Monday, December 18, 2006

Whosoever Believeth In Me

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. The only way unto the Father is through Me.
—Jesus of Nazareth

“I can’t be dead!” she thought, and then
she felt a twinge of sharp surprise
when her soul tore from her body
and began to slowly rise.

The world around her disappeared
into a brilliant misty glow
and when it dissipated she
was in a place she didn’t know:

a featureless and formless void
through which she wandered all alone
until out of the blur ahead
she saw a man upon a throne

who called to her, “Come forth, my child.
The time has come: your judgment day.
Your sins and virtues, measured out,
determine where your soul will stay.

So now will I begin to judge
and after a short time will tell
whether you will go to heaven
or spend the rest of time in hell.”

She looked at his long hair and beard
and robes, and looked into his eyes,
and then knew who he was and gasped,
“It’s you! The savior, Jesus Christ!”

He nodded with a smile and said
“It’s very good that you know Me.
Now let me have your name so I
can read about your life to see

exactly what the Book of Life
records that you have done with yours.
Oh, my! Look here! It says that you
once owned a little chain of stores

and took most of the profits and
bought food and clothing for the poor,
scholarships for struggling students,
homeless shelters, and what’s more

you’d donate blood six times a year,
always helped your friends and neighbors,
spent your whole life serving others,
and to reward you for your labors

I’ll let you live in Paradise.
Go on and step through yonder door!
through its threshold you’ll find Heaven
and be happy forevermore.”

As she began to walk on through
she turned to him and, with a smile,
replied “I will say this much, Lord—
you do seem like a real nice guy!

Back when I lived upon the earth
I wish that I had known of this!
That way, I could have worshiped you.”
She smiled, ‘til her eyes met his

and then she took a small step back
to see the fury brewing there
as Jesus, lower lip a-trembling,
rose out of his golden chair

and hissed “Am I to understand
that you have never worshipped me?
Then I say damn you! Go to hell!
Yes, I mean that literally.”

Then through a door she didn’t see
an evil imp pulled her away
to one of Hell’s scorched prison suites
where still she burns unto this day.

Amen.

25 Comments:

Anonymous Godfrey said...

Well done. Even religion, it seems, is subject to Darwinian selection.

How long would Christianity have lasted if it didn't value belief above all else? It would have died on Golgotha that day with ol' what's-His-name.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Stevo Darkly said...

Jennifer, I've gotten interested in this topic since, as you know, it came up over at Grylliade's. I understand that some Christian churches take a pretty hard line that you have to be an explicit and official "believer in Christ" or you're done for. I've been looking up the Roman Catholic position specifically, though, and I think it's a bit more nuanced.

'Scuse me while I get religious for a minute.

There's a bit in the Catholic catechism that says:

"Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience -- those too may achieve eternal salvation."

I think some of this language may have interpetations beyond the obvious, and I'd like to start with the ending.

"Those who [are] ... moved by grace, try in their actions to do His [God's] will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience -- those too may achieve eternal salvation."

I'm not sure what "moved by grace" means here. Grace is a Christian concept akin to mercy -- it basically means God does good things for you whether you "deserve" or "earn" them or not. I think the phrase here means God calls you toward the doing of good rather than evil whether you know it or not. I believe this passage means that people who try to do good -- follow their conscience -- are doing what God would want them to do, whether they realize it or not. Such good people can "achieve eternal salvation" even if they aren't Christians as would normally be recognized.

"Those who ... who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart ..." I wonder what this means in this context, since -- in the context of the passage as a whole -- it might include people who never even had the chance to hear of the concept of the one God of Abraham. Could "seeking God" mean something more universal than exposure to a specific concept of God, such as trying to find out the meaning behind life, or the meaning of "what is good"?

What about the non-Christian or atheist who has sincerely thought about the concept of God, pondered it, really tried to apply some logic to it, sincerely tried to figure it out, but came to the honest conclusion: "It doesn't make sense to me. I sincerely tried to seek God, but I honestly don't think He's there." If such a person still tries to do good according to his conscience, couldn't maybe even an atheist who ever tried to believe, or at least probed the possibility, be included as a "sincere seeker"?

"Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church ..."

This seems to be the toughest hurdle between the non-believer and salvation, because many people interpet it as saying, "If you've had the mere opportunity of hearing about Jesus and the church, and you didn't accept it, then you're damned."

But is that really what's expected? That if you become aware of the religion, then, BAM, you are supposed to automatically accept it? What about the church's tradition (and church member's obligation) of presenting, arguing, evangelizing and witnessing?

What if you are a non-Christian, but all your life you've been taught -- or worse, you've been "shown" by defective Christians -- that Christianity is full of stupidity, error, superstition, hypocrisy and viciousness? If that is overwhelmingly the face of the church that has been presented to the non-Christian, and as a result the non-Christian rejects the church, is that the non-Christian's fault?

I don't think so. I've seen it several times -- often a young person is turned into an ardent atheist for life by exposure someone (usually an dickhead clergyman) who is a nominal Christian but the worst possible representative of what a Christian is supposed to be. (There's even a reference in the New Testament to this phenomenon of assholes turning young people against the church. Something about millstones. It's not the youngsters who are blamed.)

I don't think mere exposure to the church can be seen as sufficient. It think there's also an implicit assumption that a fair case for belief must be made. IMO.

So I believe the doorway is not so narrow and arbitrary as some think.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

The problem there, Stevo, is why would Jesus have made the comment about being the only way to the Father if he wasn't? For that matter (I got in huge trouble for asking my Sunday-school teacher this as a kid), if God is so kind and loving, why couldn't he just forgive humanity WITHOUT torturing his son to death first? Why the necessity for Jesus at all? "Go to hell, you evil nasty human. No, wait! Now that I sent my son to earth and watched him die, I've changed my mind!"

Better yet, why the hell did he do things like give humans a powerful sex drive and then say "It's sinful to act upon it or even fantasize with it?"

I dunno--my mother didn't make me start going to Sunday school until I was seven, but by then I suppose it was too late. I certainly believed in God back then, but too many of the specifics of Christianity made no sense to me at all.

(Personally, as an atheist, I'd say that if there IS a god and an afterlife, my good deeds should actually count for MORE than the good deeds of a believer. After all, I'm not being good in hopes of winning brownie points for heaven, or avoiding hell. I do good for the sake of doing good, and nothing else.)

6:57 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...


1 Timothy 4:10 (King James Version)


For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.

Of course, this is picking and choosing from among several books of the gospel, which all have different takes on Christ and His message. And, all of the official books of the gospel were chosen for political reasons by a synod of bishops, well after the fact.

I don't actually recall a direct quote from Christ stating that sex is bad/sinful (although he is down on adultery). But one must remember that the teachings of "the Church" (any church) are not necessarily those of the Savior/Prophet/God around which that church revolves.

The Prophet Mohamed had female bodyguards - an occupation that modern "conservative" Muslims would undoubtedly declare "against the tenets of the religion".

Jesus Christ was a Jew, and preached to the Jews. He undoubtedly would have condemned the Pogroms of the Catholic Church.

In fact, I don't recall Jesus ever actually saying the word "Hell", in the scriptures which quote him. There is one parable about a servant and his master (possibly in the afterlife), where the master is suffering and burning, and calls to the servant to bring him water, but the servant (who can obviously see and hear him) is "separated by an uncrossable gulf". However, much of Jesus' talk about "Heaven" is explicitly about "The Kingdom of Heaven", which I submit is a different thing entirely.

The Kingdom of Heaven seems to be a state of mind/state of being in the "here and now". If you have the right attitude, you exist in the Kingdom of Heaven. Without that attitude, you don't. One makes life much more bearable, even enjoyable; the other leaves a life filled with unrequited desires and unresolved fears, driven by personal ambition.

The Sufi have an interesting parable about organized religion:

It seems the Great Satan and the Buddha are walking down a road, when one if the nearby peasants suddenly gains Enlightenment. The Buddha turns to Satan and asks: "Doesn't it bother you that people can and will continue to gain true Enlightenment so casually?"

"Not at all," replies Satan. "Now he'll want to tell others. To do that, he'll found a religion...and I'll be there to help him."

7:55 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

A better translation of "No man gets to the father, but by me." is this: No one gets to the father without my help.

Yeshua is the final judge and believing in him does guarantee salvation, but He has the power to extend his hand to anyone he chooses.

BTW, Heaven is not the final destination for all who receive salvation. It is only a resting place, a vacation if you will, until we are returned to Earth in our glorified and perfected bodies.

God knows our nature from the time we were created (I'm not talking time of birth or conception.) He is too gracious to force His will on anyone who would not, when given a clear choice, desire to be with and worship Him. Some people ask how could God be so cruel to send people to Hell, but it's not like that at all. It is more to the point that He will not force anyone to worship him. There are and will be many who will willfully choose to reject God. A place has been prepared for their liking, a place without God. It is called Hell.

Blessing to FG and all her loyal readers. May the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) be revealed to you and may you make the choice for God and for good.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Godfrey said...

Jen: the reason Jesus was "necessary" was because the primitive mindset of the people who invented him (or at least who imbued him with divinity) held that scapegoating was a valid form of compensation. The Bible's full of such instances (as when the "Lord" threatens to "visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the [presumably innocent]children unto the third and fourth generation).

Jesus, along with the many other sacrificial god-men of antiquity (Prometheus, Osiris, Mithra, Krishna, Zoroaster et al) was just a heightened version of the charred animal flesh you'll find throughout the Old Testament.

The principle of scapegoating only makes sense if you happen to be a primitive goat herder...or if you have a talent for overwrought rationalization.

Stevo: my evangelist Christian friends often rail against the Catholics for their belief that "works" (good deeds) buy them a spot in Heaven. They say that belief alone is the key.

Which strikes me as absurd since, as you point out, true belief is not a function of will. In fact I'd say that any "belief" that comes about purely through the conscious determination to believe is inherently fraudulent. It's difficult to see why a "real" God would require this, but it's very easy to see why a religion seeking to sustain itself would (see my above post).

9:37 AM  
Anonymous Godfrey said...

nostar: There are and will be many who will willfully choose to reject God.

If God is omnipotent and omniscient this statement is necessarily false, for he predestined everyone to believe as they do ("many are called, few are chosen").

If God is not omnipotent and omniscient, he's not a god.

Both cannot be true.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

Godfrey,
The apparent contradiction is resolved once we understand that our 3+1 dimensional world is a subset of a larger 11 dimensional Universe. We experience time sequentially, but our existence is greater than the now. God can see the entire film strip while we live one frame at a time.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Godfrey said...

Ah! Thanks for "clarifying".

12:29 PM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

godfrey,
The upshot is that we have already made our future decisions. Our consciousness just hasn't experienced it yet.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Godfrey said...

Please tell me you're being satirical.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

@nostar: He is too gracious to force His will on anyone who would not, when given a clear choice, desire to be with and worship Him.

Tell that to the Israelites who were worshiping the golden calf, when Moses came down from the mountain.

In fact, Deuteronomy 7:1-6 has some of the first documented deliberate genocide, based wholly on ethnicity and religious belief. God ordered the children of Israel to exterminate all seven tribes of inhabitants of what became Israel. In later campaigns they were allowed to spare any virgin women that they wanted to rape. One tribe escaped by converting to Judaism en masse.

The God of the Old Testament is primarily described through the eyes of Moses - an obviously ambitious empire-builder. So it's hard to say if this hard-line approach really represented "the Will of God". However, three of the worlds great religions hold the five Books of Moses to be holy, literally reflecting the Word of God, so it's hard to doubt Moses without falling into heresy.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

Godfrey,
This is the one time I am not being satirical. I just happen to like mixing my theology with string theory physics.

Anne O,
I didn't say there wasn't punishments for disobedience. Sometimes punishment is to reform the punishee and sometimes it is used as a lesson to others.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Godfrey said...

I just happen to like mixing my theology with string theory physics.

Why not throw in some good ol' fashioned logic to boot?

Regardless of the convoluted way in which we might be tempted to express it, our decision of whether to believe has been made for us by this omnipotent "God" fellow.

Therefore we have no free will; everything is preordained by the creator of the universe. He is omniscient, therefore he knew which of us would not believe when he created us. He is omnipotent, so he could have made us as he chose. He made some of us to be unbelievers.

So he: 1) created a bunch of unbelievers and he 2) imposed a penalty of eternal torment as a penalty for their disbelief (which he gave them).

If he were real, this God of yours would be an incredible prick.

4:56 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

The message is metaphorical, in the sense dying is something you do every day that you don't come to somebody's aid.

2:24 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

@Godfrey: Therefore we have no free will; everything is preordained by the creator of the universe. He is omniscient, therefore he knew which of us would not believe when he created us. He is omnipotent, so he could have made us as he chose. He made some of us to be unbelievers.

The whole problem with positing omnipotence is that it means, per definition, that God doesn't fit into your (or anybody else's) box.
Omnipotence is a difficult concept to deal with in our mundane world. There is always the old paradox question of "can God make something so heavy he can't lift it?"

Obviously, if you posit the existence of omnipotence, you have to posit some (probably unknown) mechanism for resolving apparent paradoxes. Thus, the statement that there is no free will because everything must be preordained, (because God already knows what will happen) does not necessarily follow. Some mechanism for resolving logical paradoxes MUST exist if omnipotence is posited.

nostar's point about the sequential nature of time can provide one possible resolution to this paradox. If the universe is considered in a timeless manner, then it is not linear. It consists of an almost infinite number of branching possibilities, all of which co-exist "simultaneously". Each branch represents a "decision" (or quantum probability) that goes one way or the other.

God knows the "big picture", and can see the universe as a whole, with all of its branches. God therefor know not only "the" future, but all futures. In that sense, everything is pre-ordained. However, if he allows souls to "enter the pachinco game" of life at some arbitrary point, and then make their own choices throughout existence, exactly which end-result universe each soul ends up at is determined (to a large extent) by that soul's free will. The other possibilities still "exist" - complete with warm human bodies inhabiting them. They just don't include that particular soul.

If you buy into reincarnation or multiple-lifetime experiences, then a given soul could re-enter the universe at many different points, to gain the "required" or "desired" experiences. In this case, it is quite possible that a given (or even every) soul actually goes through all possibilities, so even the question of "which path did a given soul take" becomes moot - it took them all.

I'm not saying, by any means, that this is "how it is". Rather, pointing out that this is one possible resolution to the paradox of all-knowing -vs- free-will.

I do agree that there seems to be a contradictions between a "loving God" and damnation to Hell eternal. However, this is all based upon mortal definitions and descriptions of immortal entities and states of being. The definitions and descriptions are incomplete at best, and most probably wrong in many key ways. Using logic from premises known to be flawed inherently produces nonsense results. That's where the whole concept of "Faith" comes in.

If you can't have faith is a particular religion, then don't. The various organized religions will doubtlessly prescribe various threats and punishments for being an unbeliever, but you really only have to live with yourself, and God if you believe one exists. You can't possibly please all of the organized religions (or militant atheists, for that matter), so choose what works for you, and re-examine both the core beliefs and their logical implications regularly, to ensure you can live with your choice. Clearly, your relationship to any proposed God is ultimately and fundamentally very personal.

P.S. Has anyone notices that religious topics seem to generate the most responses in Jennifer's Blog? I wonder why that is?

7:23 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

Anne O',
Good explanation. Thanks

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Stevo Darkly said...

The problem there, Stevo, is why would Jesus have made the comment about being the only way to the Father if he wasn't?

I think what Nostar said about this particular point was correct. Traditional Christian thinking is that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary for humans' sins to be forgiven and for salvation to be possible. This might be analogous to something like, "In order for humans to live, they must have oxygen." This would be true even for human beings who deny it is true, or those who have never heard of the existence of oxygen. In some circumstances, it might be advantageous to consciously know this information, but it isn't always necessary.

For that matter (I got in huge trouble for asking my Sunday-school teacher this as a kid), if God is so kind and loving, why couldn't he just forgive humanity WITHOUT torturing his son to death first? Why the necessity for Jesus at all?

I dunno. I don't know much about the physics of sin, and justice vs. mercy and forgiveness. Maybe there's a logic behind it that we haven't figured out yet. Or maybe it's impossible for mere humans to figure out.

Maybe it's to present such a horrible story of suffering that future human beings would be mindful that there's a price for their sins. Maybe on some level "doing wrong has a price" is a bit of logic as inescable as the laws of supply and demand. Maybe it's to show human beings that under justice, there is naturally a price for sin, even if, under mercy, God arranged things so that the responsible human beings wouldn't have to pay the price themselves.

Maybe it's to give human beings a hint that there is a purpose behind suffering even though human beings don't understand what it is. (Which shouldn't be taken to mean that it's okay for mere humans to inflect suffering on each other. It's one thing for a surgeon to start cutting into someone -- he knows the how and the why, and is doing it to help. It's another thing for someone lacking that knowledge and motivation to do so.)

Unfortunately, when we start talking about things that are beyond human comprehension (which you'd expect to be part of a far-more-than-human God), you're in an area that is literally impervious to logic. Logic gets you from A to B, where "knowing A, what does that imply about B?" But if the purported knowledge of "A" comes from a source you don't happen to trust -- faith or revelation or a religion's teaching -- you can't come to any conclusions about B that you can trust, either.

Which is why these speculations about the nature of God, while often interesting, are always inconclusive and probably frustrating to some people as well. Ultimately, either you trust the source of your knowledge about A or you don't.

And there are other speculations on this thread that are beyond my means or inclination to tackle, myself. I probably won't post much more on this thread, therefore.

(Personally, as an atheist, I'd say that if there IS a god and an afterlife, my good deeds should actually count for MORE than the good deeds of a believer. After all, I'm not being good in hopes of winning brownie points for heaven, or avoiding hell. I do good for the sake of doing good, and nothing else.)

I think I agree. Certainly at least insofar as the believer is only motivated about going to heaven or hell. (A higher class of believer might slso do good out of love for the God, just as you'd do good for a person you love without necessarily being motivated by whether you'll be rewarded or punished for it.)

PS: I cannot remember the last time I said as many sappy religious things as I have in the past two weeks. I plan on being a bit more irreverant and cynical as soon as the holidays are over.

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

The evangelical Protestant view is that God requires the shedding of innocent blood to forgive sin. The blood of bulls and goats was a sign pointing to the Lamb of God, who removes the sins of the world. The shedding of the innocent blood of God in the flesh was sufficient to cover all sins ever, and to beat death and hell while he was at it.

That, of course, raises the same question Jennifer asked, "Why does God require the shedding of blood to forgive sin? Why not just forgive it?" Indeed, God is posited as a father in the Bible, yet what father requires torture in order to forgive his children's mistakes?

Most evangelicals also believe that everyone, everywhere is condemned to hell, no matter how good they are, no matter if they've never heard of Jesus. Eternal torture is the price of sin, and all have sinned, so all must pay the price.

When you describe evangelical belief, God becomes not just absurd but monstrous, and it would behoove humanity to fight such a God, if he even existed.

- Josh

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow. what childish garbage.

5:38 AM  
Anonymous Godfrey said...

anne: "Some mechanism for resolving logical paradoxes MUST exist if omnipotence is posited."

Which is another way of saying that omnipotence is a logical paradox, which was exactly my point. To posit a "mechanism for resolving logical paradoxes" strikes me as...well, a logical paradox itself.

The simpler (and therefore, according to Occam, more likely) explanation is that the idea of gods themselves is a logical paradox and is therefore false.

"nostar's point about the sequential nature of time can provide one possible resolution..."

Can it? Does it matter whether time is linear when it comes to omniscience, omnipotence and creation? I think not. God supposedly initiated my existence, regardless of the potentially non-linear nature of time. That he did so knowing that I would be a nonbeliever means that he intentionally created a person who would break his cardinal rule. He created me knowing he would torture me for all of eternity.

"...exactly which end-result universe each soul ends up at is determined (to a large extent) by that soul's free will."

Even within your proposed framework (which, forgive me, involves huge contortions), God is still--by definition---not omnipotent. Whether he intentionally shared some power with the creatures he created is beside the point: if power exists which is not God's, he's not all-powerful.

The only way to continue to view God as all-powerful is to do what you have (perhaps inadvertently) done: to alter the definition of omnipotence.

To complicate the matter with notions of a multiverse and reincarnation doesn't change the fact that omnipotence is inherently contradictory. It makes no sense on it's most basic level.

"I do agree that there seems to be a contradictions between a "loving God" and damnation to Hell eternal. However, this is all based upon mortal definitions and descriptions of immortal entities and states of being. [Etc.]"

If you dissect this statement you'll see that it is really a reiteration of that timeless evasive maneuver employed by countless theologians through the ages: "Who are we to question the ways of the Lord?".

In other words we aren't capable of understanding God's vast designs. You are positing the idea that, because we are mortal, the truth is unknowable. There are huge problems with this notion, but the most obvious is that if something is "unknowable" (as opposed to unknown) it exists outside of logic and reason, outside of the natural universe. In other words, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't exist in any real form.

That's where the whole concept of "Faith" comes in.

Faith, alas, is not a "concept" as such. Belief in the supernatural in general (and gods in particular) is completely irrational. It requires, as you point out, "faith". But what is faith? Faith is believing in something without evidence. Faith is believing something because you want to believe it, often in spite of evidence to the contrary. In other words faith is a wholehearted, deliberate embrace of the irrational.

If we all take your advice and "re-examine both the core beliefs and their logical implications regularly"...how long before faith crumbles?

3:24 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

Which is another way of saying that omnipotence is a logical paradox, which was exactly my point. To posit a "mechanism for resolving logical paradoxes" strikes me as...well, a logical paradox itself.

The issue of whether or not their is a God, and what His/Her/Its attributes are, is basically the story of organized religion, and arguably human civilization. I'm not really qualified (nor is anybody else, IMHO) to properly address such an issue. All I can do is voice relatively unfounded opinions, and present logical extrapolations from various sets of premises.

For this discussion, I accepted the premises:

1. There is a God.
2. God is Omnipotent
(which implies Omniscience)

I agree that the premises themselves constitute a logical paradox, which is probably why they inevitably lead to more paradoxes.

However, I submit that there are no currently espoused set of premises that adequately explain the world as we experience it (including such intangibles as emotion and belief), which do not themselves lead to paradoxes. The truth is, our knowledge of the universe and its laws is incomplete. The best we can do is to provide approximations which work for much of the observed data. Those approximations (theories) that encompass more of the observable phenomena are considered "more correct". But none is "The Truth".

The simpler (and therefore, according to Occam, more likely) explanation is that the idea of gods themselves is a logical paradox and is therefore false.

Probably you are correct. At the very least, the idea of Gods (or gods) as conceived by humans is undoubtedly incorrect. However, it is a surprisingly persistent meme, reoccurring in every known civilization. Clearly, it addresses some aspect of the existential experience that people consider important enough to keep redeveloping it. Any "theory of the universe" that does not encompass this phenomena is demonstrably incomplete, and - as argued above - inherently fallacious because of that incompleteness. There will always be some set of premises that are "more True".

God supposedly initiated my existence, regardless of the potentially non-linear nature of time. That he did so knowing that I would be a nonbeliever means that he intentionally created a person who would break his cardinal rule. He created me knowing he would torture me for all of eternity.

I agree. It is clearly nonsensical as stated. Note, however, that one of the premises I did not accept was the concept of eternal damnation. In my proposed temporally-branched universe, I suppose you could say that any state is "eternal" if it exists at all, because of the timeless viewpoint. However, I agree that this seems like contorted weasel-words.

On the other hand, our (Judeo-Christian) descriptions and impressions of the nature of the Divine and its corresponding "places" or "states" (Heaven, Hell, Sin, Salvation, etc.) are fundamentally provided by one man: Moses. He used the language available to a pre-industrial agrarian society to describe ineffable features of cosmology to an uneducated slave caste. His words were then transcribed and translated over the course of millennia, until they were distilled into the prevalent view of Western civilization. Under those circumstances, I would not find it strange that the limitations of language were not up to properly describing what Moses wished to convey. In fact, I would find it far more strange (and, admittedly, more indicative of God's existence and power), if Moses had managed to convey such complex and immeasurable issues in a manner that maintained clarity and cogency throughout the ages.


The only way to continue to view God as all-powerful is to do what you have (perhaps inadvertently) done: to alter the definition of omnipotence.

Of course, Omnipotence as you (and most) define it is merely an attribute that we have assigned to God. For the purposes of this discussion, I have accepted that assignation. It is not clear at all that ANY mortal description of "the Creator" is correct, including the statement that He/She/It is Omnipotent. However, while true Omnipotence may not be in the cards, we don't really have any other word to concisely describe the scope of powers attributed to Divinity by an endless stream of civilizations. I suppose we could use the awkward construct "Nigh-Omnipotent", and be "more correct". Its a case of "sound bites" over completeness/correctness.

If you dissect this statement you'll see that it is really a reiteration of that timeless evasive maneuver employed by countless theologians through the ages: "Who are we to question the ways of the Lord?".

Absolutely right. However, isn't that the ultimate position of all aspects of Human knowledge? When you finally get down to the nitty-gritty, even our much-vaunted physical sciences ultimately come down to "Well, that's just the way it is." Our theories simply don't cover all observed phenomena, and do predict unobserved conditions.

I guess my personal stand on "Truth" is that one should adhere to whatever set of self-consistent premises and implications best describe the largest subset of important experiential phenomena. The trick, of course, is the word important. That is an inherently subjective measure, that will differ from person to person. All of these epistemological constructs ultimately break down. Life (for me, at least) is a continual search and sifting through variations, to find those that "best fit" my own experience (which, of course, includes my unfounded preconceptions about how things "should be").

You are positing the idea that, because we are mortal, the truth is unknowable. There are huge problems with this notion, but the most obvious is that if something is "unknowable" (as opposed to unknown) it exists outside of logic and reason, outside of the natural universe.

Yes, as my arguments above indicate, I fully believe that Truth (i.e. complete knowledge about the universe) is unknowable. Demonstrably, one cannot be smaller than the universe, and still store the information necessary for a complete description of all elements of the universe and their states - past, present, and future. Thus, a "mere" mortal can Never successfully aspire to "perfect knowledge". Even in the more-limited sense of modern physics, we have already long passed the stage where this fact is a basic tenet of the science. The "Heisenberg uncertainty principle" has been an accepted postulate of particle physics since 1927. It holds that, within this universe, one cannot precisely know both the position and energy of any given particle. Even in the hallowed halls of modern physics, Truth is held as inherently unattainable to mere mortals. In fact, perfect knowledge is provably attainable only to entities that exist beyond the scope of our physical universe. Whether such entities do in fact exist is, per definition, beyond the scope of science.

Science (and its sister rationality) is a very valuable tool for understanding and describing our physical universe. Its application to non-physical issues is much more questionable. Thus, the common conception of "hard" sciences and "soft" sciences. All of our rational constructs are inherently based on accepting some premises unchallenged. If these premises are wrong - or even just incomplete - our rational constructs will themselves be faulty at some level of detail. We can try to improve both the initial premises, and the logic we extend from them. But we are forced to accept, from our own understanding of the limits of knowledge, that we will always be dealing with imperfect models. All fields of knowledge have or imply inconsistencies and paradoxes. It is not the mere existence of such flaws that should cause us to discard a given set of premises. It is the overall scope and utility of the encompassed subject that must be weighed when choosing to worship any particular Truth.

Faith, alas, is not a "concept" as such. Belief in the supernatural in general (and gods in particular) is completely irrational.

It is the pinnacle of hubris to declare that anything which is not "rational" cannot exist, or should not be. As pointed out above, even if our rational processes are perfect, our initial premises inherently cannot be. Quoth the Bard: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

In other words faith is a wholehearted, deliberate embrace of the irrational.

And? People have millenia of experience with the failure of "official doctrine" to fully explain the nature of things, much less the ephemeral "meaning of life". The irrational often seems to be the only "explanation", and it works for billions of people.

I consider myself "more rational" than most. However, our Western rationality and science dictates that, ultimately, we hold irrational beliefs. The very premises of our science must be accepted irrationally - that is the nature of premises. Condemn not irrationality out-of-hand. Like rationality, it can be misapplied, and often is. But "rational" is demonstrably NOT "Truth". Rationality is merely one of the best tools we have developed for examining the likely correctness of a given set of premises and their implications. The tool is not perfect, and not truly applicable to all circumstances.

That being said, rationality is a remarkably flexible and useful tool. Between us, we are applying it to immeasurable (and thus, probably incorrect) premises about the nature (and very existence) of God. As these discussions show, we can extrapolate certain required conditions - and eventually, paradoxes - from these premises. The real question is whether the scope of useful statements and predictions about our experiential universe with one set of premises is "better" or "wider" or "however you want to measure it" than another. How "soon" does it run into contradictions with experience, or self-contradictions (paradoxes) in predictions? If a given belief-system is fundamentally "separate" from others (which would arguably apply to some versions of religion -vs- physical science), then a person can simultaneously "hold" to several such incomplete belief systems.

If we all take your advice and "re-examine both the core beliefs and their logical implications regularly"...how long before faith crumbles?

That is, of course, the big question. How well do one's chosen set of beliefs stand up to both scrutiny and utilization? In the final analysis, all "knowledge" is really faith. Choose your faith(s) properly, and they will serve you well. Tend them, adjust them, and weed them, as you gather new information, experiences, and insight. But sanity insists that you accept that you will never have the "One True Religion" - even if it is an avowed "non-religion" like modern scientific theory.

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Stevo Darkly said...

This may never be read by anyone. On the other hand, Jennifer herself at least might have the means of knowing that a comment was added to this post. (I don't know much about how these blogs work from the blogger's side.)

As is usual when I attempt deep thinking, I find my meanderings have already been anticipated by some authority I've never heard of. In this case, tonight I stumbled upon the works of Karl Rahner, a Catholic theologian Jesuit priest who died in 1984.

Rahner advanced the idea of "Christian inclusivism" and the "anonymous Christian." That latter term is a very unhelpful one. A lot of the writing about Rahner's ideas is hard to follow because it is cluttered with Catholic theological jargon. And Rahner himself is hard to follow because he was a German, and he wrote like a fucking German.

But the bottom line is that Rahner believed that you can be saved by God's grace if you try to follow your understanding of what's good, even if you belong to a non-Christian religion, or are an atheist, and even if you consciously reject the idea of God as you understand it. Because you are "really" a Christian in the ways that truly matter, even if you make the mistake of not acknowledging it.

One interesting related idea is that an atheist, guided by conscience and reason, may think he is rejecting God but he is only rejecting his mistaken idea of what God is. I have to admit (and I've said this before) that I have noticed a lot of similarity between many "Fundamentalists'" ideas of God and those of many atheists: a cramped, anthropomorphic "sky fairy" that has a few superpowers but is basically confined by most of the same limitations that humans are -- rather than a fundamentally different, infinitely-more-than-human being. The difference being (as I've said before) is that the atheist rejects this conception of God as absurd, while the Fundamentalist believes things about God that are absurd.

Some non-Christians find Rahner's "you may really be a Christian even if you don't know it" idea to be condescending and Christian-centric. And it is hardly accepted by all Christians. Many Christians are "Christian exclusivists" who do believe you have to consciously accept Jesus as savior or go to help. (But some think you might get one last chance to choose after you die.)

Also, some break-away ultra-traditionalist Catholics -- who literally believe they are "holier than the pope" and reject Vatican II -- reject Rahner's thoughts as heresy.

However, Rahner is hardly a fringe theologian. He is considered "one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century" and was instrumental in constructing the statements of Vatican II. Also Ratzinger, the current Catholic pope, has indicated that he supports Rahner's "anonymous Christian" idea. (At least according to one Web site run by ultra-traditionalist Catholics who were really unhappy about this.)

Thus endeth the lesson ...

11:32 PM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

Years later, I enjoy coming back to this thread and re-reading from start to finish.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Radical Hick said...

Jennifer said:
"For that matter (I got in huge trouble for asking my Sunday-school teacher this as a kid), if God is so kind and loving, why couldn't he just forgive humanity WITHOUT torturing his son to death first? Why the necessity for Jesus at all? "Go to hell, you evil nasty human. No, wait! Now that I sent my son to earth and watched him die, I've changed my mind!""

I have to say that as someone raised outside Christianity, I have always wondered how this particular question has been either answered or overlooked by believers. And the few Christians I have asked have had no good answer for it. Of course, the people I asked were mostly my lapsed Catholic friends, so not a large or diverse sampling of believers or trained theologians.

I have come to accept the truth of this: Religion is like sex: If it's not something you're into, it just seems weird.

6:08 PM  

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