Friday, March 19, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad God?

As one of the three progressive Christians with a robust theology of hell, recent conversations require me to explore if my heckology counts as a form of coercion.

Hellfire and damnation tend to be the bludgeons that drive a significant portion of Christian "evangelism." You reach out because of your deep love for the unsaved unbelievers, knowing that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they will be cast eternally into the Lake of Fire. This is what leads Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron to get out there with their bananas. It's why Jack Chick is still in business. It's why that guy with the bullhorn is yelling bellowing scripture passages on your campus. And though this bugs the bejabbers out of most human beings, the folks who do it think they're doing right. Why?

Because as folks approach that tension between 1) the central ethic of love for God and neighbor and 2) the many warnings of the eternal consequences that come when you don't listen to Jesus, they become fixated on door number 2. You've got to save the sinners! Save 'em from HEEELLLL! Hell becomes the focus, and the Gospel becomes all stick and bad cop, as the masses run screaming from Jeezilla and into church as he rains atomic hellfire breath down on unbelieving Tokyo. Fear can be a powerful motivator, and folks are happy to use it to coerce belief.

Thing is, my transpersonal spirituality is completely compatible with eternal judgment. I view the existential boundaries between us as ultimately meaningless, and creation as the canvas onto which our eternity is painted. If we hurt others, that's our pain. Forever. If we seethe with hatred towards our ex, that hatred will burn in us permanently. Everything we do is, for all of the protestations of this Heraclitan age, etched forever into the face of being, of which we are a part.

So... does this count as coercion? Does my spiritual awareness of my connectedness to the beings around me and to creation "coerce" me into being more gracious and kind towards them?

Well, yes and no. There are times, particularly when I'm ragingly cheesed at someone, that my monkey-gut-response is to bare fangs and go for the jugular. At those moments, my cognitive and heart assent to the idea that the universe is not meaningless and without justice holds me back. Yeah, it might feel good at that moment to let 'em have it. Rip 'em a new one. It might even have immediate practical value. But ultimately, such actions have profound and permanent consequences. So I steer away from destructive actions with the same aversion that one might feel for a yawning precipice or that guy on the corner who's shouting obscenities at no-one in particular and brandishing a Glock. Go that way, says the tightness in your gut and the rapid beating of your heart, and bad things will come of it. In some sense, then, I do have a fear of hell, and it does occasionally guide how I act.

On the other hand, I don't really feel that as coercive. The love-ethic imperative that Jesus taught is just an inescapable part of the fabric of all being. That there are ontological consequences of living by it is, for me, no more forced than the breaths that I must take to maintain consciousness. Sure, I could resent breathing. I could be annoyed that I'm forced into the process of respiration, and shake my fist at my Maker for coercing me into filling my lungs without ever first consulting me or respecting my free will. I could fight the power, hold my breath, and pitch a defiant hissy until I pull a total faceplant.

But that would be pointless. Stupid, even.

Just as organic life is maintained by the processes of breathing, so justice, peace, and our place in the fabric of God's creation are established by our participation in the ethic of love that radically defines us. That's not coercion. It's just the Way of things.


  1. That strikes me as an interesting take on the problem. (And one that I'd gleaned from some of your other postings.) But I just have to wonder: Why? Why would you believe such a thing?

    Certainly there's no material evidence for it. It doesn't even seem to me to be evidenced in scripture. My understanding of scripture is that if you get right with God, then your sins get forgiven. So you won't actually burn forever. (And therein lies the coercion too, because you have to toe the line to get off the hook for your inevitable transgressions.) I mean, I'm willing to admit that it may be possible to read scripture this way, because I'm not an expert. But I've never heard of tell of it. This way of viewing it seems to me to be your own personal kink that you superimpose on the tradition.

    Weird, man.

    I think I must be misunderstanding what you are saying. You don't actually believe that every living thing will inevitably suffer eternally for all the suffering it played a part in during it's mortal time on the material plane, right? Or at least, you must think that Jesus offers you an out (besides "Just don't do it in the first place?").

  2. @ Browning: Actually, while it's my own take, it's not idiosyncratic to me. You can find it elsewhere...for instance, the writings of Thomas Merton, who, like me, is strongly mystic. But it is also all over the writings of more conventionally orthodox folks like C.S. Lewis. Stripe for stripe, as they say in Narnia.

    Though I have plenty of my own personal theological "kinks," this one is also supported in scripture. It's certainly there in Jesus (Luke 6:27-38), but also in more metaphoric form in Paul (1 Cor. 3:10-15). There are other cites, of course, but I'll lob those at ya later. ;)

    Why do you think you're misunderstanding?

  3. I think I must be misunderstanding you because what you seem to be describing just smacks me as too crazy and cruel for someone like you to actually believe in. You seem to be suggesting that everyone pays for their own sins permanently in the afterlife. That Christ doesn't actually cancel your debt so much as just warn you not to incur it in the first place, or urge you to offset it somehow yourself with your good deeds in your life before it is too late. But that can't be what you mean, right?

    I'm aware of Lewis's version, but I remember his seeming significantly different. The torture is not the suffering you caused others stuck on a permanent tape loop once the bounds of selfhood are dissolved, but more like a kind of endlessly tedious and peevish disappointment at never being in the presence of God's glory (The Great Divorce). For Lewis, Hell is you punishing yourself by just stubbornly refusing to go to heaven. Hell is boring.

    I can see some of the appeal of your version (if I understand it). It's kind of cool to think about, in the way a lot of fantasies are kind of cool to think about. (With that in mind, I recommend to you a very unusual book I quite enjoyed, and that I suspect you might like as well... Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.)

    Your fantasy seems motivated by the recognition that "Love one another or I will torture you," just doesn't ring true.
    But "I strongly recommend that you love one another, because I have arranged the universe in such a way that you will feel, permanently, after your death, all the suffering you inflicted or failed to prevent." Is that really any better?

    But maybe I am just misunderstanding what you are saying.

  4. The Afterlife:

    I wonder how much Christianity would have devoted to the thought of afterlife if a) Jesus were not living in the afterlife, and b) if it weren't the case that life could be so perverse to completely innocent people and so rewarding to truly evil people.

    Typically Jesus only put religious people in hell. And maybe really rich people.

    The book of Revelation puts the Roman Emperor in Hell. He probably deserves it. Titus especially. He was up there with Nebuchadnezzar.

    And some would make the case that Jesus is the exception, and that since he always was, then his resurrection from the dead, even if it really happened, proves nothing about the rest of us. Paul thought it did. But I would wager the writer of the gospel of John saw it differently.

    I don't know about being afraid of the Big Bad God, but I feel intimidated in the presence of my CEO, and in the presence Nature. You mess with either in the wrong way and you can find yourself in a world of hurt. Where do we get the idea that God is any different?

    Its all a big puzzle to me. I completely loose myself in it long before I find any clues or answers.

  5. Ah, Browning. Your consistency is so very reassuring.

    Faith, according to your Dawkinian perspective, is axiomatically both 1) delusional and 2) dangerous. From that conceptual foundation, any perspective on justice articulated from a foundation of faith is by necessity "crazy and cruel."

    Let's take what I've said, of which you seem to have a decent enough cognitive grasp. I assert from faith that the structures of the universe are fundamentally just. Meaning, sentient beings that willfully harm or permit to come to harm other beings are culpable, existentially and eternally, for their actions. Period.

    It's an essentially orthodox position, one that, again, is hardly something I alone hold.

    The Serb who uses systematic rape to humiliate Bosnian prisoners, the Khmer Rouge who beats a gifted cellist to death in a muddy field, and the frat boy who treats a young woman like a piece of meat? From my perspective, eternity is not pleasant for such beings.

    Yet what I assert is "cruel?"

    One could reasonably assert that it is "crazy." I could see that, given that it is a position grounded in faith, and for a committed atheist such as yourself, all faith is fantasy.

    But describing what I present as "cruel" seems so detached from the context of the conversation as to be, from my perspective, more than a little bit insane. Particularly if it is also "appealing." How is it evidence of a malicious God and simultaneously appealing?

    Care to elucidate?

  6. @Beloved Spear

    Well, I'm surprised to find that you are really saying what you claim to be saying. But, sure. I can elucidate.

    First though, I need to disagree with your characterization of me (and Dawkins). Faith is not axiomatically delusional and dangerous. I rationally derive that position from more basic axioms. In the interest of getting to the meat of this discussion, I'll save what I mean by that for another time. But I think it's interesting that I am actually actively seeking to understand what you believe, while you are constantly trying to tell me what I believe, and botching it. It's remarkably incurious of you.

    Okay, so the afterlife you apparently imagine is cruel because it's permanent. If I created a system of justice in my household where my children would suffer forever for their mistakes, where every transgression was punished with permanent torture, you would rightly deem me to be a monstrous father. Say, my daughter deliberately bites my son's finger. (It happens.) Very well. I have arranged things in advance so that she will feel the pain of that bite on her own finger for the rest of her life. That's @#$%-ed up. It's infinitely disproportionate. It's pointless. It's ugly, unforgiving, vengeful, and sadistic. Isn't that obvious?

    That's why I have trouble believing that's what you mean, because my understanding of the myth of Christ is that he forgives. Supposedly, yeah, you deserve hell, but the whole point of Jesus is that God's love for you is canceling your debt (provided you meet the requirements). So that's part of the reason that it seems crazy to me -- because it is fundamentally at odds with the Christianity that I am familiar with. I am willing to consider the possibility that I've been wrong about it all along -- you are obviously more educated on the subject than I am -- but to me it sounds like a scenario that is exactly antithetical to what I have always understood to be the whole point of the God/Man's sacrifice.

    But mostly the afterlife you apparently imagine is crazy because you have no reason to believe it whatsoever except that it appeals to you somehow. It's no more plausible than any other idle dorm room blather or the plot of your favorite video game. I said I can see SOME OF the appeal, because I too enjoy exploring fantasy worlds with my imagination, even those that I would never in a million years wish were real. (Middle-Earth, Neverland, the Buffyverse. All nice places to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.) But of course I don't think your fantasy is WHOLLY appealing. That's my point.

  7. Forgiveness...

    I agree it would not make sense for punishment to exceed forgiveness. An eternity in hell for sins long forgiven and forgotten does not add up. I have trouble with that.

    But I don't think it's all up to God to forgive all sins. After all, some very egregious sins are not against God. At least not only against God.

    If you sin against me, it is not up to God alone to forgive you in my stead. I won't allow it. Take the favorite extreme example, is it really up to God to unilaterally forgive Hitler for the Holocaust? No, it should take 12 Million (20 or 40 depending on how you count) individual acts of forgiveness.

    I don't think Christian theology has ever really properly accounted for justice, grace, judgment and forgiveness. We throw it all up to mysterious grace before we work out all the implications, and as a consequence I think we leave some serious ethical dilemmas not addressed.

  8. @ Browning: Ah. By "appealing" you meant "an ugly, vengeful, and sadistic fantasy." Thanks for clearing that up. ;)

    Are you talking about Sadie Dawkins? Because Richard Dawkins does hold that faith, because it is not grounded in reason, is inherently dangerous. It's the central governing thesis of the God Delusion, Browning. In that, he gives less wiggle room than, say, Sam Harris, who has a secret crush on the Jains, and Bertrand Russell, who ceded that progressive, humanistic, and mystic faiths weren't a threat to a rational society.

    As for wanting to understand what I believe, well, you do in a way. Your intent, as best I can perceive it, is to try to get handles with which to effectively deconstruct what I believe. When I respond as honestly as I can and you find yourself unable to do so, I can imagine that must be rather frustrating. I suppose I'll just have to keep bumbling and botching my way through our discussions. Who knows? One of these days you might find what you're looking for. ;)

    As to my own crazy addled dormroom theology, that you don't really grasp what Jesus was all about is to be expected. Plenty of folks don't get it. So perhaps a bit of Socratic Method is in order. How would you describe the process by which one is "saved" by faith in Jesus?

  9. @ Jodie. Hear, hear. See, this is where you find solid common ground with me, the "new" atheist.

    Part of the trouble as I see it is that Christianity seems to demand that you forgive the sins against you. That is an integral part of Christ's radical love ethic. The message is FORGIVE, OR ELSE. (Leave the vengeance to Me, Almighty. Trust Me, I'm all over it.)

    For my part, I think there are a lot of ethical problems with this. On the one hand, I am enticed to forgive partly by the promise that supernatural vengeance will be wreaked on my enemy, and partly by the threat that if I don't, I can expect to suffer for my own sins. I am being coerced into forgiving my (say) rapist with the threat of torture. As a sop for my compliance though, I get to relish my rapist's torture at the hands of God. Meanwhile, however, my rapist is being offered the same deal, meaning that if he takes it, the supernatural vengeance carrot that I am expecting evaporates, and all I can count on is the stick: forgive your rapist, or you will suffer eternally for your own crimes.

    Add to this the implausibility that it is all anything but a poorly thought-out bit of wishful thinking from some superstitious folks who lived a short, hard, ignorant life a long, long time ago, and you have to wonder why bother? We could do better. There are more rational reasons to be forgiving, which in itself is not such a bad idea.

  10. @David. Heh. I don't really see what you think you gain by trying to make me feel stupid for admitting the PARTIAL appeal of YOUR revenge fantasy. It's YOUR fantasy. Yes, revenge fantasies can be appealing. I too can enjoy the idea of the Cambodian cellist-bludgeoner getting his due. I also get a little jolt of visceral pleasure when the Deathstar blows up. Doesn't make it real, and doesn't make it good, especially when it is, as I said, infinitely disproportionate.

    Re: Dawkins. Axioms and theses are not the same thing.

    Re: My desire to understand you. Look, I'm already convinced your wrong. I don't need a handle to get me to that place, because I'm already there. What I don't understand is how you got where you are, and I'd like to because... again...we are not so different you and I. I liked you twenty-odd years ago, and I like you now. That makes our differences very interesting to me. Maybe I'm wrong! I am very curious about the way you think. I really want to get it, and I don't.

    Re: your Socratic question. How would I describe the process by which one is "saved" by faith in Jesus? I wouldn't. I couldn't with any confidence, any more than I could describe the process by which Superman reverses the flow of time by flying around the Earth real fast backwards. (Well, that's not completely true, but I guess I feel a little disinclined to play Euthyphro to your Socrates at the moment. I got other @#$% to do, as I'm sure you do as well. Another time?)

  11. @ Browning: Not stupid. Gracious no. know...honest.

    As to axioms and theses, you're absolutely right. They shouldn't be the same. That doesn't mean we don't sometimes confuse them. Entering into a question with defining preconceptions has this tendency to skew one's results.

    I wouldn't expect you to describe the soteriological process as someone who sees it as valid. That would be unrealistic, and rather unfair. Just to hear your view of it, and then discuss how that relates to orthodoxy. Another time, I suppose.

    Oh, and if you ever want to go at it over the Euthyphro Dilemma, I'm seriously there. Atheism really shouldn't go anywhere near that little philosophical exploration of the Good, particularly if it grasped what Plato intended it to teach.

    Again, another time.

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  13. Yeah, David. I can say, in all honesty, that I am not completely immune to the appeal of revenge fantasies, even if I recognize that it is not particularly healthy, noble, or useful to indulge in them. Making me a fairly unremarkable human being. Point ceded. :)

    Word verification: laterfun

  14. And, actually (in case you missed this part) it's also the element of fantasy as much or more than the revenge that is appealing to me. That's why I recommended that book Sum. It's fun to dream up supernatural cosmologies and explore their ethical implications, or even just enjoy them for their own sake, even if they are not ideal. Maybe even especially. This is why more people read Dante's first book than his last. Or why I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Great Divorce. Or why I have a kind of morbid fascination with the twisted imagination of John the Revelator. Particularly when it's illustrated in Legos.

  15. @ Browning: Yer such a maroon.;)

    And yes, I can understand that impetus. It's what I find so intriguing about Sam Harris and his quaintly modern fantasies of a scientific morality. It's why I still harbor fond memories of Nietzsche's "The AntiChrist," or explore with fascination the writings of ultraconservatives in the blogosphere. The alien and the different is fascinating, even if it is nonsensical.