Biblical Scholar Joel Watts looks at what Christians don’t know about Christianity.
photo by: Bolton
We’re conditioned to believe the cultural and political divide between Christians and non-believers is a matter of worldview and faith. Atheistic science-types are trying to rescue us from ignorance while believers are saving our souls from a culture that’s lost its moral compass. But these hardened battle lines leave most of us out of the equation. Polls measuring religiosity consistently find, “spiritual but not religious” among the fastest growing segment. Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at what really divides Christians and non-believers.
Alex Tsakiris: [I’m] someone who doesn’t accept Christian doctrine. So I look at this institution and wonder why [this divide] is allowed? Why would there be this situation where, when you go to seminary, or dig deeply into Biblical studies, [you learn something completely different than what the rank-and-file churchgoer knows].
Imagine a corporation. We would never have that kind of divide. Where the group in charge knows a completely different story than the rank and file members.
Joel Watts: There’s a couple of ways to look at that: one, in American and the West, it’s all about convenience and consumerism. Christianity in its popular form is about consumerism. We educate our preachers this way. If you look at seminaries now, I would wager that the average degree plan is more about counseling and church administration than it is about doctrine or teaching people. So it’s about consumerism. You are educating these pastors and ministers to not lead people, but to feed people whatever their consumeristic desire is. We have a system that is predicated on “the customer’s always right.”
Alex Tsakiris: I want to bring into focus how that chasm grows. I had an interview a couple years ago with Chris White. Really interesting guy. Very smart guy, intelligent, capable. He’s put together a well-done video documentary on the ancient aliens [topic] that has five million views. No easy feat. It’s a good piece of work. But in my conversation with Chris, who is a conservative Christian, as an aside we were talking about Noah’s Ark because there’s a very slight reference in the film to the Noah’s Ark story. I said, Chris, you’re a really bright guy. I think people would be astounded to find out that you literally believe there was this 500-year-old man who built this big boat, loaded it up with all these animals, and cruised around the world for a year. His response was, well, you don’t understand the text. The text is actually quite technical about Noah’s Ark, and it explains a lot of things and it’s very defensible. And he went into talking about metallurgy, and how maybe they had nails and stuff like that. And I [thought] do you realize how out of touch that is with what ordinary, rational, scientifically-minded people think? They can find a way to their spirituality and to God, but most people can’t find a way to Noah’s Ark.
Joel Watts: And that’s what he’s done–he’s made the text–this document we have that most call the Bible or scripture, as the central way to reaching God or understanding God. Therefore you have to do everything you can to make sure that text remains holy, undefiled and absolutely correct. So you will do everything you can–all sorts of mental gymnastics to ensure that text, which is in fact a lot of ways God itself. And I’ve been told that the text is God in book form–that it remains as holy and other as humanly possible.
Alex Tsakiris: In a way that leads into the second point I was going to bring up that I think divides us: and that is the supernatural. Particularly if we put it into focus and pull the lens back to the larger cultural issues. And we have this reductionist, atheistic science juggernaut that is so prominent in our lives, that completely and dogmatically denies everything spiritual, everything supernatural. And we juxtapose that with Christianity and any spiritual tradition that says–it’s only when you get out of the non-ordinary do you even start to begin to understand what life is all about.
And this is another link that I sent you, I talked to biblical scholar and ancient languages expert, Dr. Michael Heiser, another very bright guy. What we talked about is how Christians often feel hamstrung by the supernatural and they don’t know where to go with [it] other than to look back to the Bible and say, that’s in the Bible so maybe that’s okay. Or it says this isn’t in the Bible, so maybe it isn’t okay. Then someone goes to a funeral and has a sense of the decreased being in there — which a relatively common event for someone to go to a funeral and have a sense of the presence of deceased–either just a sense of it, or sometimes hearing, sometimes even seeing–this is not uncommon– and yet, people are challenged with what to do with that. On the one hand, atheistic science says you’re a fool if you believe that. On the other hand, the Christian tradition says well, we have to only confine it in this very narrow way, or we have to immediately say that’s the devil. And we can’t really explore it in any other way than these two polar opposite, limited views. How do we come to grips in general with the supernatural, with the non-ordinary? Can we do it beyond what we find scripturally?
Joel Watts: We better because I don’t believe that a lot of the supernatural events so-called recorded in scripture are actually what we would call supernatural today. So we better find a way to explore this mystical side of life in ways that is neither science or limited by text. A lot of times it has to be done individually and we can share our experiences and say, this is what I feel and this is how I see it. How did you [perceive] it? A lot of times this is about experience. For me, I’m not a fan of the supernatural talk. A lot of people would think that I’m very much the atheist or agnostic when it comes to supernatural phenomena. But for me, I try to strike that middle ground. It’s mystical. There are experiences I cannot explain and there are events I cannot explain. When it comes to scripture, especially the miracles in the New Testament, I think we can explain them as very natural phenomena as some sort of hidden transcript about what the author’s trying to tell you versus it actually being a miracle.
[easy-tweet tweet=”what really divides Christians and non-believers: conspiracy, the supernatural”]
Alex Tsakiris: So where does this take you? Give me a better sense for where that gets you at the end of the day in terms of your understanding of Christianity. What that means; what the life of Jesus means and what do you think was the life of Jesus and his purpose?
Joel Watts: I think that as a human I look at it and think–I believe that there is an object we call God. I’m a Panentheist so I believe that all of reality and multiple realities are within God. But we have so many questions, why shut the door on one of them? Why limit our frame of reference or any of the things that we’re talking about to one particular idea? So at the end of the day I compartmentalize pretty well. I’m a Christian, I believe in the creeds, so on and so forth. I completely obliterate some of that when I talk about Panentheism or this idea of universalism or what happens next. But as a human I don’t think there is one particular answer to all of our questions. We have to keep asking because in asking not only do we become better people as humans, as our species, we may actually find real, tangible answers.
Alex Tsakiris: So you would see it then as a many paths to God–how would you feel about a Buddhist who says, hey I’ve experienced God over here. Or a Muslim, or a Hindu. [They’re] all equally valid paths to God?
Joel Watts: As a Christian I look at St. Justin Martyr who said the logos is in all things. All belief systems. All things.
Alex Tsakiris: I think [conspiracy] is something that divides us, because I myself as a result of doing Skeptiko, have taken a much more conspiratorial view, particularly of science. I find science to be extremely conspiratorial. We were just talking about near-death experiences and how particular ideas get advanced, how other ones get suppressed… I think there’s a lot of evidence for conspiracy. But I’ve found in general when I talk to people if they are not open to the idea of, as you said, wide-scale conspiracies, that they’re not ludicrous; and in fact do influence our lives…I think that’s pretty important. So I wanted to probe that and find out what your thoughts are on conspiracies and conspiracy theories.
Joel Watts: I think anytime we say we’re completely closed-off to conspiracy that presents a problem because that makes us actually more susceptible to those conspiracies… do I think the Roman’s could do it (as former guest Joseph Atwill claims)? No. Do I think there could be widespread conspiracies? No. Do I think there’s conspiracies in the government? Yes I do. As a matter of fact–we have two or three people controlling how many news outlets? And if you follow the news all you’re following is the same talking points that are picked up over and over again. Why in the world is Snowden considered the bad guy except that it’s necessary.
Alex Tsakiris: You paint a picture. While I know you don’t want to be compared with Atwill who you think has gone way over the top. But you paint a picture of this interesting ground where people have different kind of motives that don’t come through in a strict, orthodox reading of the gospel. But players are trying to maneuver for position, for pride, for power but also for control. And like you were saying in Mark, for future of their religion so they’re not dumb people. So they say, how are we going to rally the troops, how are we going to get people to really fight this fight in the future? Paint that picture for us.
Joel Watts: So with Vespasian–[it was] I need to have this fiction and this is how we’re going to do it. This is what we’re going to tell everybody. Then you have these Christians who barely made it through the war; who are probably in Rome and Jerusalem and [say] we have no idea what’s going on here. Seriously, folks. Jesus hasn’t returned and he said he would. He was a crucified criminal and you have this emperor who is top dog. He literally came from Judea is what Josephus would say. So Mark sets down and says, I have to rally the troops and he starts to rewrite the Gospel of Jesus–the good news, the message, the account as a way that when people heard it they would go, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. And a particular Caesar–Vespasian.
Alex Tsakiris: And in doing that that’s how he incorporates in Josephus’ historical accounts and that’s why there’s these parallels that we find. Are you okay with the idea that he’s borrowing from many sources and putting together this history that he’s writing his prophecy but he’s really writing history so he has many sources to tap [into]. Is that your take on it or no?
Joel Watts: Mark’s a Jew. He’s writing to Jews who believe in Jesus and of course he has the Old Testament or the Hebrew scriptures. But I think he’s really writing against Josephus. And I think this comes across in Revelation–when the beast rises and he has a false prophet, I think that’s Josephus. And I think whoever’s writing Revelation is trying to tell you the beast, Vespasian, and the false prophet who speaks for the beast is Josephus. But in Mark, I think Mark is really dead-set against writing against Josephus. He does not like Josephus He does not like Vespasian, and he does not like his reality so he goes about trying to change it.
Watts finds Josephus’ account of Jesus out of place and doubts its authenticity.
Alex Tsakiris: One more thing before I let you go–as long as we’re talking about Josephus what do you make of the very controversial and seemingly out-of-place quote that Josephus makes about Jesus; that many traditional fundamentalist Christians point to and say, aha! That’s how we know Jesus really existed because Josephus said it after the fact. I’ve heard many people say and I’m kind of persuaded by the fact that it doesn’t fit very well in the large body of Josephus’ work.
Joel Watts: See, Alex, this is where people stop liking me because I say I don’t think it’s part of the original context. I think he may’ve mentioned John the Baptist. I think he may’ve mentioned James but I don’t think he mentioned Jesus because it just does not fit in the overall scheme of things. If it’s original then he may’ve mentioned James’ brother Jesus, why in the world he would I don’t know, but I think that’s why later redactors said well, why would he mention Jesus if we don’t say Jesus is the Christ? I don’t think Josephus mentioned Jesus at all.
Alex Tsakiris: Because he would’ve gone on and on. I mean he wrote a lot like you just said.
Joel Watts: He would completely undo his entire scope of writing for the wars. You don’t simply say the crucified criminal that was likely seen as a political rebel; a pretender to the throne that is actually Christ when you’re writing a whole book saying Vaspasian is the Christ. It makes no sense within Josephus’ scope or his scheme of things. It just doesn’t. So I don’t think it’s original. I think he may’ve mentioned John the Baptist which would’ve been a recognized leader. James [was] a recognized leader. But I don’t even know if Josephus knew of Jesus. There were plenty of rebel leaders during that time and that’s what Jesus would’ve been seen as.
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