Mark Shea on a certain tall story

We sometimes hear it said that Jesus was just a teacher full of punchy aphorisms and turns of phrase: a mystic who wandered around saying nice things about the niceness of being Nice.  But his stupid disciples, being 2000 years stupider than Extremely Clever Us, managed to completely misunderstand him and construct an elaborate religion around him that he absolutely never intended.  It’s a narrative in which our culture places an extraordinary amount of faith — far more faith, in fact, than the Christian story requires, since the Christian story does not require us to believe in absolutely ridiculous claims about human psychology that nobody would ever advance for one second were it not for the special need to debunk Christianity.

—Mark Shea, ‘Palm Sunday’


  1. One notes that the only conceivable source for the good moral teacher Jesus is the Gospels — and yet if the story is true, the Gospels were written by such unspeakable liars as to make all they say evidence for nothing.

  2. Stephen J. says

    Douglas Adams had a quote I love to remember for situations like this, from his Dirk Gently novel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

    “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. …Your girl in the wheelchair—a perfect example. The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday’s stock market prices apparently out of thin air is merely impossible, and therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no benefit to herself is hopelessly improbable. The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality.”

    That the teachings of Jesus are full of self-evident moral truth is one thing; that such a bunch of bumblers, fools and gape-jaws as the Apostles could somehow become prophets and miracleworkers capable of convincing thousands not only of the moral truths (which they already knew) but of the metaphysical claims about how the very nature of life and death had changed, and were also so committed to those truths and claims that they died for them rather than (like most cult leaders) building up comfortable reserves of political power and wealth for themselves, is quite another.

    Not to mention that, as C.S. Lewis also points out, the claim that God became a Man — actually, physically became a real breathing human creature capable of bleeding and dying, as opposed to merely temporarily manifesting as a kind of phantom emanation or avatar — would have been especially blasphemous to the Jews of the time; in other words, we are being asked to believe that the religion of the Incarnation grew up as an error or hoax among the very people who would have been the most resistant group imaginable to its central metaphysical claim; the most unlikely ever to conceive of it themselves in error and the most likely to reject it in fierce suspicion from any preacher with even a hint of charlatanry about him.

    It is possible to conceive that purely human-created religions can nonetheless take off as sincere beliefs among thousands; look at Scientology. But it is very difficult to find an example of such a religion which demands as much as Christianity does and promises so little temporal reward for it. (At least part of Islam’s explosive success is due directly to the fact that it so neatly justified Muhammad’s campaigns of conquest while simultaneously creating a cooperative framework for the tribes to unite effectively during them.)

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