March 30, 2004

Not Much Faith in Faith Anymore?

In anticipation of seeing the movie "Passion of the Christ", I have been reading voraciously on Christianity and ancient belief systems from a number of different sources.

These sources have included The Bible, "The 12th Planet" by Zechariah Sitchin, The Necronomicon, and most recently, The Koran. Quite a mixed bag, I know, but I'll explain my train of thought, to assure you that it has not derailed too badly.

I will be going to watch the movie "The Passion of the Christ" in the next week or so, and contemplating this particular drama has made me aware of how little I know about the Christian Bible, Jesus, etc. My society is steeped in Christian rhetoric, sayings, holidays, and values, which have been incorporated into my personality subtlely all my life. It's such an easy habit to say "Christ!" or "Oh my god!" when I'm shocked by something. But I can honestly say that I do not believe in God. I am an atheist, and somewhat of a skeptic generally where belief systems and philosophies are concerned.

I have always been inspired by the saying "Any science, if sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic." I do think that everything can, ultimately, be described in physical terms. I do not believe in mysteries, magic or miracles, angels or devils, and I admit to feeling quite impatient with those who do believe such things. Having said that I basically believe that all things can be explained by science, I do not have any presumptions to great knowledge myself. I am just admitting that I will take reports of miracles or "acts of God" with a grain of salt.

So, my interest in the story of Jesus is that of an outsider, who wants to read the stories himself. I want to evaluate the Bible's historical (?) claims of interactions with "the Lord", and learn where these stories originally came from, and if they were inspired by earlier accounts.

So far, I am only as far as "Exodus" in the Old Testament, so I have a loooong way to go. I did skip to the end of the book once, and let me tell you, if Revelations is the end, this is not a pretty picture folks. So, I went back to the beginning again, hoping that things would somehow seem less shocking if I had more information first.

The Bible has been compiled from numerous different sources over the past thousands of years. It is truly the oldest continuously-published volume around, as far as I know. Many spoken versions of the it's stories spread around for millennia before being written down, and so they were subject to all kinds of cultural and temporal adjustments and changes with each recounting. Not to mention how the Bible has been consciously re-edited over the years by various religious orders, Kings, Popes, or whomever, in order to suit their political or religious goals.

At this point in my layman's reading the Bible, I have encountered a number of inconsistencies or things that seem plain strange to me.

In a few places in Genesis, God refers to itself in the plural e.g. "Let us create him in our image". Who was God talking to? Was there more than one God?

In other places, God (referred to as "The Lord") seems to act on quite a human scale. The Lord seems to interact with Jacob and Moses personally, speaking to them face-to-face, getting impatient or angry with them, or bargaining and promising things to get what he wants. The Lord also casually kills people too, with very little explanation given (I'll cite an example from the Old Testament at a later time).

This is far from the al-knowing, al-seeing, benevolent and omnipresent entity that was described to me in my youth. Some of the other people I have mentioned this to have had the same reaction, not liking the idea that God was so vengeful and "in-yer-face". Perhaps people prefer a more benign, compasssionate, super-being. You know, silent and invisible.

The Bible is certainly prone to inconsistencies, but then it is made up of fragments of ancient tales which have undergone countless modifications in their verbal and written manifestations. But all the same, the Old Testament God seems like quite the petty meddler in human affairs, sometimes walking around like a man, confronting people face-to-face, or sometimes whooshing around above a battlefield upon a "pillar of fire and cloud". God was definitely getting involved in things first hand.

This skeptical vision of "the Almighty" as a powerful yet meddling, human-scale super-entity spurred me to re-read the book "The 12th planet" by Zecharia Sitchen. In this, the first of his "Earth Chronicles" series, Sitchin claims that the Human race was created by advanced visitors from another planet in our solar system. He quotes lots of ancient Sumerian tablets and cylinder seals to back it up.

While I take a lot of Sitchen's claims with that same grain of salt, his views do provide a refreshing alternative to accepted stories of human creation and ancient events. Most useful to me were his statements that many of the events in the Old Testament may have been inspired by even older Sumerian or Babylonian tales. Sitchin (as well as other authors I found on the web) have compared the story of Noah and the Flood to older tales of a great deluge taken from Babylonian stories.

Cultures and beliefs tend to be fluid, influenced by other cultures as they intermingle due to commerce or other are affected by other causes. New cultures take on some characteristics of previous cultures too. So, I could see how the Jewish Torah, the basis for the Old Testament, might have adapted from or used versions of older, popular morality tales or epics for it's own purposes. The Old Testament, so far as I have read it today, is horribly vague about providing reference points that I can understand, so it's difficult to know where and when events it depicts actually occurred. I need like, a Coles Notes study guide for the Old Testmane, or "Bible for Dummies" :) But anyway, Zecharia Sitchin's work does help me get a timeline and context for certain Biblical events, and see that there were earlier possible sources for them.

I have also had a second look at the Necronomicon. The Necronomicon is billed as a book of magical incantations written by a "mad Arab" in the 9th century AD. Sounds pretty ominous. I bought it in handy paperback form at Coles books, and have recently re-read it purely out of curiousity. Having said all that, I'm a nice guy, who doesn't believe in any kind of blood oaths, sacrifices, or devil worship. (Just wanted to get that out of the way.)

I found that the Neconomicon makes *so* many references to Babylon and Sumer, whose religious beliefs pre-date Christianity by thousands of years, that it is no wonder that the Christian and Roman Catholic churches would want to suppress it or label it as evil, satanic, etc. The Necronomicon looks to me like a manifestation of old Sumerian or Babylonian stories and beliefs, recast in mystical terms, kind of like how ancient astronomy and pantheistic or shamanistic belief systems have been marginalized and recast into largely mystical terms as Astrology, Wicca, etc. So, it's not scary to me, or cursed or any of that sensationalistic crap that may have been assigned to it.

Finally, the Koran is somewhat of a breath of fresh air. It repeats some of the same messages of the Bible, but it is largely in the form of prose - a poetic format, which almost makes the Bible read like a Harlequin Romance by comparison. The style of the Koran is elaborate, slightly flowery and almost abstract, and yet remains structured in it's own way. It's not unlike the Islamic ornamental designs I fell in love with in first year at Art School. The Koran will be a difficult bok to interpret and understand, which is something I think I may enjoy.

In Summary...

I don't think I'm much more definite about my beliefs than before. I still "will believe it when I see it" as far as the Christian God, miracles, Heaven, etc. are concerned, but it makes me wonder how the Christian and Catholic Church has responded to the demands of modern society.

I think I shall enjoy staying on the fence, to study some more...

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