Faith means never having to admit you were wrong

Jesus performed “healing miracles” all around the Galilee countryside, except in his hometown of Nazareth. The people there knew him and his tricks.

Threatening to throw Jesus off a cliff - Luke 4: 19

As one young “Christ follower” says: “After bringing Jesus out of the desert, God calls Him to preach in Nazareth where he is unable to do many miracles because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58). But it gets worse. He then preached in the synagogue and offended the people (Mark 6:3). They were so incensed by His sermon they tried to push him off a cliff (Luke 4:14-30).”

That doesn’t stop Christians like the blogger quoted above – they just go into their Have-it-both-ways mode. Jesus as God is not the same as Jesus as man… Jesus as God is omniscient and infallible, Jesus as man is fallible and still learning… How can you tell which Jesus you’re dealing with? By the results, of course! If a miracle succeeds, it was God. If it fails, it was just the human.

This is the heart of faith: A person is in a car crash and survives – “Praise the Lord!”… but their spouse is killed – “God works in mysterious ways.”

A child is in hospital with doctors and medicine and survives some rare and often-fatal illness: “Proof that prayer works! Praise the Lord!”

Meanwhile there are 30 countries in Africa in which over 10% of children die before the age of 5. The leading causes of death for them are simple: acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, measles, malaria and, of course, malnutrition. Worldwide, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, 7,000,000 children a year die from preventable causes. So why do so many innocents die? “God works in mysterious ways.”

Faith means never admitting you were wrong. It’s not a good attitude for raising children, making educational policy, or running a government.

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Jesus as Faith Healer

I’ve never understood exactly what Jesus is trying to demonstrate, and to whom, with regard to the Christian view of his healing miracles.

How faith healing works

If he wanted to be effective and merciful, he should have healed thousands in a big city like Jerusalem, instead of just one person on any given occasion.

If he wanted to demonstrate God’s power to the world, he should have gone to a Greek or Roman place of healing in Caesarea, and healed all the difficult cases that the doctors were struggling with.

He didn’t seem to want to do either of those things – just as a faith healer never goes to a hospital to heal the people there.

It looks suspiciously like (the Christian, unhistorical) Jesus and the faith healer only work to cure you of your love of money – “the root of all evil”.

Maybe the answer is in the name, “faith healer” – all they can really heal is your faith!

It’s not Hamza Kashgari who is blasphemous – it’s his accusers!

On the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, 23-year-old poet and journalist Hamza Kashgari sent out three tweets:

Hamza Kashgari calls it like he sees it

  • On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.
  • On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
  • On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

This ignited a firestorm of indignation, with tens of thousands of his fellow Saudis calling for him to be tried for blasphemy and atheism, and executed. For some of the worst acting from a cleric, watch this short video.

Hamza flew to Malaysia, heading for asylum in New Zealand, but was arrested in the airport at Kuala Lumpur.

The irony is that his tweets are perfectly in line with the attitude that Muhammad himself tried to cultivate: that humans should never be deified, that neither Jesus nor Muhammad was anything but an ordinary man (though favored with prophetic gifts), and that, as he himself tried to prove, Muhammad could not perform miracles.

By the way, that’s the source of the story that ends “Well, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.” Very much like King Canute shutting his flattering courtiers up by setting his chair up on the beach and telling the waves to go back, which they wouldn’t.

But the followers and the religious organizers always take over after the great man is dead, and turn him into a god to be worshiped. It happened with Buddha, with Odin, with Jesus. Muhammad put as many firewalls in the way as he could, but all too many Muslims treat Muhammad the way Christians treat Jesus, and impute outlandish miracles to him such as splitting and rejoining the moon.

Realistically, therefore, it’s the fanatical and superstitious accusers of Hamza Kashgari who are the blasphemers. The young poet should be praised for trying to keep Islam true to the wishes of its Prophet.

The Meanest Miracle – Cursing the Fig Tree

This is Jesus’ stupidest and most mean-spirited miracle, as reported in the gospels. Here’s the story:

He’s walking the four miles from Bethany to Jerusalem just before Passover (March/April). Here’s Mark: “Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. (Ooh, look, a bonus! Proof that Jesus isn’t omniscient, and therefore isn’t God!) When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. The next morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.”

Jesus curses a fig tree, and unwittingly sets up a joke.

So, he’s not omniscient, and he’s petty, and he’s vindictive, and he’s also not very bright – because in the spring there would be leaves but no fruit yet. So he curses it, and the next day it’s completely withered.

What’s the point? Christian apologists tie themselves in knots saying that he did it to symbolize that the Jewish religion, though outwardly in full leaf, is not productive and is destined to die from Jesus’ update to True Religion. But Jesus didn’t say anything about that. When the disciples said “Oh, wow!” he just told them that if they had unwavering faith that yonder mountain could be thrown into the sea, it would happen. (If any of them tried, it didn’t work.) The apologists draw their message out of thin air. They also don’t address Jesus’ hunger, ignorance, anger or stupidity.

It’s a typical Jesus miracle in these aspects:

1) It could be faked – all you have to do is have your friend Lazarus (living in Bethany) come by that evening and pull all the leaves off, and next day the disciples would be fooled into thinking that the tree had withered at Jesus’ command.

2) It’s not the sort of beneficial and glorious thing that you would have chosen if you were writing a story about a real miracle-worker. In that case, you would have Jesus bless the tree instead of curse it, and within 60 seconds it would have fruited and produced enough delicious out-of-season ripe figs to make everyone happy. (And then the apologists would say that he showed how the Jewish religion could be transformed by his blessing into something productive, etc etc.)

Somehow it’s always like that. He heals someone who says they’re lame, or blind, or suffering from devils… but does he ever regrow an amputated limb? Ha! He can restore to life a friend who says he was dead… but what about his spiritual teacher, the man who baptized him, John the Baptist? Why didn’t he put John’s head back on his shoulders, and restore him to life?

Jesus’ miracles are always street magic, designed to engage the audience while he preaches his message of repentance and the return to God… and, probably, while his followers collect contributions for the Zealot uprising.

Magical thinking and Jesus

Context. Without context, a star can hover over a house, because that’s the way our creative understanding works. In the context of astrophysics, that star idea is nonsensical. Without context, Jesus was a Christian and the Jews hated him. In the context of his time and place, there were no Christians. He lived in the middle of an area occupied by pig-eating, beard-shaving, idolatrous Westerners. He lived in the middle of 200 years of constant uprisings by religious fundamentalists. Reading his words in context, it is obvious that he was a Jew, he hated the Romans, most Jews loved him, and Romans hated him.

Paul's legacy: nonsensical magical thinking

The genius of Paul was in seeing that by removing context and putting everything into the mythic realm, a universal religion could be created that wasn’t tied to the foibles of its anointed fountainhead. In this case, by decontextualizing Jesus, he became no longer a Jew (John says things like “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him” – John 5: 18). He became no longer an adversary of Rome, no longer a Zealot, no longer gay… he becomes instead a mythic god, independent of the realities of history, independent of the laws of the universe. “Magic Jesus“, in the song by Tim Minchin.

Whether Paul understood this consciously and deliberately planned it, or whether he believed the visions from his own epileptic seizures, we may never know. But Paul is the creator of the post-Jewish “Christianity”.

The Gospels are written in an episodic way, highlighting some aspects of Jesus’ teachings, camouflaging other uncomfortable aspects, turning Jesus’ Jewishness upside down to make him more acceptable to Roman listeners and the Roman Empire, blending him with Mithras and Apollo. The Gospels swaddle him in miracles not just “from birth to death”, not even just “from womb to tomb”, but, in words originating in another context, “from the erection to the resurrection”. The very bookends of his life are so unbelievable that many people nowadays suspect he never existed at all.

So Jesus becomes a myth, a spiritual reality, an archetype. Like others before him in the preliterate world, he attains godhood. The historical person didn’t, of course – the historical person is dead and buried. But the story lives and grows and transmutes, constantly evolving to resonate more deeply with more people. All this is natural, inherent in human tendencies, and can be very useful for personal growth…

But magical thinking is a lousy basis for government policy decisions. Especially regarding the science curriculum for schools and universities.

Magical thinking and the Star of Bethlehem

The trouble with the Star of Bethlehem story is that stars are not what they appear to be to children and the uneducated. Yes, they look like fireflies or distant candles, and therefore can be imagined to float through the air like glowing fairies to hover over a house and point it out as special. Maybe they can think. Talk. Smile.

A star. (Note: not entirely credible, scientifically...)

However, being a minimum of 25,000 times the mass of our planet, this isn’t something that they can actually do. They only look like fireflies because they’re trillions of miles away. They’re pretty big, really.

Humans are designed for pattern recognition, and to seek out cause and effect, and to think visually, and to construct explanatory narratives and stories. “Sing me a song! Tell me a story! Read me a book!” A simple story is the most effective way to communicate an abstract concept – that’s why Jesus told parables. But this excellent intellectual tool of ours also has a downside: when our perception is limited or our understanding is incomplete, we use imagination to fill the gap. And our imagination springs from the dream world, not the physical world.

So we have no difficulty with the idea of Santa visiting all the world’s children in a single night. Or with the idea that, if we just get into the right frame of mind, we will be able to hear speech (in our own language!) from animals and trees. Or that we could walk around on the clouds if we could jump up there. Or that when people and animals die and get buried they are still around, you can still see them and talk with them under the right conditions. Or that we can influence the future with a rhyme or a ritual, control dice with a thought or a wish, produce rain by prayer…

We are born with that magical view of the world. It is very effective in keeping us optimistic, healthy, social and creative. Internally, it works. But externally? Sadly deficient.

Enjoy the stories that resonate with you, think about the images that feel powerful, give thanks (to the power of evolution) for the songs and landscapes that you love… but don’t conflate internal emotional power with external physical reality. Carlos Castaneda never turned into a crow, no matter how much peyote he consumed. There is no Easter Bunny. Nor angels, nor talking snakes, nor people ascending up in the air to live in “heaven”.

And regardless of how vivid your imagination is, nothing that has 25,000 times the mass of the Earth is going to hover over a house. Not in the real world. Sorry.

The Miracles, 4: Lazarus

When Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for Passover (because he was a Jew, remember?) he got word that his close friend Lazarus is very sick. Instead of making the one-day walk to Lazarus, he waits where he is for a couple of days, telling the disciples that Lazarus will die so that he can be resurrected to demonstrate God’s glory. Jesus has already been prophesying that people will see a “son of man” raised from the dead after three days. Now’s clearly the time for it.

Classic Mummy

Jesus shows up, finally. Yes, Lazarus has been dead for three or four days. Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary meet Jesus at the graveyard, there are a lot of other people there too, and Jesus has the tomb opened and calls Lazarus, who stumbles out stinking and wrapped in grave-clothes. “Many believed,” says John’s Gospel. Therefore clearly many, perhaps most, did not believe.

Why not?

Too easy to fake.

Why didn’t Jesus come earlier, except to show off what he could do?

If he could raise people from the dead, why didn’t he do it more often… and not for a close friend where there would be doubts about the veracity of it?

And Lazarus walked out of the tomb. Seriously, no one wraps a body for real like they do for horror movies. In real life you wrap the legs together, just as you wrap the arms to the body. Unless you want the body to be able to walk!

It was a bogus ‘miracle’, and not even good enough to fool all the onlookers.