Friday, February 10, 2006

Comic-strip theology

An ongoing email exchange with a friend. His comments are in quotation marks:

I find it somewhat inexplicable why so many Muslims act like circus ani-mals, performing on cue. By the same token, I'm constantly amazed by the amount of sway Muslim clerics wield over the populace. I expect that many Protestant pastors and Catholics bishops must turn green with envy at the spectacle! :-)

Yes, we can't allow the Muslim world to dictate our editorial policy, espe-cially when Muslims are offended by everything from bacon to Barbie dolls or wine or beauty pageants or Piglet or representational art or couples kissing in public and so on and so forth.

The cartoons were provocative, but political cartooning is a form of satire, and satire is frequently unfair and over-the-top. That's the nature of the genre.

I agree that religion should not be above criticism or ridicule. For one thing, even if you believe that there's just one true religion (like me), that doesn't mean that the adherents of the true religion are, themselves, above reproach.

In this country, faith-healers are regularly lampooned, and for good reason since most-all of them are charlatans.

Likewise, a lot of things should be allowed, even if they're wrong because, in order for the truth to be heard, you have to allow a lot of other stuff to be heard.

In addition, it's best when the truth can vindicate its claims in the face of robust criticism.

One of the oddities about Islamic fanaticism is that when you don't allow for dissent, that simply cultivates outward conformity without any genuine conviction in the message. It becomes a loyalty oath, like a frat-boy hazing ritual. Folks go through the motions to keep up appearances, for fear of reprisal if they buck the system.

Why do they want people to merely act like Muslims--play a role at gun-point--when, under such coercive circumstances, the masses don't really believe in Islam? What kind of victory is that? An empty shell of piety--and a pretty ugly shell at that.

As you say, we see an ironically vicious cycle: someone accuses Islam of being a violent religion, countless Muslims take umbrage and react by committing acts of wanton mahem to protest the offensive suggestion that Islam is a violent religion.

How does one reason with such blind, unreasoning group-think? Really, one can't. One can only crush it before it crushes us first.

There was a time when Muslims would immigate to the West to escape that very thing. But now they bring it with them.

“I would think God is above all religions -- religions are just roads to God. Just as there are many roads leading to Rome (or Chicago, for that matter!), there are many roads leading to God.”

One of the problems with this statement, even cast as a hypothetical, is that in order for it to work, the speaker has to know what God is really like for him (the speaker) to be in any position to say that different roads lead to the same destination (God).

Hence, its apparent ecumenicity is simply a disguised version of the dog-matic view that there really is one true God who is knowable to the speaker.

"Even various religions themselves, including Christianity, speak of God as a mystery, as something or someone that works in mysterious ways."

True, though in Christianity that has reference to aspects of the divine nature for which there is no divine self-revelation, or which lie beyond possibility of revelation (given our finite faculties), or elements of his ulterior design which he has not disclosed.

That's different from saying that revelation is, itself, mysterious.

"It seems to me there is a certain 'common denominator', i.e. a set of basic concepts about the nature of God that is common to most religions. Undoubtedly, religions differ greatly on many points, but still most them derive their beliefs, practices, and institutions from the same starting point, the idea of a God. So, all I have to know in order to make my ecumenical statement is what is common about the various religions' conception of God."

Again, that's valid up to a point. However, to make your ecumenical statement work, you'd have to posit that there is, indeed, a true God who is truly denominated by these common denominators.

In addition, various religions have, as you know, very different concepts of the afterlife, so they don't all point in the same direction. Indeed, you say this yourself a little further down.

"One more thing I wanted to mention. Religions have a geographic, his-torical and cultural context...Related to this is the fact that there's a very high probability your religious beliefs will coincide with your parents, i.e. your parents will have transmitted their religious beliefs to you...That reason has to do with history and geography and the circumstances of birth."

Once again, this is true, but is it exculpatory? This correlation holds true, not merely for religious beliefs, but secular beliefs as well.

For example, it was natural for a white 19C southerner to be a racist for the very factors you outline. It was part of his cultural and familial upbringing.

Yet, if whites grew up with blacks, played with blacks, saw and interacted with blacks on a daily basis, it wouldn't take much to see, as a matter of personal experience and observation, that blacks had the same mental, emotional, and moral make-up as whites.

Social conditioning doesn't excuse everything if we have independent lines of evidence which falsify our conditioning.

The problem is not so much intellectual as ethical. Returning to my illus-tration, the average white southerner had no incentive, indeed, a positive disincentive to buck the system since he would pay a steep personal price were he to do so. He might well be disowned by his own family and ostracized by friends and neighbors, employers and/or customers.

So he follows the path of least resistance. That's understandable. But it isn't really exculpatory. Sometimes doing the right thing will cost you.

"If indeed there's a God, and God has prescribed one true path, i.e. the one true religion that you happen to believe in, then surely he would not exclude more than half the Earth's population from getting onto this path simply by virtue of their geographic, historical and cultural context and circumstances -- and this is not to mention all the parts of Christendom that don't subscribe to your specific variant of Christianity."

Three points:

1. In Christian theology, men are damned, not because they disbelieve in a Christ they never heard of, but because they are sinners. The gospel is a gospel to the lost. It presupposes an antecedent state of guilt.

And those who are guilty are not entitled to a pardon. Guilt forfeits the right of pardon since pardon presupposes guilt, and all that guilt deserves is just punishment.

2. A major reason for the inequitable distribution of the religious options is that various countries actively exclude a dissemination of the options. Willful ignorance is not exculpatory.

3. In general, various Christian traditions do not make their doctrinal distinctives a condition of saving faith.

There is a difference between saying that x must be true for me to be saved, and saying that I must believe that x must be true for me to be saved, just as certain things must be true for me to operate a light switch without my having to know everything that must be true for a light switch to work in order for me to operate a light switch.

"You use the term "exculpatory" as if being a Hindu or other variety of non-Calvinist Protestant Christian is some sort of transgres-sion...1) There you go again (to quote RR!) - you use the term "exculpa-tory" implying that non-adherence to your brand of Christianity is a transgression."

That's overly specific. I'm not making Calvinism the benchmark of sin.

But, yes, on a more general level, disbelief in the true God would be ranked as sin.

"India, for example, does not actively hinder or prohibit dissemination of religious options."

I think that would depend, in part, on the period of history we're talking about. Historically, every religion is the state religion of some nation-state or another. To believe or behave otherwise is a crime against the state. High treason.

India has, of course, a very checkered religious history.

According to scholars like the late Nirad Chaudhuri, Hinduism is very tolerant at the creedal level, but much less tolerant at the level of praxis.

It also makes difference whether we're talking about the big city or village life.

In addition, there's quite a lot of persecution in India which is never re-ported in the mainsteam media:

"I would think God the Almighty would have had it in his power to arrange things in such a way that all people would find the true path to Him."

Yes, God would have that power. If, however, people have strayed from the true path, then that is sin, in which case redirecting them back onto the true path would be a case of mercy rather than obligation. Mercy cannot be obligatory, otherwise it ceases to be mercy.

"Why would he favor a limited group of mostly American evangelical Christians?"

You're the one who keeps casting the alternative in such narrow terms. The fact that I regard some Christian traditions as more accurate than others doesn't mean that only one tradition is salvific.

Some doctors are more outstanding than others, but any competent physical is better than a witch-doctor.

Historically, you might say that the true path moves around quite a bit, beginning in the ANE, then extending to the Levant, then extending to the N. Europe and the Americas.

It has, as you know, atrophied in modern Europe, but is growing by leaps and bounds in the S. Hemisphere, viz. parts of Africa.

China alone has a huge underground church movement.

"I was actually just making a simple point: you may be absolutely con-vinced that your path is the only true path, but that conviction is ulti-mately the result of the circumstances of your birth, your upbringing, and the environment in which you live. Many Muslims are just as absolutely convinced that their religion (and even their variety of Islam, Sunni or Shia) is the only true religion."

Three problems with this statement:

i)I regard it as an overstatement. Social conditioning predisposes one to believe certain things or behave certain ways. It is not, however, a predeterminate.

ii) It is self-refuting to advance such a strong version of social conditioning, for, in that event, it would dissolve all beliefs into universal scepticism, whether religious, political, historical, scientific, economic, &c. Cultural relativism cuts its own throat.

iii) It is possible for people to become self-aware of their social conditioning and thereby evaluate it with some degree of objectivity. All they need is something with which to compare and contrast it.

iv) It also commits the genetic fallacy. The source of belief, and the way we verify or falsify a belief, are two different things.

v) There is also a big difference between belief and behavior. Peer pres-sure may coerce outward conformity, but it doesn't automatically induce conviction.

There are many nominal Hindus, nominal Buddhist, nominal Muslims, nominal Jews, nominal Christians. Social conditioning may motivate them to behave in ways consistent with their religious tradition, but they don't necessarily subscribe to the dogmatic claims.

"So...I guess my point is that the "true path" or "true religion" is very much a subjective thing."

No, it isn't, for this leaves out of account the entire dimension of reason and evidence.

"why are the guilty not entitled to a pardon? I thought forgiveness was an important part of Christianity"

Yes, it's important to Christianity, but it's not an entitlement. Saving grace is not a right, but an act of unmerited mercy.

"Do you mean all people are sinners?"

Yes--Christians included.

"And how do you defining "sinning"?"

Any want of conformity, in thought, word, and deed, to the revealed will of God--whether by natural revelation or Scripture.

"Finally, I get your last point about the "difference between saying that x must be true for me to be saved, and saying that I must believe that x must be true for me to be saved". So does this mean that non-Christians and even atheists can be saved??"

I'm saying the two don't coincide, which is not to say the two don't inter-sect.

"Question: if God exists (i.e. the true God), why is it so important to Him that people believe in Him? And, for that matter, worship Him? The way you describe God, it would seem he has an ego the size of the universe!!"

i) Just as we should honor good parents and think the right things about them, we should honor our Creator and think the right things about him.

ii) It's important to read the owner's manual to life. It's from the Creator that we learn how to fulfill our nature and destiny.

"Also, do you think Muslims don't worship the true God?"


"Who are they worshipping then?"

They aren't worshipping a who, but a what--their mistaken idea of God, which is Muhammad's idea of God.

There's a distinction between the God they intuitively know, according natural revelation, and the God they worship, according to Islamic theol-ogy.

"You define sinning as: "Any want of conformity, in thought, word, and deed, to the revealed will of God--whether by natural revelation or Scrip-ture." Sounds pretty totalitarian to me!!"

This is the sort of objection that only crops up in relation to religious truth-claims.

It is not an objection typically raised against political or historical or scientific or mathematical truth-claims. (Postmodernism is a partial exception, but that's just an academic fad.)

So why the double standard? Why do to the exclusive claims of Christianity get under the skin of many folks when they aren't bothered by other truth-claims in other fields of knowledge or public policy?

Because the critic has already rendered a negative value-judgment re-garding religious truth-claims. Either he takes the atheistic position that there is no God, or the strong agnostic position that we can't know if there is a God, or the weak agnostic position that there is a God, but we can't know what he's like.

As a practical matter, these refinements have the same case value: since God is not an object of knowledge, either because there is no God, or because God is unknowable, then religious belief is socially acceptable as long as it's a purely private matter, with no public policy ramifications; but the religious believer of whatever stripe should be just as agnostic the agnostic!

By contrast, historical and scientific questions are objects of knowledge, where we can ascertain what's right and what's wrong.

Likewise, in the political sphere, certain ideologies are morally preferable to others.

Now, my immediate point is that the position of the unbeliever is just as "totalitarian" as the position of the believer. The unbeliever has also taken a very sweeping, absolutist view of what there is and what is knowable. And he deploys his view to promote a particular school of personal and social ethics.

"And whose interpretation of the "will of God" in the Christian Scriptures is the right one?"

Mine, of course! Can't improve on that! :-)

Again, why single out the Bible? You could pose the very same question about the interpretation of any text, whether a legal text, literary text, historical text, scientific text, the Green Party platform, &c.

"And how do you prove that the Scriptures are not simply the creation of men with fertile and poetic imaginations, with of course some basis in actual historical events (like many other great epics of a religious na-ture)?"

That depends on whether you want a short answer or a long answer. There's an extensive body of apologetic literature on all aspects of this question.

On another point, it's true that Hinduism exhibits more civil tolerance than, say, Islam--with its law of apostasy.

"But have people in India or Japan or Indonesia strayed from the true path?? The vast majority of people in those countries were never Chris-tians to begin with!!"

One can stray from the path of natural revelation as well as special revelation (Scripture).

"Finally, as for the dimension of reason and evidence -- well, that's ex-actly the problem. There's just no evidence for many of the basic beliefs underlying various religions (e.g. the Resurrection, the angel Gabriel speaking to Mohammed)."

Actually, there's quite a lot of evidence for the Resurrection.

However, we also need to distinguish between direct evidence for a par-ticular claim, and indirect evidence in the form of direct evidence for our source of information.

"But this opens up a whole new path of discussion and debate!"

Indeed it does!

1 comment:

  1. In Christian theology, men are damned, not because they disbelieve in a Christ they never heard of, but because they are sinners. The gospel is a gospel to the lost. It presupposes an antecedent state of guilt.

    And those who are guilty are not entitled to a pardon. Guilt forfeits the right of pardon since pardon presupposes guilt, and all that guilt deserves is just punishment.

    These are vital points. I often find myself having to constantly repeat them when I engage in conversation about the subject even with Christians.

    Human beings don't want to accept that they are guilty and deserving of damnation. We flatter ourselves with our "good works" and our "friendliness" and our refraining from the worst evils.