I received this thoughtful message from Andrew, a man with whom I share much superficial and substantive common background, as a reply to my comment on his Facebook share (social media buzz!).

I am placing it here, with permission, for my own reflection.

I find this absolutely flabbergasting. How is it that in all your years of exposure and involvement in religious and faith organizations you never encountered a challenge to your suppositions and/or to those held by the group? Have you really exhausted all the professional holy men in all your st- er, province? Or did you just forestall and banish the untenable thought?

Amusing or not, it really does appear as if you’re having an intellectual adolescence- about 25 years later than you should have. You’re trotting out the talking points of Bertrand Russell like they’ve slammed the door shut (albeit with much more tact and cheer than his ilk is known for- possibly because you’re Canadian? Much appreciated.)

But intellect is probably not quite the sticking point for you- I sense it’s more knowledge. I’m fairly certain you’d engage quite readily and appreciably with the likes of Jerry Walls and Sandra Richter (to name two scholars I happen to know personally, and whose writings are readily available), and respect their thinking, but I’m doubtful their specific fields would satisfy your insistence on the absolute proof you demand (and assumed, it seems, was on your side when you still identified as a believer). Certainly there are other Biblical scholars who continue to believe and whose knowledge and expertise in the field far dwarf your knowledge or mine, but I imagine at this point you would not be satisfied by these either. Because I suspect you have chosen the dominant worldly narrative and are now requiring, as I’ve heard it said, “extraordinary proof for extraordinary claims.”

Knowledge is a cruel master. As I’m sure you’ve heard, you cannot derive Oughts from a mere Is.

(Honestly? In your mental calisthenics you remind me of the self-taught expert who has no need of school and makes sure everyone knows it. Which is an OK place to be for a little while, but no place to remain.)

I don’t know the details but I perceive an undercurrent of deep resentment and anger at the insufficient, inadequate and possibly willfully ignorant elements of your religious exposure and indoctrination. Maybe these stunted you intellectually; maybe you let them. Maybe the community betrayed you, no doubt you saw action at odds with belief. You may have good reason to be angry, and I myself am rather horrified at the (evident) shortcomings in your development… no one ever need be afraid of learning more. I pray that your children, and mine, are better equipped.

I do think you have to ask yourself, Where does this anger go? Who deserves it? What do I do with it? Most important: where does it come from, and why does it matter? The answers to those questions are the heart of this struggle.

Material evidence of spiritual truth will always be found lacking, falling short of the incontrovertible. The intersection between the two- their tenuous hold on each other -is the realm of faith. As ever thus.

(If you’re looking for an intellectually robust tradition, you should probably go Catholic. Or at least Anglican. I’m thankful for the C&MA and the Protestant tradition I grew up in, but it’s not so great for the deep thinker.)

[disclaimer: This is not an exhaustible subject, I am not an intellectual superior, and nothing here is sufficient.]

Do you agree?

(Links added by me, for convenience. Photo credit – me.)

12 thoughts on “A Little Signpost

  1. Knowledge is not a cruel master, and to suggest untruths might be more palletable to you is simply patronising.
    Maybe you can’t get an ought from an is. On my blog I’ve argued that you can. But if it is true that you can’t get an ought from an is, are we supposed to derive ‘oughts’ from lies? If you can’t get morals from object truths, the ‘truth’ of religion is no help either.
    To the deeper problem, you are being accused of reasoning out of anger, not the dispassionate objective enquiry we should all endeavour for if we care what is true. I don’t know you personally, so I can’t speak to that, but I do find that accusation recurs when people honestly lose their faith. Only you can really know whether the accusation sticks for you.
    Lastly your friend recognises that there is no evidence for their claim of religion. Did you notice? It was very subtly done, hidden in ‘material evidence for spiritual claims’. Okay. Present spiritual evidence along with a good philosophical reason for believing spiritual evidence leads to robust claims.

    Normally, I wouldn’t comment on something like this. But it looks like your former support network (friends) aren’t making this easy for you.

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  2. Not “former”- love and tolerance means we support Paul while continuing to disagree – in fact, our belief system constrains us to support *by* disagreeing. It shouldn’t be easy to walk away from 40 years of faith- I believe Paul is doing an excellent job of describing how hard it has been for him already.
    Cheers,
    Dave

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    1. I apologise for my use of the word “former”. I should leave such evaluations to Paul to either think/not think and express/not express. Again, I can’t speak for Paul, but as a general rule, don’t accuse people of reasoning out of anger. It is condescending. People aren’t being irrational just because they disagree with you. It was that, which looked like contempt, to be honest, that prompted me to use the word “former”. That was hasty and a mistake and I shouldn’t have undermined the love and support you intend.

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      1. Thanks for the clarification – we are all on this planet together, and we are all pretty invested in figuring things out. Of course there will always be emotion, and the ‘Spock’-like ideal of logic is only one way to approach things… otherwise we wouldn’t have so much poetry around.
        What “Andrew” was saying, I think, was that the “stuff” that is throwing Paul off is “stuff” that should have been dealt with in Bible school (instead of just presenting the party line). That shows up in Paul’s latest post. The lack of dealing with that “stuff” for Paul’s adult life leads one to think things were being ignored or rejected without much thought – but that’s Paul’s story to tell. The emotional part of things is purely us projecting based on shared experience – and it’s good of you to call us out on that (if there is an “us”).
        I’ll drop in on your blog to see your “ought” argument – I’m dissatisfied by proximate meaning but I’m seeing that others are choosing to live there and claim that the lack of ultimate meaning is not debilitating. Stay honest, and keep reasoning without fear – if I’m afraid of your discoveries, I must be defending something I know is not true.
        Shalom,
        Dave

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      2. My post is buried a long way down. Trying searching for ‘ought’, that might bring it up.
        If you’re up for something a little more in-your-face (which no one ever really is) try searching my blog for ‘religious nihilism’.
        I’m curious though: how do you think God helps one plug the disparity between an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’?

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  3. *puts careful hat on*
    I read a couple of your recent posts – the dog experiment was amusing – so I know not to try anything facile here. Any argument I make will end up being based on different presuppositions than yours, so please read carefully.
    If *God* (the creator, who is self-existent and independent of our universe) wanted to create this universe as a home for finite beings who had free will, He could.
    But He would have to restrict His communication with us, and always leave an “out” in any discussion of fact, otherwise all honest people would be forced to acknowledge His existence.
    This almost begs the question of the existence of God, which is kind of His point.
    But if I accept that He does exist, and I accept that He has provided trustworthy communication to me somehow, I would be motivated to obey any instructions in that communication in order to “get on His good side,” since He is all-powerful (but self-constrained by His experiment).
    But His existence as the Creator provides an external (to our universe) basis for ethics: does this fit with the Creator’s idea of what makes Him happy? It is a very relational ethic, and may appear arbitrary, because it is based on the whims of one being. The only claim that being has for being more “moral” than you is that the being is more powerful than you, and so you should value His opinion more highly. All else is just window dressing – the benefits of ethical behaviour are empirically seen, and can be deduced outside of any religious book. That is as would be expected if a Creator built a universe that rewarded moral behaviour without regard for the intellectual basis for that behaviour.
    There are “treats” for those who get on the Creator’s good side, because He likes to reward friends.
    If nobody can get on His good side, His experiment is kind of pointless (He doesn’t gain anything). Therefore Incarnation, Substitutionary Atonement, and an external reference as to the value of a human soul – the Creator thought it valuable enough…
    Thanks for letting me follow this rabbit trail this far – let me know where you jump off. 🙂

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    1. Dave —
      What is different about created Lucifer, and the other demons, who have full proof and knowledge of God and yet are able to rebel against him… than from we humans, who apparently could not rebel given the same evidence?

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      1. Demonology is not my strong suit, and building (or tearing down) a theology based on some figurative/apocalyptic fragments is questionable.
        So the idea of a self-hiding God seems to express a limited opinion of humanity’s ability to decide?
        Lucifer rebelled in an attempt to overcome God’s authority. Humanity could definitely do something like that (think Babel), but Adam was definitely given enough information to make an informed choice, and once he chose poorly, that seemed to restrict things. From that point God withdrew from daily interaction and mediated things through sacrifices and ritual.
        Adam didn’t choose to believe in God – he knew God from personal interaction. We lost that access once sin entered the world. Whether Adam is figurative or literal, the principle applies – sin separates us from God (we miss out on the “treats”). So we now have to choose to believe in God or not. Again, this might not be fair, but it is based on a relationship with an Individual, so there are arbitrary elements to it. That is one of the lessons I get from Job.
        When we are all sinners, God’s arbitrary grace is still grace, even if it’s not fair.

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    2. I find it interesting that the one time God cares for our Freewill is when it comes, singularly, to the issue of belief in God. Personally, if the Christian God were real, I would will a ‘road of Damascus’ revelation and be saved. But perhaps that is not the nature of freewill you’re positing.
      God doesn’t care much for my freewill with regard to knowledge of gravity. I absolutely believe that. But, also, people are free to believe against the evidence (just look at Flat Earth Theorists and people who deny the Germ Theory of Disease). Given the evidence, we are still free to believe as we choose. (Arguably. But, then, I have another argument altogether with regard to whether we have freewill. If you want to have that discussion I’d implore you to come over to my blog to not pollute other people’s posts with such digressions.)
      Also, consider an assault. In the case of one person attacking another, how does God act with regard to freewill? He allowed freewill to play out through force and strength. At least 1 person has their freewill violated in that case.
      So, I think the assertion that God is carefully protecting our freewill is incredibly hard to defend.

      Your third paragraph kind of undermines your second: you have been provided with trustworthy communication. So, God has violated your freewill (and thus saved you). But not me. I get that is God’s nature, as he hardens hearts, etc. But this claim is in direct conflict with your first paragraph. I’m open to an explanation that can make them compatible, but at the moment they are not.

      I am happy that you are comfortable in describing the way in which God is necessary for morals is by tyrannical rule. A lot of other theists are very uncomfortable in describing it in such a way. I reject God-based ethics for a number of reasons. To start to unpick why, I asked you this: what would you do if you became convinced God had commanded you to do something you consider heinous? (Again, further discussion exists on my blog and if you’re interested, let me know and I’ll link it.)

      As for vicarious redemption (or substitutionary atonement, as you call it) I don’t really accept that either. Demanding perfection and then giving a loophole regardless of other deeds seems entirely pointless to me. Why not just make achievable standards? That’s what just things do. In all other context, we know that overly harsh rules are unjust.

      I’m not going to jump off the rabbit trail yet, and if you’re not either, you might like to search some key terms in my blog–“morality”, “Heaven”, “Jesus”, “Purpose”, “evil”, “suffering”–and have a cursory look at my position. (I’m doing the same think at your blog at the moment.) The search feature is on the right, if you click on the three bars.

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  4. Well, Paul, Allallt, this rabbit trail could go for a long ways.
    If I didn’t have to produce code, I’d happily spend the time philosophizing and theologizing.
    But I have to respond to a couple of things.
    1) trustworthy communication – I’m asserting (without a lot of support outside of faith) that the Bible is trustworthy, and is available to many (not all, but that’s what missionaries do), so the communication is not just for me. God’s puzzling requirement for free will seems to condemn billions to judgement based on human failure to proselytize, but again, we all deserve nothing, or worse, so anyone being saved is a miracle, and we don’t see God’s perspective.
    2) assault – interesting case, but it only takes until Genesis 4 to see that it is a real issue, and not one ducked by the authors of the Bible. Free will with respect to God means that we must have free will with respect to others, and God is careful not to limit the consequences of that free will. So I am arguing for freedom on a larger sphere, which of course limits the freedom of slaves, prisoners, and soldiers, for example.
    3) vicarious redemption/whatever the label – making standards achievable is for imperfect people. God and His environment is perfect, and must remain perfect. Hence the unreasonable demands on us. Which would be unbearable if the “loophole” wasn’t costly for God Himself. The emotional responses kind of cancel each other out, and the human instinct for “fairness” has to take a back seat to the fact that we’re dealing with Other.

    So I don’t have a complete, airtight philosophical system, but I have found satisfaction, and the oft-cited “once you believe, it all makes sense” (is that derived from Aquinas?) seems to kick in for me.

    Paul, thanks for making this forum available for this discussion. I hope that you end up looping back and re-discovering your faith. It would have to look different, but I expect that any faith that you could accept from this point would be much more attractive, much gentler, more pliable, and it would have to go much deeper into your core. The post at the start of this comment thread can be summarized for me as expressing that your faith was obviously too brittle.

    Allallt – you are a gracious debater (most of the time that I can see) – are you trying to de-convert more believers? (what a term…) I would certainly say that it should be my goal to “re-convert” you. But I find it hard to believe that blog posts are the best forum for real life change. So I’ll have to limit my goals to allowing your pokes to force me to re-examine the structure of my faith and perhaps expose a few beams and girders. But you have put a lot of effort into this, so I ask, what are your goals in this (and related) conversation(s) in the blogosphere?

    Well, that’s an essay I didn’t mean to write. I guess I’m still enjoying this so far.

    Shalom,
    Dave

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    1. My goals are that, as you pointed out, this is a surprisingly enjoyable philosophical discussion. It allows people to true discuss what they eschew and what they accept in terms of not just their knowledge, but how they come to that knowledge. That’s why I discuss a lot more than just God: freewill, personhood (hence the dog experiment), science, politics, language.
      I don’t want to deconvert people, and I doubt I ever have. But I am happy to create a resource bank and discussion spark for people who have lost their faith and now want to know what to make sense of. I’ve pondered a concept I’ve named “religious nihilism”. It’s probably been thought of before I did, and it’s probably had another name. However, it is the premise that nothing has any value at all, except externally imbued by God. I don’t accept that claim, and I don’t think many religious people do either. However, in debate, many religious people will speak as if they accept this premise and such an environment can make it very difficult for someone who loses their faith to know what to do. So, even if all my blog ever does is acts as a discussion sparker for people like Paul, then I am quite content.
      You can’t reconvert me, I’m afraid. I’ve never believed. I’ve been an atheist since I was about 12 and realised the God claim was taken seriously.

      As for God and his environment being perfect, what happens when an admittedly imperfect but still devout person like yourself goes to Heaven? Here’s my proposal: you don’t go to Heaven. You must be altered to be ‘perfect’ and to not be upset at the idea of people like Paul and millions like him of being in held. Such a person, with such changed to everything including their own empathy, is not the same person. What goes to Heaven is some facsimile of you. (Unless, as I believe, you just die. This, incidentally, would be a more just outcome than Hell. It shouldn’t be Heaven or Hell, but Heaven or Death.)

      I also have a problem with following God’s moral commands. If God’s moral commands were demonstrably morally superior, and we were permitted to make moral judgements, then fine. But both those things are not the case. “God works in mysterious ways” means his commands cannot be demonstrated to be superior. We are expected to submit to the commands anyway. If that’s the case, why did God make people capable of moral judgement who feel so strongly about moral questions?

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