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Ostensibly, thoughts on Jesus

Posted at age 29.

I am nonreligious, yet religion fascinates me. In particular, evolving knowledge of Jesus has separated his life and teachings from my notion of the Church.

As a young Wisconsinite, I learned the Church, God and Jesus are a conglomeration, like AOL-Time Warner. Or was it the Holy Spirit and Yahweh and the Lord Pope? The details eluded me, but there were definitely three entities, all the same. Or maybe I am thinking of the trifecta of less important Eastern competitors, Buddhism and Islam and Judaism. Religion was nebulous. All I knew for sure was in America we are united, under one monopoly of God.

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Day of Silence at Hartford Union High School in April 2006

I am being only somewhat facetious. When I realized I am gay at age 14, my faith quickly deteriorated, though perhaps it had already lacked vigor. One year prior, on the day of the September 11 attacks, I wrote a letter to myself in which I said I would grow “mentally, physically and spiritually”. A month later I had to write an essay, “Why I have faith in my catholic school”.

In that one, aside from spouting some clearly sheltered opinions, I mentioned benefits of being able to pray at school. While I have to wonder how much of that was embellished in consideration of my audience, I also notice I spoke of no personal belief regarding or commitment to the Church, Jesus or any god. Of praying together outside around the flagpole after the attacks, I said: “It makes me feel like I am part of a strong force that is positive and loving, my circle of friends.” (Strong force, positive, circle? Maybe I should have become a physicist.)

After 10 years of Catholic school and attending mass twice weekly, I had not become indoctrinated. It helped my school was rather light on Bible study. We had religion class, but I remember it focusing more on being good than on particular rules that could be used to condemn and exclude others. I will never know how I would have developed in another place, but I like to think I turned out caring and conscientious, regardless of my beliefs about what lies beyond the stars and nebulae. Jesus might have said that is why I should have faith in my Catholic school.

Not indoctrinated, but not sure of myself or much of anything, either. Soon after coming out, I became at odds with Catholic dogma. It was a blessing in disguise; I had a compelling reason to reconsider my beliefs.

I needed only minimal evidence of contradictions in the Bible combined with my newly targeted status to dismiss wholesale the entire religion. Maybe Jesus was the Messiah, but I only saw the Devil in a church preaching hate. And if the Church was right about my abominable nature, I saw no point in surrender. I am American. I believe all people are equal. Give me freedom, or give me death!

Truthfully, I doubt I had ever given my beliefs consideration in the first place. I was told to believe, and it had never really affected me. And truthfully, it was easier to dismiss my faith than to examine it, reconcile it, fight for it. What if I realized I was wrong?

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Day of Silence at Hartford Union High School in April 2006

Over the past decade, homosexuality has become largely accepted in the United States and many other countries. Even many religions are beginning to embrace my brethren. The Roman Catholic Church has tried walking a fine line preaching “hate the sin, love the sinner”. This all seems like progress, but I must admit I feel sour when I see such institutions adjust their incontrovertible truths. I cannot help thinking they are reluctantly doing what it takes to survive, perhaps ensnaring young souls who would have otherwise been excused, been set free, like me.

Maybe I fear I will someday answer to God for being so weak, lazy or stupid as to allow a single errant teaching to distract me from a greater truth. If the Catholic Church never taught homosexuality is sinful, would I still be Catholic? I cannot say. If it suddenly embraced homosexuality, would I rejoin? I dare not say. I would have to give up sex before marriage and polyamory and would need to chant some prayers for an hour every Sunday. Maybe I really am weak and lazy.

I am no adherent to Blaise Pascal’s wager, but there may be a remaining shred of personal responsibility behind my aforementioned general interest in religion. I have no delusions a few books about Jesus read could compensate for decades of church unattended if the Bible thumpers somehow find redemption, but at least my mind has not been totally closed. It is admittedly satisfying all I read only erodes the providence of many church teachings, but this is only coincidental. I sometimes even read overtly deist books, sometimes by accident but mostly out of fascination, though I cannot be sure I do not also seek something profound I might be missing.

I recently finished listening to a book of the former type and found it so interesting I was compelled to make some notes, or due to lack of time, at least record some quotes. That I then managed to write the dozen preceding paragraphs by way of introduction speaks to my poor discipline, prediction and planning, but what is important in life is always subject to revision, always open to interpretation. This is especially true of texts written thousands of years ago, as explained in “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart D. Ehrman and narrated by Richard M. Davidson.

Notes, quotes on Misquoting Jesus

How do we know what is in the New Testament? We read an English translation of the many manuscripts as reconstructed by textual critics who study ancient languages and piece together their best guesses after analyzing the available source materials. These scholars “often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence”, evidence that spans the gamut of quality (“a document was erased and the text of the New Testament was written over the top of the erased pages”). Their work must consider the full lineage of each document and how each scribe changed scripture. “Sometimes they didn’t mean to — they were simply tired, or inattentive, or, on occasion, inept. At other times, …they wanted to emphasize precisely what they themselves believed.”

We have the strangest of accidents:

For some reason, he did not copy one column at a time, but copied across the two columns. As a result, the names of the genealogy are thrown out of whack, with most people being called the sons of the wrong father. Worse still, the second column of the text the scribe was copying did not have as many lines as the first, so that now, in the copy he made, the father of the human race (i.e., the last one mentioned) is not God but an Israelite named Phares; and God himself is said to be the son of a man named Aram!

And we have the less accidental:

One can see how a scribe might inadvertently leave out a word when copying a text (an accidental change), but it is hard to see how the last twelve verses of Mark could have been added by a slip of the pen.

Even the notion of original text is problematic:

If Paul dictated his letter to the Galatians and the secretarial scribe writing down what he said misheard a word because someone in the room coughed, then the “original” copy would already have a mistake in it!

After acknowledging the vast majority of the selected texts have been sufficiently reconstructed, Ehrman lists many crucial questions still left open to interpretation:

  • Was Jesus an angry man?
  • Was he completely distraught in the face of death?
  • Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed?
  • Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning?
  • Is the doctrine of the trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament?
  • Is Jesus actually called the unique god there?
  • Does the New Testament indicate that even the son of God himself does not know when the end will come?

Ehrman described his coming to understand the authors of the New Testament were like the scribes, subject to human circumstances and imperfections, and attempted to transmit their message in the way they deemed most appropriate for their audiences, times and places. Ironically, “the scribes were changing scripture much less radically than the authors themselves were”. He argues we need to let each author have his own say and not meld their different stories into a new gospel unlike any that came before.

For example, Ehrman says people are not taking Luke seriously when they pretend he is saying the same thing as Mark. Mark emphasized the near despair of Jesus in the face of death, perhaps to stress “God works in mysterious ways” and “seemingly inexplicable suffering can in fact be the way of redemption.” For Luke, Jesus was calm, in control and not in despair, perhaps to give an example to persecuted Christians of how they should face death.

Everywhere in place and time, all writers put their traditions into their own words. It might seem the printing press and the Internet would have at least solved the problem of preserving an author’s message. Interestingly, this is discussed in the next book I started, “The Black Swan”, where Nassim Nicholas Taleb portrays the conflicts between writers and editors, noting:

Indeed the editing process can be severely distorting, particularly when the author is assigned what is called a “good editor”.

Editors may share something with the scribes, then. Even the readers are part of this interpretive dance. Ehrman writes of the progression of his acceptance with understanding:

I gradually became less judgemental toward the scribes who changed the scriptures they copied. … I (slowly) came to realize that what they were doing with the text was not all that different from what each of us does every time we read a text. …reading a text necessarily involves interpreting a text. …meaning is not inherent… If texts could speak for themselves, then everyone honestly and openly reading a text would agree on what the text says.

Texts are interpreted, and they are interpreted (just as they were written) by living, breathing human beings, who can make sense of the texts only by explaining them in the light of their other knowledge, explicating their meaning, putting the words of the texts “in other words.”

Once readers put a text in other words, however, they have changed the words. This is not optional when reading; it is not something you can choose not to do when you peruse a text. The only way to make sense of a text is to read it, and the only way to read it is by putting it in other words, and the only way to put it in other words is by having other words to put it into, and the only way you have other words to put it into is that you have a life, and the only way to have a life is by being filled with desires, longings, needs, wants, beliefs, perspectives, worldviews, opinions, likes, dislikes—and all the other things that make human beings human. And so to read a text is, necessarily, to change a text.

I hoped to write more about the concept of interpretation, but I am so far off track now and in need of sleep. Father, forgive me for any typos in this text.

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