by James Wallace Harris, 12/22/22
Most Christians acquire their faith in childhood. A growing proportion of Christians drop most of their early beliefs as they get older and better educated. But a significant proportion of Christians cling to childhood beliefs their entire life. Faith in the irrational can be extremely strong, no matter what evidence to the contrary is given.
Why do some people hold onto their cherished childhood beliefs with such tenacity? We know that a baby taken from a Christian culture and raised in a Muslim culture will become Islamic rather than Christian. Beliefs children are exposed to in their early years, imprint on them stronger than beliefs acquired later in life. It is very hard to deprogram early beliefs, even silly and irrational beliefs. Why is that?
One theory is cognitive dissonance. That theory studies the psychological stress caused by people experiencing conflicting information, usually caused by having old beliefs exposed to new and contradictory information.
For some people, accepting new information can undermine their psychological stability so it becomes imperative to go to any extreme to preserve the beliefs that define their sense of reality. Decades ago, a number of books became popular promoting atheism, with some becoming bestsellers. They may have had an impact because the percentage of people attending church has been declining faster in the last decade. On the other hand, many Christians left the mainstream churches and joined evangelical churches which advocated even more extreme Christian beliefs. In contrast, other believers just doubled down on their faith.
Many from that demographics became anti-science in several ways and politically skeptical. They deny climate change, vaccines, the medical profession, scientists, and even democracy. I’ve wondered if it was to maintain their Christian faith. Their cognitive dissonance is so great they are being forced into extreme views about how reality works. To some family and friends, these people are embracing disturbing irrational beliefs. This is further polarizing our society. If we are to solve our civilization’s problems we’ll need to heal this cognitive schism. To fix our relationships with each other and the Earth we must agree on what is real.
This divide will be the defining crisis for Christianity in the 21st century. If Christianity wants to regain its validity, its message must be universal. Christianity should have some core values that all denominations embrace, and even non-Christians will admire. Christianity needs to coexist with science, philosophy, history, and all other areas of knowledge. It can’t keep breaking up into smaller and smaller denominations and sects that claim they each own the truth, especially when those truths are so crazy sounding to the average person.
I’ve been discovering a different approach to Christianity in the last decade, which has been an emerging academic discipline for a couple of centuries. That is the historical study of Christianity and its texts. People who embrace both the sacred and the secular are pursuing these studies because it’s the most fascinating cold case in history. Who was Jesus, what did he really believe, and how did Christianity develop. The major focus is on the first century CE. What happened then and how do we know it.
And one of the primary methods for analyzing this period is the study of the New Testament. Most Christians, even the ones who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible seldom study the New Testament with such scrutiny. This kind of Bible study used to only exist in seminary schools – now it’s becoming a popular self-study. However, not all scholars pursuing this history are doing it with the same level of discipline. Many true believers have become Biblical archeologists to prove the validity of their faith even when it conflicts with secular truths. But what’s interesting is Bible study has become a powerful force for eroding faith in the irrational. There are several former evangelicals who are now university scholars that don’t believe what they once believed. And we’re discovering that the Bible does match up with history in many ways, but often not in the ways the faithful want.
Whoever the historical figure we call Jesus was and what he said is hidden by two thousand years of revisions and creations. Jesus, and that wasn’t his real name, is portrayed differently by the Apostle Paul, and the writers of the four gospels. The human being we call Jesus probably didn’t consider himself divine or claim to perform miracles. Everything we think we know about Jesus was invented by ordinary people decades after he died. They gave him an origin story and superpowers to compete with other figures of their times. Did you know that Augustus, the Roman Emperor, was also called a son of God? The followers of Jesus had to top that. And they kept topping every other competing belief system at the time. Their best recruiting promotion was to promise ordinary people everlasting life. No other religion promised that at the time.
Are there any clues to what the historical Jesus said and did? Maybe. One intriguing approach is the Jesus Seminar.
Many of the people who are doing historical analysis of Jesus and Christianity have examined a tremendous amount of information. Getting where they are coming from requires reading countless books. And it requires learning the disciplined approaches of professional historians. Yesterday, I discovered a video on YouTube that covers some of this territory in a very concise matter. It’s a good introduction to what I’m talking about, although some of the faithful might not like their light, even flippant approach.
After that, I recommend reading the books of Bart Ehrman or watching his YouTube channel. I find his books to be a more efficient method to take in information than watching hours of his YouTube interviews. In 2016 I wrote a review of some of his books for Book Riot. Back in 2014, I reviewed five of his books for this blog.
Trying to decipher who Jesus was is an enticing historical mystery to solve, and I think from the YouTube videos I’ve been seeing, it’s becoming very popular. I’m guessing that it will reshape Christianity. I’d like to think the teachings of the historical Jesus had certain unique philosophical insights but it’s almost impossible to know them until we can distinguish what he might have said from the fiction created about him during the first and second centuries.