Does mainline/liberal Christianity make sense?
That’s today’s question.
It’s hard to actually define the sort of Christianity I want to discuss. There probably isn’t a clear definition. For my purposes I mean the belief that the Bible is not inerrant and that many events described therein are myths (creation, Noah’s Ark, Tower of Babel, etc). However, not all important events are mythological, even if there’s some embellishment. In some form, Jesus was the son of God, was killed, and was resurrected. Generally, I’m discussing Christians who land somewhere in the middle of inerrantists and general mythicism. Mainline, I think, best describes that middle ground. Liberal Christianity would mean belief that the Bible is completely (or nearly so) myth. John Dominic Crossan, for example, is a Christian who doesn’t believe Jesus was literally resurrected. I’ll get to beliefs like that at the end.
You might see what my main point is going to be by now. When people say they believe in evolution, but are still Christian, does that make sense? I only use evolution as an example; I could easily use Noah’s Ark instead.
Generally, creationism is rejected on the basis of scientific evidence. Evolution is seen as better supported, so it is accepted. This is all well and good. It seems to undermine Christianity as whole, however. Let’s take the virgin birth stories. They don’t agree with each other except inbroad outline:
Is nothing at all to be made of the fact that, e.g., while Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem where Jesus is born in their home, and only later relocating in Nazareth to seek shelter from Archelaeus, Luke makes the couple residents of Nazareth who only “happen” to be on their way to Bethlehem for a census registration when Mary’s water breaks? Luke’s manifold historical inaccuracies and narrative absurdities pose no problem at all for the true believer, but McDowell can hardly expect an outsider to be persuaded of Luke’s reliability simply by the sleight-of-hand of ignoring them. A census requiring people to register where their remote ancestors lived a millennium before? A man stupid enough to take his nine-months-pregnant wife on a donkey ride over unpaved hill trails?
And the notorious gaff placing the birth of Jesus both before Herod’s death (4 B.C.) and during the census of Quirinius (6 A.D.) will not go away. Of this last McDowell says, “some now believe that Quirinius served two terms of office, the first of these being 10-7 B.C., which would put his first census at the time, roughly, of Christ’s birth shortly before Herod’s death in 4 B.C.” Some apologists now believe it, but no one else. It is a piece of pure guesswork floated by apologist William Ramsey on the basis of a single ambiguous inscription which noted Quirinius had been rewarded for a great military victory. There is no hint of the nature of this reward, but Ramsey figures it might as well have been another term of office! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Sorry, but that’s ruled out by the fact that we know who the Roman governors were at the time of Herod’s death, namely Quintilius Varus and Sentius Saturninus. And there couldn’t have been a census previous to the one in 6 A.D., since the outrageous novelty of that one (to think: that Romans should exact tribute from Jews!), sparked the bloody uprising of Judas the Galilean. A related problem is that no census Quirinius conducted would have involved residents of Bethlehem, since in Quirinius’ reign, Judea was a technically independent client state allied with Rome, not subject to taxation, unlike Nazareth, part of the Roman province of Syria. Of all this Josh is as ignorant or as heedless as Luke himself.
And of course, Mark doesn’t even mention it. He may even contradict it, depending on the translation of 3:19. Jesus’ baptism in Mark certainly seems odd if you assume Jesus was always the son of God (does he need to be told he’s God’s son (1:11)?).
It certainly seems that reason and critical analysis show that the virgin birth story is a myth. There’s nothing fundamentally different about the methods used here than those used in science. Both are based upon reason. Why would you believe in evolution, presumably due to the scientific evidence, and believe in the virgin birth? Perhaps faith is the answer? The contradiction is still there: you’ve chosen to reject blind faith for one event and accepted it for another. Why?
This problem is encountered constantly. Anything you reject from the Bible creates a new problem: why did you reject that piece, but not another? Don’t think a widow should have to bear a child with her dead husband’s brother, but think it’s good to give to the poor? Why have faith in one and not the other? Obviously, one seems wrong and the other seems right. People didn’t always think that, though.
Surely Christians have heard this argument made by fundamentalists. Oddly enough, it makes sense. Picking and choosing your articles of faith follows no line of reasoning. I prefer it to fundamentalism, but I think fundamentalists are more intellectually responsible in this case.
Before I stop, let’s look at more extreme liberal Christianity. The type that would say the Bible is entirely metaphorical or legendary. They find profound meaning in the tales, so they’re still Christian. This doesn’t make sense to me, either. People can create profoundly meaningful works of art. This is especially true with mythology. Christian myths are not especially unique, either. If you think the profoundness of Christian mythology is evidence for Christianity, it stands to reason that Greek mythology is evidence for Zeus. Then again, I’m unclear on just what sort of concrete beliefs the sort of extreme liberalism I’m talking about entails.
Finally, a problem in writing this post was obtaining a clear idea of the beliefs I’m arguing against. If I’m attacking strawmen, I want to know.