the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Protection, salvation and immortality. I'll have some of that, thanks.

ah, the sweet taste of smugness

Having now read the gospels, albeit in Peterson's dubious updated version, I want to give a brief appraisal of Jesus and his message.

Peterson's version is even entitled 'The Message', and the message, put most simply, is 'Jesus saves'. To be saved, to be safe, protected. The gospels have three areas of focus, to my mind: the miracles, the moralising, and the message, and of these, the message is given most weight. This is especially so in the gospel according to John - my least favourite of the four currently canonical gospels. In John, Jesus says that the greatest punishment is reserved for those who don't believe. The nature of the punishment isn't specified, but we can guess. Unbelievers will find themselves outside Yahweh's great safety net, come judgement day. That means the eternal fires of hell, folks.

Monotheism is something of an advance in religion, because it simplifies the message. The one god has a simple father-child relationship with believers. The advent of Jesus complicates matters a little, but not too much. Jesus saves, essentially in the name of the father. I'm not sure, but what seems to have happened is that Jesus was first hailed as the Messiah, the king of the Jews, and then, after his death, he became the vehicle for a breakaway religion - largely driven by Paul. Christianity was no doubt keen to preserve the benefits of monotheism, so in turning Jesus into a divinity they also emphasised that he was very much a chip off the old block, a pure instrument of the will of Yahweh.

It was a tricky business, this transformation of one of many local Messianic cult figures into the lynchpin of a new religion, a religion that, from the start, realised its survival depended upon spreading itself beyond a highly suspicious and conservative Jewish community. The contradictions are evident in the gospels, where, as previously mentioned, two contradictory genealogies are presented for Jesus, both with the evident intention of linking him back to the house of David and Judea's quasi-mythical past. Now, it's pretty obvious that, if Jesus really was the son of Yahweh, his earthly origins would ultimately be of no relevance - in fact, to give him a more universal appeal, it might have been better to cut him off from any local princely line. What has resulted is a transformation of the meaning of the term 'Messiah', which, to most modern Christians, is just a term for Jesus himself, or maybe 'saviour' - while it still retains its more specifically Judaic connotations for that particular religion. The inventors of the new religion were, of course, intimately linked to the Judaic religion and wanted to keep onside with its believers, both for pragmatic, survival reasons and because of their own no doubt genuine belief in Yahweh.

The message of salvation appeals because of its mixture of vagueness and absolutism. The promise is that believers will be protected or saved from their own mortality, no less. From the consequences of their actions, too, which, in a way, is a by-product of mortality. The term 'forgiveness' is another example of this absolutism. 'I'm not perfect, just forgiven', says the insufferable bumper sticker. Not hard to imagine the appeal of such a message for certain kinds of people, but it can't be emphasised enough that this is not a moral message - in fact, with its emphasis on belief rather than good works, even instead of good works, it apears to be an amoral message, in spite of good Samaritans and rich men languishing outside the gates of heaven.

The appeal is primal. It's said that one of the greatest traumas we experience in early life is that which accompanies the realisation that our parents can't always protect us, or save us. That they let us down. The heavenly father doesn't let us down. He knows everything about us and can do anything for us, or to us. He even encourages us to believe that, if we can keep onside with him, we can transcend our own mortality and share in his supernatural being. It's a fantasy that's more than just comforting, it's potentially exciting. Kids love investing themselves with supernatural powers and slaying supernatural monsters. Does there ever come a time to put away childish things? Apparently not.


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