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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fallacies Which I Used to Find Comforting

We often accuse the Armstrong movement of "proof texting". What does this mean? Well, let's take history as an example. Person A is a legitimate history scholar. He knows precisely what happened in given eras, and there is noticeable depth to his comprehension. He can share incredible detail. When history is being discussed, his overview and insights become invaluable. Person B may or may not have a basic, very general idea, and knows the names of some individuals, or locations, as well as some of the events which transpired during a given period. In a discussion, in support of his side, he knows enough to go back, find a quote which supports his particular contention, and in many cases, this makes him appear equally authoritative. However, his knowledge is not as deep, and because of this, he sometimes misses information which directly counters or reverses what he has posted as his "proof text". One guy knows it cold, the other scurries around looking for information to support his contentions. Who would you trust? How could you ascertain whether there was an agenda at play, guiding the evidentiary trail? Most of us realize that there are fewer Person A types than there are Person B types, yet in a highly polarized environment, it is usually the Person B types that get the "high fives". (Hooray for our side). The problem is that both believers and non-believers do this. It is embedded, learned behavior, a hangover from our Armstrong days.

I've always said that I am not a good welder. But, I do recognize good welding when I see it. And, I believe most of us have a certain gift of discernment. Something deep inside of us tends to either validate, or reject incoming information. But, we've also got the ability to "override" those gut feelings, if we have a preference as to the outcome.

Over the past years, we've all encountered people who lift various myths, personalities, and other little clues from history to support the theory that Jesus Christ never existed. Some have stated that He was either loosely based on some mythological character who in fact predated Christianity, or on a composite of teachers, magicians, or alleged do-gooders or miracle workers from the period, or from word of mouth legendary tradition that would not pass Snopes if we were discussing a possible contemporary character. However, it should raise a cautionary red flag that the broad majority of legitimate historians do not question the historicity of Jesus. There is much dispute over whether He was who He said He was, but little doubt that He existed. In fact, there is a documented progression of teachers and students, one having taught the other, extending from Antenicene Fathers of the first, second, third and fourth centuries back to the original disciples and Jesus Himself. The proto-Catholics, and later the Catholics were incredible record keepers, preserving what they felt was an oracle, much the same as were the Jews before them. Though they can't be the entirely secular sources that non-believers would prefer, the Vatican has amassed and preserved, in addition to the Bible, an incredible number of period documents. The Antenicene Fathers were very prolific writers. And, church historians documented the minutes of council meetings such as Nicea and Laodecea, decisions which were made, and often the activities of those considered as exemplary or leaders. There are some "fringe" or radical historians who have advanced theories involving the non-existence of Jesus, but these are not considered to be completely credible. They bear more similarity to our modern holocaust deniers, or those who believe that the astronauts' walk on the moon was actually faked on some back lot of a movie studio in Burbank, California.

I recently watched an episode of 7th Street Theater, in which a young woman had gotten a speeding ticket, but insisted that she was not going over the speed limit. As she agonized over how to approach this in her court appearance, with the help and commiseration of her theater group, a discovery was made. While driving on the freeway, and keeping pace with the freeway traffic, she noticed that her speedometer stuck at 51 miles per hour. So, she ended up paying her fine rather than asserting her innocence in court. As the story developed, her breaking of the speed limit had been caused by reliance on wrong information, and the consequence was that she was still legally accountable. Of course the moral lesson of the episode was that one must be sure that one's sources are accurate, especially when making critical decisions!

How could one possibly have been part of WCG without having been primed to be receptive to conspiracy theories? HWA actually set the blueprint up for this type of thinking via his Simon Magus theory, in which the first century Gnostics were accused of having hijacked the original teachings of Christ, morphing it into what eventually became the Roman Catholic Church. I think it might behoove us to look at the concept of conspiracy theories, and what they do. In many cases, originators of these theories base them loosely on certain facts, draw conclusions, and then extrapolate wildly, imputing sinister and very scary intentions to people perceived as being in power or control. Often, the people advancing these theories utilize them to leverage conventional wisdom or commonly held opinions, and to alter peoples' intentions. This can be very effective, as we've all witnessed, in destroying individuals' confidence in one thing, and subsequently redirecting that confidence to another. It's usually done to combat a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and is not unlike a magician's sleight of hand. Right now, breaking news has the Securities and Exchange Commission taking Goldman Sachs to court, allegedly for conspiring, putting together, and selling packages of worthless investments, partially causing the recent meltdown in the global economy. Whether or not they did what is alleged remains to be proven in a court of law. Some astute observers find the timing of this SEC suit questionable, in that it seems to be happening just as Congress considers a new package of regulatory legislation pertaining to banks and investment firms. Thus, speculation as to leverage has already begun!We can nearly guarantee that, regardless as to the outcome of the lawsuit, if this is leverage, it is going to further erode trust. And, this erosion of trust is bound to influence the public's perceptions, and the pending legislation. Just seeing how a conspiracy theory works, I am not encouraged to buy into any of the conspiracy theories which people concoct in support of the alternative origins of the Bible, or of Jesus. For one thing, there are far too many of them! Overkill tends to make me suspicious.

There is what is known as oral law, or oral tradition. The Jews have this, in the form of their Talmud and Cabala, and the Catholics have it as well, supposedly the cumulative effect of the primacy of Peter. The Protestant Reformation was all about shedding much of the Catholic oral tradition, and getting back to the Bible as the basic core or source for human actions, rather than the authority of the church. Coinciding with the Reformation was the translation, mass printing of, and availability of the Holy Bible to the masses, so that each individual believer could be responsible for doing the due diligence required by their faith. In the early stages of this, people were actually killed for making the Bible accessible, because it was seen as eroding the power of the church, and even that of secular Kings and Queens.

There are questions and theories regarding the authenticity of the Bible. The Old Testament was available during Jesus' time in the form of the Septuagint, and today we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, which differ very little from what was available prior to the discovery of these scrolls. That is probably a factor as to why there are more questions and theories surrounding the New Testament than the Old. It becomes difficult to imagine, however, how we, two thousand years removed from the selection and canonization process, would be in a better position to make some of the related decisions today than those who were actually part of that process. Those compiling Christian documents treated the materials at hand very reverently. They felt they were preserving an oracle, and did evaluate them very carefully and even agonized over them! We know this based on conflicts such as that between Marcion and Irenaeus. Canonization seems to have been a gradual process, but regardless as to the timing, those actually involved were closer to the time period of the actual early Christian events which the books and letters describe than are those of us living today. They had testimony, materials, and criteria available to them which have long since been lost to antiquity. So, in many cases, the absence of evidence which seems to pose great problems for us today was not a problem for them. For believers, the authenticity of scripture has an additional basis. We believe it to be Spirit protected.

Because Christians have oft cited Josephus as an authority, his account of Jesus is frequently attacked as having been inserted later, and not conforming to his general writing style. And, frankly, this may or may not be true. But, the bottom line is that Josephus is just one of numerous resources. Jesus most certainly does not rise or fall just based on Josephus. You see,
we don't just need to deal with Jesus, but also with Peter, John, Paul, Pilate, the Ossuary of James and other archaeological artifacts, Egyptian Christian traditions, the Antenicene Fathers, the Jewish Talmud and associated historical records, and even the apocryphal gospels and people attacked as having been heretics. They all, in their own way, give testimony of Jesus' existence. If this were all a huge, global conspiracy, can you imagine all of the people who would need to have been complicit? Even the detractors! Plainly, there are odds and the laws of probability in play here, with both believer and non-believer alike placing their bets. Some derive encouragement from the so-called Dark Ages, and cite it as support for the idea that there could have been an all-encompassing black out and control, but the Dark Ages were not global! Some nations existing today never participated in these Dark Ages! Mohammed and the entire early Islamic movement were seen as being on the cutting edge during this era, as compared to the Catholic nations. It is difficult to imagine this today, but apparently they were quite advanced (Incidentally, they also believed in Jesus! They just saw Him as being a prophet)

And, speaking of some of these other nations, I used to ask, "What about the Chinese people? There are some areas of China where nobody has even heard of Jesus. Would a loving god hold them accountable?" This was supposed to be another one of my escape hatches, but the flaw lies in the fact that it applies to the Chinese, not to me regarding my own situation or salvation. It is nice to have brotherly concern for others, but their plight is their plight, and I am responsible based on my own conditions. Lack of knowledge amongst Chinese people is not something which I could logically present to God on judgment day, and expect Him to cut me some slack!

All of the above was at one time used in constructing my "wall", a protective structure which I had built following my exit from Armstrongism. It was designed to keep me from being fooled and hurt again. Judging from discussions and comments on forums and blogs, I believe that others have also used some or all of these in their own walls of non-belief. As one comes in from that deadly and dangerous "road to Damascus", one's perceptions change. My hope is that there are some nuggets here that might either provide food for thought, or perhaps help some other people, those who may also be in the midst of some important decisions in their lives. Non-belief isn't a bad intermediate stage. It serves as an excellent neutral buffer, and helps clear out all of the old baggage. My opinion, though, is that it is not altogether optimal or satisfying as a final stage.


Monday, April 19, 2010

The "B" Word

The bitterness label is perhaps one of the most irksome and cliched things that practicing Armstrongites can hurl at us. When someone plays the "B" card (actually quite an identifying shibboleth!), it is a device intended to leverage or invalidate us, and to cast doubt upon our opinions and statements. Once employed, it momentarily stops meaningful discourse while the accused suddenly find themselves confronting the topic of bitterness before being able to continue the original discussion. I believe that most people hurling this label know exactly what they are doing, too. They are pressing one of the buttons which their programming has taught them to press. Unfortunately, after about fifty years, it has become so unoriginal that one almost expects it to be accompanied by parrot squawking! "Wwaaakkk! Root of Bitterness! Wwaaakkk!" Yet, so deeply embedded is this in the minds of the cultically programmed that it is something we are unlikely to be able to correct. Best course might be to take it for what it is, and simply ignore it, depriving the utterers of its impact. We should realize that perhaps using it is the only way that the programmed can process our posts, mentally deflecting themselves from some of the very valid issues which we raise from time to time.

In considering bitterness, these folks fail to be able to identify, isolate, and recognize a basic cause and effect relationship. Obviously, there can be, and frequently are spiritual problems, but good theology does not automatically escalate activities from physical to spiritual unless there is a valid reason to do so. And, granted, there can be spiritual undertones to many physical problems. In this case, church practices recognizable as being bad, combined with a sense of having been "ripped off" have caused a very proper and appropriate negative reaction amongst many of us here. Unfortunately, the very ones who would spiritualize our "problem" for us also happen to believe that there is no remedy, save for us to return as members in good standing to the organization which largely caused the problem.

When one is exposed to a person, organization, or situation that has served as a long-term "net taker", as opposed to a "net giver", it is not unusual for there to be some residual sensitivity about the things of which one feels robbed, deprived, or having lost. Many Christians believe in sacrificing everything for their Creator, and for their Savior. The specific set of problems we see today has been caused by the fact that to some people it has become obvious that the Armstrong movement never did have the witness of God behind it. So, any sacrifice was largely useless. Lacking the witness of God, WCG was unable to deliver what was promised as inducement for the sacrifices, either on a personal level for members, or in terms of world events. And it was most certainly anything but a nurturing church! Some, although I can't imagine how they are able to continue to do this, apparently still feel that God is involved in their church or splinter. The bottom line would seem to be that in most cases, these churches have been their own worst enemies. And, now they want to blame the victims. Had a little bit of intelligence, or humanity been part of their equation, much of the suffering and alleged bitterness need never have happened. They are the jetsam and flotsam left in the wake of all false teachers.

In analyzing some of the practices which later resulted in bitterness, it becomes obvious that the roots lie in uncaring, exploitative treatment of members. This is no mystery, curse, or temptation from Satan. There is a very physical, simple, direct cause and effect relationship in play here. People have been treated inconsistently with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, inconsistently with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. A church institution, to insert, assert, and preserve its own authority and to meet its own objectives, has chronically devalued humans and human relationships, the same humans and relationships that Jesus placed a premium upon. They made them readily expendable. A church taught about the loving shepherd who is unwilling to lose any of his sheep, yet failed to "go and do likewise". Obviously, there do exist some incorrigible people, horribly addictive personalities, sociopaths, and others who for one reason or another need to be taken care of. These, the few but highly visible, do require a highly structured environment, perhaps emphasizing legalism and authority. But, is it reasonable to expect that every member of an organization supposedly devoted to mentoring, and to providing spiritual guidance would be treated as some of these "at risk" people whom I've catalogued? Most humans learn very successfully how to exercise control over the personal details surrounding their lives. Most, also, know to seek advice when situations become overwhelming. The most advanced Christian groups know of this, and factor it into their curriculum, teaching and practicing "good stewardship", not only with financial resources entrusted to them, but also in terms of developing their human resources. Paul speaks of the "great freedoms" of being a Christian.

There was a time in my life when I was involved in assisting some very troubled people close to me. This was gut wrenching for a time, but I actually emerged with a fresh perspective towards humanity, caring people, and spirituality. During that time, you might have seen me visiting someone in jail, or at a halfway house, or traipsing the streets looking for them. Those activities were for me a regular fact of life. I became aware of some of the programs which are commonly used to help such people back into a more mainstream, responsible, and productive lifestyle. Because of many of the negative events in my own life, things for which the ACOG perpetrators claimed authority from Jesus Christ, I have to admit that I saw belief in perhaps some of the same ways those recovering from addictions see the drugs and alcohol which were involved with their lifestyle problems. In a sense, I identified with some of the people whom I sought to help, because, like them, I recognized that my experiences had been damaging. So, imagine the paradox I faced! I saw people actively being counselled to seek their Higher Power, and I was very skeptical. For me, in my somewhat unique position, seeking the Higher Power seemed to be the moral equivalent of relapsing back into a drug which had ruined several decades of my life. Yet, of course, some of these people who were being exposed to God and Jesus, for the first time in their lives, were experiencing results. If you spoke to them you would learn that Jesus was seen as the one who could heal, could put back that which had been lost, or taken away, a just setter of standards, a giver of blessings, and a source of justice in a world cursed with injustice. Whether any of us can make the incredible mental leap to acknowledge this, it was an observable fact that the beliefs of these people either facilitated or enhanced their healing processes. Granted that humans can alter behavior based on secular logic and experience, but adding moral imperatives provided by a Higher Power increases the possibility of a changed life exponentially. Organizers of 12 Step programs retain that as part of their program because it works!

What a surprising trip, considering the places where I'd already been, courtesy of the WCG! One aspect to this which ended up irritating me was the way in which these new Christian people would answer my questions and challenges with almost pre-scripted cliches. I'd challenge them, asking what I thought were deep questions, honestly wanting to know tangible benefits of a Christian life, as compared to my own of non-belief, and get all too familiar cliches. Now, years after the fact, in spite of some of the "novice" answers I had frequently received, I finally got the answers to many of my questions from people who had delved beyond the initial learning stages, and beyond the superficial. And, there was more education. As a non-believer, I had always thought that one could find all of what I then called the "non-imaginary" benefits of Christianity through other sources. What I've learned since, is that so many of these good things and benefits are concentrated within a church community, with the key being whether you can find one with which your are comfortable. The majority of the people who say that you can find some of these benefits in an assortment of other places, while I sincerely believe they are telling the truth, simply don't go to the trouble. They do without. In a way, it becomes like being homeless. Without the very salving nourishment of the soul, many of the things which gnaw at us don't go away. Yet, just like some of the diseases and illnesses ignored because of WCG medical doctrines, these conditions are treatable! We don't need to be living with them.

So, how do we treat or get rid of bitterness? I've never read some of the atheist textbooks, so have no clue as to what their teaching on this very relevant topic might be. Don't know what an Ayn Rand objectivist would do. But, I believe I've learned a very effective method from Christians. Fortunately, it is one of those universal principles which we all can share in, regardless of belief or not. You forgive the people whom you hold responsible for causing the bitterness, and it frees you up to go on with your life. By the way, it won't make a scintilla of difference to these people whether we forgive them, or not. In fact, we don't even need to tell them. You can be sure they would handle your forgiveness in the same arrogant way in which they handle everything else! But, the act of forgiveness provides immediate and tremendous release, something only we can do for ourselves and obtain noticeable results.