Wednesday, April 9, 2014

3. Theological Terrors

This is the third and final installment of a series of posts that recapitulate a recent theological debate.  I enjoyed an interesting if at times vexing interaction with members of one of the Google+ communities.  The original question was:  “Atheists claim they have solid evidence disproving the existence of God. What is your opinion about that?”

Despite being a tepid and unsharpened Calvinist, it was impossible for me to avoid making a response—indeed, several responses.  But I immediately encountered stiff and formidable resistance to ideas I had taken for granted as sensible and unassailable.  In fact, my arguments were quite assailable.   What follows are my responses to the discussion topics, separated by paraphrased versions of my opponents’ remarks.  (These are in italics.)  

In the last post we left off discussing the origins of religious and civil law, and the effectiveness of prophetic teaching.


Given human limitations why did God repeatedly send prophets?  Why would he not have changed this patently unsuccessful strategy?  Wouldn’t anyone else try a different key if the one they were using failed to unlock the door—for thousands of years?  Could it be that God, heaven, hell, prophets, Holy Scriptures etcetera are all merely our own creations, an expression of our weaknesses, desires and fears?

•The story of the Fall is not a difficulty for more enlightened Christians, who take it to be a metaphor for the inherent capacity for humans to do evil things.  But it is very problematic for Calvinists like you, who take it as indicative that God’s creatures are deserving of eternal damnation.  Doesn’t that suggest that His handiwork is flawed?  And what gives God or anyone else the right to punish us for the sins of our very distant ancestors?

•I believe that the origin of evil lies in human evolution. Had we not developed a prefrontal cortex, human society would be more like that of a beehive, with individuals living in relative harmony.  With the evolution of this part of our brain, the human mind and human society became more complex, requiring the development of strategies, (for example, language, and law) to ensure social cohesion and reduce violence.  We have advanced cortical structures sitting on top of more primitive, animalistic ones, and this introduces tension and chaos into human society.

Well, I make no apologies for ascribing to a less enlightened form of Christianity!  Besides giving us the universe and everything in it, God gave us free will, without which there is no possibility of love, either from God or from us.  Our choices, freely made, brought the evil of sin into the world; salvation is God's offer to fix what we have broken.  And we have the "right" as you say to choose this offer or not.

One contributor’s interpretation of the origins of civil and religious law sounds like historical revisionism.  If civil law came first, why was it necessary to invent any religious authority at all to enforce it?  Why wouldn't military force be sufficient—as it has been more recently in officially atheist societies like the old Soviet Union or communist China?  (Probably because civil law needs grounding in religious tradition to be considered legitimate.)

Regarding the complex paradoxical speculation as to why Holy Evolution hasn't delivered us into the happy life of a social insect after all these aeons—well, what you really are talking about is good old sin.  It's sin that keeps us apart from each other and from God.  Both original and unoriginal sin.

One respondent states:  "But if the thinker expressed in the book consistently mixes rather obvious truths with vile nonsense, then yes, I will reject both the book and the thinker."  However, the Bible is not one thinker but dozens of authors writing across different centuries and historical contexts.  If you don't like Leviticus, (you probably would not), try Philemon in the New Testament.  Or Ecclesiastes.  It's hard to imagine anyone not getting something valuable from reading a book like the Bible—unless one willfully refused to do so.  There's that free will thing again.

•A problem for me is that Calvinist theology implies we are all deserving of damnation from birth.  Even newborn infants are held responsible for rejecting God’s grace and salvation!  Does this not make your God remarkably flawed and cruel?

Not all of creation will be eternally damned—just the cute little babies!  Cute + helpless = diabolically evil.  Please.  You may be exaggerating the newborn infants’ thing to make an otherwise reasonable point.  Obviously an infant is not capable of an "evil rejection" of God's mercy, or of accepting it for that matter.  (This is why the efficacy of infant baptism is still debated in Protestant churches—and also why it is so important in Roman Catholic tradition.)  But the child is not off the hook when he or she is older, and does have a real choice.  I am not sure if this is strange or unusual theology—the concept of an original sin or flaw is not uniquely Christian.  By human standards what is seen as cruel or flawed can also be seen as logical and just—if you hold to an omniscient and omnipotent creator—admittedly a big if for many.

•As a Christian, I have always found this belief to be rigid and illogical. We put our foot in our mouths when we talk this way, and then have to make all kinds of excuses and rationalizations when the issue of innocent babies comes up.  I believe that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection saved all of humanity, without exception.   

•After further study, I feel I owe Calvin an apology.  He has written that "I do not doubt that the infants whom the Lord gathers together from this life are regenerated by a secret operation of the Holy Spirit."
This seems inconsistent with his teaching, but at least shows that he was compassionate.

•Regarding the effectiveness of using religion instead of brute force to enforce civil laws: religion is much more effective, especially in driving the emotions which encourage submission to civil authorities.  In my view economics is the source of most of the religious, social and political problems in the world.  Jesus suffered, died and was buried because he interfered with economic activity in Jerusalem. No upstart deity has ever prevailed by fighting the State and Established Religion simultaneously.

My fellow Christian is reasonable in saying that she believes that Jesus' death, burial and resurrection saved all of mankind to God without exception, and there are numerous scriptural passages to support this claim—which is a clear articulation of the liberal Protestant view, (i.e. Arminianism). But there are also numerous passages to suggest that salvation is not for all, but only those predestined to receive it—a difficult teaching.  But the more philosophical issue is one of justice—if all are saved, no exceptions, than does it matter if you are Hitler or Mother Theresa, or even exposed to the Gospels at all?

I have to agree with the comment above that economics and politics are inextricably linked with religious teachings, depending on the historical context.  I differ with the explanation of the fate of Jesus, but not by much.  It seems he was executed by local authorities out of fear that the unrest he was causing might provoke violence and oppression from the Roman occupiers of Palestine. 

But if religion is a far more effective way of motivating people than secular laws, why not dispense with secular law entirely and rely on sectarian codes?  (Probably because there needs to be a balance between the two.)  On what basis would any law be considered unjust, unless it was compared to some higher, (religious) standard?  Economics certainly illuminates some of the issues here, but not all.

The one respondent’s earlier claim that science (or reason) should not absolutely determine the truth one holds but instead support one's intuitions rings true with me, if you consider that science, (as I do), is just another belief system.  Reason serves faith, no matter what it is you believe in.  Hopefully, faithfully, what you believe to be true—actually is.


And so forth.  We could have gone on and on, (and in fact we did).  The ancient question of whether God exists and is active in human affairs has no final answer, nor should.  The conversation here depicted is as old as the question it attempted to answer, a question likely to be asked again and again.

One last quote from Nietzsche:  “My doctrine is:  Live that thou mayest desire to live again—that is thy duty—for in any case thou wilt live again!”

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