What Is Christianity? A Dialogue with a Visitor from Far, Far Away, Episode 2
By Ervin Taylor | 4 January, 2018 |
In Episode 1 of this series, we were introduced to Our Visitor, or OV, from a far, far away planet which is circling the star Proxima Centauri. This star is the closest to our own sun − being only a little over 4.2 light years away. This means that light traveling at 186,000 miles per second would take about 4.2 years to travel from our sun to Proxima Centauri. Since we are told that our galaxy has a diameter of about 100,000 light years, that would mean that any planet associated with Proxima Centauri may be considered right next door to us from a cosmic perspective.
When we talked with OV, he indicated that on the planet where he comes from there was a belief in what those of us speaking English on earth would call God. One of the ways those on OV’s planet referred to their Deity was to call this entity the “Self-Existent One” or “Mysterious One.” However, OV said they did not know much about the “Self-Existent” or “Mysterious One” (OV did not use the English “he” or “she” to refer to this entity because he said that English had a very limited vocabulary). However, in talking about this Deity, OV made it clear that there was no belief on his planet in what on Earth is called the “Supernatural.” He could not get his head around the idea of a “Super-” natural. Reality was one thing − what on Earth we would call the natural world. Period.
One of OV’s mannerisms quickly manifested in our conversations was his habit of saying “Hmm.” I finally asked him what he meant by “Hmm.” He said that when he thought something that I had explained to him was “weird” (his word), he didn’t want to say anything pejorative (yes, he knew the meaning of that word) or negative, so he would just mumble “Hmm.” It turned out that the more we talked on this topic, the more often he was mumbling “Hmm.”
The topic about which OV became particularly interested was prompted by various comments he heard on earth radio and television about an individual, Jesus of Nazareth, and one of earth’s religions, Christianity, which, it was said, was based on the teachings of Jesus. OV asked me to explain Jesus and Christianity to him. The challenge was to do that with someone who had absolutely no knowledge of Jesus. He just knew his name and that Christianity is supposed to have been based on his teachings. That was the extent of his knowledge.
In the last episode, we left off explaining to OV that the first individual to write about Jesus never met him while he was alive. Although born with the Jewish name of Saul, that individual adopted the Greek form of his name, Paul (actually, Paulus in Greek), in his writings.
OV asked if Paul never knew Jesus while he was alive, how did he know anything about him or anything about his teachings? The answer I gave was that Paul says he had a “vision,” which I called an “out-of-body experience.” The response of Our Visitor was first “Hmm” and then “Well, your Paul must have had a great imagination, or a lot of . . . ‘issues,’ as you English talkers say.” We will pick up the description of our conversation with OV at this point.
I asked OV why he thought that Paul had “a great imagination.” He responded to the effect that I had told him that Paul said that Jesus had appeared to him even though Jesus had been dead at least at least a year. “Isn’t that what you said?” he asked.
In defending what I had said, I responded: “But I also told you also that Jesus had come back from the dead and then had traveled to the place which is the equivalent of where your “Self-Existent One” lives. From that place, Jesus had communicated to Paul in a vision.”
“Is that how Paul interpreted what happened to him?” OV asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “more or less.”
“And you believe him?” OV shot back.
“Christians for a long time have believed him,” I said.
“Are you very sure?” OV asked.
When I said that this was indeed the case, OV mumbled his “Hmm,” and then added, very slowly, “Very interesting.”
After a long pause, he asked, “Why have Christians for a long time believed him?”
I must admit that I was getting a little annoyed at OV. He was beginning to sound like a 2-year-old human child constantly asking Why? Why? Why?
I obviously couldn’t say to OV, “Because I said so.”
Finally, I replied, “Well, many Christians in the time believed Paul, and Christians since that time have continued to believe him. It has become traditional.”
OV said, “Traditional? You believe Paul today because it is ‘traditional’? Isn’t that a rather thin reason?”
I must say that I had never heard the word “thin” used in this way. “Well,” I said, “it’s a little ‘thicker’ than that. Christians believe that Paul was inspired by the God like your ‘Self-Existent One.'”
“Inspired?” OV questioned. “What does that mean?”
Talk about getting quickly back into the weeds. But there we were.
I said, “Inspired means that what someone was saying − or writing, in this case − is the truth.” “Truth?” OV responded. “What do you mean by ‘Truth'”? I said, “That means that, in this case, what Paul said happened actually happened the way Paul said it happened.”
After a long pause and a “Hmm,” OV then asked where Paul talks about Jesus and things that happened to him.
This is where I wished I knew my New Testament literature a little better.
I had no choice. I had to wing it, so I said, “The first written material that we have of Paul is a letter he wrote, or had written for him, to a group of Jesus believers in a town he had previously visited. Scholars today think that letter was written between about AD 50-52.”
“OK,” he said, “before we go on, let me see if I’ve got all of this.” He slowly said:
“Jesus died sometime around AD 30-32. The first person to write about him wrote about AD 50-52. That’s 20 years after Jesus died. And the person who first wrote about him never met him in person or heard him talk. In fact, he could not have understood him if he had heard him, because he probably could not understand the language that Jesus spoke on a regular basis. His introduction to Jesus and what he taught was in what you call a ‘vision’ or ‘out-of-body experience.’ And all of this is true because the person who was the first to write about Jesus said it was true because his “Self-Existent One” told him that it was true. And many of the early Christians believed that what this individual said was all true. And Christians today believe all of this because of tradition.”
He ended with: “Have I got this straight?”
I said, “Well, yes. That’s about it.”
I knew what was coming. Long pause. Wait for it —
Then he said, “Let’s get back to this first letter of Paul you talked about. To whom did he write it and what did he say?”
“You want to know the name of the place he wrote to?” I said.
“Yes, please, I’m curious. Paul must have included in that letter a lot of information about Jesus’ teachings,” OV responded.
“Oh-oh,” I thought.
I told OV that the town was called Thessaloniki. It was located in what we today call Turkey. Paul had lived and worked in the town for some unknown period of time. During that period, he had been able to attract a small group of primarily Greek-speaking individuals who were not Jews to accept his beliefs about Jesus.
“Ah,” said OV. “That’s what I’m interested in. What were the teachings of Jesus that he talked about?”
“Well,” I said, “that’s a little difficult to figure out on the basis of what’s in this letter.”
I continued: “When he was there, Paul had apparently told them that Jesus was going to return very soon from where he was now and all who believed in him would live forever with him in where he was now.”
OV’s eyes open wide and he said “Whoa! — Hold the phone!” That was the second time he used “Hold the phone.”
He then asked, “Jesus was going to return from where?”
I said, “Don’t you remember that I said Jesus had died and then had been brought back to life and then went to the same kind of place where your “Mysterious One” lives. Most Christians called that place in English, Heaven.”
OV then slowly said, “Where is Heaven located?
I was beginning to get a little desperate in answering OV’s questions. All of the things just taken for granted by people living in our culture with regard to Christianity, and many other earth religions, were totally foreign to OV.
I clearly will have to get creative to answer OV’s questions.
In Episode 3, we will see if I will be able to become creative in explaining to OV where heaven is and why Paul said that Jesus was “coming back” soon from there. And then I will try to explain to OV the other information that Paul had written in his letter to the Thessalonians. When I finished, OV was not very impressed with some of Paul’s ideas. He said a lot of “Hmms.” He was interested in what Jesus’ teachings were, not Paul’s opinions. Did this mean that we would have to skip over all of the other letters of Paul and start talking about the biographies of Jesus written by four individuals later in the 1st Century AD? That meant that we would have to not talk about all of Paul’s theology that is embedded in orthodox Christianity. But we all know what questions OV will ask about this. What’s “orthodox” and what does “theology” mean? Stay tuned.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.