At Wheaton, among the battery of required bible and theology classes, everyone has to take one course on the Old Testament and one course on the New Testament. I fulfilled this requirement by taking courses in biblical archaeology instead of the regular biblical literature and interpretation courses. The OT and NT archaeology classes weren’t nearly as popular as the default classes, probably because they were so freaking hard. But I also learned a lot more things that remain applicable to an atheist than I would have learned in the regular bible classes. And I really, really appreciate hard, demanding classes where students are forced to make leaps themselves instead of being hand-held every step of the way. So when my professor said “write me an exegesis paper” without telling us what he meant, I felt like I was back at my first college, giving a presentation on quantum theory in my first week of physics class. A lot of the classes I took at my first college were like that, and that kind of intellectual masochism is the closest I’ve ever come to a drug addiction. It makes me wake up in a cold sweat and want to vomit, but at the same time it feels sooo good. Man, do I miss that stuff.
In those archaeology classes, my professors stressed the importance of archaeology thus: Jesus only makes sense in the context of first century Palestine. Christianity only makes sense in the context of Judaism. So in order to make sense of the bible, we have to know what life was like for Jews in first century Palestine. This thought came to my mind recently because in my view, one of the biggest barriers to Christian-atheist dialogue is that Christians are forever stuck within their own system. Within the closed system of Christianity’s antecedent assumptions, the religion makes perfect sense. Theism makes perfect sense. Everything in the bible either makes perfect sense, or is easily transposed into something that does. Orthodox doctrine is a complex set of permutations that make perfect sense. But it takes a leap of *something* to get within the closed system– whether that something is faith, evidence, emotion, upbringing, or simply a desire to be in the system. According to the archaeology professors, that’s as it should be. So my first question is: are Christians aware of this? And if they are, why do the vast majority of Christians, including every Christian apologist I’ve heard and read, talk to atheists about Christianity with the assumption that we’re in the system?
This was a major factor in my becoming an atheist. I became aware of the fact that I couldn’t really answer any questions about my faith without referring back to the closed system. That wasn’t okay for me. Even though I liked my own position in the system, even though I knew that I could be satisfied living in that snowglobe, I was not okay with the fact that there was no way I could explain the system to someone living outside of it. If the system couldn’t be open and accessible to everyone, I didn’t want to be in it.
The closed system is illustrative of the parochial nature of Christianity. All religions and all gods are parochial, but Christianity really goes out of the way to insist that it is not. The bible seems to progress from parochial superiority in the Old Testament to a complete denial of parochialism in the New Testament. Christians would probably call it the revealing of the universality of God. If I were a Christian I would probably say that Christianity is both universal and parochial; that it has to be rooted in a specific time and place because of the nature of the incarnation. Then, jumping ahead, my final argument would be: C.S. Lewis’s essay Religion and Rocketry, Q.E.D. That essay is pretty interesting. It was one of my favorites when I was a Christian, and now that I’m no longer blinded by the infallibility of C.S. Lewis, I should like to discuss it in detail sometime. It does not, of course, answer the question of the closed system, being written from within and with all of the assumptions of that system.
Does anyone actually know what I’m trying to say in this post? And if you do, could you please tell me? I have only succeeded in confusing myself.