Thursday, May 8, 2014

Was Jesus That Exemplary?

A favorite atheist blog of mine is Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined: Clear Thinking about Christianity.  This morning, I read his post, Is This a Powerful New Apologetic Argument?  The post pertains to the question of whether Jesus in the Gospels was truly morally exemplary, as many Christians say he is.  The post is responding to a Christian blogger, Tom Gilson, who appears to be arguing that Jesus was too good to be merely a legend.

My favorite passage in Bob’s post compares Jesus with the mythological figure of Prometheus, who sacrificed himself for others:

“My choice for this category is Prometheus, the god who brought fire to mankind. He was punished by being chained to a rock and having an eagle eat his liver each day, only to have it regrow overnight for the agonizing process to repeat. (And Christians think that Jesus had it rough.)…Jesus gave us salvation, a solution to a problem he invented, while Prometheus gave us fire, something that’s actually objectively useful.”

Bob says later in the post that Jesus didn’t really do that much: “He killed a fig tree. He cured some lepers. He raised Lazarus. Sure, Jesus cured by magic, and that’s pretty cool, but he did less good in his healing ministry than a single modern doctor does. He didn’t eliminate smallpox, for example—modern medicine did.”

Still later, Bob argues that Jesus failed to address crucial moral issues: “Jesus didn’t stop slavery, didn’t reject polygamy, and didn’t denounce God’s genocide in the Old Testament. Gilson acknowledges without rebuttal that Jesus did nothing to addressing the issues that we reject today.”

Moreover, Bob seems to imply that some of Jesus’ commands were impractical: “Jesus demanded faith instead of planning for the future (‘take no thought for the morrow’; ‘do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear’)”.

Here are some of my thoughts.

1.  I agree with Bob that Christianity does not corner the market in its praise for self-sacrifice.  I tend to disagree with the Christian apologetic argument that humans cannot invent someone so good, and thus Christ must be real and sent from God.  Let me be clear, though: I am not a Christ-myther.  I believe that there was a historical Jesus.  But there is the historical Jesus, and there is the religious interpretation of Jesus’ significance that was held by early Christians, and maybe even (on some level) by Jesus himself (depending on which scholar you ask).  My point is that, just because a religion has good things, that does not prove its divine inspiration, or that it is right while other religions are wrong.  All sorts of religions and systems have good moral principles or heroes.

2.  At the same time, I think that there is a place for digging deeper when it comes to the Gospels.  I have to admit that I am not always impressed by the story of Jesus when I read the Gospels: I am curious as to how Christians can see so much depth in the story of someone who goes around doing miracles.  But I have to admit that Christians can and do get deep, practical insights and applications from their study of the Gospels.  A seemingly boring story may yield more wisdom than one might expect!  Moreover, there are biblical scholars who highlight that some of what Jesus said and did was revolutionary in that time.

3.  There have been times when I have seen the Jesus of the Gospels as the best person who ever lived, and there have been times when I have seen him as a wild-eyed religious fanatic, like a cult leader.  Nowadays, I appreciate some of the ideals that Jesus preached.  He told the rich young ruler, and even his disciples (Luke 12:33), to sell everything and give alms.  I do not plan to do this, for it appears very idealistic to me, but I can appreciate the principle of not rooting one’s identity in riches but choosing instead to give to others.  Jesus preached an ethic that was good, but it was above and beyond what many of us will attain, including those Christians who reinterpret Jesus’ words to convince themselves that their suburban middle-class lifestyles are acceptable to God.

4.  Jesus himself may not have brought revolutionary change in his lifetime, but his character in the Gospels inspired many others to accomplish significant things that helped others.  Of course, Christianity has produced ill effects on the world, too.

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