If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was a mere 27 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” He removed what he felt were the “misconceptions” of Jesus’ followers, “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” And it wasn’t hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as “diamonds” in a “dunghill,” glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure.
History is never so precise and tidy, of course, but I'm awestruck by the extraordinary symbolism of Jefferson's action. And since I've been on the topic a couple times recently, I thought I'd elaborate on why that is.
I've been reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve this week. With the historical record of the events in question being somewhat sparse, a lot of the book consists of speculation and creative writing, and as such, some of the parts that have struck me the most have been the background details that Greenblatt uses to flesh out the story — brief references to things like the arrest and execution of Giordano Bruno, or passing mentions of ordinary villagers arrested or denounced to the Inquisition for nothing more than a sarcastic joke that could be construed as heretical. The stifling intellectual climate is chilling to contemplate, and yet, it would continue for another few centuries from the point described. We all know the basic facts of the history of religious persecution, but that kind of knowledge can quickly become a superficial recitation of dry facts that cast no shadow across the mind. You really have to immerse yourself in detailed examples every so often to feel the weight of it in your bones.
As I've stressed a few times, the intellectual freedom and security that allowed someone like Jefferson to confidently trim the Bible to his liking was not a natural outgrowth of Christianity; it was a product of Enlightenment ideals giving primacy to reason. Whatever the simplification here for the sake of clear narrative, whatever the criticism of rationality that could be offered, the important point is that in the two and a half centuries since, it has become accepted as the most basic common sense that you are free to attempt to persuade others of the truth of your religious views all you want, but it's unthinkable that you should try to use coercive force in the event that you fail. Christianity had almost 1500 years to establish that state of affairs, should it have been desired, and yet fire and sword were still the main instruments of persuasion. At some point, if you're honest, you have to acknowledge that this was a feature, not a bug.
The separation of church and state, enshrined in the highest law of the land, was a seismic shift, one of the most important events in Western history, as far as I'm concerned. Religion had been domesticated by the state. Christian might no longer made right. They were forced to swallow any antinomian urges they had and accept the right to existence of heretics and infidels.
Safe to say, it was a wild success and a popular one as well, so much so that tolerance is widely presumed by many progressive, educated people to have been an original component of religious belief per se, all along, and Jesus is presumed to have been the earliest proponent of just such an enlightened, non-sectarian, universal humanism, despite ample evidence to the contrary. You get the impression humankind once lived in harmonious agreement on something like Aldous Huxley's perennial philosophy, but power-hungry priests and ignorant zealots led people astray into sectarian strife, which was never what any founder of a religion intended.
Now, some have said to me, as long as the end result is a kinder, gentler society where everyone gets along, what's the harm if they're fuzzy on the details of how they got there? Why kick up a fuss about it and risk giving offense? I respond: because truth matters for its own sake. Because it's not innocently mistaken to sweep aside the unseemly parts of Christianity or the significance of the religious/secular divide, it's flat-out dishonest. Because this isn't even an irresolvable argument about the finer points of metaphysics; this is a simple case of what did and didn't happen in history, simple enough to be explained in grade-school textbooks. Because good-natured geniality predicated on mistakes and falsehoods is not as stable or enduring as I would like it to be.
Theologians and garden-variety apologists for religion frequently resort to the cuttlefish defense against the criticisms of atheists; i.e., spilling an tremendous amount of ink in the hope that their attackers will get lost in the impenetrable abstractions and convoluted knots of logic. But unfortunately for them, the basic principles of Christianity have been boiled down to their simplest form for the sake of reaching across language barriers and converting heathens the world over, and it's pretty clear what it means to be a Christian: All humans carry original sin. God sacrificed his only son to offer you a way to escape this burden. Accept this offering, proclaim Jesus as your savior, and profess your belief in the reality of his death, resurrection and eventual return. If you refuse, there will be the most severe consequences imaginable.
See, there's no wiggle room there. This is the essence of Christianity, the very thing that gives it an identity, that makes it not-Islam, not-Judaism, not Hinduism, etc. Jesus's death and resurrection were historical events that only happened once. There is no other path to free yourself from the wages of sin, and only false prophets will tell you otherwise. You cannot change these core elements without doing violence to the story. There is no honest way to square such a provincial, dogmatic worldview with the broad-minded Enlightenment inheritance we're so fond of.
Thus when I hear professed Christians like Mary Elizabeth Williams talk about respecting the equal validity of other faiths like it's a self-evident truth, along with touchy-feely postmodern glurge about everyone's personal truth being different and yet still true, I think, well, you don't appreciate what a chasm Jefferson opened up in the intellectual landscape. You're trying to have it both ways without understanding what either of them really mean. You can't legitimately call yourself a Christian if you don't accept the very basic rules of membership. If you find them distasteful, if you have to remove or reimagine the core aspects to make them palatable, then have the fucking integrity to admit you've outgrown your religion, and put it away along with all other childish things. Quit dressing up the old bones in new clothes and give them a decent burial.
I respect Christianity as a worthy opponent in the Nietzschean sense and so make the effort to take it seriously even if it means the impossibility of reconciliation; it stuns me to see the insouciance with which its supposed adherents treat it.