Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Have No Fear of Them..."

Beginning June 5, responses to this meditation will be posted on our Orthodox Q&A Blog.

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I discovered while reading The New York Times, that a new and "provocative" DVD has been released entitled "The God Who Wasn't There." According to Newsweek, this film "irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed."

That sounds a bit too ambitious - if not patently absurd. An anti-Christian film directed and produced by, and "featuring" some of the world's most prominent atheists - "the usual suspects" such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. - should be more modest in its goals if it is going to be taken seriously. That Jesus never actually existed is an old 19th c. thesis that has easily been discredited and now relegated to the level of perhaps intriguing, but ultimately useless, trivia material. (If it appeared on Jeopardy, as "this 19th c. person proposed the theory that Jesus Christ never existed," I highly doubt anyone would come up with the answer. I know that I wouldn't). Such an approach, therefore, sounds desperate. Atheists should stick with their usual material of Christianity's historical failings, hypocrisy, fanaticism, and "fundamentalism." It sometimes sounds as if a politically active "Christian fundamentalist" strikes more fear into an atheist's heart that a fully armed legion of Muslim terrorists right outside the door. But the film will probably not disappoint on this level either. The extensive, full-page ad I read through in the Times promises a great deal of material that will also take on these other issues just mentioned. So, in case the skeptical viewer is not impressed by the arguments gathered together to disprove Jesus' existence; then the full frontal attack on the integrity of Christianity and Christians will be there in reserve to convince you that even if Jesus did exist, the Church and Christianity should not.

The promo mentions coverage of the following:

  • The early founders of Christianity seem wholly unaware of the idea of a human Jesus.
This sounds more than a little odd, when you simply think of the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. Also, the trend among skeptics today is to claim that the New Testament writers were unaware of a divine Jesus.

  • The Jesus of the Gospels bears a striking resemblance to other ancient heroes and the figureheads of pagan savior cults.
Another 19 c. theory from the "History of Religions" school of thought that has been thoroughly discredited through good historical scholarship.

  • Contemporary Christians are largely ignorant of the origins of their religion.
This is much more interesting, because it rings true whether or not we are willing to admit it. Let us imagine, then, that you decided to watch this video, and a series of scholars are being interviewed who make radically skeptical comments about Jesus, the origins of Christianity, etc. Would you be able to respond informatively and intelligently? Would you be able to immediately pick up the huge gaps in their claims, or the one-sided distortions, etc.? Or would you be forced to concede "I didn't know that," and then feel uneasy about their "scholarly" deconstruction of long-held beliefs that you assumed were unassailable? Finally, would your faith be shaken?

I am not making the claim that we must all read a library of scholarly books on this or that historical or theological subject so that we can answer any conceivable objection to Christian belief. Some of our great saints were, according to worldly standards, fairly illiterate! Our belief does not simply rest on scholarly "proof points." Ultimately, we cannot definitively and irrevocably "prove" that Jesus is risen from the dead, or even that God exists. Our knowledge of these truths is based on faith. And yet our faith will never contradict historical probing or veracity. But we should know enough to see through bogus and groundless claims and criticisms. Or to see right through some of the flimsy arguments posed by angry atheists determined to discredit everything noble and good about Christianity, beginning with the very existence of Jesus Christ! "Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." (I PET. 3:14-15)

Since we live in an "information age" we do need to be fully prepared for the barrage of (mis)information that will endlessly come our way through various forms of the media concerning Christianity. It is "open season" these days on any conceivable aspect of Christianity, and even against Christ Himself. Uninformed non-believers are not only entitled to question the truthfulness of Christianity, they are now free to throw any filth that they want onto Christ. If the Lord "bore" the Cross, then He can certainly bear this also. Instead of getting angry or frustrated, we should accept this as rather inevitable and either ignore it, or respond to it with some knowledge and intelligence. That places the responsibility on us to prepare ourselves as well as possible. We should not expect our parish priests to answer all these questions on our behalf. Every Orthodox Christian should be "interested" enough to make this a priority in his/her life. (By the way, please let me know what you consider to me more interesting. I am very curious).

For the most part, the contemporary Orthodox parish is equipped through its seminary-educated priest to offer substantial teaching, guidance, direction and insight into the types of issues that the skeptically-minded will probe as possible areas of weakness in Christianity. No one can answer all questions or rebuke all challenges. But we should be able to get the basics right. This is done partially through homilies, but also through non-Sunday programs such as Bible Studies and education classes. If and when these parish-wide events are ignored or poorly-attended it is not a good sign of that "healthy hunger" that leads parishioners to learn more about their faith. Rather, it could be a sign of indifference, complacency or sheer distraction. If atheists spend a great deal of time familiarizing themselves with the New Testament and Christian theology and history just so that they can later debunk it; then certainly the faithful should be able and willing to "keep up" with an even greater enthusiasm! Participation in such "parish programs" needs to be ever-expanding and not slowly shrinking as the challenges of the postmodern world are themselves not shrinking but exponentially expanding. However, besides all of that, it is a matter of where the heart is centered: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (MATT. 6:21)

For those who may be interested, the DVD "The God Who Wasn't There" is selling for $24.95 (free shipping!) If you see it, let me know what you think of it.

Fr. Steven

Beginning June 5, responses to this meditation will be posted on our Orthodox Q&A Blog.

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