Sunday, August 23, 2009

What If I'm Wrong?

Today, I dumped some reflections on a Facebook site that note some of my recent personal faith challenges. Most notably, I'm concerned about the character of God (Yahweh) in the Old Testament. Here is what I wrote:

"God afflicted Moses' sister with leprosy because she was jealous of said Cushite. God also turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt because she got a little too curious about the fireworks happening behind her. Sure, she was 'disobedient' but the comparative morality of the situation in a larger context seems entirely disproportionate.

God also seemed to entertain Jephtha's foolish declaration to sacrifice as a burnt offering the first living thing to walk through his front door after his defeat of the Ammonites. How heartbroken was Jephtha when, upon his victorious return, his daughter greeted him at the front door (Judges 11)! Nevertheless, the great general cooked her, and apparently that's okay by God.

It would seem to me that God's moral character needs some vindication if the Old Testament stories are literally true: how wide is God's mercy if He's fine with accepting indecent sacrifices by blowhard, battle-ready, genocidal generals? And if it's all just allegorical, what moral decency can we gain from such a story?

Today I am heartbroken at the seeming depotism of the Old Testament stories. I'm also crushed to learn that archeological proofs show Yahweh as a local god of a small tribe of Israel, and that El was considered the god above Yahweh (who was simply a mountain god) [see Karen Armstrong, "The Great Transformation"]. If this is true, how much of what we believe is simply a tapestry of tangled tales, and primitive sophistications obfuscated by time, translative change-overs and blatant forgeries?"

I'll be honest and say that daring to ask the question, "what if I'm wrong?" leads to a frightening conclusion: you might just be. In my case, I'm beginning to wonder if I am. The New Atheists are a good deal of stentorian emotionalism, and strident protestation written with the rhetorical flavour of witty academia. In the end, they are just as fundamentalist in their objections as the religious are in their assertions. They can balk all they like at that observation, but their books bear out the viability of my conclusion.

When we draw on historical research, however, we find a different landscape. Certainly religious historians like Armstrong are not without their biases, but a tad more creedence can be placed on their findings. And its these findings I find most disturbing. For example, the Old Testament god, Yahweh, seems to be an amalgamation of a localized mountain god, Yahweh, and the competing Jewish conception of god as El (crudely put, the Sky-god), who was, logically above the mountains, and therefore above Yahweh. Apparently Yahweh was portable, too. So, when they couldn't agree, Yahweh was moved around Israel in company of the Axial peoples before eventually being combined with El. Thus a polytheistic notion of god became monotheistic, and Yahweh's name won the day.

And given that Yahweh was portable -- no longer just a mountain god, that is -- it seems a little more understandable that Jesus would quip that "if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain 'get up and move', and it will" (para. of Matt. 17:20). It also makes more sense now to echo with the Psalmist "I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from?" (Psalm 121).

Given all of this, however, I am faced with the question, "are my beliefs in the literal, historical Judeo-Christian faith wrong?"

My answer: I don't know. I'm declaring a temporary epistemological agnosticism on this issue. I need to research, learn, and reassess. For now, I'm wondering if Tom Harpur is right when he declares that Christ is a spiritual consciousness all humans have by virtue of the indwelling of God in all of us (see The Pagan Christ). This conclusion, while poking at the fringes of so-called gnosticism, rings consonant with the notion of imago dei. But is a purely spiritualized version of religion right? Admittedly, if I took on that perspective, I'd still have to visit the question, "what if I'm wrong?"

I don't know if I'm ready for what that might imply.

19 comments:

K9-CRAZY said...

No comments yet I see.

justsomename said...

Philosophy is something. I will have to check out that Mountain God reference though. That's quite interesting.
I wasn't sure what lens to read this through. This post could have something to do with difficulties of Generation X's search for something to believe in, like a segment of a Douglas Coupland novel.
Or, do I read that you are describing a hard turn in your views?
Is this an evangelism approach rooted in making transparent your own doubts in order to later pull people back in?
Or are you just trying to be philosophically ethical by weighting your own stance using a fair measure?

Anonymous said...

Chris,
How disparaging it would be to come to the conclusion that it has all been just a ruse.
I think one of the hardest things to reconcile is how God relates to us in a world of suffering and pain.
Someone once said to me that you should doubt your doubts. Interesting. It's the "if/then" things that I have had trouble with: if you do this, that will happen (but if "that" doesn't happen, what are you to conclude?). Most often I hear these kinds of scenarios in relation to suffering.
And if "that" doesn't happen, as if we can apply a formula and expect a given result, it is not God who is to blame; it is our lack of faith, some sin that we have not confessed.
At the risk of sounding heretical to some, I am most convinced by Greg Boyd's explanation in Satan and the Problem with Evil and God at War where he explores how we are to view God in relationship to evil in this world and where it seems the only explanation that suits the character of God.
Otherwise, it is a God who is all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful who does not prevent the most heinous of evil deeds, insufferable atrocities committed against innocents, unspeakable horror and the angst in our lives that endures without seeing the light of day.
Why would a 27-year-old who constantly thinks about others and does wonderful things for them, who takes excellent care of herself physically and spiritually, who has this amazing sense of humour and is creative and beautiful ... and who longs for someone to share herself with -- why would she be tormented by the most horrific nightmares, night after night, relentlessly.
I don't have an answer other than it isn't God. It isn't anything she has done. And that we live in this broken world with an enemy.
What you have written deserves some thought and consideration. The one thing I go back to, time and time again, when I do not understand, is the person of Jesus Christ. He said that He was the exact representation of the Father -- that we could look at Him and see the Father -- which says to me that we only see in part. There is context in the Old Testament that we do not understand or see clearly.
I struggled for a very long time with the fact that God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt "for looking book", but I know there must be so much more that I don't understand because when i look at Jesus I see such great compassion and love. I see redemption and restoration.
And when i see Him, I am looking at the Father.
I do not have an answer for the horror done in the name of religion, except, as Bruxy Cavey says, it was done in the "form" of religion and not in the relationship with the son of God.
I wonder how often we look/focus on the wrong things and become discouraged. I am just beginning to see that.
J

Christopher said...

J.,

Thank you for your sincere encouragements. I have Boyd's dual-volume examination of theodicy on my shelves waiting to be read (it's part of my on-going study on the nature of atheism and theism in culture).

Suffering does pose a large problem. Especially as depicted in the Old Testament, and as sanctioned by God.

The other problem indicated in the article is that Yahweh, historically, is not who the Bible states he is. He was, in fact, a local deity to a group of agrarian nomads who considered a second god, El, to be greater than Yahweh. Thus Israel was polytheistic, not monotheistic. That poses a problem for the inspiration, and infallibility of our Scriptures, does it not?

What are your thoughts?

Edward said...

I'd say read Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns. It helped me sort out a lot of this to my general satisfaction.

I'm interested by this idea that Yahweh "is not who the Bible states he is."

There are huge philosophical problems with the notion of naming that seems to be presumed here. Who gets to decide the right use of a name? Who does the name "Yaweh" really pick out? You can't assume that earlier use determines proper use. Naming is a performance by a person, as recognized by a community.

I'd say the creator God who tabernacled with Israel named himself with this preexisting name. God didn't create a new language from scratch, nor a new name from scratch. God appropriated a dirty, imperfect language and put it to his own use. And this naming proliferated throughout Israel, whatever the name used to mean, or means elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Hebrews describes the nature of our faith. If you look at what you know for sure -- that Jesus came and walked and lived and related to us and to the Father, so that we could see Him and see how we were meant to live, doesn't that encourage you.
Jesus came into a broken world to give us hope. He turned religion on its ear. He angered those who considered themselves devout and who had obeyed the letter of the law, because the law is not what it is about. It is about a relationship with him. Because of grace, we can have that. We know what a relationship with the Father and with each other is supposed to look like. And we know that Jesus came to restore that.
We may not know much else.
I'm sorry, I don't know the answers you are looking for.
I hope that when you see Jesus that you fall in love with him all over again.
There is a lot in this world to cause us doubt. But we need to gather our families and keep building and looking forward.
If any of that makes sense to you ... I hope so. I hope there is a thread of encouragement here somewhere for you.
Sometimes I think we can spend so much time looking at everything else that we lose sight of what we were meant to focus on. I am not pronouncing that on you; only you know where you are at with him.\
I say that from my own walk with God, my own journey.
I have learned some hard lessons.
Through those, my faith has grown stronger. I pray that your struggles will make you even stronger.
Hope to visit with you guys soon.
J

Anonymous said...

I was watching CNN this morning and was angry and grieved at what I heard.
We don't have to look far to see the face of evil in this world.
Fortunately, that drives me to prayer.
Our daughter had an interesting comment this morning, which I agree with, and that is that it is perfectly normal, natural and healthy to have doubts and questions and to explore them.
I have had my share of serious misgivings. Not that I will not have again.
Even this morning, listening to the news of an 11-year-old girl kidnapped and kept hidden until she was 29 ... that made me angry.
I have to remind myself that "free will" was a gift for everyone and not just for those who would be loving in this world. There is equal opportunity for evil as well as love.
Without the ability to speak and act and choose, we would be autonomans.
J

Gregory said...

I think Ed's made a good point, Chris, which I was about to expound to you on the phone when you had to cut our conversation short. Moreover, I'll toss the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on the name Yahweh your way, since it addresses the very question of the name's origin and meaning.

As for Harpur, his ramblings regarding parallels between Christianity and pagan religions, while seemingly convincing, fail to explain, as far as I'm concerned, the fundamental (foundational?) questions of the historical and archaeological testimony to a real Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and the fact that those who bore witness to Him did so at perilous cost to their lives--dying, if Harpur is to be trusted, for a hodgepodge of mythologies for no reason.

He also, then, would have to explain why a purely "spiritualised" notion of religion and the Christ consciousness within us would be so concerned with physical manifestations, such as the Sacraments, which, particularly the Eucharist, stress the reality of His Body and Blood being truly present. Further, this explanation would have to account for the miraculous testimony to such belief, such as the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano, where, in the 11th Century, the bread and wine were very literally and astonishingly changed into real flesh and blood in response to the doubts of the priest. Moreover, this flesh and blood has remained incorrupt, as though freshly cut from a live body yesterday, for roughly 900 years, and has undergone several scientific analyses.

I wonder which Pagan mythology Mr. Harpur would tell us that that parallels?

As for your problems reconciling the Holy, Loving and Just God of Christianity with the early passages of the Old Testament Scriptures, I admit I have no easy answer. The best I can do for now would be to suggest that we don't know the whole story and the entire reason behind God's actions. Small comfort, but it does challenge your assumption, perhaps, that your reading of these accounts does tell you every variable involved, and that knowing every variable, you thus have a right to question or challenge God's actions.

It would be nice, perhaps, if religion were really as democratic as all that--but then, it wouldn't be religion.

Christopher said...

JSN,

You asked, "...do I read that you are describing a hard turn in your views?"

Yes, you do read that some of my views are taking a hard turn. Though toward what destination, I'm not sure.

"Is this an evangelism approach rooted in making transparent your own doubts in order to later pull people back in?"

No. I'm making my doubts transparent because I'm honest, and I am reflecting them for conversation.

"Or are you just trying to be philosophically ethical by weighting your own stance using a fair measure?"

I'm not sure. I suppose that depends on the definition of "fair measure".

Christopher said...

Ed,

You wrote: "There are huge philosophical problems with the notion of naming that seems to be presumed here. Who gets to decide the right use of a name? Who does the name "Yaweh" really pick out? You can't assume that earlier use determines proper use. Naming is a performance by a person, as recognized by a community.

I'd say the creator God who tabernacled with Israel named himself with this preexisting name. God didn't create a new language from scratch, nor a new name from scratch. God appropriated a dirty, imperfect language and put it to his own use. And this naming proliferated throughout Israel, whatever the name used to mean, or means elsewhere."


Thank you for that insight. You have left me with things to think about.

A question in the meanwhile: do you think that the divide between North and South Israel, and the incorporation of Canaanite mythology into Judaism could create some of the confusion I'm noting here?

Christopher said...

J.,

You wrote: "I have to remind myself that "free will" was a gift for everyone and not just for those who would be loving in this world. There is equal opportunity for evil as well as love.
Without the ability to speak and act and choose, we would be autonomans."


Like I was talking with you about at Pizza Hut, 'free-will', in this context, is not an answer to the problem of evil. I will quote a more authoritative author on this than myself, Bart D. Ehrman. This comes from his book God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer:

"At the end of the day, one would have to say that the answer is a mystery. We don't know why free will works so well in heaven but not on earth. We don't know why God doesn't provide the intelligence we need to exercise free will. We don't know why he sometimes contravenes the free exercise of the will and sometimes not. And this presents a problem, because if in the end the question is resolved by saying that the answer is a mystery, then it is no longer an answer. It is an admission that there is no answer. The 'solution' of free will, in the end, ultimately leads to the conclusion that it is all a mystery."

And, ergo, not an answer.

The other point I didn't get to make at Pizza Hut was that the free-will defense assumes we would be automatons/robots if we weren't freely volitional. But on what basis does that argument make that assumption? We really don't have any idea what we would be like if we didn't have free-will. Perhaps you're right that we would be functionally robotic. Perhaps we would be a limited combination of both. The point is, we don't know. On that front, the free-will defense is not defeated, but certainly lacks force.

Christopher said...

Gregory,

"As for Harpur, his ramblings regarding parallels between Christianity and pagan religions, while seemingly convincing, fail to explain, as far as I'm concerned, the fundamental (foundational?) questions of the historical and archaeological testimony to a real Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and the fact that those who bore witness to Him did so at perilous cost to their lives--dying, if Harpur is to be trusted, for a hodgepodge of mythologies for no reason."

Yes, Harpur did a very poor job of documenting his assertions. I would have to go to the books he has listed as his main sources, and then go to the materials they have listed in order to find out where Harpur's assertions are grounded. I'm not going to go about that anytime soon, or with much enthusiasm. I don't like goose-chases, academic or wild.

"He also, then, would have to explain why a purely "spiritualised" notion of religion and the Christ consciousness within us would be so concerned with physical manifestations, such as the Sacraments, which, particularly the Eucharist, stress the reality of His Body and Blood being truly present."

Well, that's easy, really: if the notion of a purely spiritual Christ-consciousness is true, then the physical manifestations within the sacraments becomes irrelevant beyond being sentimental tokens.

"As for your problems reconciling the Holy, Loving and Just God of Christianity with the early passages of the Old Testament Scriptures, I admit I have no easy answer. The best I can do for now would be to suggest that we don't know the whole story and the entire reason behind God's actions. Small comfort, but it does challenge your assumption, perhaps, that your reading of these accounts does tell you every variable involved, and that knowing every variable, you thus have a right to question or challenge God's actions.

It would be nice, perhaps, if religion were really as democratic as all that--but then, it wouldn't be religion."


And here I have a BIG problem: God seems to have a get-out-of-jail-free card. As soon as something goes wrong, as soon as the innocent suffer (e.g., Holocaust victims), we are to sit back and believe that, well, God must have his inscrutible reasons? He's free to cause and allow murder, rape, torture, genocide, and all manner of evil-doing but us mere mortals, created in his image, are refused even the privilege of asking 'why'? We're not allowed to call God to account for his lack of intervention? I see that as a problem. A BIG problem.

Christopher said...

Gregory,

"It would be nice, perhaps, if religion were really as democratic as all that--but then, it wouldn't be religion."

One further thought: if God created us to be in community with him, and has provided our redemption from sin via Christ, why would he then prevent us, or in any way disallow us participation in how things should happen in this so-called community? So you're right that traditional Christianity is not democratic. I think that's one of its failings, personally.

Perhaps though, God is different than we've suspected him to be these past 2000+ years of institutional confusion. Perhaps he's a little more 'for the people', as it were, than our religious infrastructures have dogmatized us into believing. What do you think?

Craig said...

It's interesting to read such an intelligent and well researched person going through a crisis of belief. I hope that you are able to find a satisfying answer to what you are trying to figure out.
It seems odd to me.
You start reading all kinds of books about atheism, and then become somewhat of an expert on the problems with these books. Then, all of the sudden, you become hung up on what of these ideas and it appears to be a real problem for you.
Is this the process of working through things? I wonder what this process was a search for.
I know that that is no help whatsoever, but I wanted to contribute something.

Christopher said...

Craig,

"It seems odd to me.
You start reading all kinds of books about atheism, and then become somewhat of an expert on the problems with these books. Then, all of the sudden, you become hung up on what of these ideas and it appears to be a real problem for you.
Is this the process of working through things? I wonder what this process was a search for.
I know that that is no help whatsoever, but I wanted to contribute something."


Thank you for your gentle, thoughtful critique. I appreciate how at home I feel with your inquiries, and thoughts.

To answer to you, yes, this may just be the process of working through things. I will know in retrospect, I suppose.

As it happens, my choice to research the New Atheists has not in the least offered up the challenges that I'm presently facing. To sum, Dawkins is a pompous snot no more fit to do philosophy 'than an ass is to play a harp' (to borrow from Luther); Dennett beguiles his audience with overtures to open discussion but then subtley cuts-off their avenues of response by invalidating response as an option; Hitchens is a classy lad with a good deal of cultural rhetoric to splash about, but as Shakespeare put it, he's "full of sound and fury signifying nothing"; and Sam Harris is on a rationalist jihad for atheism. And all of them combined make for one giant powerhouse of hopped-up, savvy emotionalism wrapped in scientism, and maudlin overtures to the Enlightenment and positivism.

Since reading Ehrman and Armstrong, however, I have encountered genuine, researched reflection, and it has me thinking more than shaking my head. They present a lot of information we were shielded from in places like bible college, and church. And they document it all for you to go and see for yourself. If they are presenting themselves honestly, and within a sincere, truthful context, then I have a lot of re-evaluations, and it's not only daunting and scary, but quite stimulating and exciting.

Anonymous said...

I'm way behind ... so I'm just going to share some of my thoughts about free will.
I really appreciated Boyd's explanation of free will, in regards to suffering, in Satan and the Problem of Evil and God at War (sorry, don't know how to do italics on the blog on my Mac).
My understanding is that there would be no free will and no real love without the possibility of real evil in this world.
I do believe God has given us the intelligence to handle free will. People who use their free will to do evil things can be brilliant people who believe that what they are doing is absolutely the right thing to do. So, the ability to handle free will is about more than intellect.
These are just my thoughts, of course. I am not stating these as gospel.
We know what happens without free will.
And, free will is only part of the equation, as God tells Job.
Free will means that we are able to choose. Of course we can not know what it would be like to have absolutely no choice; we can only imagine. I cannot imagine it as anything less than robotic.
The closest example I can think of in the world is when people go into survival mode -- when they operate in a way that there really is no other choice if they want to survive (in an abusive relationship). You may say that that is still a choice, and perhaps that is true to a degree, but it is almost like a "fight or flight" response that kicks in when our survival depends on it.
That is the closest example I can think of aside from perhaps brainwashing, which i know little about.
I am having a tough time tonight dealing with some news of a friend with a brain tumor, and that coming just one week after another friend died of ALS.
I know that free will and suffering are linked. I also know that suffering sometimes has nothing to do with free will.
I know very little for sure ... except that Jesus loves me. He loves us. Sometimes that is enough.
J

Glenn said...

... Did my comment disappear, or did it never appear?

Christopher said...

Glenn,

It would seem that your comment never appeared. I've been keeping close watch on this thread, and all responses are automatically emailed to me. I haven't seen anything from you until today.

Please do re-post!

Thank you,
Christopher

Anonymous said...

Glenn,
I noticed that you have a comment under the thread "Update". Did you intend to put that comment here, instead?
J