An unedited, likely heretical and certainly underinformed answer to Mike MacRae

Mike MacRae asked me on Twitter:

First off, I don’t accept a literal reading of the New Testament, I also read the New Testament as a document influenced by the culture and politics of its time. The interpretation of the New Testament was further influenced by politics (see: Arianism and Constantine). I don’t really worry that much about the “historical Jesus,” nor do I worry about the “historical Plato.” All of these seem to me to be side discussions. I also try to be non-parochial about my approach to religion. My Christianity, as I’ve noted elsewhere has been influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Muhammad, Tagore, Confucius, Marx and Wilde (among others).

So, onto the question at hand. My definition of “quackery” is adapted from Mencken, who writes,

The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.

So I’m referring to a specific thing – in modern society we have to trust experts to explain incredibly complex systems. Quacks are people who just throw this all out of the window. They say, global warming? Nah man, that’s just the sun! Evolution? Nah man, that’s just God. That’s what I think is dumb and quacky and needs to be condemned. Okay Sean, but what about people who accept evolution by natural selection and say God guided the process. Why? We know about Mendelian genetics. We know about how natural selection and the environment produces gradual changes. Is our God so small he has to tinker with mundane things (Oh shit! I have to go make some minor adjustments so a giraffe can eat). I see no reason to add this belief other than to make God banal.

Anyhow, why is the Resurrection not quackery? My understanding is that it is a metaphysical one-off. Now, if some scientist developed a way to bring people back to life, and a bunch of Christians said, no, you aren’t bringing people back to life, God is doing that they would be quacks. I think religion concerns itself with metaphysical, not physical claims. So if you want to say that the Son of God, a metaphysical being, came back to life, that is fine. If you want to claim that he is what causes volcanoes to explode, you are a quack (this is my NOMA coming out). The Catholic Church says we have souls. I can’t disprove that with science. Ken Ham claims the Earth is 6,000 years old. I can disprove that with science (that’s why he relies on this weird historical science bullshit). Some (most) Christians say a divine being walked among us, was killed and was raised from the dead. Well, I think we can say that a human couldn’t do that. But Christians don’t claim a human did it. I don’t think you can prove it happened, and you can certainly use a Humian logic to say it’s pretty unlikely, but I don’t think you can disprove it. You can accept the scientific method and believe the resurrection. You can’t accept the scientific method and accept creation.

Biblical literalism is quackery because it does exactly what Mencken warns us about, it “reduc[es] the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.” The Biblical literalist says anyone can open the Bible and read it and instantly understand it without any work or training or thinking. I worry that this way of reading the Bible is primarily concerned with what I call “weaponizing Christianity.” At the risk of vulgarizing my own position, I read the Bible to begin an investigation of deeper truths, not end one.That’s what separates me from Ham. Can I make the claim that this “true Christianity”? As Nietzsche remarked, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” I gave an example of how you weaponize Christianity in the Salon piece:

The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

So, two answers. I think people who really wrestle with these questions deserve praise, it’s very clear Ham doesn’t. Ham and these guys read the Bible as a series of true or false, entirely testable propositions. I see the Bible as the beginning of deeper investigation into what it means to be human. I see religion as a humanism (As Bacon noted, ‘”If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”) I also think you can entirely accept science and the scientific method and believe in the Resurrection, because it’s not a claim about the natural world that is testable and repeatable. But if someone were to say, hey, we should ignore medicine because God can raise people from the dead. I would say that is quackery. That’s what Ham is asking us to do; he wants us to throw out biology because of the creation narrative.  But maybe I’m a quack.


2 thoughts on “An unedited, likely heretical and certainly underinformed answer to Mike MacRae

  1. Mike MacRae

    First of all, my twitter quips are certainly deserving of no reply, especially one as lengthy as this. But you’ve clearly given this some thought (previously, I’m sure) and actually have an answer, which is laudable. Much of your reasoning is somewhat familiar to me, because this is where I was at in my final stages of believing any of it (but without your erudition). I, too, found some temporary respite in the notion that Old Testament stories could be taken as allegory or parable, while the central New Testament narrative – the belief in which is crucial to being a professed Christian of any stripe, as I always understood it – wasn’t necessarily disproven by scientific inquiry in the same way as the Noah’s Flood story, for example. But I ultimately found this to be an intellectually unstable state, and when I confronted myself with the question of really why I believed all this, these miracles, this cosmology, it all started to unravel for me. You and many others have found a way around this, however, by simply deemphasizing the faith in a literal resurrection, as well as, I assume, a literal Trinity (I mean, come *on* with that one) and the machinations of salvation as central to a Christian identity. It seems Christianity is now a purely philosophical exercise.
    Well, I must say (good-naturedly), how convenient indeed! To my ears, at least, this approach strips the corpus of Christian belief and study of all but its thought-provoking, soul-enriching, sunset-gazing goodness, leaving all the “am I going to hell?” and “is this really real?” stuff behind as medieval detritus. Well sure, who wouldn’t prefer that? Arguments get crafted through selected quotes of church fathers that claim that the Bible was never supposed to be taken literally, none of it; we’re free! But – haven’t most Christians in the past 2,000 years taken some or all of it literally? Bereft of the tools of literary analysis, didn’t the unwashed masses accept scripture, or its teachings that they had access to, at face value? And most importantly, didn’t they concern themselves primarily with salvation, with the promise of a better world after this one of misery, disease, pain, and suffering? You cannot deny that the aggregate of Christian thoughts, if not Thought, have coalesced around that central issue. Simply claiming the literalists are wrong, or uneducated, may be correct, but what does that say about Christianity? That it requires erudition to truly comprehend. You say that “my Christianity… has been influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Muhammad, Tagore, Confucius, Marx and Wilde (among others).” Again, admirable, but what possible divine revelation or gift from a loving creator to all of his children would be designed to only be understood by liberal arts or social science majors? The level of intellectualizing required to render a wholly non-literalist interpretation of Christianity automatically places the faith outside the reach of the vast majority of its adherents.
    Your appropriation of Mencken’s definition of quackery (the erroneous reduction of complex notions to simplistic ones) is apt, but let me put forth another, from fellow jazz-age snark Sinclair Lewis. In “Elmer Gantry” he delightfully skewers theology itself as just the opposite: the false construction of complexity from relatively simple concepts. To take a Bronze Age and Hellenistic mythos and dress it up with pseudo-logic, meaningless polysyllabicism, and a stuffy air of impenetrable erudition is Lewis’ quackery. Whether it be used to show why Baptists are saved and Methodists are damned, or why Noah’s Ark didn’t actually happen, its methods are the same. And by that measuring stick, one could argue that Ken Ham, with his face-value interpretations, is on point, and you, in fact, are the quack.
    Now I don’t actually feel that way, of course, nor would any reasonable person, but that’s the problem with religious arguments: they can be used to turn reality on its head. Anyways, that’s my two cents.

    1. Post author


      I too went through a stage of disbelief (we’re getting deep here!). You argue that it is convenient to strip religion of its nasty medieval past, but I think its very convenience is why we should do it all the sooner! That is, there is no reason to take the middle road: being terrified of the dogmatism of religion, but also fearing that the materialism of atheism may itself stifle human flourishing. I love Sinclair Lewis. Here, however, I think he misunderstands. Theology, after all, was the pursuit of the most scholarly members of society during the Middle Ages, the monks who spent decades translating Aristotle. Men like Boethius wrote poetic theology and investigated philosophy deeply. I think this tradition is worth embracing. So am I taking the good and leaving the bad? Most certainly! As I do with all things. I’ll keep the good Nietzsche and Marx and throw out the bad. I’ll keep Hitchens’s Trials of Henry Kissinger and dispose of his arguments for invading Iraq. Do I find enough truth in the Christian tradition to defend it from a scurrilous attack? Most certainly. Do I find Jesus to be wrong about some things, as it happens, yes. But that’s good. That wrestling for me is what makes it fun. I guess for me, what makes hold onto some metaphysical notion is what grabbed MLK, Gandhi and Jesus: the deep suspicion that we are all connected somehow. That suspicion isn’t enough for me to kill anyone, but it is enough for me to keep wondering.



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