It’s a good question why an agnostic would study early Christianity. I can’t answer for everyone, but I can answer for myself. Even after I have disengaged myself from believing the content of the Christian faith, I have never fully given up the interest in it that was ignited in me through a Catholic education. I still remember fondly my first church history teacher, typically Dutch in his enthusiasm for the somewhat arcane and eccentric subject. This subject did not stop being of interest to me after I was no longer a believer.
I also remember sitting in another church history class while in college, when the news of the election of the successor to John Paul II was announced, with the tittering and excitement people felt, most of whom were not themselves Catholic. There is a certain fascination with the subject globally even in people who don’t believe. In Japan, fictional stories incorporate Christian beliefs as an exotic motif. In Russia, where grown men have gotten into barroom brawls over Kant, they also have interest in speculation on the subject, which casts its shadow over the whole history of the Western world. And in California, where I live, a Persian friend of mine who is a Muslim had been himself wondering whether he should rather be a Christian. Suffice it to say that people of many backgrounds have found the subject of Christianity interesting.
My wife, who has a Lutheran background, has a story not that much unlike my own, except for all of the most nerdy bits. She also had passionate involvement with the church in her youth. She also continues to have a level of attachment and fascination, as I do. She also has no desire to be a part of any church. Of course, she has even less a desire to take up the academic approach to the study of religion as a hobby. It takes a certain kind of nerd to appreciate that.
I try to follow the evidence as I see it. I try not to worry about where it will take me. This can at times be a painful road. In regards to the subject, I have had two significant and relevant “Damascus road” moments. At 15, I became an agnostic instead of a Catholic. I have since flirted with having any kind of Christian belief at all, even the purely metaphorical kind, but I prefer a simple identity as an agnostic over the difficult emotional jumping jacks of belief. My outlet for interest in this subject is now met by the historical-critical approach. I suppose a lot of people have similar stories.
At 21, after building the Early Christian Writings website, and after taking up the other side of the argument at length and with all the same kinds of rhetoric usually tossed around, I had a much less dramatic but similar experience. I gave up my belief in Jesus. This is meant literally.
Both Jesus and God are objects of faith. The belief in a kind of “Jefferson Bible” Jesus forms part of the deism that Christianity projects beyond the church. To accept it is to acknowledge an important social glue that provides common ground between Christians and people who are disinterested in the rest of Christianity. It allows them to remind Christians politely that, yes, they do believe in God, or, yes, they know there was a guy named Jesus; we really aren’t so different you and I.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t grant plausibility to the historicity of Jesus as a historical hypothesis. But that is not the kind of belief that people have in Jesus. Of the billions of people in the world and the millions of people trained in history, who believe, extraordinarily few have taken up the task in all good faith to determine whether it is the best historical answer. This is why you see all the histrionics of Scholars-Against-the-Mythical-Jesus. They know the conclusion they believe, and they’ve never actually considered whether they should have to demonstrate it in a rigorous way.
So I’m in the not-so-special camp of not knowing the answer beyond a reasonable doubt. As someone who appreciates the importance of skepticism where skepticism is due, I have come to accept this level of reasonable doubt based on where the evidence as I see it has led me thus far.
Thanks for writing that. I’m curious have you ever come across the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) originally argued by Van Til and later Greg Bahnsen? If so, what is your take on it, especially in light of your need for evidence to precede belief?
Hi, Paul, thanks for reading it. A basic understanding of how to process evidence, in terms of the scientific method, is shared worldwide by the scientific community, which does not require a belief in God, despite the TAG that says that it should. But perhaps I can answer the question better with an essay I wrote once on a related question, which is titled Naturalistic Inquiry. Evidence is something everybody uses; belief is extraneous; belief in theism as a necessary prerequisite to accepting evidence is just a non sequitur.
Peter, it was a good article but it seems to miss the point of TAG–that we all argue from a set of axioms, or a worldview. Van Til and Bahnsen would agree that we all accept the scientific method and the use of evidence. But they would be quick to point out that the materialist does so inconsistently. The use of the Inductive Principle, laws of logic, and the concept of human dignity only make sense in the Christian Theistic Worldview (CTW).
To be more to the point, the atheist (or agnostic) accepts these prerequisites for knowledge while operating from a worldview that does not allow for them. Laws of logic are immaterial and universal–how could they exist in a world where only matter and energy exist? Why are thy law-like? From where do they get their “universal-ness?” How do laws of logic comport with the materialistic worldview?
If you demand evidence for everything you believe, what evidence will you accept to prove that nature is uniform? You’d have to be able to prove that the future will be like the past….which cannot be proven because any experiment used to prove this would require nature to be uniform. You can observe the sun rising every day, but scientifically that only proves the sun has risen every day we’ve observed it. You can’t prove uniformity of nature without making a circular argument.
That’s TAG in a nutshell. It’s a debate between worldviews and their internal consistency. Not an argument about the usefulness of the laws of logic, absolute morality, or the Inductive Principle. Have you written anything which specifically addresses the internal consistency of the materialistic worldview?
I based my certitude a guy Jesus existed (one who later was credited of starting Christianity) on Paul’s epistles and Hebrews (which I take written before the gospels). This is what I wrote on Richard Carrier blog ( http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4391 )
“In Paul’s epistles & ‘Hebrews’, Jesus is described as a descendant of Abraham (Galatians l3:16), Israelites (Romans 9:4-5), the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14), Jesse (Romans 15:12) & David (Ro1:3) and also requiring a woman in order to “come” as a Jew (Galatians 4:4). “The one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:15) “humbled himself” (Philippians 2:8) in a world of “flesh & blood”, as one of them (Hebrews 2:14a,17a), among sinners, some opposing him (Hebrews 12:3). There he was tempted (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15) (in the same way as other humans) and heard by (earthly) witnesses talking about salvation (Hebrews 2:3). This Jesus, at some time in the past a minister to the Jews (Romans 15:8) and an apostle (Hebrews 3:1), had a brother called James (Galatians 1:19), whom Paul met several times (Galatians 1:19,2:9) and Josephus knew about (Ant. 20).
Let’s add to that Jesus was poor (2 Corinthians 8:9) and was crucified. What is the best location for that: earth or that celestial place below the moon?
Furthermore, Jesus is described as heard speaking about salvation (Hebrews 3:1, 2:3) and had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19). Paul also mentioned Jesus was handed down at night (1 Corinthians 11:23) prior to the crucifixion, alluding it took place in “Zion” (Romans 9:31-33, 15:26-27).
Of course, on all these points, you and other mythicists have come up with arguments against a natural reading.
But let me say those arguments are very indirect, remote, weak, greatly biased, far-fetched and rather silly.
Anyway, they can only raise some doubts or propose possibilities against a historicist understanding but that’s about it.”
Another clue is how “Mark” in his gospel had to contend with eyewitness account about a rather ordinary Jesus (not divine in any way) when his audience wanted proof the earthly Jesus gave signs he was extraordinary (and divine) (as Paul described the pre-existent and post-existent Jesus). This resulted in the so-called “messianic secret” which still puzzles scholars.
From my blog:
This hit the spam filter, but I rescued it for you.
Thanks, you are my Savior!
You’re welcome, but to be a little more clear, I’m not looking for a brawl in the comments. I will say more on this topic directly, but not here.
I found your new forum and I already posted other there. I expect a hurricane to come at me soon from those mythicists. I hope it is well moderated.
Thanks. I don’t think you will find it a bad environment for discussion.
Here is evidence that the early Christians of Corinth heard about Jesus in a worldly manner (not spiritual, rather mundane & temporal), prior to Paul writing the 2 Corinthians epistle:
Here is what I think would be the best evidence for the past existence of guy Jesus:
Here is a link about Paul telling the crucifixion/sacrifice happened on earth (Zion). I had a long debate with Richard Carrier on this matter.
All of that to defend a historicist (but very minimalist & non-Christian) position. I hope that comment will make it through your spam filter and yourself.
Thanks, Bernard. It’s relevant. I will read it with interest.
Interesting coments, thanks for the opportunity.
A brief comment to thank you for putting together your websites, and to express sympathy. You write a perfectly clear blog post, and then one commenter praises you for “believing in Jesus” and another tells you that you can’t even think coherently without TAG. Must be a bit disheartening sometimes but — at least from one reader’s perspective — I hope you keep at it.