Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lee Strobel: Biased Apologist or Champion of Intellectual Honesty?

In his books “The Case for Christ” and “The Case for the Real Jesus,” Christian apologetic writer Lee Strobel portrays liberal biblical scholars as approaching scholarship with predetermined agendas that color their presentation of the evidence. He suggests that instead of coming to the table with an unbiased perspective, these scholars have preconceived notions, and they subsequently gather, interpret, and present only the evidence that supports these notions. But is this a fair assessment? Are biblical scholars to be regarded as radicals with a skeptic’s agenda, or is Strobel himself guilty of the very biased methods he pins on his opponents? In fact, a simple comparison of the investigative and rhetorical methods of those like Strobel over against academically-trained biblical scholars reveals that Christian apologists, and evangelical scholars, are much more likely to bring bias and agenda into the picture.

Strobel himself is a journalist and lawyer who converted from atheism to Christianity in early adulthood. As such, he is not a trained biblical scholar, and his conversion was not based on scholarship, but rather on the decision that he needed God in his life (as most conversions are). In his defense, he does not pretend to be a scholar himself. His best-selling series of “The Case For” books are structured as journalistic investigations into the hot topics of traditional Christianity. His method of operation consists of interviews with biblical scholars discussing various theological components of Christianity.

In arguing that liberal scholars bring bias into the picture, Strobel routinely fails to provide much evidence for these assertions. Instead, he relies on disparaging hyperbole to paint these scholars in a negative light, while referring to those in his own camp with uplifting and respectful language. For instance, when referring to the traditionally-leaning scholar and Strobel confidant Ben Witherington, Strobel refers to him as the renowned “Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary.” Yet when quoting “liberal” scholar Bart D. Ehrman, Strobel introduces him as “Bart Ehrman, the agnostic professor of religion at the University of North Carolina.” He fails to mention that Erhman is Princeton-educated, one of the most well-respected and best-selling scholarly writers on earth, and is, in fact, the head of religious studies at UNC, not simply a professor of religion.

Strobel also throws the word “liberal” around like a smelly fish. When referring to the scholars whose work he is attempting to deconstruct, he routinely makes sure to include this emotionally-charged word. Thus, John Shelby Spong is not an eminent scholar and retired bishop of the Episcopalian Church, but is instead just a “liberal” biblical scholar. The effect of this hyperbole is twofold. First, it tells the evangelicals who make up the vast majority of his readership that this scholar is not to be trusted. I know of very few evangelicals who put much stock in the views of liberal politicians or theologians. Second, the use of this word tells his readers that this scholar is no run-of-the-mill scholar, but is instead a “liberal” scholar. The implication, then, is that this scholar is a maverick on the fringe of the scholarly world. In fact, the far and away vast majority of biblical scholars would fall under the umbrella of “liberal” by any typical evangelical understanding of the word. To refer to a biblical scholar as a “liberal scholar” would be like referring to a police officer as a “gun-toting cop.” Not only is it redundant, but it creates a misleading negative connotation. Thus, Strobel effectively uses these kinds hyperbole to diminish the accomplishments of many biblical scholars, and to paint them as mavericks on the fringe of scholarship whose opinions cannot be trusted.

And all this happens before he even gets to the first word of his argument.

Nevertheless, and biased hyperbole aside, how does Strobel’s method of operation compare to that of the academics he accuses of scholarly prejudice?

As mentioned above, Strobel formats his books as no-nonsense journalistic investigations into the authenticity of Christianity, and he interviews biblical scholars to get their opinions on the “tough questions” that skeptics ask. In doing so, however, he chooses only those scholars whose body of work supports his own Christian beliefs. Thus, in “The Case for Christ,” we get ten or twelve interviews discussing ten or twelve separate hot topics, and each of the interviewees is a known traditionally-believing biblical scholar. In other words, his “fact witnesses” (as he calls them) are all established “friends” of evangelical Christianity. This holds true for his book “The Case for the Real Jesus” as well. Not a single interviewee in either book is an established “liberal” scholar – that is, any scholar whose work points away from traditional theology. Instead, much of the interview content is an effort to deconstruct the views of these so-called mavericks.

This leads to the next point on Strobel’s methods. In his books, Strobel will introduce a conclusion presented by a liberal scholar or noted skeptic (such as Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, and a slew of others), give the gist of the conclusion (for instance, “Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah,”), and then proceed from there on a discussion with an evangelical scholar who proudly criticizes and attempts to demolish the conclusion. This demolition, naturally, includes a one-sided presentation of evidence very obviously fine-tuned to support the deconstruction.

What Strobel fails to do is provide both bodies of evidence in detail, thereby allowing the reader to determine the conclusion for him- or herself. Instead, Strobel presents only the conclusion of the scholar or skeptic (“Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah”), and intentionally leaves out the systematic gathering of evidence that was vital to the formation of the conclusion. Such an approach is analogous to putting a person on trial for murder, and then only allowing prosecution witnesses to testify. Strobel simply does not give his readers both sides of the story. To a traditionally-believing Christian, an assertion like “Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah” would be shocking and troubling, and it would be easy to convince them of the absurdity of such a statement by only producing evidence against it, rather than evidence both for and against. For a trained lawyer like Strobel (who, ironically enough, writes “The Case for Christ” against the metaphor of a court trial), this is unacceptable. Despite his altruistic claims to the contrary, it would seem clear that his motivations go beyond simple unbiased investigations.

In light of this, what do we see when we approach so-called “liberal” scholarship? Do these scholars bring biases and agendas to the table?

No reputable biblical scholar would ever claim to have absolute answers on anything relating to the Bible (which automatically puts them at odds with Bible literalists – like Strobel – who claim the Bible is historically factual and inerrant). The job of the biblical scholar, then, is to set aside personal belief, gather the available evidence, analyze the available texts, and make reasoned conclusions based on that investigation and study. This is the classic Socratic principle of “following the evidence wherever it leads,” even if it forces you to rethink your own beliefs and preconceived notions.

This method is exactly the method employed by the “liberal” scholars Strobel loves to denigrate in his books. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, James M. Robinson, Elaine Pagels, and Burton L. Mack (to name only a few out of thousands) have consistently put forth arguments in their books and scholarly papers that fall in line with the principle of following the evidence where it leads. Putting their own personal beliefs aside, they simply gather the evidence and draw reasoned conclusions. Any scholar of any subject who did not approach scholarship this way could not be considered a reputable scholar.

Having said this, what evidence can be found to illustrate these scholars’ willingness to lay aside agendas, preconceptions, and personal beliefs?

One way would be to study all the writings of these scholars for one’s self. That takes time. But on a more compact level, we can simply review the religious testimonies of many biblical scholars. In the world of biblical scholarship, are you more likely to find atheists, agnostics, and liberal Christians, or are you more likely to find evangelical and traditionally-believing Christians? Even traditionalists like Strobel can agree that most biblical scholars fall into the first camp (which is why he writes books to deconstruct their conclusions). Bring up the issue of biblical scholarship to an evangelical, and you will likely get heaped with scorn and/or pity and be reminded that Christianity is about faith, not science or the scientific method. This is illustrated most succinctly in the famous warning by St. Augustine in his “Confessions,” wherein he cautions Christians not to think too much about their faith and not to delve too deeply into history and scholarship. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestant theology, also gave dire warnings against intellectual theological pursuits, warning that "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has," and suggesting that "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." For St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and most every other Church father, reason and intellectualism were certain paths toward heresy. Why are they certain paths toward heresy? Because following the argument where it leads in regards to Christian theology is a sure-fire way to legitimize doubts, uncertainties, and suspicions regarding traditional Church doctrines.

But the religious leanings of most scholars, alone, do not tell us much about whether these scholars are intellectually honest. Maybe they started out as skeptics. Instead, to see the whole picture, we must also look at where most of these scholars began.

In fact, most people who choose to enter religious scholarship do so because they are already Christian believers. To name just a few, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg, Robert M. Price, and John Shelby Spong all began their scholarly careers as traditionally-believing Christians. Yet for each of these scholars, and countless others, their willingness to engage in unbiased research, and to follow the argument wherever it led, ultimately conducted them away from traditional beliefs. Ehrman now calls himself an agnostic; Pagels, Borg, and Spong are all strong voices for progressive (that is, non-traditional) Christianity; and Price, despite having a doctorate in theology and being an ordained Baptist minister, has since renounced religion all together and is now an atheist. The personal spiritual paths of these named scholars mirror that of many hundreds of others in the field.

On the opposite side, how often does someone enter the field of biblical scholarship out of purely academic interests? How many scholars start off as atheists, agnostics, or progressive Christians? There are a few out there, but I do not personally know of any scholar, past or present, who began their scholarly career as an atheist or skeptic, and then converted to traditional Christian beliefs based on their scholarly work. Such a scholar may exist, but I am not familiar with him or her. In fact, the only traditionally-believing biblical scholars that I am familiar with began their careers as traditional believers, theologians, and evangelicals.

It is a simple fact that most biblical scholars start as traditional believers, and then their scholarship leads them to non-traditional forms of Christianity, agnosticism, or even atheism.

When the evidence is viewed this way, it casts a long cloud of suspicion and doubt on those biblical scholars whose scholarship serves simply to confirm their beliefs, rather than to send them on a divergent path. It would be hard for a scholar to convince anyone that they began their scholarly career as a traditional believer, spent their career gathering and analyzing evidence, and in the end determined that the evidence showed they had been right all along. Yet this is, in fact, precisely what Lee Strobel does in his various books. He begins from a position of traditional beliefs, puts together only that evidence which supports his beliefs, and then concludes that all the evidence reinforces what the Church has been teaching all along. In the academic world, this is known as pseudo-scholarship, and Strobel is one of the modern kings.

Of course, it is certainly possible to draw a conclusion about something based on a gut feeling, and then later investigate its reliability and determine that your feeling was correct. For instance, someone may conclude that Japanese cars are better than American cars, based on gut feelings about the Japanese work ethic. After developing this “gut feeling,” this person may then actually look at the evidence and determine that, in fact, Japanese cars are more reliable than American cars. But car reliability – or any other simple analogy one might think of – is a far cry from the vast field of religious persuasion and revelation. It seems unlikely that a truly intellectually honest look at Christian history and biblical scholarship would only serve to reinforce traditional doctrine, dogma, and theology. Again, if that were the case, why do so many evangelicals, and why do Church figures such as St. Augustine and Martin Luther, warn so stringently against it? It would seem that they, in fact, agree: intellectually honest scholarship negatively impacts traditional faith.

In the end, Lee Strobel’s method of operation betrays his biased agenda. He uses hyperbole to diminish the accomplishments of his enemies and to paint them erroneously as fringe mavericks whose work cannot be trusted; he gathers only the evidence that supports his predetermined beliefs; and he intentionally fails to present the evidence of the skeptics and “liberals,” presumably out of fear that it might weaken his position. Furthermore, he accuses his enemies of agenda and bias, despite the fact that the vast body of evidence seems to point to the exact opposite conclusion regarding mainstream biblical scholars. The very fact that most biblical scholars start as traditional believers, and end up as skeptics and liberals, indicates that they are, in fact, approaching the field without bias or agenda. It would seem, then, that Strobel is guilty of the very “sin” he accuses his enemies of committing – blatant intellectual dishonesty.

I think Shakespeare said it best in “Hamlet”: Methinks thou dost protest too much, Mr. Strobel.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An Argument Related to Design

Did life spring from non-life, as evolution suggests, or was there intelligence behind the formation of life out of nothing? This is a question that gets to the heart of the debate between those who accept evolutionary science as the ultimate answer, and those who either deny it outright, or argue that evolution was simply part of a grand intelligent design.

Those who accept evolutionary theory as the sole method for the appearance of life on earth must acknowledge that a group of extraordinarily unlikely events all converged at the right place and right time. This, they argue, is not necessarily as unreasonable as it sounds, given the enormity of the universe and the infinite possibilities contained within it.

One analogy they put forth to show that life could be a natural, “undesigned” phenomenon is commonly called the “Shakespearean Monkey Analogy.” It is based on an idea presented by Stephen Hawking in "A Brief History of Time." In this analogy, it is argued that if you put a group of monkeys into a room alone with a word processor, given enough time, the odds are that they would eventually produce a Shakespearean sonnet. The argument is based on the idea that there are only so many letters in the alphabet and only so many combinations possible of those letters to produce English words and phrases. Given enough eons, the analogy says, the monkeys would likely eventually produce a coherent piece of poetry – thus, “intelligence” out of “non-intelligence,” or, “life” out of “non-life.”

At first glance, this seems to be a reasonable and coherent analogy to demonstrate how space and time is wide and varied enough to suppose that all the right ingredients could have come together naturally to create life out of nothing on this planet. However, when you begin to apply mathematical principles to the analogy, it quickly becomes apparent that it is invalid.

I recently read an account of a group of researchers who did just that. They started by isolating six monkeys in a room with (apparently!) a highly shock-resistant word processor. The monkeys lived in this room for a month, with free reign to do as they pleased with the computer. In addition to using the computer for, among other things, a bathroom, they managed to produce over 50 pages of typed script.

After the experiment was over, the researchers analyzed the script. In all of the 50 pages, not a single English word could be discerned. This includes single-letter words like “a” and “I” – since those words would require a space before and after. Extrapolating from the progress (or lack of progress) the monkeys made, mathematicians began working out a formula for just how long it would take the monkeys to actually produce a Shakespearean sonnet. I won’t bore you with all the numbers, but in the end, using a simple formula based on the number of letters in the alphabet, and the number of keys on a keyboard, and the likelihood of hitting all the right letters mindlessly in just the right order to produce a sonnet, the chances were something like 10 to the 690th power. More simply, that would be a 1 with 690 zeros behind it. To put this in perspective, if you added up all the particles scientists believe exist in the world – meaning, all the protons, neutrons, and electrons contained in every atom in every substance on earth – it would equal about 10 to the 80th power, or 1 with 80 zeros. Based on the length of time since the Big Bang, there simply have not been enough years in universal time for a group of monkeys to compose a Shakespearean sonnet.

This seems a fairly strong contradiction of the Shakespearean Monkey Analogy, no?

Well, actually, no.

I first read this argument in philosopher Antony Flew’s book “There Is a God.” Flew is regarded as sort of the “father” of modern atheism. Now in his 80’s, he shocked the philosophical world a few years back by publicly declaring he had “converted” to a sort of Newtonian Deism – that is, he confessed to believe in a God, or an intelligent designer of the universe. His “conversion” did not constitute an acceptance of religion, however. He continues to maintain a Renaissance-style deism – he rejects institutional religion with its man-made doctrines and creeds, he rejects the idea that this deistic God is in any way in contact with humans or knowable by humans, and he maintains his belief that complete annihilation follows death – thus, no afterlife. This last point, especially, calmed some of his atheist critics, who had suggested he had “converted” in old age simply out of fear of approaching death.

Throughout his career, Flew has been noted for his unceasing commitment to the Socratic principle of “following the argument wherever it leads.” As such, he was always open to the existence of a higher power, but simply found no evidence whatsoever that such a thing existed. By modern standards, he was what we might call a “weak” atheist, although he did, at times, openly declare that he “knew” there was not a God (which is more of a “strong” atheist statement).

In beginning the section of his book wherein he described his journey into accepting a deistic belief in God, he discussed the Shakespearean Monkey Analogy, and the research that more or less debunked it. This seems, apparently, to have been the beginning of his journey toward deism.

The problem, however, is that the research seems to be fundamentally flawed for at least two reasons that are apparent to me.

First, the researchers and mathematicians seem to presuppose that the progress, or lack of progress, made by the monkeys in the month-long experiment would remain constant throughout any ensuing months, years, or theoretical eons. In other words, if they made progress with a factor of 1 during that first month, the researchers assumed this level of progress would stay constant, should the monkeys be given an infinite amount of time to compose a Shakespearean sonnet.

Unfortunately, this presupposition fails to recognize any unknown or external factors that might contribute to the monkeys making strides forward in their rate of progress. However, since the basis of the original analogy was the idea of “intelligence” springing from “non-intelligence,” a skeptic cannot make the argument that the monkeys would “learn” over time how to compose a sonnet. Learning would ruin the analogy of intelligence springing from non-intelligence. Be that as it may, there could be other unknown or unforeseen factors that might cause the monkeys to increase their progress over time. Thus, by year 10 million, for instance, the rate of progress toward composing a coherent sonnet might be a factor of 200, instead of a factor of 1. The point I’m getting at here is related to chaos theory – there are simply too many unknown variables to presuppose that a 1-month experiment would produce results that were repeatable over the course of countless eons. Thus, perhaps, the monkeys could produce a Shakespearean sonnet randomly, given enough universal time. Perhaps, for instance, the computer would malfunction and allow only those letters that happened to be contained in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets to be entered, thus increasing the likelihood of success. There are just too many unknown variables to assume a constant rate of progress.

This is a lot of nit-picky semantics, however. But this leads to the second point.

Even if one accepts that the researchers and mathematicians adequately debunked the Monkey Analogy, it doesn’t have any relevance whatsoever to the question of whether life on earth could have sprung out of non-living matter. Its usefulness is solely confined to demonstrating that this particular analogy is not coherent, or, as Professor Flew put it, “a load of rubbish.” Perhaps the chances of life on earth springing out of non-living matter given a specific amount of time is far more likely than a group of monkeys producing a Shakespearean sonnet given the same amount of time. The argument against the analogy does not address that situation – it only addresses the analogy itself. Therefore, the argument is useless as a means of assuming that life could not have sprung out of non-life.

One counter-argument against this assertion is that since the factors contributing to the emergence of life on earth are far more complicated and convoluted than monkeys hitting keys on a keyboard, it follows that if the sonnet is impossible, then so must life springing out of non-life be impossible. Professor Flew, in fact, implies this himself when he says, “If the theorem won’t work for a single sonnet, then of course it’s simply absurd to suggest that the more elaborate feat of the origin of life could have been achieved by chance.” For clarity, I’ll call this “Flew’s Counter-Argument.”

Unfortunately, Flew’s Counter-Argument makes the exact same failure as the original Monkey Analogy itself. The problem with the Monkey Analogy is that it was simply a subjective idea used to show how life might have a chance to spring up on earth out of nothing. Once the analogy was analyzed and put up against the scientific method, it proved meaningless and invalid. Thus, without putting Flew’s Counter-Argument up to the same kind of objective analysis, and without subsequently displaying how it can be true, it is simply an unverified subjective statement much like the Monkey Analogy itself.

As it stands based on this argument, I remain unconvinced that there is overwhelming data to suggest the necessity of a God being behind the design of the universe. I see no reason not to accept evolutionary theory as a valid scientific explanation for the origins of life. Notice, however, that I used the word “necessity” in that first sentence. While I see no overwhelming scientific data to suggest the necessity of God – that is, I see no “proof” of God in the design of the universe – I do not assert that this must lead to the conclusion that there is no God. In fact, I do see evidence of God in all of nature and human experience. This may not constitute scientific proof, but I do not need scientific proof to experience God. That is the beauty of the mystical spiritual experience. It is life-affirming and life-enriching. Scientific proofs, then, become as irrelevant as attempting to objectify scientifically why a poem is beautiful. Science, in my opinion, is an inadequate and inappropriate way to approach the question of God, and that is why arguments such as Flew’s ultimately fail.

P.S.: I wrote this essay about two weeks ago, before I had even finished Flew's book. Since I wrote it, I have come across a New York Times article from last November about the nature of Flew's so-called "conversion." It was very eye-opening, disturbing, and even sad on a certain level. It seems that Flew, in his old age, is being exploited. I won't go into all the details myself, but if you are interested, you can read the article here: NY Times Article by Mark Oppenheimer

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.

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