biblical archaeology and thermodynamics

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.


10 thoughts on “biblical archaeology and thermodynamics

  1. Mikayla

    Reminds me of how when I was a teenage evangelical Christian, I wanted to argue for Christianity in a way that relied not on the Bible (which only Christians hold as an authority) but on evidence accessible to every person even the atheists. C.S. Lewis’s arguments in the beginning of Mere Christianity appealed to me for that purpose–though later I found myself laughing at the many untried assumptions he makes about human nature and morality in the first foundational chapter in that book.

    It seems it was my desire to convert atheists that started me on the path to atheism.

  2. Hugo

    It makes sense yes! Nice post!

    How conservative/fundie was Wheaton? Was the archaeology “solid”, or was there some shaky stuff as well? (I’m thinking in terms of those that want to see things in archaeology that simply aren’t there…)

  3. Lily Post author

    Wheaton is very conservative, but the archaeology was very solid. From the classes that I had, I think it’s one of the best academic departments at Wheaton. The profs’ credentials are impeccable. And they had none of the arrogance that prevailed among bible and theology profs.

  4. ochesnut

    Having majored in archaeology at Wheaton I would say a couple things.
    Everything in the Bible does not make perfect sense, not nearly, nor does it make any difference from what perspective I am viewing it (meaning I am a Christian and I still view it that way).
    I appreciate the props for the archaeology department. I would say academically it is outstanding and my professors really prepared me to think critically on issues and jump into the greater academic world.
    Wheaton is conservative if you are an atheist, liberal if you go to Bob Jones, and somewhere in between for most people. Having been in many of the departments (double major ANE archaeology, OT, and minored in Anthro/Geology) I can say that in the realm of evangelical thought there are a number of OT professors who are moderate or to the left, as well as those who go the other way. Theology and NT tend to be more conservative, but there are still a few who are moderate. However I found the Anthro and Geology professors to be refreshingly moderate to liberal (too much so in the case of one of the Anthro professors who was fired).

    Well, that went on longer than I expected, interesting post Lily.

  5. george.w

    Having majored in Bible at an accredited Christian liberal-arts college (2nd major in History with minor in psych) your post made perfect sense to me.

    Christianity relies heavily on smoke and mirrors, and you have to like the smell of the smoke. If it burns your nostrils, it’s more smoke later for you.

    I used to be a fan of Lewis. Still enjoy a couple of his books but the voice comes from much farther away now.

  6. Timber

    “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?”

    (1) Sadly, no, but they should be.

    (2) Because Christians wouldn’t be consistent to do otherwise.

  7. Timber

    Clarification: I meant to say “(1) Sadly, Christians in general are not, but they should be.”

    Reality is, some well-studied ones are aware of this.

  8. takatsu

    You can disagree with me, but for me, my faith isn’t being enclosed in this doctrine and following the program, or following commandments God told me to follow. But for me, it is relating with the world. and relating with God

    But there is a major aspect of Christianity that everyone misses out, or is extremely against, which is the actual spirituality. I have experienced TOO much of God to ignore his existence. I was atheist once, but and i chose to ignore Christianity. I thought, like you said it is an enclosed system, and Christians had all assumptions. (i.e. the background information, that God is real etc). But the truth is, He revealed Himself, powers and miracles and all, in my life, in physical form. This means I was not in the system at all, no one talked to me about it much, I was not educated in Christianity, but this was completely a supernatural spiritual out of the system experience.

    Healing, etc, all these things Christians read about and study, yes I can safely say I have seen and experienced it. But sadly, the world and even so called “Christians” in my church ignore this and are even opposed to it.

    This isn’t about being in a system or program, or doctrine, or assuming something or not, this is completely something else.. If you experience THIS part of the faith, it changes your understanding of Christianity, or well, possibly of religion, if you would like to think so.

    Of course that was just a brief rambling, lol, not in detail at the least

    Anyway, that is just my experience. Of course feel free to disagree with me, I’m not looking for an argument =)

    Good luck with your studies!


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