The celebration is likely to be muted, with most partygoers on December 31st pausing just after the clock strikes midnight to check whether the lights still work. But behind all the hoopla, what exactly is being celebrated?
Don't worry, this is not a sermon. In fact, earnest religious folk may well be rather disappointed by what they read here. Nonetheless, I'm going to point out what is surprisingly absent from most reflections on the coming millennium: that its whole purpose is to mark the 2,000th year since the birth of one Jesus, son of a carpenter and his wife in a remote part of the Roman Empire.
That event - and the life and death and alleged resurrection that followed it - is the most extraordinary ever lived. It demands our attention, our verdict. Was (is?) this itinerant preacher the human embodiment of the creator of the universe, or not?
If we look at the evidence and answer "Yes", then you and I have no choice but to re-arrange the rest of our own lives. If it's "No", then no such change is needed. But if we want to be true to ourselves, we do have to look at that evidence! It is a terrible waste of a human mind - at the least - to not bother, to look aside, to be intellectually idle and ignore it, trying to straddle the fence or pretend the question has not been asked.
See, the claim is itself unique. No other religious leader (Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius...) ever made such a claim. Jesus did; there's no doubt of that. Aside therefore from assorted patients in mental institutions, he's an unique human being. He showed no signs of schizophrenia, he was a very well balanced and well-admired individual, and yet he claimed to be God in human form. That combination - stability of character, extremity of claim - demands a verdict.
He made it, his followers made it at once after his death, and continued doing so at the cost of their own lives in the decades following - and wrote it down, in a form which we can read today. For what it's worth, the deity of Jesus is central to the declaration of belief in the first Church Council, in Nicea in A.D. 325; and has been central in all church creeds expressed ever since. So there it is, the claim. Is it true, or not?
If you've never addressed the issue, please don't wait. Contact your nearest preacher and find out where to look. Or start by reading a good, short presentation of the argument "for", such as John Stott's "Basic Christianity" from Amazon.com.
Government people like to use that word "Era" in connection with things they would rather not speak about plainly, like the "Vietnam Era". No, it was not a war, of course; in part because We didn't win it, and We always win our wars, so it couldn't have been a War, it must have been just an Era. A phase, that America just happened to pass through, without cause or significance.
Likewise, government people these days don't like to speak plainly of Jesus of Nazareth, and focus clearly on who or what he was, and whether or not he still is (living, that is.) These are difficult and controversial questions that tend to make people think, and thinking is a very dangerous thing to encourage us peasants to do. Why, if we get thinking, one day we might think about the question of why we put up with all those parasites!
Much better, dismiss the difficulty with the fog-phrase: Christian Era, C.E.
What's my answer to this question? - it's not my aim to have you agree with it, rather to do your own thinking and reach your own conclusion; but in case it's of interest, my own led me to reject the claim. The main reason is that a claim so utterly phenomenal requires proof beyond any reasonable shadow of doubt; and here, I found it fell a long way short of such a standard.
The Bible itself asserts that at the very pinnacle of its considerable evidence supporting Jesus' claim to divinity sits his resurrection. The argument is that since the resurrection is a proven fact and an event unique in history, all the other evidence supporting his claim is validated.
My perception however is that the resurrection is far from being a proven fact, since there exists at least one explanation for the key events of the first Easter weekend that requires no such supernatural interpretation. Those interested can see its detail here.
True, they started off well, defying the authorities of their day with words like "We ought to obey God rather than men" when ordered not to preach (Acts 5:29.) But such civil disobedience has been the exception, not the rule. Much more commonly, Christians have sought to influence and even join the ruling class, and even to impose their religion on non-adherents by force!
It has brought much benefit to humanity, no doubt of it. For instance, countless men, women and children have found comfort and strength to live and work, through the belief that they are favored, guided and assisted by the creator of the universe in a personal way. Not just the weak and needy, but strong and talented men find that too. To the extent that the religion enables people to stand tall with self-respect and feel fulfilled, I'd say that it has enriched and improved the human race.
More: compassion, care for the needy, has permeated Christian societies far more than others. The Red Crescent, for example, followed the Red Cross; most hospitals worldwide are named in honor of some Christian hero. Further: once Christendom rid itself of the stranglehold of papal authority, the fresh or Reformed understanding of biblical ideas helped foster the "protestant ethic" of honest work and careful re-investment, which is capitalism; capitalism has, in turn, brought an explosion of wealth and wellbeing to the world in 400 years that far exceeds all that came in the previous 400 thousand.
But it's also true that there was a missing millennium, from 400 to 1400 A.D., when very little human progress was made. Wars were faught, sometimes in the very name of Christ (in the Crusades against a rival religion) and weapons were gradually made more lethal; but these Middle Ages saw little or no improvement in science or medicine, economics or freedom. Why? - because of the fatalistic belief of the church fathers that whatever Is, is Right - as Paul taught in Romans 13: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Yuck!!
The monasteries monopolized scholarship, and scholars were taught not to question or challenge, but to copy and obey. Rulers ruled; individuals were serfs, lacking control of their own destinies. And that deadly authority of the ruling class was blessed by Holy Church; "[authorities] that exist have been instituted by God." The Magna Carta, which gave limited rights to a jury trial, was one of the few points of light in those dark years; and even that should be seen against the fact that prior to the rise of monarchical power after A.D. 1000 in England, a kind of village- based jury-trial justice system had been the norm anyway; Magna Carta merely handed back a little of what the Christian monarch had stolen.
It's little better today. Christians are seldom, alas, anarchists. Today, faced with the true fact that government has ripped their religion out of the school monopoly they themselves worked (with avowed socialists!) a century and a half ago to establish, they bleat and squeal - not to have the whole system liberated so that parents can bring up their own children any way they wish, at their own expense - but to have their religion reinstated, center stage! Complete with official prayers, voodoo geology and the elimination of sex-ed and everything Darwinistic. All this, by using the power of government to force us their neighbors to pay for it, now as in 1850.
Most particularly today, only a small minority of Christians in America protest the obscene level of taxation under which we suffer - nearly twice the 25% rate with which the medieval serfs were burdened! Legalized or not, confiscation of that magnitude is clearly a gross evil, a huge larceny. Yet hardly any in the "mainstream" of the church either call it theft or protest its use, notably the projection worldwide of US military might. So much for the Prince of Peace!
Back, then, to the party: is the 2,000th anniversary of this vast institution really worth all the hype? Well, any excuse for a party will do fine by me, but analysed in the sober light of day: no, I don't think so.
|© Copyright Jim Davies 1999|
Jim Davies lives in New Hampshire,
and enjoys contemplating which way is up.
The above is Edition # 302
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