When I got the idea of a short article about understanding the New Testament, I started to mentally list some of the puzzles and enigmas that exist in this small library. There are many! I began reviewing how different people deal with the stories there, and the new theological ideas that truly “soar to the heavens” and plumb the depths of the human condition. I realized that to even lay out some of the key enigmas, or the concepts that have captured the hearts of so many through 20 centuries, while remaining “foolishness” (Apostle Paul) to so many others, would itself take more than a whole post.
So I’ll suggest just one of the most explored issues, at or near the core of so many others: Just who was Jesus Christ?
There is the human Jesus, the real man who gained a rather small following, initially, in what became our “first century” thanks to his very existence (plus what the New Testament made of him). There is the kingly or even cosmic, divine Christ (Messiah expected by the Jews), so cleverly elevated to cosmic savior status by Paul first, then by “John” and others.
Some of my own previous posts have explored the many fascinating aspects of how people “way back then” understood and followed Jesus the Christ and how their influence carries powerfully forward to this very day. For today I’ll suggest one simple but heavily loaded concept for your thought and comment: In a very general way, those who focus mainly on Jesus the man and seek to follow him, as a man, operate from a different worldview than do those who focus mainly on Christ the “Second Person” of the triune God.
I won’t take time to go into the vast implications of one’s “worldview” or concept of the nature of reality beyond that statement itself. It’s hard to overstate or “over-imagine” its impact.
As powerful and generally consistent are our worldviews, our minds do not consistently interpret everything we encounter in terms of a set-in-concrete worldview…. Our worldview can and does change — on rare occasions, radically and quickly. But, especially on a conscious level, our thinking seeks consistency. We set up a basic interpretative system for life and events around us (or coming to us from ancient books), usually by our late teens or early twenties. We then generally work (often without thinking about it except during religious services or philosophy courses) to keep it stable…. We need a mostly-constant framework or “interpretive lens” through which to see the world and ourselves.
So what is the worldview of each of the different points of focus, the different “Jesuses” that people follow (and with them, different deciphering of New Testament puzzles)? The big-picture angle is what is often called supernaturalism. It’s not just about that God exists but what kind of God exists. It’s not just that there is something beyond the natural realm but that “the God who is there” intervenes in a fore-planned way in human affairs. God gives “revelation” through “his” chosen people and certain prophets among them. This is how we know about God “himself” and what God expects of us.
The opposite and somewhat-less-common wide-angle worldview is naturalism. Within this perspective, for some Christians, Jesus is a great moral teacher and example but only human, not a divine savior. It is not, however, religious people who have propelled this vision of the world and how “reality” works into cultural prominence, understandably. It is scientists and other secularists. While fewer people hold this view in the US, it is what the world operates through more than supernaturalism — business and general culture in addition to the vastly influential enterprise of science.
These two paradigms seem to cover all the options. In one sense they do. But are we forced to view things just one of two ways? One, as though God intervenes and has given us both an historical and predictive record of where we’ve been and where we’re going, with how to please God, be “saved”, etc., along the way. The other, as though no God exists, nothing “higher” or more guiding of life than random selection and “laws of nature” that come from who-knows-where.
Thankfully, there are other ways of understanding reality and of conceiving of whatever God may be there. These can and often do take the Bible seriously… they find inspiration and wisdom aplenty in both the “Old Testament” (as do both Jews and Christians) and the “New Testament”. (I generally place in quotes when using these long-conventional terms for what are perhaps less presumptuously called Hebrew Scriptures and Greek Scriptures.) Yet they have more interest and more flexibility to make sense of the many puzzles of the New Testament… of accounting for the surprising rise of Christianity within what is mostly a cloud of obscurity.
Did God supernaturally send Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity? To defeat the powers of darkness? Did God attest to this and to the authority of a small group of Apostles with numerous miracles in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in their ministries? Or did God have nothing to do with any such reported events and didn’t send Jesus because no God is there to do this? Put as either-or, as does the main contentions of typical supernaturalism and naturalism, we often “submit” and pick one or the other, or vacillate as we alternately believe and doubt.
However, there are other ways to understand God, taken partly from clues about God in the Bible, along with those from the wider world. One developed view I will discuss in the next post. It rejects the notion that either God intervenes in powerful ways, at least on occasion (usually believed to be frequent in personal lives), or there is no God to intervene and we only imagine certain events to be interventions. Some of the puzzles of the New Testament can be much better solved and a more realistic view of the beginnings of Christianity be gained, along with that of the authority of “The Church” (read either as Roman Catholic or whatever).
Many tomes have been written about Luke – both his Gospel and his “Volume II”, “The Acts of the Apostles”.
And for good reason! Luke, as I’ll illustrate a bit below, is probably responsible more than any other single person, for a general view of early Christianity that has been “standard” for almost two millennia. Yet there is plenty of reason to look a bit deeper and to grapple with the reality that his is a partial and very slanted picture.
The real picture does not so readily support the orthodox understanding of what the disciples of Jesus believed and did after his death, how Paul related to and often conflicted with them, etc. In a nutshell, Luke’s clear agenda is to present a unified and generally smoothly operating early “church” (even to him not yet called “Christian” in most of the Israel or Mediterranean region). This ties with his concept of the authority and truthfulness of the Church as validated and led by God… a not unexpected claim for an offshoot of Judaism.
This foundational belief, in turn, leads modern Christians to feel on safe ground combining together elements of teaching attributed to Jesus, to some of the original Apostles, and to the “last” of the Apostles, Paul. It has enabled the creation of what is most prominent today: A Christian theology that sees a need for personal salvation from eternal damnation (or separation from God) based on faith in Jesus as both atoning sacrifice and “very God of very God”. The reason I write about Luke at times, and otherwise seek to point out a more accurate picture of early Christianity is to help struggling, often anxiety-ridden people (generally those already Christian) realize that maybe the supposedly unified, clear theology they’ve been taught does not come on the basis of clear authority straight from God after all.
Maybe they are much freer than they ever imagined to believe something else, or to comfortably remain unsure about what the Bible does legitimately tell us about God and the real nature of the “work of Christ”. I had to work though this process myself, and it took a number of years… with me already having tools for understanding the Bible and finding, understanding alternate perspectives way beyond the average Christian. I’m pretty sure Luke “meant well” but he sure set up a whole lot of problems for many centuries to come, and they still are with us. Of course, it wasn’t his efforts alone, by any means, but his “history” (and it is that, in part) in Acts was pivotal. For this reason, it bears a closer look by both Christians and anyone interested in the growth of a new religion, or Christianity specifically. Here is my small contribution for today (in addition to a few related posts I’ve made earlier).
In the “standard” version of the birth of Christianity, all the leaders (supposedly) quickly reached the same conclusions theologically… just not all the details of their application to social situations. This all is heavily oriented around two key writers/theologians (together either writing or having attributed to them around half of the volume of the NT, and over half the total books): As above, Luke, plus Paul. Luke’s accounts differ from Paul’s significantly, in the few places they clearly overlap, and for reasons that can be fairly easily discerned. Many top scholars (not to mention observant non-experts) believe he patched in a lot of stuff to support the very unity, continuity, authority concepts I refer to. He had a “high purpose” to fulfill in doing so.
He was apparently the first writer to present a major work creating the picture of early and continuing unity of belief and most elements of “practice” and outreach. However, even his own accounting sometimes reveals a much less tidy reality. Just a few of many possible examples: Acknowledgment that James and the Jerusalem leaders were going mostly on indirect reports as to what Paul was actually teaching, Paul being quite willing to keep it obscure to them; believers already in Alexandria, Egypt (never discussed other than in passing by Luke or by Paul) who knew about Jesus but not the theology that Paul was espousing; followers of John the Baptist who didn’t even know about the Holy Spirit despite the Gospels (including Luke!) making the strong point that John himself introduced in no uncertain terms “one more powerful than I…”, Jesus, as the one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
This coming of and baptism by the Holy Spirit is central in the theological (and practical) unity case being made by Luke in Acts. According to him and the other Gospel writers, the major role of John was to “prepare the way for” and introduce the Messiah, doing so with an emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And the Gospels (including Luke) make it clear John’s disciples had multiple connection points with Jesus, and at least some of them made the transition from following John to following Jesus (Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, is named as one of them in John 1:40). After all that the Gospels claim happened at and right after the death of Jesus (including Pentecost with its major miraculous display and supposed mass conversion in the narrow streets of geographically small Jerusalem), and the unmistakable “hand off” to Jesus by John before his untimely execution, how could disciples of his (perhaps newly “converted” ones, as well) NOT know about the Holy Spirit and “his” dramatic coming upon believers? I refer to a period, per Acts, of just about 15-25 years later.
But in Acts 19, in Ephesus, Paul encounters believers baptized into “John’s baptism” who haven’t even “heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. This is not the only evidence of a major following of John that was wide-spread and apparently did not see John and Jesus as they are presented in the Gospels. (Historian Josephus adds strongly to the sense that John had a ministry either substantially unconnected or, at the least, much less connected to Jesus than the Gospels claim.) So, despite the Gospel claims of a no-uncertain-terms self-diminution by John and his unmistakable elevation of Jesus, with expectation of his coming Spirit-baptism work, this central role of John’s work somehow seems not to have gotten across to even those mostly in the same generation as John and Jesus.
Now, this is not mere trivia unimportant in the bigger picture. Rather, it is one among numerous strong evidences that the picture being carefully painted by Luke in his Gospel and Acts is one that even he cannot make thoroughly consistent…. There is too much relatively recent history to the contrary. So he has to include a bit of it but spin it in such a way that it does not obviously undercut his main thesis (or theses).
I’d love to hear how this impacts you…. And, if you’ve already given it some thought, please share that!
Now this is a big topic… disbelief in God or “losing faith”. We won’t do it full justice here. Rather, a few thoughts.
The fact is, there are lots of atheists in churches. Now even an “atheist church” (or maybe a few). We think of a church, in the people sense, as a community of believers in God. In the US, the large majority of churches involve those who also believe in Jesus, whether Jesus as God or Jesus as an important example or standard bearer. To keep things simpler, let’s just consider the belief in God aspect and why even your own church may have one or more atheists in it.
Most believers might think an atheist could be among them because he or she is seeking God, and just not yet able to believe. I expect fewer believers would suspect that a long-time member who has always said and done the “right” things might be an atheist. But they might! In a church of a few hundred or more, I’d venture there is an atheist or two (maybe three, four or ??). That’s without searching out statistics, which I’m not sure have been obtained, at least reliably.
One reason atheists in church are hard to “pin down” is many people aren’t sure if they themselves are one or not! Maybe eventually they realize they are, but aren’t sure when it happened. So there… we are getting at one of the main reasons atheists go to church! They always have. Perhaps from birth. At least from youth. Church has become a habit, but more than the typical habit.
To such people it’s probably also a place to keep up with one’s friends, to get support, to share in the pains and pleasures of life! Not easy to let go of. And if the church is relatively small, everyone will notice if you disappear. For sure your family will! They will ask questions… questions a doubter or new atheist may not want to answer.
So now the question, “Why have these ‘faithful’ come to lose their faith?” Wow, is that a big question! So just a skim over the surface of the possibilities here. First, the answers one might hear from within one of the same churches (of the Evangelical or fundamentalist type predominant in most parts of the US and similarly in most of the world): They have been deceived by the Devil. One problem with this explanation is that some of these people are the least likely to be deceived — careful thinking, ethical and “righteous” in behavior, often also devoted to God and to Christ. Maybe it’s thought that some sin allowed the Devil a foothold. But who hasn’t sinned in one way or another, even as a believer?
Another supposed explanation for someone’s doubt or appearance of disbelief: They got too much education! Yes, indeed, too much education. Maybe it often isn’t put quite that way. But too much of the wrong kind of education — from the secular or “liberal” point of view. That might include higher education at anything other than a conservative Christian college or university. Or it might mean reading books by liberal or progressive theologians. You know, those with an “historical-critical” approach to the Bible (or you may not know: this approach does not assume the historical accuracy of the Bible, nor the traditional assignments of authorship, suggested dating, etc.).
Now this explanation is accurate, at least some of the time. But, one must ask, is the process a bad thing? Something to necessarily be avoided — getting input from a skeptical or deeply exploring point of view? Even loyal Evangelicals have long noted the “scandal” (a term used by historian Mark Noll in a prominent book title) of the kind of thinking and intellectual attitudes and patterns that are common in the evangelical church world. (“Evangelical” used as an adjective here.) I am not an atheist myself, but my shift from an Evangelical and “supernaturalist” viewpoint to progressive (specifically, “process”) theology is the result of many years of “subjecting” myself to this examination process and engaging it actively.
So this same process accounts for some of the atheists among churchgoers. Many people, especially young adults, are reading biblical studies and theological books from an historical or theologically progressive point of view, leading some of them, at least temporarily, to atheism. Or they hear talks by some of the same authors or read books and hear talks by atheists. Despite the media publicity for the more aggressive (“New”) atheists and the best-seller status of their books, I think they convince relatively few people. At least to full “conversion” to atheism. Probably more influential are the former type of authors and speakers, most of whom do not consider themselves atheists.
Now, could even your pastor perhaps be a secret atheist? Well, it seems to be getting more common for either “mainline” churches (mostly older, larger denominations) or Evangelical/fundamentalist ones to have pastors who become atheists. In some cases, the process toward this begins in liberal seminaries. But more of the time, Evangelical pastors are educated in Evangelical seminaries or may not even have attended seminary. Rather than examine further how they become atheists, let’s take a quick look at why they may stay in ministry as atheists. If not atheists, at least as more skeptical about the trustworthiness of the Bible, the deity of Christ, etc., than most of their parishioners.
Here I’m going to try to paraphrase former Pentecostal pastor and now atheist, Jerry DeWitt of The Clergy Project. I heard him just last night (11-8-13) on “Q” with Jian Ghomeshi, a CBC radio program which airs, via Public Radio International, in some US cities. His take on part of the reason a pastor might continue in his or her role, based on the person’s own situation, is that it may remain rewarding to help others with support and continuity in their community, the place which helps them structure meaning in life. Still, as in DeWitt’s own case, ultimately the lack of integrity between words and actual beliefs does not allow a pastor to indefinitely serve a congregation with fundamentally different beliefs. However, pressing practical needs, such as a way to feed one’s family when few other viable options exist, may keep such a pastor in position longer than they would otherwise prefer.
One would hope that Christians, motivated by love, would understand and help such a pastor find alternate employment. But seldom is that the reality, if ever (I don’t know of such cases, though they may exist). Rather, a pastor’s fear of real anger and acrimony from parishioners often turns to reality. Probably more so the longer the pastor has stayed after a basic change of belief or a full “loss of faith”. But when do normal doubts turn to actual disbelief? I’d suspect the person himself or herself often does not even know. One of the reasons Jerry DeWitt has helped kick off The Clergy Project is to aid pastors in transition, including with practical needs like finding new sources of income.
I suppose, in relation to this process for many lay people as well as some pastors moving toward or into atheism, the least we might hope for in the short-term is that people will more deeply understand and accept that personal beliefs do change. They change in all of us actually, though perhaps not as radically as from God-belief to atheism. And with that, we might hope more Christians will loosen the grip of certainty they have that unbelievers are deceived by Satan, rebellious against God (and moral standards, etc.), and (sadly) bound for eternity separated from God and believing loved-ones.
Conservative Christians think of themselves as the last line of defense for a time honored and holy tradition, marriage. In the conservative Christian view, marriage is a sacred union ordained by God. It binds one man and woman together so that the “two become one flesh” until they are parted by death.
This view of marriage is unbiblical, to be sure.
Wow! Talk about a book with a lot of hoopla surrounding it! (Maybe most of that is past, our “news cycle” turning over as fast as it does. But the book is getting lots of readers, whatever the reason!)
The more sensational aspects of the hoopla are, unfortunately, mostly aside from the actual content of the book, its impact and such. In a nutshell, from what I’ve seen, it has centered around Aslan’s credentials and motivations for writing the book. Oh… also that he is a Muslim, though apparently of the very progressive sort, and perhaps a deeper student of Islam than he is of Christianity and Christian origins… I can’t tell from this “distance”. He has written a best-selling and much-translated book on Islam.
Still, besides academic study on Christianity, he was a devoted Evangelical Christian for a number of years in his youth. So he does have “inside” perspective. (As a former Evangelical myself, I can tell that his absorption of traditional Christianity’s generally pacifist view of Jesus, seeing him as politically uninvolved, probably motivates him to present an alternate picture, one which is actually inspiring to him.) As to Muslim roots, he says, in the Author’s Note, that he was born into a Muslim family, “… a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists…” (p. xviii).
As to credentials, I guess the fuss has mainly been over whether or not he has properly represented them, at least in one controversial interview. His academic studies are broad and include Christian theology (MA from Harvard) as well as religion and sociology (earned PhD). Either biblical or specifically New Testament scholarship is a highly specialized and technical field, so anyone even vaguely familiar with it knows that Aslan, having done and doing what he does as a professor that is clearly not in that field, is not a true New Testament scholar. But that in itself does not disqualify him from credibility when he writes about “the life and times” of Jesus. On the question of whether he has presented responsible and credible historical work in this book my qualified answer is “Yes”.
I’m going to be deliberately brief and seriously incomplete on what all the book covers… quite a lot! It ranges from details of Jesus’ life to the milieu of Jewish apocalyptic fervor and seething rebellion leading to and through the great war with Rome in 66-70 CE, to Alsan’s view of the transition from Jesus’ teachings into a very different Pauline Christianity! I suppose the “thesis” can be boiled down to a couple sentences or so, and I will give a couple excerpts that may be representative of Aslan’s major point (or “thesis”). In being brief, I want to emphasize that there is a lot to be learned from the book which is important toward gaining a better understanding of Jesus, the Gospels and the formation of Christianity in its earliest stages in the first century.
In an ideal world, one could wish that the book-reading public would also take the time to read “Jesus books” that are more careful with conclusions that should be labeled as opinions or speculations. Such books should be peppered with “We can’t know” (more than Aslan’s is), and would be by experts that professionally specialize in this area of history, particularly the field of New Testament scholarship. But such books (and there are plenty!) are seldom particularly readable for a broad audience. And since we often do “judge a book by its cover”, or author, we tend to read mainly those we sense will reinforce our existing beliefs.
So take this review as a recommendation to read the book, for sure! Its sales have demonstrated it is “striking a chord”, as I’ve implied, beyond that prompted by the media hoopla and some stir within academia — I think mainly in “biblical scholarship” though perhaps more broadly. For one thing, this is a fascinating, readable book on topics that can easily bog the typical “lay” reader down. The issues involved are complex and controversial on many levels, largely because there is so much to piece together from relatively little information. And what information we have, specifically on the earthly Jesus, is almost all in the form of stories (a core narrative laid out first, apparently, by Mark in the Gospel ascribed to him, followed by variations in the other Gospels).
Though many Christians don’t see it this way, I think it’s abundantly clear that these stories are a complicated mix of actual memory/traditions drawing an historical “frame” for the big picture, and extensive details created to paint out the rest of the picture in somewhat differing ways in each Gospel, reflecting differing situations and somewhat differing theologies as well. This is the operating understanding of Aslan in Zealot as well, as I read between the lines…. I don’t recall him stating this directly. He does discuss many specifics of the Jesus story, sometimes explaining why he does or does not accept them as actual events. His view is that key elements of the story, such as Jesus’ place and circumstances of birth, were not thought to be historical even by their authors although they tend to carry that implication to modern readers. Naturally, this approach will make his entire book suspicious to most traditional Christians.
In a moment, I will wrap together Aslan’s thesis (best I can find it represented briefly in his own words) with part of his conclusion, which I find quite interesting. But on the way, let me mention that I judge the educational value of the book as high. Not only does it draw the reader along (other reviewers concurring with my sense), but it includes a key drawing of the Temple area, a map of Palestine, and a couple helpful timelines for those who are reading carefully and care to remember key characters and dates. The major stylistic and scholarly drawback I noted, as mentioned by others, besides his tendency to overstate or be unrealistically “certain” at times, is how the endnotes are done. While I prefer notations be true “footnotes” (at the foot of the page), endnotes are fine. However, in this book, there are no numbers in the text alerting you to further explanation or documentation. There are many pages of such notes, but only arranged by chapter, so that connecting to any specific point in the text is very tough. Still, the notes are well worth reading, as they present further interesting details, and often do document his sources.
Finally, as to the core thesis of Zealot: Near the end of the chapter, “Who Do You Say I Am?”, Aslan has discussed the way Jesus’ followers, after the disastrous, religion-altering war with Rome, had to envision the Kingdom of God as entirely not of this world, their earthly-messiah hopes having been dashed:
But Jesus’s kingdom–the Kingdom of God–was very much of this world. And while the idea of a poor Galilean peasant claiming kingship for himself may seem laughable, it is no more absurd than the kingly ambitions of Jesus’s fellow messiahs Judas the Galilean, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba, and the rest. Like them, Jesus’s royal claims were based not on his power or wealth. Like them, Jesus had no great army with which to overturn the kingdoms of men, no fleet to sweep the Roman seas. The sole weapon he had with which to build the Kingdom of God was the one used by all the messiahs who came before or after him, the same weapon used by the bandits who eventually push the Roman empire out of the city of God: zeal.
…Armed with zeal as his weapon, he will [upon entering Jerusalem] directly challenge the Temple authorities and their Roman overseers over who truly rules this holy land….(p. 144)
In what may be a surprising revelation of at least part of the reason for Aslan’s continuing strong interest in Jesus, and perhaps the main motivation for writing the book, in his conclusion he states what could be echoed by many liberal or progressive Christians:
Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth–Jesus the man–is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in. (p. 216)
Have you read the book? What were some of your reactions, if so?
Do we really know how people can “speak in tongues”, be used as a channel for powerful healings, or “prophesy”, sometimes in beautiful lyrics we judge as beyond their natural abilities?
I’ve been participating in an interaction on another blog around these questions, framed there as “charismatic gifts”. But the issue goes well beyond Christian theology or practice. I thought I’d link to that dialog, here, which has been mostly an “in house” Christian interaction, but in which I’ve introduced a broader possibility. I also decided to post here the last part (to now) of my contribution. I do so because it deals with the highly important matter of how we each manage to make sense of the world we see around and within us.
More academically stated, I refer to our “worldview” or the paradigm of reality that we have adopted, consciously or unconsciously. It guides our interpretation of lots of things. It is more than a matter of religion. Among these things are the phenomena I mentioned above, as well as others often considered “paranormal” or part of “parapsychology”.
What I didn’t say specifically in the comment I’m about to paste in (slightly modified) is that there is an “elephant in the living room” that neither Christianity (and most other religions) nor science is willing to look at squarely and examine: these same kind of phenomena and observations often called “paranormal”. By that very term, we signify that they are not “normal”, at least in the sense of commonly occurring. Yet they occur with probably greater frequency than we tend to notice. We put them on the shelf of “think about that later” at our own loss. And the implications are huge!
We are not sure if these things are “natural” or what. Science seems to have relegated them to a factor of our imperfect perceptions and tendency to misinterpret data (thus not “real” or worthy of investigation). At the same time, they are not clearly “supernatural” either, even to observant Christians… at least in the many cases that don’t fit a Christian paradigm.
The final thought I’ll add before sharing my earlier blog comment is this: Just as science largely refuses to apply its sophisticated techniques to this area of needed investigation, so Christian thinkers largely avoid the area as well, very unfortunately. As an example, the main thing you do get in the one example area of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) is an occasional book on the remarkable NDE of someone who experienced either a hellish or heaven-like experience, as a Christian, or later interpreting it in Christian terms. There have been at least one or two (perhaps several… I’ve not checked thoroughly) books examining NDEs in relation to Christian theology. I’m not aware of any of them that have done a deep and thorough overview of the phenomenon in the process of doing so. Such in-depth overview books do exist in the “secular” realm, such as one by physician Pim van Lommel, entitled Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (2011).
As a “sidebar”, NDEs are perhaps an exception area within “the paranormal” in which there have indeed been a number of relatively “mainstream” scientific studies and now “metastudies” such as van Lommel’s. However it is mostly physicians, relative to their patient-care issues, and psychologists doing this research rather than scientists from other fields (psychology, particularly, being considered a sort of pseudo-science by many “hard” scientists).
So my point is that both establishment science and establishment Christianity are studiously avoiding dealing with a whole raft of fascinating, important phenomena because (in my not-so-humble, studied opinion) such discussions would likely undercut the central operating assumptions of each: supernaturalism, with its personally-intervening God, and naturalism, with no “spiritual” input allowed in a purely material world. My suggestion: if you know a scientist in a pertinent field, challenge him or her with investigating any of several legitimate research questions around the “paranormal”. If you know a Christian leader or thinker, challenge him or her to promote serious discussions of the large amount of material which IS available that is not out to merely validate a Christian theological perspective nor out to invalidate it either.
Now, here is the comment I posted within the discussion linked to above, regarding Christian views of charismatic phenomena:
I really appreciate these added thoughts…. And you’re helping me formulate my own position more precisely, on what I consider a crucial area that NEEDS more deep analysis across the religious/Christian spectrum… not just among charismatics or “anti-charismatics”. In fact, I’d say that either “charismata” or “parapsychological” phenomena, group ecstasy, and such topics are pivotal areas to examine in understanding (and further describing) any major worldview or paradigm.
To be specific, of course, pure naturalism, as predominant among scientists, will “explain away” the whole area as psychological, cultural, etc., denying ANY spiritual source, whether God, demons, etc. Most Christians, as you rightly point out, will ID the source as not only “God” but God as they believe “him” to be described in the Bible, including the deity of Christ and the indwelling of God’s/Christ’s Spirit. I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as “… risk devaluing the experience…” if we don’t name the source. This “God is the source” held by most X’ns, I’d say falls within a “supernaturalist” paradigm as a sort of opposite of a “naturalist” one (a perceived either-or choice we are not really forced into if more flexible language and categories are used).
This “two opposing explanations” situation I don’t see as very helpful toward actually, helpfully naming the source. It still leaves us with both the differences within X’n theology and the tough-to-understand situation of God presumably making SOME kind of distinction (almost impossible to describe) between charismata through true believers and something at least very similar in either non-Christians or Christians using gifts for personal gain, fame, etc. rather than the good of others or glory of God. So, enter a third paradigm which, I find, creates more flexibility not only on this subject, but more broadly as well: Process theology or “panentheism” (its main mechanism, relevant here, is sometimes been called “panpsychism”). If one knows its basic premises and structure and doesn’t find it fitting to reality, then I’d encourage that person to also try to modify “standard” theism/Christian orthodoxy as Process has, so that one’s view of reality/God/humanity CAN accommodate more of what we actually observe of natural-yet-spiritual phenomena, that including charismata as well as NDE’s, connections with the departed, possible (I think highly probably) reincarnation, the likelihood of non-human intelligent life elsewhere, etc.
Now, it’s not only a perceived need to “accommodate” observed phenomena that I lean on, by any means, to validate a modified “supernaturalist” paradigm… there are plenty of other biblical, philosophical, etc., reasons I’ve moved toward panentheism. But that motivation is pertinent to our current topic. It also connects to the point that I believe a more “curious”, exploratory stance toward charismatic phenomena and its related, other “transrational” phenomena is vital, among BOTH supernaturalists and naturalists (i.e., both “religion” and “science”). The book “Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality” by David R. Griffin lays out the situation better than any single book I know of, aimed mainly at confronting naturalists (more than supernaturalists), and from a panentheist perspective.