Monday, 17 December 2007

The Myth of a Virgin Birth

Around this time of year I begin to see buttons, broaches or badges that declare, "Jesus is the reason for the season." It makes me laugh a little at the historical inaccuracy of it. For all we know, we could just be celebrating the dedication of the temple to Saturn. More importantly to me, I think we need to reconsider what is claimed by the Virgin Birth.

Let's begin by looking at our sources for the claim: the gospels. Of the fifty or so gospels that are out there, only four are currently considered canonical. The rest make for interesting academic reading, but Christians have never been encouraged to learn doctrinal or theological truths from them. Among the four in canon, only two of them make mention of Jesus' birth. Neither Mark or John talk about Jesus' parentage. Admittedly, John's prologue is all about drawing a line between the man Jesus and the logos of God, but it still doesn't create a biological conundrum.

The Virgin Birth is a myth that can be found in various cultures. It's nothing novel to Christianity, and is almost certainly an attempt by the writers of the day to give credence to the life of Jesus. Bishop Shelby Spong has identified that the introductions to the various gospels grow more and more elaborate as time passes. Mark makes no mention of it. Matthew and Luke refer to it, along with extensive genealogies to prove Jewishness and a link to a prophetic promise. John's version is the most lofty of them all. Clearly, the early theologians wanted to put some weight behind the claims of the divine man, and the claims made by his followers.

But let us suppose that some of the historical secular criticisms of this are taken seriously. Suppose that "virgin" in the Biblical Greek just meant a woman who was engaged to be married. That implies that Jesus was conceived by a human pair, outside of wedlock. This is a scandalous option for the time. Adultery would have required stoning. There's no reason to assume that Joseph was the father of such a coupling, perhaps giving Joseph some reason to "put her away quietly" as the gospels record. If he was more interested in keeping up the appearances of his Jewishness than he was for Mary's well-being, it leaves open the suspicion of whether he was in it for love. Either way (Joseph or another man), it's quite a scandal.

Now, I've painted an hypothetical picture that is more than a little unorthodox, but it is just for the sake of an argument. If Jesus was born into such cultural disgrace, does it make a difference to his message, or to the Pauline message that followed? Not in the slightest. Preachers have gotten a lot of value from the idea that Jesus became shame on behalf of the world. Who is to say that this shame couldn't have begun from before he was born? Should we take any value away from the gospel message, if the original preacher was the product of an adulterous human union? Not at all. The message is still the same. The actions are still the same. From out of the shame of our culture - even because the culture considers it shameful - comes the salvation of the world.

This is, I think, at the heart of the gospel message. This salvation came through willingly taking on shame in the name of unconditional love (the act, not the feeling). Jesus went to a shameful death, the death of a failed messiah, the death of a failed insurgent, the death of a trouble-maker. As far as the systems of the world were concerned, Jesus failed in every respect and was publicly shamed in his execution. A less shameful execution would have been beheading in a prison cell, for example. But crucifixion is something that puts the condemned on display as one who failed. Shame is at the heart of it.

Now come back to the key question: how does the claim of a virgin birth affect this? If Jesus was born as the result of an illegitimate union of Mary with a human man, does it take away from his words? No. If his origin is in shame (according to Jewish and Roman structures), does it devalue his message or his death? No. Ultimately, the question of the claim of a virgin birth has very little effect on what Jesus said or did. Therefore, it is entirely possible and entirely plausible that Jesus had parents who were fully human and that his conception was fully biological. This does not mean that it is now part of my personal creed or doctrine, only that it is a doctrine that makes no difference to the gospel. It makes no difference to the daily manifestation of the Church whether Jesus was conceived through biological or transcendent means.

So, this Christmas I won't be reflecting on the miracle of a virgin birth. Instead, I will be reflecting on the one who, through shame, brought salvation to the world.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

An Alternative Explanation

Courtesy of the Enlightenment and the progress of scientific discovery, humanity has developed the fine art of identifying an alternative explanation for phenomena. To sound like a cliche, we can compare the weather. Early in history we humans have attributed this to deities, whereas today we understand the scientific relations behind weather phenomena. Ergo, we don't need deities for weather.

Eventually someone will ask whether we need deities at all. If we can explain Phenomenon A without resorting to a deity, can we not do the same to Phenomena B, C and so on? This might sound like a trivial question, but I think it has some complexity to it.

For some people, the answer is a clear, "Yes. The gods are no longer required. All mysteries of the universe will eventually be solved by science. Anything you may have heard about God is false, because it is based on an assumption that has some alternative explanation."

For others, the answer is closer to, "No. Merely identifying that one effect has a different cause to the one first posited is insufficient to conclude that the cause doesn't even exist at all." In other words, although we can demonstrate an alternative explanation for the weather, that doesn't mean God is not real, only that God is not necessarily the one that causes the weather.

A variant on this is, "No. Even though natural phenomena can be correlated to scientific principles, we must still ask about the origins of these scientific principles and laws. Who decided that the four fundamental laws of the universe must operate in the way that they do? Clearly, God set the universe in motion and we now reap the benefits of that."

All of these responses, and others like them, fall into a common trap in thinking about God. They are all assuming that the role of God is something to do with the fundamental laws of the universe. Is that really what God is about? Can we simply reduce God to a divine watch-maker? I think that we cannot. It is far too reductive a claim.

So if we take the Creator property away from God, what we have left is even more contentious. Some would feel that it is only by divine might that God has divine right to hand out morality to creation. The fault in this comes from spending too much time considering the prohibitions of law. A prohibition has a strange effect on human psyche: it is unravelled as a command. "You shall not covet" is manifest in the human will as "You shall covet." Prohibiting a behaviour does little more than encourage that behaviour. Also, along with the prohibition is the punishment. "You shall not covet, otherwise I will punish you," connects the command to might. Failure to comply will result in some negative consequence, however, being exposed to the law itself will result only in breaking the law (see above).

So, if God has nothing to do with the forces of creation, and has nothing to do with the end of the universe, where is God's right? Why should I listen to a God who didn't even create the universe? As a child I understood that I had to listen to the morality from my parents. They created me. They were stronger than me. Their might made them right. But if God does not have might in that sense, where is God's right?

The alternative explanations for natural phenomena have thrown a spanner in the works. Humanity's previous reasons for accepting the commands of mystics, prophets and priests are collapsing with each new journal article. It is from this very alternative that doubt arises. If I can explain natural phenomena without God, is God even real? More importantly, if God has nothing to do with natural phenomena, why should I follow the morality of God? And if I do follow God's morality, how do I discern this morality? If God were in the business of rewarding righteousness and punishing wickedness then the task would be easy. However, we see that there appears to be no statistical correlation between the good and the prosperous.

The question is really one of authority. What authority should I attribute to a text (e.g., a letter, an historiography, a poem)? How about a person or an institution or a tradition? When we reduce it to these levels, authority is revealed as arbitrary. Whatever it is that I declare to have authority, has authority. Authority is a victim of relativism. In the absence of terrible power, authority is arbitrary (and in the presence of terrible power, authority is imposed).

So let us expel authority from the search for truth. And what is left? Emptiness. A space devoid of imposing might and forceful power. It is the remainder after all ideologies are removed, after all institutions are dismantled. It is the remainder of all structures. There, in this space that defies the rest, is where it will be found. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world - of any world - and it seems we will find truth.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Diesel Shortages in China

This is a piece of mindless link propagation for you. The op-ed is entitled, Living the diesel shortages in China and is about what you would expect it to be about. Of particular interest to me is something that the author suggests:
This may be an economics-induced dress rehearsal of the reality that will face the rest of the world in the post-peak oil universe.
I hope that this story gets more press coverage, even if only for that suggestion.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Theology for Everyone

I was talking with a friend the other day about the quality of theological education in Brisbane. His opinion was very low, citing an example in which a lecturer had claimed something to the effect that theology is dangerous, and that ordinary Christians (or seminarians) shouldn't read it because it might lead them astray.

What shit.

To be more accurate, the reasons that this claim is ridiculous are many but I will focus only on one. An ill-educated believer is one who will make foolish choices. It is the kind of believer who will gladly read "an eye for an eye" and set about making it happen. It is the kind of believer who will insist that women cover their heads all the time, and that men shouldn't pray with their heads covered. It is the kind of believer who will insist that women should not teach. The many and varied sins of the ill-educated believer are potentially many. Denying education to believers who seek the truth will only breed more and more ignorant believers.

Education around thoughts and ideas is valuable. If we are to preach a doctrine, or a message, and expect people to believe it and live it, then the message needs to be tested. Test it through real living. Test it through argument. Test it through exposure to other ideas and other thinkers. Without the exposure to other ideas and concepts, the very thing that one is attempt to promote will probably be lame and flaccid, without any strength or fortitude. It will be blown about by the wind and have no solid foundation except in the blindness of faith.

Denying education will certainly result in the blind leading the blind. It should be opposed wherever it is found.