Tag Archives: Islam

Hating Islam vs. hating Catholicism

I’ve decided to tread the fine line regarding my fast on expressing hate here. There has been an abundance of hate speech going around on my social media news feeds this month, and it’s been hard not to respond to the intellectual and moral inferiority of much of it. But that would involve expressing how little respect I have for certain individuals’ intellectual and moral capacities, which I have promised to spend some time not doing. Even so, perhaps I can permit myself to address the issue of hatred for a particular group of people in a more constructive manner. The hated group in question is of course Muslims.

CatholicMuslimOn the issue of relating to Islam I am pleased to have people pissed at me on both sides. I have Muslim friends –– genuine friends –– who are offended that I do not consider some aspects of their faith to stand up well to intellectual and moral scrutiny, to the extent that I would not remotely consider converting to it at this point in life. I also have Islamophobic friends –– again, genuine friends –– who deny the legitimacy of the very word “Islamophobic”, saying that Islam is a force of evil that all rational people should have a fear of. For them it is offensive that I am willing to give the vast majority of the world’s Muslims credit for pursuing a life of peace, at harmony with the highest powers and principles in the universe.

In any case, from this DMZ-walking perspective on the issue, I found Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent interview with the Huffington Post, promoting her new book, Heretic, to be particularly interesting.

This author and thinker has become infamous as something of a patron saint among secular islamophobes, so the mere mention of her name will have some people closing this blog right here with a quick curse on me, and others tingling with excitement that I might join them in their prejudices; sad on both accounts.

All I can say is that I merely wish to give credit where credit is due for her suggestion that Muslims can (unlike her) remain Muslims, subscribe to the five pillars of Islam, and pursue what is best and most uplifting about their faith, even while calling for its modernization in five key areas:
1. Allowing critical analysis and interpretation of the Qur’an and the life of the prophet Muhammed.
2. Prioritizing the present life over concepts of the after-life.
3. No longer giving religious law precedence over secular civil law.
4. Ceasing to take mandatory commands as the basis for morality and civil order.
5. Ending calls to arms and killing others in the name of defending faith.

Another thing I found interesting about the interview was how, as a lady 7 years younger than myself, Hirsi Ali kept referring to herself as a representative of an older generation, but that’s sort of beside the point here. Her main point is that by accepting these sorts of challenges to their traditional orthodoxies, the other major monotheistic religions have become in many respects much stronger and better able to respond to the challenges of modernity; and in terms of its impact on world culture, it would be by far the best thing for all concerned if Islam would go through the same sort of internal revolution of self-reevaluation. On this I largely agree with her.

The counter-arguments to this position fall into two basic categories: a) The evil powers that be within Islam will never allow these sorts of reevaluations to happen, or b) If these sorts of changes would occur among the followers of Muhammed, the change would be so profound that they would no longer be justified in calling themselves Muslims.

The first is a matter of speculation regarding the future that is rather fruitless to argue about at any length. Suffice to say, there are certainly Iranian ayatollahs and ISIS supporters, among others, who wish to do all in their power to prevent any such reforms from taking root with their religion, but they probably won’t get the historical final word on the subject. We’ll see.

Regarding the second point, I am of the understanding that, first of all, we outsiders can’t really try to tell Muslims what their faith should mean to them and where its limits should be drawn, but then beyond that they’re not particularly keen on letting other Muslims draw those lines for them either. There isn’t any Pope of Islam, and as bitterly as Muslims may disagree with each other on all sorts of theological and moral issues, hardly any of them take it upon themselves to determine which other Muslims are to be recipients of Allah’s mercy in the after-life and which are doomed to damnation. In theory that sort of open attitude should make reform that much easier to bring about, though in practice it looks inevitable that any steps forward on Hirsi Ali’s five points will only come as the fruit of bitter and bloody struggles.

Needless to say, the time when Christianity went through its equivalent major struggle was nearly 500 years ago already. It may not justifiable to refer to Hirsi Ali as a potential Muslim Martin Luther, but she could end up playing the role of something like a Muslim Erasmus: eloquently pointing out some of the problems in the way the faith is being practiced so that other, less intellectual radicals who are more deeply involved in the religious system might become motivated to bring about changes from within. Yet it should be acknowledged that whether or not such reform happens, the resisters to reform are likely to remain in the majority, and the protesting, reforming minority will continue to be branded by the majority as “heretics” for many generations to come.

This brings us to the question of how we relate to those closer to home who identify with ideologies which famously resist reform. In the Christian case, up until the time of my birth at least, that primarily meant those evil Catholics. Without having to  go back as far as Martin Luther and his polemics against the popes of his age as the world’s biggest pimps, we can see all sorts of ways in which, over the past couple of centuries, hatred against Catholics has been a major factor in world politics in general and in US politics in particular. Nor did the Vatican do itself any favors by holding to a hard line against officially recognizing members of any other churches as fellow Christians until only about 50 years ago. When it comes right down to it, the matters that Hirsi Ali wishes to see reformed within Islam are the very things which radical Protestants have pushed to bring into the Christian theological debate for centuries already, and which many Catholics (and now more conservative Protestants) have been at best hesitant to accept.

Considering “sacred scriptures” to be human documents, subject to human perspectives and limitations in their attempt to reveal the divine, has been a difficult matter for many Christians to accept. Beyond that, as with Muslims, there has been the tendency among Catholics authorities to consider the traditional understandings of what God expects of us from within their official framework also to be beyond question. Daring to ask, “Has God really said…” remains valid grounds, among the most traditional monotheists of both persuasions, to burn someone as a heretic, at least figuratively if not literally.

Likewise focusing on the after-life at the expense of responsible living in our present, material lives is hardly an exclusively Islamic problem. Catholic preaching about possibilities of earning extra rewards in heaven, and avoiding extra sufferings in purgatory –– abuses that Luther railed against in is 95 Theses –– has remained a staple of their (and again, many conservative Protestants’) populist message, frequently at the expense of teaching people to love their neighbor and to act as peacemakers.

The question of the relationship between religious law and civil law in turn was the primary emphasis of Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” in which he condemned anything that gave the Church less official authority in the lives of its members, including public education, civil marriage, civil divorce, separation of church and state, and priests’ liability to civil prosecution. The implications of Shariah law are actually quite mild by comparison. The same document goes a long way in promoting the sort of thinking which Hirsi Ali wishes to challenge see eliminated from reformed Islam in terms of “Ending the practice of ‘commanding right, forbidding wrong’”.

Finally we have the matter of religious leaders in both traditions declaring either “crusades” or “jihads” (very much equivalent terms) against those whom they label as “evil”. Even though this practice effectively reduces their affirmation of the ideal of being instruments of God’s peace to nothing more than the grossest hypocrisy, Catholic leaders have been more than a little hesitant to renounce the practice entirely, and to condemn their predecessors’ practices in this regard.

Am I saying all of this to revive a hatred for Catholicism among Protestants? God forbid! My point is that even though there are what I see as significant intellectual and moral failings within official Catholic doctrinal positions –– which are not only historical embarrassments, but issues relevant to contemporary morality and world peace as well –– I am not really even tempted to see Catholics as inherently morally inferior people. Most people, it seems, got over that issue when JFK was elected as president. The last stalwarts to cling to such a prejudice were probably the Protestant Ulstermen of Northern Ireland, and now even they seem to have outgrown it. So why then do so many people think that Muslims should be held as morally suspect for their lack of will to reform the tenants of their faith?

Let me summarize this matter as clearly as I can: I strongly believe in the value of religious faith to motivate people to do good, to see themselves as inherently interconnected with others, to find purpose in their earthly existence, and to enable them to forgive themselves in spite of all their experiences of failure in life. At the same time I recognize the risky tendencies within many (all?) religious traditions to validate tribal prejudices, to use blind dogmatism as an antidote to life’s uncertainties, to manufacture a sense of self-righteousness among their believers, and to hatefully attack others on these bases. I personally maintain a continuous crusade, or jihad, against these evils within my own life and within my own faith as much as God grants me the strength to do so.

On these bases I see all people of faith –– and most of those who currently lack a sense of faith –– as living with the same struggles in terms of their everyday moral practice. Some are more self-aware about it than others, but it’s not my position to issue final grades for them in this respect. Thus I wish to evaluate people as neighbors and fellow citizens of the world, not based on the extent to which the dogmas they subscribe to are compatible with the dogmas I subscribe to, but based on how they personally prioritize between their purposeful interconnection with others and their more dogmatic tribalistic impulses.

Yes, that includes Muslims. Yes, there are particularly disturbing aspects of the dogmas they officially subscribe to, just as there are with Catholic dogmas. Yes, I would like to see those dogmas reformed so that they are more conducive to achieving the sort of goals that Kareem Abdul Jabar outlined in his column this winter: “people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship.” I do believe that the kind of reforms that Ayaan Hirsi Ali suggests would better enable Muslims to live that way. I also believe that more thoroughly accepting those kind of reform principles would help Catholics to more thoroughly live that way. But I don’t consider these reforms to be a prerequisite for any Muslims or Catholics, or Protestant fundamentalists, or secular humanists even, in gaining my friendship and respect.

If people from each of these tribes can better learn to respect the others then, so much the better.

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Filed under Ethics, Religion, Respectability, Tolerance

Stevie’s Summertime Spirituality

Somewhat in contrast with my recent Kenya experiences –– but yet in a way in complete harmony with them –– this past week I allowed myself what for me is a major luxury expenditure; but one I can also write off as an important investment in my relationship with my younger son: I bought tickets for he and I to go to a concert by one of the great music icons of my generation: Stevie Wonder. Some would say it just goes with my ethnically Dutch heritage that I felt a certain pain in paying as much as I did for these tickets… just to be allowed to stand out under the afternoon sun on a dusty gravel sporting grounds, crowded together with a sweaty mob of mostly drunk people, to listen to music I’d actually heard hundreds of times before… but I still believe it was a necessary expenditure, and in the end well worth it.

029While I was off on my most recent African adventure I had missed my son’s birthday, as well as the celebration after he completed his required military service, so I felt I owed it to him to do something particularly special together this week. But in all honesty once again the present that I bought for him (like so many of his birthday toys from previous years) was something I probably bought at least as much for my enjoyment than for his. As a strongly professing fan of Motown music in general, and Stevie Wonder tunes in particular, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to witness his performance live. OK, so the promoter’s arrangements left something to be desired. It was still an experience that will rank among the most important lifetime memories I will share with my son. It was also a rather spiritual experience for me.

I actually got confused as to which Helsinki park the concert was in, somehow convincing myself that it would be in the grassier and shadier of the two where concerts are regularly held. With the more idyllic venue in mind I packed a small picnic for us and tossed that into a bag together with my digital camera of course, only to face significant disappointment when we arrived at the actual gate of the venue.  As I said, the concert site was actually a city sandlot on which kids’ soccer and baseball tournaments are held fairly regularly. There was no place to comfortably spread the picnic blanket and they had a policy of not allowing in any full sized cameras. (Hundreds of people were shooting video with their cell phones with seemingly nothing the promoters could do about it, but that was beside the point: Cameras like mine were not permitted.) So I was told I’d have to leave my belongings at the baggage check point they had set up outside the gate.

This gave rise to another minor problem in that I didn’t bring any cash with me to pay the fee for such an additional service, but in the end that problem was rather pleasantly worked out. As the first opening act took the stage my son and I just sat down on a grassy knoll just outside the concert venue and enjoyed our little picnic together. It was just as the second act was coming on that I went to check my bag. It was a slow moment for those working at the baggage check area and so when I explained my dilemma to one of the attendants there, Hannu, had a bit of spare time to negotiate with me. In the end he was willing to take 10 minutes of interesting conversation as “payment in kind” for keeping an eye on my bag for the rest of the show. He had noticed that I was carrying the printout of my on-line concert ticket tucked into a small paperback history of Kenya, and he was interested in hearing the whole background story about my trip, and how I also considered Stevie to be a positive role model in promoting justice and compassion for the poor of Africa.

021Hannu was further interested in hearing about my work as a religious education teacher and why I consider such work to also be important, but we didn’t explore that avenue of conversation too far. After the fact I had somewhat of a feeling that perhaps I should have. Many of my evangelical friends might fault me for missing a golden opportunity to steer the conversation around in the sort of way that I could have “led him to the lord”. Instead I merely answered his question about why such lessons are important by saying that it is important for children in this country to have a functional understanding of what different sorts of people believe in religious terms, and how all that relates to their own (official, nominal) beliefs and let it go at that. He proceeded to tell me how cool it had been a few hours earlier to listen to Stevie and his band play “Yesterday” and some other Beatles cover material in their sound check, and to talk about his own perspectives on the value of intercultural experiences.

That level of conversation actually gelled better with the rest of my summer’s spiritual experiences thus far –– including the Kenya trip as a whole, the background factors that led to me taking such a trip, and the significance of Stevie Wonder’s life and music for me as a person in relation to that context –– than an attempt at “personal evangelism” would have. That subject in turn is actually worth meditating on a bit here, so let me take some time to explain (to you and to myself) what I mean by that.

It was actually by way of former student of mine, Sandhja, who also happens to be an exceptionally talented singer and performer, that I first met the people from Bondoaid, whose work in Kenya I’ve taken the active interest in. The core group of active members in this organization are evangelical Christians of one stripe or another –– ranging from the Pentecostal to the more radical Baptist to the mainstream denominational Protestant branches of that spectrum. Sandhja is none of the above. Having been her religious education instructor throughout her teenage years I know something about her personal religious perspectives and how pressure to adjust them might feel to her.

047I know her to be highly sensitive in the most beautiful sense, and deeply interested in the sort of spirituality that goes with caring for others on many different levels; but prone to see that spirituality in part through the lens of her mother’s Hindu background and in part through a general secular humanist perspective. She was willing to give of her time and money to help Kenyan orphans, not because she saw it as a means of bringing them into some particular faith, but because she is genuinely prone to caring for others wants to help reduce human suffering when it is in her power to do so. That’s just the sort of person she is, and over the years she has consistently impressed me with her emotional depth in such matters. It was part of my job to make sure she understands the most basic concepts of what it means to be a Christian, and how that compares with other spiritual paths, including her own. It was never part of my job to try to convert her to my own way of thinking on such matters though, nor was it ever my inclination to try to do so. As I see it her life provides a closer reflection of the teachings of Jesus than most professing Christians that I know, so I’m not about to condemn her to hell for putting the wrong label on it.

But it’s not my job to decide her eternal destiny anyway. It’s ultimately up to a source of justice way beyond what I can access or administer to do the final evaluation Sandhja’s life. So when it comes to that call, I’m happy to treat it the same as I did the predictions I was asked for regard World Cup Soccer this summer: Here’s how it looks to me, but it’s beyond my expertise to say anything for sure in advance, so I’m ready just to step aside and watch and see what happens. Meanwhile I have my own job to do –– what I believe God requires of me as a believer –– which is to “pay forward” the blessings I’ve received, in particular towards the poor, the outcasts, the prisoners and other disadvantaged people.

I happened to bump into Sandhja last week at a beachfront coffee shop, and we ended up sitting together for a bit discussing my trip, the Kenya project in general and the values behind it. She basically said that in her experience the evangelical Christians she had been working with on the project are truly warm and wonderful people, but there has been a continuous underlying tension over their expectations that at some point she would also become a “born-again Christian”. I could relate to what she was talking about not only from knowing the “born-again mind” intimately from the inside, but also from the similarities between what she was talking about and my experiences among the Cape Malay Muslims of South Africa during the year I spent there. Those folks too were generally very warm and hospitable, and accepting of my religious and cultural difference as a matter of respect for the most part; but not far below the surface was something between a hope and an expectation that someday, if I was honest enough and “my heart was open enough,” I would let go of my preconceptions about my own heritage and religiously become one of them. That wasn’t about to happen though, and from where I sat it wasn’t a matter of my having an insufficiently open heart or mind.

So Sandhja’s awkward situation was more than familiar to me. I couldn’t really apologize for the others’ expectations, but I could well appreciate the difficulties involved for her. I know how deeply ingrained the urge to win converts is in such circles, and how, for them, pursuing the objective of converting as many others as possible is considered to be the most virtuous behavior any person can possibly take part in. I know how thoroughly many have convinced themselves that the best way for them to truly love others is to coerce conversions and extract confessions of faith out of them by any means possible. I also know how –– even if one accepts such a premise regarding “the need to evangelize” –– the most sincere efforts to reach out to help others (both materially and spiritually) can easily morph into systems by means of which to gain and maintain abusive control over those being “helped”.  I have seen many times how there is actually no form of religion –– or secular ideology for that matter –– which is completely immune to being corrupted by the thrill of having power over the beliefs of others, and that when it comes right down to it Evangelical Christians are probably the worst by this disease (with Muslims coming in a close second). So I’m pretty sure that those with a powerful urge to “lead this girl to the Lord” were quite blind to their own motivations in wanting to do so. So in the end Sandhja and I agreed that it’s not always easy but we do what we can to overlook other people’s cultural blind spots in the process of attempting to do good together with them.

And that brings me back to the Stevie Wonder show. When it was finally his turn Stevie came out onto stage to the tune of one of the few songs in the set which were not of his own composition: “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You)”. This provided a glorious opportunity for an audience sing-along right from the start, and Stevie was continuously working us throughout the show to try to turn us into a sweeter sounding choir –– including drilling us on the harmony parts to be sung. But more to the point, after the third chorus and some harmony suggestions on this number, Stevie offered a bit of explanation for its choice as the opener: for him it also contains an element of prayer. He’s not on the road this time promoting a new album or anything like that; he’s just out thankfully enjoying the experience of doing the work he loves and feeling the love of the international audiences in the process. And as part and parcel of that motivation he wanted to publicly thank God for the opportunities he has had in life and career, and to encourage others to join him in appreciating God’s great love.

helsinkiclassic2014-11The appreciation for this perspective seemed to be somewhat limited among those in the highly secularized and fairly drunk Finnish audience, but Stevie didn’t let that discourage him. He qualified it right away by saying that he wasn’t promoting any particular religion. Like Pope Francis, Stevie is perfectly fine with people of good will being of other religions, or even being atheists. But still he wanted to stress the message that there is something greater than all of us to which we owe a certain awe, respect and thankfulness, and on the basis of which we need to learn to love each other. From there this implicit prayer of thanksgiving was a running theme throughout the rest of the show.

The one classic song of his included in the show that seemed to least harmonize with this principle of respect for the divine and loving each other on that basis, was “Part-Time Lover,” a tale of appreciation for a forbidden and conflict-laden relationship. His way of setting up that number with the audience had its own interesting humor to it. He asked the audience, “How many of you are in love?” A moderate number of hands showed murmured positive responses arose. “How many of you are in love with just one person?” Some giggles, but otherwise pretty close to the same level of response as for the previous question. “OK, now be honest: How many of you guys would really like to be in love with more than one lady?” While the audience was still chewing on that one the band started playing the intro. After the first verse then Stevie gave the audience their harmony parts for the song: guys scatting “bum, bum, badada-bum…” and women singing, “no, no, no, no, no…” Overall Stevie gave the impression that the experience this song talks about were as distant from his personal experiences as the unspoken eye-contact of unrequited love that he sings about in “My Cherie Amour”.

When it came to a song being intensely personal for him and intimately tied to his own life experience, on the other hand, the high water mark came with “Isn’t She Lovely,” which he wrote for his newborn daughter back in the seventies. She has since made a grandfather out of him and she was on the road with him as one of his backup singers –– the tall one on the far right. Savoring, appreciating and thanking God for that sort of love is where Stevie was clearly most in his element.

After that the next priority in his message to the audience was to pray and work together to eliminate the sort of suffering and social injustice described in the most pessimistic song in the set: “Living for the City”. How much more specific than that does the “gospel” message need to be in a pop concert? How much more specific than that can it be without the added detail getting in the way of the core message of peace and love?

If I were to analyze Stevie’s perspective on organized religion further I would have to turn to a song not included in his recent concerts, from his 1985 “In Square Circle” album: “Spiritual Walkers”. It is a somewhat cryptic musical comment on evangelical practices in general, and perhaps on Stevie’s fellow Motown veteran Michael Jackson’s propensity at the time to keep promoting his Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief:

They knock on your door
You laugh in their face…
Walking places they should not be
But they will walk their lives
With a never ending light
They will walk their lives
’til they shine the light
Of truth into your life…
You run from their sight
Not to hear the holy word…
They have no defense
Except inner sense
And knowing the Almighty Friend

Stevie doesn’t actually come out for or against such people; he merely respectfully reports on what he “sees” and rhetorically asks others what they think.

In terms of his own core message though, Stevie remains focused on things that should be central concerns to people of faith, but which too many conspicuously religious folks remain silent about: fighting against such tragic injustices as racism, extreme poverty, various forms of segregation, handgun violence and “stand your ground laws”. Promoting particular religious dogmas just isn’t his thing. Nor is lecturing on ethics for that matter. He didn’t come to Helsinki to preach morality; he came to help people to feel good by getting them to sing along and share the love. If anyone else is interested in spreading the love in the same sorts of ways Stevie seems perfectly happy to have them on his side, regardless of their religious perspectives.

The only way I can remotely compare myself with Stevie is in saying that he and I are very much on the same page when it comes to understanding that the basic point of religion, when it’s done right, is building a genuine capacity for love and caring about others. As I said, he and I are on the same page with that one, though Stevie’s been reading from that page a lot longer than I have. I don’t have his same creative genius as a means of sharing that message with others, so I have to rely on being able to get just a bit closer to those in serious need than he can. At the same time I need to follow his example in limiting myself a bit in picking the causes I fight for carefully and sticking with the ones I choose.

No, I don’t think that religion can or should be reduced to nothing more than neutral “warm and fuzzy feelings” between “people of good will.” There really has to be something bigger “out there” to hold the whole system together for any religious teaching to have distinct value as such. My point here isn’t to redefine or defend my beliefs in ways that disregard the transcendent. My point –– and Stevie Wonder’s point as well, I believe –– is that what God has called each of us to do is to express the sort of love and mercy that he has given to each of us in turn to each other; not to bring everyone under the control of our favored style of religious system or to attempt to become the instruments of God’s vengeance and judgment upon the earth, the way so many religious folks seem to be longing to try their hand at. If we can remember what our basic task before God is in this regard, and if we can stick to working on that task rather than letting ourselves get distracted with religious power struggles, that is how I believe we can really bring the greatest glory and honor to God –– far more than by amassing huge numbers of new members or suitably preparing ourselves for an extended siege leading up to the battle of Armageddon.

Daring to care for others is the truest expression of true faith. Thus I would far rather work together with those with whom I have major philosophical and theological disagreements in the process of caring for those whom I believe God has instructed us to care for than to casually sit and endlessly discuss theories of the Second Coming with those who happen to theoretically agree with me on the mechanics of the redemption available in Christ. Furthermore, I honestly believe that those who genuinely care for others who are made in God’s image will stand in better stead before divine judgment than those who expect to pass through on the basis of having said the right evangelical magic words and participated in the proper rituals. But again, speculating over who God will judge how harshly, and on what basis, is really not our job as believers.

So regardless of how similar to or different from my own Stevie’s and Sandhja’s spiritual perspectives happen to be, I draw strength from the aesthetic satisfaction I get from their performances and I join together with them in doing what all believers properly should be doing: spreading the love, increasing the peace and treating the world around us (and all the people I share it with) with respect. Feel free to join us if in that effort if you’re so inclined.

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Empathy, Ethics, Love, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Spirituality

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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The Borderland

This week I’ve had the first set of extra days off school since getting back to work for Espoo this autumn, so I treated myself to a bit of time in Estonia. I’m spending most of this time in the little university town of Tartu, which I can recommend to anyone as a fascinating cultural experience unto itself.  But on the recommendation of one of my new friends from Tartu I actually spent the day on Friday back up in the all too familiar city of Tallinn. It was the second day of an academic conference there, mostly run by Estonians, but including a fair number of international academics, on the subject of “borders”.  So being the habitual border crosser that I am, I had to dive in just for the fun of it.

Being me, of course I talked too much, but I don’t think I irritated too many people too badly in the process, and I had a wonderful time of it. I won’t try to summarize all of the fascinating discussions I listened to and took part in; I’ll just let some of my thoughts flow in relation to this event.

The borders to be discussed there were opened up as widely as possible thematically: from national borders to language barriers, to artistic framing processes, to borders created by religious difference, to the process of smuggling, to borders of good taste, to the cultural novices knowing their place in relation to experts. Some that I didn’t hear discussed were the thin border between genius and insanity, the difference we sense between what we are and what we feel we ideally should be, and the extent to which we have to keep others at an emotional distance at times to maintain our sanity. Perhaps there were talks on those aspects that I missed, but that’s beside the point.

In the past 20 years or so since I first crossed the border between Finland and Estonia on a number of levels this border has faded significantly. One of my more permanent memories was crossing over for a day trip just as Estonia was in the process of leaving the Soviet Union. They had already changed the official time zone to match Helsinki rather than Leningrad, but you still got a sense of the old joke, “Set your watch one hour forward and 30 years backward.” They still had the Soviet rubles as the currency, there were still signs of a Russian military presence around Tallinn, and even on a brilliant sunny day there seemed to be a dank grey cultural mist hanging over the decaying medieval and Stalinist monuments of the city. I got off the boat and was herded into a line where I had to leave my passport as assurance that I wasn’t going to run off on some spying mission around the country. I then proceeded to the currency exchange, where for a ten dollar bill I got a stack of rubles too thick to fold, that allowed me to walk around the town like I owned the place. It was also the first time when I went to a shop where they had an abacus instead of a cash register. Guess who ended up making an idiot out of himself there. It didn’t take too long after that for such trips to become something of a habit though. The next time I went they had their own currency already, and there were fewer and fewer remnants of Soviet life every time thereafter.

Since then Estonia’s own currency, the krooni, has come and gone, the shock of post-Soviet organized crime has given way to a spirit of respectable law and order, and it is no bigger deal to wander around Estonia than it would be to go from New Hampshire to Vermont. Things are still noticeably cheaper here than in Finland, but quality of goods and services suffers less and less by comparison. Gone are the flea markets with people selling for a pittance anything that could live without. In their places are standard western shopping malls. Stalinist monuments have been replaced by monuments to western consumerism. Medieval elements have been face-lifted and modernized to better attract wealthier sorts of visitors.

Tartu I visited for the first time in January of 1994, just after getting my permanent Finnish resident visa stamped into the second passport I ever owned. I was part of a mission to try to increase contacts between Finnish and Estonian theology students; the latter having just been legalized again following the end of the Soviet era. Not only that, but Tartu had only recently become accessible to foreigners again following the closing of a major Soviet air force base there in the late 80s. To say that it was a different world would be no exaggeration whatsoever.  But in spite of the major gaps and borders that still existed back then, the will to come together and the belief that we could overcome the remaining boundaries were infectious.

In some ways that experience reminded me of a quote from Mark C. Taylor that figured into my master’s thesis work around that time. I can’t find the exact reference on line so without running to the library I’ll just say that I think it was in “Erring” and it basically said that the things that make us alive are acts which violate the borders between what is inside of us and what is outside: “eating, drinking, shitting, pissing and fucking”, and it is no accident that most of those words are considered indecent.

But that brings me to the question of balance in these matters. While I’m not one to promote extensive fasting, constipation or celibacy, I do feel that there need to be limits on these processes. As I’ve said before, sexual abuse is one of the chief evils I see in the world. And even if you don’t religiously follow some code like veganism or a halal diet, there need to me some limits on what you allow yourself to eat if you wish to remain healthy. Likewise releasing bodily waste products needs to be done in a way that the smell and remains do not offend the aesthetic sensibilities of others or put their health at risk any more than necessary. And this is not even touching on some of the other means of violating the physical border between inside not mentioned in the Taylor quote: slashing, stabbing, injecting, shooting…

So while there is a certain thrill in overcoming certain kinds of borders, there is also a functional benefit in respecting and maintaining some sorts of borders relating to our personal integrity.  How do we decide where to draw that line?

One significant area of border crossing that needs to be considered is that of language. The Bible presents the Tower of Babel and the resulting difference in languages as a curse, intended to limit mankind’s ability to “reach to the heavens”.  If we take that at face value, how far do we want to go in overcoming that boundary in the interest of searching for universal theological truths that God was seemingly trying to prevent us from finding? Should we just accept language barriers as literally God-given limitations and just be content not to understand each other? I’m not enough of a Fundamentalist to believe that.

There are other complicated questions there though. Language is a blessing as well as a curse, even in the differences it creates. I had a very difficult time communicating with the building supervisor of the dormitory I’ve spent the weekend at, as she only speaks Russian and a little Estonian, and I only speak English and Finnish, but neither of us would want to wish any of those four languages out of existence. And to the extent that I am able to express the same thing in different languages, and express things in some languages that can’t be properly expressed in others, my life is richer for it. For all their problems and limitations, languages are important manifestations of the people who speak them, and worth maintaining on that basis. But at the same time the limitations of one’s language should not be accepted as the proper limitations of what one is able to or allowed to think about. Allowing the freedom to think beyond the current limits of one’s language while still using that language as a vehicle for one’s thoughts will inevitably corrupt the purity of that language. How big a threat is that really? For that matter how far do we need to go in the process of trying to artificially resuscitate dying languages, such as that of the Votian people living in a few scattered villages southwest of St. Petersburg? I don’t have an answer for that, but I plan to continue enjoying and corrupting the languages at my disposal regardless.

In some regards the same applies to religion. We have many different systems of faith that we use in our attempts to interact with the transcendental and with each other. Sometimes those help us understand each other better; other times they put us at each other’s throats. Sometimes maintaining doctrinal purity is more important to people than reaching any greater understanding of what is “out there”. For this reason my light hearted jest in the last sentence of the last paragraph could be much more dangerous to apply to religions. There is a word for those who corrupt them on purpose: heretics. And while heretics haven’t been burned at the stake in western society for many years, death for threatening doctrinal purity is still almost commonplace in the Muslim world.

Regardless of these risks though, there is much to be said for dialog between those of different religious traditions; for learning to communicate with each other regarding “spiritual matters” even when our traditional formulations of how such things are supposed to work come under threat in the process.  Yet this needs to be done in a way that respects religions’ individual integrity and means of expressing things. Just as I don’t want to try to stomp out the use of Russian because “English can say things so much better”, I don’t want to stomp out Islam or Hinduism on the presumption that Christianity’s world view makes them redundant. I know that many Christians don’t share my views on that one, and that relatively few Muslims would be ready to reciprocate the mutual respect in this regard, but such is life. I’ll pursue these ideals regardless.

However one of the most interesting papers I heard at the conference Friday was on the question of “merchandizing” ethnicity. It is clear that, in the process of seeking out the thrill of crossing various sorts of borders, there are many of us who search for the exotic, and who are drawn in by the lure of interacting with those who are in some ways radically different than we are. Estonia has recently been beefing up is PR campaigns specifically to attract habitual border crossers like me. But researcher Elo-Hanna Seljamma has come across people whose ethnicity is being merchandized in this sort of way who are actually sort of resenting it. Even if this is not done in a sanitized Disney style production, is there something “indecent” about taking the most intimate aspects of a person’s life and a culture’s self-identification processes –– its religious convictions and rituals, its language and folk art –– and displaying them as part of a broader national promotion package? Is this somehow akin to pornography and sacrilege? There’s a very legitimate question to be pondered there.

That being said, not to cross such borders or boundaries at all, from my perspective, would be to surrender the most important aspects of what really make us alive. In that regard I believe that Mark C. Taylor’s point still holds. I don’t believe in a literalist, Fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 11, either as a historical record of how the world’s languages began or as the basis for an ethical norm of avoiding interpretation and attempts at mutual understanding. I want to be careful and sensitive about forcing others to culturally interact with me against their will, but I make no apologies for wanting to understand them better as a means of attempting to (selfishly) enrich my own life. I only hope that in going forward from here I will able to find the right balance in these regards.

And on that note I’d like to say thank you to all of the fascinating people I’ve had a chance to interact with over the past week and I hope that we will continue to enrich each other’s lives as time goes on.

 

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Abrahamic Certainty

I’m going to make this week’s blog a double. In part this has happened by accident, in that I was inspired to bite off a bigger theoretical piece than usual here, and by the time I’d finished chewing my way through it I had about twice as many words as I usually allot myself for one of these things. But in part that is a happy accident because I was planning to allow myself to set my writing aside next weekend anyway, as I celebrate Easter in my own radically untraditional way this year. I could have broken this up into two chunks to keep readers coming back more regularly, but why bother? If you find this to be too heavy an intellectual snack for one weekend, read half of it now and save the other half for sometime next week.

Let me also warn you that this entry is written from the perspective of a sincere but questioning faith in God. If you are the sort of person who finds a presupposition of the existence of God offensive, you might want to skip this essay. I have elsewhere explained at some length why I believe in God and what sort of role that faith plays in my life, and this piece is more than long enough without adding in a repetition of those arguments. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the sort of religious person who finds it offensive to have the authority of your own tradition seriously questioned, you too might want to skip this particular essay. I operate here on the assumption that even the most sincere prophets and saints have made serious mistakes, and that when it comes to seeking for direct spiritual guidance, a certain amount of uncertainty goes with the territory. You are fully entitled to disagree about these matters, but accommodating all of the various authoritative dogmas that might take offense at my approach is another thing I don’t really have time for this weekend.

All of this starts with a personal re-evaluation of Kierkegaard. For many years if people would ask me to list my favorite philosophers I’d have to stop and think, and a different list might come out each time, but Kierkegaard would always come out within the top 5. Kierkegaard prioritized finding meaning in the absurdities of everyday life as the essential task of both philosophy and Christian faith. He drew on both the Bible and on classical Greek and Latin materials to demonstrate how the respectable Lutheran status quo of his time had a fair percentage of BS involved. On those merits I still believe that he was probably the most outstanding and influential genius that the Scandinavian countries have ever produced. At the same time, however, Kierkegaard was rather open about his own human limitations and fallibility. He never claimed to be a prophet, which as I see it is quite a good thing; especially as lately I’ve noticed areas in his thinking where, as a product of his own time and culture, he seems to be quite seriously mistaken.

Kierkegaard is at his best as the cynical humorist and critical analyst. Where has been seen as intellectually weaker is in terms of giving his own final answers to life’s persistent questions. After recognizing that life can only be analyzed by looking backwards, but it can be only lived by looking forwards, and that the analytical
process itself inevitably includes more than a little bit of paradox; for everyday decision making Kierkegaard turned to a form of faith that was riddled with paradox and thin on proofs, which was precisely what he loved about it. For many, however, this involves unjustified and unjustifiable risks: diving into things that you can’t be totally rationally sure of, but where “something in your heart” tells you that it’s right.  (Quotation marks there refer to the term being borrowed from pop culture, not Kierkegaard’s writings.) For some the question follows from there, “Can’t we do better than that?” leading to the answer “Maybe not.”

Recently, as I’ve been contemplating some major decisions in my own life and talking with some close friends about these matters, one of these confidants raised the issue of Abraham’s faith, as considered by Kierkegaard. For those unfamiliar with the story it goes something like this:

Like any rich nomadic herdsman of his time, Abraham had dreams of raising a huge family… but it just wasn’t happening for him. He was on the north side of middle age already, as was his beloved and hot looking wife, and as hard as they worked on making babies, they just weren’t coming. At one point then Sarah, his wife, told Abraham to try to deal with the situation by seeing if he could get her slave girl pregnant. That worked pretty well, and Sarah sort of adjusted to the idea of her new step-son, Ishmael, taking over the family fortune. But then, after they had given up on trying to make babies, and got back to intercourse for the fun of it, as sometimes happens in such cases, Sarah managed to get pregnant and have a son, Isaac. That’s where things started to get complicated. Abraham really loved both of his sons, but his wife clearly came first in his life, and she loved her surprise biological son to the total exclusion of her step-son; and Ishmael, it seems, was not adjusting to this very well himself. Finally Abraham, on Sarah’s orders, sent Ishmael and his mother packing, to go live further south, where they wouldn’t be the subject of so many arguments.

In the next chapter then (Genesis 22) comes the real climax of the story. It says that “God tested Abraham” by telling him to kill and roast his dear son Isaac. Abraham was pretty secretive about this, but he set out to take care of what he believed God had commanded. He took a couple helpers and his son, along with some wood and butchering utensils, and snuck out one morning before his wife woke up. They rode for a good three days “to the place God had shown him,” and then he left the servants behind so he could go do a secret ritual with his son using the wood and a butcher’s knife. The kid was smart enough to notice that something strange was going on, in that there was a conspicuous lack of a sacrifice animal with them, but Abraham just cryptically told him, “God will provide one.”

The happy ending then comes when at the last second God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, and says, “I was just testing. You passed. Don’t hurt the kid!” Then Abraham sees a ram with its horns stuck in a bush (not the smartest animal in the pack, it would seem) so he kills and roasts that creature instead. Ever since then, however, there has been burning speculation about what was going on there. To start with, how did God give these messages to Abraham, and how could Abraham be sure that it was God talking to him? And after that, what lessons does this story really hold for the rest of us? It is one of the major turning points in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, so it can’t really be ignored; yet it seems to have nothing to do with principles of kindness, trust, cooperation and understanding that religion “should be promoting.”

Kierkegaard latched onto this tale just because it makes so little sense in terms basic humanistic ethical principles being manifest in religion. His take on it was that sometimes you just have to trust God for no other reason than that he’s God. He gets to give the orders because that’s part of what he gets to do, being God and all. So if you try to crunch any religion –– Christianity in particular –– down to a sweet little set of humanistic principles, you’ve rather missed the whole point.

Thus far, in terms of coming to grips with the foundational metaphysical assumptions that monotheistic faiths are based on, I strongly sympathize with what Kierkegaard is saying. My problem with all this comes when I start to look for an answer to the question my friend puts to me: “What would you do in Abraham’s place?” My provisional answer: “I’d make damned sure of my epistemological reasons for believing that it was God talking before I’d do anything.” And that’s the crux of the matter: can any form of personal emotional experience ever be enough to provide absolute certainty that it is God with whom we are dealing?

The alternative of looking for rational certainty of God’s will –– discovering the divine through a series of systematic algorithms –– is something that Kierkegaard has adequately shown to be inconsistent with the core understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition at least. (And as I understand it, Al Ghazali made a similar point from an Islamic perspective 700-some years earlier.) Beyond that it would seem to me to be an implausible proposition on a number of different levels.

In brief, if God had wanted to provide absolute certainty about his intentions and desires for mankind, there would have been a number of ways in which he could have made that more clear. That, however, would have entailed an increased risk of various religious groups claiming that their authority is based on enforcing God’s revealed will for everyone else. That would have turned “true religion” into the most impersonal and authoritarian bureaucracy imaginable. Even without true, divinely inspired intellectual certainty we have some pretty serious problems with authoritarian religious bureaucracies. We can only imagine what it would be like if one of these groups really
did have God’s unequivocal stamp of approval!  Thus God, in all his wisdom, in the interest of remaining personal and relational, has chosen to remain somewhat mysterious and non-systematizeable. All this is to say, faith in God does not necessarily entail an assurance of being perfectly aware of what the God wants in every possible situation; somewhat the opposite in fact.

Now of course no authoritarian religious organization which enforces orthodoxy in its standardized teaching can readily accept the idea that they have anything less than a mandate from God himself to maintain such standards. Thus it would be more the rule than the exception for the ideas in the above paragraph to be labeled as the most evil sort of heresy. But the more dogmatically a religious group insists on maintaining absolute control as God’s sole (or primary) representatives, the more damage they do to their own credibility. The ultimate nature of God clearly beyond human understanding, and thus any group which claims to have an exclusive understanding of him is either bluffing or they really don’t get the question.

In any case, this brings us back to the question of a less rational, more mystical or emotional awareness of God’s intentions and desires for us; and how far we can trust such sensations. Is it possible to “just know” what God wants of each of us, and of each other? If so, to what extent?

Some would say that these matters are best left to those who have a legitimate claim to being apostles or prophets. But what gives such individuals the right to claim such authority? Short answer: we don’t really know, but some individuals’ “messages” in this respect just sort of ring true for their followers and for future generations. But on careful consideration that really isn’t such a great epistemological standard. Given the mutually contradictory nature of prophetic messages from different sources, each seen as “obviously divine” by millions of faithful followers, the only obvious thing is that the vast majority of those “prophets” or “apostles”, (to be charitable about it) must have got at least some of their basic details mixed up. On the other end of the spectrum, the standard job description for a prophet or an apostle says that you’ll be rejected in terms of popular opinion, at least in your own time and your own village, because others just won’t “get it.” So external confirmation in terms of reinforcement from other (potential) believers really can’t be taken as firm evidence of whether or not any given apostle, prophet, guru, etc. is the real deal or not.

Yet even if the authority of a prophet’s or apostle’s message can never be fully confirmed in terms of its overall popularity, that still leaves open the possibility of inter-subjectivity: to one extent or another the issue always comes back to a question of a particular prophetic message “resonating” with what “God says to the heart of the believer”. Along these lines each of the Abrahamic religions officially holds that each believer’s status as a believer is ultimately between the “believer” and God –– not something that anyone else can competently judge; and the voice of God within the heart of the believer –– confirming for that believer the message of the Prophet(s) –– is the only thing which ultimately matters. On this Jews, Christians and Muslims theoretically agree: if God is not in fact speaking directly to your heart, all the rest is really just an empty show.

Such a doctrine actually poses a very limited risk to those who have a vested interest in enforcing orthodoxy. For starters this can easily be turned into an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic: everyone inevitably claims to see the beauty of the message, because not to do so is tantamount to proclaiming one’s own moral and spiritual inferiority! Then once you have enough people proclaiming their personal affirmation of the beliefs in question, a sort of Asch social conformity dynamic kicks in (see, e.g., http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/normative_social_influence.htm), and people start sincerely seeing things “the way they are supposed to” because everyone else claims to see them that way. So when people are told to “judge for themselves” as to whether or not the “divine message” they have been given resonates with them, chances of dissent are pretty limited.

[And for those who do not have the time or patience to read this all in one sitting, this might be as good a place as any for you to take an intermission. See you after the break.]

But if we set aside the question of why others claim to believe what they believe, and if we ignore the risks inherent in believing differently from the mainstream, if we then take these admonitions to judge for ourselves at face value, we find ourselves in a position
where there is really no categorical difference between the prophet and the true believer: personal spiritual intuition of one form or another is the thing that really counts. What makes the prophets’ or apostles’ spiritual intuitions special is that they are intended to serve as benchmarks for improving one’s own spiritual intuitions.

So when it comes to getting messages from God that might instruct us to do things which go against the grain of popular opinion, as Abraham is said to have, we really can’t flog that one off on the prophets –– leaving it to authority figures to make our spiritual decisions for us. Each truly believing Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc. is personally responsible to listen for God’s voice for her- or himself, and to follow that voice to the best of her/his God-given ability.


But this brings me to the point where my good friend Kierkegaard and I part company. I realized this in going through my personal library this week, thinning out the materials that are not worth lugging around or cramming into my limited personal space. In the process I picked up a book of his essays that I hadn’t opened in a while, and had a read through Of the difference between a Genius and an Apostle. His main point there was to say that, contrary to the message being preached in the various churches of Copenhagen at the time, the Apostle Paul was no genius; or even if he was it would be rather irrelevant. The relevant matter is that he spoke with authority, as one having a message from the Almighty. That much I don’t necessarily have a problem with either. Where I disagree is when it comes to his categorical assumption that acceptance of authority and careful epistemological investigation should be treated as separate, unrelated issues.

Part of this has to do with the fact that Kierkegaard was thoroughly adjusted to his role as the subject of a king rather than being a participant in a democracy. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a leader who pandered to the masses; whose authority was based on being likeable or convincing: “There is something disturbing in the idea of a king who is witty or an artist. […] To ask whether a king is a genius –– with the intention, if such were the case, of obeying him, is in reality lèse-majesté; for the question conceals a doubt as to whether one intends to submit to authority. […] To honor one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.”

Obviously the cultural assumptions which the reader is expected to bring to such a passage have changed a lot in the past 150 years. Does that mean that we have slipped further from God’s intended design for humanity? I rather doubt it. I don’t actually believe that there ever was any true “divine right of kings.” Frederick VII having ruled Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time was no more a manifestation of God’s will than Berlusconi’s presidency of Italy is today. The practical opportunities for citizens to influence matters may be limited in both cases, but that does not mean that anyone who has succeeded in gaining such power has Carte Blanche from God himself to run things as he pleases. Every holy book worth its salt contains passages on what constitutes good governance and what standards rulers should be held accountable to. Rulers which do not live up to their responsibilities are to be peacefully removed from office wherever possible. Unwise rulers are no longer routinely obeyed merely because they are rulers, and overall the world is a better and safer place for it. This clearly goes against the grain of Kierkegaard’s understanding of how authority is supposed to work, but then again he probably faced far worse disillusionments in other matters.

Part of what this entails is that citizens are at least in part responsible for the state of the government they live under. Rather than unquestioning obedience, what we theoretically owe to our rulers is respectful awareness of the issues they are dealing with, and active participation in the process of encouraging wise decisions. Thus respect for authority, rather than being a passive matter entirely distinct from epistemology, becomes an active matter acutely dependent on epistemology. And for reasons outlined above, this also applies quite directly to spiritual authorities as well.

So that brings me back to the question of what I would do if I were Abraham…

Perhaps, like Gideon and so many other holy men who have been faced with counter-intuitive instructions, I would ask for specific signs to prove to me that the instructions were at least coming from something more than my own disturbed emotional state. Perhaps I’d look up my old friend Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) who comes from an entirely different religious tradition but still worships and gets messages from the same God, to see what sort of wisdom he could impart on the matter. Perhaps I’d just try to decompress for a while; leaving my foreman in charge of the flocks and all and spending some time just traveling, either by myself or with the wife and kid, depending on which would most effectively help me to be sure that I was thinking straight again. I figure if God would want the kid dead he wouldn’t be in such an all-fired hurry about it anyway.

My overall take on old Father Abraham is that he meant well, but he may have seriously got his wires crossed in trying to figure out what God wanted of him. Isaac actually comes across overall in the narrative as sort of retarded, and given how he was born long after his mom should have stopped having children, that’s more than possible. Having just kicked his smarter, stronger son out of the camp on his wife’s demand to improve the chances for this cute little weakling must have been rough on him. The chances of this little mommy’s boy ever amounting to anything seemed pretty slim. Maybe if he sacrificed this kid to his God, the way his neighbors sometimes sacrificed their kids to their gods, that would earn him extra favor from up above to make sure good things came to the kid who seemed to have better prospects anyway.In spite of all of his confusion though, God somehow got the message through to him just in time not to do it! So Isaac was saved, and Abraham was left with a feeling of God telling him, “Don’t worry. Everything’s cool. I know you meant well, but I have plans for this kid.”

Isaac went on to lead a limitedly successful life. He wasn’t really interested in any other women than his mommy until after she died. His dad then arranged for him to marry one of his cousins, who sort of a became substitute mommy for him. After failing at it for quite a while he finally managed to get his wife pregnant… once. And from there the rest of the stories about Isaac have to do with his wife and son taking advantage of his blindness and stupidity. Meanwhile Abraham remarried and had a big bunch of kids with his new wife, but then left the family fortune to Isaac and his family.

So when it comes down to it Abraham’s success is less down to him earning it through his heroic readiness to kill his weaker son, and more a matter of God being merciful to him in spite of his occasional screw ups, of which killing his son could have been by far the worst. Overall, if I would have been in Abraham’s position I believe I would have made an entirely different set of mistakes than he did, but God could have been merciful to me too in spite of myself. As things stand, some 4000 years or so later, Abraham’s legacy lives on, and those of us who follow in the different variations of the spiritual
path which he pioneered keep doing our best to get the message right in our own contexts. That includes me, and every true believer in any faith, who throws him- or herself on God’s mercy and then tries the best he/she can to live worthily of the mercy thus received. And as near as I can tell, that would also include Kierkegaard.

Like Kierkegaard, I make no claims at having prophetic gifts, but I listen for God’s instruction the best I can anyway. Ultimately, in spite of our uncertainties, we all must live our lives looking forward. We seek whatever help we can get from above. We fail on a regular basis, but we keep trying. Not giving up hope can be easier said than done.

Trusting that God will be merciful to those who call out for his mercy, and who are willing to show mercy to others on that basis, is the first order of business. Seeking valid general rules for living wisely and relating to others respectfully comes next. Getting special wisdom and guidance for unique circumstances where the general rules don’t necessarily apply would come after that. None of those are the exclusive territory of prophets or exceptional saints; they are available to all believers. None of them require special genius, but all of them require careful consideration of what information and sensations can be trusted. All of them require a certain humility, but none require blind obedience to those who claim to speak for God.

And with this in mind, may we each experience his mercy then this Easter, this spring, in our own surprising and revitalizing ways.

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