Archive for June, 2009

Temperament and Type

Posted in Faith Experience on June 29, 2009 by RWZero

I Say Tomato, You Say Tomato

The music echoed through the auditorium. The room soon filled not only with singing, but with dancing of all kinds. With eyes shut and hands held high, they emitted an endless stream of praise and prayer; every tone, every word, soaked in heartfelt sincerity. It was a one of many nameless days in one of several nameless churches, and beneath the surface, I was always uneasy.

I cannot say how it happened. Perhaps it was the books I read, the conferences I attended, or even the other churches I visited. I know only that in some way or another, a sub-culture leached into my life that was not of my own church, but of the evangelical church at large. It was a sub-culture of emotional expression, steadfast devotion, and continued revelations that I never seemed to grasp. It didn’t matter how many times I closed my eyes, or how often I felt that faith was worth getting excited about—I was not like that.

The evangelical church has genuine foibles, and of those I am genuinely critical. But many frustrations are caused not because the church is in error, per se, but because it exalts some temperaments above others. There is often a distinct failure to understand that people are different, and that they deal with everything, even their faith, differently. This goes unnoticed because the offending personality traits are so perfectly subjugated: the individual, equating the exalted traits with godliness, is often the sole suppressor.

When people behave in ways that stretch the very fabric of their being, only so many things can happen. They will either become a shell of a human being, with no memory of who would have otherwise been; or they will wake up one day and realize that there has been a mistake. For me, many years ago, it was the latter. I have never since expected myself to feel certain ways, find meaning in certain discussions, or commit certain acts of piety. I am far from the person I wish to be, but far closer than I once was.

I can theorize on how all this may happened. For the one whose heart is worn upon the sleeve, a real Christian cannot help but cry tears of joy. For the one whose life revolves around obligation and duty, a true Christian will certainly spend extended periods of time in prayer. And though the duty-bound individual may not naturally cry tears of joy, he is bound, by duty, to try.

We might expect that the pursuit of God will result in a spiritual experience, and when the experience comes about—eliciting the most natural response—we may spiritualize the response. In this way, the manner in which faith is expressed may dominate faith itself. There can be no more fertile soil for hypocrisy.

It is no wonder that in the absence of a universal authority, the protestant church has fragmented into so many denominations. You cannot ignore the striking patterns. Denominational differences, in my experience, are not so much about theology as they are about type.

I could write endlessly about the specifics. The examples I have given are only a shadow of my meaning. I could discuss every nuance at length, and pin down every cause and effect. There may even be some value in that, for it might force one particular person to understand the faith of another particular person. But I am weary of exposition. I want only to ask everyone the favour, on behalf of everyone else—that we would recognize the value of type. Evangelicals should make an effort to understand personality types [1], and the way that people of varying types deal with emotions, faith, reason, and commitment. From what I have seen, the personality traits of some have been spiritualized within the evangelical church, and pushed away those who cannot abide by them.
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[1] The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which (in my opinion) I cannot overstate the value of, has recently caught fire amongst my friends. Things like that are not a solution to problems like this, but they are a small step in the right direction.

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This Problematic Doctrine of Hell

Posted in Evangelism, The Facts and Ideas on June 21, 2009 by RWZero

The Place that Simply Cannot Exist, Except for People who Really Deserve It

If there’s anything that makes Christian beliefs look antiquated and barbaric to the modern observer, it is the doctrine of hell. The idea of God, or even moral absolutes, doesn’t offend our sensibilities (and indeed, our intuition) nearly as much as the idea of a perpetually burning lake of fire, where people roast eternally for a smattering of petty moral offenses they committed during their lifetime. It doesn’t sound very believable, and it doesn’t sound very nice.

There are two areas of interest here: the way Christians deal with the concept of hell, and the plausibility of its existence.

There seems to be a misconception that Christians believe in hell because they want other people to go there. This is not the case. There are vindictive people, of course—along with not-so-vindictive people who have vindictive moments—but in my experience, most Christians believe in hell simply because it is a natural consequence of the other things they believe. Having accepted it, they proceed to do one of two things: pay as little attention to it as possible, or pay so much attention to it that they become stressed-out evangelists with sandwich boards.

I have noticed that most Christians err on the side of ignoring the issue, which doesn’t seem very holistic of them. All things considered, I think the soapbox evangelists are behaving quite rationally. If you really believe that the majority of your fellow human beings are going to fry in hell—and that you can change this—you really should be out there with a sandwich board. Admittedly, it isn’t likely to work, since nobody listens to frenetic preachers on street corners, but you should be so concerned that you rashly resort to highly ineffective methods like these.

Why do I not behave this way? It is partially because I do not quite see it that way, partially because of a separation between my beliefs and my everyday experience, partially because of John Calvin, and partially because it just doesn’t sit well with me. If God created all this exclusively so that we could rush around like maniacs in paralyzing fear for our neighbour’s salvation, you’d figure he would’ve embedded that intent more clearly in our experience of the natural world—or perhaps in the Bible.

On the subject of fear, people often say that the fear of hell is a needless, regrettable consequence of religious superstition. This is ridiculous. One of the most definitive features of hell is that it’s a place where only other people are going.

* * *

The real question, however, is whether hell exists at all. Moreover, it is a question of whether God exists, since he is linked with this outrageous idea. However, I don’t think that people reject the idea of hell because they find it irrational per se, or because they have already decided that there is no God. I’ve noticed that many people—whether or not they are theists—treat hell as a separate, independent idea, which they reject because they find it wanton and malevolent. [1]

The classical idea of hell makes me profoundly uneasy. It is a completely different issue from the existence of suffering (which I can accept much more easily). I, like other Christians, am convinced that the beliefs I hold are useful, and that they contain, in some fashion, the truth. Yet it is horrifying to imagine that one could be eternally punished for living a life that, to all appearances, is thoroughly harmless. Furthermore, can we possibly conceive of a purpose for it? We punish criminals for deterrence and correction, but never for punishment’s sake. Finally, how could God have created people with the intention of damning them?

The idea of hell can be reconciled, or it can be rejected. In either case, it should be understood.

Consider the nature of hell in the Christian tradition. Although the Old Testament is chock full of violence and wrath, it contains no concept of hell. It was believed that souls went to an ambiguous place called Sheol, and at one point in Ecclesiastes, the writer openly expresses doubt about whether anything happens after death. By the time of the New Testament, however, the idea of hell has emerged—Jesus called it Gehenna, which referred to a valley outside Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and burned. In parables, however, hell is described as a place of darkness, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Is hell dark, or is it alight with flames? The only thing these two analogies have in common is that they describe an unpleasant place. Additionally, there is no clear account of what happens after death. Only Revelation has specific-sounding details, and nobody in their right mind should get overly specific about stuff that’s written the book of Revelation.

The New Testament writings do not explain what, exactly, is necessary for a person to go to hell. They do not explain what happens to all the people who have never heard about Jesus, or what happens to everyone who lived and died before he was born. In fact, nothing is clearly explained, except that Jesus is the only sure way salvation.

According to Christian beliefs, then, hell is an undesirable place where God consigns people because of sin. I do not believe that there is a large, fiery mosh pit in the afterlife where people will feel hot temperatures for all eternity. I do not believe that Satan is flipping humans on a spatula somewhere. [2] I believe, however, that people can be held morally responsible by God, and that whatever this may entail, it cannot be seen as unjust. Any concept of eternal punishment is inherently limited by our present conception of time, and the precise nature of such punishment cannot be known. [3] If God exists, how could we expect that those who deny him—some in more dramatic ways than others—would come to be with him? Some form of separation would follow, and it would naturally be unpleasant. One may ask why God would create people despite knowing that they will go to hell, but this is a misleading question. It presumes that people are created individually, as if some people could be created instead of others. But there is no wholly independent creation of individuals; as we can see, there has only ever been one creation, and our existence is contingent upon it all. We are all in this together.

These answers may still be unsatisfying. Why did God create the lot of us, if even one of us is destined for hell? The common response is that perhaps there is no way to create people who do accept him, except alongside people who don’t. Perhaps God considers the whole thing worth it, though it pains him. I do not have a problem with this explanation—but I do not feel responsible for providing answers like this in the first place.

In order to assert that a good God would not send people to hell, I would need to know many things. I would need to know why we live and die, what his true purpose is in creating all this, what happens to the people who go to hell, why he chose to do it this way instead of some other way, whether any other way is possible, and innumerable secrets of the universe. I know none of these things.

Thus, I cannot say that a good God would not send people to hell. It follows that I cannot factor this in when deciding whether or not I believe in God. It would be silly to deny him on the premise that he might treat people who deny him unjustly. If he exists, he knows what he’s doing.

In summary, the idea of hell squares with my intuition in areas of familiarity—the moral law, moral responsibility, justice, the difficult choice being the right one, and a belief in God. It does not square with my intuition in areas of unfamiliarity—a divine concept of fairness, eternity, and what happens after I die. This does bother me, but when I consider how ignorant I am of the greater truth, it’s not so different from the existential dread that I inevitably feel when I cross into this realm of thought.

I will not reject what is evident to me in protest of what is not.

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[1] I recognize that it may also be seen as irrational precisely because it is wanton and malevolent, but I’ve addressed this throughout.

[2] I once saw this on a T-Shirt in the States. It said “No parties in hell, just one big BBQ.” Actually, here it is.

[3] Years ago, I had an argument with a friend. She held an annihilationist position, believing that God would, at some point, snuff people out of existence, rather than leave them in hell forever. She said that the alternative was unthinkable. At that time, I accused her of believing this merely because she wanted to. But there is an intimate link between what we find unthinkable, and what we find nonsensical—I can scarcely recall the state of mind that I must have been in, to have insisted so strongly on something so uncertain.

Moral Responsibility

Posted in Faith and Science, The Facts and Ideas on June 14, 2009 by RWZero

Sentencing a Spiritual Machine

I should waste no time in arriving at the point. It is argued that humans cannot be held morally accountable for the actions that they commit, since, on account of the deterministic or stochastic nature of the universe, these acts cannot be said to originate from a free agent. It ostensibly follows, then, that we may dismiss any conception of God that entails reprobation upon death, as he could not conceivably punish such actions.

This argument is the lynch-pin of intellectual objections to divine judgement. It is not that the wrath of God is excessive, but that it is altogether unwarranted. Einstein wrote that a God who rewards good or punishes evil is inconceivable since, in God’s eyes, man is no more responsible for his actions than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. The objection has been rephrased in many ways, and it has never come undone.

Some believers in moral responsibility appeal to ontological free will and pure, unadulterated emotion. Does it not seem clear that we are free to do as we please? Is a child killer not morally responsible for his crimes? I do not claim these arguments as my own, however, as I cannot conceive of such free will, and I cannot rest my conclusion solely upon emotion, however compelling.

I espouse a belief in moral responsibility, and I will defend it, though not by rejecting determinism (though I am indifferent to the truth of that proposition). I maintain a belief in moral responsibility because I see no reason why the above arguments should negate it, and I do not believe that God is obligated to judge us on our terms.

The materialist objection is incoherent, treading on its own assumptions. It states that “we” cannot be held morally responsible for our predetermined actions; as if these actions were somewhere off in the distance, while we, with our free will, stand off to the side. Yet if we accept the materialist outlook, there is no “you” to separate from your actions. You are not an innocent soul that is forced to commit predetermined crimes, because these actions—these thoughts—are everything that you are. You are, in essence, the inextricable moral behaviour. To appeal to any form of dualism in the mind and body is to return to the place from which you came, where the conventional notions of moral accountability are already valid.

What Einstein refused to appreciate is that we do hold inanimate objects for the motions they undergo. If a pendulum will not swing, we undertake to repair it; if it cannot be repaired, we discard it.

You will say to me then, “Why does [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?

[The Apostle Paul, Romans 9:19-21, ESV]

Thousands of years before the advent of modern science, it was possible to understand that all things are responsible for what they are, inasmuch as they are responsible for anything. We hold objects responsible for the state they are in, but we do so in ways that are appropriate for objects. We hold humans responsible for the state they are in, and we do so in ways that are appropriate to humans. That many people embrace the moral law in their everyday lives—despite having renounced it intellectually—is indicative of more, I believe, than a simple failure to reach enlightenment.

This perspective alone does not satisfactorily explain the state we are in. Neither does it suggest that a God exists who will execute divine judgement in any particular way. It suggests only that this God would be perfectly justified in dealing with human beings in a way that is commensurate with their deeds, thoughts, and state of being. Not that he requires such justification, but that we cannot find it lacking.

It Would be Necessary to Invent Him

Posted in Faith and Science, The Facts and Ideas on June 7, 2009 by RWZero

On the Deception of the Conditional Mood

As we learn to speak, we find ourselves distinguishing between the words we say and the things we mean. “That isn’t what I meant,” we say. “What I really meant was…” and so follows a stream of words that means exactly the same thing. The new paraphrase is not “what we really meant,” it’s just more likely to convey what you really meant. But you only knew something was wrong because he scowled at you, or because she slapped you. Imagine a handful of words, chock full of nuance—what if we rarely thought about their different meanings? What if there were no simple paraphrase?

What if there were… it so happens that this is the handful of words I’m referring to.

When we use the present unreal tense, we imply that the converse is true. What if you were green? I’m not. What if you were to discover that your wife had left you? She hasn’t. There is a difference between these two, however—you accept that your wife could still leave you, but you do not accept that your skin could ever be a natural shade of green. One of them is unreal because it cannot be real; the other is unreal simply because it hasn’t happened.

There’s more to it than that. If we ask “what if you were in New York?” we think of this as a real possibility. There are people in New York, and I could easily be one of them. If we ask “what if you were green?” we are asking something that is not a real possibility, but that we can still imagine. If we ask “what if you were living in twelve dimensions?” we cannot answer the question, because we cannot properly imagine it.

What if there were no God?

* * *

There is a mistake that we make when debating the existence of God—we speak as if the two possibilities are real. We imagine two universes, one with a supreme being in the sky, and another with nothing but empty space. Yet the question is unlike any others we could ask. If God exists, there is no hypothetical universe in which he doesn’t. The very notion of a godless existence suddenly becomes nonsense, as if we were discussing breadless bread. There is only one existence, and there is nothing to compare it to.

If you hate math, just skip the next two paragraphs. They don’t say anything new.

In statistics, we use hypothesis testing to judge which of two hypotheses are correct. We assume that one of them (Ho) is true, and we test against some imagined alternative (HA). It’s supposed that they overlap, however. It’s possible that Ho might do something really strange, making it look like HA is true (type I – false positive), but we also might get an unusual result from HA that makes it look like Ho is true (type II – false negative).

God-Hypothesis_Black

No matter which hypothesis is true, we recognize that we might get an extraordinarily unlikely result, making it look like the other one is true. However, there was a probabilistic experiment conducted that produced an unlikely result—theoretically, it could have gone differently, leading us to the correct conclusion. Not so with the existence of God. We are stuck with the reality that we have, and the experiment cannot be repeated, because there is no experiment. There are no probabilities.  There is only what is.

This is profound, because it affects the way we understand “evidence” for the existence of God. If God exists, we cannot necessarily distinguish his fingerprints from anything, because his fingerprints are everywhere. [1] If God exists, we cannot say that the universe looks just as it would if he didn’t, for no such universe can be imagined. [2] Skeptics ask for evidence, but oftentimes they only want evidence that can be distinguished from the presumed godless universe that they hold in their lap. Perhaps they want violations of natural law, or indisputable special revelations. When these are claimed, however, they are met with such incredulity that it seems only absolute proof will do. If you demand this, you have already bypassed the real conversation. You are not starting an inquiry—you are stating a conclusion.

Countless people deny the existence of God, but it is not for lack of evidence. If we are to speak of evidence, we must admit that we are inside the puzzle itself, [3] and we must admit subjective evidence to the table. Some of the greatest evidence we use to make these conclusions amounts to “It is plain to me,” or “It seems this way to me.” Because we are debating about the uncaused cause, the root of all things, there are an infinite number of interpretations that fit the data. We can only judge them by the ring of truth that resonates when we sound each one. Circular reasoning cannot be avoided: our foundational assumption either floats freely in mid-air, or it grabs onto the beginning of the chain.

The burden of proof is not on the atheist, but neither is it on the theist, because whoever is given the burden of proof cannot build a case. When God is posited as an explanation for the universe, many skeptics raise an eyebrow and ask “Who made God?” Although they have (at best) forced a stalemate, they often claim victory because they have decided that atheism should be the default assumption [4] [5].

Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The statement hints that the world we live in has innate, non-negotiable properties. It is the way it is, but what we make of it may vary.

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[1] This statement is credited to an unknown member of the Hart House Chorus, who, when I made this point, paraphrased it as such.

[2] Of course, rigorous scientific experiments also lack “real alternatives.” If we discover that the universe is a certain way, then this demolishes the possibility that it could have been any other way, and there is no universe to compare it to. Scientific experiments, however, are able to give us an answer to our question, because most of us agree on the criteria for making predictions. This is because they are much farther down in the causal chain, and we have already accepted a common perspective on how they will be affected by everything above them. There is no similar test when dealing with the prime cause.

[3] I am not especially familiar with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, but I believe they are related to this point.

[4] This brings us to Occam’s razor and the importance of time, which will be discussed elsewhere.

[5] One might point out that I could make a similar defense for the existence of invisible pink elephants, and since those are ludicrous, so is God. But I am talking about proof, and the ways that we construe evidence—not a total absence of anything that might be called evidence. There is a reason why we have many theists, numerous atheists, and no believers in invisible pink elephants.