About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

When Jesus became God

It's the title of a pleasantly written and highly informative book by Richard Rubenstein (of all things, a professor of conflict resolution at George Mason). It ought to be mandatory reading for Christians, especially the fundamentalist variety (which is notoriously ignorant of or uninterested in the history of its own faith).

The central topic is the theological battle between priest Arius of Alexandria and bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, focusing on the rather esoteric question of the actual nature of Jesus Christ. Athanasius held the position that eventually became accepted dogma by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, sharing in the same essence of the Father (and of the Holy Ghost, whatever the latter may be), and never created but existing for all time.

This made absolutely no sense to Arius and many Christians in the Eastern Roman empire. They were influenced by Greek philosophy (neo-Platonism in particular), and so put a high premium on logical consistency. For Arius, Jesus couldn't possibly have a fully dualistic nature, and the very fact that he was referred to as “the Son,” put him clearly in a subordinate position to the Father (where the Holy Ghost stood ain't clear). Moreover, the Arians thought that if Jesus were put so high in the divine realm, he would lose any appeal as a credible savior of mere mortals – too distant and perfect for us to even bother trying to use him as a role model.

The battle between the two contenders went on throughout their lives, and lasted for decades past their deaths. Crucial events (like the first significant “barbarian” invasions of the Roman territory and the first Church council at Nicea) and characters (e.g., Contantine, the Roman ruler who adopted Christianity as the official imperial religion, thus giving it the support of the Roman armies and communication routes) constitute the backdrop to this fascinating story.

But the most interesting part for us moderns is that the two camps were actually supported by violent mobs in the streets, with people killing each other, burning churches, and accusing the other part of atheism (?!) and heresy. Sounds familiar? It seems that the Sunni and Shiites in Iraq are simply following a pattern that has been around for at least a couple of millennia. Rubenstein's analysis makes clear that, while the doctrinal points were indeed subtle and intellectually interesting, the riots in the streets were in fact the result of both political manipulation of the local and “international” rulers and of the increasingly desperate economic conditions of the people living at the sunset of Roman power. Just like the strange case of the Muhammad cartoons. History really does repeat itself, and no, apparently we simply can't learn from it.


  1. I read Rubenstein's book a few years ago. It was one of several books that caused me to question my faith and ultimately to leave it behind. The history of church theology is, unfortunately, a subject most Christians know nothing about, particularly the fine line that was often drawn between orthodox and heretical thinking. I, for one, think Arius' position was better supported by the bible, however Athanasius' political maneuvering gained the favor of Costantine and eventually won out.

  2. "Religious humanism"

    With all the theological meanderings and nit-pickings (which nothing more profound than a mere reflection of the true nature of man STILL trying to live life of his own terms), the most heretical set of ideas that a Christian will ever engage themselves in, is to ignore, or to become 'too sophisticated' for, the observance of the First Commandment. In this sense, what is seen as more sophisticated, or a better view of theological matters, is often plainly of "self", not of principle.

    When pragmatism is permitted to enter into Christian thinking, some (who may think of themselves) as deeply religious individuals, will tend to take the position that the observance of fundamentals are for lesser Christians. But in reality, such thinking is not synonymous with actual Godliness. The way things really work, ( I think ) is that the more sophisticated one's mindset happens to be, (religious or not) the less likely one is able to identify with the real hardships that real people have. (i.e. nearly everyone else is WILLFULLY stupid, foolish, ignorant - but not me)

    1st commandment as referenced in the NT:

    Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first comandment. And the second is like it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.


  3. "accusing the other part of atheism (?!)"

    That's not so strange. The Romans called the Christians "atheists" as well, for refusing to worship the Roman gods.

  4. One of the most pointless exercises, yet fun nonetheless, is to play the "what if" game with history.

    And one of my favorite is to think what would have happened if the Roman emperors had never converted to Christianity. What would be people pointlessly worshipping today? Sure it would be something, and there would probably still be a few people who were a curious bunch called Christians - like the 100,000 plus Zoroastrians who survived to nowadays.

    Or what if the priest had won the battle instead of the bishop, would it have made much of a difference anyway? (when things are made up, whatever goes, right?)


  5. I just finished a similar book on the history of early Christianity. This one, "Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code" by Bart Ehrman is, of course, a response to the largely fictional history presented in the popular novel 'The Da Vinci Code'. Ehrman is an historian who lists the actual documents that are available and discusses what can and cannot be learned from them. He discusses the chronology, e.g. the earliest gospels were written 30 to 90 years after the supposed crucifixion of Jesus and other gospels much later. As MP said, I think these books should be required reading for all Christians. I know that, growing up attending a protestant church, I had no idea about any of this history.

  6. J,

    I'm not sure how much influence Roman Christianity had over Mohammed in Mecca in 600AD, but I would bet that Mohammed may still have been attracted to monotheism (via exposure to Judiasm) and have been "inspired" to receive the Koran.

    With no Christianity in Europe its quite possible that Islam would have spread into Europe fairly uncontested since apparently monotheism is a successful meme.

    Would Europe have retained the more enlightened version of Islam that allowed the Middle East to be a beacon of science before the European renaissance? Or would all of Europe now reflect the mild fundamentalism that characterized the Middle East in the last few hundred years?

    Would Voltaire, Galileo, Hume, Newton, etc. been able to advance science and philosophy in that environment?

    If so, we may actually owe a debt to the Romans embracing Christianity.

    On the other hand, maybe rational secularism would have grabbed a hold of a non-Christian Europe and staving off the spread of Islam (actually never provoking them via the crusades in the first place), the West could now be a secular humanist paradise.

    Like you said.... pointless exercise.


  7. ...or Islam might have been adopted and then gone through the same process of "domestication" Christianity did - they came +600 years later, for sure, but who knows. Yeah, pointless indeed... :-)


  8. Being Mocked: The Essence of Christ’s Work, Not Muhammad’s

    What we saw in the Islamic demonstrations over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad was another vivid depiction of the difference between Muhammad and Christ, and what it means to follow each. The work of Muhammad is based on being honored and the work of Christ is based on being insulted. This produces two very different reactions to mockery.

    If Christ had not been insulted, there would be no salvation. This was his saving work: to be insulted and die to rescue sinners from the wrath of God. “He was despised and rejected by men . . . as one from whom men hide their faces . . . and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).

    That’s the most basic difference between Christ and Muhammad and between a Muslim and a follower of Christ. For Christ, enduring the mockery of the cross was the essence of his mission. And for a true follower of Christ enduring suffering patiently for the glory of Christ is the essence of obedience. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). During his life on earth Jesus was called a bastard (John 8:41), a drunkard (Matthew 11:19), a blasphemer (Matthew 26:65), a devil (Matthew 10:25); and he promised his followers the same: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25).

    How should his followers respond? On the one hand, we are grieved and angered. On the other hand, we identify with Christ, and embrace his suffering, and rejoice in our afflictions, and say with the apostle Paul that vengeance belongs to the Lord, let us love our enemies and win them with the gospel.

    When Muhammad was portrayed in twelve cartoons the uproar across the Muslim world was intense and sometimes violent. What does this mean?

    It means that a religion with no insulted Savior will not endure insults to win the scoffers. It means that this religion is destined to bear the impossible load of upholding the honor of one who did not die and rise again to make that possible. It means that Jesus Christ is still the only hope of peace with God and peace with man. And it means that his followers must be willing to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).


  9. Tim, that's nice, but I wonder how you explain the many people Christians killed or persecuted because they were mocking (or otherwise disagreeing with) their faith -- from the moment Constantine made Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion to the end of the temporal power of the Pope in the 19th century...

  10. Well, of course, everybody knows *those* weren't Real Christians.

  11. As Thomas Paine has said in The Age Of Reason, (and I paraphrase a bit for simplification - again, simplification is it's own pitfall...)Go ahead and believe in a Supreme Deity if you want to - we exist as an effect, as all things do, to some as yet unexplainable cause. That cause may be the Act of God - there is no way to be certain. On the other hand, The Good Book we know without a doubt is the work of fallible men and all truth there is mere hearsay. In a court of law, it would not hold up. It is overflowing with logical inconsistences and outright contradictions. Religion, like Politics, is a choice. Make belief of any sort compulsory and it ceases to be a choice.
    Sam Harris makes cogent arguments that Religion is too powerful a concept for mortals to be dabbling with. Ask for proof and you'll get none. What consistently amazes me is that there are absolutely no artifacts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, yet we have museums full of antiquities that are older than anything from the time of Jesus as defined by 'history'. How can this be? Compare human nature and consider what a scrap of paper with Elvis' autograph is worth. Wouldn;t anything touched by Jesus' hand - the "hand of divinity incarnate" be worth more?
    Something is missing.
    How about reality and truth and proof?

  12. We read this book several years ago and have recommended it to friends and family. When the biblical "God" said 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me' it makes you wonder whether he was an ET or if the source of that quote was referring to the ultimate Supreme Intelligence in the Universe. If the source was referring to the latter, people have certainly messed up the message by not realizing that the gift belongs to all people to develop. As Jesus is also quoted as saying, 'The Kingdom is within' and 'All these things I do, Ye shall do and more'!! How people can get mixed up and think theirs is better than someone else's must just be an indication of humanity's fairly low group consciousness. Rubenstein sure does a good job in this book of pointing out all the sad history around this issue. I wished he would have dealt more with all the skenanigans against the pagans also.

  13. Assertion of a theory does not create scientific fact. There are in fact many scholars who believe that the canonical Gospels were written early and represent eyewitness testimony.

    You should also be aware of the logical fallacy inherent in any use of 'higher criticism' to undermine testimony to the supernatural. Since the so-called 'higher criticism' ASSUMES that there must be a NATURAL explanation for any historical event, the method systematically discredits any evidence for the supernatural. E.g. Since prophecy is 'unscientific', any ancient literature attesting to a prophetic occurrence MUST have been written after the fact - BY DEFINITION. Likewise, other records of the miraculous are arbitrarily assigned to the realm of 'myth' or 'legend'. No hearing or examination is necessary for this determination, it proceeds from the underlying assumptions of the 'higher criticism'.

    Thus the method flies counter to the procedures of the 'hard' sciences, which seek out inexplicable phenomena at all cost as the only means to scientific discovery. Theories are based upon evidence. Any 'science' which subjects evidence to the litmus test of compliance with theory is not science at all, but rather 'religion' in disguise.

    More thoughts on this here:



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