John 1:1 states: “In the beginning was the logos, and logos was with God, and logos was God.” The Greek word logos can mean word, account or reason. Reason itself can be subdivided into reasoned discourse, as Aristotle intended the word’s use, or divine reason when used as a verb, or a divine intermediary when used as a noun (courtesy Philo of Alexandria). What is the nature of the “reason” provided to man by God, according to the Book of John? Martin Luther did not see it as reason within the philosophical sense, writing: “Reason is the Devil’s harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does.” But things have changed since Martin Luther’s time. Can reason be removed from religion given our current understanding of the world? Are reason and religion mutually exclusive? Given that today is Easter, let’s consider this in relation to Christianity.
A literalist interpretation of the Bible does not fit within our current understanding of the world. We know too much about the workings of our universe (though there is still so much more to understand!) and our time on earth to consider the New and Old Testaments as even remotely accurate historical records. Those who disagree tend to be the illiterate (Carl “C-Rex” Everett), the ideological (Pat Robertson) and the disingenuous (for Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee the parable of the 3 workers in the vineyard is literally about the minimum wage, a sentiment that betrays either gross manipulation of Christian text or astounding stupidity – more likely the former as such a sentiment appeals to the Republican’s two main bases of support, pious Evangelicals and penny-pinching businessmen, both of whom Huckabee needs to win over in order to secure the 2012 nomination). Obviously these three categories aren’t airtight and “literalists” are simply a subcategory of believers rather than vice-versa.
The question is: does the Bible require a literalist interpretation? Is it a choice between accepting every part of the New Testament, including its more fantastic claims, versus rejecting it as a whole? Is there room for reason within religious texts?
Consider the claims of the New Testament. Did Jesus walk on water? Or are we meant to take this as a metaphor for his upstanding character? Did Jesus exercise people of physically manifest demons? Or were these “demons” more in the Jungian sense, personality disorders? The most important question of all is whether being a Christian requires the acceptance of Jesus’ divinity? Thomas Jefferson thought not as he removed all the supernatural elements in his chronological rearrangement of the four canonical gospels in the Jefferson Bible (it should be noted he left in references to the Devil, Heaven, Hell and Noah’s Ark). Unitarianism, so far as its beliefs can be construed as a whole, takes a similar point of view, seeing no departure between the coexistence of reason and religion. Unitarians believe that the life and teachings of Jesus form a model for how one should live with the supernatural aspects being superfluous to any proper understanding. In this sense, the New Testament becomes a collection of aphorisms and Jesus becomes a historical figure (of dubious historical veracity) not unlike Socrates or Buddha, for whom the more supernatural aspects of his life (his virgin birth for one thing) have been de-emphasized in recent times to make for an easier pill to swallow among an increasingly secular audience.
But is this heterodox understanding of Jesus Christ simply a new packaging of Christianity to make it more amendable to an increasingly skeptical audience? Can followers accept the veracity of the entire book if there are persistent doubts about the truth of its most fantastic, and not insignificant claims (ie. the divinity of Jesus and the source of that divinity)? Any definition of religion contains two parts: one, that it is a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of existence; two, that that cause, nature and purpose is related to some superhuman agency. If you remove the supernatural from Christianity, if you deny Jesus’ professed divine origins as deliberately false or even as a simple parable (aren’t we all supposed to be God’s sons/daughters according to the Old Testament?) than you remove that second fundamental characteristic that defines religion. It ceases to be religion and instead becomes a branch of philosophy. The only way that heterodox Christianity can be categorized as a religion then would be to deny Jesus’ divinity but accept that he was speaking upon his belief in (not on the instruction of or as the representation of) a higher power.
And here we get back to the original point: can reason and religion co-exist? A heterodox understanding of Christianity tries to bridge that gap, but can enough be done? In the end, in order to maintain its position as a religion, we are obligated to act against reason and take a leap of faith in accepting the unseen existence of a higher power. The Bible does not try to provide an argument for this higher power’s existence (hence its limitation as a philosophical text should it not be considered a religious one) it is simply an account by the divine or divinely inspired of the “Word” (logos) of God. Faith then stems from a suspension of reason and that on its own may negate the possibility that the heterodox Christian is any closer to the truth than the fundamentalist. Even if both sides reach different conclusions about the character of the divine being they worship (the literalists would have a petty, insecure and downright schizophrenic god, while the heterodox god would be more benign) they are still both predicated on the unquestioned assumption of the existence of a supernatural being. That on its own does not make it untrue, “the ultimate test of religion” as Andrew Sullivan puts it. Instead, it simply speaks to the impossibility of ever knowing whether it is in fact true. Theists and atheists debate more about who carries the burden of proof within their debates than they do on the veracity of their claims, and with good reason: neither side can win. The question of the divinity of Jesus Christ, and through him, knowledge of the existence of God can never be settled. Under such circumstances the only response can be to take the good from each religion, ignore the bad and shrug your shoulders when asked where you stand.