Sunday, February 10, 2008

An Argument Against Exclusivity

I am back from my spiritual quest, and I feel that it has been very worthwhile and very spiritually uplifting. I feel that I have, and am continuing to develop, a relevant and authentic personal understanding of how I relate to and conceive of God. So in that sense, my time away from blogging and debating religion in Internet forums has been good. I also hope that I am learning to develop a more calm, confident tone in my writing when it comes to religious discussions, moving away from the shrillness of many of my previous essays. I can't promise that some may not still find my ideas troubling, but I at least hope to present them calmly and rationally, without the need to offend unecessarily.

Anyway, here is my latest effort:

Many Christians frequently argue that God is omnipotent and all-knowing, omniscient and all-powerful. God, they say, is love – an all-loving, all-merciful Father in heaven. They further argue that God desires every person on earth to be saved. They will point to biblical passages such as 1 Timothy 2:3-4 which states exactly this: “God…wants all mankind to be saved.” Indeed, it is the altruistic, if not Utopian, goal of all evangelical Christians to bring the message of Christ to every person on earth, with the hope that every person on earth can be saved.

Many other religions have, or have had, similar concepts that necessitate the need for all humans to accept faith in their particular image of God, so that all humankind can be saved.

The problem with this idea is that it is entirely impossible and fails to take into account the basic nature of the very human beings that God created.

There can be no absolute, unanimous consensus.

By our very nature, human beings are incapable of agreeing on anything, from where to eat for dinner, to how to image and relate to God. If a study of human history can point to any absolute truths about human nature, it is that we disagree. Even evangelicals agree that while their goal is to convert all the world to Christianity, this is an impossible prospect. No sane modern person, regardless of religious persuasion, can argue that there could ever come a time when 6 billion people might agree on even one cultural persuasion, much less one religious persuasion. Even just among Americans, if we can’t agree on healthcare reform, politicians, or what constitutes good art, how could we possibly ever agree on God?

Evangelicals frequently point to the prominence of Christianity as evidence that Christianity is the “right” religion. Two billion people in the world are Christians. That is an impressive number, but if fails to point out that this leaves 4 billion – or twice as many – who are not Christians. Furthermore, and more significantly, it fails to demonstrate the wildly diverging beliefs among those two billion Christians. Indeed, by its very nature, Christianity is one of the world’s most malleable religions. Because Christianity is easy to mold into a highly personal religion that can fit comfortably with a wide variety of cultural and cognitive persuasions, it has been able to spread far and wide over the centuries.

In fact, there are far more differences among many various Christian groups than there are between other Christian groups and completely different religions. For instance, a Greek Orthodox Christian will likely have far more in common, religiously, with a Buddhist than a fundamentalist Southern Baptist Christian will have with a progressive Christian of the United Church of Christ. Similarly, a Pentecostal Christian will have far more in common with a Hasidic Jew than a Unitarian Christian will have with a Roman Catholic Christian.

So even within Christianity itself, the various views and beliefs are so divergent as to render any claims of the unity of “2 billion Christians” absurd and meaningless.

Human nature absolutely guarantees that human beings will never come to any unanimous consensus about anything.

How, then, can we reconcile this apparent truth to the general Christian idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving God who desires the salvation of every human being? If God created humanity, and if God desires that we all accept his revelation through Christ, then why would God have created humans in such a way that positively guaranteed this would never happen? Such an idea makes God inconsistent at best and a monster at worst.

The inability to reconcile these problems, of course, is what has led many modern people away from any traditional belief in God at all.

Others, however, have used the same irreconcilable problem to argue predestination. Instead of rejecting a God who would create human beings in such a way as to guarantee the eternal damnation of most humans, those who believe in predestination have actually embraced this very idea as God’s intended method. By their beliefs, God predestines some people to be saved and some people (actually, most people) to be damned. This, of course, only makes God even more of a monster, and even more repugnant to most people.

Yet even those Christians who don’t actively and consciously accept the doctrine of predestination (and many, even probably most, don’t), they are still implicitly accepting the doctrine by assuming that an omniscient and all-loving God would create humans in such a way as to secure most people’s highway to hell.

It is for these reasons that I reject any notions of exclusivity within any single religious tradition. No matter how strongly some evangelically-minded Christians may feel about “getting the Word” out to all the world, there will never be a time when all the world accepts Christianity, or any other single religion. As I’ve already said, the world’s 2 billion current Christians can’t even agree unanimously on God’s nature or the significance of Jesus’ life – the two most central aspects of the religion. And since I reject any notion of a God who would purposely damn most humans to hell simply by virtue of the very nature with which he designed them, I reject the idea that any religion holds the exclusive pathway to God. That is the only honest and all-inclusive answer I can conceive of to the problem. God is revealed differently to different people, groups, cultures, and religious traditions. If that is not true, then God must be, by definition, not all-loving and not all-merciful.

Of course, others would say there is a second answer – atheism. I reject this as well, however, as God can most certainly be experienced in a very real and life-changing way. But it is the very nature of this experience that points to a God who is approachable from many different pathways, and by many different methods. I don’t even believe you have to actively believe in God to be experiencing the ineffable reality of God.

If there is a hell (and I don’t personally believe in any traditional concept of hell), then I suppose it must only be reserved for the most base, degraded, twisted examples of humanity. But even these folks must surely find mercy before an all-merciful God, because no one chose to be born, and no one chooses their genetics, their parents, their upbringing, their culture, or their particular social status – and these are the things that determine our particular paths in life. Everyone is born utterly innocent. Thus, the only possible authentic image of an all-loving, all-merciful, omniscient God is one that welcomes all humankind into eternal spiritual union with the Absolute, through myriad paths and persuasions. Any other image of God is, for me, inauthentic and irreconcilable.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. There is more than one way to relate to God--the maker. If God is in your Heart, then why do need to attend church? It doesn't increase nor decrease God's love or hate for his children.
I also reject the idea of a judgement day in which we are all judged for our sins. If if does come, it is when an individual dies, it is then that persons day to meet the maker. his flesh dies but his spirit lives forever.this is what christians are trying to explain with eternal life.

LRO said...

I'm finding it more and more difficult to believe in God-at least the God presented in the scriptures (any scriptures)-and my only comment on the diversity of religious beliefs is that I think religion springs forth from that person's or peoples' experiences and culture.
After reading Karen Armstrong's "The Spiral Staircase," I had to wonder if many founders of early religions had epileptic visions of the kind she experienced, and this was what explains, in part, the founding of religious beliefs in the first place. I find religions fascinating and was raised in a "hellfire and brimstone" church. I was very motivated to try my best to accept, and then attempt to make sense of, the scriptures. But if there is a God, He is beyond my understanding.

Scott said...

LRO: Thanks for reading and commenting. I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God a few weeks ago, and it is fantastic. I would recommend it to you. I also would recommend anything by Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong. They are both wonderful writers, scholars, and theologians with authentic and relevant visions of a Christianity beyond literalism.

LRO said...

Thank you for the suggestions. I've read those, or parts of them, at least. I've also read Clayton Sullivan's "Rescuing Jesus From the Christians," and Bart D. Ehrman's books. My problem, I guess, is that I wonder why we need organized religion at all? Isn't it enough for those who've had direct experiences with God to enjoy their "special relationship" with Him? Must they proselytize? Until one has such an experience, how can one be expected to accept on faith their religious claims? It's like me trying to explain the sky to a blind person, isn't it? Religion creates as many problems as benefits for the human race, and may ultimately lead to its destruction. Why not just say that the world works better when everyone follows a code of morality, without the carrot and stick idea of a supernatural being?

Scott said...

LRO: It sounds like we have a lot in common.

I've never heard of Sullivan, but I will check him out. Ehrman is definitely another good one. I'm reading Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion" right now. He is an excellent writer whose prose is easy to follow and read, and he makes well thought out and compelling arguments on many subjects. Surprisingly, the book is also quite funny. He has the classic dry, sarcastic, understated British wit, and he incorporates it well into his writing. Of course, in the end, I disagree with many of his conclusions regarding God and the necessity of destroying all religion, but I still enjoy reading the book and hearing the "rational" side's best argument.

Anyway, a book that might appeal to you, if you haven't already seen and/or read it, is Spong's newest effort: Jesus For The Non-Religious. I have the book and was just looking over the preface tonight, but I have not actually read it yet. However, from past experience with Spong, and from reading the basic premise of the book, it promises to be another insightful gem about how to approach Christianity and Jesus in the post-Enlightenment, post-literalist, post-Christian world. It appears to be an effort to show why Jesus is still relevant, even without the literalism that has tainted his story for so many centuries.

Institutional religion, as it is generally organized at this point in time, does definitely seem increasingly irrelevant and even increasingly dangerous to human progress. I'm not sure that I am yet to the point, however, of arguing for its total demise. I guess I still stand in line behind the likes of Spong, Borg, and countless other theologians and scholars, hoping that the Church as a whole can be brought out of the pre-Enlightenment, literalist past, and changed in such a way as to become authentic and spiritually relevent in the future. In that sense, I still garner hope that the Church can be "saved." But, like the title of one of Spong's books says, I do believe that Christianity must change, or it will die.

LRO said...

Ironic, isn't it, that the church needs to be "saved." I'm trying to find Dawkins in my library right now, so I look forward to reading that. I love dry, British humour. You've recommended some good books, and caused me to rethink religion, although I fear Christianity is lost to me, what with all the baggage I can't seem to relinquish.

My parting thought is that where there's religion, there are usually divisive teachings and bizarre, or even harmful, rituals to lend it an air of mystique. Without mystique, there's really no religion, is there? There's just a set of moral or ethical rules to enable the smooth operation of society.

Is there a soul? What is it? Is it eternal? Is it different from the spirit? No one can answer these questions. Does it matter whether there is or isn't? Will knowing really change the way we live? It seems to me that there are always going to be good people and bad people, with or without religion, so I'm ambivalent about saving the church. This is by no means the final stop on my journey, and I'm fascinated by yours, so I'll continue to follow your posts. Thank you for letting me share my ideas with you, and for sharing your's with me, Scott.

Scott said...

Thanks for the encouragement, LRO, and thanks for reading my thoughts. I guess my hope with this blog, and anything else I may do in the future in regards to writing about religion, is to reach out to other "Church alumni" and skeptics in an effort to show that the baby doesn't necessarily have to be thrown out with the bathwater. There is another path that can be spiritually and personally rewarding, enriching, and authentic, even within current religious traditions.

Kitten Bitch said...

I have no snide comments. Welcome back to blog land, though.

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