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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Why I am a Christian

I would love to say that the heavens tore open and the angels came down and I saw God, but that is not how it went. I would love to be able to say it is because Christians are such nice people who are leading the revolution to make the world a  better place, but it is not like that either.  I love books so instead  it came through a book: the Bible.

I used to be a Marxist – I rarely called myself that back then, partly because Marxism just seemed like common sense to me. I was a materialist: everything is just matter in motion, no gods need apply. Religion was for old women, like my very Catholic grandmother.  No one with any brains would go for that stuff.

I promised my wife that I would read the whole Bible. So I did, from end to end. I was shocked: God told the Jews to wipe out people, to play dirty tricks on them. It was full of all these rules about animal sacrifice and these overly long visions of prophets that made them seem more mad than wise. Then there was Jesus performing miracles – and everyone knows that miracles go against science. Etc.

So at first reading it did more harm than good. My mother-in-law, another very religious old woman in my life, said it was because I had read it like a paperback novel. I forgot to pray! Right: pray to a god who is not there. And besides, I am not that simple-minded when it comes to books. But it was that – knowing about books – that was my undoing.

I had read communist histories of China so I knew what a history book is like when it is blinded by its own ideas. To my surprise the Bible was not like that. And the miracles were rare and surprisingly matter-of-fact.

Then there was the Resurrection when Jesus rose from the dead. The truth of Christianity rises or falls on that one piece of history. I thought it would take me 30 seconds to show how it could not be true. But 30 seconds turned into 30 minutes then 30 hours then 30 days then 30 months – it became all I could think about – and yet still I failed. I thought of everything, like maybe he played dead or his followers went mad. Surprisingly none of it held up.

I did not want to be a Christian. First, it is what my wife and mother-in-law wanted and I did not want to give in to them (and in the end I did not: I became something that in their eyes was even worse than a Marxist: a Catholic. It nearly tore my marriage apart). Second, it went against my intellectual pride. I did not want to be told the answers – I wanted to find them out for myself!  But then I remembered something a favourite schoolteacher once told me: the truth is more important than your pride.

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Does the Bible say that slavery is wrong? Yes, but not straight out.

The Bible has been used to argue both for and against slavery. A clear case of that was in America in the early 1800s. Just as with prohibition and abortion later on, many who opposed slavery did so for religious reasons.

Yet slave owners had their own choice Bible verses by which to defend their actions. But it was, in effect, a derailing tactic:

  1. Anyone who seriously reads the Bible knows it is not just a trick bag of verses. A battle of the verses is completely the wrong level at which to settle the issue.
  2. Despite their carefully chosen Bible verses, slave owners knew deep down that what they were doing was wrong from a Christian point of view. Why else their need to look down on black people?

Reading and understanding the Bible is something that takes a lifetime. I used to think the Bible was just a pack of lies, but that was before I read the whole thing for myself from end to end. It is too easy to take it the wrong way if you just read bits of it. The Bible has to be read in full. Not all of it is meant to be taken literally and there is often more then one layer of meaning.

Further, as a Catholic I do not believe in private interpretation. It is way too easy for people to read the Bible in a way that excuses their sins. I have seen that with my own eyes. In America you saw that in the 1800s with slave owners and you see it now with some homosexuals.

That does not mean I read the Bible with my brain turned off. Hardly. But what it does mean is that if I disagree with the Church over some point of doctrine because of my reading and understanding of the Bible, I assume the Church is way more likely to be right – it has been doing the Bible thing way longer than I have.  It is like when you are 14 and you think you know more than your parents – well, the truth is, you do not. Your parents have lived much longer and so, in most cases, they are that much more likely to be right.

Many Catholic societies have practised owning slaves, owning people as property: Roman, Brazilian, Haitian, etc. But most have not. And, so far as I know, popes have never defended the practice and have often condemned it. But as with adultery and bad government, they are not out to save society but to save souls.

The Bible nowhere clearly condemns slavery, polygamy or infanticide and yet most Christians through most of history believed those things were wrong. Why? Because they go against the moral understanding of the world that the Christian Bible gives you. The best way to express it in a few words: We are all sinners yet we are all God’s children.

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The following is based on part six of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about astronomy up to the time of Galileo (pictured):

Cultures all over the world have some knowledge of astronomy – if only to know when to plant. But often it never goes beyond that.

The Mayans, for example, had the number zero before Europe did and a much better calendar too, yet they did not study the motions of the stars.

Easter Island was the same: people came there by accident but had no way of leaving because they had no model of the heavens. They were stuck there as the stars passed overhead, their secrets unread.

It seems the New World lacked a model of the heavens because they lacked the wheel. The Greeks built their model on the wheel: wheels within wheels, forever turning. It was Ptolemy who wrote down that  model in all its glory in about the year 150. It stood for over a thousand years.

In 1543 Copernicus put the sun, not the earth, at the centre – for sound Renaissance reasons. To the man in the street it seemed unnatural.

Then in 1609, a lifetime later, all that changed when Galileo in Venice, Italy pointed a telescope at the stars. What he saw proved Copernicus right.

The Catholic Church at the time was battling against the Protestant heresy. Taking a hard line, it believed that faith should rule. Galileo believed that truth should persuade.

In 1611 the Vatican starts to keep a file on him. In 1616 they tell him he can no longer hold or defend the Copernican system as proven fact.

Galileo waits till a more intellectual pope came to power, Pope Urban VIII in 1623. He is the one who hired Bernini to work on St Peter’s. But he is also the one who had the birds in the Vatican gardens killed because he did not like the noise.

In 1624 Galileo came to those gardens and had six long talks with the pope. He asked the pope if he could teach Copernicus. The pope said no. But Galileo continued to believe the pope was on his side. He was profoundly mistaken.

Galileo returned  to Florence and wrote “The Dialogue on the Great World Systems” (1632). Because the book did not present Copernicus as fact but merely debated his ideas, Galileo thought he was safe. But just to make sure he got four imprimaturs from Church censors.

It did not work. The pope stopped the presses and tried to buy back all the copies. Then in 1633 he called Galileo before the Inquisition. They threatened him with torture, twice, and forced him to state that Copernicus was wrong. Silencing him, the Church banned his book for over 200 years.

That all but killed science in Catholic countries. Now the cutting edge of science moved to the Protestant north. Indeed, in the year that Galileo died, in 1642, on Christmas day was born Isaac Newton in England.

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burka

burkaThe burka – or burqa as some write it – is the head-to-toe covering that some Muslim women wear over their clothes when they go out in public. Sometimes all you can see is their eyes, but sometimes even their eyes are covered (with a netting that they can see through).

Burkas are mostly seen in Afghanistan and South Asia – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In India only one Muslim woman in 20 might wear it; in Afghanistan under the Taliban all women were forced to wear it. In Pakistan it used to be quite common, but it has been dying out, especially in the big cities.

Even though some will argue it is not in the Koran, in most of the Muslim world hijab, or modest dress, is understood to be a religious duty or virtue for women (and, to a lesser degree, for men).

The form that hijab takes is different from place to place. The burka is the most extreme form.

In Iran women wear a chador, which covers everything but their face, hands and feet. In some Arab countries women wear the abaya which does the same thing. In other places, like Turkey, women wear just a headscarf. And some Muslim women dress in a completely Western fashion, though with more of their body covered than Western women.

Burkas, abayas and chadors are just for going out in public. They are something women wear over their clothes. When they are at home they take them off and you find out that they are not dressed quite so plainly. When Neda died during the election protests in Iran in 2009, for example, we found out that under her chador she was wearing  blue jeans!

Governments sometimes force women to follow hijab, like the Taliban or Iran under Islamic rule. Yet others  have forced women to do the opposite, like Iran under the shah.

In France it has been against the law to wear a burka to public school since 2004. And now they want to go even further and outlaw it altogether. In 2009 President Sarkozy said:

The issue of the burka is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burka is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory… I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values, we must not be afraid of defending them.

This only makes sense to me as a piece of xenophobia: Muslims make him feel uncomfortable.

For many Muslim women it is in fact a matter of religion. And keeping themselves covered up from the eyes of men is a matter of dignity. Even in the West, modest dress was seen as part of a woman’s dignity until the 1900s.

Your religion – or even a lack of religion – is part of who you are. To be told you cannot express it when you are hurting no one goes against one’s freedom and dignity.

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jesus-tattoo-modern-dot-matrix

Here is my second rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2, this time as a blog post. A much harder thing than turning Greek into English since it requires understanding what the Bible says and putting it in a way that works as a blog post, which is not how Paul wrote it back in the days before Blogger and WordPress. But since this is my first try, I will pretty much stick to the points Paul made and in the order he made them. As a start.

Corinthians: put your faith not in what people tell you but in the spirit of God.

When I visited you I was weak, I was afraid, I was shaking like a leaf. I did not have fine words, I was not up on all the latest thinking. All I had, all I knew – all I thought I should have to know – was Jesus Christ, Christ dying on the cross.

So instead of trying to persuade you with fine words and subtle points, I showed you the spirit and power of God. Because your faith should be built on that, the spirit of God, not on words, not on what people say, not on the wisdom of man.

The things we told you were based not the wisdom of man, but on what the spirit of God has showed us: a secret that has been hidden by God since the beginning of time – for us, for this moment, for our glory. That is what the Bible was talking about it when it said:

Eye hath not seen,
nor ear heard,
neither have entered into the heart of man,
the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

Think about it: no one knows what is in a man’s heart except for that man’s spirit. In the same way, no one can possibly know what is in God’s heart except for the spirit of God.

And that spirit has been given to us.

And what we say comes from that spirit.

Now the things we say might seem utterly foolish to you. And that is just how it will seem if you look at it the way most people do. Because the only way you can understand it, the only way it can make sense, is to have the spirit of God in you.

Once you have the spirit of God you will see everything the right way. What people say will no longer matter to you. Because then, like us, you will see things from God’s point of view, not man’s point of view. Because knowing the mind of Christ is knowing the mind of God. And that is all you need.

My first observations: some would call this a translation, but for me it is too loose for that. But, come to think of it, maybe you could blog the whole Bible, or at least good stretches of it, this way. At Wal-Mart I once saw the New Testament sold as a girl’s magazine!

My second observations (December 2009): This is way easier to understand than the Bible!! But it could be made better if I made the points in a different order and lost some of the old-fashioned, King James sort of language.

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1 Corinthians 2: my rewrite

jesus_crucified

My rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2 in the Bible:

  1. And I, when I came to you, brothers, came not with better words or better wisdom, telling you about the mystery of God.
  2. For I thought it best not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
  3. And I in weakness and in fear and in much trembling was with you.
  4. And my speech and my message was not in the persuading words of wisdom, but in showing the Spirit and the power,
  5. so that your faith be not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
  6. We speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who come to nothing:
  7. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a hidden wisdom, which God foresaw before the ages in glory for us,
  8. which none of the rulers of this world knew: for if they knew, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
  9. But as it has been written, “What the eye did not see and the ear did not hear and into the heart of man did not enter, these things God prepared for those who love him.”
  10. But God showed them to us through his Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
  11. For who among men knows the things of a man except for the spirit in the man himself?  In the same way too the things of God no one knows except for the Spirit of God.
  12. Now we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which comes from God, so that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God.
  13. Which things also we speak, not in the words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
  14. A man in his soul does not accept the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are to be judged spiritually.
  15. But in his spirit he judges all things, yet is judged by no one.
  16. For “who has known the mind of the Lord, that he may teach him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

I took the the Authorized (King James) Version and changed it as little as possible while remaining as true to the Greek and as clear in current English as I could.

The main differences between me and the Authorized Version:

  • aion = age, not world
  • psykhikos = in his soul, not natural
  • pneuma = Spirit, not Holy Ghost
  • peithois = persuading, not enticing
  • kerygma = message, not preaching
  • arkhontes = rulers, not princes
  • mysterion = mystery, not testimony
  • pro-orisen = foresaw, not ordained
  • apodeixei = showing, not demonstration

In addition I changed some of the prepositions to make their meaning clearer.

During my rewrite I also looked at the Vulgate (Latin) and the New Jerusalem Bible (Grey English).

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khan

Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan (1987-2007), an American soldier. Colin Powell said it well:

Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that [Obama] is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel particularly strong about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star – showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn’t have a Christian cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.

And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life.

– Colin Powell

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