Is faith above ethics?

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a challenging read, but gripping when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.  The main thesis has something to do with faith being the greatest passion of human beings, that faith reaches beyond rational ethical doctrines, and that modern society is wrong to think that it can go beyond faith.  The faith exemplar is the biblical Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham’s faith leads him to comply with God’s command, except that God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last second.

Kierkegaard tries all sorts of psychological tricks to get us on board with his thesis.  He asserts repeatedly that he cannot understand Abraham, because Abraham is superior to him by virtue of his faith.  The implication is that if we think we understand Abraham, we are wrong, because not even Kierkegaard understands Abraham.  He asserts that if faith is not beyond ethics, then faith is nothing.  And if faith is nothing, then the story of Abraham is pointless.  So if we want to believe that faith is something special and that the story of Abraham is something special, then we must follow and agree with Kierkegaard that faith is above ethics.  Resorting to tricks like these raises red flags.  It suggests that the author knows something about the weakness of his thesis when it is presented straight and sober.

Another challenge is we are dealing with an analysis of stories, stories that explicitly defy the parameters of regular experience.  Why should we care about a world where God commands human beings to do unethical things, when we live in a world where God is silent?  Can faith be understood to be beyond ethics without the Abraham story?  If it can’t, and the Abraham story is pure fantasy, then who cares about Kierkegaard’s argument that faith is above and beyond rational ethics?

Nevertheless, I admit that there seems to be something important in this writing.  Is it possible that God might want mankind to go beyond ethics?  The idea itself creates fear and trembling.  Obviously, any attempt to go beyond ethics could very likely amount to falling below ethics.  But isn’t it an attractive idea that the universal rules of ethics are too clunky and cumbersome for the full color and vibrancy of the human spirit to emerge?  Not that we should be allowed to cheat the ethical rules, but that there are available extraordinary purposes in life that demand we hate ourselves, that we hate those we are expected to love, and concentrate our love in something higher?  For Kierkegaard, this seems to be in part what the Abraham story is suggesting (and echoed in Luke 14).  And this higher purpose is that we love only God and serve Him, setting aside our rational ethical obligations to our nation, our family, and ourselves.

I am aware of the semantical pitfalls in this presentation.  If a thing is contrary to what God wants of us, how could it be called ethical in the first place?  Kierkegaard works around this by distinguishing the universal from the absolute.  It seems just as well to say that one can think of a lower ethics and a higher ethics.  The lower ethics involve calculation, and include those rules that were everyone to live by, the world would be harmonious and just.  The higher ethics call on us not only to be compatible with a world that might be just, but to suspend all worldly calculation in service to God.

But there is a final piece to this, in order to account for the emphatic distinction Kierkegaard makes between Abraham, who is described as a knight of faith, and those others who are praised but would be better described as tragic heroes.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to sacrifice in order to save a nation.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to calculate and act for the sake of the outcome.  So what is faith, and why is it higher?  Faith is a personal, not a public or civic, virtue.  It is faith to believe that regardless of the immediate consequences, and regardless of public opinion, that God keeps His promises to those that trust, love, and serve Him.  Also, that these promises are kept in this world, not exclusively or primarily in the afterlife.  God promised Abraham Isaac in this world, and though God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in this world, Abraham continues to believe that in obeying God, he will still have Isaac in this world, because this is God’s promise to him for his faith.  Abraham thus lets go of everything as it appears in the world, and in so doing proves his faith.

But does Abraham’s faith put him closer to God by leaving him willing to abandon rational ethics and sacrifice his son?  Are we all called by God to surpass our ethical inclinations?  Is it really not better to be a tragic hero, or even just a regular-old-good-person, than to have (this) faith?

Needing a (Way of) Life

Many of us have a sort of nagging restlessness that we’re frequently in need of escaping.  We need to be fully immersed in something, but nothing seems sufficiently appealing.  There is a deep trepidation that trying to immerse in the wrong thing will only intensify the restlessness, turning it into desperation.

Others of us are lucky enough to already be immersed.  We have a way of getting through the day that fully absorbs our attention and energies to a sufficiently satisfying degree.  We feel invested and are comfortable with the expected returns on that investment.  We don’t understand people that seem to feel so alienated from everything.  Why can’t they just live their life?  How difficult is it?

If we look at the different ways people immerse themselves, some patterns begin to emerge.  Some are very much into some sort of close-knit community, the members of which all have a thick sense of their common identity.  The group is strong, protective, and exclusive — maybe its just family, just friends (as in a fraternity or sorority), or some mixture of the two.  When these communities are big enough, functional, and healthy, they offer so many sources of stimulation and various social sensations that being actively in them can be fully immersing and satisfying.  Desperation only seeps in when too many of the members are too busy to congregate as a group.

An opposite way of experiencing immersion is through competition.  We see this sometimes with people who lose their community and instantly transition from a cooperative and loving posture to a competitive and hateful posture (as in bitter divorcees).  Competition is inherently stimulating, as you have to not only beat your opponents but also do so in a way that is viewed as legitimate.  The hate that is motivating the competition has to be channeled into virtues like focus, determination, perseverance without showing the vices of nastiness, weakness, and foolishness.  Executed correctly, though, hate for a person or group can be as fully immersive as thrivingly fraternal community.

I don’t know why we have this need for immersion, but we can see it everywhere.  Those lacking a community to join or oppose turn to other things.  Religious faith has unique qualities suitable for a deeply immersive experience.  Contemplation of an infinite being, with qualities of perfection exceeding human comprehension, to which we owe gratitude exceeding our capacity, from which we receive endless and unfailing love, can completely overwhelm the mind’s intellect and emotions.  And of course there are the immersive effects of drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, food, gaming, and all the other addictions we see people all around us completely absorbed in.

Perhaps becoming more aware of the need for immersion can help us understand our attachments and our anxieties.  Less clear is what the best form of immersion is — it certainly can’t be hate and competition.  If the answer is community, then most of us are dependent on others to provide it, and the good fortune that there will be chemistry between ourselves and that community — common tastes, sense of humor, interests, values, etc.  If the answer is faith (which happens to be my answer) and we aren’t faithful already, then the road to be travelled is perhaps just as difficult.  If the answer is addiction, then we have a lot of pain ahead of us, and we have essentially given up on the fullness that life seemed to promise us as children.

On enthusiasm for the Bible, for Trump, and other things

Behold, the power of belief is revealed, and there, thrown aside, is the truth.

The word enthusiasm represents to many people energy and passion.  It has a more extreme sense, indicating a sort of enflaming of the spirit or becoming filled with spirit, or filled with a god.  Enthusiasm in sound and meaning is related to inspiration, to be inspired, to receive something from outside of one’s self of meaning and importance.

Trump rallies during the recent election were overflowing with enthusiasm, or, as Trump and many witnesses and journalists described it, love.  Attendees often experienced a sort of euphoria.

The Bible describes Jesus’ version of campaign rallies as creating similar sensations.  People shed tears of joy in his presence, and fall to his feet.  Their pains washed away, and they felt whole.

In both cases, belief in the power of another to heal one’s self is essential.  Jesus heals no one that does not believe.  To feel the joy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, belief is primary.  And this belief is contagious.  Seeing is believing, and being in the company of others who are visibly transformed, even if but temporarily, can be very compelling.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to become enthusiastic?  One factor is whether the enthusiasm is sustainable.  An arthritic old woman attending a tent revival might feel healed in the moment but then shortly returned to her original misery.  Was the moment worth it?  It seems not.  More like a nasty tease.

Is enthusiasm ever sustainable?  It would seem so, if it is manifested properly.  The enthusiasm can keep burning if the belief that ignited it avoids counterfactuals.  The arthritic woman cannot keep believing for very long when her hands continue aching.  She may cling to the belief out of desperation and stubbornness, but the enthusiasm will die out.  In contrast, believing in Trump is believing we are on our way to a better place.  This is a belief that is more shielded from counterfactuals.  It is easier to convince one self that things are on the path to getting better, and to dismiss as part of the journey anything that starts going wrong.  It is easier to convince oneself that the leader or prophet is well intentioned and of good character, even in the presence of counterfactual claims, so long as the leader keeps denying those claims in a manner that is plausible and projects confidence.

Is believing in Trump like believing in Jesus?  If we apply the same reasoning, belief in Trump has serious disadvantages to belief in Jesus.  The counterfactuals to Trump’s vision will continue mounting up, because the vision is one of how the physical world–specifically the United States of America– is going to change over the next few years.  He resort to the blame game to possibly get a second term of office, but unless Trump can truly deliver, there will be no second and third generation Trump believers.  Belief in Jesus, on the other hand, seems completely immune from worldly refutation.  The Bible frames Jesus’ teaching as a moral and spiritual guide, not as a political playbook for national restoration.  To the extent that the Bible can make people feel morally empowered and spiritually accommodated, this sort of religious enthusiasm can burn for centuries amidst any worldly condition or series of events.

Belief in Jesus does face serious challenges of its own, however.  Believing in Jesus requires some sort of positive assessment of the accounts of Jesus’ divinity and the miracles he performed in the world.  The challenge is stark in a world where miracles have been debunked and banished from the minds of many people as even remotely possible.  To the extent that belief and enthusiasm are contagious among attendees at a revival or political rally, so too are disbelief and cynicism easily spread throughout a gathering, community, or entire civilization.  Christianity’s threat is more from widespread cynicism regarding its reports of miracles than it is from failing to deliver on its promises, which are otherworldly.  Its thread of connection to this world, the historical factuality of Jesus’s recorded miracles, is the weakness, as are the in-coming facts of Trump’s developing record for turning his promised campaign dream into reality, as are the facts of the tent revivalist’s ability to actually have healed the sick.  The particular facts that undergird any particular form of enthusiasm–be they religious or political in nature– are always vulnerable to assault from counterfactuals.

Returning to the original question of whether enthusiasm is sustainable and therefore possibly good for the individual experiencing it, it would seem the strongest form of enthusiasm is that which is most immune from counterfactuals.  Miracles having occurred long ago seem to fit the bill here much more than present miracles as in any tent revival healing  (which can be immediately debunked) or short-term prophesying, which either comes true or it doesn’t (and usually doesn’t).  Can people absorb–not fully accept, but see, hear, and understand– the counterfactual to Christianity that miracles likely do not exist and continue to believe in the Bible?

To answer this, I think we need to leave the question of sustainability of enthusiasm to the side and address the larger question head on of whether enthusiasm itself is a good thing. Perhaps if we see that it is a good thing, that helps answer whether it is sustainable.  To the extent that enthusiasm is inherently at war with counterfactuals, would it not be better to drop enthusiasm altogether and live in a world fully immersed in the intellectual experience of sorting through all of the facts of the world and rising above our flawed opinions and prejudices to the ever-emerging establishment of human knowledge?

It’s not so easy to reflexively say yes when we bring back into focus all of the good that enthusiasm does for people.  To be made whole, to be healed, to be inspired — is it rational to abandon all these things, only in order to embrace perhaps an existential ideal of the noble struggle of the hyper-rational soul, sick, lame and wounded, refusing crutches, bandages, balms, or potions of any kind?

Is there a good enthusiasm, one that truly helps its host, but avoids the horror of those enthusiasms that cannot be restrained by anything?  A good enthusiasm that avoids turning factual reality into an illusion and running roughshod over everyone and everything that stands in its way?  A good enthusiasm that is self-aware of its loosed relationship with factual reality, while remaining loyal and respectful of that reality?

 

Do more people desire death or immortality?

Does everyone like being alive?  Happy people surely do, almost by definition.  If you’re happy, then you are apparently having a good time.  Nobody wants to stop having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “good” in the first place.  If you wanted it to stop, then you would call it a bad time, and you wouldn’t describe yourself as happy.

Some good times burn the fuse and we know they are temporary.  You can be having a good time at a bar but also want to go home because you feel yourself getting tired and run down, you feel the night slipping away, and that it is time to go home.  It doesn’t mean that you wanted the good time to stop.  It simply means that the availability of that good time had passed.  If you want to avoid having a really bad time the next day, you better get your self home.

With Christmas approaching, many people will both love and hate celebrating the holidays over the next few weeks.  They will love it because it is emotional in a  good way, they will hate it because it is emotionally exhausting.  It will be the best of times and the worst of times.  Some will be very sad to see it end, others will count themselves lucky to have survived it.  What makes us want to end an experience is bad feelings, what makes us want to continue experience is good feelings.

It is common to feel tired of life, but I have a hard time believing that people ever actually *want* to die.  Rather, my suspicion is people simply want to stop having a bad experience, and when life becomes a continuous, uninterrupted bad experience, they think they want to end life, when they really just want to end the bad experience–sometimes immediately.  Like staying too late at a bar, we begin to feel an exhaustion set in, and being able to get away becomes more and more attractive.

If both going to the bar and leaving the bar, rushing into the holidays and then desperately wishing them to be over, are both motivated by a desire to increase good experience and decrease bad experience, then the constant essence of our behavior would seem to include wanting to have as good experiences as possible.  We pursue happiness constantly, as much as we perceive as being available, and when anyone says they wish they were dead, they really mean they want to leave their current bad experience and go to a good, or at least better, experience.

The problem with desiring death is it implies desiring the end of existence, or oblivion.  Because oblivion is the absence of experience, we cannot imagine it, so we cannot feel in anticipating death any pain.  Death is expected to be pain-free.   If we are in pain in life, then we can think that we desire death, which is to say to simply be pain-free.  But having a pain-free experience is impossible if we cease to exist.  In other words, when we reason that death is desirable because it is pain-free, we are being non-sensical — failing to realize that by anticipating less pain “there” we are assuming a continued existence in death.  We might kill ourselves to escape experiencing pain, but it is not and cannot be to escape life or to “be” dead.  Therefore, no one desires to die, and everyone desires happiness and perpetual existence, i.e. immortality.

Jesus doesn’t exist

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5: 7-10).

***

“‘If you are the Christ,’ they said, ‘tell us’

Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer.  But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God'” (Luke 22: 67-69).

***

Paul interprets Jesus’ life as a man who became perfect.  Jesus started out imperfect, experienced temptation, weakness, and ignorance.  He had to gain strength, wisdom, and ultimately perfection.  If Jesus was “God the Son”, then it appears that “God the Son” did not exist until Jesus the “Son of Man” became perfect.  A thing cannot be both coming into being and being at the same time.  So if Jesus the man was imperfect then he could not have also been perfect at the same time.  And if he was not perfect then he could not have been from the beginning what he was to become, the Word of God, “God the Son.”

Consider also what it means to be “seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”  When one is seated, one is not as active as one could be.  The distinction between seated and not seated represents first and foremost the distinction between acting and resting.  The image of being seated is static, passive, and at rest.  If Jesus is seated at the right hand of the mighty God, it sounds like Jesus is more dead than alive, though experiencing his death near to God, kept close by God, and supremely valued.

If Jesus is to come back, he will likely come into being the same way he did the first time.  Interestingly, though we are reminded by Paul that Jesus appealed to the Father to save him from death, it appears to be only possible to give him a second life if human beings allow one that has to the potential to become “God the Son” to do so.  That is, there will have to be not just another Jesus, but another Mary and another John the Baptist at a minimum.

In sum, these three things suggest that “God the Son,” or what we typically mean by “Jesus,” at the moment does not exist.  1.  Jesus as God the Son did not exist in his human form until he reached his full development.  Before that, he was becoming the Son, but was not yet in his full perfection and therefore in the beginning could not offer salvation to mankind.  2.  Jesus told us that he would be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.  The image here strongly evokes a sense of death, and Jesus showed in his subsequent petitions to the Father that he expected to die.  3.  We are told that Jesus will come again, but if he is to come again, it would seem that he would have to come by the same route that he did the first time.  So, in the same manner that he did not exist initially as the Son during his first coming, he will not have existed as the Son prior to his second coming.

The potential to exist, though, does indicate some underlying continuous existential form.  So we have to distinguish between existing as a potentiality and a form on the one hand and existing as an active and conscious entity in the material world on the other.

Puzzling over Genesis and the Fall

Every discipline has it’s puzzles.  As an analyzer of theoretical texts, I consider the story of the Fall of Man from the Bible to be one of the big puzzles.  I started playing around with it (again) yesterday, and after failing (again), am going to give it another shot today.

The key positions I want to stake out are as follows:

  1. God is not well understood by Adam or Eve, Cain or Abel, or just about any human being.  Noah is better than most, but still, there’s a lot that seems to be missing.
  2. The tree of knowledge of good and evil does not provide fruit that is very informative.  After eating it, Adam and Eve merely become aware of their nakedness.
  3. The serpent is more concerned with getting Adam and Eve in trouble than with challenging God by itself.  Rather than eat the forbidden fruit itself, it baits Eve into doing it.  Either it knows the fruit isn’t that informative, or it lacks the ambition to become like God.  Also, it seems to be aware of Eve’s ignorance, otherwise it wouldn’t have tried to manipulate her.

So, I think these are some safe positions.  Now, what to do with them?

Eve’s mistake is brought about because she is ignorant of God’s power and is desirous of being like God herself.  She doesn’t expect to be caught, evidently, or doesn’t expect much bad to happen even if she is caught.  She also finds being like God appealing.  She doesn’t understand God very well, yet she still wants to be like him.  This suggests something about Eve not wanting to be ruled over.  The serpent, likewise, seems to not want to be ruled over, because it is conspiring against the humans, which are appointed over it.  The serpent isn’t very smart either, though, in that its manipulation quickly backfires and results in its being placed even lower than it was before.

After Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, we get the story of Cain slaying Abel out of jealousy for God’s favor.  God had preferred Abel’s sacrifice of an animal to Cain’s sacrifice of his garden produce.  Rather than trying to be like God, the sin here is getting too jealous over gaining God’s favor.  God no longer has a rising rebellion on his hands, but his subjects are now fighting amongst themselves over his approval.  Adam and Eve are still around, but play no part in bringing peace between Cain and Abel.  God confronts Cain directly, tells him to do what is right, and Cain turns around and slays Abel.  Again, God is misunderstood.  Cain should not expect to get away with slaying his brother.  His parents had done a much less violent act, and had been discovered and punished.

God also seems to be a bad teacher.  He commands, but his commands to his new and apparently highly ignorant creation are ineffectual.  Still, God seems to care quite a bit.  He wants his creation to be righteous and obedient — obedient for their own good.  He warns Eve that she shouldn’t eat the fruit because she will die if she does.  He marks Cain for his crime, but protects him from being murdered himself.  All the way down to Noah, God is dismayed at the sinfulness of his creation.  Man is generally not obedient to commands.  He has been placed above all other living creatures, has been allowed to name them, but still lacks gratitude for or understanding of his creator.

Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Romans provides another position to work off of to go further with this.  He states that: “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and though the commandment put me to death” (Rom. 7:9-11).  A little further down, he states that: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their mind set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Rom. 8:5).  And still further, he states that: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him [Jesus] we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'” (Rom. 8:15).

Paul suggests that the transition from a ruler-subject relationship with God to a father-son relationship is the way sin can be conquered.  Why wasn’t it like this from the beginning?  Well, if Jesus is co-eternal with God the Father, then God the Father did have a father-son experience to learn from and apply to his new creation.  Jesus of course, would be the perfect son, though.  The opposite of ignorant man, Jesus is said to be “the Word”, or knowledge itself.  God would not have had experience with ignorant man.  So why didn’t God send Jesus right away from the beginning?  It seems to have been impossible.  Jesus needs to be educated and received by faithful human beings.  Why doesn’t God the Father teach human beings himself?  Apparently sin doesn’t become recognized as sin until it produces sufficient death in the world, so he can only command at first in order to spring sin to life.  (This may be why the tree of knowledge of good and evil produces fruit that teaches so little in the garden of Eden story.)

Paul defends the manner in which God the Father proceeds.  He states earlier in the same letter to the Romans that: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-26).

With this view, it seems that God knew from the beginning that man was going to fall, and that he was going to have to send Jesus to save man.  As a sacrifice to man, to atone for God’s allowing man to live, sin, and die unjustified, he accepted that Jesus, whose blood God the Father had faith in, would have to suffer and die at the appropriate time.  Jesus established the father-son linkage between God and man, a linkage that previously had been too challenging for most.  Man’s eyes (generally now) were opened to his status as son of God only by witnessing the fate of the ideal Son.  If such is the fate of the ideal Son, and this fate leads to glory and everlasting life, then man generally, who sees his own fate also culminating in death, can also now believe for the first time that he too is loved by God rather than merely ruled over by him.  Man can also see God’s purpose in allowing him to struggle with sin, namely that the struggle makes the glory of an ideal Son possible, the glory of overcoming evil, the glory that is expected of a holy God and that characterizes him, the glory that since Adam and Eve has evaded man’s understanding.  To have faith in Jesus is to have faith in the value of this glory, and to value this glory is to be like God and positioned for a loving relationship with God.  It is to be able to acquire what was sought in the garden of Eden, what God allowed the serpent to help entice, knowledge of good and evil, now with the capacity to learn that knowledge, and with the newly attractive but always necessary desire to act on that knowledge, to do good and not evil.

When God puts Adam into the garden of Eden, it is for him “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15).  The only plants in the garden that we hear of have impressive names:  the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” and the “tree of life.”  It is likely that in this garden all of the plants would potentially have impressive names, and represent things that man desires.  It is apparently up to man to develop the garden, to try to perfect it and preserve it.  It would appear that the story of man from the Bible is a story of discovering what was originally missing from the garden of Eden, and God sending him out into a world where he could find out for himself in order to recreate it in a manner more fitting to his needs.  Eventually, when enough people were looking and interested, the missing plant, tree, or vine was found in the character of Jesus, in all he taught, did, and represented.

 

Why Jesus Cast out Demons

The worst, most painful aspect to the gospels is not that Jesus claims to be Christ, but that Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick, raises the dead, and all the rest of the supernatural miracles we are challenged to consider.  These are next to impossible to take seriously as actual historical events, which I think often drives them into a special cupboard in our minds reserved for irrational stuff that we want to hold on to for emotional reasons.  As someone who marvels at the depth and complexity of great literature, however, the value of the gospel narrative is far more than an unconvincing argument that Jesus was Christ because he performed miracles.  The Bible is a text, after all, and the multiple authors that contributed to it are free to use every literary tool available to form a medium of communication between God and man, if that was their genuine intention.

I am focusing on the New Testament for the time being.  The accounts from the Old Testament are also of great symbolic value, but the likelihood that Moses himself never even existed presents a much higher wall for my interpretational powers to climb.  Jesus of Nazareth, in contrast, is widely believed to have existed and to have truly, with the help of John the Baptist, founded Christianity.

I recently wrote about a few of the gospel miracles and how to access their symbolic value.  Getting the symbolism correct is important, but the first step is naturally recognizing that there is indeed symbolism there rather than just a descriptive, historical record.  The impossibility of the miracles should force us to look for symbolic value.  They should force us to ask ourselves, why the hell is this in here?

The gospel authors took on many risks in writing with literary, rather than simply journalistic, tools.  If you, the audience, believe that any of the miracles didn’t actually happen, then it seems fair to assume that probably none of the miracles did.  For many people, this possibility (and extreme likelihood) is going to be a deal-breaker and discussion ender.  The text lies, and cannot be trusted — why read it?

I can’t answer that question for anyone, at least not adequately at the moment.  I have read it, though, and I have some thoughts on how to interpret the more off-putting miracles that have to do with casting out demons.

Often, the people supposedly possessed by demons are out of their minds.  They are tortured, they convulse, they scream, they ache.  Jesus is able to cast out the person’s demons when that person has faith.

The first move we need to take here is to abstract away from the details, and ask what is the structure of what’s going on here?  Someone has pain, and the person’s faith in Jesus takes the pain away.  The pain is a result of something inside that has a mind of its own (the demon), something that is self-destructive.  The demon talks, it recognizes who Jesus is, it begs for mercy.

The second move we need to take is to ask what does this structural pattern correspond to in our own personal experiences?  Have I ever had a “demon?”  Has my faith ever expelled this “demon?”  Well, if one is to recall ever acting possessed, the first place to look is at close personal relationships that have soured.  The pain brought about by love that has been mismanaged, misunderstood, mistreated is terrible.  Some call it emotional pain, I think it is emotional, but goes quite a bit deeper than that.  The pain is spiritual.  Does it have a mind of its own?  It does.  It drives us to think, to feel, and to behave in ways that are against our better judgment.  It compels us to inflict pain on those that hurt us, and to punish ourselves in cases where we view ourselves as responsible for the ruining of the relationship.  Voices inside constantly suggest this or that.  They disagree with each other, they fear, they worry, they hope, they desire.

Is this what the gospel writers have in mind?  Why not?  The ambition of the gospels is clearly aiming at laying out a moral teaching that will improve the lives of those who accept it.  They are clearly worried about the harm that people cause to themselves and to each other.  And they clearly believe that the only way to fix all of this is to flip the whole table over and persuade people to believe in a better way of life.

This probably was the message of Jesus that the gospel writers are packaging and presenting more or less on his behalf (he apparently didn’t write anything down himself).  The change has to be ambitious, it has to be radical, or the demons inside of us are going to stay active in us, and we’re going to continue to suffer.  The argument is that faith in Jesus and his teaching will cast the demons out, it will heal the sick, it will raise the dead.  It will inspire us to love each other, to support each other in such a way that is so different than our current practices that our entire world can change permanently for the better.  People will have less sickness, less poverty, less premature death.

Does it work?  That’s another key question that I can’t adequately answer right now.  What I think is worth noting is that, if you want to truly change the world for the better, and purify the motives and hearts of human beings, getting them to love each other better, then the miracles told of in the gospel might be necessary, and the language of demons might be highly appropriate.  Maybe we need to think about what our own “demons” might be to better understand the nature of human imperfection.  Maybe it helps to view others’ imperfections as alien to their true nature underneath it all, and that any hatred we have should be directed away from the person and towards those specific imperfections that we might consider inhuman.  Is there a better way?