Science and Sin: Random Links

Even though I haven't been blogging much recently, I've still been accumulating a large number of links, far too many for one sitting.  I've noticed that they all seem to mostly belong to two categories: Science or Sin.  So that tells you which things I find interesting.  Here they are:

♦  This tool will tell you immediately whether your email address has been compromised by any known data breaches.

♦  "Molecular Dynamics" is the name of computer simulations to describe the behavior of atoms in motion.  Instead of reading the rest of the links, you should try out this online Interactive MD simulator.  (The name is a bit of a misnomer, since in this case there are no molecules, just `atoms' interacting with a force law which is attractive when the atoms are a bit close, but repulsive when they get very close.)  Despite the fact that it has only 2 space dimensions, there is still a clear distinction between solid, liquid, and gas phases (except above the critical point, where the atoms are too crowded for there to be a sharp distinction between liquid and gas).  See if you can adjust the pressure and temperature so that solid, liquid, and gas phases all simultaneously coexist!

♦  Galileo: the first science publicist?

♦  Although the Catholic Church may have had some temporary hangups about Heliocentrism, it seems the Church has never had any problems with String Theory.  In 1277, the Bishop of Paris condemned as heretical the propositions that God "could not make more than three dimensions of space simultaneously" and that God "could not make several universes".  To be clear, it's OK not to believe in extra dimensions or universes, but if you think they couldn't have existed, then you are telling God what he can and can't do, and that puts you in the same geometrically-misguided camp as the Spherical Heretics.

♦  Haven't checked how good it is, but here's some interesting looking online math and science tutorials at brilliant.org.

♦  Apparently scientists found (in an asteroid) some diamonds which could only have been formed in a planet bigger than Mercury but smaller than Mars.  Of which there are currently none in our Solar System.  But one of the things I learned in Graduate Mechanics (see also #3 here) is that the Solar System is surprisingly unstable over periods of many millions of years.  You might think that the small gravitational effects of planets on each other would be more or less random.  But if any two of the orbits happen to synch up into a small whole-number ratio (e.g. 3:2) then these small effects happen in a consistent way each cycle.  Sometimes they accumulate, causing large changes to the system (e.g. a planet may be ejected from the Solar System).

♦  Around 49 million years ago, a bunch of freshwater Azolla fern blooms sank down to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and sequestered about 80% of the CO2, causing the planet to shift from a "greenhouse Earth state, hot enough for turtles and palm trees to prosper at the poles, to the icehouse Earth it has been since."

In other news, we are now dumping large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.  Every time you take a breath, you are getting about 40% more CO2 in your lungs than people got before the Industrial Revolution.  (By the way, there's a name for the political philosophy that we shouldn't allow random large changes to the world because of the risk of unintended consequences.  It's called conservativism.)  Here's one good solution.  Sometimes, my fellow conservatives, we need to allow a small change to prevent an even bigger change.  :-)

♦  ...or I guess we could try to stop supervolcanos instead.

♦  This is not really a political blog, but I hope nobody thinks I don't condemn all the bad things just because I don't talk about them much.  I continue to believe that we should not have elected President Trump, that as citizens we ought to speak respectfully about the President (no matter who fills the office), and that one of the things we should respectfully say is that he's done some incompetent and immoral things.  As one little example of the latter, consider the pardon of Joe Arpaio several months ago.  (The guy who wrote the editorial is some kind of socialist, but facts is facts.)  On the whole, I'm pleasantly surprised by how little he's been able to implement his specific political agenda, but I would prefer to have a President who doesn't systematically undermine his own Cabinet members whenever they try to do anything useful.

♦  If we don't like judges reinterpreting the Constitution, then there's a case for reforming Article V to make it easier for people to change it when there is enough popular consensus.

♦  Since the US justice system is almost entirely based on plea bargains, it's worth knowing that there are countries like Germany that manage to avoid it entirely.  Not sure it is possible with our judicial system though.

♦  What is the most effective means of dealing with people with reprehensible political opinions?  Is it punching Nazis, like Captain America?  Is it mockery?  How about something with a proven track record—befriending people who think they hate you?  The last link is about St. Daryl Davis, a black musician who talks to KKK members, and has numerous KKK robes in his closet given to him by people who he convinced to leave the organization.

♦  People often assume that people mostly only believe in religions because they were raised in them.  They also often assume (perhaps because of their social circles) that deconversion from religion is common while conversion is quite rare.  Actually, both events are quite frequent.  In the USA, the statistics seem to say that religiously unaffiliated people are actually more likely to convert to a religion, than religious people are to become unaffiliated:

"Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups. Indeed, most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group.  Nearly four-in-ten of those raised unaffiliated have become Protestant (including 22% who now belong to evangelical denominations), 6% have become Catholic and 9% are now associated with other faiths."  (page 2 of Pew link)

Of course "unaffiliated" is not necessarily the same thing as atheist (although probably most "unaffiliated" households at least do not provide strong social pressure to believe in God or any particular religion.)

♦  James Mellaart (1925-2012) was one of the great archaeologists of the 20th century (or so it seemed); he made several major finds but had a tendency to be involved in controversy over the acquisition of artifacts.  But recently it was revealed that he engaged in a course of systematic fraud that casts doubt on his entire career.  This is the guy who popularized the idea of a prehistoric Mother Goddess religion, although this had been disconfirmed by scholarship long before the discovery of his wrongdoing.

♦  Also from St. Brandon Watson's blog, one of the best answers I've ever seen to the rather silly Argument from Lots of Space that some atheists use.

♦  A radio debate between St. Luke Barnes (whose book I mentioned here and here) and Sean Carroll, about whether Naturalism or Theism best explains the universe.

♦  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Cosmology is pretty good as these things go.

♦  Stanford researchers on the analogue of dark matter in biology: 99 percent of the microbes inside of you are unknown to Science.

♦  Speaking of Stanford, it seems that St. Jane Stanford — the cofounder and architectural designer of The Leland Stanford Jr. University, named after her scholarly son who died at the age of 15 before he could attend college — was murdered, quite possibly by the first President of the University (whom she intended to fire, before her sudden death by strychnine poisoning).  Fun fact, when this story was told to me at a dinner party, two other people shared accounts of academic poisoning scandals, e.g. the time Oppenheimer tried to poison his tutor at Cambridge (but he changed his mind before it was too late).

♦  Passing from the 6th commandment "Thou shalt not murder", to the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath (including allowing your servants to rest): Just-in-Time Scheduling is the oppressive practice of telling part-time workers at the last minute what their hours are, based on obscure computer algorithms.  Without of course paying them for the hours they had to set aside for work, but didn't end up being assigned to.  This makes it difficult for workers in the retail industry to regularly attend church, attend to children, or indeed have any kind of outside life.

This is bad and it should stop.  "You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns" (Deut 24:15).  If anyone reading this happens to be complicit, then "Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.  The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty" (James 5:4).  So repent from your wicked deeds, turn to the Lord and seek forgiveness!

♦  Apparently the literary trope of intimidating the natives by predicting an eclipse you just happen to know is scheduled to occur soon, actually happened once, although the instigator was a crackpot who didn't know how to calculate the radius of the Earth correctly, and was incidentally a tyrannical oppressor himself...

♦  An interesting article by Catholic apologist St. Jimmy Akin on whether the Exodus happened (readers can compare to my own take here).  Fun quote:

If you read the military records left by Egyptian pharaohs, guess what! They never lost a battle! (Though we do sometimes read about them “winning” battles progressively closer and closer to home as their armies were forced to retreat.)

♦  A nice review of St. David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament.  It's pretty cool but one thing it is definitely not is letting the New Testament speak for itself apart from an agenda, since Hart is very opinionated about a few very specific topics.

One notable eccentricity is he bends over backwards to translate in a way which allows for (but does not require) belief in universal salvation, generally by translating αἰώνιος as something like "in the Age" where other translations say "eternal".

Less defensibly, St. Hart (who is Eastern Orthodox) also claims that the Protestant belief in salvation apart from works has no basis in the text, and fights against it by translating ἔργα (which is a fairly generic term for doings or deeds) throughout St. Paul's letters as "observances" rather than "works".  E.g. Hart translates Gal 2:16 as "A human being is vindicated not by observances of the Law but by the faithfulness of the Anointed One Jesus" (click on the link to compare to other translations).  Hart claims that St. Paul "rejected only the notion that one might be `shown righteous' by `works' of the Mosaic Law—that is, ritual `observances' like circumcision and keeping kosher" (from the Preface).

However, the `Jewish rituals' interpretation of ἔργα (works) and νόμος (law)—while within the possible scope of meaning in certain contexts—fails to make sense of several key passages in Romans.  For example, in Romans 2:14, when the Gentiles are a "law to themselves", this clearly refers to their conscience rather than to Jewish ritual.  Or in 4:6, when St. Paul writes that "David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works" (NIV), is it really plausible that King David's song about forgiveness is about the blessing of not having to obey Jewish ritual law anymore?  Isn't it more likely about him being forgiven for an ethical breach, like maybe sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering her husband?  Or in 7:7, the "law" which Paul says he was condemned by is "Do not covet", which highlights an ethical problem, not a ceremonial one!

Inconsistently, St. Hart retains the traditional translations of ἔργα as "works" and πίστις as "faith" in the famous passage in James 2:24 which says that "a human being is made righteous by works, and not by faith alone"!  However, this apparent contradiction is to be resolved theologically, I do not believe that a translator should put his thumb on the scale by rendering the exact same contrasting pair of words differently in these verses, to support a preferred theological agenda.  (Less importantly, it seems that if he is going to write "Logos" in the opening of John, it would have been nice to also use it in passages like James 1:18, "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth..." where λόγος seems to have a similarly expansive meaning.)

♦  Is Critical Thinking Epistemically Responsible?
Yes, Critical Thinking Is Epistemically Responsible!

♦  Teaching people lists of fallacies is insufficient for critical thinking, because almost all supposed "fallacies" become legitimate arguments in certain circumstances, and only careful thinkers can tell the difference.

♦  On being an informed media consumer, with reference to the mythology from Genesis of the Tower of Babel.  The final conclusion is a bit exaggerated, but makes an interesting point.

♦  One more reason to engage in critical thinking: the mindless, uncritical use of a single statistical method throughout the social and medical sciences.

♦  But the education grant world is even worse.  Where worse means not just being incapable of distinguishing between succeeding at one's goal and the strategy you choose to implement it, but also horribly racist things like assuming children must be in greater need of "help" just because they are black and poor, and therefore putting them in remedial math classes (without ever checking their math ability) where they aren't taught appropriately.

♦  If you'd like to send money to a good cause where rational people actually check to make sure that it is highly effective at helping people, then please consider the charities endorsed by GiveWell, a nonprofit that does just this.  Not surprisingly, the best bang for the buck is spending money in 3rd world countries, usually for public health.

(GiveWell only rates secular charities.  If you want to give effectively to Christian evangelism then I personally recommend either Wycliffe Bible Translators or the Jesus Film.)

Posted in Links | 18 Comments

Crossing the Ocean

For the last several months I've been very busy with job interviews and I haven't had much time to actually think about Physics, let alone blog about it.  Sorry to everyone whose comments I've neglected in the meantime, but I hope you were having fun discussing among yourselves...

That brings us to a major life announcement.  Last week I've accepted a Lectureship at the University of Cambridge!  (Yes, the one in England.)  Needless to say, I was shocked, humbled, and flattered (all at once) when I heard I would be getting an offer a few weeks ago.  So starting Jan 1st, 2019 (Lord willing and the visa come) I'll be a faculty member at the 4th oldest University in the world (after Bologna, Paris, and Oxford)*.  Nicole and I are very excited!  Until this new job begins, I remain at Stanford.

The faculty job ranks in the UK go like this: Lecturer → Reader → Professor.  This is roughly equivalent to Assistant Professor → Associate Professor → Full Professor in the USA, but unfortunately it means you can't call me "professor" yet while anyone from the UK is listening.  That includes here on the internet, sorry.

In another shocking twist of convention (and I'm sure it won't be the last) Theoretical Physics is considered a subcategory of Maths in the UK (note the Britishised spelling, which gives the term its own local colour).  Specifically I'll be at DAMTP.  Apparently the Physics Department does something else, I guess they're the folks who interact with the actual physical world?

The good news is, it seems I don't have to worry about getting tenure.  Technically there's a 5 year probationary period before I'd get appointed to retirement age, but apparently no one in Maths has ever been denied in living memory.  (Although you never know, I could always be the first—everyone's always said I'm exceptional.)  Except for a few big names, the universities in the US like to reassure their junior hires that their tenure rates are in the high nineties.  But there's a big difference between marrying a spouse who's 95% likely to be faithful, and one who is virtually certain to be—it's nice not to have to worry about it!

Cambridge has 31 affiliated colleges (like Baskin-Robbins and flavours), each with their own heraldic scarf colors.  The Lectures and Exams are set by the University Teaching Officers, while the College Fellows tutor the students in the material in groups of 1-3 students.  Unlike Oxford, membership in a college is optional for University faculty, and many people in math and science don't.  But I think it would be cool (I mean, brilliant!) to dine with people working in completely different fields.  And while I'd like to believe I'll do a good job lecturing, my talents shine best in a one-on-one setting, where I can adapt my approach to each student.  So I'll definitely apply to join a college, but I don't know which one yet.  We'll just have to see what their Sorting Hat has to say about it.

Obviously, I'm sad not to be able to see Stephen Hawking after I arrive.  I was introduced to him a few years ago at a conference lunch in Brussels, but he was completely non-responsive at the time (he was eating).  But he did come to my talk the next day.  Now he has departed on a far more significant journey than my crossing to England will be...  I hope he is now at peace, and pray that he will find mercy and full healing when the Lord returns.  (Same goes for Joe Polchinski, a colleague from Santa Barbara who died a couple months ago of brain cancer.)  There are, however, lots of other superb gravitational theorists at Cambridge who are still among the earthly living, and I look forward to working with them.

* Disclaimer: History is always more fractaline than the simple narratives whenever you look at it closely, and this claim is no exception.  I went to Wikipedia to check it, and of course there are disputes about what counts as a University and what counts as its founding date.  It's really old, let's leave it at that.  (Needless to say, the views in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cambridge University.)

Posted in Blog, Education | 16 Comments

Apostles' Creed Readings

UPDATE: The series is now complete, and I have posted pdfs of a complete set of handouts below.

Recently, Nicole and I have been running a discussion group on the Apostles' Creed at our Church.  The Apostles' Creed is a traditional statement of faith, used during baptisms, that developed organically in the Western Church over the first few centuries.  It wasn't actually written by the apostles, although it is an accurate summary of their teachings.

Here are the handouts we wrote to use in the discussion:

APOSTLES' CREED:

I believe in God the Father Almighty
Maker of Heaven and Earth
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary <-  Christmas readings!
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified
Dead, and buried
He descended into hell
The third day he rose again from the dead
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead
I believe in the Holy Spirit
I believe in the Holy Catholic* Church
The communion of saints
The forgiveness of sins
The resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting.

*i.e. universal

Each handout discusses a different line in the Creed, and contains 1) a few quotes from the Bible, 2) a few quotes from Christian writers, always  and 3) two very quick arguments for why Christians believe that part of the Creed.  We always included at least one scripture from each Testament, and at least one quote from an ancient Christian saint as well as at least one from a modern Christian saint.

If you or your church wish to run a similar group, you are free to print out, use, and/or modify these handouts with no restrictions.  We begin with prayer, and take turns reading from the handout.  Then I've been getting a different church member each Sunday (not necessarily a regular member of the group) to testify for 5-10 minutes what that line in the Creed means to them personally—unfortunately this isn't included in the handouts!—and this opens up a general discussion.  Then we end with prayer.  The whole thing takes an hour.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Posted in Theology | 11 Comments

Tis the Season… For Revisionist History

[This is an updated version of an essay published at my own website in December 2014.—Scott Church]

As Christmas draws nigh, I am reminded of the many reasons why it’s my favorite holiday. It’s the culmination of my favorite time of year—when geese and swans are on the wing through crisp morning fog, the hills are on fire with the colors of dwindling annual life cycles in their foliage, and salmon fill the rivers, returning with such undying exuberance to complete a cycle of life as old as the cascades they leap with so much primal determination. My family and I visit a tree farm in the Cascade foothills and return with our Christmas tree. We decorate it, hang lights, and fill our home with Christmas carols, sacred hymns, and the canons of the season. Autumn wreath and other spicy scents waft from candles. The joy and worshipfulness of the whole season fills gives me joy. But most of all, Christmas is the time when we remember that God chose to come down from Heaven and become one of us, sharing in the fleshly reality of our joys and sorrows, and offering His life as a loving sacrifice for ours. Unto us a Savior is born!

But like so many other things that bring joy and meaning to our lives, it also has a way of bringing some of the lamest ax grinders among us out of the woodwork like moths to the flame. We’ve all heard the endless pratlling of benighted fundamentalists who take offense whenever someone says, “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas,” as though the Christmas story celebrated by 2.2 billion people worldwide is somehow threatened by anyone who doesn’t hold Christian beliefs and prefers to find their own meaning in the season. But for all their annoying priggishness, at least these people have some semblance of history and scholarship on their side. More bothersome (to me at least) are the self-proclaimed guardians of politically correct secularism who insist that Christmas, and indeed the entire body of Christian doctrine and tradition, were somehow stolen from pagan traditions by nefarious church leaders intent on suppressing them. The Immaculate Conception and virgin birth of Jesus, the manger, the visit of the magi bearing gifts, the date of December 25 and more… all, we’re told, originated in pagan myths such as those of the gods Mithras, Sol Invictus, Horus, and other ancient cosmogonies. Even the historical figure of Jesus Himself, His twelve disciples and the crucifixion and resurrection are said to have been plagiarized. Every fall, once the Thanksgiving decorations come down and the Christmas lights start going up, it’s only a matter of time before cartoons and Facebook memes like the one below start making the rounds in anti-religion social media chat rooms.

Apart from the boorish tastelessness of vandalizing a Christmas classic, every word of this is false and no reputable scholars take any of it seriously. Even so, the rise of such fashionable mythology within anti-religion circles makes for an interesting, and at times entertaining story. Verily, verily, human nature is a gift that keeps on giving.

The actual date of Jesus’ birth is not known. The gospels tell the Nativity story from different perspectives but contain few clues as to its date, and the next two centuries contain little extra-biblical evidence to supplement them. Surprising as it may be to some, the early church did not attach much significance to the birth of Jesus, preferring instead to celebrate his ministry, death and resurrection. Some Christian writers of the period even condemned the Roman practice of celebrating birth anniversaries as “pagan” practices (Origen), rendering it highly unlikely that they or the church would’ve been in the habit of celebrating the Nativity. Toward the end of the 2nd Century an interest in dating the birth of Jesus emerged in the Coptic Church of Northern Africa, and by 200 C.E. several dates were being proposed (Clement). During the 2nd Century some Christian writers saw intimations of Jesus in the vernal equinox and placed the Annunciation and the passion of Christ on or near the 14th day of Nisan (March 25 in the Julian calendar). Irenaeus (c. 130–202) made this claim and linked it to the crucifixion as well, as did Tertullian of Carthage (Tertullian), Hippolytus and the pseudo-Cyprianic (Talley, 1986). In 243 C.E. an anonymous work titled De Pascha Computus suggested that the creation of the sun and the Annunciation both occurred on or near the vernal equinox as well (McGowan, 2002).

The notion that the Annunciation and passion of Christ, as well as creation should fall on the vernal equinox was widespread by the mid-3rd Century, and by the middle of the 4th Century celebrations of Christmas had converged on two dates: December 25 in the West and January 6 in the East. Valentinus' Chronography of 354 refers to a Christian liturgical feast denoted as "Natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea." By this time the Donatists of Northern Africa were also honoring the December 25 date and appeared to have been doing so since their inception as a church under the persecution of Diocletian in 312 C.E. (McGowan, 2002). In the East, where the birth of Christ had been tied more strongly to the Epiphany, Christmas was celebrated on January 6. The period between the two dates came to be known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. By 388 C.E. the December 25 date had been imported into the Eastern Church as well by John Chrystosom who gave a sermon claiming, “Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December ... the eight before the calends of January [25 December] ..., But they call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord ...? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice…" (Martindale, 1908; Roy, 2005; Wainwright and Tucker, 2006).

So, by the mid-3rd Century Christian writers had based the conception of Jesus on the vernal equinox leading to a birth date of December 25 (Duchesne, 1919; Alexander, 1994; Roll, 1995; Talley, 1996; Wybrew, 1997; McGowan, 2002; Roy, 2005; Senn 2006, 2012; Rothenberg, 2011). By the middle of the 4th Century, liturgical feasts had been marking the date for some time and had almost certainly been doing so before the ascension of Constantine to the Eastern and Western thrones in 312 C.E.

It’s important to note that prior to Constantine Christians were a persecuted minority. Official state sanctions against Christians were desultory throughout the 2nd Century and escalated to Diocletian great persecution from 303 to 311 C.E. during which as many as 20,000 Christians were executed for not bowing down before the officially recognized gods of Rome. They were hardly in a position to “usurp” any pagan festivals and in fact, for reasons of religion and physical safety they were actively trying to distance themselves from them. Prior to the 4th Century Christian writings make no references to altering, or otherwise laying claim to any pagan holidays or dates (McGowan, 2002). It was during this period (274 C.E.) that Aurelian declared Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) the official sun god of Rome and officially established the festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti on December 25 to commemorate him. Sun god worship was present in Rome in one form or another since before the 1st Century. But whereas Christian writers had established arguments for the birth of Jesus on this date by 200 C.E., there is little evidence to suggest that feast days commemorating Sol Invictus were celebrated prior to the mid-4th Century (Wikipedia, 2017). In fact, evidence suggests that Natalis Invicti may have been a response to December 25 Christian liturgical feasts rather than a motivator for them (Tighe, 2003). It wasn’t until Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. that persecution of Christianity ended (only to be renewed to some degree by Julian the Apostate from 361 to 363 C.E.), and Christianity didn’t become the state religion of Rome acquiring the power “usurp” any pagan practices until 380 C.E. under the reign of Theodosius I (Wikipedia, 2017b).

But according to our cartoon historian… a minority of Christians launched a sinister plot to steal the festival of Natalis Invicti from the pagans who were persecuting them 50 to 70 years before it was even practiced, and nearly two centuries before the church had any sanctioned power to do so.

What about Saturnalia?  It originated as a festival for farmers in honor of Saturn (from satus for "sowing") that marked the end of the autumn planting, and was practiced in one form or another from as early as 217 B.C. until well into the 5th Century C.E. Originally a two day affair beginning around December 17, it eventually became a week-long festival culminating on December 23 (Salusbury, 2009; Wikipedia, 2017c). Though it has been suggested that the festival may have been extended to December 25 by Domitian (AD 51-96) during his reign as an assertion of authority (Salusbury, 2009), for the bulk of its C.E. history it was a 5-7 day festival that culminated with the Sigillaria (day of gift giving) on December 23. Its timing does not align well with December 25 or January 6 dates for Christmas, and it's very unlikely to have had any influence on the church's adoption of either date (Gwynn, 2011).

But if Sol Invictus and Saturnalia are questionable Christmas story candidates, the cult of Mithras is downright ludicrous. Mithras was a Roman reinvention of the ancient Indo-Iranian angelic deity Mithra (Sanskrit, Mitra), the guardian of covenant and oath, harvest, cattle, and water. He was the all-seeing protector of truth, and the divinity of contracts and judicial process (Wikipedia, 2017c). He is first mentioned in the Rig Veda circa 1400 B.C. after which his worship spread to the Persian world through Zoroastrianism where he was known as Mithra. It’s unclear whether Zoroaster himself embraced Mithra, but he appears throughout the Zoroastrian Avesta (particularly the Khorda Avesta, or Book of Common Prayer) possibly as early as 559 B.C. He entered the Hellenic world as Mithras when Alexander the Great conquered Persia in the late 4th Century B.C. Roman Mithraism first appears in the historical record late in the 1st Century C.E. and flourished throughout the empire, particularly among the military, until the 4th Century. Unlike other pagan religions of the period, Mithraism was a mystery religion whose doctrines, rituals and festivities were closely guarded secrets. No scriptures, writings or first-hand worship accounts are known to exist apart from a handful of catechisms and one 4th Century liturgy. Everything that is known about it has been derived from inscriptions at archaeological sites and second-hand commentary about it in the writings of contemporary outsiders (Clauss, 2001; Pearse, 2012; Pearse, 2012; Wikipedia, 2017e). There is general scholarly agreement that although he was derived from the Zoroastrian tradition, the Roman Mithras was noticeably dissimilar to his Persian counterpart and today he is regarded as a distinct product of the Roman Imperial religious world (Wikipedia, 2017c, 2017d, 2017e; Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017). It’s important to note that syncretism was a common feature of Roman paganism and Mithraism was no exception. Most archaeological finds associated with the worship of Mithras contain statues dedicated to other gods and inscriptions dedicated to Mithras were commonplace in other cult sanctuaries. Roman Mithraism was more a way of practicing pagan worship than a religion in its own right and Mithras' worshippers were often found worshipping other gods in the civic religion. Mithraism was far more likely to be influenced by other religions rather than an influence on any of them (Burkert, 1987; Clauss, 2001; Pearse, 2012).

Nevertheless, attempts have been made to explain Christianity away as a plagiarism of Roman Mithraism. The idea that the two might be related was first suggested during the 19th Century by Renan (1882) based on a criticism of Mithraic rituals by Justin Martyr (155-157 C.E.). This in turn led to decades of speculation culminating in numerous alleged similarities between Mithras and Jesus, including (but not restricted to) that he was born of a virgin on December 25, crucified and resurrected after 3 days, marked with the sign of a cross, and attended by 12 disciples. Apart from superficial similarities no real evidence exists for any of these claims and few if any scholars take them seriously. They survive mostly as urban legends circulated by New Age and/or New Atheist communities (Pearse, 2012, 2014; Wikipedia, 2017f). In fact, given that Christianity predates Roman Mithraism by nearly half a century, what few similarities there are, appear to be the result of Mithraism borrowing from Christianity rather than the other way around (Nash, 1984; Pearse, 2012). Of the current myths regarding Mithras and Christianity, the ones most relevant to Christmas are that he was born on December 25, and that he was a virgin birth.

The December 25 date is based entirely on conflations of Mithras with Sol Invictus. The sun (Sol) figures prominently in Mithraic tales like The Banquet of the Sun, and he was often referred to descriptively as sol invictus (the unconquered sun), but never by formal title. Sol Invictus and Mithras were separate deities. The title “Invictus” was given to a number of pagan deities (not unlike “Reverend”) and wasn’t reserved for Sol Invictus alone. In fact, Sol Invictus and Mithras are shown together in a number of scenes as separate deities (including The Banquet of the Sun). Some feature Mithras ascending behind Sol in the latter's chariot, the deities shaking hands, and sharing pieces of meat at the altar on a spit or spits. One even shows Sol Invictus kneeling before Mithras (Clauss, 2001; Beck, 2004). No other mention of December 25 relating to Mithras occurs anywhere in the ancient record, and there is no evidence to suggest that the state sanctioned Roman festival of Sol Invictus was related to Mithras in any way.

Attempts to ascribe a virgin birth to Mithras are downright bizarre. The historical record contains two accounts of his birth: The Roman version, and the Indo-Iranian version that preceded it. In the former Mithras is depicted as emerging fully grown from a rock in a cave bearing a torch or dagger and wearing a Phrygian cap after which his first act was the slaying of a bull (Clauss, 2001). Some accounts associate the rock of his birth to the water god Oceanus and it serves as a fountain. The Indo-Iranian myths are similar with a few variations. Here Mithra is born of a rock by the shore of Araxes (Widengren, 1966). Some have claimed that the Vedic tradition depicts Mitra as being born to the virgin goddess Anahita, but this is difficult to defend as that tradition portrays Mitra as her consort rather than her son (Lindemans, 1997). In any event, this aspect of the Vedic tradition appears to have had little or no impact on the Zoroastrian Mithra or the Roman Mithras.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but if there’s any similarity here to the virgin birth of Jesus or any other Christian doctrine I’m not seeing it. I doubt many virgins would take kindly to being equated with wet rocks or consorts.

Finally, we come to my personal favorite—Horus.

Horus, who was one of the oldest and most significant gods of the Egyptian pantheon, was worshipped from the late Predynastic period to the Greco-Roman era. The earliest records portray him as the patron deity of Nekhen, the first known national god of Upper Egypt. Most commonly he was portrayed as a falcon and the son of Isis and Osiris, but in some traditions Hathor, goddess of joy, feminine love, and motherhood is his mother or wife. Horus fulfilled numerous functions. Most notably he was the god of the sky, sun, war and protection. In some records he is described as containing the sun and moon as his right eye and left eyes which traversed the sky when he flew across it (Wikipedia, 2017h). Among the festivals of ancient Egypt Horus figures most prominently in Heb-Sed which honored his father, the god Osiris, in a series of rites that celebrated him as dead, dismembered, and reconstituted. There he is celebrated as Osiris’ son, alter-ego and eternal avenger. Heb-Sed culminated on the last day of Khoiak with a ceremony in which four arrows were shot in four directions to ward off of evil powers and acknowledge the rule of Pharoah and the role of Horus in his father’s battles (Roy, 2005). In addition to Heb-Sed Plutarch reports that the birth of Elder Horus (one of many variations of the Horus myth) was observed on the second epagomenal day of the Egyptian calendar (Plutarch, 1936).

The birth of Horus is recounted in the myth Isis and Osiris. In most versions of the myth he is born to the goddess Isis after she retrieves the dismembered body parts of her murdered husband Osiris except his penis which was thrown into the Nile and eaten, depending on the account by a catfish or a crab. Plutarch reports that when Isis was unable to retrieve Osiris’ penis she used her magic to fashion one from gold and impregnated herself with it. Some versions portray Isis either as reviving Osiris enough to have an erection via the refashioned penis, or reviving the penis itself (NYFS, 1973; Lesko, 1999; Scholtz, 2001; Shaw, 2003).

The Egyptian calendar was primarily lunar and varied in both time and population sector across the Early, Middle and Late Kingdoms. Often it being driven more by seasonal cycles (e.g. flooding of the Nile) than explicit astronomical events. The five epagomenal days were included to account for solar/lunar calendar creep (Wikipedia, 2017g; Meyboom, 1995). The Coptic calendar introduced by Ptolemy III in 238 BC was based on it with the primary difference being addition of a 6th epagomenal day. Depending on Kingdom period Khoiak roughly overlaps September and October, or November to January in the Gregorian calendar. In the Coptic calendar it runs from the Gregorian calendar period of December 10 to January 8 which translates to November 27 to December 26 in the Julian calendar (Wikipedia, 2017g). The second epagomenal day of the Egyptian calendar corresponds to an astronomical date of July 31. No historical or archaeological record of any kind directly or indirectly ties the birth of Horus to December 25.

So... Never mind alleged plots to steal Christmas Day from a Roman sun god’s holiday decades before it even existed, or “virgin” birth stories based on another god’s emergence from a wet rock, let me get this straight…

Osiris is murdered and dismembered, his johnson is whacked off, tossed into the Nile River, and promptly eaten by crabs…

But not to be deterred, his nubile young bride fashions for herself a magical golden dildo, screws herself silly with it, has a cigarette afterward, and spits out sweet, cherub-faced Horus…

And this, we’re told, is where Christians get their story of the *cough* virgin *cough* birth of Jesus of Nazareth to a first century Hebrew peasant girl.

On my best day, I couldn’t write material this good if I tried! :D 

What any of these epic tales have to do with Christmas, Jesus of Nazareth (an historical figure), or Christianity remains to be seen (Wikipedia, 2017b; Nash, 1994). But that hasn’t kept legions of secular conspiracy theorists from inventing ways to connect them, which raises the question of why such ideas have so much cache today. Clearly, scholarship isn’t involved, so what is? Having followed this sort of thing for some time, I believe there are at least three factors fueling its popularity.

First, there’s the general public’s fascination with pseudoscientific and/or controversial ideas, and the fact that there’s no shortage of people with an ax to grind against traditional Christianity (unfortunately, not always without cause). To those with anti-religion agendas, speculations of Christian plagiarism are a bloody 10-pound pot roast in a shark tank. Given their well-known fascination with genetic fallacies, New Atheists are particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing. Genetic fallacies assert that if the origin of some idea or belief can be accounted for it is thereby explained away, which is of course, false. The truth or falsehood of a belief has nothing whatsoever to do with how it was acquired (evolution has equipped us with binocular vision for instance, which gives us depth perception and the ability to ascertain curvature, but it doesn’t follow that the earth is flat or that space isn’t three-dimensional). Yet numerous popular books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion are based almost entirely on the belief that if the origin of religious doctrines can be accounted for historically or psychologically they are thereby falsified. Christian conspiracies are bound to play a significant role in such works whether there’s any evidence for them or not.

Second, it is true that there are some superficial similarities between Christianity and ancient paganism. Dates sacred to both traditions do tend to be grouped together for instance, and on occasion, they even overlap. But the real reason is more pedestrian than any conspiracy. To the ancients, the sun was an obvious object of reverence, and thus, an obvious choice for a god. To Christians, it was an equally obvious symbol of God’s bounty and life-giving provision, and its seasonal cycles were given the utmost significance. Equinoxes were associated with planting and harvest, burgeoning life and death, and as the shortest day of the year, it was natural to equate the winter solstice with the birth of the sun and the coming year. So, it’s little wonder that pagan festivals would cluster around these astronomical dates. And as we saw earlier, for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with any pagan tradition Christians came to associate the vernal equinox with the Immaculate Conception and the passion of Christ, thereby placing his birth on or near the winter solstice as well.

There is a well-known logical fallacy referred to as cum hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: "With this, therefore because of this") which states that correlation implies causation. B correlates with A, therefore A caused B. This is also false. Two or more events might correlate by coincidence—accidents do happen after all, or they both might be separate consequences of something else. Events cannot be causally connected until these possibilities have been ruled out. In this case, they haven’t. The fortuitous alignment of Christian and pagan sacramental holidays is a natural consequence of the fact that the earth has seasons because its rotational axis isn’t perpendicular to its orbital ecliptic plane… in other words, astrophysics. No sinister, politically incorrect, anti-pagan conspiracies or cover-ups are involved.

It is true that after the 4th Century Christians incorporated many pagan traditions into Christmas celebrations and continue to do so to this day. My family and I put up Christmas lights and exchange presents, both practices inherited from Saturnalia. We also put up a Christmas tree, a custom which may have been borrowed from pre-Christian pagan traditions although this is speculative at best (Wikipedia, 2017i). I have many atheist and agnostic friends who do so as well. Does this mean we all believe in Mithras or Sol Invictus, or that we're plotting to suppress pagan ideas or steal their traditions? Of course not. We incorporate them because we find them beautiful and meaningful to us personally. We have no desire to inhibit anyone else’s worship, only to practice our own with whatever symbols and ceremonies speak to our hearts. Apart from prejudice, there's no reason to believe the early church as a whole was any different.

But to date, arguably the biggest factor in the spread of these ideas was a year 2007 pseudo-documentary called Zeitgeist, the first of a three-part series that eventually led to an international movement of the same name. The Zeitgeist series promoted a number of conspiracy theories not the least of which were that,

  • The 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by “New World Order” forces and the World Trade Center was deliberately brought down by a controlled demolition.
  • A global cabal of bankers has been manipulating world events
  • The Federal Reserve was behind the sinking of the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and several wars including the Vietnam War.
  • All humans will be implanted with RFID chips to monitor behavior and dissent.

All of which and more, we’re told, is part of a global plot to set up a religiously motivated “New World Order” (Wikipedia, 2017j).

The religiously motivated part is key to the movie’s claims. Zeitgeist is based on the so-called “Christ Myth” theory, an idea that originated during the 19th Century and has since assumed many forms most of which have been shaped more by intellectual and cultural fashion than anything concrete. According to the Christ Myth Jesus of Nazareth either never existed or had nothing to do with the origin of Christianity if He did, and Christianity was derived entirely from various pagan myths. Early in its history it had at least some scholarly support (particularly in the years prior to WWII when archaeology and text criticism were still in their infancy) but advances in these and other fields have relentlessly eroded what little support it originally had (Wikipedia, 2017k). Today few scholars take it seriously and it is confined almost exclusively to New Age conspiracy theorists and anti-religion activists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. In its most extreme forms, the Christ Myth go so far as to claim that Christianity was intentionally crafted by secretive religious cabals intent on gaining global power by eradicating pagan traditions. This is the starting point for the movie’s claims. The Christ Myth is at the root of nearly every claim made in Zeitgeist and the movie and its sources have become something of a one-stop-shopping kiosk for its defense. Skeptic Magazine described Zeitgeist as “The Da Vinci Code on steroids” (Callahan, 2009) and in fact, much of the movie’s content is strikingly similar to that series. A review of its sources (Joseph, 2007) yields little more than armchair archaeology, occult works (including one on “astrotheology and shamanism”), conspiracy theories and New Atheist agitprop. At best no more than 2 or 3 could be considered even remotely scholarly, and the most recent of these is nearly 60 years old.

But the real heavy lifting comes from the works of one Dorothy M. Murdoch, who publicly goes by the name “Acharya S” (Bertlet 2011; Winston, 2007; Callahan, 2009). Acharya is a Hindu term for a Brahmin teacher or guru, and as near as I can tell, the “S” doesn’t stand for anything. Murdoch, whose personal website is called “Truth Be Known,” was Zeitgeist’s primary consultant. Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but where I come from, a website named “Truth Be Known” run by someone who goes by the moniker “Guru [Capital Letter]” has wingnut written all over it. So, I decided to have a look at Ms. Murdoch’s credentials, and surprise, surprise… she has none. The Bio and Credentials pages at Truth Be known go to excessive lengths to convince us that she really does have some relevant expertise. There, she informs us that,

“While I myself am 'self-taught' in the sense that I developed a fascination for learning certain subjects at an early age, unlike the bulk of my detractors I actually do have formal, academic credentials relevant to my field of expertise.” (Truth Be Known, 2017)

What are these “formal, academic credentials,” you ask…?

  • "Schools in a small town known for its emphasis on academic excellence" including a 2nd Grade "experimental" program.
  • Growing up on a “small farm” with “loads of animals” and “fields and woods all around” where she learned “the nature-worshipping roots of many religious concepts.”
  • Serving as trench master on a few “archaeological excavations” in Corinth, Greece, and Connecticut (!).
  • Expertise in “esoterica” and other “mystical studies.”

Etc. etc. Naturally, details of the archaeological digs are carefully omitted, as are arguments for their alleged relevance to the origins of any Abrahamic religion, including Christianity (why she thinks a dig in Connecticut would have anything to do with either is anyone’s guess). Murdoch claims to have been “classically educated at some of the finest schools…” but the only verifiable education she has beyond high school is a BA in Classics from a small Pennsylvania college that she extols as one of America’s most august “potted Ivy League” institutions (which no one I’ve encountered has ever heard of). Murdoch also makes much of her alleged “membership” in the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. But a check of that institution’s website reveals no mention of her among its faculty or alumni. Callahan (2009) even contacted many people affiliated with the school, past and present, and was told that neither they, nor anyone they knew had ever heard of her. And Lord only knows what passes for “esoterica” and “mystical studies” (although I suspect some hallucinogens and a bottle of Night Train Express might render them more accessible).

The bottom line…? Murdoch is a New Age crank who has no formal education or professional experience in any field relevant to the topics she writes about. When one must devote multiple website pages to convincing others of their qualifications, even to the point of extolling their 2nd Grade education, it’s because those qualifications don’t speak for themselves. She, of course, defends this…

“The ‘credential argument’ frequently constitutes an ad hominem attack, especially in the case of individuals who disagree with mainstream perspectives. In reality, it is not always necessary to have perfect and proper credentials to become an expert or authority in a subject, or even to understand it.” (Truth Be Known, 2017)

True enough. But while none of the above specifically refutes any of her claims per se, in the very least, it calls her objectivity and competence into question—particularly since by her own admission her views are outside of “mainstream perspectives” (i.e. credible peer-reviewed scholarship). Reasonable people who are as lacking in qualifications as she is would be the first to admit that and would approach subjects like this with at least some humility. They would make every effort to ground their investigations in broadly-based extant research and solicit professional feedback whenever possible before running with any conclusions they reach.

There’s a term for people who are certain of their beliefs, and see themselves as visionaries persecuted by mainstream academia… they’re called crackpots.1

Which brings us to her seminal work, The Christ Conspiracy (Acharya, 1999), which is the primary source for Zeitgeist’s Christ Myth claims. Most of the movie’s other sources were taken from there as well, and as of January 26, 2008 many of these also cited it in return (Callahan, 2009). This is hardly surprising. Incestuous scholarship is rampant in Christ Myth circles. The same handful of conspiracy theorists and cranks routinely cite each other in circles, seldom venturing into peer-reviewed research. On the rare occasions that they do, they invariably cite it out of context. Murdoch even goes so far as to cite herself as an “independent” source for her claims. She is known for citing “D.M. Murdoch” as a source while publishing under her Brahmin guru name, and vice versa. As of this writing many of Zeitgeist’s original sources appear to have been removed from the Companion Guide, most likely because Murdoch and the movie’s producers have been covering their incestuous and/or discredited tracks. In what follows I will restrict myself to general comments about the book. First, because the content in it that is most relevant to the topic at hand, Christmas, has already been addressed. And second, because frankly, the content that isn’t erroneous is negligible and a reasonably complete catalog of its countless blunders would take up volumes.

Beyond a doubt, The Christ Conspiracy is one of the most amateurish and incompetently researched works I’ve ever seen. From start to finish it ricochets between hysterical anti-religion diatribes and arguments that range from questionable to schizophrenic. Every page contains numerous errors that even 10 minutes’ worth of fact-checking would have corrected. To wit;

  • Murdoch claims the 12 disciples of Jesus were taken from the 12 signs of the zodiac. The basis for this appears to be a carving showing Mithras surrounded by the 12 signs of the zodiac, which Murdoch arbitrarily labels “disciples.” Similar claims are made about Horus in spite of the well-established fact that he is mythically portrayed as having four semi-divine disciples called "heru-shemsu,” or “followers of Horus” (Traunecker, 2001). Seattle Seahawks fans refer to themselves as the “12th Man.” If this sort of reasoning and carelessness with words like “disciple” were taken at face value, then football teams and their fans are borrowing from the zodiac as well.
  • She quotes Acts 11:26 as saying that the first Christians were found in Antioch, but claims there was no extant Gospel there until 200 C.E. A simple reading of the text reveals that the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians there. Prior to that they were known as “disciples.” In virtually every modern Biblical translation even a casual inspection of the passage makes this obvious, yet somehow it eludes Murdoch. There is almost unanimous scholarly consensus that all four written Gospels were in circulation prior to the 2nd Century and their content had been passed by oral tradition long before that. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Antioch between 50 and 70 C.E. (Harris, 2010; Brown, 1994; and many others).
  • Murdoch repeatedly associates the “Son” of God with the Sun of God arguing that “son” and “sun” are the same word. Apparently, no one told her that the modern English language didn’t exist prior to the 16th Century, which makes conflating the two during the First Century a really neat trick. The Hebrew, Greek, and ancient Egyptian equivalents aren’t even remotely similar to each other either. One would think this should be obvious to someone with a BA in Classics from a “potted Ivy League” college. Apparently not.

And so on, and so on…

The book is riddled with errors like these. One struggles to find even five or six consecutive sentences that don’t contain at least one blunder that any attentive investigator would have caught. At times Murdoch’s assertions are downright bizarre. At one point we’re told that,

“To deflect the horrible guilt off the shoulders of their own faith, religionists have pointed to supposedly secular ideologies such as Communism and Nazism as oppressors and murderers of the people. However, few realize or acknowledge that the originators of Communism were Jewish (Marx, Lenin, Hess, Trotsky) and that the most overtly violent leaders of both bloody movements were Roman Catholic (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco) or Eastern Orthodox Catholic (Stalin), despotic and intolerant ideologies that breed fascistic dictators. In other words, these movements were not 'atheistic,' as religionists maintain.” (Achayra, 1999)

Never mind whether “deflecting guilt” is the only reason “religionists” (or anyone else) might oppose gas chambers and gulags. Apparently, being Jewish by race makes one Jewish by religion as well... even if said “Jew” has the most vehemently atheistic worldview imaginable. Murdoch doesn’t like Jews very much, and rarely misses an opportunity to castigate them—a fact which works very nicely with Zeitgeist’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She also seems to think that being born into a religious family makes one religious as well. Mussolini, for instance, was a well-known atheist, and Hitler, who considered Christianity to be “nonsense founded on lies,” spoke positively of it only when doing so was necessary as propaganda (Wikipedia, 2017m; 2017n). Yet somehow, to Murdoch both pass for “Roman Catholic.” Richard Dawkins was born in Kenya to Anglican parents and was a Christian until halfway through his teenage years (Hattenstone, 2003). By her logic, that makes him a Christian. I wonder if he would agree with that assessment.

Like most works of its kind, The Christ Conspiracy is heavily sourced to like-minded lay writers publishing outside of the scientific peer-reviewed process, and what little is not is invariably out of context. But most of the book’s content regarding Egyptology and religious development in the ancient world can be traced to two 19th Century authors, Gerald Massey and Helena Blavatsky. Massey was a poet and spiritualist who also pursued Egyptology as a hobby (hence all of Murdoch’s nonsense about the god Horus). He had no formal education of any kind. Blavatsky was a spiritualist and occultist best known for founding the Theosophical Society. Broadly speaking, Theosophy (as taught by Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society) is founded on a doctrine referred to as The Intelligent Evolution of All Existence occurring on a “cosmic” scale involving the "physical and non-physical aspects of the known and unknown Universe." Blavatsky believed the human race is part of the great “cosmic evolution” passing through a series of “Root Races,” the current being the Aryan, or Fifth Root Race. These Root Races are not ethnicities, but “evolutionary stages” of human development. The Fourth Root Race was in Atlantis, and the Sixth and final Root Race will be the “Spiritual” Root Race (Wikipedia, 2017o; 2017p). Blavatsky denied that Theosophy was a religion, preferring instead to call it “divine science” (as though study of the Divine isn’t religious in any way… like most occult thinkers, Blavatsky’s terminology and concepts tend to be muddled). She is considered by many to be the founder of the modern New Age movement.

And there you have it folks. The Christ Myth theory touted far and wide as a “scientific” investigation of the origin of Christianity ultimately boils down to…

The Da Vinci Code.

“Astrotheology,” pseudo-archaeology, Atlantis, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… This is what our cartoon historian and other like-minded ambassadors for “reason” are offering as a rational alternative to Christianity and the traditional Christmas story.

Interestingly, the only professional affiliation of Ms. Murdoch’s that actually does check out is a 2005-2006 fellowship at the Council for Secular Humanism's Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (Wikipedia, 2017q). Apparently, in secular humanist circles “astrotheology,” “esoterica,” and Jewish bankers plotting to take over the world and microchip us all passes for “science.”

We pay a steep price when we allow fashionable “just so” stories to take precedence over properly researched facts. Not only do we make fools of ourselves, we miss out on the richness of a deeper understanding of the world and the best that is in us… the best in our souls. In the authentic version of the Peanuts cartoon above Linus quotes Luke;

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”  (Luke 2:8-14)

Unto us a Savior is born.

The word gospel comes from the Old English god-spell derived from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον which means good news. Good news indeed! God was not content just to gaze down upon us with pity from a safe and distant Heaven. He chose to be born into our world… to become one of us, see the world through mortal eyes, mingle His tears with ours, and die on our behalf. The writer of Hebrews compares Jesus to the Old Testament high priest Melchizedek, and goes on to say,

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."  (Heb. 4:15-16)

On December 25, before my morning coffee… before watching my daughter tear into her presents under our Saturnalia tree and lights… I kneel before God and thank Him for entering the world. I thank Him for entering it as a peasant, not a king… I thank Him for suffering every temptation and hardship I do, so that He may walk beside me truly knowing what it’s like to be me in this veil of tears called life…

Most of all, I thank Him for laying down His own life to guarantee me a way through it, even though I do not, and never have deserved one. To me, and 2.2 billion Christians around the world, this is the true meaning of Christmas!

Many people do not share my Christian faith—in fact, most of humanity doesn’t. Some have sought God along other paths. Others are still searching for Him as best they can. Some have come to the honest conclusion that He simply doesn’t exist because so far, they’ve been unable to find evidence that speaks clearly enough to their listening ears. What all these folks have in common are open eyes, open hearts, and open hands. They are ready to receive a gift, and to whatever extent they’re able they will find their own meaning in the Christmas season and celebrate it with thanks. But many others mark the season with clenched fists. They have axes to grind—with God, with religion, with the church, perhaps with the very spirit of the holiday itself—and are more interested in defending personal ideological turf than receiving gifts. I imagine many of these folks enjoy the Christmas season with family and friends, and perhaps take something away from it despite that. But it’s sad to see people miss out on the deepest meaning of Christmas and God’s blessings for them, simply because they refuse to let go of ideas that wouldn’t survive even 30 seconds of due diligence.

I wish for everyone God’s richest Christmas blessings. Whatever our beliefs may be, and however we choose to celebrate it, may we do so in spirit and in truth… with open minds, and open hands rather than clenched fists.

 

Footnotes

1)    Incidentally, Murdoch’s critics aren’t restricted to the religious. Case in point, New Testament scholar Bart Erhman, whose work on textual criticism and the historical Jesus has led to much academic controversy in its own right (a topic for a separate essay). Ehrman, who describes himself as “an agnostic leaning toward atheism,” is hardly a friend of traditional Christianity. But although he disputes the picture of the historical Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, regarding The Christ Conspiracy he says, "all of Acharya's major points are in fact wrong..." and that the book "is filled with so many factual errors and outlandish assertions that it is hard to believe the author is serious…" He goes on to say that, "Mythicists of this ilk should not be surprised that their views are not taken seriously by real scholars, mentioned by experts in the field, or even read by them" (Ehrman & Dixon, 2012).

References

Acharya, S. (1999). The Christ Conspiracy: the greatest story ever sold. Adventures Unlimited Press.

Alexander, J. N. (1994). Waiting for the Coming: The Liturgical Meaning of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany. Pastoral Press. ISBN-10: 1569290113; ISBN-13: 978-1569290118. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/Waiting-Coming-Liturgical-Christmas-Epiphany/dp/1569290113/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418062289&sr=8-1&keywords=Waiting+for+the+Coming%3A+The+Liturgical+Meaning+of+Advent%2C+Christmas%2C+Epiphany. Accessed December 6, 2017.

Anderson, M. A. (2008). Symbols of Saints: Theology, Ritual, and Kinship in Music for John the Baptist and St. Anne (1175-1563). ProQuest 2008 ISBN 978-0-54956551-2), pp. 42–46.

Beck, R. (2004). "In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony" in Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works with New Essays. Ashgate Pub Ltd. ISBN-10: 0754640817; ISBN-13: 978-0754640813. Pgs. 286-287. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/Beck-Mithraism-Collected-Contemporary-Thinkers/dp/0754640817/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418595723&sr=8-1&keywords=Beck+on+Mithraism. Accessed December 6, 2017.

Bertlet, C. (2011)."Loughner, 'Zeitgeist - The Movie,' and Right-Wing Antisemitic Conspiracism". Talk To Action Online, Jan. 14, 2011. Available online at http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/1/14/92946/9451. Accessed December 6, 2017.

Brown, R. E. 1994. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels. 2 vols. New York: BantamDoubleday. ISBN-10: 0385471777; ISBN-13: 978-0385471770. Online at www.amazon.com/Death-Messiah-Gethsemane-Grave-Boxed/dp/0385471777/ref=pd_sbs_14_1?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=0385471777&pd_rd_r=2S19CWH871CMRSCZP5NV&pd_rd_w=NfN1F&pd_rd_wg=DJ0Ik&psc=1&refRID=2S19CWH871CMRSCZP5NV. Accessed Dec. 9, 2017.

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Posted in History, Theology | 11 Comments

The Spherical Heresy, and other Updates

A few random life events, and one invitation to the public:

1. As of Aug 1, I have accepted a new job as a "Research Associate" at the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics (SITP).  Really it's my 3rd postdoc position, but apparently their rules prohibit them from calling me a postdoc since it's been more than 5 years since I got my Ph.D.  (Hard to believe, but true.)

I've been commenting a bit less, because of all the work from moving.  Hopefully this is temporary.

2.  I don't know if any of you happen to live in the South Bay Area, but if you do, you are welcome to come to a Discussion Group I'm leading for the next few months on the Apostles' Creed, what it says and why Christians believe the various points mentioned in the Creed (although you don't have to believe anything to participate, you just have to be curious).  We will begin this Sunday, Aug 20, with the opening lines: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty".

It will be held on Sunday mornings, from 9:30-10:30 am, in Building D of New Life Church of the Nazarene in Cupertino, CA, which is also the church I grew up in.

If you can stick around for a while after that, there is a congregational worship service at 11 am.  On Aug 20, there will also be a free BBQ lunch at 12:15.  Again, you do not need to believe or buy anything to be welcome at these events.  (You could be a gay atheist; but as long as and you and your boyfriend are willing to spend time with us, we will be willing to spend time with you.)

3. Speaking of creeds, a friend-of-a-friend pointed me to the following interesting interview with St. Jaroslav Pelikan on the role of creeds in the Christian Church.

Note however, that there is a critical misspelling: the Nicene Creed was written to combat Arianism (followers of Arius, who denied the full divinity of Christ), not Aryanism! This is particularly egregious considering that the same interview refers to actual Aryanism (the Nazi veneration of the Aryan race) later on... [NEVER MIND THEY FIXED IT]

Also, the interview doesn't provide the complete text of the Maasai Creed.

4. Also, I have found my new favorite heresy!  (Favorite to tell people about, anyway.)  Apparently, St. Justinian (the Byzantine Emperor) found it necessary to pronounce the following condemnation:

If anyone says or maintains that in resurrection the bodies of men are raised up from sleep spherical, and does not agree that we are raised up from sleep upright, let him be anathema.

In order to clearly see the stakes involved in this question, please consult the following two figures describing alternative pictures of the afterlife:

          raised upright                                                           but the sphere is a perfect shape!      

This "spherical heresy" might seem pretty funny, but I think in order for us moderns to understand it, we have to think of it as being like the ancient version of "body image disorder", where people are uncomfortable with the shape of their own body, even though God created us to be physical beings.

This discomfort with our own bodies is one of the many effects of the Fall, and therefore it will be remedied at the Resurrection, when our flesh and spirit will no longer be at war with each other.  So that will be all right then.

Posted in Blog, Theology | 21 Comments