As we meander through Lent, Dr Manfredi La Manna has given us plenty upon which to chew (1 March 2023
). Whilst nodding in agreement at many of his arguments, I wonder if I might pick over one or two of his assertions, without descending into a discussion about angels and pin heads!
I hope it does not come as a surprise to him that many 'thoughtful Christians' have indeed benefitted from 'giving up the assumption that their most fundamental belief cannot be assessed in a rational manner'. I do hope that his upcoming book has not fallen into the Dawkinsesque trap of assuming that all
are because one iteration of a religious faith is irrational and implausible, but that he has researched the many colours of Christianity that are present today. (I would not presume to write on behalf of any other of the religions springing from the 'Middle Eastern backwater'.)
I am sure then he would find that there has been a long tradition, within Western Christianity of biblical criticism, which rejects the literalist view of scripture upon which he seems to base his hypothesis about all religion being fraudulent.
There is no doubt that over the two millennia of Christianity there have been multiple abuses of power and fraudulent activity, resulting in misery, oppression and death for untold millions. Something from which Christian representatives must not shy away but admit in humility. Indeed, I have long advocated that the worst thing the Christian faith did was to get into bed with secular power of the day and become the official religion of the Roman Empire.
As to his assertion that 'the degree of credulousness of early Christians, for example, is truly remarkable'. Looking through 21st-century lenses, of course it is remarkable, but surely context is everything. They were, after all, living in a world, where it was widely accepted that Zeus/Jupiter would change into anything he liked and take advantage of any passing maiden to whom he had taken a fancy, impregnate her, and produce another god or hero. A divine revelation?
Were he to examine an alternative view of the Christian claim that Jesus was 'Son of God' other than that of divine revelation, he would see that the title 'Filius Deo' was one that was attributed to the Roman Emperor Augustus and successors, and that the early Christian writers were making a politically subversive claim that in fact it was not the Emperor but Jesus, the Galilean Jewish sage, who should be afforded that title, such was the influence for good that his teachings had had on his followers.
Divine revelation is surely in the 'eye of the beholder' and without the benefit of our modern scientific knowledge, attempts to understand the inexplicable, with such knowledge as was to hand, is different to how moderns would explain it. Back before the establishment of any organised religion, there were still attempts to explain what CS Lewis called the secret of the universe.
In the summer here in Orkney, I volunteer with Historic Environment Scotland at the Ring of Brodgar. Without the benefit of written records, archaeologists and the rest of us are left to speculate with what evidence is available on the hows and, more particularly, the whys of the monumental stone circle. I invite visitors to ponder that, yes, while we had a settled enough society that folk had time to think beyond basic feeding and sheltering themselves, in order to construct the Ring, somebody (charismatic figure?) or some group (priestly?) were able to persuade the punters that it would be a good idea to hump enormous stones around the countryside and make them into a perfect geometric circle. To me, that is truly miraculous, without divine revelation. (I haven't subscribed to von Daniken's theories.) It is not a huge leap to describe this as a product of some form of organised belief system (without books either).
The invention of the printing press undoubtedly had a major effect on the development of Christianity, spreading scripture to an increasingly literate populous as more and more learned to read the new printed books. Prior to Jerome's Vulgate
circa 400AD, there was no such thing as the Bible. Indeed, the notion of the inerrancy of the biblical text is a relatively modern invention springing from the reformation, which advanced on the back of said advent of the printing press. I cannot help but think Dr La Manna is being a tad disingenuous, conflating the inerrancy argument back to preprint ages.
If one's starting point is that the Bible is a library of 66 different books, written over many centuries, in several different cultural contexts, attempting to record, understand and make sense of the world and their fellow human beings, they were often also in situations of competing divine claims (my god is bigger, better, stronger than your god). These compilers and writers were human beings seeking to reflect the concerns and desires of their tribe or community, often in stricken times, and to give hope, or succour to their fellows and to rail against manifest injustice and oppression.
I say, fair play to them, for they have left us with a magnificent collection of literature expressing the human longing for meaning. That these collected works have been overlaid by powerful (male) figures in the Church, with some kind of divine imprimatur, for different purposes, does not take away from their value today.
So, yes in response to Dr La Manna's challenge via the (wrong) starting point of Piergiorgio Odifreddi, I do dare (as a) reader of the Scottish Review
not to find at least one passage in the Bible that cannot be either erased or replaced by a better one. John 13;34. 'Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.' Beat that. Deuteronomy 30;19. 'Choose life, so that you and your children may live.' Sound advice. And one very apposite for our times, Deuteronomy 10;19. 'So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.'
One final thought on Dr La Manna's assertion that 'first-century credulity is categorically different from today's'. Is it really, when thousands believe the US election in 2021 was fraudulent and 'stolen' or that 5G caused the Covid-19 pandemic, or indeed, that drinking bleach was a surefire cure!
Minister to St Magnus Cathedral
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