human interests, values, and dignity predominate. (Dictionary.com)
H e was a tradesman's son of 1st century Palestine: the modern era to its citizenry for whom life was a current affair and their industry, state of the art. The wheel was commonplace, chariots were the last word in high tech, and leprosy had long been successfully diagnosed as demon-related. Monsters, angels, imps, sorcerers, heavenly visions and miracles were customary companions at a time when people through no fault of their own knew little better. And as with most of the Mediterranean world the local population was subject to Roman rule in the reign of Caesar Augustus: divi filius, (son of a god). This was the zeitgeist in which Yeshua, son of Yehosef, entered and exited.
Home for Yeshua was Nazareth (pop:400 approx), a small agrarian village of no fixed visibility. At about a day's walk from Jerusalem the place was barely a provincial pin prick on the map: And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip said unto him, Come and see ( John 1:46), though it was no holiday getaway, the entire region was a hotbed of politico-religious unrest exposed to a variety of cultures and beliefs introduced via the trade routes of the Hellenized West and Indian East. Stoicism, Buddhism and the ascetic practises of the Essenes were among the more influential systems doing the rounds in Yeshua's backyard. In a nutshell: Nazareth and the Galilee convulsed with dogmas.
A budding preacher and activist, Yeshua was well known for his curious nature - often he could be found at the local synagogue contemplating the will of Yahweh or perhaps evesdropping on the myriad apocalyptic prophets on the scene. One such notable prophet was the wild and wooly Essene, Johanan the Baptist, Yeshua's second cousin and mentor, so named for his purification ritual of cleansing naked believers of sin by full immersion. The Baptist even in those times was known for his fanatical proselytising - he was a seriously hard core Torah junkie completely committed to the letter of the law of Moses, and with a growing following, an irritant to the local ruler, Herod Antipas. His apocalyptic outbursts consistently made use of the likes of Herod who was seen by many as self-indulgent, untrustworthy and at the behest of the Romans. Though he must have grated with Herod the Baptist was at first tolerated as just another eccentric preacher until his meddling in Herod's personal affairs finally hit a nerve. When news broke that Antipas had married his divorcee niece, Herodias, Johanan denounced him publicly in full voice from the hilltops. An incensed Herod had him beaten and thrown into prison though the Baptist remained defiant, refusing to recant, for which he was rewarded with a free ringside seat at a beheading - his own.
Yeshua by contrast was more restrained and questioning though no less determined - charismatic and self assured, he drew people to him. Frankly, for a working class tradesman from the outback he was positively saviour faire! He was a liberal Pharisee who made it his business to question the decrees of the Temple priests, finding them all too remote and implacable. He questioned the economics of the day, the taxes and division of wealth, and had become disillusioned with the apocalypse merchants and their failed promises of a messianic age that was always 'just around the corner'. It drove him to ponder a new reality for a world rigidly divided into elites and non-elites, the filthy rich and the dirt poor. The fabric of his society was entrenched with a corrupted hierarchical order, with governance - religious and political - in the hands of a privileged minority that would never relinquish control. Even the Roman gods were split up into elite and non-elite camps.
Clearly the status quo was in need of a radical overhaul. He would find the spark for this in Hebrew scripture and the early prophets with whom he identified as fellow harbingers of the Kingdom of God: ...*on Earth as it is in heaven* (Matthew 6:9). There were Certain Torah passages that spoke of Yahweh's mandate being in every heart and mind and of the need to call social injustices and moral reform to attention (Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 36:26). These were later revisited in the Epistle to the Hebrews: This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them (Hebrews 10:16) / Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more (10:17).
Yeshua came to a conclusion, that Yahweh himself now recognized that the scriptures and Temple priests had failed to make people righteous - in fact they had become a hinderance - and so Yahweh had internalized the moral standard within people's hearts: And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:20-21).
The upshot: while the faithful were sitting around waiting for God to act, God was waiting for them to act having already invested within them all they would ever need to lead a righteous life. The obstacle: blind faith in the old ways which had closed their hearts to the new. Yeshua resolved to be the key that opened them, thereby ushering in the kingdom of heaven on Earth. Not a new covenant as has been claimed but a flowering of the old covenant.
From the very outset he knew that a just society required an even playing field, and he felt that the negative feelings that infested people's hearts would continue to rule without critical self-analysis and a kind of excessive generosity towards each other: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye (Mat 7.5) / Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on (Mark 12:43).
People, he concluded, needed to move away from the idea that morality was inherent to top-down divine law (vertical), instead embracing humanised ethics (horizontal), engaging in it as a moral code drawn from the heart. It followed that his kingdom of heaven on earth could only be grasped when everyone realized they were now the custodians of the moral standard and that it was intrinsic to human feelings, the inward moral sense, not a set of instructions memorized from a book or sermon as dictated from upon high. He believed that the effect of this among others things would be the end of the old system and its figures of oppression. Equally significant, it would pluck divine law out of the sky and entrust it with the people, making them accountable.
It was an audacious idea: courageous but daunting. He would preach that the kingdom of heaven on Earth had come and could be entered when all of life's decisions were filtered through the principles of love, compassion and non-violence (principles he equated with the true nature of Yahweh, now internalized). It would be a socio-political revolution based on a moral platform with the old system supplanted by a simple magnanimous community of love that would inevitably transform human relations. The moral laws and the people would then be one. His course was set, and so was his unappreciated place as the first modern radical humanist in history. Naturally his plan was framed in the religious context of the day but it's clear he was championing a form of communal humanism. It would become known as the Way. And it would fail.
Much has been written about his mission up until his arrest so I won't labour on it here too much. Suffice to say it began from the time of his ritual washing by cousin Johanan in the Jordan River and lasted about three years. From among his disciples he chose 12 apostles (symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel) to form the nucleus of his movement - they included members of his own family. No longer a disciple of Johanan the Baptist he would branch out with his new message. Not too long after the Baptist's beheading he left Nazareth and moved in with a follower, Shimon (Simon Peter), who had a house in Capernaum. There he taught in the synagogue and in nearby towns around the sea of Galilee. He taught in a compelling way: by aphorism and parable, and he chose his themes carefully to challenge and cajole. He prompted people to remodel their thinking:
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Mt 5:39b-41)
It is easier for a camel (rope) to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Mk 10:23b, 25)
There is nothing outside a person, which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a person are what defile him. (Mk 7:15)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.... Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? If then you are unable do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? (Luke 12:22-26)
A following grew daily: mostly downtrodden peasants, the lame and the impoverished, enthralled with their new champion and the prospects of a better life. Good news for them, not so good for the wealthy elite of the power structure who had it all to lose. Thus in the fullness of time the inevitable collision course would culminate in accusations, arrest and trials with only one possible winner. The Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem under the auspices of the all powerful Sadducees took a dim view of having their authority challenged by some hick from the bush riding in on a donkey. Some of his followers were even calling him the Meshiha, the anointed redeemer of the Jews prophesized to set them free and vanquish all evil.
Even so, the priests were less concerned with messianic claims being bandied about than with Yeshua's new paradigm which would pretty much put them out of a job. The only way to save their skins was to have him removed from the scene which they did through the agency of the brutal Pontius Pilate. He was found guilty of sedition for claiming to be a King and opposing taxes. Pilate gladly complied as insurance against the chances of further insurrection.
He was executed on a Friday morning at Golgotha between two fellow revolutionaries (thieves were not crucified), witnessed by a handful of Roman legions and a few of his followers including his mother, and his wife, Maryam of Magdala, and their son the "beloved disciple": When Jesus therefore saw his "mother", and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his "mother", Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. (John 19:26-27) - This explanatory verse was added to record the event at the crucifixion scene while hiding the true identity of the beloved disciple (whose name was always kept secret) by substituting his wife with his mother.
Yeshua is now long dead - about 1,980 years. That is why he has not returned.
FROM YESHUA TO CHRIST
Origins is a condensed personal assessment of the historical Jesus, fashioned to cut through the mystique of mythos and miracles, hopefully giving the man a more human face as agrarian preacher and political activist. But more than a narrative is required to explain how Yeshua the tradesman's son ended up as Jesus Christ the Son of God. An investigative approach via the findings of academia must be deferred to in the telling. To this end where relevant I have hyperlinked words or phrases in the text to research sources.
Undeniably the Bible is one of the great collective works of literature. It's depth and powerful metaphorical poetry is monumental - testimony to the genius of Jewish thought. But it's also a product of pre-modern minds lacking the benefit of 2000 years of cultural/scientific progress of the kind we enjoy. Hence it is incumbent upon us to deconstruct the events of the resurrection story in search of their historicity. A difficult task to say the least though it's made easier when the leading player has a bio-history we can examine: Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, without whom Christianity wouldn't exist.
Paul was the apostle to the gentiles and the furnace of early Christian doctrine, however, he did not operate in a vacuum. To understand the shaping of Pauline dogma we must take into account the social dynamics at play in the context of a very Imperial Rome. Making early Christianity culturally acceptable to gentiles required a redefining of the original ultra egalitarian creed that Jesus (and Paul to a lesser extent) embraced, adapting it to the dominant conventions of the times. It needed to be a traditional-values friendly theology steeped in the same kind of mythos that Romans and other gentiles would recognize. The same need was true for conservative Jewish traditionalists who believed slavery and the subordination of women was all part of Yahweh's will. So what Paul originally said in his early epistles and what others or others in his name said later are sometimes quite different. There was a watering down, a gradual orthodox revisionism of the more radical aspects of Jesus' egalitarianism. The following are a few little known facts that suffered the same revisionist fate:
- Jesus was of the House of Hillel, the liberal left wing school of the Pharisees movement. Evidence for this is in his adoption of sayings originally made by the school's founder, Hillel the Elder. Right wing conservative Pharisees belonged to the House of Shammaite. Hillelites were inclusive, open to gentiles and preached tolerance and peace. The Shammaites were exclusive, sceptical of gentile conversion, fearful of women's impurity and endorsed force in overthrowing Rome.
- Paul reputedly had a vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus but there is no mention of it in any of his 13 New Testament Epistles, only seven of which he actually wrote himself. The only known account is by the gospel writer, Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles, written after Paul's death in 67AD. Luke was a Syrian gentile and early follower of Paul who would later "revise" Pauline doctrine in his writings.
- Shimon (Simon Peter the Rock) did not die in Rome and probably never visited the city in his life. The evidence for this comes from the Bible itself as well as the discovery of his likely burial site and ossuary excavated near Jerusalem in 1953. If this is factually correct then the legitimacy of the Papacy (Bishops of Rome) allegedly stretching back to Peter is questionable.
- Contrary to church doctrine, the entire New Testament canon was written by scribes who never knew Jesus, and in the case of the writer of the last gospel (John) he probably wasn't born when Jesus died. This fictionalizing of events also applies to the Book of Revelation, which far from being about end times, was a form of code using heavy Hebrew apocalyptic metaphors to secretly warn early Christians about the allure of Roman paganism and the transgressions of the hated emperor, Caligula. The numerological mark of the beast is not 666 but 616 which translates as Caligula (not Nero as previously thought).
Paul (Saul's latin name) was from Tarsus in hellenized Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), schooled in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew; erudite and cultured, though according to academic sources, as a Hillel Pharisee he had a poor grasp of Hebrew law. He was widely known as Saul of "Tarsus" though he claimed he only lived there as a boy before moving to Jerusalem to study among the Pharisees. This suggests he actually left Tarsus as an adult and may not have been a Pharisee. In the same vein it is unlikely that a Sadducee High Priest would commission a liberal Pharisee to arrest followers of the Jesus movement. Paul was also a self appointed Apostle who would fall into serious dispute with the original twelve on the direction of the early church. There are a number of such irregularities in his background.
One thing is clear from his epistles, he was a driven individual, fanatical in everything he did. Moody and volatile, he had a pathological self loathing that suggests there was something eating away at him: And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure (2 Corinthians 12:7) / O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24)
Some scholars claim he was an epileptic to explain away his so called ecstatic visions. Another theory, accurate to my mind, is one from the reformist theologian, Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong suggests Paul was a repressed homosexual: So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not (Romans 7:17-18) / I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members (Romans 7:21-23).
Homosexuality meant more than instant stoning, you were cursed for life, weighed down under the burden of a guilty secret. Paul would have grasped at anything to alleviate his mental suffering. Whatever was eating away at him I'm of the opinion his conversion is directly related to it. Paul found in the teachings of Jesus a god of total forgiveness; that the moral standard now internalized exempted everyone from the harsh judgements of the scriptures and Temple authorities. He thought of it as a new kind of personal relationship with Yahweh which had "saved" him from himself. Ergo, "salvation" could be extended to anyone who accepted this new theology as distinct from the traditional Jewish collective salvation. This "realization" is the foundation of Paul's conversion experience parabled by Luke much later in typical 1st century metaphorical terms and is the basis of his Jesus the Christ: Lord and Saviour of the world. Perhaps what clinched it a little later was the death of the first martyr, Stephen.
As an early persecutor of the Yeshua sect, Paul was largely reponsible for the stoning of Stephen who made the big mistake of declaring his allegiance to Yeshua in public at a time when the movement had been driven underground. Stephen was physically ejected from the city by an angry mob then stoned. As he lay dying he said in imitation of Yeshua on the cross, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Father forgive them for they know not what they do). Perhaps those words so played on Paul's mind that at some point in time they became epiphanic to him. And from that time onward, Yeshua...Jesus would become the redeemer of (his) sin. Considering the times and circumstances, how else would Paul have thought of Jesus other than the son of the "living" God.
His conversion doesn't explain the resurrection story but it is the precursor. To state my opinion up front: the resurrection narrative is an allegorical parable devised for two purposes: to convey complex theological concepts to ordinary, mostly illiterate people, and to sell the Yeshua movement to the gentiles for whom a Jesus-god would be decidely more attractive. It was written apocryphally to fit Hebrew scripture and accord with Paul's interpretation of Jesus' death. Its core purpose was political - similar in intent to the political propaganda of today. The Jewish people of Ist century Palestine were ruled by a theocracy where politics, economics, morality and faith were virtually indistinguishable (words such as sin and redemption are derived from commerce). Even local civic matters were under the jurisdiction of Temple priests. It has been said elsewhere that life in those times was not much different than for the Afghans under the Taliban - I think that paints a fair picture of how strict it was. So the overriding purpose of the resurrection story was to give hope to a crest fallen people that Yahweh was on their side - people who were endlessly waiting for him to free them - while at the same time passing on this new belief system in a user-friendly form to the gentiles.
As a hellenized Jew living in the diaspora, Paul would have been well schooled in Greek mythology. He would have known about Dionysus and Attis as well as the Egyptians, Osiris and Horus, the Persian Mithra, and being a Roman citizen with his ear to the ground he'd be aware of a rapidly developing new kid on the block, the Roman sun God, Sol Invictus. There are numerous similarities in the stories of these deities to the "resurrected" Jesus - virgin births, miracles, apostles, last suppers, and resurrection after three days. It was a competitive environment for builders of a new faith to work in. As the embodiment of the living God, Paul's Jesus needed the attributes of the divine. He needed not only to be able to perform miracles - which were fairly common at the time - but he required supernatural status if the gentiles were going to take notice. Henceforth Paul's blueprint - drawn from prophecies, the sacrificial lamb/scapegoat custom, and gentile pagan dieties - would take on a life of it's own. The story in its rudimentary form would be orally transmitted through the generations to the gospel writers who would put their own spin on things. It was from this series of events that the transformation of Yeshua the Nazarene into the Son of God developed.
The historical role of the 12 apostles in the creation of the resurrection story is difficult to ascertain because it was filtered, altered and air brushed by the Paul friendly gospel writers - this includes the role Yeshua's wife, Mary Magdalene, played in spreading the faith. The involvement of other early Yeshua followers, the Ebionites, for example also got short shrift because of their antipathy towards Paul ( The Ebionites are still around today and still anti-Paul). From the time of their first meeting, Paul and James the Just, the brother of Jesus and true leader of the early church were at loggerheads over the interpretation of his death. Paul's self appointed mission to take the Way to the gentiles didn't meet with approval from James or Peter at first...if ever. They saw their movement as being intrinsically Jewish.
It's not hard to imagine how lost the apostles must have felt when Yeshua was executed. To say they were gutted is the understatement of the millenium ... two millenia. What did it mean to see their leader and all their dreams and aspirations crushed in such a humiliating way? Did it mean Yahweh was really on the side of the Romans? This was impossible to countenance. How could they possibly let Yeshua die? If not in body surely he was with them in spirit .... literally. Therein lies the curnel of the apostles perspective on his death, but it is far from deifying him as God made flesh as Paul would have it. A prophet yes, the Messiah perhaps but the apostles could not have imagined Yeshua as Yahweh incarnate.
It is important to restate the NT gospels were written decades after the death of Yeshua, with no written contributions from the apostles. The two letters attributed to Peter are certainly not authored by him as he was an illiterate fisherman. Further to this the gospel narratives differ markedly as they progress chronologically from the first (Mark) to the last (John). They do have one common thread: they were written in accordance with Pauline theology. Things are never that simple though - in a twist of fate, Paul's original radicalism in support of Yeshua's ethics would gradually be revised by the gospel evangelists, scribes writing in Paul's name and other early church figures ... straying from the original message: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The story of Yeshua the tradesman's son is one of transmutation - an original thinker's legacy moulded to suit the prevailing biases of the times in terms of cultural needs, politics and prevailing superstitions. He would be hoisted up from his humble beginnings, his real life refined beyond recognition, fitted up with a false genealogy (How can God's "seed" have a genealogy?) and converted into a deity to be worshipped and adored. The church would thereafter see to it that Jesus was managed by them. He would become ... property.
As I begin this concluding section I'm acutely aware of the incursion of politics into the entire essay. It keeps cropping up to explain the motivations behind Jesus' teachings and the formation of the early church. Not without good reason. I'm not referring to the daily Machievellian intrigues typical of politics but the archaic divide that continues to define human beings: liberalism and conservatism - the greater good versus individualism. It's quite obvious Yeshua's agenda was radically liberal for its time and equally clear the conservative traditionalists opposed it. Over time the strictures of early church doctrine in reaction to his radical ethics would transform him, ironically, into a deified personification of his teaching, ensuring the now man-god was palatable to the pagan gentiles. The seeds of anti-semitism were being sown all the while. Consequently he would be absorbed into the establishment, that top-down hierarchy he defied during his ministery, later to be portrayed in murals and masterpieces draped in royal robes with sceptre, seated at the right hand of God in judgement - the divine right of kings - concepts that would have been completely alien to him in life. His moral message would thereafter take a back seat to his new role of divine saviour. There are no other words for it: he was betrayed, not by Judas but by the parochialism of the faithful, and his betrayal was now complete.
There are 38,000 distinct Christian denominations, cults and sects throughout the world today, characterised either by theology, culture, practise or language. Many are closely related, some are like chalk and cheese, but all have one thing in common: they all think they are right. For most people Christianity is Christmas, perhaps fish on Good Friday, and a basic understanding of the teachings of Jesus and the golden rule as they go about their daily lives - they don't think about it too much. Of the devout Christians a small minority closely follow the ethical teachings ( I personally know a few). A prime example are the traditional Quakers who from their very beginnings called themselves "children of the light" or "friends of the truth" in deference to terms used in the early church. They opposed (and still do) military interventionism, advocated the separation of church and state, and as a principle of their faith: "rejected religious dogma preferring to follow the 'internal light' of Christ rather than a literal reading of the Bible". After being persecuted in 17th century England they migrated to the U.S where they encountered the same problem, culminating in the torture and death of a number of their followers at the hands of the Congregationalist Puritans and a mixed bag of Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
For the majority of devout Christians the doctrine of Atonement - salvation or redemption from sin through faith - is central to their belief. Most are good people who lead normal, everyday lives, but others are less ethical. Some enrich themselves by exploiting faith, others attempt to influence government. When "deliverence" and "eternal life" in heaven outweigh the ethical teachings we know there is a major bug in the system. Such an attitude enables some to lead double lives, praising the Lord while living lives of self indulgence; enabling mass murderers to suddenly be "saved", and then there's the convenient death bed conversion. Some pray to God as though "He" was a celestial sugar daddy around just to grant them their wishes. And there are those for whom salvation is a safety net... an insurance policy against the unknowns of death and the afterlife. It's a regrettable outcome and indicative of what can happen when self interest and the 'personal god' individualism at the core of Salvation meet.
It is no coincidence that Protestant fundamentalists, not just in the U.S but everywhere including my own country, are mostly conservative in their politics. It is not religion that brings this about but their entrenched values which shape their religious convictions. Of course this is a generalization but in the main I think it's true. I'm putting aside my own convictions here as I have no intention of taking political sides on this issue - liberalism and conservatism both have their merits - I'm simply stating the case to show how a set of contradictions can arise through religious belief; specifically how a pacifist, forgiving Jesus can be worshipped as Lord and Saviour by people who maintain pro military, pro death penalty, eye for an eye moral and political convictions. It is a legacy of the doctrine of atonement for original sin and a consequence of personalized faith - that is to say, when God becomes "MY god".
Since the late 20th century a new force has arrived on the scene: the New Atheist movement to which I nominally belong. Like most Christians they are normal, decent people with the best of intentions, abiding by their own non-theistic convictions. But to be even handed, we/they are not without blemish either. The militant wing of atheism in particular has caused its fair share of resentment. The leading lights and their online acolytes too often exhibit a rather disturbing contempt for all things religious that borders on arrogance, even victimization - quite unjust and counterproductive it seems to me, and far removed from the kind of tolerance secular humanists are meant to exemplify. At times the more vociferous of them leave the impression their disdain is less than objective; perhaps an opportunity to hate out loud. But they are, I'm happy to say, only in the minority.
A more general criticism, however, is the perpetual use of the word "irrational" in describing religion and the faithful. This is far too sweeping a statement. Certainly there are aspects of religion that are irrational - and they need to be brought to attention - but the same can be said of any system of thought whether religious, social or political. In fact you could probably find the irrational in democracy - Socrates certainly thought so. Theology at its finest is as sophisticated as any school of philosophy, as illustrated by this discussion between atheist, Dr Jonathan Miller and Cambridge theologian, Denys Turner. I for one wouldn't fancy going up to a Mahatma Gandhi or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer and call him irrational.
The endless rounds of show-debates between new atheists, Dawkins Dennett and Harris, and Christian apologists such as Dr William Lane Craig, may be to some degree intellectually stimulating but they lead nowhere - they never can when the answer to the question is ultimately unknowable. Here is where "faith" plays its trump card. Too often the burden of proof is tactically placed on the theist to prove the existence of God. I find this to be "intellectually dishonest" as Dr Craig has remarked (one of the few times I've ever agreed with him). Put simply it's a debating tactic to avoid having to prove the unprovable. To wit: an atheist debater will take the "weak" position (there is no proof) rather than the strong (there IS no God) to avoid burden of proof. But even when taking a weak negative position in an argument, and even though there is only circumstantial evidence, a position held must be supported with a valid argument. Of course it has been well argued that a negative existential claim cannot be proven, hence the tactical switcheroo. It's a game that doesn't do the subject matter justice.
When you boil it all down ... nobody knows. You either believe or you don't - you can't get around it. Perhaps the difference between belief in an Einsteinian universal intelligence and the anthropocentric personal God of man made religions is the only theological distinction worth debating. If there is a God (which I don't believe) it is outside human contextual experience and utterly beyond comprehension. In my opinion, religion is the great parable of humanity's adolescence. What really matters is how we treat each other and how well we live in the moment. The latter was championed by Siddhārtha Gautama the Buddha, who challenged people to find ultimate reality by direct experience. The former is the domain of Yeshua the Nazarene. His moral lessons as sage and teacher ratify the wisdom of an ethical life in the midst of uncertainty. You can see him looking back through the centuries of dusty relics and cloistered ignorance, all that inquiry steamrolled by dogma and vanity; the original source of those sayings and parables - one mind, one motive - urging us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, to love our neighbour. Not the son of God, not the Messiah, but something greater: a mortal human being who put his life on the line for his core belief that love can conquer all. I believe it's something Christians should finally accept and atheists should graciously acknowledge.
I think it appropriate that I end this essay with the words of Yeshua himself. Of all his parables the story of the Good Samaritan seems to best sum up his philosophy. Yeshua's Ethics was revolutionary and quite distinct from earlier Greek thinking because it placed responsibility for their germination on us. Only since Kant and the Enlightenment have we looked at knowledge in such purely humanist terms. Before then it was considered to be given, objective and Realist. The basis of his thinking is best described as Non-Realism. As a moral philosophy it is not easy to live by because it requires sacrifices that would test the most ethical of people, and in the Good Samaritan our most basic instincts are challenged, asking us to rise above them in the cause of harmony. He does this cleverly by making a hated enemy the hero of the story - Galilean and Judean Jews despised the Samaritans as the lowest of the low, descendents of the Babylonians, idol worshippers who had perverted the faith. They hated them more than the Romans. Yeshua is talking to a group of religious scholars who ask 'what IS a neighbour'. His parable forces these "righteous" men to trade places, to become the enemy. The answer is everyone ... there is no enemy, but the inference is potent: if you cannot show compassion, then have you not become the enemy of your friend?
A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?" He said, "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
W St Ansell (SainterSan)