The Inconvenience of Facts

Facts are so inconvenient. They have an annoying habit of asking you to rethink your worldview. And rethinking worldviews is not something people generally like to do. In fact, we hate it so much that we will go to almost any lengths to avoid it. It takes a great deal of intellectual courage to stare facts in the face.

And please do not make the mistake of assuming that this pertains only to spiritual or socio-cultural facts. One of the books that had the greatest impact on me when I was at university was one prescribed for a philosophy of science module  – Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn points out that normal science does not aim at discovery, but rather at confirming what we already know. When experiments contradict accepted truths, we dismiss the results as anomalies. And it is only when the weight of evidence becomes too overwhelming to ignore that we reluctantly shift paradigms to incorporate these ‘anomalies’. Whether through censorship, persecution or willful blindness, we will do what we can to preserve the world we want to know, whether in science, politics, or religion.

So at the start of this new year, inspired once more to write after a period of emptiness, as I embark on this next exploration with you, I feel it necessary to warn my Christian readers that this series will make some of you very angry. I think there will be very many of you who will not manage to read all the way through. By the same token, I also know that many of you are only reading this because you have questions that your church has silenced or for which they cannot provide satisfactory answers; some of you are desperately hoping that it will not come down to a choice between atheism and a brand of Christianity that you no longer find intellectually sustainable. Whoever you are, for whatever reason you find yourself reading this, I want to remind you that my reason for writing is that I hope, once your theological house has come crashing down and the dust has settled, you will find a Jesus more beautiful and profound than you could have dared imagine. But the journey there is likely to be painful. There is nothing I can do, I am afraid, to soften that. This journey to Jesus requires us first to dismantle the theological frameworks that are holding us back.

We don’t like to admit it, but we all understand the concept of “God” through a series of filters. These filters operate in such a way that they are largely invisible to us. We do not see their effects on our perceptions because they have been normalised through familiarity. But our understandings of all things – not just God – are shaped and even distorted by such filters, and unless we first know they are there, we will always assume that what we perceive is truth. When we can see them, though, we can correct for their biases. Although we will always be limited in our capacity to see, we may – if we are brave – learn to see a little more truly.

Theology – or the way we think about God – evolves constantly. We treat it as a constant – “Christianity has always believed that…” – but this is not the case. Theology is always a reflection of the context in which it operates.

The early Israelites were polytheistic. As did most other ancient cultures, they believed in a pantheon of Gods. Ugaritic texts outline a cast that was headed by El, a storm god not unlike Zeus. Among the supporting cast were El’s wife – a sea god called Asherah, and their children, including Baal, a fertility God; Anat, a war goddess who is mentioned in the book of Judges; and – perhaps most significantly –  a  warrior god called Yahweh, a son of El.

There is evidence that in their earliest iterations, El and Yahweh were distinctly different entities. Certainly, evidence of the polytheistic nature of early Israelite religion in the Bible is abundant. There are numerous references to the ‘council of El’. For example, Psalm 89: 5-7 reads:

5 The heavens praise your wonders, Yahweh,

    your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones

6 For who in the skies above can compare with Yahweh?

    Who is like Yahweh among the gods*?

7 In the council of the holy ones El is greatly feared;

    he is more awesome than all who surround him.

*modern translators, who cannot avoid the obvious challenge this poses to their assumption that the writer was a monotheist, opt for “heavenly beings” instead of “gods”.

The belief that Yahweh was one among many gods is readily evident in the Biblical texts; we have just not been conditioned to read them that way. But when we abandon the monotheistic lens through which we are conditioned to interpret the Bible, texts like Genesis 1: 26 make a lot more sense: “Then Elohim said, “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness…”. ‘Elohim is a plural word. It can be translated as ‘gods’. It is why humanity was made, male and female, in “their” image. The gods made humans in their likeness, and since the pantheon comprised male and female beings, both men and women are image-bearers of the divine.

As time went on and Israelite religion tended more towards monolatry (the worship of one god only, despite the belief that more than one existed), and eventually towards monotheism, the texts that would eventually come to comprise the Bible reflect a rejection of the worship of other Gods and are sometimes even edited by scribes to remove references to them altogether. An example of this can be found in Deuteronomy 32: 8-9. The standard Hebrew version of the text reads:

“When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,

when he divided all mankind,

he set up boundaries for the peoples

according to the number of the sons of Israel.

For the Lord’s portion is his people,

Jacob his allotted inheritance.”

The Dead Sea scrolls and other more ancient versions of the text, however, read:

“When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,

when he divided the sons of Adam,

he set up boundaries for the peoples,

according to the number of the divine beings.

For the Lord’s portion is his people,

Jacob his allotted inheritance.”

Clearly later scribes have made changes to the texts that serve both to delegitimise the worship and even existence of other gods, and to promote the idea that Israel is the chosen people of this one God. Later edits also conflate El with Yahweh, so that they become interchangeable. In some comparatively more recent versions of several texts, for example, references to “El Shaddai” have been replaced with “Yahweh Shaddai”. Some would argue that the Israelites had always used these names interchangeably. But this argument fails to explain why, in that case, the post-exilic scribes felt it necessary to make these amendments to the ancient texts at all. Had Yahweh and El always been understood as a single deity, there would be no need for such a specific and consistent amendment. The evidence would seem to suggest that this conflation of El and Yahweh is part of a deliberate reform, possibly aimed at unifying people and asserting a national identity in the wake of the exile in Babylon and the destruction of the Northern kingdom. 

A modern Protestant or Evangelical Christian, however, cannot even begin to grapple with the significance of this. Not because they are intellectually incapable, but because their doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture (a theological construct that I believe is frankly idolatrous) requires that they deny the very existence of the realities these facts present.  You cannot begin to wrestle with a theological question if you refuse to see that there is a question to begin with. In fact, there are several questions: What does all of this say about the nature and function of Scripture, when there is very clearly a distinct human hand in it? What makes Yahweh any more special than any of the dozens of other gods from the pantheons of ancient cultures? How do we know that this Yahweh is any less a figment of our imaginations than Zeus and consequently any more worthy of our worship? And what does this mean for those of us who want to know Jesus?

I am sure you can already feel the world shifting around you. If you listen, you can probably hear the creaks and groans as the paradigmatic frames that have held your worldview and theology together begin to strain under the weight of these facts. Contrary to what Sheldon would have us believe, facts are normally far from fun. They make the world look different and that is scary. We can run from them, hide from them, deny their existence. For a time that may work. Maybe even for a lifetime. And if that is the path you choose, I sincerely hope that works for you – that you find a way to inner peace. But my experience is that facts have a way of finding you. Especially in an information age. And rather than running from them, follow them and let them lead you to new worlds. Like any journey, it is inconvenient. Painful even. But it beats the fearfulness and guilt, and you get see the world as if for the first time, full of wonder and without bounds. With eyes wide open.

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