Category Archives: Skepticism

The True Miracle of Christmas

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
– John 1:11-13

This Christmas season I’ve been thinking about the whole question of the dogma of the Virgin birth of Jesus, and how important that is to the Christian faith. The most basic question is, what is the basic reason for believing that Jesus was born without his mother ever having had sex with anyone? Besides proving that one’s belief in the Bible narrative is stronger than one’s trust in a scientific understanding of such matters, what might be the point in such a belief?

I don’t toss out the rhetorical jab against scientific thinking in complete cynicism. I have many friends, on line in particular, who consider my faith to be somewhat suspect because I don’t prioritize a doctrine of the Bible’s “verbal plenary inspiration”: essentially the belief that the complete factual flawlessness of the Bible needs to be the starting point for any discussion of Christian belief between believers. This teaching is loosely based on one verse in Paul’s epistles (II Timothy 3:16) but more essentially it is based on a medieval understanding that any rational argument requires some sort of fixed starting point, and that is what the Bible is supposed to provide us with. Belief in the Bible’s reliability in this way was important to medieval monks in the same way that belief in the fixed position of the Earth within the universe, built on a firm foundation placed there by God himself (Psalm 104:5), was important to their attempts to rationally analyze the motions of the planets and stars in the sky. And for Protestants, who tossed aside the foundational function of church councils and papal decrees, this role for the Bible became even more critically important.

Thus one argument for believing in the virgin birth of Jesus is that it goes with the broader collection of things that Christians have historically believed in. Thus the argument would go that to consider oneself a truly believing Christian one must consider every word of the Bible –– especially the New Testament, and within the New Testament especially the message of the Gospels –– to be beyond factual reproach. This would mean that one should never dream of questioning the veracity of Mary’s reported reply to the angel in Luke 1:34. So believing for the sake of believing as a starting point for discussion among Christians has its own relevance and importance… but is there more to it than that?

One huge part of the question has been the idea that there is something essentially “yucky” about sex, and for Jesus to have been a perfect human being he could not have been, like everyone else, the product of such a yucky process. This is not a directly biblical teaching (though it is perhaps implied in some interpretations of I Corinthians 7:7), but it runs very deeply in Christian tradition, particularly in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions Augustine makes it clear that as a young man he was deeply troubled by sex, in that he had a very difficult time thinking with his “big head” rather than his (ahem) “little head”, and when he became a believer God delivered him from this “curse”. Thus one of the principle blessings of Christianity, according to Augustine and his followers, was to deliver us from the power of sex. But for those not ready or willing to become completely sexless beings there was always marriage. There the yuckiness of sex could be “redeemed” by its function of making lots of new members for the church.

One of the big questions of the Protestant Reformation was whether this Augustinian perspective on sex could be rejected outright. Besides allowing priests to marry, part of Luther’s basic emphasis seemed to be that sex (within marriage at least) was not merely a regrettably necessary means of procreation, but wonderful gift of God unto itself. From an Augustinian perspective, which the Catholic Church clung to dogmatically at least until the time of World War 2, this sort of perspective opened the door to all sorts of problems. It was only with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that the Catholic Church started to admit that Protestants might have some legitimate points in these (and other) matters. Shortly after this council the Pope Paul VI declared that as long as sex was only practiced between people who were married for that purpose, only done in a vaginal penetrative way, and not utilizing any “artificial” means of preventing pregnancy, it could be done for its own sake rather than primarily as a means of making babies. But the whole question of how sexlessness relates to Mary’s perfection as the mother of Jesus has not been substantially re-thought since then. Nor has there been a significant Protestant tradition of promoting the beauty and potential for deep spiritual experience within sex that would counter-balance the Augustinian tradition in this respect. For Christians of all sorts with advanced enough English skills to understand the lyrics, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah remains something of a guilty pleasure. Thus Jesus’ mother still needs to be seen as a virgin.

A completely different perspective on the matter has to do with the ancient understanding of the biological workings of sexual reproduction and the role of fatherhood therein. In simple terms the ancients, at least as far back as Aristotle, believed that within each potential mother there was a reserve of some bloody mass that provided the material from which babies could be made, and then there was this milky stuff that came out of potential fathers which contained all the pattern information necessary for baby-making. When this male-determined pattern properly imprinted itself on that bloody mass within the mother-to-be’s uterus the miracle of pregnancy would begin. If this happened in the optimal way it would result in a strong and healthy male child. If the “imprinting” of the sperm upon the bloody stuff was a partial miss, the result could be a female child, or a baby with some other sort of birth defect (the Ancient European perspective, not mine!). If it missed entirely, pregnancy would simply fail to happen. The point was that every sperm was seen as having all of the data necessary for making a baby, and thus the essence of what makes the baby who he or she is was believed to come entirely from the father’s side.

On the basis of this understanding of biology the church fathers who gathered for the second official church council, in Constantinople in 381, added a clause to the Nicene Creed stating that Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds”. In other words the perfect pattern for Jesus, ready to be imprinted onto the bloody stuff with Mary, was already up in heaven with God, fully conscious and ready for action, before the world was made. This was part of the understanding of how Jesus could really be God. From there once this pre-existing and fully conscious pattern was able to sexlessly stamp itself onto the bloody material within Mary the fact of Jesus’ complete humanity and simultaneous complete divinity became a reality. Except we have since discovered that biologically it doesn’t work that way…

I’m still sort of amazed that Gregor Mendel was never tried as a heretic, since his scientific discoveries, published while he was a monk on the payroll of the Catholic Church, totally exploded the reasoning behind this dogma that had been a core teaching of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Maybe it was that they had just got done “rehabilitating” Galileo for daring to point out the church’s mistake in insisting that the Sun revolves around the Earth rather than visa-versa, so they didn’t want to challenge any scientists for a while. Perhaps it was just that the offices of the inquisition had too many other fish to fry at the time. Perhaps they actually never heard of this Czech monk until it was too late and he was already dead and gone. Whatever the case, by proving that fathers and mothers play equal roles in determining the genetic pattern of their offspring, and that this pattern cannot exist prior to the sperm uniting with the material within the mother, he completely undermined part of the core theological reasoning behind belief in the virgin birth, and he was never made to pay for this arrogance.

But then what remaining idea could there be for believing in the virgin birth if we dismiss the reliability of belief for its own sake as , the idea of sex being inherently yucky and fatherhood consisting of imprinting pre-existing patterns on stuff in the mother? Speaking strictly for myself, while having a bit of residual respect for Christian tradition for tradition sake in spite of its epistemological limits, the main point remaining in the idea of the virgin birth is Jesus’ message of completely breaking with the tradition of alpha male power. To state it in the sort of terms that have recently become acceptable as basic “locker room talk,” Jesus was not the heir of a long line of “pussy grabbing winners.” In fact he completely rejected everything this tradition stood for. This is the true miracle of Christmas; so miraculously unexpected that many today are still unable to conceive of it as such.

The Jews, at Jesus’ time in particular, were looking for a sort of ultimate macho man Messiah, who could do like Gideon and mobilize a tiny army, against all rational odds, to overcome all the oppression that the people of JWHW faced. The rest was details. The fact that Gideon managed to have 70 sons from his “legitimate” wives, and more on the side (Judges 8:30-31) went with the territory. Conquering heroes were entitled to all the women they wanted. Why wouldn’t the same apply to the long expected Messiah?

That is not to say there weren’t some mixed messages involved the Jews’ Messianic expectations. The “hymn of the suffering servant” in Isaiah 53 in particular seriously messed with their testosterone-stoked images of a conquering hero. But even Isaiah painted this suffering Messiah as being a bit of a bad ass when he had to be: ready to bring revenge against all those who had made life miserable for the Jews. Isaiah laid this out in chapter 61, where the second verse says that the Messiah’s job is “to proclaim… the day of vengeance.” Then along comes Jesus, who the local folks hoped might be the sort of conquering leader they were looking for. Everyone is stoked for a major declaration as this local boy goes into the synagogue and takes his turn to read the worship text, which happens to be the very portion of Isaiah which tells of the vengeance proclamation. Everyone waits with bated breath he reads the part leading up to it, about good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind and all that, but then right when he gets to the part they were most interested in –– the vengeance part –– he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down!

Jesus went on to teach the sort of stuff we have recorded in the Sermon on the Mount: All the people he regarded as blessed were those who alpha male competitors would label as losers. Rather than taking vengeance, love your enemies. Chill out and trust God the way the grass of the field does. How is this guy supposed to free us from our Roman oppressors the way a messiah is supposed to do? Turns out that isn’t at all what he is about. He’s rather come to free us of our own need to think of ourselves as “winners”.
Jesus’ point is to set the whole question of “being a winner” aside; to completely adopt the form of a servant so that his followers can do the same. He was deeply passionate about going after those who misrepresented God as a nasty, demanding ogre, or who tried to turn a sleazy profit off of people’s desire to know God; but for everyone else the point of his teaching was for people to accept forgiveness in spite of their failures, and to pass that forgiveness forward in terms of forgiving others. As his “beloved disciple” John summarized the matter in the introduction to his gospel, quoted from at the beginning of this piece, Jesus gave us the right to be God’s children, but this is completely not a matter of passing on the sort of macho heritage based on the power of (sexual) aggression that Gideon and company represented: “not of blood [the presumedly biologically female bit], nor of the will of the flesh [the presumedly biologically male bit] nor of the will of man [the macho aggression factor], but of God.” In other words John is saying that God gives those who are truly his people the capacity to act outside of the control of their “selfish genes”; to live a life not programmed by their “pussy grabbing” urges.

This was not written as a description of Jesus, however, but of his followers, to whom he gave the right to become children of God. John’s point here was not to emphasize Jesus’ supernatural heritage, nor his mother’s sexual purity, but the essence of his followers’ relationship with God. The core question is whether we are ready to live beyond our urge to associate ourselves with the alpha male thing that Jesus so definitively set aside. What do we need to believe about Jesus and his biological origins to live according to the sort of values that John points us towards? Then on the other side of the question, for those millions of professing Christians who are using that label primarily as a means of advancing their macho power interests, what good does a profession of belief in Mary’s virginity (either at the strategic moment, or perpetually thereafter) do them before God?

I do not claim to have special access to God’s own perspective on such matters, but the more I consider these issues the less worried I become about being accepted as sufficiently orthodox by those who set out to conquer in Jesus’ name.

Meanwhile my wish for the season is this: may the true miracle of Christmas –– the defeat of the alpha male drive thing within each of us –– come into the lives of all those who truly wish to be God’s children, towards the end that someday there truly may be peace on earth, and among God’s people in particular.

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Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Sexuality, Skepticism

What the Hell?

One last blog entry here before I embark on my Kenyan adventure.

It relates to another subject that I generally try to avoid: the meaning of hell. This is (excuse the pun) somewhat of a hot topic lately though, in that it is the primary inconsistency in the Christian concept of a loving God for some, and the primary test of Christian Orthodoxy for others.

In particular this last week one Louis Gohmert, a politician representing the conservative theological hot spot of Texas (again, excuse the pun), decided to make more of a name for himself by going after a less conservative clergyman –– Barry Lynn, who stands for the issue of maintaining freedom of religion (in the more traditional sense of the phrase) in the United States. Gohmert did so by tossing out the implication that, in order to count as a proper representative of Christianity, Lynn needs to explicitly state that all those who don’t follow the proper evangelical formula for receiving Jesus are destined for an eternity of torture in hell.

130625_louie_gohmert_ap_328To say that Gohmert missed the point of the hearing in question may miss the point. Lynn had gone to Washington to address the issue of government slipping in the direction of indirectly requiring religious observance of various sorts from its citizens. Gohmert wanted to make his own point that, in the name of freedom of religion as he sees it, people should be free to believe that those who don’t meet their requirements are going to hell, and they should be free to use the political process as a means of promoting their beliefs and pressuring those “hell-bound” others to get right with God. Whether or not that can be done in a fashion that respects the beliefs of those who believe differently from him and his evangelical base supporters is a secondary matter; the important thing for Gohmert was to send a sound bite back to his base which tells them that he is fighting the good fight and standing for the principles of the “true faith” up there in that heathen city of Washington –– the litmus test for being part of that true faith being belief in a literal hell of some sort for those who don’t “come to the Father” by way of Jesus according to the proper formula.

There are plenty of Christians who deny the existence of hell, and who have paid the price for their disbelief in this regard. The story of Carlton Pearson in particular comes to mind on that one. For me Pearson is neither a hero nor a villain, but an interesting anthropological case study in how important this issue is to how many people. Gohmert chose his emotive hook wisely it would seem, at least in demagogic political terms for impact in Texas.

In looking up the link for Pearson’s story I also stumbled across Addie Zierman’s recent comments on the subject. Mrs. Zierman is apparently working on promoting her recent memoir about dabbling around the edges of adultery as a formerly good evangelical girl, and the effects that had on her faith. She has thus been giving various radio interviews on the subject, in which she’s also tried to shore up what remains of her evangelical credentials. On one such occasion last winter though she got significantly stuck on the question of whether she believes in hell –– in the doctrine of unbelievers automatically being destined for eternal torment in the after-life. She didn’t really know, and she is mildly self-critical about the lack of erudition this caused her.

She had thoroughly believed in this concept when she was an elementary school child. Back then she was proud to tell her classmates that they were going to hell and she wasn’t, even if her teacher didn’t necessarily understand how this was supposed to be an optimistic message… but the complexities of adult life had made her a bit less sure about the matter. She lets herself off by saying, “What the hell do I know about hell? I’m not a pastor or a scholar. I’m a writer. An English Major. I sat in the back row of my Christian Theology class senior year of college and slept through much of it.”

Unfortunately I can’t let myself off that easily. I too have certainly slept through more than my fair share of lectures on dogmatics, but even so… I’ve been considered an expert of sorts on all things religious since long before I knew what I was talking about, and for the last quarter of my life or so I’ve made a living explaining such matters to teenagers in the Finnish public school system. So how do I explain what I believe about hell? I guess I’d have to say that I’m in the process of re-evaluating my beliefs on the subject as well.

Like Jesus’ ascension, the concept of hell definitely contains certain aspects that fit a lot easier with a medieval world view than with a modern one. The idea that hell (and/or purgatory) would be physically somewhere down below our feet, heated by the sort of molten magma that bursts out of volcanoes every now and again, makes slightly more scientific sense than the idea that, somewhere above a relatively flat earth, on the other side of the clouds, there is a physical realm of heaven where God and his angels and saints live and party every night –– but just barely. It doesn’t really address the question of whether there is some physical essence to the soul being tortured there. If there is, what sort of sentient physical form would that be? If not –– if the soul lives on after death as a non-material conscious entity –– what difference would the physical conditions surrounding it actually make?

Then there’s the whole question of what basis we have for believing that a disembodied yet conscious soul can be a real thing. Assuming that such things do exist (and will exist for each of us), what is the basic essence of the soul in such a state? If we take the creation narrative in Genesis 1 somewhat literally in this regard, the thing that makes each human a living soul is the “breath of God,” breathed into Adam by God and spread to all of his offspring from there. Aristotle’s take on the subject, which I was analyzing here last month, is that the only part of the soul which would survive death is the nous or “mind” –– the divine spark within each intelligent person that enables them to perceive non-material realities in general. Either way, if the part of the soul which survives separation from the material body is actually divine in its essence and origin, how can that divine part of the person –– the trace of God within the person –– be the object of God’s wrath?

Then there’s still the question of where the whole concept of hell came from to begin with. There are actually two concepts that get mixed together here: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew concept of the abode of the dead; and the image of the Hinnom Valley, south of Jerusalem.
Hades-childhood-animated-movie-villains-25060468-1024-768Sheol is translated from Hebrew to Greek as “Hades”, but it’s hard to say exactly how much the concept of death in the time of David’s kingdom had to do with the fiery lord of the underworld in Greek mythology. The main image we get in relation to this place is one of detachment, non-feeling, non-knowing and emptiness. The hope given is that after their time in the cold, dead grave, significant persons will be brought back to life to receive God’s favor or face further manifestations of his wrath (Psalm 49:14-15, Daniel 12:2), but these hopes remain rather vaguely expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Hinnom Valley, also known as Gehenna, was a spot outside the walls of Jerusalem on the south side, where, in the lowest ebbs of Israelite and Jewish culture, human sacrifice would take place –– particularly the killing and burning of young children to offer them to various local gods who were seen as able to supplement JHWH’s power in helping them out in battle and the like. The prophets had all sorts of good reasons for condemning this practice, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which they were more worried about: God’s jealousy or the disrespect for the rights of children. In any case, this same valley was, at least by legend, the place where the bodies of losers in battle were disposed of, frequently by burning for health protection purposes.
GehennaThis is the place that Jesus warns his followers to be careful so as not to, figuratively speaking, end up getting tossed into –– to the extent of chopping off limbs or gouging out eyes if that is the only way to avoid it! He describes his worst ideological enemies, the Pharisees, as the children of this valley and destined to burn there (Matthew 23: 15, 33). But that’s about it for Bible teaching on that one.

Beyond specific references to Gehenna, without specifically naming the place, twice Jesus spoke of torture by fire for the dead in the after-life. In both cases it was a matter of rich bastards who refused to have mercy on the poor: The tale of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus in the end of Luke 16, and the prophecy of the judgment of the “sheep and the goats” in the end of Matthew 25. In the portion in Luke, the grave, “hades,” is referred to as a place of burning torment where the rich man “gets what’s coming to him” for being such a jerk in his treatment of the beggar. In the story in Matthew the nations which ignore the plight of the poor, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned are sentenced to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That kind of leaves open the question of individual versus collective punishment in such cases, but the main point is clear: fires of judgment in the after-life are especially intended for those who callously disregard the basic human needs of others. Somehow then this got twisted around to mean that an unending sensation of burning would be the fate of those who didn’t swear allegiance to the proper religious team according to the correct ritual formula. We’ll come back to that.

There are actually two other forms of torture besides burning referred to in the Bible in terms of the after-life experiences of the damned: the worm and the bottomless pit. The worm is referred to in the very last verse in the book of Isaiah (66:24), where it is part of the punishment for those who will rebel against the new messianic order that God is supposed to bring. From there they make an appearance in Jesus’ warnings in Mark 9 about the tortures of hell for those who commit any form of child abuse. The bottomless pit, or the Abyss, is where many of the bad guys come from in the epic battle between good and evil in the book of Revelation. Ultimately good wins and the forces of evil are locked back into this torture chamber for an extended utopian period; after which they are once again released, stomped on decisively in a final battle, and permanently thrown into a lake of fire (chapter 20).

My previous understanding and personal interpretation of these combined references was that the fire, the worm and the abyss –– as combined metaphors for the tortured state of the disembodied soul –– pointed to one thing: progressive destruction which is never finalized. It would be sort of like any radioactive isotope, e.g. carbon 14: As long as a living organism is interacting with other carbon based life forms in the biological world this isotope remains at relatively stable levels in all of its structure. Once the organism dies, however, and no new C14 is being circulated through its system as part of the metabolic process, the C14 starts to break down, so after 5730 years there is roughly half as much C14 in the organism than there would have been while it was alive. But the C14 never disappears from the remains of the organism entirely; after millions of years the breakdown process remains on-going. (In this way paleontologists can make their best scientific guesses as to how long the fossils the find have actually been dead.) So it is for the soul that dies without forming a lasting connection with God –– the source of that “divine spark” within which ultimately makes us human: Like a radioactive isotope, without the refreshment that life offers, such a soul begins to break down, without ever finally getting to the point of being completely broken down. It can feel itself perpetually dying, yet never reaching the restful state of having entirely nothing left to lose. That would be the non-material hell to be avoided –– of which physical pains, and more specifically experiences of alienation and social detachment within this life, are merely something of a foretaste.

There are a number of levels on which I am no longer so sure about that theory. To start with there is the matter of determining which analogies, if any, to trust as the basis for our conceptual understanding here. Literal fire and literal worms eventually burn out or finish consuming all tissues which they find edible. We don’t find thousands of years old glowing embers or obese worms. Nor does any pit on earth extend further than about a quarter of the way through the crust of the planet. By the original analogies the torture at worst would still be of limited duration. In the literal case of the Hinnom Valley fires could and would be kept going non-stop and worm colonies could thrive for years by continuously adding new fuel and bodies, but that does not mean that any given body would be perpetually burning forever. So why should I put more faith in my isotope metaphor than the original ones given in the Bible? Assuming that there really is an experience of disembodied torment for the soul and time of regret after the death of the human body, is it really necessary to believe that this is inevitably something unending?

Secondly, if the ultimate reason why human souls exist to begin with is God’s desire to express love, is there any reason to believe that God would not eventually have mercy on such tortured souls and allow them to rejoin their transcendent source? Could God really be so “heartless” as to ignore the suffering of particular human souls as lightly as factory farm managers ignore the suffering of unwanted male hatchlings which they dispose of as useless by-products of their egg production operations?

Is this really the way God thinks of our "unsaved" friends?

Is this really the way God thinks of our “unsaved” friends?

While agreeing with the rabbi who says that believing in an afterlife is an essential corollary to believing in God –– there is clearly no justice in this world and so it’s impossible to imagine a just God who does not make distinctions between an Adolf Hitler and an Anne Frank “on the other side” –– and while I’m willing to “let God be God” and not make my own declarations of who has to go to which sort of Hell, and who doesn’t, I no longer take that to mean that the evangelical hellfire and brimstone message is a “thus sayeth the Lord” issue.

Interestingly it is only in the end of the book of Revelation where there is any hint of the possibility of “normal people” –– those who actually live conscientious and compassionate lives without association with Jesus –– still potentially ending up in eternal torment: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Evangelicals take that to mean anyone who does not “receive Jesus” in such a way as to have their name on his team’s roster is doomed to hell. Revelation 20:15 is the only verse they have to support that interpretation. The idea that it will be everlasting torment comes from verse 10 of the same chapter, referring to the fate of the devil and his leading generals on the side of evil: “They will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.” Two aspects of this part of John’s apocalyptic vision frequently get overlooked: First, as John saw it, this further torture of the dead requires re-animating their bodies. This “second death” can only happen after the bodies of the damned dead are brought back from the grave and reassembled in such a way as to enable them to face God’s judgment at the final end of human history. There is no talk of disembodied souls being in everlasting torment on the sole basis of not being found in the “book of life” prior to this great final resurrection. (For those who abuse children or ignore the needs of the poor it is a different story.) Secondly, it is repeated in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter that these walking dead will be judged “according to what they had done”, not according to how well they kept the ritual formula of properly receiving Jesus. One of the main themes of Isaiah 66, referred to above, is how little God thinks of those who attempt to do enough religious rituals to compensate for a crude and selfish lifestyle. The New Testament is not intended then to just provide better rituals to justify continuously abusing others.

These are mostly my own somewhat random deliberations on hell, which isn’t really my area of expertise. The most interesting expert on the subject that I can point to these days is Brad Jersak. Brad’s take on the matter is basically that:
1) The vengeance mentality and the fear tactics used as a revivalist motivation to get people to “come to Christ” which significantly motivate belief in this doctrine are in many respects socially and psychologically unhealthy.
2) The doctrine of hell evolved in the western church in particular well after the time of the Nicean Creed, based on a number of leaders’ personal and political concerns about the motivations of the masses.
3) There are essentially three competing views on the matter that can be equally well “proof-texted” from the Bible:
a) infernalism, the eternal torment for unbelievers theory;
b) annihilationism, believing that those outside the scope of God’s love eventually fade away and are no more; and
c) universalism, believing that eventually everyone will inevitably “love big brother” enough to be welcomed into heaven. Finally,
4) God probably doesn’t want us to be too sure about what sort of justice follows this life, leaving the subject broadly open because it is healthiest for us to have some balance of a bit of the fear of God for ourselves and a strong awareness of God’s mercy for everyone else.

I would broadly agree with each of these main points. (If you need them further unpacked I’d recommend surfing around Brad’s web site for a bit, or maybe even buying his book on the subject.) In other words even the best of theological experts are best off agreeing with Mrs. Zierman and other less theologically informed believers in saying, “I really don’t know.” Those who pretend to know for sure are often the most dangerous people to listen to on the subject.

From there we can move on to trying to motivate people less with threats of divine violence and more with not just promises but offers of God’s love starting here and now. Even if some churches find that they are able to boost their statistics by tossing in the occasional (or not so occasional) hell-fire message, on many levels I believe that such an emphasis does infinitely more harm than good.

So that’s about all I know about that. If some find this theoretically helpful, so much the better. If some feel more justified in condemning me to whatever sort of hell they believe in on the basis of what I have to say here, they’re welcome to go for it. Being detached from people like Gohmert and the gods they make in their own image for all eternity is actually a form of punishment I think I can handle. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d prefer it.

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Filed under Death, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Skepticism, Spirituality

My Ascension Agnosticism

Something that few other than those of us whose work is related to religious matters realize is that we are currently in the week between Ascension Day and Pentecost. In other words we are in that time of year that commemorates that period of uncertainty that hit Jesus’ followers a month and a half after his execution and after the thrill of his grave being empty, because after 40 days of visions of Jesus in his post-death state –– sort of physical and non-physical at the same time –– they had watched him levitate up through the clouds, after which they received an angelic message: “He’ll be back later, now get busy!”

But get busy with what? The closest thing Jesus’ followers had to a leader after his aerial departure was Peter, and for all his bluff and bluster this guy still felt more at home in a fishing boat than he did leading a worship service or holding an outreach strategy meeting.  The rest as well were really just trying to figure out whether this Jesus movement thing was worth bothering with any more or not. Their messianic hopes weren’t going to be realized in the ways they had first hoped for anyway: There wasn’t going to be a new system of civil government in Jerusalem right away anyway, which is what a lot of them had in mind when they signed on. The other-worldly ideas that Jesus had talked about still seemed more than a little abstract to them. They had watched Jesus rise up through the clouds, but in many respects they were stuck trying to work out for themselves the answer to the basic question: Which way is up?

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

That may sound like a silly question, but in so many ways it remains critical and indeterminate matter for most believers still today. I mean, to start with the obvious, the whole concept of the earth being a spinning sphere –– not really recognized at Jesus’ time but fairly self-evident to anyone who has been through elementary school or travelled internationally by air these days –– sort of screws up the idea of “up” pointing in any given direction within the solar system, our galaxy or the universe. So from that perspective, where did Jesus go?

The basic physical perspective of his followers at the time was pretty clear in this regard at least: After defeating death Jesus’ body had taken on a miraculous form that the empire could no longer kill. He then went to someplace on the other side of the clouds, where his father’s kingdom lies, to gather an army of angels together, and to commission the building of some sort of concrete homes and offices for his followers who were to have significant positions of authority in his kingdom up there. From there their general hope was that he would be returning with his celestial armies of angels in a few weeks, or months… or years… to set things right in the lands God had given to Abraham seed, and then take all of his true followers to the grand and glorious kingdom physically up there somewhere, which he had ascended up to supervise building on. The rest was details to be worked out and revealed when his actual coming would occur; they just sort of had to trust him on that.

Obviously some aspects of that perspective were very much wrong: We have now thoroughly explored the regions on the other side of the clouds, littered that area with satellites and sent out investigative equipment thousands of times further from the earth than the highest clouds, all without encountering any distant kingdom up there as those in the early church would have expected we’d find. Likewise since the ascension there have been hundreds of generations of believers in Jesus, each believing that they would most likely be the ones to experience his glorious return from wherever he went when he levitated off that Jerusalem hilltop way back the –– each eventually facing the disappointment of dying like those before them. Obviously they misunderstood some parts of the system and God’s long-term plan in the matter. How deep did that misunderstanding really go? Did they have any of it right? Troubling questions for those who still choose to identify as followers of Jesus.

The things that these original followers of Jesus knew, or at least clearly and strongly believed, not on the basis of faith and speculation but  on the basis of their personal sensory experiences, were that Jesus’ body had not remained dead, that they had actually seen him in this post-death state, and that a reliable group of witnesses among them had watched as, a month and a half after coming back from the dead, Jesus did his levitation through the clouds thing. Speculations by historical scholars since then that the gospel reports were fabricated simply as a means of maintaining the cult revering this visionary martyr of one of the Jewish restorationist movements of the time don’t come across as particularly credible. To repeat the familiar argument, these apostles all allowed themselves to be put to death for what they believed rather than changing their story to make it more politically acceptable. That doesn’t sound like the actions of cons or fakers.

So there isn’t a credible argument to be made that the whole thing was a giant scam right from the start. Claims that they were the victims of an incredible mas psychosis also seem a bit historically problematic. Somehow they all saw something after Jesus’ execution that gave them a profound existential certainty about the matter of Jesus as the great victor over death, whose side they definitely wanted to be on. Nor do we have any viable reason for doubting their soundness of mind in doing so.

But though we can’t dismiss the apostles as cons or flakes, nor can we credibly belief that everything these guys held as true was the absolute, God’s honest truth of the matter. I find it disingenuous either to claim that they were intentionally deceitful or collectively schizophrenic on the one hand, or to claim that their perspectives –– even those recorded in the New Testament –– were infallibly accurate on the other. There were more than a few things that they didn’t understand, that didn’t work the way they anticipated, and regarding which they were just factually wrong.  So somewhere here we have a disconnect to be rectified, and I’m honestly not sure exactly how and where. All we can know is that somewhere around the ascension ––  somewhere between the sincere eye-witness testimonies to the resurrection and the shared belief within the early church that Jesus had physically taken off to go up there somewhere to work on the material logistics necessary for his return –– we have a breakdown in the narrative credibility. We don’t really have any good answers as to where Jesus would have gone, in what material sense, other than that he just went away, and that opens up a few cans of worms of its own.

Every effort I’ve seen to square this circle involves a fair amount of epistemological bluff on one side or the other, strongly influence by the faith position taken by the person offering the answer. Either they are dismissing the whole account as myth and fabrication, or they are holding to the absolute accuracy of the historical account in the book of Acts as a matter of personal faith. I believe the truth must be somewhere in between these two positions, but I cannot be sure where. So this makes me a proper agnostic with reference to the implications of the story of the ascension: I don’t know what exactly happened that day and how the tale came to be recorded as we have it; and so far I don’t know of anyone whose claim to know about this matter I can take particularly seriously at this point in my philosophical and spiritual journey. Fortunately I’m not one to be particularly afraid of mysteries. Not knowing which way is up has become a fairly familiar experience for me, and I’m almost at the point of being comfortable with it.

There are essentially two important practical matters of faith relative to the ascension that make the story relevant beyond the expectation of Jesus coming back through the clouds in a reverse action sequence of his departure: First we have the matter of believing that Jesus lives, even though he is not with us here on a day-to-day basis. Second we have the matter of taking Jesus as an example of life after death so as to give us hope of someday having life after death ourselves. Let me unpack those a bit.

One of the technical differences between a religion and a cult, sociologically speaking, is a matter of how long it has been since the departure of its founding leader, whatever title that leader is known by. Any new religion begins by revering some particularly charismatic character that walks among us and seems to have all the answers. People live in awe of this individual and turn to him (inevitably it has to be a him) for moral, spiritual and political guidance. Obeying the word of this leader is considered more important than thinking for oneself. It is only two or three generations after this leader’s departure from the scene that his followers start to digest his teachings and experiment with thinking for themselves on the basis of the principles introduced in those teachings. Moving beyond the blind subservience phase to the responsible representative phase is an important aspect in any religion’s maturation process. In this regard Christianity really has been no exception. For the faith to mature into a significant cultural force, its followers had to start thinking for themselves. Some Christians still aren’t capable of thinking for themselves much, but in order for us to at least have a fighting chance at doing so Jesus had to leave to give us the space to do so.

Beyond that the matter of the soul living on, as I’ve been contemplating for the past month, gets rather complicated in Christian theology, and in any other thoughtful perspective on the matter. A bit of exegetical research makes it quite clear that Jesus’ early followers did not have any concept of a soul existing without a body: “the resurrection” was to be a physical matter of each of God’s people receiving back their bodies in their most essential form, though perhaps without their most painful and troubling limitations such as handicaps and diseases. The whole idea of one’s soul being separable from one’s body came rather later in the writings of St. Paul. This is actually one of the primary evidences for the “Apostles’ Creed” predating the “Nicean Creed”: whereas the latter confesses to belief in “the resurrection of the dead”, the former carefully specifies that this is a matter of “the resurrection of the body”.

Jesus’ post-resurrection body was seen as the primary example of this principle; he was, in both St. John’s and St. Paul’s words, “the firstborn from among the dead” (Revelation 1:5, Colossians 1:18). But this was not merely to be understood as a matter of experiencing the joys of earthly life in some semi-detached immortal manner indefinitely, but rather of the potential for experiencing a world beyond this one, which Jesus continued on to. Jesus’ ascension was thus an important aspect of expanding believers’ concepts of possibilities for a life beyond the present one.

I’m not going to use this space to try to change anyone’s personal beliefs about how life after death might work. That’s not the sort of thing blogs are suited for –– even long-winded ones like mine. I would rather like to emphasize something that on one level or another all of my friends from various branches of Christianity, deism, agnosticism, Judaism and other world religions can probably relate to: The key to my soul having relevance beyond the limits of my skin is love. When I love someone, and/or I am loved by someone, that creates in me, and beyond, me a sense that I am relevant to more than just myself. It is this sense of security in one’s broader and deeper relevance that psychological researchers tell us is the strongest corollary to a subjective sense of happiness in this life. Ironically it is this sense of connecting with others that financial ambition tends to rob people of on all sorts of levels.

Having the security to love and be loved regardless of our acknowledged failures and limitations, and regardless of how it relates to our evolutionary biological motivations, is in many ways the core element of the Christian message, but I’ll make everyone uncomfortable by saying that I don’t see this as something Christians should try to lay an exclusive claim to. In fact for Christians to claim exclusivity in such a message rather defeats the purpose of the message. Exclusivity is a matter of setting advance limitations on who we are willing to connect with; on who has the rights to our love in one sense or another. There can be value to that in terms of sexual exclusivity, for instance, but when it comes to shared participation in God’s love there is little excuse for exclusive claims to such love. The foundational premise here should be that God has made all mankind in his own image, and therefore none are to be categorically excluded from the sphere of his love. There is even less excuse for violent attack on those who fail to meet one’s exclusive religious standards.

Whatever we do and don’t know about what lies beyond death and “beyond the clouds”, we can be quite sure of one thing: building a capacity to love in ways that overcome our natural violent and competitive inclinations is an extremely beneficial way of exercising one’s faith. It builds a sense of personal satisfaction in life. It is conducive to building a sense of harmony with those around us, and it lends credibility to any claims we may wish to make regarding our love for God. By loving others I know that I am able to transcend the limits of my body. I am able to become part of someone else; part of something outside my own skin; something that gives my life value beyond the simple physical pleasures and pains that it involves. This enables me to live at peace with what I don’t know about the historical and physical details of the ascension. This even enables me to live at peace with the false certainties that I hear fellow Christians proclaiming on the basis of their personal Pentecosts. And if some people find my attitude towards their would-be certainties offensive and condescending, I do my best to love them anyway.

 

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A Theological Alternative to the Creationist Dogma

I’ve been on vacation from my writing here for the past week and some, but during all the time I’ve “been away” I’ve been thinking of giving some sort of response to the Creation Museum’s big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye this month. That event seems to have served no other purpose so effectively as to drive a further wedge between sincere Christian believers and sincere seekers for truth. I doubt that I can undo such perceptions to any significant extent, but I’d still like to give it a try.

It’s easy to write off Creation Museum front man Ken Ham as a flake on all sorts of levels. He basically holds to a position which states that “true Christian belief” –– an existential reliance on the teachings in the Bible –– requires that we accept the Bible as an infallible all-purpose guide to everything we really need to know about life, the universe and everything; and that any information which contradicts his understanding of the Bible must be categorically false. Among Christians worldwide this is by no means a majority position. The equivalent position regarding the Qur’an is still the orthodox majority position among Muslims, but among Christians Ham’s position is that of a shrinking minority who more or less explicitly self-identify as Fundamentalists. But regardless of demographics involved, the question deserves to be asked: Is it fair for Ham and company to assert that biblical literalism regarding creationism the one true form of Christianity from which all others have drifted? I don’t believe so, and my decision not to believe so is not something I acknowledge to be a retreatist or fall-back position based on the Fundamentalist position being so untenable in a scientific age.

As a theist I'm the first to admit, the slogan "God's way" has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

As a theist I’m the first to admit, the slogan “God’s way” has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

The fundamental issue is that I don’t believe that authoritative positions of “absolute certainty” about what “God’s way of doing things” is relative to “man’s way of doing things” are what God had in mind to give us. If he had intended for us to have such a perspective I think he would have arranged the world and the history of man’s religious experiences significantly differently. In contrast with this, though the vulnerability of uncertainty is something that many people come to religion (and to science) hoping to escape from, an essential part of the message of Jesus is that this vulnerability is part of the human condition that God has chosen to share with us, and something which we need to have the courage to embrace and to share with each other.

Before going any further here, let me clarify that I am not attempting here to further demonstrate to non-believers why I consider God to be worth believing in. I would ask those who have serious doubts about that matter to address discussions of their differences of perspective to my various essays here more directly related to that question. I have posted a few such essays in recent months, and I intend to further address that matter in the weeks to come, but this entry addresses a rather different topic. What I wish to talk about here is why, on the working assumption that there is a God, I still believe Fundamentalists such as Ken Ham are fundamentally wrong in their approach to determining what sort of character God is, and what he expects of humans who would hope to please him. The sort of dialog I’m hoping for in response to this particular essay is one with folks who would wish to defend different means of relating to and serving God than what I suggest here; perhaps with those who still cling to one particular form of fundamentalism or another. Fair enough? OK, on we go.

Let me start by taking the discussion back to the times when essentially no one attempted to question the premise that the book of Genesis provided all of the foundational information we need to understand the origins of the universe and mankind’s place in it –– what Fundamentalists would call the “good old days”; what many others would call “The Dark Ages” –– roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries of our calendar. The authoritative Christian hegemony of that era was strong enough so that defensiveness against non-believing perspectives essentially became redundant. Thus the intelligentsia of the age, those who managed to build careers out of finding things to argue about between themselves, were more occupied with questions of what we can know with certainty about God’s nature than with fighting off skeptics as such.

In the later part of that era, following the innovative writings of Thomas Aquinas, one aspect of that project was to attempt to harmonize Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between physics and metaphysics with the Genesis narratives, which effectively gave rise to the creationist dogmas so important to Ham and his followers today. It should be pointed out though that this was actually something of a later adaptation of Islamic thought that Christian intellectuals inadvertently picked up on during the time of the Crusades. It is also fair to say that, advanced as he was for his time 2300-some years ago, Aristotle’s grasp of physics and related matters had some significant failings to it that these days any bright school kid can point out, so his ideas are no longer the best horse to hitch our intellectual wagon to for purposes of harmonizing physics and metaphysics.

The Medieval stuff I’m interested in comes from further back, in the more strictly Christian contemplative traditions that were around before the Thomist system of proofs of God’s existence was developed.

Another disclaimer is in order here by the way: my area of specialty is not medieval philosophy or medieval theology as such. My comprehension of the original Latin these documents were written in is pretty basic and rusty, and my own academic research is focused much more on phenomena within the past couple of centuries. So it wouldn’t take much for someone to outdo me in this particular field. What I can claim is that I know enough about that era to appreciate a bit of the wisdom of those back then who laid the groundwork for how we do philosophy of religion still today, and to spot the BS of those who claim to be representing and defending “eternal truths” which have their roots in this era. But beyond that if someone wishes to correct my understanding of the details involved, or dispute my interpretation of the overall trends in question, I welcome your input. Now back to the subject at hand.

239335To deal with the issue of scriptural certainty we have to take the discussion back at least as far as Peter Abelard. Students find the story of Abelard’s tragic biography and his post-castration love letters to Heloise particularly memorable, but in terms of philosophy he is best remembered for his classic Sic Et Non, where he demonstrates that simply relying on the authority of the scriptures and the sayings of church fathers without stopping to critically analyze what they are talking about is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but inevitably self-defeating in the long run. In this regard attempting to discover the true nature of God through authoritative second-hand accounts is a particularly problematic endeavor.

The authority of scripture on this matter is best regarded in terms of what the church fathers originally called it: the canon –– a measuring rod or a benchmark by which to measure other phenomena, in particular the experiences of God’s presence felt in prayer and worship and in serving his people (and among God’s people the poor in particular). From this perspective, worshiping the Bible itself (or any other holy book) rather than using it as a means of building, enriching and evaluating one’s spiritual experiences and practices, is a particularly bass ackwards way of “doing religion”.

Once this is realized, the seeking pilgrim soon comes to understand that if there is one thing God didn’t tend to provide us with, it’s certainty about matters of faith. Functional certainty is a human goal in terms of which we are continuously attempting to reach the point where they can set aside the troublesome task of actively thinking about things.  We hope to settle questions in our minds so that we can forget about them, relax and devote our energy to other things. That is a worthy goal in engineering for instance –– a well-designed device is one where the user can functionally forget about how it works and just move on to the process of using it without having to think about it. When it comes to theology however, God does not give us such a luxury. We can never get to the point of completely comprehending and mastering the divine essence so that we can then functionally just forget about it, or else it ceases to be divine. If we could capture God in a formula he would no longer be God.

Beyond that, the stated point of Christianity in particular (and to one extent or another other religions as well) is to teach us to love and respect each other. (I trust this is self-evident to all who have studied the matter as far as actually having read through the New Testament at least, but if anyone needs me to proof-text this out for them just write and ask.) To this end, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin points out, uncertainty and vulnerability are essential elements for enabling empathy –– and thereby love –– to function in practice. In this regard I believe that Frank Schaeffer is also entirely right in referring to theological certainty as a “death trap”. Our natural desire to have complete certainty in our understanding of the transcendent, and to dominate one another through some absolute understanding of theological truth, is actually about as opposite to the message of Jesus as any theological concept could be.

The path of searching for peace with God and each other through the words and work of Jesus without pretending to certainty that God never meant us to have –– humbly serving one another rather than using the teachings of the Bible as means of attacking one another –– is one that the Orthodox Church can claim to have followed more consistently than the Western Christian tradition has, but there are plenty of important exceptions to this rule on both sides. Accepting the limits of our knowledge –– even (or perhaps especially) knowledge we claim to have received through infallible revelation –– and living a life proscribed by the humility that this implies, is a tradition that can also be traced as a minority position through the history of Western Theology as well, from the monks who transcribed the writings of the “Desert Fathers,” to the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the meditations of Blaise Pascal, on into the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and those he in turn inspired. Nor can the east/west cross-pollination seen in and brought about by Dostoevsky’s novels be ignored in this context.  Of course those who have wished to use Christian doctrine as a Machiavellian tool for political manipulation have consistently labelled all of these thinkers as heretics, but that’s sort of beside the point. Their influence has been frequently ignored, but never silenced. (For an interesting overview of the subject, have a look here.)

In contrast to this, Ken Ham, representing the Fundamentalist, biblical literalist creationist perspective, claims that we need to have absolute certainty about everything written in the first book of the Bible in particular as having come entirely by God’s special revelation to Moses, or else we lose certainty about all sorts of critical matters like how marriage is supposed to work, what counts as sin, why people die, why nudity is problematic, etc. Because of the need for a sense of certainty in these areas, Ham and his comrades refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any information that contradicts the world view presented in Genesis. From there it becomes a rather transparent process of looking for viable excuses to interpret the data of the material world according to this ideological perspective. Thus the emotional need for certainty and control within a religious framework is at the heart of his argument. The resulting intellectual dishonesty in the process of interpreting the data of natural sciences is merely a by-product of this problematic ideology.

Ham's slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

Ham’s slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

If we turn the priorities of Christendom around from an emphasis on social control to an emphasis on enabling compassion, as many of us believe the priorities should have been all along, the certainty argument goes out the window. Rather than seeking for a justification to stone those who we consider to be less holy than ourselves, we begin seeking for means of gaining acceptance for them, and ourselves, into the sort of club that by rights shouldn’t have people like us as members. Rather than focusing on controlling other people’s sex lives, we begin to focus on preventing people from being sexually abused and sexually objectified, and beyond that on building the sort of caring community that equips people to experience the sort of personal intimacy in which sex finds its greatest expression. Rather than basing medical ethics on abstract concepts of the value of life, we base our medical ethics on showing compassion and communicating to each individual that his or her life is personally important to us.

Pope Francis was not looking for excuses to set aside creationism when he wrote in his epic letter Evangelii Gaudium of “practical relativism” being a greater risk than “doctrinal relativism”. The pontiff is telling his flock that rather than worrying about losing a sense of absolute doctrinal certainty, they should worry more about the sort of relativism where they end up “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” (§ 80) In other words doctrinal absolutes are far less important to the Church in fulfilling its basic mission than believers having an experience of joy in being able to serve as an instrument of God’s mercy for others.

When the priorities of the Church slip from such a foundation, it amounts to what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”, based on carefully cultivated appearances and thus, “not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be,” yet far more dangerous to the mission of the church than any outward moral failures. (§ 93) This takes the twin forms of “gnosticism” and “promethean neopelagianism”: a detached form of religious experience without relevant application in serving others, and a trust on one’s own sense of moral power and religious superiority. “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. […] It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (§ 94)

I am in no way a supporter of any doctrine of papal infallibility, but on these matters Pope Francis comes across as having a far clearer grasp of the essence of the Christian message than Ken Ham does. When we build from that sort of moral foundation described in Evangelii Gaudium motivations for twisting geological and biological data to fit one’s ideological “scriptural” premises are greatly reduced. Our message no longer depends on proving to ourselves that we have the right gnostic code –– the correct system of passwords for getting into heaven and staying out of hell that others need to learn from us in order to have the same hope we do. Nor does it leave us with anything to prove in terms of our having a superior moral code that we can expect everyone else to live up to. Once we reach that point of simply desiring to overcome our selfish barriers to truly loving God and each other certainty about the details of the physical origins of the universe is no longer an emotional issue. If it turns out that the stories in Genesis are based on ancient folk legends which allegorically explain something about how people over 3000 years ago believed that God expected them to relate to each other, nothing about our essential message fails on the basis of such a discovery.

If God’s top priority was for us to keep each other in line in terms of recognizing traditional moral standards as eternal and unchanging, there would be no point in the message of a suffering savior. God would merely have sent a team of angelic messengers with official declarations of the divine will and flaming swords to deal directly with those who resisted their message. There would have been no need to dignify human vulnerability and frailty with God taking on such a form. On the other hand, if God’s top priority were to convince us to treat each other with love and respect regardless of one’s status within various human power struggles, he would have driven this point home for us by himself taking on the form of a humble servant –– sort of like Jesus…

Thus I conclude that the message of Christianity is not about guilt, justice, retribution and forensic certainties; but rather about embracing frailty, experiencing empathy, showing mercy and finding redemption through deep, undeserved interpersonal connection. In order to communicate this sort of message it is not necessary to pretend that we have an absolutely reliable technical understanding of the prehistoric origins of the earth and the universe which must remain impervious to all evidence to the contrary. On the contrary, such an assumption of certainty tends to be rather counter-productive in that it entails a belief that certain people have a God-given right to dictate to others a set of standards regarding every area of life for them to live up to, which in turn goes directly against the Gospel message of humble service.

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering...

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering…

Thus to reject the Creation Museum’s theological premises is not a matter of submitting to the superiority of a non-theistic premise; it is a matter of putting the teachings of Jesus ahead of a lust for power and an emotional need for certainty. I would encourage all who wish to be counted as followers of Jesus to adjust their perspectives accordingly: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15)

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An Open Letter to the Arctic Polar Vortex

Dear Vort,

How have you been? I looked out my window this morning and for the second day in a row the reading on my little thermometer there was south of -20 C, so I said to myself, “Oh, looks like the vortex is back.”

We were looking forward to seeing a bit of you around Christmas time, but then we heard you decided to spend the holidays in America. How did that work out for you? Canada certainly has some beautiful spots to visit. I heard you particularly enjoyed Niagra and Montreal this winter. The Canadians are also on fairly good terms with you overall. They’re good folk.

Niagara Falls WinterFrom what I hear your visit to the US was somewhat more problematic. What can I say? My old countrymen aren’t exactly known for their hospitality to outsiders these days, no matter how white they are. Most of them had never heard of you before, and even after your visit, surprisingly many of them still think you’re a myth. Some there tend to think that as long as they regard the system of biblical interpretation that they’ve been socialized into as absolute fact, that’s as much abstract thinking as they can be expected to carry out. The rest of the more difficult process of understanding the world around them tends to go over their heads. They tend to consider those making such efforts as abstract leftist intellectuals. Go figure.

ARCTIC-WINTER-WEATHER-2013-570Very few realized that your visit was at the invitation of some of the country’s major business interests. Even the more educated ones, vaguely aware of why you decided to do some travelling this winter, seem to have the idea that the Chinese sent you. And all in all, in spite of their bravado and defiance against all natural phenomena like yourself, many of them found themselves entirely helpless to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate your visit. Whatever the case, I’d recommend not going back there any time soon if you can avoid it.

032Over in this part of the world, in the European countries on the Arctic Circle, we’ve sort of got used to having you around. Yes, we too tend to piss and moan about your work here, but even so, you’ve become a significant part of life as we know it, and even if we don’t admit it, we sort of miss you when you’re gone. I mean, pussy willows out at Christmas and New Year’s –– that’s just too strange for Finns and Swedes! Yes, some folks have enjoyed taking a break from having to clean up after you all the time, and those doing the bridge repairs just down the road from my house were able to get their work done much faster without you around; but then there are some folks who have been waiting for you to help them build their ice roads and the like, and it seriously screws up their system when you don’t show up.

002Beyond all that, we’ve come to realize that your work is important, not only in giving us the sort of rhythms we’ve got used to over the years and built our infrastructures around, but in keeping things in balance by holding back the flow of some significant water reserves. Even if they don’t believe in you, it remains true that if those from the U.S. succeed in killing you off, we’re all pretty much screwed. Going down to visit them really doesn’t help; it really only makes them all the more anxious to kill you off. So please, stay home and stay strong.

What else can I say? I’m sort of surprised that after crossing the ocean on your way back you haven’t brought more snow with you, but then again we had plenty of precipitation while we were waiting for you. It doesn’t really help to complain to you about it. Speaking for most of my adopted countrymen here (the Finns) we really just want to say welcome back. Please take it easy on us now, but stay cool.

Yours, DH

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Considering the Fall

 

Last Sunday morning I heard a sermon on Genesis 3 that didn’t really sit right with me.  The preacher was one of those nice, blameless, soft-spoken guys whose integrity no reasonable person would want to question. This wasn’t the first time I found his preaching to be somewhat lacking intellectually, but he has a certain moral standing that I don’t, and he plays a valuable role within his community of faith, so from my personal ethical perspective it would be wrong for me to tear him down for being too simple about his approach to faith. And I don’t mean it in any condescending way when I say that his style of faith is probably the best thing for him –– personally, psychologically, socially, etc. If I were to try to “fix” his approach I’m sure I’d do more harm than good.

But then I hear him preach in his own soft, matter-of-fact way about all our problems in life coming from historical mistakes made by our shared ancestors, how people would have just been so incredibly much more intelligent without the curse that came with the Fall, how the devil tricked humanity into wanting to be like God the same way he did, how gender role differences are based on this historical event, how bloodshed becomes necessary as a means of dealing with guilt… and I wonder, is this really the most constructive perspective to have on Christian life… or on life in general?

Adam_and_Eve_expelled_from_ParadiseTheologically, particularly among Evangelicals, this is the ultimate “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation: Anyone who would dare to question such teaching is considered thoroughly unfit for their job, or for any responsible role within a respectable Christian society. If you start to question or to deny the importance and implications of the Fall of mankind into sin, you are inevitably belittling the extent of your dependence on God’s mercy. You may be setting out on a path of making excuses for your own sinful practices, and you have certainly fallen into the sin of pride, if nothing else. Left unchecked in this error, you could spread the “leaven” of your ways through the whole church, and cause others to enter into all sorts of sin. In the worst case you might cause anarchy to spread through the community by reducing people’s fear of God and respect for the authorities he has placed over them! So anyone who doesn’t see the obvious necessity of believing in the Fall as a literal historical event in order to be a Christian –– and anyone who is uncomfortable with the implications that Biblical literalists draw from this portion of the scriptures –– generally knows enough to stay quiet about it at least.

But it takes more than feeling like a little boy with no reputation to lose to solve this one. Complaining about the implied censorship does not answer the question, how should we look at the story in the third chapter of the Bible? What lessons would someone like me –– not having much of a moral reputation left to defend, but deeply interested in learning to better connect with others and with whatever transcendental realities are out there by way of the Christian tradition –– hope to draw from this portion of scripture?

Let’s back-track a little ways on this. How do we know that these events actually happened? Well, basically the record tells us that about 3500 years ago, give or take a century or two, a guy named Moses became the first literate member of the Hebrew slave community in Egypt, and after he led a successful revolt by way of which these slaves gained their freedom, he put their oral history into writing.

Now there is room to doubt exactly how close the book of Genesis as we have it today, in its original Hebrew language, is to the original writings of Moses on the matter. Some would go as far as to say that Moses is quite likely the same sort of mythical figure as King Arthur: someone made up to fulfil a need for a hero to build national pride around. But let’s set aside those reservations for the time being. Let’s assume for the moment that there really was a Moses who really did put the basic records given in the book of Genesis into writing. How do we know that he got the story straight historically?

It is entirely plausible that the legends of Jacob’s family, the four mothers of his children and the power-struggles between them, could have been accurately passed down from generation to generation to the time of Moses. The further back we go from there though, the more speculative the record becomes. There isn’t any specific record, for instance, of what happened between the breakdown of the unified civilization of all humanity in Babel and Abraham’s family’s move away from Ur, or what caused them to move. If that information was unknown to Moses, there is little reason to believe that he knew anything chronologically prior to that with anything resembling critical certainty, no matter how charitably we view the rest of his writings in historical terms.

So the basis on which Jews and Christians believe the stories in the first ten chapters of Genesis to be historically accurate is an assumption that God revealed to Moses, entirely flawlessly, what had happened in the time before the living memory of his people. Why should we believe that? Why would we suspend disbelief in this improbable sounding narrative being true? Standard answer: because God wanted us to be able to know these things with certainty. That’s why he revealed them to Moses as flawlessly as he did. Yet here comes the irony: The desire to know things with certainty is the precise bait which, in Genesis 3, the serpent used to convince the woman to eat the forbidden fruit. The forbidden fruit was not promiscuous sex, not some form of drug, not violence, but knowledge itself. So the belief that the story of the Fall is unquestionably historically accurate is in itself a form of grasping for the power of knowledge, which is exactly what the story itself is a cautionary tale against doing!

It’s easier for Christians to see the rational flaws in this way of thinking when those of other religions do it. The narratives in the Qur’an are the easiest example to give. Many of the stories there are re-tellings of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, a.k.a. the Old Testament. Yet the details of these stories are in many cases significantly altered, often without any historical or theological reason for changing them. Take, for example, the story of God commanding that the army be reduced in size by checking the manner in which the men drank from a stream. The Bible’s version goes like this:

“But the Lord said to Gideon, ‘There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, “This one shall go with you,” he shall go; but if I say, “This one shall not go with you,” he shall not go.’

So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, ‘Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.’ Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.

The Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.’ So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others.”  (Judges 7:4-8)

The Qur’an, on the other hand, tells the story like this:

“And when Saul went forth with the soldiers, he said, ‘Indeed, Allah will be testing you with a river. So whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever does not taste it is indeed of me, excepting one who takes [from it] in the hollow of his hand.’ But they drank from it, except a [very] few of them. Then when he had crossed it along with those who believed with him, they said, ‘There is no power for us today against Goliath and his soldiers.’ But those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, ‘How many a small company has overcome a large company by permission of Allah. And Allah is with the patient.’ And when they went forth to [face] Goliath and his soldiers, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour upon us patience and plant firmly our feet and give us victory over the disbelieving people.’” (Surah 2:249-250)

Gideon300While it seems obvious from a Jewish or Christian perspective that the Prophet of Islam was retelling a story from the Bible that he heard during his years travelling around the Arabian Peninsula as a camel driver, only in rather mixed up form; the Muslim explanation is that God revealed a perfectly historically accurate version of the events to Muhammed, correcting the corruptions which had crept into the Old Testament version of things. They don’t explain how or why the deeds of Israel’s first king would have come to be attributed to one of their otherwise less important theocratic warlord judges instead, or how or why a victory over the Philistines would have been altered in the historical record to be a victory over the Midianites. To all but dogmatic Muslims themselves the Muslim dogma put forward in this debate sounds like very weak excuses for their prophet’s flawed memory in recalling stories he had heard in his youth as he integrated them into his poetic message about God not allowing the people of ancient Israel to take credit for the military miracles he performed for them. The moral of the story remains entirely the same; it’s just the historical details that are entirely mixed up. Still for the overwhelming majority of believing Muslims it is essential to believe that the information they have received via their scriptures is flawless, as this gives them confidence in their exclusive claims to the power that goes with certain forms of knowledge.

It is easy for Fundamentalist Christians to see this as a problem in Muslim thinking, but not in their own. If Muhammed could get the story of Gideon mixed up and add in his own details that have little to do with the historical account, why couldn’t Moses have done the same? Is there any reason why the “because God says so” argument works better in one case than the other? Just because we don’t have older versions of the story of Adam and Eve to compare Moses’ version with doesn’t mean that his mystical revelation insures that he got all the details historically right there. Rather than faith in the infallibility of the telling of the story, I believe that the important issue is to see what the story is trying to tell us about how we should relate to God and each other.

We still have to bear in mind that this came from a source which justified genocide as a valid form of obedience to God’s will (e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16-17). Therefor there’s no escaping the fact that either a) God has changed over the millennia, b) God is still a bloodthirsty psychopath or c) Moses made some mistakes –– not only in describing pre-history but also in articulating what God desires of mankind. Of these alternatives the third would seem to be the least problematic, especially given what we know about the low priority given to knowledge as such in the story Genesis 3.

So where does that leave us? Why don’t we try re-reading the story from a state of innocence, like we’re hearing it for the first time, knowing that it is a literary classic but not knowing much else about its message or truth-value. If it came up in this sort of way as a reading text in your book club, what would you think?

We start out with a talking snake… which already tells us that we have to suspend our everyday perspective and allow ourselves to enter into a world of magic. Nothing is said about this snake being a devil or anything. It’s just a snake: a particularly crafty animal, at worst perhaps somewhat of a phallic symbol that the woman finds herself attracted to. So the snake starts to wear down the woman’s resistance to the idea of acquiring knowledge in general by testing her knowledge of God’s prohibitions, which amounted to a grand total of one: Don’t eat from that tree right in the middle there. She embellishes the command a bit: Don’t touch. So obviously she doesn’t know much good from evil so yet. Umm… duh!

Eve-and-serpent_christianimagesourceSo the snake then continues with the seduction. He says that the death risk is exaggerated, and that the reward of being autonomous more than makes up for it. The problem is that God sets rules because he’s jealous and insecure. At that point, so the story goes, she notices three things about the forbidden fruit: it’s nutritious, it’s pretty, and it leads to wisdom. Now taken literally that makes little sense. She wouldn’t have been able to say much one way or the other about its nutritional value just by looking, and the path through to wisdom would have been even less obvious. But if we think about this as a feminine contemplation of the pros and cons of gaining an education, it becomes a little less absurd. Looking at the object not as some fruit, but as the process of gaining knowledge… yes, she might see where that knowledge could lead to better physical well-being; yes, that knowledge might have its own aesthetic rewards involved; and yes, that knowledge could lead to the greater benefit beyond itself of attaining wisdom.

Now what the snake didn’t say was that knowledge always involves separation, comparison… the fish-out-of-water thing that I’ve talked about in previous blogs this summer. But that’s adding in a level of interpretation that keeps us from reading the story from a position of innocence. Then again, we’ve arrived at the point in the story where innocence is lost: The woman dives into the learning process, and starts teaching her husband a thing or two as well. The immediate result of the effort to gain power through knowledge: a fear of vulnerability –– they came to see themselves as naked and exposed, and they tried to hide their most vulnerable spots from each other using the comically hopeless measure of sewing fig leaves together.

Then God comes by, just on an afternoon stroll. Now if you had to suspend disbelief to go along with the talking snake, you really have to stretch your imagination to think of God as just this regular guy enjoying his casual afternoon walk in the garden and looking for someone to hang out with and talk to. Had God not really become God yet, in the sense of being the massive power that made the whole universe? Was he not omniscient and omnipresent yet? Anyway, somehow God is just wandering around in the garden looking for Adam to hang out with him like his big buddy, but he’s a bit confused about not finding Adam hanging out there the way he usually is (another strange detail), so God finally gives a yell: “Yo Adam, where ya at?”

Adam comes out of hiding and says, “Sorry, heard you coming and I felt funny about coming out with my bits down there just dangling in the breeze like this.”

To which God says, “Why should that bother you all of a sudden? You’ve been getting into that fruit I told you to stay away from, haven’t you?” Pwned. Then the blame-game starts.

“This woman that you gave me, she made me do it.”

“OK, woman, what have you got to say for yourself?”

“Well, the snake tricked me…”

Next the story tells of God starting to dish out the curses: The snake gets to be face in the dirt for the rest of time, with continuous tension between its head and the feet of humanity. The woman gets to have childbirth in the same pain category as kidney stones, and gets to be told what to do by men all the time. For the man, working life really starts to suck, and things start never going the way we want them to. Briars come up where we’re hoping for grain, and dealing with that is never going to be easy.

So the question is from there is would these things have been otherwise if mankind had never, on account of a female initiative, taken an interest in education? Do these things happen just because our ancestors fundamentally screwed something up by try to get an education? That seems a bit unlikely, in spite of Fundamentalists’ claims to the contrary. More likely is that this goes with a lesser sort of God dishing out these proclamations –– the sort of god who gets confused and pissed about not finding his afternoon drinking buddy at their regular spot –– who decides that he wants people to feel like all of the problems that go with life being what it is are now their fault. This goes together with the line given to God in verse 22: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Who the “us” is there is another interesting question. The natural answer would be that the original story teller here was thinking of God as part of a community of higher beings who resented this pair of “subjects” or “pets” of theirs getting too close to their level. God and his comrades decided that humans needed to be kicked back down the ladder by a few rungs. In other words, according to the ending of the story here, the snake was in fact entirely right in everything he said in verses 4 and 5!

In between there are a few more little details given. First, it’s only after they have received the forbidden fruit of education and been cursed for it that Adam bothers to give his wife a name. Second, God decides to give them animal skins as a more suitable form of clothing than fig leaves. Third, they are driven to the east, with an angel stopping them from going back to where life was better, in the west. You can work out your own theories of why those factors were considered important here.

So where does this story leave us? Like any literary classic it provides us with a bigger collection of metaphors to use in talking about the human condition, but more than that what? One thing that jumps out at me is that Moses, or whoever her borrowed the earliest version of this story from, was prone to being a bit pissed at God every now and again. It sort of goes together with the message of the book of Job:  Sometimes God just doesn’t seem to care, and just because someone is suffering doesn’t mean that they’ve acted dishonestly, rebelliously, hatefully or cruelly towards others; it could just as well be that God was in a capricious mood –– or more charitably, He has his own purposes that we don’t understand.

But rather than playing blame games with some primitive image of God, we can stop to consider the question of what we really want to learn and why. Are we trying to use knowledge as a means of controlling each other and getting to the top of the competitive pile; or are we trying to use knowledge to increase our thriving in non-competitive ways (it being “good for food”), find new ways of appreciating beauty (it being “pleasing to the eye”) and eventually achieve true wisdom (it being “also desirable for gaining wisdom” –– all from Genesis 3:6)? The God I worship is not threatened by my attempts at achieving knowledge for these latter purposes, and I actually consider it to be an act of worship to help others to attain knowledge for the same purposes.

Admittedly it is hard to separate these types of motivation from each other. Perhaps the best litmus test in the matter is to see how ashamed and vulnerable our knowledge makes us feel. The more “fig leaf” cover-up it makes us prone to see as necessary, the greater the potential evil of the knowledge in question. Thus it is particularly important to avoid the sort of “scriptural knowledge” which some use as a means by which to condemn and shame others. I strongly believe that God has kept himself a mystery from us in so many ways specifically to prevent us from having a legitimate claim to divine sanction in our attempts to use our knowledge to overpower each other. I don’t see him as being really insecure about our creeping up to a level where we could be a competitive threat to him, as Genesis 3:22 would imply. The issue is that getting into power struggles and holy wars with each other in order to get that wonderful feeling of being victorious in the end is not part of God’s plan for our lives.

I have probably now succeeded in alienating myself both from those who take the Bible or the Qur’an as the final word in spiritual truth, and from those who believe that the whole idea of a spiritual world is dangerous abstraction developed by silly, fuzzy thinkers. So be it. I do in fact reject both strictly materialistic atheism and all forms of religious fundamentalism. But to the extent that it is up to me, I hope to live at peace with all on either side who would be willing to live at peace with me –– without feeling it necessary to for us to either convert or dispose of each other. My goal –– while carefully avoiding any form of sexual harassment –– is for my learning processes to enable me to be ever more “naked and unashamed” in the sort of way that “Adam and his wife” were before their particular learning processes screwed that up for them. Building that sort of redemptive love and trust indeed requires a bit of a miracle, but that’s a whole different sermon.

Go in peace.

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Filed under Ethics, Religion, Sexism, Skepticism, Spirituality

The Essence of Expertise in Religious Matters

I promised my virtual friend James that this weekend’s blog would be in response to his inquiries about what I consider to be the core issue of expertise in religion in general. More specifically he tells me, “We had a…  conversation about this in the past. At the time you said that some religious authorities might be experts in something different from philosophers — not necessarily metaphysics or ethics.” To be honest about it, I don’t remember the details of that specific conversation, but I don’t question his word that we had such a discussion at some point.

So where should I start with this? How can I present this in a way that is accessible and somewhat interesting to folks other than James and myself, without repeating too much of what I’ve already blogged about this summer?

I suppose I should begin with a few comments about the limits of language in such matters. I was recently reminded of the Frank Zappa quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” There are many different expressions of human creativity and the human experience which have a very imprecise correlation with each other. Put in another way, there are many different sorts of “truth” that we humans can try to express to each other. The western tradition has been justifiably faulted by those of the African, Orthodox Christian, Indian and Oriental traditions for being too preoccupied with what might be called a forensic aspect of truth: what can “be proven in court beyond reasonable doubt” –– or in the words of a blogger of the Orthodox tradition that came up on my feed this week, we are preoccupied with a “flat” or “literalistic” interpretation of truth. This is where we get off on reducing religion to a collection of positions on metaphysics and/or ethics that largely miss the point of what religion is there for. We become so busy with our dance that we fail to see the architecture for what it is.

But here I’m trying to communicate to James and others something of what this other level or dimension of religious reality is all about without just retreating to empty clichés about its “otherness”. Given the limits stated above, the best way I know how to do that is in terms of exploring the concepts of connection and integrity. The point of religion is both to enable us to deepen our sense of connection with essences and realities from beyond our own physical and phenomenal limitations, and to “hold ourselves together” and discover what the meaning and purpose of our individual identities are. In many senses these two purposes can be at odds with each other, and the struggle to balance them with each other creates an on-going dynamic and learning process which (I believe) needs to be the center of the religious life in general, and the Christian experience in particular. Now let’s see if I can unpack that a bit for you.

The great dilemma of philosophy of religion is that the building blocks of epistemology –– the investigation into the question of how we can really know anything –– are based largely on processes of alienation. There is a great truth to the aphorism, “Whoever discovered water was not a fish.” In order to recognize the existence of water as such we need to be aware of something other than water. For a fish to make the discovery that water exists it needs to have the experience of being taken out of that water. Thus much of the process of investigating the basic realities of what makes life what it is for us inevitably involve fish-out-of-water experiences for anyone who really wants to know about such matters.

Beyond that, the process of learning always involves an element of comparison, and comparison involves holding things in separation from each other –– frequently putting them in opposition to each other. Any time, as a teacher, I divide a class into small groups for a review game, I create false borders between those who will end up as the “winners” and the “losers” for that particular exercise. In the pursuit of a greater depth of knowledge this is considered to be a justifiable risk  –– or acceptable collateral damage –– but it also clearly illustrates how our pursuit of knowledge can lead to a reduced sense of harmony and connection with others and with the world around us.

Thus it becomes necessary to have certain professionals within our societies whose job it is to somehow bring the people together again, and to re-establish harmony between neighbors and between mankind and our environments. Those who performs such tasks are very commonly referred to as priests or priestesses; sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.

Yet if in this process of re-establishing harmony the “priest” causes people to doubt or to lose track of what it is that makes each of them unique and valuable –– making everyone think of themselves and each other as indistinct parts of a nebulous mass of being “one with everything” –– he may be doing more harm than good. Like the organs within the human body, recognizing that they are interconnected and mutually dependent does not make any given organ less vital to the whole. Each organ has to have its own integrity for the whole to be able to function. So in addition to bringing people together and building a sense of commonality, another vital part of the religious leader’s job is to help people discover their own distinct value within the whole and to develop a basic set of principles to live by that enable them to “hold themselves together” as individuals on a day-to-day basis.

These processes of discovering and developing an integral personal essence for myself as a person and discovering and developing the forms of connection I have with the people and the world around me are profoundly challenging on-going processes. These are the essence of religious or “spiritual” life. A number of different traditions have developed over the millennia of human experience to guide us in these processes. Some have worked better than others. Arguably the most successful has been the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition, and not just for reasons of historical coincidence. This is not to say that this tradition has reached a state of perfection in any one particular form as many of its various fundamentalists might claim, but that it has provided a variety of very useful means of enabling people to conceptualize their relationships with each other and a greater reality which have led to some particularly successful civilizations, by whatever measure you care to use.

But to look at religion as a means of building materially successful and securely self-perpetuating societies is, from the perspective I am talking about, to put the cart before the horse. This is where the most fundamental difference between what we might call a scientific paradigm and a spiritual paradigm comes in. The scientific perspective could be said to focus on the dynamics of physical forces colliding with each other and struggling against each other to make our world what it is. Gravity, centrifugal force, inertia of various sorts, magnetism and a variety of chemical bonds interact in sometimes more, sometimes less harmonious ways, randomly producing reality as we know it, pretty much by coincidence. To the extent that any of this has any meaning it is a matter of the conflicts between these forces, and their random abstract manifestations in our macro-level experiences, result in victory for some forces and defeat for others. By trying to influence which forces are able to succeed in given situations, and by trying to arrange to be on the “winning side” in as many conflicts as possible, those of a scientific perspective set out to give their life meaning through the dynamics of conflict.

The spiritual paradigm, on the other hand, looks at things from the perspective of love rather than conflict being the most important thing in life. Rather than defining ourselves in terms of what and whom we can overpower, we can define ourselves in terms of what and whom we can connect with most deeply. My meaning is not determined by the extent to which I can prove myself to be one of the fittest for survival, but by having the privilege of interacting with what is most beautiful and magnificent in life, and contributing to this beauty and magnificence for others to experience.

There is no denying the interconnection between these two paradigms. Not only, as stated above, does a sense of connection provide a competitive advantage for some, seen by those who prioritize the scientific perspective as well, but a battle against “the forces of evil” frequently sets the conditions under which spiritual interactions take place. There is very much a yin-yang relationship between the factors of conflict and harmony here: they continuously spin around chasing each other, and at the very center of each is the other. This, however, does not keep them from having very different implications and sets of priorities. Another good virtual friend of mine, Pastor Brian Zahnd, expressed it particularly well in one of his Facebook statuses this week:

“Deep down don’t we at least suspect we are really made for shared relationship and not competitive acquisition?

But we’re thrown into a modern world where identity and purpose are almost entirely based in a ruthless contest for status and stuff. […]

Attempting to yoke God to that kind of agenda is what the Bible calls idolatry. God harnessed as means. The holy reduced to utility. It’s what Abraham left Ur to get away from. It’s what the Spirit call us away from.”

This is not a matter of reducing the religious experience to just “stories, rituals and social needs” as James suggested at one point in our discussions this week. It is a matter of a matter of exchanging our cultural yin for a much deeper yang as the basis for our lives. It is not a matter of more precisely defining the forces in conflict with each other (metaphysics) or finding socially acceptable competitive strategies for ourselves (ethics), but of turning the whole paradigm upside-down.

Let me illustrate what this means to me by telling something of my day-to-day experiences this week and how I define myself in relation to them. On Monday my younger son, Kristian, began his compulsory Finnish military service. While he’s doing his first few weeks of basic training he agreed to loan me his car. This whole phenomenon of our father/son relationship, the significance of compulsory military service within this society, and the symbolic role of the vehicle in question within our social dynamics are all complex issues unto themselves. Let me paint through them with broad brushstrokes by saying that I chose to relate to each of them in terms of the love expressed rather than the competitive factors involved.

Which one looks sort of like me?

Which one looks sort of like me?

At times I have my doubts about how thoroughly my sons realize how important they are to me and how much I love them, in spite of all of the barriers that have come between us over the years. Sometimes I get the feeling that they are “playing me” to get what they can out of me for their own competitive advantages in life, but other than staying honest with each other about such matters there’s no point in dwelling on such negativity.

With regard to the compulsory military service, Kris is not in any way significantly tempted to try to get out of it. While on the one hand it is a matter of being ready to kill those who would try to seize control of his homeland, its more direct meaning for Kris is one of taking part in a form of competitive bonding with his older brother and his peers in terms of proving what he is capable of physically and socially within that context. In many real ways it is far more love than hate which comes out in his motivation for being there.

The car is actually an expression of social identity for Kris as much as it is a practical means of transportation. I haven’t always approved of his motivations to try to gain social acceptance through having the right sort of vehicle, but then again he hasn’t always approved of the particularly ugly but practical vehicles I have driven over the years. (Ten years ago when I was driving him to soccer practices he used to ask me to let him out around the corner from the field so his teammates wouldn’t tease him about my car, literally!) In any case, it is was a significant exercise in trust between us when I loaned him most of the money to buy his current “sporty and cute but practical” set of wheels, and it is a return gesture of love and trust for him to loan me his “baby” for this time when he is otherwise occupied.

My primary interest in having the car was to have the opportunity to visit with one of my dearest friends in the world: my old spaniel, Mac. When I left for my year in South Africa I gave Mac up to a new family which lives down the Finnish coast a ways from the capital region. In many ways this was painful for me, but in all respects it has turned out to be a perfect fit for Mac. He has now lived with his new family for a full 2 years, and while there is still a bond between my furry friend and I, he clearly loves his new home and the whole family clearly loves him. Getting to visit with him this week, for the fourth time since my return from Africa, was a much anticipated treat. I would almost call it a spiritual experience in itself.

July w 021In one sense a dog can be considered as basic “property” but that’s not really how it works. I fully identify with the prayer, “God, help me to be half as good a man as my dog thinks I am.” It’s not a matter of having a status symbol I can be proud of, but a matter of having a personal connection with a loyal friend that helped keep my sane for many years. Following up on that connection with personal visits continues to have its own therapeutic value for me, but that’s not all there is to it. There really isn’t any other adequate expression for it than “sharing the love”.

I’ve tried to make it perfectly clear to Mac’s new family that I’m deeply grateful to them for the way that they’ve enabled him to thrive in his new home, and I would not consider trying to take him back for my own selfish therapeutic needs. Borrowing him for the afternoon once in a while, when it fits together with their agenda, is something I deeply appreciate though. In fact I consider my life to be that much richer for this family’s friendship based on our mutual appreciation of our four-legged friend.

July w 039Anyway, as I was leaving on that trip, since the radio antenna is broken off on my son’s car, I got out a old collection of CDs from his trunk that I forgot I had loaned to him, and I chose Stevie Wonders “Conversation Peace”. This wasn’t a big hit album for him, since it admittedly ranges from rather preachy to rather sappy in places, but along the trip I was still struck by the extent to which Stevie “gets it” spiritually:  Love, in many different senses of the word actually, is our best chance of overcoming the greed and corruption which plagues our societies. This ranges from appreciating the sensuous whispers of an intimate partner to feeling a new lease on life based on fresh human contacts, to taking a stand against the senseless violence caused by the ridiculously competitive and unregulated handgun market in the United States, to having a capacity for repentance when we cause pain for others, to very overt songs of prayer and worship. If you want to understand what the basic message of Christianity means to me personally you could do much worse than giving this album a listen.

The challenge of balancing these factors of connection and self-respecting integrity is no easy matter. The sheer difficulty of the challenge involved has led many who have found functional systems along these lines to jump to the conclusion that their particular tradition represents the only right way of thinking about such things. It would also be fair to say, however, that many of the followers of the scientific paradigm have fallen prey to the same fundamentalist impulse at times. A philosophical perspective, which theoretically doesn’t take sides in this matter, sees both forms of belief in the absolute finality of their own truths as equally problematic. This is why, as Bertrand Russell noted, philosophy is subject to attack from both scientists and theologians much of the time. Yet both scientists and theologians –– both those focused on discovering the dynamics of material conflict and those interested in developing a capacity for transcendent love –– inevitably and reluctantly go through processes of learning from their own mistakes. To characterize either paradigm according to the behavior of its fundamentalists is equally objectionable. To say that those of either paradigm are more or less capable of admitting their mistakes and learning from them is blatantly prejudiced and untrue.

But of course I have my own biases here. As a proponent of what I have labelled as the spiritual paradigm, in spite of the argumentative tendencies that I continue to recognize within myself, I prefer increased connection to perpetual conflict –– I am honestly more interested in building friendships than winning arguments as my primary goal in life. I recognize, however, that there are those for whom having the experience of intellectual power is more important than searching for meaning in life beyond our competitive urges. And yes, I do realize that some of the nastiest competitors in such manners use religious dogmas as their primary weapons in the fight. Thus, even if this were a perfect statement of my position (which I am quite sure it is not) the debate could never end here. Thus the best I can hope for is that those on the other sides are willing to compromise to the extent of introducing a bit of mutual respect into the ideological struggle. If that level of compromise with a spirit of harmony is too much for them… so be it.

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Filed under Ethics, Love, Materialism, Philosophy, Religion, Skepticism, Tolerance

To my Non-believing Friends

Believe it or not, I used to hang out with a bunch of people who were actually proud to call themselves Fundamentalists. Some of them were even pretty nice people; they just got a bit narrow-minded on issues that were of emotional importance to them. These days fundamentalisms are my pet peeve, in my roles both as a teacher and as an amateur diplomat between folks of differing convictions. It seriously bothers me when someone starts to insist that they have a (literally or figuratively) God-given monopoly on “proper understanding” of some significant aspect of metaphysics or the human experience, and that everyone who doesn’t see it their way must be either ignorant or stupid or evil or self-deceived. And yes, I see this among both religious believers and zealous anti-believers.

More times than not this “proper understanding” comes by way of a collection of authoritative statements made by some great leader or council on the matter, and this set of “scriptures” serves the function of saying to the followers, “Look, we know that these are difficult for you, so we took the time to sort them out for you properly. So now you no longer have to worry your little heads about them. Just trust our basic perspective and everything else will be fine.”  That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. We all need to rely on trusted advice every now and again, and we all need to just functionally accept certain things we are told as true in everyday life. There are many areas in which continuous argument over basic issues can be counter-productive. The problem comes when these ideas become so emotionally charged as “final truths” that any serious questioning of them is taken as a form of blasphemy.

Let’s take a non-religious example of a socially accepted majority understanding that could still be subject to some dispute: DUI. A few generations of experience with motor vehicles have given people in industrialized countries in general an awareness that consuming significant amounts of alcohol before operating such machines is generally a very bad idea. Thus almost all cultures having automobiles also have laws against driving them while drunk. What counts as a “significant amount” varies somewhat from culture to culture, as do the means of determining when someone is guilty of violating this prohibition, but the basic principle is well established. The particular local and national laws enforcing this restriction are not subject to debate, particularly in the practical case where someone is trying to decide whether or not to drive home after having a few at a party (even though inevitably such debates do happen). Rather than arguing about it, it is by far the simplest and most socially beneficial approach to say, “If you drink, don’t drive; if you drive, don’t drink.”

It’s worth explaining the rational arguments behind this to those who are genuinely unaware of how alcohol affects the central nervous system, and how that can lead to unnecessary risks and even death for intoxicated drivers and those on the roads they drive on.  But there will always be those skeptics for whom rational argument won’t work, who consider themselves physiologically exceptional. Once the general principle has been established, sometimes compliance –– if not agreement –– needs to be forcibly required.  For this we have police patrols.

A separate matter, however, is whether those who don’t believe in the dangers of drunk driving can be punished for speaking about their beliefs. Should their heretical views on this matter be punished? Are they endangering the lives of others with their claims that drinking and driving should be more socially acceptable, even if they are not actively driving under the influence themselves? Or for that matter what if someone is honestly able to prove –– in driving competitions or any other scientific test that you care to put them through –– that they still have better reflexes behind the wheel after 5 or 6 shots of booze than any competitor with less than 5 years’ driving experience does cold sober? Does that justify their ignoring the laws in the matter? And what if we were in some place where there actually weren’t any laws in force regarding the matter –– if we only had our awareness of how these things work, but no higher standard to appeal to? How emotional should we allow ourselves to get about such arguments? How angry could non-believers in the dangers of drunk driving get in return? How far should we go in trying to prove to the world that the other side is entirely wrong?

Obviously there’s room for disagreement between intelligent people on what the most productive approach to such disagreements might be. My suggestions:

  1. Stay as close as possible to the demonstrable facts of the matter (things that both sides can actually agree on and practically check up on if necessary).
  2. Keep honest communication open over what is practically at stake in the disagreement (in the DUI example primarily danger to life, limb and property vs. potential loss of stimulation and liberty to seek adventure in life) and over which side it would be better to ere on in cases involving less than perfect certainty.
  3. As much as possible avoid demonizing the other side and making the argument deeply personal. Assume sincerity and basic human virtues on the other side whenever possible.

Now, can we try to take these principles over to debates between religious people and atheists? I would like to hope so.

I have posted at length in previous blogs about both why I personally chose to believe in God and how I would ideally like to see religions function. I won’t go back over that territory here. What I’d rather like to do is to pursue a mutual understanding with my religiously non-believing friends over definitions of terms and principles of good taste in discussing these matters in what we might call a philosophical manner.  As a reference point for the views of “the other side” on this I’ll be addressing myself to “QualiaSoup’s” on-line video presentation on the matter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sNDZb0KtJDk, but presented in such a way as to make sense to readers who haven’t taken the time to watch the video in question.

The first matter to clarify here is the basic use of the word “belief.” There is a certain common tendency in everyday language to use the phrase “I believe so” to imply equivocation about the final certainty of the matter in question. If I were to say that I believe Portugal will be the next FIFA world champions in soccer, as bizarre as the statement might sound to someone who’s watched Ronaldo’s ice cold performances this week, I could in good faith get away with saying so, because of all of the uncertainty implied in saying it that way.  In the world of sports, so long as it is not controlled by bookies, no one really knows what the results of coming years’ competitions will be. I’m not really sure; I just believe so. Atheists tend to assume that this same level of uncertainty is built into religious belief, and that this contrasts with their own perspectives, which are less “belief-based”.

The problem here is that this equivocates from the more philosophical use of the word belief, based on the use of the ancient Greek word “pistis” or “pisteuo”. Quite the contrary to the everyday use of the term given above, belief in this sense is a very foundational trust, of the sort you put in a rope bridge when you step out onto it to cross a canyon. It is something that you are convinced of enough to stake your basic personal security on the matter. In this regard what you know is a sub-category of what you believe –– specifically those beliefs that that you have “valid evidence” for and that in the long run turns out to be true. So if we stick to this sense of the word “belief” or “believe”, it follows that if you know something you also believe it, and you need to believe things in able to know them. To claim you have no beliefs thus logically implies that you have no knowledge either.

This in turn relates to the question of whether those who claim to be uncommitted as to whether or not there is any supernatural force “out there” worthy of being called God should be called “weak atheists” or “agnostics”. The argument here is essentially that agnosticism refers to a lack of what the Greeks called “gnosis”: knowledge, not “pistis”: faith or belief. To say that these are unrelated, however, is a bit of a misrepresentation of the terminology, since pistis is a fundamental precondition for gnosis.

The point of the term “agnostic” is not to say that one reserves the right to have beliefs regardless of their lack of justifiability, but rather to say that one isn’t going to take a stand one way or the other with regard to the issue of a supernatural world. Someone who takes a stand for the existence of a supernatural world can properly be called a theist of some sort (including monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, etc.) or a deist under some circumstances. Someone who wishes to take a stand against various understandings of the supernatural –– to whom it is important that the implications of such ideas of the supernatural would be excluded from life as he or she knows it –– who is willing to stake his or her sense of safety, purpose and well-being on a premise that no such supernatural force is going to involve itself in his or her life –– is an atheist. That is a form of belief, and as long as the atheist does not take “belief” to be a term of derision –– to imply the sort of uncertainty I have towards Portugal’s soccer success –– there really shouldn’t be any problem with that.

If someone objects to “agnostic” being used as a description for a lack of faith in the supernatural, the implication is that just because a person lacks knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean that they lack beliefs, so agnostic might be too broad a category. They don’t want to be called agnostics because they don’t want to be grouped together with those who have beliefs one way or another, but who still lack confidence in their ability to justify their beliefs. Thus they might want to use “atheist” to imply a lack of supernatural belief, not just a lack of certainty about their beliefs.  In other words they are trying to re-define atheism as inclusive of hyper-agnosticism: total cluelessness in religious matters –– not only can they not prove their theories; they don’t have any idea as to what might or might not be out there. If that’s what they mean though, then it would make more linguistic sense to just call themselves “hyper-agnostics” –– or to coin a term literally meaning to be “against belief,” they could call themselves “apistics.”

To refer to oneself as an atheist really does imply opposition to some particular collection of theistic ideas, however broadly that concept is to be applied in the given case. It does apply an active metaphysical stance, and when you have an active metaphysical stance –– even in the negative –– you have a form of pistis. If, on the other hand, the atheist is effectively saying, “Oh, I have knowledge. I just don’t have any beliefs,” all that means is that they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

From there it does go with the territory to note that negative beliefs inherently involve negating something more specific. Since I am posting this on what the US celebrates as Father’s Day I’ll use that as an example: if I were to categorize people in terms of those who believe that fathers are important in child rearing, those who believe that fathers are not important in child rearing and those who refuse to take a general stand for or against the institution of fatherhood, both those on both the positive side and those on the negative side would be rather likely to have some childhood experiences regarding particular father figures which strongly color their views. If nothing else on the negative side this could be a conspicuously absent biological father, without whom they may feel that they did just fine. In this sort of sense opposition really does imply the existence of a mental construct of some sort to be in opposition to. So when someone is convinced that they should stand in opposition to theism –– that in everyday language they are justified in saying, “I don’t believe in God” –– it is not at all a silly question to ask, “Which God is it that you don’t believe in?” The video linked above really ties itself up in knots in attempting to deny this fact.

The narrator there makes the statement: “I worked out as a child that if there were any gods none of them were bothered about using  their supposedly awesome powers to provide direct dramatic evidence of their existence.”

Again, I won’t take this space to explain again why I do take the idea of a supernatural world seriously, since those who are interested in my personal take on the matter can find it in my previous essays here, and since I really don’t think that anything I might say to convinced opponents of the supernatural here would make any real difference to those of the opposing camp. But in reading between the lines of the above quote, it seems to very much have to do with early experiences of prayers not being answered, be they his own or someone else’s. So in other words there was some very specific god or gods which as a child he decided not to trust or believe in, and a generalized rejection of the supernatural seems to have spread in his mind from there. I admit that I don’t know this person well enough to make a conclusive psycho-analytical statement, but based on the data given this is a highly plausible analysis –– certainly at least as plausible as any of his analysis of theistic thought. For him to in turn to accuse those who point out such psychological considerations of “convoluted thinking,” as this video does in its own crude way, is thus a bit of a swing and a miss.

It’s also a bit of a swing and a miss for this representative of atheism to claim that the biblical God is “multiply self-refuting” of the basis of him “needing worship”. Nowhere in the Bible is that listed as a “need” of God’s, nor is it even implied in mainstream Christian theology. To present that as evidence against the concept of God is a classic example of the “man of straw fallacy,” and I would encourage those on both sides to avoid such tactics. If the claim that the biblical God is self-refuting is to be advanced here it will need stronger evidence than that.

Overstated condemnation of the other side’s views is frequently combined with overly optimistic summaries of the virtues of one’s own group’s thinking. The summary of atheistic thought, as opposed to theistic thought, implying that it has a “scientific” base, and that as such the point of its theories is “not to convince people that they are true, but to account for available data with the model which has the greatest explanatory and predictive power” is a case in point. Thomas Kuhn’s work has adequately proven that this has never been the case in science –– converting skeptics has always been part of the “scientific community’s” enterprise. A fortiori, a “faith-neutral” perspective has never been the case among those promoting (or defending) atheism as such.

The video closes with a defense of atheists’ defensiveness based on the abuse and religious intolerance that they have been subjected to over the years. In some regards this brings up a legitimate point: There is a strong human tendency to seek ideological consensus and to eliminate ideological difference within societies. Historically speaking the vast majority of human societies have reinforced such ideological homogeneity by religious means –– brutally punishing and torturing anyone who dares to believe differently from their official state or tribal religion. This happened to Jews in particular within state church dominated countries in Europe up through the time of the enlightenment; it happened to doubters of the word of the Sangoma in pre-colonial African cultures; it happened to those who challenged the official state ideology and personality cult for the leader in Maoist China, the Stalinist Soviet Union and the last three generations of North Korean leadership; and it continues to happen to various sorts of “infidels” in would-be Islamic theocracies around the Middle East today. In each of those cases persecution has given rise to an ideological cult of respect for martyrs. In the case of atheists within Western societies there is the legend of men such as Galileo attempting to stand up for secular reason against the authoritative dogma of the Catholic Church, and suffering for it; and then there is the evil figure of Machiavelli, suggesting that the only ideological and religious persuasion which should never be trusted (and should always be punished) is atheism, since not believing that they are ultimately responsible to any force beyond themselves makes these people inherently dangerous to the state. So does this history of facing opposition explain and/or justify the zeal and confrontational character of some atheists we see in the media these days? In my opinion, yes and no.

What this tendency towards the persecution of atheists does show is two things really. First of all it is clearly more the rule than the exception for societies to be religious, and thus on the issue of “burden of proof” towards breaking with the starting position or the status quo, it falls to atheists to prove that societies can operate in a healthier fashion without their religious underpinning. This in turn involves proving that their fundamental premises in this regard are false. Beyond that though, it shows that when it comes to individual men of conscience standing up against abuses within societies, it is the courage of the individual to defy the collective that is at the moral heart of the matter; not whether that individual (or that society) has a religious or non-religious motivation for the moral principles in question.  Both love and compassion on the one hand and fear and violence on the other can be motivated by religious conviction or by an atheistic self-centered orientation.

All that being said, there are a few things which this atheist presenter and I might agree upon. There are clearly abuses which take place in the name of various understandings of God. There is a fair amount of problematic black and white thinking that religious people are prone to. There are very personalized attempts at demonizing the other going both ways in these sorts of debates. Thus the challenge of establishing a respectful dialog here is never going to be easy.

Among both atheists and theists of all stripes, one of the on-going challenges will continue to be what some call the Dunning-Kruger effect: The principle that the less competent a person is to express an opinion on these matters, the more confident they will be in doing so.  Or as Bertrand Russell put it, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” This happens among both atheists and theists. If it happens that one side or the other has a higher concentration of cocksure idiots in any given society it will have to do with which position is overall more socially acceptable, thus requiring less thought to subscribe thereto, not which position is inherently more sensible.

As with drinking and driving, there are some things about a dogmatic atheism that I consider to be potentially quite dangerous –– particularly among those who sincerely believe that “without God all things are permissible” and that it is part of the natural order of things from there for the strong to pitilessly dominate the weak. But just as I reserve the right not to be painted with the same theistic brush as Spanish Inquisitors and Muslim terrorists, I am willing to allow my atheist friends to disassociate themselves from the more sociopathic elements within their movement. I still believe that among intelligent people who do not consider their own perspective to be the final word on the matter there is room for debate and improved mutual understanding and cooperation in relation to these questions, even in the twenty-first century.

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The Rapture for Dummies

My timing and rhythm with these blogs has been pretty bad lately. I’ve sort of set myself the task of writing one each weekend, but then lately I’ve missed some here and there or published mid-week instead. If I had been hired to write these for a periodical or something, I probably would have been fired by now. But my bad timing on this is nothing compared to that of people who keep predicting “the Rapture”.

This past week, as an American and religious education teacher in a Finnish public school, I’ve been repeatedly asked by students, “What is the Rapture?” Nor are my current students the only ones wondering about such things. What is all the strange fuss about among these American radical Christians? Is the end of the world supposed to be coming or something? Then some of my students have also seen one of my former acquaintances and “Facebook friends” joining into the chorus of apocalyptic predictions (admittedly without any  May references) giving rise to even more of these questions. Thus I should probably take this time to do some ‘splainin’ here.

I should also insert a basic disclaimer first: what I have to say is based on my own experience of, and readings about, a wide variety of conservative (and not so conservative) Christian movements over the years. I have figuratively had one foot in and one foot out of many of these (I seem to have lots of figurative feet!), but I have no particularly strong alliances with or rights to speak for any of them. Take it for what it’s worth, and if you want to make sure you have the details of their positions straight turn to these groups’ more official messengers. This is just an overview for those who are trying to get some basic handle on what the hell such folks are talking about; and perhaps a bit of helpful perspective for others who, like myself, have seen a lot of Rapture predictions come and go over the years.

The starting point for all this is the fact that Christianity began as a radical, viciously persecuted, underground religion. Nobody liked these “little messiahs” (the literal meaning of the etymological root term for “Christians”) with their weird secret rituals, unorthodox perspectives on the Jewish scriptures and complete lack of political loyalties. The first historical reference that we have to Christians by a non-Christian was from Pliny the Younger, who was asking the emperor Trajan how aggressively he was supposed to be hunting them down. His basic take on Christians was that they seemed to be utterly insane, but basically harmless. That leaves an open question with no solid documentary evidence to answer it as to why they were being hunted down in the first place. But whatever the case, “Christian hunting” remained one of the major pastimes of Roman governors for the next couple of centuries thereafter, hardening the idea of a battle between good and evil, and expectation of divine intervention and deliverance into the basic Christian psyche.

An important part of these early Christians’ understanding of “spiritual warfare” was based on a book that Jews take as general fantasy literature, but Christians consider to be prophetic: the book of Daniel. Daniel is all about the experiences of the Jews as the colonial vassals of the Persian Empire, with Zoroastrianism as their state religion. That religion is all about the battle between spiritual forces loyal to the creator of the universe and forces which have rebelled against the creator; so it seems to be more than coincidence that, after some exposure to Zoroastrian religious influences, Daniel began to write about an awesome battle between supernatural forces of good and supernatural forces of evil as applied to Judaism.

This added a whole new dimension to Jewish mysticism. No longer was their religion merely saying, “We screwed up and we’re being punished, but if we get our act together God will help us out and put things right for us.” Now there was an added element of, “the Devil is trying to stop us from realizing God’s plan for our nation, and for all humanity, but if we join God’s forces in fighting against this cosmic enemy, victory will eventually be ours.” That theme from Daniel was eventually picked up and expanded upon in the last book of the Christian canon: Revelation, the mother of all end-of-the-world tales.

Meanwhile, however, there was the issue of Jesus’ disappearance to take into consideration. A few days after he was brutally tortured to death by the Romans, in a way that left no room for credibly believing that he lapsed into a coma and later recovered, no one could find Jesus’ body. From there many started to claim that they had seen him alive again, but in a form where, even though he could eat normal food and stuff, he could also walk through walls like a ghost. Then after a month and a half of theses kinds of sightings a bunch of his followers said that they had gone up onto a hilltop with him and watched him levitate up into heaven, after which a couple of angels told them, “He’ll be back later. Get busy.” Then another week and a half after that they experienced the mass euphoria of the “Holy Spirit coming,”  and all heaven broke loose.

Diplomacy was never these early Christians’  strong suit, and they soon made a lot of powerful enemies and started getting themselves killed even. But whenever things got really tough for them, they would tell each other, “Don’t worry. He’ll be back soon enough, and when he does come those bastards will be sorry for what they did to us!” That sort of hope and expectation gave them an incredible level of power and confidence to face those who were hunting them.

With this sort of expectation that Jesus would be coming back again, after which they would see a climactic kick-ass showdown between Good and Evil, Christian traditions regarding the apocalypse developed in a number of interesting ways. One particular part of the New Testament which is often referred to as part of this debate is St. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Here in particular, Paul wrote about Christians’ sufferings for their faith being part of a battle between Jesus’ army and Satan’s. He made it perfectly clear that he expected to see Jesus’ return within his lifetime, to give the bad guys what they had coming, but he also wanted to comfort the Thessalonians about those who have died already,  in disappointment at not seeing Jesus come back within their lifetimes. “Don’t worry,” he says, “Jesus will come get those of his believers who have died first, so they’ll be get the front row seats to in heaven to watch this final battle. Then after that he’ll come back to get the rest of us who are still alive at that point” (I Th. 4:13-17, Huisjen paraphrased edition).

But then after that apparently someone was spreading rumors and forging letters in Paul’s name saying that Jesus had in fact returned already, sorry you missed it. So in his second letter to this church Paul tells them not to believe such crap. He makes some veiled references to some secret information he gave them in person about who the real bad guys were and tells them that the wheels leading to the final showdown and the end of history were already in motion. He goes on to tell them evil was already on the rise, but it would have to raise its head just a bit higher before Jesus could come and lop it off. Don’t worry though, he insists, our deliverance is coming real soon.

Paul was part of the late first generation or early second generation of those who ended up dying in disappointment over not being able to witness Jesus’ return to Earth. There have been many more since. And in spite of the fact that things didn’t entirely go down as Paul expected, his words to the Thessalonians –– together with those of old Daniel, “John, the revelator”, the Muslim prophet Muhammed (yes, Muhammed, who had one Christian wife, also talked expectantly about the second coming of Jesus) and Nostradamus –– have been continuously analyzed by various sorts of believers as key to deciding what kind of apocalypse to expect. The essential elements in all of these messages are that A) the world is getting more and more evil all the time, B) eventually the forces of evil will get so strong that God will have to send Jesus back, together with an army of angels, to deal with them, C) this final showdown will be a literal blood bath, and D) after that there will be a long period in which the good guys will be in charge, until the final end of human history, another 1000 years or so later.

One thing that those who take these predictions seriously disagree with each other about, however, is whether or not believers will be involved in that final battle between good and evil. Many interpret the book of I Thessalonians as saying that since this is a matter of God’s judgment on mankind’s evil, and since believers have had their own evil deeds entirely forgiven already, it only makes sense that God would take all of Jesus’ followers out of the picture before this final blast of excrement hits the rotary aerating device. This is known as the “Pre-tribulation Rapture” theory. It has a long history of making people say and do stupid things.

One of the most famous and embarrassing cases of rapture anticipation came in the northeast US in the 1840s. They were called the Millerites. William Miller, a Baptist minister from New York state, calculated that Jesus would be coming to take all of his followers out of the world by the 21st of March in 1844. When that one missed he tried again for a lunar month later: April 18th. After that miss it was actually a colleague of his, Samuel Snow, who made a third try at predicting the Rapture for that year: on October 22nd. For those silly enough to get their hopes up on that October day this became known as “The Great Disappointment”. An appropriate name, don’t you think?

Out of the Millerites came a group of Christians that later became known as the Adventists. They basically calmed down about making predictions about the coming of the Rapture and focused on other radical forms ways of living out their faith, like swearing off all meat and caffeine consumption, or moving the Christian weekly worship day back to Saturday. Other groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, took over the Rapture predicting racket. Yet out of this Adventist branch of Christianity we’ve had such phenomena over the years as the “Branch Davidian” movement, with their famous show-down with the FBI in Waco, Texas.

My personal associations with Rapture predictors came about in the mid-1970s, when I was in my early teens. The basic theory among those inclined to look for the climax of history at that time was that the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 related to a coded prophecy given by Jesus in Matthew 24:32. As he was talking about the end of the world and all that there, Jesus said, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” That fig tree was seen as an obvious reference to the people of Israel, and its leaves coming out must be in reference to them forming a nation again. So that would mean that all the rest of the stuff Jesus was talking about in the chapter must be right around the corner. And sure enough, two verses later Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Since Jesus’ own generation passed away without all those things happening, he must have been talking about the generation in which “the fig tree” would “put out its leaves.”

OK, so how long is a generation? Well, since the Israelites got lost between Egypt and their promised land for 40 years as God’s means of disposing of an unworthy generation, a Biblical generation must be 40 years. So within 40 years of 1948 all the stuff talked about in Matthew 24 should be over and done with. That would include a 7 year period of hell breaking lose that believers aren’t destined to experience, so that would mean that Jesus would be destined to come and take all of his people out of the world by 1981.

Embarrassing as such beliefs are in retrospect, that was what the majority of the people in the church my family was going to at the time believed was about to happen. At the time this was a rather depressing thought for me. I mean heaven was supposed to be cool and all, but I was afraid that I’d never get a chance to get married and have kids and all that, because the end of the world would be coming too soon. But eventually I realized that such speculations were just that, and really nothing to be afraid of. By the time 1982 rolled around and life continued on as normal, I really wasn’t all that surprised. I did become rather cynical about immanent rapture predictions after that though, and these days the most I can muster for such forecasts is a half-hearted pity smile.

I remember in the mid-eighties getting into a ridiculously heated argument with one guy who still insisted that expecting Jesus’ Second Coming within our lifetime should be taken as an essential article of Christian faith. After I shot down all of his major arguments on the matter, his final tack was to challenge the orthodoxy of my faith by saying, “So I suppose that you think I Thessalonians 4 and 5 don’t belong in the Bible.”

“On the contrary,” I replied, “I think that portion is as relevant now as it was when Paul first wrote it.” Now having a bit more than twice as much life experience as I did then, I would no longer bother arguing about it with such an individual, but I still hold to the same sort of belief I had then: I still believe that some day life on Earth will come to an end, and when it does good will triumph over evil. I still believe that having the assurance that our team is destined to win is vitally important for getting through tough times. And I still believe that expecting Jesus’ immanent return to get us out of all the crap we keep getting ourselves into is a rather foolish form of faith for people to keep subscribing to.

The word “rapture” literally means to be raised or lifted out of oneself by divine power. When it’s not being used by religious nuts to talk about their expectations of escaping from history’s final battle though, these days it refers to something very much like ecstasy. “He sat in a state of rapture as he poured over each line of the long-awaited letter from his sweetheart.” That’s really the only kind of rapture I’m anticipating these days: the thrill of enjoying peak moments in life as a gift from God. Even that sort of rapture isn’t a sure thing: Obviously many horrible things have happened to many wonderful people over the years; and obviously, if this life is really all there is, cosmic justice is a pretty screwed up thing to believe in. But even so, hoping for small favors from God in the form of rapturous moments here and there that make life worth living still makes a lot more sense than hoping for Jesus to come and stomp on my enemies right away.

Last week’s predictions that the Rapture was to happen on Saturday then didn’t really even spark my curiosity. If I had seen it as even remotely likely to happen I wouldn’t have paid that parking ticket. If Jesus were to return this year or next I wouldn’t be particularly afraid to face his critique of my life, but nor am I in any big hurry to see him bring everything to an end either. Such an idea may have a lot of appeal to self-righteous, Obama-hating baby boomers; but it would be a bit of a disappointment to my young adult sons, both of whom would like to be fathers themselves some day. But all things considered, I very much doubt that the Second Coming will prevent the boys from getting their chance.

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Filed under Priorities, Religion, Skepticism, Time

Spiritual Sense

One of the major challenges for philosophical thinkers is to determine whether or not religious thinking is worth bothering with. At the same time, one of the major challenges for religious thinkers is to determine whether or not philosophical thinking is worth bothering with. Given their debt to each other in terms of the historical and substantive development of each, it is hard to say which dilemma is more ironic. Needless to say, for those who know me, by education and by inclination I am inclined to see a certain value in both, and part of my personal sense of purpose in life involves building a sense of mutual respect between those in each field, whether or not those on either side can be convinced to delve into the other’s area of interest.

The history of the relationship between philosophy and religious thought is rather complex, to say at the least. There are a number of open questions as to when the former properly began and where exactly the line can be drawn between the two. Are Confucius and Lao Tse, for example, better classified as religious thinkers or ancient Chinese philosophers? It could be argued that the less a particular form of thought relied on purely physical explanations for how everything works in its search for the ultimate truths about the origins and meanings of life, the universe and all that, the more likely it was to later be qualified as a religion rather than a philosophy. The rigor of the investigation involved, the level of submission to accepted authority structures and presumed supernatural powers and the assumptions of final justice occurring in the after-life have all been secondary considerations in drawing the border between these fields. In the end, as the Finnish idiom says, it is a line drawn in the water.

For some philosophical thinking is what they do when religious thinking fails to satisfy them; when they see that their prayers have not been answered in a way that makes it worth praying, or when they see that the answers offered by their priests, imams, rabbis and gurus don’t really help in their processes of trying to make sense of life as they experience it. Thus they start looking for less religious and more rationally defensible answers to the basic causes and effects they witness. From a religious viewpoint though, that is lazy thinking. It is setting aside the great quest for meaning, purpose and value in life. It is a refusal to think through the really challenging and yet really important matters of what we should ultimately give a damn about and why.

For some religious thinking is what people do when their rational, scientific perspectives fail them. This is sometimes referred to as “the God of the gaps”. When we come up against something too grand and too mysterious to get our head around, that sense of mystery and awe makes us feel religious. We then invent supernatural explanations for what cannot be naturally explained (yet). Thus religious thinking becomes an excuse to stop thinking through the really difficult questions we are faced with about where everything comes from and how it actually works.

In all fairness there are plenty of anecdotal justifications for both of the above perspectives, but there is also an element of unfairness in the reciprocal accusations of lazy thinking. There are many sincere seekers for truth who have diligently applied a considerable level of intellectual talent to looking for answers that apply to their own field and that still relate to the opposite one. There are philosophers who do focus on how we can find meaning and purpose in life –– questions religious thinkers specialize in –– without turning to supernatural explanations. In all fairness none of them have been particularly successful in developing anything that stirs the heart of mankind and ultimately satisfies our need for meaning, but there have been sincere efforts make and plausible answers put forward. Likewise when it comes to religious, non-material explanations of how the universe functions, it’s not all about random superstitious practices and beliefs. Within religion there are many aspects of profound investigation into the human condition and the ever changing circumstances that we find ourselves in, relying far more on honest consideration of empirical and phenomenological data than on ancient dogma. In all fairness they have yet to find a workable system for insuring even national peace, freedom and tranquility in practice –– and compared to medical science, the health benefits they have been able to achieve are quite modest at best –– but there have been sincere efforts, and practical suggestions put forward by religious thinkers that are of use to non-believers as well.

But beyond rejecting the stereotypes about lazy thinking, there are is the matter of labeling each other as dangerous or harmful. Here the anecdotal evidence of abuse on both sides carries more weight. It is hard do deny the damage done in inquisitions and “holy wars”, or the evil of some regimes based on “scientific thinking” such as Nazism or Stalinism. Of course those on each side can turn to such examples of evil within their own camp and say, “Yes but that’s obviously unfair. Those people really misrepresent what our side stands for.” And of course they’re right. But what good does that do when it comes to the practical need to control such abuses?

The ultimate issue here, however, is really not the means, but the corrupting final end: ultimate power. Both scientific thought and religious though –– together with economic calculations, educational systems and a host of other technologies –– have been used as means of usurping control over other people. Not that control is always bad, or that anarchy is the answer, but when power becomes a purpose above all others for those who get a taste of it, things can get very bad very fast. So in order to find hope for humanity the issue becomes in part setting up a system of checks and balances that enable people to have control over their own lives, while at the same time keeping them from enslaving, belittling and abusing others. But beyond that another aspect of having hope that we might live beyond our power struggles is finding some sense of shared purpose that is more important to us than our power struggles.

Neither materialistic, pragmatic technology-based philosophies nor partnership-with-the-ultimate-power-of-the-universe-based theologies like to admit that their systems have inherent human limitations. Indeed, both systems have impressive track records of going beyond what has previously been considered possible in terms of the power they have managed to exercise in modern society, and in the various eras of history leading to where we are now. Neither takes particularly kindly to those on the other side trying to limit their exercise of power. Religious authorities have a long history of anathematizing, interdicting and issuing fatwas against those they resent. Philosophers of various non-religious traditions have demonstrated an irritating tendency to declare anything they can’t critically conceptualize to be necessarily imaginary.

Thus living beyond the power struggle seems like a rather utopian ideal, but it isn’t entirely hopeless. There can be greater purposes in life, and greater fulfillments, than just proving to everyone else that you can do whatever you want, and you can get others to do what you want them to. The trick is to find these purposes, goals and fulfillments in a way that they are authentically your own; not the result of your being manipulated by someone else’s power trip.

Religious thought, at its best, is about finding a connection with people around us, the natural world we find ourselves in and the ultimate cause(s) of the universe. Of course there are ways that this turns into a business, where those who claim to be able to give people these connections charge handsomely for the service. Or this can also turn into a crude form of autocracy, where the “spiritual father” figure demands absolute loyalty in exchange for his blessings in enabling people to find the connections they need. But it can also give people exactly what they need in terms of a sense that they are important, cared for, and part of something bigger than themselves, that ultimately really matters. Other businesses and organizations have attempted to imitate this dynamic, but with limited success thus far.

Non-religious pragmatic thought, at its best, enables us to discover and invent new ways to accomplish our basic tasks with more ease and greater flexibility, reliability and safety. It helps us to live longer, and with a bit less pain. Yes, the technology this involves can sometimes become a cruel master rather than a servant. Yes, sometimes we pay for convenience with a loss of freedom and sense of purpose in life. But overall the improvements brought about in life by materialistic, scientific, technological approaches in life are rather hard to deny.

In my opinion then, we need both spirituality and sensibility. We need to be able to think both religiously and pragmatically, not putting absolute trust in the received wisdom of either tradition, but respecting the contributions and accomplishments of both. I’m inclined to believe that materialistic pragmatic philosophies have more to offer in terms of establishing systems of checks and balances to limit the abuse of power; and that religious systems of thought have more to offer in terms of possibilities of finding a deeper meaning in life than our power struggles with each other. Neither is in a particularly strong place to attempt to fully replace the other.

But if you felt threatened by the power of one or the other, and you want to insist on withdrawing from either the spiritual world or the technological world because of that, I can easily understand where you wouldn’t find these arguments convincing. I think your life will be poorer for it, but you are free to go your own way. It is still possible to be free from either paradigm. Yet it is also possible to explore both ways of thinking, to be enriched by both, and to carefully live at peace with each.

Spiritual Sense

One of the major challenges for philosophical thinkers is to determine whether or not religious thinking is worth bothering with. At the same time, one of the major challenges for religious thinkers is to determine whether or not philosophical thinking is worth bothering with. Given their debt to each other in terms of the historical and substantive development of each, it is hard to say which dilemma is more ironic. Needless to say, for those who know me, by education and by inclination I am inclined to see a certain value in both, and part of my personal sense of purpose in life involves building a sense of mutual respect between those in each field, whether or not those on either side can be convinced to delve into the other’s area of interest.

 

The history of the relationship between philosophy and religious thought is rather complex, to say at the least. There are a number of open questions as to when the former properly began and where exactly the line can be drawn between the two. Are Confucius and Lao Tse, for example, better classified as religious thinkers or ancient Chinese philosophers? It could be argued that the less a particular form of thought relied on purely physical explanations for how everything works in its search for the ultimate truths about the origins and meanings of life, the universe and all that, the more likely it was to later be qualified as a religion rather than a philosophy. The rigor of the investigation involved, the level of submission to accepted authority structures and presumed supernatural powers and the assumptions of final justice occurring in the after-life have all been secondary considerations in drawing the border between these fields. In the end, as the Finnish idiom says, it is a line drawn in the water.

 

For some philosophical thinking is what they do when religious thinking fails to satisfy them; when they see that their prayers have not been answered in a way that makes it worth praying, or when they see that the answers offered by their priests, imams, rabbis and gurus don’t really help in their processes of trying to make sense of life as they experience it. Thus they start looking for less religious and more rationally defensible answers to the basic causes and effects they witness. From a religious viewpoint though, that is lazy thinking. It is setting aside the great quest for meaning, purpose and value in life. It is a refusal to think through the really challenging and yet really important matters of what we should ultimately give a damn about and why.

 

For some religious thinking is what people do when their rational, scientific perspectives fail them. This is sometimes referred to as “the God of the gaps”. When we come up against something too grand and too mysterious to get our head around, that sense of mystery and awe makes us feel religious. We then invent supernatural explanations for what cannot be naturally explained (yet). Thus religious thinking becomes an excuse to stop thinking through the really difficult questions we are faced with about where everything comes from and how it actually works.

 

In all fairness there are plenty of anecdotal justifications for both of the above perspectives, but there is also an element of unfairness in the reciprocal accusations of lazy thinking. There are many sincere seekers for truth who have diligently applied a considerable level of intellectual talent to looking for answers that apply to their own field and that still relate to the opposite one. There are philosophers who do focus on how we can find meaning and purpose in life –– questions religious thinkers specialize in –– without turning to supernatural explanations. In all fairness none of them have been particularly successful in developing anything that stirs the heart of mankind and ultimately satisfies our need for meaning, but there have been sincere efforts make and plausible answers put forward. Likewise when it comes to religious, non-material explanations of how the universe functions, it’s not all about random superstitious practices and beliefs. Within religion there are many aspects of profound investigation into the human condition and the ever changing circumstances that we find ourselves in, relying far more on honest consideration of empirical and phenomenological data than on ancient dogma. In all fairness they have yet to find a workable system for insuring even national peace, freedom and tranquility in practice –– and compared to medical science, the health benefits they have been able to achieve are quite modest at best –– but there have been sincere efforts, and practical suggestions put forward by religious thinkers that are of use to non-believers as well.

 

But beyond rejecting the stereotypes about lazy thinking, there are is the matter of labeling each other as dangerous or harmful. Here the anecdotal evidence of abuse on both sides carries more weight. It is hard do deny the damage done in inquisitions and “holy wars”, or the evil of some regimes based on “scientific thinking” such as Nazism or Stalinism. Of course those on each side can turn to such examples of evil within their own camp and say, “Yes but that’s obviously unfair. Those people really misrepresent what our side stands for.” And of course they’re right. But what good does that do when it comes to the practical need to control such abuses?

 

The ultimate issue here, however, is really not the means, but the corrupting final end: ultimate power. Both scientific thought and religious though –– together with economic calculations, educational systems and a host of other technologies –– have been used as means of usurping control over other people. Not that control is always bad, or that anarchy is the answer, but when power becomes a purpose above all others for those who get a taste of it, things can get very bad very fast. So in order to find hope for humanity the issue becomes in part setting up a system of checks and balances that enable people to have control over their own lives, while at the same time keeping them from enslaving, belittling and abusing others. But beyond that another aspect of having hope that we might live beyond our power struggles is finding some sense of shared purpose that is more important to us than our power struggles.

 

Neither materialistic, pragmatic technology-based philosophies nor partnership-with-the-ultimate-power-of-the-universe-based theologies like to admit that their systems have inherent human limitations. Indeed, both systems have impressive track records of going beyond what has previously been considered possible in terms of the power they have managed to exercise in modern society, and in the various eras of history leading to where we are now. Neither takes particularly kindly to those on the other side trying to limit their exercise of power. Religious authorities have a long history of anathematizing, interdicting and issuing fatwas against those they resent. Philosophers of various non-religious traditions have demonstrated an irritating tendency to declare anything they can’t critically conceptualize to be necessarily imaginary.

 

Thus living beyond the power struggle seems like a rather utopian ideal, but it isn’t entirely hopeless. There can be greater purposes in life, and greater fulfillments, than just proving to everyone else that you can do whatever you want, and you can get others to do what you want them to. The trick is to find these purposes, goals and fulfillments in a way that they are authentically your own; not the result of your being manipulated by someone else’s power trip.

 

Religious thought, at its best, is about finding a connection with people around us, the natural world we find ourselves in and the ultimate cause(s) of the universe. Of course there are ways that this turns into a business, where those who claim to be able to give people these connections charge handsomely for the service. Or this can also turn into a crude form of autocracy, where the “spiritual father” figure demands absolute loyalty in exchange for his blessings in enabling people to find the connections they need. But it can also give people exactly what they need in terms of a sense that they are important, cared for, and part of something bigger than themselves, that ultimately really matters. Other businesses and organizations have attempted to imitate this dynamic, but with limited success thus far.

 

Non-religious pragmatic thought, at its best, enables us to discover and invent new ways to accomplish our basic tasks with more ease and greater flexibility, reliability and safety. It helps us to live longer, and with a bit less pain. Yes, the technology this involves can sometimes become a cruel master rather than a servant. Yes, sometimes we pay for convenience with a loss of freedom and sense of purpose in life. But overall the improvements brought about in life by materialistic, scientific, technological approaches in life are rather hard to deny.

 

In my opinion then, we need both spirituality and sensibility. We need to be able to think both religiously and pragmatically, not putting absolute trust in the received wisdom of either tradition, but respecting the contributions and accomplishments of both. I’m inclined to believe that materialistic pragmatic philosophies have more to offer in terms of establishing systems of checks and balances to limit the abuse of power; and that religious systems of thought have more to offer in terms of possibilities of finding a deeper meaning in life than our power struggles with each other. Neither is in a particularly strong place to attempt to fully replace the other.

 

But if you felt threatened by the power of one or the other, and you want to insist on withdrawing from either the spiritual world or the technological world because of that, I can easily understand where you wouldn’t find these arguments convincing. I think your life will be poorer for it, but you are free to go your own way. It is still possible to be free from either paradigm. Yet it is also possible to explore both ways of thinking, to be enriched by both, and to carefully live at peace with each.

1 Comment

Filed under Materialism, Philosophy, Religion, Skepticism, Spirituality