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An essay donated by Alan Auckenthaler

Pilgrim in an ambiguous world, working
towards an understanding of God.

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The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson said:

“The world is … a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” 1

Woody Allen said:

“What you want is for there to be one truth, and to be in possession of it, but you want it to be good news. If someone said, ‘I’ll tell you whether there is a God,
whether life has meaning,’ it’s better not to know – because if the answer is no, you’d better do some fast tap dancing. If the odds are 50-50, it’s better not to know.” 2

Author John Macquarrie wrote:

“The existentialist style of thought seems to emerge whenever man finds his securities threatened, when he becomes aware of the ambiguities of the world and knows his pilgrim status in it.” 3

If a person accepts at least the possibility that God exists, how should they reasonably respond in the face of such ambiguity? If coming from a Christian heritage, one must start with the resurrection claims which, if true, would be cogent evidence for God.

When deciding whether to believe the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, one cannot begin with any sense of inerrancy of the Scriptures. A single example should suffice to rule that out: The claim in Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:26-38 that Jesus was born of a virgin seems to have been intended to demonstrate fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, but the Hebrew word in Isaiah just meant “young woman” and was mistranslated as “virgin” in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Scriptures, so there was no such prophecy. 4 The virgin birth claims also demonstrate legendary embellishment. 5

The dating of the foundational documents of Christianity is also relevant to their reliability as history. Jesus was crucified in 30 CE. Mark, the first Gospel, dates from no earlier than the mid-60s and the other Gospels decades later. Paul started writing his epistles no earlier than 49 CE. Prior to these documents, oral traditions were developing in various communities, and some of those traditions may well have started out based on eyewitness testimonies. Moreover, Paul, who had his epiphany on the road to Damascus between 32 and 34 CE, states in Galatians 1:18-19 6 that he met three years later with Peter and James in Jerusalem, a meeting which may have included fact-finding about the post-resurrection appearances by Jesus for which Paul lists witnesses in I Corinthians 15:3-8.

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How are we to explain the apparently sincere belief among early Christians that Jesus had been resurrected? There was in the contemporary Jewish culture an expectation of a suffering and dying messiah based on the Son of Man vision in Daniel 7 and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42, 49-50, and 52-53. 7 Also, the idea of resurrection after three days could have been derived from Hosea 6:1-2. There may have been, in the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls a generation before Jesus, a messianic figure who saw himself as the Suffering Servant and was believed to have been raised from the dead after three days. 8 As he is described to us in the Gospels, Jesus saw himself in the same way, and prepared his followers to expect his own resurrection. 9 Also, the Pharisees believed that there would be a general resurrection at the end of time, as foretold in Daniel 12:1-3, so followers of Jesus may have been ready to believe reports of his resurrection as signaling that the end time had begun. 10

The Suffering Servant was to die as an atonement for the sins of his people and thus bring about a reconciliation with God. Jesus may have seen his death in these terms, 11 and Paul clearly interpreted it in this way. 12 The idea of a God who wants his beloved son sacrificed to atone for the sins of others is an anachronism. There actually was child sacrifice in Israel up until Jeremiah and Ezekiel denounced the practice at the turn of the sixth century BCE. 13 Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac 14 is best understood in that cultural context, as is the Suffering Servant. In seeing himself as the Suffering Servant, Jesus was relating to God in terms that made sense in his culture and time, but he was wrong, as he was about the imminent end of the world and his promised return within the lifetime of some of his listeners. 15

The faith of Christians today may be better understood in terms not of verifiable truth but of the psychology of belief. And if that faith is wrong, adherence to it may perpetuate misconceptions.

One can appreciate how many Christians and other religious people might feel that science without God may not give us a sufficient explanation of our world, especially creation. Cosmologists tell us that the universe began with a Big Bang 13.72 billion years ago. Before the Big Bang, there was no matter or space or time. Quantum energy fluctuations can give rise to short-lived particles, even in what we think of as a vacuum. The current standard model of the Big Bang is that all of the matter in our universe resulted from such a quantum energy fluctuation that gave rise to particles that did not quickly become transformed back into energy but instead were sustained by inflation and expansion. This has been referred to as: something from nothing, a great “cosmic bootstrap,” 16 the “ultimate free lunch.” 17 The origin of the energy is a mystery. 18

As the science journalist Gregg Easterbrook has said, for “sheer incredibility, nothing in theology or metaphysics could touch the Big Bang. If this description of the genesis of the cosmos came from the Bible or the Qu’ran instead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology it would be treated as an exaggerated myth.” 19 Because science cannot explain what caused the Big Bang, it may be reasonable, or at least not inconsistent with science, to infer a creator. But identifying the God of the Bible as that creator is a matter of choice and faith, not evidence. If God’s purpose was to create humans, why did he do it so inefficiently, taking billions of years and including billions of superfluous galaxies, a question also posed by Stephen Hawking. 20

Curiosity about the possibility of God and some spiritual dimension transcending our material world is also sustained by paranormal phenomena. Anticipating that many might think that this line of reasoning is somehow not respectable, note what the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson said:

“I claim that paranormal phenomena may really exist but may not be accessible to scientific investigation. This is a hypothesis. I am not saying that it is true, only that it is tenable, and to my mind possible.” 21

Consider the work done by Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia to investigate and document cases suggestive of reincarnation, or by Michael Sabom on near-death out-of-body experiences, or by the Association for Research and Enlightenment about the clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. These phenomena have not been effectively debunked. It is at least plausible that they really happen, and that would mean that our minds or souls can leave our bodies and survive death, which of course would have religious implications. If so, how can anyone be confidently atheistic?

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Having rejected the Christian model, is it worthwhile to continue to work toward a different understanding of God? With most available alternative models also rooted in thousands of years of cultural history, the prospects for thinking about God in a new way are not promising. Instead, it would be more sensible and productive to focus on the here and now.

The Buddha avoided speculating on any ultimate reality, explaining with a parable about “a man pierced by an arrow, who does not wait to find out the name, family, skin colour, and so on, of the man who shot it before taking it out. In the same way, a man pierced by the arrow of suffering should aim to get rid of it before asking questions about the nature of the universe which caused such a state.” 22

And maybe, when we ease the suffering of a neighbor, we will find, as in a lyric from the musical Les Misérables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Letter to The Bookman: An Illustrated Literary Journal, vol. V, no. 1, March 1897, 7.
  2. Caryn James, “Auteur! Auteur!,” The New York Times Magazine, January 19, 1986, 30.
  3. John Macquarrie, Existentialism: An Introduction, Guide, and Assessment (Philadelphia: Penguin Books, 1973), 60.
  4. Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), 19, 68, and 135-36.
  5. Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2003), 21.
  6. Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul: Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 11 and 30-31.
  7. Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012), ch. 4.
  8. Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Israel Knohl, Messiahs and Resurrection in ‘The Gabriel Revelation’ (London: Continuum, 2009), xiii and 48; Al Wolters, “The Messiah in the Qumran Documents,” in The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, ed. Stanley E. Porter (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 75.
  9. Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33-34; Luke 24:46.
  10. Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (London: T&T Clark International, 2005), 325; Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 177; Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 21; I Corinthians 15:20-23.
  11. Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45.
  12. Romans 3:25.
  13. Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 43.
  14. Genesis 22.
  15. Matthew 10:23 and 16:28; Mark 9:1 and 13:29-30; Luke 9:27.
  16. Paul Davies, Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1984), 195.
  17. Alan H. Guth, The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1997), 1.
  18. Lawrence M. Krauss, The Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012), 89, 98, and 138.
  19. Hans Küng, The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 45.
  20. Fred Heeren, Show Me God: What the Message From Space Is Telling Us About God (Wheeling, Illinois: Day Star Publications, 1997), 377.
  21. Freeman Dyson, “One in a Million,” review of Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience, by Georges Charpal and Henri Broch, trans. Bart K. Holland, New York Review of Books, vol. 51, no. 5, March 25, 2004, 5.
  22. Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 136-37.

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Original posting: 2015-AUG-30
Latest update : 2015-AUG-30
Author: Alan Auckenthaler

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