Giving Up On Hell Isn't Enough

My mom, a Presbyterian minister now working as an administrator at a Presbyterian seminary in Cairo, Egypt, just posted a link to this article proposing that Christians, in an effort to reach out to those of us who do not share the faith, should try giving up the idea of Hell for a year. The article is interesting. It posits the rationale that Christians shouldn’t be so fearful that their non-Christian acquaintances will go to Hell. In giving up that fear, these Christians will actually invest their energy in those nonbelievers out of genuine, individual concern for our day-to-day lives rather than our eternal souls, and thus form real relationships that are more likely to lead to the conversion of us “None-of-the-above”s (or “Nones”). Mom headlined her post: “I would enjoy reading comments on this post from BOTH my Christian and ‘nonChristian’ friends in BOTH of ‘my countries."”

First of all, props to my mom for putting out an all-call to believers and nonbelievers to weigh in. I have deep admiration for believers who listen (and an especially deep admiration for my mom, of course). So here’s the opinion of a “None”:

This is a great idea.

It will never work.

Here’s the problem. My guess is that the individual who wrote this (Kurt Willems), who is announcing that he’s already given up believing in a dimension of horrifying torture for non-believers, has also given up a short list of other dogmas that have been held by Christians for a couple of millenia and which are directly supported by scripture. He’s given these up because they would make it very difficult to connect with people like me.

He doesn't believe that black people are inferior.

He doesn't believe in slavery.

He doesn't believe that women should stay silent in church, or that they should live outside the home when they are on their periods, or that they should be stoned if they are raped.

My guess is that he doesn't even believe that homosexuality is a sin.

And that’s cool. I could probably hang with this guy.

But if he’s looking to improve his relationships with non-believers, he could use that justification to give up some other beliefs, too.

He may already have given up on the notion that the world is a few thousand years old, and that the creation story (one or both of them) in Genesis isn't literal.

He may have decided that a bunch of other miracles in the Bible, like the sun standing still over Jericho for three days, or Jonah living for a while in the belly of a leviathan, probably don’t make a lot of sense given what we know of biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics.

Given that those are unlikely, and that there’s some serious debate about the translation when it comes to the word “virgin” anyway, he may have given up on the whole virgin birth thing, too.

Also, since Satan clearly evolves from a kind of nay-sayer adviser of God’s to an all out rival, he might not believe in Satan, either.

And if that’s the case, he might recognize that God also evolves from a god among other gods who exist (and even perform their own miracles, though lesser ones) to the only God over the course of the Bible. That might keep him up at night.

He may also notice that Jesus’ idea of universal and unconditional forgiveness also evolves into a kind of political and social weapon for Paul, one that can help the early Church keep in the good graces of authorities while heaping burning coals on the heads of oppressors. Jesus doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who liked the idea of heaping burning coals on anybody’s heads.

If Kurt is like me, he might find himself in a place where Jesus, and especially Jesus’ teachings about how we should get along with one another, ends up being the only thing left to hold onto within a larger body of beautiful literature, powerful poetry, instructive allegories, and heavily slanted history.

And then this poor guy, a guy who didn’t want to turn off “Nones” who were repulsed by frightful, desperate Christians worried about the torment our souls would face in hell, has the bad luck to run into a guy like me who is equally turned off by the inescapable lack of humility that’s inherent to any belief system which says, “Despite the fact that I lack evidence either way, I have made a choice to believe this religion is correct and all others are wrong.”

Confronted by a jerk like me, will this writer acknowledge that the very same universalism that compelled him to give up on Hell could also justify giving up on the idea that there is one true faith, and that God has revealed that faith to some and not others? Just as his connection with non-believers would be strengthened if he doesn't believe in Hell, wouldn't it be easier to reach out if he wasn't advertising a my-way-or-the-highway religion?

I don’t blame him for having that kind of faith. It’s not his fault. All major world religions either say that the others are wrong or that the others are a part of them and just don’t know it yet. That’s inescapable; religions that hold that it’s fine to not believe in their teachings disappear about as quickly as the ones that teach that no one should have children (I'm looking at you, Shakers!).

The spread of Christianity is the story of a religion that came into contact with other religions and offered significant advantages. Despite its sexism, it offered a lot better deal for women. The practices of early Christians (sharing food and money, offering free childcare and education, adopting orphans, caring for the sick) essentially provided a social safety net where none existed. In the context of a conflict of religions, Christianity is going to win in the long haul because Christians are genuinely taught to treat other people better. That’s how Islam spread, too. Muslims treated people better (often better than the Christians they encountered). That’s how Buddhism spread out of India. Treating people better, not just tolerating them or being civil, but treating them better, is the key to evangelism. This writer, Kurt Willems, clearly understands that.

But now Christianity wants to spread within a context that it’s never faced. Before, it could always say to folks, “Convert from your exclusive religion to ours. Both say the other can’t be true, but we obviously treat people better.”

And people said to themselves, “Well, not having any religion at all simply isn't an option. It’s culturally inconceivable. But these Christians obviously have their shit together.”

But now, Christianity is faced with an altogether new alternative. Atheism has existed for longer than Christianity, but for millennia it was always the domain of iconoclasts who could only choose between the dominant religion of their culture or “not-that.” Now we have a whole generation of human beings who are growing up in a world where all the religious options are on our screens every day. Pluralism is as ubiquitous as the internet. And, in that world of post-modernity, we can see millions upon millions of examples of people who have chosen some variation of “not-that” and still manage to treat people well, provide for the needs of their neighbors, accept difference, and generally have their shit together. Meanwhile, the people who tend to be the ones telling women what to do with their own bodies and telling gay people who they can love and protesting at soldiers’ funerals and chopping people’s heads off and generally being the worst also tend to be the most confident that their ideas about God are the right ones.

Now, to be clear, I’m not an atheist. Atheism often advertises a kind of certainty I find just as repugnant as the most dogmatic religiosity. I’m an agnostic. I’m a pretty orthodox agnostic, though. I don’t know about a lot of things. Is there a God? I don’t know. Are there lots of them? I don’t know. Do the scientific laws we observe function the same way at the quantum level? Will they continue to function in the future? Are my own senses telling me the truth? Is my memory? I don’t know. Not for sure. Consequently, I won’t evangelize. Should people decide to be agnostics like me? I don’t recommend it. It kind of sucks. I don’t know if I’ll have an afterlife, I don’t know if my day-to-day behavior satisfies some divine being, and we don’t have any good hymns or holidays. It’s not a great sales pitch and I don’t have a better one to offer.

But before Christians consider throwing away their beliefs to reach out to people like me, they should very carefully consider the quantity of babies they’ll toss out with that bathwater. No matter how humble a Christian is (and I've known a lot of unassuming, self-effacing Christians who no one would describe as proud or vain or filled with hubris), they cannot escape the inherent binary nature of Christian belief. No matter how much a Christian qualifies that she/he believes rather than knows that Christianity is true, she/he must also believe that non-Christianity is false. A Christian can’t say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, but if you don’t, I don’t care.” Besides the fact that the text of Christian scripture is very clear about there being only one path to salvation, Christians should excise “I don’t care” from their vocabularies. Christians have to care. Otherwise, they aren't Christians.

Realistically, my expectation is that over time Christianity and all other major world religions will actually get more and more dogmatic, more regressive, and more oppressive in the face of growing secularism. And more religious people on the fringes will act like jerks and keep driving more and more people away. When it comes to evangelism, Christianity’s best bet is to show non-believers that their hateful fringe elements don’t speak from them, and to stop trying to pass laws forcing nonbelievers to behave a certain way based on religious justifications, but that’s very tough to do in a world where everybody has a microphone and the most strident (and violent) get the most attention. The Christians who believe in the most tolerant, least uncomfortable kind of Christianity will fade into the growing secular middle.

So what can a Christian do to win over a guy like me who objects to the necessary and inherent hubris of a faith that says all other faiths are wrong? Giving up more and more of your Christianity so you don't seem so kooky won't work. I'll be relieved, but not more likely to convert to your non-religion. 

You could pray for me, I guess.

Will that work?

I’m an agnostic. I don’t know.

If you’re a believer, you believe it will.


On God and Ants

It's been an incredibly stressful weekend, at the end of a stressful week. Quite suddenly, I realized I haven't had anything to eat since lunch yesterday. I've simply forgotten. Outside of Mountain Dew and a handful of chips while I graded a stack of papers and tried to listen to the Celtics-Magic game, I've accidentally pulled off a nearly forty-hour fast. So, maybe that's what's got me thinking about theological questions, and my own religious insecurities. Maybe it's just hunger, or maybe it's the long human tradition of fasting to center one's self, which I've twisted into the post-modern accidental corn-syrup and caffeine variety. Who knows?

Regardless, I've been contemplating my... well, my loss of faith, frankly. Over the last year, perhaps the last couple, I've been going through a slow process of disillusionment, doubt, and emotional disconnect from God and all things Christian. After the years of the Bush administration, where I watched my faith used as a motivation or a pretext for a few hundred thousand acts I find abominable, and bending myself into contortions of all kinds to separate my own faith from that of every other Christian who disagreed with me on any particular day for any particular reason, I found myself drained of any emotional response to religious questions. They still served as interesting thought experiments: as dry, logical puzzles wherein the goal was to reason from interesting but unprovable tenets toward the political positions I wanted to reach in the first place. God became about as important as Sudoku, and, just as my interest in Sudoku waned, I could feel that the fad of the curious-about-God-game was running out of steam.

Kierkegaard, if I remember correctly, held that if a person could lose their faith, they never had a real faith to begin with, i.e. if someone had truly known God they would lose the ability to deny His existence. Calvin, on the other hand, would probably have felt that if a person lost their faith they had always been predestined to do so by God, which seems particularly cruel to me. Why would God make a person believe in Him, then make him do otherwise? Calvin held that all kinds of actions were outward expressions of our predestination, from our ethical behavior to our ability to make lots of money, so I would assume he would include verbal expressions of faith in those outward signs. But we know that some people claim to believe at one point in their lives, then claim not to later on. So, is God making an outward expression of a person's damnation by turning them away in this life through expressions of doubt? Is God so cruel? I'm no Calvinist, but I thought I was very much in line with Kierkegaard's view of the faith experience. I used to be damned sure I knew God, and that I'd felt real moments of connection with Him at points in my life, reaffirming all kinds of theological, cultural, political, and even aesthetic beliefs which really had nothing to do with those specific experiences. I used to be certain God connected with me, and, in retrospect, those moments calcified so many other assumptions which were unrelated. God reached down and said, "I'm here," and all I chose to hear was, "Everything you believe can stay the same." Now I realize that the God who reaffirms my beliefs isn't real. That doesn't mean I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in the one I wanted to believe in back then. So, does that mean Kierkegaard is right? Did I never have real faith to begin with, because I chose to believe in a god of veiled convenience, or did I have a real connection to a real God, and I simply dressed Him up to make Him more bearable?

As you can see, what little faith I had was undirected and tenuous. You might say, as it hung by a thread I wondered if the thread was there, which didn't really bode well for the faith hanging on the other end. I wanted to hold onto Jesus, just Jesus... or really, just abstract and distant truth derived from Jesus' teachings or about His place in the geography of Christian theology, but I wasn't sure I believed in believing anymore. At least not in any complete way. I made assertions about religious things, and continuously re-evaluated those claims. That was my faith. As such, I didn't know if I believed in maintaining it, because the claims themselves did not dictate that it required maintenance.

Then, yesterday, (perhaps 10 hours into my fast, so take any conclusions with that grain of salt) I had a truly religious moment. Now, I want to be clear. I hate the term "religion". I think it's too all-encompassing and not nearly descriptive enough. It's better than "Spirituality" when spoken by some dead-behind-the-eyes celebrity, but only by inches. What is a religious experience, after all? The rites of a given faith are certainly religious experiences. But then, so is the reading of scripture, or time spent in prayer. Solitary moments of communion with God are religious experiences, as are corporate ones. If someone tells us we have God on our side and we all head off to kill people in some distant land full of heathens, isn't that a religious experience? Everything a believer does could be described as a religious experience, and yet, so much of what they do is identical to the behavior of a non-believer that the term isn't helpful without a lot of clarification. And yet, I choose the term carefully here. I had a religious experience. That's all. Not necessarily a spiritual one. I'm still not even sure about my questions of the spirit yet. The experience certainly wasn't formalized in any way; nothing about this would be found in any Presbyterian Book of Order. But it was religious in a way that embraces my dislike of the term, that even subverts that and shows the word's usefulness. I didn't like the word because two guys could be sitting on the bus, reading the same newspaper, both not only doing the same thing but even thinking about the same things, and then the religious man allows thoughts about the divine to color his perspective on the article he's reading. In that moment, he feels something, something which cannot be proven to be God in any scientific way, but which he recognizes as distinct from his thoughts about God. Who can say what the atheist sitting next to him would make of this feeling? Who can even take some measurement and know if the atheist feels it at all? And yet, the experience for the man of faith has shifted from a intellectual exercise to one that is... different. And maybe that's as specific and articulate as I can be, but my experience was a religious one in just that way.

My bathroom has been overrun by ants. They are tiny, and from a distance they elicit a revulsion I can only assume to be genetic. However, when I looked at one very closely, I realized they are kind of endearing. They go about their work much as I do, filled with a sense of purpose which satisfies them. I don't understand it completely. They're getting food and water to stay alive. I understand that much. They follow chemical paths left by little scouts. They greet one another and pass chemical messages. I understand these things on one level, and yet I don't really relate. But then, I go through my little life getting food and water to stay alive; I call that work. My particular work as a teacher fills me with a sense of fulfillment beyond the paycheck (ha ha, teacher's paycheck), but then, perhaps walking down that chemical path convinces the ant that he is doing something good and noble as well. I interact with my friends, my students, my colleagues, my family in ways that both bring me great joy and make my life functional. Do the ants pass their chemical versions of clever jokes, bank card pin numbers, "I love you"s, and exasperated sighs? Why should I have such clear beliefs about the nature and character of God, and why should I demand of myself such strong conviction about His every characteristic, when I have such a superficial understanding of the thousands of little buggers eating the cat food in my bathroom and drinking from the bit of water I left in the glass after brushing my teeth?

These are thoughts about God. Someone who does not believe in God could ask these same questions, either about themselves or about me, and come up with the same unsatisfying lack of conclusions. But then the experience changed to one an atheist couldn't share. And here's the thing: I don't know that God was involved. It could be a manifestation of a mania. I can't deny that. If there is no God, I experienced a momentary delusion in which I felt an emotional reaction to something I could not sense with any of my five sense. In other words, if there is no God then I am not only crazy, but the least creative crazy person in the world, who experiences an imaginary friend but is too lazy to attribute any characteristics to that delusion beyond an accompanying sense of peace and joy.

But afterward, I felt, and have continued to feel, a huge sense of relief. And I know why. I had come to believe that my faith experience would, for the rest of my life, exist only in the intellect, with no emotional component, and I'd even begun to resign myself to that. I am pleased to report that I am still capable of feeling something related to God, and maybe even feeling a connection to God Himself. Somehow that feels like I've hit bottom, and am now on the up-and-up.

None of this probably makes a lick of sense to anyone in the world, and publishing something so convoluted should make me feel ashamed. And yet, this seems proper, like a birth announcement without real information about gender and height and weight and the number of fingers and toes. Hey, everybody! I've finally had a feeling! Pass the cigars.

Now let's just hope it doesn't go away when I go grab a bite to eat.

Don't blame "Religion"

I haven't blogged in a bit because I've been sick. I didn't realize how sick, but it turns out I have pneumonia. It is unpleasant.

I thought about complaining about my condition, but considering what's going on in the world, my pneumonia seems a bit paltry.

Then I received an email today from someone on one of the various Obama list-serves I got onto during the election, claiming that the situation was intractable, but simple to understand. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all want to live in Isreal and won't move away, so they will fight about it forever because, this person claimed, religion causes all the wars in the world. Moreover, without religion this person said there would be no war.

That, I felt, demanded a response.

I'm sorry, but that's just one of the most patently ridiculous things I've ever heard. Without religion there would be no war? Really? You know, Stalin was an atheist. Hitler specifically wrote that his issues with Jews did not have to do with their religion but with what he considered to be something deficient in them as detected by the rational science of his day. I'm not going to defend all world religions, or any of them, for that matter. Many are expressly violent, and many others are used as a pretext by powerful people to motivate followers to carry out violence. But people find lots of reasons to fight; scarcity of land, of water, of goods, old-fashioned human rage. It's insulting when religious people condescend to non-religious people, judging their behavior based on religious schema the non-religious person does not hold. But it's also insulting when non-religious people condescend to religious people, treating them all as ignorant yahoos or worse, responsible for all the wars in the world. So let's avoid both kinds of ignorant rhetoric, if possible.

The situation between Palestine and Israel is incredibly complex. The countries aren't religiously homogeneous. The people of both countries do not have universal feelings about their governments' actions. These Muslims, Christians, and Jews the writer mentioned already all do live in Israel, and already all do live in Palestine. This is not a clear-cut religious war. The internal political realities inside both Israel and Palestine should not be ignored by our media, who like to talk about the conflict as though it's a two-sided sports match. There are wheels within wheels here. One interesting example: I heard a tidbit that the rockets Hamas has been launching were nearing the range to hit Israel's nuclear reactor where they have been making their nukes (unofficially) for decades. To what degree is the defense of civilians a pretext to defend a military instillation against future attack should those rockets gain greater range and accuracy? We'll never know, nor will the parents of the people who die on both sides of the conflict. So if the war is so complicated the Israelis and Palestinians don't fully know why they are fighting, we shouldn't try to dismiss the whole explanation with a single word: "Religion."

We oversimplify at our own expense.