Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On A Divergent Path - Some Opening Thoughts

Some years ago I reached a spiritual crossroads in my journey through life.  It was not an epiphany or a sudden enlightenment but rather a long and arduous climb up a difficult path to a point where the way diverged.  At that fork in the road I knew that I could no longer embrace many of the beliefs that I had been taught as part of my religious heritage.   It wasn’t that I was rejecting Christianity or my belief in God.  I had stumbled my way through that minefield of doubt and disbelief earlier in life and emerged with a firm conviction in the purposefulness of the universe and its inherent intelligibility – attributes that presuppose intentionality, which presupposes intelligence, which in turn presupposes….ultimately…..God.

The question at issue as I paused on my spiritual journey wasn’t about the existence of God but rather about the existence of a particular kind of God.

I discovered that it’s not an easy task to deconstruct and examine ones beliefs.  Cultural and religious ideas are, in many ways, an indoctrination into a set of principles and behavior that define the very essence of how we see and measure ourselves and others.  Taking that apart and looking at it under the lens of objectivity and disinterested reason is well nigh impossible. Yet there is great value in examining our beliefs.  Socrates said that “the life which is unexamined is not worth living” and the apostle Paul wrote that one should “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you.”  If we haven’t carefully considered WHY we believe as we do, if we simply take for granted that those who taught us our ideals and values were themselves without fault or error, we do ourselves a disservice.  We can only claim our beliefs as our own if we’ve weighed their validity, trustworthiness and - most importantly - veracity and found that they ring true for our purposes.  Only then can we understand the deeper meaning of Jesus’ declaration that “the truth shall set you free”.  

Spreading open one’s core ideals on the table for inquisition, even for the purpose of revalidating them, can be unsettling and disconcerting, engendering a sense of nakedness and exposure.  Some might suggest that it’s imprudent or arrogant or even sacrilegious to do so.  As someone once suggested, “It’s just word-games and mental gymnastics that really don’t matter.  If you believe in Jesus, you go to heaven.  If you don’t, you go to hell.  End of story.”  And that is exactly where I decided to begin  – at the end of the story.  Because if anything matters, it should be the kind of deity to whom we offer our fidelity and his plans for our ultimate destination and that of our loved ones. 

Having been raised as a protestant fundamentalist, I could never quite understand why God was so mad at me and the rest of the world.  Even more perplexing was the notion that God was willing to condemn a portion of humanity (perhaps a large portion) to eternal torment.  I was taught that God is infinitely beneficent, that he loves us more than we can imagine, that in fact, God is love.  Despite this, God’s anger is kindled against us for sinning, for missing the mark of perfection.  This imperfection justifies an eternity in fiery torture.  There is an escape from this fate, however, by acknowledging that Jesus, who lived in first century Palestine and was executed by crucifixion, offered himself as a substitute on our behalf to satisfy God’s anger against our sin.  If we believe this, it will save us from hell and, by extension, secure for us an eternity of bliss in heaven.  Because God loves us so much, he has provided this means of escaping his wrath, although not all people will believe.

Here, then, is my initial question, where I paused on my journey:  Since it is human nature to be imperfect, what could God logically expect from human beings, other than that we behave according to our nature?  Indeed, no other option is available to us.  It would seem odd for a farmer to plant an orchard with oak trees then destroy them all because they failed to produce apples.  Just as it is the nature of oak trees to bear acorns, not apples, it is the nature of humanity to struggle with moral deficiencies rather than exhibit perfection.  Why then does the fact that our nature is inherently imperfect justify eternal torment? 

I wondered how it could be that Christ is the Savior of the world, as orthodox doctrine teaches, yet he is, in fact, the Savior of some whom he does not save.  And why doesn’t everyone qualify for heaven?  If Jesus’ sacrifice has satisfied God’s anger against sin, why would anybody need be confined to eternal damnation?

I wondered why orthodox theology portrays God as having a kind of bizarre schizophrenia, someone who professes absolute, perfect love for us while we are alive but at the moment of our death casts us forever into endless punishment.  How can any rational being love someone with infinite benevolence one moment, yet reject them the next moment and consign them to eternal torment?

I wondered how a God of perfect justice could condemn someone to an endless existence in hell for wrongdoings that occurred during the few years of their earthly life or sentence someone to an infinite punishment for a limited number of sins?  And how is it reasonable to conclude that while God expects obedience and righteousness from us here on earth, if he cannot have it, he will be satisfied with eternal disobedience and sin from us in the hereafter as a substitute.  This God seems unable to accomplish what most human parents do all the time:  integrate the virtues of justice and love into a balanced relationship for the ultimate good of his children.

None of it made sense and none of it seemed to cohere with the nature and attributes of an infinitely wise, omnipotent, beneficent being.  So, I asked myself, “What must God be like?” if he is indeed infinitely wise, infinitely powerful and infinitely good. 


C. S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain offers this interesting insight:

“If God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’.  And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him.  If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend….and thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.” 

Lewis is saying, in essence, that God’s moral character can be understood because it conforms to the same standards that any rational being would recognize.  “Good” for God must be, in a substantial sense, the same thing as “good” for humans.  Otherwise, we could know nothing of God’s character at all, nor could it form a moral basis for any sort of relationship.  While it is the case that in many ways God is inscrutable and mysterious, it cannot be the case that this inscrutability applies to his moral character, since as Lewis suggests, if God’s moral judgment is so incomprehensible that our ‘black’ may be his ‘white’, divine moral attributes become meaningless.  If in God’s moral landscape, ‘despair’ means ‘joy’ and ‘love’ means something completely foreign to our understanding of ‘love’, then there is no moral foundation upon which to comprehend God, much less to love and respect him. 

We can say with confidence then that all of God’s moral attributes – love, mercy, goodness, justice, wrath and truth – can be understood in the common sense meaning of these words insofar as they apply to humanity and to a human understanding of God’s character.  And since, as St. Anselm observed, God is “that than which no greater can be conceived”, it follows that all of God’s moral attributes are exhibited in perfection, without flaw and without contradiction among their various expression.

It may be tempting to add a caveat and suggest that God can do whatever he chooses and act in any manner that he wants.  After all, he’s God.  His ways are higher than our ways, his thoughts higher than our thoughts, as the writer tells us (Isaiah 58:8, 9).  It is the height of arrogance to presume to know God’s motives or intentions. He is under no obligation to conform to anything just because someone believes he should.

That line of thinking may appear superficially valid, (because, in fact, God does do whatever he wants to do) but it’s an example of spurious reasoning that can result in nonsense.  While it is true that God is under no obligation to conform to human ideas, he is obliged to conform to his own moral character.  There are many things that God is constrained from doing.  He will not lie.  He will not act unjustly.  He will not behave in any manner that is contrary to a rational, free agent whose being comprises moral perfection.  Nor would God desire to do so, or even contemplate acting in such a manner.  God only does that which is morally perfect.  If a doctrine teaches otherwise, it is the theology that is faulty, not God’s character.

Reflecting on this idea, I began to consider some aspects of what currently passes as orthodox doctrine within the Christian tradition, and how these doctrines reflect on the moral perfection of God, logical possibilities and the ultimate destiny of humanity.  And thus I began a very long survey into the issues surrounding soteriology – the theory of salvation - as it is currently taught within protestant Christianity.

In the process, I discovered something quite remarkable.  There really is a gospel of hope.  There really is “good news”, in fact very hopeful news, about our eternal futures.
In an upcoming post, I’d like to share it with you.

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