Thursday, December 10, 2009

International Hot Tub: Round 4 part 2

(For newcomers, this is a debate between myself, a Christian, and my best friend Andy Snyder, a former Christian who is now an atheist. For a fuller introduction to the intent and explanation of the name of this series, please see the introduction. Though this is presented as a two party debate on one level, comments and responses are still fully welcomed to all posts in the comments section as a way to help extend the debate and bring other voices into it.)

Now lets tackle your second paragraph. Here it is:
Second, even if I’m open to the supernatural, I see no reason why Christianity should be given special consideration above all other claims of the supernatural. Couldn’t your second paragraph just as easily ended with “Enter the prophet Muhammad” “Enter Buddha” “Enter Apollo” etc? All religions are realities presented as both sensible and intelligible; I don’t understand why we should skip straight to Christianity and ignore other major claims to the supernatural.
Why should Christianity be given special consideration? This seems at first a daunting question because it implies a few corollary problems. Either we should give full consideration to each and every religious claim in the history of mankind, which no one has time for, or we should consider none. After all, if one was right, shouldn't it stand out in an obvious way so we don't have to waste our time with all the others? We might devise some kind of filter to thin it down a bit, like only deal with religions which claim at least 10 million adherents; this would reduce it to about 6 religions, but that standard arbitrarily presuppose that a true religion will be big and modern. Why shouldn't the one true religion be ancient and forgotten? But then, what exactly is a religion anyway? We all assume we mean the same thing when we say the word so that statements like "All religions are realities presented as both sensible and intelligible" can have meaning, but do they?

I am convinced that the word "religion" is useless and basically meaningless (Steve Holmes, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews, has a great discussion of this here). It seemingly allows us to assert that different "religions" can be held parallel to one another and compared, but these comparisons, at least when comparing Christianity to something like Buddhism, invent and impose alien categories that neither Christianity nor Buddhism holds internally, In the hands of post-modernism, the notion of a daunting plurality of religions has created a smoke screen where Christ doesn't have to be dealt with because there are so many other Christ's applying for the same job that to pick just one would be totally random. I think this is basically what you're doing with this question. You have to deal with Christianity because you have been raised as a Christian and because I and tons of others around you testify to the truth of Christ. Deal with the claims of Buddhism when the lives and wisdom of Buddhists around you compel you to, rather than take on a seemingly infinite set truth claims which all exist merely 'out there'. Is this an arbitrary standard? I don't think so. It just means that we don't deal with abstractions of concepts, but the beliefs of people we can know and walk alongside and ask. However, even though I think the question you pose here is a fabricated dodge of the real issue, I'll deal with it anyway.

Assuming such a plurality of supernatural claims, why should Christianity be given special consideration? First, I'll throw my hat in with C. S. Lewis and others who are careful to insist that to be a Christian does not mean one thinks all other religions, if such a thing there be, are necessarily wrong about everything. I myself do find some of the teachings of the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Ghandi, Malcom X, and even Carl Sagan to be helpful and true; however, they offer truths revealed by human insight, observation, and intuition, rather than the Truth of God's self-revelation, found only in Christ.

Second, and this may seem a technical point but its important, it is not Christianity per se but Christ, who reveals himself as Lord over all humanity and thus all religions, including Christianity, that must be given special consideration.

So rephrasing the question, why should Jesus Christ be given special consideration over possible christs? Could the second paragraph of my last post just as easily end with "Enter Muhammad, Buddha, or Apollo"? Only by blindly assuming the legitimacy of the word "religion" and thus ignoring what makes Christ totally different from the rest. For the sake of argument, I can see 5 categories of what we'll call religious figures, though I remain convinced that these categories are of seriously limited usefulness. In the first category are those like Moses, John the Baptist, Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Joseph Smith, and Tom Cruise. None of these men ever claimed to be God. Actually, all were insistent that they were not God. They presented themselves as mere men who either brought a message from God or had discovered something true about the supernatural somehow. Much of what some of these men has taught is true and good, but it doesn't make them a replacement for Christ.

In the second category are those like Apollo, Ra, Thor, and Ganesha. These are mythological figures who fill a perceived gap between some higher, prior god who is their ancestor, and our world. Their significance to those who believe in them is not historical, that is, they are not seen as coming into human affairs within history and substantially changing anything, but explaining certain cosmic, agricultural, political, or personal cycles in a distinctly timeless way.

In the third category are those like Gilgamesh, Hercules, Romulus and Remus. These are demigods, or supposedly historical figures who are born of the union of a human and a god. Some have made comparisons here to Christ, but they are ridiculous. None of these presents himself as the final union of God and man; they are better spoken of as half-man, half-god than as fully man and fully God as is true with Christ. There is also the serious deficiency of historical testimony to be considered in these cases. They are myths that you don't believe in any more than I do and for totally different reasons than you don't believe in Christ.

In the fourth category are the Hindu avatars of Vishnu, particularly Krishna and Rama. The literature telling of these heroes, the Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively, give us plenty of reasons to assume these figures are not historical or if they were, their memory has fallen prey to the exaggerations and fabrications of myth and legend. (palaces with millions of windows, armies with millions of elephants, and monkeys that talk, fight, and can leap from India to Sri Lanka). There are significant theological differences between them and Christ, such as their not taking the curse of human weakness and death on themselves to free us from it, and their not accomplishing a once and for union between God and humanity in their flesh, but the similarities seem more important here. They represent a recognition that gods are unhelpful to humanity if removed from us in some metaphysical realm, something the Buddha recognized too, though he concluded that we just don't need them. Instead, the Hindu stories of these avatars represent the need and longing of humanity for the gods to get off their clouds and come among us.

Enter Jesus Christ, uniquely, supremely, and gloriously among all of the other so-called religious figures. He belongs with those in the first category as one who is unquestionably historical, but against them as one who sets himself over them as not merely bringing a message about God or the supernatural but as one who is God among men and women, the Supernatural invading the natural. Unlike those in the second category, he is not remote but near to each one of us. Unlike those in the third and fourth categories, he is not the product of human imagination or longing, but of God, seen above all in his resurrection from the dead into an incorruptible body, ascended and sitting at the right hand of the Father, a claim made of no other figure. The combination of these historical claims with the remarkable historical proximity of the documents recording the events, their publication coming within a generation of Christ's life, testifies to Jesus Christ's uniqueness against other supposed christs. He alone has brought God into the intelligibility and sensibility of our human sphere by being God in his very flesh, making the imperceptible perceptible to us, and speaking as God of himself in human words, making the transcendent and inconceivable conceivable to us. There is no other like Christ.

Let me say a bit more about sensibility and intelligibility. By the sensible I mean realities that are approachable through sense perception, and by the intelligible I mean realities that approachable through reason or intellect. Thus the chair I'm currently sitting in is sensible while 'chairness' is a solely intelligible concept. Deism presented God as wholly intelligible, not sensible. There is some good reason for this; God is totally beyond the physical universe he has created and therefore it is faulty to search for him within it. Rather, its lack of inherent explanation for itself ought to point our minds, not our eyes, beyond it. The problem here is how do we know that the god we thus come to believe in does not exist only in our minds? This seems to be the god you're attacking, the god of the gaps, the god who is arrived at through questions like "how did we all get here?" or "do you know where you'll go when you die?". Christianity cannot have this god (though it often does); the God of the Bible created everything, the sensible AND the intelligible out of nothing and therefore cannot be arrived at through the use of either faculty. The God of the Bible is only known because he has by grace alone chosen to reveal himself to humanity, to make himself both sensible and intelligible by taking human flesh and human reason on himself through Incarnation (again, I see no other "religions" making this claim). When his disciples beheld his physical human presence and heard his voice, they beheld and heard the voice of God in a unique unity of the sensible and intelligible mediating knowledge of the imperceptible and unintelligible. That is to say, God actively makes himself known within our sensible and intelligible sphere, though he himself is neither sensible nor intelligible, being totally beyond our reach.

One final point. Everything I have said about the uniqueness of Christ above takes for granted the legitimacy of "comparative religions" which I previously denounced. As a Christian, that is as a believer in Christ, I am bound to say that these comparisons are all shaky at best and the real reason Christ should be given special consideration is that he alone is Lord. I have given you some distinctions between him and central figures of other so-called religions according to the assumptions of the field of study known as comparative religions or cultural anthropology, but this cannot ultimately be why he is Lord and the others are not. He is Lord because he is Lord. That is the only way it could be. We can only know him as he reveals himself to us, and in revealing himself through grace he judges all of our attempts to find him on our own terms apart from his grace by constructing comparative criteria and setting him alongside other christs. He reveals himself to us all as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He has to be dealt with because he presses himself upon all of us to be dealt with as no one else does. He knocks on the door of our hearts even now.

More to come. Next time I'll deal with what the unity of the sensible and intelligible in the historical Jesus means to us now, removed from him by two thousand years.

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