Doubt

Few things demystify a faith or its sacred texts like learning about the haphazard historical processes by which traditions formed their beliefs, wrote their texts, and came to settle on them as authoritative. So many pieces of one's faith which the average parishioner takes as basic and unproblematic suddenly become problematized for the first time.

Worse yet, the more you see how your faith emerged out of a contingent historical process is the more that you can see the undeniably human fingerprints all over it. And these sorts of realizations start to undermine the sense of the perfect internal rationality of one's beliefs.

And when you are already dubious of absolute truth, the suspicion that your beliefs are not really absolutely true but a matter of the wrong presupposition, one you adopted more as an accident of where you were born or perhaps a profound experience you had, than because of any superior access to truth, the more you will begin to doubt.

Theodicy

If there is no personal all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, invisible being, who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his attributes, then I can accept the chaos, pain, suffering and injustices I see without having to continually exonerate God for not being present and involved. If a personal God is taken out of the equation, I don't have to try to reconcile a loving, all powerful, all knowing, deity with the unbearable suffering I see in the world.

God

History of God

The conception of the universe that was widespread among ancient peoples was that the various natural forces were imbued with divine power, as in some sense divinities themselves. The earth was a divinity, the sky was a divinity, the water was a divinity, they had divine power. In other words, the gods were identical with or imminent in the forces of nature. There were many gods. No one single god was therefore all powerful. Prior to the first Millennium BCE, the ancient Israelites participated at the earliest stages in the wider religious culture of the Ancient Near East.

However, over the course of time, some ancient Israelites, not all at once and not unanimously, broke with this view and articulated a different view, that there was one divine power, one god. But much more important than number was the fact that this god was outside of and above nature. This god was not identified with nature. He transcended nature, and he wasn't known through natural phenomena, he was known through history, events and a particular relationship with humankind. And that idea, which seems simple at first and not so very revolutionary, was an idea that affected every aspect of Israelite culture, it was an idea that ensured the survival of the ancient Israelites as an ethnic religious entity.

Beginning perhaps as early as the eighth century and continuing for several centuries, literate and decidedly monotheistic circles within Israelite society put a monotheistic framework on the ancient stories and traditions of the nation. They molded them into a foundation myth that would shape Israelite and Jewish self-identity and understanding in a profound way.

What is of great significance though is not simply that they were retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views. They were drawing upon the culture and religious legacy of the Ancient Near East, its stories and imagery, even as they transformed it in order to conform to a new vision of a non-mythological god. In various complicated ways, the view of an utterly transcendent god with absolute control over history made it possible for some Israelites to interpret even the most tragic and catastrophic events in their history not as a defeat of Israel's god or even God's rejection of them, but as a necessary part of God's larger purpose or plan for Israel.

Israelite monotheism is represented in the Bible as beginning with Abraham. Historically speaking it most likely began much later, and probably as a minority movement that grew to prominence over centuries. But that later monotheism was then projected back over Israel's history by the final editors of the Jewish Bible. They projected their monotheism onto an earlier time, onto the nation's most ancient ancestors. What appears in the Bible as a battle between Israelites, pure Yahwists, and Canaanites, pure polytheists, is indeed better understood as a civil war between Yahweh-only Israelites, and Israelites who are participating in the cult of their ancestors, as the Yahweh-only party polemicizes against and seek to suppress certain undesirable elements of earlier Israelite-Judean religion from the First Millennium BCE.

The monotheistic God of the Jews was slow to emerge from the crowd of rival gods worshipped in the rest of the Ancient world. There was a period of convergence and blending of the Canaanite deities and some of their features into the figure of Yahweh. Eventually Israel came to reject its Canaanite roots, creating a separate identity. That Monotheism was then projected back over Israel's history by the final editors of the Jewish Bible. They projected their Monotheism onto the nation's most ancient ancestors.

Jesus

The odyssey of Jesus of Nazareth from crucified prophet to divine ruler of the cosmos is an extraordinary event in Western intellectual history and, given the current state of biblical scholarship, one of the best documented. The process consisted in a gradually increasing identification of Jesus himself with the kingdom of God that he had preached; and one of the major results of this process was a dramatic change in the sense of time and history that Jesus' proclamation had introduced into Judaism.

Within two decades of Jesus' death the Christian community had already elevated the prophet beyond his own understanding of his status and had endowed him with two titles, "Lord" and "Christ," neither of which he had dared to give to himself.

Once the "conception christology" of Matthew and Luke had raised the stakes over the "adoptionist christology" of Mark, momentum built up for an even higher wager: that Jesus' origins stretched back beyond his merely human beginnings, to divine preexistence in heaven.

The odyssey of christology continued to develop from the height it reached in Saint John's Gospel. Later generations of Christians would define the status of this God-man as the only-begotten Son of God. And after the "Spirit" of God had been fully hypostatized, he would be proclaimed as the Second Person of the divine Trinity.

Jesus' status had evolved from eschatological prophet to preexistent Son of God. Within a few short decades of his death, the man who had heralded the end of all religion had been transformed into the divine guarantor of the one, true, and universal religion.

The Journey

My personal investigation into the foundations of Christianity, and indeed, of faith itself.

6-page PDF version from 2013.

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