophy above my own.”

If the Founding Fathers were not supernatural is there no reason to elevate their political philosophy above your own? One needn’t be God Incarnate to have good ideas — or to be divinely inspired.

The reason to embrace Jesus’ philosophy above one’s own is because it works better than yours and mine. Emulate Jesus and life is better. You’ll be less like man and more like God and the world will be better.

3. “Why would you lend credence to the teachings of a madman or a liar?”

Josh McDowell and C.S. Lewis’ Liar/Lunatic/Lord theorem leaves out another relevant L — Legend. In Chapter 5 of Bart Ehrman’s great book Jesus, Interrupted he makes this argument.

Ever notice that in the four gospels Jesus identifies himself as God only in the book of John? Isn’t that odd? You’d think a detail like that would make it into every account of Jesus’ life. In the other three gospels he never claims to be God or is identified as divine. He’s referred to as a “son of God” but this is a title that is meant for those who are close to God, not necessarily a biological son. In the Old Testament prophets were also given this title.

What’s most likely is that the historical Jesus never claimed to be God and that this tradition is something that developed later. (The gospel of John was the last of the four to be written and thus reflects later Christian traditions.)

4. “Why would you sift through a book of metaphors in search of an unknowable “higher truth?””

Where’d that word “unknowable” come from? If the exploration of holy texts did not lead to grasping aspects of the “higher truth” then you’re right that it would be a waste of time. But that’s not exactly the case. Reading through holy texts does give us a greater understanding of the Divine. Perhaps the “unknowable” refers to how we won’t actually grasp everything until after we’re dead.

5. “Why would God, if he wanted to deliver a message to creation, provide a rhetorical Rubik’s cube instead of plainly stated truth?”

But He didn’t give “plainly stated truth.” We’ve got four gospel narratives that are regarded by the church as canonical (and others that are not.) These narratives each have different ideas about who Jesus was — as already stated only one of them regarded him as divine. They’re written in another language. We do not have the original copies of them and the copies that we do have are filled with variants. (See Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus for the challenge of trying to reconstruct what was originally said in the gospels when we have manuscripts that contradict each other.)

And the Bible is not like a collection of straightforward commands for how to live. (It’s not the Koran!) If it was simple, “plainly stated truths” then there would not be such diversity within Christianity. You wouldn’t find so many denominations with often vastly different interpretations.

6. “Decoupling the miraculous from religion leaves us with inconsequential nonsense.”

Only for those uncomfortable with mystery.

One other point from earlier in Walter’s piece:

If you believe mankind to be the product of an ongoing, emergent, evolutionary process, then you will tend to believe that human consciousness can be applied to drive evolution in a favorable direction. This belief tends to metastase into an elevation of some men above others. Whether the basis for distinction is national identity, race, creed, intellect or some other factor is irrelevant. The end result is the same – a loss of freedom, and often life.

Conversely, if you believe mankind to exist in a state of sin – moral retardation, then you will abandon the futile task of perfecting man and work toward maintaining a society which minimizes the potential for abuse by defusing power and maximizing individual liberty. This was the position of the American Founding Fathers, who wrote and spoke extensively regarding the fallibility of man (even those with crowns) and the necessity to bind them with the chains of the Constitution.

These premises are not mutually exclusive — and the first is not necessarily an accurate summary of all who embrace evolution (though it certainly is for some.) For example, I do certainly believe that humans are part of the evolutionary process and that we’re likely to evolve into a more advanced species (if we don’t eradicate ourselves first.) However, I don’t think that it’s necessary for humans to consciously try and drive evolution in one direction or another.

Further, as I’ve written about before, Walter and I can share the view that man is fallen, evil, sinful, flawed. We can just arrive at it from different paths. And then we’ll end up sharing the same understanding of economics, foreign policy, the role of government, the value of the founders, etc. that flows from that premise.

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