84. genuflect

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“God is love. I mean, can’t it be that simple for me? You hear it all the time, “God is love.” God is love. God is… a force of love. God is a force of love… in the universe!”
– Julia Sweeney, Letting Go of God

Last night I was chatting on the Facebook with a friend of mine who is a pastor. Now I’m trying to be cognizant of being the “belligerent atheist” and not attack my friends who have religious belief. That is not a good way to hold onto friends, or make friends; and it’s not how I want people to see me either. Plus, I’m all for people questioning my beliefs and picking them apart. One of the tenets I try to live my life by is holding no belief so sacred that I wouldn’t throw it out immediately if it were contradicted by facts or evidence.

And I’d hope it would be one of my friends proving me wrong. And I’d love them for it.

At one point my pastor friend and I were discussing how there are agnostics and even atheists at his church, and how during prayers these people substitute “Love” for “God,” which smacks of disingenuousness to me. It’s utterly perplexing how an atheist could attend church at all. I can understand valuing the community aspect. That is something that is sorely lacking in my own life, and I could almost entertain the idea of attending a church were it not for the religious aspect of it.

I could never pray to “Love.” Even the idea of it makes me uneasy because I’d know what we really meant was “God,” and I don’t really believe in any “higher power” or “supreme being.” He asked if I believe in “Love” and I said that no, I don’t, not in that way. I believe in a wholly natural universe, and that love is a chemical state within the brain, but that this doesn’t diminish its importance by being animal. Love is a many-splendored thing, but not worthy of divine enthroning in our hearts (though Love and the Divine are equally capable of horrors as they are of wonders). You could really substitute anything for “God” in that case, so I’m flummoxed why we’d bother praying to “Love” at all and instead focus on being loving.

What sprang to mind immediately when I heard this was the above-quoted excerpt from Julia Sweeney’s story, Letting Go of God, in which she talks about being raised Catholic as a teenager during the Vatican II changes:

In my senior year of high school they had us go on a special retreat, called a “Search.” And they took us off to a retreat house and they put these big blankets over the windows so you didn’t know what time it was and they didn’t let you sleep for two days and of course everyone kept breaking down, crying, and saying, “God is love. God is love.” Only we were actually saying, “Fred is love. Fred is love.” Because they asked us to call God “Fred” instead of God, because the name God was too off-putting for a lot of people and Fred felt… friendlier!

In my last entry I started to ponder what might be wrong with recognizing Christianity (especially liberal “progressive” Christianity) as essentially sexed-up humanism.

Liberal Christianity is admirable in many ways. It tries to be a haven for those who have been abused by traditional, conservative and/or fundamentalist Christianity, taking the positive aspects of the faith and institution and rejecting the rigidity and dogmatism of its older sibling. Some movements such as the Emergent Church advocate a return to the original tenets and principles of the early church: living a communal lifestyle, focusing on “being” rather than “doing,” and de-emphasizing traditional evangelism and systematic theology. Some believe in learning from the faiths (“narratives”) of others, and stress authenticity and conversation. They also believe strongly in morality and social justice.

It is essentially Christianity viewed through a post-modernist lens of deconstructionism and any other academic or philosophical idée du jour. It’s a theological smörgåsbord: Take what works, ignore the rest, or explain away what you don’t like. On the surface it seems a huge improvement over the dogmatism of fundamentalism. One of the things that ultimately turned me off to fundamentalist Christianity was how much mental gymnastics had to be done in order to make it work—God’s love vs. God’s wrath; human free will vs. divine omniscience; divine revelation vs. human understanding. We wrestle with questions like, “Why can God be jealous, but people can’t be jealous?” Oh, because God is God, and God is the only perfect being in existence. (If you’d like a real mind-bender, read Jonathan Edwards’ 1749 dissertation, Concerning The End For Which God Created the World, a vigorous critique of the purpose for the entire universe using Enlightenment reasoning.)

However, hasn’t progressive Christianity gone the opposite direction from fundamentalism, so open to internal criticism to the point that one might wonder why they even call themselves Christian. You don’t believe in the virgin birth? The miracles of Christ weren’t literal? The bible isn’t literal? What… do you believe in then? That God is a force of… love in the universe?

Recently I moved into a friend’s house and immediately set about ordering my bedroom. As far as layout and design principles go, I generally prefer to go with feng shui, or at least what makes its way onto the Internet. I placed my bed so that it wouldn’t be parallel with the door; used earth tones in decorating; don’t have a television in there (although with my bedroom there isn’t room!); have an air purifier to circulate air and keep it fresh; have several levels of lighting, including candles; and have images up on the walls of things I want to see happen in my life. Do I do this because I believe in an energy that flows through all things (an élan vital, if you will), or that arbitrary direction should determine which way a room faces? Hardly. I favor feng shui because I recognize the psychological power that aesthetics has on people. A cluttered space is going to make me feel less relaxed and settled. Having fresh air in the room promotes respiratory health. Earth tones are visually soothing. And so on.

Likewise, I haven’t entirely thrown out the Christian principles I was raised with as a child. Things like “Do unto others” and “Don’t worry about things you can’t change” are good principles to live by. What I’ve done away with is, like feng shui energies, the metaphysical and tried to take away what good can be gleaned from the practice. If it works in principle, why reinvent the wheel? But I don’t have to believe that it’s “true” to use it.

In substituting “Love” for “God,” I hear the same intellectual dishonesty displayed in the Intellectual Design movement, which takes out “God” and replaces it with an unknown force that is behind the structuring and creation of the universe – and all life, simple, complex; animal, human. But instead of delving into exploration behind the mysteries of the universe, as science is supposed to do, it elevates mystery and discourages true and vigorous inquiry. Dawkins in Chapter 4 of The God Delusion:

Here is the message that an imaginary ‘intelligent design theorist’ might broadcast to scientists: ‘If you don’t understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don’t work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries, for we can use them. Don’t squander precious ignorance by researching it away. We need those glorious gaps as a last refuge for God.’ St Augustine said it quite openly: ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn’ (quoted in Freeman 2002).

This is a rather simplistic reduction of ID by Dawkins (and rather condescending, in my opinion), but this is the same intellectual pitfall that progressive Christianity falls into. No matter how much questioning Christians do of their faith, how affirming they are of human diversity and towards the GLBT community, or how passionate they are about social justice, there will always come a point where the Christian mind “gives up” and accepts the ineffableness of divine mystery. God is always right; Man is always subject.

More later. I’m all thought-out.

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4 thoughts on “84. genuflect

  1. Hi David –
    Curiosity question since you speak of belief in a wholly natural universe – are you a determinist?

    Reason I ask – for me one of the greater evidences of God’s existence is the concept of free will. If we can supersede the natural programming of chemical/physical interactions within our brains, if we can get beyond instinct, or if we can bypass stimulus response, and can actually make free choices, the implication is that there is “something more” than nature. There is more to the thought, but I’ll hold it there.

    I find that a number of non-theists, atheists, etc…tend to favor naturalist explanations for everything, with some even fully describing that they adhere to determinism; yet very few people in practice really act as if they are determinists. That’s easy enough to understand – it is a difficult thing to accept one is only acting as nature programmed you to act; it is even more difficult to accept that others are programmed because then the disagreements we have are nobody’s fault – nature made us do it. (I know there are some naturalists who would argue that we can transcend natural programming, but in the end these theories devolve to just embracing a more complicated, yet still “programmed” existence).

    Yet if determinism isn’t reality, then I am hard pressed to find a viable alternative to supernaturalism of some sort.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    • David

      I love the lyric from Fiona Apple’s album Extraordinary Machine: “What’s happened is happened; what’s coming is already on its way with a role for me to play. I don’t understand. I’ll never understand but I’m trying to understand.” I didn’t know it at the time of listening to this back in 2006 but this phrase largely sums up my view of the world, which is deterministic. I believe that what happens happens; that there’s no larger reason for it, no grand design.

      What you’re talking about is something quite different though, I think. An earthquake happening in Peru, a star exploding into a supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy, or a 20-car pileup happening on an icy road in Montana is radically different from, say, someone going out and murdering people. The aforementioned things happen as a result of natural processes that have nothing to do with people, or anything else. They just happen. Stars have no choice of when their core matter is exhausted, and winter happens willy-nilly. People, on the other hand, do have a choice in what they do most of the time, and it’s only in very rare circumstances that we do not hold someone accountable for their actions. And we live in a time and an age where we can examine and determine whether something is done intentionally or involuntarily (i.e., insanity, mental illness, etc) based on empirical evidence.

      I believe that nature has indeed programmed us with certain instincts—the instinct to eat when we’re hungry, or have sex, or protect our young from harm. Those are all biological instincts. However, I think that human consciousness has allowed us to “override” some of that programming—for example, the proclivity toward territorialism or speciesism—that serves a biological purpose but could be fulfilled in other ways that are of benefit beyond the individual. We see this in nature where individuals act in ways that appear altruistic but are at the same time self-serving. Primates engage in sharing behavior that reflects hierarchical thinking but ensures that everyone in the tribe gets food (i.e., no one starves). Piranhas even take turns in feeding so that everyone quite literally gets a bite. This would appear to go against “natural” programming.

      And there are instances where we don’t hold people responsible for the actions where even half a century ago we were, such as in cases of insanity. I think the insanity defense may be used too often, and there are some who disagree with me. However, I don’t think that this warrants belief in or accrediting to the supernatural.

  2. Thanks for the reply. And I have no problem with much of this; we do see instinctive behavior in the natural world, we do see actions which seem altruistic and selfish both, we do see physical damage interfere with decision-making to the point we don’t hold the insane accountable the way we hold the sane accountable.

    Where I think we differ is that I see no reason to believe that humanity could supersede natural/deterministic “programming” without a supernatural component. The ability to choose something contrary to what nature, for lack of a better term, would “force” us to do through stimulus/response or electrochemical stimulation seemingly should require something outside nature.

    Note: while I believe this to be God, I do not believe that the God I know is the only supernatural entity that would satisfy the criteria. And I’ve probably taken up enough of your time, but was just curious about your view on the matter. It’s almost impossible to find a pure determinist as even those who, like you, espouse the “whatever happens, happens” view still also would hold people accountable for whatever actually happened – implying free will is reality.

    • David

      If you were to talk to more atheists and humanists, Ron, I think you might find plenty of reason and supporting evidence for humanity “superseding” its genetic predispositions. I’m not the strongest advocate to speak for that or the scientific/biological explanations, but human consciousness is a powerful tool and it has been utilized historically for both sublime and nightmarish ends. We are capable of change—I simply reject the notion that we necessarily have need of a god/God or the supernatural to achieve it.

      This is a great conversation though!

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