Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Virtue of Cherry-Picking

The following is part of an email conversation exchange between myself and atheist writer and humorist Jeff Swenson, author of the Freethunk blog site ( We discuss a lot of things, and I express some of my rather heretical views on faith:

 Swenson: Eternal security falls into the trap of Dahmer, Bundy, even Saul turned to Paul--all your past murders wiped away by faith. And then unlimited punishment for limited sins isn't what I would call justice either. It makes Heaven and hell pointless. And then how is it that people can enjoy Heaven knowing their atheist friend is in hell. It's twisted. I find the afterlife useless in general when we are closing in on immortality on earth in the next century (of course, it probably won't happen in my lifetime. I'll miss it by one year or something ironic). Religion really is a bit like science fiction. Sci-fi is future wish fulfillment (like Star Trek). Religious concepts of immortality are also wish fulfillment. And what does science do? It finds a way to make these ideas come true. However, we don't hold onto the past fictions, we embrace the future realities. I read over your other email. If this kind of faith works for you, then it's your journey. I can't convince you otherwise, I already know that from my own "journey." But I don't see god as necessary. I was a fundamentalist Jesus Freak who became an atheist. I've had all of these joyful experiences you describe and the transformative feelings but guess what, they stayed with me as an atheist and I realized it's just my brain rewarding me with chemical processes. We have machines now that can give you a spiritual rush and we now it's nothing supernatural. My charitable sensibilities have stayed the same because of my cultural programming. I have always been generous to the point of annoying my wife due to my Dad being very generous. I don't want to sound narcissistic, but generally speaking, people are surprised to find out how nice I am when I tell them I'm an atheist. I don't believe you need god for anything you describe about spirituality. You can have all these same effects with atheism. There's even atheistic spirituality. The bible is worthless as a reference point if you pick and choose what is true and what isn't, and how would you be the knower of that compared to someone else? I mean, don't you think a "smart" god would take care that the book describing him would get it "right", even in translation? This is why to me, if you want to use this book, it really is the fundie way--all or nothing that would make sense. If the reference to the Sun standing still in Joshua was just metaphorical language then why should I believe Jesus literally raised from the dead? If the rules in Leviticus were just cultural for the Israelites then why not all of the moral guidance and rules throughout the book? And why don't the Ten Commandments say "Thou shalt not rape or own slaves." If it's partially outdated then it probably is all outdated and it if is partially incorrect then why believe any of it is correct? All you're doing is applying reason to find what makes sense according to modern standards--like the golden rule makes sense (to a degree), which actually came before Jesus said it (Confucious). The messiah concepts of Jesus also aren't new ideas, you can find them in previous myths. Morality is us. Our current society has evolved to be morally correct or as correct as can be. There's no religious transformation necessary. And what happens if I end up being "more" moral than you? Shouldn't Christians, by the power of this godly transformative effect, be the most moral beings on the planet? It is after all, supernatural. And yet, I find no difference between believers and unbelievers. No way to quantify the differences. These spiritual feelings, all very natural. Generosity and good works, it all varies based on the person regardless of their faith/religion. No need for Christianity. So basically if you feel "Christian" I would say great, but that doesn't really mean much. I'm happy you feel good, but I get the same thing without Christianity or god and I don't have to accept horrid ideas like hell and blood sacrifices. I'd say it'd be better to become a Unitarian, you might find their company more to your liking from what you describe as your overall Christian faith.


Me: I don't think I would have had a transmormative experience if I hadn't known about Christ first. I've heard that others have had them without Christ (Sam Harris is a former Buddist), but it's hard to understand just how atheist spirituality could work. How do you meditate? You surely don't concentrate on "no god." If you concentrate on the love you have your fellow humans (as have I) then I would answer that that trnasformativepower IS Christ, whether you're aware of it or not.

I'd hestitate to say this to my fellow church members, but I go by prayer first, and scripture second. Yes, the "all or nothing" approach to scripture is on thing both atheists and fundementalists tend to agree. But I don't see why this should be so. Why could it not be that some passages in the Bible were truly inspired by God, while others were not? The writers may indeed have been filled with the Holy Spirit, but they were also human, and they may have allowed human emotion to influence them at some point. For instance, perhaps St. Paul truly did have a transformative experience (something surely happened in his life!), but his passage regarding how women should keep silent in church may hve been his own personal bias-it certainly sounds like it, and NOT like something someone would write after communicating with the Holy Spirit. This might be "cherry-picking", but why can't it be the truth? Evidence suggests that it is. There is evidence that the passages at the end of Mark about "taking up serpents", and the risen Christ telling His followers that those who would not listen to the would be damned were added to the book later, after it had been recorded. There is a book called Laying Down the Sword: Why We cannot Ignore the Bible's Violent Passages, wherein the author argues that some (perhaps all) of the genocidal atrocities recorded in the OT, such the Battle of Jericho, were purposely exagerrated by the authors for the same reason evangelists use the doctrine of hell today--namely to instill fear of God in thier followers (There's archeological evidence suggesting that the Battle of Jericho, as describd in the Bible, never took place). They feared that their followers were straying from the Law. ANytime you encounter a monstrous, unethical portait of God, then or now, the intent is ALWAYS to frighten. People don't come to Christ by fearfully submitting. But, then as now, religious people feared that they were losing their culture. That's why fundementalists take an all-or-nothing approach. Any slippery-slope aproach to Scripture is a threat to beleif, therefore to Christian tradition. But this is traditonal and soical, NOT spiritual. I actually believe that a lot of Christians today have made culture into an idol. They are not so much warriors for Chirst, as warriors for tradition.

About the Golden Rule, sure it existed before Christ came to earth (Truths are eternal) and Confuscious and Kristna knew about it. But would the Golden Rule, and knowedledge of it, be so widespread today if it weren't for Christ and His sacrifice? Surey not.

I could agree with you more that what is often preached by evangelicals is about the epitomy of injustice. Yes, even serial killers and mass murders will get a free ticket ot Paradise, and there was a former colleg professor of mine who was an atheist, and he was one of the nicest and best human beings I have ever known. Many ould insist he will end up in hell--in fact a Christian friend of mine at the time (who was also one of the best people I ever knew)said exactly that. Thus, morality is totally jettisoned.

About the idea that there is no moral difference between beleivers and nonbelievers, however, I'm not sure. Are there statistics to back this up? I've read some reports that say that the religious give more to charity than secularists do. This is only a generality, of course. What about other aspects of morality in their personal lives? I don't know. But I do know that from personal experience on messageboards, that, sorry to say, but unbeleivers have tended to be less courteous. I don't want to offend, but that's the truth. I've encountered a lot of angry atheists back when I used to blog on Sam Harris's messageboard--and I was a secularist (not really an atheist) at that particular time. My beleif in the supernatural did not go over well. Some atheists on that board were fine, of course. But many others weren't. I once wrote on Jeff Dee's blog, stating that I, like him, was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, and also mentioned my religous views. He was quite rude to be for my beleifs. I also know an atheist horror writer who attacks faith on his blog. ANy Christian or atheist who is partially sympathethic to Christians is very rudely admonished. And yet he always seems to think the other person is being a jerk. I never post on his blog. I don't dare.

Yes, there are some angry Christians out there as well. In fact, I just encountered one professing Chistian on youtube who was worse than most of the rude atheists I've met. You have been very couteous with me so far. But it seems that this is exception,not the rule. Sorry, that's just what I've encountered.

About Unitarans, this might sound stupid, but who are they? I've heard the name, but am not familiar with their beleifs.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) by Brian Jones

Let get this straight up front: it's not easy for me to review books which defend the doctrine of eternal punishment. Any doctrine that suggests an unjust God is disturbing to to me in th extreme.

Not because I consider this concept of God any longer, but the the fact that's there's a lot of people out there who not only do, but who defend it.

Some have suggested that pastor Jones' book, among others may have appeared partly in response to Rob Bell's psuedo-universalist book Love Wins. Whatever the case, this is one disturbing book. I have to admit, that the author is unafraid to mince words when it comes to his beliefs.

Jones makes a number of flawed arguments here, and I'll address the most obvious ones that I came across:

1)Jones seems to accept uncritically that the Bible in fact teaches what is tradition; namely eternal punishment. There is more than enough controversy regarding this, however. I have a very fundementalist friend in fact, who does not beleive that the "Lake of Fire" is eternal, but "eternal destruction" means just that--the destruction is eternal.

2) Jones states at one point that if one is not eager to convert their non-Christian freinds to Christ, then the only possbility is they beleive hell is not exists. He seems to forget here that some of us do not beleive that good people are going to hell. One of his main points, is of course, that they are. He also invites the reader to imagine a seemingly good, moral friend or aquiantance who is not a beleiver, to sit a table with you and Christ. How would Christ regard him? Well, I did picture a college professor I knew back when I was a freshman whom I indeed regard as a very kind and decent human being if there ever was one; and sorry, I can't realistically envision ay wrath or malice on the part of my Lord. Astonishment on my friend's face, certainly, but not what I imagine Jones was shooting for.

3)Jones relates the story of a pastor freind who did not beleive in hell. Jones asked him what, then, was the purpose of Christ's sacrifice? The pastor was not able to provide an answer. There are two ways I can counter this. Firstly, one might ask why Christ's sacrifice did not remove any need for hell-or of any afterlife punishment whatsoever. Why are some souls still going to end up there? Perhaps, however, there is still punishment for those who are without Christ, but it is not eternal, as annhilationists beleive. Christ's sacrifice itself was not eternal; but Jones beleives that those outside of Christ will suffer infinitely greater punishment than He ever did. This leads to what is, in fact, a far deeper question: that of just what it means to be "in Christ." Does it merely mean beleiving the right things? Can someone find the supernatural incidents of the Bible unbeleivable simply due to lack of credulity, and still be accepted by Christ? I beleive Jones would answer no. But this question hits closer to the differences I have with Jones, because I (and even Rob Bell) would tend to disagree not so much on hell's existence, but on who goes there. Another way to answer the question of Christ's sacrifice, however, is this: imagine if His sacrifice had never been made? What would the world look like today? They would be no Christian martyrs, no Christian charity, no spiritual rebirth of billions. None would recieve Christ's message and His teaching. Europe would remain steeped within the darkness of paganism--and I'm just getting started.

4)Jones states at one point that Christ's teaching was secondary to His sacrifice becuase we already had the whole of His teaching in the OT. Not quite; Christ radically transformed the law. His teacing and His sacrifice are inexorably linked.

5) Jones includes a very distrubing section in which he elaborates on the wrath of God, and here he focusses not so much on eternal punishment here as on OT atrocities. He starts by quoting atheist Richard Dawkins' infamous slander on the God of the OT. Clearly Dawkins is attempting to slander a God he does not beleive in, but Jones takes the slander further, claimng that he is appalled at the slaugher of the OT, and that Dawkins doesn't know the half o it. He claims that he is angered by Dawkins' "downplaying" ofthe Lord's wrath, then recounts a long list of horrific Ot incident carried out or commanded by God, even going so far as to call God "lothsome and inhumane." He then asks the reader rehtorically 'why am I painting such an unflattering picture..of God?" The answer, the tells us, is so that we will be urged to save our non-Christan friend from God.

It might be instructive at this point to ask the question: Does Jones love God, or does he loathe Him?

How similar all this is to Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which put off beleivers even in his own time. Edwards was so determined to emphasize God's wrath that he even took one quote--in which God is said to "laugh and mock"-entirely out of Biblial context. But at least Edwards was addressing sinner. Jones is not so much talking about sinful behavior, but beleiving the "right things."

Why does Jones present his readers wit such an appalling picture of God? the answer is really simple: fear.

How do we save souls from God? Scare them.

What Jones does not seem to realize is that every time someone attempts to win converts in this way, more often than not, the reaction among the unconverted is not fear for one's own eternal soul, but revulsion--not just at the picture of a God who behaves in blatantly unjust fashion, but at the religion itself. People long to love and to trust God--how can they if they accept Jone's concept of Him? People long for justce. SO why present a God who is unjust in the extreme. If the concept of such a God is accepted as real, then perhaps they will, in a sense convert. But is conversion out of fear alone, absent a true love of God, a conversion at all? Jones my beleive it is good enough, if converts attend church, obey the proper rituals, have every outward appearance of being Christian. This might be fine, so far as Christian culture is concerned. But what about what really counts, the transformation of someone's heart.

One interesting point the book raises occurs when Jones relates the story of how he successfully converted a non-Christian friend of his on his (the friend's) deathbed. When no other method of persuasion worked, Jones (apparently very heartfelt and sincere that something dreadful would befall his friend) literally pleaded for the man to accept Jesus into his heart. And you know what? It actually worked!

My point here is that Jone's pleading allowed the Holy Spirit to enter the man, whereas scare tactics did not. That's a point well taken.

Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses by Phillip Jenkins

Note: I intended some times ago to start a blog about the horror genre and its relation to Christianity. I was going to call it "Spirituality and Horror," and maybe have a black background instead of a white one, and (if possible, a red splatter suggesting blood over the title). When my freind Randy Streu changed the format of "A Flame In The Dark" to a blog, he asked me to contribute--so that is what I did. The blog is found here:
and I sure wish I could make it work without having to cut and paste. I post under the same name.

Before last Christmas, we had a Bible class at my church. The subject was authors who do not have a correct understanding of scripture, and therefore might not truly beleive. The one author examplified was Phillip Jenkins. The passage under discussion was taken from his recent book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses. The discussion focussed the troubling NT story of Jesus approached by a Gentile woman who pleads with Him to heal her daughter. At first Jesus refuses, but then relents. It is troubling becuase Jesus (at first) seems to respond very tribalistically, telling her his mission is first to the house of Isreal, and that must not food from its children and throw it to dogs. Was Jesus perhaps "testing" ho the woman would respond? Jenkins explains that a possible interpretation here (in contrast to more common one that this was an early stage in the Jesus movement) that Jesus, in providing the desired miracle, was reaching out to a descendent of the Canaanites, who the first Joshua had slaughtered (pgs 240-241).

Whether of not such an interpretation is valid, there are reasons why an orthodox (and very "culture war Christianity" oriented) church such as mine would be dismissive of Jenkins. The book, which I went out and read cove-to-cover, focuses, as its title indicates, on one of the most controversial Christian topics: namely Old Testement atrocities. As Jenkins shows, the topic is not merely a modern one: ever since the Bible's inception, the bloody crusades allegedly carried out by the ancient Isrealites have appalled readers.

One major point Jenkins drives home from the start is that Christians and Jews should refrain from criticizing Islam overtly as being a religion of terror based on its violent passges, when the Bible contains very many passages that are even more monstrous. I'm not sure I'm entirely in agreement with him here. It is very likely true that the atrocities commintted by God's chosen people indeed overshadowed any commanded by the Koranic texts; however, modern accounts of Muslim inspried violence speak for thenselves. Jenkins explains (correctly) that this is partially due to the extreme poverty in Muslim nations, and that the fact that they have been occupied by US Millitary forces. However, as Sam Harris has observed at length in The End of Faith, Muslim passages sanctioning violence against infidels are far more numerous given a much briefer text; nor are they strictly historical records, as are the OT accounts of violence. More to the point, however, is what is lacking in the Koran; specifically, the entire ministry of Jesus Christ. Harris also makes the point that:

Yes, the Bible contains its own sadistic lunacy -- but the above quotations can be fairly said to convey the central message of the Qur'an -- and of Islam at nearly every moment in its history. The Qur'an does not contain anything like a Sermon on the Mount. Nor is it a vast and self-contradictory book like the Old Testament, in which whole sections (like Leviticus and Deuteronomy) can be easily ignored and forgotten. The result is a unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred that has become a problem for the entire world.

Beyond the comparison to Muslim extremists, however, Jenkins explains that the concept of Herem warfare carried out in the OT, in which women, children, and even animals were not spared, was atrocious even by the standards of the ancient world. And though they are often looked on as mere historical records, in the past, and even in moden times, there have been Christians and Jews who drew inspiration from OT atroicities to justify violence against current peoples. And since we are often told that the peoples slaughtered in the OT accounts somehow "deserved" what happened to them, why should't we expect such ugly justifications to arise when applicable?

There are certain approaches to the OT atrocities which are common used, and which, Jenkins tells readers, should be avoided. One is to simply ignore or gloss over them; the fact that the ugly texts still exist, and are used, on occasion, to justify violence, as ample argument against this. Another common tactic is to merely say something like "Oh, that's just Old Testement; it doesn't pertain to us today." It is true that we now have a new covenent in Jesus Christ. But to simply brush the passages off thusly begs the question: why were such ugly atrocities ever moral or necessay? Indeed, when it comes to herem warfare I've to encounter a defense which is morally acceptable. Another common (and quite bad) approach is the defense that God has infinite wisdom which we do not possess, so we ought not to question it, or, worse, the power-argument which holds that God is God is God, and whatever he declares correct, therefore is. Neither of these is sufficient, as Jenkins observes. Another insufficient defense is to charge that the conquered peoples were guilty of terrible atrocities themselves. Jenkins explodes this by showing that no evidence exists that the practices of the ancient Canaanites and Amalkemites were any more depraved than those of other peoples who were spared Biblical wrath. Perhaps the best defense offered is by Rev. Jonathon Anderson, who owns this webiste:

According to Rev. Jonathon Anderson, the atrocities carried out by the Isrealites against the canaaaites and other peoples were not really approved by God, but God allowed his people the freedom to follow their own barbarous instincts. That is, until the coming of Christ. This seems to hold true, in a way, since the dynamics of herem warfare certainly seem,and I would say are, human-centered. Waging war is, after all, observed frequently among chimps (who share 90 percent identical DNA with our own species), who have been documented to slaughter rival tribes, not excepting to young, and even to cannibalize them. Perhaps given the barbarous times in which they lived,the ancient isrealites were not yet ready for the covenent established by Jesus. But Jenkins warns, too, of merely dismissing Biblical bloodshed as beleonging to earlier period of primitive barbarism. Not only are the accounts more vicious than most others even before that time, they often do not even seem practical: why the command to leave the treasure vaults of Jericho unplundered by the conquerors? As far as Rev. Anderson's explanation goes, I'm not sure I'm convinced the atrocities weren't allegedly commanded by God; as the Bible indicates that some, at least, were, and even if they were not, that still leaves the account of the Flood, in which God Himself wipes out the whole of human race, save for one family.

Jenkins does finally offer a solution, however. The accounts of bloodletting must be understood within the context in which they appeared, he tells us, for the original texts were written at a time when there existed among the Isrealites pressure to fall away from the faith and worship other gods. The writers essentially exaggerated the harshness of the accounts in order to impress upon readers the possible consequences of abandoning the faith. This interpretation shows why even the wealth of the conquered went to waste. The scribes wanted to warn readers that what had befallen the Canaanites Amalkenites might also befall them.

In other words, the purpose of OT atrocities was to instill fear of the Lord.

Why might not modern conervatives be confortable with jenkins' approach? The answer, by now, should be obvious. Jenkins' interpretation depends on a non-literal reading of the texts. And that is something conservative evangelicals won't have. Why? Because, largely, they're doing the some thing themselves, both with the doctrine of hell, and also, as my next post will show, with OT atrocities.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Love Wins by Rob Bell

Popular Grand Rapids, Michigan pastor Rob Bell's bestseller Love Wins has reportedly stirred up loads of controversy among conservative evangelicals, even before its release last year. And it's not hard to see why, given the book's premise.

And his opening chapter (and in the video released on Youtube beofore the release of said book),

Bell presents to his audience the following scenario. During a church art show, one of the participants had including a quote for Mahatma Gandhi. And someone else had tacked on a note reading: Reality check: he's in hell.

"Gandhi's in hell?" Bell asks his audience, "Are we sure? Do we know this?" (page 1) He follows this up with a number of other thought-provoking and difficult questions, such as that of the self-professed atheist who dies as a teenager. To the response that "There's no hope then," Bell responds pointedly "No hope? Is that the Christian message?" (Page 3). And then there's that matter of the missionary getting a flat tire on the way to the local village. If someone dies there, is he/she forever lost?

Too many Christians would answer "yes," to that last question, I'm afraid. Why? As I've argued elsewhere the core reason for this is not really scriptural, but rather concerned with the survival of Christanity as a faith. But the reason Bell uses this example is becuase he knows that, according to our core morality (which most beleivers, evangelicals included, I'd guess, would agree is given to us by God), it would be nonsensical for God to judge someone according to standards of which s/he is simply ignorant, of no fault of his or her own. We understand this. It flies in the sense of our understanding of morality that God would not.

The example of Gandhi in hell raises an even more provocotive question. Why would a person believe that this is so? Didn't Gandhi live an exemplary life compared to most of us, including the majority of professing beleivers? The almost inevitable answer to that will run something like this: good works are not what counts. You could live the best possible life, and still not make it into heaven if you lacked the required faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, whoever wrote that is necessarily divorcing faith from works. But the book of James teaches that faith without works is dead (not a saving faith), and many places in the New Testement teaches that we will judged according to our works. The question that follows from this should be, therefore: If one is NOT a professing Christian, and one nonetheless leads a morally exemplary life, is one, therefore, one of His followers after all? I am assuming here, of course, that one is genuine, and not self-serving, in his dedication to works, as Gandhi certainly appeared to have been. One might ask if something is even possible without a conscious decison to follow Christ; I would respond that such is certainly possible if one happens at least to be seeking truth.

If one accepts the general postion regarding salvation held by evangelicals, however, did, in fact, Gandhi have enough faith to avoid the inferno? He certainly was aware of Christ and Christianity, so one must not count him among the ignorant pagans, whatever one's opinion regarding their eternal destiny might be. Gandhi is quoted as saying,"...I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew." So was this enough?

Indeed, merely inquiring if it was "enough" suggests, as does the "tire" scenario, that God allows people into heaven on the basis of technicalities, which, of course, have nothing to do with the condition of one's heart, which should be the only real criteria. But most evangelicals would disagree about Gandhi, becuase the above statement by him suggests Pluralism. And for ther Christian faith to be the Truth, none other can be on par with it. This is the real evangelical gripe against Gandhi.

And it's the same with Rob Bell. I actually found his book to be confusing in places. At times he sounds like a universalist, yet never stakes a firm position. His argument that salvation is NOT primarily about getting "how to get to heaven" (in spite of what we're commonly taught) is, I think, a point well taken. Most of us have heard that the salvation promised by Jesus Christ is all about how to get to heaven when we die. But Bell makes it clear, from his discussion of Jesus and the young rich man, that Jesus meant much more than this. In other words, our admission into the Kingdom of Heaven does NOT begin after we take our final breath in this world, but right here, right now, in accepting Him into our hearts, and through our obdedience to His teachings.

Is Bell a universalist, as his critics charge? The answer might be both "yes" and "no." He does appear to accept hell as a reality, but his general beleif seems to be that hell is remedial and corrective rather than eternal. He might, therefore, be best described as a beleiver in univeral reconciliation. Hell in the world beyond this is a reality, but we are not forever lost. If God truly wants everyone to come to Him, and he is truely all powerful, then eventually he will save everyone in the end.

Much to the chagrin of evangelicals, I might add.

There have been a number of books written, mostly by Bell's evangelical critics, in attempt to counter him. One of such book, which I've read, is God Wins by Mark Galli. Gallie argues that that hell is eternal, but the fate of certain individuals, such as ignorant pagans, is simply a mystery, but we should jut trust God that everything He does will be just. One thing I've noticed ironic about the title of this particular book is that if God des win, doesn't love win also? For is not God also love?

The following quotes form Bell's book show the God often falsely represented by evangelicals:

"A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better,” Bell writes.

“It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.

“This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

Bell is right on target with these astute abservations. It is telling that many of Bell's critics (not Galli) have responded with anger. Most infamous was a tweet by John Piper, Baptist Pastor, and author of the recent book Jesus: the Only Way to God, who wrote "Rob Bell is history."

I strongly suspect, however, that Rob Bell represents the future of Christianity.

Darin Hufford's The Misunderstood God

Darin Hufford's The Misunderstood God is the book I credit for bringing me to Christ. While I've since delved into other important Christian books, and I don't have time to review every one, I felt I should at least take the time to discuss the importance of this one on this blog.

It is by the same publishers as those of The Shack, Paul Young's runaway Christian bestseller. According to one of the book's glowing enorsement quotes, it "scratches where The Shack causes one to itch."

At the time I first picked up this book in late 2009, I was still a skeptic (and a former "Christian"), who had grown disillusioned by secularism, in particular the atheist crowd on Sam Harris's forum. This book managed to dispel some long held and over-preached "truths" about God and Jesus that I've heard time and again since I was a college student. And to tell the truth, many of them helped drive me away from Jesus. Even when I considered myself a Christian and faithfully attended church and Bible study for years, it was lies like these that kept me form truely embracing the Lord. Among them:

God is angry and condemning to all those who do not beleive the "right" things about Him.

God is very proud and boastful, all thw while condemning pride as a sin.

God is vain and jealous, and demands our constant attention for his own ego.

God is emotionally insecure, and that is why he fordbids idoletry and forms of pleasure that aren't related to his worship.

And so forth. I had, unfortunately, developed a picture of God as an unfeeling, selfish jerk (perhaps the ultimate selfish jerk, if he condemned to hell for eternity those who did not worship Him, or did so in the wrong way), mostly thanks to the efforts of sincere, well-meaning Christians. This sorry portrait of god was probably not what they intended, but it is the definite impression of Him that I recieved from their counseling.

It is just this picture of God, I've since come to beleive, that Satan sells to us. The name "Satan" actually means "slanderer." And it is Satan's full intent to slander God. What better way to turn His children against Him than this?

Hufford helps to explode many of the slanderous myths Satan has used to tarnish the image of God.

Another very important issue Hufford brings up is one of sex. Why is it so taboo according to religion? As a secularist, I had developed a very liberal attitude toward sexuality. Like most on the Left, I saw sexuality as essentially liberating, and I think it shows in the mammoth Burroughs pastiche I wrote Jahlanna of Pellucidar. However, Hufford's recounting of the day his own father left his family, without a single word to him, I found heartbreaking. His father had fallen in "love" with a secretary at work. The reason for this gross act of immorality? The supposedly liberating sex drive. Because it, the author had his family torn apart and was forced to cope with years of emotional anguish. Sex is a primal instinct to reproduce. It is part of our genes; as such, it is not inherently evil; but it IS concerned with self-progation, and thus, almost by definition, unconcerned with the well-being of others.

And THIS is why Jesus preached about adultry in such overtly harsh terms. The libido is a drive, that, like fire, needs to be tamed and condition, lest it rage out of control and do terrible damage to ourselves and to others.

We tend to forget that sometimes, though. It is often implied that God forbids sex out of marraige because of His supposedly fragile ego, and/or that he is terribly jealous of any form of pleasure we humans may enjoy. In other words, it' all about Himself.

But we've got it backwards.

It's really all about us. God does not prohibit pleasure to feed his own ego to to spoil our fun. We really ARE his children, and as such God's sole purpose is keep us from harm, and from bringing harm upon one another. It's been an unfortunate but common argument among the New Atheists that Christians are concerned with morality apart from human well-being. And the most tragic thing is that a lot of Chistians do tend to define morality in exactly such a way. But Darin Hufford has helped to demonstrate why this is not so, and should not be so.

One interesting passage in this book has it that when the author asked some pastors what if, in heaven, they found Jesus conversing with members of other faiths, and with homosexuals, that would be angered.

Angered? Really? Such a response, especially from pastors, demonstrates wit utmost clarity that there is indeed a common train of thought among beleivers that regards Christianity is an exclusive club where outsides are not permitted. And such a picture of Christ contrasts strikingly with a hideously unforgiving passage I read long ago, penned by the late Christian author Roger Elwood, in regard to the fate of homosexuals.

But perhaps Hufford's strongest point in regard to our relationship to God is that He is a being of pure Love, and as such, the emotion of fear is totally antithetical to His nature. "God does not delight in fear tactics," Hufford writes. "Love simply never thinks this way. When we use fear either to convert people or to get them to follow rules, we are partnering with evil. All fear is evil. God does not delight in the use of evil to manipulate His children into salvation or repentance p. 132). And even more to the point, "Threats of hell were never meant to be the argument that drew people to God. The Holy Spirit draws people to God.(p.133).

Bravo, Hufford.

It was Holy Spirit that drew me to God. The same applies to any and all genuine conversions of which I am aware. The insistence upon hell to frighten converts has the almost inevitable (however unintended by evangelicals) side effect of slandering God. While my friend from an Arminian blog insists that a totally forgiving God "guts Missionary work," that argument is vald only is one is attempting to use fear to gain converts.

Hufford's book has, perhaps unsurprisingly, stirred up contoversy, as expected, mainly among the more orthodox crowd, the main criticism being that the book focuses entirely on God's love while ignoring His wrath.

While I disagree with these initial criticisms, I do beleive that Hufford emphasis on God as Love is indeed flawed in places. He writes, "God protects you because He loves you. Not because you are being good and following the rules" (page156). I think that statement is good, as far as it goes. However, it is not too difficult to discern how this statement can be taken too far. And this I beleive Hufford does when when he tells his readers "Know for sure that God will never, ever, lift His hand of protection from you! Your security is sacred to Him" (page 157).

This sounds virutally the same as the most common argument used by proponants of Eternal Security. And in fact I have since discovered that Hufford indeed subscribes to a soft form (at least I think it is a soft form) of OSAS. While Hufford's point that fear of a wrathful, vengeful God disrupts genuine trust in Him is a good one, it must be said that a caring father (as Hufford's argument assumes God must be) will also not take an all-permissive attitude of anything goes toward His children. There WILL be limits set, and there were be punishments, althought these will be corrective, not eternal, in nature. Another flaw in Hufford's beleif in the security of salvation is the same as other OSAS propoants: merely because God would never remove his hand of protection from his children does NOT mean his children are therefore held in his grasp against their will; on the contrary, any sheep is perfectly free to stray from the fold by his own design.

This particular breach of reason paralells OSAS preacher Charles Stanley's use of the parable of the Prodical Son to show God's unconditional love for all his children, seemingly ignoring that blatant fact that the son was perfectly free to squander his inherentice in the first place.

Nevertheless, Hufford's book desserves needed credit for exploding some dangerous and pervasive falsehoods about the nature of God.

"If you look to the flame of love you have in your heart for your child and consult it," Hufford tells us, "you will know how to act and react. Try it" (page 206).

I have and it works for me.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Burning Down the Shack by James B. De Young

There is a big Hollywood film which portrays religious conservatives in a very bad light.

The movie paints these pious, outwardly godly folks a self-styled, pretentious hypocrites. The basic plot of the film itself is that these conservative beleivers go so far as to essentially commit murder in their pursuit of power and maintan the social order.

Knowing the worldview of most of progressive Hollywood, there is very little which may seem striking about this.

What you might not have guessed is that the movie I am refering to is none oher than The Passion of the Christ, the multi-million hit directed by Mel Gibson, applauded by the majority of Christians, and panned for alleged anti-Semitism (and even homo-eroticism)by progressives.

My point in bringing this up is a fact that most Christians would (and ought to a bit, in my opinion) make them rather uncomfortable, and also one I really never considered until recently.

The Pharisees, those pious leaders of the Jewish church, who spelled the crucifixion of Jesus, who did not recognize their own Messiah, who were repeatedly taken to task for their legalism, were....conservatives.

That's right. In the Pharisees, Jesus was not up against liberal humanists seeking to displace faith with secularism, but very pious religious leaders who saw Jesus not only as a threat to themselves but to their faith and tradition. Christ was in fact sacrificed on the very altar of tradition, so to speak. Even, perhaps especially, Saul of Tarsis beleived he was faithfully serving God in persecuting Christ's followers.

What makes me so uncomfortable about this as an unborthodox Christian ( I still consider myself largely to be an unorthodox conservative--there's too much about liberalism I still not endorse), is that the basic concerns of conservative Christiandom in general appear very much to be grounded in the same fear that motivated the Pharisees.

What fears are these?

Fear of social change and the errosion of tradition.

I already know the ojection to this: the Pharisees did not even recognize the Savior, while today's conservatives are very much on the side of Jesus against the tide of secularism. Right?

The problem, however, is not so much the values and beleifs conservatives subscribe to as it is their underlying motivation. Indeed, most conservatives, if asked, would proclaim that they are placing God and Christ above everything else, while their opponants are relying merely on human opinion. Many, if not mot, would, I beleive, sincerely beleive this to be the wholehearted truth. But remember: Fear of the future, fear of change, and the tendency to favor the old ways over the new is a deep human instinct. It is encoded deep in our genes. Thus, it is very easy idolize tradition itself, not as a means of serving Christ, but as means of passing the torch to the next generation regardless if it is "moral" or not.

Consider the abortion issue: Abortion is nowhere prohibted by scripture. So why is this particular issue so often portrayed in a strictly religious framework?

And though homosexuality is clearly condemned by Scripture, why the fuss over these two particular issues?

Answer: both homosexuality (in particular gay marraige) and abortion constitute a real or percieved threat to the nuclear family and to tradition.

My last three posts should demonstrate the dire need to keep the faith alive as expressed by religious conservatives.

And this brings me (at last) to the topic at hand, Burning Down the Shack by James De Young.

I have not yet read Paul Young's The Shack, so am unable to access it on it's own merits.

However, it is more than obvious that virtually all the criticism leveled at The Shack is by religious conservatives, and almost everything taken to task is a percieved departure from orthodox thought.

The Shack has been also applauded vigorously by Christians who found it spiritually enlightening and faith affirming, calling some to a spirtitual awakening. It may indeed have actually broght some to Jesus. I, myself, came to Christ late in 2009 after reading Darren Hufford's The Misunderstood God, also by the same publishing company which Paul Young started up for The Shack. It, too, paints a picture of God that is at odds wih many conservative pastors. It, too, challenges the image of God as cruel, vindictive, proud and punishing.

De Young's chief criticism of The Shack is that it promotes universalism, the beleif that all will now, or eventually, be saved. This was the view held by fantasist George MacDonald, a friend and correspondant of C. S. Lewis, who held him in great esteem. Lewis himself was an inclusivist, no a universalist, as is sometimes falsely assumed. Lewis himself is (in general) widely praised by conservatives in spite of his lacking orthodoxy in certain areas.

A confession that I must make at this point: I myself am attracted to idea of universalism, and at the same time I fear it somewhat. Not, as conservative evangelicals might charge for the "right reasons," but becuase I realize that being a "universalist" opens the door to harsh criticism by evangelicals. Universalism is just a little too unorthodox for comfort. It also, indeed, appears to be directly conbtradicted by scripture, even if one interprets the Lake of Fire judgement as annhilation. The inclusicism of Lewis is a much more comfortable a place to be theologically. When I once prayed as to the eternal (or noneternal) nature of hell, I actually drew a blank, even though the Lord convinced me that hell was real. However, the answer I recieved to a more recent prayer suggested universal reconcilliation: in other words though some may be lost, they will not remain lost: God will save every soul eventually.

There are however, more possibilities than just these two; perhaps God will try to save all, but will only end up saving some; or perhaps it is not predetermned who and how many souls will in the end be saved.

The one thing I do reject, however, and this is in departure to most religious conservatives, is that God sentences his children to everlasting punishment for finite sins.

But this is the conservative postion, sad to say, and it is rapidly losing ground in the modern world. That The Shack has evidently brought so many souls to Christ, and that it is an unorthodox book to boot, is powerful testimony to this.

What's wrong with universalism? The answer, for De Young, is simple: it doesn't scare people enough. However, I would submit that someone who continues to sin under the beleif that they'll still saved has not truely experienced a rebirth in Christ!

Another major issue which De Young levels at The Shack is the author's apparent condemnation for any and all institutions, whether the government, tradition or marraige, to the point of demonizing them. Since I've not read The Shack, I cannot verify this, though if so, Paul Young has gone more than a bit too far. Still, it is certainly legitimate to criticize tradtional institutions, and the church, in particular DOES have much to answer for in driving people away form God and Christ. Young claims that Satan works through false teachers who claim the gospel. Undoubtedly that's true. However, there's also little doubt he works through conservative churches as well, since this is where most of today's young people are disenfranchised with Christianity. Also, though deYoung credits Jesus for establishing the church among his followers (I would submit that it was still very far from being an "institution"), he seems to forget that Jesus was also very critical of the church as it existed in his own day:

Mathew 5:6 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This sounds very unlike what one would expect from an upholder of church tradition!

Another point of attack by deYoung is Paul Young's depiction of the Holy Trinity as multi-racial, and in particular, of God the Father as a large Black woman. Now doing so appears to be (and perhaps is) a deliberate PC attempt to present a multicultural version of the Trinity. Clearly, in depicting the Father as both female and Black (virtually opposite of how God the Father is tradtionally depicted)he is playing on gender roles and expectations of readers. But is this, on the whole, a bad thing? I would say that it is not. God the father is capable of taking on any from He wants. He has no true gender, and, I would argue, lacks any true shape at all. Young may well be reinventing our perception of God and the Trinity to fit our evolving faith and moral knowledge. There is no real fault to be found here, unless you percieve change in itself to be a bad thing. Does De Young find the tradtional paintings of God looking like Moses or Dumbledore to be offensive?

There are, however, two areas where I find myself siding with De Young and other evangelicals against The Shack. One is his observation that the Devil has been virtually ommitted from Young's book. If so, I agree with him: this is a serious ommission indeed. Maybe Young will get around to Satan in a future book; perhaps not. However, Satan is a very dire force in the world today, in the churches, and in billions of individual lives. According to De Young, it is a hallmark of universalism to beleive that Satan either does not exist, or will eventually reform and take his place among the Godhead. I've noticed this--Phillip Gulley, in his book Evolving Faith (which I find enlightening on many of his arguments) says precisely this. Whether or not Satan will ever repent, however, his reality, given the amount of suffering in the world, should be evident to Paul Young. The existence of evil and Satan is the very reason for Christ's sacrifice. the fact that Young's protagonist has suffered a terrible tragedy indeed makes Satan's ommission a bit puzzling.

A related charge leveled by De Young is that Young's novel downplays sin, and suggests that all will be uncondtionally forgiven. Again, I do not yet know if this charge is valid; however, if so, there is indeed he implication that one is free to sin as one pleases and morality itself is undermined. While threats of hellfire may not be the most effective in this area, a change of heart, a rebirth in Christ most certainly is. Perhaps Young does not mean for his novel to downplay the seriousness of sin, but the reality of that seriousness needs to be acknowledged.

However, in a list of Paul Young's views which De Young uses to back up his charge of universalism promoted by The Shack, I find myself in agreement with many of them. Among these:

Jesus is a Lamb who would never harm or torment.

Eternal judgement is "unresonable, illogical...wicked and unjust" for a temporal judgement committed within time. Eternal Judgement is "sadist humbug."

He (Young) asserted that "God in the end is grossly unjust", and that in compariosm to Pharoah, Nero and Hitler, "The doctrine of eternal torture makes jesus a million times (italics his) more vindictive then these three put togather

Either those who teach eternal torture are extremely and brutally calloused or they do not truly beleive what they teach (italics his)

Now I don't necessarily agree with the last statement; though they often come off as indeed quite calloused, religious conservatives have very real motives in promoting such an unjust doctrine. As I've argued, such a doctrine is necessary (they beleive) in order to conserve the culture and Christianity itself. I also beleive they are very badly misguided here. Understand also that Young is refering to this cultural caricature of god here, and NOT the true god. A god who deliberatly condemns finite beingsto eternal torture is indeed a fiction, Paul Young is arguing. And I agree with him. Though I also beleive hell is real, and needs to be acknowledged, I do not credit God with creating hell or with sending people there.

So far as a torturing God is concerned, I am an athiest.

Already Gone by Ken Ham & Britt Beemer

Already Gone by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer examines a current problem in the Western Christian church that too many Christians would rather not think about: Christianity has been losing its young people. According to Ham, most churches in Europe have been abandoned, and in some cases turned into other businesses, as a number of photos in the book demonstrate. Ham has sat in the great cathedrals of Europe, where only small gatherings of senior citizens regularly attend. What's worse, Ham and Britt Beemer believe that what has occurred across Europe and Britain is now happening right now in the United States.

What is it?

According to initial surveys, young people in their teens and twenties gave a variety of responses, ranging from their beleif that a loving God would not send anyone to hell, to the conservative position on gay rights, to percieved hypocirsy in the church. There seemed to be no root cause, like, say, the theory of evolution, which Ham and his researchers could pin the blame on. Indeed, these responses tend to reflect changes in the overall social climate of the West, and not to any single factor. However, unsatisfied with this, surveyers turned the matter over to Beemer, who, according to Ham "probed and probed and probed."

What her extensive research uncovered surprised the researchers. Young Christians were not, by and large, deserting the faith after they left home for college; they had actually left long before then--hence the title of the book.

That's right. Most of these kids, although they may have still attended church along with their parents, quit beleiving in high school, middle school, and even elementary. While a single, specific cause remains elusive, the authors, in general, blame the secular worldview taught as fact in the public schools and the media. According to the perceptions of most kids, public school is where you go to learn facts; Sunday school and church and all about spirituality. In fact, kids who attend Sunday school proved MORE likely to doubt the Bible than those who didn't. It may well be, although Ham would hesitate to frame it quite this way, that in comparison with the facts learned in science and history class, the Bible's tales simply appeared to be myths.

It is hardly surprising what Ham, an outspoken creationist, and driving force behind Kentucky's Creation Museum, proposes to remedy the situation: a greater insistance on the literal truth of all scripture in all areas.

Now as an unorthodaox Christian myself, I hardly endorse this position. There are indeed problems here, not only contradictions between science and literal Genesis, but moral problems as well. As our understanding of morality, indeed, appears to be advancing, literal interpretaions of Old Testament atrocities (and there defense by consevatives as inexpicably "right" because God supposedly ordered them)are increasingly apt to lead young people to doubt. And it is doubtful indeed, short of raising one's children in a bubble, that the secular world can forever kept at bay. In fact, I would suspect an even greater desertation of young folks from conservative churches if more emphatic insistence in Biblical literalism continues.

However, the observations of Ham and Beemer are indeed case for alarm. As much as I would hate to admit this, science does tend to erode religious faith in many cases. Science deals with observable physical realities of the universe while religion is concerned with the spiritual and the moral. Yet the vast majority of practicing scientists, I have read, are athiest or agnositic, with religious beleivers like Franicis Collins belonging to a minority. Darwin himself lost his own religious faith as a result of what he discovered during the voyage of the Beagle. These may easily be blamed on the attitudes of humans and how they percieve both science and faith as antithetical. However, the fact remains that knowledge of the natural world inevitably tends to raise doubts concerning the supernatural world, and therefore spirituality and faith in more than a few human minds. Attempting to "secularize" the faith does not seem to be the way to go, either.

And the vast, empty cathedrals of Europe are indeed mute testimony that something is wrong.

So what are Christians to do? Are we caught in a "lose-lose" situation?

I do not really know enough at this point to answer this question definitively. However, I do believe that if Christianity is indeed evolving into something other than the tradtional church, as some contend, that may not be necessarily a bad thing. Ham himself admits that some chruch tradition are not Biblically based. In fact, the church, as an intitution did not exist in the earliest days of Christianity.

This raises questions about the church as an institution as a whole, and what is it that conservatives are most eager to conserve, as I'll explore in my next post.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Family by Robert Andrews

Back when I was a young college student,and still a firm conservative (in spite of some of the misgivings I'd encountered among orthodox Christian groups), I joined a Christian group which was stridently pro-life. I later took part in an on-campus protest against abortion. It was only later that I began to have some misgivings--not so much on the conservative position on abortion per se, as on the underlying motive. Back then, I had no doubt that Christian conservatives held only the highest moral imperatives in protesting abortion. I supposed at the time that the pro-life position was a concerned soley with ethics and human welfare. I did come to view certain pro-life groups--such as Randal Terry's Operation Rescue, with some suspicion; a fair-minded pro-choicer, with whom I once had a polite disagreement, DID agree with that Randal Terry, for one, was more concerned with personal power than anythin else. However, in hindsight, wouldn't people like Terry go further in politics by taking the PC, more acceptable, pro-choice position? Then, there was matter of contraception. Why weren't Christian conservatives promoting the hell out of contraception to reduce the number of abortions. But it turned most were opposed to it in almost equal measure.

Something wasn't right.

Not just about abortion and birth-control, but with the whole Christian conservative movement, including Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Which brings me to the topic at hand.

For the past few months, the Sunday School class at my church has been studying The Family: God's Weapon for Victory by Robert Andrews. As its title suggests, the book is all about the preservation of the traditional nuclear family in our pollitically correct secular culture. There are chapters included about secular influences on children such as movies and television, women's role in the family and in procreation, God's purpose for sex, the principle of purity, how to train up a child properly, among others.

More than any other book I've read thus far, The Family demonstrates with much clarity just what the real motives are behind the conservative movement, in particular the issue of reproductive choice.

It has nothing to do with ethics. And consequently, it has nothing to with morals.

You could,(and indeed some do)take a very moral position on the abortion issue--that it is taking a human life, or (in the case of contraception)at least a potential life. And I know there is at least one pro-life atheist out there, and, come to think of it, the pro-life postition is very consistent with the argument often put foreward by unbeleivers that, as there is no hereafter, life is all the more precious, and everyone should therefore have the right to enjoy it. Not many atheists actually take this position of course, and the one unbeleiving pro-lifer I mentioned was terribly treated on the forum he posted on. You can't be an atheist pro-lifer, it seems, without compromising the "orthodox" atheist position on adult reproductive autonomy. If only atheists could take a moment to realize that a pro-life postion, at least applied to themselves, might make for some formidable competition.

Which brings me to my main point in writing this. Andrews has much to say in his book, not only the importance and godliness of having children, but rearing large families. "Be fruitful and multiply, (Genesis 1:28)" is the verse mot often raised in support of producing as many tykes as possible. And why? Andrews tells his readers directly on on page 192, in regard to a former decision he and his wife made not to have any more children:

"We did not understand that children are not for us, if we want them, but, but for God, and His purpose of extending His kingdom. They are like arrows (Psalm 127:3-5), instruments of war, by which our influence can be extended to the next generation. Well-trained, with a vision for the kingdom, they will fly straight and true into the heart of the Devil. The more arrows we have, the more effectve arrows we have, the more effective we can be as warriors in the battle."

Arrows? Instruments of war? Shouldn't kids be of value because they are human, each made special by God? And moreover, because each one of them has a special "right to life?"

No, apparently not, so far as conservative envalgelicism is concerned. Worse, would the moral value of a child who decided to leave the faith as a teenager be diminished? Such instruemntal value applied to children is morally problemic to say the least, since it is very far removed from ethics.

But even more significantly, I think that raising an army for the Lord is not really the underlying objective here. Certainly, many Christians believe it's all about serving God, but that does not make it the truth.

I beleive (and what comes next may be shocking) that this whole pro-family position on the part of Christian conservatives is Darwininan to its core.

That's right: Darwinian.

How can that be, with so many Christian conservatives so adamantly opposed to Darwinism? Sure, many, in fact, claim that Darwinism influenced Hitler, and some may even beleive that, but remember, ethics is not the issue here, as pastor Andrews has made abundantly clear.

Anne Rice, author of the Interview With A Vampire series, who shocked the world by her re-conversion to Catholicism (and who recounted her spiritual awakening in Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession)recently and famously renounced her Christianity:

“I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of … Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen"

Notice that she does not say that she renounces Christ. In fact, she has affirmed that she remains as committed to Him as ever. What she is renouncing is "Christianity" as an ideology, a set of rules and and traditions and rituals whose adherents are struggling to keep alive against a flood of social change.

And this is precisely the sort of "Christianity" promoted by hard-core conservatives lik pastor Andrews. It isn't Christ to whom these conservatives are committed first and foremost, even though many may sincerely beleive otherwise. It is not about Christ, who warned the Pharisees repeatedly against legalism.

What this sort of conservative religious thought is really all about is preserving the culture. Perpetuating the faith. Passing on the torch. It is all about group survival, which is Darwinian if anything qualifies as such.

I said it had nothing at all to do with ethics, though, to be perfectly fair, it has nothing at to do with bigotry, oppression of women, patriarchy or suppression of freedom either.

What we are dealing with here is nothing more and nothing less than a culture, fearing it is in its final hours, and is struggling mightily for its own self-preservation.

'Til next time.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Hitler Problem

A curious moral dilemna was raised some time ago on the site True Freethinker. The article is here:

Sorry: still haven't figured out how to make a link that works without cut and paste.

The question was one that has sometimes reared it's ugly head on forums and in the back of my head. It is this:

Suppose Adolf Hitler had repented?

It is generally supposed that Hitler did NOT repent, that he committed suicide with the full knowledge that his glorious Thousand Year Reich would never come to pass--a fitting end to one of history's greatest villains.

But suppose he had? Doesn't Christian theology maintain that, no matter HOW dire one's sins are, one can always repent before the end of one's earthly existence? And if he did repent, wouldn't that represent a breech in God's justice?

The author of the article (and owner of True Freethinker) does not quite stop there however; he adds an even greater moral problem, one in fact, that I would argue is the true moral issue here:

The rub comes in the form of the conclusion that, according to Christian theology, if Adolf Hitler, the Jew hating mass murdering racist maniac, would have repented then today he would be enjoying the glories of heaven whilst
innocent Jewish children whom he murdered would be suffering the torments of hell.

What is truely disturbing here is the final, enboldened phrase. Never mind where Hitler went: what about those innocent Jewish children? Their fate remains the same, whether the man responsible escaped justice or not.

And further, the author does not even attempt to resolve the issue. Instead, he concentrates on the problem of Hitler repenting. In doing so, he merely turns the tables on the atheists who are attempting to besmirch God, by saying:

According to Atheism, Hitler got away with it.

On the Atheist view Hitler struggled to survive as the fittest: mein kampf—my struggle.

What Hitler did was evolutionarily beneficial since he rid the gene pool of the less fit.

On Atheism, Adolf Hitler lived a wonderful life (from his own perspective) as he gained and enjoyed his power, he had thousands of faithful adherents, he did as he pleased and when he decided it was over—it was actually over. Metaphorically speaking, Hitler is now enjoying, as it where, a sort of perfect peace of annihilation whereby there is no such thing as Hitler anymore.

Thus, on the Christian view there is ultimate judgment and accountability and on the atheist view there is not. Therefore, since Atheist offers no ultimate justice Atheism itself is unjust.

Granted, two of Atheism’s consoling delusions are the consoling delusion of absolute autonomy and the consoling delusion of lack of ultimate accountability.

On their view evil is for the benefit of the evildoer who gets to enjoy it and, ultimately, gets away with it.

Thus, the fact of evil and suffering in the world is one of the very best reasons for rejecting Atheism.

Lastly, when we consider the reality of the matter the issue of Adolf Hitler has Christianity having him pay for his crimes and Atheism has him enjoying them and getting away with it.

I've seen these same essential arguments surface on episodes of The Atheist Experience. A theist will call in arguing that if there is no hell, as atheists beleive, then there's no justice for the wicked. The problem is, that this is completely false-at least when it comes to Hitler. He was cut down in his relative prime, and did not live to comfortable, ripe old age. Hitler experienced crushing defeat by the Allies, and killed himself unable to bear the knowledge that all his glorious dreams had come crashing down. Not every evil person meets so deserving a fate, but I would argue that Hitler most certainly did.

Does this really sound like he "got away with it"?

The auhor evades the real question of a repentent Hitler, however, by sticking to the almost certain fact that he did not. The thing is, for this particular problem, we don't even need Hitler. There are, in fact, other spectacularly evil men, who do appear to have repented before dying. Randy Alcorn, the pastor of Eternal Perspective ministries argues that notorious serial killer Westely Dodd may be in heaven:

Who is arguing for injustice here, Alcorn, a fundementalist Christian pastor, or the atheists, who don't beleive in any god at all?

Undertand: I am not disagreeing, essentially, with Alcorn's point that even the most monstrous human beings can experiece repentance and salvation. I do not beleive that there are indeed sins had are simply so dire that they are beyond God's mercy to forgive. If God truly is infinitely more merciful than ourselves, then shouldn't He be able to do so? This is what we would expect from a God who really is merciful. The desire for revenge among humans, even if partially fueled by the desire to see justice done, is fed by the emotion of anger and untempered by mercy and willingness to forgive. God is thus capable of doing what we humans are so often terribly and tragically inept at doing.

Here is what I beleive, however.

A truely wicked man who preys on the innocent but then sincerely repents will not be enjoying bliss for all eternity. Such a person if truly repentent, and thus a candidate for heaven, would desire first of all achance to redeem himself of his past crimes. He would also need, and desire spiritual growth. There may indeed be possibilies present in the afterlife as part of God's plan of redemption. I am not certain that person's suffering would even end, as repentence might include some very grueling tests. Who knows? This is all mere speculation of course. But our common perception of the Christian afterlife as (seemingly pointless) eternal bliss and one hand and eternal torment on the other, is far too simplistic to be accurate.

But the truely disturbing thing here is not that a wicked man who truly repents in his heart may be saved; let us return to the matter of the innocent Jewish children. "According to Christian theology" is very misleading as there is much disagreement even among Christians who who does and doesn't get into heaven.

Would they be saved? Depends on who you ask.

Most Christians nowadays, it seems, hold that the need for personal faith in the Savior is waived in the case of children who are not yet old enough to truely understand the need for a committment to Christ. But not all. I had a recent pastor who beleived that even infants who die in infancy are doomed to hell because of their inability to beleive and therefore to accept Christ.

Such beleifs as these, are, I beleive, nothing less than Satanic, becuase they envitably, whether consiously or by design, paint God as hideously unjust. Would that not be precisely what Satan would desire? Why else would atheists deliberately use such argmuents to draw people away from the Christian faith?

Why, then, do Christians themselves use them? The reason, it seems, as I'll explore in a future post, is that without fear of God's wrath, how are we suppose to scare people into following the Lord? As though most people come to know Christ out of fear.

But I'll deal now with the actual question: what about the innocents who died in the holcaust--and I'm talking here about innocent victims in general, not just children, but the adults as well. The unfortunate response by far too many Christians is that those people were not truly "innocent." Not because they were Jewish per se, but becuase they didn't have Christ's blood atonement necessary to enter heaven. Now, though there are such thing as Jewish Christians, who have accepted Jesus and retained their Jewish heritage (the author of True Freethinker, in fact, claims to be one), they ould not have been spared in Nazi Germany. And many would argue that child victims of Hitler's evil would not have reached the age of accountibility yet.

But I would go even further than this. Inclucivism, the position held by C. S. Lewis, holds that a person may be saved if s/he is seeking Truth. This would hold no matter what society they had been raised, no matter what beleifs others had attempted to impose upon thier impressionble minds while children.

Next time, I'll review two books written by Christians that expose (unintentionally) what is largely wrong the state of Christianity nowadays.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Twisted Christianity

A common Christian objection to atheism is that atheists can have no moral standards by which to live. As Alex Rosenburg (about whose book I just discussed) points out, there are two versions to the theistic approach to objective morality. Either

1) Morals are objective because God declares them so. Or

2) God knows what is right and wrong and sets up the rules us accordingly.

Rosenburg states that (2) is unquestionably the most preferable. And I agree with him. Too many Christians, however, hold to the idea that whatever God says, goes. This runs into trouble, of course, if God were declare the slaughter of innocents morally correct. Worse, there are Scriptures which delare that, at one time, He did just that--which is the main reason I'm an unorthodox believer. This is nothing more than a "might is right" argument.

But even more antithetical to their common charge that athesm leads to rampant immorality, is the very common insistance that Christianity itself has nothing to do with moral behavior. "Faith, not works" is very true; yet that truth is not what is commonly preached, and the the reality is wildly misinterpeted. I have talked before about the Calvinist doctrine of Eternal Security; but this is merely the most extreme form of this twisting:

When a person recieves Jesus Christ into his or her heart, that person is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. From that moment forward, the person is compelled to follow and obey only Jesus. Yes, there may be lapses of faith, and that person may still struggle against sin; but s/he is at least striving to obey the Lord in every area of life.

Here is an example of the sort of "twisted Christianiy " that I'm talking about.

I recently watched a clip from The Atheist Experience on Youtube, as I often do. On this particular program, Matt Dillahunty gives a very accurate summary of this "twisted version" of the truth of Christ. What is truely tragic though, is not only has Matt bought wholeheartedly into this deception and is trying to convince others, the same false idea that Christianity has nothing to do with behavior, (and thus constitutes a completely amoral belief system) is being regularly preached by Chistians themselves.

The Atheist's Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenburg

Alex Rosenburg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality, is, as its author states, not a book for theists but for those who already "know the truth." However, be warned: this is bound to be a tough pill to swallow, even for some of the most hard-core atheists around.

Like Harris, Rosenburg rejects the idea of free-will, beleiving that all human behavior is predetermined by causal events. Unlike Harris, however, and unlike the majority of unbelivers, Rosenburg truely does reject the idea that objective moral truths can exist.

You read that right.

For Rosenburg, objective morals belong in the same catagory as God, Satan, angels, ghosts, dragons and unicorns. That does not, however, make him a moral relativist, at least in the most common sense of the term. What he advocates is nihilism, the essential menainglessness of life, but he refers to it as a "nice nihilism," and assures his readers that loss of ultimate purpose--and meaning--is not really that big of a deal, anyway.

Why not? Well, basically, human beings, having evolved for "niceness," (which he extraporlates in detail) will simply will not want to relenquish our "core morality." What Rosneburg terms core morality consists of those moral truths that are agreed upon across cultural bounderies. Though Rosenburg doesn't say it outright, this might, in fact be essentially the same as that which contributes to human well-being cross-culturally (not including the particular twists, such as female circumcism, et. al., that are particular to certain cultures)i. e. what Harris considers to be objective moralism. Therefore, we may be able to reach moral concensus on controversial issues by reference to this agreed upon core morality. When it comes to abortion, for example, Rosenburg beleives that there should be no blanket prohibition, but that there are certain times (according to core morality) when abortion should be prohibited, even when the mother insists that it is her "natural right." Natural rights, along with God-given rights, he argues, simply do not exist.

Another thing interesting is that Rosneburg's beleif that all human actions are predetermined has led him to the position that (again in accordance with core morality), in regard to even hienous crimes, prisons should be places of rehab only, NOT punishment. What I find especially interesting is that this is, in fact, a very Christian position, no matter what social conservatives might say. Let's face it--most people who beleive in being "tough on crime" favor draconian tactics, and most especially capital punishment, not so much as a deterant, but as a form of societal revenge. And revenge, according to the New Testament, is NEVER the moral course of action. If indeed we reach the point where prisons truely are instutions for rehab only, we will have made much moral progress. That indeed we HAVE made much moral progress already is a belief also argued by Harris. There have been, indeed, moral peaks and valleys. Those who object are apt to the point to great atrocies of the twentieth century, most notably under the Communist and Nazi regimes. Nevertheless, Harris's reflection on the horrors of racism in the US a century ago, and the fact that they are looked on with astonishment by most of us today, demonstrate that progress has been made and will very likely continue.

And the fact that humans as a species are maturing morally (and by implication, spiritually) offers evidence that there really is a benevolent deity behind it all, guiding humanity along, whether athiests like it or not. The presence of great evil in the world merely shows, and abundantly, that true evil does exists, and we are engaged in warfare, one that hopefully, we are winning.

Another very thought-provoking book.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

It has been a very long time since I have added anything to this blog.

I promised, well over a year ago that I would get around to reviewing Sam Harris's new book The Moral Landscape. It has actually been out for more than a year now itself, and I have already read it.

Harris's main thesis here is that, contrary to the assertions of many theists, objective moral truths really do exist, and reason and science should serve as tools to discover them. One of the main areas in which I find myself in agreement with atheists is the issue of unquestioning obedience. A common criticism aimed at atheists is that without a god, we are therefore free to make up any rules we like, even though very few atheists are true moral relativists. The problem is that unquestioning obedience to scripture, which is often implied, is the alternative to reason, runs straight into serious moral problems, especially when it comes to the doctrine of eternal punishment for sinners, and also the atrocities committed in the name of God in the Old Testament. The reason fundementalist Christians hold fast to both of these, as I'll argue further in another essay, has nothing to do with morality at all. And I might offend some Christians with what I am about to say next.

When it comes to moral guidence, I do not rely, first and formost, on scripture. I rely on prayer.

Harris, who literally calls for the end of faith, would do away with scripture entirely. And since he does not believe in faith, he would also, of necessity, do away with prayer as well.

Science and reason, he beleives, are the most reliable tools we have, not only for discovering facts about the material universe, but facts regarding morality as well. Since, as a theist, I agree with him that moral objectivism is correct, I also agree that objective moral truths may indeed to discoverable through rational inquiry. The thing is, as Harris demonstrates in his book, the moral truth in some areas may be very difficult to discern. Since most of us are not scientists, and do not have the toos of scientific inquiry at our disposal, prayer and intuitive reasoning will have to suffice for the short term.

In the past, Harris has defined true morality as a question of happiness vs. suffering, but think it is fairly obvious that this definition is not quite sufficient. Consider a virtual reality program in which all the inhabitants are kept in a state of everlasting bliss. Would such a state represent the peak of moral good? Few people would actually answer "yes." Part of the reason is that such a world would be an utter sham, and we tend to place high moral value on the quality of Truth. The apparent pointlessness of a state of eternal euphoria, too, is also a problem, and part of the reason the common perception of heaven is, in fact, fraught with moral difficulties. Using the degree of happiness vs. suffering as a yardstick to determine morality, indeed, leads to difficulty, as may be seen by Peter Singer's now notorious defense of infanticide:

Harris, who seems to have realized the problem inherent with "happiness vs. suffering" prior to writing this, alters his definition of morality somewht however, to "Human and animal well-being," indeed, a definition with a far closer proximity to the truth. It is true that most of us can generally determine how "moral" a thing is by its contribution to human well-being. Harris is critical of the supposed "morality" of suicide bombers on precisely these grounds. Morality cannot be simply a matter of "pleasing God," even though there are scads of both Christians and Muslims who would define it thusly. While we can rationally argue that if the actions of Muslim terrorists tie directly with the writings of their holy book, than it is a reasonable assertion that their faith itself is in error. It is my beleif that the same charge cannot be brought to bear upon the Christian faith. Don't beleive me? Name any terrible act done allegedly in name of Jesus Christ, and it will, of necessity, go diretly against His teachings.

Writes Harris:

Because most religions concieve of morality as a matter of being obedient to the word of God (generally for the sake of recieving supernatural reward), their precepts often have nothing to do with maximizing well-being in this world. Religious beleivers can, therefore, assert the immorality of contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, etc., with ever feeling obliged to argue that these practices actually cause suffering. They can also pursue aims that are flagrantly immoral, in that they needlessly pereptuate human misery, while beleiving these actions are morally oligatory. This pious uncoupling of moral concern from the reality of human and animal suffering has caused tremendous harm.

A scathing indightment of morality= "pleasing God." Indeed, very many religius folks, when faced with addressing the immorality of homosexuality, often fall back on the arguemnt of "it's not my opinion; it's what God's Word says." What they (and Harris) neglect to mention (and perhaps even to consider), is that anything branded as sinful by the Bible does, or did (indeed there were some prohibitions, like eating shelfish, that were verturned by the time o Christ), contribute to human harm. I won't go into the health risks associated with homosexuality, but they are leigion. I will mention briefly that the fact that so many innocent children contracted HIV back in the eighties, and were themselves aften the targets of persecution by the fearful, was largey a result of homosexual activity and drug abuse, is appalling to say the least, polliticaly incorrect as it is. So far as contraception, it may be right in some cases, and wrong in others depending on the circumstances. I might add that there is no Biblical passage at all even suggesting the immorality of contraception. That it has become a religous issue to such an extant has far more to do with the need to preserve culture and tradition than any connection with the teachings of Christ, or even of Moses. Ditto with homosexuality; while I explained the immorality above, and the fact that it is indeed prohibited by scripture (if not the actual teachings of Christ) the chief reason so many conservative Christians seem opposed to gayness, and gay marriage in particular, has more to do with a perceived threat to the nuclear family. Is the tradtional, nucelear family the most conducive to human welfare? Quite possibly, in most cases, it is. In others, perhaps not so, which is why adherence for rules for rules sake offers little reliable guidence for moral conduct.

Harris's book does, however, make some fascinating insights into the socio-cultural biases which tend to affect that which we percieve as moral. According to a study he cites, socio-political liberals tend to view morality in terms of harm and fairness. Conservatives tend to view morality in terms of harm, fairness, respect for authority, and group loyality. Notice that conservatives do not jettison harm and fairness, but add the two additional qualities. Harris beleives that conservatives may still be thinking on terms of harm, though it may be a different sort of harm considered by liberals. Perhaps conservatives also consider "harm to one's group," as equally immoral. This rather demonstrates that there is a tribalitic bias at work in conservative thought, and tribalism tends to be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. One thinks of the associations of "God and country," and the often aggressive pro-millitary stance of the Religious Right. On the other hand, Harris cites an additional study which demonstrated that liberals tends to harbor a strong, yet appantently unconscious, racial bias in favor of minorities. According to this, liberals were eager to sacrifice the life of single white person to save the lives a group of non-whites, but not he other way around, all the while maintaining that the issue of race had not entered into their consideration.

The Moral Landscape is indeed a thought-provoking book, and it will certainly contribute to the debate surrounding how humans ought to regard right and wrong.