Monday, January 9, 2017

A FEW PERSISTENT QUESTIONS

It’s a new year and I thought it would be appropriate to review briefly a few of the differences between my fundamental view of the world and that of my Christian friends.  I am trying to maintain an open mind, but for me these are real stumbling blocks to acceptance of the basic premises of Christian faith.  If anyone feels that he or she has persuasive responses, I would be most interested.


1.  The Size and Age of the Universe.

Think about it.  Until some 500 years ago it was rational to believe that the earth was the center of the universe.  We understood that the stars were far away, but we had no idea how far.  Besides, they were dim and small.  We had no idea that there are in fact over 100 billion galaxies and that those galaxies average over 100 billion stars each, that our sun is simply one star among more than 10 trillion billion others in an observable universe that stretches nearly 14 billion light years (some trillion trillion miles) in every direction.

Moreover, the universe is much older than we had thought previously.  As recently as a few hundred years ago, we hadn’t developed the tools to tell us how old the universe is, and most people thought it was only a few thousand years old.  But we have those tools now, and the facts are unequivocal.  The universe began nearly 14 billion years ago, the earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, and life first began on earth over 3.5 billion years ago.

In scriptural times pretty much all we knew was what was happening on earth, so it was natural to think that we were important in the overall order of things.  It was perhaps reasonable to think that we were the primary reason for the existence of the universe.  But we know better now.  We know that there is no reason to distinguish ours from any other place in the universe.  We know that there are perhaps billions (yes, billions) of other stars just in our galaxy with planets that could harbor life, not to mention the billions of billions of such stars in the other galaxies in the observable universe.

Despite this advancement of knowledge, Christian dogma has persisted in claiming that humans occupy a special place in the grand scheme of the universe.  Most still believe that God created the world specifically to play out the human drama of sin and redemption.  But why?  Why would God engineer such a vast universe over such a long period of time simply to bring about the human “experiment”?  A common response is that we simply don’t/can’t know God’s ways.  But that is just a cop-out in my view.  Before we understood the size and age of the universe it was reasonable to assume that we occupied a special place, but now, given all we have learned about the nature of the universe, we have outgrown the notion of a human-centric world and it is time to leave it behind.


2.   The Problem of Theodicy.

Growing up, I was taught the three “omni’s” regarding God’s nature: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.  These imputed characteristics are (still) critical to theistic Christianity.  After all, aren’t we talking about God here?  But such characteristics put traditional Christianity into a box by the name of theodicy.

Briefly, why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving god allow pain and suffering to come into the world?  Christians might argue that it was humans who brought suffering onto themselves through the fall in Eden and our sinful nature.  But I’m not talking about the suffering we experience in our interactions with others—physical and psychological abuse, murder and mayhem, and war.  Rather, I am referring to the “natural” sources of pain and suffering—diseases, disabilities, earthquakes, floods, windstorms, other natural disasters—tragedies brought about, not by our own actions but simply as the result of the operation of the laws of nature.  Earthquakes occur because of shifts in the earth’s crust, shifts that are the direct result of the operation of the basic laws of physics.  A similar analysis applies to the occurrence of, say, tornadoes.  Similar statements can be regarding the heartbreak and pain resulting from the effect of genetic defects and disease.  It was God, presumably, who set up those laws, and it is through their inexorable operation that we are subject to such pain and suffering.  Couldn’t God have done a better job? Some might argue that there was simply no way for God to design a world that provided for freedom of choice without also including such design limitations. But isn’t that supposed to be what heaven is like—all the good without any of the bad?


3.  The Salvation Story.

Then there’s the crown jewel of Christian doctrine, the promise of redemption and eternal life by reason of Christ’s death and resurrection.  From before the age of five, I was taught that, because of our sinful nature, we were otherwise destined to be lost for all eternity but for Christ’s intervention and sacrifice on our behalf.  And this intervention consisted of his taking on human form, living a perfect life, being crucified, and rising from the dead.  These acts served to convince God to provide us the opportunity for eternal life in perfect happiness.  But to seal the deal, we, in turn, have to accept the truth of Christ’s acts, acknowledge God as the one true god, and worship him.

In the environment in which I grew up, no one ever questioned the truth of this story or its logic.  That was just the way it was.  But in fact the story appears to make no sense.  instead, it raises a host of questions:

If the problem started with the fall of man, why did God wait so long to come up with a remedy?
Why didn’t God just declare a “do-over” and decree that we could enjoy salvation by believing in him and living good lives?
How exactly did Christ’s actions, as a member of the godhead, serve to change God’s mind?
Assuming that Christ was actually God, wasn’t his resurrection a foregone conclusion?

As I view things, the salvation story was created, mostly by Paul, at a time when the offering of a blood sacrifice to one’s deity was still a common religious ritual.  It was palpable evidence of faithfulness to and subordination to that deity.  But while Christ’s death could be viewed as a sacrifice to God, who is offering that sacrifice?  Certainly not mankind.

Christian apologists have spent centuries attempting to create a rationale for the salvation story, but if one takes a step back it simply does not make sense.

What strikes me is that there is a simpler explanation, one that actually does make sense.  It is that this was the story, whether historical or not, of a charismatic leader, one of many, who was seeking to free the Jews from Roman rule.  This story was converted, by Paul, from one of a failure to establish an earthly theocratic kingdom to a more universal account of the establishment of a heavenly kingdom at some future time.

Am I missing something?


© 2017 John M. Phillips

7 comments:

  1. Hello John,
    I am interested in purchasing the rights to your photographs of arabian library. Can you please message me at kwoods@richard-bauer.com.
    Thank you!
    Katie

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  2. Another excellent essay, John. Our growing knowledge of the universe and of science should serve as a powerful antidote to the grand delusions of centrality that arose naturally when mankind knew much less. I'm concerned that we've entered an age where facts don't matter to a lot of people. I haven't figured out what could be done about that at this point. How do we get anyone to care what is true when people would rather believe, which is easy, than find out, which takes some work?

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    1. Thanks, Steve.

      I, too, am concerned with how others evaluate evidence, why some types of evidence should garner more respect than other types. Historically, I have been most concerned with types and qualities of evidence in the realm of religious belief, but more recently I have become concerned with this issue in the political arena. And I am becoming frightened.

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  3. Have enjoyed the pictures you post on FB John!
    I'll take a stab at commenting on your blog - I'm addressing primarily # 3.I don't see the "Supreme Jewel" of Christ's coming, living, dying, & resurrection as a means of "convincing" God about anything. I don't think God needed convincing...because his goal was to have us in communion with Him as soon as we reached cognition. Whether we "evolved" [which seems likely] or were created outright, an opportunity for me as a mortal to experience eternal life and have His Spirit in me is quite wonderful . If indeed we evolved, and are just a step above the apes, I find it amazing God would be willing to offer us such a deal, and in agreement with you John - it doesn't make sense! But He did, for which I am thankful. Jesus was able to offer a solution to our very human predicament: our flaws, illnesses, pain, our hurting/ damaging others and the hurts/damage we experience, and inevitability of death. Not just his death - but his incarnation - his resurrection -his whole life in 1st century Palestine was a significant out-pouring of Gods desire to love us and be with us. Whether we evolved or came abt. by a special act of creation the outcome is the same - life can be a "bitch" [or variations on that theme] and then we die. He cared from the very "start" and wanted us to know He was with us.
    John, your discussion on who Jesus was, is topic of discussion among the peoples of the world today just as it was among Jewish people of his day, even to the point where Jesus asked his disciples, "Whom do people say that I am?" [Yes I'm going to quote scripture - your pet peeve] Answers were "Elijah, John the Baptist, other prophets" [and of course -not mentioned in this particular discourse, that Jesus was a blasphemer, a false prophet, a madman] He point blank asks them - "But whom do you say that I am?" Peter confessed that He was the "Christ"[Messiah]. Jesus himself rejected the role people would push on him- that of saving the people from Roman rule and what his own disciples so easily wanted to portray Him as.. He said of himself:
    "My kingdom is not of this earth."
    "I came to seek and save the lost";
    " I came not to be minister to, but to minister , to give my life as a ransom for many";
    "If you hear me, you hear the Father";
    "I came that you would have life and have it more abundantly"
    "I came not to call the righteous to repentance but the sinner"
    "I came to bear witness to the truth"
    " I came from heaven not to do my will but the will of Him who sent me"
    "For Judgment I came into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind"
    "I came not to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill it"
    "if the world hates you keep in mind it hated me first."
    And of course good ole John 3:16!
    Finally, he called his disciples then and now to go into all the world, make disciples , baptize them, teaching them to obey what Jesus spoke of.

    Blessings to you and yours
    Dennise H.

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    1. Dennise,

      First, thanks for your words about my photo blog.

      As to the Salvation Story, perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I thought. Let me suggest the following alternative narrative that would seem more rational to me. Let’s assume there was a God who created humanity with free will and that humans screwed things up, like Genesis seems to state. What might have made more sense would have been for God to say, “OK, let’s just have a ‘do-over.’ I will give humans a second chance to live good, moral lives. If they do, then they can have great, essentially pain-free lives. If they don’t, then they could live fairly miserable lives and when it’s over, it’s over. But I will make clear to them the4 choices and consequences, so they can act rationally.” That would have been rational.

      But that’s not how the story goes. For some reason, God did not just do a do-over (although he supposedly cut down the human population to some 8 people in the flood). Instead, he created a narrative where Christ, as another member of the godhead, took on human form, lived a perfect life, was killed, and rose from the dead. And THOSE were supposed to be the events that allowed us to be granted salvation and eternal life. Provided, of course, that we swore allegiance to God and chose to believe the Christ story, which, by the way, is far-fetched from a rational point of view (virgin birth, perfect life, resurrection from the dead). What is the logic behind that narrative?? That is what I can’t understand. When we were growing up, we were taught this as dogma and never questioned it. But at some point I just stood up and thought, How does that even make sense?

      In short, there is nothing illogical in the idea that a creator would want his human creations to live moral lives and to be rewarded for doing so. The problem comes in when he and his colleague arrange for the colleague to come down to earth, etc. What does that have to do with arranging for human welfare or even salvation? Answer: Nothing. What if Christ had decided not to come down to earth or to allow himself to be crucified? What would God have done? Would that had nixed the salvation plan?

      By the way, I don’t mind people quoting scripture. It’s part of our culture, just as Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Voltaire, etc., etc. are part of our culture. The problem occurs when scripture is considered infallible.

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  4. Thanks, John. I too am afraid to live in a world where people (most recently, the electorate) behave as if there are no facts. I've heard this idea offered by some otherwise bright people as justification for believing in God. I do think religion has done much to make this notion seem legitimate. "Well, we can really never know anything, so why not believe in God?"

    On your point about the lack of logic in the salvation story, I agree. Humans seem to have a fondness for metaphor---even bad metaphor. As a way of understanding something, metaphor can be useful, but only if it is strictly constructed to evoke an underlying reality. The salvation story strikes me as a free-floating metaphor---an attempt to suggest an underlying reality that stands up to no logic or evidence. It's pretty much what we'd expect from a thoroughly human endeavor, but not from any divine source.

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    1. Steve, I especially appreciate your comment regarding the role of metaphor, particularly in the salvation story.

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