Twain – on “selflessness”…

“Old Man” talking to “Young Man” regarding the so-called selfless generosity of giving 25 cents to a needy woman from “What Is Man and Other Essays”:

Very well. Now let us add up the details and see how much he got for his twenty-five cents. Let us try to find out the REAL why of his making the investment. In the first place HE couldn`t bear the pain which the old suffering face gave him. So he was thinking of HIS pain–this good man. He must buy a salve for it. If he did not succor the old woman HIS conscience would torture him all the way home. Thinking of HIS pain again. He must buy relief for that. If he didn`t relieve the old woman HE would not get any sleep. He must buy some sleep–still thinking of HIMSELF, you see. Thus, to sum up, he bought himself free of a sharp pain in his heart, he bought himself free of the tortures of a waiting conscience, he bought a whole night`s sleep–all for twenty-five cents! It should make Wall Street ashamed of itself. On his way home his heart was joyful, and it sang–profit on top of profit! The impulse which moved the man to succor the old woman was–FIRST–to CONTENT HIS OWN SPIRIT; secondly to relieve HER sufferings. Is it your opinion that men`s acts proceed from one central and unchanging and inalterable impulse, or from a variety of impulses?


– Mark Twain in the guise of “Old Man”

Sadly I think it’s true. Even if the story of Jesus is real, Jesus gave his life for a “cause” – that is to receive a “prize” (the comfort of knowing he had saved souls).

There really is no such thing as “selfless generosity”. But once you understand that and embrace  it, it doesn’t really tarnish acts of kindness. There is beauty in finding acts that are both self-fulfilling and aid others. The key is to try to find the balance the aids the later more than the former.

The Eternal has his designs from all eternity…

L’Éternel a ses desseins de toute éternité. Si la prière est d’accord avec ses volontés immuables, il est très inutile de lui demander ce qu’il a résolu de faire. Si on le prie de faire le contraire de ce qu’il a résolu, c’est le prier d’être faible, léger, inconstant; c’est croire qu’il soit tel, c’est se moquer de lui. Ou vous lui demandez une chose juste; en ce cas il la doit, et elle se fera sans qu’on l’en prie; c’est même se défier de lui que lui faire instance ou la chose est injuste, et alors on l’outrage. Vous êtes digne ou indigne de la grâce que vous implorez: si digne, il le sait mieux que vous; si indigne, on commet un crime de plus en demandant ce qu’on ne mérite pas.

En un mot, nous ne faisons des prières à Dieu que parce que nous l’avons fait à notre image. Nous le traitons comme un bacha, comme un sultan qu’on peut irriter ou apaiser.

or in English from WikiQuote:

The Eternal has his designs from all eternity. If prayer is in accord with his immutable wishes, it is quite useless to ask of him what he has resolved to do. If one prays to him to do the contrary of what he has resolved, it is praying that he be weak, frivolous, inconstant; it is believing that he is thus, it is to mock him. Either you ask him a just thing, in which case he must do it, the thing being done without your praying to him for it, and so to entreat him is then to distrust him; or the thing is unjust, and then you insult him. You are worthy or unworthy of the grace you implore: if worthy, he knows it better than you; if unworthy, you commit another crime by requesting what is undeserved.

In a word, we only pray to God because we have made him in our image. We treat him like a pasha, like a sultan whom one may provoke or appease.

– Voltaire

And this is the “foundation” for modern Christianity?

The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, ‘O sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself ‘. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these.

– Irenaeus (2nd Century AD)

How to choose a religion…

Via ““…

Religion Flowchart

Cut the Jews a break…

One thing that I’ve never quite gotten is the incredulity that Christians have toward Jews because, well, they just don’t “get it”. I mean, isn’t it obvious that Christ must be the son of God? Isn’t the New Testament chock full of clear auguries that Jesus is the Messiah? Aren’t the religions close enough that the jump from Judaism to the “clearly superior” Christianity is but a tiny leap?

Of course what Christians don’t get is the gap is much larger than they think…

First, Judaism is built on the idea of one God and one God only, and the Torah goes to great lengths to inoculate against interlopers:

  • Exodus 20:3 – “Thou shall have no god before me”
  • Deuteronomy 6:14 – “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you”
  • Kings 17:35 – “You shall not fear other gods, nor bow down yourselves to them nor serve them nor sacrifice to them”
  • Jeremiah 25:6 – “and do not go after other gods to serve them and to worship them”

and the list goes on…

In fact one could say much of the basis of Judaism revolves around just such exclusiveness –  “the Covenant”, where in return for the  singular worship of the one god YAHWEH, he will make them his chosen people.

However, now comes along a second deity, Jesus, who is to share the pantheon and of course, what do they do? Exactly what God told them to do – they reject him.

Now I know you may argue that he (Jesus) isn’t a second god, however all the Trinity “consubstantiality” mumbo-jumbo aside, for anyone looking objectively from the outside he is a second deity. He is the “Son of God” (a new being) , “is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (again a separate entity), and now requires worship as, “No one comes to the Father except through me”.

In short, contrary to scripture, he was a new deity to “bow down to” and it would be hard to argue, from a Jewish perspective he would appear otherwise (and certainly anyone looking from the outside watching Christians would have difficulty saying that Jesus hadn’t usurped the father in regards to worship as it were). Thus, again, it is no surprise that they rejected him – that’s what they were taught by God to do.

Secondly, the Jews had very strict laws about ritual purity and dietary requirements and along comes this new kid on the block and he changes everything in an extremely radical way. Moreover he challenges church authority and breaks the rules of the Sabbath.

Now he may have a compelling message and a silver tongue, but the impulse of faithful Jews would likely be to reject such an heretical interloper. It is the logical thing to do. Just as if a new Judeo-Christian sect were to say tomorrow, “It is not necessary to remain monogamous because the Lord told me,” it is likely that most would reject such a change and the religion that goes with it. It is similarly just too radical.

Third, Christians assume that there were all these miracles going on in real time during Jesus’ life, therefor the Jews should have seen the clear signs of God. However the Gospels were written at a minimum of 40 years after Jesus’ ministry. It is difficult to know if the miracles were not exaggerated or even pulled from whole cloth afterward. The entire interaction with the Jews in the Gospels (which to note,  is not consistent) could have represented a proxy for interactions between Jews and Christians at the time of writing of the Gospels. That is, current scores were being settled in the guise of prior history.

Certainly 40 years after the fact, when Christians were gaining numbers and still living within Jewish territories, there must of been a lot of conflict. Since undoubtedly Jews still outnumbered Christians, there may well have been considerable persecution of Christians by Jews and even martyrdom. Certainly if nothing else there was a lot of frustration then, just like now – why don’t the Jews get it? These frustrations may have been reflected, back dated as it were, into the Gospel texts.

Fourth, if we are to take the New Testament at face value, God “hardened their hearts” toward Jesus. So it would seem odd to blame them for the sin that God inflicted on them, however of course, despite reading various apologies to this fact, I really don’t get the point of God doing so (not from lack of trying) so I’ll leave that question to the more informed reader.

Fifth, because a few powerful Jews with significant investment in maintaining the status-quo rejected Jesus, is hardly the reason to blame an entire culture. It wasn’t like Jesus visited every Jew in the entire nation of Israel, not by a long shot. Thus condemning as a people over the mistakes of the few seems rather cruel (a “collective punishment” as it were – unfortunately far too common in the Bible). For that matter since a millennium or two has passed, continuing to punish them either literally or figuratively for “the sins of the father” seems remarkably cruel.

Sixth (and you know you’ve gone to far if you’ve gotten to “sixth”), while I have little doubt Jesus existed, he may neither have been the Son of God (there may of course be no God), nor even divinely inspired (even if he was certainly a Rabbi of sorts). In which case the persecution of the Jews would seem a sick joke based on fiction, one that if Jesus ever did exist, being a Jew himself, I’m sure he would have been enormously saddened by.

Finally, if there is a God, I know by the conscience that he must have endowed me with, that the blame and persecution of Jews is just plain wrong and always was. It is something I need no scripture to tell me and I reject any claim otherwise. There is morality that goes beyond the any interpretation of the Bible and those who would use the Bible to justify injustice show not the word of God, but the sickness of their hearts.


First of all this post went on too far – my original point was really that God commanded that the Jews remain faithful to him and him alone, thus for the Jews in the bible to reject Jesus makes entire sense – what else would they do if they were faithful? Unfortunately I kept writing.

Second, I don’t even feel comfortable saying “the Jews”. In the text above I mean the phrase in a biblical context as implied at the time of the writing of the Gospels, however like any culture, people who are “Jewish” represent such a wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints that to lump them together under “the Jews” feels frankly racist. People who might fall under the name “Jew” are just so diverse, even so far as to not believe in God in some cases, that to try to say “Jews are X”, “Jews do Y”, “Jews believe Z”, etc. is iffy at best.

Finally, I am not a Jew, nor a Christian for that matter, so I have no right to speak for them. I am just extrapolating from what little I know of Jewish faith and biblical history. In the end, it is only those who would choose to call themselves Jews who have the right to speak for themselves and I ultimately must defer to their take here.

Punting the problem…

One of the things I remember clearly being a child was my mother saying (paraphrasing):

When you see the miracle of a birth you know there is a God.

The first thing that I’ll note, is that watching my wife do so, given the painful mess that it was, well, seemed anything but holy. Certainly the crowning itself and the bucket of placenta that followed, was not necessarily a catalyst for pious thought (my mom was an O.B. nurse, so I will cut her some slack here).

Yes, the child that resulted, once cleaned of said detritus of birth certainly seemed a miracle and has remained such ever since – but that more in a sense of a miracle that we be blessed with such luck to have this great son, rather than a miracle in sense of divine creation (though, to admit, if ever one feels a metaphysical connection, it is with one’s children).

Anyway, I digress, because certainly the idea that a single cell, and the microscopic DNA that we cannot even see, should yield something so complex as a child or an adult cannot be argued to not seem truly miraculous. Nor can one argue that one looks at the complexity and interactions of life on this planet that it is not hard be believe that this is all a matter of chance,  the simple result of the probabilities of quantum mechanics starting at an infinitely dense singularity.

However the obvious solution, and the one favored by something like 95% of the inhabitants of the planet, that God (or gods – plural) did it, doesn’t unfortunately solve the problem. Not even close – it just “punts” the problem along.

Here’s the thing, if we are to assume God, in his infinite wisdom, power, and perfection, created everything, then where did God come from? How did God come to be?

From the perspective of Judeo-Christian dogma, that of course is a giant rat hole. For simplicity’s sake I’ll accept (begrudgingly I admit) the standard answer – he has always existed and he will always exist (“I am that I am“).

So, that accepted, what are we saying here? Are we saying that essentially out of the ether, out of happenstance, luck as it were, sprang an infinitely intelligent, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, infinitely perfect, infinitely good, God? A God that was capable of creating the nearly unimaginable complexities both of our universe and life itself? And yet, yet, somehow this bit of convenient magic is more believable, more “probable” than life evolving from a series of quantum interactions spawned at the Big Bang itself?

For if it is improbable that a billion year long series of (theoretically) scientifically explainable interactions would yield the world as we know it, isn’t it equally improbable that a god would spring out of nothingness capable of creating the same?

In short if it seems impossible that life could have formed itself on its own, it is equally impossible that a god would have flitted into existence that could create that same life. The probabilities are literally the same (or at least within the same magnitude of improbability).

To which of course the faithful will argue, “But I have a book that says so!” of which I would answer, “A book that is clearly incorrect on many accounts (for instance, the Sun does not revolve around the Earth) and conversely I have reams of books, not self-referentially based on a single book, that give scientific credence that life may have evolved on its own – yet again, your view is more probable?”

That said, does it mean I am correct? No.

I am no more able to prove there is a God than to prove there is not. However the point remains – God is not a more probable solution than natural processes like evolution. Much as we would like to anthropomorphisize nature itself, believing a sentient being created “the heavens and earth” is akin to believing the Sun revolves around the Earth – a supreme act of narcissism.

However, though clearly I doubt, it does not mean it’s not true.


At some level I would note that the earlier Judaic vision of God being all too human, a “jealous god”, in some sense seems more probable. That a God might arise with flaws rather than in perfection, seems more logical.

On the other hand, if you believe as I do, that it’s likely some sort of “multiverse” exists, then in all the infinite probabilities of that, the idea that a perfect being might arise is not all that improbable. This is sort of a play on the “infinite monkeys theorem” – that is, “Given an infinite number of monkeys working an infinite time, eventually they would produce God.” Granted, monkeys creating God sounds a little offensive, but no more so I suppose than some find the idea of evolving from them!

Gibbon On The Decline and Fall of Miracles?

From Edward Gibbon‘s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“:

From the first of the fathers to the last of the popes, a succession of bishops, of saints, of martyrs, and of miracles, is continued without interruption; and the progress of superstition was so gradual, and almost imperceptible, that we know not in what particular link we should break the chain of tradition. Every age bears testimony to the wonderful events by which it was distinguished, and its testimony appears no less weighty and respectable than that of the preceding generation, till we are insensibly led on to accuse our own inconsistency, if in the eighth or in the twelfth century we deny to the venerable Bede, or to the holy Bernard, the same degree of confidence which, in the second century, we had so liberally granted to Justin or to Irenaeus. If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous nations to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.

It is amazing the snarkiness of tone you find regarding religion by 18th century writers – it certainly was “The Enlightenment”. I have to say it gives me a chuckle – clearly they were enjoying their new found freedom, albeit carefully masked in the “plausible deniability” of ambivalent sarcasm.

In any case, I love his point – when (and why) did we go from an age of miracles to one that is virtually miracle free (as in the “supernatural” form)? What changed?

I think the answer is self evident – nothing has probably changed except our ability to believe in fairy tales. Much of what was considered acceptable evidence in the early years of the Church would now be frankly considered a joke. As scientific method increased and people subsequently became more skeptical, those generating “miracles” found themselves under new scrutiny, eventually leading those inclined to the practice to give up altogether (or to be diagnosed as was probably often the case – as being insane).

That’s not to say that there were absolutely no miracles and could absolutely be no miracles, but the fact that we find ourselves in an age where there are essentially none occurring now must give one pause to those ascribed to prior history. Certainly one has to admit they were a dime a dozen in early Christianity, with little or no verification. Subsequently one has to wonder if they are any more reliable than the average politician’s claim to honesty.

The comments above of course mostly pertain to the early history of the church where just about anyone could (and did) claim authority, but what of the events of the actual Gospels? Does one have similar reason to doubt the miracles there?

Of course – without doubt. The bar of miraculous evidence was not any higher for Gospels (and frankly the Gospels were written in the early years of the Church)(ie: by the same people spitting out miracles like so much candy). Why wouldn’t the New Testament miracles themselves be just as questionable?

Let’s take a simple example – exorcisms.

Jesus, and for that matter the Apostles, regularly cast out “unclean spirits”. Now while the Catholic church might still enjoy a good exorcism now and then, those are pretty far and few between as opposed to the rather common practice as displayed in the Gospels.

Today of course pretty much every case of “unclean spirits” is correctly diagnosed for what it is – mental illness and I think it’s pretty hard to argue that what Jesus et al were “casting out” was anything but that. I say this  because first we know in those times that mental illness was ascribed to possession, and second because the need for exorcisms also  curiously disappeared as science progressed (or rather as the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness progressed).

Add to the fact that once exorcised, the “unclean spirits” were able to leave their host and say, enter pigs (or even be entered into conversation with), then one has to wonder if the miracle of “casting out of spirits” was made up from whole cloth. Clearly we know mental illness does not speak separately for itself nor can it traverse beings.

I suppose as a Christian apologist you could answer with two rebutals:

  1. That Jesus was actually curing mental illness and for the understanding of the time, the theatrics were necessary to impart the miracle, which it would still be, to the faithless masses (why explaining mental illness instead would be more difficult is another question).
  2. That there were a lot more demons floating around to infiltrate the unsuspecting and thanks to the excellent work of Jesus and those who followed, well, we live in a nice demon free world today.

Neither of these seem very compelling, and following Occam’s Razor, the far more likely explanation is these miracles were, well, false, made up, delusions, fictions, whatever.

And of course if the exorcisms were fiction, well, how many more of the so called “miracles” were also fiction? Certainly if the description of “casting out of spirits” is false, one has to doubt the reliability of the witnesses in general.

Carl’s Exegesis – Matthew 1:18

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

While the “virgin birth” story is compelling, it’s hard not to believe it was either created out of whole cloth, or worse, was an excuse for an embarrassing family scandal. A scandal that may have been regularly repeated as part of the oral history of Jesus, but not particularly flattering for a rabbi or prophet (or for that matter, the son of God). Thus a more acceptable myth was created that conveniently explained away the complication, while at the same time engendering greater spiritual credentials as it were.

Personally, as odd as it may sound, I don’t find the idea of Jesus being a child out of wedlock any less compelling.  It makes him more human, and the idea the a human, a truly human, can transcend the flaws humanity implies and yet become something far greater, is far more inspirational than a man born perfect and incapable of sin. That is, a man capable of sin who chooses not to, is a far better model than a man who is simply incapable of it.

I also find the phrase, “before they came together”, a curious interjection. It almost sounds an afterthought. One intended to make it clear that while Joseph and Mary were engaged, nothing unseemly was occurring. A little extra protection from the rumors that might otherwise revolve around their engagement. It also probably answered Jewish and Pagan critics who were probably looking for ways to malign a sect they saw as at best false, and at worst, heresy.

It also must be said, though it has been noted many times by others, that what we’re talking here is a sort of supernatural “date rape”  – it wasn’t exactly consensual (of course what woman wouldn’t want to bear the child of God right?).  In that sense, it might be better as a moral message if it weren’t some sort of non-consensual spiritual impregnation, but rather just a simple case of the accidents of sex out of wedlock like so many other stories since the beginning of time

Hardly something to be embarrassed of, but certainly something that doesn’t fit well into the typical Christian narrative.

Carl’s Exegesis – Matthew 1:1-16

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers … and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

There are two problems with Jesus’ genealogy as given here:

  1. It doesn’t match Mark.
  2. The genealogy goes through Joseph, which if Jesus was a virgin birth, presents a bit of a problem.

As we see, right off the bat, there are major issues with Matthew’s account. lives!

It’s alive!