On Christianity

I’ve often been asked why an intellectual type guy such as myself would believe in God – a figure most Americans equate to a good bedtime story, or a religious symbol for people who need that sort of thing. Quite the contrary, what I’ve discovered in my years of being a Christian is that it is highly intellectually stimulating to strive to understand God, and that my faith has been a thought-provoking and captivating journey.  I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, nor did I have any real preconceived notions about concepts such as church or the Bible. Like most, I didn’t really understand Christianity with anything other than an outside perception for the first part of my life – all I had surmised was that he was a religious symbol for religious people.

Today’s perception of Christianity is that of a hate-filled, bigoted group of racists, a title that many so-called Christians have rightfully earned for themselves. This doesn’t represent Christianity any more than the other stereotypes do, and even atheists know enough about the Bible to know that such a position is hypocritical. Since 1993, I’ve been walking in the conviction that God is more than just a story, that he’s nothing like the stereotypes, and that it takes looking outside of typical American culture to really get an idea of what God is about. In this country, I’ve seen all of the different notions of what a church should be; I think most people already know in their heart who God is, and that’s why they’re so averse to the church.

The term born again Christian is a difficult term to figure out.  Ironically, it’s become quite difficult to get past today’s dogma and cultural facade to truly understand the Christian faith. It can be a life long process to try and truly understand the questions of not only what we believe, but also desire to know whom it is we believe in and why. Much of the church tends to go off-course and read too deeply and literal into things, leaving a lot of churches representing less than what most would consider the basic tenets of Christian behavior; the ones you rarely hear about, though, are the ones who usually got it right – they’re out there doing what they’re supposed to do in loving people, trying to live right, and doing good to others. They’re not judging people, pushing political agendas, or trying to gain political control. Christianity teaches to know whom we believe, and in today’s world, there is an overwhelming amount of information available to accomplish this. I believe qualifying one’s own faith is critical to having real faith, and the basis of what I believe marks true believers – a strong desire to know their creator. If God really is the most important thing to us, shouldn’t we be taking every opportunity to study him?

A Little Background

Most begin with a pretty simple faith, either by conviction or sometimes indoctrination as a child; I came to start this journey on my own at 17. Over time, my experience and faith took time to build; I’d undergone a dramatic personal change, and directly credited that to my faith. Eventually, I developed a strong and healthy curiosity in wanting to know just why my beliefs were qualified from a purely intellectual (as opposed to experiential) point of view. I spent several years studying textual criticism, apologetics, ecclesiology, eschatology, apocryphal manuscripts, writings of early church fathers, and the writings of great historians such as Josephus, Pliny, and other sources. I got a bit miffed at some of the academics in the field who came off as if knowing better than the rest of us, so I taught myself the Greek language (have only played around a bit with Hebrew) and put my hands on copies of the manuscripts we base our canon on (such as the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and many smaller digital fragments), and observed firsthand what was written about God, often without all the messy English translation to get in the way. Unlike most students who study this in seminary and later abandon their faith, I found my studies to only strengthen mine. All of this information eventually led me to put together a solid context to better understand what it was that I believed, and how it reconciled to history and science. All of this knowledge eventually began to paint a context around the collection of books we call a Bible, and granted me a deeper understanding, reconciling what God has said with a deeper understanding.

Ironically, I received a rather significant amount of pushback from other Christians about studying history – something you’d think everyone should be doing. I’ll never understand why most Christians fail to study anything beyond the store-bought Bible they have, which, in English, is quite possibly the most poorly translated version of scripture in existence. Many argue that because the Bible is inspired directly by God that it is the only relevant text to read. That statement makes a lot of dangerous assumptions though – namely that God’s inspired word depends largely upon what time period and geographical location you happen to live in. Even today, there are many different scriptural canons – they can’t all be right. The Ethiopic Canon, for example, includes the book of Enoch as well as many other books not present in the Bible we use, and the Catholic Bible also includes additional books (old testament apocrypha). Throughout history there have been councils, debates, books, criticisms, and even crimes committed over the issue of what is God-inspired. The idea to simply trust that everyone throughout history was directed by the hand of God in throwing together a Biblical canon is simply naive and leaves truth as relative. Reading works from early writers such as Augustine, Origen, Marcion, and Tertullian demonstrate a deep rift in theology, even just a few hundred years after Christ. Our current canon is in better condition than I believe it ever has been, but it’s still imperfect. Even store bought Bibles go through periodic rewrites (such as the latest NIV translation, which was redone during the time I have been a Christian).

But more importantly, without digging deeper and studying what was written in history, what was written by early church fathers, historians and other sources, you can’t really establish a true context around what it is the Bible really is saying, and how many ideas were originally interpreted. A more well known example of this is Josephus’ documentation of possibly the earliest use of the terminology behind “binding” and “loosing”; he used it to describe punishing and liberating people. Many completely misappropriate that terminology when used in the Bible to imply some sort of “name it and claim it” scam. He also set the tone in explaining historical events that help to explain much of the context around many areas of the New Testament.

Reading the Bible today is much like looking through a series of foggy windows. The first window may be the translation from the original Greek language, or possibly even further back to the oratories in which many manuscripts were copied by ear. The next is the indoctrination and hermeneutic principals that influenced the particular translation, followed by the historical context, and eventually how it applies to current Christian understanding. Each window further distorts what God actually intended, bending the light just enough to miss important concepts. Other fogged up shards of glass might involve understanding the Gnostic and Separatist movements, and their attempts to redefine Christianity, Apocryphal texts and forgeries, and early church writings. The point is, the polished concepts of Christianity, and even the polished product in the store, went through several processes to get there, and each process slightly bleached out a little of the meaning.

In my own journey to understand God, my beliefs have stemmed from the sum total of what I’ve learned to be inspired scripture, on a personal conviction, in the context of historical and literary knowledge – as far separated from orthodoxy and indoctrination as this knowledge can get without losing its meaning. My conclusions of the true meanings behind scripture are at the very least tempered with some sobriety and discernment over and above typical dogmatic church folk. You’re probably already starting to surmise that my beliefs are not merely rays of sunshine and ginger snaps, void of intellectual reflection. While it’s true that Christianity is ultimately based on faith, I’ve found that I didn’t need to commit intellectual suicide to accept Jesus as God, and the claims about him as true. After a bit of introspection, I’ve arrived to some characteristics about Christianity that I have considered in the intellectual part of my faith.

Christianity Defined

Christianity is sometimes obscure to outsiders, and with the many different subcultures inside of Christianity, it can be difficult to get more than a vague resolution of what it really is. The basic tenet of Christianity is focused around the man / God Jesus Christ and what Christians believe as a reconciliation between man and God through his resurrection from the dead.

Christians believe that God created the world for man.

No, we can’t agree on how he did it, and the truth is many of us don’t care.

Most Christians believe that God had a direct hand in the design and manifestation of life on Earth. What that looks like is up in the air for some. Of the most literal forms of Christianity, modern evangelicals take Genesis to refer to a literal six day creation, or some variation of it. More orthodox Christian groups believe the Biblical account of creation was allegorical in whole or in part, and have either embraced theistically driven evolution, intelligent design, or simply don’t care. The details were never part of the Christian belief system, but for some reason people have tried to push it as an agenda. One thing most everyone believes, at least, is that it makes perfect sense that, as the chief architect and scientist behind the universe, whatever design he used would be fantastic and ingenious.

What’s more important than how God created the world is why he would. Athanasius had a lot to say about this in On the Incarnation, which I’d highly recommend as a starting point on the philosophy of the Gospels. My conclusion is that we were brought into this universe for love. The second reason we were created is to thrive. Christians believe that we were put here with purpose, and science is beginning to reveal to us that we were put in an ideal place in the universe to discover, to learn, and to thrive. The key issue surrounding our origin on this planet isn’t so much as the how, as it is the purpose with which it came to be.

Shortly after man came about, man also fell into sin very early on – during a time where it is written that God walked among his people. There are many philosophical interpretations of the original sin, and the circumstances surrounding God’s covenant with man. Most Christians believe that Adam (as either man, or a symbol of mankind) represented humanity as a whole, and that the original sin broke covenant with God. Sin left the rest of the human race inheriting a sinful lineage, and led God to hide his face from us. Christians believe that we (mankind) fall short of the perfection and honor God originally created us for.

The covenant that was broken, was that offered by God to continue to dwell in his paradise if we honored his commands. When humanity broke that covenant, the result of that was death. Christianity teaches that humanity has, through the original sin, earned the penalty of death and separation from God. Christianity is based on Jesus’ incarnation as man to create a new covenant; one that renewed the one broken by Adam, and that those who follow Jesus (instead of Adam, who represents human nature) would receive the promises of his covenant, rather than death. Jesus voluntarily sacrificed his life to pay the penalty that humanity earned from sin. Death had to be paid, lest God would have been a liar, and he certainly couldn’t be. So he paid it through Jesus who, being man was able to pay the penalty, but being also God, was able to defeat death and offer us a new covenant through himself. Jesus was mocked, beaten beyond recognition, and then crucified publicly, put on display for the world to see. The death of Christ was for the purpose of absorbing the full penalty for our sins (on our behalf) so that we didn’t have to suffer the fate of a very real hell we all deserve. All of this was prophesied in what were, at the time, Jewish manuscripts hundreds to thousands of years before his coming. These ended up forming much of our Old Testament today.

Jesus’ ministry set into play the notion that human beings have intrinsic value simply because they’re human; a race created by God for his pleasure, out of love. In spite of the bigotry many act with today, loving your neighbor is still half of the entire gospel.

The books of the Bible are among the oldest and most reproduced religious texts in existence, unless you take polytheistic mythology into account, of which were scarce, and often in primitive languages. Not only are they extremely old (some dating back to 15oo B.C.), but more importantly they claim to cover history, sometimes through allegory, from the beginning of human life. The complete story shows God’s redemptive plan working from the very beginning of humanity. Having these qualities, the scriptures are most likely to be authoritative in explaining why we ended up where we are,  even if they don’t attempt to tackle the how. If God is true, then he would have been involved in humanity from the very beginning, and that is expressed throughout the literary works of Job, Genesis, and acknowledged in the later historical books.

Textually, the Scriptures are Reliable

At some point you’ve got to validate the credibility of the manuscripts themselves, and not just take it on someone’s word that they’re reliable or that they say what other people believe they say. What is and isn’t the inspired word of God has been a debate we’ve been having for hundreds of years. What we have today isn’t the word of God – it’s a critical text put together by scholars reconciling thousands of variants of manuscripts of the word of God to reflect our best assessment of what we think the real word of God was.

Reconciling hundreds of manuscripts is difficult enough, however the English language is one of the least precise languages to translate into. The Greek doesn’t translate cleanly into English like many Germanic languages do, and so the translators are often forced to compromise by substituting a more dumbed down word or phrase to prevent a passage from being misread. Those meanings are decided by scholars who apply various indoctrinations to translate words the way they believe they were intended based on current interpretation (which is, of course, ultimately based on past translations, theologians, and ideas), and so you end up with a slowly degrading feedback loop over time; a garbage-in-garbage-out problem of sorts. If this doesn’t seem bad enough, many publishers, such as Zondervan, have gone to great pains to make their version of the Bible easy to read at the expense of castrating what the original manuscript intended to convey.

This kind of accidental (or reckless) indoctrination happens all the time. To give one example of this, Dr. Peter Williams outlined slavery in a lecture; the word “slave” rarely ever appeared in Bibles until the 1980s, but is ubiquitous in modern Bibles today of all languages. If you watch his lecture, you’ll see just how that kind of leap was made, and the intricacies about how biblical meanings intertwine with social understanding – a dangerous way to treat scripture.

So in light of all this, the obvious question is: how reliable is scripture? Well, if you can cut through all of this by applying some critical thinking, and look at scripture as a literary source, there are very few theology-shattering differences among the more trusted manuscripts we use. That doesn’t stop many churches from believing what they want, based on tradition, rather than digging into the deep theology of manuscript. Unfortunately, there are many churches that choose to remain lay and leave that kind of research to the same scholars who have been recklessly adding random words to the Bible.

So when I talk about reliability of scripture, I’m speaking directly to its integrity, as opposed to its literary interpretation or its translation. Much of the Old Testament’s integrity was confirmed with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls between 1947 and 1956. Although most of these scrolls were written in Hebrew, they provided samples of scripture written before AD100, and were surprisingly close to the manuscripts we already had in our posession.

These, along with hundreds of other manuscripts, helped in building a critical text of high quality. The most widely accepted New Testament critical text is called the Nestle-Aland text. This critical text incorporates hundreds of different manuscripts and papyrus fragments from all over the world from dozens of languages, and documents notable variations. From this is where a majority of translations ultimately source from, which is why I bought my own copy. The Old Testament masoretic text has also gone under heavy review and new research in this field is particularly promising in restoring the origins of a language which has become convoluted due to many mistakes and lack of vowels in the language’s infancy.

NOTE: The original King James was based on translations traced back to Erasmus’ Textus Receptus, which was later discredited as a corrupt translation, due to the fact that Erasmus was unable to find a high quality source copy to work from. Ironically, many “tweaks” originally made by King James remain in today’s translations; for example, the book of ‘James’ is really the book of ‘Jacob’ in the Greek, but many believe it was renamed to ‘James’ to make it sound more English in nature. For some reason, scholars are too afraid to fix the name in our English bibles for fear that it will cause a revolution.

The Nestle-Aland critical text of the New Testament is fairly solid, although errors have been found and some controversial decisions have been made. For example, the verse in Paul’s letter to Timothy about women remaining silent in the synagogue was suspiciously moved around in several different manuscripts, suggesting that it may have been added at some point by a scribe, and then moved around by other scribes to make it fit grammatically. Most Christians explain the logic away anyway, or pass it off as Jewish culture (although there are a few misogynistic sects that take it literally), but it’s entirely possible the verse might not have even been part of the original manuscript! Most larger issues have been resolved in the past decade. The newest release of the NIV has included additional warnings about passages which were not found to have strong witnesses, such as the story of the adultress being stoned. The mad rush towards Gnosticism spurned by literary works like the Da Vinci Code seems to have made scholars more honest and forthcoming in recent years. What’s nice is that you can read the critical text and see footnotes containing the many different variants from manuscript to manuscript. It’s very easy to see how things originally got out of whack by having all of the information right there to review.

What essentially decides whether a piece of manuscript is reliable is how many larger witnesses and root texts it has, and where those texts originated from. I spent a lot of time researching scriptures in the New Testament regarding wine (as many of the Christians in the south have adopted a modern-day version of asceticism). I grabbed some electronic copies of the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus and studied the verses in their uncial character format (all caps, no spaces). It’s impressive to cross-reference 4th century and 13th century uncial manuscript, when you find that the text is either perfect, or nearly perfect.

I continued to perform several different examinations of key verses in both the manuscripts and digital copies of fragments I had available, as well as my copy of Nestle-Aland (which is much more thorough), and pleasantly found that not only were they consistent with the manuscripts we had, but that decisions made throughout the criticism process appeared to be quite sound, and almost noneventful. I’m fully convinced in my own mind that the critical text we have today is by far the best we’ve ever had.

To add some geek-worthiness to my endeavor, I’ve recently fed much of the Greek New Testament into a Markovian-based language classifier. This is a technique used in machine learning that allows the computer to identify and weigh the presence of syntactic patterns across various texts. It can effectively compare different types of documents with precise accuracy. I used it for a different purpose here, which was to extract critical patterns of authorship. I found that, on a syntactic level, even a computer found a significant consistency between various manuscripts of the same author. In other words, even a computer is capable of seeing such a striking resemblance between various books, that it believes they are consistent with their purported authors. Cool stuff – I’ll write a paper about it some day. (Note to scholars: the first critical pattern that popped out was “the kingdom of God”, in Greek of course.)

Once you get out of the critical Greek text, things get to become a little dicey however. As I mentioned, the English language simply isn’t a very good one, and on top of that many publishers now improvise the language to make it more readable. Mind you, there are no significant doctrinal changes (unless you use a completely broken text like the CEV, ESV, GW, etc.), but there’s a level of clarity that goes missing. For example, a verse in the Greek says, “bind up the loins of the thoughts of your minds”. In Greek, loins literally means “reproductive parts”; so the scripture is saying to bind up the reproductive parts of your mind – significant imagery there, and lots of power. One English translation replaced it with a mere, “be sound minded”. What was wrong with the Greek version? Granted, there is room for idiomatic phrases, but at some point you’ve got to draw the line. If you’re studying Greek, I’d advise picking up a lexicon that isn’t indoctrinated (such as Oxford’s Greek-English Lexicon – the big, heavy one) to get the full realm of meaning.

As for historical integrity, it is remarkable how well the texts have survived.

If Man Made God, He’d Be More Passive

I often hear individuals dismiss Christianity as a belief created by man. If this is true, then I wonder why we didn’t create a God that was more passive and catered to our emotional needs, who would tell us that everything was going to be alright and let us live for ourselves.  Christianity isn’t for the weak minded or the emotionally incomplete. It speaks of a powerful, perfect God and explains that if one is to follow Christ, they must deny themselves of their own wants and desires and take up their cross. It tells us that God hates sin and that we should deny our own personal pleasures if they are sinful. It guarantees trials, tribulation, and persecution – and that’s for the ones who are living right. Christianity is one of the hardest things to live out – especially if you live in a country that persecutes Christians.

God’s gift of salvation is free, but it costs everything to follow Christ – our entire life. When you choose to become a Christian, you are essentially agreeing to give up your allegiance to Adam (human nature) and to follow Christ as if he were your king. If man created God, we certainly went to a lot of trouble to inconvenience ourselves in denying human nature. I don’t know anyone who, if given the option, would choose to share their money, live a moral lifestyle, and constantly deny their own desires – except, of course, those who have been changed by the power of God.

In America, it’s very easy to become a mediocre Christian, go to church once in a while and try not to swear too much. If anyone is guilty of creating a God, it seems that this dubious honor goes to the individuals who have taken the Bible and made themselves a weak self-serving God that serves their own desires. That’s not the God of the Bible, however. The American god of comfort is undoubtedly a god created by man.

Science Points to a Master Architect

The Bible isn’t a science book. You don’t have to believe in literal creation or intelligent design to be a Christian – such ideas have really only been around for the past hundred years or so. Christianity doesn’t teach creation any more than it teaches evolution, or any other theory on origin of species. You can even believe in Darwinian evolution if you want. Your beliefs on origin of species are completely irrelevant to your faith, in spite of what some will say. I used to accept many theories blindly; these days, I’m not personally convinced of anything, including Darwinian evolution. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I have no idea how we got here – I just wish more people of science would admit the same thing, and I wish more Christians would admit that we don’t need to know the answer to that in order to be a Christian. What matters is why we’re here, not how we got here.  Do I believe God used science to create the world? Of course. He likely had a hand in the science the world now studies, too, and touched the blueprints in everything from the laws of physics to the natural elements we now use to dismiss his own existence. So if God shows us something through the science he created, and it is at odds with our interpretation of scripture, shouldn’t we consider that perhaps our interpretation might be wrong?

But I am largely undecided. Personally for me, macro-evolution theories are lacking, but so are many of the Christian theories. Both have become just as much a religion, and just as un-falsible. If you’re going to study God, you have to be honest enough to admit that he’s going to play by his own rules – namely the rules of science, that most Christians would agree he would have had to define or at least harness. Likewise, if you’re going to study science, you have to be honest enough to admit your atheism is a bias. Now if, by some sound evidence and scientific method, Darwinian evolution were somehow proven in a lab, it would by no means trainwreck my faith. I’m not naive enough to suppose that there may be more to God’s way of getting things done than what Sunday School teaches. After all, Genesis gave us the back story, but not the science, and many scholars argue that even the back story was an allegorical account of events.

As I said, I believe that the science we study today was inspired by God; a belief that is in good company with many respected mathematicians. I see God’s fingerprints all over what look like could be design patterns and anthropic tuning of physics and life in a way that could have gone any other way, but didn’t. Perhaps as an engineer, I’m more receptive to the notion of design patterns than descent with modification; I do (obviously) see descent with modification happening on a micro-scale, but I also see design patterns at work on a macro scale. These natural processes that we observe, and many used to explain away God, could have just as easily been the scientific building blocks used by a master architect. It’s almost a bit self-aggrandizing of humanity that engineering recognizes design patterns, but biology doesn’t.

Somewhere in science, there are more solid answers than either side’s theories. But modern science isn’t always about finding truth, and anyone who’s been in the scientific community knows that papers need to get published, and data needs to fit in the right peg-shaped hole. Sometimes, these things take precedence over better science. Sometimes not. Scientific authority is subject to the same signal-to-noise problem in its feedback loop as theology is. For many reasons, science can sometimes be married to an agenda. It’s not the scientific process of Darwinian evolution that many Christians take issue with, but rather the philosophical conclusions seemingly married to it by its constituents, and it’s not the belief system that many scientists take issue with in intelligent design, but rather the dismissal of all scientific method and the hostility religion often directs at science as if the two were mutually exclusive.

Stephen J. Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium ironically uses the same basic observations that Christians use in their creation theories, but with an atheist’s spin on things. The problem, I suppose, is that sometimes science can be predisposed to philosophically discount the divine, and so therefore no matter how compelling the evidence of God is, the conclusions of any evidence already presume atheism.  As I said, I have no idea how we got here… intelligent design? Darwinian evolution? Literal creation? Punctuated equilibrium? I haven’t seen a theory yet that doesn’t have some big holes in it. We might as well believe that God really did bury dinosaur bones if we’re going to accept any of those without criticism.

God Became One of Us

Usually when we think about God, we think about an all-powerful king in richly colored clothing who would most likely want to be served on earth, and contribute to amazing social advances that would solve world problems – all from the comfort of his bathtub. It’s very difficult to imagine a God that became one of us, suffered for us, washed our feet, and took on our sin to become as dirty as us. The climactic peak of the Gospel for me is not the resurrection (although that’s the most important aspect), but rather when Jesus spoke these words while on the cross:

Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?

Which translate to “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”. These words paint the image of Jesus as the bearer of all sin – he is the only god throughout all of men’s writings that dared to sacrifice himself for his people. Jesus overcame sin to pay for a death penalty that we had earned by breaking covenant with God. When he was on the cross, the weight of the sin of the entire world was upon him, and God became dirty like us. The undeniable realization is that God (the father) had to turn his back on his son because of the sin that was on Him – our sin.

And so we get a brief glimpse into the relationship between God and his son and observe just how painful humanity’s broken promise to God was. The act of bearing the sins of the world illustrates the love Jesus had for his people, as he (God) was willing to be separated (for a time) from his father by bearing our sin. Never before has anyone else’s god shown such a love to the point where they would themselves become just as dirty and detestable as the world for the purpose of redeeming us. In fact, no other god written about has ever been interested in redeeming us at all, but rather more in controlling us. Other gods hold our souls for ransom, but Jesus became a ransom for our souls. Other gods offered ascetecism while Jesus offered freedom. He knew we would never be worthy and so he stooped to our level of filth so that we could be raised to his level of purity.

One can’t even begin to imagine the sorrow that must have been on Jesus as he felt our dirt on him for the first time. A righteous and holy God picked up our filth and wore it as clothing while he was dying on the cross. Jesus did what no other gods worshipped by the people ever did: dwelled among the people, became common among the people, and sacrificed himself for the people.