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Sully’s Therapeutic Deism

I’m enjoying reading a transcript of the late-night God conversation between Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens, which Sully is publishing in installments on his blog —  most recent one is here [1] — but it does not make me happy to say that Hitchens is easily getting the best of him. Look at this passage:

H: But Andrew, I wouldn’t bother with this, I would let these beliefs exist in a parallel universe except for argumentative purposes and dialectal purposes. It’s nice, I enjoy discussing with Jesuits—nothing could be more agreeable—as I would with a Hegelian or a Randian or any of the above. But much more than Hegelians and Randians, these people want to influence my life. They say I want your children to be taught things that aren’t true.

A: No, no, my point is that the kind of religion I’m talking about—because it is much more aware of the provisionality of its own knowledge—is a much humbler approach to the divine. And certainly, someone like me would say, “This is what I believe but even I, at some level, cannot give you reasons for this; I cannot explain it entirely; I think this is how I’m trying to figure it out for myself”. The last thing on Earth such a religion would do is tell you how to live your life. Now I understand most religions are not that way, but I am trying to say that at some level, some way of being at peace with one’s own mortality and have some understanding of why we’re here, does not necessitate—even though it’s often accompanied by—the desire to control anybody else’s life. I don’t see Jesus trying to control anyone else’s life.

H: Why don’t you let me make the assumption, or make the claim, that I take the words and the positions of a true believers seriously and that I respect them. When I examine these beliefs I find that they cannot be private. It is not possible for someone to really believe this, and especially its redemptive character, and watch me go straight to hell. They would be failing in their duty, they must save me, even if it means killing and burning me would be best.

A: Not if what stops them is their understanding of their own doubt. Doubt and faith can co- exist.

This is something else. Doubt shouldn’t stay the Christian’s hand in such a case, but rather love, and charity. Hitchens is right: Christianity cannot be entirely private. Judging by the evidence in this dialogue, Sully seems to believe in a Jesus that doesn’t require anything of him, a Jesus that exists as a psychological comfort, but certainly not as Lord.

“I don’t see Jesus trying to control anybody’s life” — what could that possibly mean? Did Jesus not try to control the lives of the moneychangers in the Temple? Did Jesus turn away from the woman caught in adultery as she was about to be stoned by the Pharisees? It wasn’t his business, strictly speaking, to tell the Pharisees how to run their lives. In fact, he told the adulterous woman to “go and sin no more” — a pretty conclusive sign that he believed he had the right to tell an adulterer to stop doing that.

When the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he must do to be saved, Jesus had an answer for him — an answer the rich kid didn’t want to hear. True, Jesus didn’t press the young man into his service, so in that narrow sense, Jesus didn’t try to control his life. But Jesus did tell the young man how he ought to live if he wanted to find eternal life. To say that Jesus never told anybody how they ought to live — which is what Sully means here — is not remotely tenable. Hitchens the atheist militant has a better understanding of what Christianity demands, I’m afraid.

I would say Andrew’s argument doesn’t rise to the level of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, because I can’t find the moral content in it. I’m not trying to be snarky here; I genuinely don’t understand what he’s getting at. I know he believes in some sort of God, and I know he finds comfort and meaning in the belief that there is a God, and that God loves him. But this is Therapeutic Deism, not Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian Jew, not a denatured universalist vapor.

Hitchens says in this dialogue that if Christians took the utterly non-dogmatic approach Sully champions, then we wouldn’t have Christianity today, but rather some sort of Christified Hinduism. Which, come to think of it, we’re rapidly creating for ourselves.

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85 Comments To "Sully’s Therapeutic Deism"

#1 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 7, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

Re: As to the larger point about Lewis’ “Trilemma”, even such prominent Christian scholars and apologists as N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig have admitted it is an extremely poor argument for establishing the truth claims of Christianity.

That people have made criticisms of the argument, doesn’t make their criticisms any more valid. If you have a specific criticism that you think is valid, I’d be glad to hear it.

I think that Lewis’ point ‘whatever the Gospels are, they aren’t legends’, is pretty accurate, and refutes the ‘Legend’ interpretation in advance. If you compare the Christian Gospels to Hindu or Zoroastrian accounts of divine figures, let alone to the Greek myths, the first thing that strikes you is the attention to historical, journalistic detail. These things don’t read like sagas, epics, or myths, they read like factual history. The only thing that makes them seem less historical to us, is that they events they recount include miracles. But perhaps that’s a problem with us, rather than with the Gospels.

Some criticize the argument by saying that Jesus never claimed to be God, but that’s pretty clearly a very weak argument. He didn’t explicitly say, “I am the Second Person of the Trinity”, yes, probably because he wanted to leave us the moral freedom to believe or to disbelieve. But he takes on the authority to forgive sins, approves of St. Thomas when he addresses Him as God, states that he was around before Abraham and that he saw Satan fall from heaven, and many other claims that add up to a claim of divinity.

#2 Comment By Matt in TX On February 7, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

MTD: We ARE looking for something that’s bigger than any one culture, right?

Hector: On the contrary, the Golden Rule may be self-evident, but there are many, many teachings of Jesus that aren’t self-evident at all. They are, in fact, wildly counterintuitive, offend against our deepest instincts, and are extremely difficult to live by.

I like this contrast. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I see this as a kind of way of saying, no, we are *not* necessarily looking for something that’s “bigger than any one culture” if it means junking really specific and unique and powerful messages that we *don’t* see repeated over and over among all different religions, but which instead stand apart.

#3 Comment By Church Lady On February 7, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

I think there are good points on both sides of the issue.

When it comes to Jesus, it’s clear that he had no hesitation in telling people what to do, what he thought would help them the most, and lead to their salvation, and likewise what would harm them, or delay their salvation. But what we don’t see Jesus doing is trying to control anyone, force anyone to live as he tells them to. Instead, they always have a free choice presented to them. (Except in the case of the money-changers, which should make Salomon Brothers nervous).

Jesus didn’t even intervene forcibly when men were trying to kill that adulteress. He didn’t try to fight them, or stop them from killing her. He merely made a suggestion, and an argument, against doing so. If they had not listened, there’s no indication that Jesus would have fought them to save her.

So both Rod and Andrew have a point. Jesus was not one to try to control other people. He let them make their own mistakes. But he didn’t sit idly by either. He counseled them and told them what they needed to do to get right with God. And his counseling was pretty strong, not merely psychological or therapeutic. He advocated giving over everything in your life to the love of God and others. Everything, holding nothing back. No weak tea there. No casual bourgeois life of the happy churchgoer, or the self-help prosperity maven.

#4 Comment By jaybird On February 7, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

As Chesterton says, it’s the very fact that some of Jesus’ sayings are so *weird* and counter-intuitive, and so seemingly out of touch with human experience, that lends more credence to the idea that the one who spoke them was not merely human.

Or simply a madman, like Lewis said. I agree that is a distinct possibility. Or they could be they sort of strange, & counter-intuitive, if not necessarily insane ideas and musings any number of traveling wise-men, gurus and shamans throughout history have come up with. What is the sound of one hand clapping?, etc.

That people have made criticisms of the argument, doesn’t make their criticisms any more valid. If you have a specific criticism that you think is valid, I’d be glad to hear it.

Well, maybe it’s just me, but the fact that numerous highly- respected and influential professional Christian apologists have publicly stated that they don’t bother to use this particular argument anymore because they find it embarrassingly deficient in what it ostensibly claims to prove would seem to be the single best criticism of that argument, but perhaps that’s just my pragmatism showing. But to take one specific example, I imagine that you accept the existence of Augustus Caesar, but don’t believe that he was born of a virgin, according to Suetonius. By the same token, it is also possible to believe Jesus existed, but that the miraculous accounts attributed to him are legendary embellishments.

#5 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On February 7, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

Hector_St_Clare, is there a Christian country on the planet that obeys Luke 6:34-35? I thought that fell away a long time ago.

#6 Comment By Traddy Catholic in Cleveland On February 7, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

Of course, Jesus wants to control our lives — because the Word of God seeks a society ordered by Love.

A society ordered by Love is totally different than a society ordered by tolerance.

Consider: If you (an average citizen) were walking along a city sidewalk and saw a homeless drunk who had passed-out and pissed himself, you probably would just tolerate his presence there. You might shrug in disgust and keep walking. Or you might put a sandwich under his arm. Or you might look around for a cop to arrest him for loitering and public intoxication.

But you would not take him home and wash him up. You would not cry out, and get down on your knees and grab him, shake him, and say “Listen you fool, I’m getting you out of this mess for your own good.” You would not do your utmost to make sure that this man was safe and clean and warm and well.

But what if he were your long-lost brother?

The entire Christian mystique is the realization that he IS your brother.

Christianity is not about being nice. It is about doing good… even when doing so offends comfortable sensibilities.

#7 Comment By Church Lady On February 7, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

This bit of claptrap from C.S. Lewis is just the sort of logic I despise from so many Christian evangelicals.

I’m not of the school that says Jesus was just some great human teacher, but I hardly think there are only two options. That’s just a salesman’s trick to try to get you to buy his product.

It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that Jesus was a great human teacher with a flawed over-evaluation of himself. And/or, that his own majestic self-image was burnished even further by his followers and those who created a mythic symbol of him. Even that many of the sayings attributed to him were burnished, misunderstood, and mythologized.

In the end, there’s a million plausible scenarios that could explain Jesus, including the standard one that C.S. Lewis was selling. He’s trying to create a false dichotomy, in which the only choices are between a delusional madman, and a God, and arguing of course that the God is actually the more plausible of the two. Which I would agree with even. But it’s really just an argument for not believing in the Christian tradition itself, which has set up only these two possible answers. Reality is never so neat and tidy. The reality is always far different from either the myth, or the anti-myth.

#8 Comment By aegis On February 7, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

“I think that Lewis’ point ‘whatever the Gospels are, they aren’t legends’, is pretty accurate, and refutes the ‘Legend’ interpretation in advance. If you compare the Christian Gospels to Hindu or Zoroastrian accounts of divine figures, let alone to the Greek myths, the first thing that strikes you is the attention to historical, journalistic detail. These things don’t read like sagas, epics, or myths, they read like factual history. The only thing that makes them seem less historical to us, is that they events they recount include miracles. But perhaps that’s a problem with us, rather than with the Gospels.”

To be fair, reading the gospels for their historical content while taking miraculous occurrences with a grain of salt is pretty much consistent with how I read any work of history from the ancient world. When I am reading the gospels as an historian–as opposed to when I am reading them for devotional purposes, for instance–I give them about the same credibility as I give Herodotus.

Which is actually kind of a lot, in part because the gospels and the Histories are often the only textual sources we have for the events that they each describe. But not so much as to take the text at face value in any and all instances.

#9 Comment By jaybird On February 7, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

As for Lewis’ point that ‘whatever the Gospels are, they aren’t legends’ I humbly disagree. They follow a classic mythological template – miraculous birth, foretold by various signs and wonders,attempts bey the evil king to kill the innocent newborn babe that threatens his illegitimate rule, the testing and and temptation of the hero as he realizes and chooses to accept his destiny, to his ultimately redeeming/transforming death as a martyr for his people… all these elements are universal mythical archetypes, as even Lewis himself acknowledged on many occasions, with the limp/special-pleading excuse that “this myth (Christianity) just happens to actually be true.”

I find that somewhat to be a somewhat less than convincing argument.

#10 Comment By bigKirb On February 7, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

>If you compare the Christian Gospels to Hindu or Zoroastrian accounts of divine figures, let alone to the Greek myths, the first thing that strikes you is the attention to historical, journalistic detail.

The first thing that strikes you is most definitely not the differences in writing style. The most striking thing is that they all make the same kinds of wild claims about Gods, demons, angels and miracles.

#11 Comment By Elijah On February 7, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

Church Lady, that is exactly the kind of response I would have expected from you on this issue; you read the gospels in light of your presuppositions about Christ rather than trying to discern what the author was trying to communicate.

It’s entirely tidy, at least insofar as the Big Idea goes. Details? Not as clear.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that Jesus was a great human teacher with a flawed over-evaluation of himself.” No, that would be insanity – claiming you are God is not a “flawed over evaluation” of oneself. It is either true or not true. Like me suggesting I’m Napoleon – it’s not a self esteem issue, I’m just nuts.

#12 Comment By Scott S On February 7, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

@bigKirb

“I think the prospect of burning in fire for eternity is a bit more coercive than you’re making it out to be.”

The argument only has force if one chooses to submit to the theological framework that it depends on. Which is, ultimately, voluntary.

#13 Comment By Scott S On February 7, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

@MH – Secular Misanthropist

“Hector_St_Clare, is there a Christian country on the planet that obeys Luke 6:34-35? I thought that fell away a long time ago.”

As it turns out, Jesus was a very effective prophet and martyr but a lousy economist… As Hector notes, Jesus’ message is so radical that Christian organizations/societies have had to rationalize away many of them.

My personal favorite is the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus and asks what he must to do be saved, which has lead to quite a few people making up stories about a gate in Jerusalem nicknamed the Needle that was difficult – but not impossible! – for camels to pass through. You can’t piss off the rich folks if you’re going to be an effective social movement, after all.

#14 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On February 7, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

Scott said:

The argument only has force if one chooses to submit to the theological framework that it depends on. Which is, ultimately, voluntary.

If Christianity is true then submission to that theological framework is irrelevant.

#15 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 7, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

Elijah: I’ll be the first to agree that there are a lot of off-putting evangelical types – I have a real problem with some street preaching evangelists – but that has nothing to do with the truth of the gospel.

First, I agree with your perspective on principle (being a non-believer). Where I must not have been clear is that the perceptions of the non-Christian is the driver here, not the belief, level of it or interpretation of it on the part of the Christian or his or her sect.

Being glib for a moment: I see nothing surprising that Christians are oppressed in some countries. Those cultures and their prevailing religions (well, usually Islam) have an immediate and hostile distrust of Christians based on the doctrine of proselytizing. A semantic clarification is now in order as well.

Personally, I see little difference between proselytizing and evangelizing in meaning or in practice. The label I see as the contrast is “witnessing”. This could be a flaw in my thinking, and I’m always ready to be corrected or offered a more accurate view. I am open to the possibility that I also need a better understanding of the Christian conceptualization of free will.

My original statement is grounded in my outsider’s understanding of Roman Catholic doctrine. I regret the implication that it is accurate for the other sects as well. That said, applying my personal ethic concerning informed consent, I find the vast majority of missionary practices to be coercive rather than persuasive, a violation of any positive value judgment given to free will.

#16 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 7, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

Re: Jesus cannot have said all the things that he said and be other than deeply mistaken (the necessary courtesy hedge), a liar or a lunatic, assuming that he isn’t the Moshiach, which he is not according to my belief system.

See, I actually can respect that. I can respect it, actually, more than someone who says, “Oh, he was just a nice man”, or someone who takes the Islamic or Unitarian view that he was a great prophet, but not God.

Re: They follow a classic mythological template – miraculous birth, foretold by various signs and wonders,attempts bey the evil king to kill the innocent newborn babe that threatens his illegitimate rule, the testing and and temptation of the hero as he realizes and chooses to accept his destiny, to his ultimately redeeming/transforming death as a martyr for his people… all these elements are universal mythical archetypes, as even Lewis himself

All true. (Although I would point out that, for example, Hindu epics and Greek myths are characterized by a lot more bells and whistles than the infancy narratives in the Gospels). However, the Gospels also have a lot *more* than what you just mentioned, which are the most spiritually charged and archetypical moments in the narrative. I’m more talking about the accounts of the ministry and healing miracles of Jesus, which are full of detailed descriptions that Hindu or Greek myths generally don’t have, and that would seem to suggest eyewitness testimony. There isn’t much of an equivalent to those in other religious traditions that I’m aware of. Of course I’m not a religious scholar, folklorist, or specialist in comparative literature, so I can’t really pretend to any expertise here, just my layman’s judgement. C.S. Lewis *was* an expert in world literature, though, and I’ll appeal to his judgment on this question.

Re: Hector_St_Clare, is there a Christian country on the planet that obeys Luke 6:34-35? I thought that fell away a long time ago.

Maybe Venezuela, LOL. Socialists seem to come to much the same conclusion as Jesus did about this sort of thing, even if they start from different premises (or not). But actually, you raise an excellent point. Using money to make money seemed self-evidently immoral to Jesus as well as to most Christians throughout history, yet today it’s the basis of our capitalist economic system. This is really an example of what I was saying about how much of a challenge Jesus Christ is to the way we live our lives, and how much his teachings are *not* obvious or self-evident to any modern society. In fact, if people really took his teachings seriously, our society would look entirely different.

#17 Comment By Moralistic Therapeutic Deist On February 7, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

@Hector_St_Clare Yes, Jesus has many counterintuitive teachings, and I’m gonna go ahead and say we should do the intuitive ones before we even try the weird ones. Love your neighbor and love your God (the two basic commandments that everything else boils down to, according to the man himself), and if you can manage that (which I certainly have not yet succeeded in doing well enough), then you can try to figure out what it means to hate your mother and father and whether you have to do it. Make sure you’re not COMMITTING evil, and then worry about whether you have the right to kill an intruder if he breaks into your home and threatens your family.

To those Christians who disagree, how much progress have you made towards hating your father and your “very life”? Do you resist evil when it’s visited upon you (no cheating on this one, now)? How much work have you put into following the “weird” commandments? If the answer is “not much”, then maybe you don’t disagree. You might secretly agree with me, but just vaguely feel like you “shouldn’t”.

#18 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 7, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

MH Secular Misanthropist:

This thread (from a Christian discussion forum based in England, I think) is a pretty interesting discussion of interest lending.

[2]

#19 Comment By Church Lady On February 7, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

“It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that Jesus was a great human teacher with a flawed over-evaluation of himself.” No, that would be insanity – claiming you are God is not a “flawed over evaluation” of oneself. It is either true or not true. Like me suggesting I’m Napoleon – it’s not a self esteem issue, I’m just nuts.

In Jesus’ time, it was perfectly normal for ambitious people to claim to be Gods. All the Emperors and kings did it. Was Julius Ceasar insane? Was Augustus? Only in our modernist interpretation, is this considered nutty behavior. Back then, it was considered a fairly reasonable claim, if one could back it up.

Think of it this way. If Jesus came back, but without anyone being able to recognize him, and he claimed to be God, but was otherwise rational and reasonable and not barking like a dog or trying to kill people, would he be considered insane? I ask you to look about at the oddballs we have right now, on the various worlds of new age religion and so forth, who claim to be God, or God-Realized, or Enlightened, or what have you. Are they all insane? Many would disagree if you claimed yes.

And look at something like Hinduism, where people claim to be Divine Incarnations with quite a lot of regularity, and are revered and even seem to be very good and helpful people. Are they insane? It seems to me, that one doesn’t have to define claims of Divinity to be either insane in and of themselves, or entirely true either. There’s lots of middle ground. Jesus isn’t the only case of some great figure in world history who claimed Divinity. All the others are not insane, even if their claims might be viewed dubiously. Some probably are insane, but many just very crafty, or mystically delusional in some higher sense. There’s no need to reduce such matters to a pure true/false dichotomy. Unless one is trying to confuse people so that they’ll buy what you’re selling.

#20 Comment By jaybird On February 7, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

Although I would point out that, for example, Hindu epics and Greek myths are characterized by a lot more bells and whistles than the infancy narratives in the Gospels). However, the Gospels also have a lot *more* than what you just mentioned, which are the most spiritually charged and archetypical moments in the narrative. I’m more talking about the accounts of the ministry and healing miracles of Jesus, which are full of detailed descriptions that Hindu or Greek myths generally don’t have, and that would seem to suggest eyewitness testimony. </i?

I think that's a fair opinion, but it's really just that – an opinion. Some people will find the extra detail in the Gospel narratives convincing as compared to say, Greek myths, others will not. My main point is just that Lewis’ ” Trilemma” is hardly the open-and-shut Case for Christ that so many amateur apologists seem to think it is. It is open to many different criticisms, and it is telling that it simply isn’t taken very seriously by most Biblical scholars or professional theologians.

#21 Comment By JonF On February 7, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

Agree that Sullivan is selling religion short in his discussion. There may be couple factors in the background though. the first is that Hitchens was hardly a neutral interlocutor, and in fact loved to wield fundamentalist foolishness as a fol against all religion, so Sullivan is deliberately keeping his distance from any of that. Also, he may be trying to soft pedal his own beliefs knowing that Hitchens will never be willing to hear him there, in effect accepting the atheist’s own turf as the discussion ground– though yes, that gives away too much.

#22 Comment By JonF On February 7, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

Re: Of course, Jesus wants to control our lives

No, if God wanted to control our lives we wouldn’t have free will. Jesus does want to influence our lives– but in the end he leaves us free to choose, because coercion would destroy he wants of (and for) us.
There is no such thing as “coerced love”

#23 Comment By Scott S On February 7, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

@MH – Secular Misanthropist

“If Christianity is true then submission to that theological framework is irrelevant.”

True, but irrelevant to the discussion of whether threats of hellfire count as coercion or not.

#24 Comment By Turmarion On February 7, 2013 @ 10:21 pm

[3] when there’s too much control and not enough persuasion/advocacy/etc.

#25 Comment By Another Matt On February 7, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

Protestant Christians influenced by Calvinist theology view humans totally depraved with their will enslaved to sin. This renders them blind to the truth of God and unable to be saved without God talking away their blindness. However, these depraved souls will still end up in Hell because they failed to chose salvation when God doesn’t take away their blindness.

…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart…

#26 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 7, 2013 @ 11:01 pm

If Jesus came back, he would be a Unitarian. For most of the Gospels, he called himself “The Son of Man.”

#27 Comment By JonF On February 8, 2013 @ 5:35 am

Re: In Jesus’ time, it was perfectly normal for ambitious people to claim to be Gods.

In the context of ancient Judaism it decidedly was not.
And even in other cultures it wasn’t something you did casually. In fact, divine honors were originally supposed to be bestowed after a person was dead. Alexander broke that taboo by taking on the mantle of godhood in his life– but even he was the subject of some sarcastic jokes about it back in Greece.

#28 Comment By Elijah On February 8, 2013 @ 5:45 am

Church Lady, I therefore declare myself to be God – since I am “revered [by my students] and [am a] very good and helpful”. My first act is to rule that you’re nuts.

Since we can’t ever tell if that’s really true or not – I’m certain of it since certainty is just a construct of the mind, after all – I suggest you check yourself into the nearest asylum.

Best of luck to you.

#29 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On February 8, 2013 @ 5:49 am

Scott S, I don’t think so. If God is real then he’s using real Hellfire to coerce worship and obedience of him. If God is false then humans are using imaginary Hellfire to coerce behavior they want. It doesn’t seem relevant who’s doing it, only that it is being done.

Another Matt, the Exodus narrative is a great example of God essentially using humans as playthings where freewill was irrelevant.

#30 Comment By Church Lady On February 8, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

In the context of ancient Judaism it decidedly was not.
And even in other cultures it wasn’t something you did casually.

True enough, but I don’t think that is the issue. Religious people aren’t casual about their beliefs in God either. And I don’t think the Jews who rejected Jesus did so because they thought he was crazy. They thought he was wrong, perhaps delusional in his self-assessment, and that of his followers, but not crazy. There’s no indication that this was the only other option available to them, other than complete acceptance and belief.

And such is the case with many other people founding religions or claiming Divinity. I don’t think people generally regard Hallie Sellasie, for example, as being crazy, simply because he believed he was the second coming of Christ. He was a quite reasonable fellow, really, as are most of his followers. Should one conclude, if one can’t find signs of severe psychiatric disorder in him that he was what he claimed to be?

The same could go for the Dalai Lama, who is supposedly the Incarnation of the God Avalakitswara (sp?), the Boddhisattva of Compassion. Do we only have the option of accepting this as true, or concluding that he is crazy?

And on and on. Just because Jesus went against the grain of Judaic notions about God, doesn’t mean he was either the Christ, or a crazy madman. He called himself the Son of Man most of the time also, and never much clarified what he meant in any case. It was certainly considered blasphemous, but not a sign of mere craziness. If it had been, they probably would not have bothered crucifying him. It was precisely because he seemed otherwise sane, that he was considered a danger. It was felt that he had some other motive up his sleeve, and that his claim of Divinity was also a claim to worldly power, and that his followers therefore were a threat to the established order. And that’s far from an unreasonable conclusion for them to draw.

#31 Comment By Church Lady On February 8, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

Elijah,

Church Lady, I therefore declare myself to be God – since I am “revered [by my students] and [am a] very good and helpful”. My first act is to rule that you’re nuts.

You wouldn’t be the first to say either of those things. But I don’t think your claim to DIvinity is a sign that you are crazy, any more than Augustus’ was. It’s very much what you are mockingly play acting at – a claim of authority, and a way of exercising dominance over others. Which is crazy as a fox.

As mentioned above, the general attitude of the time by the mass of unbelievers towards Jesus (which was most people) was not to treat him as crazy, but as someone using claims of Divinity to usurp power from the traditional order, and to build a following which could overturn their dominance. Which is why both the Pharisees and the Romans felt threatened by him, and acted to get rid of him. They didn’t seem to regard him as crazy, but as a politically and religious ambitious leader with clear motives for acting as he did. As is usually the case when people make such claims.

Look at a cult leader like Rev. Moon, who claimed to be Second Coming of Christ. Was he crazy? Of course not. Sly as a fox, however. He built a huge ministry and a huge fortune to boot. Perhaps he even believed these things about himself, who knows? Point is, the only two options available are not belief in Moon, or concluding that he’s crazy. His religion was no more crazy in most respects than the Catholic or Mormon Churches, for example.

As with all religions, literally craziness is seldom the explanation for why people believe in them, or why their founders assert claims of Divinity. As with your own case, it’s usually a way of trying to “win” a disagreement of some kind. Getting people to take one seriously is the trick.

#32 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 8, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

MH: You’re missing the obvious alternative, that God is real, and misguided humans are threatening other misguided humans with imaginary hellfire to coerce behavior THEY (not God) want.

Its a bit of a straw man to assume axiomatically that anything a human being said in the name of God must be God’s own doing, or, if the said humans are wrong, then there must be no God.

My sense is yes, there is a God, who made all that is, seen and unseen, and no, we don’t know much at all about God, but if we are very careful, and not too arrogant about it, maybe, just maybe, we can glimpse a tiny bit of what God expects of us, and come half way or less toward living up to it.

#33 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On February 8, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

Siarlys Jenkins, yes that’s also a possibility. I certainly wouldn’t call a God like that coercive.

#34 Comment By MikeS On February 8, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

Jaybird, Feb 7 10:16 AM: Yay, at least one other reader of this blog is aware of historical scholarship. That Lewis quote is such sophistry I am amazed people keep using it. Lewis is the kind of faux-intelligentsia that people who don’t have any background in historical scholarship think is compelling.

#35 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 9, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

Lewis may have been right or wrong, logically rigorous or logically flawed, but Lewis didn’t come up with his thought about Jesus being God because he was trying to make a persuasive argument. Lewis had come to that conclusion himself, in his own mind, and sincerely believed it. It was part of the thought process that led him from being an atheist to a Christian.

It is true that in the context of Judaism, it was not normal for people to claim to be gods. Jewish tradition was aware that it happened in other cultures, e.g. reference to “the sons of God” marrying the daughters of men… not looked upon with favor, nor that these charlatans were really sons of God, but men who claimed to be such.

So, to whatever extent Jesus claimed to be God, it did not fit very well in the Jewish context, but it played awfully well in the Greco-Roman context. One could come to all kinds of conclusions about that. One plausible line of reasoning is that all the pagan icons about the divine son of the virgin mother, and all the other bells and whistles, were echoes of the one moment in space-time when it was true, and Jesus was it. Another is that wrapping Jesus up in these icons was a great way to make converts in the pagan world, just as painting him with blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin was a great way to make converts among the Nordic pagan barbarians.

However, I’m not sure anyone’s faith, or lack of faith, rests on a rigorous logical parsing of these plausibilities.