Don’t shy away because this blog is about religion, and specifically about Christianity. If you are a Christian be assured that it will not be an attack on your spirituality. I have enough curiosity left to become agitated when good scientists, even some great ones, discard some of their valuable time trying to prove or disprove the unprovable, to wit, the existence of God. Presumably it is religious dogma that drives them to such windmill chasing but a belief in God is a valid and reasonable position. Very few Christians believe that our solar system is earth centric or that the earth is six or seven thousand years old.
So, imagining ourselves to be devout Christians, we believe certain truths to be the basis of our faith: that Christ was the Son of God; that he became human and died a dreadful death to redeem us; that he resurrected on the third day after death; and that while he was alive he preached a message telling us how to live a decent life so that we could be assured of being saved.
Assuming all of this to be true, such events are beyond any phenomena that we know of, leaving even Big Bang and Quantum Mechanics as minor puzzles. By its very nature such an event cannot have a human history. But that supposed history is one of the reasons that we Christians are told to study, learn and obey the Old Testament. Yet, when Jesus came to redeem us, at such a terrible cost to himself, we already had the teachings of the Bible and by themselves they were patently not enough to save us.
The second reason justifying the study of the Old Testament is because of the royal descent of Jesus. Mary, His mother, is identified as a direct descendant of King David, the great Jewish King of Israel. However, Mary arrived some two thousand years after David (80 plus generations) and, as you know, your direct ancestors double each generation i.e. two parents, four grandparents and so on. This means that everybody in the Middle East, in Mary’s time, was a direct descendant of David many times over. The most extraordinary example of this misunderstanding of simple arithmetic came from the Bishop of Paris when, during the internment of Napoleon on Elba, he managed to include in his sermon to the aristocratic congregation in Notre Dame the immortal sentence that ‘Not only was Jesus Christ the Son of God but, equally, He came from an excellent family’.
The third, highly suspect, reason offered for such studies of the Old Testament is the use of the oxymoron of Judeo — Christian Civilisation, which manages to suggest that both histories are somewhat superior and joined at the hip. This has the advantage of allowing us to support the current irascible government in Israel whilst conveniently forgetting our extraordinarily horrendous treatment of Jews during the entire Christian Era.
As there does not seem to be a valid reason why we as Christians should be paying so much attention to the Old Testament, the suspicion must be that it is for the purpose of control. As a testament it is as exciting as a violent thriller. Blood and gore in abundance, a chosen people, famine, plague and fire heaped upon nations, concubines, lions, people turned into pillars of salt, and overseeing it all, a wrathful God shouting from the heavens. Much more colorful than the gentle stories and admonitions of the Saviour of the New Testament. There is even evidence that the suspicion of control is valid. When William Tyndall, in Henry VIII’s time, was rash enough to translate the New Testament into English he was hung and burnt for having the gall to make Christ’s message available to those who had no Latin. Reducing control of His message was, indubitably, a Capital crime!
When I was a young Catholic, and an altar boy to boot, we had religious instruction six days a week and then Mass on Sundays with further lessons. Added to this were Rosaries, Novenas, Benedictions, parades and Holy Days. It seemed as though the world was fueled by religion. Our Christian Doctrine classes were heavily weighted in favor of the Old Testament, particularly the Ten Commandments and even the study of these was hopelessly biased in favor of the Fifth, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ and the Sixth, ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’.
The Fifth was not much trouble, although we were taught which minor variations of it, such as intentionally causing injury, were a sin. Most of our studies relating to it were Jesuitical excuses for just wars. This was despite the fact that most wars were driven by imperialism, brute nationalism, racism or just greed. They never did explain how, despite the clarity of the Commandment, legal executions were acceptable. In my (innocent) childhood neither abortion, prostitutes nor child abuse were believed to exist in Ireland, and so were not included in any discussion.
The Sixth however was the bane of our lives. Entire libraries could have been filled with the innumerable ways it could be broken: improper thoughts, lecherous behavior, unapproved company of the opposite sex, masturbation and on and on and on. Anything could be included under the heading of an ‘Occasion of Sin’.
In those teenage years of living with tyrannical hormones, confession was difficult. I used to confess my love for Doris Day. That seemed to meet the requirements of each confessor although that particular love was as pure as a mountain spring. Mostly though, it avoided the need to list the occasions of sin that dogged every minute of life; from the girl three doors down, to the salacious curves of some highly improper trees!
I once had the privilege of listening to a well known actor describing her experience of confession as an Irish schoolgirl. Her most chillingly funny story went something like this:
“Bless me father for I have sinned”.
“What do you want to confess, my child?”
“I was courting father”
Any damage done”.
“Yes father “.
“Above or below the waist”.
“Ooh, above only father”
He gave her penance and absolution but then instead of closing the privacy flap, he leaned forward to the grill and whispered to her, “tell your father I’ll be over for bridge later”.
The New Testament does not really worry about such childish issues, so it is easy to see why the Old Testament was needed for control. Jesus himself reduced all rules to just two Great Commandments, the essence of which can be expressed as: Love the Lord thy God and love thy neighbour. It remains difficult to believe that they were actual commandments, they seem much more like advice.
The first of these commandments is somewhat difficult but it can be interpreted as Jesus simply advising us that a God exists. He did not specify a Jewish, Christian or any other particular God; He just said thy God. That can be read in many different, positive ways. For a nonbeliever it is perfectly rational to accept it as advice to put your soul, your love and honesty into your passion, whether that passion is science or the humanities, from your love of your own garden to the global environment or the entire cosmos itself.
The second can be recognised as the perfect guide to the path of our civilisation. He did not say love thy white, black, female, male, Samaritan or Jewish, rich or poor neighbour. You cannot love your neighbour by treating them unfairly, killing them for a little more power or land or failing to recognise their individual gender or sexual orientation. Nor can you deny them the medical attention they need nor the quality of education they ought to have just because they have no money. Your neighbour is the entirety of humankind, good or bad. Love in this context is not to be taken as our current understanding of human romance, but instead as a lack of hatred and at least an attempt to understand your neighbour’s history and difficulties. Finally, your best effort to forgive. Seemingly simple, it is excruciatingly difficult to follow such advice, yet the right thing to do. It means that as a conservative Christian you may detest the act of abortion but must empathise with the person who performs it. Alternatively, if you are a liberal, you may loathe the deeds of a Trump or a Johnson and even those who, despite knowing exactly what both of them are, continue to enable them for their own nefarious purpose, but you must still empathise with all of them. Ah well! He never said it would be easy.
The Christian faith is similar to all other creeds in that it is divided into thousands of different sects, each one insisting that their particular view of it all is the one true faith. Too often the separations are driven by the Old Testament. But for Christians, it is completely illogical to rely on pre-Christian texts to support that faith, however interesting and wise those texts are. Instead Christians should concentrate on the gentle and loving message of the New Testament. Put energy and truth into your passion and love thy neighbour! Give it socks while you’re at it!