Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sage Advice


As related in the book of Acts in the New Testament, opponents of Christianity spoke out against the new religion some 2,000 years ago during a meeting of the Jewish assembly, the Sanhedrin.  They were silenced by Gamaliel, who is not identified in the Bible, but who actually was the foremost Jewish religious leader of his day and son (or possibly grandson) of the greatest of all Jewish sages, Hillel.  

Gamaliel stopped the arguments by insisting that if Christianity was from God, then there was nothing that anyone could do about it.  If not, he said, it would fail of its own accord.

That simple statement has been trumpeted by Christians ever since as proof of divine support.  After all, Christianity survived some traumatic birth pangs and thrives today.  Moreover, they believe that Gamaliel must be accurate because the New Testament is believed to faithfully report the word of God.  However, that statement has a flip side: it actually undermines all faith and even the idea of a deity.

That’s because Gamaliel’s thesis cannot be limited to Christianity.  Using the sage’s logic, all religions still surviving must be from God.  There’s a long list of prominent faiths: Hinduism (about 3400 years old); Judaism (about 2600 years); Buddhism (about 2500 years); Zoroastrianism (about 2500 years); Islam (about 1600 years); and so on.  And that’s not even considering Indian and African beliefs dating back to prehistoric times.  Taking Gamaliel at his word – and there’s some debate whether he actually made such a comment – all of these religions must have God’s stamp of approval.

However, none of them agree completely on even fundamental details.  Buddhism, for example, has no deity.  Hinduism contains thousands.  In Judaism and Islam, God is indivisible.  In Christianity, the father is joined by a son and a holy ghost.   To make matters worse, Christians believe only they are going to heaven via Jesus.  If so, then they must also simultaneously be packing for a trip to Islamic or Zoroastrian hell.  In fact, afterlife must be a logistical nightmare with the dearly departed obligated to be punished for their lack of belief  in a counter religion endorsed by God.

Either God has a strange sense of humor, happily pitting one belief against another without concern of the consequences, or there isn’t any divine figure involved.  There really are no other choices.  No single religion can be correct since the rest should have fallen, supposedly demolished by God’s disapproval.
This topic arose in a discussion with one of my Islamic students, who was questioning his faith after being confronted with the welter of beliefs in this society.  He was born in Saudi Arabia, a country where the Muslim belief pervades society.  He could not imagine that other religions had any validity and was stunned by the diversity in this country.

Because of my books on religious history, he approached me.

I started by asking him what God did.  He said that God created the world.  However, science has proved that effort was not necessary.  Computer models have demonstrated with little fanfare how nothing became a universe.  No divine intervention was necessary.

My student then said God judges mankind.  That presumes the existence of humans.  What did God do before there were humans?  Fossil records make it clear the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, but the mammals don’t even enter the picture until around 220 million years ago.  The first human-like creatures probably date to 8 million years ago.  Does that mean God simply waited for billions of years for someone to judge?

Besides, who was he judging?  DNA testing proved that all males are related to a human who lived 150,000 years ago.  All females are descended from a woman who lived 250,000 years ago.  Adam and Eve never met.  Evolution is continuous anyway.  There never was a first human.   As a result, if God judges humans, when did he start the process?  With Australopithecus, the first known hominid?  How about Cro-Magnon, Homo Habilis or Neanderthal?  Will we run into all of them in hereafter, too? (Heaven forbid)  We should  –  God had to wait a long time to judge humans.  Why would he sit on his hands until Homo Sapiens Sapiens (us) showed up only 150,000 or so years ago?

And what will he do when humans become extinct?  About 99 percent of all species on Earth have become extinct.  There’s no reason to think we will escape that fate.  Given global warming, pollution and natural disasters, such as meteor collisions like the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs, we have no reason to believe our time on this planet will last forever.  In fact, futurists give our species less than 1 million years to live.  Discovery Channel program that predicted the future based on scientific principles proposed that  the last hominids would be a monkey-like creature with a long tail.  Humans, the scientists claimed, would have departed for another planet because the Earth would have become inhospitable.

Besides, at some time the Earth will run out of internal heat and die, killing all life.  The Sun eventually will run out of hydrogen to burn and explode, incinerating all planets,.  And, eventually, the universe will run out of energy, too. Extinction is inevitable without God’s involvement.

My bewildered student had no more questions.  He started wandering around in circles, having never considered all of these conditions.   In many ways, he has a lot of company.  Anyone who believes in a God who creates, dictates and officiates human activity should also be pretty dazed. Gamaliel would have been, too, if he had realized the implications of what he said.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  His latest book, Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols, was published in December 2010 and is available via Amazon.com or on his website www.williamplazarus.com 

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