Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Reasonableness of Christianity

John Locke 1695

  1. The necessity and significance of the Gospel: Law and Faith
Any reading of the Bible has to begin with the supposition that Adam fell from grace. However, people tend to run to one two extremes in interpreting this fact that either undermine religion as a whole or the value of Christianity specifically. Either they claim that Adam’s fall condemned all of mankind to eternal suffering and torment, or they claim that such a supposition would be so contrary to the goodness of God that there must not be a need for any redemption. Jesus, instead, is the preacher of natural religion.

Locke stands between the two. He begins by opposing the tendency to read complex theological doctrines into the Bible, claiming that it must be understood as its original audience would have understood it. Under those criteria, the assertion that God punished Adam with death can only mean that he made Adam mortal; it would be incomprehensible and unjust if any other ruler had sentenced a criminal to death, and, rather than executing him, tortured him for eternity. Moreover, it would also be unjust to damn all of mankind to eternal torment because of the action of one individual who was never elected as representative of the whole. (Good democratic reading of the Bible!) Claiming that all God did was make Adam and his progeny mortal solves both of these problems. First, because it is much more moderate and follows a literal interpretation of the Bible. Second, because God cannot be accused of being unjust in this schema. Since no human has the right to immortality, God is well within his rights to deprive mankind of it. Even mortal life is a gift, given that, even with all of its miseries, we’d rather live than not.

Thus, though we become mortal in Adam, we are only judged for our individual sins. Furthermore, out of his great mercy, eternal life is restored through Christ. The problem, though, is that only the righteous are justified and can be restored to life. however, if we judge by the law of works, no man can be counted as righteous. (Here, Locke eschews the sort of arguments that Pelagius and Kant had about why and whether or not the human will fails to perform the law; he just attributes inevitable failure to frailty without getting more specific). Anyway, the law of works is found in the Old Testament, as well as in the positive injunctions of Jesus. Some of those commands belong to finite periods, like that of the state of Israel, while others are more general. Nonetheless, they all show man the impossibility of righteousness.

That is why god offers the law of faith. An unfortunate number of pages follow citing examples of biblical passages, but basically in order to be saved you have to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. While on earth, Jesus performed miracles to convince people of this, the Resurrection being the greatest and most decisive. So the apostles preaches Jesus’s status as messiah. Even John the Baptist recognized this, declaring Jesus the messiah at his baptism.

Messiahship could be proclaimed through a) miracles b) indirect phrases (such as references to the kingdom of God c) direct phrases. While Jesus announced himself through the first two, supposedly, Locke runs into the tricky problem that Jesus never actually declared himself the Messiah in so many words. His solution is that doing so would have immediately roused the ire of the Jewish leaders. Therefore, in order to properly minister to the masses, Jesus chose to be discreet about his true nature while alive. Staying alive as long as possible gave Jesus the possibility to live a life in conformity with the prophecies about him. His general mode was to reveal himself in subtle ways that would be understandable to a few, but lost on the masses, who were expecting a very different type of messiah. The same logic applies for why he didn’t forcefully change Pilate’s mind.

The next question raised is whether or not the Christian faith is a historical or justifying faith. Presumably there’s some sort of background conversation here. Locke basically says he doesn’t care if people consider it faith in a historical fact, so long as they acknowledge it to be a saving faith, in accordance with the promise of Christ. Then comes a weird question about how it is devils aren’t saved if they believe in Christ. Answer: god hates devils AND aliens. Only humans are saved by belief, because only humans repent.

Though up until now the text has spoke of faith as that which saves, here Locke insists that repentance and an effort to live a good life are necessary to salvation. Faith cannot supplant the law.

More difficulties arise, namely, what of the pagans who have never heard the word of the Gospel? The first answer is vague: we must acknowledge the limits to our understanding. Also, though, Locke suggests that God gave all men the use of reason, and so, through proper reasoning, a pagan might find his or her way to the gist of religion: that God is good, that one is morally obligated to forgive and repent.

Objection: then what is the point of Christianity if people can reason their way to religion/morality. Answer: who are we kidding? People are pretty fucking stupid. They’re never going to reason their way to a total moral system. We need Jesus to make it clear to the world that there is one God. True, the Jews had this knowledge first, but they were ill-equipped to spread it, as they were very small, isolated, and not on the best of terms with their neighbors. After Christ, though, the knowledge spread to most of mankind. Even Islam recognizes this truth.

Basically, most of religion/morality can be reached through reason, but anyone trying to promulgate a coherent moral system would either have to claim the authority of revelation or of reason. No one did so with reason prior to Christ - though there were scatterings of truth - and thus revelation was necessary. Furthermore, revelation of an afterlife made virtue seems like a “good investment,” while before it was like a hot poor chick, that everyone wanted to look at and no one wanted to marry. Jesus encourages piety, and discourages useless, ornate (i.e. Catholic) rituals.

The text ends with a discussion of the Epistles, which seem to demand a number of things in addition to faith and the effort to live a good life. Locke meets this difficulty by suggesting that Paul wrote to established Christians in order to clarify very specific issues. The Epistles are relative in a way the Gospels aren’t. The good Christian should do his best to understand what they teach, but if they conflict or remain unclear, he should suspend judgment on the matter and trust in God.

In sum, God gave man reason and a law, but when man proved far too stupid for this, he sent Jesus to make clear what was needed for salvation to the mass of mankind.

Notes/take away:

Salvation = faith in Jesus as Messiah + best effort to live a good life. Religion is accessible in theory by reason, but God offers revelation in order to accommodate the masses.

Also, as opposed to Spinoza or Hume, miracles are being used to argue for the authenticity of Christ. Miracles prove the validity of the gospel; they're not yet the problem.

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