Tag Archives: Christianity

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

ISIS, Evangelicals, and the Mantle of Moral Leadership

Even if you’re reading this ten years from now, I doubt you’ll have forgotten the horrifying events of the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have, among other atrocities, besieged members of the Yazidi religious sect at the Sinjar mountain, where children have died of thirst; they have captured and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women after killing their male relatives; and they have issued “convert or die” ultimatums to hundreds of other members of this often-persecuted minority, slaughtering at least one entire village that refused. ISIS have not been kind to anyone, but they seem to have an especially large ax to grind with the Yazidis, holding them to be polytheistic devil-worshipers who should not be allowed to live.

How can this happen in the 21st century? Haven’t we arrived at the point where every person on the planet knows it’s wrong to besiege a religious minority, to enslave and rape its women, and to kill its men? Have we not learned that nothing can possibly justify this behavior — not even even the demands of the One True Religion?

Apparently not. But at least we Americans have gotten the memo, right?

Again, apparently not. I have heard more than one such American use the same thinking as ISIS to justify the same behavior as ISIS and defend a tribalistic morality that is just like ISIS’. I have heard this from Americans who are nice people and whom I otherwise respect. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be; there are tens of millions of Americans who hold these views.

I am thinking, of course, of American evangelicals. Before you close your browser, hear me out.

Consider Bible passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15, in which the God evangelicals worship commands his people (verse 15) to besiege (verse 12) members of other religions, and enslave them (verse 11), treating women as “plunder” to be “used” (verse 14) after killing their male relatives (verse 13).

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

As Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, evangelicals must defend God’s commands in this passage as “good” — and they do. As a member of that group for 40 years, I heard all the reasons.

“Those nations were evil and deserved what they got” is the primary one. “He had to drive the infidels out of the Promised Land” is another. “He was forming his people” is a third.

That sounds a lot like “This is where the Islamic State belongs and these Yazidi devils who are in it now don’t deserve to live,” doesn’t it?

But what if evangelicals are right? What if God really did have good reasons for ordering genocide, enslavement, and the plundering of women? Is that possible?

The thought is not as crazy as it sounds. Ironically, the idea that some entities are justly privileged to do things that others may not is what the rule of law is all about. Think about it. The State gets to put criminals in jail, but if a private citizen does the same thing, it’s called kidnapping. The State may impose a fine, to be paid to itself, but if a person does that it’s called stealing.

So is God like the State, meting out justice in ways for which the rest of us are not qualified? Not in the case we are considering. The claim that God is perfectly just, coupled with the claim that he is omnipotent, implies that whatever he is up to in Deuteronomy 20 is the best of all possible worlds. What we call atrocities are, in fact, the highest good. His plan could not possibly be any better.

Is that true? Presumably a state of affairs in which everyone, including God, is at least as well-off would be a better one. Can we think of such an outcome?

It’s easy. Here’s one modest improvement. Surely there were children in these cities who had not yet reached the age of reason. If they worshiped another god, it was only because their parents dragged them to church, so to speak. They did not deserve to become slaves. God could have tucked in a verse along the lines of “…but every child under the age of ten, you are to raise as your own, lovingly teaching them all I have commanded.” To kill the parents and steal the children would still be barbaric, but it would be better than calling the kids “plunder” to be “used”.

And don’t even get me started on what it meant to “use” the women as plunder. Are we seriously saying that such explicit permission brought about the highest possible good?

And let’s not forget that God could have sent his Holy Spirit on these distant cities, converting them into worshipers of himself, or at least giving them the chance. He would supposedly do exactly that in a few hundred years. Why wait?

The argument that God was doing the very best that could be done, given his broader purposes, just doesn’t hold up. The hard reality is that the God of the Bible ordered the same atrocities that ISIS has committed, for much the same reasons, with just as little justification. And tens of millions of evangelicals in America continue to defend him for it.

I believe that most evangelicals have good hearts and want what’s right. I believe that if all the passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15 were in a book other than the Bible, Christians would believe that book to be inspired by the devil himself. Yet there they are in the Bible. Christians now must choose between defending and repudiating them. As long as they continue to defend, it will be hard for some of us to believe that Christians are in touch with moral reality.

Christians who stick by those passages have the same moral epistemology as ISIS: consult an ancient text and justify whatever you find there. Why should such an epistemology, which has led to moral and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, be trusted in our churches?

American evangelicals want to wear the mantle of moral leadership. That’s fine, but to qualify they must stand up and thoroughly repudiate the moral philosophy of ISIS.

Polite Abhorrence

This is what discrimination and hatred look like in polite society.

When considering the possibility of a ministry to these people [in same-sex unions], a distinction must be made between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others, and those whose behaviour promotes and actively – often aggressively – calls attention to it.

That was from paragraph 116 of the Instrumentum Laboris recently published by the Vatican. I read about it on CNN’s Belief Blog, where the headline was Vatican softens tone toward gays and lesbians. CNN says the Vatican was softening its tone. So why do I call this discrimination and hatred?

We are so acculturated to this sort of polite abhorrence that we don’t notice it. Allow me to recast the sleepy, pastoral language more plainly. The boldfaced words draw directly from the Vatican’s statement.

We prefer to minister to homosexuals who are ashamed of themselves — those whose choice has been painful. Ideally, they will stay discreetly in the closet. If they were to make their same-sex union known, we would be scandalized. It is important that they avoid causing us pain, but it is entirely good and appropriate if they feel pain. Our pain is bad; theirs is good.

In case there’s any doubt about the continuing second-class status of homosexuals in the Catholic church, we have this four paragraphs later:

Should a reasonable doubt exist in the capability of persons in a same sex union to instruct the child in the Christian faith, proper support is to be secured in the same manner as for any other couple seeking the baptism of their children. In this regard, other people in their family and social surroundings could also provide assistance. In these cases, the pastor is carefully to oversee the preparation for the possible baptism of the child, with particular attention given to the choice of the godfather and godmother.

Again, very polite and very condescending. There’s the tight-lipped, smiling nod in the direction of treating same-sex couples “in the same manner” as heterosexual ones. But does anyone think that a heterosexual couple would be scrutinized to the extent that baptism — the rite without which a soul is doomed (paragraph 1250 of the Catechism here) — would be called “the possible baptism of their child”? Or that there would be nervous fidgeting about other people providing assistance? Or that particular attention would be given to the choice of godparents?

The whole world loves the new pope and the changes he is bringing to the church. Even I love him. I hope that the current trend toward welcoming everyone continues and in 10 years homosexuals will be neither living scandals nor second-class parents.

How Did We Get to Igtheism?

I learned a new word this week: igtheism. Wikipedia defines it as

…the view that any religious term or theological concept presented must be accompanied by a coherent definition…

So far, so good, right? A “coherent definition” just means a definition that does not contradict itself. This would seem to be a necessary place to start. But Wikipedia continues, and we start to see why igtheism might press our buttons:

… For example, if the term “God” does not refer to anything reasonably defined then there is no conceivable method to test against the existence of god. Therefore the term “God” has no literal significance and need not be debated or discussed.

So is our Western concept of God coherent?

Well, what is the Western concept of God? To start with the basics, the Bible says, “God is love.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that God cares for all his children as we care for ours? Evidently not; he allows horrible things to happen to many of them — things that he can easily prevent and that, if a human parent stood passively by and allowed to happen to his children, we would call evidence of criminal neglect.

I suggest that the word “love” in that sentence has no coherent definition, at least in the context of orthodox, Western religion. (If you can come up with one that takes into account God being omnipotent yet allowing most people to suffer in everlasting fire, you’re more clever than I am. Please leave a comment!)

Believers in the God of the Bible freely admit that their faith embraces paradoxes. After all, why should we expect our finite minds to comprehend an infinite God? As the Bible says,

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

Still, I would draw a contrast between unfathomable and incoherent. I can’t think of any verse in the Bible that boasts, “How incoherent Thou art!”

I think incoherence in religion has arisen because of a sort of arms race. In the beginning, gods were tribal in scope and had limited powers. They controlled the weather, prospered the crops, and helped in battle, but nobody claimed they were the supreme embodiment of Good. Even the Greek gods were capricious, licentious, and not very nice at all. If you could stay out of their way, you were doing well.

Over time, people wanted their gods to be better than everyone else’s. Naturally, a better, more powerful god is more compelling. Over the centuries, the gods that were said to have more superpowers won the battle for hearts and minds. Even within Christianity, the denominations that preach a more high-stakes message (e.g., evangelical denominations) are doing better than their more relaxed, main-line brethren.

As with other arms races, the people involved are so busy upping the ante that they don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into.

We exalt God higher and higher until he is “outside of time and space.” (This is a relatively recent upping of the ante. The Bible never makes this claim; it only claims that God is eternal, which is a completely different thing.) But we also want God to listen to our prayers, so we say he “changes his mind” over time (Exodus 32:14). Putting those two propositions together is incoherent, as far as I can tell.

We give God the superpower to know and control the future: “I [God] make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.'” (Isaiah 46:10.) However, we don’t want bad things to be God’s fault (after all, we have just said he is omnipotent) so, later in the same speech, we have him lament that things didn’t turn out as he had wished: “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea.” (Isaiah 48:18.) If he knows the future and does all that he pleases how can he say, “If only…”? To me, that’s incoherent.

We escalate our view of the Bible until it is the Inerrant Word of God. Unfortunately, it consistently describes the Earth as flat. Inerrantly preaching a flat Earth? Sorry; that’s as incoherent as drawing a square circle.

What do you think? Has Western theology become incoherent?

For more on this subject, here’s the video that got me thinking about it:

Christianity’s Gift to Western Civilization

This just in from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writing in support of the death penalty:

In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.

Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not with the death penalty, but with society at large.

American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality. [emphasis mine]

If I still believed in God, I would thank him that “the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization” — a moral clarity that brought us

– I would thank him that all this had been replaced with almost anything else.

And how ironic is it that Albert Mohler’s own denomination was founded to support the right to own slaves? And he’s scolding us secularists because we don’t have “a clear sense of right and wrong”!?

I was once a Southern Baptist myself, so I know where Mohler is coming from, but from my current perch it’s pretty hard to take. If I were to give full vent to my feelings on this subject, I would say something I’d regret. Therefore, I’ll give the floor to the endlessly forbearing Richard Dawkins. A transcript follows the video in case you’re in a hurry.

QUESTIONER: Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?

DAWKINS: Absolute morality — the absolute morality that a religious person might profess — would include what? Stoning people for adultery? Death for apostasy? Punishment for breaking the sabbath? These are all things which are religiously based absolute moralities.

I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon — you could almost say — intelligent design.

Can we not design our society which has the sort of morality — the sort of society that we want to live in? If you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people, among 21st-century people, we don’t believe in slavery anymore; we believe in equality of women; we believe in being gentle; we believe in being kind to animals. These are all things which are entirely recent. They have very little basis in biblical or quranic scripture. They are things which have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. These do not come from religion.

To the extent that you can find the good bits in religious scriptures, you have to cherry-pick. You search your way through the Bible or the Quran and you find the occasional verse that is an acceptable profession of morality and you say, “Look at that! That’s religion!” And you leave out all the horrible bits. And you say, “Oh, we don’t believe that anymore. We’ve grown out of that.” Well of course we’ve grown out of it. We’ve grown out of it because of secular moral philosophy and rational discussion.

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.