Knowing God

From Arthur McGill’s Suffering:

“In the Christian world today almost no one talks about God himself. Christians are preoccupied instead either with God’s acts — with the things that he gives us and the moral demands he makes on us, with Jesus whom he sent and the church that he created — or with the human response to God’s acts — with our faith and our doubt, with our believing and unbelieving. But attention never seems to pass beyond these events on the human scene to God as he is in himself .

. . . there is a great danger in this modern procedure.”

The danger is that we develop false theologies of God. We make him into Jonathan Edwards’s sadistic Angry God, who eagerly anticipates staining his own robes with our blood. Or we make him the Great Balancer, who will send us a tragedy as soon as things really start going well for us. Or the Grandfather God, who looks the other way while we do what we wish, but who is always there with a Band-Aid and a cup of hot chocolate when we want him.

A more sophisticated transmogrification is accomplished by John Piper, icon of Reformed Christians, who fashions God into an Eternal Narcissist who does everything for his own exaltation. To his credit Piper attempts to show how this is proof of God’s love for us, but he falls prey to the great sin of the intellectualized Western Church: our attempt to positively define God’s attributes, which inevitably creates boundaries that make him smaller than he is.

Pondering the nature of God is essential, but it should be done with fear and trembling. We Westerners are trapped in a legalistic, contractual mindset. Many of those who led us here were hardhearted men in rebellion against Rome, yet enslaved to its juridical mentality. What can we claim to know about God, 2000 years after his Incarnation, having rejected 1500 years worth of experience and tradition, along with practically every insight taught by those who sat at the feet of the Apostles? What can we say about God? What dare we say about God?

God is love. God is a father, and a son, and a whispering ghost. God struck down nearly all of humanity in a killing flood. God nursed at the breast of a woman who freely chose to be grieved. God wept for the dead. God climbed unto a cross for his children. God is a consuming fire who will come again in power and glory and majesty.

Who then can know God by mind alone? Who will stand before him on that day and declare: This is why you have done these things, Lord, for these reasons that I have explained in my books and sermons? Who claims to discern the entire essence of God? Who sees him more than in a mirror darkly?

Intellectualize him at your peril.

Comments

  1. Wallace Mercer

    Dear Tony,

    Thank you for this post, and the benedictory words about the peril of intellectualizing the unknowable. A kind admonition as we Reformed thinkers bound out of the gate so sure in our faith. May God continue to have mercy.

  2. Phil Martin

    To defend the “eternal narcissist” view, that is what God is. Why would he create us just for us know him as a “grandfather figure” or a brutal old man with a thing for hurting people. No God created us for His glory and it alone. Why would he send us trials? To bring us closer to him in order to bring him praise. Why would He give us good things… to bring Him praise.
    Now this is not to say that God is not more complex than that. He is vastly more complex than our finate minds could ever comprehend.
    Amen to pondering Him with fear and trembling. We in our postmodern culture forget that His is the Boss.

  3. Adam DeVille

    The Christian East has always insisted, in figures like Evagrius of Pontus, the Cappadocians, and others, that one can only talk about God apophatically. The apophatic method finds it easier to say what God is not than what He is. Moreover, the East makes a further crucial point, insisting that we can know something about, and so talk about and reflect upon, God in His energies, but never in His essence.

  4. Tony

    Phil,

    While it’s certainly the case (as Piper illustrates well) that the Son, for example, acts to glorify the Father, and calls man to do the same, nowhere in the Bible that I have seen are we instructed that God created man for his glory alone.

    The triune nature of God testifies to his “otherness” orientation, his boundedness to others in love. And we are taught that Christ died not only that the Father would be glorified, but because the Father “so loved the world.” What Piper and others do is attempt to force the essence of God into one box (glorification), and thereby subordinate all other evidence of his purposes and essence, in an understandable but perverse effort to give him glory. In seeking to glorify God the Reformers make too little of his beloved creation, too little of the sacraments, too little of his Church, too little of his mother, and too little of his unquenchable love for his children.

    It puts me in mind of Aaron’s sons, who intended to honor God, but instead offended him. I think this talk of God as the Great Hedonist is very much the same as their “strange fire.”

  5. Drew

    In his book Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer writes “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us”. Our real idea of God may be burried under layers of our experience and relegious upbringing. If we dig deep and embrace the unavoidable tensions of who Gos is, we reach our human “fence” and a place of awe inspired worship. Amen to living at that fence.

  6. Jonny

    Drew,

    The Tozer quote really makes me wonder . . . why is “what we think about God” in our “minds” at all relevant except for the danger created by the potential to anthropomorphize God and to worship the idol of our vain imagination? Further, if God is not a god of confusion but a God of peace, then why should there be an “unavoidable tensions.” As Tony points out, there are many unsearchable mysteries, but isn’t something awry when we perceive His revelation to be self-contradictory?

  7. Phil Martin

    Tony,
    Maybe Christian Hedonist is a little extreme, but Phil. 1:9-11 says, And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
    And on the contrary, all of His attributes and works all point to glorify Him. We look at creation and know that God is glorified by His handiwork; when we take communion, we do it to remind us of what Christ did for us and therefore praise and glorify Him for it, etc. So really even if we don’t outright admit it, all things and people were created for Him.
    Can we over emphasize this point? Maybe. But it can give motivation to do the best in all that we do.

  8. chuck

    I grieved through “systematic theology” while in seminary. We turn our “dogma” into “idols” made by the logic of man. The book still insists that, “I will have no idols before me.”

    The bible writers never attempted to define God…describe God…yes…but never did they become so arrogant as to define by dogma or doctrine.

    We rest in knowing that God knows us.

  9. fwsonnek

    Jesus and the apostles invite us to look at and ponder the very person of Jesus to know anything at all about God.

    In Him dwells the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form. As Hebrews 1:2 says: in former times God spoke through prophets, but in these later times he has spoken to us by his son. Jesus says the Old testament exists with it´s purpose being to testify about Jesus. St John says the point of the apostles writings is to know Jesus.

    The problem with calvinists and rome, where there is a problem, is the simple failure to do this, and instead ponder God in the abstract exactly as you also seem to suggest.

    Lutherans have only one doctrine. This doctrine is the very person and work of Jesus. who he is, what he did, and why he did it. He is the complete reveal-ation of God in bodily form.

    to dichotomize between God´s acts, what he gives us and who he is, is a false choice and leads to where? We would know anyone for who they are by considering what they have done no? how would we know them better by setting that aside?

  10. seeker6079

    What can we say about God? What dare we say about God?

    “Nothing”, is the implied answer to this question. But I am certain that Nothing is the least likely outcome.

  11. Helen

    God is who He is. In my own personal relationship with Christ (and through Christ), I know God and I know His attributes as He has revealed them to me (mercy, grace, love, wisdom, omnipotence, etc.). I think we can safely describe our Creator with those qualities without limiting the vastness of His nature. That danger lies in reducing God to “just” those qualities, when His ways are not our own, and His thoughts are nothing like ours.

  12. Johnny

    Good job, Tony.

    Before the mystery of God, lots less blather–lots more wonder, awe and silence–deep, deep silence.

    The apophatic/”via negativa” reponses of Abraham, Moses, Job and Jesus was wonder, awe and silence. Their best students include old timers like Dionysius (the Areopogate), Maximus the Confessor and Johannes Eckhart and contemporaries like David Tracy, John Caputo, Richard Kearney, Denys Turner, Jean-Luc Marion and, even one who may be “rightly described as atheist,” the late Jacques Derrida. All eloquently “silent” before the Mystery.

    All well worth the time and effort to read and then join in their…

  13. sunsin

    Impassioned, moving, but in the end nothing but a beautiful example of begging the question. Why assume that this “God” thing even exists? Why, in particular, assume that Christianity of any form is its most important expression?

    During the lifetime of Jesus, the Roman empire was not alone in the world. Far to the east, China was in a troubled interlude, the transition between the Former and Later Han dynasties. There was an enormous amount of poorly formed and directed religious feeling, especially among common people, that expressed itself in worship of such deities as Xiwang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West.

    China was at least as large as Rome (both around 50 million in total population) and at the very least equally civilized. By all accounts, it was more advanced technologically.

    And “God” ignored it. No Savior. Not even a disciple or two. India got Thomas, according to tradition, though he made little impression there, but China got nothing.

    What more needs to be said to prove that your “God” and your “Christ” are nothing more than human constructions of people who knew no world beyond Rome? Thomas Paine remarked that if indeed Satan took Jesus to a mountaintop and showed him “all the kingdoms of the world,” then “why did his sooty majesty not discover America?” The same applies, with even more force, to China.

    Either the Christian God does not exist, or that being is prejudiced against East Asians. Sorry, there’s no third option.

    And don’t tell me that my petty human reasoning is not adequate to judge the ways of “God.” It’s exactly the same petty human reasoning you appeal to in arguing the reality of “God,” so you’re shooting yourself in the foot by denigrating it.

    Really, you would be scarcely more ridiculous if you venerated the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  14. dan

    I wrestle with my own concept of God, and appreciate the thoughts here. We do know that his works are glorious, at least, and yet we are told to worship and follow Jesus Christ – the most humble of God’s “persons” or offices.

    There’s a pioneer cemetery not far from where I live, in the West, and a grave marker on it for a 7-year-old girl. In those days, they often quoted philosophy or scripture on their gravestones. On this one is carved a quote from the girl: “God knows more about us than we know about him, doesn’t he, Papa?”

  15. Brian

    If you can say nothing about God and fail to define his traits, than what are you really believing in?

    Although you point out the (noted) failure of intellectualizing God, isn’t there a reverse trend when God becomes this vague intellectual concept that many modern theologians have used to defend him against attacks? It’s hard to attack something that is undefined, but it’s also hard to believe it or alter your life in any way based on an unknowable all encompassing paradoxical force/superior being.

    If you known nothing to God, who are you to say what is a “false” theology? It seems traditionally “true” and “false” theologies rested on the concept that God told us about himself through some religious text. Here however once again we are stuck as to which religious text to believe when none offer much objective evidence to prove one is the word of god over another (although many offer a lot of objective evidence as to why some are probably more likely to be false; take founding/history of Mormonism & Scientology for example).

    However, I like this concept of an undefinable God. It shows that we really don’t know. It evokes a sense of doubt and skepticism that prevents someone from using an unquestionable “faith” to promote their private religious ideology in the public sphere. If you don’t really know God, and aren’t too sure of what he is, it’s hard to say for example that he is offended by sodomy and that you should pass a law banning it. The great crimes of humanity seem to come from an unquestionable faith in something (be it religion, a political system, nationalism, etc.), not from an abundance of skepticism.

    “Our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” [Bonhoeffer, 196]

  16. Rachel

    Even as you condemn others for claiming to know something about God, you go on to do exactly that. Your God is – apparently – a Christian, and more specifically, a Catholic God who you recognize as the same God as is found in the Bible.

    My question is, once you have decided that a God actually exists – and this is still very much up for debate – how can you possibly be certain as to which religion is correct in their interpretation, if any? How “dare” you to presume to know with certainty something that is so obviously beyond human comprehension?

  17. KJ

    “Who claims to discern the entire essence of God?”

    Ummm…I can. God is a fiction. A concept invented by men who have a real and tangible need to fill-in the unknowns and unknowables of their existence with something that ties up all the loose ends. Just as the brain fills in the blind spot caused by the optic nerve, so too it fills in the blind spots that we have in our existence. God is paternal and all knowing, because as children our parents fulfill that role unquestionably. A large portion of us never outgrow the need to have that role filled by something, anything. God is narcissistic because we are narcissistic: surely a being more superlative than us in every imaginable way would be more narcissistic.

    In short, we created God in our image, not the reverse. God is our fiction, we his shepherds; anything and everything we can imagine for God is that with which we imbue him. I won’t ever stand before God to say: “This is why you have done these things, Lord, for these reasons that I have explained in my books and sermons” because there isn’t a God to stand before.

  18. Marena

    It was nice for me to find this page of posters who have latitude in their thinking. I thought the previous comments were wonderful, and agreed with most of them.

    I also agree with the author. Unfortunately, I find that the majority of Christians are chained to misguided mindsets; and, cannot seem to recognize that their dogma and God are Not synonomous. It sends them into a tizzy if you ask them to consider/ponder those things separately; as if they’ve been threatend. There’s an emotional knee jerk reaction. Most seem to be more in relationship with their dogmas & beliefs ABOUT God, than with God Himself.

    I went through a severe crisis of faith ten years ago. I figured either I had God wrong, or His word & He were a lie. I wanted to walk away from Him, but could not. I cursed Him, much worse than Job. *cringe* I finally turned to Tozer’s “The Knowledge of the Holy”; C.S. Lewis, and Oswald Chambers for foundational truth; to test my assumptions & what I’d been taught. Back to basics so to speak.

    As Oswald Chambers says, when we go through the dark night (years) of the soul, it is not so much to “learn” about God, but to “unlearn” what we think we know about Him.

    I find now that I have a much more mysterious relationship with God, but a much more real & rich & connected one. A much more alive one. After a lifetime as a believer, I feel like I’m only beginning to have a relationship of wonder & awe with God these last 3 years…and it has nothing to do with the trappings of Christianity and everything to do with just relaxing & leaning into Him, and staying connected.

    I will never understand God. Heck, I don’t understand myself half the time, who am I to think I will Him?

    I’m careful about what books I read because so much has become about self-help & religion & prosperity & success as the goal, and faith/God as a way to get there. The bible is often Cherry Picked to prove one’s case.

    Many try and reduce God, Jesus and/or the bible to an equation…we do that to feel in control & safe, IMO…to try and push away our fears about that which we can not see. Totally understandable. It’s an easier way to live, not to have to question or ponder situations & ourselves; to be so sure of everything. But also much more hollow because the living God is pushed to the edges, if not totally crowded out.

    I know little for sure. I do know people have asked me how I got where I am with God. I tell them to throw out most of what they think they know about God and start over…or at least put the beliefs they do have to rigorous testing. Read C.S. Lewis, Tozer & Chambers. Struggle with your beliefs. These questioners always have excuses…it’s too hard, it takes too much time, why can’t I just give them the shortcut?

    It’s a fearful thing to do, to choose to challenge all you believe. I only did it because my life forced me into it, and even then I still fought. It took me a few years to go thru the tunnel of chaos, unlearn things, wrestle with things…it was exceedingly painful. I can see why people would not want to choose that…I wouldn’t have. So I understand why they want a shortcut…but there isn’t one.

    The other issue, even in writing this, is our earthly language is so limited in explaining the spiritual realm & God, Jesus, & the Holy Spirit. Thus, most of our phraseology comes off hackneyed, because we are grasping at a way to explain the unexplainable presence & experience of God in concrete, earthly terms.

    I feel like I will continue to unlearn things the rest of my life…and to continually challenge my earthly fear in order to open up to the real God. It’s a tension and a peace at the same time.

    I guess that is one thing I believe is true of Him…He is full of paradoxes…He’s not the black/white dichotomy people often try/need to make Him. But with almost all things I think/believe now as it concerns God, I’m willing to be wrong.

    If you’ve managed to slog thru this post, sorry it is soooo long.
    God Bless. See you on the flip side.

  19. Ron

    If we don’t know anything about God, how do we know that he was incarnate 2000 years ago? Or that he “is” love? And do you really believe that flood business?

    Seriously, I’m torn a bit here, since this post at least reflects a degree of Christian humility, something that too many Christians have forgotten about in the last decade or two. And you are willing to acknowledge the irrational nature of Christian belief. What disturbs me is that seeing your beliefs are incompatible with intellect, you choose to dispense with intellect rather than the beliefs. Combine this with the currently fashionable insistence by Christians that society and politics must conform to their norms, and this gets alarming.

    The real danger of false theologies? They’re all false, but people believe them anyway.

  20. conradg

    How do you know that God is even a Christian? The unknowabity of God suggests that this is itself a narcissistic form of self-flattery among those attached to a particular historical tradition.

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  22. Marena

    Ron, I know that I can’t answer your questions fully, but I’ll take a swipe at shedding some light on things…I hope.

    > I’m not a fundamentalist. I believe the bible is quite a mix of apochraphyl, metaphorical & allegorical stories; societal & cultural norms; cautionary tales; amoral historical norms (e.g. stoning); true events; God’s tumultuous relationship with people; wisdom & advice; a witness to Christ’s life & purpose; etc.

    > I don’t believe the bible was meant to teach us about science or the age of the Earth. I trust the scientists for my science.

    > I do not like this toxic relationship between politics and religion. It disturbs me greatly.

    > Obviously, I don’t think I’ve abandoned my intellect for my beliefs; but, from your vantage point I see how it looks that way. My father was an atheist and also in Mensa; so I started dealing with these seemingly incompatible issues in primary school. I’d have preferred a puppy.

    Ron, I would not call God anything other than God. My beliefs are informed by the Christian tradition, yes. While I believe them to be true, I do not think they have a monopoloy on ALL truth.

    Obviously, I’m trying to distill complex issues that I’ve wrestled with since childhood down to bullet points. I know it’s incomplete; but, I hope it adds some clarity and did not muck things up even more. I’m not an expert or authority, these are just my personal views. And I’m still learning…

  23. Tony

    Goodness. I’ll address a few thoughts; don’t feel neglected if I fail to affirm your affirmation or refute your refutation, but I have a toddler at my feet.

    Seeker (and others),
    I don’t mean to imply that no one can say or know anything of God. Specifically I am addressing Protestants who think Church history began when Luther nailed his theses to the door.

    Sunsin,
    You seem to operate from a logic that says: “God must conform to my a priori determinations of his essence, or else he can’t exist.” That’s hardly the spirit of open inquiry. And I wouldn’t say that God has neglected China, as evidenced by the growing Christian movement there that is beginning to give its repressive government the heebie-jeebies. If your beef is that he didn’t start there first, I hope you can understand how silly that sounds.

    Rachel,
    As I said to Seeker, I am not claiming that God cannot be known. I am attacking the notion that he can be defined, especially by sects that have forsaken 1500 years of experience regarding him. As a side note, one doesn’t have to be Catholic to believe in the sacraments and reverence Mary the mother of Christ.

    KJ,
    I think you are absolutely right that we craft images of God in our own images. But I have to dispute your notion that faith is born of a need for comfort. I think the bleeding history of the early Church, when faith was frequently a death sentence, testifies otherwise. And then there are people like me, who came to Christ when we scarcely felt we needed him, and have run from him when we needed him most.

    Ron,
    I have tried to argue the opposite of what you attribute to me, i.e., that faith is incompatible with intellect. What I have instead attempted to suggest is that faith can not be reduced to an intellectual endeavor. This is not only the stumbling block of the modern church, but of many atheists, who assume that only that which can be proven to the senses can be true, which is no less an act of faith than that of the Christian, who believes that some true things cannot be proven with the senses.

    Conrad,
    I don’t believe God is a Christian, but I believe that Christ is God. And that’s hardly narcissistic, because in no way does it reflect well on me.

  24. conradg

    Tony,

    Thanks for clarifying. If you believe Christ is God, this is fine and well. However, if you think Christ is the one and only God/Incarnation/Savior for us here on earth (as most of Christianity teaches), then you are back in narcissistic self-flattery land again. Which is it?

    I was also responding to your attempts to understand the nature of God by looking at such stories in the Bible as Noah’s flood. This approach would imply that God actually did flood the earth and destroy all but Noah and those on his Ark. How do you know this happened, and how do you know God was behind it? I don’t think you do know, you just associate God with the Judeo-Christian tradition because that is how you were probably raised. That tradition is a human attempt to understand God through various mythic stories, it is not the evidence we should look at to see what God’s nature is. In other word, you attempts to understand God seem to presuppose that God is the Judeo-Christian Deity of that tradition, and you look to that tradition’s scriptures as if they are the “evidence” for God we need to ponder. How do you know God is actually defined by these scriptures? Yes, I know you believe, but how do you know, since knowledge rather than belief is the point of your article?

  25. Tony

    Conrad,
    I guess I don’t see how believing in Christ’s divinity is a form of self-flattery. I didn’t invent the dogma, after all.

    I suspect where you and I disagree about knowledge of God is that I don’t confine knowing to that which can be discerned by the senses. Christian belief is predicated on the underlying assumption that we can know by means other than the senses, i.e., by the action of the Holy Spirit, who generates throughout the Christian life epiphanies large and small, all of which go into a category of knowing that cannot be reached by sensory investigation.

    The rationalist and the atheist rejects this out of hand, of course, and for understandable reasons — because all he has known has come to him, so far as he can discern, via the senses. Thus when he hears that there is knowledge to be had by some other means, he naturally rejects the notion. This is akin, however, to a man who has been blind for life, and who has been raised among the blind, asserting that there is no such thing as this mystical “seeing” that the so-called “sighted” claim to engage in.

    In other words, if there is a realm of knowing outside the senses, then naturally we cannot use the senses to test that proposition. This is one dimension of the atheist-faith divide — the faithful claim extra-sensory knowledge, and the faithless argue that their senses detect no such knowledge, and thus that it cannot exist.

  26. Brian

    Tony,

    This evidence that is beyond the senses seems to be completely subjective (all evidence is somewhat subjective, and as such falsifiable truth at least as we know it is based on probability, but we try to use tools and logical framework to determine which evidence is more subjective than others). As long as your claims and confidence in them match the subjective evidence, I don’t think most people would have a problem.

    I think the reference to “self-flattery” described your belief that the dogma you adhere to is correct, over the hundreds of thousands of other dogmas (which it seems if you grew up in a different geo-political-societal framework at a different time in human history you would have a very different dogma), in lack of objective evidence to back that up. The self-flattery is that when you are making a subjective guess you seem overly confident that you are correct for the limited evidence you bring to the table. As such somehow your subjective evidence trumps everyone else (self-flattery).

    Although you may make subjective claims about how much your faith helps you, benefits your life, or just feels right to you deep inside, when you start making more bold claims that objective parts of it are true (e.g: the historical figure Jesus Christ existed as described in the bible and preformed a series of miracles including rising from the dead and also happens to be the God of everything and everyone) requires corresponding objective evidence. Here you make a claim not just about your world, but about our world.

  27. conradg

    Tony,

    I didn’t say that belieiving in Christ’s divinity is self-flattering, but that believing that your chosen Deity is the only God there is, that is self-flattery. It presumes that you are special, that you are one of the few, the saved, the chosen, who know the truth, and all others are sadly mistaken, and on what basis exactly? I am not an atheist – far from it – but I would never presume to think that my chosen path is the only way to God, is the only true God, is the only way to be “saved”. This is the kind of false knowledge you ought to be decrying. You may feel all kinds of great and true things about God. To say God is love is one of those, in my view. But you are merely flattering yourself if you think that you are special enough to know the identity of God and who and what exactly is the way to God. What works for you is fine, but how do you even know this works for you? Again, you are claiming not merely faith, but actual knowledge.

    I don’t reject your faith, but conflating faith with knowledge is one of the biggest abuses of religion there is. It’s the reason why the faithful try not to say much about God himself, because it’s embarrassing how little they actually know about Him. When faith magically affirms one’s own culture and tradition at the expense of everyone else’s, I think we know what is at work here, and it isn’t Godly or good, it’s simply self-flattering narcissism.

  28. Tony

    Brian and Conrad,

    I’ll try to address you both on your shared claim, which I think can be summed up as: You flatter yourself if you think your notion of God, in the face of so many others, is the right one. (Conrad, I hope you’ll forgive me that this is directed more toward Brian and other (seeming) atheists/agnostics, but I think along its rambling route it will address your disagreements as well.)

    I would indeed be engaged in self-flattery had I worked out a set of proofs to arrive at this conceptualization of God myself. But the reality is that I am only beginning to work out a sense of who God is, and this with awareness that my pride and intellect conspire against me. What I know of God is what he has revealed to his Church, not what I discern by virtue of some special acuity. These things cannot be grasped unless one first lays down one’s commitment to self, but even in that I deserve no commendation, because I have been humbled by God, not by my own virtuous effort.

    It seems you begin with the a priori assumption that my experience of God is in error, and thus conclude that I am narcissistic to adhere to it given the equally plausible claims of many other religions (including, as Conrad suggests, many differing self-professed Christians). On objective evidence they are not equally plausible, but there are entire libraries filled with books on that matter. What I’ve tried to express is that the God I experience does not correspond to a bloodthirsty Allah, or the unloving ascetic Buddha, or the schizophrenic Hindi multi-god, or to the various animals, plants, and demon-figures worshipped by Shintoists and their less respectable animist cousins. You believe I am being narcissistic because you have decided a priori that my experience must be wrong, and this by virtue of the fact that other people claim different experiences. Thus the only avenue open to you is to conclude that I have constructed a fantasy based on my own needs, predilections, impressions of myself, etc.

    And yet I can’t deny the presence and experience of God, any more than I can give you an experience of it. I can only tell you that it is not borne of me, for otherwise it would conform more to what I would have it be, it would flatter me rather than mortify me, it would justify my actions rather than condemn them, and it would not daily surprise me with a mixture of grief and joy that words merely obscure. What I’m asking you to accept is that if God is real, and if he is the God revealed to his early Church, and if he is experienced not simply by the senses of fallen man but via a regeneration that he works out in our otherwise dead spirits, then your not experiencing him is insufficient proof of his non-existence.

    What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that in order to be true to your own rationalistic worldivew, you must strip yourself of the notion that God can only exist according to the rules you hold to as a prioris, i.e., that he would be detectable by your present set of senses, that he would manifest himself to you in your skepticism just as readily as he manifests himself to those who have humbled themselves before him, and that he would brook no competiting beliefs that distract people. It’s certainly the case that we may be wrong — I have wrestled with that fear more than once, and any Christian who denies doubting is either lying or only skimming the surface of what it means to put to death our old life. What I’m asking is that you grant the possibility we may be right, i.e., don’t begin with the assumption we must be wrong in order to conclude that we are, well, wrong.

    With that said, I want to correct any impression that I believe Christian faith is based entirely on individual, subjective extrasensory experience. Were that the case, you would indeed be right to label me a narcissist for claiming to know what God really is. What I believe about God, contra the many other world religions (and Brian, I don’t think one can say that there have been “hundreds of thousands” of other dogmas, unless we want to afford every stump-worshipping cult a “dogma,” which distorts the meaning of that term), is based on experience of his presence, yes, but also on his God-breathed scriptures and the teaching of his Spirit-filled (not to be confused with modern Pentacostal nonsense) Church.

    In other words, this God who is love has adored us enough not only to take human form and suffer on earth, not only enough to dwell among us today in his Holy Spirit, but also enough to speak to us through his prophets and apostles, yielding the canon of scriptures we call the Bible (setting aside for now the winnowing subsequently performed by Catholics, and then with greater vigor by Protestants). It’s entirely consistent with a God who loves his people, don’t you think, that he would give us some means of knowing him?

    So what I’m claiming is true about God is simply what was affirmed by his Church during Pentecost and in the centuries to follow, before the errors of papal dominion and sola scriptura began to plague Christian dogma. We cannot, in my view, separate the existence of God from his revelation to his Church. The contents of that revelation, meanwhile, are available to us through scripture, Church tradition, and that most important theological endeavor of all, humble, open prayer.

    So I find myself between Brian, who seems to represent the skeptics who would know nothing of God unless he reveal himself on their terms, and Conrad, who does not assent to the notion that God has revealed enough of himself to allow us to say: “this is true, while that is false.” I by no means believe God’s essence can be delimited by man, but I do believe that we can discern falsity about him, thereby approaching truth.

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  30. Rob

    I can’t help it. I have to say something. While I’m a “live and let live” type of person respecting others belief systems, I can’t help but smile over all the angst involved in the responses to this post.
    Once again, I am so happy in my comfort of being an atheist/deist. Life is so much simpler and happier having more time and attention to ponder subjects that really mean something to me in this life.
    Hey, once again, whatever gets you through the night…
    Faith is just that. It is not “truth”, it is not “proof”.

  31. Whitney

    Can you be both an atheist as well as a deist? Couldn’t resist. Ron, I hope you reflect upon the nature of your existence and if you can do so without angst I envy you!

    Thanks, Tony, for prompting such a lively and thoughtful discussion!

  32. Juliep

    Conrad,

    Don’t you think that, if we follow your logic, you’re being just as narcissistic? You think that there can’t be one way, which is a belief just as much as believing there IS one way. If you think that those that disagree with you on that are “wrong”, you’re in the same boat as Tony. To hold any belief would be “narcissistic” in your view.

  33. conradg

    Tony,

    I understand that your post is perhaps more directed towards Brian than myself, so I’ll adjust as I think is appropriate. First, let me address this (fair) summary you made of our point:

    “You flatter yourself if you think your notion of God, in the face of so many others, is the right one.”

    First, can we agree that God is not a concept, God is a reality – in fact, the Reality? I know Brian would disagree with this, but I think it’s the only sensible way of approaching the subject, regardless of what you believe about God. Your or my or anyone else’s concept of God is not God Himself, and even the concepts passed on in scriptures or the teachings of prophets, incarnations, etc., are forms of concepts, words, ideas, not direct knowledge of God (at least to us). The problem here, as with narcissism in general, is a conflation of concepts with reality.

    One of the simplest ways of understanding narcissism is that it’s the substitution of inflated concepts about oneself for the basic reality of oneself. Narcissism then extends this approach to the world by substituting one’s concepts about the world for the reality of the world, as if they are the same, and ignoring any differences which might upset one’s concepts. In religion, it is the substitution of a concept about God for the Reality of God, especially in the form of a projected image of oneself (Voltaire’s criticism that man has created God in his own image). In all cases, concepts in the mind become more important than the reality the concepts are supposed to be passively describing. People form concepts about God that may have little or no relation to God Himself, but they hold onto those concepts as if they are God, and defend those concepts through “faith”. This kind of “faith” is little more than narcissism itself, a belief in one’s own chosen or inherited concepts, not actual knowledge of God.

    So when I criticize your claim to knowledge or faith as narcissistic, it is because you seem to have fallen in love with various concepts about God, rather than God Himself. Though you continue to avoid the question directly, you seem to regard all other religions as either false or inferior to your own. You consider Christ to be the one and only way to truth. To be fair, this is of course one of the basic tenets of Christianity. The question is, first, is this true, and even if it actually were true, do you know that it is true, or have you just fallen in love with certain self-flattering concepts. Narcissists conveniently think that their ideas are the best and truest ones out there, regardless of what the evidence or reason might indicate. You can’t really argue with a narcissist – they have a rationalizaiton for everything they believe, but it always comes down to their ideas being right. And the same is true of some many people’s religious views – you can’t really argue with them, they just “know” that they have the one and only true religion.

    That said, I do not assume, as you assert, that your experience of God is in error. It may be, but I don’t assume it. What I suggest is that you have turned your experience and concepts of God into a narcissistic self-affirming echo-chamber that distorts not only the reality of your experience, but of the world around you, and of other people’s experience. You inflate the value of your own experience, and deflate the value of others, until you arrive at the conclusion that only your own particular religious tradition is true, and all others are false or inferior. Examine this rather classic narcissistic assertion:

    “What I’ve tried to express is that the God I experience does not correspond to a bloodthirsty Allah, or the unloving ascetic Buddha, or the schizophrenic Hindi multi-god, or to the various animals, plants, and demon-figures worshipped by Shintoists and their less respectable animist cousins. “

    In the first place, my I point out just how distorted and inaccurate this description of these religions is? Buddha loveless and ascetic? Are you kidding? Do you actually know anything about Buddhism, or the tradition of fathomless compassion that is virtually the definition of Buddhahood? Likewise, are you in any sense aware that Buddha taught what he called “the Middle Way” that refuses all extremes, such as asceticism and self-indulgence? Or, for that matter, that Christ taught what could from a modern perspective be called a highly ascetical approach – abandon your family, take up the cross and follow me? How can you call Hinduism schizophrenic, when you yourself describe a triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Do you actually know anything about these religions? It appears not. And then, you condemn Islam for having a bloodthirsty God, Allah, while ignoring that the Judeo-Christian God the Father (Yahweh), is also a bloodthirsty God who wrecks horrible vengence and demands the slaughter of innocent men, women and children as retribution for vague slights, or for merely believing in a different God? Allah is of course based on the same God, Yahweh, which is why they are so similar in nature.

    Now, clearly you have your own concept of God, based I hope to some degree on expereince, but that’s all it is, a concept that you have elevated to some narcissistic level of superiority without feeling any need to actually demonstrate that superiority, and assuming of course that God Himself is actually into this game of creating exclusive superiority over others. This is even contradicted by some of the basic tenets of Jesus’ teaching, such as that God’s love falls on all equally, not on some more favorably than others. All religions have their faults, of course, but the fault of the Judeo-Christian-Islam tradition weighs heavily on the side of narcissistic, aggressive assertions of exclusivity, or “monotheism”, which have made this highly aggressive, intolerant approach to other religions seem natural, when it is not.

    “What I’m asking you to accept is that if God is real, and if he is the God revealed to his early Church, and if he is experienced not simply by the senses of fallen man but via a regeneration that he works out in our otherwise dead spirits, then your not experiencing him is insufficient proof of his non-existence.”

    I would certainly accept that God is real, based on own my experience, and the records of millions of people from religions all around the world, but I do not accept the notion that God is uniquely revealed by Jesus to the early Christian Church. Nor do I accept the notion that any man’s spirit is dead or “fallen”. I do not accept the notion that God is equal to any of the notions of any particular religious tradition. He may be, but I have no knowledge of that, and I sincerely doubt that you have any actual knowledge about that either, especially in light of how little you actually know about any tradition, even your own. What you descibe as “faith” in your tradition’s superiority seems like narcissistic self-agrandizement. And unnecessary to boot. If your tradition comes at least at root from God, why isn’t that enough? Why this need to make it the one and only true path, and denigrate everyone else’s? Well, narcissism requires that of you. Keeping up the narcissistic self-image is hard work, and ends up requiring that the narcissist be at odds with the entire world, except for those who support his narcissisitic concepts.

    All of that leaves God where He originally was – Unknown. My view is that it’s best to put one’s concepts aside when approaching God. Take off one’s shoes, so to speak. Leave your concepts at the door. Use them when necessary, where necessary, but do not confuse them with God himself.

    As for this:

    “I find myself between Brian, who seems to represent the skeptics who would know nothing of God unless he reveal himself on their terms, and Conrad, who does not assent to the notion that God has revealed enough of himself to allow us to say: “this is true, while that is false.””
    When you refer to God revealing Himself, I assume you are talking about Christian scripture, so yes, those are concepts about God, descriptions by men of their experiences of one particular God and one particular Incarnation/Prophet, so no, I would not consider that sufficient in itself to make declarations about God Himself. One can draw conclusions only about a particular view of God from that tradition, but God Himself is not limited to that tradition, or the concepts within it. God has revealed himself through thousands of traditions, through milliions and millions of people, each in a slightly or even hugely different way. This is because God is simply the Reality at the core of every one and every thing. I have no problem with anyone who choses any of those paths or traditions and submits to its truth and it’s view of God, as long as they do so in genuine humility, and appreciation of all the other approaches to reality, including science and atheism even, and not with narcissisitic self-images projected upon oneself and the world and God.

  34. conradg

    Juliep,

    No, I don’t think it’s narcissistic of me to suggest that Tony doesn’t know that his traditon is the one and only true way. I can’t say for sure that there is one and only one true way, or that there isn’t such a thing, or what that way would be, but that doesn’t make me a pushover for everyone who claims to know the one and only true way. I can still be highly skeptical of those making such claims, especially in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. It’s certainly possible to be narcissistically adamant that there is no one true way, but I think I’ve avoided that.

    For the record, my views do admit the idea that there could be only “one true way”, but only in the general sense, not in some particular, historical sense. In other words, I would consider the possiblity that love is the one true way, but I would not give much credence to the notion that “loving Christ” or “loving Krishna” is the one true way.

  35. Johnny

    Thoughtful, engaged atheists are invaluable to believers. The atheist will call bullshit on the insidious anthropomorphizing and arrogance of us believers. An atheist can identify any god I’ve manufactured in “my” image while I’m still blissfully blind and on my knees at worship.

    No offense to committed atheists, but I suspect that their questions and challenges may bring them closer to the truly holy than us “faithful” types ordinarily ever get.

  36. Catherine

    In all these posts, I saw nothing saying that one could come to a knowledge of God and his attributes through patiently, humbly and sincerely ASKING Him for such knowledge. Isn’t He the best source? Are the only people able to receive knowledge from God Hebrews who lived millennia ago?

  37. Tony

    Conrad,

    I’ll do my best to unpack what you’re saying, because I think you’ve committed some subtle but significant logical errors. I’ll break this into sections to do so, so I hope you’ll excuse any possible disjointedness.

    Narcissism:
    I agree that there can be gaps between the reality of God and our conceptualization of him. Some theologians distinguish between his Essence and his energies (the working out in our world of his Essence) in that way. I also accept your definition of Voltairean narcissism, that we are prone to conceptualize God in our own image. Recognize the logical danger here, however, insofar as the Abrahamic faiths teach that God has crafted man in his image. Thus as we approach truth about God, we are bound to articulate it in a manner that leaves us vulnerable to the charge of crafting him in our image.

    I think you make a logical error, however, when you charge me with narcissism on the grounds that I “seem to have fallen in love with various concepts about God, rather than God Himself.” This would only be narcissism, by your own definition, if I have manufactured these concepts with which I am enamored, or selected them because they suit my self-conception. I daresay none of us can evaluate another’s psyche that way. Given that Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic) dogma teaches that man is crafted in the image of God, it seems you have the convenient ability to charge any of its adherents with narcissism whenever it suits you.

    Unique truth of Christianity:
    I think you ask the right questions of the Christian. First, is what he believes true? Second, did he arrive at truth rightly? In other words, does he embrace this dogma because he is convicted of its truth and therefore will hold to it despite all peril to himself? Or does he embrace it because, as you accuse me, it suits his inflated sense of self? I’m afraid we’re at an impasse on narcissism, because I contend that you can’t divine the reasons a person embraces Christian dogma, while you insist that a narcissist will have a rationalization for everything. Thus does any adherent to an Abrahamic dogma stand doubly convicted in your court: first because he ascribes to God characteristics that evoke mankind, and second because he persists in arguing for his position.

    Moving forward in your argument, I am sensitive to your claim that I “inflate the value of [my] own experience, and deflate the value of others.” Yet as you imply earlier, a Christian has no choice but to do so. Christian dogma is well established on the points that Christ is the way, truth and life; that he is the Son of God, equal in power and glory; that he has established one Church; that the Holy Spirit of God rained down on that Church during Pentecost, and so on. These tenets thereby render false the Jewish teaching that no Messiah has come, the Islamic teaching that Christ was merely a man, the proto-Gnosticism of Buddhism, etc.

    You can rightly counter that I base my belief on experience that I can’t justify as being more “true” than the experience of the Muslim or Buddhist. I have not been clear enough that I do not stake my claim on experience alone. I believe the scriptures of the Torah and the accounts of the Apostles, the experience and testimony of the Church, and the coherence of Christian dogma with observable facts about mankind’s existence all point toward truth where other religions founder. You can read various scrolls from which the Biblical canon is derived in order to arrive at a judgment about their internal reliability. Where is the so-called “unchanging” document of Islam? What historian insists with a straight face that anything can be reliably said about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, except that 400 years after the fact his adherents cobbled together some teachings that claim to point to a means of transcendence? Can anyone argue that compared to the multitude of variegated teachings surrounding Hinduism, that the hopelessly schismatic Christian Protestant domain is a font of coherent unity by comparison?

    Entire treatises exist on the relative merits of various religions, so I’ll only address your immediate points:

    Buddhism:
    I don’t question the philanthropic actions of many Buddhists. I referred to the “unloving ascetic Buddha” without explaining that I mean by this that the Buddhist teaching of transcendence above suffering is selfish. We suffer because we need, and if we do not need we cannot be loved. The Buddhist is taught an asceticism that draws him away from his suffering self into some ill-defined Absolute. There is no Other in this conceptualization (as I understand it). The Christian’s asceticism is a humbling of self so that he might draw closer to his Father in heaven. Whereas Buddhism teaches that suffering is to be transcended, Christ teaches that suffering is to be embraced. The former is self-oriented, the latter is other-oriented. In practice, to be sure, a great many Buddhists achieve a level of peacefulness that is manifested in their kindness to others. Too many Christians, on the other hand, caught up in the “Me-and-Jesus” mentality of American Christianity in particular, exhibit no such kindness. I think we have to separate the dogma from the practice, however.

    Hinduism:
    Surely you grasp the difference between the doctrine of Trinity and the disparate collection of Hindu doctrines that variously worship Vishnu, Brahman, Shiva, Brahma, an assortment of Devas, all alongside themselves as demigods in training. Christian dogma holds to a single essence and substance of God, albeit a God in three forms. The tripartite nature might be confusing, but we shouldn’t let that confusion lead to the error of equivocating it with the panoply of Hindu divinities.

    Islam:
    You are certainly right that Yahweh commanded the wholesale destruction of tribes opposed to his people, or occupying land he wanted his people to possess. But Christian dogma teaches as well of God who became incarnate that he might suffer with his people, and who likewise teaches compassion and mercy. Where is Islamic compassion toward sinners? While we find in the Bible a historic progression toward peace as Christ sought death that death might be thwarted, we find the opposite in the Koran, from early passages advocating peace to later passages cited by Islamofascists to justify cutting off heads and blowing up schoolchildren.

    Exclusivity of God:
    Your argument appears in part that God does not demand exclusivity. In short, many religions are simply mankind’s grappling toward a Reality that they can scarcely understand. This evokes C.S. Lewis’s claim that the religions of the world reflect the fact that man made in the image of his Creator has a dream of that Creator imprinted on his psyche.

    I think it would be a cruel God indeed, however, who when faced with the yearning of his people for revelation, remains silent. A loving God who has crafted man in his image and who has seen his creation fall into self-destruction therefore reveals himself. Love necessitates his incarnation, and an abiding presence, and suffering. No other religion teaches this view of God as a suffering servant, and yet it is most consonant with our understanding of love. You stated earlier that God is love, and Christ is the physical pinnacle of that love.

    Voltairean narcissism:
    I’d like to turn the tables on you now. Your contention appears to be that the various world religions point toward a God whose existence you acknowledge, yet you reject their dogmas because they demand exclusivity. This seems the height of the very narcissism of which you accuse me. You claim to peer into the dogmas of the world’s religions and extract from them a meta-truth about God, while at the same time rejecting the particulars of those dogmas. Thus does God become a non-judgmental, transcendent being who is so mysterious that most people are bound to be wrong about him. Except for you, of course, and a few other children of enlightenment and science who are too non-judgmental and transcendent to be caught up in the messiness of dogmatic claims. So who is fashioning God in his own image?

  38. conradg

    Tony,

    You have a valid point that the Abrahamic faiths see man as being created in God’s image, and thus according to that logic it would be natural for man to see God as being like himself in many respects, thus negating aspects of the narcissism charge. However, asserting this is not the same as showing that it is actually true. In fact, this aspect of the Abrahamic tradition suggests rather strongly that this entire tradition is very much a narcissistic corruption of God, in that it creates the classic circular argument that admits no possible contradiction which is the central logical fallacy of narcissism. I’d suggest that wherever one finds this kind of circular, self-asserting logic immune to contradiction, one find narcissism. That the Abrahamic faiths are based to some serious degree on such a narcissistic structure of logic is not a very good argument in their favor, but it does explain rather well how they have both embraced high ideals while at the same time engaging in horrific corruptions and debasements of both religion and morality throughout their histories. Narcissistic logic and rationalization allows this with impugnity.

    You are on better ground when you criticize me for charging your personally with narcissism, in that I don’t know you and can’t read your own heart and mind. I hope you understand that I don’t pretend to, I am just reading your arguments as you write them, and I characterize them as narcissistic because they follow the pattern of narcissistic arguments. They are circular, revolving around your own chosen beliefs, and they try to justify themselves not by referring accurately to the world outside your beliefs, but by referring either to those beleifs themselves, or to a distorted picture of the world outside your beliefs. I don’t need to know what your motives are to call that narcissistic, it’s just that it fits all the basic criteria of narcissism, so I don’t see how the word is misapplied. I of course am not saying that you have invented Christianity and its dogmas, only that you are clearly attracted to the narcissistic features of that tradition, and embrace its narcissism whole-heartedly, rather than discriminate between its narcissism and its spiritually healthy aspects.

    The notion, for instance, that you are required to believe in all of Christianity, including it’s exclusive and circular self-rationalizations, simply isn’t true. There’s no Inquisition anymore to enforce any kind of all-or-nothing official version of Christianity, so what you embrace you embrace freely, and what you reject or ignore you do so freely as well. Certainly there are all kinds of interpretations a Christian would be free to make that could avoid the narcissism which has plagued the Abrahamic faiths over the milennia, and which remain in my view their main problem. As you note with Islamic fundamentalism, there remain highly dangerous and violent strains of this tradition which are more potently stoked with narcissistic rationalizations than your own. That certainly makes you better than such extremists, but not necessarily free of the problem itself.

    In other words, you could certainly embrace the most positive elements of Christianity, while not embracing its narcissistic claim to be the one and only true religion that worships the true God in his fullness. Many Christians do just that. That you do not suggests that you actually chose to embrace the narcissism that Christianity offers its adherents by choice, rather than by force of either logic or politics.

    In this vein, you ask:

    “Thus does any adherent to an Abrahamic dogma stand doubly convicted in your court: first because he ascribes to God characteristics that evoke mankind, and second because he persists in arguing for his position?”

    There is no crime in arguing for one’s position, but there is a difference between making an argument and offering actual proof that one’s argument is true. What evidence is there that God possesses human characteristics? In your case, the argument is circular, because it depends on the very people whom your relied upon in making the argument in the first place: those who wrote the scriptures you consider authoritative. But these scriptures are of course not authoritative outside of their own world of believers, and they have no proof to offer that is convincing in the wider world. In fact, the overwhelming evidence of so many other religions is itself a virtually iron-clad refutation of the claim. If men are created in God’s image, and thus need only refer to their own characteristics to describe God, would not all religions describe the same God, the one who created us? That is the very argument you are offering that your own mind and beliefs about God are correct, because your mind and beliefs were given to you by God. And yet, the world is full of people who one presumes were also created by God just as you were, and yet believe completely different things, not only different from you, but from one another. Many are very familiar with the “revelations” of your God, and yet they do not recognize that revelation as you do, but insist on many other revelations that either contradict or deeply diverge from your own.

    “Moving forward in your argument, I am sensitive to your claim that I “inflate the value of [my] own experience, and deflate the value of others.” Yet as you imply earlier, a Christian has no choice but to do so.”

    No, a Christian is still a free man, even if he wishes not to be, and can freely reject the narcissistic temptation to inflate his own tradition and deflate others. He can certainly consider Jesus to be a genuine revelation of God, without slighting all the other revelations of God as being inferior or false. Many Christians do in fact take this view. I know such people personally. It is the narcissistic Christian who takes the view that only his religion is the best and truest of all, or the only truth. That Christian dogma has long ago settled on the fundamentalist tenets of the narcissistic believer is a very strong against both their truth and their Divine origins. It suggest rather strongly that they are false, and that they originate from egoically driven men, not saints and genuine prophets.

    “These tenets thereby render false the Jewish teaching that no Messiah has come, the Islamic teaching that Christ was merely a man, the proto-Gnosticism of Buddhism, etc.”

    Of course they do, taken in themselves, rather than critiqued as clearly false in themselves, as the product of narcissistic self-inflation and circular rationalization. Isn’t it clear that your own investigations of other religions, as revealed in the hopelessly ignorant and distorted descriptions of their views, were undertaken not to gain genuine understanding of God or truth through them, but only to find reasons to reject them as inferior to your own religion? I mean, come on, it’s clear that you understand next to nothing about these religions, and simply distort them to suit your own narcissistic purpose of inflating your own religion and keeping the circular rationalizations going full speed ahead.

    “You can read various scrolls from which the Biblical canon is derived in order to arrive at a judgment about their internal reliability.”

    Of course you can, because anything that might seem to contradict itself you can simply ignore, since you are doing so in order to affirm, rather than to find out whether it is actually true. The actual scholarly studies of the Bible show that it is litered with contradictions and unreliable sources, which the faithful simply ignore because they value faith over facts.

    “Where is the so-called “unchanging” document of Islam?”
    Obviously, it’s the Koran. You can certainly argue that the Koran has changed to some degree, but quite a lot less than the Bible. At least the Koran was written by a single author, and published in his lifetime. The Old Testament was written by hundreds of unknown authors who cannot verify its accuracy even as a document. And the New Testament was of course written many decades and even centuries after its subject, Jesus, had died, and he himself left no writings behind at all. The belief that the NT is the exact “word of God” is also clearly a narcissistic fantasy created to rationalize belief in it, rather than a factually accurate statement.

    “ What historian insists with a straight face that anything can be reliably said about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, except that 400 years after the fact his adherents cobbled together some teachings that claim to point to a means of transcendence?”

    Again, this shows your literal ignorance of these traditions. The historicity of the Buddha is proven beyond any shadow of the doubt, unlike with Jesus, for whom there is no historical corroborration outside the Christian tradition itself. Buddha was famous in India at the time, and there is a great deal of historical record to show his earthly life and teachings with some degree of reliability. His oral teachings, likewise, were passed on with considerable reliability and are considered to reflect his actual teachings with a minimum of distortion, due to the remarkable traditions of oral memorization in India at that time. While there is certainly some controversy over what his life was like before he became a teacher (the traditional “Life of the Buddha” is clearly something of a teaching parable, rather than a genuine biography), there is little doubt about the facts of his life once he began to achieve prominence as a teacher.

    “Can anyone argue that compared to the multitude of variegated teachings surrounding Hinduism, that the hopelessly schismatic Christian Protestant domain is a font of coherent unity by comparison?”

    I would agree there, in that Hinduism is not a single religion, but a collection of thousands of religions under a basic umbrella of philosophical tolerance which is unmatched by anything within the Christian tradition of internal warfare and hatred. Nonetheless, the actual acheivement of unity within Hinduism is much greater than that found within Christianity, which tries to enforce unity by both physical force and narcissistic authoritarianism. In that sense, Hinduism is clearly superior to Christianity, both in dogma and in practice.

    “I referred to the “unloving ascetic Buddha” without explaining that I mean by this that the Buddhist teaching of transcendence above suffering is selfish.”

    This is odd, in that Buddhism is founded on the insight that there is no self at all, and that penetrating the illusion of selfhood is key to achieving freedom from egotism and thus suffering. So to a Buddhist, “selfishness” is the very thing to be rejected, not embraced. Clearly, you know next to nothing about Buddhism but some stupid prejudices someone at a Christian revival meeting told you about, and you somehow accepted as true. Now, you can of course argue that you don’t like Buddhist teachings, but you cannot argue that Buddhism is somehow loveless, either doctrinally or in practice. To do so is to betray a fundamental ignorance and stupidity on your part, and even an inability to recognize love in any form that does not conform to your own Christian self-image of what love actually is. Yes, embrace suffering if you think that is what love is, but don’t presume it is the only path of love there is. There are many ways to practice love, and Buddhism is one of those ways.

    “Surely you grasp the difference between the doctrine of Trinity and the disparate collection of Hindu doctrines that variously worship Vishnu, Brahman, Shiva, Brahma, an assortment of Devas, all alongside themselves as demigods in training. Christian dogma holds to a single essence and substance of God, albeit a God in three forms. The tripartite nature might be confusing, but we shouldn’t let that confusion lead to the error of equivocating it with the panoply of Hindu divinities.”

    Again, you fail to understand anything about Hinduism. Hindus of course allow for an infinite number of “faces” of God, but they understand all of them to exist as simply manifestations of the single, unmanifest, unspeakable, infinite Brahman, the underlying reality of all manifestation. So Hinduism also believes in a single “essence” to God, even to every possible manifestation of God, such that it can even see Jesus and Christianity as one of those manifestations, just as true as all the others, but no better than the others. There certainly does exist within Hinduism principle that correspond to the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity, such as Brahman corresponding to the Christian God the Father, all the various Avatars (which literally means, “descent of the Divine”) as representing the born Son of God, and the all-pervasive Shakti which is alive and animating the world and even the body as corresponding to the Holy Spirit. And much more as well. It’s not really as disorganized and random as you might think, and it actually makes more sense, frankly, than the Christian dogma. It certainly does not need to assert that there is only one valid Avatar, or God, or “face” to the Divine, but finds room for all of them, even those that did not originate on the Indian Subcontinent. Thus, it is a far less narcissistic tradition than the Abrahamic one, and it does not insist that man was creating in God’s image.

    As for Islam, this is one of my least favorite religions, in part because of the extreme narcissism that it tends to perpetuate. However, there are certainly many great and good traditions within Islam, the Sufis in particular, for whom the love of God and tolerance towards men was paramount. I would grant than in general Islam is on a lower footing than Christianity, but there are still plenty of Christians who are far worse than a lot of Moslems.

    “Your argument appears in part that God does not demand exclusivity.”

    Yes, it certainly does not appear that he does. It is men of a certain narcissistic character who demand exclusivity, and they project that demand on God, as if he had willed it to be so. The Abrahamic tradition has been made and shaped by men of this type, but it is not the general rule of religions to behave in this manner. Most do not. But clearly, it is a successful path for some to take, even if it creates a great deal of strife in the world as a result. By destroying opposition, and enforcing uniformity within their own ranks, such religions achieve great force and dominance. But in doing so they more resemble military forces rather than religions of God. Islam and Christianity in particular have devoted themselves to the militant aggressor model of religion, even when they are not engaged in actual warfare, and they assume that this is God’s will, when in reality it is man’s will being expressed, and then projected on God.

    “I think it would be a cruel God indeed, however, who when faced with the yearning of his people for revelation, remains silent. A loving God who has crafted man in his image and who has seen his creation fall into self-destruction therefore reveals himself.”

    Yes, I agree, but why do you imagine that God has been silent, except for the one life of Jesus? Or the stories of the Bible? God has been speaking to man from time immemorial, and man has been responding, creating all kinds of religious traditions that reflect that Grace. To imagine that only one of those tradition is true, is real, or comes from God, is simply a narcissistic indulgence in egotism, not a loving and open-hearted appreciation of God’s Grace.

    “No other religion teaches this view of God as a suffering servant, and yet it is most consonant with our understanding of love. You stated earlier that God is love, and Christ is the physical pinnacle of that love.”

    There are plenty of religions which teach views of God as a suffering servant to mankind, Christianity is just one of many. To claim that Christ is the physical pinnacle of love is, again, just a narcissistic claim with no evidentiary validity. There are countless figures from all kinds of other religions who display extraordinary love and self-sacrificing service to mankind, not just Jesus. I would never put Jesus down, but neither would I elevate him above all the others. I feel confident that he would not do so either. Christians, on the other hand, seem addicted to this kind of narcissistic “better than you”, even on the matter of love itself, which is such a stunning contradiction not just in principle, but in the actual practice of love, which is incompatible with notions of inferior and superior, as Jesus himself taught.

    “I’d like to turn the tables on you now. Your contention appears to be that the various world religions point toward a God whose existence you acknowledge, yet you reject their dogmas because they demand exclusivity. This seems the height of the very narcissism of which you accuse me.”

    Fair enough, but is it actually narcissism to say that God is not narcissistic, and does not condone narcissism? I think you’re just looking for a legal loophole, some way of wiggling out of the accusation of narcissism, by reducing it to a logical fallacy. But narcissism is not a logical issue at root, it’s a very human behavioral problem that manifests in all kinds of very ugly patterns of thought and behavior. On the cultural level, it manifests as racism, ethnicism, religious bigotry, authoritarianism, and delusions of grandeur. Am I guilty of such things in my arguments? I don’t think so. So whatever narcissism I may exhibit is pretty mild.

    Now, as for the notion that I am projecting upon God some kind of narcissism-free psyche that He may not actually possess, this I can’t say for sure. But I can say that if God is indeed a narcissist who demands exclusive fealty to some particular religious tradition and sends the rest of us to hell, I’d rather be a heretic or even an atheist and take my chances in hell. If that makes me a narcissist, then why would I reject God because he’s a narcissist in the first place?

    All of which goes to say, the burden is not really on me to prove that God is not a Christian, or some other form of exclusive narcissist, it’s on you, or the Muslims, or whomever, to prove that he is a narcissist, and that his chosen form of narcissism is Christianity, or Islam, etc. I don’t think you can do that, which is my original point. Seeing that you can’t prove the truth of your exclusive path, even to yourself, but must merely believe instead, what meaning does it have to assert it? Do you think God is impressed by your making assertions of things you really don’t know about? Don’t you think he’d be much more impressed if you humbly admitted you just don’t know what the truth is, but that you love Him anyway?

    “You claim to peer into the dogmas of the world’s religions and extract from them a meta-truth about God, while at the same time rejecting the particulars of those dogmas. Thus does God become a non-judgmental, transcendent being who is so mysterious that most people are bound to be wrong about him.”

    I’m not saying what God is, only what God isn’t. I’m certainly saying that God isn’t a narcissist, that he loves all equally, and selflessly, and he wants us to do the same. I could be wrong there, but I’d rather be wrong and stick to that viewpoint than be right on anything else. Likewise, I’m not rejecting the particulars of any path, except those particulars which claim narcissistic exclusivity and superiority. In other words, love Christ to your heart’s content, but renounce the idea (because it’s just an idea) that Christ is the only vehicle for God’s love to be known by you or anyone else. If that is hard to do, it’s because narcissistic habits are hard to break. But if you are serious about love, our narcissistic habits must be broken, because they prevent the realization of love. That is why Christians need to learn to give up this sort of exclusive nonsense, because it actually prevents them from fulfilling the primary directive of Christianity itself, to love God and love others as one’s very self.

    “Except for you, of course, and a few other children of enlightenment and science who are too non-judgmental and transcendent to be caught up in the messiness of dogmatic claims. So who is fashioning God in his own image?”

    Yes, right, I’m just as bad as you, which is the rationalization you are looking for in order to continue on with your religious fantasies, right? Why not get over yourself, and look at the actual pattern of your approach to religion, and see if this narcissism really seems like love to you, if being convinced that you have the one and only true God who can save the world is really what love is about, or if it’s actually an obstruction to love.

  39. Tony

    Conrad,

    It’s strange that you are in the grip of this cobbled-together God of love, and yet you call me names.

    I don’t see much fruitfulness in unpacking your evolving definition of “narcissist” further. We may as well substitute “idiot” everywhere you use it; I think that would be more faithful to your point and your tone.

    I think it would be helpful, however, to tease out your misuse of the term “circular logic.” I think what you mean to say is that you dispute the evidence on which Christian dogma is based: a combination of scripture and historical testimony of the Church. You make the curious assertion that “these scriptures are of course not authoritative outside of their own world of believers,” which raises the obvious question: what body of evidence is authoritative outside its circle of believers?

    By your logic all is false unless you choose to believe it. If you decided that Sir Walter Raleigh did not in fact visit Guyana, that the historical accounts were fabricated, and that he himself was a charlatan, then anyone who pointed to those historical accounts would be engaging in what you call “circular logic.”

    That’s a bit circular, if you think about it.

    As for the religions we’ve discussed at a surface level, I don’t claim to be an expert, but you might recheck your references regarding the authorship of the Koran and existence of its original manuscript, as well as the novel notion that Brahman and the variegated Hindi pantheon are somehow akin to the Trinity in conceptualization. As for selfless Buddhism, what is the motivation for freeing oneself from suffering, if not a self-orientation? I encourage you as you dabble in these texts to apply the same scrutiny that I presume you apply to Christian texts. Consider, for example, how you let four centuries evolve between Siddhartha’s life and the first setting-down of his supposed teachings, yet you reject out of hand the differently authored yet cohesive Apostolic accounts of Christ set down within decades of his execution.

    I believe the difference between us is that I have committed myself to a dogma because I am convinced that it is true, despite beginning as a rationalistic atheist, whereas you embrace whatever suits your a priori sense of what God and truth ought to be. You begin with your own sensibilities, and then accuse me of staking my claims on what flatters me. If you knew anything of my hazardous walk with Christ, you might reconsider your evaluation. When I meditate on Christ I see how twisted and broken I am with sin, and I am humbled that he would cover me with grace nonetheless.

    It would be a far easier life if I could in good faith choose a little oneness with the great Absolute from Buddhism, wiggle my toes in the Divine Ground of Brahman, toss in a dash of loving Mother Gaia, and wrap it all up in a non-judgmental all-affirming Deity who loves me no matter what I do. You can accuse me of being errant in my choice of dogma, but I believe it’s unfair to accuse me of choosing it because it suits my sense of self. My walk with Christ has been one of redefinition and denial of self. The walk you seem to subscribe to, on the other hand, appears to be self-affirming. Jesus is whoever you want him to be, such that you can be certain he would agree with you, that he would not elevate himself above others, despite reports that he said precisely the opposite. He agrees with you because Buddha/Vishnu/Brahman/Allah says he does, if any of them exist at all, not that it matters.

  40. conradg

    Tony,

    Calling you a narcissist is not calling you a name, it’s describing your arguments. Narcissists are not idiots, they can be very smart people. Practicing love does not mean refraining from criticizing others. And suggesting that my approach is “non-judgmental” is clearly nonsense, in that I am very clearly judging you as a narcissist. That you take it as merely a negative attack, rather than an attempt to get you to see yourself more clearly and become free of your own narcissism, is just part of the same pattern.

    In regards to your arguments against applying circular logic to the claims of the Gospels, you bring up an issue of whether we should believe the arguments that Raleigh visiting Guyana. I’m not familiar with that controversy, but I would assume there are actual eye-witnesses to this visit, and some kind of evidence backing them up. Such eye-witnesses and supporting evidence does not exist in the case of the life of Jesus. The gospels were not written by people who had met Jesus, and they do not quote any witnesses who had. So there is no first hand evidence for their version of this story, and no actual confirmation that Jesus even existed. I don’t personally question that he lived, but the absence of such evidence puts all the accounts of his life in the Gospel in serious question. Christians choose to believe in the Gospels not because the evidence is independently convincing, but because their faith requires it. To refer back to the Gospels themselves as proof that he lived and taught the things cited there is certainly circular logic , and no more convincing than referring to the story of Genesis as proof that God created the earth in six days.

    But that is not central to the issue at hand. I am not really attacking the historicity of Jesus or the Gospels, I’m attacking the claim that Jesus is the one and only true revelation of God, and that other religions are false and do not originate from God, which you say is central to Christianity and which I say can rather easily be dispensed with. You keep avoiding addressing this issue, and keep bringing up peripheral matters in an effort to confuse the matter and make claims that I am being unfair. You suggest that all “authority” is a matter of belief, because this also confuses the issue and tries to make a level playing field, as if a scientist measuring the age of rocks is relying on belief just as much as a Christian citing the Genesis account. This simply is not true, any way you spin it. Evidence does not require belief, just intelligent evaluation. If you can provide some kind of evidence that Christianity is God’s sole vehicle for the highest truth, please, let me see it. But all you point to is the claims made in the Bible itself, which have no independent validity we can confirm. You are claiming knowledge of what God feels is best and truest when you have no evidence to support it. Instead, you rely on your own narcissistic belief in your own ability to know God’s heart, and to affirm after some kind of long struggle that Christianity is the one true way, and other ways are false, because Christian scripture assertts that this to be true, and you agree. Pardon me if I find this nothing more than a circular narcissistic claim, but you offer no reason why anyone should think otherwise.

    As for other religions, I don’t claim that an orginal copy of the Koran exists, only that it was certainly written by Mohammed and passed along with in a fashion that is less prone to change than the Old and New Testaments. Whether God actually dictated it to Mohammed is another matter entirely. And yes, I’m aware of the scholarly issues involved, but also state with some certainty that they are less pronounced a problem than the scholarly issues with the Bible. In regards to the Pali Canon, there was more time elapsed before it was written down than with the NT, but the oral tradition of India at the time (and even today) was an extraordinarily accurate one. Their methods of memorization were geared towards a remarkably faithful recitation of texts and teachings, and there simply isn’t much doubt that they accurately reflect the Buddha’s teachings. With the early Christians, no such tradition existed, and instead there was a very loose and informal passing around of quotations and stories which were later edited together into the synoptic gospels, which recent discoveries have shown were just some among many forms of Christian teaching and history extent at the time. No such body of competing scriptures existed among the earliest Buddhists, though there are many claims that the Buddha taught certain things which were never passed down at all, but “recovered” by other means by later teachers, such as the Mahayana and tantric teachings. But this is acknowledged by most as merely a ruse by later teachers wishing to attribute their evolution of the Buddhist teachings back to Buddha himself, when they are clearly from a later period. But again, this is hardly the point. The issue does not matter in evaluating whether Buddhism or Christianity is superior to the other, in that a faithfully transcribed teaching which is false is not superior to a historically inaccurate teaching that is true.

    You ask, for example, “As for selfless Buddhism, what is the motivation for freeing oneself from suffering, if not a self-orientation?” The motivation in much of Buddhism is compassion for all beings. In other words, the Bodhisattva Vow is a vow to practice the Buddha’s teaching for the sake of all beings, because enlightenment is not personal in nature, it transcends one’s own person, and materially affects the spiritual lives of everyone in the world. The Boddhisattva even postpones his final enlightenment in order to live in the world and help all other beings transcend their suffering, out of pure compassionate love for all. The entire idea of a “self” who becomes enlightened is throw out, and in its place comes a loving being who sacrifices any sense of self-attainment for the sake of others. If you had any real decency in you, you’d be able to appreciate this teaching, rather than constantly denigrate it. I have not denigrated Christian notions of love, for example, as you have denigrated every other religion’s approach to the matter. It makes me wonder how you can even call yourself a Christian, if you cannot appreciate the love other religions have cultivated, but give credit only to those who believe as you do. You seem more interested in owning love and taking credit for it by your particular belief system than in practicing it.

    “I believe the difference between us is that I have committed myself to a dogma because I am convinced that it is true, despite beginning as a rationalistic atheist, whereas you embrace whatever suits your a priori sense of what God and truth ought to be.”

    Actually, I haven’t spoken much about my religious viewpoint at all, so I don’t know how you could claim to characterize it. If someday you would like to, fine, but for now we are talking about your religious beliefs, and the narcissism they contain. Attacking me won’t change the character of your beliefs one iota. As it happens, I was once a rationalistic atheist myself, and I’ve read a great deal of spiritual literature, clearly far more than you have, including a great deal of Christian mysticism, and I have great respect for that tradition. What I don’t respect is the narcissism that constantly invades and corrupts Christian teachings, and which seems to have done so almost from the beginning, or at least shortly after Jesus’s death. I certainly have my own views about what God or truth is, even what I think it “ought” to be, and I try to be wary of imposing them on others, but that’s not what I’m doing here. I’m not trying to suggest you stop being a Christian and join a Buddhist monastery or a Hindu ashram. I have no problem with the actual practice of Christianity, I have a problem with the narcissistic perversion of it into the classic “we are the only true religion which exists, and all others are false and inferior” chant. Again, I think it’s fine to consider Christianity a valid path to God, but not to consider it the only path to God. It is one of many valid paths. We can’t walk all paths at once, we have to chose one, and it is fine to choose Christianity. But to suggest that your path is the only valid one is a narcissistic delusion, and I don’t care if it’s you saying it or the Pope, it’s still a form of narcissism, repeated until it seems rational and meaningful, when it simply isn’t.

    Now, I don’t doubt that you’ve had a difficult time walking the Christian path. I’d suggest that narcissism makes it even more difficult, because it makes you defend things that don’t deserve or even need to be defended. This is one of them. If you see that you are twisted and broken with sin, it shouldn’t be such a stretch to see that you are also twisted and broken with narcissism as well. If you are truly humbled, you shouldn’t have much trouble rejecting the notion that you know what the only true path to God is. Otherwise, your humility is a false cover for narcissistic fantasies of being special and knowing the final truth, and being one of the blessed wise ones who can choose the true path, while so many others cannot.

    When you denigrate Buddhism by characterizing it as “choosing a little oneness with the great Absolute”, you only demonstrate your own ignorance and your inability to be generous towards others. Why is this? Why do you have to assert over and over again that every other religion is inferior to your own? What kind of inferiority complex is leading you to this approach? Buddhism, for what it’s worth, does not teaching that we should “choose a little oneness”. Where did you get this idea, from comic books? Do you have any idea how difficult the Buddhist path is to walk? It’s just as difficult as the Christian path, if not more so. Likewise with your denigration of Brahman, of Gaia, or anything that is not Christianity, as if you can just blithely toss off any number of religions so lightly and ignorantly. Likewise, you even seem to be denigrating Christianity itself, when you make sarcastic reference to “a non-judgmental all-affirming Deity who loves me no matter what I do. Didn’t Jesus, after all, say that God is like the sun, his loves shines on sinner and innocent alike? Do you really not even respect Jesus himself, who practiced unconditional love, and who taught his followers “to love one another as I have loved you”, meaning without placing any conditions upon that love? Do you even understand what that means? I have to wonder how you can denigrate such teachings, and then claim that Christianity is the greatest religion of them all.

    Jesus is not whomever I want him to be, but clearly he is not who you want him to be. You want him to be the guy cheering on the faithful, and sending unbelievers to hell. Instead, he’s the guy who loves the least among us. He blesses the poor in spirit, not the self-righteous narcissistic triumphalist. At least that’s what it says in the Bible. Maybe you think you know better.

  41. Tony

    Conrad,

    I was referring to the “stupid” and “ignorant” accusations in your previous missive, to which we might add the “ounce of decency” bit in this latest one.

    I wish I had more time for this, but I’m afraid I don’t. Books have been written attacking and defending the origins, integrity, and coherence of the synoptic Gospels, as well as the practices of the Early Church. It takes a considerable philosophical treatise to tease out the practical definition of the Buddhist conceptualization of “self,” and to orient this with our understanding not only of the nature of man but of concepts like love, service, and suffering.

    So why don’t we leave it this way. I have no doubt that you have read a lot of books. What’s missing, however, in your continued accusations of my ignorance and stupidity, in your repeated assertion of knowing more than me about these matters, and in your misuse of the concept of narcissism in order to wield it as a cudgel, is evidence of profound learning, the humility that comes with genuine wisdom, and the basic decency that one ought to show his fellow man, no matter how wrong he thinks that fellow is. It’s one thing to attack vigorously someone’s ideas, it’s another entirely to call him names and exalt yourself above him, even if in your heart of hearts you are convinced he is a dolt who knows far less than he thinks he does.

    I can’t presume, as you do, to compare our libraries or our educations. But I can say that I have treated you with far more respect than you have treated me.

    Best of luck in your continued spiritual search.

  42. Brian

    Tony,

    If the documents and dogma you believe are true, than you are right and as such you have every right (and duty, even moral responsibility) to say Jesus Christ and your version of Christianity is THE way. There isn’t a maybe when it comes to that version of Christianity. If Jesus Christ is God, than the Jews are missing out. I think it’s more infuriating to have those who say they really believe, but not devote their life to it or follow through the logical conclusions of what they believe in.

    If that version of Christianity is right, than everything is justified that would increase your and others chance of experiencing God in eternal bliss for infinity. Likewise, everything is justified if you are probably certain that it will save someone from eternal damnation. With a bit of steadfast faith and an equation with an infinite reward/punishment everything is justified. Here is where an irrational exuberance of faith and a lack of doubt that is correlated with the limited objective evidence becomes very scary.

    As such, I think it’s important to attack the evidence. Conrad makes a mistake by not attacking the historicity of Jesus or the Gospels. If these beliefs are true, than the others are wrong. He may have a point that Christianity is not very tolerant in this sense, but if it is true… than it’s true. You can’t say Jesus Christ is god and the messiah of the old testament, and still say the Jews have it right.

    With that said, I don’t assume that your belief is wrong. I assume that I don’t really know. I start at that point, and then see what evidence there is to make Kierkegaard’s leap. I don’t see it, however I don’t have the subjective evidence that you have. Therefore, I grant you a subjective belief. However, I could care less if you subjectively and privately believe in the miracles of a magic milk jug or Jesus Christ. It is when this private view starts to impact others that I have a problem.

    If you make an objective statement that THIS is how the way the world is for everyone, or an objective statement such as Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the 3rd day and was self-conceived/born of a virgin sometime around 2,000 years ago, I think you need some objective evidence to back that up. Currently society does not demand this, it respects the belief no matter how little evidence there is, because religion has positioned “faith” as a virtue.

    In light of that objective evidence, I don’t see any more reason why you have a right to claim your faith as an objective truth, over someone else who also fails to provide objective evidence. The burden of proof is on you to prove your rather high claims. I’m content, with saying I don’t really know. There are a few things that make me question if there is a god, if he is all good, knowning, and powerful (problem of evil/theodicy for example), but that is a separate issue and for me more metaphysical and less practical.

    The problem here is that when you depend on subjective evidence to make objective claims you open the floodgates. If a voice inside my head that I really believe tells me to kill you, my son, or blow myself up killing innocents, and I really believe it is the word of God, how are you suppose to argue against that? In a world with nuclear weapons it seems our margin of error becomes less and less every day. It is really acceptable to still allow objective statements based on beliefs resting on such subjective evidence to be acceptable by society?

    My goal has never been to ban or destroy religion. However, I think that such objective statements based on subjective beliefs should no longer be respected as a legitimate argument by society. When someone says, “We should ban X or do X; because it is what God wants” we should respond the same way as if someone said, “We should ban X or do X; because it is was reincarnated Elvis told me and he is the greatest being I know” as both rest on such faulty evidence.

    Secondly, just to make sure that you are actually making a falsifiable claim, and not just giving a definitional statement; what would make you stop believing that Jesus Christ is God?

    Thirdly, what objective evidence helped you make the leap, and what factor did it play in you developing your current belief system?

  43. Tony

    Brian,

    Conrad has been invited to leave the adult table, and so regretfully he won’t be sharing more insights with us from his comparative religions textbook. I don’t want anyone to take his silence on your criticism of his approach as assent, therefore.

    As for your points, I certainly understand your uneasiness. The world is filled with wrongheaded thugs who want to brutalize others for the sake of some set of untruths. I think ultimately the humanist must stake his claim less on the rule of reason and science, which can likewise be perverted to the wicked ends of men (perhaps the abuses of these tools by totalitarian communists is instructive here), but rather on the dignity of life. Thankfully this comports with a proper Christian conceptualization of man and God (who came in incarnate form not to subject men to tyranny, but to pour himself out that they might be saved).

    In short, while the subjective component of my faith understandably causes you unease, hopefully you’ll take solace in the fact that my grasping of it forbids me from behaving like a thug, no matter how much my baser instincts compel me otherwise.

    I’ll have to give your question about falsifiability some thought. I began from a state of casual belief as a child, migrated to disbelief in adulthood, came to fervent belief in an errant set of doctrines a decade ago, and am only now moving toward a dogma that comports both with my understanding of God and with the teachings of his Apostles. I don’t hold this faith (as opposed to my interpretation of dogma) as a consequence of evaluating some set of evidence and then drawing a conclusion, in other words. It feels more like being in the grip of something fierce and loving. I realize that makes little sense, but I can’t see the point in dressing it up in words so that it appears to be something scientific and deductive. It is irrational, or perhaps extra-rational.

    As for objective evidence, I suppose I could point you to Josh McDowell’s books, or Dunn’s book on Christ, or the history of the Early Church in sorting through the books that came to embody the Biblical canon. I would have to add that I’ve come to see just how little we know about anything, which is a necessary humbling for one to accept the possibility of a deity existing across time. But all this was available to me before, when I did not have faith. The Bible teaches that Christ comes to us when we are spiritually dead, and gives us new life, and that therefore we believe — not from our own investigations or decisions, but by the grace of God. So that’s my answer, which I know doesn’t help the intellectual seeker one whit, but it’s the only answer I can give.

  44. Brian

    Tony,

    “In short, while the subjective component of my faith understandably causes you unease, hopefully you’ll take solace in the fact that my grasping of it forbids me from behaving like a thug, no matter how much my baser instincts compel me otherwise.”

    I just feel it becomes hard to say to the thugs, that they are thugs, if they believe just as strongly as you do that what they are doing is right. You can tell them that the objective reasons for why they are doing this are wrong, harmful, illogical, against their stated goals, or lacking in evidence, but when the basis of your own faith rests heavily on the subjective or irrational/extra-rational I feel like they could give the same response as you give. As they would say, “It may not seem rational that we are killing these people (in fact it may be irrational or extra-rational), but really it’s to save humanity and is truly God’s wish (God has told me so, and I believe him).”

    I feel like totalitarianism faced some of the same problems that destructive religions face, in that people stopped questioning and had “faith” in the system, the leader, etc. It seems like a lack of critique and criticism by the people is what allowed such systems to rise into power not an overwhelming faith. It’s a bit different, because such a faith was often coerced, but religion has a history of that as well. Thankfully, Christianity has developed away towards that (but there is still a lot of coercion, and social penalties paid out by American society for a lack of belief)

    I’m happy that your faith forbades you from behaving like a thug. I’m also fairly confident, that without it you’d hopefully also not behave like a thug (and that your reasons for not behaving like a thug may be religious, but if you found out that god didn’t exist tomorrow, you wouldn’t go out and behave like a thug). I’ve always been a bit concerned with a morality based on the “other-world” instead of “this-world”, because it seems we don’t know much about the “other-world” but we are fairly certain of “this-world”.

    I’d also point out, that there is a large difference between believers who are actually searching for truth, and really know what they believe, and question it, and what you often see in practice by the majority. What a theologian says in an academic debate and what he says at the pulpit are often strikingly different, however that’s a separate issue.

    I don’t think you are a narcissist, I think you are searching for truth and something greater. Aren’t we all? I feel like these feelings are part of what it is to be a human. I also feel like that for the most part, at least for you your faith is beneficial to your life and probably a great deal of strength. I’m often in a dilemma because I don’t want to critique something that seems to be so precious and helpful to people; at the same point I also don’t won’t to patronize them by not saying anything, or worse act like I somehow know the answer. I don’t and I try not to pretend to.

    I feel you can achieve the benefits that faith brings without it. When you put yourself in the position of adhering to subjective evidence for such an intense belief it becomes exceptionally dangerous as you loose the ability to critique those who have subjective evidence for scary and harmful beliefs. Furthermore, what if you had a subjective belief in a more dangerous faith? How would we reason with you to show you that you may be misguided and are hurting people? This is partly where the question of a falsification comes in. For example if you say: “My parents love me”. However, we say, but your parents are cruel to you. Your response: “My parents love me”. However, we say, but your parents beat you and hurt you. Your response: “My parents love me”. The argument goes on, but we eventually find out that the meaning “love” no longer means anything anymore. There is no condition or thing the parents could do that would make the person believe that their parents no longer love them. This sort of thing pops up all the time in abusive relationships. “My parents love me” has become a definition, not a statement.

    Without this subjective extra-rational evidence I doubt you’d stick to you faith, in the sense that the claims it made actually happened. Why not adhere to your Christian teachings as a philosophy? They could be dictated by God… but there isn’t much evidence to back that up. However, if it’s a philosophy, it’s open to a great deal of error, can be changed, and is only followed in a pragmatic sense. You still strive for what you think “God” wants, but “God” becomes more of a thought experiment (what type of philosophy and way of life would a being who is all good, all powerful, and all knowing follow?). This God may be real, or he may not; the philosophy stands on itself and is bound in “this-world” and as you see God, also hold in the “other-world”.

    I think if you are going to make bold claims about reality as your faith does, where you claim that not only does your faith work and feel right, but it is TRUE, you need to stick to that objective evidence and use that to back up your beliefs.

    When people stick to their subjective feelings, in face of the facts and evidence, they historically they are often wrong. If the objective evidence can stand on it’s own in the face of criticism all the better for your belief. From what I’ve seen however, it fails to do that, and it requires that feeling of faith in lack of respectable evidence or support, that subjective deep human feeling that this is THE TRUTH and this is GOD, that allows the believer to continue to believe.

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