Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Carol Service - and Hypocrites

Each Christmas, churches that usually stand empty are suddenly brimming with people happily singing carols, kneeling for the prayers and celebrating along with the priest or vicar. Many of them are atheists. Isn’t there something deeply hypocritical about non-Christians celebrating Christmas in this way? Or is Christmas something we should all be able to participate in, whatever our beliefs?

Some Christians are annoyed by the presence of atheists at Christmas services. ‘If they don’t believe in God,’ they ask ‘then why do they come? They’re hypocrites, standing awkwardly at the back and hoping we won’t notice them. This is one of the most important events in the Christian calendar and it’s being treated as a concert – they’re only here for the music and lights.’ On the other hand, many Christians don’t just tolerate non-Christians at these events, they positively encourage them to come along.

Pascal on going through the motions

The philosopher Blaise Pascal’s thinking on religious belief suggests one reason why. Pascal thought that while there might not be convincing evidence or arguments for God’s existence, nevertheless it is sensible to make oneself believe in God. Why? Pascal suggests we approach belief God as a wager, and that we calculate how to bet by looking at what we stand to win or lose.

First, suppose we believe that God exists. And suppose we are wrong: there is no God. Then we have lost very little (not much more than a lie in on Sunday morning while we go to church). If there is a God, on the other hand, then the pay off is huge: we receive eternal life.

Now suppose we bet the other way: we believe there is no God. If we are correct, then we gain little (little more than that Sunday morning lie in). On the other hand, if we don’t believe and there is a God, then our loss is huge: we face eternal damnation.

So you can see, argues Pascal, that belief in God is the best bet. Belief in God costs us little, and if we win we win big. Fail to believe and while you might gain a little, you risk losing a great deal. So it’s sensible to believe.

But what if we find ourselves unable to believe? What if, try as we might, belief eludes us? What are we to do then?

Pascal suggests the solution is to act as if one believes. Play out the rituals of belief: attend church, kneel and say the prayers, and so on. Go through the motions. Eventually, Pascal suggests, belief will follow. Acting is if you have a belief will eventually cause you to have the belief itself.

But then, whether or not they believe we should approach belief as a wager (and that does seem a rather cynical attitude to take towards religious belief), many Christians might agree with Pascal that, if they can at least get atheists to enter church and go through the motions of belief, there is a good chance that many will end up acquiring the beliefs themselves. If we want to convert atheists, Christians may reason, then we should encourage them to show up and join in at Christmas time.

Frazer and Wittgenstein on the role of ritual

Still, for someone who doesn’t yet believe in God, mustn’t religious ritual and prayer must seem rather pointless and empty exercises? What’s the point of singing God’s praises if we think he doesn’t exist? Why bother praying if we suppose no one is listening?

But perhaps even an atheist might still gain from the religious rituals and prayers associated with Christmas. Some of the philosopher Wittgenstein’s remarks on religious belief are suggestive here. The remarks I have in mind concern the mythologist Sir James Frazer’s investigation in to magical thinking, The Golden Bough. Frazer argues that the magical thinking of ‘primitive’ people really constitutes a naive theory about how the universe operates. Take, for example, a tribesman who ritualistically pushes a knife into an effigy of his enemy. Does this tribesman believe his knife will have an effect on his adversary? Does he believe that by stabbing the doll he may cause his enemy to die? Frazer answers ‘yes’. The tribesman performs this ritual because he believes in what Frazer calls the law of similarity: he believes that like produces like, and that effects resemble their causes. Of course, scientific sophisticates like ourselves know better. But many ‘primitive’ cultures go through a stage in which they believe it. They attempt to achieve an end by imitating what they desire. This, according to Frazer, explains why people sprinkle water on the ground to make the rain fall, push knives into effigies to kill their enemies, and enact successful hunting scenes (with people dressing up as the animals, etc.) before they embark on a real hunt. They believe that, by imitating what they desire, they can cause it to become a reality.

It appears that the ancient Scandinavian custom of burning Yule logs (which has since become incorporated into Christmas tradition) also fits Frazer’s account of magical thinking. In the depths of winter, the Scandinavian pagans feared the sun would not return in the Spring, and apparently believed that by ritually burning a log (which is, like the sun, warm and bright) they could magically make the sun return warm and bright.

Wittgenstein rejects Frazer’s explanation of all this doll-stabbing, water-sprinkling and hunt-enactment. According to Wittgenstein, the tribesman who pushes a knife into an effigy of his enemy doesn’t really believe that he may thereby cause his enemy’s death. He doesn’t believe the law of similarity. After all, says Wittgenstein,

[t]he same savage who, apparently in order to kill an enemy, sticks a knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy. (RFGB 4)

This is a telling criticism. If the tribesman truly believed in the law of similarity, as Frazer suggests, then he would also build his hut in effigy, expecting a full-size hut magically to appear. But he has no such expectation. So why, then, does he push the knife into the effigy? Not because he genuinely expects some practical result. In fact, this sort of ritualistic behaviour is not really ‘primitive’ at all, in the sense that it is something we have left behind. Wittgenstein points out that, no matter how scientifically sophisticated we are, we still engage in it: we kiss images of the ones we love, we tear up photos of those we hate, and so on. But why?

Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied. (RFGB 4)

The reason we kiss images, tear up photographs, throw darts at images of political leaders and so on, is not that we suppose our actions will have a real effect on the people these images represent (if they did, then Margaret Thatcher, a favourite dartboard pin up of the 80s, should now be peppered with tiny holes). We do what we do because of the emotional value it has for us. Such actions can console us. They can make us more resolute. They can inspire us.

Wittgenstein would not doubt say the same about Yule log burning. It is not that the Scandanavians actually believed that, by burning a log, they could cause the sun to return. They burnt the log because of the effect it has on them. It touches something deep within them: they burn the log and then, as Wittgenstein puts it, ‘feel satisfied’. That is why the practice continues even today.

The magical and spiritual

So such symbolic and ritualistic actions can have great emotional value, whether or not we believe in their practical efficacy or the literal truth of the doctrines associated with them. They are, arguably, an important part of being human, giving us the opportunity to express deeply felt emotions that would otherwise remain stifled. It is not a stretch, I think, to say that they put us in touch with our spiritual side.

In the West, the great established religions once provided the framework within which such ritualistic activity took place. As religion has declined, that opportunity has been lost. The magical and spiritual side of our emotional nature has been suppressed and forgotten. Many would say that is a good thing. It shows that we are ‘progressing’: that we are becoming more scientific and rational. But is this necessarily progress? If Wittgenstein is correct, ritualistic behaviour is part of our nature. It is not something we can leave behind. Try to suppress it and, I suspect, it will simply re-emerge in a different form. One of the reasons why New Age religions and cults are booming is that they offer to reconnect us with this side of our emotional nature.

If Wittgenstein is right, we can derive emotional benefit from rituals and other symbolic actions whether or not we believe in their actual effectiveneness. As I say, a contemporary Scandanavian might be deeply moved, in even a spiritual way, by the burning of a Yule log, despite the fact that they do not for a moment think that the log is actually going to have any effect on the sun. The ritual may still help to forge a strong emotional link between them and the natural world around them, reminding them of the cyclic nature of the world, and of life and death.

But then, if Wittgenstein is correct, perhaps even an atheist might gain some spiritual value from going through the religious rituals associated with Christmas. For example, they might derive real comfort from kneeling with the rest of the congregation and praying for peace, even if they think there is no God to answer their prayers and that prayer can have no real effect. They may still leave the service moved and uplifted. The spiritual side of their nature may still be engaged.

A sense of community

We have seen that there may be emotional and spiritual value to be gained from the rituals and traditions surrounding Christmas, whether or not we happen to be Christian. But there is another reason why non-believers might gain from these traditions. They offer one of the few opportunities we have left to come together as a community. They give us a sense of solidarity with our fellow man, a sense of belonging, as the philosopher Peter Singer points out.

Although I am firmly non-religious, and lack even a Christian family background, when I stand with the other parents at the Carol Night held by my children’s school….the effect of everyone singing together can lead to a strong emotional response that makes me feel the importance of being part of that community.

I suspect it is not a fondness for candles and carol music, but this ‘strong emotional response’ combined with the emotional value of ritual that explains why many non-Christians find themselves drawn to church at Christmas time.

Many argue that it is the loss of such traditions and the sense of community and belonging they help engender that’s responsible for the ‘moral malaise’ that, it’s alleged, is consuming society. But if this is true, then perhaps we should encourage people to involve themselves in these traditional, communal events, whether or not they happen to be specifically Christian. By involving themselves in the rituals and traditions of Christmas individuals may still, like Peter Singer, get a real sense of belonging and solidarity with their wider community.

The ‘strong emotional response’ of which Singer speaks, combined with the emotional power of magical ritual and symbolism, combine to form a highly intoxicating brew. Almost all of us have felt its power at some time or other. I remember that, as I small boy, I was emotionally almost overwhelmed by a baptismal service: being surrounded by my entire family, the collective singing, the rituals and the setting all combined to produce experience as intense as any I have felt since.

I have explained how these powerful emotional tools might be used positively: by giving us a sense of solidarity with others and an opportunity to express deeply felt emotions. But let’s not forget that these are tools that can also be used for evil: to inspire not love, but fear and hatred, especially towards those who do not fall within the charmed circle of our community. In the wrong hands – in the hands of a malevolent religious leader, for example – these tools become terrible and fearsome weapons. If we are going to encourage their use, let’s make very, very sure they’re used responsibly.

Christmas and the pagans

Sometimes, midway through a carol service or midnight mass, congregations are reminded from the pulpit not to forget the real meaning of Christmas. At this point there is usually some awkward staring at hands and shuffling of feet from the atheists, for of course it is generally assumed that the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas must be a specifically Christian meaning, a meaning presumably lost on the unbelievers at the back.

We can all agree, of course, that the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas does not reside in the commercial racket that has largely taken over our festivities. But is the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas specifically Christian?

It’s occasionally suggested that it is actually the Christians who are the interlopers at a mid-winter festival with its roots in the great pre-Christian pagan religious cults. In Christ’s time, the birth of many more or less interchangeable pagan god-men was widely celebrated on the 25th December, including Dionysus (in Greece), Osiris (in Egypt), Mithras (in Persia) and Bacchus (in Italy). The significance of December 25th is that it at one time marked the winter solstice: the shortest day, the point at which the sun is born again for another year (the solstice is slowly drifting forward, by the way, and now falls on the 21st of December). Incidentally, all the pre-Christian god-men listed above were also miraculously born of virgin mothers. So was Buddha, who also pre-dates Christ, and it was believed was divinely conceived in the womb of the virgin Maya. Buddha’s birthday? The 25th December. The Scandinavians also celebrated the 25th of December as the birthday of Freyr, the son of their supreme god, Odin.

Now there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Jesus was born on the 25th December, or even in winter for that matter. The decision to mark his birth on that date was made several hundred years after his death. That choice of the 25th December was very probably influenced by its solar and religious significance. “So the Christians”, some non-Christians complain, “like the Grinch, stole Christmas. They stole it from the pagans. If Christmas has a real meaning, it’s essentially pagan.”

But while Christmas undoubtedly does owe something to pre-Christian pagan traditions, and some of its trappings may be borrowed from them (as I mentioned earlier, Yule logs are pagan), that doesn’t make Christmas itself pagan. After all, almost every tradition borrows from earlier traditions in various ways. Christmas is not unique in that respect. Yale University’s traditions owe something to Oxford’s. That doesn’t make Yale Oxford.

Christmas for everyone?

If the real meaning of Christmas is not pagan, then what is it?

There is no consensus about that, even among Christians. For some, it involves believing in the literal truth of the nativity story: Jesus really was divinely conceived and born of a virgin.

There really was a star, three kings, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and so on.
However, many Christians no longer take this story literally, at least not in all its details. Some have even been known to question the virgin birth. But if these details are removed, what is left?

Still a great deal, of course. Christmas might still be understood as a celebration of the existence of God and his offer of salvation. Again, these claims might all be understood literally. But, again, there are Christians who view even ‘God’ talk as essentially metaphorical.

The residual meaning upon which almost all Christians agree is that Christmas is a celebration of peace and love, and a time to think of others, especially those less fortunate. It is a time at which we come together, at which we feel solidarity and empathy with the rest of humanity. But of course these are values and aspirations that can be shared by non-Christians too. Much of the true meaning of Christmas is open to everyone, whatever their religious beliefs.

Traditionalists may be horrified at that suggestion that we, in effect, make the Christianity an optional Christmas extra. Isn’t this an example of pick-n-mix religion? We take the bits we like (the ‘Christmas spirit’ of peace and generosity, the coming together of the community, and so on) and discard the rest (the truth claims of the Bible, the existence of God)? But Christmas always was a pick-n-mix event. Its traditions, beliefs and customs are in many cases borrowed.

Christmas has an appeal which reaches far beyond the specifically Christian. In an age when religion increasingly divides us rather than unites us, perhaps there’s a case to be made for thinking of our great winter festival, not as specifically a Christian event, but as one of the last traditions in which we can all participate, whatever our beliefs.

From The Xmas Files

21 comments:

Richard W. Symonds said...

Each religion has their Festivals throughout the year - Christmas is the winter festival for Christianity to celebrate Christ's birth.

In the West, with its deep religious traditions (show me a town/village/city without a church), we are in the year 2007 AD (soon to be 2008 AD)...symbolising 2007/8 years since Christ - who was not a fictional character.

Ig God has a sense of humour, I sense He might be having a good laugh at our ignorant arrogance.

Joel said...

The meaning of a tradition is not about the particular day it is celebrated if the day was chosen for reasons unrelated to the tradition's meaning. So, even if there is commonality among aspects of religions, it doesn't mean that any one of them is borrowing from another.

When determining the meaning of Christmas you state, “There is no consensus about that, even among Christians.” Really? 'NO consensus'? Your argument seems to be (in the 2nd and 3rd paragraph of the last section) that since people believe different things about Christmas in regards to Christianity, there is no consensus. well, that is, except for peace, love, thinking of others, etc. Now, since this is REALLY the consensus and it can be shared among all.

The mistake you are making is in confusing people's BELIEF about Christmas with the MEANING of Christmas. The beliefs, as you pointed out, are varied. The meaning is not. It is clear (historically, theologically, etc.) that Christmas was established and is celebrated because of the birth of Christ (it's even in the name of the holiday). Walk into almost any church on Christmas day and this is the overwhelming consensus (of course there are exceptions to the rule), not simply arbitrary peace and love and thoughtfulness.

larryniven said...

joel, what do you think the word "consensus" applies to? Allow me to give you a hint: it isn't metaphysics. The metaphysical meaning of Christmas, whatever it may be, is irrelevant to whether or not there's a consensus among humans about the meaning of Christmas. And you're, quite frankly, wrong about that peace and love stuff - I've heard people say that the meaning of Christmas is simply to praise Jesus (Mike Huckabee, for instance, doesn't seem to care so much about peace or love). So, next time you want to post something, try to take a deep breath and try to see whether or not what you're saying makes sense.

Now, as to the actual post - Stephen, don't you think Wittgenstein's being a little hasty when he says that superstitions weren't related to any causal beliefs at all? First off, nobody said this was a totally rational process: what works for injuring your enemies may simply fail to work for building houses. Whatever fundamental forces were thought to be at work need not operate universally in the way that he suggests. Further, it's not clear that people thought a successful pre-hunt ritual would cause a successful hunt, as such, but rather that a failed pre-hunt ritual (or a lack of one entirely) would cause a failed hunt. In other words, the belief may have been that rituals were necessary but not sufficient to accomplish a real goal - or, even, that they just upped the odds. I understand that your presentation of Wittgenstein's position was probably the summary of the Cliff's Notes version, but it seems like a hasty conclusion from the way you put it.

Chris said...

A couple of Christian thoughts.

I have no problem with non-Christians getting whatever they want out of Christmas, although I would prefer they didn't call it "winterval" or "Xmas" in front of me.

It's a while since I read Pensees but I think Pascal's Wager was mainly an exhortation to search for God, not a "clench your fists, drown yourself in carols and believe! believe! believe!" type of idea.

I haven't heard of all of the mystery gods you mentioned but I've seen the Mithras idea debunked enough. Mithras was born out of a rock. Now, admittedly, a rock is technically a virgin, but not exactly in a Marian sense ;)

(Source:http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/mithra.html) < That's a non-partisan link, not Christian apologetics or atheist propoganda.

For me, the real meaning of Christmas is the mystery of the Incarnation. The thought that God, who created all, who knows all, would descend to earth and become flesh (John 1). That He would love the world so much, that He would take on human form and live, breathe and die among us. The idea of God as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53), or a foot-washing God (John 13)and a God who died on a Cross out of love for humanity.

Paul put it best:

"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himsefl nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a Cross" (Philippians 2:5-8)

Happy Christmas and New Year :)

Joel said...

Larry,

[Deep breath] Part of the reason for my post was to address what Stephen said about there being no consensus among Christians about the meaning of Christmas when, in fact, there seems to be an overwhelming consensus (no metaphysical claim here). Now, of course, Christians have a different understanding of Christmas than non-Christians do.

If you reread Stephen's post, he is arguing that at Christmas some Christians at a carol services will remind everyone not to forget the 'real' meaning of Christmas. He then shows us that some suggest that the meaning has its roots in pagan rituals. He concludes that Christmas is not pagan, but that both pagans and Christians have celebrated at this time of year for quite a long time. Thus, there is no consensus- not even among Christians, for the meaning of Christmas.

However, I am claiming that while there may not be consensus among all people as to the purpose of winter celebration, there is an overwhelming consensus among Christians (as I stated above, there are exceptions to the rule, but I'm talking about the rule) as to the meaning of Christmas.

On another note, I never said that Christmas has nothing to do with peace, love, etc., my point was that this is not the primary purpose of the celebration (for Christians). The origin of the celebration is due to the birth of Christ and, for followers of Christ (Christians), this is still a reason for celebration.

I apologize if anything I said in my original post upset you, as this seems to be the case. I hope I have made myself understood.

Stephen Law said...

Joel does have a point about Christians generally agreeing the event celebrates Christ's birth.

Mind you, there's some disagreement on the incarnation. That Jesus is God was not believed by some early Christians, and was not the official Christian line till Chalcedon, I believe, some 350 odd years BC. Some contemporary theologians reject the doctrine, e.g. John Hick. Still, perhaps there's at least a broad consensus on the incarnation, too.

Stephen Law said...

Some Christians deny the suggestion that the Jesus story shows strong parallels to earlier pagan stories of God-men. Chris has been influenced by their writings, I imagine, when he says that Mithras was born of a rock, not a virgin.

Actually, my understanding is that in the Roman version of Mithraism, he is born of a rock, but in the original Persian version, a virgin. But I don't pretend to be an expert.

We can argue about such details but that there are strong parallels between the Jesus story and these pagan myths seems evident to me, and also to St. Augustine who declared that the followers of Mithras worshipped the same God as do Christians. And also to St. Jerome, I think it was, who, shocked by the similarities between the Jesus story and earlier pagan stories, declared that Satan must have spread these earlier stories in advance of Jesus’ appearance in order to shake the faith of Christians.

The parallels are not a modern invention of Christian-baters, but long-known about and, no doubt, long-suppressed by the Christian Church.

Chris said...

Dr Law,

I have actually read very little regarding the subject concerned from a Christian perspective.

My interest was first aroused roughly a year ago while watching an episode of QI, in which Stephen Fry proudly read out a list of pagan parallels between Christ and Mithras. A month or so later, I read an article on a Christian site (http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/mithra.html) which, somewhat abnoxiously, seemed to address the concerns. Beyond that article however, all my research on the subject has been from actual mythology sites, such as the one I referenced in my earlier comment, and books on mythology.

The Encycolopedia of World Mythology says the following on Mitha's birth:

"At his birth, Mithra was said to have emerged from a rock armed with a knife and a torch. He was worshipped in underground shrines, almost all of which were decorated with a relief showing him slaying the bull GEUSH URVAN, from whose corpse all plants and animals arose" (Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Cotterell and Storm, 2007, Lorenz Books, p. 298-299)

The entry also describes that Mithraic worship centred around the sacrifice of bulls, how Mithra was said to have 10,000 ears and eyes and how he was known to be brave in battle.

(The entry concerns the Iranian Mithra, there is no seperate entry for the Roman conception of this deity)

As for the incarnation, and for this I freely confess to reading a single Christian article - though I've spoken with enough Jehovah's Witnesses to have heard the other side of the story, it was a very widely held doctrine by the early Church fathers.

It's found in the New Testament (John 1:1 most explicitly), in the writings of Aristides, Tatian, Irenaeus, the ever gullible Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen etc. etc.
It is in the earliest Christian writings (the Epistles and Gospels), the Council of Nicea merely confirmed earlier othodoxy.

John Hick is an interesting man with some interesting ideas, but his concept of the Real seems a long, long way from the Judeo-Christian God - he's more of a modern day Hindu.

I'll come back to you on Augustine, Jerome etc. It's a long time since I read them.

Finally, I'll back up what I said on Pascal. The third section/chapter (which is the section in which Pascal expounds the Wager argument) begins:

"A letter to incite to the search after God.

And then to make people seek Him among the philosophers, sceptics, and dogmatists, who disquiet him who inquires of them"


Happy New Year once more. :)

Stephen Law said...

Chris – thanks for your contribution. Just brief comment on Mithras.

Yes it’s possible his “virgin birth” is apocryphal. Possibly it’s become an atheist “urban myth” - endlessly repeated but never checked. I haven’t got any resources to hand to confirm right now other than the internet – where everyone seems unreliably partisan on this issue.

Incidentally, I suspect the “virgin birth” of Dionysus is also misnamed as, it seems, Dionysus was *conceived* by Zeus of a virgin, but physically conceived, so Dionysus was not strictly *born* of a virgin.

Also, only some (a minority) of Buddhists consider Buddha’s mother to have been a virgin.

Of course, none of this is yet to deny the existence of strong parallels between the Jesus story and these pagan myths.

However, in retrospect, I probably would not have included this stuff on parallels with pagan god-men is it really is a hostage to fortune. Nothing much in the chapter turns on the alleged parallels. And of course I was deeply sceptical about the Jesus story even before I heard about the stories of Mithras, Osiris, Bacchus, and all the rest.

The incarnation deserves a separate post, I think. I need to check up on the Apollonians, etc. As I remember, Chalcedon did not merely rubber stamp agreed doctrine on Christ's divinity, but involved the settling of deep, long-standing disputes between Christian factions on precisely this issue.

Chris said...

Thanks for your gracious response.

Something I've noticed when I read the whole accounts of these "godmen" is that they seem less and less Christlike as you go through each. My Encyclopedia seems to think that Bacchus was merely the Roman form of the Greek Dionysus.

(All the following taken from earlier mentioned source)

Dyonysus/Bacchus took on the form of a bull, was a god of wine and ecstasy (with associated rituals). He possibly married Ariadne. He had children by Aphrodite (out of welock). Another passage merits copying:

"INO was the daughter of CAADMUS, the Phoenician king of Thebes, and Harmonia. In Greek mythology she brought up DIONYSUS, the son of ZEUS and Semele, who was Ino's dead sister. Semele had been tricked by the goddess HERA, the jealous and vengeful wife of Zeus, who advised her to test the divinity of her lover by telling him to come in his true form. This Zeus was also tricked into doing, and the unfortunate result was that he appeared to Semele as lightning and thunderbolts, and she was killed. The unborn Dionysus, however, was taken from her womb and placed in Zeus' own thigh until it was time to give birth."

My own Christian convictions affect my studies, just as your secular ones do, and I'm glad we can both recognise that.

Looking forward to your post on the incarnation.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Chris. Yes that's one version of Dionysus' birth. For another see e.g. wiki.

I guess what we can probably agree on is that the idea of divine conception by virgin of god-men was not originated by Christianity, and several earlier pagan figures have at least something like this genesis on certain versions of the myth (Dionysis does, even if he ends up, as you say, in Zeus' thigh). Mithras may not have such an origin, in fact.

Chris said...

Well, I can agree that the idea of a Messiah born of a Virgin predates Christianity (Isaiah 7:14) but not that it had pagan origins.

The divine nature of Jesus' conception and birth is twofold. He was conceived in a non-sexual manner by God, in a virgin's womb, and born of that same virgin.

Mithra wasn't really conceived but instead came out of an inanimate object clutching a torch and a knife.

Bacchus/Dionysus was the result of sexual activity (Jesus' wasn't) and later born out of Zeus, who was most certainly [b]not[/b] a virgin!

Osiris was the child of two deities (Geb and Nut), which is so un-Jewish it's ridiculous - especially considering that Matthew records the virgin birth in his gospel, the most Jewish of them all. Not only that but Osiris' conception was sexual and he was not born of a virgin.

Trying to find an earlier archetype of the virgin birth in these legends seems pure paranoia and hyperscepticism practiced grossly unfairly.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Chris. What I said was:

"I guess what we can probably agree on is that the idea of divine conception by virgin of god-men was not originated by Christianity, and several earlier pagan figures have at least something like this genesis on certain versions of the myth (Dionysis does, even if he ends up, as you say, in Zeus' thigh). Mithras may not have such an origin, in fact."

Dionysus was conceived by a God via a virgin. Maybe not in the same way as Jesus, though. So, I am right, am I not? Also, digging around a bit, I find:

It was the historian Joseph Campbell who claimed that in the Persian version, Mithras was born of a virgin. He may have been wrong, though.

Buddha is held by Buddhists to be divinely conceived by his mother Maya, a virgin according to some of them.

Krishna was divinely conceived (non-physically). Perhaps not of a virgin. Can't confirm one way or other as yet.

This stuff, at least,does seem pretty reliable.

Of course, the Jesus incarnation story may have originated without any influence from these earlier myths. But the idea of divine conception by virgin, even non-physically, does predate Christ (Buddha). You can concede that, right?

There are other parallels, too.

You say Isaiah prophesied Jesus' incarnation. Maybe. But actually that's controversial too. According to Alexander Waugh (who provides no sources, unfortunately), the prophesy concerns not Jesus but someone called Immanuel, and the "virgin" claim is based on a mistranslation of a term better rendered as "young girl".

Unfortunately, like I say, I am no expert, and most authorities seem too partisan to be entirely trusted!

I do concede, though, that my original claim was not that accurate. Good to find these things out - so thanks.

Incidentally, I asked my Dad, who did a theology degree in the 50's and trained to be a Methodist minister, his impression of how many UK-based theologians back then believed in the literal truth of the incarnation story. He said he would be surprised if it was more than 50%. Certainly, having studied the subject, he didn't believe it (he thinks the nativity story is a "bolt on" to the original story. It doesn't even appear in two Gospels). I suspect things have changed!

I have just asked a Jesuit colleague of mine the same question re. today's theologians - will let you know the answer.

Here's a good resource. Check out the St second Justin Martyr quote:

http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/mithras/

Chris said...

Ok Stephen, this response is going to come in little bitesize pieces, as we're covering more and more ground and I really should be revising. :)

On Krishna, copied from an online debate I had with a Canadian atheist.

"Krishna

I’ll start my discussion of the Pagan parallels with Krishna. The film makes four claims about Krishna in relation to Jesus (*2) these are:

· Born of a Virgin

· Star in the East at birth

· Performed miracles with ‘disciples’

· Was resurrected after his death

The book Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend (2002) by Anna L. Dallapiccola (*3), Professor of Indian Art at the University of Heidelberg for twenty years now Honorary Professor at Edinburgh University and Visiting Professor at De Montfort University, has 1089 words (*4) under ‘Krishna’. There is, however, no mention of being born of a virgin. The phrase isn’t used although the book does say:

“The eighth child, the dark-skinned Krishna, conceived from a dark hair of Vishnu, was born at midnight in the dark half of the month of Bhadrapada (August-September)” (*5)

Being the eighth child rather rules out being born of a virgin! (unless they were all virgin births, the seventh [Balarama] is recorded as being conceived by a white hair of Vishnu but the other six children seem to have no miraculous births attributed to them). A squashed, convoluted parallel squeezed in to a poor theory.

How about the claim of a star in the East? Well:

“S'rî S'uka said: 'Then there was the supreme hour all-auspicious and most suitable with the constellation of Rohinî rising and all the stars and planets in a favorable position. Everywhere was peace, the multitude of stars twinkled in the sky and the cities, towns, pasturing grounds and mines were at their best. With the rivers crystal clear, the lakes beautiful with lotuses and flocks of birds and swarms of bees sweetly singing their praise in the blooming forests, blew the breezes with a gentle touch fragrant and dust free and burned the fires of the twice-born steadily undisturbed. The minds of the saintly, oppressed as they had been by the asura [Kamsa and his men], turned perfectly contented when in that situation the kettledrums together resounded with the Unborn One to be born”. Srimad Bhagavatam 10.3.1-5 (*6)

Star in the East? No. “The stars and planets were in a favorable position” is a far cry from “Where is he born to be King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)(*7). Another highly dodgy ‘similarity’.

...

Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend makes no comment on Krishna’s alleged resurrection. The crucifixion and resurrection were the centre of the apostles teachings (see 1 Corinthians 2:2, Galatians 6:14, 2 Timothy 2:8 etc.). One thinks that something central to Krishna would be mentioned in a 1089 word entry. Please cite either a respected modern day scholar on Hinduism or Mythology, or a primary Hindu source such as the Srimad Bhagavatum."

Actually, you might like the Hindu Scriptures - on a purely aesthetic level, they're my favourites.

http://bhagavata.org/

The film in question in called Zeitgeist. Remove your brain before watching...

Chris said...

Isaiah and the Incarnation

Firstly, Isaiah certainly did prophesy the incarnation. Even the NWT (Jehovah's Witnesses' translation of the Bible) can't get around this reference to the deity of Christ.

"The people that were walking in the darkness have seen a great light. As for those dwelling in the land of deep shadow, light itself has shone upon them. You have made the nation populous; for it you have made the rejoicing great. They have rejoiced before you as with the rejoicing in the harvesttime, as those who are joyful when they divide up the spoil.

"For the yoke of their load and the rod upon their shoulders, the staff of the one driving them to work, you have shattered to pieces as in the day of Mid´i·an. For every boot of the one tramping with tremors and the mantle rolled in blood have even come to be for burning as food for fire. For there has been a child born to us, there has been a son given to us; and the princely rule will come to be upon his shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. To the abundance of the princely rule and to peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom in order to establish it firmly and to sustain it by means of justice and by means of righteousness, from now on and to time indefinite. The very zeal of Jehovah of armies will do this." Isaiah 9:1-7

As to whether Is 7:14 is refering to Jesus or not. Two points.

1) "Immanuel" means "God with us", which is a nice way of thinking about the Incarnation really.

2) Being "born of a young woman" is, if you'll pardon my American, a crap prophecy. We're all born of women (excusing the Macbeth type "born of a woman" prophecy) and in Palestine, they were pretty much all young women. Even David Koresh could have prophesised this much.

However, I'm not a Hebrew scholar so can't really do much more than send you to a Christian article:

http://www.christian-thinktank.com/fabprof2.html

A bit fond of his funny fonts and capitals perhaps, but meh.

Chris said...

Nativity as a "bolt-on"

On an historical level, the nativity narratives are the least likely to be historical - taking everything at face value, for reasons you have expounded. It's a shame for Christians that this is the Jesus narrative which is best known, unlike the better attested death and resurrection (which are slightly more important anyway).

However, I'm not sure it works as a bolt on. Matthew and Luke both record the event, in different ways.

Furthermore, there's no real scholarly consensus as to whether Luke had knowledge of Matthew or not. If Luke did not have knowledge of Matthew (as I believe) this would indicate multiple attestation. The differences in the narratives seem to show that Luke didn't have knowledge of Matthew.

Had it only been recorded by Matthew with his fondness for the Old Testament, it would make perfect sense as a narrative added later on, but Luke has been shown accurate in many areas so I think the case for historicity can be made.

Mark is a gospel far more interested in what Jesus did, I don't think we can really argue from silence in this case.

Still, it's not where I would start a debate on the historicity of the New Testament...

Seeing as so many British higher theologians have such a heavy Enlightenment hangover I'm not too surprised with your statistic. I'm sorry I haven't said anything about your blog post proper on the incarnation - it would require a lot of reading on my part and I'm less than a week away from some AS modules. :(

Stephen Law said...

Hi Chris

Thanks for responding. If you are doing AS I take it you are quite young, In which case you are to be congratulated – you are knowledgable beyond your years about theology. Have you had a religious upbringing and education at home?

Anyway, my responses, if you’ve got time to consider them.

1. Your first comment re Krishna does not contradict anything I said. Also, I note you you have ceased contesting my suggestion that: “"the idea of divine conception by virgin of god-men was not originated by Christianity, and several earlier pagan figures have at least something like this genesis on certain versions of the myth (Dionysis does, even if he ends up, as you say, in Zeus' thigh). Mithras may not have such an origin, in fact." Probably wise of you to stop contesting this, I think. So we can now put that whole thing to bed.

2. Moving on to the claim that Isaiah’s “certainly did prophesy the incarnation” – well, of course I know that many Christians (such as the one you cite) insist that this prophesy refers to Jesus (but then of course Jewish scholars won’t!). Doesn’t mean there is no controversy, which was my point.

There’s a related point I would like to make re this prophesy. Christians sometimes wheel it out as being evidence for Jesus being divinely conceived of a virgin. However, it isn’t. Suppose this is a reliable prophesy of a coming messiah. If someone later claims, or is claimed, to be this messiah, the prophesy is not evidence that they are that messiah. The “fit” between prophesy and later claims may be due, not to the truth of the claims, but to the fact they were influenced by the prophesy. Many claimed to be the messiah at that time. This prophesy is not evidence for their being the prophesied messiah any more than it is for Jesus being that messiah.

3. On the nativity story – you suggest John did not mention it because he was interested in what Jesus did. But then so were Matthew and Luke, who did mention it. To say “John was only interested in what Jesus did” is just to say he doesn’t mention J’s early life, as these others do. The question remains, given J’s genesis is so extraordinary and miraculous, and of such significance to Christians (in particular to the theory of redemption), and given John was intent on producing a reliable document to spread the word about Christ, why on earth does he not mention it, not even in passing? Ditto Mark. We also know, from what we know of the twenty or so other gospels that were officially rejected and suppressed by the Church, that gospel writers did embellish, alter, etc. the Jesus story, often in very dramatic ways (one even changes the ending, I believe!) That this bit of the story, missing even from two of the “official” gospels, is indeed an embellishment, is, then, surely not that unlikely.

As to your suggestion that, based on Matthew and Luke, “a case for historicity can be made”. Are you sure?. Even if the nativity was in all four Gospels, the evidence for any of the supernatural goings on would be amazingly weak. We have four documents, written by four anonymous individuals in a time of great superstition when talk of and expectation of a “messiah” was rife, written at least a several decades after J’s death, written by individuals who had no first hand knowledge of anything they were writing about. Only Christians look at this evidence and think “Wow – pretty good evidence for the existence of miracles and a divine incarnation!” Everyone else rolls their eyes, I’m afraid (and, remember, even a significant number of Christians, some of the best educated ones, including my Dad, don't believe the nativity story).

And of course, there is another problem too - there really is very powerful evidence against the existence of God anyway (see my God of Eth link). And if there is no God, Jesus cannot be identical with him.

Chris said...

Hi Stephen.

I'm 17, and I've had a broadly Anglican upbringing. I have, however, always been able to choose whether or not I attend church (my younger sister no longer does), I can read whatever I want, learn about other religions, secular opinions etc. etc.

I think that even if I ended up a nonbeliever, I would be grateful for my upbringing. Christianity places a higher value on truth than many seem to think (1 Peter 3:15, Philippians 4:8) and my parents have certainly instilled me with a love of learning.

#1. Divine conception of godmen.

I haven't commented on whether the Buddha was conceived by a godman/virgin because I don't actually know a whole lot about it. I'll ask a buddhist friend. I haven't said much more on the subject because the other "virgin births" are so different in really fundamental ways from the gospel accounts that the notion that the gospel accounts copied from earlier legends seems ridiculous to me. Especially when I consider the Jewish nature of particularly Matthew's gospel. The parallels only seem to occur when we paint the legends with very broad brushstrokes, looking deeper the accounts differ hugely.

Any ealier weak similarities (and I doubt the veracity of these) are coincidental - that's my position.

#2. Isaiah and the incarnation.

Notice that I posted two different passages. Chapter 7 is contested. Chapter 9 however doesn't have any alternative translation, "He shall be called Mighty God, Eternal Father..."

I agree with your related point, I don't use Is 7 as evidence for Christianity. However, the Christian is a bit stuck with this. If Jesus didn't fulfil the prophecy, then he the sceptic can jump on that. If Jesus fits the prophecy then the unfalsifiable claim that the apostles falsified the account to fit the prophecy is made. We can't win really.

#3 The Nativity.

I actually said that it was Mark who was interested in what Jesus did, John was more interested in who he was.

The mention of the non-canonical gospels if a bit of a throwaway remark, isn't it? Have you read them? My copy is Bart Ehrman's "Lost Scriptures: Books that did not make it into the New Testament". Ehrman is fond of this kind of remark too but I notice that he dates every single one of them in the second century or later, yet he dates all the canonicals earlier. As Tertullian put it "Truth precedes forgery".

Yes, I do think that the case for historicity can be made, but I don't think, that taking the nativity stories in isolation, that it's a very strong one. (Wow is that an awkward sentence :S).

------------------

Taking the New Testament more broadly, I would once have agreed with you. However, there really are people who've looked at it without Christian presuppositions and come away with surprising conclusions.

Craig Keener, now a NT scholar, started out as an atheistic classical historian but became an /evangelical/ Christian (I think, as a result of studying the New Testament).

Pinchas Lapide, an Orthodox Jewish NT scholar famously wrote "The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish perspective" in which he argues that the resurrection of Jesus as an historical event (although he remained an Orthodox as opposed to Messianic Jew).

Micheal Grant's book on the historical Jesus is interesting as well, he says some remarkable things regarding the empty tomb and the resurrection in general. I haven't read it, but I've heard that Robin Lane Fox's "Unauthorised Version" is similar to Grant.

I've rambled. :( I think that's it for me in this thread. Thanks for your gracious comments and I'll keep reading the blog.

Chris said...

Oh 1 thing I forgot. I looked up the historian you mentioned briefly, and it seems he made this virgin birth claim on two pages (can't have been a huge scholarly discussion) in a book designed to show how all religions reflected the same eternal truths.

I'm probably gleaning too much from a Wikipedia article and a couple of its external links though.

Stephen Law said...

I said I would get back about the guesstimate of a Jesuit friend of mine regarding how many theologians nowadays take the bulk of the nativity story literally. His answer was "Not many". This particular Jesuit doesn't take it literally, certainly.

I offer this just as an observation, not as any sort of "argument from authority".

It may correct a misconception, however. Some literalists re the nativity seem to be under the mistaken impression that their view is the dominant one among Biblical scholars.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Law:

If you do not believe in God, so be it. Why do you atheists (who are spirtually stunted)carry on so about Christmas. As a Christian, I don't care who attends Sunday service. For some odd reason, at Christmas time all the atheists and agnostics come out from under their rocks and have a hissy fit. Live and let live and for heaven;s sake let the Christians celebrate the birth of their saviour. If you do not believe, why does it bother you so. Personally, if someon tells me that they are atheists, I couldn't care less. And if they are good people, I could even be friends with them. I would not do what you do, search philosophy books searching for an answer (someone's opinion) trying to prove that there is no God.

Relax, enjoy the gift of life, let believer's enjoy their life.
Shame on you, you are a sore loser.

Ann Cecil Welles