Monday, August 18, 2014

A Re-Post of My Most Popular Post

This post is the most popular I've ever posted. More page views than any other post by far. It was a response to a friend of mine who posted something on Facebook. The original can be found here:

Guest Post By Chris Lee + Response

A friend of mine Chris Lee posted something interesting on his Facebook page. Actually, most of what Chris posts is interesting. Chris is a person after my own heart. One of my favorite type of people, and I actually can be like this in person, though not so much here on the blog, are people who have a streetwise personality and colloquial way of expressing themselves and yet are possessed of great intelligence. I find great pleasure in using words like "ain't", "howdy", "y'all", "whattup", "knowwhatImean", "ya digg" and intermixing colorful language into monologues that express deep insights or high learning. Chris is a person I find both entertaining and brilliant, and he writes like he talks (I do not), and that makes his Facebook posts very interesting indeed. Chris is one of those rare birds who is as good at polemics as he is at wisdom, and intermixes the two well. He posted something on religion that I wanted to deconstruct and discuss in detail, more as an intellectual exercise than anything else. So below is a guest post by Chris, with commentary by me in bold. 

This guy came up to me with that religious shit basically criticizing me for my tattoos talking about the bible says this/that and the devil does this/that blah blah blah etc. 

These types annoy me as well, and I think the emergent church's criticism of these attitudes is well-founded. A great resource to look up is "Bullhorn Guy" by Rob Bell, it is a Nooma video. The idea that religion marks off these very tight rules for how one should look or dress is simply ridiculous. How would this guy react to Isaiah, who walked around naked for 3 years. There are many ways to express one's spirituality, and I see nothing wrong with tattoos. See Nadia Bolz-Weber as well. 

I stood there and listened (because I truly live for these moments) and when he finally finished I lit that ass up.

I like to do something similar with Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons who come to my home. I may be less adversarial in my description of the encounter, but yea, that's always fun.

 I asked what religion he was he said catholic so I asked him where in the bible does it say its ok to rape altar boys? (Dead silence)

I'm pretty sure my friend is being polemical here. Sometimes it is necessary to make emotional appeals to shake people out of their complacency. One should use emotional attacks sparingly, but they are not without value. The world needs its polemicists as it needs its philosophers. Maverick Philosopher argues for occasional polemics here:

But lets take this as if it were a bit of philosophy, as then it is far more interesting, at least as a point of criticism. For certainly it is not true that the behavior of a person is any commentary on the validity of their beliefs. Jean-Paul Sartre supported pederasty, and that is a reason to despise the man, but it is not valid to reject existentialism therefore. To believe that an idea is invalid because the proponent is evil is called an ad hominem fallacy, or more accurately the genetic fallacy. The origin of an idea is no proof for or against its validity. Some Catholic priests have done terrible things. But even if all Catholic priests had done terrible things, that would show nothing about the truth or falsehood of the Catholic system of beliefs. Now if a Pope, acting ex cathedra did something horrible, that would have certain consequences of Catholic beliefs, because of the way they believe about the pope. Why that is is too complicated to get into here. For our purposes, we must always remember that a person's character is no commentary on their beliefs. Nazis were the first to institute animal rights. Nazis were horribly racist, but that doesn't mean their beliefs about animals was false. A person can be very wrong about one thing, and right about another. 

I then asked how can you blindly follow a book that was written by a man? (Dead silence) do you truly believe the bible to be the written word of god?

 I do NOT believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I rather believe that it contains the words of God. The Bible is not the divine revelation, but a record OF the divine revelation. The revelation took place 2000+ years ago, in Israel. The record is what others wrote down in response. It is also, importantly, a record of the controversies that grew up in response to that Revelation. It is as if people saw God, and then argued over what they saw and what it meant. As such Scripture contains some errors, and some human invention. I do not worship a book, I worship God. And there is a terrible amount of bible-olatry that goes on in this world. I argue against it and for an alternative understanding of scripture here:

But that is no reason to doubt its place as a special way in which we access truth about God. Scientists study the universe. They get things right, and they get things wrong. Science progresses. But the inspiration for their quest, the object of their study, is real and their beliefs about the universe are about something real. Those beliefs get more accurate over time. It is ridiculous, of course, to reject scientific texts because they are written by a human being? Nothing written anywhere on the planet is written by anything other than a human being. Is the fact that a human wrote something some reason to doubt it's validity? If that were true, than nothing written anywhere would have any validity at all. There is no knowledge, because you can't trust human beings as knowers? The human origins of the Bible are no reason to reject the view that it contains truth about the Divine.

Following scripture isn't something I do 'blindly'. But nor is it something I can do without some reliance on the text. The truth is, if you think about it, 90% of what you believe is based on things that you read or were told, not things you directly experienced. Did George Washington exist? How do you know he did? How dense is a Black Hole? Does energy and matter convert? All of these questions you must answer based on what other people tell you. You couldn't know any of this without doing massive experimentation and checking the math yourself. There is not enough time in a lifetime to create a storage house of beliefs that can make it possible to properly live in the world, using personal experience and experimentation alone. You have to rely on the work others do, or else you are stuck believing nothing, and no one can properly operate in the world that way. (If a person wants to doubt that matter and energy convert, they can happily walk into the Fukashima Nuclear Plant and find out for themselves, but I won't be following them). 

Scripture gives an account of God's revelation to mankind. I have to use what I know from other sources, my own reason and intuition, and my own personal relationship with God (experience) to weed out the useful from the not useful. Anything not consonant with sound reason and moral sense is thrown out, because it is likely not the actual meat of God's self-revelation but human projection. But there are some things, large swaths, that are not the end point of a process of reflection, but a beginning point from which I reason. The trust is not blind, because there is some reflection about what is or isn't useful. It still requires trust, because nobody starts from zero in any endeavor. We all must rely on a past collection of experience, or else progress is impossible. I can't imagine a better starting place than the Bible, which contains 2000 years of experience within it. The great thing about the Bible is that it is not a book, but many books, written over long periods of time. Even simply as a collection of human thoughts ABOUT God, it would have to be unbelievably useful, given the breadth, length, and number of writers. If we can entertain even the possibility that the Hebrews and early Christians had some kind of special access to God then that record becomes even more important. 

 If so then why are there so many versions of it and why has it been revised so many times? 

The translations of the Bible have been remarkably consistent for a long time. One of the reasons the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was such a big deal was that it showed that our modern translations of the Old Testament are almost identical to those that were being used in 200 BCE. And indeed, even earlier discovered texts show similar continuity. One of the amazing things about the Bible, is how well translators have done for such a long time. 

But has the Bible been revised and update? You bet. That is what the Books of the Bible ARE, they are updates on what came before. But this just makes good sense. If an Infinite Being tries to explain itself, indeed 'pour itself into' a finite being, then what kind of time frame would we expect for that finite being to start getting the message right? God reaches people at their level of comprehension. Is it surprising that His revelation to a pre-literate culture would need updating once that culture started reading and writing? Not hardly. 

Think about this: Einstein's theory of gravitation contradicts Isaac Newton's. But you cannot really understand Einstein's theory until you grasp Newton's first. Nobody thinks we should just stop doing Newtonian physics because Eisteinian physics supplanted it when talking about large-scale objects. We still use basic Newtonian equations to calculate what happens when a pen falls. Revision and addition of the Biblical text is no sign of weakness, but of strength. 

Let's compare to another holy book, one I respect and think has some truth within it: the Koran. Muslims claim that the Koran is a superior book because it was written by one guy, over 30 years, and so it doesn't have all the updating the Bible has. But which would you trust more: one guy's reflection on the infinite over 30 years, or a collection of reflections, from hundreds of individuals, over 2000 years?  Reflections that include, I might add, internal criticisms, arguments and struggles over particular questions. Which do you think would be more likely to give you an accurate picture of something like God? Which do you think would be better at (in the overall) 'weeding out' truth from falsehood? This isn't to say that the Koran can't say something very true about God, or that Muhammed received no divine revelation, I think he likely did. But do you trust his own personal revelation, with no external criticism, or a collection of many people's revelations, which are full of internal criticisms? Which looks more like the way truth usually works, to you?

(Still silent) And if there is only one god, creator of everything then why are there so many different religions each with its own beliefs? 

In the Axial Age, which stretched from about 800-200 BCE, various traditional religions were turned on their heads. Greek Philosophy, the Prophetic Tradition, Zoarastrianism, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all independently came up with the idea that there is One God. That God is also tightly identified with 'the good' or 'right action'. This is a big jump from earlier times when the divine was simultaneously identified with just about every aspect of human life and nature. Think about it, all of these different sages, all at the same time threw out what came before and just came up with this seemingly novel idea that there was One Ultimate Reality, and that that Ultimate Reality isn't about sex, or food, or rain, or whatever, but is about what you do and how you live. Even Hinduism, which held this new idea in tension with the older traditional way of thinking, believed that behind the multiplicity of the gods, there was one Godhead, being refracted in various ways in the traditional religions.

Do we take this sudden advancement as coincidence? Just a happy accident? Doubtful. I rather think that God was trying to reveal Himself to humanity in various ways, and we were making progress, albeit slowly. And what if that process was given a shot in the arm? What if God, who had been revealing Himself in various ways to various people, finally found a way "in" fully? What if He came to clarify what it was really all about? 

Think about it like the way evolution branches. In darwinian evolution (which I largely accept, BTW), species will kind of start to 'bush out', with various forms all appearing all at once, until one particular part of the bush 'branches' out, and begins something that may appear totally new, but is really closely related to other parts of the bushing. For instance, hominids appeared in great number a few million years ago. One after the other, they all lived alongside one another. Until, finally, in a burst, something really unique grew out of that flurry of biological activity: humanity.

Perhaps the Axial Age was a cultural example of that 'bushing', with God pushing His way in and trying out new things until finally one particular part of that bush branched out and we God the fullness of God's self-revelation.

You see, I think we can make a clear argument FOR Axial Age religions against their predecessors. And then we can go through those religions one by one and see which best speaks to the fullest range of human experience both mundane and religious, and which are the most internally consistent. I would make an argument that Christianity fits the bill. I don't have the time to do that right here, right now, though I have in books I've written an in other Blog posts. But the point is, that a thoughtful Christian can make a good defense to the 'other religions' argument. 

(By now I was about to check his pulse) I explained to him that in my mind religion is simply a philosophy of moral codes/laws to keep people in check.

I understand what you mean, but I think a distinction between philosophy and religion is important. We need human knowing to include many different fields. You need science to do its thing unencumbered. Then you need religion to do its thing unencumbered. Philosophy is a system of thought by which we bring those branches of human knowing and experiencing together and create a coherent whole. Religion and philosophy supply the parts, philosophy puts them together. 

 I explained that I follow Buddhism but every religion contains some good points and I just kinda put them all together. 

So let me say unambiguously that I think there is good in all religions, and all religions get some things right, and some things wrong. Christianity gets things wrong that Buddhism gets right. And I will freely borrow from other religions to have a fuller life. But, in the end, each religion has it's own prescription of life's essential problem, and the essential solution to that problem. Bill Vallicella makes this point brilliantly here:

A person belongs to one religion or another, not to the degree that they agree with ALL it says, or reject ALL any other religion says, but to the degree that they agree with its diagnosis of the central human problem, and agree with the solution offered to solve that problem. I am a Christian because I believe that the central human problem is sin, which is separation from God. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus solved that problem for us. 

I then explained how my tattoos are mostly symbols that represent my mother and grandmother not some gang affiliation, so when you speak negative about my tattoos your inadvertently disrespecting my mother and deceased grandmother both of whom I love dearly. He instantly apologized and said he had no answers for the questions I asked. He then gave me a pamphlet and invited me to his church (I took it graciously but balled it up and threw it in the trash after he left). He said that my questions raised his curiosity and that he would seek those answers and if we ever crossed paths again he would hopefully have those answers for me. I nodded and said "god bless you my brother" (sarcasm). The bottom line is everyone is entitled to live their life how they want and believe whatever they choose and nobody has the authority to tell you otherwise. Sorry if I offended any of my religious friends, that was not my intent...ya digg

Everything here I tend to like except the second to last sentence. It seems impossible for any moral person to believe that EVERYONE is entitled to live their life however they want. It isn't okay for people who want to abuse children to do so, is it? NAMBLA is evil, and so are Nazis, and we need a point of view from which we can make those distinctions. 

And it can't even be something along the lines of 'hey just don't affect my own life and you can do whatever you want', because we are not all just atomized individuals unto ourselves. Another person's inability or unwillingness to maximize their personal potential affects me because of what I miss out. For instance, I don't think drugs should be illegal. But I think it is wrong to shoot smack even if it were legal, because of what we all gain from each person being the best they can be. A Buddhist has an absolute responsibility to point out where they think I am wrong, because they should want to keep me from making mistakes. Ditto the Hindu, and the Muslim and yes, me as a Christian. I want to spread the good news that Jesus Christ IS. Not to save someone from Hell, I don't even know if I believe in Hell. But to help them gain a full encounter with God, which will enrich their lives, and so mine as well. Each person needs to be able to respectfully criticize, critique, and reflect upon what everyone else says. For certainly critique and argument is how truth is distilled, and we all need to have a commitment to the truth.

So let the Buddhist analyze, and criticize, and wonder at what I say. And let me do the same to him. And we can still love one another, and have fun together, and be on good terms. Tolerance is not about letting everyone believe whatever they want, but loving people even when you disagree with them. If we can learn to disagree effectively and love graciously, then this world will be much better off. Certainly my friend was not approached in that way, but I think he more or less responded that way, and it seems his interlocutor was enlightened for the encounter, or at least I hope he was. And I hope others are enlightened by this, as well.

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