Friday, January 24, 2003

Ka-chunk, crank crank crank...can of worms now open!

UnSpace last week featured a thought experiment. Suppose a pastor is counseling a couple that wants to marry, and finds out that the bride-to-be is genetically male but has complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) and has spent his/her life as a female. Should he perform the wedding?

This question brings somewhat closer to home the issues I was trying to raise in my post about God and nature two days ago. There are actually a lot of people out there who are in between genders, and they come in all manner of variations. Some have even organized to oppose efforts to assign them surgically to one sex or the other. Rob Carr later says that, in his mind, the very existence of such people invalidates arguments against gay marriage, because "Nature is not confined to simple categories of man and woman."

By coincidence, the pastor at the church I attend is in the middle of a two-part sermon about sex. (This is within a six-part series on that triumverate of temptation, "money, sex and power.") Last Sunday he outlined a general Christian theory of sexuality, a lot of which I liked. I agreed with his disenchantment with the way our current society deals with it, at once magnifying and trivializing it. I liked the paraphrase of Paul on how the body is a temple of God, and should be treated with commensurate respect. I liked the acknowledgement of sexuality's power and potential both for good and for destruction. I understood when he said that adultery can be one of the most painful things on earth.

As a lot of Christians are wont to do, the pastor appealed to Adam and Eve as a paradigm for how things were meant to be. God created man and wife, told them to be fruitful and multiply, sex was wonderful until sin came along. Unlike some, the pastor did not identify original sin with sex (that popular spin isn't actually in the Bible). But he identified that as the point when it all started to go bad.

I couldn't tell if the pastor took the story literally or not (I suspect not, but you never know). Either way, though, many Christians do look to the story as a description of what God intended for us, before it all went horribly wrong. The innocent monogamous heterosexual union of two people who were literally made for each other was God's original design.

In a funny way, this Christian account of sex reminds me of its cultural archenemy, the sexual revolution. That was also an attempt to bring sex back to its supposed state of nature, and thereby cleanse it of its shame and darkness. Its idea of the natural state was less like turtledoves and more like chimpanzees, of course, but it shared the utopian dream that if you lose the dishonesty, jealousy and power plays, you could somehow return to paradise.

Very few sexual revolutionaries that I know of actually managed to live by the ideal. The time-tested institution of marriage is more suited to human nature, I think, and I am willing to buy the Christian assertion that it is the best home for most people's libidos. Heck, I feel I was made for it myself, despite my lack of actual experience with marriage.

But as Rob says, nature isn't that simple. Christian sexual utopianism also takes leave of reality at a certain point, and hermaphrodites are a good example. Although there is no conclusive evidence on this, it seems to lend credence to the idea that people can be born homosexual: if nature can make people physically in between genders, couldn't it mentally make all sorts of kinks as well?

I don't know what the Christian Assembly's position is on this sort of thing, exactly -- I suppose that will come in the next sermon. But I am somewhat familiar with Catholic thinking on these things, and as I understand it the Church admits some people are born different, in various ways. But the solution for those people is celibacy. What bugs me about this is the way it makes sex the exclusive privilege of those in the fat part of the bell curve. If you're gay or intersexed, if your spouse left you -- or doesn't get along with you -- if you don't want to have children, if you just haven't met the right person, and may never do so (like in my case), sex is not for you.

I wouldn't even mind this so much if it were just about intercourse. I can understand being sparing with the procreative act, what with all its mental and physical consequences. But it seems like a lot of these, er, nonstandard Christians are sentenced to fight the fact that they have libidos at all. I can't help thinking of this tragicomic anecdote that appeared last month on Sed Contra, in which a homosexual (or as they say on that blog, same-sex-attracted) guy tried to confess to masturbating, only to get in an argument with the priest over whether it was actually a sin. Now, masturbation is a crude, second-rate sort of sex, I grant you, but it bothers me that someone who does not seem to have the option of heterosexual marriage can't even get the second-rate stuff. It's the ideal, or it's nothing. I also don't know where sexual fantasy, without any action, fits into this. I sort of elliptically tried to get at this with Telford Work a few months ago, but his response didn't quite address the subject.

But anyway, the point is that arguments that God meant human sexuality to be this way or that way tend to run up against nature. Sex comes in a great variety in nature, and trying to draw from animals, whether doves, chimps or anything else, tends to oversimplify things.

It's not like I know the solution to this. Another post this whole thing reminds me of is Eve Tushnet's response to Andrew Sullivan a while back. He wondered, "Why can we not leave the dark and difficult realm of eros out of fundamental moral teaching? ...More specifically: Why can we not hold up marriage and committed loving relationships as the goal but not punish and stigmatize the non-conformists or those whose erotic needs and desires are more complex than the crude opposition to all non-marital and non-procreative sex allows?"

Eve answered, "This is, no doubt, great news for the Mickey Sabbaths of the world; and the 30-year-olds who hang around DC high schools and impregnate my pregnancy center's 15-year-old clients ("but we're in love!"); not to mention those who seek to grope a goat (a dark and difficult goat, no doubt, but aren't they always). One of the reasons we should be grateful for the Church's guidance in the "dark and difficult realm of eros" is precisely that it is so dark and difficult, and it is good to have a light. Sex and eros often appear centripetal--driving us toward one another--but when they are not linked to caritas, promise-making, and loyalty they become centrifugal, alienating, isolating, and ultimately they can fragment our sense of self."

The annoying thing is, I sympathize with both of them. I understand Andrew's feeling that you should have an ideal of marriage without sexually freezing out everybody else. But I agree with Eve that simply leaving it out of moral teaching is untenable. If morality is anything, it's a philosophy of human relationships, with each other, with nature or with God; and sex is right in the middle of human relationships. It's also true that with "noncomformists," except those with physical deviations such as hermaphrodites, we only have their say-so about how they were made. Separating them from garden-variety sleazeballs is not so simple.

So for all the words I've expended on this post, I come to no conclusion. But since I am confronting everything Christian these days, it seems I have to deal with this one as well. And what God intended seems more perplexing than ever.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Blog roundup

I don't have anything very interesting to say for myself today, so I thought I'd make like Eve Tushnet and list some posts worth reading:

A blog called UnSpace, by a Presbyterian church elder. Includes an appalling post about his brush with HIV and the minister who wouldn't pray for him. (UPDATE: Rob points out in the comments that the pastor didn't refuse...he just refused to lead the church in it, for fear of controversy. I fell for the reporter's disease of making a short, punchy summary that kind of let the facts slide...)

Mark Kleiman on MLK Day.

Ideofact on the Muslim conquest of Byzantium.

Minute Particulars explains why Christians seems so wacky to us nonbelievers.

CalPundit defends market research.

David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy on Roe vs. Wade. Peter Nixon has also been writing well on the subject all week.

I'll give Disputations the last word. For now. I'm sure I'll be back to dispute another day...

I've rearranged the template a bit, shrinking the formerly intrusive comments and moving the permalinks to the bottom of the posts instead of the top. I never liked the way they sat on top of the headlines. So anyone who wishes to link to me, please note.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

And speaking of evolution...

This is kinda cool.

UPDATE: Charles Murtaugh's got pics!
The fly II

Readers with long memories may recall that a few months ago I blogged about a dream I had, which turned into a theological question aimed at Telford Work. Telford responded a couple weeks later with what was meant to be the first of a two-part post.

Unfortunately, events intervened and part two never happened. But I knew Telford was drawing his answer from a chapter in a book, so this week I borrowed it from him and read the relevant chapter myself.

I was not very happy with Telford's post because I felt he was arguing against a stereotyped Darwinism that I was not actually promoting. I thought the sequel might put a different cast on it, though, so I held my tongue. Unfortunately, now that I've read the chapter I still feel like the question hasn't been answered.

I do not know, of course, exactly how Telford would have interpreted the rest of the chapter. But it seems to me that the crucial points are in two quotes. One is from Frans de Waal:
We human beings, having our natural frame and basis [in the evolutionary process], with our own (it seemed our own) penchant for community, and (it seemed) our own hankerings after adventure, found ourselves, before long, in trouble. Our very adventurousness led us astray; our drive to cohesion fostered monstrous imperial alternatives to the adventure and sociality of the Way God had intended, while our continuity with nature became an excuse to despise ourselves and whatever was the cause of us. We sin. In his loving concern, God set among us, by every means infinite wisdom could propose, the foundations of a new human society; in his patience he sent messengers to recall the people of his Way to their way; in the first bright glimmers of opportunity he sent -- himself, incognito, without splendor and fanfare, the Maker amid the things made, the fundamental Web as if a single fiber, the Ground of Adventure risking everything in this adventure. His purpose -- sheer love; his means -- pure faith; his promise -- unquenchable hope.

The other quote was from Holmes Rolston on suffering in nature:
Nature is...cruciform. The world is not a paradise of hedonistic ease, but a theater where life is learned and earned by labor, a drama where even the evils drive us to make sense of things. Life is advanced not only by thought and action, but by suffering, not only by logic but by pathos...The pathetic element in nature is seen in faith to be at the deepest logical level the pathos in God. God is not in a simple way the Benevolent Achitect, but is rather the Suffering Redeemer. The whole of the earthen metabolism needs to be understood as having this character. The God met in physics as the divine wellspring from which matter-energy bubbles up... is in biology the suffering and resurrecting power that redeems life out of chaos...

The secret of life is seen now to lie not so much in the heredity molecules, no so much in natural selection and the survival of the fittest, not so much in life's infomational, cybernetic learning. The secret of life is that it is a passion play. Things perish in tragedy. The religions knew that full well, before biology arose to reconfirm it. But things perish with a passing over in which the sacrificed individual also flows in the river of life. Each of the suffering creatures is delivered over as an innocent sacrificed to preserve a line, a blood sacrifice perishing that others may live. We have a kind of "slaughter of the innocents," a non-moral, naturalistic harbinger of the slaughter of the innocents at the birth of the Christ, all perhaps vignettes hinting at the innocent lamb slain from the foundation of the world. They share the labor of the divinity. In their lives, beautiful, tragic, and perpetually incomplete, they speak for God; they prophesy as they participate in the divine pathos. All have "borne our griefs and carried our sorrows."

The abundant life that Jesus exemplifies and offers to his disciples is that of a sacrficial suffering through to something higher. There is something divine about the power to suffer through to something higher. The Spirit of God is the genius that makes alive, that redeems life from its evils. The cruciform creation is, in the end, deiform, godly, just because of the element of struggle, not in spite of it. There is a great divine "yes" hidden behind and within every "no" of crushing nature. God, who is the lure toward rationality and sentience in the upcurrents of the biological pyramid, is also the compassionate lure in, with and under all purchasing of life at the cost of sacrifice. God rescues from suffering, but the Judeo-Christian faith never teaches that God eschews suffering in the achievement of divine purposes. To the contrary, seen in the paradigm of the cross, God too suffers, not less than his creatures, in order to gain his creatures a more abundant life.

Now, consider that the original dispute between Telford and me was on the origin of evil. Here were our positions:

Telford: "I think refusing to explain, make sense of, or originate evil in God's character or plan is a theological move... I find the definition of evil as senselessness to be a profound Christian answer to the problem of evil's nature and origin. Sin contradicts the grammar of all good sense. It goes against every grain. It has no grammar of its own; it is grammatical error in creation. Any other answer is liable to turn evil into a form of good – dismissing or trivializing the radical seriousness of sin."

Me: "[E]vil makes all too much sense. When humans came to be, we were both predator and prey, born into violence, terror, pain, competition, and death. It is hard to see how we could have existed in that without 'falling.' ...Now, many people draw a distinction between animal cruelty and human cruelty by saying animals are merely following their instincts, whereas humans have a choice. But the mere presence of those instincts rather defies the idea that sin 'goes against every grain'... This world is not only full of nasty stuff, it would cease to exist without the nasty stuff."

Now consider the two quotes from the book above. Which one of us do they support? It seems to me that they support me more than Telford. Telford thinks that evil is senseless and inexplicable, and yet these authors do make sense of it. Like me, they find it woven into the very fabric of nature, and human nature. Rolston even seems to do what Telford says one should not do: make evil into a form of good. Evils "drive us to make sense of things." Suffering is holy, suffering is part of the plan. And how can suffering happen without somebody inflicting the suffering?

De Waal claims that sin was "not what God intended," but even he locates evil in the way that God made us. Neither one of these philosophers addresses a point that I made, which is that animals do a lot of things that in humans are considered sin. Should God have been surprised that we sometimes act like those from whom we are descended? Though de Waal considers human sin to originate in the proud human traits of "adventurousness" and "sociability," it seems to me that what Christians consider sin could be more logically located in more basic drives like sex and status-seeking. But locating it anywhere, really, seems to invalidate Tellford's point.

Like I said before, I'm not claiming that this makes nature inherently evil and hopeless. It does not even refute the existence of God. I kind of like the idea of God as a benevolent being who intervenes periodically to try and lift us above our animal existence, sort of like the aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it does not seem very Christian. It does not fit with the concept of human fallenness; it is really more like a rising. You're either stuck with a God like Rolston's who likes suffering so much that he made a universe full of it, or a God like the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda, who is good but fighting an evil force very nearly as strong as himself. That was my original dilemma, and I do not see how this solves it.
Dying for sins: digging up souls

Disputations has another response in our discussion of the Atonement. I get the feeling this dialogue is winding down, partly because I'm running up against this that's-just-the-way-it-is attitude that seems beyond argument, and partly because no one's said jack about my last post on the subject (OK, that was more about free will than the Atonement, but I'm still kind of disappointed). But anyway, since we're here, I wanted to know more about this "harrowing of hell" concept. I am not familiar with that, and I was wondering, who gets harrowed out, and why? (Or do we know that?)

Tuesday, January 21, 2003


Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a long and disturbing post about animal hoarding. It is, she points out, coming to be considered a mental illness, since the hoarders seem severely delusional. They do not seem to realize their animals are sick, dying or dead; they concoct paranoid theories of persecution when others try to interfere. They persist in their obsession even in the face of prison.

Some experts Teresa cites (boy, does that woman do her research!) think the phenomenon is allied to obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCs often collect and hoard things, including totally useless things like dryer lint, and become extremely anxious when someone tries to take the crap off their hands.

But at least from reading the descriptions thus far, and being intimately familiar with OCD, I don't think it's really the same. There are two very important differences here. For one thing, these amazing feats of denial, in which the hoarders think they're taking excellent care of the beasts while they're obviously in terrible shape, is not at all characteristic of OCD. OCs are perfectionists; they see flaws in their behavior that no one else sees, and do things over and over until they get it "right." And more importantly, I think, OCs know that they're ill. It's a peculiar trait of the disease that the sufferers know they have no real reason to do what they're doing, but can't stop themselves. In contrast to the animal hoarders, who insist unyieldingly that they're perfectly fine and others are persecuting them, OCs are only too happy to get help.

I am not a psychologist of course, but I do have a psych degree, and reading these animal hoarding cases actually reminded me of a different disorder, called erotomania. This is known to the public mostly through celebrity stalkers, because erotomaniacs have a delusional belief that they're having a love affair with someone who may not even know them. Although erotomaniacs who make the news are usually men, because they're more prone to violence, most of them are actually female. Curiously, this is also true of animal hoarders. Also, not all erotomaniacs fixate on celebrities -- sometimes co-workers or neighbors are their targets.

Celebrity stalking may not sound much like animal hoarding, but the way these hoarders talk sounds awfully similar. They believe they have a "special relationship" with their animals, an almost mystical calling. One lawyer Teresa cites who's dealt with a lot of hoarders says the standard line is, "I love these animals and no one can love them as I can." And both erotomaniacs and hoarders are in deep denial about the suffering they're causing their victims. When the love-objects of erotomaniacs tell them to get lost, erotomaniacs refuse to believe them, concocting elaborate conspiracy theories about why the person is lying or is being manipulated. In some cases -- the famous cases -- they lash out in violence. Also like hoarders, erotomaniacs can seem otherwise normal and functional, although they are usually socially withdrawn. Unlike OCs, they fail to recognize their own insanity.

Erotomania refers only to romantic delusion (hence the name), but I see no reason why they same process couldn't happen with another type of relationship, like with animals. I suspect that with animal hoarders we're seeing the grim reality of what would happen if stalkers actually gained control of their victims. I don't know if anyone has investigated a connection between the two illnesses -- both of them are rather new to the lexicon -- but it seems worth a look.

Monday, January 20, 2003

Free to be

Everett Vandagriff wrote a long letter responding to my somewhat rude reaction to his earlier letter. This post is going to veer somewhat off the subject of the Atonement and into free will, an interesting subject in its own right. Minute Particulars also wrote on this subject, and like Everett includes a lot of C.S. Lewis. Which is too bad, because I don't much like Lewis. (Well, not on this subject -- I liked The Lion, the With and the Wardrobe.)

I think it may have been misleading for me to link to Julian Sanchez' post arguing against the existence of free will and in favor of materialism. I was not endorsing everything Julian said, but I thought he made some good points questioning how we think about free will. I am agnostic on the subject of materialism; and when it comes to the makeup of the human being, in fact, materialism does not necessarily run counter to Christianity. In fact, a while ago I posted part of a letter from Telford Work in which he says: "I myself tend towards holism: my 'soul' is linguistic shorthand for my 'self', which seems to be entirely material. When I die, I'm nowhere but in the casket until resurrection day."

So I'm going to skip that part of Everett's argument, and move on:
When we take a course of action, there are several things which tend to make us want to act one way or another. These are, ultimately, reason and emotion. Setting aside whether or not emotion is entirely chemical or not, I am going to proceed on the assumption that human reason is not merely controlled by chemical processes. When weighing our options, we look, ideally, at each one and determine which alternative is best based upon rational thought, emotional reaction and, occasionally, intuition. Now, in order to weigh the options, we need to determine which factors (within each of the areas of influence) take precedent and weigh them against each other. When this reflection has reached its conclusion we, hopefully, have decided which course of action is best. Once that determination has been made, we then have to decide whether or not to follow our better judgment. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't, be it for emotional reasons, indifference, what have you. There is something in us which determines whether or not we should follow that judgment, and it is not our reason or our emotion: it is our will. That will is bound by neither reason nor emotion, but sides with one or the other (in some cases both or neither) in determining our course of action. In order for it to be able to do this, it must be something different than both reason and emotion because otherwise, it would by its very nature be subject to one or the other. It must also be able to supersede the demands of reason, emotion and intuition so as to measure and reconcile them and react accordingly. Ultimately, it must choose, and the fact that it can choose on a purely rational basis, a purely emotional basis, purely intuitive basis, a purely habitual basis, or on several of them is an indication of a degree of independence from the various influences that lend weight to various options.

I disagree that the "will" must be some sort of free-floating entity within the mind. I think this description (which doesn't quote Lewis, but has Lewis' fingerprints all over it) overly compartmentalizes the self. Reason and emotion -- not to mention our many conflicting reasons and emotions -- are ultimately part of one organism. I think of my "will" as what I end up doing once all those factors play out within myself. The fact that "will" does not always side with one faction or the other, I think, simply means that the interplay comes out differently depending on the circumstances of the decision.

I also want to point out that there's another factor in decision-making that Everett doesn't mention: perception. Not all the variables in a decision are inside our heads. The first question is what we perceive our choices to be. And that's why I got so hot under the collar in the first post. Everett and other Christians say unbelievers "choose to reject God," as if everybody looked coolly over the situation -- Jesus, love and heaven or sin, death and hell -- and inexplicably chose the latter. I suppose, given the strangeness of humanity, some people may exist who feel they've done that. But the vast majority have not. In fact, most non-Christians believe they've accepted God -- but they don't think the Christian God is the real one.

Think of it this way. When you're choosing between two anythings -- cars, women, political candidates, you name it -- you start out believing that both of them exist, and you generally try to find out as much as you can about their various attributes. We do not take our knowledge that they exist, or the knowledge we might gain from learning about them, as interfering with our free choice. What drove me bats about Lewis was the way he acted like, when it comes to God, there's no free will without ignorance.

Everett, in his original letter, put it this way:
God wants a people who will follow Him out of free will, who will submit to them by their own choice. To simply declare the relationship restored is to place people in submission Him irrespective of whether or not they wish to be. This elimination of free will violates the basic dignity which God bestowed upon man.

This brings me to the second point. Any sort of divine decree or any other act of power that would restore the relationship between God and man would necessarily destroy man's free will. If God makes a decree, man has no say in the matter. If He moves in a worldwide act of power, He leaves no room for choice, for faced with the glory of God, man cannot but accept God as Lord.

I have been wondering, as I've pondered Everett's two letters, why God should care if people follow him out of free will. Why should he confer this "dignity" on us, since we are far inferior beings to him? It's true that we humans prefer that in our own relationships: a marriage freely entered into seems more meaningful than having a sex slave. But why?

I think because all that having a sex slave shows is that its owner is powerful. It does not show that the owner is lovable. And we humans want -- need -- to love and to be loved. So most of us hold back on the power that we could use over other people; we allow them some freedom so we know whether they really love us, and therefore whether we are really lovable. (This is, of course, leaving aside the moral problems with enslaving people. Since God is already the ultimate authority and the whole universe is his slave of sorts, I do not see how that is an issue.)

Apparently God also wants to be loved, and apparently he is also withholding his potential power. But I have a bit of trouble translating the human experience with this to Everett's formulation. For one thing, when you get down to it, this is less about free will than it is about emotion. You can make a slave sleep with you, but you can't make her love you. Nor do you have the fulfillment of emotional union with her, needless to say. A wife, on the other hand, does not choose to love you; it's just that when you give her the chance to walk away from you and she doesn't, she's showing you what is really in her heart.

God is supposedly our Creator. So even if we are not his slaves, he made us complete with our impulses and desires and capacities and what have you. While you cannot control what is in your slave's heart, God can control our hearts -- he made our hearts. Where does the love in your heart come from? Do you will it? Or does it just happen? What does freedom really mean here?

Another, less romantic possibility is that God wants us to recognize goodness even when it is not clothed in power. This seems to be behind Jesus' long series of "if you knew God, you would know me" answers to the questioning authorities in the Gospel of John. The trouble I have with this in the Christian context is that there are two parts to this: recognizing goodness, and recognizing that goodness = God. The first part of that comes from listening to the innate morality within ourselves. The second part involves a huge leap of faith.

After all, when we look around the world, right and might don't seem to be especially associated. For untold millenia down to the present day, pagans worshipped gods that were essentially amoral. I am reminded here of a quote from a Haitian, when asked how he could theoretically be Catholic while practicing voodoo on the side. "Jesus is good," he said, "but Eshu is powerful."

Where does the faith to overcome this sort of attitude come from? I don't know, but I don't think you can will it into being. I would like to believe that good is stronger than evil, and indeed that is the chief thing that drew me to Christianity in the first place. But wanting, alone, does not make it happen.

There's another complication to this, which I alluded to in the previous post. If you have recognized God, you may not be seeing him in all his glory, but the choice to follow him becomes something of a non-choice. Especially if you believe in hell. You would not say a man was giving a woman free choice if he said, "Marry me. Or I will cast you into a pit of unspeakable torture." She theoretically has a choice, but it ain't much of one. Part of the reason why a woman choosing to marry you is meaningful is that she could walk away without any negative consequences. She's with you entirely because she loves you.

And yet, in the current letter, Everett says he does have a choice:
Choosing to follow God, to enter into the relationship I was made to enter into is not something that is done once, nor do I have to do so simply because I believe Christ died so that I might be united to HIm. I can decide one day that I want to live a life united with Christ, and I can then decide the following day that I don't want to after all. Initial submission to God does not mean permanent submission to God, nor does it mean perfect submission to God. Because God created me with free will, I can walk away from Him at any time I choose (I should point out that when I say "walk away from Him," I am referring to what I at a given time intend to be a pemanent decision not to follow God, as opposed to simply instances of sin). What's more, because I have free will, even though I may have decided to unite myself to God, there are times when I am going to choose to do something contrary to His will. I will sin. It happens. I am not perfect, nor have I ever claimed to be (at least not seriously). Ultimately, submission to God is consistent with free will because we have to constantly choose to do so. God will not compel us to do anything, even if he sometimes gives a little encouragement (e.g. Jeremiah and Jonah).

I can't say, of course, what goes on in the mind of a Christian. But I wonder, again, how serious the option to walk away is. Many Christians -- if not all of them -- wrestle with belief in God, but I doubt many have believed firmly in God and chosen to walk away. Again, the question seems to be of faith rather than morality or even choice.

Also, getting briefly back to the subject of the Atonement, I quote Everett again:
I'd also like to briefly address the question of who goes to Heaven. It is correct to say that Christ died for all men. However, it is wrong to say in absolute that people do not go to Hell for their sins, and it is also wrong to say in absolute terms that people go to Hell for unbelief. We are judged ultimately by whether we accept or reject God, yes, but as you have noted, what about the ones who have not had the opportunity to make the choice? My general understanding of how it works is that we as human beings are wired to be in communion with God. Even if we are cut off from God, we sense that there is more to life than what we see before us, a transcendant element, if you will, and there is something in us that urges us to pursue that Truth (God). If we allow ourselves to be driven by that urge, to seek the Truth, but do not do so because we lacked sufficient knowledge or opportunity, or because of some other mitigating circumstance, then God will be merciful toward us. However, if we live our lives seeking simply our own self-gratification, ignoring any urge to seek the Truth, then God will have no recourse but to condemn us to Hell.

This is why Christian lines like "your sins are forgiven" can sound like doublespeak to me. They're forgiven unless you're really bad and you don't seek God, or something.

Finally, (yes, this post will eventually come to an end!), Everett writes:
I find it admirable that you are taking time to examine things, to try to gain a greater understanding of the Christian life. Would it were that more people pursued it with the same zeal as you. However, it is essential to recognize the limits of intellect. There is an element of mystery to religion that can't be explained away. There are things we can never fully understand on an intellectual level in this life. I encourage you, in addition to picking people's brains, to step out in faith. Much, if not all, of what is being said in this discussion will not satisfy you completely, nor can it. I know what I've said here does not satisfy me entirely, but is just a workable understanding. However, I believe because I have faith. I have stepped out off of the cliff and not fallen to the ground. So don't confine yourself to asking people who are by their very nature fallible. Ask God to help you come to grips with the questions you have, and continue to do so. Try to quiet your thoughts and listen for His reply. It may come directly from Him, or you may find yourself moved to read something, or someone may say something that clears things up for you. You never know, something might happen. Ultimately, be prepared to live with mystery. You don't have to know all of the answers, and that's a good thing.

I quote this partly because other readers have said similar things. And I should say that I have indeed been pursuing a sort of two-track policy on this. On the blog I've been having these brainy discussions about theology, since this seems like a good format for it. But I've also been attending a church, involving myself in its activities, and, in my own spotty way, praying. Telford, if he shows up here, can vouch for it. So yeah, I can sound like Supercritic on the blog, but I am also trying to get this more experientially/intuitively. And thanks for the kind words, Everett. I'm sorry I was so snappy with you before.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Dying for sins: righteous brothers

Disputations has completed part one and part two of his explanation of the Atonement. I feel like this is covering ground that we've been over before, but there are some interesting features to his discussion.

I was pretty confused by this part:
The Law was God's revelation to Moses and the Jews of how they were to live if they were to be righteous in His sight, yet as St. Paul points out "by works of the Law no one will be justified." If the Law could make someone righteous, then there would be no need for Christ to die.

I know the theory of the Atonement leans heavily on Romans, which I have read (I didn't come to this topic from a state of total ignorance, much though it may seem like it). Romans was pretty confusing to me too, especially on the topic of Jewish law. The gist seemed to be that God laid down the law but no one followed it perfectly, hence the need for Jesus to come and render forgiveness. What I can't tell is whether this was because giving the laws to Moses was a previous attempt at getting people to live right that failed, or whether the Law itself is somehow inherently inadequate to actually make people good enough to meet God. If the former, it makes God sound rather fallible, trying one tack with humanity and then another; if the latter, it makes the purpose of lawgiving rather mysterious.

Paul does offer one suggestion: that "through the law comes knowledge of sin." The implication apparently being that once people have laws and fail to obey them, they realize what sinners they are, and thus how much they need God's grace. Aside from seeming like a strange reason to hand down law, I am not sure how this applies to the many non-Jews who converted to Christianity. Evidently, they perceived their own sinfulness without knowing or caring that they were breaking Jewish law.

But anyway, this is a roundabout way of getting to the question that I asked earlier: what was the fate of those who lived before Jesus? Disputations offers hints:
Before Jesus' death, men were helpless, unable to please God by their lives. After His death, men were no longer helpless. By their faith in Jesus, they could live for Him rather than themselves, and living for Christ means living together with Him. Since Christ is living at the right hand of the Father, living with Christ means living in the presence of the Father, an unthinkable thought before Jesus, since no man sees God and still lives (Exodus 33:20).

So no man can see God and live, but what of the afterlife? If none were righteous, was everyone damned? Could Christ save the dead?

Disputations also says:
So Jesus' sacrifice, once for all, establishes a new covenant, a new agreement between God and all mankind, by which God promises to forgive our sins if we have faith in His Son. The one necessary sacrifice of this covenant -- the whole of mankind's side of the bargain -- was made before people even became aware the covenant was offered. Jesus died so that we would have a sacrifice through which our sins can be forgiven.

I must say I have the same objections which I spelled out here to the idea that your whole salvation rests on faith in one person. It's not a rational or theological argument, it just violates my inmost moral sense. But more on that in the next post.

I am also a bit doubtful that Catholics believe that mankind's whole side of the bargain was paid through the Crucifixion. Aside from the faith caveat -- an awfully big one -- people also evidently have to repent their sins. Maybe I'm taking Shakespearean theology too seriously, but I was under the impression that even a believer who died "in his sins," that is before repenting them, was destined for otherworldly punishment. Am I correct about that?
Holding pattern

Yes, I said I'd respond to some things today, but I got a late start and didn't have time for everything I wanted to do. So I will put it off again till tomorrow.

One thing that's taking longer than expected is reading Isaiah, which I told Telford Work I'd do because he thought it would help me understand the crucifixion business. I don't see the connection from what I've read, though it does show me the provenance of the guy who walked around San Francisco with a sandwich board saying "Fallen, fallen is Babylon..."