Monday, June 21, 2010

The Historical Jesus: Do People Want Facts or Fiction?

This is an easy enough question to address: Do people want the FACTS concerning whether there is any historical basis to the gospel stories, or are they going to fall for tall tales that would stretch even the imagination of a Disney animator?

The problem with many people is they relish tales, and prefer to avoid harsh reality. Fantasy always has a much greater appeal, primarily because there are regions of the brain (temporal lobes) that have been found to be conducive to triggering fantasy religious ideations under the right conditions.

We can thank J.M. Persinger for his work in this area, and his great book, The Neuropsychological Bases of God Belief

Book review:

As noted in the review:

"We cannot, on the basis of the cumulative experiments, rule out the strong possibility (I would even say probability) that the human brain is fundamentally defective, and may even be hard-wired to predispose uncritical humans toward religiosity and god belief. Also, it is important to note - Persinger's meticulously presented hypothesis and experimental support meets the requirements of the Ockham's Razor Principle: to wit, that theoretical existences are not to be increased without necessity. Hence, it is begging the question for critics to assert that 'not all religious experience can be explained by temporal lobe stimulation'. "

During Persinger's temporal lobe simulation work at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario - it became clear that brain defects situated in or near the temporal lobes could play a significant role in generating religiosity. Persinger found that when he used a specially designed helmet to stimulate these regions of a subject's brain - they inevitably experienced religious visions. For example, one seeing Christ on a cloud, another seeing angels, others the 'Blessed Virgin' and another experiencing 'cosmic oneness'.

Less well known, is that the original stimulations made subjects more vulnerable to heightened religious fervor and belief of all sorts, including taking the gospels literally as historical documents (rather than legends), and the belief that Jesus as a "Divine person" has actually been established. (It hasn't been, despite decades of phony stories about assorted claimed artifacts like the Shroud of Turin (now known to be probably a 13 th century fake), and fake ossuaries.)

Most intriguing in Persinger's results is that believers (especially newly minted converts to evangelical cults) appear to suffer micro-seizures in their brains (temporal lobes) similar to small epileptic seizures. As their convictions and verbalizations of them enhance, the micro-seizures also enhance - and occur more frequently. The experiment has never been done, even by Persinger, but I'd wager if one attached suitable(EEG) electrodes to the brain of a diehard evangelical punching in a blog entry about his Jesus, one would find large amplitude spikes betraying micro-seizures.

This leads to a critical question: If the brain can become hostage to its own belief dynamic, is there any way to afford self-protection? We already know that the Dalai Lama (see earlier blog) advised "logical reasoning" and "careful analysis" to avoid the pitfall of egoistic delusion and anger-attachment in faith.

But I think one also needs to use outside resources to actually spur such reasoning and careful analysis.

Sure, books qualify, but let's face it - too many people are not too prone to reading these days. For many, even blogs such as appear on 'Brane Space' may be a challenge.

Another way is by the use of video courses, taught by experts - especially in Theology, and particularly the field of New Testament analysis.

One of the best available right now is currently on the Open Courses site of Yale University, taught by Prof. Dale B. Martin and entitled: Introduction to New Testament History and Literature, and roughly on a par with my Introduction to the New Testament course taken at Loyola in 1964-65. (The Loyola course was somewhat more difficult)

The compilation of course sessions, all on video, can be accessed via this link:

And the one I recommend most for those short on time is No.13, dealing with the "Historical Jesus" (link below):

In approaching these sort of issues, like Jesus' historicity, inquiring students and curious others need to ask themselves whether it more serves their interests to follow the rants of numerous evangelical bloggers or follow someone with authority and actual insight, experience.

Of course, credentials alone don't make the man or validate the issue. But as those who elect to follow this lecture will see, one can definitely see a superior mind at work in formulating his insights and examples.

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