Archive for August, 2010

The Intended Experience

Posted in Faith Experience on August 29, 2010 by RWZero

Clues in a Barren Wasteland

One of the biggest implications of believing in God is the idea that everything you encounter in life has to be for something. It can be a very difficult thing to come to terms with, and the weight of it is so great that I think it results in many Christians living narrow lives.

I am not talking about reconciling the existence of dung beetles. I am talking about reconciling the existence of fundamentally distinct sets of values, feelings and experiences. I alluded to this once already, when I expressed the idea that a thing seems untrue if it can be totally ignored. Here, I am addressing the idea that if a thing is claimed to underlie all other truths, it must be found somewhere within them.

A plethora of experiences vie for our senses, each capable of inundating them. Each of them has a life of its own—a paradigm, with its own goals, its own disasters, and its own ultimate meaning. Even in the short span of a fictional movie, we find ourselves cheering for the hero to complete his quest, and cringing at the possibility of the villain’s success. We become intensely interested in the destruction of magic rings, the wisdom of aliens, and a host of other strange things.

If our beliefs about the real world are accurate, they have to explain—or at least be compatible with—our feelings about everything else. Our interest in the hero’s success is the same as our interest in the triumph of good over evil. Our feelings about the vengeance of the anti-hero are equivalent to our real thoughts on justice. But what of the stranger and more esoteric things in the world of art? What is being stirred within us by the glowing cities of fantasy and science fiction? What of Stanley Kubrick? What of the stranger things in reality?

Is this mere curiousity and wonder, or is it something else entirely?

To believe that the universe is built upon some great truth is to believe that there is a tinge of it in everything. The only alternative is to suggest that there are things that contain none of it. But I cannot believe that these imagined lands—these rich works of visual art and fiction—have nothing to do with the truth. They set a fire alight in me, and I know that they are touching upon something which is not fictional at all. Some of the speculation that makes up these grand stories may one day be reality.

If I were to return to a religious faith in the real world that could not account for these feelings, and that had no relevance to them, I would be professing faith in a creed destined to leave me less human and farther from the truth. For nothing is truly invented by humans that was not already part of reality, and everything that is real is a small piece of the truth.

I shall never divide my mind along such a sharp line as to relegate a single human paradigm, which inspires wonder in me, to the realm of the irrelevant.

Generous Orthodoxy

Posted in Evangelism on August 22, 2010 by RWZero

Measuring the Width of the Narrow Door

I have expressed my discomfort at the very idea of hell; however, it is not because of discomfort that we must be generous with our orthodoxy. An aversion to eternal punishment may be emotional, but diffidence in proclaiming it–that is demanded by simple logic.

We cannot believe that anyone who rejects a handful of facts pertaining to Jesus Christ is damned, and that anyone who accepts these facts is saved. Even the most fundamentalist Christian will agree with the latter statement. The former is often contested. But one need not contest this in order to believe that Jesus is the “Way, the Truth and the Life,” as it is possible to walk down a road without knowing its name.

Imagine that some evangelists give a Bible to indigenous tribesmen in South America, and that this tribe converts to Christianity. However, it turns out that someone performed a search-and-replace on this Bible, replacing “Jesus” with “Obama.” Is this tribe going to hell? I don’t think so. Now, imagine that all of Paul’s epistles are missing, which is a big deal, considering that the evangelists believe in a very Pauline Christianity. Hell? Probably not, unless everyone who met Jesus in person is going there too. Finally, imagine that when the tribe hears the gospel message, they exclaim “We knew it! We believed something just like this before you got here, but now we know what it’s called.” Minutes later, a volcano erupts and kills everyone on the island. Did the evangelists save all those souls by arriving a few minutes early?

I am loath to force the point, but it is an untenable theology that regards people as saved or damned solely on account of factual knowledge. To sustain the idea that God sorts people at all—what with their transition through person-states, and extreme circumstantial differences—is a mind-rending exercise in an of itself. But to presume an understanding of what the outcome will be? This entirely misses the point of believing such things in the first place. The doctrines that we consider orthodox are a collection of words and ideas that do not necessarily correspond to anything consistent in all the people who believe them. You may think that you believe otherwise, but I’m pretty sure that you don’t.

Comprehension

Posted in Faith and Science on August 21, 2010 by RWZero

There are things we understand, and things that we do not.

When Christians talk about God, they talk about the latter.

When atheists talk about God, they talk about the former.

Unfamiliarity with the Divine

Posted in Faith and Science, The Facts and Ideas on August 15, 2010 by RWZero

The Elephant in the Room of the Theist

The atheist makes extraordinary efforts to ignore the queerness of the universe, and the impression that everything visible appears arranged for us in advance. [1] The theist makes extraordinary efforts to ignore the fact that God—presumably omnipotent, loving and all-powerful—is invisible.

Every person who believes in God should pause, just once in his or her life, and get perspective on this. We carry on as if it’s perfectly normal to believe in an invisible God, and even speak to him on a regular basis. If asked what God’s most immediate, obvious quality is, I imagine that believers might talk of his love. No. The most obvious quality of God is that he cannot be seen, touched, heard, or generally experienced in any way by the five senses that we employ when experiencing absolutely everything else. Do not prevaricate, you faithful. Somewhere deep inside, you know that this is the most glaring bit of dissonance that can exist in a human mind, and yet it is the least discussed among them all. If you believe in God, then ask the question: why is he invisible? How can you possibly pretend that he isn’t?

We have come up with a few reasons for God’s reclusiveness. Perhaps he hides from us so that we can live our lives freely, with the choice of seeking him out via the scent on the trail. This is a compelling explanation, and it could even be true, but it is still a post-hoc rationalization. Regardless of how much trust you may place in the Bible, it says very little about this; so little, in fact, that some Christians have concluded that God was openly involved in the lives of human beings in the past, only recently cutting back on appearances. There is a distinct possibility, however, that God was just as hidden from the ancients as he is from us.

First and foremost, I believe that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge the gravity of this point, and to act in a way that’s consistent with the way that things actually are. I have read articles and books that deal with God’s invisibility as if it were a minor traffic disruption. Things are fine between me and God, although not being able to see or hear him gets in the way from time to time. The subject is treated as if some unidentified third party is responsible for this inconvenience—as if we’ll just have to sit idly over some tea until the superintendent gets here. He’ll tell us where God is, at which point we can get back to what we were doing. I have met people who are convinced that God sits all day long behind a thin curtain, chattering to their subconscious; responsible for every idea that they don’t remember trying to come up with. In turn, they allow their subconscious to play his role entirely. They frequently say “God told me this,” and the citations that follow are ostensibly meant as verbatim. If a believing person cannot acknowledge the biggest difference between a relationship with God and a relationship with a human being, this person is one short step away from believing no longer.

I also believe it’s important for Christians—once they have properly digested the issue—to give up on explaining it. There is no palatable explanation for this. If you’re going to keep on believing, you’re going to have to do just that: believe.

While I do intend to stir up some doubts by writing this, I do not intend to stir up poisonous quantities of them. This is a powerful objection to the existence of God (I suppose no one would argue about it otherwise!), but I believe it can be accepted. One of the red flags that goes off in my mind is that so many people—dare I say, we—continue to believe in him, despite the paucity of empirical evidence. This tells me that the matter is worth close consideration, and that the idea does not arise from a trivial aspect of the human condition.

What of the evidence? I was once infuriated by this letter to the editor in the morning paper:

“Why is it that believers can offer nothing but childish rationalization [for believing in God]? Oh, right: because there isn’t a single shred of scientific evidence for his existence.”

Why do some people keep asking for scientific evidence of God’s existence? They know that there isn’t any, and they know that most believers know that there isn’t any (nothing replicable, anyway). The reason, of course, is that they enjoy asking loaded questions, knowing that the underlying assumptions prove them correct, and preferring not to debate them. However, scientific evidence is largely irrelevant in this matter—not merely because it is arbitrary to demand such a particular kind of evidence in this case, but because if God is out there somewhere, existing, it would appear that he is intentionally being subtle about it! One cannot expect that God would fail at such a task, leaving behind enough proof for the clever people to demonstrate his existence just as plainly as if he were visible.

It is not so much of a stretch to imagine how someone might be kept from a very real thing while still inferring its existence. A blind person never experiences sight, but hears the rumours from sighted people. A man kept in a white room his entire life would be shocked by the sun, the moon, and the stars. A native who has never seen snow would (should, says Hume) not believe in it. Yet it is possible to imagine that these people might acquire an inkling of the things that are kept from them, since the framework of existence, in and of itself, entails them.

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[1] “But that’s evolution!” they might say. My experience tells me that biologists are the most likely to propound this kind of truncated thinking [I retract this statement – apparently it is more widespread than that]. They get their minds up into the big picture, and then they postulate something above it that spits out largely nonsense, but nonetheless is perfectly capable of producing the big picture. Look how easy that was! We don’t have to feel surprised anymore. After all, this was bound to happen eventually.

Reduction to the Absurd

Posted in Faith and Science, Faith Experience, The Facts and Ideas on August 8, 2010 by RWZero

Through a Glass Darkly

Oh, there is no sense in resisting it—the infectious knowledge that this experience, this dream we share together, is just madness. And for those for whom it is not madness, it is madness waiting to happen. Find a cardboard box in your closet and open it up, look inside a dusty drawer, drive too far east just after the first night of midsummer, crack open a textbook and go too far into the maths, and suddenly… madness.

In your moments of clarity, you are standing on the summit of the steepest mountain—the only mountain in sight. You are an island of sobriety in the mire of lunacy. You are a smidgen of coalesced order, momentarily insulated from the bloated entropic soup.[1]

Many people are comforted by a thing we call science. Do not be fooled by science. Do not huddle so tightly around the fire—the perception of order and unity—as many do. These people wish to be protected from surprising things. But if, one day, they are cut loose from the lifeboat and set adrift, I shall have no sympathy for them. Of course, it is not huddling close to the fire that is wrong. It is denying the vast darkness at your back.

This experience is like a finely spun web, stretching outward without bound. It is possible to slide along its strands further and further in any direction, and voila; you still exist! Even if everything else goes mad, and even if you do not so much as make sense to yourself, you still exist. Your thoughts are stable, and they can be whatever they are. It was only in those times when you were sane, and no smarter than everybody else, that you thought (wrongly) that they had to be anything.

Interestingly enough, however, there is a place where most people are. There is a city in the heart of the web, where the threads are joined by the thick knot of our common experience.

You can take a walk, if you must. Simply take the trouble to remember the way back.

If you should happen to look behind you and notice that it goes on forever out there, do not panic! Quell the clamouring throng of little ideas about how terrible it is, how someone might be out there, and how because there is an “out there,” perhaps you have no business staying here.

The problem, you see, is that there is only one way to acknowledge the void and keep from making a one-way trip into it. That is (and I wish that I were being redundant in saying so), you have to choose to stay here.

There are two things to be said about Christianity. First, that it cannot be true because it is an absurd thing (absurdities are human) in a rational universe; and second, that it cannot be true because it is a coherent thing (coherencies are human) in an absurd universe.

Now, I do not know that the universe is either rational or absurd. I do know that I have the liberty of traveling as I please, and that Christianity is a human thing found only in the human circle around the fire.

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[1] And unlike the other statements, this one is demonstrably true!

 

The Unsung Hymns of the Church

Posted in The Narrow Path on August 1, 2010 by RWZero

Suffering and Servitude

Somewhere in the world, I imagine there must be secret classrooms. In these classrooms, they gather together the most ardent of the young atheists and teach them that religious people are dangerous. Muslims blow up buildings, Christians are responsible for all colonization and murderous crusades, and the Jews steal land from indigenous people. As always, I will only speak for the Christians–and what I do know is that these young atheists go on to edit Wikipedia articles and post on Internet forums, denying the sufferings of Christians, along with all the benevolent work they have done, and do, throughout the world.

Though I can only speak for the Christians, I have decided that they should be spoken for.

When judging a religion, we cannot judge it simply by the aggregate sum of the actions committed in its name. I also affirm that we cannot perpetually disown people who do shameful things as “not true followers” of that religion. However, it is not difficult to discern a set of behaviours that are distinctive of a religion’s adherents, and to see how they have played out throughout history. In other words, we have to ask ourselves: how are people of this religion different from people in general? The truth is that Christians have suffered intensely throughout history, and they have done an incredible amount of good—even after you adjust for the disagreement on what is “good.” It is true that Christians were involved in the Crusades, and in the Spanish inquisition. However, this is hardly the most important thing about them.

Were the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition uniquely religious events? The Crusades were military campaigns, fought primarily with Muslims who were growing their empire. Had Christianity never existed, would the denizens of Europe not have waged war against them? No doubt, many of the details would have been different, and wrongs were certainly committed—but I do not believe the mere existence of these military campaigns tells us a great deal about Christianity. What of the Inquisition? This was undeniably a religious event, but can it be divorced from the trend of a ruling body forcing its ideology upon the people? When religion is conflated with culture, the actions of people group are branded with that religion—but people, on the grand scale, do not behave that differently from each other.

Christians are, and have been, an intensely persecuted people group. We have heard much about the Spanish Inquisition, which resulted in an upper bound estimate of 5,000 dead. Yet in Communist Russia alone, an estimated 21,000,000 Russian Orthodox Christians were murdered, not including those of other denominations. There have been inflammatory suggestions that Hitler was a Christian, but this is as preposterous as it gets, as if I could just as easily paint myself a different colour and defame an entire race with my crimes. In the Nazi Christianity, Jesus was not even a Jew. It was the “Confessing Church” that was persecuted, and it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who conspired to assassinate Hitler—though even this action, he did not justify. Being a Christian will get you tortured and killed in a great many countries around the world today, and there is no shortage of personal accounts in affirmation of this.

As to the benevolence of Christians, it cannot be denied that they are responsible for a great deal of charitable and humanitarian work. One may protest that these acts are mere self-righteousness, but even if this were true (and overall, I am not convinced that it is), they would still be charitable and humane acts. Granted, this is not a game of numbers—but the numbers are there. If the reader cannot find examples, he surely will not accept any that I provide! As someone within the church, I have seen this first hand, and I know that it is something I have not found in such abundance outside of the church. Perhaps the most important gauge for me, however, is my own life. Though I have lost many opportunities to act as I ought, I believe that I am different in this respect than I otherwise might have been.

If I were an intellectually secure atheist, I would not attempt to slander and discredit both the good deeds and sufferings of Christians. Yet this is precisely what militant atheists do. To what end? Is Christianity more likely to be true just because its adherents suffer, or do good deeds? The atheist must answer in the negative. Why then the denial? Isn’t it enough to believe that there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden, without having to believe that they are harmful?

Whether or not it is true, Christianity motivates people to do good things, and in many parts of the world, it has a high price.