Friday, February 14, 2003

Crime and punishment

Since I hadn't been to Mysterium Crucis before today, I hadn't realized he'd weighed in on the Atonement debate last month. He pointed out that however God did the atonement, somebody was gonna be unhappy:
God could have snapped his fingers, in a spiritual sense of course, and instantaneously saved us. But I imagine if he had done that, theologians would sit around, nursing their pipes, pondering the ineffable mystery of the boring anticlimactic way in which God saved the world. Couldn't He have done it with a bit of flair? A little drama? Or perhaps God could have created this mandatory, purgatorial state that not only cleanses us of venial, but mortal and original sin. Which would have theologians and laymen rather angry, and I don't think the religion would taken off very fast. What? He's going to make us pay for all the things we did? That's not fair!

This brings back to my mind the fact that one way I seem to differ from a lot of Christians is in my attitude toward punishment. I mentioned before that when I last talked to Telford we had a digression about St. Anselm, and it hit on this subject. (I'm gonna milk that visit for all it's worth, apparently!) St. Anselm, apparently, wrote that once sin entered the world, God had three choices: destroy it all; forgive everything, which would be unjust because there'd be no punishment for sin; or do what he did, a substitutional atonement.

I objected to the premise of the second option. When I think about people who've wronged me, they were often people who were close to me; so I knew, even if I got extremely angry, that they were not all evil. If I could have removed the evil from within them, leaving everything else intact and healing the relationship, I wouldn't give a flip if they hadn't been punished.

Maybe it's my liberal humanist upbringing, but I think of punishment in practical rather than cosmic terms. It is, to me, a tool for minimizing evil. It can prevent people from doing something again; it can deter others; if properly designed, it might even make the wrongdoer learn something. But it's a crude instrument and it often doesn't work very well anyway, so if there is another way to minimize evil, I'm all for it.

It's for this reason that no matter how people try to spin it to me, I can't accept the concept of hell. Purgatory I can understand. Annihilation, even, I can understand. But what's the point of eternal punishment? Why keep someone around forever just to make them suffer? I don't see how that reduces the evil in the universe; in fact it's hard to imagine how, once the End Times have concluded, good can be said to have "won" if there's a pile of souls eternally in painful separation from God. I'm with the Zoroastrians here: good hasn't won until the gates of hell are closed forever. Until not just punishment but the need for punishment is gone.
The choice that isn't, part II

Tom at Disputations agrees with my complaints about the liar/lunatic/Lord gambit that was used at Alpha. He makes the added point that the choice assumes that the Scriptural account of Jesus is accurate, and a non-Christian wouldn't assume that.

Actually, I should say in Alpha's defense that it brought up the formulation after going over reasons why we should believe the Gospels are accurate. (Those weren't entirely convincing either, but that's a subject for another post.) The point I was making was that even if you grant that Jesus' personality was as it was portrayed in the Bible, the challenge still doesn't work. It assumes you can pidgeonhole people in a way you really can't.

Paul Zadik says in the comments that the three-way choice idea originally came from G.K. Chesterton to counter the then-common idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher but not actually divine. In that context, it's a good point: if you look at it that way, you'd have to discount so much of the Gospels that they become pretty useless as source material. And what you're left with is really not very helpful. Will at Mysterium Crucis (which Tom links to) puts it well:
Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Render unto Caesar. If you read the teachings of Jesus divorced from the context of his Godhood and divine mission, it's all pretty impractical. At its worse, it's self-evident nonsense. Take this little gem: the meek shall inherit the earth. Sure Jesus, whatever you say. Now if Jesus is God, and he can personally back up those words, I'll believe it. Barring that, the meek ain't gonna inherit jack sh!t.

The teachings of Christ only make sense when plugged into one interpretative matrix, one that assumes a set of transcendent absolutes that are morally right despite being devoid of any consideration for efficiency, practicality and self-preservation. Just read the Gospels. These aren't the teachings of a wise man. Wisdom is accrued over time, after the careful observation of a lifetime of experience. Wisdom says eliminate your enemies. Wisdom says fight back or you're going to live your entire life as a punching bag. Wisdom says screw Caesar. Wisdom says the devious and tenacious will inherit the earth.

Indeed. As I've said before, the real leap of faith in Christianity isn't recognizing Jesus' goodness, it's believing that goodness=God. I am reminded here of the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi (or Mo-tzu, if you're being Wade-Giles about it), who preached the universal-altruism concept several centuries before Christ. His movement died shortly after he did, superseded by the much more practical Confucius. How could you possibly expect people to be as concerned with a stranger's welfare as they would be with a relative's? asked Confucius. It goes against human nature.

As Jesus (and that other successful preacher of selflessness, Buddha) knew, if you're going to tell people to so flagrantly go against their self-interest, you'd better back it up with some supernatural firepower. You are asking people to die to themselves, and you must reassure them that that kind of death is not simple annihilation. It leads to something better.

I've heard some progressive Christians argue that we should not even take the afterlife seriously; heaven and hell are simply metaphors for the worlds we'd leave our descendants if we behave well or badly. But if you're trying to build a good society, Jesus is a pretty lousy person to consult. He wasn't the least interested in building society; he told his followers to abandon their families and their jobs and be as carefree as the lilies of the field, and render the social order unto Caesar. That's why later builders of "Christian" societies wound up leaning heavily on the Old Testament, with all its helpfully detailed rules, and not on Jesus.

So I'm not inclined toward the "moral philosopher" idea of Jesus either. He was a real weirdo. Of course, so am I, so I gues there's something we have in common.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

The choice that isn't

So, some of you might be wondering, how did the second Alpha go? It went all right. As with last time, the most interesting part of it was the discussion, but I don't feel free to talk about it.

The subject of the lecture this time was "Who is Jesus?" Like the last one, it said stuff I've heard before. But there was one formulation it raised that's stuck in my mind, because it irritates me so much. It basically says that there are three logical possibilities for Jesus: either he was lying, he was crazy, or he was everything he said he was. So, the theory goes, if he was a liar or a lunatic, how could he have said and done so many good things?

This is another idea I blame on C.S. Lewis, though I don't know if he originated it or just popularized it. It is based on a rather antiquated view of mental illness, to say the least, which had it that you could divide the world into the raving loonies and the perfectly sane, with no ambiguities. It also doesn't follow that someone who does something nefarious, like start a religious cult to serve his own ego, is incapable of saying or doing good things. In fact, many of them do say and do good things, which is why they attract followers. I suspect that many religious figures in the world, past and present, could pass the liar/lunatic/Lord test pretty well.

I doubt that Jesus was actually a fraud. It's hard to see what he gained from wandering the countryside with his scraggly band of followers; and certainly any con man worth his salt doesn't let himself get executed. I expect that something did happen when he got dunked by John the Baptist that convinced him (and maybe the Baptist too) that God had chosen him. I'm less certain that whatever happened was caused by God or that Jesus interpreted it correctly -- a lot of spiritual experiences are pretty ambiguous.

When I raised my objections in the discussion, the lecturer agreed with me. Everything she said had been evidence, not proof, she pointed out. Which makes me wonder what the point of it was. But I suppose I'd have to take that up with Alpha's inventor, who's back in England somewhere.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Trusting God, again

Mark Shea asked last week how atheists out there would feel if they met with incontrovertible proof of God (by which he meant the Catholic God), sparking a long, passionate comments thread. (Via Minute Particulars.)

He wasn't asking about seekers like me, but it got me thinking. It would, at least, simplify things. I would know to bone up on Catholicism, anyway, instead of going to a Pentecostal church and being haunted by the feeling that maybe I should really be off studying Catholicism or Buddhism or Islam. I would not have the same attitude as Jody, which is basically, "That God is a jerk, so I'm going to ignore him." I don't see how you could ignore him. And in any case, it seems arrogant to turn and judge your Creator in such a way. The human brain is a remarkable thing, but it's not capable of everything, and I would think assessing Supreme Beings would be outside its range. And if he created me, he could not have created anything unknown to him, including my morals.

Nonetheless, it would not put my worries entirely to rest. The questions and the problems that I've raised here (as well as many I haven't raised, and those raised by others, including Jody) would still be questions and problems. Yahweh's behavior has indeed been pretty alarming in a lot of ways. I think my biggest fear would be that he is not being honest with us. The Gnostics believed that the Old Testament God wasn't actually the Omnipotent Being, but one of a number of archons -- sort of limited deities like the Olympian gods -- who developed delusions of grandeur. That actually makes a disturbing amount of sense, judging by the OT. But if he were, how would we know? We humans are pretty puny, and a powerful being could flummox us without being the all-powerful being.

But I suppose the premise of Mark's question assumes proof of an all-powerful being (whatever that might look like). Even then I'd be worried, though, if God is really as he says he is. When I hear Christians go on about the goodness of God, and rationalize the suffering on earth and the concept of even more suffering in hell, I can't help feeling that they find God is so good to them that they can't deal with the idea that he might not be good to everybody.

This brings to sharp relief the difference between faith and trust. Even evidence that God exists would not make me trust him. What would? I don't know. I really wish I knew the answer to that one.

Monday, February 10, 2003

If you can't trust God, who can you trust, who can ya?

I'm going back to Alpha tomorrow, but without Telford, sadly. He has to get ready for an important happening the next morning. (Don't know if I'm at liberty to say what it is, but everybody pray or cross your fingers or whatever your belief system allows for him, OK?) In the meantime he wrote a post about how we have trouble communicating sometimes because he so implicitly trusts God, and I don't.

I think he had several reasons to be thinking that now, and one of them was probably the conversation we had at the last Alpha session. As I mentioned before, I started off talking about this post from Minute Particulars:
Our very existence is from God and is actively sustained by God, so much so that Aquinas claims that God could cause us not to exist, could annihilate us, without any prejudice to the goodness of His actions, i.e. He could annihilate us with perfect justice since He owes us, literally, nothing. Think about that for a bit because I think it's a very, very foreign notion. God creates freely and God creates everything that is. Not just all the "stuff" of the world, not just the space-time fabric of the universe, but existence itself if from God. There is no distinction sharper and simpler than that. God could reduce us to nothing with perfect justice.

Now consider that such a God has chosen to create each one of us, has given us free will to turn toward or away from Him, has chosen to send His only Son that we might know Him, has chosen to dwell among us, suffer and die at our hands, descend into Hell, and rise up in defeat of death.

There is no act more staggering in our history, in the history of all of Creation. It is staggering because it is something we could not deserve. It is staggering because every fiber of our being owes its existence to the One who created us and yet we can turn away from Him at any moment. It is staggering because He chose to redeem us from our turning from Him and show us the way back to Him.

I didn't mean for this to be pick-on-Mark week -- really, I didn't! But I was thinking about that comment after my convoluted discussion about sin with Tom and Louder Fenn, as well as after reading Isaiah. It all emphasized the unworthiness of humans before God, and how he was responsible for everything good about us but somehow we were responsible for everything bad.

I said to Telford that I didn't like this idea that God owes us nothing because he created us. God is constantly being compared to a parent, but isn't a parent responsible for his children? Don't you feel responsible for your children?

"But before God," he said. "So the analogy breaks down."

I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but I pushed on. If God is that powerful, the creator of everything, and yet we didn't turn out the way he wanted, isn't he responsible for that? Maybe not entirely responsible, but at least partly responsible?

Somewhat to my surprise, Telford warmed to the idea. When God makes a covenant with the Hebrews, he pointed out, he limits himself. He binds himself to keep his end of the deal, even when people let him down. That does seem to say something about God's character.

"I know," I said. "And actually, it's really tempting to think of Jesus as taking that responsibility. You know, coming down, taking on the burden of the world -- literally, in a way, taking up the cross... But no one ever spins it like that. It's all about how this was totally undeserved, and God just did it because he's such a nice guy."

We batted around the idea some more, and somehow got sidetracked on St. Anselm. Then the actual business of Alpha interrupted the talk. But after it was over we went on, lingering like the last couple drunks at a bar, sitting on a table because they were putting the chairs away. And to my surprise, Telford conceded still more. He said he thought this was something theology had not adequately covered, and he should look into it more.

"The thing that bothers me, though," I said, "is that you're always talking about the importance of looking to the tradition of the Church. And I don't see this in the tradition of the Church."

"It is in the tradition, though," he said. "Maybe not so much in the New Testament. But if you look at some of the Psalms, a lot of them are saying to God, 'Here's a problem. Do something.' Not 'Please please please help us,' but 'Well? What are you going to do?'"

"Yeah," I said. "You know, I don't know much about Judaism, but it seems to have more of a tradition of, I don't know..."


"Yeah. Actually, there's an interesting article in First Things this month by a rabbi, about the differences between Jewish and Christian attitudes about a lot of things. And part of it was about heaven. You know, Christians don't think they deserve to go there, so you can only get in by the grace of God. But Jews think they do deserve to go there. They followed the Law --"

"Yeah, but who gave them the Law, huh?" Telford said snarkily.

"I mean, I think they felt like they held up their end of the bargain. And he also describes how the Jews accepted the Law. God offered it to them, and they accepted by a sort of voice vote."

He smiled. "Yeah. That was pretty cool."

We haven't had a chance to talk about it further, but in an email the other day he remarked, "I haven't found a reason to take back my affirmation of your point that God has a responsibility to rescue the creation because he has invested it with his own glory. Hope that proves to be solid common ground for the conversations to come."

I don't know if that will help me trust God, but I do think I was put off by the feeling that God -- or his spokespeople on earth -- was evading a sort of parental duty by expecting the obligations to go only one way -- from us to him. Perhaps Mark's cosmic God who brings existence itself into being would look at it that way; it seems rather Calvinist, and hard to fathom how anything could have happened that he didn't intend. But if you're getting that cosmic, it's hard to see how we could deserve anything good or bad from God; what we deserve is what he decides we should have.

In any case, the God of the Bible doesn't seem like that. Otherwise, his anger and disappointment and regret would be an elaborate act. I don't know how to see such a human-seeming God as an omnipotent being. But as I said to Telford at one point in the evening, all I really have to go on is my sense of what's good. If the Christian God doesn't seem to harmonize with that, what can I do?

It seemed like a good idea...

I don't know why I get myself into these abortion debates, because I don't even have a firmly held opinion on the subject myself. But at any rate, Minute Particulars responded to my response to his post on the differing motivations of people opposed to and supporting legal abortion.
When I see the phrase "a study of _________" in an argument my lies-damned-lies-and-statistics sense tingles and lots of concerns click into play: correlation is not causation, many good studies are contradicted by other good studies, models of human behavior are probable at best and hollow when applied to the concrete particulars of individual actions, etc.

Well, you're right. I knew it was kind of weak to say that, especially since I don't have the study on hand and couldn't cite the authors or the methodology or anything like that. But it actually wasn't a data-points sort of study anyway; it was really a series of interviews with activists on both sides of the debate, illustrating their different worldviews. I just brought it up because I do remember many of the pro-life women they quoted really did sound personally threatened by abortion.
Actually, I don't have to imagine what a "devaluation of motherhood, and a shift in expectations of what women are supposed to be like" is like nor do I doubt the concern: I'm married to a mother and she combats it daily.

My wife's job makes demands on her that rarely include reasonable accommodations for nursing a child, general caring for a child, or even the plain fact that evenings and weekends -- time that she's not "officially" required to yield -- might be time she'd want to spend with her family, not with committee members who seem oblivious to the fact that she has a very young child at home.

I'm personally and painfully aware that our society sucks and that the world of work devalues motherhood and has reshaped expectations of what women are supposed to be like. But these are institutional trends and patterns, institutional concerns (cf. ENTERPRISES OF GREAT PITH AND MOMENT for an oblique comment on this) that are utterly trumped when compared with the concern for human life. My wife is not motivated in her position on abortion by discrimination or even the possibility of discrimination against her. She's motivated by the concrete reality of another human being unlike her in a predicament she'll never be in. And that motivation is different from the motivation of most moral issues.

Well, if you say so. I just can't help noticing how most people's view of whether a fetus is a person seems to frequently coincide with a lot of other social and sexual attitudes. Just as Mark would say the pro-choice folks are blinding themselves to the fetus' personhood for their own self-interest, most pro-choicers think the pro-life side is puffing up the status of the unborn because it serves their own ideas of how society and gender relations should be. Who's right? I dunno. It's this sort of issue that makes me pessimistic about really seeing anything without your bias glasses on.