« Start from where you are - not just a trite catch phrase | Main | Nicodemus sermon critique »

February 08, 2008



DC, I'm glad to see you elaborate on these topics. I would say that I agree with your closing remarks about how whether or not Jesus was divine, or that he even existed at all, is irrelevent to the story and lessons ABOUT him that we do see in the bible. In that regard, I myself really only see the bible as a story or collection of stories, of which Jesus is a character who goes through some tragedy, and like any other dramatic story, there are obvious lessons or messages to be taken away from the stories. But in the end, this leaves Jesus on par with any other fictional protagonist from countless other hero stories. In this sense, he is not "special." Surely, we have all learned many things from many books or films or even songs and poems. Be they Christian, secular, Buddhist, science-fiction, or whatever, we find value when they speak to us and our personal, human experience in a way that we can relate or identify with.

Pop-culture does a lot of this as well. As you mentioned, we don't have a whole lot of control over our influences. Perhaps you've heard the water-cooler questions like "Batman or Superman? Who do you think is cooler?" I was never into comic books, but I am aware of the basic character traits of those two superheroes because of their prevalence in our culture. I would say that I think Batman is cooler. Why? For whatever reason, I subconsciously relate to or feel that Batman matches up more with my personal ideals moreso than Superman does. Conversely, I would prefer that others would compare me more to Batman than Superman (even though I don't really care about either of those characters), so on some level we seek to imitate those who we feel meet our internal ideals. While fundamentally similar, this whole enterprise is lacking a particular zeal that religious characters and stories evoke among their "fans."

Holy books tend to offer commandments like "seek to imitate Jesus of Nazareth" and "acknowledge the Creator and commit your whole being to serving 'his' purposes." These lines, proverbally, spill over off the page and into reality and make explicit charges as to how the reader conducts her life. What I find suprising is how one can take those commands seriously when you KNOW that what is written in the book is not reliable (as far as is that what it originally said, was it intended to say that?). Do you sort of just look at it like "well it doesn't matter if it isn't authentic because what it does say today in our versions is good nonetheless"? That is probably how I would feel about it. Actually, that is exactly how I feel about many religious and non-religious books and characters. For instance Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus Christ, and known-to-be fictional characters like Kilgore Trout, Batman, Jack McCoy, even some things attributed to George Washington or Ben Franklin. It doesn't matter to me that those people actually existed or what is said about them is true. Most importantly it doesn't matter to me BECAUSE I'm not making any metaphysical claims based on those people or stories about them.
I guess I assume that there would have to be some cognative dissonance* involved in order to simultaneously believe that the book is unreliable, and that one should do as it says. In matters of law, would you abide laws that you knew were not actually laws? You made the point in another blog entry about reasonable doubt being required for prosecutors. That doctors would (hopefully) not prescribe treatments if they felt the evidence that it works is unreliable. And that scientific theories require reliable evidence and testing in order to accepted. Wouldn't doing any of these things, while KNOWing that it isn't reliable, be dishonest?

Sorry this was such a long response. I'm glad to have this dialogue!


*I know nobody has a 100% completely coherent set of beliefs, which means we all have an amount of cognative dissonance, so I hope that didn't seem insulting. I'm just trying to understand your ideas a little better.

D. C. Toedt

Jason writes:

What I find suprising is how one can take those commands seriously when you KNOW that what is written in the book is not reliable (as far as is that what it originally said, was it intended to say that?).

I don't think we can treat the Bible, or anything else for that matter, as a priori reliable per se. We have to study and test its writings like any other. Deuteronomy 18 even says we should do this.

Some people get upset over this notion. They think that if the Bible isn't 100% reliable, then it's worthless. That's a pretty unrealistic attitude. In fact, it verges on idolatry.

It's OK for something to be imperfect, even the Bible. To paraphrase Paul in 1 Thess. 5.20-21: Be grateful for creative thinking of any sort; test it all, and hold on to that which proves to be good.


Jason writes:

Do you sort of just look at it [the Bible] like "well it doesn't matter if it isn't authentic because what it does say today in our versions is good nonetheless"? That is probably how I would feel about it.

That's pretty much how I feel about it too. I tend to view the Bible as an anthology of writings that are both inspired — as was, say, Newton's Principia — and human (and therefore subject to error).


Jason writes:

I guess I assume that there would have to be some cognitive dissonance involved in order to simultaneously believe that the book is unreliable, and that one should do as it says.

I don't think there's any cognitive dissonance involved, because it's not an either / or thing. I don't see how we can view the Bible as either per se reliable or per se unreliable; any human document that isn't a deliberate lie is likely to fall somewhere between the two.

A few years ago I analogized the Bible to

a set of ancient maritime charts and sailing directions, drawn up by skilled navigators of old. These charts might very well provide useful and even invaluable guidance to modern sailors. For most voyages, they might be entirely sufficient as navigational tools. But they might also be dangerous if relied on blindly. * * *

... we cannot safely presume that the Bible will always provide complete, conclusive guidance in life. Certainly the odds are that we can safely look to the Bible for guidance. But we can't dismiss the possibility that the biblical authors might have gotten something wrong. Or, maybe things are just different now. We would be well-advised to use not only Scripture, but whatever other navigational aids and guidance we have available, including advice from our own "navigation teams." And ultimately, like our ship captain, each of us must make our own life decisions -- for which we will likewise be accountable to the Owner.


I don't seek to follow Jesus' teachings just because the Bible says I should. I seek to follow Jesus' teachings because, in my judgment (shaped of course by the sum total of my education, bias, and experience), doing so appears, on the whole, to be the "best" bet for how to live my life.


I'm going to revise the main posting to clarify that, IMHO, to be a "Christian" does not require adhering to the beliefs commonly known as "Christianity." To paraphrase renowned physicist turned Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, Christianity does not consist of intellectual assent to a set of non-negotiable propositional demands.


Hi DC,

You said "Some people get upset over this notion. They think that if the Bible isn't 100% reliable, then it's worthless. That's a pretty unrealistic attitude. In fact, it verges on idolatry." I couldn't have said this better myself. I've thought it comes close to idolatry also, but I don't blame those folks so much for thinking that way because in many places the bible makes some very absolute statements. I mean, in the context of the story when taken literally, either Jesus existed or he didn't, either there is a heaven or there isn't. If Jesus didn't exist in the first place, then he can't come back. If he wasn't divine, then he couldn't have done half the things it says he did. If there is no heaven, then half the things Jesus said are meaningless (like only through him can people get to god). A good many of the lessons in the bible are predicated on certain other ideas the bible presents, and if those ideas aren't true, then this or that lesson is worthless (if we are to interpret those lessons literally). However, do we need to think that Oedipus or Daedalus actually existed in order to see meaning in the mythical stories? In the context of those stories, either there was a Labyrinth or there wasn't, etc. You're right, it would be unrealistic. But people today really do believe there definitly is a heaven, and they really do think there definitely is a god. For some, to think Jesus didn't really fly up into the sky three days after he died would take creedence away from their idea of heaven being true.

You said "We would be well-advised to use not only Scripture, but whatever other navigational aids and guidance we have available, including advice from our own 'navigation teams.' " and I completely agree here as well. Maybe I take things a bit further though in also considering what other religions have to say, and what other philosophies and philosophers have to say. I couldn't honestly refer to myself as a Christian any more than I could refer to myself as a Buddhist or a deconstructionist or a Kantian, etc. Though I might feel there are certain aspects of these (and more) different schools of thought that cohere to form what I consider the best bet on how to view the world and my participation in it, I am unaware of any single philosophy that would meet all of a human's needs in every possible situation one may find oneself. I am hesitant to say this, but perhaps in this sense I am just as Christian as you?

Many, many Christians would sternly disagree with John Polkinghorne's idea of what Christianity is, namely the conservative Presbyterians and theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early Twentieth Century whose work eventually gave us the word "Fundamentalist." That rift between the conservative, orthodox, literal and extreme interpretations vs "modern" and more liberal approaches to the bible seems to still be clashing strong today, evidenced in the comments some users leave on your entries here. I guess people just want things to be definite, unchanging, certain, absolute, and "reliable" in a world where nothing else seems to really be any of those things.

D. C. Toedt III

Jason writes: "... perhaps in this sense I am just as Christian as you?"

Perhaps indeed — but it's certainly not for me to judge.

My self-identification as a Christian is partly tribal: By far the majority of people whom I've truly admired AND known personally, especially my wife, have been committed Christians; moreover, church has always been part of my "extended family." (Polkinghorne said somewhere that if he had been born in Saudi Arabia, he would almost certainly be a Muslim.)


In remembering my initial thoughts when I discovered your writings here, DC, one of those thoughts was "what exactly makes this guy any different from the average atheist?"

The average informed non-believer views the bible in almost the exact same way you discribed in that other post. And they regard Jesus Christ in (as far as I can tell) the exact same way as you discribed. And in looking through several of your other posts, the average non-believer uses those exact same arguements that you make in order to explain your stance (except for the appeal to the 'fine-tuned universe' and anthropic principle arguements which are logical fallacies themselves: if things were different then they wouldn't be the same. that is tautologically true, but meaningless). I just would like to point out that it would be a misperception for believers to think that non-believers completely discount everything even remotely associated with religion. We are well aware of what the religions have to say, and the lessons and meanings their stories provide. We just don't think they are special, or literally true, or that the metaphysical claims have much or any veracity. In essence, we read the bible the same way as you would read ancient greek mythology. Though you don't think Zeus is real, you can still see some value in the stories themselves.

Which again leads me to the question: what makes you any different, in regards to your view of the bible, from the average atheist/agnostic/skeptic? I'm not including your arguements for believing there likely is a god, which would be the most obvious difference. Neither of us see Jesus as necesarily divine, neither of us think the bible is 100% accurate historically, or even that the modern versions are accurately representing what they say they do.

D. C. Toedt III

>> what makes you any different, in regards to your view of the bible, from the average atheist / agnostic / skeptic? I'm not including your arguments for believing there likely is a god, which would be the most obvious difference.

Given your definition of "the average atheist / agnostic / skeptic," there's little if any difference in how such a person views the Bible and how I do.

But what you say you don't include is huge. My life has been rather different since I concluded that (it appears) we're created co-creators, participating in a divine project of unimaginably huge proportions — and if past overall trends are any indication, the project will turn out unimaginably wonderfully.

Perhaps this is a Panglossian view. Or maybe it's unconsciously driven by a desire to find common ground with my friends' religious views. (Sociologist Rodney Stark says that religious conversions typically arise, not from persuasion, but from conformity to group views.)

But this view does make sense to me, and I'm a hardened show-me skeptic.


Looks like we were both typing at the same time, DC. :)

I can certainly understand the tribal association thing. I remember when I was a kid and I learned that there were other languages than English. I remember realizing that if I had been born in a different time or place, I would probably be speaking a different language.

I wasn't raised around religion, but most of my family was/is agnostic, in my opinion. Nobody ever really talked about religion, but at the same time nobody ever denigrated it. As I got older and went to school and met people other than just family members, I began to see that religion was important to some people, and that almost all of them were christian. My realisation about language seemed to apply to religion, in my mind. Just as Polkinghorne said, I assumed that if I were born in Nigeria, all these people would be worshipping something else. This probably had some influence on my later solidifying my irreligiousity. Thinking about it like that sort of leads you to believe that the particular religion of a person is a bit arbitrary, they'd have believed in another one had the time or place of their birthdate been appropriately different.

This answers another question I intended to ask, which was why be christian and not muslim or hindu or whatever? In my opinion, your answer is better than most. A lot of people would have tried to say that christianity is their religion because it is the true one! Unless they grew up in a non-christian culture, it is hard to believe that as a sincere reply.


It is probably wise to be careful about taking the variation in religious belief to indicate that it is arbitrary. Consider the case of the sciences. What you would believe to be true about the natural world would certainly depend on the era in which you grew up, but this doesn't mean that the theories of physics (for example) are arbitrary or that we should feel free to pick and choose from among them whichever theory strikes our fancy. No, science must conform to reality and has a variety of ways ot try to figure out just what that reality is. This pursuit of reality may be harder for religious claims, but difficulty doesn't absolve one of the responsibility to pursue the truth.


Fr Craig

DC - been reading your blog for some time and enjoy it greatly. I'm a 56 yr old Episcopal priest, ordained only 6 years now after a life in law and business. I find that I agree with you almost entirely. I had to struggle with evolution (patently true) and Scripture (which I love) and have reached much the same conclusions you have. Jesus didn't know he was divine (John's gospel notwithstanding), substitutionary atonement is bunk (why does God demand punishment?), the Great Commandment is vastly more relevant to our creation than the Great Commission, and God isn't done with his creation yet. (for an incredibly dense discussion on this, see Haught, God After Darwin). The only solution to the vast human evil is the Great Commandment. But, I don't think we can love (serve, respect, etc) the other unless we are set free from our genetic self-centeredness - which equates to fear. Thus, I see the God's purposes in Jesus as teaching us that we can, indeed, love and serve others as much as we love and serve ourselvess IF we trust God completely. In the resurrection, we are given this gift: redemption from slavery to the fear even of death. If we don't fear death, what else need we fear? Only if we trust God, learn to live without fear (perhaps impossible in this life), and begin to give sacrificially can we live into the image of Jesus - firstborn of the new humanity and begin to see God's Kingdom grow. I find no conflict with all of this in my belief in the orthodox doctrines. Jesus is divine and human, don't really care much about virgin birth - but, who knows? The Trinity is the best description I can come up with for God's revelations... remember, there is no doctrine of the atonement. blessings, friend

D. C. Toedt III

Fr. Craig (@9:43 am) says: "I don't think we can love (serve, respect, etc) the other unless we are set free from our genetic self-centeredness ...." I need to think about this.

Human desire — which can manifest itself as self-centeredness — has long reminded me of something I learned as a 13-year-old rookie sailor. Many non-sailors don't appreciate that a sailboat can sail across the wind, not just downwind. That's because a boat sailing across the wind is held between two opposing forces: The wind, of course, which pushes 'sideways' on the sail (and thus on the hull, keel, and rudder); and the water, which resists what would otherwise be the sideways (that is, downwind) motion of the hull and keel. The boat is designed so that, in response to these opposing forces, the hull moves 'forward' across the wind, in much the same way that a wet watermelon seed squirts out from between your thumb and forefinger.

I tend to think of desire as like the wind, while memory and reason (of which tradition is an offspring) are like the water acting on the hull, keel, and rudder. Desire alone is like wind alone: It's likely to drive you to places you don't want to end up. But the combination of human desire with our gifts of memory and reason seems to be responsible for all human progress. One can't help but think there might have been some "hull design" involved here.

I appreciate your stopping by.


Interesting discussions. You've given me food for thought.

Daniel McLean

You indicated early on, D. C., that you didn't have a grasp on what it means to be "saved" as a Christian. I think I can clear it up for you. Allow me to witness to you for a while.

Like you, I am an attorney. I was brought up in the Lutheran church, and soon left to profess agnosticism, Taoism, Buddhism, and atheism. As I matured, I began to feel an appreciation for what Christianity has done in the world, and continues to do. They seemed like nice people, doing nice things, and I was down with that. I was fortunate to find a good woman who shared a similar feeling, and we got married in and joined a Presbyterian church (for ethnocentric reasons, getting in touch with my Scotch-Irish heritage).

We were proud to be Presbyterian, but were sporadic attendees. Having little children had something, but not everything, to do with our attendance. When we went, we were glad we had gone. We also enjoyed staying home sometimes.

Recently, within the past year, during an extended period of absence from church, I began listening to podcasts of dynamic preachers like Allistair Begg, John Piper, and Ray Comfort. They helped explain Christianity to me like I had never understood it before.

Jesus spoke of a Judgement Day when some people would be cast into Hell for all eternity. Why would a loving God send people to Hell? Because God is also righteous (righteousness being an aspect of love). And righteousness hates evil. A righteous person sees to it that evil is punished. So much more so does a perfect and omniscient God.

Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As a result, death entered the world. God gave the world the Ten Commandments to show the world the law by which the world would have to live to be righteous. If you have broken any of the commandments, any of the laws, you will stand guilty before God.

God must uphold His law. So if you have not kept God the most important thing in your life, you are guilty of the crime of idolatry. If you have fashioned a God to suit your convenience, you have broken the second commandment. If you have used the Lord's name in vain, you are a blasphemer. If you have ever treated the sabbath as anything other than holy, you are guilty of breaking the fourth commandment.

Never murdered anyone? That's good for us, but Jesus said that if you hate your brother in iniquity, you are a murderer of the heart, and therefore guilty of breaking the sixth commandment. Never committed adultery? That's commendable. But Jesus said that if you so much as look at a woman not your wife with lust, your have committed adultery of the heart.

I could go on, but I am willing to bet that by this standard, you will admit that God will find you guilty of breaking His law.

Your only hope is if someone else enters the courtroom, and tells the judge "I will pay the fine for this person." That way, the law can be upheld and not ignored. It would be unjust, of course, to ignore the law out of pity for the defendant. It would make a mockery of the law, and hence the lawmaker. The law must be upheld, but if somebody comes along and sacrifices himself so that you might be saved, then the law can be upheld, and God can be viewed as a just judge.

That's what Jesus was doing up on that cross.

He was taking the punishment for your sins, so that you might be saved from the righteous wrath you have earned by your crimes against God. His sacrifice was effective for you because he was fully man, and fully God. He had to be a man to pay the fine for mankind. He had to be the eternal God to make the payment effective past, present and future.

Is it not the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you? You did not earn it. You did not deserve it. You cannot earn it. But you must respond to it to be saved. The Bible says you must acknowledge your sins, the punishment for which Jesus bore on the cross, and you must repent of your sins and turn from them. And you must believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins but defeated death and sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come again in judgment as the Bible says. Trust and believe with all of your heart that this actually happened, and will happen.

While you can be assured of your salvation (salvation is of course the concept from whence "being saved" is derived) and your place in Heaven ("blessed assurance"), neither I nor anyone else can offer you assurance of salvation. That is between God and you. I will pray that you repent of your sins and believe in the actual, real, not- fooling-around, not-made-up, all-powerful Lordship of a very real Jesus and live for Him like never before, out of a humble gratitude for what He did for you on that cross. And that you will know yourself to be saved, by the grace of God.

(Cross-posted, in love, to http://lifelibertyholiness.blogspot.com)

Stephen Ardent

Scripture is quite clear, the one who denies Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead, is not a Christian.

No if's, and's, or buts.


It is pretty simple. God loves us. WE all screw up whether Christian or NOT. We are all sinners. Nothing makes a christian better then a non believer...in fact the bible tells us to "...love your nieghbor as yourself..." (James2:8) All you have to do is believe that you are forgiven of your sins and have a continuous ongoing relationship with Christ. You dont have to go to church on Sunday you just have to strive to be the best you can be, not for yourself but to live the best as you can as the bible tells us to live. WE all fail but Gods forgiveness is what makes me want to get up again in the morning.
and Daniel.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Favorite Posts

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz


Episcopal Church

  • Come and Grow