The Ring of Fire

The icon of the 'parousia' shows how Christ is both the source of joy and the source of anguish

The icon of the ‘parousia’ shows how Christ is both the source of joy and the source of anguish

Before I begin with assessing the 3rd part of Alex’s critique of Jesus as a Savior, I need to explain the conception of Hell in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Hell, unfortunately, is depicted to many at a young age as Dante’s Inferno, a place where demons will torture you in gruesome ways beyond description (never mind that Hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels”), a sadistic and malevolent place that makes the worst of human atrocities seem banal. Johnathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God comes to mind. Of course, many who study theology in any of the three major Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) come to realize that hell isn’t an over-amplified version of the Soviet Gulags. Many describe it as the absence of God, but even this is not correct.

Hell, in the Orthodox tradition, is God Himself. God’s grace, or His energies, pours out to all unconditionally at His second coming, and affect each individual depending on the state of their relationship with Him. If a person spent their life living the life of theosis, coming to know God and participating in Him, drawing ever closer into infinity with Him, combating the passions, overcoming sin, learning love, charity, patience, humility, etc, then they experience the fire of God as warmth and joy, one which will continue to deify them for eternity.

Those who have chosen instead to commune with their passions, desires, with anything other than Christ, will experience these same energies as pain, though it is quite literally God’s love that pierces us. We are no longer able to run away from our passions which we have made into our gods, and as they choke us, our own conscience condemns us for having chosen death over Life. It is, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, “the scourge of love” that afflicts us in the afterlife.

For a more robust presentation, as well as its history in Scripture and the Church Fathers, please read this article. With that, let us examine Alex’s piece:

Madoka doesn’t punish those who don’t believe in her or fail to thank her. Jesus sends nonbelievers and sinners to hell

As I mentioned above, Hell is a condition one finds oneself in having rejected Life and communed with sin and death, having made our passions our own god(s). If we are in hell, it is because we have chosen these things instead of Christ, and our reaction to seeing God’s love and grace, the “scourge of love”, is going to hurt. God will return to earth to transform His creation, and He will (and does) love all.

A true savior doesn’t ask for compensation for his/her services.  A savior gives freely without hope of admiration for doing good deeds. And a savior most certainly doesn’t turn right around and slap the ungrateful in the face.  This is why Jesus isn’t a savior at all. He’s a mafia boss offering protection that nobody asked for.  And if you don’t pay your dues, he’ll get back at you another way.

Let’s get one thing clear, theologically: Christ does not need us at all. He doesn’t need us to worship Him, He doesn’t need us to love Him, He doesn’t need us to pray to Him. The Holy Trinity is a communion of Three Persons that are fully within one another and yet distinct: the perfect communion that all men strive towards. God went to the Cross freely and redeemed all of mankind, regardless of whether or not they would accept Him (which is what Pope Francis was trying to say awhile back). There is no compensation for this gift, it is given freely – no works could ever achieve it. Though, I must be clear, I am not advocating Protestantism: while works done outside of Christ can not earn us salvation (i.e., Pelagianism), once we are baptized into Christ and are members of His Body, works are transformed and indeed are salvific (“work out your salvation in fear and trembling”). But at no point does God owe us this. Furthermore, to reiterate, hell is our experience of God when He returns, and He is going to return to save His creation whether we want him to or not.

In contrast, Madoka doesn’t demand any worship whatsoever.  In fact, her circumstances actually make worship impossible because only Homura knows that she ever existed and besides the words of the “prophet” we can never even determine objectively that Homura’s claims are true.

Man’s worship of God is his way of participating in Him, and thus being deified by Him. The effects of worship are going to be for our benefit since, as I just said, God doesn’t need it. One of course may choose not to worship God since love is freely given, but I do put forward that this is the response man has when he truly beholds God’s glory (something no one reading this has probably done). The disciples themselves were dumbfounded when they saw this, Peter telling the Lord that he would be willing to build three tabernacles (and as a theological aside, the light beheld was nothing else than the uncreated energies of God). I’m sure Alex would disagree with me on this, but that his prerogative.

Furthermore, Madoka doesn’t require worship because the metaphysical tradition that is being emulated in the show is Buddhism, in which Karma flows through each person and which there is no central deity that is the ground of being. For me to critique this would to enter into a far larger debate which I have no intentions of doing in these responses.

She did what she did because it was the right thing to do.  This ties in with the secular outlook on why we do good deeds and why Madoka is once again an awesome example of a humanistic hero.  Like Madoka, if we live our lives freely doing good deeds, the only reward we really need is the happiness of knowing that you helped someone out.

Once again, I pointed out in my first post the problems any kind of moral system derived from a physicalist paradigm run into, and that it leads us eventually to moral nihilism (amongst other things). If there is no ontological basis for calling something good, if there really is no ought, then honestly, why should I care? If there is no rational basis for morality, then why give it the time of day? Look, I’ll be blunt, unless this problem can be solved – which I don’t think it can for the physicalist – for one to tout Secular Humanism is just as deluded as believing in an ‘Old Man in the Sky’ who gives us rules to follow [pro-tip, no Christian should believe in this anyways – it’s heresy]. Neither system is based upon reality, which is why I have never understood this New-Athiest obsession with Secular Rights. If naturalism is true, then human rights don’t exist. “You have all these rules [Batman], and you think they’ll save you…”

Christians all too often do their good because they’ve been told that “belief is not enough to save you, good works are needed, too,” and so they help others because it’s been mandated by a higher power.  Or more selfishly they put up a facade of kindness because doing so will reap them rewards in the afterlife.

Yes, many Christians begin fighting against their own self-will, which is inclined to sin, because they know that it is by their works they will be judged. However, doing good deeds to avoid hell has always been seen as the most base way to be saved and betrays a spiritual immaturity in the believer (after all, “perfect love casts out fear”). As one progresses in their relationship with God, one finds oneself doing these acts out of love for one’s neighbor, and a genuine desire to encounter Christ with every person we meet since all are made in God’s image. Do not many children learn not to misbehave first by more corporal forms of punishment, and then slowly out of a love for their parents? The main reason I fear to upset my Mom and Dad is not because of any kind of punishment, but because of the disappointment and grief I would cause them. I love them both, and as such I want to bring joy to them, not the opposite. The fear of God is supposed to become a fear of being away from God because we love Him.1

As for the “facade”, one would think that God could see through this given that He is omniscient. However, from Elder Paisios the Athonite:

Elder, Abba Isaac writes, “No kind of repentance that takes place after the removal of our free will 2 will be a well-spring of joy, nor will it be reckoned for the reward of those who possess it.” How can anyone repent without exercising his own free will?

– One may be forced to repent, having fallen in the eyes of others around him, but such repentance has no humility. This is how I understand it.

Do you mean that there is repentance that is not voluntary?

– Yes, it is compulsory repentance. I ask you to forgive me for some harm I have caused to you so that I may be spared the consequences, but I have not changed inside. A fiendish person will pretend to have repented, and will proceed cunningly, offering prostrations with feigned kindness, to deceive others.

When someone goes to tell his sins to a Spiritual Father merely because he is afraid of going to hell, even this is not true repentance. He’s not repenting for his sins, he’s afraid of going to hell!

True repentance means that one is first aware of his sins, is pained by them, asks God for forgiveness, and then goes and confesses them. This is why I always recommend Repentance and Confession together. I never recommend Confession alone.

Notice, for example, what happens when we have an earthquake. You see those who have a good disposition will be moved deeply, they will repent and change their way of life. But the majority of people keep this fear of God only for a short period of time; and when the danger is past, they resume their former sinful life. This is why, when someone told me that there had recently been a very strong earthquake in his hometown, I told him, “It shook you up, but did it really wake you up?” “It woke us up,” he said. Then I said, “Sure, but you’ll go back to sleep again”.3

Back to Alex’s piece:

You should never be compelled to do the right thing because you’re hanging to the edge of a cliff and someone who can save you tells you that you must dedicate your life to your rescuer, otherwise you’re going to get pushed.

Of course, as seen above, this isn’t why Christians should be doing good works either. However, let’s just roll with this for a second: why can’t I do good works for this reason? On what ontological grounds can you show me that this would be wrong? If morality is arbitrary and irrational, then really I could do ‘good’ or ‘bad’ works for whatever reason (or lack of) I want.

Looking at the flip side of the situation, what does it say about the character of the helper if all they’re thinking about is how being nice can be of some benefit?

Note that earlier Alex said there was an innate reward in doing good, which is “the happiness of knowing that you helped someone out.” Couldn’t this be an impediment to good works since it is ultimately striving after a fleeting feeling of self-satisfaction rather than thinking about the other person? Couldn’t, hypothetically, someone do good works solely or largely for these positive feelings about oneself, and thus build up a mental image that “I am a kind, loving person” or “I am charitable and selfless”, etc?

True salvation is given unconditionally and Madoka passes this test where Jesus fails.

True salvation means one is saved from something. Christ, if we follow Him, saves us from the powers of sin and death and transfigures us into loving, righteous, joyful, deified human beings. Quite literally, “ye are gods.” He just won’t do it against our will.

Footnotes:
1It is here that I break off with my Protestant bloggers: works are indeed salvific, but only works that are done in synergy with Christ, or works in Christ. In this case, we are co-workers with God in our salvation, and are transformed by His grace that we must cooperate with. This is not Pelagianism, nor is it ‘meritorious’ – it is the classic Christian doctrine of synergy. For more, see: Russel, N. Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis. [amazon] One may also see the article I linked at the beginning of this post.

2Given the context of the passion, I think it is clear that St. Isaac doesn’t mean the removal of “free-will” as a facet of man, or that he literally loses the ability to choose. This becomes clearer by Elder Paisios’s example.

3John Sanidopoulos. Elder Paisios: On True and False Repentance. From Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels: “Spiritual Struggle” (vol. 3). http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/09/elder-paisios-on-forced-and-false.html

Picture References
http://saintlukecolumbia.squarespace.com/storage/icons/deutera_parousia.png?

The Problem is Choice, Mr. Anderson…

It is probably premature of me to write a response before the argument is finished, but this morning I saw a post on TWWK’s blog about how Alex of Ashita no Anime is writing a series of posts on why Madoka is better than Jesus as a savior. Needless to say, I knew I would bite before even finishing the first sentence.

Alex begins his argument as such:

Madoka started as a humble human who transcended existence.  Jesus was always a god, which calls into question the logic of his methodology and thereby also the validity of said godhood.

Now, many would point out that Madoka’s very humanity is a metaphysical impediment to salvation to begin with: how can a mere man save mankind? If one is of the same ontological essence as their savior with no difference, then on what grounds can one human be lifted up as savior over the entire race? Any moral, spiritual, ethical, etc., advancement would have nothing to do with ones ontology, but rather how far one progressed upon a path of those categories, which means the locus of salvation still lies outside of the person. Indeed, Madoka’s own transformation is because of the karmic power of the universe, something that while humans interact with, ultimately lays external to them, and as such it is that karmic power that is the actual saving factor and not Madoka. While Madoka interacted with it on an unprecedented level, metaphysically speaking that could have been granted to whomever since no humans are ontologically different from one another in the Puella universe. This is why Madoka is far more akin to a Bodhisattva than Christ since she herself is not the locus of salvation. While she may certainly help man with their enlightenment (just as the saints help us with deification), she is not the savior. If this debate sounds familiar, its because its what the Catholic missionaries and the Buddhists argued about when Roman Catholicism was introduced to Japan in the 16th century.

Alex continues:

Madoka is a wonderful example of a humanistic hero because if anything in humanism can be called a “commandment” it is the willingness of people to give of themselves for the sake of others.  Although she was just a person, Madoka realized that she possessed the potential to save many.  She gave all of herself willingly and completely for the sake of others with no thought of reciprocation. In a twist of logic that I like to think of as a natural kind of altruistic karma, she received a reward of sorts—a change in her very nature that is at least equivalent to what most people could consider a demigod.

There are multiple ideas going on in this paragraph, some that I even agree with. First, I want to speak on humanism, but specifically from the point of naturalism1 (since humanists are not committed to naturalism, and my critique only affects the latter). I will be using naturalism here as synonymous with physicalism, the philosophical position that only physical objects and systems exist. The logical implication is that metaphysics thus do not exist, and that as such metaphysical claims – most pertinently those of religions – are false. Of course, if one is both a naturalist and a humanist, then the teleological and moral values of humanism seem to be undermined by naturalism since such values are not in and of themselves part of nature. Let me explain.

Since the naturalist is committed to a stance of rejecting metaphysics, it means that all values must have an ontological root within the fabric of nature. In other words, they must exist intrinsically within nature. If not, then moral values are just as illusory as the other metaphysical concepts (i.e., God) that are rejected by the naturalist. Now, there is a distinction I need to make here: the difference between the concept of morality or teleology and the content of those concepts. There is no doubt that the concept of morality can be seen in nature: humans have written countless works on ethics and teleology just as they have about supernatural phenomenon, myths, theology, etc. We can measure the neuron and brain patters that fire off via fMRI scans when we deliberate about such concepts, and we can view the innumerable amount of spiritual artifacts left behind by almost every human civilization. The concept of morality and teleology, just as the concept of God, can no doubt to be said to exist within nature.

But what about the content of those concepts? After all, evolutionary psychology touts that many of our altruistic behaviors and intention-seeking patterns are part of our genetic makeup, things we have inherited from the long history of evolution. We tend to group together and act altruistically because pack-mentality was an aid to our survival and thus the propagation of our genes. Our ancestors sought out purpose and meaning because its what helped them to make sense of their chaotic surroundings and thus survive, or perhaps because its a by-product of consciousness. Hence, we see such moral and teleological values inherit within our species, and have no need to fear of any kind of ‘metaphysical boogiemen’ to force us to face nihilism. To be good is in our genes.

Then again, so is to rape, to steal, to murder, to cheat, to lie, to deceive, to commit infidelity, to do all the common actions that blind us or others from that which is good or beneficiary for the ‘well-being of conscious creatures’.2 Not to mention, our propensity for religious belief and other concepts (i.e., free will) also likely have evolutionary roots (which no Christian would even feel bothered by), but the naturalist rejects these as illusory. Morality and teleology are no different, as evolution does not provide us with ontological truths, but merely survival mechanisms, regardless of their falsity or validity. In order for morality and teleology to exist rationally they have to have a root within nature. Nature mustNietzche say ‘man ought to survive’, ‘man ought to have value’, but of course nature does no such thing. Nature simply is. Values of these sorts are human constructions, but they do not have any actual reality to them, any kind of substance. They are just as fictitious as the metaphysical gods rejected by the naturalist.

One of course could shift into subjectivity: so there is no moral objectivity, so what? I can still choose my own moral system. The problem of determinism aside, subjective ethics suffer from the same problems as objective ethics, or at least if one wants to remain rational (which is the whole drive of the New Atheist movement, after all). We can choose criterion to base our subjective ethics off of: happiness, liberty, well-being, safety, etc., but these suffer from the same critique as above as there is no inherent reason to pick any of these values as they have no ontological root. Thus, even if one builds such a subjective (really, consequentialist) moral system, it could be perfectly consistent, it could even achieve the goals it wishes, but it most certainly is not rational for there is no rational reason to pick any value over another. In fact, one could very well take the most caricatured depiction of hell, (or while I’m at it, the non-caricature of double-predestination!) and say that this is the reason they think Jesus is a better savior than Madoka, or is a better God than any god, and there could be no rational response from the naturalist as all these values are not only subjective, but are just down-right fables.

I know this has been a large tangent for just one sentence, but it is of key importance: if indeed naturalism leads, as I have been hinting, to both moral and teleological (and epistemic) nihlism, then any rational critique given can only be that God is inconsistent with His own system, and nothing more. The real problem for anyone holding this philosophical position is that if values indeed do not have any ontological grounding, then on what grounds do we even value rationality?

Although she was just a person, Madoka realized that she possessed the potential to save many.  She gave all of herself willingly and completely for the sake of others with no thought of reciprocation. In a twist of logic that I like to think of as a natural kind of altruistic karma, she received a reward of sorts—a change in her very nature that is at least equivalent to what most people could consider a demigod.

As I pointed out above it is the karmic power laden within the universe, and not Madoka, that is the locus of salvation. That said, Alex’s statement is still correct since he’s only talking about potential – I’m just reiterating my point. I agree with his next two sentences as the show leaves little room to argue: Madoka’s decision was based upon her love for others and her empathy with their suffering, and her accepting the contract turned into a demigod (Bodhisattva, really). Christians could have recourse to the problem of change and that if one changes it means they are inherently not perfect, but I have a feeling that would mean little to most reading.

Alex then begins his critique of Christ:

Jesus on the other hand started as god and was always a god.  Even having taken human form he was still a god, omniscient and omnipotent.  The incomprehensible process of having to sacrifice himself and come right back begs the question of why he didn’t just set up the system the right way to begin with.  Why create everything just to change it a few thousand years after the beginning of recorded history?  Why have any old testament at all if the current status quo was always going to be the end result?

Alex, of course, is correct in that Christ was still fully divine even after His incarnation. To answer his question as to “Why create everything just to change it a few thousand years after the beginning of recorded history,” one needs recourse to Genesis and the fall of man. It was not God’s intention that man is in the current state he is – broken, fallen, and sick, enslaved to the powers of sin and death – but Adam, so to speak, broke the fast and partook of the knowledge of good and evil before he was ready to. Wait — what?

More than one Church Father has explained Genesis in this light: Adam and Eve, while not fallen, were still child-like in that they were to continue to grow with God, even before the fall (in fact we never stop growing and communing deeper with God since He is by nature infinite). It is not that they were so oblivious as to know not to disobey God (after all, Eve’s first response to the serpent was the recollection of God’s commandment), but rather they were in a constant processes growing with God by participating in God’s grace. Certain Church Fathers even saw that outside of Paradise was chaos. Perhaps this is because God’s plan was that Adam and Eve were to bring those areas into paradise as part of their synergy in working with God, and thereby drawing closer to Him (such a view lends itself nicely to Theistic Evolutionists). Yet, they disobeyed, and when they did such they decided to commune with death rather than Life, non-existence rather than the Source of existence, and thus an ontological rift was made that would affect themselves and the rest of mankind to come. Yet God let this happen since He bestowed man with free-will since love must be given freely for it to be love. If Adam and Eve had no free will, indeed if none of us had free-will, then Christianity would be utterly incomprehensible.

Thus the incarnation of Jesus Christ to heal this rift, to destroy this barrier. One must understand that living in a traditionally Protestant nation, there seems to be a focus on solely Christ’s work on the Cross, with the Resurrection being proof of this work. But in Orthodoxy, Christ’s entire life is salvific, as the incarnation joins the human and divine natures without confusion (meaning the essences do not mix to create a synthesis) under the God-man Jesus Christ, allowing for the human nature to become deified. Christ lives out his life all the way up until adulthood (which encompasses all of adulthood regardless of age) so that he can sanctify each step, so that we may live each of those steps in Him and be healed. The same is true of His being tempted, of His baptism, of His death.

resurrection2Christ’s death sanctifies death so that it can be a gateway to life, so that by dying we can die within Christ. Furthermore, Christ’s death, since he is the Source of Life, destroys the very powers of sin and death, a reality represented in Orthodox icons of the Resurrection in which Christ stands on top of the gates of Hades themselves, lifting Adam and Eve out of their graves, while the saints of the Old Testament look on in awe and wonder. The incarnation then has further implications, as even if Adam and Eve had not fallen there still would have to of been a Theotokos, a God-bearer, as it is only by uniting the two natures that we could be deified.

Looking at Jesus from this perspective makes him seem rather callous for allowing people to suffer death for so long when he could have done something about it sooner and capricious as well for having to go through so many loops to achieve something that the all-powerful creator of the universe could have accomplished by snapping his fingers and being done with it.

The problem, of course, is free-will: it is not that God could not have saved man earlier (in fact he tells the Israel that the coming of the Messiah is delayed because of their sins, if I remember correctly), but it is that man himself is stubborn and resists God. Salvation takes place in time since man himself is a temporal creature, and as such it was not until the ‘coming of time’ (I forget the exact passage, may someone remind me of it?!) that Christ was to be incarnate. He waited until there was one who was the perfect icon of what the nation of Israel was supposed to be, the perfect icon of the Church: The Virgin Mary. It was precisely because the Virgin Mary was perfectly obedient in her entire life, and because she was to be the new Eve, that God chose her to be the Mother of God, the Theotokos. Had Mary declined, Christ would have not of been incarnate. Such a view may scandalize many, but for Orthodox Christians this only makes sense since God calls us to be co-workers in our salvation, taking the grace God gives us and working with Him – just as Adam and Eve were suppose to – and that Mary’s acceptance of her role was the ultimate act of synergy between God and man. Had she denied this role, then she would not have been the living Ark of the Covenant that she is, as her disobedience would be yet another example of the Garden, another example of what Israel constantly was doing: betraying God. Yet, it is precisely because she did accept that God used her to bear the Incarnation.

So the ‘many loops’ are largely set up by ourselves and because of our nature, and one can read more if they study the Patristic understanding of Christ’s life and work on the Cross. St. Athanasius does point out that while God could ‘nod His head’, man would simply continue to fall over and over again. This only makes sense as Adam and Eve now have the knowledge of good and evil, and since God won’t deprive them of their free will, we have a never ending cycle of falling from grace. Furthermore, it is by the incarnation that Christ finally ends this, as he accepts the Holy Spirit at His baptism so that in our baptism we receive the Spirit, our ability to once again not lose this grace since it is secure because of Christ in His human nature.

Alex then proceeds to argue why Madoka is better:

In short, Madoka saw suffering and injustice and upon realizing she had the capability to right this wrong, she was moved to action.  Jesus on the other hand sat on his butt for untold millennia watching the people he claims to love writhe in pain and die without salvation before finally getting around to doing something about it.

Madoka only acted upon this in the last time line, she had told Homura to prevent her from becoming a Magical Girl before (not to mention the multiple times she became a witch, even destroying the earth). This is because, unbeknownst to her, Madoka had to wait for karmic time lines to build up in order for her transformation to occur since it is karma and not herself that is the locus of salvation. Christ, on the other hand, had to deal with what humanity gave Him after humanity had first rejected Him (something that is completely absent in Madoka since it’s based upon Buddhism and not Christianity) and when the time came, He most certainly acted. Humans, unfortunately, tend to be a little recalcitrant.

Update: Cytrus of Yaranakya has made a reply from a Buddhist perspective.

Footnotes
1 I speak on naturalism specifically because of private e-mail exchanges that Alex and I have had in which he has claimed this philosophical position, though the term we used there was ‘physicalism’.
2 The term is from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.

[Review] Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins

“Did Muhammad exist? The full truth of whether a prophet named Muhammad lived in seventh-century Arabia, and if he did, what sort of a man he was, may never be known. But it would be intellectually irresponsible not to ask the question or consider the implications of the provocative evidence that pioneering scholars have assembled.”

Though this is the penultimate paragraph of Rober Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, it is nevertheless the sole paragraph that should be taken away from this book. Spencer articulates this largely in the beginnings of his work, explaining that Islam should be subject to the same higher criticism that both Christianity and Judaism have undergone for centuries already. With this point, I am in complete accordance; the God debate in America is usually limited to Christianity since, after all, historically America has been predominately Christian in its religion of choice. However, being one the world’s most adhered to religions, Islam should not be an exception to this dialogue – and by no means am I saying it has not been at all. Unfortunately, some scholars who had probed this ground have all too predictably (and sadly) been the target of death threats (and, let me be upfront now that I obviously do not believe that all Muslims act in this fanatic demeanor. I have had the pleasure of having both kind, and compassionate Muslim co-workers, as well a close friend since my youth).

Spencer’s book is a reconstruction of Islam’s history based upon a critical review of the evidence. Rather than adhering to the canonical story of Islam’s origins, Spencer uses the contemporary data of the time to hypothesize that the earliest Muslims were actually an ambiguous monotheistic group who held to both Judaism and Christianity, albeit with Arian overtones (Arianism is the heresy that Christ was not co-equal with God the Father in his divinity, and was the subject of the first two Ecumenical Councils). To buttress his position, Spencer shows that there was no mention of a Quar’an, Muhammed, or Islam within the first many decades of the Arabs conquest, and that contemporary accounts on both sides fail to mention these items. Furthermore, Arab coinage originally had shown a figure (already a prohibition of Islam’s iconoclasm) with a crown carrying a cross, and it was not until later that the coins no longer bore such images. To add to this, he surveys the lack of any corroboration of Mecca in the purported time that Muhammed began his religious quest, not to mention the plethora of warring hadiths in the 7-8th centuries. Most interesting is his chapter on the Quar’an itself; Spencer argues that the Quar’an, far from being purely Arabic in origin, was originally a Syriac Lexicon that had morphed over time. He relies heavily off of the work of Christoph Lüxenberg to show how the diacritical marks which were non-existent in the oldest copies of the Quar’an, were likely misplaced, and that when redone come out with heavily Christian passages, going as far to include a liturgical reference to the Eucharist. Such claims are hard to take a face value, but Spencer goes in passage by passage to explain where the mistakes were made. If all this is true, then it would undoubtedly be devastating for Islam.

But that is exactly where the problem is.

Spencer’s work relies heavily off of fringe, revisionist scholarship, which while it should not be dismissed outright, should also be examined against more mainstream scholarship – but this view is missing from Spencer’s work. Thus, it seems convincing, but one is unsure of what the response would be. In other words, this is as if one had merely picked up any Jesus Mythicist book and uncritically accepted all the facts within. There is one reviewer on Amazon that has taken issue with Spencer in this regard, and has done a fair job in opposing his claims. For example, one of the works Spencer utilizes in his reconstruction is Patricia Crone’s Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, a work “in which she [Crone] demonstrated that one of the principal foundations of the canonical Islamic biography of Muhammad – its Arabian setting, with Mecca as a center for trade – was not supported by any contemporary records.” (pg. 13) However, Crone later on disregarded this theory as shown in her contemporary work. Furthermore, Lüxenberg philiological work remains in the realm of possibility, lacking any corroborating evidence that would solidify his claims. However, the worst omission of evidence on Spencer’s part is the tombstone of Abassa ibn Guraig, an artifact that dates to 691 A.D. and makes specific references to Allah, Islam, and Muhammed the Prophet. Perhaps there are responses to these claims, perhaps not, but ultimately if one wants to know they will need to search elsewhere.

Is Spencer’s book worth reading? I would say yes, purely for the fact that it seems to be an amalgam of revisionist scholarship with a very interesting thesis. I would not venture as to say that all of Spencer’s conjectures are off-base, and certainly some of the facts he provides seem startling. At the very least it was an enjoyable read as I was able to learn far more about Islam than I had really ever known (which was close to nothing), though I am sure there are far better books that are actually geared to such a topic. My only other complaint, far less substantial, is that Spencer’s tone seems to get harsher as the book goes on, criticizing the morals of the Quar’an, and at one point even making a comparison between Christianity and Islam, stating that the former is a religion of love and the latter is not. While I firmly believe Christianity is a religion of love (I am Eastern Orthodox, after all), such a comparison seems trite and unwarranted to Islam. Even if one does believes differently, such moral judgments (which Spencer makes many) are not really relevant in a book that is suppose to be a work of history and critical scholarship.

 

[Review] Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

David Bentley Hart’s book, ‘Atheist Delusions’, should be read by everyone one each side of the current God debate in our time. Hart’s work, which bares a polemical title that he himself did not want, is not an apologetic of the validity of Christian belief, but rather a systemic debunking of the many myths of modernity, specifically those leveraged at Christian belief. The commonly touted (but hardly sustainable) critiques such as Christianity being an impediment to the development of science (including that oft highly misrepresented account of Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church), that it has been the source for countless wars (it has not), etc.

However, the more powerful parts of Hart’s work are in his third and fourth sections where he first details the world of pagan antiquity (filled with its vapid and nihilistic religions with a correspondingly inane culture), and how Christianity completely revolutionized how people saw themselves; personal individuality for all peoples, human rights, the beginning of the end for slavery, and more. The fourth section details the retreat of this paradigm and the uncertain future that society now goes to. Though Hart may seem like a bit of an alarmist in this section (something he is aware of consciously), his critiques and shuddering at some of the moral ideas put forward (systemic infanticide of all children with retardation, selective breeding for the benefit of the human gene pool, etc) are all supported by the works of major philosophers and other intellectual giants of the modern era.

This book, by no means, is likely going to convince someone of Christian truth, but that was never it’s goal. Rather, it is a powerful refutation of ignorance, a destroyer of historical myths that have become all to common, regardless if they are used with an anti-religious polemic driving them or not. That alone makes this book worth reading.