02 August 2011

Blasphemy and The Holy Spirit (Ghost): A problem with the morality of Jesus

The Facebook status update rarely seems like a good candidate for blog-fodder, but on occasion it can be generous with at least the germ of an idea. This morning however the Facebook germ rather quickly blossomed into a full grown idea. And if some may wish to push the metaphor of the germ a little further and call it a pathogenic idea I won't hold it against them. I suspect some of my religious readers-should I have any- may do exactly that.

The starting point of this discussion is the following status update:
Every sin or blasphemy can be forgiven--except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which can never be forgiven. Matthew 12:31


Here is the exact quote from the book of Matthew (beginning at verse 30 and ending with verse 32) from the New International Version (for the complete Matthew Chapter 12 you can go to The Scripture Project. The Scripture Project is the ambitious brain child of Steve Wells, and can be found-along with a great many other things- at Sam Harris' Project Reason.):
30 He who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come.


A brief summary of the context is this. In the story, Jesus has just cast out some demons from a deaf/mute man, on-lookers are somewhat amazed by this, but the Pharisees suggest that Jesus' power comes from Beelzebub who is, apparently, the Prince of demons. In the story, Jesus' defends himself with stunning casuistry. After discussing the merits of an undivided house and an undivided kingdom he suggests that Satan would be defeating himself and his goals if Jesus derived his power to drive out demons from Satan. A discussion of the many flaws in this reasoning would take us too far away from the passage in question, but before we move on, I must ask a question which I am sure must have occurred to the literal minded Pharisees (and others besides). Wouldn't it be possible that Satan (a great deceiver and all that) might in his effort to lead people astray and into sin have granted a man some minor powers to get people to follow a false prophet?

One probably doesn't need to review more than Matthew 31-32. The passages are damaging enough by themselves. And one needn't do much work to see why. Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven but one? If you were asked which sin and blasphemy would be the unforgivable, unpardonable one, and your intellect were unburdened with Christian mythology, is there any way you would suggest some thing like speaking irreverently, and impiously about the Holy Spirit? I am going to guess the answer to that would be no. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, I am sure you have come up with some better candidates for unforgivable sins. However of all the evils in the world Jesus chooses as unforgivable criticism of an element of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being of which he himself is a part. One might think the rape, murder and torture of children might at least merit a mention in the ranks of the unforgivable. Or perhaps slavery (which also would have too often encompassed the aforementioned crimes against children). What about genocide? Not for Jesus. For him it is criticism, doubt and irreverence toward himself, or at least an element of himself that can earn damnation. How anyone can find this an anodyne preachment is simply beyond me.

I suppose we might expect Jesus to be somewhat protective of the Holy Spirit, it is after all the being credited with knocking Mary up. Did I just blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? What I just said was fairly impious, and certainly irreverent. So yes I think I did. In a sentence of 25 words I managed, if the Christian account be true, to damn myself to hell. Given how easy it is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, the believers may want to ask if they have similarly, though perhaps accidently, damned themselves.

While the passage itself is damaging enough, the whole of Jesus' response to the Pharisees reveals what Christopher Hitchens has called the totalitarian nature of religion, which condemns one by thoughts and words alone. What Jesus said after his initial proscription against speaking ill (which is the only damage one can do to an non-corporeal, all powerful entity) of the Holy Spirit, is actually worth reviewing. In the verses that follow Jesus begins the long and bloody Christian essay against free expression, free thought, and free inquiry (or at the very least adds to it). Again from the New International Version:
34You brood of vipers, [Jesus is referring here to his critics the Pharisees] how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of he overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man things out of the evil stored up in him. 36But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. 37For by your words will you be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.


From the outset it seems that Jesus is offering the reader a false dichotomy in parsing people into good or evil. It doesn't help his case that all that seems necessary to qualify as the latter is to be on the other side of a disagreement with Jesus. However, the Pharisees need not be evil to have made their suggestion, they could just be wrong. The world, as anyone who has lived on it for more than a decade will tell you, is not divided into good people and evil people.

The last two verses though (36 and 37) seem fairly wicked to me, in that they seem so antithetical to free speech, free inquiry and free thought (at least where Christianity-indeed any of the Abrahamic traditions- is strong culturally, politically or both). When Christianity is politically strong, clergy often arrogate the power to decide what texts can be read or written, they can brand as heretical any ideas they dislike. In this way do they damage inquiry and speech. The text itself indicates that even thinking certain thoughts can condemn you, because some times our thoughts come in strings of words even if we keep them in our head un-uttered. And even if they have no political protections, and/or state granted powers, clergy still limit inquiry by dictating to their flock the same kinds of limitations. This desire to limit exposure to certain ideas often doesn't stop at their flock by the way. Given the opportunity many of these fundamentalists would like to see the freedom of those who disagree with them, who don't share their faith, and who would prefer freedom to the yoke, denied such freedoms. Even in the US there are attempts to ban books from schools and public libraries, to limit or block the release of movies, and to limit the speech of those with whom they disagree.

By words will we be condemned or acquitted? Who decides what content is evil or good? Doesn't discourse become difficult if you parse the world into such stark and sactimoniously tainted demographics? Why let some withered old algorithm do your thinking for you? Why let it do your condemning for you? This monstrous logic seems to place words above actions as we, and of course God, adjudicate on the morality of other thinking creatures. I suppose that makes some sense given that many Christian fundamentalists tend to think that if you utter a magic phrase that you suddenly have a personal relationship with Jesus that allows you to elude hell even though you may have lived a life that would make even an ambitious Viking blush. But consider two different people. One person says to you after a meeting: "Man you really get on my nerves sometimes. I just feel like kicking you in the balls sometimes." Not entirely pleasant true, and maybe those words were carelessly chosen but....now think about this. There is a co-worker who randomly gets up and kicks you in the balls. With which co-worker do you want to work? I know my answer.

If you are a believer of any stripe of Christianity please tell me in the comment's section why you think my reading of this as immoral is the wrong reading.

[Author's Note: I'm hardly the first unbeliever to notice problems with this commandment or rule or is it a law revealed in this chapter of Matthew. Brian Flemming's very game documentary, The God Who Wasn't There was, at least in part, an answer to the intense fear that he had run afoul that very commandment in his fundamentalist youth. Imagine how that would torture a young child. Youtube athiests went somewhat wild with an event called the Blasphemy Challenge wherein viewers were challenged to blaspheme the Holy Spirit on video and post that video.
The point here is that I am certainly not making a novel observation, but one that is recurrent and somewhat unavoidable.
Here is Penn Jillette's BC video.
And here is Christina's (ZOMGitsChris) BC video, a bit less on the spot:

6 Comments:

At 9:36 PM , Blogger Joe Ganci said...

Excellent observations, Max. Depending on which denomination or religion you follow, this verse is interpreted in different ways. The Mormons, for instance, believe that this means that once you've accepted the Gospel and have undergone the ordinances of the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), then leaving the church is denying the Holy Ghost, which after all brought us the testimony that the church is true, a testimony that Mormons stand up and bear the first Sunday of each month in their Testimony Meeting after fasting for a day. Hence, by leaving the Mormons, I have committed the only unpardonable sin. Think of it - it's a good way to scare people into staying in the fold.

 
At 7:38 AM , Blogger Keith Massey said...

The writer David Justice delightfully explores this enigmatic concept in his book Murphy on the Mount. A private investigator just happens to read about this concept of the "Unpardonable Sin" and the "Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit". He deals with growing angst over the issue as he also has to solve a mystery. Here's my discussion of the book:
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit - The Unpardonable Sin

 
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