Thursday, September 4, 2008

Angry Atheists and True Faith

On my first day of philosophy of religion class this semester, I brought to class a series of visual aids—specifically, a half dozen books, all of them bestsellers, all of them attacks on religion and belief in God. I trotted out Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and his follow-up Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (he deliberately refuses to capitalize “God” even in the title), and physicist Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis.

Few of these books say much of anything that’s new (the exception is Dennett's book). What distinguishes them is the authors’ anger. While attending college and graduate school I was always conscious of the dominant atheist culture of academia—but the prevailing attitude towards religion was one of quiet disdain and condescension, not the vitriolic rage that pervades this recent wave of bestsellers. So I asked my students: Why are these atheists so angry?

They proposed a variety of answers, some better than others. But then one student sent me a link to a blog by Greta Christina, in which she—an atheist—seeks to directly answer this question. Since I’ve used Greta Christina’s “Are We Having Sex Now or What?” in my sexual ethics classes, I knew she was an intelligent, provocative, and effective writer, and so I read her post with some interest (her post can be found at

Her post has two parts. The first is a laundry list of things she’s angry about—abuses that have been committed by religious people and communities. Most of the things on this list made me nod my head, because they are things that I am angry about, too. But, of course, I am a Christian (although not exactly of the conventional sort). So, obviously, I believe that there is a version of religion, a way of being religious, that avoids this list of abuses and doesn’t warrant such an angry response. But it turns out that this idea—that not all religion is deserving of the atheist’s vitriolic rage—is one of the things that Greta is angry about. She is angry at religious people who try to worm out from under her barrage of righteous outrage by saying, “But that isn’t my faith or my religion.” She urgently wants all religion to be guilty as charged.

The second part of her essay focuses on the value of anger. She points out, rightly, that anger is a powerful motivator, that it can inspire one to act against injustices and social ills. I agree with this. In my capacity as a gay rights activist I’ve endured oppressive heat and frigid cold to stand vigil outside conservative religious venues, holding signs that read “Stop Spiritual Violence” or bearing images of hate crime victims whose attackers felt vindicated by the poisonous messages spewing from fundamentalist pulpits. It was my anger that gave me the energy, the motivation, to do this.

I was present when Jimmy Creech, a Methodist pastor defrocked for performing holy unions, confronted a leading bishop in the United Methodist Church, a bishop who was on his way to put a pastor on trial for the affront of being in a loving monogamous relationship with a woman (the pastor was a woman herself). I watched the bishop say rather sheepishly that he had to do it—that his position and the rules of the church required that he put this woman on trial for the crime of loving someone. And I saw the way this man shrank in the face of Jimmy Creech’s reply (paraphrased here, since I don’t recall the exact words): “You do not ‘have’ to do this. You can say no to injustice. You can act on conscience and face the costs.” This, of course, is what Jimmy Creech himself had done. And the power of his words was in part born from this truth, and in part from the controlled, focused anger that illuminated so sharply the wrong that was being done—the same anger that gave him the will to defy unjust regulations despite the costs to his career.

Anger has power. Were he not so angry, my cousin Jake would never have founded the Equality Ride, which has had an astonishing impact on the lives of those touched by it. (For those unfamiliar with the Equality Ride, it is a Soulforce-sponsored campaign that for two years and counting has been sending busloads of young gays and lesbians around the country to pursue dialogue at colleges and universities—mostly religious—whose policies oppress sexual minorities.)

Anger can motivate and empower. But, as Greta herself notes in her blog, it can also be dangerous. There are distinctions that anger does not see. Sometimes, the failure to see these distinctions can inspire us, in righteous indignation, to recklessly destroy treasures.

Two hundred years ago, the revolutionary theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a series of essays entitled On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, in which he argued that there is an essential feeling at the root of religiosity, a feeling distinct from doctrines and institutions and moral codes, which is religion’s real wellspring. Behind and beyond the hierarchical organizations with their membership criteria, behind the creeds and theological disputations, distinct from the myths about superhuman tyrants in the clouds, there is the human longing to connect with an ultimate Mystery, and (more fleetingly) the subjective experience of such a connection. He calls this religious feeling “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite”—the sense that one is in contact with something transcendent, something astonishing behind the empirical skin of the world, something that defies all attempts to be adequately captured in human language.

This, for Schleiermacher, is the essence of religion. He reserves the name “theology” for those attempts to understand the religious feeling (however inadequately or incompletely) in propositional terms. And while he had great respect for theology (he was, after all, himself a theologian), his deeper allegiance was to religion itself. In responding to the intellectual despisers of religion in his day (early 19th Century Europe), Schleiermacher argued that these “cultured despisers” didn’t really get what religion was about at its most fundamental level, largely because most of the people who claim to be religious only “juggle with its trappings.”

The core idea here is that there have been people in every culture and historical setting who have had this distinctive feeling, this sense of something essentially good beyond what our senses can discern. And in all times and places, they have come together with others to share it and try to understand it. But this feeling has always found itself existing side-by-side with fear-born superstitions about supermen commanding lightning storms, and with tribal gods invented to justify violent vendettas against rival tribes. The religious feeling is, of course, at odds with these things. It speaks of ineffable mystery at those points where fear-born superstitions speak of anthropomorphic supermen; it is a matter of hope where superstition is a matter of fear; and religious feeling gives those who experience it a sense of the essential unity of all things rather than the tribal divisions between us and them that have so bloodied human history.

And so, this religious feeling tends to inspire those who experience it to stand up against the forces of oppression and division. The seminal religious visionaries, even those with blatant human imperfections (such as Martin Luther), have routinely been critics of the established social order, recognizing its injustices and standing up for the marginalized and oppressed. Their compassion transcended established social boundaries—even if (again Martin Luther is a good example) they did not succeed in overcoming them all.

For these reasons the religious feeling inevitably becomes a threat to the privileged classes, who therefore seek to tame it, to channel it into institutional structures in which its revolutionary capacities are subverted. And because both the religious feeling and fear-born superstitions speak of something “supernatural” beyond the empirical world, it is often easy to displace the numinous transcendence of religious experience with the more parochial, manageable products of our fear-inspired imaginings. And oppressors have a strong motivation to do just that. After all, fear can be used as a tool of control.

I am angry at fundamentalist religion, not just because of what it has done to so many people through history, but because of what it has done to the religious feeling—which, with Schleiermacher, I believe to be religion’s real essence. This essence has been systematically stifled and subverted. It has been buried beneath heaps of crud. And yet it has never been completely squelched, even within the most fundamentalist communities. Somehow the echoes of it persist. And some who are attuned to it have the courage to follow where it leads, and, like Jimmy Creech, stand up and speak its message clearly and loudly.

One hears both anger and compassion in the voices of people like Jimmy Creech—but it is clear that the anger is born out of the compassion. And this is important. Anger can spring from many sources, and not all are created equal. When men and women are motivated to act by their anger, and when their anger has its roots in a clear vision and an authentic compassion, we have what Christianity, within its own ranks, has long called the “prophetic voice” of the church. It is the voice of the Old Testament prophets railing against the social injustices that trample the poor, of Jesus invoking fierce metaphors to highlight the gravity of economic marginalization, of Martin Luther crying out against the abuses of a papacy that extracted money from impoverished people in exchange for “indulgences” that would supposedly shorten the duration of their loved ones’ purgatory. Today, it is the voice of Jimmy Creech and others like him who stand up to a Christian community that has scapegoated gays and lesbians and then stopped up its ears with Bible verses to avoided having to hear their anguished cries.

This prophetic voice is attuned to the seminal religious experience, the sense of an awesome mystery at the root of creation and at the heart of our own consciousness. And those who hear this prophetic voice without the blinders of prejudice or indoctrination cannot help but blink in dumb wonder and say, “Yes, yes. This is the real thing. This is religion!”

And so I am, admittedly, angry at those who cavalierly dismiss this redolent feeling that lies so often beneath the “trappings” of earthly religions. I’m angry at those who, not having experienced it, insist without a hint of humility that there’s nothing there to experience (those who wrestle with this experience and, taking it with all seriousness, finally conclude that it is delusional, do not similarly raise my ire). And I’m angry at those who dismissively scorn the voices that say, “What you hate is also something that I hate, but what you hate is not religion as I know it and experience it. It is a tragic distortion, a corruption of something essentially beautiful, something that I am inclined to call true faith.”

Dismissals of this message are almost always too quick. Consider Greta’s dismissal of it by insisting that “you have no more reason to think that you’re practicing religion the way God wants you to than anybody else does.” But if I’ve witnessed something that’s soul-destroying to my gay best friend, and then I encounter something that moves us one step closer to that elusive “beloved community” Martin Luther King envisioned with such eloquence—when I experience the crushing effects of one so-called religious practice, and then observe with my own eyes the redemptive potential of another, is it really fair to say that I have no reason to think the latter has more claim on being authentically divine?

The Gospels attribute to Jesus a strategy for distinguishing authentically prophetic voices from pretenders: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say we will recognize them by their conformity to an established orthodoxy (how could we ever come to establish an orthodoxy if that were the measure?). He doesn’t say we will recognize them by their conformity to a holy text (after all, Jesus was critical of the established holy text of his community, rejecting among other things the literal interpretations of scriptural rules that precluded work on the Sabbath and required that those caught in adultery be put to death). Jesus' view, I think, goes something like this: The true prophet is one who is moved by an ineffable religious encounter with the transcendent being we call God—and prophecy that springs from such a font can be recognized by the goodness of its fruits.

And yes, this means that we must rely on our own internal moral compass, our instinctive understanding of good and evil, right and wrong—in short, our conscience—to see whether the fruits of prophetic teachings are true or false. If there is a God, surely He would entrust the task of discernment to such an inner compass that springs from our essence as children of God, rather than entrusting it to one holy book among a sea of rivals. After all, if our ability to discern good fruits from bad fruits depended on accessing the teachings of a holy book, then we would have no way to discern which holy book was truly prophetic, and which wasn’t, among all the competing scriptures from all the rival religions throughout our world. The same can be said for living prophets or institutions.

And so I ask again: If I rely on my own internal moral compass to distinguish between those so-called “faiths” that shatter human spirits and relationships and those faiths that inspire and uplift and nurture moral courage, is it truly fair to say that I have no reason at all to think that the latter has more of a claim on being true faith than the former?

Consider Greta’s response to those who are inspired by Jesus and His “way of the Cross” even though they bemoan what religious communities have so often done in Jesus’ name. She quickly stabs back with the following: “If you believe that the Gospels are a more or less accurate representation of what Jesus said, then you have to acknowledge that Jesus said some pretty fucked-up things. Including a whole lot of stuff about how people who didn’t believe in him and follow him were going to burn in Hell for eternity.”

But why do Christians have to accept the antecedent here (even if, as I will admit, they routinely do)? Greta’s comment assumes several things. First, it assumes that all those who seek to follow Jesus’ path believe that the Gospels offer an inerrant portrayal of Him. It also assumes, I think, that we have no resources for getting past the misrepresentations of scriptural authors, so as to see within their imperfect accounts an extraordinary person worthy of emulation. Finally, it assumes that the meaning of Jesus’ words as they are represented in the Gospels can be grasped in a straightforward way two thousand years later by people operating from a radically different set of cultural conventions and experiences. It assumes, in other words, that an “accurate representation” of what Jesus said will give people today an accurate picture of what Jesus meant, even though we are interpreting those words through a modern set of culturally mediated expectations and beliefs.

These assumptions are dubious at best. And underlying these assumptions is, I think, a common view about the nature of religion (one expressed by Sam Harris), according to which being religious is really all about taking some purportedly revelatory text (the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Guru Granth Sahib, etc.) to be the fundamental authority in one’s life. That Greta is (perhaps unknowingly) assuming this picture of religion becomes evident when Greta says the following: “You don’t have any more reason to think you have the true faith than any other believer does… You can quote chapter and verse, but so can the people whose interpretation of the faith you disagree with. That’s sort of the nature of chapter and verse; it can be used to support just about any interpretation you can come up with.”

It is certainly true that what might be dubbed "Bible worshippers" (what C.S. Lewis called "bibliolaters") can reach radically different understandings of what the object of their worship actually says. This is true, in my view, because the object of their worship is a collection of writings by diverse human authors, many with contrasting and irreconcilable views. But isn’t it a mistake to attribute such fundamentalist ideas to those who see fundamentalism as a corruption of religion’s essential core, and who urgently cry out for efforts to clear away these corrupting forces? Isn't it a mistake to attribute such fundemantalism to those who take the Bible to be, not the infallible word of God, but the seminal writings of diverse human authors who are wrestling with the meaning of their own profound religious experiences or retelling richly symbolic narratives about the struggles of earlier peoples to understand what it means to live as children of God? In other words, isn’t it a mistake to attribute to non-fundamentalist religion the very attributes which non-fundamentalist religion stands opposed to?

All Christians revere the Bible—but a text can be revered in different ways. I revere Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Of all the single-author works I’ve read, it has perhaps had the greatest influence on my personal growth. But I’d hardly say that Aristotle is an infallible authority. I’d hardly call the Nicomachean Ethics inerrant. When I read it, I encounter passages of blazing insight that strike me as springing from a wisdom I can only dream of possessing. I have internal resources that, somehow, recognize great ideas even when I would never have thought them up on my own. We all do (although some have clearly more discernment than I do, and some less). And then there are passages that obviously express the prevailing social prejudices of Aristotle’s age—prejudices that thousands of years of human history have revealed to be errors. I have no trouble quickly dismissing these prejudices for what they are.

What is true of Aristotle is also true of the Apostle Paul. Even when we set aside the misogynistic passages in Paul’s letters that most scholars agree were added later, as well as those letters that were attributed to Paul but weren’t really written by him at all, we still find things in Paul that two thousand years of human history have revealed to be nothing more than cultural prejudice (at least if we shake off the stranglehold of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy). But the discovery of such errors should not shut down for us the extraordinary wisdom that fills his letters, the great ideas that we would never have thought up on our own, but which our own internal resources recognize when they are presented to us with lucidity and passion.

And when we encounter such great ideas, we should honor the source even if that source also contains ideas that are less than great.

Among the inner resources for distinguishing wisdom from foolishness, many (including myself) are inclined to identify the religious feeling—the very feeling that Schleiermacher took to be the thing which keeps religion alive in the human heart. It is a feeling of having encountered a transcendent mystery, a feeling that by its very nature leaves us conscious of how paltry and limited our human conceptual categories are. For most of us, this feeling is just a glimmering of what the great Jewish-Marxist-Philosopher-Mystic, Simone Weil, described in her letter to a Catholic priest friend, when she talked about breaking free of the confines of ordinary experience to find herself in “the presence of love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” And many of us share Simone Weil’s conviction that even in the face of such an encounter, “one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth…If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Religion in this sense is so far removed from the target of Greta’s atheistic outrage that Simone Weil was able to see Greta’s brand of atheism as a step on the path away from fundamentalist religion (although she didn’t use that term) and towards true faith. In Weil's view religion can often prove to be “a hindrance to true faith,” so that “atheism is a purification.” She explains: “Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”

And what is the true God like? In insisting that those who speak in terms of “true faith” arrogantly believe they understand God while others don’t, Greta misses the point of the great mystical tradition of which Weil was a part—a tradition which sees true faith as residing precisely in the recognition of one’s own inability to adequately conceptualize God. When Socrates said he was the wisest man in Athens, he meant only this: that he was the only man in Athens who knew that he didn’t know much of anything. Likewise, within the mystical stream of religion, “true faith” is construed in large measure as residing in a deep awareness of one’s own ignorance in the face of the divine.

And so, for example, the great medieval mystical work written in Middle English (its author anonymous) is titled The Cloud of Unknowing. God resides in such a cloud. The difference between false and true faith, within this stream of thought, is that false faith claims to describe accurately the contents of that cloud through precise doctrines and teachings. True faith, by contrast, only reaches upward into mystery, ready to experience the inexpressible, and treats attempts to understand this mystery as fallible speculation that is always open to revision. Weil expresses this mysticism clearly when she says, “I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

There is something extraordinary here, something that many are recklessly casting to the flames along with the evils that have been done in religion’s name. And so, while I share much of Greta’s anger, I also think her anger has caused a bit of recklessness, which in turn threatens something precious. The fundamentalists bury this precious thing under heaps of crud, and I am plenty angry at them for it. But I must also reserve a bit of anger for those who set fire to the crud without a thought to what might be hidden in its depths.

I propose, instead, that we all try to do a bit of excavation.


  1. I agree with everything on this post but worry a little about its emphasis (the emphasis is typical of liberal Christians). Let me speak to this first by talking about a side issue in the post and then get to the heart of the matter.

    I am a gay Christian—Christian first, I hope. I am well aware in my own life history of the pernicious influence on the psyche of gay men of the Church’s traditional condemnation of all homosexual acts, no matter what their character. If you are repeatedly given the message that your sexual orientation is perverted and sinful, that it is unworthy of the marriage bed, you are more likely to express erotic desires in ways that are disrespectful and destructive of yourself and others. Add to this the fact that centuries of homophobia have causally contributed to the production of a gay sub-culture that revolves around “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and you have a sort of microcosmic intensification of the hedonistic aspects of the “kingdom of evil” that Ritschl identified (wrongly, I think) with original sin. And it was only in this gay sub-culture that many gays, for years, were able to find any sort of gay community, however feeble.

    All this I admit. But I also think that gays themselves are partially to blame for their less than admirable behaviors and desires. If they want to insist on their dignity, why do so many of them engage in activities that evince anything but respect for themselves and others(I do not exclude myself from this group). I am not talking simply about plain old promiscuity (i.e. a series of one night stands)—I am talking about orgies, S & M, “water sports” (a euphemism for getting off on pissing on people—especially their faces), drug use (ecstasy, meth, cocaine, crack), “mummification” (don’t ask me to explain that), etc. Of course, most gays do not engage in these types of degrading hedonism (and some heterosexuals engage in them as well) but too high a percentage of them do. And those brave gays who criticize the unbridled license characteristic of the gay sub-culture are accused of being “puritanical”, “close minded”, “judgmental”, as if condemning debasing and dehumanizing homosexual sex was on a par with condemning conjugal, loving, committed homosexual sex. I get really angry because it seems to me that even homosexuals who should know better sometimes seem to do everything in their power to prove the religious right right about the homosexual “lifestyle”.

    Of course, I do not think that gays have any more of an inborn tendency to “piggery” than heterosexual men (though I do think that men are by nature, and not just by nurture, more drawn to loveless sex than women—witness the fact that most pornography is geared toward men). Thus I agree with Reitan that the fact that a greater percentage of gays than either lesbians or straight men seem to live for meaningless sensual pleasures is traceable to homophobia (a homophobia linked to misogyny). And I also agree that it is good for heterosexuals to think about the way that their attitudes towards gays has contributed to the very hedonistic “lifestyle” they deplore. I just think that this is not all there is to say about the cause of this and that the gay community itself needs to take a hard look at the alienating forms of sexuality it (or large portions of it) seems all too willing to support (or at least not oppose) in the name of a false freedom.

    Which leads me to the more profound imbalance I see in Reitan’s post. I, like Reitan, greatly admire, nay love, Schleiermacher, both as a thinker and as a human being. As Barth once said of him, “we have to do here with a hero, the like of which is seldom bestowed on Theology” (I would add on mankind). Indeed, one can never study Schleiermacher enough and his thought is the perfect antidote to the unloving, wealth seeking, and socially blind “theology” of the fundamentalists. But—Schleiermacher, like his followers, did not really understand sin or evil, as Barth has so forcefully demonstrated. Indeed, Schleiermacher (along with his old rival Hegel and the mighty Leibniz) baptized sin and evil, making it something willed by the creator as a necessary state in the development of the finite (and hence imperfect) creature. (It should be noted that for Schleiermacher God wills evil only for the sake of redemption, not per se.)

    St. Augustine, Luther, and Barth were more profound on these matters. They perceived that evil is not a mere lack, not a simple imperfection, but the power of death which seeks to twist and ruin the creature’s soul, cutting him off from the love of God and neighbor. Whereas Leibniz and Schleiermacher envision a God whose blissful contemplation of the universe encompasses even evil (either as the price that must be paid to actualize the “best of all possible worlds” or as a necessary stage in its evolution towards perfection), Luther and Barth saw God engaging in a battle against the forces of evil. God loves the creature passionately and when it allows itself to be seduced by evil (Barth calls evil “nothingness” which he says is not nothing), God moves in anger against both. God’s anger against the creature is his “wrathful love” (Luther). This anger is fatherly. Barth names it the No that is totally encompassed within God’s loving Yes to the creature. God says No to the sinful creature so that he may ultimately say the fullest possible Yes to it. But God’s No to evil as such is not encompassed by any Yes. God’s unswerving jealousy, wrath, and judgment are upon it. God has, in fact, already won the battle against evil on Calvary. He swallowed evil up in his Son, so that the creature who lives by faith may be assured that its incursions, however small or great, into his life will not last, and the creature’s conscience may be set at rest in the knowledge that the sins it has committed under the spell of nothingness have been atoned for.

    In all this Luther and Barth spoke more seriously, and hence more truly, concerning sin and evil than master Schleiermacher did. And the older Orthodoxy (which must never be confused with fundamentalism) is similarly profound exactly on the points where Leibniz and Schleiermacher are not.

    But Barth learned much from Schleiermacher (whom he always loved), as he himself admitted. Above all, Barth sided with Schleiermacher on a crucial point in opposition both to the older Orthodoxy and to those liberal theologians who still believe hell might exist due to creaturely freedom (as if enslavement to sin could be an expression of freedom) and God’s respect for it. In opposition to them Barth declares that the Yes that sung creation into being, and declared it to be “very good” (a fact master Leibniz loved to meditate upon), will be the final word of God to every one of his children:

    “It is of major importance at this point that we should not become involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right. It takes place only with the necessity with which it can take place according to its nature and meaning—not with the higher, true and primary necessity with which God is gracious to His creature, but only with the subordinate and transient necessity with which, in virtue of His grace, and to establish its rule, He wills to keep it from evil and save it from its power, and has thus to reckon with evil and take it seriously. This negative activity of God has as such, in accordance with its meaning and nature, a definite frontier, and this is to be found at the point where it attains its goal and accomplishes its purpose. With the attainment of the goal the opus alienum of God also reaches its end. God is indeed eternally holy, pure, distinct and separate from the evil which is nothingness. But this does not mean that He must always strive with this adversary, enduring its opposition and resistance, and Himself exercising His jealousy, wrath and judgment upon it. Surely He will also be holy, and all the more so, when judgment is executed, when the triumph of His love is unchallenged and boundless, and therefore when He is the god who no longer has to do with an enemy but only with His creature. If He now has to do with nothingness, it is only that He may have to do with it no more, but only with His creature in eternally triumphant love.”

  2. Thanks for so many refreshing thoughts. Here's something, though, that I'd like to take issue with:

    The difference between false and true faith, within this stream of thought [Cloud of Unknowing], is that false faith claims to describe accurately the contents of that cloud through precise doctrines and teachings. True faith, by contrast, only reaches upward into mystery, ready to experience the inexpressible, and treats attempts to understand this mystery as fallible speculation that is always open to revision.

    Here's my difficulty: Under this definition of true and false faith, Jesus, Paul and the other NT authors end up as purveyors of the false. They laid a heavy emphasis on objective truth and an objective knowing of God -- a taking away of the veil, knowing as I am known, receiving the truth, etc. Paul, in particular, spoke of "mystery" as a remnant of the old dispensation that has now been superseded by the knowledge of Christ.

    The NT Christians (and Jesus himself, I think) all championed the defense of true ideas and the exploding (and condemning) of false ones ... Paul especially. They didn't seem to lend any support to the vagueness that mystics extol so much. Or the doctrinal ecumenism of the religious left.

    At this point, when I speak to liberal Christians, I usually hear that the NT may not represent the thoughts of the first believers or even of Jesus himself. After all, there were Gnostics, Ebionites, Marcionites who all made the same strenuous claim on the truth. They all had their own scriptures and why should we settle on the NT?

    This is hugely problematic. If we can't even know one way or the other -- in any authoritative sense -- what the early Christians believed, then it's pointless to even talk about Christianity. Isn't it?

    That's why I can't get mad at fundies so much. At least they have a coherent paradigm. I may not like it, but it's logically consistent.