THE LARGER TRUTH

There are precious few good things to say about being raised Catholic, but if nothing else I'm glad I was not raised in one of the religions that believe ancient religious texts to be literally true. To have to believe – and to be repeatedly taught by parents and authority figures – that the Bible is a true, historically accurate document would, I imagine, leave one with a skewed sense of the line separating fact and fiction. I distinctly recall being about four years old, hearing the story of Noah's Ark, and thinking, "No fuckin' way, man. How big was this boat? How'd they get every animal on the other continents? What did they eat?" And when a story has enough obvious holes in it that small children roll their eyes, its literal truth is going to be a tough sell.

The good thing is, when I pointed out that the story makes no sense my dad explained to me the concept of allegory. While the tale might not be exactly what happened, it captures the essence of some historical event and teaches us a lesson worth learning. Ah. OK. Then it made more sense. Had the conversation gone in another direction ("No, little Eddie, this IS exactly what happened, and you are not to question it") I'd be a very different person right now, I think.

In Catholic schools I always found the clergy to be refreshingly candid about key events in the Bible being historically dubious and essentially fables. Catholics won't budge an inch on dogma, but they won't try to tell you that, for example, the Biblical accounts of the nativity (Jesus's birth) stand up to scrutiny. At this time of year you're probably seeing numerous plastic, glowing depictions of little J-Money in a manger, being visited by wise men and whatnot. Have you ever really thought about how nonsensical that story is? Leave aside the virgin birth part, even, and the story is still holier than the boxer shorts I no longer have to throw out now that my wife left me.

1. Why would Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem for a census? What kind of census would make everyone in the Roman Empire pack up and go back to their place of birth, even though they no longer live there?

2. The Gospels offer two different but equally ridiculous explanations of how Jesus is a descendant of King David through his father, despite the fact that Jesus is not actually related to Joseph by blood.

3. How did the Magi/Kings/Wise Men/whatever show up at precisely the right moment on their journey of hundreds of miles "following a star"?

4. Why December 25? Our calendar didn't even exist yet.

The answers are quite simple. He was ham-handedly "related" to David and born in Bethlehem because – surprise, surprise – the prophecies stated that the Messiah would be related to David and born in Bethlehem. The Wise Men is just a narrative flourish, and December 25th was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice (Dec. 21/22, but Christmas day drifted over time due to changes in the Julian and Gregorian calendars).

This does not bother most Christians; they are comfortable admitting that the details of the story – the facts – are not relevant; the larger truth represented by the story is what counts. If telling this little Nativity fable is or was useful in convincing people of that truth (Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah), then so be it. The facts are subservient to the message.

This mindset is quite common and it's one of the major reasons that we talk over and past one another about so many topics these days, especially regarding politics. Half of us say, "Wait a minute, these numbers don't add up" and we can't wrap our mind around the fact that the other half of us don't care whether or not they do. Who cares if the numbers add up, the underlying belief is still valid. This struck me repeatedly throughout the campaign, especially with Romney. What the candidate says, and how frequently his statements contradict themselves and change, is not really important. What matters is the ideology he represents. Tell the proles whatever will satisfy them; it's OK to lie, exaggerate, or embellish to convince them of the greater ideological truth. If some funny math, half-true examples, and fabricated anecdotes help people believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy, then all the better. So what if the details don't add up as long as the message gets across.

This is just a theory on my part, but it goes a long way toward explaining why people are able to hold strong political beliefs and be unfazed when you point out that their facts are all wrong. Facts aren't important when you're in the business of converting the heathens to the word of the Lord.

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61 Responses to “THE LARGER TRUTH”

  1. Steve from Canada Says:

    @Bernard: Based on the timing and content of your posts yesterday evening and this evening, I infer that you typically start drinking at approximately 8-9pm. But that's only if you hit the bottle like it owes you money starting right around then. Otherwise, you'd have to start earlier. ;-)

    @DB: I hadn't thought of that, mostly because I can't imagine on what grounds they would think to distinguish acting by oneself from acting in big, scary mobs. Most "just war" theory is based on what McMahan calls the "presumed permissibility of self-defense," so I don't know how you'd get (serious, good faith) just war theory off the ground.

    Self-serving rationalization, on the other hand, well, I know how that works! But I'd like to hear something more like a good faith, reasonable attempt to render Jesus's requiring that his followers "turn the other cheek" consistent with his followers' requiring that they kick major ass and take names, God Bless America. But I don't think I'll get it anytime soon.

  2. mm Says:

    Even people who I've known for years, and never thought of as even a little bit religious, are making right wing religious comments. They're probably getting them from Fox or hate radio.

    Also I've always thought that the 3 wise men were actually there for Jesus's bris. One of them was a moile. The timing is right.

  3. bb in GA Says:

    Obviously this is not a forum for Christian apologetics, but many of the comments about particular Bible verses ignore the basics or are ignorant of the basics of mainline Protestant and probably most of Catholic theology.

    Another tactic present is projecting a minority or marginal interpretation of a text onto the whole Body.

    None of these is new to the Christian worldview.

    IMO the absolute best argument against all this personal God stuff of any flavor is the one that ladiesbane brought up – theodicy – the problem of evil.

    I can rationalize the allowance of personal moral evil in the universe as the price paid for free moral agency, but natural disaster is the tougher one to deal with. It is just so irrational.

    No sucker for me, ladiesbane

    //bb

  4. Steve from Canada Says:

    @bb: I guess I thought you were in charge of Christian apologetics around here, so I was hoping you'd answer my question. But I don't blame you one bit for refraining. I didn't *intend* to present myself as a punk-ass troll who poses a supposedly innocent question about religion and can't wait to be a snickering d-bag about whatever answer I receive. But I wouldn't be surprised if anyone mistook me for such a person.

    However, the reason I asked is because I am, as you say, ignorant of the basics of Christian theology, but I teach "just war" theory and often like to quote that "turn the cheek" line from the Jeebs when I talk about pacifism. Then I'm lost when I try to explain how that could fit into whatever else we think we know about Christianity.

  5. ladiesbane Says:

    @Steve: I strongly recommend using even more quotes from the Jeebs when you are talking about the opposite of pacifism. For he comes not to bring peace, but a sword; and to divide houses, setting families against each other. He even says that if you have no sword, you should sell your coat to buy one. Jesus was no pacifist.

    If you are comfortable quoting from a later part of the canon, the Revelation puts Jesus on a white horse, saying, "and he that sat thereon was called Faithful and True; and in righteousness does he judge and make war." Seriously, read the whole thing; it's a quick sit. I have been a crusty old agnostic anti-theist since I lost my girlish giggle, but the Bible has had a strong influence on Western society; like the history of churches, it's worth knowing.

    And bb, I didn't think you'd fall for that trick question. Any definition of God (yours might be different) that involves not only omniscience and omnipotence, but omnipresence and omnibenevolence, is doomed. If God is so unlimited, God cannot but be present in every attacker as well as every victim, part of every cancer, part of all the bad. As for omnibenevolence, well, things work out easily if you assume God isn't totally good, or isn't always on our side. But some part of the definition always breaks down.

    The whole formula only works if the hard math is obscured by a placard reading "TRUST ME". It truly all works out if you have faith; it can't work at all if you don't. Which is why it's religion and not the weather, I suppose.

    God, I hope no one is still reading this. The cold medication is kicking my head in.

  6. pb Says:

    I think most Christians don't throw out "the larger truth" after hearing arguments against biblical inerrancy because they intuitively recognize that biblical inerrancy is not logically equivalent to Christianity. It could be the case that inerrancy is false AND that Christianity is true.

    bb, you said: "I can rationalize the allowance of personal moral evil in the universe as the price paid for free moral agency, but natural disaster is the tougher one to deal with. It is just so irrational."

    Just something to think about – Why think that more free moral agents would come into a saving relationship with God if natural disaster did not affect us? It could be the case that only in a world infused with natural disaster would the most free moral agents come into a saving relationship with the creator. It would be very difficult to show that this is not the case.

    I don't think the problem is strictly logical. I think the real hang up we have is the notion that we stand guilty before a creator and actually deserve something like natural disaster. This is sacrilege to most.

  7. bb in GA Says:

    @ladiesbane

    "TRUST ME". It truly all works out if you have faith;

    Yes ma'am, I think you have resolved it.

    Praying for your relief from the cold… and try applying Vicks vapo rub on the bottom of your feet and putting on a pair of sweat socks as you got to bed for the evening.

    @steve

    Was not thinking anything bad about you or avoiding you. Didn't know I was in charge :-)

    Your question is one of the 'hard sayin's' as comedian Brother Dave used call them. It is absolutely the most difficult passage in the new testament to implement and requires the most faith imaginable especially when 'they' are slapping around your wife or your babies. The ever natural male response would be to tear 'them' a new one or die tryin'

    //bb

  8. bb in GA Says:

    @pb

    copy that

    //bb

  9. ladiesbane Says:

    Gracias, bb, for the understanding, and the good advice. (Didn't that save soldiers in WWI?) Some days I miss my faith, some I don't, but I always miss the koinonia.

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