No. 49 Vol. 1Sat 09 December 2023Price: 0/0d

Retreading the old paths: Ascending The Hill [Old Paths Part 1]

pointing finger Sensible Ramblings >> Sat 09 December 2023 by Thran >> Last updated 29th December 2023

Were I to try describing the Christian religion's impact on the world, and especially the western world, I would immediately find myself out of my depth. Criticising an ancient belief system with roots in the earliest memories of mankind invites humility.

That said, I will be laying down some praises and some criticisms. Some of these points will stem from personal experiences, other points the observations of others' experiences. My desire is to promote some appreciation of religion for the non-believer, and some self-awareness for the believer.

An old Road, depicted April 2015

Returning to an old familiar hill, depicted April 2015.

Note: I use the terms 'the religion' and 'Christianity' to mean both the Bible as well as general ideas held by those who follow it. Some press for scripture alone and say that we must discount anything that cannot be traced directly to a Bible verse, but it is inescapable that there will be common ideas sprung from the same foundation.

This is Part 1, a reflection on the good things that are difficult to replicate when we discard religion. Part 2 will concern the parts that we will not miss.

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.
Isaiah 1v18

Spotting yourself in the big picture.

Christianity offers the believer a 'big view' of human history. The world is fallen but everything is to be redeemed and renewed; that includes you. Even this alone gives life meaning in a way that few other belief systems match. This also helps you find your place in the vast and ever changing tides of ideas, nations, events and discoveries. Come what may, you still have your faith and God is in charge.

I'm sure for many this helps to assuage anxiety, because even if you take a moment to pause and consider everything happening in the world it is quite terrifying.

Even if someone will object that Christianity often disputes with itself, with doctrines and denominations often going at each other - sometimes to the point of fatality - each believer has faith in the same living God who is outside of this world and above even those sectarian conflicts. So in a way, whoever wins, God ultimately wins anyway.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
Psalm 90v2.

Justly condemned.

One of the effects of everlasting life is everlasting justice. When the end of days comes, all who ever walked the earth shall be resurrected from the grave to explain themselves. The teaching is that vengeance is God's to repay, we shouldn't take matters into our own hands and make things worse because our own judgement will be flawed compared to a perfect God. We might feel bitter that someone got away with a great evil, but we can be comforted knowing that someday justice will come.

I think we all know of someone who has been greatly wronged, if we haven't been wronged ourselves. Worse still, you know of someone who was wronged by a cunning exploiter and this person doesn't even know it. You might even try to make the case to the victim, but find yourself fighting alone.

The desire to set wrongs right runs deep, perhaps because our unconscious mind realises we have been done down before the conscious mind has finished its breakfast. Or perhaps, as Christians would say, it is because we take after the image of God, who "loves justice".

For the Christian, because God has perfect knowledge of events, you know God will make the right call. Even that unsavoury fellow with the cunning tongue won't be able to talk his way out of his final trial. For the rest of us, in the face of a rather limp legal system, we are left scratching our heads and furiously scanning the news every evening.

For the righteous LORD loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright.
Psalm 11v7

Deep sea millstones.

If I asked you to answer who were the most needy and unjustly downtrodden class in society, which would you choose? I will make a case that it is children.

Children are fully human, yet also fully dependent. They do not choose their place of birth, or their parents, but must adapt to both quickly for survival. There is a desire in adults to reproduce, but the desire to make time for your children isn't as natural for many. Children are hounded to schools that they often hate, forced to regurgitate things they already know, be subject to all the smothering social pressures of the day - and too often face them alone.

If children are trapped in a home with bad parents, who subject them to shouting, beating, name calling, neglect, and many other grave misdeeds, they normalise this to survive and that later manifests as dysfunction in adulthood - popularly known as "mental illness". You can ask any decent psychologist if you don't believe it, but the connection is painfully obvious to me.

I could go on, but almost all of your life is determined by your childhood. As are the lives and behavior of everyone you meet. "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world" and whether that world will be violent and tense or peaceful and pleasant is ultimately determined by the quality of upbringings.

Thus, Christ was not overstating when he said:

Whoso shall [harm] one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Matthew 18v6

Having the integrity to be honest.

The question of how to live the good life is as old as the days themselves, with many tomes written in deep debate. "What is virtue and why should I care?" is a question that isn't answered in a day, or before the end of a blog post.

That said, if you are a Christian, the answer is be good because God commands it. And, the classical virtues like:

  • honesty: speaking the truth
  • integrity: living the truth
  • justice: ensuring you treat people as they deserve - rewarding both good and bad deeds appropriately

are praised and urged - if a little underdefined - in scripture.

This is the closest the masses will come to 'virtue for the rest of us' - if you have a busy family life in addition to working long hours, worrying about bills, you need an easy end to the day. You don't have time to worry about these big questions and pour through endless volumes of philosophy.

And the only thing worse than that might be listening to some jumped-up philosophy professor argue that we can't be sure reality exists, but also words have no meaning. It doesn't seem that way when you have four kids to feed and a boss on your neck every day. Working out a system of objective ethics is a big ask on top of that.

So if you pull out the Bible you can get a clear enough idea on what you should do and should not do. You read that drunkenness is to be avoided, or that bad company corrupts good morals, or that we should be so honest in our speech that it is never necessary to swear by something else. That's quite digestible even in an evening.

The integrity of the upright shall guide them: but the perverseness of transgressors shall destroy them.
Proverbs 11v3

Powering down.

We are taught several things in Christianity that make a strong case for limiting the power some may hold over others.

All mankind:

  • Share a common origin
  • Are affected by the fall and have a tendency to do evil, unless checked by God's grace
  • Are alike in being image-bearers of God, and therefore cannot claim special privileges over the others

This has given societies - particularly those that take after the western tradition - a strong scepticism of power. It certainly fed the ideas behind constitutional government - whether it is a constitutional monarchy in Britain or republic in America.

We see strong scepticism towards power, questioning of the intentions of our ruling class, checks and balances in the legislative system and the legal system come from this. You can't call yourself king and go around taking what you want without the consent of your people, because even under the robes you are still just a man like them; a man who has no more privileges before God than you. You can't just charge and throw anyone in prison on a whim or hearsay, because we know everyone has a tendency to corruption, so you need a proper adversarial legal system.

The gift

The gift of freedom.

While hardly applied perfectly through the centuries, these ideas have fuelled many of the strengths of the West. I would even argue that the ideas if taken far enough would even challenge the idea itself of having a state with exceptional powers for its operatives that sets them above the governed.

There is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
Romans 3v22-23

The Ends Don't Justify The Means

At the risk of being overly reductive, there is the question of what psychologically drives man to commit evil - I'm thinking of tyrannies, dictatorships, wars of aggression, suppression of freedom, genocides, forced conversions, indoctrination, torture. I'm sure your own imagination can finish the list.

Usually what drives these is a sense of 'higher purpose' that overrides the individual moral choices. Something that reduces the other person to a mere component in some grand model of the world that's meant to explain everything - itself contained in some emotional narrative. And grand models with an emotional attachment feel like a family, a tribe, the truth of the model is the security of the tribe and therefore must be defended above all; there is little time to tolerate dissent.

Another way of putting it is that 'the ends justify the means' - i.e. if we're marching to a glorious future, then who cares if a few people get hurt along the way. It's just like strength training really.

You can find this thinking behind many movements that resulted in mass evils and suppression, and even in individual acts of terrorism - I need to make the civilians fear for the good of my cause - without thinking how that discredits your cause to anyone with a healthy level of self-respect.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
"God in the Dock". C. S. Lewis, 1970.

A strong case can be made that Christianity teaches that the ends do not justify the means. Christ was tempted by Satan in the early chapters of the gospel; the suggestion was that Christ would have all the kingdoms and power of the earth if he worshiped Satan, suggesting Jesus could do great good with the power.

Instead Jesus firmly dismissed Satan and said he would rather languish in the desert than take up the offer.

This isn't just a mere legal prescription, the point is driven home through a story where Jesus refuses power in the most desperate of circumstances. He had been in the wilderness for weeks; many of us would break sooner, but he refused to even turn stones into bread though it was well within his power.

I see a clear refutation here of "the ends justify the means". Jesus, who is held up by Christianity as the perfect man would rather follow his principles to near death than compromise, even when told he might do some good if he broke them and worshipped Satan.

A supporting argument against "the ends justify the means" is that the ten commandments, the golden rule, and all the rules in the Bible are intended for all mankind generally - they do not find exceptions in your 'higher cause' or your titles and rank in society. You are as responsible for your choices as anyone else in the eyes of God.

This point lends further support to the above point in "Powering Down" that Christianity creates scepticism of power, calling for restraint, if not absolute abolition of it. Even though our leaders claim they will do great good if we entrust them with exceptional power over us, the message from Jesus is that they should resist any opportunity to take power and we underlings shouldn't give them the opportunity to seize power.

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Matthew 4v8-10

A sceptical interjection.

One can question what happens when these principles are applied to Christianity itself. Is Christianity similar to those tyrannies, with its own 'grand emotional narrative'? Isn't the idea that God's will trumps all else a suggestion that the ends justify the means?

These are valid objections, and I will defer to theologians and scholars who are better prepared to answer them than me. Perhaps they would answer that we can't know the will of God, but we only know the principles, and that following them is the only "end" with which we should busy ourselves.

And even if that argument was refuted, we shouldn't overlook how Christianity enshrines this idea in one of the first stories it tells of its founder.

Finishing well.

Think long term - you have a long life ahead and an eternal destination, so saving for your future is to be sought over short term pleasure. Christianity offers a positive incentive beyond these bare facts to choose wisely in the moment.

This is a problem - long term thinking and planning is seldom presented in a positive way in our culture. Think of how it is normalised to seek maximum pleasure in your youth, or how corporations obsess over next quarter's results but neglect the long term interests of the customers they claim to serve, or how elected governments only care for what they can do to maintain popularity during their time in office.

Those who are saving and not spending all their resources of time and money on immediate pleasures are maligned as 'bores', 'dullards', or worse. It is true that absolute forbearance is impossible to hold, a life with no pleasure isn't a life at all and it is an early grave even though you yet walk the earth. But I think nowadays we need nudging the opposite way - try to count the private and the national debt pile, or the growth in health problems after mid age.

Wouldn't you rather finish with something to pay forward, rather than spending the latter part of your life fighting away the debt collector in his many guises? He always comes for his dues, the writers of the Bible knew that well.

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
II Timothy 4v7

Love the brethren or consider yourself dead

Gathering together under one roof for the one reason - how often does that happen for the irreligious? You could go to a concert, or perhaps a political rally, or a sports club. Some of these satisfy this need better than others.

But in a time when most people don't even know their neighbours, and with even record pub closures, reported lack of community cohesion, the opportunities are few indeed. It shouldn't be shocking that there is a growth in loneliness these days.

With the decline of religion comes the loss of a vital 'third place' for many. The third place concept was first described by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg who defined the first place as home and the second place as work.

Aside from work and home there is a need for us to have somewhere to gather, to build connection and allow for the interesting chance encounters that make life worthwhile. Or to simply get a break from the responsibilities placed on us by the first and second places. You don't get this at work because it is your time for someone's money, and while this isn't the case at home, home is the old familiar. It's safe but there is little chance to find anything new there.

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
I Corinthians 12v12

Now in the church I recall there were many groups organised for all ages: creche, youth clubs, young adult Bible studies, choir practice, the band, various forms of outreach, midweek drop-ins for young mothers, language courses for new arrivals, house groups. There was a designated 'elder' for your part of town, meaning you had someone who was familiar and expected to look out for all congregants in one area.

Outside of the Sunday gathering where before and after worship there were many chances for informal catchups, many families would develop friendships over the pews.

On top of it all, referring back to point one, we were all in it for this bigger mission, urging each other along the way through mirth and travail alike. With this foundation you'd expect a strong community without rival, where everyone is living in that new life, with a care for each other that is beyond each's material interest. There was the teaching that we are all the body of Christ and it is one body of many parts, the eye should not be envious of the hand, for they all find their place and purpose.

This is the ideal, but even if it is far from perfect in practice, there are few social institutions that can cover so many ages and bring so many people together under one mission.

We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.
I John 3v14

The case for reliable transmission of scripture is strong

I've heard extreme scepticism against the reliable transmission of scripture. All of Christianity rests upon the Bible - demolish this foundation and the church shall crumble. While we can dispute the idea of 'inerrancy' - the belief that all scripture is inerrant and does not contradict itself - addressing that is a task well beyond my time or interest. But the fact remains that the text has been well preserved and the evidence for mass tampering is minimal. I summarise why:

  • From the beginning, Christians regarded the scripture as sacred and were keen to distribute it far and wide. They were on a mission to bring the word to the world.
  • Literacy was widespread; many people would've had familiarity with the Greek language of the New Testament, so they would want their own copies.
  • Thus, the scripture was distributed to far and wide place in the Roman Empire and then copied.
  • This continued for centuries.
  • This provides us with multiple, distributed streams of scripture to cross-reference.
  • Cross-referencing the earliest texts allows us to confirm the accuracy of transmission.

As a reference, here is a presentation by eminent Biblical scholar Dr. James White on the subject.

There is much more data covering the New Testament than any other work of antiquity - and we do not see such extreme scepticism towards the works of Caesar or Plato, for instance. With these multiple lines of transmission and their wide distribution, we can reconstruct the New Testament very accurately. New discoveries of even older fragments dating to the first century AD confirm the reliability - there is no evidence of mass error or tampering.

For instance - when the King James Version was written in the 17th century, the 'oldest' copies of the New Testament that the scholars had were dated from the 14th century. When the English Standard Version was published in the 2000s, the 'oldest' fragments these scholars had dated from the 1st-2nd centuries AD. If you read both translations side by side, aside for a few minor corrections and fully understandable omissions, you get the same message and support for the same major doctrines.

This is not to mention the fact that scripture was often quoted and in ancient polemics and commentaries, to the extent that we could reconstruct much of it from the quotations we have alone. Then the debates and creeds that were declared show a clear desire to understand the text from those early days. There is just so much out there that we can identify an 'orthodox' line of agreed scriptures.

Dead sea scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, dated 1stC AD. Unearthed in the 1940s.

This argument applies to the New Testament, while I am less familiar with the textual history of the Old Testament, I'm sure there are good sources from Christians and Jews that will spring to its defence. I have witnessed the Dead Sea Scrolls in the remarkably neat Hebrew, written down before the Christian era and preserved in jars in a cave for two thousand years. I have also heard that the scribes would have the number of letters in the Torah memorised, they would count up everything they had written and if anything came short they would start the task again.

I think we can make a good case that we have Bible as originally written, or at least something so close that we get the original intent. It makes me more mournful of every failed hard drive and floppy drive with all the data we lose when they die, and I wonder whether our digital copies will stand the test of time as well as the old parchments.

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
Isaiah 55v11

Many of our oldest stories are preserved here

It's a pop quiz favourite, but which is the oldest book in the Bible? The answer isn't Genesis, but Job. The book of Job is an extended debate between four friends on the question 'why do bad things happen to good people?' which is truly as old as time itself. We also have this debate delivered in the form of verse and not prose, further dating it back in the mists of time, because written poetry preceded prose.

The ancient city of Megido

The ancient city of Megido, Israel. It dates to 5000BC or earlier. Thran, 29/06/2013.

We also have the creation story and the flood epic, echoes of which are shared in Greek and Mesopotamian mythology. Pandora, the woman opening the box and unleashing the evils upon the world, resembles the story of Eve and the snake. The flood is retold in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the call to adventure into the unknown is a universal that is shared with the story of Abram - himself a fellow dweller in the Sumerian city of Ur, which is a sister city to Uruk ruled by Gilgamesh.

Some may use these overlaps to dismiss the credibility of the Bible, but I think it equally grounds the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) in ancient and foundational stories. When man first learnt to write, this is what he wrote. Given that many through the millennia have found them entertaining, instructive, and deeply compelling - we owe them respect and our time of day, even if we dismiss the spiritual and the higher reality they sometimes allude to.

The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.
Ecclesiasties 12v10-11

A wellspring of beauty

It cannot be denied that the Christian religion has led to the creation of many beautiful buildings, hymns, and scriptures; even if it hasn't always created beautiful people. Outside of religion, you need a good reason to command the resources to build a vast and imposing cathedral, with its stained-glass windows, carefully planned acoustics, ancient stained oak pews, vast arches and imposing spire. I have visited numerous cathedrals and churches - both Protestant and Catholic - and will safely vouch that mankind would be the worse without them.

St. Andrew's Cathedral, Wells, Somerset, England

The 12th Century St. Andrew's Cathedral, Wells, England. The first fully Gothic cathedral in Europe.

Or consider the lyrics of this old hymn:

Time like an ever rolling sea
Bears all its sons away
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day
Isaac Watts

It is bleak on the surface but there is a glimmer of light in these words. We are all 'sons' of father time, like any son we share the nature of the father. In this case the nature is finitude. And yet there is a call to make something of the time - sure the dream will be gone in the morning, but dreams are places where anything can happen. It's in the midst of a hymn called God, our help in ages past and it tells the singer to look for what makes life meaningful in that big picture. We are finite but God is infinite. There's a lot to discuss here.

Yet, and regrettably, the modern Church has all but abandoned lyrics like these for shallow lines that present shallow messages. This will be considered in the second part of this series.

There is also the case of the scripture itself. While modern translations like the New International Version or the Good News Bible absolutely butcher the beauty of the prose, we still have access to the stately King James Version. It's ringing phrases still lodge in our minds in the form of quotes and sayings - "ripe old age", "to dust shall you return", "filthy lucre", "faith, hope and charity", "lewd fellows of the baser sort".

It is a travesty that the King James Version is no longer used in most Protestant churches, but when read aloud it sounds scripture without having to say it is so. It is a translation that is designed to be read aloud on cold Sunday mornings, provide comfort to the weary, words of praise for the joyous to shout and sincere admonishment to the wayward.

For those who make the pathetic argument that 'it is old and hard to understand' - more than a few months spent in the text and some idea of how select words have changed, or even a small commentary, can be massive aids in appreciating the older English. Besides, those who are interested in a religion are by definition interested in timeless things, so what does it say when that religion abandons its inherited treasures and speaks its holy words in bland business English?

It is an elitist sneer to suggest otherwise: anyone who speaks English can learn a few more words, and indeed that person will appreciate the wider vocabulary for religious use. Further underlining this point - all the quotes so far in this essay have been citing the King James translation. Is it really that unclear what is being said?

That said, the point will be driven further home with select examples. Here are some verses contrasted in their old and new translations:

Addressing the Dark Lord

It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
Matthew 4v4 (KJV)
“The scripture says, ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks.’”
Matthew 4v4 (GNT)

The second doesn't quite carry the force of the point that Jesus was trying to make - defiance in the face of Satan himself, at Christ's lowliest point. And who ever uses the term 'human beings' in anything other than scientific or sociological literature? Put simply, the GNT rendering lacks any power and if Satan actually heard it spoken aloud he would reply roaring with laughter.

The Beatitudes (not from Liverpool)

Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
Luke 6v20 (KJV)
Happy are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours!
Luke 6v20 (GNT)

Which one is the most comforting to the downtrodden? The first sounds sincere, as if the deity himself is speaking directly to the poor. The second is condescending, as if a 'smart person' wrote it in a way he thinks 'stupid' people would understand.

Besides, blessed does not mean happy. The poor may know harsher lives and unhappy circumstances, but Jesus is saying that they are blessed, because of their faith they have access to something higher and more everlasting than mere happiness. The second translation does not convey that at all.

The Dark Night of the Soul

As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, Where is thy God? Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.
Psalm 42 v10-11 (KJV)
My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Psalm 42 v10-11 (NIV)

Which would you rather read aloud on a dire occasion? The former sounds like the groaning of a soul in its darkest depths, while the latter reads more like a first attempt at poetry by a lackadaisical GCSE English student. The former conveys pain mingled with hope, amid striking imagery like a sword in my bones, which deserves to be a metaphor in its own right. The NIV renders the same phrase as my bones suffer mortal agony which is like a line from a low-rent Emo band, and is just as instantly forgettable.

There are many more examples I could offer, but I think these are enough to make my case. If you want to see my point for yourself, just open any Bible website in a side-by-side translation mode and read any Bible passage. I guarantee that every time, the King James Version will distinguish itself in beauty, force and brevity.

Yet Another Translation, In Service of Both God and Mammon

There is also a perverse commercial incentive here - on the Bible Gateway website I counted 62 English translations.

How many Bibles does the English speaking world need? I can understand some tweaks to suit dialects and spelling differences, but whole and separate translations? Where is the need? I'd make a case that having castes of translations for 'different reading levels' as decided by committees at publishing houses is splitting the church unnecessarily.

One translation with some minor updates that we are all expected to reference is closer to how the ancients did it - there was one Greek translation of the Old Testament and it was used by all the Early church. When I was more involved with religion, I found the different versions were a distraction in group settings; the flow of the text was broken. The sense of unity gone.

In an ideal world, we would use the King James Version for this purpose. The classical text could be annotated with the latest discoveries of textual criticism, just like the modern translations. We'd have our original text combined with the accuracy modern scholarship brings. But I suppose there isn't as much money, or vanity in that, when these publishers could be licencing yet another English translation.

Holidays, or Holy-Days

Imagine a calendar without holidays. This very idea is unnatural - the year isn't the same, there is a shadow of turning from day to day through the year. The Highdays and Holidays take after this. They mark the times and seasons, ground us in the passage of time and break the mundane patterns, so every day isn’t the same.

You might think that these traditions mean conformity, but this isn't true. A good tradition allows variation around a core idea. Traditions develop across time and place, Christmas in Germany isn’t the same as it is in England but it would still be recognised as Christmas to a traveller.

Even Christmas didn't begin as strictly Christian and religious observation. It has its roots in Yuletide, a Saxon and Norse winter celebration. When Christianity was preached in England and Scandinavia, the Christians realised the importance of this holiday to the people and kept some of its traditions while introducing the Christian characteristics. At the very least in our day, it is an excuse for friends and family to gather together and make lasting memories. Or the town to have a big ceremony where the Christmas lights are switched on and the pubs keep their doors open late.

I think it is difficult to make a case against Christmas after attending a candlelit performance of Handel's Messiah in an English cathedral. Yes, it was just the day that Christians chose long ago - but it has centuries of stories behind it, building up to that moment when you hear the chorus of 'Hallelujah'. And moments like that are even better when everyone else around you appreciates what they mean.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.
Genesis 1v14

The most freedom is in "thou shalt not"

Consider this old joke:

In England, everything is permitted unless it is forbidden.
In Germany, everything is forbidden unless it is permitted.
In France, everything is permitted even if it is forbidden.
In Russia, everything is forbidden even if it is permitted.

If we consider two ideas of rules, or legal systems. One aims to regulate every faucet of life, every action of the day. The other simply restricts a few behaviours that are considered harmful to all. Which one is the most appealing to you? Which one do you think would grant the most freedom?

The idea that "everything" needs to be regulated and needs the approval of some authority before you act is endemic in certain jurisdictions and religions. I can imagine it assuaging some anxious minds who insist on the tightest of order, who somehow believe that rules and words can keep them safe, and the more words and officials we have the safer and more predictable our reality becomes.

Ironically the opposite is what bears out. Authoritarian states and bureaucratic regimes are often anything but safe or predictable in their behaviour, and the human spirit is buried under their layers of rules and rubber stamped papers.

No, the happiest and most free societies allow you the most choice and the most autonomy. They trust you and respect you to make your own decisions. And the Ten Commandments reflect this:

  • Thou shalt not steal. This means you are free to enjoy all that you own, and no one else should take it from you without your permission.
  • Thou shalt not kill. This is something we can achieve quite easily.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness. When it really matters, or when life and death is at stake, you owe the truth. Yet it isn't as flat as 'thou shalt not lie' which grants wiggle room - you don't need to tell the truth to your detractors when they ask for compromising information.

Essentially, having a few simple house rules and leaving everyone to play makes for a freer society than a strict regimen of who can do what, where and when. It makes it easier to be good and have an easy conscience, because the rules are simple and if you act in accordance with them you will not be harming anyone. I argue it even lays the groundwork for an objective morality.

Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
II Corinthians 3v17

Landing at the summit

The summit of Masada

At the summit of Masada, Israel. Thran, 01/07/2013.

We arrive at the summit of the hill and conclude our ascent of the old paths. My hope was that some of these points have brought attention to some universally appreciable aspects of the Christian religion. Even if these same benefits can be found elsewhere, they are difficult to replicate in the same way as they are inside a two thousand year old religion.

Perhaps someone will be able to refute them all, or suggest that other belief systems offer the same. My intention was simply to be descriptive and reflective, it wasn't to argue that any of this establishes the truth of Christianity. I have heard arguments for and against that, and I will confess that it is beyond my ability - or perhaps, interest - to enter that debate.

That said, take a break at the summit and refresh yourself. We must soon make our descent of the hill, and consider the downsides of the Christian religion.