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Response to Ehrman/Bird debate on Jesus as God

April 19, 2014

Over recent years, the name Bart Ehrman has become widely known…. He is perhaps the most prominent scholar challenging orthodox or traditional Christian understandings of early Christianity and the Bible, its initial formation, and the common belief systems that have grown out of it.  As an aside: Many people, both Christian and non-Christian, do not realize what Ehrman himself often says – that he generally is only restating what many scholars have said before.  But his books and lectures have reached a broad audience well beyond that served by most similar scholars in their various related specialties.


This being the case, Ehrman has evoked more than one “response” book.  In a way similar to his own approach, other more orthodox scholars have decided to try to set the record straight on many of his topics.  You, as a blog reader, probably know that, along the way, some religion-oriented blogs have been discussing this back-and-forth argumentation around Ehrman’s work.  One of them in particular, that takes a respectful and thoughtful approach, and with real depth, I participate on.  It is

Here, a good number of us, mostly with some scholarly interests and/or credentials, have just been discussing the latest book by Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galileeand a book responding to it,  How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of  Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature–A Response to Bart D. Ehrman by Richard Bird (and co-authors).  

Let me clarify that I have not read either book.  But neither have most of the commenters on the recent threads about the two books, as they are being summarized on the blog by people who have read them.  So this is not specifically a “book club” type discussion.  Many related points are raised.  I’ve decided that one subject on which I commented was appropriate to share here, revised a bit for context and clarity.  The subject, changes in one’s own beliefs and the process involved, is one I’ve reflected on a lot and studied with high interest, partly because of my own experiences, but also because I believe everyone is “in the same boat” (of deciding and re-deciding what we think is real… what deserves our faith or lack of it, etc.).

So here is the bulk of my comment, followed by questions for readers here: 

There is a large mix of many factors in anyone’s faith, whatever its specific object (Jesus, in Bird’s case), or in their lack of faith. (In Ehrman’s case, in any religious system or in God – he calls himself agnostic).  Full disclosure: my own case is more similar to Ehrman’s than Bird’s, in its direction, although I still have a solid faith in a “process” kind of God.  While my environment was not quite as “fundamentalist” as Ehrman’s, it was pretty close (in both church and Christian college, seminary, personal study, etc.).

It included “Christian psychology” and professional counselor training and practice for over a decade (I know… a red flag to some, but pretty mainstream to most Christians, even Evangelicals).  Through this, then further formal and much informal study of the Bible, ancient history, theology, sociology, etc., I eventually was compelled (against my earlier expectations) toward a much more middle-of-the-road kind of faith, accepting most of the historical observations and data conveyed by Ehrman (in numerous works), but with some differing conclusions than his are at this point….

That faith, which I consider in line with biblical narratives, though generally not with orthodox interpretations, remains agnostic about many things, including whether Jesus DID indeed claim either divinity or divine prerogatives, as Bird and orthodoxy claims.  Agnostic also regarding in just what ways his disciples and early followers may have considered him divine.

That’s why I’m thankful for BOTH Ehrman and Bird (and his co-authors)…. The issues are complex; and their oversimplification is one of our biggest problems because of the related misconceptions that it leads to or already surround it.  This often leads to confusion and causes anxiety, for example about “salvation”.  Ironically, confusion is more often found in the more observant and thoughtful of believers, not those of lower “brain power”.  

We should not forget that, in one sense, Ehrman and Bird represent far ends of the experience/faith spectrum… similar experiences, moving in opposite directions, particularly in young adult years. (This is when most of one’s core beliefs and places of affiliation tend to be either initially set up or potentially reversed by exposure to differing perspectives or sets of data).  To me, it’s clearly not that movement in either direction is right or wrong.  Rather, points of truth lie at many points along the spectrum(s)… not actually a single spectrum, except for simplicity of expression.  And that is not saying “truth is relative”, just that we each have relatively different ways of arranging a giant conglomeration of data points and small “truths” into a larger “truth” that makes sense and is comfortable for us to live with. (End of original comment.) 

Would you be willing to share a bit of your own progression of faith (or “away from” faith, if you think of it that way)?

If you haven’t done that somewhere, I’d encourage it strongly.  Try to find a patient and non-judging “listening ear”.  Or at least write your story for yourself, maybe a paragraph at a time… it will help you find greater clarity, and be something fascinating to look at again in 5, 10, 20 or more years.  And let me know how it works for you.  

Less Religious, Less Churched, or Just What?

April 11, 2014

Here (below) is a comment I posted on another blog. The article there was about what’s happening with millennials (and other age groups) with church attendance and religious affiliation… such as the fast growth of the “nones” (unaffiliated).  As the article (here) and comments showed, it’s a complex situation with no easy analysis.  And hard to predict where trends may be leading.

Anyway, I wanted to tie it all to our growing understanding of stages of development.  These are somewhat natural, but also don’t happen the same for everyone, by any means.  Some growth takes an intention to grow, to understand and experience things more deeply.  So here is what I contributed:


I’ve long been studying, observing to properly see the interplay of these elements (and more): developmental stages (personal and societal), cultural trends, and evolution of religious thought and practice.  Young adulthood overlaps some with “postmodern” in terms of moral and cognitive development.  “Modern” Christians (and adolescents) see the limitations and inconsistencies of postmodernism (or “Boomeritis Buddhism”).  Older “moderns” (especially of an evangelical-type paradigm) react against such postmodernism, not realizing there are other stages/paradigms just beyond it that may better support the “traditional values” they are into, and have many additional benefits, usefulness.

Young and “pre-middle-age” (often “postmodern” already) adults, in my observation (I’m a father of 2 of them, but look much further) are NOT as afraid of change/progress and not so locked into a modern perspective.  Thus, many of them are moving fairly quickly through postmodern to the “integral” stage (or whatever label one wants).  This “stage” is quite capable of a robust, compassionate and intellectually coherent, consistent faith (see “Integral Christianity” by Paul Smith, e.g., or my review of it, here and here).

I was just with over 100 of such mostly-young (a few older, like me) adults who had a wonderful, joyful time together, from a broad range of denominational and theological backgrounds (TransFORM 2014 in San Diego… summarized on my blog and by Kathy Escobar, perhaps others.)

This view of things helps make sense of some of the seemingly confusing data such as these recent books are presenting.  While I won’t “predict” anything either, I perceive genuine progress and am optimistic overall.

When, Why Does Religion Lead to Violence?

April 10, 2014

We don’t yet have a complete answer to when the devout following of any particular religion leads to violence… or when the conflict of religions does so.  But now some serious, good science is at least being applied to this and related questions.  And we’re getting some “makes sense” answers.

I haven’t looked at the original research yet myself…. I’m sharing from a substantial summary and discussion of the project conducted by a team at Arizona State University under Dr. Steven Neuberg.

Basic project information and the Psychological Science article abstract are free, found here.  For a deeper look, an article by Connor Wood, writing for The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, here, summarizes its main points well… highly recommended!

According to Wood, the study found that “cultures with high levels of everyday religiosity are more violent and prejudiced against outgroups.” The “everyday religiosity” was more technically labeled as

“religious infusion: the permeation of everyday life with religious references, actions, and behaviors.”

Now, the United States is actually not a particularly “religiously infused” society, although it is more religious than much of the Western world.  Now, like most of us, you may know someone who does have religious thoughts and behavior infused heavily within their daily lives, even about minor decisions and circumstances (the classic – good parking place, etc.), or you may be such a person yourself…. It doesn’t mean they (or you) are necessarily more likely to be violent.  And when such people are in a public setting or one of secular employment, these factors are kept relatively private.  A complex of factors need to be present to kick up prejudicial behavior and more.

As a counter-example showing higher infusion, Wood refers to a fictive rural Mexican village

“… with public life and even casual spoken language positively shot through with references to God, Jesus, Mother Mary, the saints, and heaven.”  

One thing that is refreshing and encouraging about this research is that it is taking a more real-life approach.  In research and analysis, religion has generally been looked at as mainly a set of beliefs or clearly religious practices (church attendance, times of prayer, and such).  To properly study religion one must realize, as this project has, how it often is represented in and affects social organization, language and everyday thought, how we create and run communities, etc.  It’s an entire way of seeing and being in the world.  And all the more so for those in certain societies or localities, including sub-cultures within this country.

Yes, overall American society is not highly “infused” with religion.  But there are large numbers, in various groups, in which their own lives are.  Sometimes this includes communities they mainly orient around, even if they may live separately and work in the broader society.  This is the kind of setting, when combined with other factors, in which religiously motivated violence can arise.  Worldwide, it often does.  Here in the U.S., we are prone to think of the expression or threat of this as arising from other religions than Christianity, or our forms of it.

Unfortunately, our history doesn’t bear this out – followers of any religion can be swept up in violent social dynamics, and I’m sure (not stated in this research that I know) those involved see any violence they support or perpetrate as justified, if not ordered, by God.  It’s important to note that the research also examines prejudice and bigotry… various forms of mistreatment that amount to violence, even if we don’t always label them as such.

The research confirms what I’d consider a common sense view of balance in a relatively secular society, or one in which religious pluralism is at least tolerated, if not preferred by many.  We certainly hear and see a lot about “culture wars”.  We do have a clash of value systems (or at least differences in them perceived as radical) in our society.  While there is no reason to minimize or enjoy the tensions, should we not appreciate and hold onto the carefully achieved balance we call our “freedom of religion”, which results in a relatively healthy kind of “secularism”?  Note how Wood summarizes this positive-outcomes side of the research, in relation to “culture wars” situations and potential violence:

“Cultures boasting mutually incompatible value systems but low levels of public religiousness tended to behave more civilly toward (or perhaps just ignored) one another.”

I encourage you to read the summary from this very helpful and relatively new organization, the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion.  Comment there, if you wish, and come back here to share your thoughts as well!


Paula Fredriksen on Early Jewish Monotheism

April 5, 2014

Howard Pepper:

Ok… this (pretty short) article is more “wonky” than my own posts. But it is actually important (and what it is pointing to is, further) to people with an interest in understanding the “how Jesus became God” process…. That is, how his divinity came to be believed in and proclaimed relatively quickly after his death, if not during his lifetime. (Even many conservative scholars no longer say it was claimed by him or believed in his lifetime.) In one sense, what is being discussed by McClellan here is a “deep” scholarly issue, best plumped by specialists. But all of us can and should understand that it is critical to grasp, the best we can, how ANY ancient audience of an ancient writing thought… how they would likely have taken certain concepts, such as “Who is God/god and what is God (or gods) like” (or monotheism vs. various forms of polytheism). It may help solve some important, deep mysteries.

Originally posted on Daniel O. McClellan:

I’m reading back through a number of sources that have been cited and have been conspicuously not cited by both sides of the current Ehrman / Bird-Evans-Gathercole-Hill-Tilling debate, and I’ve been impressed (again) by some comments made by Paula Fredriksen about the treatment of the notion of monotheism by the Early High Christology Club that bear sharing:

Big books and long articles have appeared analyzing the sudden and early development of high christological claims by imputing an austere and exclusive monotheism to late Second Temple Judaism.28 Jews are distinguished from pagan contemporaries on the basis of their cultic exclusivism, a consequence of this monotheism. The persecution of Gentile Christians, in turn, is explained as the result of their commitment, inherited from Judaism, to this sort of monotheism. Meanwhile, the higher the christological claims, the more ingenious the various and scholarly reassurances that these claims do not, in fact, compromise monotheism.

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Not Really Religiously Diverse… Why all the Panic?

April 4, 2014

Maybe “panic” is overstating it a little.  But I don’t think by much, at least for a significant number of American Christians.

They seem quite scared that their country, once a “Christian nation”, may be losing that status.  I’ll not go into the complex dynamics of such a viewpoint (largely inaccurate, in my view) for now.

Whatever one’s perspective on that – whether it raises concern or not, a just-released Pew study on religious diversity worldwide is interesting! It reveals that the U.S. is, perhaps surprisingly to some, in the low-to-moderate range of religious diversity relative to other nations.  The Pew people label it moderate, with a 4.1 rating, out of 10 (highest diversity) on their scale.  You can find a short summary of the survey on their website, here.  There are links to more details and a complete ranking of 232 nations also.  

The Pew article points out that it is not just fundamentalists who think of America as religiously diverse… scholars sometimes use such language as well.  It should be noted, as is addressed in the article, that “Christian” as one’s designated religion for study purposes is not broken down into sub-categories.  But neither is Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism, which are also widely diverse within themselves.

The most religiously diverse (far more so than the U.S.) countries are in Asia, primarily China and its neighbors (Singapore and Taiwan being the top two).  Comparing the U.S. with Europe, we are less diverse… e.g., France, Germany and the United Kingdom all rank 1 to 2 points higher on the 10-point scale.  (The study does not seem to try to evaluate who is merely “culturally” Christian as opposed to Christian by belief and active practice… in which Europe would no doubt rank less Christian, and thus seemingly even more diverse than the U.S.  It is merely comparing general categorization by major religious groupings.)

The Pew Research Center has also studied and compared religious freedom worldwide.  That is a separate study.  It’s understandable that people tend to link the amount of diversity with the amount of freedom… or at least see diversity as a potential threat to their freedom.  However, in itself, it may well not be.

What do you see in the numbers? Any surprises? 

TransFORM 2014 and Revisioning Communities of Christian Faith

April 2, 2014

What a wonderful experience I had at TransFORM 2014, just this past week-end (March 27-30)! I think most or all other attendees would say the same… at least those I was around near or at the end.

I don’t know if my phrase, “revisioning communities of Christian faith”, captures the central thrust of it or not.  We covered lots of ground! “Sacred” ground.  (While celebrating the truly unified nature of all “ground”.)

And I didn’t get the feel that it was mainly about the Christian “Church” (or churches).  Also, more was dealt with than being community in a variety of ways:  contemplation and activism (how the two actually belong together… a refreshing perspective); issues surrounding power, privilege and justice; healing from “religious” wounding, and much more.

Now, theology is always an issue (rightly so, in my mind)…. How we conceptualize God, Jesus, God’s revelation (whether in the cosmos, the Bible or both), etc., tends to ground and guide our affiliations and our actions.  But at this conference I seldom heard, or cared, just what specific theology other participants or speakers held to

In many cases that may be because such concepts are in flux for the person.  (While I have a very few “core” things relatively settled, to personal satisfaction, I purposely leave as much as possible open and fluid myself.)  This sense of “We’re all on a journey, at differing places and stages, seeking wisdom and understanding, knowing we also have responsibility to serve and uplift others” was palpable… largely a collection of “wounded healers”.  Folks conscious of both our woundedness and our call to be healers, to be bridge-builders, to be advocates and to stand in deep solidarity with others who have both similar and different kinds of wounds and needs.  (Kathy Escobar, a co-pastor of The Refuge near Denver, was there with co-pastor Karl Wheeler, leading a session.  She has posted a wonderful call for people to “stand in the gap”, partially inspired by her time at TransFORM, on her blog, here.)

So who were these people in terms of their jobs, roles, positions? A really diverse bunch! Therapists, pastors, writers, artists, activists, seminary staff or students (often in one role or another, additionally), and many more.  (Total attendance was somewhere around 125.)  At least through the optional sessions I went to, I didn’t get the sense that church pastoral issues or “church” in general predominated, although pastors and pastors-to-be may well have been the single biggest group.  This wasn’t about methods as much as meaning.

So not about how to grow a church… more about how to be a church, and in the sense of a community of people following Spirit together.  Most following Jesus, specifically, and Jesus was often spoken about.  But Jews or seriously skeptical ex-Christians, or others, trying to re-sort their categories and commitments and find new relationships of support and cooperation were welcomed as well, and at least a few were present.

I’ve been to lots of conferences of varied types.  I wish I felt I could effectively convey the feel that I had, I believe shared by others, that this one was unique… was special, not only in the week-end experience, but in the ongoing effects.

Just a few words attempting to get at it:

Centering; Connecting; Celebrating.

Growing; Going (where called)

Hurting (together); Hunting (we’re not always sure what).  

Mediating; Meditating.  

Playing; Praying.

Resting; Restoring.   

Yearning; Learning. 

If you were there, what did you experience? Bring away?

If you weren’t there, what might you want to hear more about?

Interesting British Supreme Court Justice’s Perspective on Rights of Christians

March 21, 2014

For all the differences in the religious world of the United Kingdom and the United States, there are still many similarities and a lot of influence back and forth.  A couple examples: the ties of the Episcopal Church (American) and Anglican Church (British, and organizational worldwide head in the Archbishop of Canterbury); the strong influence of several UK orthodox Christian thinkers and writers, such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and the late John Stott (none “Evangelical” in the American sense, but influential there).  

A British high court judge, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, has made some interesting remarks while speaking recently at Yale Law School, according to a Mail Online article here.  Lady Hale believes Christians sometimes lose rights cases in courts “…because they cannot claim that their faith demands they follow strict rules” (wording of the linked article, above, not a direct quote of her talk).

What she seems to mean is that other faiths that have more specific and strong demands (especially of measurable things such as clothing and diet) than do most Christian sects, tend to get their practices legally defended when Christians often do not.  (BTW, this may direct the issue away from the assumption of “political correctness” as potentially favoring other religions over Christianity, just because they are other or are minority. There may be more legally-based reasons.) 

From just this article, I’m not clear what Lady Hale’s suggestions really are toward a more just or fair approach to the defense of individuals’ or groups’ religious  beliefs.  Balancing the situation is not easy. But it’s an interesting issue that I’d not seen commented on by someone in a judicial system outside of, but similar to that of the USA.

She also makes reference to the situation in Canada, which again is very similar to the US situation, yet quite different in their having a “national church”.

I’m hoping any British or Canadian (or other) readers can shed some light on all this, from your perspective.  Any comments? 


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