Archive for April, 2009

Thinking about Forever

Posted in Faith and Science, Faith Experience on April 27, 2009 by RWZero

And all the Things that Happen There

Even as a young child, my waking hours were filled with daydreaming about the most abstract and unsettling ideas. Notorious among them was something I could only set to rest by ignoring: the dreadful concept of forever.

I quickly became acquainted with the idea of heaven. People sometimes expressed concerns about boredom in heaven, and others attempted to assuage the fears of these churchgoers, who were beleaguered by ideas of an everlasting hymn-sing followed by an everlasting sermon. [1] None of that bothered me. I was pretty sure God wasn’t going to put us through an eternity of something any more boring than my day-to-day life, which I found pretty interesting. What bothered me was the elephant in the room—the elephant of eternity.

It was not the idea of being somewhere forever that bothered me, but the idea of being forever. It took a while before I ran into others who shared my feelings on this matter, but every time I imagined myself living on into eternity, I felt the deepest, darkest dread. [2]

Ray Kurzweil, despite being crazy, understood this. In The Age of Spiritual Machines, he wrote:

“Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it.”

The atheists always seemed to have this problem licked. They all had a master plan: they were going to muck about in this interesting, unexplained life of theirs, have a lot of fun, experience things, and then they were going to die. [3] Nothing was going to happen after that, of course. It was a brilliant exit strategy—it was a hell of a lot more relaxing than, well, hell. Or heaven.

The problem with being an atheist is that you’re less likely to lie awake as a child thinking about eternity. Unless you grow up and decide that mucking about in life includes studying mathematics or science, you might never spend much time thinking about forever. But you should, because forever is real.

People don’t naturally take to the idea of infinity. I recall taking grade 12 calculus and watching a friend of mine argue with the teacher about asymptotes. They couldn’t go on forever, he said. That didn’t make any sense.

“It must stop at some value!” he said adamantly. “It stops at some value plus or minus alpha, and we just don’t know what it is!”

The teacher’s expression was priceless. She was pretty young, and I believe it was her first year teaching. She hadn’t been trained to deal with people who had personal issues with asymptotes.

At the end of the day, you can close your calculus textbook and forget about asymptotes, but you can’t wipe away the truth. There will always be something. Something is forever. The book is missing at least one of its covers, and even if the rising action reaches its climax, the dénouement is eternal.

Even if we imagine the space-time continuum blown up like a balloon and taped to the ceiling; even if we are able to abstract our way out of the human experience of time, we only deepen the sense of permanence. There it is. There’s time, space, and all the places inside. Is there nowhere else to go?

I would not draw more comfort from a death that puts an end to my existence. It might seem that I’m trapped in a paradox of inevitable trepidation, but I’m not. If I believed that death were the end of my very existence, it would threaten the meaning and value of the time that I have now. The possibility of eternity threatens only the meaning of time in a hypothetical existence—a hypothetical existence of which nothing is certain.

As a human being, I can’t rid myself of the fear that accompanies these ideas, but I can ignore it. I do not believe that they correspond to an eventuality that will ever be realized, or that ought to be feared. That’s why I leave them at home nowadays. I try not to take them elsewhere, even while abstracting.

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[1] Standing on a stage at a music festival in front of thousands of cheering young Christians, I once heard a speaker say: “Hey, if you find worship boring, man, you’re gonna be bored in heaven… because that’s all heaven is—one honkin’ long worship service!”

A chunk of the crowd did go “Woo!” or something to that effect, but for the most part I think he succeeded only in infecting a bunch of impressionable kids with eternophobia.

[2] In the fall, I recounted this to a group while walking downtown. Jehan Watson was there.

“You must have hated Amazing Grace,” he said. “We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” He laughed as he put special emphasis on “first begun.”

The next day we attended a funeral. Amazing Grace was sung. I looked at Jehan. He looked at me.

[3] My choice of wording and tone here derives primarily from an article I came across in one of my Skeptical Inquirer reading sessions. The author has apparently posted it on her website as well.

The Weight of the Soul

Posted in Evangelism, Faith Experience on April 19, 2009 by RWZero

(21 grams)(9.81 m/s²)

During my time in engineering, there were three classmates that I spent the most time with—Gaby, Andrew and Elena. We would sit around a table in the Sandford Fleming atrium, and they would pepper me with questions and challenges to my religious disposition. Beer was served in plastic cups from the engineering bar, stereo speakers blared music from a Winamp playlist, and it really wasn’t long ago at all.

Most of the things they said, and the questions they asked, were reasonable. Some of them were impossible to answer. Some of them were profound, and they were washed away by the tides of ordinary days, limited attention spans and time constraints. Elena once paused in the middle of one of these conversations, and asked me such a question:

“How can you live surrounded by all these people who don’t [believe what you do]?”

I knew what she meant, and I don’t think I answered the question that day. I thought of several short, logical answers, but I couldn’t provide them, because it was not a question of logic.

* * *

It might seem clever to point out that we are all surrounded by people who don’t share our exact beliefs. It might seem tolerant to suggest that we ought to see the world differently; it might seem Torontonian to praise diversity. But it would not seem sufficient to say any of these things. How can so many people take such a truth lightly, if indeed it is of any importance? And how can such a truth be true, if so many people disregard it? Wouldn’t these people matter to such a God? Is there no weight to the soul, that it might make a ripple in the fabric of truth?

There are three difficulties, the first being that we do not wish to imagine that so many people are wrong [1]. But it is the other two that must be acknowledged and wrestled with: The sorrow for others, and the sorrow for ourselves.

Even if we are able to convince ourselves that so many others are mistaken, we do not take kindly to the idea of a weightless soul. It is for this reason that the idea of hell seems so repulsive—not that we could be punished, but that the natural goings-on of so many people should be seen as punishable. Charles Darwin famously said:

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” [1]

I am not writing, here, about hell, but about the idea that human beings have gravity to them. This is different than the belief that many sensible people cannot be wrong—it is the belief that the truth warps according to numbers and strength of conviction. Sitting that table in the atrium, the four of us were acquainted with some experiential truths that we carry with us even today: if we opened an exam and discovered that we could scarcely answer half of it, we knew there would be a serious bell curve. If enough people disobeyed a rule, it would be the rule that would be called into question. If enough of us voted for the opposition, the government would be changed.

It flies in the face of such experience to believe in a God that would create people without winning them over, or that people would ignore God unless he wasn’t there. Despite this, I cannot be ruled by such base impulses, and I cannot believe that the truth changes with popular opinion. I did not have to leave that table to vindicate my decision. In a separate conversation with Andrew, I had once inadvertently mentioned Christianity’s being the largest religion, to which he said: “Oh, but I don’t care about that. I don’t care that ‘the world’ says this, or ‘the world’ says that.” And he was right. If they were to believe in the gravity of the soul, they would have to be religious, or at the very least spiritual. If I were to believe in the gravity of the soul, I would not be able to take religion seriously.

Finally, there is the loneliness and isolation that must surely accompany such beliefs. I would not have denied this. But to take anything seriously—even serious unbelief—requires a complete separation from culture in that particular respect. Mainstream culture has no direction to it; it merely ebbs and flows along behavioural geodesics, and it is blown about by the wind.

I can live surrounded by all these people because I do not believe that the weight of the soul can be summed across persons in such a way. I can live surrounded by all these people because they are not entirely different from me. Many of them have firmly grasped what it means to be human. Many of them also share my understanding of what is, and what ought to be. Only some of them share this understanding for the same reasons, and fewer still [4] behave accordingly.

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[1] No matter how you slice the pie, most people are wrong. This is the topic of a separate entry.

[2] It might be ironic to wonder how many people disbelieve on account of this, but that would stray from the point here.

[3] There is no “3” in the body, but I couldn’t think of a better place to write this: is there a “sum of total pain?” C.S. Lewis wrote that he didn’t think so. Nobody experiences the sum of total pain. It may be difficult to describe the importance attached to an experience by the number of people experiencing it.

[4] To say nothing of myself

Truisms Concerning Altruism

Posted in The Narrow Path on April 12, 2009 by RWZero

“There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Benevolent Lunch”?

In the tenth grade, they introduced us to Hobbes and Rousseau. They introduced these men only inasmuch as was necessary to raise the question: are humans inherently good, or are they inherently evil? It is not difficult to answer this question, but it is difficult to answer it convincingly.

We all do things that might be called good, and we all do things that might be labeled evil. Defining one of these temperaments as our natural state involves a heavy burden of proof. The professor who taught me most of what I know about history and war said, in his opening lecture, that these things were both part of human nature—you could not explain war by appealing to an ultimately sinful human nature.

If good and evil were opposing political forces, I would grant that we behave in bipartisan ways. But I would like to question something. What could possibly motivate us to do things that do not benefit us enough to warrant the requisite effort? Furthermore, if we cannot answer this question, is there anything that we can legitimately call altruism?

In a moment of spite, I might tell someone that he does things only for his own gain. Upon reflection, I might find it difficult to escape this accusation myself. If an action were truly selfless, I’m not sure we could have motivation to do it. The help given to others may be no more than investment in good will; the money donated to charity may be borne out of guilt or self-righteousness. Even the most altruistic acts may be committed only to quell smouldering empathy. In committing any action, we can never demonstrate that we are clean from benefits, be they emotional, existential or material.

We cannot prove that our actions transcend an overarching quest for personal gain, and I consider it impossible to verify the existence of altruism at the highest level. What I do contend, however, is that some forms of altruism are higher than others. What I am certain of is that some are different than others. The Christian mandate for altruism resonates with me, and it demands different motivation than the kind of benevolence most often discussed in classrooms and lecture halls.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

[Matthew 5:46, ESV]

There are many miles between good treatment of a friend, and true love for a friend. I could focus in on this distinction, but there are far greater leaps between the love for an enemy and the love for a friend—the love for a friend is as natural as the hate for an enemy.

Christians forget that Jesus did not disregard ambitious desire—he spoke of gaining spiritual rewards, and he gave reasons for acting certain ways. We cannot prove that an act is selfless, and a truly selfless state might even be considered pathological, motivated by nothing rational at all. I am impacted by this aspect of the Christian message: we are not to deny personal desire, we are only to desire differently. The motivation of desire is inescapable. Those who fancy themselves rid of it are deluded, and this shows plainly in their actions.

Thus, it is not my goal to attain altruism in an absolute sense. I cannot do this, but I can be altruistic in the purest sense possible. I believe that the altruism that comes with faith is greater than the altruism that comes with a birth certificate. Love for one’s enemies—for those who cannot even offer us the gratitude we seek—is totally contrary to our natural priorities. This quality, among others, is borne out of a mindset that cannot be feigned, and all attempts to emulate it result only in self-righteousness or displays of religiosity.

Counterintuitive

Posted in Faith Experience on April 8, 2009 by RWZero

I sat at a table in a coffee shop. I said something that I’ve known for a long time: that I believe it, but it doesn’t make sense. I heard something that I’ve never heard before:

“I mean…it’s pretty counterintuitive.”

Now that’s something. I always thought it was intuitive but illogical. I don’t often hear a Christian call faith counterintuitive.

But I thought to myself: we all have two types of intuition–the kind that tells us what ought to be true, and the kind that tells us what actually is true.

So I discovered, there, that my faith is counterintuitive.

The Evangelical Smile

Posted in Humour etc. on April 6, 2009 by RWZero

That cheesy, phony, artificial, mindless, mannequin-esque evangelical smile.

You know the one I’m talking about. It’s not really a smile. It’s a mouth in the vague shape of a smile, the kind of thing you get when you say “smile!” and pull the two ends of someone’s mouth upwards. There are only a couple of muscles behind it. In fact, it’s probably the same shape as a slack, hanging rope. There’s an equation for that, you know.

evangelical-smile2

If this is you, we have to sit down and talk. All these evangelical smiles bug me. Did you read some kind of a book that told you God was a nice guy? Did this same book give you the idea that perpetual cheeriness is equivalent to holiness? I don’t own this book (though I do own several Bibles).

Holiness is not equivalent to happiness. Happiness is not equivalent to cheerfulness. Joy is not equivalent to emotion.

I know what a real smile looks like. Take that plastic grin off your face and talk to me.