My tutor used to tell me that to be a good evangelist, you need to be a good atheist. You need to have looked into all the arguments and rebuttals and come up with your own re-rebuttals. You need to be able to play Devil’s advocate, and for obvious reasons, many within my church tradition aren’t very good at that. I rather enjoy it. Not because I am trying to persuade people with my words - I’m not very good at that - but because I see the benefit in having my faith stretched. I think it can take it. The way I see it, if this Christianity thing is demonstrably a load of rubbish, then my life becomes a heck of a lot easier. If not, then dealing honestly with objections to it gives me more personal and intellectual integrity.
You see, I live in fear of “blind faith”. If it gets to the point where I have to turn my brain off in order to remain a Christian, then something has gone wrong. It would be like saying that God has given me this organ for thinking with, but expects me not to use it. Of course I need to be careful with that, because the person I purport to follow told his followers that they need to have the trusting nature of a child. Sometimes I can ask too many questions. Sometimes I don’t ask enough. As with all things, balance.
Because I think sometimes we misunderstand what “faith” means. When we speak of the “faith-based community”, we (rightly) berate those who hold to a commitment in spite of evidence. But when Christians speak of faith, we are talking about coming to a commitment because of evidence and turning that commitment into action. Faith is what happens when I read a map, and then set off on a journey according to that map. I had the evidence, I formed a commitment, and I took action. Occasionally along the journey, we need to check whether or not our commitments are still valid. That’s a sensible life-skill if we don’t want to get horribly lost. The religious jargon word for it is “doubt”.
Some people think doubt is the antithesis of faith, but that’s a misunderstanding too. Doubt is the exercise of faith. The man who doesn’t doubt his commitments has stopped evaluating them, and if you’re not evaluating your commitments, you can’t really be said to have faith. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, “all faith is autopsy.”
All this by way of introduction to the fact that I’ve been enjoying The Jesus Myth recently. It is a strong and persuasive argument against the existence of a historical Jesus. Hey, we expect atheists to take our stuff seriously, so we ought to at least do them the courtesy of taking theirs seriously, right?
I found it really challenging. But you see, I enjoy that kind of challenge. I don’t enjoy sitting down and writing a point-by-point rebuttal, so I’m not going to do that, and frankly I don’t feel I have any obligation to. Plenty of people get off on answering back in minute detail to every atheistic charge that floats past them from the sublime to the ridiculous, as can be seen from the number of books produced in response to “The Da Vinci Code”. I find it all a bit pointless, because it can so easily degenerate into an intellectual pissing contest, and I see enough of those between theologians, let alone between theologians and atheists. I shall leave it to the experts.
Because fundamentally, I never find other people’s canned answers satisfying. Maybe that says something about me. When someone says “X is wrong because of Y” I always wonder why I should trust Y more than X, regardless of whether or not X or Y is the Christian point of view. (Seriously. You don’t want me in the back row of your apologetic sermon.) It comes back to that “being a good atheist” thing again: I’m too used to seeing both sides. Canned answers to canned questions become the rhetorical equivalent of “he said”-“she said”. You’ve got to sit down and work through these things yourself; otherwise your position is not your own but someone else’s.
So if you want to be stretched, and you’re up for it, I’d recommend reading The Jesus Myth. Of course I think it has problems - lots of them! But you’ll need to do the research and find them yourself; I’m not going to tell you all the answers, otherwise your position would not be your own but mine. (Of course, if you do accept what’s written there and you haven’t done the research, then your position would not be your own but that of the author’s!)
Some of the problems are blatant. You can spot them yourself. There are the usual contradictions and selective quotations. Some of them are a lot more subtle and you may need a hint. One hint is that the argument conflates history and testimony and sees them as identical literary and epistemological genres. What is the role of testimony in our faith? What is the role of testimony in everyone’s faith - that is, the broader sense of faith as commitment based on evidence? Do we expect history and testimony to look similar? (See Tony Coady’s “Testimony” for even more hints.) (Of course by refusing to give you the answers and let you piggyback on my beliefs, I might be seen as undermining the importance of my own testimony, but I’m only doing that because I know that more direct sources besides me are available.)
Another hint comes from the following rant. The great Church father Tertullian used to refuse to debate the Scriptures with non-Christians. “Scripture belongs to the Church.” To suggest that it has a separate life outside the body of faith implies that it is possible to understand it without the witness of the Holy Spirit. Of course if we’re not careful this can be a convenient device for dismissing any Scriptural discussions. It needs to be handled with love. But I am starting to understand Tertullian’s point of view. A text written for a particular community is best interpreted by that community, not by those outside it; I don’t think that’s too contentious an idea. And so when non-Christians attempt to tell us what, say, “mystery” means, we need to fearlessly stand up and say “Maybe so, but within our community, that has a particular meaning which you, not being from our community, would obviously not understand. It is not written in your language, but ours.” Doing that without condescension is not something that I am good at, which is another reason why I don’t want to go in for the whole point-by-point rebuttal thing.
But you know, some of the issues raised by the “Jesus Myth” thing are actually pretty damned good ones. There really isn’t all that much non-Christian documentary evidence about the life of Jesus, aside from Josephus which was quite blatantly hacked around by unsubtle Christians. If Jesus turned the world upside-down, surprisingly few contemporary historians noticed. That’s a challenge, and admittedly a piece of circumstantial evidence against the existence of Jesus. Of course, precisely how circumstantial this argument from silence happens to be is where I and the author of the “Jesus Myth” part company. Last time I looked at this, I seem to remember finding enough now-defunct secondary sources quoted in Eusebius to keep me happy, but I doubt it would keep anyone else happy - and that’s always the issue, isn’t it? “Each must be fully convinced in his own mind.” - and my copy of Eusebius is now on its way to Japan. So you’ll have to work it out for yourself.
So go for it if you want to give your faith a bit of a stretch and if you’ve got the time and ability to get the research in. If you can’t do the primary research yourself then, Christian or atheist, it’s actually better for you not to read such a thing - evidence requires engagement; passive cooperation is slavery to another’s views. If you are a Christian and you research this, either you find that Christianity is a load of rubbish and you are released from its commitments, or you find that that it is actually true and you come out stronger. Similarly, if you are an atheist and you research this, either you come out knowing what you already know, or your faith gets shaken a bit; but that’s not a bad thing, is it? Whichever, everybody wins.