Friday, July 25, 2003

People continue to comment on the July 10 post, but I don't know how many folks in the reading public (which, for all I know, consists solely of the people commenting - but probably there's at least one other person) check that comment box which persists in reading [0]. So here's a transcript of the ongoing dialogue, which can continue here:

Well said. Interesting to read this so soon after I had a long conversation about religion with a friend yesterday.


I agree with your statement that "the nature of God is not an idea to be built; it's a truth to be discovered." But then how do you go about discovering that truth among the sheer proliferation of religions and people's "obvious" freedom of choice in this area? If it were something we could figure out as easily as we perform physics experiments, I think there would be a lot more religious agreement in the world, and less of a difference between "agreeing" and "believing." But since this doesn't seem to be the case, we have to have some other way of evaluating the choices. With a lack of definitive proof, it seems reasonable that people would turn to their gut feelings as all they have to fall back on. Sure gut feelings are unreliable, but so is listening to other people and their various ideas about God. There are so many ideas out there -- who's right? When it comes right down to it, I'd rather be true to myself and risk being wrong, than be true to someone else and risk being wrong. Obviously, being true to God would be best, but it's not generally clear how to do that when your beliefs are still in the process of getting sorted out.

I'm a little curious about your last sentence, where people should just ask what their beliefs imply. You seem to be saying that they should just take what they already believe and work from there. I suppose that's good, assuming they already have definite beliefs of some kind. But what about the people who aren't sure what they believe, or are wavering in their beliefs?

Anyway, this is all the sort of stuff that tends to be on my mind these days, so it's interesting to hear your thoughts on it.


Definitely well said. It made me happy to read this on Friday. Your wordcraft never ceases to amaze me. I'm looking forward to catching up with you soon! :)

Blue Rose

As to my last statement, I didn't necessarily mean to imply that they should just take what they already believe and run with it - though unless you're actively putting your current beliefs on hiatus for the purpose of re-evaluation I think that's a good rule of thumb. If your beliefs have no implications for your life, I would question in what practical sense you actually "believe" them. On the other hand, if you're one of those people who thinks that Islam is true but just can't "believe" the words of the Prophet, I'd suggest that you're fooling yourself: what you're really feeling, I'd wager, is a belief in Islam coupled with a self-deceiving reluctance to acknowledge that a belief in Islam necessitates living your life like a Muslim - and if you don't know what living like a Muslim is, then it behooves you to find out or else your belief in Islam is fundamentally useless to you and you might as well not believe it at all. What I meant to imply in my last sentence was that if you're waiting for religion to whack you upside the feelings, you've got a long wait ahead of you. Once you acknowledge the truth of a religion you owe it to your self-honesty to knuckle down and figure out what life as a follower of that creed is like, whatever your feelings.

As for evaluating other religions, it seems to me that you've got essentially three possible tacks to take. You could just despair of ever evaluating all the religions on the market and just give up. If you're evaluating other religions at all obviously you've decided not to take this route, so we can pass it by. Or you could decide to withhold judgment until you've evaluated all the religions you're aware of - an impractical task in my opinion; you'll be dead and moldering in the grave before you finish getting a handle on humanity's multiplicity of religions.

So the third option is to evaluate starting at some religion that seems plausible or attractive in some subjective way, and then stop once you've decided that that one is true. Unsatisfyingly ad hoc (of course, so is quantum mechanics, and so what?), but it seems like the only practical possibility - and chances are the choice you settle on will necessarily exclude all others. For example, you simply cannot believe Christianity and consider other religions to be true where they differ from the Christian creed; to do so denies one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity - and I think that will turn out to be true for most religions if you're serious about the claims they make.

As for my personal evaluations, which is really all I can comment on since I've really only seriously evaluated Christianity ... I'd say they come twofold. My own religious experience is a nice personal touch, but I consider feelings to be an inadequate rubric for this sort of thing and all religions have genuine religious experiences - nor does my creed necessitate that I consider those other experiences fraudulent. What it really comes down to for me is the history of the Jews and the resurrection of Jesus. Given those two facts, and what they imply about Jesus' words, I go with Christianity. I'd much rather evaluate a creed by historical events than its philosophy. In the first place, I find history much more concrete in its verdicts than philosophy and therefore much more amenable to actual evaluation. In the second, while nothing is free of interactor bias, I trust my ability to evaluate history objectively much more than my ability to evaluate philosophy objectively ... perhaps others better trained in philosophy can evaluate religious creeds on something more universal than whether or not they like it, but "whether or not I like it" is about the size of my ability to evaluate philosophy unless you allow me some basic axioms. And if we're evaluating religious philosophy, basic axioms seem unfair to allow; there's no set of axioms that no significant portion of the population will disagree with. Historical axioms may be up for debate, but I find that they vary less than philosophical ones do ... and they're up for debate less often.


Hi, Eric, this is Ryan Mitchell.
It's been a long time, hasn't it? I suppose it's a bit odd to be hearing from me, but I stumbled back upon your blog by accident, and I felt compelled to comment.

Since we last saw each other I've had a wealth of important experiences, and having read this last post of yours, I would have felt irresponsible had I not taken the time to voice my agreement. In the fairly recent past I have become a very firm devotee of a Buddhist practice called Falun Gong, and I have also been studying Jungian psychology. Exposure to these complementary perspectives has changed a lot about the way I look at the world, by far for the better.

As I have come to restructure my life around the Law, I have also come to appreciate genuine religious sentiment of the kind you describe. In my view both Christianity and Buddhism are equally reliable paths to the end goal of subsuming one's imperfect ego to the intrinsic wholeness of all things existing.
You might be extremely interested by Jung's work - he is what I would call a great defender of faith, refusing to hide beneath the dogmas proclaimed by so many psychologists in their efforts to deny the inexplicability of so much of human experience.
That which is inexplicable to cause-and-effect formulations,

oops, got cut off - suffice it to say that that which cannot be explained by cause-and-effect formulations or by the highest reasoning of the human mind must, thus, since we live in an ordered universe, be a sign of higher formulations and reasoning beyond our understanding.
The inexplicable actions of human minds themselves, the structures of our societies, even our capacity for thinking at all; these do indeed defy what we know of the universe.

Religion is the invaluable framework we have been given for enlightening to the connecting principles which supersede causality and acknowledge that, as human beings, we are equally creatures of matter and of spirit: our understanding should not reflect only the physical reactions we see in nature around us, but also the deeply veiled eternal Act of Creation from which all our reactions, physiological or psychological, have stemmed.
All that said, I would also like to say peace be with you. I speak to you with that which is foremost in my heart, the comradery of those who have meditated on things greater than themselves.

Your Cousin in Faith,


Thanks for commenting, Ryan. It has been a long time, and it's good to hear from you.

Christianity and Buddhism may be equally reliable paths to subsuming one's imperfect ego to the intrinsic wholeness of all things existing; I wouldn't know. That isn't the end goal of Christianity, and not something which Christianity concerns itself about. The end goals of Christianity are to overcome one's rejection of God and to produce people who live as sons of God. The ego is perfected but never subsumed, and the perfection which it is patterned after is infinite but by no means "all things existing;" it is one particular Thing out of a great many which exist. Nor is Christianity particularly concerned with "religious sentiment;" it is a religion which expects the believer to carry on irregardless of the presence or absence of religious sentiment.

It is also a religion which is concerned with much more than the Act of Creation. If the Act of Creation was all there was to it, the Christians would say that there would be no need for Christianity - or rather that Christianity as a religion would be irrelevant, since all the things that accompany life in Christ would be as natural as breathing. It is only because there is more to the Big Picture than the Act of Creation - primarily the Fall - that Christianity as a religion exists. That is a cause-and-effect statement, it seems to me, and therefore I would say that Christianity does not reject cause-and-effect as something it should be concerned about.


I've been meaning to ask, Eric--what exactly does Jesus say on the subject of pantheism (the theory that everything in existence is part of the substance of God--that God = everything)?


As Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, he didn't have to say much (I don't think he ever discusses it explicitly): he was talking to Jews, who reject such doctrine as blasphemous nonsense (they rejected the idea that *Jesus* is God as blasphemous nonsense; c.f. John 10:33. Note that the Greek quoting Ps. 82:6 is a little deceptive). Both the religion of the Greeks and the Achaemenid Persians before them differentiate between the divine and the rest of the world, so I wouldn't expect Jesus to talk about it very much. Everyone in his audience would have taken it as axiomatic that a rock is not God.

I have a hard time imagining that anybody would come to the Scriptures of the Jews and/or Christians and conclude that either religion regards pantheism as anything other than blasphemous nonsense, unless of course they were pantheists already. But I think it's fairly easy to detect the denial of pantheism in the way people phrase things: for instance, "My Father is greater than all" (John 10:29). Or consider John 14:16-17: "And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another helper, that he may abide with you forever - the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him." If the world was of the same stuff as the Holy Spirit there would be no problem here, any more than there is a problem for the Father to receive the Son.


Very true. I note that there is one quote attributed to Jesus that carries the vague suggestion of pantheism--"Lift the stone and you will find me, cleave the wood and I am there." But then, that was from the gospel of Thomas, which is also reported to contain a story in which a six year old Jesus uses his divine powers to smite a group of children that were making fun of him.


Interesting, however, that Jesus doesn't seem to speak much to the eastern religions, such as Buddhism (which is what made me think of this). The religions that do carry the suggestion of pantheism (as Ryan refers to the "cosmic whole" below) don't really seem to get their share of explanations in Jesus' gospel. What is a Christian to say to a pantheist?


I feel I should point out that one of the reasons the Gospel of Thomas was rejected from the canon (besides the fact that it was written about two hundred years after the fact) is that it doesn't jive doctrinally with the other things. But as to pantheism, I'm really not sure there's anything to say. If it isn't patently obvious to you that a rock lacks one or more of the criteria for godhood, I'm not convinced that there's any way to argue around to that point. What Christianity does offer is an alternate cosmology backed by historical verifiability. If Christianity is true then pantheism isn't, so if I were personally in the mood to debate pantheism I would prefer to talk about the verifiability of Christianity - talking about the criteria for godhood is just going to get me talking in circles.

Jesus didn't come to teach, though. If his job on Earth was primarily to dispense moral and philosophical doctrine (which wouldn't, I think, be very much use to us - we don't follow moral or philosophical doctrine and we never will no matter who gives it to us) then we might expect him to provide teachings which systematically deal with all the wrong philosophies which he, as God, would be in a position to identify. On the other hand, how does a physics teacher explain to someone that the universe is not actually composed of celestial spheres? Rather than wasting a lot of time arguing about evidence for and against celestial spheres, he's much more likely to say "look, here's the real picture of the universe" - without mentioning celestial spheres at all, probably.


Lewis puts forth a deconstruction of Pantheism in 'Miracles', if anyone's interested.

To return to your original post, E, I do not think that people regard the existence of hell as a contradiction to God, per se.

As you describe him, God is the 'I am'. Not the 'I am supposedly'; not the 'I should be according to your perception', but the 'I am'.

If we have been trained in our educations to be skeptical of accepting without careful examination, then it is perhaps natural to raise concerns over the fact that one of God's most well-known characteristics appears compromised by one of his creations.

'Take it or leave it' probably isn't the most comforting answer, because it does nothing to address the injustice that another perceives in the embodiment of justice.

It's ironic how steep a hill this question is though. Of those that I've seen, the nonchristians have oftentimes attempted to surmount it, but have stopped short. The Christians have overcome it and ran all the way down, with a peace of mind that is perhaps puzzling to those who have not submitted their wills to the One whom they yet do not trust.

The question I tend to ask when faced with a person in such a dilemma is whether they realize that they are not presently standing on neutral ground; that hell is not a destination for punishment, but rather a denial of entry to better pastures. To go to hell, as I see it, is not entry into a jail, but simply never escaping an island.

And in that sort of situation, it is not that God punishes Man, but rather that Man never finds God.

The skeptics oftentimes do actively resist God and Christianity. But there is great danger in confounding evaluatory rigor with denial...

BTW: I'm thrilled to find somebody who posts entries as long as mine. ;)
You know me as the failed Testimony Bass and dormmate of one Mr. Russell and Mr. Mues.


I agree. I always thought of Hell almost as God's last gift to Christianity--a way of saying, "Alright...if you don't want to come live with me, that's alright--I'll make a place just for you. Just don't blame me if it turns out you don't like it."


I think that nine times out of ten objections to damnation center go something like this: "Well, look, I'm a good man - or anyway a halfway decent one - and I want to get to heaven just like anyone else, so isn't it horribly unjust and unloving for God to even create the possibility that I might not get there? Or maybe I'm not good enough to get into heaven, but what about someone like Ghandi?"

This is a case of dissecting Christianity out of context: it is looking at the doctrine of damnation, but not at any of the context which makes damnation anything other than an absurdity. But if you look at in context - if you realize that damnation must be taken with the rest of Christianity and that the whole thing hangs together - you immediately come up against the fact that you are not a "good man." You are not even remotely a halfway decent man. You will also run up against the fact that the doctrine of salvation has nothing to do with being "good enough." The very idea of being good enough to be saved is absurd. It would be like a man saying, "I am good enough to bear children." The idea of "good enough" is a million miles away from being relevant, because however good a man I may be, I am missing something vital.

How anybody can object to something like that I don't know, short of rejecting Christianity wholesale - which is what I have been trying to get at all along. Not, that is, unless they say something like this: "Well look, okay. We'll admit that I'm a sniveling wicked little wretch of a human being who has no hope of getting into heaven. Well, isn't that where God is supposed to come in? I mean, I *want* to get into heaven! Who doesn't?"

And that of course is exactly the conundrum identified by and solved by Christianity. I think a man would be very self-deceiving if he honestly asked that question of the sky and then refused to swallow his pride and become a practicing Christian (because of course he would not have reached that point except in intellectual relation to Christianity). But the real heart of the problem I think is in the last part: "I want to get into heaven! Who doesn't?"

I find that a lot of people run into a difficulty when they think of heaven or hell as a place that you are sent to. If I were God, I think I might have phrased those parts of the Scriptures more like Lewis did: in terms of becoming either a heavenly or hellish creature. But I can see the objection to that illustration and I think the geographical one really does make more sense, if you bother to think about it. I think it is like this:

Suppose a man in Los Angeles wants to get to New York. With this sole objective in mind, he hops into the Pacific and begins to swim towards the Arctic. What are we to say to such a man? We should correct him, of course - he is not heading for New York, and in fact could overshoot the Arctic by a million miles and still not end up in New York. But suppose once we correct him he says to us, "F*ck you and your geographical bigotry! I want to get to New York, and I'm going to get there my way! If I have to follow your instructions I don't want to get there anyway!" What are we to make of such a man? Does he want to get to New York or not?

(Of course that illustration is imperfect too, since you might get to New York by way of Moscow even if you started in Los Angeles. You would be very silly, but it could be done. But that is more like getting to the Christ-life by way of a very long and convoluted route, not like getting to it by way of Hinduism.)

Anyway, I think that is at the root of peoples' suspicion that hell is a really unfair feature of the universe. They simply refuse to believe that behavior X or attitude Y is, in reality, walking away from God (it is not bigotry to point out that heading for the Arctic will not get you to New York; it is merely a consequence of reality). And it is then that we run into Twilight's point. God has (only he knows why) this fanatical devotion to letting human beings make their own decisions. If a human being spends all its life trying to get away from God it would fail, unless there was some "place" like hell where God was not - else it would be like Jonah running away from God by heading for Italy.


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