New, Original or Useful

Most of my friends and readers can ignore this post; it is a workspace for a reply to an individual because I ran out of room in a comment. But I’ll give a little background, for those interested in a debate about Christianity and the words of Jesus.

At the bottom of this post is my reply to John Zande’s new question of me here. He had been involved in a rather long-running debate at Citizen Tom’s blog with regard to Christianity. He had originally asked of Citizen Tom,

Can you name a single thing Jesus said which was genuinely new, original, or useful?

This question was repeated, and Citizen Tom and others were not inclined to humor him. I finally did, posting an answer here:

@John Zande,

I am not sure you are winning any sort of debate with this particular approach. You and I might agree that there are problems with evidence demonstrating that Jesus is the son of God, or is God Himself, or of the historicity of various events in the collection of works now called the Bible, in its many translations. But the words recorded in the Bible as having been said by Jesus have been tremendously influential on the lives of millions, even hundreds of millions of people.

To the extent that someone makes a decision to do something more positive with his life based on being inspired by the words of Jesus in the Bible — and there have been a lot of such people — one would have to count those words as “useful.” As has been noted above, many of these ideas are reformulations of concepts that can be traced back in different forms. But those reformulations have had tremendous staying power, and have been greatly and undeniably influential.

And some of the antecedents are poor substitutes. You offered at one point the cylinder of Cyrus as a forerunner of the idea of religious freedom; that struck me as a particularly poor example considering the whole of the document and the rest of the history of that brutal conqueror.

And speaking of conquering, Christianity has in general not spread by compulsion, whereas Islam is notable for exactly that. Those two cases demonstrate that the words of the key figures, Jesus and Mohammad, are influential and useful and have a tremendous impact on real-world affairs. Christianity existed for a few hundred years doing little more than offering its practitioners up as martyrs to the local Roman authorities, whereas Islam at the same point in their history (half a millennium later) was expanding its territory by a thousand square miles a day.

Jesus said to tell others about God. Muhammad said to conquer and slay or force the subjugation of non-Muslims. To each of their groups of adherents, their founders’ words have been “useful,” but I stand ready to pronounce the words and concepts of Jesus to be generally good, and those of Muhammad generally bad.

There are, of course, many other faiths; some 8,000 or so the last time I wandered through an encyclopedia of the world’s religions. But here, we’re focusing on Christianity in its various sects, including the minority and heretical sect of young Earth creationism occupied here by Matthew. And the obvious and topical comparison is that of Islam, whose own minority groups seek not just to call others fools, but to kill and intimidate them — with uncomfortable levels of success.

So I do not know what you are aiming at here.

This did not satisfy him. After many comments and repetitions of the question (spanning, I am told, more than 200 comments in all), John Zande was ultimately blocked from Citizen Tom’s site. Citizen Tom explains his rationale here.

One other poster, “siriusbuzinus,” suggested that the question should have been easy to answer, and stated that Citizen Tom should have been “ashamed” that the answer came from an atheist. I made a comment with observations about the situation and John Zande’s approach, essentially as I’d alluded to above.

John Zande can no longer comment there, but he has (not unreasonably) come to the DeHavelle.com site to address questions to me about the events. His comment to me on the DeHavelle site:

Keith, in no way am I going to haunt your site, please understand that, and feel free to delete this comment after you read it, but reading your reply to siriusbizinus on Tom’s blog, and I must address what points you have raised. (understanding, of course, that I am now banned from commenting).

First, I regret using the word “useful,” it is too broad, but never intentionally dismissed your allusion to things “useful.” Now, to be honest, I can’t even recall your answer, but if I breezed over it, it was only because that was not the actual thrust of the question. That thrust being, “original and new.” Useful was, in my mind, more directed to information which physically reduced suffering… of which Jesus offered none.

Granted, I did not clarify that.

Yes, people can take solace in nice phrases, and the concept of cosmic justice is lovely. No doubt, that can be viewed as ‘useful.”

I stand corrected.

Now, beyond that you offered up the Beatitudes. This answer I actually focused on. It was direct, and it was specific. It could be dealt with in the spirit of the question. And, as I demonstrated, the Beatitudes are nothing new, nor original.

By focusing just on the “useful” you seem to be deliberately misdirecting the conversation from what truly matters in relation to the question asked.

You and Tom appear to be accusing me of being dismissive, yet both of you are purposefully ignoring the facts. As for Scouts “answer” which Tom keeps referring to, it was not an answer, as he just said “Thoughts.” Three times I asked “what thoughts?” I never got an answer.

Please, be reasonable.

and below, finally, is my reply:

First of all, you’re welcome here. The debate is more active on the LiveJournal site, where most of my readers are and almost all of the comments take place.

Second, the only “comment banning” I have ever done is of the occasional robotic advertising comment. In fact, a few people who were sent to my site explicitly to troll and harass me actually wound up as regular readers; I still have those nearly a decade later. I do occasionally get trolls; you’ll see a very recent one on the DeHavelle site from “DEAN BERRY MINISTRIES” with the same comment he posts on countless sites. I am tempted to remove it, as it is more or less automated spam.

Third, to the point of your comment: You could be construed here as complaining because I answered what you actually asked, not what you had in your mind. You used the phrase “new, original or useful” repeatedly, and had not used simply “new or original” up to that point. So I chose and addressed “useful,” thinking that you would be ready to pounce on any suggestion of “new” or “original.”

Now you regret using the word … but this is the first time you have expressed that. I cannot answer unexpressed thoughts in your mind. When you exhort me to “be reasonable,” it is in connection with not answering what you were thinking despite what you wrote. You perhaps meant, “be magical” or “be prescient” instead.

As to “dismissive” — yes, you were. And are here, as well. You have already decided that anything offered as “useful” will be wrong, as you had a private definition of “useful” in your mind that no one else knew about, nor shared, so any answer was doomed to failure and jeers by you. That, to me, is not reasonable at all. I answered exactly the question you asked, and I demonstrated using a reasonable definition of “useful” (which I shared) why that answer should be correct. You are lumping Scout’s response in with mine when you accuse both of us of “purposefully ignoring the facts.” I most certainly did not.

Taped below my computer screen, and also on the copy stand at my desk, are words written by a Roman emperor more than 1,800 years ago. This man, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, is generally described as a Stoic though this is not true; it would be like describing me as a Christian because I am familiar with Christianity and have read its sacred works. I’ve also read the counterparts of several other religions, but neither am I a Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Deist, Catholic, or Raelian. Aurelius was similarly broadly read. But his private notes to himself on how to be a better person were useful in the best sense of the word. I use them, as many others have, to attempt to improve the way in which I live my life. The collection of notes is called Meditations and I recommend it. I could easily conceive of a religion based upon it.

Are the words of Aurelius or Jesus genuinely “new” or “original”? Arguably not, and there are even overlaps between them to an extent. But they are a valuable, packaged set of teachings that can help many people by encouraging them to focus on improving their behavior.

You’ve talked about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with regard to origins, particularly with regard to natural law. They, too, use words that other people have used before to an extent. And yet, in another sense, they are new and original packages of these ideas, and the two of them form the most powerful and influential government documents ever created by Man.

It seems to me that your purpose behind your endlessly repeated query (always including “useful,” by the way) was to denigrate any answer that you got. Citizen Tom could have made a response similar to mine right away, but you would have been dismissive of it (as you now clarify) because of your private definition of useful.

You are welcome to do that, but Citizen Tom is also within his rights to tire of the game if he so chooses. You are a fervent campaigner against Christianity, and that’s fine; I am a fervent campaigner for Constitutional limited government, and understand passion and dedication to a cause. (And I’ll write separately of my battles with religious folks.) But neither of us have the automatic right to have our writings accepted at fora run by others opposed to us, and both of us have been excluded from such places from time to time. I do work hard at NOT being dismissive, nor “purposefully ignoring the facts,” but am accused of that anyway on occasion, just as you’ve done here.

Remember that up to the time of my answer, no one else had attempted to actually answer your question. You may not have been satisfied, but your expressed reasons at the time were also unsatisfying. And you have made clear that there is no possible answer to your question that you would have accepted, for you suggest that the words of Jesus, which I note have been taken to heart and used to ease pain and suffering by untold millions of his adherents, never really did that.  So, back at you: Be reasonable, won’t you?

==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Hi Keith Thanks for the welcome

    I just realized that you had replied here. Sorry about that; most comments come in on the LJ counterpart to this site.

    Let’s move on from “useful.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be immensely “useful.” Yes, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can even be valuable. To me, it’s one of the greatest pieces of writing ever. I own a 1st Edition and it has pride and place in my bookshelf.

    And it is less political than the Wizard of Oz, which was a metaphorical retelling of the US presidential election of 1896.

    As I explained—belatedly, I admit—“useful” was only ever presented to mean information which reduced physical suffering. I would have thought that was somewhat obvious.

    You actually thought it was “somewhat obvious” that “useful” really meant only something which reduced physical suffering? That does not strike me as credible … but at best, it is poorly conceived.

    Apparently not, and that confusion established cracks through which a lot of distracting nonsense flowed.

    What you consider nonsense should actually include some of the “facts” you have offered up to support your thesis. But you make clear here that no answer would have satisfied you.

    And FYI, I kept “useful” because I felt it would be frightfully disingenuous to move the goal posts by omitting it later.

    Which you are now doing, and moreover are indicating that they were always in a different spot in your mind, which no one could have known.

    Now, did Jesus say or do anything that actually reduced the physical suffering of 1st Century Palestinians? No. He did not.

    There are many stories in the Bible of him curing sufferers of disease or infirmity. Somehow, I think you will have a problem with this, still. But there is a larger point; if he did that, he likely did many other such things as well. And simple statements of what we would recognize as scientific but then unknown facts may not even have been recorded, as their significance would not have been understood. I don’t think any of this happened any more than you do, but I recognize that the absence of evidence does not demonstrate that it did not happen.

    He did not advise people on the nature of disease or infection, water purification, the wonders of internal plumbing… the list is vast. He didn’t even tell anyone the earth was round, not flat.

    You don’t know any of this, in fact. As an aside, the Earth was already understood by scholars to be round by this point, and Eratosthenes even got the diameter within about 10% or so, a couple of centuries before Jesus’ time.

    Let’s again remind ourselves of the claim made by Christians: Jesus was
    God incarnate.

    You know, I bet this would have slipped my mind if you hadn’t seen fit to mention it here. ];-)

    The genuine thrust of the question was however always “new and original.”

    This is your private “genuine thrust” that only you knew about, but that provided an obstacle to any answer. Not sporting, sir.

    Name something genuinely new or original which Jesus (a God incarnate) said or did. To this specific question you answered the Beatitudes, and I appreciated your answer, although had to point out that it was in no way new or original. The thoughts (as comforting as they might be to those who crave justice) are ancient. I won’t repost that whole answer, but you failed to acknowledge this once, choosing instead to keep going down the “useful” path.

    I was, of course, answering the question you actually asked, not the “genuine” question you kept in your mind.

    No one else offered an answer even approaching yours. Scout (who I like) said “thoughts.” Thoughts, is quite a vaporous utterance, and so I asked, three times to Tom I recall: “which thoughts?” to which I never received an answer.

    Scout can defend himself should he wish to do so. But no answer would have worked.

    To say people gave answers is then highly, highly, highly disingenuous on
    both yours and Tom’s part.

    What? You say this after noting the answers? You didn’t even include a qualifier like “satisfactory” answers. Of course, no answer would have been satisfactory to you, and you have stated already that you knew this.

    It is, in fact, a lie.

    This is annoying to me; you are making false assertions and thereby accusing me of lying.

    You, Keith, where the only person who gave an answer, and I debunked it in a minute.

    Your use of “debunked” here is far from “satisfactory,” sir.

    Tom’s behaviour has been tremendously regrettable, childish, and demonstrable of an extreme lack of character and integrity, but I won’t dump on him here, on your blog.

    Amazing. After that string of name-calling here on my blog, you then assert that you won’t do what you just did.

    While I demonstrated that I’d have handled the situation differently — by actually doing so — I understand Tom’s reaction. Your sole point was to play a rhetorical game with him and add another metaphorical scalp to your pile. That became clear long before you asked the question. I understand his lack of desire to play that game.

    Let me just say, if, as he says now, he can in fact answer the question, then why didn’t he simply answer the question in the first place? A simple question deserves a simple, no fuss answer. The thread went on as long as it did because no one (excluding you, of course) answered the question… a question, I might remind you, was only presented because Tom posted a hunk of my work on his blog which asked the question. He invited me, specific to that very question… and to then call me a Troll is laughable, and pathetic. I think you’d agree with this.

    I don’t think you qualify as a troll, per se. But I do consider your approach there disingenuous.

    Now, if you’d like to continue this, I have a post up on this matter. You’re more than welcome on my blog, and I’ll never ban you, either.

    I will decline, as my point was not defending Christianity so much as noting the inappropriateness of your approach to Citizen Tom and company.

    In the thread going on, we might have actually identified something Jesus
    in fact did which was new and original… He chastised and cursed a tree, which I believe no other demigod ever did.

    Great fun for you, no doubt. But I think this indicates insufficient scholarship on the topic; Zeus had such a busy relationship with trees and cursing that I expect you’d call this “close enough” (as the Cyrus cylinder was evidently “close enough” for you to assert it as a declaration of religious freedom).
    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • john

    Hi Keith

    Thanks for the welcome

    Let’s move on from “useful.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be
    immensely “useful.” Yes, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can even be valuable.
    To me, it’s one of the greatest pieces of writing ever. I own a 1st
    Edition and it has pride and place in my bookshelf.

    As I explained—belatedly, I admit—“useful” was only ever presented to
    mean information which reduced physical suffering. I would have thought that
    was somewhat obvious. Apparently not, and that confusion established cracks
    through which a lot of distracting nonsense flowed. And FYI, I kept “useful”
    because I felt it would be frightfully disingenuous to move the goal posts by omitting
    it later.

    Now, did Jesus say or do anything that actually reduced the physical
    suffering of 1st Century Palestinians? No. He did not. He did not
    advise people on the nature of disease or infection, water purification, the
    wonders of internal plumbing… the list is vast. He didn’t even tell anyone
    the earth was round, not flat.

    Let’s again remind ourselves of the claim made by Christians: Jesus was
    God incarnate.

    The genuine thrust of the question was however always “new and original.”
    Name something genuinely new or original which Jesus (a God incarnate) said or
    did. To this specific question you answered the Beatitudes, and I appreciated
    your answer, although had to point out that it was in no way new or original.
    The thoughts (as comforting as they might be to those who crave justice) are
    ancient. I won’t repost that whole answer, but you failed to acknowledge this
    once, choosing instead to keep going down the “useful” path.

    No one else offered an answer even approaching yours. Scout (who I like)
    said “thoughts.” Thoughts, is quite a vaporous utterance, and so I asked, three
    times to Tom I recall: “which thoughts?” to which I never received an answer.

    To say people gave answers is then highly, highly, highly disingenuous on
    both yours and Tom’s part. It is, in fact, a lie. You, Keith, where the only
    person who gave an answer, and I debunked it in a minute.

    Tom’s behaviour has been tremendously regrettable, childish, and demonstrable
    of an extreme lack of character and integrity, but I won’t dump on him here, on
    your blog. Let me just say, if, as he says now, he can in fact answer the
    question, then why didn’t he simply answer the question in the first place? A
    simple question deserves a simple, no fuss answer. The thread went on as long
    as it did because no one (excluding you, of course) answered the question… a
    question, I might remind you, was only presented because Tom posted a hunk of
    my work on his blog which asked the question. He invited me, specific to that
    very question… and to then call me a Troll is laughable, and pathetic. I
    think you’d agree with this.

    Now, if you’d like to continue this, I have a post up on this matter.
    You’re more than welcome on my blog, and I’ll never ban you, either.

    In the thread going on, we might have actually identified something Jesus
    in fact did which was new and original… He chastised and cursed a tree, which
    I believe no other demigod ever did.

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