Friday, September 21, 2007

On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, by Celsus

This polemical work was produced by a conservative second century pagan named Celsus. It is the only work critical of Christianity to survive from that era. It was preserved mostly intact from the church father Origen who pretty much quoted this entire document in his Contra Celsum. It’s a very short but really elucidates what was going on in the century after the composition of the New Testament.

Paul said that the cross is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. After rading this, I can clearly see that he was correct. Celsus complains shrilly that Christianity is an anti-intellectual religion that attracts the most vulgar (by this he means poor) people in society. It is like a virus upon the Roman Empire that can’t be stuffed out. He derides it as a religion of “women, slaves and children.” The fact that Christians were persecuted everywhere to him proves that the Christian God doesn’t care enough to save his own people from danger. To him, religion is about enhancing one’s earthly life. He could not understand why Christians would give up their lives for Christ.

His main criticism of Christianity is a criticism of the character of Jesus himself. The fact that he died on a Roman cross, was poor, born in the boonies, and lived a relatively obscure life proves to Celsus that Jesus couldn’t be who he said he was. He contrasts the story of Jesus to the Greek myths of Hercules and other noble heroic figures who fight for what they want and conquer their enemies. That Jesus would willingly die in such a humiliating way does not comport with Celsus’ idea of divinity.

Being very Platonic in thinking Celsus is fast to compare the saying of Christ with those of Plato, concluding that Plato is much more high-minded and intellectual. Of Christian worship, Celsus said, “The religion of the Christians is not directed at an idea, but at the crucified Jesus, and this is surely no better than dog or goat worship at its worst.” The Platonic belief in a metaphysical realm of Ideas or Forms makes them inclined to think that the physical world is bad compared to the metaphysical realm.

What’s fascinating is that Celsus many times mistakes Gnostic beliefs as Christian. Back then the Gnostic heresy was very pervasive. He knew both Gnostic sources as well as the New Testament documents. He not only takes aim at Jesus but at Paul as well who he claims nullified the Law of Moses by claiming that God changed His mind. Also, he was quite offended at the saying, “The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” Since Celsus believed strongly in a mix of pagan religious ideas and secular philosophies of the age, he saw this as an attack on the foundation of his own worldview.

I recommend this book to those interested in ancient history and the beginnings of Christianity. This work is another example that Christianity was born out of strife and conflict. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace to the Earth but a sword.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Book Review: Confessions, by Saint Augustine

Summer is almost over and I’ll thus be reading a lot less, at least when it comes to leisure reading. In any case, this is a famous Christian work by what many believe to be the greatest theologian in Christian history. To be quite honest, this was a very tough read for me, especially near the end. When Augustine was speaking about his life experiences, the book was great but when he started getting deep into philosophy, I lost interest. As the footnotes in my version make clear (Henry Chadwick was the translator) Augustine was very much influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy. His whole thought world was very different then our own. His philosophical musings were elaborate but eloquently irrelevant to me personally.

His entire outlook on his past sins, the virtues of his mother and the all pervasiveness of God’s grace were what gripped me the most about this work. Despite all his faults, God’s forgiveness brought by His grace touched Augustine profoundly. In one story from Augustine’s childhood he stole peaches from a neighbors tree just for the thrill of doing something wrong. He agonizes over this sin that most people would not have mentioned. Sin isn’t just about the wrongness of the crime itself but the state of one’s whole heart in committing particular sins. Jesus was correct when he spoke about an evil treasure coming out of an evil heart. Sin is a privation, a twisting distortion, something that is unnervingly banal, while living in the Spirit is truly living in the light of true goodness, beauty and life.

Augustine had a very metaphorical interpretation of Genesis that would rub a both young Earth and old Earth creationists the wrong way. Reading that reaffirmed by belief that Genesis and the Bible as a whole aren’t meant to be a science textbook but is the gift of God’s revelation to us. One does not have to take any type of literal reading of Genesis to be a Christian.

Overall, I recommend reading the biographical parts of this book and skipping most of it, unless of course you are a big ancient philosophy buff.