The Christmas Jesus and stuff

Panel Discussion

Posted December 21st, 2014

John Hamer stops by again to talk about the Historical Jesus with Glenn, Allison, and Bob.

Of course we talk about other stuff, too, like belief, and Bob’s endless fascination with Hamer’s “you-say-you’re-a-Christian-Pastor-but-you-don’t-sound-like-a-Christian-Pastor what can I do with this lamb in lamb’s clothing” thing.

And oh yeah, we talk about Christmas a little bit, too, and ask the question, “do you really need to throw the baby Jesus out with all of the mythological bathwater?”

(Answer: No.  No, you don’t.)

  • LordToastButter

    Was going to try a write a lengthy comment on this…. but from all of the round and round talk my head hurts a little….. ntm I found Hamer to have more of a theological spin on the subject then a true historical one. You guys should find a historian that isn’t linked with x-y-z faith to discuss the true historicity of the person. As for Christmas… it never died, the damn Christians hijacked it. Happy Saturnalia! http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/saturnalia.html

    • Your logic would make it impossible for anyone to have credibility when it comes to religious history. First of all, John addressed directly the concern you are raising. His religious practice and the existence of a historical Jesus are not correlated in that way. And secondly, wouldn’t a historian with no ties to religion be accused of some form of the opposite agenda?

    • The idea that “the Christians” hijacked Christmas seems to me to be a bit of an anachronism where we are pasting our own picture of a modern, pluralistic society back on antiquity. Everybody in the Roman Empire (other than the Jews) became Christian by the 4th and 5th centuries CE. As a result Latin Christianity is a fusion of the entire western inheritance. We could just as easily say that the mainstream of Roman society hijacked a little bit of Christian mythology and pasted it on top of pre-existing beliefs (“pagans” in late Antiquity had actually become philosophical monotheists), practical philosophy (especially Stoicism which was retained and recaste Christian ethics), and practices (such as holidays).

      After Julius Caesar reformed the calender, the 25th was the solstice and was celebrated as the birthday of the Sun, which was philosophically equated with the unmoved-mover or the “One” God of the godhead (as understood by pagan philosophers). This holiday in celebration of the birth of the One God was mainstream in Roman society prior to the merger of Christianity into Romanness and it continued afterwards. By all means: “Io Saturnalia!”

  • Lainie Davila

    Allison, my experience is similar to yours. The magic has gone from Christmas. I think it is a combination of things: 1) Growing up and knowing that presents don’t come for free, 2) Joining the LDS church and then for many, many, many years having the holiday season be so overwhelming with all of the things we were expected to do, and 3) Being told we should feel spiritual and feeling like a failure when I didn’t feel especially spiritual (because I was feeling poor and worn out). Now that I’m no longer LDS and trying to keep up with others’ expectations, Christmas finally feels magical again. I don’t have to participate in 3 or 4 church parties (Primary, RS, Ward). I don’t have to put up all the decorations unless I want to (and I don’t). I did all my shopping online and can now just relax and enjoy the anticipation of having a few fun hours with my family. I hope that you, Allison, find this year more magical too.

    • Allison

      You articulated that much better than I did when we recorded, Lainie.

      Yes, I felt like I had forced my family into this thing that didn’t feel natural, yet induced a lot of guilt. And even now that I don’t have to do that anymore, for the past few years it’s felt like some of that forcing must have worked, or just that it’s been so long since I can remember what a truly magical, no-guilt, quality time Christmas is like, that it saddens me that after we left the church, what I remember loving about Christmas as a kid just didn’t come so easily as I hoped. And the part I didn’t talk about at all on the podcast, is how this is effecting my kids. I want so much for them to feel that magic I had growing up (that my husband didn’t have at all–they didn’t believe in santa, and had very few family traditions). My kids are getting older very fast. So this year I’m doing what John talked about and using traditions we like and making them our own. I like to think of it as Christmas Piracy. 😉 I think talking about this on the podcast and hearing the other people’s perspectives helped me a lot.

      So thanks for your comment. It’s kind of a silly thing to whine about, I know. But it will get better!

  • Flora4

    Good episode. I like listening to John Hamer. He provides a perspective that I don’t get to hear anywhere else. I like the idea of using Hamer as an OED to try and define those terms.

    Now that I don’t believe, I don’t know what I want to do about the holiday. I have been considering celebrating the 21st (shortest day of the year, or longest night of the year) as a more realistic reason for the season. I really like the traditions created for the holiday more than the ‘reason for the season’. Traditions like the lights, songs, and the great smelling tree. The songs seem problematic since i don’t believe anymore, but luckily Minchin provides an option for the song dilemma with ‘white wine in the sun.’ Great song about loving family enjoying each other and lamenting how the holiday gets used for commercial/ consumer purposes.

    Is there a part 2 to this podcast? It seemed to end abruptly.

    • Thanks for the feedback. There isn’t a part 2 (other than my hope to get John back on to define religious terms). Apologies if the ending came across too abruptly; we ended it there because we were getting tired and the few minutes after that point didn’t offer much for the podcast.

  • mindog

    I don’t know…whenever I hear John Hamer talking about the value of religion, it always feels like he’s attending a Star Trek convention. Or worse… that he thinks it’s a useful structure to pretend we have superstitions in order to manipulate people. An intentional self delusion.

    It seems like the contribution of belief systems was to to grant a meta understanding about the way the world works, how influences outside of our perceivable reality function with it, and how we can and should interact with both of those. Without that ability to describe any of those beyond that, which John doesn’t seem to have, then what value is that kind of belief? It just doesn’t seem to me that the kind of deity that Hamer describes matters or has any use or value at all. It doesn’t matter if you believe or not. I haven’t found that the extraction of belief in a deity out of my life has limited my ability to interact and form social groups and interact positively with others with others in any long term way. I can go out and meet people in a variety of ways and create my own congregations of friends and alliances that simply don’t require any kind of formal traditional structure.

    As to the contributions of Christian and prior philosophers, they didn’t really have a choice but to believe or live out their lives acting like they did. It was their entire social milieu. The fact is, it held them back. Many of the people we look to for a lot of the scientific and social progress is simply a lot of contemporary cherry picking about their ideas and personal history. We like this piece of their life where they opened up our understanding of how the world really worked, but there are large portions of their efforts and beliefs that were simply superstitious and false. I hear Hamer doing that every time he says that “most” or the “most important” Christian thinkers thought this or that. What he means are the most important ones to him or the people he’s looking to now or even just the people he associates with now.

    I see this same tendency in the historians of my field who try to unify it into a nice tidy history with a few bumps on the way to getting here, but over all a nice neat progression from then to now, each innovation seen as an improvement on the past until we arrive inevitably to where we are today. But the more closely I look at that history, the more I see that it’s much messier and significantly more complicated than historians of that area like to describe it. Maybe I shouldn’t project that understanding onto other areas, but I don’t really accept a progressive view of history, that is, that we’re moving step by step toward some specific outcome.

    Anyway…the deity and spiritual experience that Hamer seems to find the most acceptable, to me, would be the least meaningful. Like whistling in the graveyard. I think it’s ok if we just turn on some lights or just accept that there’s nothing to be afraid of at all, because there’s nothing there.

    We don’t have to pretend in order to be happy, to find peace or to do good.

    • I think you are mischaracterizing John, but I understand the drive to do so. Funny, I was afraid I’d come off as too antagonistic in the way I talked with him, but your comment reminds me that I could be much worse. 🙂

      I should be careful not to put words in his mouth, but John has explained before that just because he finds value in his approach doesn’t mean he’s trying to show you how your life or approach doesn’t have value until you join him… It’s really not fair to take the worst parts of whatever presupposed religious conversion agenda and assume it applies to him.

      The irony is that those of us now without belief (presumably you, mindog, along with me) sometimes don’t realize that we ourselves are still privy to explaining our lack of belief in a way that can sound just as aggressive as whatever caricature call-to-repentance preacher we can’t stand.

      That said, I do agree with you that we don’t have to pretend in order to be happy, find peace, or do good. And you also make some interesting points about history that resonate with me.

      • Glenn

        “those of us now without belief…”
        facepalm
        1 out of 5 on the self-aware, being-careful-with-language scale

        • Really, Glenn? You need me to go back and edit it so that it says “those of us now without religious belief” before you know what I’m talking about?

          • Glenn

            Even “religious belief” isn’t specific enough. You need the wiki. Cuz “religious belief” could mean a whole lot of things — depending on how you define, it — right? You say you are without it. But you haven’t said what “it” is. But we don’t need to do that here. I like your idea from the podcast. Let’s define those terms.

          • Yeah, we should define those terms… but not because my comment is so hard to understand otherwise. My point, based on a general comparison of behavior of believers and non-believers, isn’t incomprehensible without definitions.

          • Glenn

            Not “hard to understand.” Just sloppy. Super sloppy.

          • Glenn

            And despite the way I trashed my “Faith vs. Doubt” talk from 5 years ago, I still think there is something to “I don’t believe x” is actually “I believe that x is not real (or whatever).” So I still have semantic issues with people who claim they are beyond “belief.” (obviously) Even “religious” belief.

          • Probably in the same way I take issue / want to roll my eyes when — when talking about religion — the religious person’s first go-to example of belief is something related to science with a pseudo-profound “see, we ALL believe!!” take away, as if I haven’t heard that misdirection a million times over.

          • Ok, fine, whatever, I was sloppy. Ultimately you and I both think there’d be a lot of value in having this [re]definition of religious terms conversation. It’s just that you’re already calling me out on something preemptively. But look around the comments, if I’m sloppy, so is most everyone here, who are all making “certain assumptions.”

            Words like “authority,” “liberal,” or “truth,” have already been used today with no defining happening first. But I don’t see you responding to each of those sloppy uses with how they are loaded terms that could go in so many directions.

      • mindog

        I wasn’t trying to be combative, simply clear. Since leaving mormonism, I recognized how much I reduced my communication to a passive supplicating voice. I actively remove that when I speak or write. Also, this is the internetz and you have tune your perceived aggression meter (Perceived Maliciousness Scale : PMS?) down about 30% or you may read too much antagonism into someone’s intent. (Bob’s Internet Aggression Scale : BIAS?)

        While I agree that John Hamer (we need to get him a middle initial for his GA name), doesn’t necessarily want people to join his church or says he doesn’t believe he has any exclusivity on the truth, when you get down to the core of his beliefs, he does believe that there are absolutes that have value to every person within his metaphysical system. If you go back to this discussion he repeatably calls to the carpet those within Christianity who do not take his approach to religious faith. He tosses the fundamentalist approach into a large aggregate outgroup. And there’s where we see one of his carefully delineated and demarcated boundaries where he is absolutely right and they are absolutely wrong. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be roundly criticized, but to say that they’re outside of the real intentional flow of Christian history and it’s significant thinkers, just doesn’t make any sense to me. The impact of the fundamentalist approach seems like a large if not the largest and most significant outcome of the 2000 years of Christian thinking. So when he talks about them being outside of this or that “real Christianity”, it just sounds like cherry picking to me.

        • Thanks for clarifying. I won’t try to speak for John again, but I will say you have some really valid points!

          • mindog

            yea! I’m valid!

        • Whether or not a person needs to join my church to live a fulfilled, meaningful life (Answer: they don’t) is a distinct question from the historical question here and also the value judgment here.

          The historical question was: is fundamentalist religion a modern phenomenon or is it simply a hold over of the way people lived in the past?Answer: It’s a modern phenomenon. It’s a reaction to modernity and a reaction against modernity.

          I make the point because people sometimes think: well, Medieval Christians didn’t believe in evolution and modern fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution, therefore they are the same thing. The crucial difference, however, is that Medieval Christians believed in science at the height of the state it was in. They didn’t reject the theory of evolution; evolution had yet to be theorized. By contrast, modern fundamentalists overtly reject science.

          That idea that there is “a real intentional flow of Christian history” is an odd one that seems to imply that History has an intent or plan. History doesn’t have an intentional flow. Individual people have intentions to their actions, but most of the consequences are unintended. In this way, Community of Christ and the LDS Church are both outgrowths of the early church organized on April 6, 1830, but neither is anything like anyone back then would or could have imagined, much less intended.

          Christian fundamentalism is certainly an outgrowth of historic Christian experience (it may even be the majority outgrowth); but it’s an outgrowth living in our own time, not a time capsule preserving the past. In the very same way Islamic fundamentalism is a modern outgrowth of past Islam and Hindu fundamentalism is a modern outgrowth of past Hinduism.

          The reality that fundamentalism is a modern, reactionary phenomenon is distinct from the personal judgments I make about fundamentalism.

          Although my criticisms of fundamentalism are sweeping, they are not derived from an abolutist framework.

          • I think one aspect of the “value judgment” is the perceived paradox of “whatever, religion, I don’t think it’s necessarily important to you or others” and “I personally participate actively and significantly in a religion that facilitates meaning and fulfillment.”

            I guess it’s sort of like when I really love a certain movie, but it’s not the type I can recommend easily. It happens, but in my experience is more the exception than the rule when loving a movie. But obviously I like talking about those movies specifically that one loves but doesn’t really recommend. 🙂

          • mindog

            Again, that’s a cherry picked, rosy glassed, and narrow view of history. Take Galileo as a famous example or the fact that Michelangelo had to conduct his anatomical studies in secret or face a potential death penalty. Or even movable press printing. These aren’t anomalies. This is the literal flesh and blood of Christian history reacting to new information. The historic institutional Church often opposed scientific innovation
            whenever it stood in contradiction to Church doctrine. That’s fundamentalism. There may have
            been individuals and times within Church history who kept moving forward with scientific inquiries because they could read and write and have access to certain kinds of information and opportunities, but this was the exception (for example, Michelangelo conducted his anatomical studies with the assistance of a priest who gave him a key secretly). It always required time for it to be accepted and it wasn’t some kind of “Christian” scientific method that got them there, it was the fact that real, provable and useful understandings grew out of those new sets of information. It’d be far more accurate to say that Christianity accepted science as long as it fit within their fundamentalist dogmas and that dogmas later evolved to match some version of the truth.

            Christianity at it’s core, regardless of whether you’re a hard core fundamentalist or a postmodern deconstructionist of the faith, has a foundation of dogmatism. As a former fundamentalist believer in LDS doctrine, I didn’t know how to resolve what I perceived to be contradictions between what I “knew” to be true and what was evidently accurate around me. Eventually I realized that every religion at some point required a leap of faith, whether that seemed to be a small gap or a massive chasm, there was some point where I had to let go of my rational expectations and experiences and just believe. I had to “blank out” or put on the shelf the contradictions and trust that the brethren at the top could see further than I. Apparently this leads to massive cognitive dissonance, but I was pretty good at it for a long time.

            It’s one thing to say you believe, whether it’s specifically or vaguely, because you want to, because it’s interesting, because it gives you a community, or it grants you comfort. But to say that there are rational reasons based on a real, but unknowable section of reality is to set aside that rationality for faith. Which is what faith really is.

            I may enjoy playing a video game (a little too much Destiny these days…) or watching a movie (even a based on a true story one…), but I never mistake these forms of entertainment as an actual description of reality.

          • You are misdefining faith based on your own personal experience as a fundamentalist. It’s very normal for someone to extrapolate from their own experience and assume their experience represents something universal. It’s also very normal for a person who has realized (and admitted) to having been duped by incredibly flawed reasoning to fail to examine the deeper framework that came along with the surface system that they overtly rejected.

            The cherries you’re picking are all flawed. Galileo was a genuinely pious and committed Christian. Michelangelo was a Christian. Guttenburg was a Christian. You obviously discount their Christianity as not true faith because it doesn’t conform to the stereotypes to which you’re still committed. However, Christianity was not opposing them or their innovations because they were Christianity too. Rather conservative elements within Christianity were opposing them.

            Those conservative elements within Christianity were not fundamentalists. For example, the famous fight Galileo got into over the heliocentric universe were fights that Heliocentrist Christians like Galileo were having with Christians committed to Aristolelianism.

            I refer you to the Wikipedia articles on “Fundamentalism” and “Christian Fundamentalism” for your reference on the accepted definition of these terms.

          • mindog

            I don’t think I’m redefining faith (divine, infinities, vague notion of a deity) at all. It’s a cognitive leap to trust the unseeable and incomprehensible. That was the theoretical poetic beauty of the thing, that even not being able to fully comprehend or perceive you could move forward in hope. I don’t know how you would describe faith or belief differently. As far as the fundamentalism question, I did check the articles, and I don’t see how I’m misapplying the terms.

            As for those innovators who were committed Christians…of course they were. What else would they be? This was the myth that permeated every aspect of their cognition. For them to be anything else was unthinkable. It’d be like waking up and suddenly I’m not some pasty white American and now I’m a Mongolian living in a yurt on the steppes. It wouldn’t make any sense. Which is similar in some ways to myself, in that I was born into Mormonism, it was my air, water, food, fire, and the ground I walked on. What else would I have believed? None of them woke up one day and realized they were Christians or gradually became converted through a careful weighing of real options. Michelangelo would have no more questioned his Christianity than he would his Florentine nativity. There were too many social and cognitive pressures to do otherwise. I was fortunate in my circumstances, when I left the US to live abroad a couple years ago (still here!), it extricated me from that morass and allowed me to see things differently.

            “However, Christianity was not opposing them or their innovations
            because they were Christianity too. Rather conservative elements within
            Christianity were opposing them.” They did oppose them based on their generally accepted Christian teachings at the time. They were opposed because what they did and taught brought into question basic fundamentals that were essential to the Church maintaining her power structure. There were reasons that the Aristotelian model was seen as significant to the essential authority of Christianity, as you’re obviously aware. (When I say Christianity, I mean the people and institutional structure supporting the philosophical approach, obviously a philosophy is an inert concept moved forward only by people. This seems to be how you’re using the term as well.)

            The essential framework that I’m interested in is whether or not something is accurate or as accurate as we can get it for now. Whether or not it’s applicable and influential. If there is something divine, infinite, and permanent housed in the singular or collective consciousness of humanity and it matters to the quality of my life now and much later, then that does interest me. Anything other than that by definition doesn’t matter, because it lacks any impact. It doesn’t change a thing. Expending energy on it is a waste.

          • Your example was that the Pope Urban VIII in his quarrel with Galileo was acting as a fundamentalist. You wrote: “The historic institutional Church often opposed scientific innovation whenever it stood in contradiction to Church doctrine. That’s fundamentalism.”

            You now write: “As far as the fundamentalism question, I did check the articles, and I don’t see how I’m misapplying the terms.”

            Now let’s go to the article, “Christian fundamentalism”. It begins: “Christian fundamentalism began in the late 19th- and early 20th-century among British and American Protestants as a reaction to theological liberalism and cultural modernism.”

            Hmmm… how could you be misapplying the terms? It makes perfect sense that a 16th century pope could be rooted in a thing that began in the 19th- and early 20th-century among Anglo-American Protestants as a reaction to theological liberalism and cultural modernity.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_fundamentalism

          • Chicago

            My not-very-learned Catholic spin on that episode is that Galileo got in trouble for having the temerity to question God’s favorite pagan philosopher Aristotle (as read through the Thomists). The problem wasn’t that Galileo questioned biblical cosmology (which I guess would involve a star-speckled dome/firmament above the plain of the Earth, with upper waters and celestial objects floating about). In other words, the Church’s oppressive and intellectually ossified attitude with respect to the natural sciences in the 1600s was founded on different pillars than those supporting the later fundamentalist schools of Protestantism. Just as bad, but different.

          • mindog

            A. I said “fundamentalism” not “Christian Fundamentalism”. So no, not misapplying it.

            B. Formal terms that use regular nouns in English have multiple applications. i.e. Renaissance does not only apply to a narrow period of history, but applies to any kind of rebirth personal, historical, technological, etc.

            http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fundamentalism?s=t
            See definitions 2 and 3 for fundamentalism.

            When I refer to fundamentalism (even in the Christian sense, can we use “little c” in Christian to distinguish the Movement from the approach?), I’m simply referring to the strict belief in doctrines and dogmas that indicate a metaphysical world (in the general Christian sense of a 3 in 1 combo god, Heaven, Bible, eternity, etc.) over one that is potentially universally verifiable. That’s a fundamentalist approach.

    • The LDS Church’s value proposition for religion, in part, is: (1) exclusivity of authority, (2) monopoly on truth, (3) simple answers to life’s questions, and (4) a literalistic conception of a highly physical anthropomorphic God who directly rewards and punishes. It’s interesting that even after many people who bought into that value proposition as adults reject the “I know the church is true” mantra, they nevertheless continue to value the underlying proposition.

      If I take your meaning, mindog, you’re saying that the only kind of church that you’d value would be like the one you left, only true — and since it’s impossible for such a church to be true, you don’t value any. That’s understandable since that’s the underlying framework you’re coming from.

      Since the place I am is quite different, it may look wholly alien when seen through your prism — like I’m at a Star Trek convention or whistling in a graveyard. (Both of which are wonderful things to do.) However, let me state again that my church has rejected claims of exclusivity of authority, monopoly on truth, simplistic answers, and anthopomorphizing the Divine. As a corollary to that rejection, we do not claim that you need to be members of my church to be happy, to find peace, or to do good.

      In my view, you do not need to be a part of organized religion to lead a completely fulfilled life. Whereas I do think what I and my congregation are doing is valuable, I do not have to discount what you’re doing in order to appreciate what I’m doing. Rather, I am very happy that you have found a way in your own life to be happy, to find peace, and to do good.

      • mindog

        From where I am now, if I could believe again, which I doubt I could (doubly doubt my doubting doubts?), I don’t know that I would want truth exclusivity (or authoritarian, etc), just actual concrete truth. Something that I could actuate consciously and impactfully. Maybe that’s my mormon artifact, I believed that the things I participated in and supported had real metaphysical value on both sides of the veil. It could be something that could be seen as more universal, but even in that generality it would need to be absolute.

        I just don’t see a point in the worship of a Being who doesn’t have real direct or even indirect influence on the origins, directions, content, and outcome of my conscious existence. Any Being outside of that simply doesn’t matter and if that Being isn’t there or is just playing games with conscious life, then the energy expended on It are a waste and could do so much more in other areas. From the way you describe it, it just sounds like everyone’s in on the joke, but it’s ok because you get to do x, y, and zed (canadian?). And again, I just don’t see the point of it beyond the entertainment value. Maybe Civil War reenactments at it’s least harmful?

  • Devin

    I like how this article differentiates b/w historicized mythology and mythologized history. (Zealot by Reza Aslan also covers much of this discussion). http://www.salon.com/2014/09/01/5_reasons_to_suspect_that_jesus_never_existed/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

    • We actually referenced most of the points from this Salon article in this podcast. Point #1 the idea that there is no “secular” evidence is anachronistic, since nothing was secular in our modern sense in antiquity. However, the point that almost all our relevant evidence comes from Christian sources is valid and requires us to approach the sources with a lot of caution. Point #2 that early Christians were ignorant of the details of the historical Jesus’ life is why we have to be very cautious about any of those details that eventually get supplied. However, it’s not really an argument against the existence of a historical Jesus; just against our knowing very much about him with certainty. Point #3 that there are no first-hand accounts we made several times with our he-knew-a-guy-who-knew-a-guy stuff in the podcast. Point #4 is the fact that the gospels contradict each other — we also made that point in the podcast. We’re actually better off because we have these contradictory sources. If we only had the gospel of John (and lacked the competing voices), we really would be left wondering about the root question. Point #5 that scholars of the historical Jesus paint very different pictures, does not actually impact the root question — (is there a historical Jesus?). However, it does highlight the problem of what can we really say about this figure. The answer is that there are multiple, competing pictures than can be painted that are historically defensible, given the lack of evidence.

      • Devin

        It seems like you are using “historical” and “theological” interchangeably. That is what makes it confusing.

        • We ranged around so much I can see why it’s confusing. Whereas, I enjoyed this conversation with Bob and Allison and Glenn, I think it might have been a bit of a mistake to go off-topic and start down the theology road during a podcast whose main topic was history.

          On a lot of podcasts when the topic is history, I can simply have my historians cap on and talk history. But if we’re talking religious history (anything from Jesus to Joseph Smith) and my take on history is pretty much the same as a secular historian’s take, the question sometimes arises, wait a second — how does this fit into your personal worldview as a religious person? Or how does this work, given the fact that you’re leader of a congregation? Both of which require different hats for me to answer, since one is a personal question and the other is in my role in the congregation, both of which are distinct from my study of history.

  • Craig S.

    So much interesting stuff in this discussion. Here are some of questions that occurred to me, though. First, if we go with John’s conception of God and say that God is not a question of belief but a question of definition, why bother to use the term God at all? If it’s not something that has an agreed upon definition, it seems to me that limits its usefulness as a term. If every time we say the word “God,” we have to say “and by “God” I mean the infinite” or whatever it is, why not just talk about the infinite?

    My approach to that may also be informing my next thought. Progressive religious people often criticize those who deconvert and leave religion altogether, saying they’re going to an extreme and throwing things out that don’t need to be thrown out. But if fundamentalism and progressive religion are so different that the same terms mean completely different things (which it seems clear is the case, based on this conversation), doesn’t it make just as much sense to throw it all out and start from scratch as to try to learn all of the completely new meanings for the things you talked about before? It seems like the biggest difference between John and Bob, for example, is just the terminology they use. Their opinions on how the world actually works don’t seem to be very different at all.

    I really appreciate John’s explanation of how fundamentalism is actually a newish development, and not the “true” way of conceiving of religion. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that a literal interpretation of the scriptures was not the predominant force in Christianity for all those centuries, but I’ll believe the historians about that one. But one thing I’m not sure that liberal religious people really understand is how jarring it is for people raised in fundamentalist traditions to hear the same religious terminology used to mean completely different things (and maybe they experience the same thing when they hear people talking about a literal resurrection or something, I don’t know). I understand intellectually that when John uses the words sin and salvation, he’s not talking about things that will literally affect the place our spirit will go to exist for eternity, but I don’t know if I will ever be able to hear those words without having an emotional reaction against that concept. And I say this as a member of a liberal church (Unitarian Universalist). One of the reasons I can handle going there is because my congregation has largely gotten rid of the Christian specific religious terminology. If they were constantly talking about the Bible in symbolic, non-literal terms, that would likely be a deal-breaker to me simply because of the baggage I carry with all those concepts.

    • Craig S.

      And I wrote my whole post right before I listened to the part where Bob made my first point. 🙂

    • Craig: First off, I think Unitarian Universalism is a wonderful instituational alternative to liberal Christianity built as it is upon two rich historical legacies (unitarianism and universalism). My church has learned a lot from Unitarians in terms of commitment to causes like peace and social justice — which were not as much at the forefront of the movement in Nauvoo in the 1840s (while the Unitarians were busy ending slavery).

      Regarding baggage, it’s interesting to note that we will sometimes coordinate a bit with UU congregations. So for example, the UU folks in Utah will steer somebody who is a little too focussed on Jesus to Community of Christ and we, by contrast, will point out the UU congregation to folks who are too invested with the fundamentalist definition of Christian-specific terms to be comfortable with the alternate definitions we embrace.

      I do have answers to the question why I believe it makes sense to fight for for possession of these root, ur- words, and not simply abandon them to fundamentalist misdefinition. It’s a little involved, so maybe we’ll have a podcast or two which focuses on this (as opposed to one that meanders its way there from completely different topics).

      I have a few presentations on how scripture was interpreted in antiquity and the Middle Ages that I need to record and post online somewhere. The short answer is that Christianity became much more focused on the Bible as a result of the Protestant Reformation which insisted that the Bible was the sole source of authority. We should note how this is an idea born of its era: just as Western Christians were developing the printing press and having access to books, they decided that a text was solely authoritative. However, they didn’t yet have the discipline of literary criticism, which was largely developed to study the Bible. The results of studies by liberal Christian caused everyone to read all text differently than they ever had before. Conservatives couldn’t help but absorb this different way of understanding text, even as they reacted against it and began to insist that the text was literal in an exacting sense of literalness that is entirely modern. By declaring a particular point of belief fixed, reactionary fundamentalists necessarily warped the rest of their worldview in the kind of mental gymnastics that we are familiar with in Mormonism from attempts people have made to argue the Book of Mormon is history despite conclusive evidence to the contrary.

      Meanwhile, however, back on the other path, the liberal Christians who brought you the academic discipline of literary criticism have continued onward in their studies and have continued to interpret scripture figuratively or philosophically meaningfully. In doing so, however, they also do not read scripture like people in the Middle Ages, in late antiquity, or in earlier times read scripture, because people in the past had different worldviews than we have today.

      • Craig S.

        The stuff about how reading texts changed during the Reformation period is really fascinating to me. When you say that the fundamentalist sense of literalness is modern, does that apply to only their understanding of religious texts, or is that in general? Are you saying that before this, people didn’t have a distinction between fiction and non-fiction as concepts?

        • Craig: I’d definitely say that ancient people had less defined boundaries between “fiction” and “non-fiction” than we obsess over today. For example, the corpus of Plato’s writings are dialogues that he puts into the mouth of Socrates and other historic figures. For us today, it’s clear to that these are not transcripts. And, as time went on, the words Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates inevitably become more Plato than Socrates. But are the dialogues fiction? Were they viewed as “fiction” by ancient people? Did Plato think of himself as being deceitful in writing them?

          These questions are our questions because of our post-Enlightenment focus on historicity which is intensely more exacting than anyone previous had thought of the past. Our focus has yielded some good results, but we’ve started to realize the limits and failures of positivism.

          What I’d point out is that ancient people reading texts largely thought that the stories happened (in a less exacting sense than we think of history). But simultaneously, they believed that the fact that it happened was infinitely less important than the meaning of the event. In other words, they believed that everything symbolized a greater truth; everything was purposeful and meaningful. And so the most important thing to them was not whether something happened, it was what that thing symbolized or meant.

  • Daniel H.

    I’m just grateful and privileged that John has answers to all of the difficult questions you all posed. It has been difficult having to reject all of the answers to life’s questions that Mormonism hitherto provided but now I can replace that outlandish epistemology for the correct one at last!

    • As Brian pointed out in his sermon to his disciples: “You don’t need to follow me! You don’t need to follow anybody!” I don’t have universal answers to life’s questions; I just have my own answers or current thinking that I’ve put together based on my own study and experience. And hopefully I’m always challenging those answers as I experience and learn more in life.

      • Daniel H.

        I guess I couldn’t decide whether or not to come off tongue-in-cheek or really sarcastic, but ultimately I did have an underlining concern. My default after having left the church is one cynicism and complacency (much similar to that of Bob and Allison) and it’s hard to shake that. I did and believed really wacky things and honestly I don’t think I’ll ever be able to rid myself of the shame and pain of believing “all the way” and of putting so much faith in a higher power only to be let down (and the subsequent rewriting of the narratives that I didn’t deserve God’s help or he needed me to suffer) There is so much baggage that’s tied to religion for me personally so I guess it’s near impossible for me to ever accept religion, or belief in any higher power in my life.

        I just wish I could have come across your understanding of “Jesus” and “God” a year ago or so when I’m sure I would have been much more amenable to your interpretations. I’m sure in many ways having a community, like the community of Christ would have been healthy place for me and might have caught me in the midst of a free fall when I ultimately let go of all Judeo-christian beliefs or postulates or knowledge (or whatever the word you like best)

        You were invited to come on and share your understanding of J and G so my apologies for being snarky and dismissive.

  • Zach

    Before saying that mythicism has no basis and doesn’t have a theory that can explain all the fact, you should look at Richard Carrier’s book “On this Historicity of Jesus.” Not all scholars, and not even most scholars agree that there was a historical Jesus, and the gospels are even less reliable than most would think.

  • Chicago

    As a Catholic I do not understand the Mormon problem with moving past literalism. The reactionaries in the Catholic hierarchy (prelates of the original One True Church™) prove that it is perfectly possibly to maintain an authoritarian church structure and moralize about sexuality without adhering to crude literalist readings of scripture. The traditionalists in the Church continue to push a right-wing cultural agenda, and lobby for the restoration of the Latin mass, without bothering too much about the literal construction of Noah’s ark and what-have-you. Although Catholics in the 21st century believe in miraculous and supernatural interventions in human history, I don’t think they worry too much about the historicity of the Bible.The process by which the canonical Bible was defined occurred pretty late anyway, and may still be ongoing. There are probably Ethiopian Christians in communion with Rome who regard Enoch as a canonical text — it’s not a big deal. I would say that Catholics believe in historical death and resurrection of Jesus — and in some traditional non-scriptural beliefs about the life and Assumption of Mary, but that’s about it.

    • Randy_Snyder

      Very interesting comment. I think the reasons could be first, Mormonism is relatively an infant to Catholicism and hasn’t had the time to mature, and second, arose in a heavy handed Protestant milieu of Biblical literalism but just prior to many important scientific and historical advancements.

      • Chicago

        I’ll add that I myself believe in an indescribable supernatural reality, which — contra Hitchens et al. I do not think is incompatible with science, enlightenment values, or a critical reading of sacred texts. By the way, in my comment I referenced Enoch, by which I meant a non-canonical book which the Ethiopians have included in their Bible for a zillion years. Dunno if the Mormons read that one.

        • Craig S.

          How exactly does belief in an “indescribable supernatural reality” lead to all the very specific dogmas and requirements of the Catholic church? If God is truly indescribable, unknowable even, then wouldn’t the honest reaction to that be “yeah, we know that God person/being/thing is out there, but we have no clue what it’s like, so just try to do the best you can for yourselves, okay?” An indescribable God doesn’t really seem to fit with all the rules about who you can or can’t sleep with and which guys in big hats can tell you how to live your life. Does all that stuff just come from people?

          • Chicago

            Craig, what follows is some religious hocus pocus which may not be very interesting to you hardened skeptical types. Caveat lector.

            When I referenced an indescribable supernatural reality (above) I was trying to gesture towards what the believer/practitioner enters, experiences, and dissolves into through the mystical encounter. I have made this encounter through the sacraments and devotional traditions of the Catholic church — though it can very occasionally happen in the bus or at the seashore. These experiences have never taught me that the Lutherans, Mormons, or Buddhists, are going to Hell, or that the latest Papal Encyclical is an inspired document. There is no inner voice that says “Yes, my child, the Church of Rome is True, the funny hats make it so.” The nature and content of the mystical encounter can only be described very obliquely and I won’t try to do so in this comments section. As for the specific doctrines of Catholicism, I think I find Catholic teachings on the Trinity, for example, to be an elegant (though probably inadequate) attempt to reconcile a God that is invisible, transcendent and beyond anthropomorphic analogy, with a God that is also, paradoxically, the model of our image, living among us, incarnate, suffering with us, and invested in our joys and sorrows.

            I would say, however, that, contrary to Vatican hardliners, the Catholic religion cannot be dogmatically defined by a set of credal articles, instead the Catholic Church is a vast, overstuffed repository of ancient liturgy, Hellenized Judaism, late neoplatonic theurgy, colorful folk religion, syncretic cultural accretions, and divergent and incompatible learned theologies. She is the vast repository of culture. As the conservative Catholic writer Martin Mosebach suggested, the Catholic Church, need not be seen as simply one of several Christian confessions, but as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living perennial religion. If you go to a rural church in Mexico (such as the Church in which I saw a chicken sacrificed with my own eyes in 2011) or to a medieval Cathedral in Europe you may get a sense of what Mosebach is talking about. I don’t think the Methodists, Pentecostals, or Presbyterians can say the same about their churches. I don’t think they would ever want to say the same. Taking my cue from Balthasar, I would say that I hope, and even trust, that through the sacred mysteries, all people, whatever their specific religion, will be saved in the ages of the ages, through the Catholic Church, i.e. the “Universal Assembly” of all saints

  • Bob R

    Thanks for the podcast. John – off-topic question, sorry… if I remember right, you mentioned there not being a smoking gun to prove Smith’s polygamy, but we just know he did it. A year ago I would have nodded in agreement. As I’ve dug into the history over the past year, my thinking has flipped, and I now view polygamy as being written into Joseph’s history by Young and company after his death.

    Absent a smoking gun, what primary documents/sources do you personally find to be the best evidence that Smith married at least one other woman besides Emma?

    • Hey Bob. That’s always a very interesting position for people in the LDS tradition to come to. My friend Rock Waterman is another person whose gotten to this place. My question always is — doesn’t this idea invalidate the succession claims of Brigham Young and his successors? If you come to this position, are you also investigating the succession claims of Joseph III?

      Ultimately this comes down to dealing with the massive wealth of sources on the topic. Normally in Brighamite (LDS) apologetics (prior to professional history), the story of the church is crafted by ignoring and labeling all negative sources as “Anti-Mormon.” To come to the place where you’re at, you have to sortof do the opposite. A Brigham Young led conspiracy after the fact to lie about the historical record causes you to invalidate and discard all Brighamite sources as suspect.

      However, the problem you run into is the wealth of anti-Brigham Young sources, that nevertheless indicate that Joseph Smith was the originator of polygamy. These would include Wightite, Rigdonite, Strangite, Cutlerite, and Williamite sources — all hostile to Brigham Young — as well as plentiful non-Mormon and ExMormon sources that are hostile to everyone. It’s the vast extent and wealth of all of these non-Brighamite sources which are very harmonious with Brighamite sources that allow us to be quite certain.

      • Bob R

        Thanks for the response, John.

        Rock Waterman has answered some questions about this for me as well. The Utah church doesn’t really have a non-painful option on this. We have to call one of the first two prophets a liar. Smith denied polygamy. Young said Smith did it. If we say Young lied, we kind of have to turn out all the lights and go join the CoC, I guess. If we say Smith lied… well, I guess we continue down the same path of somehow revering a sexual predator as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator. But at least we are the rightful heirs of that rich legacy. Right?

        So as a matter of corporate policy, I don’t think the Utah church can ever question Smith’s polygamy. Our statements have to assume Smith (and Emma) lied and Young did not. Our scholars really cannot reach a different conclusion. Not surprisingly, our recent polygamy essays follow the corporate handbook.

        So, yes, I’m digging very hard to prove something that completely undermines my own church. (I’m active, I have kids at BYU and on missions. Life is very interesting.) I’m trying to prove to my own satisfaction that Smith was a polygamist. Because if he WAS, my life becomes much easier, oddly. But after a year of trying, I’m just becoming more convinced he was not.

        I’ve been looking at individual stories one at a time, digging through the details in that massive wealth of sources. I’ve been underwhelmed. I’ve come to sympathize with Joseph III’s view that these people just lie and make things up left and right. I think Helen Mar Kimball lied. I think Eliza Snow lied. I think Orson and Marinda lied. I understand why they lied, and in some ways I don’t blame them. But I just don’t find these people credible. And it makes me think the massive pile of evidence isn’t as impressive as it first appears. But I have been looking mostly at accounts from the Brighamite side.

        I’ll take a look at the anti-Brighamite sources you mention. Thank you. That is helpful.

        If you could name ONE woman who you are certain was plural-married to Joseph Smith, who would it be? Like if you were prosecuting Smith in court and had to prove he was plural-married to a particular woman. Which woman would you choose?

        • Thanks for explaining where you’re coming from, Bob. I appreciate your candor at where you are. There’s a bunch of irony for me to try to help you in this way — both the underlying historic succession claims, but also because I actually raised this “off-topic” topic as an example of how we don’t do history.

          I’m sympathetic to Joseph Smith III too who was trained as a lawyer and who approached the topic as a lawyer. The answer to your question is: I really wouldn’t attempt to single out one of the relationships and attempt to convict Joseph Smith as if I were making a legal case, because as I was attempting to say, this is not how history works. History works by looking at all of the sources, considering all of their biases, and constructing the most plausible explanation that explains all the sources. A court case, by contrast, has to dismiss hearsay and may remove any discussion of whole aspects of the background as prejudicial to the case at hand. In a court case you need a smoking gun to convict. In history, we aren’t convicting and we don’t need a smoking gun. We’re constructing the most plausible explanation that fits all the sources, given their biases.

          To approach your court case, you’re in a place where you’re dismissing all of Brighamite testimony. I want to point out that is massive; it’s not just a couple people swearing out a couple false affidavits; it’s a massive quantity of testimony to dismiss. But Brigham Young was a theocratic dictator who had huge power, so let’s concede that he got dozens of followers to lie (I don’t personally have any sympathy for Brigham Young).

          The next group of evidence you have to look at are the contemporary exposes. We have very specific allegations from John C. Bennett, who was himself an enemy of Brigham Young. Among others, Bennett alleged that Elder Joseph Bates Noble performed a marriage between Joseph Smith and “Miss L***** B*****”. Joseph Noble was later a Brighamite and he himself later swore out an affidavit that he married Joseph Smith and Louisa Beaman. Erastus Snow, also a Brighamite, likewise wrote “my wife’s sister, Louisa Beman, was [Joseph Smith’s] first plural wife, she being sealed to him by my brother-in-law, Joseph B. Noble.” I know that we’re discounting and tossing out all of the Brighamite testimony, but Bennett was no friend of Brigham Young; he was a great enemy of Brigham Young. And yet on this point and in his other information, he pointed the finger at Joseph Smith; and gave evidence that fit with later Brighamite testimony. You may want to dismiss Bennett as “anti-Mormon” since he was an ExMormon writing exposes, but because his testimony comes first, the Brighamite conspiracy you are hoping to find had to have been created with Bennett’s expose in mind. In other words, as Brigham Young was crafting his false story implicating Joseph Smith in polygamy, he was using Bennett’s story as its template.

          The same is true for William Law’s expose in the Nauvoo Expositor and his later testimony. William Law was intensely anti-Brigham Young, but he has personal testimony of Joseph Smith as originator of polygamy. Another early expose is “Buckeye’s Lament for Want of More Wives” published in the Warsaw Signal (Feb. 7, 1844).

          “I once thought I had knowledge great,
          But now I find ’tis small;
          I once thought I’d Religion, too,
          But I find I’ve none at all.
          For I have got but one lone wife,
          And can obtain no more;
          And the doctrine is, I can’t be saved,
          Unless I’ve half a score!…

          “A tenfold glory—that’s the prize!
          Without it you’re undone!
          But with it you will shine as bright
          As the bright shining sun.
          There you may reign like mighty Gods,
          Creating worlds so fair;—
          At least a world for every wife
          That you take with you there…

          “…But Joe at snaring beats them all,
          And at the rest does laugh;
          For widows poor, and orphan girls,
          He can ensnare with chaff,
          He sets his snares around for all,—
          And very seldom fails
          To catch some thoughtless Partridges,
          Snow-birds or Knight-ingales!

          “But there are hundred other birds
          He never can make sing;
          Who wont be driven nor draged to hell,
          By prophet, priest nor king:
          Whose sires have bled in days gone by,
          For their dear country’s cause;
          And who will still maintains its rights,
          Its Liberty and Laws!”

          In addition to being a funny satire, this expose is amazing for its specificity. Joseph Smith here is accused of marrying the Partridge sisters, [Eliza] Snow, and [Martha] Knight [“ingale”]. But here we have the whole late Nauvoo theology: “prophet, priest, and king”, celestial [plural] marriage as essential to exaltation and exaltation as eternal progression (reigning as gods).

          Of course this is Anti-Mormon evidence. By why is it that all of this intensely accurate information fingers Joseph Smith?

          Next, as I point out, you have all the recollections of everyone in the movement who are both not Brighamite (whom you are dismissing) and not Josephite. These are anti-Brigham Young folks in the Wightite, Thompsonite, Strangite, and early Cutlerite churches, along with anti-Brigham Young ExMormons.

          • Bob R

            Thanks John. I do appreciate it. I’ll go off and read quietly and digest what you’ve given me here and save my specific “yeah buts” for another day. I will say I find it hard to swallow the totality of the evidence if that totality doesn’t provide enough evidence to document a single case. If the totality is right, shouldn’t it be trivial to support at least one single case? It feels a bit like saying we know George Washington was an army commander, but we don’t have enough evidence to prove he was present at any battles. Oh well. I’ll give it more thought. Thanks again.

  • Anthony

    So, is the section on astrotheology on the zeitgeist film also bogus?

  • Susan Mowers

    Can John please just start a history series podcast discussing religion and culture throughout the ages? Pretty please??

    Also, in regards to how former fundamentalists view religion — I think that the point-of-view of that it means to be “Christian” or “religious”, with all the associated beliefs and terminology, is not just limited to those who are from fundamentalist religions, but a view that is wider held in our American culture. For example, John mentioned that a conversation he was having with someone practically stopped because that person saw on his Facebook profile that he is Christian. In addition to that, because religiousity is often associated with politics (i.e. the “religious right”), and many people that identify as Christians are associated with Protestant/Evangelical, religion and Christianity is viewed with some very specific expectations of beliefs. I don’t know if I’m making complete sense here, but my point is that those who came from fundamentalist backgrounds are not the only ones making associations with what constitutes a “Christian” or being “religious.”

    • According to 2012 surveys by Pew Research, only 24% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters in the US are unaffiliated with a religion (including the tiny minority that self-identify as atheists). A full 57% of the Democratic coalition is some kind of Christian (and 18% have other religious affiliations, including Judaism).

      The problem, however, is that members of the religious right in America make all the noise and busily claim to be both the real America and the real Christians — when, to my thinking, they actually are rejecting everything America is built upon (pluralism, separation of church and state, civil rights for all) and everything Jesus taught (concern for income inequality, radical inclusiveness of everyone).

      As far as I’m concerned, members of progressive religions like myself need to do a better job challenging the religious right’s noisy, public claims, so that there is more awareness of the diversity that exists within the broad category of religious adherence.

      • Susan Mowers

        Some very excellent points. And of course, more radical viewpoints get more press as well, making it harder to see the entire spectrum. It’s quite interesting to see as of late how the idea of “religion” seems to be synonymous with conservatism and everything against social change — even though, as those surveys seem to indicate, that is far from the case.

        I still think you need to do a podcast series or something on the history and development of religion. Education is always a big part of providing more awareness and open-mindedness that you’re wanting to achieve (nudge, nudge). It’s so helpful, for me at least, for example to hear how ancient peoples regarded the idea of God, and discover new ways of thinking that my modern sensibilities often prevent me from even knowing that I’m missing!

      • I agree with you, John, although I am curious how big the progressive religion group really is in North America (and worldwide)… You sort of indirectly (probably unintentionally) implied that the 57% of Democratic Christians are progressive types like you. But I wonder how many of them really are.

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  • JT

    Thanks to all for such an interesting and engaging couple or hours.

    I particularly appreciated John’s gallant attempt to unpacked his Christianity – including the CoC’s reclamation of non-literalism from those post-Enlightnment Christian Fundamentalist “apostates.” The Infants were great as they struggled with the remnants of their “Mountain Mormon” vocabularies. I struggled along with them but felt myself getting on board with most of what John was saying.

    Lately I’ve struggled much more listening to – with sympathy – progressive LDS intellectuals trying to offer new “framings” and “paradigms” to help members falling out of their literalistic orthodoxy. I think the key difference is that John’s thinking is in harmony with his institution/community while the LDSs must submit to a dogmatic hierarchy that can only lead from behind. This makes their re-tasking of traditional religious language genuinely ambiguous because it must – in the end – quietly sit on the margins and defer to its dominant orthodox usage.

    • Thanks, JT! Yes, the vocabulary is very different and requires a LDS/CoC CoC/LDS dictionary. The reality is that we Prairie Saints are just as guilty of creating jargon as you Mountain Saints. Everyone in Community of Christ these days is constantly talking about our “IMMB” — which is “identity, mission, message, beliefs” — which is our brand-new buzz phrase.

      Yes, I think you’re right that there is a lot of cross-over between progressive LDS intellectuals and progressive Community of Christ intellectuals and that a key institutional difference is the latter group is completely interrelated with the leadership at Community of Christ headquarters, who largely are progressive intellectuals with graduate degrees in religious studies, philosophy, history, divinity, etc.

      • JT

        John, thanks so much for your thoughtful responses.

        Yes, at least three discrete conversations going on here – but as a package it was lively, informative, thought provoking and very engaging. Perhaps it will lead to focused spin offs.

        By chance I happened to listen to the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Author Event podcast featuring James Carroll giving a lecture on his newest book, Christ Actually: The Son of God for a Secular Age. It’s pretty powerful – I would set the odds that you’d really enjoy it at 90-10 🙂

        Cheers

        http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1316

  • JT

    This is a bit speculative but …

    One aspect of religion that may relate to its use of language is how it serves our social instinct to form exclusive in-groups.

    In my experience religion serves individuals well the “ward” level, where people bond and care for each others as individuals. In this context simple language simply serves personal relationships. However, when an institution grows out of a network of faith-communities, it takes on a “self” perpetuating life of its own, which can be downright antisocial.

    One way this happens is by the evolution of word-meanings. Words such as belief, sin, repentance, purity, morality, sacrifice, covenant, endowment, atonement, and God turn into tools that serve the institution at the expense of individuals who become trapped and tapped by the evolved meanings and by promises of future blessings that cost the institution nothing and never require delivery.

    It’s not difficult to interpret nearly every doctrine, policy, and practice of the LDS Church as primarily benefiting the institution and individuals when push doesn’t come to shove. It’s probably an emergent phenomena – not the design of a single mind. But either way it seems to me its main tool is its strategic use of language, which “it” has refined from the moment Joseph started “translating.”

    • Language is a major problem with historic institutions. Christianity is almost 2,000 years old and its terminology has gone through a number of languages to get to English and in the course of these many centuries of debate, we have created a mountain of jargon that is current, but essentially entirely known only in its present day context as jargon. An example was when the panel asked me about whether Jesus’ contemporaries were expecting a “messiah” (jargon term) and I asked them what the word actually meant and they didn’t know. We have inherited these words, but we don’t know their original meaning or how different meanings have evolved over time by different thinkers in different groups.

      One of my core goals as a thinker committed to a church is to translate the jargon into words that actually mean something to us today. If “gospel” is meaningful as a concept outside of a church jargony context, what is that meaning? Let’s try to define it without using words that are only meaningful to our in-group.

      Regarding the control of rewards: our church is very down on churches that preach the “prosperity gospel”. The member who gave the sermon (talk) yesterday spoke against reward religion as unmeaningful. We also do not focus on afterlife, which is very different from the LDS Church’s core focus on afterlife.

  • JT

    I enjoyed how your Historical Jesus discussion played out. I was drawn into this debate last year. The experience felt a lot like the Book of Mormon Authorship debate I was drawn into a few years earlier.

    I agree that neither debate matters in terms of choosing either a secular life-stance or the type of Christianity John Hamer advocated. The combined probability of both sides of both debates is near enough to 100% to warrant a life-bet that dismisses supernatural alternatives.

    But then, I’m not sure how meaningful it is to even speak about the probability of past events, which either were or were not cases in fact. On the other hand, I do think probabilities can be used to measure the relative strength of competing theories. This is a less ambitious goal, but perhaps more dignified since it could encourage a rational acknowledgment of uncertainty (epistemic humility), which might promote civil discourse and an understanding that decisions based on them are merely better bets.

    To his credit, this is what Richard Carrier attempted to do in his two books by invoking a Bayesian framework for constructing historical arguments. And it is for this reason alone I think his work deserves attention, rather than being lost in the muck stirred up by “Horace” advocates on FaceBook. Indeed, he ends his latest book with, “I intend this book not to end but
    to begin a debate about this, both its methods and conclusions.”

    Again, I’m not saying I think Carrier’s “minimal mythicism” theory “wins” the day. Rather, it’s just that I’ve noticed how often I can reflexively nod assent to isolated pieces of evidence offered by experts that make intuitive sense. Sure, the Gospels’ Nazareth work-arounds and Paul’s mention of Jesus’s brother seem to constitute solid evidence – but they need to be evaluated by a method that rationally weighs all the evidence, both for and against both theories simultaneously. This is what Bayes Theorem accomplishes.

    • JT

      P.S. I don’t recall “Horace” ever coming up in Carrier’s argument in On the Historicity of Jesus,
      which may account from my misspelling (i.e. Horus) as well as my general ignorance, including the muck that appears in FaceBook comments.

      That being said, I just looked his book’s index and “Horus” does not
      appear. A quick Google search turned up a blog post in which Carrier criticizes the connection between Horus and Jesus, as well as “parallelomania” generally (i.e. confusing correlation for causation).

      But again, I am not weighing in on and any conclusion about the historicity Jesus, only on the issue of how one might ideally go about evaluating competing theories that push it to one side or the other of 50:50.

      Thanks again for the engaging discussion – and now I really have to get back to my day-time job.

      • Yes, I really like Carrier’s phrase here: parallelomania. I think I’ll use that. I hadn’t realized that this Horus stuff figured in the movie Zeitgeist. To reiterate: this Horus list is total nonsense and apparently Atheist Jesus-mythicists like Richard Carrier agree.

      • Dave Taiwan

        Carrier seems to really like his Bayesian equations, but give the dearth of evidence I really can’t see how he can derive any meaningful numbers, unless he’s simply plugging in things until he gets the result he wants.

        The problem Carrier and other mythists face is that there was a real Jesus movement as there is good external evidence.

        Historians do a good job of evaluating the evidence and debating the merits. I’m not sure that attempting to force things into a mathematical model when certain key elements simply cannot be calculated, is the way to do it.

        • JT

          Hi Dave,

          As soon as you suggest that hypothesis X is more likely on some background evidence than hypothesis Y is on the same background evidence, you are – like it or not – opening the door to mathematics which, if applied to a valid model of reasoning, can overcome biased intuitions and our limited cognitive load capacity for holding and weighing many points of evidence at the same time.

          Let’s say two contending parties – a Jesus historicist and a mythicist – AGREE that the probability of the historical Jesus hypothesis H on some collection of background evidence B is 0.90 (90%). Then

          P(H|B) = 0.90

          That makes the probability of the mythicist hypothesis M on that evidence 0.10

          P(M|B) = 0.10

          Now, consider both parties are confronted with new evidence (E) and both agree that this evidence is more likely given M than H. Let’s say

          P(E|M) = 0.80

          and

          P(E|H) = 0.20

          How should these intellectually honest and rational people update their assessment of their respective hypothesis? Should it change in the direction of M? If so, by how much?

          That is what Bayes’s Theorem shows.

          As I said, a Bayesian framework establishes an objective, valid and TRANSPARENT means of comparing hypotheses (or theories).

          Again, I don’t care one way or the other which Jesus hypothesis is “better” (i.e > 50% likely). I am just impressed with a Baysian framework for keeping arguments transparent, objective and valid.

          This is not to say it is easy to apply, particularly if contending parties cannot reach any agreement of P(H|B), P(M|B), P(E|H) and P(E|M), or will “cheat” by changing them if the Bayesian computation doesn’t go their way.

          But then, you must use you own informed judgement about whether Bayes Rule provides a valid model of reasoning which is different than a mathematically modeling a historical theory – as you mentioned – which I am not sure I understand.

          If you are interested I wrote a 2-part blog post that illustrates how Bayes theorem works in a single iteration of starting with P(H|B) and P(H*|B) and then adjusting to new evidence – as well as the implications of using “feelings” as evidence.

          http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/possibilism-and-bayes/

          and

          http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/2014/07/13/possiblism-and-bayes-part-2-draft/

          Cheers

          • Dave Taiwan

            Hi JT,

            Thank you for the thoughtful reply and the reference to your interesting blog entries on Bayes theorem being applied to the BoM and DNA evidence.

            While you are making a valiant attempt to demonstrate how the theorem can be used to quantify the degree on uncertainty, I am afraid that I don’t share your optimism that this formula can be used to settle disputes such as the historicity of Jesus or any BoM evidence.

            I completely agree with the frustration in discussing evidence with believers, and you make an excellent argument that because people are neglecting the alternative hypothesis, they are not changing their views.

            My objection to the use of Bayes theorem does not stem from the attempt to quantify the uncertainty. Instead, I dislike two specific interrelated aspects.

            First objection is that Carrier seems to have introduced this concept following the wisdom from W.C. Fields “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Carrier is an atheist apologetic, and this argument is the result of crowd-sourced funding specifically to find a method of proving that the historic Jesus did not exist.

            I have not read his latest tome, but his other papers and arguments are studies of arrogance and self-importance. As a fellow atheist, I cringe when listening to him.

            The more important factor is that it provides a false sense of certainty where none can really be claimed. Statistics can never be used based on limited samples of one.

            This is the reference to garbage in is garbage out. Using sophisticated statistical methods of finesse wild ass guesses is mental masturbation. Interesting perhaps, but less fulfilling than the physical variety.

            Perhaps it could be used, as you have done, as a demonstration of the weakness of neglecting the affect of the alternatives. However, I question if non-rigorous believers or skeptics will be swayed by placing math in front of them.

            For polarizing questions such as the truth claims of Mormonism or the historicity of Jesus, there simply isn’t any way that the sides would agree to the basic terms.

            In real life (or rather the virtual world) I’ve seen sloppy skeptics attempt to use this surgeon scalpel as a blunt weapon the bludgeon their opponent.

            Scholarship and careful arguments should be valued highly. I value the pursuit of truth over winning points on the net. I left the church in part because of the dishonest arguments and I will not employ them myself.

            I’m not suggesting that your use is wrong, as you have clearly stated that the numbers are hypothetical. However, less scrupulous people will likely not include such disclaimers.

    • There are actually three discrete conversations here that we mixed in this episode. If we’re doing a solid mythicist versus limited historical core around which myths accumulated debate, we would not talk about all of the other stuff we talked about in this podcast. Both Carrier and I can agree that either case is possible: he apparently believes that the probabilities are 30-70, while I think it’s more like 90-10. But that debate has to be cordoned off in its own special place.

      In the podcast, however, we crossed into territory not as relevant to that portion of the debate. For example, when Glenn was talking about multiple attestation and the criterion of incongruity for the banner “King of the Jews”, that’s more a part of a second layer of debate. In other words, if we decide that a historic Jesus is the most likely scenario (as I do), then we can start to decide which bits of information we have are more or less likely to be historical. We got into that second layer when we were talking about why I see the Jesus as philosopher concept is more credible than Bart Ehrman’s Jesus as apocalyptic prophet idea.

      Then, of course, we started talking about my own religion, which is quite apart from either of those two historical debates.

      • Dave Taiwan

        Are there some good sources online for reading about or listening to podcasts about the question of the historical Jesus? I’ve listened to Dale Martin’s Yale Open Course, as well as Phil Harland’s Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean.

    • Dave Taiwan

      I don’t really like Carrier’s arguments. I’m an atheist, but I value honesty in arguments.

      I just can’t see how Bayes Theorem can be used in this situation. There are just too many unknowns so it becomes a matter of garbage in / garbage out.

      I watched and listened to a couple of debates Carrier had with nonapologetic scholars and his arguments come across as contrived. His funding was from an atheist group, and his reasoning sounds much like FAIR. He came to the conclusion first and then looked for evidence to match.

  • Gail_F_Bartholomew

    This my first time listening. This is enjoyable, thanks for doing this.

    John,

    I have enjoyed listening to you on all sorts of podcasts; me, ms and more. I am really interested in your none fundamentalist religious belief.
    For a long time I have defined god as whatever caused the big bang. I am not sure that makes me a theist. Most Christians I talk to tell me they believe anyone is a Christian that believe that if you believe on Christ’s name that his atonement can save you, or something to that effect. I think Salt Lake Mormons likely fit in that Christian definition, but I do believe most Salt Lake Mormons view of God is far more pagan then any of the monotheists. I think they believe in a very human God with a sexual identity where most monotheists do not. Therefore I am would still put Salt Lake Mormons outside the Christian and even the Monotheist tent. This now brings me to my question. If you believe that God is wisdom how does that make you a Christian? Do you believe in atonement theology in the way most Christians do?
    Thank you.

    • Hi Gail — I’m glad you’ve enjoyed listening to all these podcasts. I think your definition of God is a perfectly reasonable one and is in keeping with millennia of tradition that our idea and definition of God (or the Divine) are malleable and evolve as our understanding of the universe evolves.

      There simply is no one way that most Christians believe in atonement theology. There are massively different ways of viewing the atonement from moral influence to ransom theory to satisfaction theory to penal substitution theory to reparation theory to expiation theory and more. I view atonement within that wide field of Christian theological thought, yes.

      The definition of what makes a Christian is complex. And many Christians don’t agree that everyone who calls herself or himself is a Christian. In the old days, people in the Restored tradition (LDS and RLDS) didn’t view Catholics or Protestants as “true Christians” because they lacked the fulness of the gospel. Likewise, many Christian fundamentalists do not consider non-fundamentalists to be true Christians.

      What makes me a Christian? Shortest answer is that I’m claiming the term. I have my own Christology — the way I view Christ as a theological concept is intertwined with my conception of the Divine. I’m a member of a church which is an heir to the Christian tradition, whose identity is informed (but not enslaved) by that heritage. My church likewise is a member of the major ecumenical Christian communion, the National Council of Churches — whose members (45 million in the US), in theory, therefore, recognize me as a Christian.

      • Gail_F_Bartholomew

        John,

        Thank you very much for addressing my question in a personal way. I must apologize. I asked my question without acknowledging that I was asking personal information about you without relieving anything really about me. Thanks for sharing so much in a kind personal way in such a public form. Again thanks for all the podcasts you have done that I listen too. I would have no information about the Missouri Mormons, the Community of Christ.

  • Pink-lead

    Speaking of animated holiday episodes, you haven’t experienced Christmas until you’ve done it with the Pac Man Christmas special.

  • Ryan

    I’m not trying to put down all your other material so far, but I would love to hear more stuff like this with John Hamer and you all. All the Hamer podcasts have been among my favorite.

  • Bill Nelson

    After listening to this podcast I was pretty certain there was a case to be made FOR the historical Jesus, but then I listened to this podcast:

    http://www.thethinkingatheist.com/podcast/the-question-of-christ

    And now I don’t actually think there is a very good case to be made. Listen to these two podcasts in succession, its a really awesome and interesting discussion; I find the whole thing fascinating!
    Great job everyone….

  • Cameron Forbes

    I only got to 21:09, which is a pretty good chunk of a two hour podcast. 🙂 . I understand the issue with two extremes here, but I also believe much of the story to be true.
    First off I’ll introduce the topic of Bibilcal Symbolism which accomplishes the figurative interpretation easily, but was also understood by early Christians especially the writers.
    Further, I agree that certain people of scripture were not literal or intended to be, but I also think it would inevitably be biased to deny the Exodus (inevitably this is such a political issue that I think everyone needs to tread lightly not to be swept into one camp or the other). The only real claim against the Exodus comes from a misinterpretation of the Symbolism of numbers in scripture, which ties into my first point. Of course if you are unaware of Biblical Symbolism and discount the Exodus, then you discount the fact the Hyksos (a Semitic People) were the invaders in Egypt and this is one of the Reasons why their is so much Egyptian-Christian overlap. Personal opinion about Joseph Smith asside, he got a lot of things right, like it or not. One of those things was the Egyptian-Christian or Horus-Christ connection.

    Hope my rambling made sense.

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