How Seriously Should Religious Liberals Take Jesus? April 29, 2009

How Seriously Should Religious Liberals Take Jesus?

There are many religious liberals who insist that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally. We should not trust what is written in the Old Testament — rather, we should only trust in and listen to Jesus.

But Jesus says a lot of things that are ridiculous and untrue.

So where do they draw the line? Is it possible for them to say, “Jesus was wrong” in these cases?

Godless Girl points out several Biblical passages that could pose problems for the “follow Jesus” crowd.

… in a few passages, we see Jesus shows no more wisdom about science, history, or mythology than his followers. Either he did not know, or he did not tell the whole truth. If he did not tell the whole truth, why should we trust what he says? If he did not know better, why should we think he was a sinless god?

She points to a number of passages.

In Luke 17:26-27, Jesus says Noah and the Ark and the Great Flood were real:

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man.

People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

In Matthew 12:40, Jesus states that they story of Jonah and the Whale is real:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

In Mark 10:6, Jesus advocates Creationism, not Evolution:

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’

In Matt 21:18-22, Jesus makes a fig tree wither and tells people they can make mountains move:

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

So can liberal Christians unequivocally say Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about in these cases? Or do they say that his words, too, were open to interpretation?

And if that’s the case, why should we take anything Jesus says at face value?

(via Godless Girl)


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  • Polly

    I don’t find those examples all that difficult. I refer to fictional stories or characters sometimes as examples. It could be argued that JC was simply using symbols his audience was familiar with. There’s not reason he or even they had to believe in the literal truth of any of it.

    I have my own (still incomplete) list of why I think JC was an asshole:

    -Hate or abandon your family and follow me or you’re unworthy.

    -Giving up your last 2 pennies earns god’s respect.

    -Lust is the SAME THING as adultery.

    -Non-jews are dogs that don’t deserve even crumbs unless they beg for it.

    -Getting angry is THE SAME thing as murder.

    -You will go to Hell for not believing in me.

    -You will go to Hell for calling someone a “fool.”

    -Only adultery is a justified basis for divorce – this leaves out abuse.

    -Being fiscally responsible and saving for the future is idolatry. Better to be like a bird or the lilies of the field.

  • Ben Bachman

    Of course this is explained in a Jesus and Mo comic. If it’s false, its metaphor, if its true, then its evidence Jesus really was a god! 😀

  • Ron in Houston

    I’ll take exception to your initial premise that religious liberals believe we “should only trust in and listen to Jesus.”

    I think a number of them would not listen to the literal words of Matthew 10:34 where Jesus said he came not to bring peace but a sword.

    Religious liberals are the ultimate diners at the Jesus buffet. They want to pick and choose his teachings of peace, love, and non-violence while discarding the more ugly and distasteful teachings that are served up at the Jesus buffet.

  • flawedprefect

    The examples cited simply prove to me that Jesus was a Jew, and knew how to quote the old testament to back himself up to an audience that was hard to win over.

    Growing up Catholic, I always took his existence to show that he rallied against the establishment of Judeism, and spawned his own cult; that Jesus was a rebel-rousing hippy, ultimately persecuted for his sacrilegious beliefs.

    But that’s based on a big “if” he existed as portrayed in this book.

  • Most of the references to stories of the old testament could be considered as examples or parables familiar to the audience. Much like Plato used the fictitious example of Atlantis to make a point (of course plenty of people take that as truth too).

    I don’t think that was the case, if Jesus existed I think he was simply a normal man. Likely a charismatic, inspiring man, especially needed by a people who felt oppressed by the Romans, otherwise why would his story persist and take on a religious aspect complete with miracles. Honestly it reminds me a lot of Charlemagne, a person we know the history of but who also had a large body of legend built up around him because of the things he accomplished.

  • Thilina

    In some respect the fundimentals who believe the bible word for word are actually better than the ones who say that the good parts of the bible are the words of god and the bad parts are in the context of the time it was written in. It’s very hard to be more delusional or hypocritical than this.

    And I find the complete (or near) lack of evidance of jesus’ existance enough to insist the bible not be taken anymore seriously than every other work of fiction.

  • Matto the Hun

    I always thought the story with the fig tree was dick move on Jesus’ part.

    I particularity likes Polly’s extended list.

    @ Ron in Houston

    You raise a good point.

    From what I have heard Xian liberals often have the sentiment along the lines of “Only listen to the words of Jesus”, or “everything Jesus said was great and wonderful” and the pick and choose.

    Sometimes I’ve even heard them openly admit to picking and choosing. As if them picking what is good or positive somehow trumps or erases what is negative or just bat shit crazy… like the fig tree.

    *snif* poor poor fig tree. :'(

  • llewelly

    It could be argued that JC was simply using symbols his audience was familiar with. There’s not reason he or even they had to believe in the literal truth of any of it.

    That’s the ‘no true interpretation’ argument. Such an argument tries to argue that a particular interpretation of the bible isn’t accurate, just as a particular individual from the northern region of the British Isles isn’t a Scott. Christians do this every time they are presented with an interpretation of the bible which makes them uncomfortable.

  • I used to like the more liberal-minded folks when it comes to religion….but I find that they’re even harder to comprehend than the zealous nuts of the more hardcore religious regions. At least we know what the hell the hardcore nuts are talking about — they believe everything in the Bible literally happened and that’s what they base everything on. But the moderates who pick and choose are much harder for me to understand, simply because there is no rational basis for really believing anything along those lines; either Jesus was all good, he was all bad, or he was somewhere in between; he can’t be sometimes all good, and sometimes a little of both…..

    ….I mean, why did you choose to follow his religion if you don’t believe all of it? If you don’t believe all of it (or any of it), then you’re no different from me — you think he just happened to get some things right, and he happened to muck a lot of other things up. Same as every other prominent historical/moral figure.

    If that’s the case, what makes Jesus so special? How is he any different than Buddha, or Mohammed? They both have some wise ideas with a mix of craziness in there, too. Why are you willing to accept Jesus’ craziness and not theirs? Why do you not decide to accept what Mohammed got right, and just ignore the parts about child rape, forced marriage and the overall dehumanization of women?

    I just have this sneaking suspicion that this whole “I don’t believe everything the guy said” schpiel is just some elaborate fence-riding bullshit on the part of some individuals who just want to make us heretics feel better so we’ll shut up. Like they don’t want to take the heat for what their “brothers and sisters” have done (although they’ll gladly take the credit for any good deeds done on the part of those same people), but at the same time, they don’t want to speak out against it openly. It’s a bunch of chickenshit.

  • I think Muslims take a balanced, moderate view of Jesus or Prophet Isa, as we call him. We don’t consider him God or the son of God, but we do consider him to be a prophet. We believe that there was wisdom in his original message but that his message was changed and distorted by many of his followers. I realize that atheists would not accept the idea of a man being a messenger of God, but I think all people can see some truth in what he had to say.

  • Hemant,

    The problem here is that the gospel stories about Jesus are not journalism or history.

    They are closer to reader-created “fan fiction” stories that are based on the character of Jesus (who may or may not be based on a historical figure – there is some debate if Jesus was historical).

  • Jesus, if he actually existed, had no writings of his own. Perhaps he was illiterate. All the records of what Jesus said were not put down to parchment until at least 50 years after he died. During this “oral phase” (for this 50 years) there was plenty of time for story invention and creeping metaphor. Who knows what Jesus actually said. And what does it really matter? A good idea is a good idea no matter who says it. As bad ideas are bad no matter who says them.

  • How seriously should they take Jesus? If Jesus wasn’t exactly who He said He is, He should be taken as seriously as one of the most evil people who has ever lived deserves to be taken. He told people to worship Him. He told be to be ready to die rather than deny Him. It doesn’t get any worse than that.

  • It seems pretty clear to me that she has little understanding of what most liberal Christians believe. Jesus is neither a sinless God nor an inerrant human for us. He was, many of us realize, wrong about the timing of the end of the world, among other things.

    We may not avoid cherry picking altogether, but many of us are seeking to apply rigorous historical methodology to the study of the figure of Jesus. And so we try not to simply take what we like, but to assess the historicity of the material – as historians do with all sources.

    And we learn to live with uncertainty.

  • DeafAtheist

    The fig tree story is one of the funniest stories of Jesus. Our divine godly Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree which considering it bears no fruit is likely out of season and being the divine god-man he is he should have known that figs were out of season. Instead of cursing the tree why not make it bear fruit?

    I concur with Matto the Hun… batshit crazy

  • MercuryBlue

    Personally I’d just say his knowledge was limited by the whole ‘born human’ thing to that which anyone in his time and place knew. Either that or he chose to pretend such was the case, because evolution would have been about as believable to his contemporaries as the electric light bulb. (Rather more unbelievable, I should say, since surely some of them had imagined having light at night without the effort of making sure a fire stayed tamed, and I doubt it had occurred to anyone that dissimilar varieties of creature might be related.)

  • Brian C Posey

    Why didn’t Jesus just use his superpowers to make the tree grow some fruit?

  • Pseudonym

    I was going to write a big response, but James McGrath chimed in and beat me to it, more succinctly than I would have. I especially liked the responses from Polly, flawedprefect and Noadi, too.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I’m finding bizarre the claim, appearing in multiple posts, that the fundamentalists are much more intellectually honest than the theologically liberal Christians, since the former believe everything in the Bible, while the latter pick and choose. Fundamentalists pick and choose as well. To claim that Christian fundamentalists are just following everything in the Bible is to buy into fundamentalist propaganda. Very few fundamentalists follow the Sermon on the Mount, which teaches absolute pacifism, or obey Jesus’ command to give all their belongings to the poor.

    No Christian can literally follow all the teachings and messages in the Bible, because it contains contradictory messages. You can’t be a pacifist, avoid judging others, and also stone children for disrespecting your parents. Theologically liberal Christians deal with this by saying that while the Bible had some divine inspiration, it was mediated by the culture of the time, and so not every story in it can be taken as literally true, and not every moral is appropriate for our time. Fundamentalists say that everything in the Bible is 100% inerrant, and then have to make up nonsensical explanations as to why obvious contradictions aren’t really contradictions; they have to say that every moral is a timeless truth, and then have to go through convolutions to explain why the messages that are too difficult or too repugnant for our time mean something different than what they obviously do. Neither approach makes sense to me in the end, since I don’t think the Bible was divinely inspired, but the theologically liberal approach strikes me as hands-down more intellectually honest.

  • We can’t say that everything in the Gospels is what Jesus actually said, considering that these were at various times (sometimes generations away) from his death. Also they were written by different people with different motives, they borrow from each other…the New testament is really complicated and you can’t take anything in it at face value.

  • I think that the liberals take Jesus in roughly the same way that Thomas Jefferson did; they see what is coming out from the gospels as a short of “Jesus tradition” and that such things were written by people who believed in ghosts, spirits, magic, etc.

    In general: take the moral teaching seriously and blow off the “magic”/”miracles”/”worship me” stuff. Yes, this is cherry picking, but frankly many liberal Christians are really functioning agnostics or atheists who are using the Jesus story as a grand religious metaphor for their lives.

  • mark

    Autumnal Harvest Wrote:

    I’m finding bizarre the claim, appearing in multiple posts, that the fundamentalists are much more intellectually honest than the theologically liberal Christians, since the former believe everything in the Bible, while the latter pick and choose. Fundamentalists pick and choose as well. To claim that Christian fundamentalists are just following everything in the Bible is to buy into fundamentalist propaganda. Very few fundamentalists follow the Sermon on the Mount, which teaches absolute pacifism, or obey Jesus’ command to give all their belongings to the poor.

    Yes, that’s exactly right and also don’t forget the part where Jesus tells us not to judge others. Show me a fundi who isn’t quite fond of judging others. I can’t find one.

    The Bible is about wisdom. Its not about facts. Once you figure out that basic concept then life gets much easier.

  • The only problem occurs when Liberal Christians are as naive as Fundamentalist who literally interpret the Bible or spiritually shallow atheists who have no concept of nuance. Only a moron would believe that the story was actually about a fig tree. Jesus, if he existed, and if by an even larger improbability was divine, would have spoken to his audience (1st century Palestinian Jews) using a cultural frame of reference they would have some capacity to understand. Jesus was a spiritual leader, trying to spread a spiritual message. He didn’t come to be a fact checker.

  • Great post and great comments!

    To claim that Christian fundamentalists are just following everything in the Bible is to buy into fundamentalist propaganda.

    Having been a hardcore fundamentalist, I can tell you that it is true: Fundamentalists do cherry pick. However, they DO honestly believe they are following the Bible and wholeheartedly try–They give it their best shot.

    Liberals, on the other hand, know the imperfections and sweep them under the rug, as if to keep up a religion with a very shaky foundation.

  • Brooks

    either Jesus was all good, he was all bad, or he was somewhere in between; he can’t be sometimes all good, and sometimes a little of both

    I disagree. I think liberal Christianity is sort of like being an American citizen. Obama sometimes does some really good things, sometimes he does bad things, and sometimes he does a little bit of both, but that doesn’t mean Obama as a whole is a bad person or that you have to stop being an American citizen just because you don’t have a perfect person as your president.

    If that’s the case, what makes Jesus so special? How is he any different than Buddha, or Mohammed? They both have some wise ideas with a mix of craziness in there, too. Why are you willing to accept Jesus’ craziness and not theirs? Why do you not decide to accept what Mohammed got right, and just ignore the parts about child rape, forced marriage and the overall dehumanization of women?

    Don’t most liberal Christians take the whole “all religions are different paths to God” approach? Like they respect Muhammed and Buddha as inspiring spiritual teachers but simply prefer Jesus over them? As for why they ignore the immoral passages in the bible, I think Bart D Ehrman explains it best in Jesus Interrupted. In one chapter, he talks about how Christians can reconicle their faith with the contradictions. His basic argument is that yes, liberal Christians are cherry picking, but so is everybody else. He pointed out an example of a fundie mother who forbid their daughter from getting a tattoo because Leviticus forbids it yet the mother wears clothes that is sewn with two different fabrics which was also condemened by Leviticus. And he said that if you’re going to cherry pick the bible, at least use intelligence when you cherry pick. I’m reminded of that scene in the Proposition 8 parody musical where the fundies admit they pick and choose and Jack Black’s Jesus character says to choose love over hate.

    Having been a hardcore fundamentalist, I can tell you that it is true: Fundamentalists do cherry pick. However, they DO honestly believe they are following the Bible and wholeheartedly try–They give it their best shot.

    Liberals, on the other hand, know the imperfections and sweep them under the rug, as if to keep up a religion with a very shaky foundation.

    I was also a former fundamentalist and I have to disagree that most are trying wholeheartedly to follow the whole bible. It’s been in my experience that most fundies don’t follow Jesus, they follow Paul more and most are ignorant of what the bible actually says or anything about church history. As others have pointed out, when was the last time you saw fundies not judge others or give all they have to the poor, or pray in private? Fundies focus on all the dogmatism of Paul but they ignore the spiritually uplifting teachings of Jesus and it’s been my experience that the fundies who are serious about trying to follow it all end up leaving the faith. I also disagree that liberals have a shaky foundation.

    Speaking from my own experience as a fundie who is now an atheist, I think the fundies have a shakier foundation because all you have to do to destroy a fundie’s faith is find one contradiction in the bible to open their eyes with and their entire faith will be shattered. Liberals are at least honest that the bible is an imperfect book but just because something is imperfect doesn’t mean it has no value and I’ll be frank that I think fundies worship the bible more than they worship God and wasn’t idol worship a sin in the bible? And if honest Christians are deteremined by how closely they follow the bible, does that mean the original Christians weren’t honest because they had no bible? And which bible are we talking about here? Marcion’s bible? The Catholic’s bible? The Protestant’s bible? The bible that doesn’t have Revelation?

  • Eliza

    Jeff wrote:

    Jesus, if he actually existed, had no writings of his own. Perhaps he was illiterate.

    But he reads from a scroll in temple, and quotes repeatedly from the Septaguint. What I find funniest is the places where Jesus gives quotes from the Septaguint which differ from the Hebrew “original”. Let’s see; he’s God, the Bible/Torah is/was divinely inspired, but he doesn’t know the original version, only the mistranslation? OOPS.

  • Aj

    I think the difference is liberal Christians admit to practices that are clearly intellectually dishonest, while fundamentalist Christians maintain they’re intellectually honest when they’re not. Liberal Christians try to reconcile their beliefs with reality, while fundamentalist Christians try to reconcile reality with their beliefs.

  • Brooks

    Let’s see; he’s God, the Bible/Torah is/was divinely inspired, but he doesn’t know the original version, only the mistranslation? OOPS.

    To be fair, Jesus never actually called himself God. That’s just something Christians made up and in fact they even added in verses in the Latin Vulgate that didn’t appear in the Greek original to give more support to the trinity which made it over into some of the English versions, like the infamous KJV. Also, as far as I’m aware, the Torah never actually claims to be divinely inspired, does it? Besides, I thought most scholars agreed Jesus was likely illiterate if he existed at all since you likely were illiterate back then unless you were rich or something?

  • His basic argument is that yes, liberal Christians are cherry picking, but so is everybody else.

    That doesn’t make it okay in my eyes. I invoke the classic “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it?” argument.

    And he said that if you’re going to cherry pick the bible, at least use intelligence when you cherry pick.

    My dad has a saying to that effect; “Either be good, or be good at it.” Offering an alternative as to how to “effectively” cherrypick is a lot like offering an alternative as to how to “be bad.” It’s just inconsistent in the first place.

    Don’t most liberal Christians take the whole “all religions are different paths to God” approach? Like they respect Muhammed and Buddha as inspiring spiritual teachers but simply prefer Jesus over them?

    Maybe so. Although it still doesn’t answer the question: why do they prefer Jesus over the rest? What makes him special?

    I think the difference is liberal Christians admit to practices that are clearly intellectually dishonest,

    I’d argue that admitting to doing something inconsistent and unreasonable doesn’t make it any less inconsistent or unreasonable.

  • Arguing the Gospels: Where Atheists miss the Boat
    I decided to just write a post on this. Please click on the link to read.

  • As a liberal Christian, a few quick thoughts

    It’d be good to not privilege the stories of Jesus for these reasons: the Gospels are actually written later than Paul, there is no one portrait to be found in the four Gospels, we don’t have the words of Jesus as much as the words of the communities that produced the four Gospels, and the rich voices of the Bible are shut out if we just side step the Hebrew Scriptures and the rest of the New Testament.

    And as has been noted in the post. The Gospels provide their own limitations in any case. There are no unambiguous texts. So how do I relate to my Christian faith? I relate to it in it’s totality, the tradition and the church past and present and the continuing movement which exists today. I think there are profound insights to orientate human life in this tradition and ways of relating to one another in the church that can be salvific. With warts and all I find something of God in that movement which started with but is not exhausted by the Galilean.

  • Sabio Says:
    Arguing the Gospels: Where Atheists miss the Boat

    Nice link. Well worth a read.

  • Brooks

    That doesn’t make it okay in my eyes. I invoke the classic “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it?” argument.

    Expect in the jumping off a bridge analogy, someone is getting hurt, but in liberal Christianity, nobody is getting hurt as far as I’m aware. If it makes people happy and as long they’re not going around doing stuff like flying planes into buildings, I don’t see why it should matter what other people do with their free time on Sunday mornings.

    Maybe so. Although it still doesn’t answer the question: why do they prefer Jesus over the rest? What makes him special?

    I don’t know. Ask an actual liberal Christian yourself to find out? But I think for liberal Christians, Christianity is mostly like a cultural heritage thing like secular Judaism where they might not have a strict literal belief in the bible, but they still have an affection for the church culture and positive teachings of Jesus. It’s like how in Sweden, the people there might self-identify as Christians but they only have a vague belief in a higher power and see Jesus as this good man who said nice things and don’t have a strict belief in the bible, but they might participate in church traditions and religious holidays. One analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like your mother. Your mother might not be the most perfect person in the world and there might be tons of people out there more talented than her, but you still love your mother more not because she’s a perfect supermom but because she’s your mother. But isn’t this a bit like asking why is Twilight so popular when Stephenie Meyer isn’t the greatest author in the world?

    I’d argue that admitting to doing something inconsistent and unreasonable doesn’t make it any less inconsistent or unreasonable.

    On who’s definition of unreasonable? They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It might not make sense to an outsider, but again, if it keeps them happy and as long as they’re not blowing buildings up, I don’t see why it matters.

  • “Your mother might not be the most perfect person in the world and there might be tons of people out there more talented than her, but you still love your mother more not because she’s a perfect supermom but because she’s your mother.”

    Exactly! As a liberal Christian, I think this example helps one to understand how one can love a tradition even when you are aware of its faults.

  • Expect in the jumping off a bridge analogy, someone is getting hurt, but in liberal Christianity, nobody is getting hurt as far as I’m aware. If it makes people happy and as long they’re not going around doing stuff like flying planes into buildings, I don’t see why it should matter what other people do with their free time on Sunday mornings.

    Maybe. I’ll admit I’m not as opposed to the actual actions of liberal Christians as I am to those of more conservative leanings….but I’m still quite curious as to why “everyone else does it” flies with anyone at all as a rational justification for anything.

    I mean, if the answer had been, “because it makes [them/me] happy and it doesn’t hurt anyone,” that wouldn’t have been a problem for me.

    Your mother might not be the most perfect person in the world and there might be tons of people out there more talented than her, but you still love your mother more not because she’s a perfect supermom but because she’s your mother. But isn’t this a bit like asking why is Twilight so popular when Stephenie Meyer isn’t the greatest author in the world?

    Well, for me it’s not a question of scale (it’s not “why is Jesus so popular?”). It’s a question aimed at the level of the individual; what are some of the reasons, I ask, that people choose to “accept Jesus” to the point that they self-identify as christians, if their beliefs are more universal than traditional Christian beliefs? I mean, I agree with some things Jesus said, too — like love your neighbor, don’t kill people, stealing is bad — but that doesn’t make me a Christian. I don’t name my beliefs after other people. And so I am curious as to what would cause someone else to hold that position; it doesn’t make sense to me that someone would say, “I’m a Christian,” but then also say, “I don’t believe in everything Jesus said.”

    Simple version: What does “Christian” even mean if it can be applied so liberally? What’s the difference between such a “Christian” and an agnostic believer, other than the labels that they apply to themselves?

    On who’s definition of unreasonable? They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It might not make sense to an outsider, but again, if it keeps them happy and as long as they’re not blowing buildings up, I don’t see why it matters.

    Well, I was using mine there, because it was my question/statement. To say that it’s okay to pick and choose because “everybody else does it” crosses me as a bit unreasonable. And I’m always wary of unreasonable behavior, even if it doesn’t seem to hurt anyone. I’m not saying anyone “owes” me an explanation or anything, but it is a hole in the plot that bothers me.

  • Brooks

    Maybe. I’ll admit I’m not as opposed to the actual actions of liberal Christians as I am to those of more conservative leanings….but I’m still quite curious as to why “everyone else does it” flies with anyone at all as a rational justification for anything.

    I don’t think Ehrman’s point is that because everyone else does it, you should do it too. His point is that since everyone else does it, it’s unfair to single out liberal Christians as somehow being more cherry picking than fundies when they all do it to some degree. The bible itself says that nobody can follow it correctly and that anyone who says they’re without sin is a liar. I’ll be frank that I think atheists sometimes hold Christians to double standards. On the one hand, atheists complain when fundamentalists refuse to admit that the bible has contradictions and refuse to admit the discoveries of science. Then when we finally get Christians who admit that, some people still complain because they aren’t thinking just like them. I used to be a fundamentalist Christian, and when I deconverted to atheism, I left behind this turn or burn mentality. I see no reason to recreate it in a secular version.

    Simple version: What does “Christian” even mean if it can be applied so liberally? What’s the difference between such a “Christian” and an agnostic believer, other than the labels that they apply to themselves?

    Isn’t this sort of like asking “who’s a true political liberal?” I identify as a liberal in politics. I agree with many of the ideals of liberalism and in all the elections I’ve voted in, I voted liberal. But just because I voted for liberal presidents doesn’t mean I agree with everything the presidents do yet this doesn’t mean I’m not a liberal anymore. It simply means I’m being realistic about my expectations of people. The other problem with asking what makes someone a Christian is that there’s never been such a thing as a true Christian. If being a Christian is defined by how literal you believe in the bible, who’s bible are we talking about here? Marcion’s bible? The Catholic’s bible? The Protestant’s bible? The bible that doesn’t have Revelation? What about the Gnostics? The Ebionites? What about Mormons? What about the early Christians that didn’t have a bible? It frankly sounds silly to me to claim that only modern day evangelical Christians are true Christians but the original first century Christians are not true Christians because they didn’t have a bible back then.

    What about Jesus? Is Jesus a cherry picker because he was a Jew and not a Christian? When did Jesus ever go to Paul’s church or vote Republican? To point to one minority of strict bible believing Christians out of 38,000 other denominations of Christianity and say that they alone are the true Christians either from a religious or secular point of view frankly strikes me as being unrealistic and illogical. Ehrman also points out in the question and answers faq in the paperback edition of Misquoting Jesus that fundamentalist Christianity is a modern belief that started as a reaction to the Enlightenment movement and the early church was much more diversified than what fundamentalists would have you to believe. I think this whole debate as to who are the true Christians is nothing but a red herring that the fundies have spread to try and avoid the issues that really matter.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    To say that it’s okay to pick and choose because “everybody else does it” crosses me as a bit unreasonable

    Sure, but I’m not seeing that statement anywhere above. I don’t think the message is “We can pick and choose whatever we want, based on nothing more than what we feel like, because that’s what everyone does.” Rather, it’s “There are all sorts of things about the Bible that means that not everything in it can be taken at face value and then applied directly to our modern life. So we need to come up with systematic methods to figure out how to interpret the Bible. Oh, and if you (fundamentalists) claim that this means that we’re ‘picking and choosing,’ well you do the same thing; the difference is that we’re trying to come up with systematic reasons for how to ‘pick and choose’.”

    Very broadly, there are three ways that one might read the Bible:

    1) It’s divinely inspired, and 100% inerrant, in a literal fashion, and every moral or rule that it gives is directly applicable to our lives. (So we would be anti-homosexual, and um, pro-slavery pacifists.)

    2) It’s divinely inspired, which gives it special importance and value, but because it was mediated by humans and human culture, it requires careful thought to figure out how a lot of the stories and messages apply to us.

    3) It’s purely human book, not divinely inspired in any way, with the normal mixture of useful stuff and horrible stuff that you’d expect in any human document.

    As atheists, I think we can all agree that (3) makes the most sense. My problem is that lots of atheists side with fundamentalists, in arguing that everyone has to choose between (1) and (3).

  • I don’t think Ehrman’s point is that because everyone else does it, you should do it too. His point is that since everyone else does it, it’s unfair to single out liberal Christians as somehow being more cherry picking than fundies when they all do it to some degree.

    I know, but I still find the “fundie’s” logic to be a bit more (internally) sound than the liberals; I’ve spoken with a number of them in various internet communities over the past year or so (part of an ongoing experiment of mine), and the more I hear their excuses — ridiculous as they may be — the last thing I can really do is call them internally inconsistent. They believe that, although you should try to adhere to the strict rules of the Bible/God/Jesus, humans are designed with an inherently sinful nature (opposed to God and His supposed teachings), and so they cannot truly be “sinless;” that is one of the very things that Jesus supposedly was, was “sinless.” He was revered as a godlike being for that, among other things. So it makes sense to me that they say humans cannot be sinless; they can only receive the “blessing of God” through the “grace of Christ.”

    So no, they don’t follow all the rules. They may not even always try. But their reason for that is that it’s impossible to truly be a “True Christian” by the book definition, and that good acts are not what saves one’s soul — rather, it’s the “grace of God” that “saves your soul,” pretty much regardless of your acts. I guess the assumption is that God knows whether you’re really trying or not and will judge you thusly, so if you lie to others about trying, it’s really stupid and pointless even by your own view, because God still knows better.

    Not that I believe any of that myself; far from it. Just that I see it to be LOADS more consistent than the liberal Christian view of “well they did mean that, but not that, and they did mean that, but that was a metaphor for this.” Even if you don’t agree, I think it’s easy to see how easy it is to get frustrated by people who seem to worship Jesus in a way that is pretty much equivalent with Secular Humanism — picking and choosing his rules in such a way — and then claim the title of “Christian.” Aren’t you really a secular humanist if you do that?

    FTR, this is not about “converting” people to “atheism.” It’s a simple matter of the fact that I don’t understand why people choose that label when they think like that. That’s what I meant by, “What does it even mean to be a Christian if the label can be applied so?”

    3) It’s purely human book, not divinely inspired in any way, with the normal mixture of useful stuff and horrible stuff that you’d expect in any human document.

    2) It’s divinely inspired, which gives it special importance and value, but because it was mediated by humans and human culture, it requires careful thought to figure out how a lot of the stories and messages apply to us.

    Problem is, that’s an infinite process, no different than any other process of defining morals — there will never be a day when people can say, “Oh, we understand all of the Bible completely now, there are no misunderstandings or misinterpretations, we’ve tracked everything back to the original meaning and now we understand it 100%.” Just like there will never be a day when secular humanists can say, “Oh, we fully understand all aspects of morality and justice and we don’t have to think about it anymore, quick — someone write it down.” Which I suppose justifies the label, but it kind of renders it meaningless IMO — if you’re no different from anyone else, why the need for the label?

  • Aj

    I’ve seen some of the “systematic” methods used by liberal Christians and they’re rationalizing their picking and choosing in an even more incoherent, deceitful way than some fundamentalists.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Problem is, that’s an infinite process, no different than any other process of defining morals – there will never be a day when people can say, “Oh, we understand all of the Bible completely now, there are no misunderstandings or misinterpretations, we’ve tracked everything back to the original meaning and now we understand it 100%.”

    I don’t understand the connection that you’re making here, and would be interested if you could explain in more detail. Yes, I agree that someone who takes approach #2 to the Bible will have to admit to difficulties and uncertainties in figuring out how to be a good person. I don’t understand why you conclude that that should make them secular humanists. Admitting that figuring out how to live your life is full of difficulties and uncertainties strikes me as just a basic honest statement about life, not a peculiarity of atheism or secular humanism. Someone who claims that they have an easy way of figuring out all moral question is a liar, not a non-secular-humanist. Why does the fact that approach #2 is an “infinite process” make it equivalent for you to “secular humanism”? They may both be infinite processes, but they’re different infinite processes.

    . . .the last thing I can really do is call them internally inconsistent. They believe that, although you should try to adhere to the strict rules of the Bible/God/Jesus, humans are designed with an inherently sinful nature (opposed to God and His supposed teachings), and so they cannot truly be sinless

    I’m not saying that fundamentalists are inconsistent in that they don’t live up to the the ideals and rules set in the Bible. I’m saying that they’re inconsistent, and in fact incoherent, in that the Bible does not produce clear rules, and to the degree that it does, they’re so clearly unacceptable to modern Americans that not even the most ardent fundamentalist will endorse them. For example, fundamentalists will claim that they oppose homosexuality simply because they’re following the Bible. But the Bible is much clearer in its endorsements of slavery and pacifism than in its opposition to homosexuality, very few fundamentalists will endorse slavery or pacifism as part of their ethical ideal. You seem to be agreeing with the fundamentalists that approach #1 is a nice, simple, straightforward approach, that produces clear rules to take as an ideal (although maybe not live up to), unlike approaches #2 and #3. But this is simply not true, both because the Bible has contradictory messages, and because some of the results it produces are so clearly unacceptable ideals for modern Americans.

  • I don’t understand the connection that you’re making here, and would be interested if you could explain in more detail. Yes, I agree that someone who takes approach #2 to the Bible will have to admit to difficulties and uncertainties in figuring out how to be a good person. I don’t understand why you conclude that that should make them secular humanists. Admitting that figuring out how to live your life is full of difficulties and uncertainties strikes me as just a basic honest statement about life, not a peculiarity of atheism or secular humanism. Someone who claims that they have an easy way of figuring out all moral question is a liar, not a non-secular-humanist. Why does the fact that approach #2 is an “infinite process” make it equivalent for you to “secular humanism”? They may both be infinite processes, but they’re different infinite processes.

    The fact that it’s an infinite process is not what I was connecting to humanism; I was connecting the fact that liberal Christians use the idea of something that is “acceptable” in today’s society as some kind of objective rational grounding for why we shouldn’t do what we see in certain parts of the Bible; why shouldn’t we do it, I ask them? You’re Christian aren’t you, I ask them? Because it’s “clearly wrong.” By whose standard? Clearly not the Bible’s.

    If you claim that the reason is because it’s good for humans, or that it helps society flourish, or that it results in the fewest tortures or deaths or whatever, then you’re like me, you’re a humanist. That’s humanist reasoning — that something is good because it helps people. If you think that way, then there’s really no need for a Bible because what is “good” should be readily apparent (because it’s simply a matter of discerning whether or not something is beneficial to us, not whether it’s okay by God’s law). So it seems very odd to me to claim that the Bible is a source of moral authority — even a little bit — and to say that you dedicate your life to decoding that source on the basis that it provides something even approaching morality or ethical truth, and to then turn and say that you think the things it says are good not because they are in the book, but because they are true regardless of the book’s existence…..especially if everything in the book itself “shouldn’t be taken seriously,” or should be altered or interpreted based on how to best display humanist ideals.

    I guess the bottom line of what I’m getting at is….if you worship Jesus or God, it seems odd to selectively interpret everything that either one says such that they reflect humanist ideals. It’s a bit troubling to me that liberal Christians have suddenly become able to agree with atheists on so many levels; on the one hand I am happy about it, because it leads to better things that more people can oppose slavery and torture and support rights and freedoms, as opposed to God-centric laws….but on the other hand, it reeks of appeasement. It reeks of a religious virus that is dying out in its traditional form, and so has taken on the appearance of the presiding worldview at the time (humanism) in order to stay afloat. Christian liberals are simply not consistent in claiming humanistic reasons for supporting religious texts (when the same texts clearly violate those same reasons in many cases). Jesus supported slavery, very clearly and somewhat frequently. He teaches how to take care of slaves. But Christians will now say that they oppose slavery, even though the Bible has not given them a clear means by which to do so, on the basis that “it’s obvious that it’s wrong.” Obvious to who? To someone who takes human well-being as a given — and that’s what we call a humanist. And if Jesus was “wrong” about that, then what else was he wrong about? What other things did he literally say that we shouldn’t trust, or should discard? His morality is clearly neither perfect nor worthy of worship as such. So why do liberal Christians choose to follow him — which implies worship, or at least adherence or reverence — but “only sort of?” It seems odd to claim to be a follower of Jesus but not follow him entirely. I mean, there are a lot of sources of what I believe are ethical truths (in various art forms, from books to movies to video game storylines), but I don’t call myself a “follower” of them. If you see Christianity in the same light — that it is not perfect but nonetheless correct about some things — then on what basis do you justify calling yourself “Christian?” That is my question to Christian liberals.

    I’m saying that they’re inconsistent, and in fact incoherent, in that the Bible does not produce clear rules, and to the degree that it does, they’re so clearly unacceptable to modern Americans that not even the most ardent fundamentalist will endorse them.

    Hence the whole point of trying to interpret the laws as faithfully to the original meanings as possible; the same thing liberal Christians try to do, just with a different end in mind — following them, instead of choosing not to because it’s “clearly unacceptable.”

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Tim, yes, if liberal Christians just said “Let’s read the Bible, but we can ignore the parts that we don’t match up to secular humanism,” then there would be no point in being a Christian. But since I’ve never heard that given as a method of interpreting the Bible, that’s just a strawman.

    If you see Christianity in the same light – that it is not perfect but nonetheless correct about some things – then on what basis do you justify calling yourself “Christian?” That is my question to Christian liberals.

    Well, lots of theologically liberal Christians would say that Jesus and God was and are perfect. That’s a different question than whether the Bible is a set of timeless rules. You’re basically assuming the fundamentalist point of view—either the Bible is a set of timeless rules, or it’s trash. As I’ve said before, those aren’t the only two possible views.

    Hence the whole point of trying to interpret the laws as faithfully to the original meanings as possible; the same thing liberal Christians try to do, just with a different end in mind – following them, instead of choosing not to because it’s “clearly unacceptable.”

    This conversation isn’t really going anywhere. I’ve made the same comments several times, and as far as I can tell, you’re just ignoring them. Fundamentalists don’t try to faithfully follow the Bible as a rulebook. They only claim to. Nor have I said that liberal Christians just reject parts of the Bible merely on the basis that they’re “clearly unacceptable.” What I’m saying is this: Fundamentalists claim that they treat the Bible as a set of timeless rules. Theologically liberal Christians say that they don’t. It’s clear that second claim is more sensible than the first claim, because no one treats the Bible as a set of timeless truths: fundamentalists are not in favor of slavery and pacifism. Given this, I don’t see how you can keep saying that fundamentalists have a coherent plan of how to treat the Bible as a set of timeless rules. They just don’t. That completely factually untrue, and neither you, nor any fundamentalist I’ve talked to, have given any way in which that could possibly be true. I don’t see that you’ve even tried to.

    Theologically liberal Christians have all kinds of different ways of reading the Bible. Some read the Bible as an ongoing story of God’s interaction with humans, so that they emphasize the trajectory of the interaction, rather than the specific rules. Some focus on what the stories would have meant to people at the time, given their own culture, and then try to figure out, in parallel, what they mean for us. Some emphasize the use of textual criticism to figure out which parts of the Bible are “original,’ and which are later additions (e.g. “what did Jesus really day?”). There are tons of different approaches, and since I’m not a Christian, I don’t advocate any of them. I’m just saying that, as a starting point, it’s more honest to begin by observing that the rules in the Bible are not timeless truths, because it’s manifestly clear that they’re not. For one thing, timeless truths shouldn’t have factual contradictions.