Ricky Gervais and Begging the Question

I have had a couple of unfortunate run-ins with begging the question lately, the most recent being a suggested video from YouTube featuring Ricky Gervais.

gervais2

I chose this version of the video both because it was the one that YouTube initially recommended and because its headline writer is so heart-warmingly excited about how much they agree with Gervais

 

Begging the Question

Begging the question is quite difficult to understand firstly because it is popularly misused when we want to say “raising the question” or “failing to answer the question”, and secondly because it uses archaic language to tag what is already a reasonably confusing idea. For all that, it is nevertheless an argument fallacy that is shockingly common.

One is begging the question when one’s argument requires the desired conclusion to be true for the argument itself to work; in other words, one is ‘begging’ one’s hearer to accept as true the very thing that one is trying to prove (the ‘question’). Like I said, it is quite confusing.

It is not unlike the classic loaded question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” While it requires a yes/no answer, both options are incriminating. You either have beaten your wife, or you still are. The way that the question is phrased pushes you to admit guilt. In a similar way, begging the question also requires the hearer to accept something undesirable as a fact, and that ‘something’ is the very conclusion that is under dispute.

For example, I have come across a ‘proof for God’s existence’ that has as one of its premises that the Bible is inspired; thereafter, it follows that the Bible claims that God exists, and therefore God must exist. It is a slightly better argument when not abbreviated like this, but to use inspiration as a premise for this argument begs the question because inspiration (when used of the Bible) is the idea that God is ultimately its author. In other words, the premise depends on God existing; it doesn’t prove that God exists.

How Does Ricky Beg the Question?

One of the early arguments in the linked video is that if religion were not spoken about at all to children, then we’d see a ‘different pattern’ in society; i.e. people mostly only believe religious ideas because they are inculcated very early on and with the same level of unquestionable authority as “don’t touch the fire” or “don’t go near the wolf”.

At about 1m30s, he says,

“If [religion] is given that same level of credence and truth, you’re never going to get over it. It’s going to be a lot harder to undo that.”

On one level, I agree with him. Religion, in general, has often survived because of fear and indoctrination. As I am someone who finds only one religion credible, I would also agree with him that most religious teaching needs to be ‘got over’.

It is unfortunate that Christendom at points in history most certainly used fear and coercion to keep up the numbers (and some Christians continue to do this ), though I would argue this approach is opposed to Christian theology. In fact, the movement that had to rescue Christianity from Christendom (i.e. the Reformation) claimed their gospel as a message of liberation and freedom, over against the fear and manipulation of the church. In other words, (although this is very reductionistic) the most prominent and violent Christian conflict in history was waged in order to free Christian theology from authoritarian Imperial control.

But as an argument for atheism, I think that Gervais is (among other things) begging the question. Why? Because we can only agree with him that it is bad to teach children about God if God is a myth that we’ve invented (as the question at 0m30s claims). In other words, if the atheists are correct and there is no God, then yes, it is unfortunate that myths are propagated as truth. However, if there is a God, then one would be doing massive harm by raising children as though there isn’t, because the assumptions that underpin naturalism are equally hard to undo.

Christianity ultimately depends on the resurrection of Christ having been an historical event. There is good evidence for it, but how you process that evidence depends in large measure on unprovable presuppositions that you bring with you. If it is possible that there is a God who cares about the world, then there is nothing impossible about the idea of a resurrection that was the ultimate demonstration of that love for the world. If, on the other hand, you would say with the likes of Hume and Dawkins that a lie is always overwhelmingly more likely than a miracle, then what evidence for the resurrection would ever persuade you?

We’re all responsible for training our children in how to make sense of the world. It is unavoidable and it is never neutral. As with all the other circumstances of their birth and upbringing, what we give them will either prove to be a blessing or a curse. As I experience following Jesus to be an uncoerced and unqualified good, I have no fear in recommending it to my children. If it proves to be a mirage in this desert, then pity my hope if you like.

Ricky is concerned that religion is bullied into kids, and I agree that this is bad. Ricky would rather that kids be given the opportunity to choose without coercion, and again I agree that this is good. We even both seem to agree that teaching kids to think is good. But I disagree with him that atheists have a monopoly on that.

Foley and Izzard: Funny but unfair

In quick succession I came upon a series of unconnected posts in which atheist comedians have a go at God and religion. I don’t mind in principle—there is plenty in religious spheres to critique and to poke fun at—but two of the bits that I saw most recently claim as a weakness things that are actually among the greatest strengths of Christianity.

Dave Foley: Faith is like belief in Santa Claus

Foley on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch

Foley and comedy jacket on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch.

Dave Foley is perhaps best known for playing a lead role in the vastly underrated 90s sitcom News Radio. His stand-up seems not to have hit News Radio heights, and in this mostly awkward sketch (among other things) he describes people of faith as ‘creepy’, and compares believers to grown people who believe in Santa—adding that we’d be treated as lunatics if there weren’t so many of us.

I’m not sure why this analogy is so widely thought to be valid. Perhaps it is due to the common mistake that atheists make of conflating all religions together as though Jesus and Jim Jones and Juno are all basically the same. The example that Foley gives of religious craziness is that of transubstantiation in Catholicism: the bread and wine actually (not figuratively) become Jesus’ body and blood (though not in any way that affects taste or form). But this was the kind of thing that the Western world fought a fairly well-known war over in the 1500s. The Protestant world told the pope that we’re tired of this nonsense about 500 years ago.

The comparison with Santa is a false one for several reasons, but the most important one being historicity. Even if Saint Nick was a real person, Santa mythology about the North Pole and the world’s worst commute on Christmas Eve has no basis in reality. Believing it would be an act of willful self-delusion. And perhaps most religious beliefs are of the same order. The point is that the Bible has always differentiated itself from ‘the gods of the nations’ because of God’s acts in history. The old prophets repeatedly mocked people who cut down a tree and used part of it for the fire and part for furniture and part to make a god to worship. And the whole argument of Christianity from the minute it left Jerusalem was that Jesus rose from the dead and brought forgiveness, as he said he would—something has happened in history.

Disbelieve it if you like, but unlike Santa, the existence of God is not a priori an irrational idea, and unlike Santa, Jesus’ resurrection is an historical claim for which there is evidence to be weighed. I know it is annoying to have to carefully dismiss evidence that you have no interest in believing, but in much the same way as the argument ‘Evolution is stupid because just look at the human eye!’ is really annoying, atheists should stop doing a discredit to themselves by trying to make the Jesus-Santa link stick.

Eddie Izzard: God’s plan

izzard

Eddie Izzard is a brilliant comedian, and as much as I wanted to hate ‘Glorious’, his deeply irreverent take on history and the Bible from the 90s, it is undeniably funny. His famous quote about God’s plan is doing the rounds again, and while I can imagine it being hilarious when he says it, it surely doesn’t take too long to realise that this is actually a rather foolish critique.

The main reason why it doesn’t work is that the ability to understand a plan demands several things that Eddie Izzard does not apprehend. One needs firstly to understand the problem that the plan addresses. In the case of the biblical storyline, the issues are human rebellion, consequent disruption of divine-human relationship, and the problem of evil and death that result from that. Eddie doesn’t say what he thinks the problem is, but I would put money on it not being the one that God’s book identifies. I suspect what people such as Izzard usually think the goal should be is total human happiness and otherwise being left alone, which ironically cuts against what God is trying to do quite severely.

Secondly, understanding a plan requires a grasp of the ‘rules of the game’. Complaints about the problem of evil usually demand that God should intervene in history in order to stop bad things from happening. However, these complaints rarely get specific about how God should go about doing this. Seeing as most of the world’s evils are human evils, God would  seem to me to have two major paths open to Him to stop human evil. He could kill the wrong-doer without delay, which would mean the death of Adam & Eve and (however literally you take that story) the eradication of humankind. This would mean the failure of His goal to restore divine-human relationship. So delay then.

The second route is to miraculously intervene every time someone is about to do something bad so as to prevent the crime (a bit like Minority report). But then it doesn’t take too much thinking before one realises that this would need to be carried out on the level of speech, and probably even on the level of thought (because most evil actions begin there). So God would have to remove the consequences of our evil impulses either by miraculously staying our hands and tongues, or by eradicating the freedom of will altogether. Again, this would be failure of the goal, because it replaces relationship with slavery. So a cure then.

If it’s to be a cure, then that’s what Christianity has always said He’s always been doing. You may protest that He’s taking awfully long about it, but again as has long been said, if God is taking His time at least it means you have the opportunity to take part in the cure.

The final thing that one needs in order to understand a plan is a grasp of the strategy by which the goal is being pursued. This is the part that Izzard clearly has an issue with, but is there any surprise in that? Does Izzard expect that his casual glance at the facile number of things that he or any of us understands about human history should yield clear apprehension of what is being done and should be done?

If one takes chess as an example, there are very limited parameters and relatively few variables, but great players are still able to think so far into the possible futures of each game that they can come up with strategies that catch their opponents by surprise. In the ‘Game of the Century’, for instance, Bobby Fischer faced world-champion Donald Byrne, and chose to sacrifice his queen. To chess imbeciles such as myself, allowing the capture of your most powerful piece would represent a mistake, but Fischer ensured that the cost of her capture was so high that the game would be his anyway. His strategy was so far beyond what other people expected (including his opponent) that it made certain individual actions seem nonsensical.

When one extends the number of variables to human history, the ability to map possible futures is surely out of our grasp—even that of Eddie Izzard. Funnily enough, this is exactly the point of one of the oldest extant discussions of the problem of evil, known as The Book of Job. In the story, Job suffers a crushing series of unjustified evils, and his friends all tell him that God is just and so it must be punishment for something that Job has done. Job protests that he is innocent. When the verdict comes, Job is proven correct, but the rebuke for all parties is that they are all passing judgement on matters about which they know nothing.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:1-5)

There is a plan—and we know more of it post Jesus than Job did—but don’t expect that all of it should be obvious to you, me or Eddie Izzard.

It is the business of comedians to take cheap shots, I suppose, but surely (having claimed the intellectual high-ground as their own) atheism can make arguments to match. It seems to be everyone’s loss when we stop discussing and start playing to the crowd.

Smudging in the South Peninsula

My wife belongs to a FaceBook group called South Peninsula Moms in which someone was asking where to get a ‘smudging’ specialist for her new house. I thought it was a paint technique, but it turns out that it is a spiritual thing in which someone waves burning sage and visualises blessings upon the house, and then cleansing of the house and good luck results.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it promises good luck and spiritual freedom–and gives you the illusion that you’re taking control of spiritual things–but it ends up putting you into deeper bondage, because every time something undesirable happens, you have to wonder what spirit you have to appease or what force you forgot to unlock, and you’re stuck paying some huckster to wave smoke at your problems. And you’re forced to believe that the same spirit powerful enough to bring luck to your house is also gullible enough to be paid off with a sage offering.

Say what you want about Christianity, but about similar impulses in the 1st century, it says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1). Plus it is offering relationship with the Creator, not maybe some good luck via some underling (if you pay).

Trivial Pursuit: Pleasure in Ecclesiastes

This is a paper I wrote on Ecclesiates in 2005. The text is pasted below, but that may produce some untidy formatting errors (and removes page numbers), so here is the original PDF for download if you prefer.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Trivial Pursuit

FINDING PLEASURE IN ECCLESIASTES

JSM Pickering, 2005

Introduction

Christians perennially struggle with a life lived either completely immersed in the things of this world, or as though enjoyment of this life means diminished desire for the life to come. The former view leads to misplaced trust in the ability of this world to provide fulfilment and meaning, whereas the latter leads to suspicion of pleasure and a tendency towards asceticism. The book of Ecclesiastes suggests a way to walk the balance of life in a corrupted, doomed world.

Continue reading

Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

A friend of mine, Tauriq Moosa, wrote recently arguing on the basis of Euthyphro’s dilemma that it is indefensible for theists to claim their theism as a basis for ethics (‘The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion‘). There was at least one blog offering a ‘Christian response’ that did neither side any justice, so I thought I’d have a go.

The dilemma as he put it is:

 “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it (voluntarism), or (2) do the gods command it because it is right? (objectivism)”

It is derived from one of Socrates’ dialogues, and both Tauriq and Plato favour the second option, finding that the voluntarist option fails and renders the input of the gods redundant.

Although I discovered in the middle of writing this that what I’m about to say (or something similar) was succinctly argued by Augustine 1700 years ago (‘God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.’), perhaps I can put it in a novel way.

The major problem with the dilemma is that it seems only to work if you conceive of the world as Plato did.

Plato’s world versus the Christian one

In Plato’s world the gods were part of the universe, not beyond it, and the universe itself was seen as infinite and uncreated. The gods were spiritual powers within the same system that we inhabit. In his view, we either source our morality in the wishes of the gods, or we source it in an independent principle (reason, for example). In his worldview, the gods could be in disagreement about what was right, so divine commands that were binding upon people would have to be limited to what could be agreed upon. If even the gods disagree about what is right, its means that they are also subject to a principle of rightness external to them; this of course makes their opinion on the matter largely redundant. Furthermore, the fact that the universe itself was thought to be eternal and governed by absolute principles would have lent moral reasoning (which taps into those principles) considerable authority for someone like Plato.

However, if God is the Creator of the system and outside the system, it radically changes the game board. The dilemma treats God as divorced from the universe, so that the two can be conceived of separately. Plato could reasonably do so because his ‘gods’ were separate in this way, but Christian theism is not so structured, and accordingly the dilemma seems not to hold. The universe is not eternal, and God is not a resident of it. The universe is His creation and dependent upon Him.

Everything that exists has its existence (according to Christianity) because of the ongoing command of God. In other words, God’s command does not merely govern moral imperatives, but also the patterns and structures and functioning of the universe too. Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. The moral commands that He has given (taken for granted that there is a set of these that are identifiably from Him) would also be a function of that same mind. If God exists in the Biblical way, He is both the author of moral command and moral reasoning, both of which are a function of His mind and character.

So conduct is not right because God commands it but because it is fittingly related to His character. Conduct is not commanded by God because it is right either, but it is commanded because it is fittingly related to His character. Whether we learn of that relatedness and that character by means of command or by good moral reasoning is  irrelevant. God doesn’t merely give His blessing to something that is ‘good in itself’; His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognised as such.

Objection: Following commands destroys moral freedom

“Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely… Furthermore, [voluntarism] makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods.”

The complaint that command destroys free moral decision-making would perhaps be true if God dispensed command like a sergeant major. This is not how Christianity works.

Let’s hypothetically accept that the commands/laws in scripture are indeed from God’s mouth. These laws are surprisingly few, not exhaustive, given in a context, and intended to be applied and recontextualised very broadly. Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.

The law conveys a snapshot of Godlike character that needs to be investigated, expanded, understood, and embodied. Clearly even obedience to God’s command requires the careful application of wisdom (which connects us again to the domain of moral reasoning).

So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way. So one cannot solve moral problems merely by consulting the scriptures (hence the disagreement among even followers of the Bible that Tauriq mentions). Moral reasoning, albeit of a dependent kind, is still required of Christians.

Additionally, it is certainly not the case that on moral issues one can merely ‘consult the gods’ directly. Given that the structure of God’s command is not to have a constant stream of orders from heaven, there is no expectation for Christians that God will provide fresh, specific commands for daily eventualities. His commands in scripture are expressions of underlying guiding principles, which (once laid down) are there for our study and application. This means that God’s commands are not as open to change or subjectivity or arbitrariness as you might think.

Objection: God is redundant

“…the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard…”

From my earlier argument, it should be clear that God is not separable from the standard of right; God is not lending approval to ‘another standard’, He is actually foundational to morality and to the reasoning by which we attempt to gain access to it. He is the one who speaks the language of reason according to which the universe has been programmed.

But why the need to provide commands? Doesn’t moral reasoning at least make His intervention redundant?

Christians argue no, because it is basic Christian belief that humanity does not by nature have direct access to God, because sin separates us from knowing God, which means that our moral reasoning is left to its own devices. Because people have limited capacity and we’re generally unable to foresee the consequences of our moral decision-making, we do not have the faculties and the vantage point to see what is truly moral behaviour. In Christian terms, we are supposed to be aware that we are dependent creatures, not autonomous.

God does not experience such failings, and so ours can be partially overcome if God reveals His character in a more decisive way, and this makes command desirable. This is why Christians will tend to revert to the Biblical basis for morality that Tauriq’s article complains about. If God exists and if He has spoken, His words would necessarily be a primary moral resource. (Again, this assumes that we have a body of God’s revelation. I understand that this is questionable, but it is for now a separate issue than whether revelation/command would trump human reason.)

As Tauriq says: “One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute”. God is the ultimate ‘smarter person’, and He does, surprisingly enough, frequently supply some of His reasons for moral commands. It is entirely reasonable to appeal to His thoughts, if we have them.

Another important reason why it is preferable to prioritise command is that Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy. Having come to believe that God has commanded something, it is anti-relational to behave as though one knows better than Him how His creation works.

Objection: Third way makes God equivalent to goodness a priori

Tauriq’s article mentions a third way (besides the two raised by Plato), which makes rightness something internal to God. This is much the same as what I’m arguing, so I must answer the related objection. Tauriq says:

“We can’t simply be saying ‘god is good’ before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn’t answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.”

I’m not sure that anyone is spared from his objection here, because everybody must eventually say what it is that constitutes good, and I don’t see how we can avoid doing so without describing a set of principal characteristics. By what criterion we say they’re ‘right’ thereafter presumably is circular for everyone.

When Christians say ‘God is good’, we do not leave God or goodness undefined, as if our idea of God could be redefined to suit any moral standard (which seems to me to be a modification of voluntarism). When we say God is good, we mean that goodness is based on His characteristics, not something external to Him (whether His commands or moral universals).

So this is why morality is ‘being fittingly related to His character’. Take for example what Jesus calls the founding principles underlying all law: love for God and love for neighbour. We are saying that love (as it is exemplified in scripture, especially the crucifixion) is not an eternal principle that God likes, it is who He is, and so it is hardwired into His command and His creation.

There are two related objections that I’ll answer far too briefly: Firstly, some would say that if God existed prior to the creation of anything, then how could he have been moral (loving, for example) before there was anything that required the exercise of morality (love is other-person-centeredness; there needs to be others for it to exist)?

Ignoring the fact that we know nothing about eternity or things before the universe came to be, this objection is answered by the evidence in scripture that God is ‘Trinity’: a pluriform being, for want of a better term. God thus eternally practices other-person-centeredness by nature within his own being. So morality can be a set of particular characteristics, without also having to be external to God.

The second related objection is that God commands things that seem to us to be evil. I have written about the problem of evil before, so I’ll merely summarise. Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good.

Secondly, there are direct divine commands (e.g. to annihilate) that are distasteful. Yet they are in line with the otherwise-obvious fact that God takes every life. Even those that die peacefully in their old age are nevertheless put to death by God, because as He says in the third chapter of the entire Bible, those who rebel will be put to death. He’s never really hidden that part away. Meting out judgement is not actually in direct conflict with God’s love. What is in conflict with God’s love is human hatred and rebellion, and so God either cures it or removes it.

Seeing as this still makes people unhappy, I would add to the above something that I have not argued on this subject before: It is a remarkable feature of God’s work in the world that He doesn’t mind bearing the accusation that He is evil. In working for the ultimate Good, God never seems to labour too hard to clear His own name.

Take the example of Jesus. His family line includes famous ancestors born out of prostitution, incest, adultery, and non-Jewish lineage. He was conceived out of wedlock inviting the assumption that he was a bastard. He worked as a manual labourer, not a scholar or priest. He hung around with traitors and hookers. He broke cultural interpretations of God’s law. He was condemned as a blasphemer. He died like the lowest of slaves. Nothing that he did was particularly aimed at protecting his reputation, and yet his shameful birth and death is all directed towards curing the evil and rebellion in those people who killed him.

So although the rightness of God’s actions are not always apparent to us, He seems not to mind the loss of reputation, even if it turns out that He was all the while doing good.

Snake Handling Pastor Dies Of Snakebite

At the end of May, Mack Wolford, a pastor of one of the fringe pentecostal churches that handle rattlesnakes as a test of faith (in ‘obedience’ to Mark 16), died of a bite on the thigh sustained during a church meeting. Being of the opinion that the Bible commends faith as the cure for snakebite, he did not seek treatment, and died shortly afterwards. His father had met the same end about 25 years ago.

Such an event is ripe for mockery, and many internet commenters predictably obliged, but this is sad for more reasons than his death.

Firstly, the obvious complaint is that the basis for this sort of behaviour in church is absurdly flimsy. Mark 16 is a later addition to the text (one of three manuscript endings for Mark), and seems to have been a hasty conclusion tacked on later because the ending that seems to be the original is abrupt and open ended. Those of us who hold to the authority of scripture tend to believe that it is the original that has the authority, and so mistakes and additions evident in later manuscripts are not deemed binding on us. Secondly, there are no comparable scriptures elsewhere in the Bible that guarantee miraculous intervention of this sort. Thirdly, the one who wrote this hasty conclusion may have understood himself to be writing a summary of Jesus’ promises to his Apostles, not to the general public, perhaps having in mind the incident in Acts in which St Paul is bitten by an adder and suffers no harm. In short, no one should be basing their well-being exclusively on those dubious words in Mark. Most people accept this, and the rattlesnake movement is accordingly very small.

The bigger sadness is that faith healing is in general a misunderstanding of the way that God works in the world. There is an assumption that certain things are (for want of better terminology) ‘ordinary’ and certain things are ‘spiritual’. Although few would argue this if pressed, they treat the spiritual realm as God’s habitat, but the ordinary realm as if God is largely absent from it. ‘Faith’ is a spiritual substance that gains you access to God’s powerful spiritual realm, from which comes miracle and other supernatural phenomena. The ordinary realm is the place for suffering, struggle, bodily functions, the sciences and so on. It is a realm to be transcended.

This outlooks fails not least because the things that belong to the ‘spiritual’ are chosen arbitrarily. Healing is an obvious candidate, because when ailments get beyond human help, we can only seek God’s supernatural intervention. This leads some, like Wolford, to classify healing as belonging to the realm of faith, and to consign medicine to the realm of unfaith.

But eating, as far as I’m aware, is never so classified. Eating is ‘ordinary’ and I for one have never heard of faith eaters.Yet the differences between food and medicine are not so great.

Firstly, food looks like it should belong to the ordinary, because it generally comes to us by natural means. It grows in the ground, you pick it and eat it. No miracle there. Yet the more we learn about our bodies and our world, the more we discover that healing the body is also a cooperative effort between our natural bodily functions and the things we find lying around. There is no necessary reason that the world should contain substances that cure things, but it does, and this is as much a feature of God’s Creation as food is.

Secondly, healing looks like a spiritual matter because so many Biblical miracles involve healing. Yet there are a number of very significant feeding miracles in the Bible by which God provides food entirely without natural help — such as Manna from heaven, the flour and oil jars that never run out, and the feeding of the 5,000 — yet people never seem to argue that we should pursue faith eating.

In both eating and healing, we trust God by faith to provide, and we are able to receive what He provides with thanksgiving. There is no compelling reason why healing by natural means is less faithful to God than eating by natural means.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding that God is more active in the supernatural than in the natural. The Biblical book of Esther, for example, fails even to mention God in its pages, and the deliverance in the end comes about via a series of non-supernatural coincidences. A major theme in the book is that God is capable of doing His work, even bringing about incredible results, without supernatural demonstrations of power.

So maybe a better test of faith would be to trust God while nothing much is happening, or trusting Him while dealing wisely with the world He created, instead of playing spiritual brinkmanship with God to goad Him into making a miraculous display. You might as well sit down with your mouth open and demand that He feed you.

Risk and Jesus’ Revolution

People seem naturally to prefer life in high contrast: things must be black and white, goodies and baddies, easily categorised. Unfortunately, having a category for something usually ends any further thought on the subject. This happens all to often with goodies and baddies in scripture, especially the Pharisees. We know they’re the enemy, and so we usually avoid to identifying ourselves with them in any way.

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and our preacher helpfully sketched a clearer picture of what was actually going on when Jesus was being welcomed into Jerusalem with such optimism (the waving of palms thing). [I’m stealing all his best info, which he in turn wishes to credit to that excellent book on Jesus, The King of God’s Kingdom (which you should read/buy if you haven’t, and even if you’re one of those skeptical types).]

In the first instance, the waving of palms was a politically charged action: a few decades later, when Jerusalem minted its own currency in defiance of Rome (shortly before being utterly obliterated by them), they chose the palm leaf as the image on the coin.

Secondly, the pilgrims arriving for the festival knew about Jesus’ miracles, and were now making a bid for him to declare himself king. They began using the acclamation, ‘Hosanna’. This isn’t a word like ‘Yay!’ or even ‘Praise God’. It means ‘Save!’ (or ‘Save now!’), and it’s from Psalm 118, a song that has to do with God (and His king) cutting off the nations that threaten them, rescuing His people against impossible odds.

So the crowd had become convinced that Jesus was the king that God would use to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. He was supposed to lead them into a golden age, even if the task seemed impossible. The festival crowd — perhaps as much as two million strong — was being stirred up with revolution songs, and was readying to enthrone the rebel leader in the city of the King. It’s safe to say that things were a little tenser than the Sunday School version allows.

There was good reason for tension. The last time someone had tried to mount a resistance to Rome, at around the time of Jesus’ birth, things had gone very, very badly. The Romans came to meet the uprising, by some accounts flattening the town from which it originated, and selling all its inhabitants into slavery. Except, that is, for the 2,000 rebels that the Roman governor crucified as a warning to others. The people who were meant to take warning were those people now in power: the Pharisees and the Chief Priests.

We’re accustomed to treating them like whatever Darth Vader’s team is called on Star Wars — and surely some of them must have been typical power-hungry politicians who deserve our scorn — but we recognise too infrequently how much of a point they had. How many of us reasonable folk, when in a position of responsibility, would have done differently?

  • They knew that their scriptures promised a new king, but they also knew that Rome was deeply intolerant of pretenders to the throne and would not be as forgiving as the last time (marching to Palestine tended to leech all of the Pax out of the Romana). Lives depended on them backing the genuine article.
  • They knew that the Messiah that was promised was supposed to come from David’s family and David’s town. Jesus was Galilean, as far as they knew. He couldn’t be the one.
  • Jesus didn’t look like much of a king. He was an artisan, an itinerant teacher from the school of no one, hailing from the town of nowhere. He had no military credentials whatsoever. He did amazing things, but he was cavalier with some of the cherished Torah (breaking the Sabbath and so on), and he hung out with cheats and prostitutes and scum on the Roman payroll.

The people were all so impressed with his magic, but they didn’t know their theology. They didn’t know that he should be disqualified. He didn’t have the credentials, and his power might come from the Devil for all anyone knew. Supporting this guy against the Romans was too much of a risk.

This explains some of their behaviour earlier in the gospels. In John 11:47-50, the baddies say:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

In other words, Jesus is making too many waves; the Romans are going to notice. The utilitarian equation therefore determines that it’s better to kill the one man, rather than starting a war on his account.

And then shortly after the optimistic welcome in the city, when in a game of brinkmanship, the rulers are able to prove that he’s not the Messiah (by having the Roman overlords kill him), they say:

“Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)

It’s an ironic indictment upon them in the context of John’s Gospel, but they say such things in order to reassure the Roman governor that they are not attempting to throw off the rule of Rome. There is no need for any further Roman intervention: the revolution dies with one madman.

Risk

All of this has me thinking: what should the leaders have done? They behaved according to God’s plan, of course, in one sense, but surely the right thing to do would have been to take the risk and support Jesus. Who knows what the outcome would have been if they had?

I certainly would not want to have been in their position.

And yet in one sense, each of us does take a similar risk in believing in God and, specifically, following Jesus. There isn’t indisputable evidence in His favour; beliefs are passed on through the experience and example of flawed (sometimes idiotic) believers; following Jesus involves a degree of hardship and sacrifice (indeed it even costs many their lives each year). People today are fond of demanding proof that God exists or that Jesus is who he said he was, but not even the people who saw his miracles were satisfied that he was the one. Maybe there can simply never be enough proof for something like this. Either way, you’re required to take a risk, whether it be the ‘reasonable’ Pharisees’ move to stick with the Devil you know (in the hope that redemption of a safer type lies just over the horizon), or the more uncertain move to join ranks behind the One who says He’s your King.