Extraordinary Claims


Photo Thomas Bresson, CC BY 3.0., via Wikimedia Commons

There was a quote in our order of service this week, by Frederick Buechner from The Hungering Dark:

So what is left to us then is the greatest question of them all.  How do we know whether or not this truth is true? How do we find out for ourselves whether in this child born so long ago there really is the power to give us a new kind of life in which both suffering and joy are immeasurably deepened, a new kind of life in which little by little we begin to be able to love even our friends, at moments maybe even our enemies, maybe at last even ourselves, even God? Adeste fidelis. That is the only answer that I know for people who want to find out whether or not this is true.  Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light.  Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough, at least to draw near and see for yourselves.

I feel like that is what I’ve been doing for decades. I’m open to all evidence, but also skeptical and questioning. If it’s to be based on personal experience, I want that experience for myself. I’ve prayed for that for years. I’ve read other people’s experiences and tried and trusted and hoped and yearned. A dear Christian friend who I told about my recent conversion, has pointed me to “The dark night of the soul”, which I have yet to read, but basically saying that I needed a personal experience, rather than more apologetics. I have yet to read the book, so musings on that will have to wait for a later post.

But the fact remains that there is a lack of personal experience. My observation of and accounts from people claiming such experiences do not convince me. In short, there’s nothing I’ve seen or heard of that couldn’t be explained as a brain function or an outright lie. My own incident, when my eye was “healed”, I now see in somewhat different terms, which I might post about later.

So that leaves me with the evidence supporting the historicity of Christ. This will be the focus of the next few posts looking at the main events of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, and the credibility of the evidence. In this post, I want to give an overview and context.

I want to first touch on why I embarked on this journey. I disagree with my mother on a number of issues. She is a reasonably typical right-wing Christian, and while I try not to bring up the many issues on which we disagree, I sometimes rise to the bait that she offers. The biggest issues we discuss are evolution and climate change (though there are others). A typical exchange will go like this:

Mum’s email: “I thought you might find this interesting:” followed by a click-bait email from some group she’s signed up to. I get the impression that in 90% of the cases she hasn’t read the forward or the links in it.

Me: “Mum, I read your forward with interest.” followed by links to several (more credible) responses, or a discussion of the topic pitched at a level that I feel she could engage on.

Mum: “Don’t see why you can’t see both points of view. I just follow the evidence, and I’m able to spot an agenda when I see one.”

Repeat three weeks later.

This went on for many years, and I can remember feeling so frustrated that she seemed both unwilling to engage on the topics, but unchanging in the tenacity of her beliefs, despite rebuttals and debunkings of specific items on which her beliefs seemed to hang.

Then I thought, “I, at least, read both sides and try to form an opinion based on this.”

And then I thought, “don’t I?”

And then I realized that I hadn’t questioned the historicity of Christ in the same way.  “What do atheists make of the evidence for the life of Christ? Are they really as blind to it as I suppose?”

I started searching for overviews of books that really tackle that specific issue. I had read Dawkins and similar, but found them trite on this issue.  I found a well-organised website that listed atheist books by theme, and scrolled down to the section on Jesus. Here I chose, more or less at random, a book called Cutting Jesus Down to Size. I wasn’t too worried about which book I read first, as I was planning to read several.

I remember telling someone at church that I was reading this book, and their response was “why would anyone write such a stupid book?” The idea of blasphemy, that certain things are so bad that even voicing them is wrong, is a powerful deterrent to the wrong kind of exploration within Christianity.

But I was convinced that all truth was God’s truth, and so I was unafraid. I thought, at least, I’d find some more rebuttals from Christianity to answer the claims of the book and read both sides. I was only half way through when the entire edifice of my faith fell around my ears.

This was, as you may imagine, somewhat disconcerting. My mental paths to follow certain patterns of thought are so deeply entrenched, my social life revolves around my beliefs, and my identity are so entwined with my faith, that this shift was not undertaken lightly. In short, I found the evidence (or lack thereof) overwhelming. I was dumbfounded that I had not seen it before. I felt like the scales fell off my eyes. I felt like a fool, embarrassed at my own previous credulity. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claims lacked even weak evidence.

While I’m continuing to think and read, and I’m certainly open to reading more Christian authors, what I read was sufficient to convince me to read such books from the other side (Update March 2017: Interestingly, I no longer really buy the central premise of Cutting Jesus Down to Size – that was not the most interesting part of it anyway).

This isn’t quite the post I was planning, so further discussion of the bible will have to wait until the next one, but this was helpful for me, and who do you think I’m writing it for anyway?!