By Joe Morris Doss
At the Threshold’s call for church reform tends to aim at the need within the institutional church to confront abuses like fundamentalism and discrimination, but there is also need to address those who stand outside of the church and argue against the faith. In particular there seems to be a growing industry that sells versions of the faith that are as simplistic as they are incorrect. The industry ranges from TV programs that sensationalize assertions and speculations, to conferences for self-congratulations of the utterly secularized, to books that debunk theology.
The general view being promulgated today is that faith is for the silly or the naïve. Part of what makes this frustrating for the informed believer is that what is being offered are merely restatements or reformulations of tired old theories, long since dismissed. I recently received a message from a close friend that offered an example of what that anti-faith industry is saying. It made me long for real and substantial doubt instead of the pablum being offered on the streets today.
My friend enjoys my respect as well as affection; he is a bright professional with talent, a fine mind, and a good heart. (I also know that he was raised in an intellectually unsustainable evangelicalism.) He asked me about a conference soon to be held in London, during which a historian named Joseph Atwill is scheduled to propose that the Roman aristocracy conjured up the Jesus story in an attempt to “…control, defeat and influence the Jews.” My friend believes that this theory helps explain the similarity of the Jesus story to prior religions that offered saviors and messiahs. He went on to declare that there is nothing new about the New Testament account that wasn’t to be found in some prior religion or religious figure. Furthermore, his sources indicate that we cannot be sure Jesus really existed, but all that can be said for certain is that someone of that name lived at around that time.
My first thought was to recall a conversation I had with a PhD Marxist professor of Charles University in Prague in 1969, a serious conversation in which we challenged each other with doubt about our beliefs that struck home, that made us reach deep within to see if we really believed our claims and our general posture toward life. These were the heady days of the Marxist-Christian dialogue before Russia completely suppressed the Czechoslovakia Spring. I remember Professor Julius Tomin admitting that the Marxists usually lost the debates with Christians, “…because, after all, you have the best thinking of the last two thousand years to back you up. Still, I think we are right and you are wrong.”
I recalled the content of this conversation in comparison to the rubbish being placed before my friend and considered how valuable it is to face genuine and profound doubt for the development of genuine and profound faith.
It then occurred to me that one of the important reasons Christianity, or faith of any sort, is in decline within today’s western society is rooted in the level of doubt we face. Are we up against a worthy foe, perhaps another great religion or a threatening philosophy? No, Christians in our society oppose the pitiful and small anxieties of a society that operates at an anti-intellectual and surface level of obsession with consumerism and facile experiences, trying with frantic desperation to encounter meaningful reality that is actual, and that is in the present while drowning in the immediately past and the constantly looming future. How are people to know faith when questions get stuck at a “SundaySchool” level — for those who have an atheistic desire to tear down faith, and for the popular understanding of the Christian faith?
I had to assure my friend that respected historians, Christian and non-Christian, are in agreement that the man Jesus actually walked the earth. Marxist professor Julius Tomin had no problem acknowledging this as a fact, based on many independent sources. But in addition, Marxist Professor Tomin would have laughed at the assertion that there was nothing new in the Jesus story; he would have deemed it non-sense. Then he would have asked some pressing question about Christian claims to special revelation: Why has Jesus been accepted in the West, as though he came to them instead of to the world?
To answer my friend: The stance of Christians is that God is and has been available to everyone at all times and in all places, revealing the divine love and purposes since the beginning. If one looks deeply enough, Christians believe the reason can be seen for why Greek Christians termed Jesus “The Logos,” the pre-existent “Word.” This has been a way of saying that the good news in Christ, indeed the Christ himself, has been available to everyone everywhere, well before and apart from the man given the very common name of Jesus. That is, the faithful can see the fullness of what was revealed about God and God’s relations to creation in the Jesus story prior to the first century and apart from Israel and Christianity. But then “The Logos” became flesh, and that makes the difference. It is sad to have people who have some sort of need to prove “non-belief” pervert this “logos theology” in an assertion that what was unique about the man and his good news is just a re-run, or another way of saying what was already there.
For example, the news of Jesus about the Kingdom of God cannot be reduced to and equated with other faith assertions about “after-life.” That is not what the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed comes down to. The use of this kind of fallacious reductionism is the normative methodology of argument made by today’s pop-atheists. (Christianity is not unique; there are always people who will get in the face of anyone expressing faith — whether it is faith in God or in science or in art, or in anything else) That is, they reduce that which is unique into a generalized religious proposition and then equate them in order to dismiss each.
I can only imagine how the thesis will be made by Atwill that Romans were out to invent a new religious movement for the purpose of, somehow, doing-in the Jews — something for which the Empire needed no help or “covert CIA-like activity.”
At the Threshold calls Christians to face into real doubt — why there is a lack of justice in the world, why there is suffering, why there is something instead of nothing, and so on. At the end of the deliberations and challenges awaits the pearl, the one thing that counts: faith in the Kingdom of God that is at hand.
Joe Morris Doss, founder and president of “At the Threshold”, has served parishes in Louisiana and California as an Episcopal priest, and the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop. Bishop Doss has long been involved in civil rights activism, including the integration of LSU while he was student body president. He was the founding president of Death Penalty Focus, the founding chair of the National Center for AIDS in San Francisco, and together with Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida, the organizer of a famous rescue mission that freed thousands of pardoned political prisoners from Cuba. Bishop Doss is the author of several books including “Songs of the Mothers” and “Let the Bastards Go”. With his son Andrew Doss, he co-wrote the drama “Earnest”, about the transformation of a death row inmate.