Monday, May 16, 2011

Reasons to Question

          Let’s start with a quote, shall we?

         “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Do not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise—why destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” Now here’s a question: Where do you think this originated from? Where do you think this quote can be found? Do any of you who are Christian consider it heretical; unbiblical? Well, if you have never heard the quote before, you will probably be quite surprised to hear where it’s from: the Bible. Ecclesiastes 7:15-18.

         From what I’ve observed, a lot of very vocal Christians are not really all that familiar with Scripture. Even those who can quote any Bible verse off of the top of their heads often don’t know what the verse said in earlier Biblical texts, in other languages, or even in other versions of the Bible. Some will argue that it’s not important to know the background of Scriptures or the back story of your faith; it’s only important that you believe what the Scriptures say. In response, I say this: How can a person be sure that his or her Scriptural understanding is correct without knowledge of what the Scriptures originally said?

       Plenty of people will tell you that whatever we see in our modern Bible is an accurate representation of what was originally written. However, there is far more than one modern Bible. We have multiple translations and numerous different versions. While they all tell the same basic story, they tie together more loosely than many realize. They differ from one another in quite a few key issues. When you read the same verse in the NIV and KJV, it will say something completely different in one Bible than in the other. Study Bibles contain footnotes listing what various passages say in alternate (and sometimes earlier) translations. The variations are overwhelmingly vast, and we don’t have a specific version to use as a frame of reference. Even the early Greek manuscripts don’t contain all the authentic material, because we don’t have the first Scriptures ever written. We have copies of copies of copies. Regardless of how meticulous and diligent the scribes were in their efforts to copy everything verbatim, alterations were made. Some changes were intentional, due to political pressures or the desire to emphasize specific doctrinal points while downplaying others. Other changes were purely accidental. We know there were changes because we see them. We see how dramatically the words and statements change from one version to another, from one translation to another, from an earlier text to a later one. If you don’t believe me, do the cross-checking. Compare Greek and Hebrew words to their English translations. Compare a passage from the NIV or ESV to its King James Version counterpart. Don’t accept or reject my statements on their own basis. See for yourself.

          I don’t know everything, and I by no means claim to be correct about everything. I’ve prayed for wisdom and guidance, and asked God to remove any selfish motive that may be a part of my actions. I repent whenever I recognize undue pride in myself or start to feel like a know-it-all. However, I have combed through every word of Scripture again and again. I’ve done the cross-checking. I’ve researched more deeply than I had ever thought possible, and have come to conclusions about what I believe.

         So what do I believe now? I believe we can find answers in prayer, research, and introspection, but I don’t think we can assume that any book holds all the answers we’ll ever need. Only God does. A lot of people seem to worship the Bible as an all-knowing god in itself, rather than a vessel through which God communicates. Many worship their church, instead of using their church as an avenue for worship. I don’t actually equate doubting the Bible or doubting a church to doubting God. The Bible tells us to test all things by Scripture, so I tested Scripture by other Scripture. In doing this, I discovered that much of it doesn’t hold its own weight. I’m currently compiling a list of every single internal contradiction and inconsistency that I can find, both in the Old Testament and the new. I have filled up almost an entire notebook with what I’ve found. Once again, these are not careless assumptions. I’ve prayed over this and researched more than anyone can know. I’ve read and reread, and looked at it from every angle I can think of.

        Does this mean that I no longer believe in Jesus? No, it doesn’t mean that. I believe in Him because of my own experiences (expanded upon in earlier notes.) I believe in Him because the Old Testament includes quite a few Messianic prophecies that were later fulfilled. Before I studied the history of Judeo-Christianity, I didn’t know that the Old and New Testaments were written thousands of years apart. I thought they were all penned throughout the same time period, which would have made it less significant that those prophecies were later fulfilled, since anyone could write a story in which they include a “prophecy” and then detail the fulfillment of it later on. At the same time, some of the OT prophecies which were applied to Jesus didn’t really seem to be about him, or seemed to be self-fulfilling. In essence, I believe in the divinity of Jesus but not in the majority of revelation. From research into earlier manuscripts, I learned that not all of the stories about Jesus were originally included. I believe in the basic concept of Him and in the root of His teachings, but don’t believe every single thing that is written about Him or all the quotes which are attributed to Him.

        As to as the writings of the prophets and Apostles, I don’t believe everything they say God had told them. No, I am not calling them liars. I think they fully believed what they were saying, and wholeheartedly thought that God was speaking through them. The fact that they passionately believed what they were saying doesn’t prove that it’s true or divinely inspired, though. Two people of completely different spiritual views can both believe that God spoke to them. One can think they are receiving prophetic visions, but really be experiencing hallucinations.

        An interesting fact: the majority of diagnosed schizophrenic people who have auditory or visual hallucinations believe them to be messages from God. A Christian could argue that the “visions” are proven genuine if they’re consistent with the Bible, but several different facts refute this argument. First, a lot of different peoples’ delusions mirror one another, whether Biblically related or not. A great deal of delusions share similar themes: the belief that one’s phone is bugged, that the CIA is spying on them, or that they are a famous public figure. These ideas can be empirically disproven. Thus, the fact that they are common does not mean they’re true.

         Secondly, hallucinations and delusions are strongly influenced by a person’s environment. A Christian with schizophrenia or a similar psychosis-based disorder is very likely to have delusions or hallucinations that include Biblical themes, since the Bible is such an integral part of his or her life. Even if the “vision” includes Biblical information that the person claims to not have previously known, they may be underestimating the influence of their own subconscious. We see and hear much information that we forget, but some of it is stored in our subconscious memory.

         Lastly, schizophrenic and bipolar people of all different religions experience visions that affirm their beliefs. Not all religious beliefs are compatible, though, so not every person claiming to have a spiritual vision can be correct. Even if the vision does not line up with a person’s respective Scripture, they will interpret it in a way that affirms it. Why? Because nobody wants to believe they are having delusions, or having sensory experiences that are not “real.” If you can’t trust your own frame of reference, you are in a terrifying position. It’s a lot more comforting to believe you’re receiving exclusive messages from God (and therefore are especially valued by Him) than it is to believe you have a mental illness. Some have an aversion to psychiatric treatment because they believe that medication will mute God’s voice. I think that if God genuinely speaks to someone, His voice would easily penetrate through the effects of medication and prove the communication to be genuine.

          A great deal of people who call themselves prophets end up making more claims about themselves than about God. They may genuinely believe themselves to be speaking on God’s behalf, but end up thinking along the lines of “Anyone who doesn’t believe me is an enemy of God. I have the truth because God shared it with me, and anyone who doubts me doubts God by extension.” This allows no room for open discussion or flexibility or growth. If others disagree with or resent the self-described prophet, he or she frequently feels encouraged by the rejection. They reason that many other prophets were rejected, so it must mean they are in the same boat. Anybody can be rejected for any reason, though. As I’ve mentioned, consensus doesn’t prove a claim. However, if a lot of people share the same grievance about someone, it may be worth examining. I know this because I’ve been that way. For years, I struggled to get along with people. They weren’t all at fault. I was the constant.

           Let’s return to the issue at hand. There is inconsistency in the idea that a prophet is legitimized by how many people reject them. Those who think themselves prophets are encouraged by both rejection and acceptance. They feel that others mainly confirm their claims. If you are in a state of psychosis, the perception that others are verifying your prophecies may, in itself, be a delusion. This can affect those without mental illnesses as well. If you want to believe that others are affirming your visions, you will find a way to persuade yourself that it’s happening. Even if you surround yourself with people who hang onto your every word, it doesn’t necessarily prove that your visions are divinely driven. Just as you are eager to believe in your own prophecies, some others will be eager to believe them too. If they can’t find a direct connection between their experiences and your visions, they will make one. Churches are emotionally charged environments full of people grasping for confirmation of the divine.

             This is my main issue with revealed religion. We can’t be expected to just take someone else’s word at face value. Revealed religion hasn’t been revealed to us personally; it’s been passed along by people who regarded themselves as prophets. These “prophets” contradict one another, and often contradict themselves. Extraordinary claims merit extraordinary proof. If we’re supposed to believe something just because we are told so, then we are obliged to believe anyone who tells us anything. We need to determine that our sources are reliable, rather than self-referential. If we’re going to let an ideology govern our lives, we need to make sure that our sources are not using other sources that are self-referential. A circular argument doesn’t disprove the validity of its claim, but if a claim is only based on a circular argument or hearsay, it’s not very solid. We can’t rationally believe that the Bible is true simply because it says it is. We need to examine the reliability of our own perceptions and experiences, too. Some will say that the Bible must be entirely reliable because people have had so many personal experiences that confirmed the Christian faith, but people have had personal experiences that confirm (to themselves) the doctrine of any religion that exists. Not all religions can be right, but I think there's a common link to these occurrences: they cause the person who is having the experience to feel certain that there's a God. This God's specific identity is up to interpretation.

            My other issue with revealed religion is the blatant manipulation that is used to convert people. If you remove the punishment and reward factors from your belief system, would you still feel compelled to follow it? Would you still practice your beliefs if you didn’t hope for a cosmic reward or fear punishment for disobedience? Is it mainly about love for God, or self-preservation? I can’t answer these questions for everyone. People operate on different motives. I notice that demoralization is a large part of the conversion process. Evangelism usually involves a heavy dose of guilt-tripping and threats. It involves telling someone that they are wicked and awful unless they hold specific beliefs. I don’t think that all evangelists use these methods for the sole sake of demoralization, as many believe their own rhetoric and don’t exempt themselves from it. Still, the fact that these conversion methods are based on genuine beliefs doesn’t mean they’re commendable. The fact that they’re often heartfelt doesn’t make them any healthier or more productive. An argument that rests entirely on circular logic, subjective experience, red herrings, and personal accusations will not convince me.

          So, where does this leave me? Well, I have certain beliefs that are consistent with Christianity, and I do worship Jesus as God. If you think my doubts make me a hypocritical Christian, though, I’ll settle the issue. I won’t call myself a Christian. The title comes with too many connotations that don’t apply to me. I don’t mean any disrespect toward Christians. I’m not out to force my views on anyone; I'm just explaining them so you will know where I’m coming from. I would be lying if I denied my desire to convince people. Of course I want people to agree with what I'm saying, but I don’t want to be forceful about it.

        When I associated myself with the title of Christian, I think I was doing it more for others’ approval than anything else. I didn’t want to acknowledge that even to myself, but I need to be honest. Throughout much of my life, I’ve sought acceptance from those who will never fully include me. I saw the general Christian community as a group of people who would only approve of me on a highly conditional basis, and I sought to earn it. In a way, I viewed the Judeo-Christian God the same way. I saw Him as the ultimate standard of selective approval, and thus His love was the ultimate reward to be earned. It shouldn’t be about approval-seeking or social pressure, though. I want to base my beliefs on reliable evidence gained from research, prayer, and logic. I will strive for this from now on.

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