God and Judgement

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Икона "Страшный суд"

Икона “Страшный суд” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today many people desire a God who is nonjudgmental. This God will not judge anyone for their behavior. Even if He does judge, He always forgives, whether or not a person is repentant. He never condemns any act as intrinsically wrong. If the Bible or church teaching that something is essential for salvation, this God says, “Religion gets in the way of a relationship with me. Be spiritual, not religious.” This God demands no religious duties. This God is easygoing when it comes to moral rules. For this God, Hell is an impossibility. All people will spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

One of the amazing facts about contemporary America is that some people will actually worship a deity like the one described in the above paragraph. This pusillanimous being is as worthy of worship as Santa Claus dropping down a chimney. A God without judgment is no God at all. He can be merciful–and mercy only makes sense in the context of judgement anyway.

If God is our Creator, it is reasonable to suppose that He would reveal Himself to man, not only though natural revelation but also through special revelation. He would have further reason to reveal Himself if human beings are fundamentally flawed. Now human beings are fundamentally flawed–it does not take the mass killings of the twentieth century or the conflicts of the twenty-first to see that this is the case. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Gulag Archipelago:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

God would, if He is the personal God in which Christians believe, provide information essential for deliverance from this flawed state. For Christians, God reveals Himself in Holy Scripture (in Roman Catholic thought, through Holy Tradition as well). Both sources of authority for Christianity reveal a God of both judgement and mercy. God holds people responsible for both their moral and religious lives. Humans all sin–they all do things morally wrong–sometimes not knowing an action is sinful, sometimes being controlled by a force such as lust, and sometimes they plan to perform an action they realize is wrong. All sins are forgivable under the condition of repentance. An obstinate lack of repentance yields the judgment of God, and Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition make is clear that God will allow those who wish to sin to keep to themselves. It is not as much that God withdraws from them–He allows them to withdraw themselves. Since God is the source of all being, goodness, and happiness, their state can only lead to misery. Saying to the sinner, “THY will be done” is a form of judgment, for it says that the sinner cannot live in the presence of God. The attitude of rebellion against God can be fostered by a rebellion against the moral law (which is a subset of the natural law that is available to all people who are able to use their reason). Rebellion against religious limitations, especially against the “scandal of particularity” of Christianity, can also influence someone to stop following God’s revelation to man.

The Church sets theological limits through the Creeds, short statements of belief that summarize the fleshing out of Scripture via Holy Tradition. There are certain beliefs Christians must affirm–if a Christian openly denies these key beliefs (the bodily resurrection of Christ, for instance) and teaches that error, he is liable to be excommunicated. This does not imply he is going to Hell, but the attitude underlying heresy, a pride that refuses to submit to the Church’s teaching, may reflect a character that would not enjoy being in God’s presence.

Holy Scripture and Tradition also make moral demands–no one can keep them perfectly, and they are challenging. “Love your enemies” is almost practically impossible to follow, though some Christians have done so. Avoiding hatred, envy, spite, jealousy, and excessive anger are imperative on the Christian, but no one avoids practicing at least one of these flaws at some point in one’s life. The church states that abortion and active euthanasia as well as physician-assisted suicide are morally wrong–and there is an arrogance to the claim that “I have the right to determine the time and manner of my own death.” Such arrogance is spiritually dangerous. The refusal to follow the Church’s sexual morality can occur due to weakness–or someone may be sexually immoral on purpose yet realize it is wrong. There is spiritual hope for such individuals. But God’s judgment may fall upon those individuals who say that “wrong is right” and “right is wrong” concerning the Church’s sexual ethics. This also reveals an arrogance, a refusal to submit to legitimate authority. Such arrogance may result in God’s judgment in the sense that God may allow those people to do what they will on their own. I am sure He will always be open to receiving them, but they, due to their free will, could decide to eternally reject God. “The doors to Hell are locked on the inside,” said C. S. Lewis.

The Christian God is worthy of worship not only because He is Creator of all things, but also because He is our ultimate judge. He is also a God of mercy–but mercy extends to those open to correction and repentance. Others will refuse to receive such mercy, and God’s judgment is to allow them to live in such a state in their own world–that is, Hell. I personally do not want to worship Santa Claus. God in His glory, justice, and mercy is the only being worthy of worship.

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Theodicy and Animal Suffering

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Four ten-day-old kittens

Four ten-day-old kittens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too many attempts at developing a theodicy, a broad-based account of why God allows evil and suffering in the universe, take account only of human suffering. Either writers do not deem it important, or else in Neo-Cartesian mold they deny either than animals have emotions or that because they do not find a sense of anomie in pain that they do not suffer in the way that human beings suffer. The Neo-Cartesian route, though still defended by certain Evangelical Protestant scholars who want a cheap way to get God off the hook for animal suffering, is so far from our experience of animals to be absurd. When will Calvinist philosophers stop try8ing to find a cheap way out of a real problem by denying it’s a problem? It is the propensity of some Evangelical scholars to deny the hard issues of their position: the Bible not being inerrant on historical and scientific matters, the evidence for some kind of macroevolution (even if more than Darwinian mechanisms are insufficient to explain all of evolution), the accounts of God in the Bible as an arbitrary, angry, jealous individual who kills with as much ease as He creates–and the problem of animal suffering. Not all Evangelical scholars agree with the Neo-Cartesians (to be fair, this includes Calvinist scholars–my intense dislike of Calvinism encourages me to be rather expressive emotionally).

The Neo-Cartesian position some scholars espouse has been used to justify abusing animals since “they don’t really understand pain like we do” and since “humans are over the other animals”.Despite the claim of some that animals have a sum total of positive emotions that outweigh any bad, one should also consider their short lives in the wild, often spend in running from predators and seeking sufficient food. Human beings have burdened animals with enormous tasks, The history of man’s treatment of animals has, at best, been a “mixed bag” (no pun intended). Abuse and/or abandonment of pets is a growing problem, especially during difficult economic times. Thus both evolutionary biology and its nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and man’s abuse has resulted in a tremendous amount of animal suffereing. How could a good God allow such suffering.

Evolutionary biology provides little help, for animals must pass on their genes to their offspring for the species to survive. Survival–life–is the necessary condition for all other good things in life. Why the food chain? Why so much pain due to predatory relationships between carnivores and omnivores and their prey?

Why is there so much human abuse of animals–dog fights, cock fights, beating pets until they are bruised and bleeding. Does God simply overlook such pain and suffering? If man, the steward of the animals, fails to exercise stewardship and instead exercises cruel domination, do animals have any recourse in a just and merciful God?

Francis Collins, John Hick, and C. S. Lewis have provided attempts to explain animal suffering within an evolutionary framework. For Hick, animal suffering is the required result of God using evolution to bring forth life. Lewis posits a fall of some kind to explain animal pain. Without an eschatological dimension, as I have mentioned in previous posts, animal pain has no redemption–and Romans 8 makes clear that the entire creation, not merely man, will be subject o the saving power of God. John Wesley correctly understands that animal resurrection is a possible implication from the Romans passage.

I do not believe that such resurrection involves just the species. God’s concern is for individuals, and millions of individual animals have suffered over the millenia without a smidgeon of support Duns Scotus was correct in holding that each being is individuated by haecceiitas, a unique formality that contracts the individual natures into an individual thing that is incommunicable. Only God knows the haecceitas in this life. It is arbitrary to say that only the human body is resurrected–why not animals? If God cares about each blade of grass, surely He cares enough about individual animals not to allow them to be annihilated at death. Alternatives allow no justice for the suffering endured by animals (or by people), In raising humans and non-human animals, God reveals His mercy and love in extending the gift of eternal life to the sentient beings of His creation. To deny this is to deny the love of God for His creation and His concern for the “least of these.”

The Danger of Private “Revelations”

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.

A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.

Anger at God

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A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery

A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "A Grief Observed"

Cover of A Grief Observed

Sam was a wonderful cat–a yellow and white tabby whose fur matched that of Sienna, a sweet cat whom I really loved, who sat on my leg at night when I lay down on the couch and was by my side when I woke up in the morning. Sadly, she had multiple health problems and had terminal kidney failure for which she had to be put to sleep. From the start, Sam was every bit as sweet as Sienna. He’d virtually clamp to my side every morning and I’d reach over and rub the smooth white fur on his belly. Then he started having urinary problems. Two surgeries, which would have cured 98% of all cats with his condition (crystals blocking a narrow urethra, causing damage resulting in massive scar tissue growth) did not sure Sam. I was so upset when he was put to sleep (he was only five and a half years old)I could barely function. I was also furious–at God. It wasn’t that long before Sam died that I had lost my best friend to breast cancer–a woman who ate well, exercised, took care of herself, and died at 46. The two deaths so close together infuriated me, and the object of my anger was God.

God took our first cat, Liebchen, a real ornery character who still loved us; within a month He took Sienna. Then He took my best friend, then Sam. I was so furious I called God about every name from the depths of hell. I imagined that God became incarnate in a human body so He could “enjoy” Himself when animals and people, especially children, suffered. I mocked the design argument, pointing to the windpipe and esophagus having one entrance with only a flap making the difference between life and death. No human designer would be stupid and incompetent enough to make such a system. Evolution seemed cruel and arbitrary, and if there was a God, He seemed a cold, uncaring b…rd.

Some people were horrified when they heard my thoughts, saying I would go to hell–that helped me a great deal–to increase my anger. Some people understood, including some Christians, thank God. I remembered the book of Job, which some Christians conveniently forget–or they do not read it carefully. Job is faithful to God, yet is clearly angry at God. He believes God is behaving in an arbitrary way toward him–“if it is not He, who is it” who is causing his suffering. Even after that, God says that what Job said regarding Him was “right.” This does not suggest, as some suggest, that there is an evil part of God, but it does suggest that God understands human anger–it often does seem as if the universe is unjust, uncaring–and that Stephen Crane‘s conception of nature as not giving a d..m about humanity is correct. The only plausible answer to the mystery of evil is eschatological. That seems inadequate for many atheists, agnostics, and even theists. Dostoevsky understood that unless somehow the pain and suffering of this life were rectified in an afterlife one could, with some justice, blaspheme God.

I was falling apart to the point that my work was suffering when I saw Sam lying on the other side of the bed one night. I was neither asleep nor obviously dreaming. I reached over, touched the soft fur, and watched him slowly fade away. I have seen him two times since then. I think it was a true visitation, though skeptics will have their own answers. It helped me get on my feet and mitigated my anger at God. God and I still have a love-hate relationship (on my part–God is love so He cannot hate). But without God, nothing is redeemed, and all the suffering and pain of humans and animals from the dawn of evolution until the present is ultimately worthless. I’d rather be angry at times at the only Source of meaning rather than be indifferent.

Christians should not condemn someone’s anger at God, but should bear with the person since most of the time the anger is temporary. Give positive advice at an emotional level–do not condemn the person who is angry to hell. It’s not your call in any case. Suggest books such as C. S. Lewis‘s, A Grief Observed and Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s Lament for a Son. Too many Christians have driven doubters and those angry with God permanently from the faith by their legalism. If you are angry with God, realize that such anger may not be permanent–it is best that it not be permanent, for that would lead to the bitterness of total lack of faith and a sense of meaninglessness in life. If a Christian is legalistic about your anger, confront him–let the person know that he is responding in an inappropriate way. Be patient with yourself and with others–only then can one day, perhaps you can be patient with God when bad things happen.

Censoring Huck Finn

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mark twain Category:Mark Twain images

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Recently a new edition of Huckleberry Finn was published that omitted all uses of the “n word” and “injun.” The arguments in favor of censorship were that it would avoid offending many people and that the book itself would be allowed into the hands of more children. Although I suppose there could be a watered down “children’s edition” of Huck Finn placed on the market just as there are “Children’s Bibles,” for the original novel to be censored is a bad idea.

The n-word is offensive and should not be used by decent human beings. However, it was used routinely in the past by people in many parts of the country. Mark Twain‘s novel would not be reflecting the speech of the characters of his time period without using that word. It is silliness to impose today’s standards of morality on an older work of literature. Even the Bible has offensive stories–of Israelites slaughtering men, women, and children, including babies, in the name of God–should the Bible be censored because there are passages that offend today’s moral sensibilities? Should the last verse of Psalm 137, in which the writer desires to smash Babylonian babies against a rock, be censored? What about the works of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner? Should the “n-word” be eliminated from their novels because they were writing about characters in the Old South who used that word? I pity the contemporary Southern novelist who is starting out–if he wishes to write a novel about the South of the 1950s, I wonder how many editors would eliminate his novel from consideration because some of his characters used the “n-word.” What if the writer is writing about openly racist characters? Perhaps politically correct editors and the radicalized “literary police” want to eliminate certain topics entirely from fiction. But in that case, fiction loses its power to tell us the truth about the human condition, both its good aspects and its bad aspects.

Political correctness is a continuation of the Puritan tradition in American life. Once religious Puritanism died, a secular Puritanism arose to “cleanse” language from all racist, sexist, and “homophobic” terms. Of course these Puritans allow the minority groups they claim to defend to continue to use insulting terminology such as the “n word.” In doing this, they insult the very minorities they claim to support, since they do not hold them to as high a standard of behavior as “European Americans.” When such Puritianism is extended to Huckleberry Finn, how much further will it go? Will there be any stopping the “purification” of all literature to fit the Purtians’ image? Will more publishers of Huckleberry Finn join in the censorship of offensive terms? If so, which books will be next? Which authors will be denied publication because of offending the thought police who infect the literary and academic worlds? When did authors have to write about perfect characters who never use offensive terms?

In the past the main danger of censorship has been from the right. Today the danger is from the radical left, the post-Marcusian Marxists who desire to change the culture by force of law if necessary. The problem is that by hiding the truth of the bad aspects of human nature, these censors may only allow these bad traits to smolder underneath the surface of society until they explode in unhealthy ways. This effort of censorship of Huck Finn should be nipped in the bud now before it spreads to other literature.

Fundamentalists and Afterdeath Communication

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Comfort in Grief

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I listened to a fine talk tonight at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina by Louis LaGrand on extraordinary experiences of those grieving a loved one. Many of these individuals have an experience of the loved one communicating with them, ranging from an intuition of the deceased person’s presence to a full-body apparition carrying on a conversation with the surviving loved one. Many people who have such experiences, which as LaGrand noted, are really “ordinary” rather than “extraordinary” (millions of people have them) are given a cold shoulder by fundamentalists from two camps: the religious and the secular.

Secular fundamentalists who accept materialism as their religion would reject such experiences as subjective hallucinations. No matter what veridical evidence the grieving person offered, the secular fundamentalist would automatically reject it. These secular fundamentalists are often college and university professors who should be open minded, but who would not hesitate to ostracize or even threaten the job of an academic who dares to take these experiences as possibly objective or real. If secular fundamentalists are wrong about exceptional experiences being hallucinatory only, then their entire world view would be undermined. Their religious faith in secularism would be destroyed. And since many secularists are still in adolescent rebellion against an overly rigid religious upbringing, they will insist that any evidence contrary to their own views is invalid, the facts be damned.

The same is true of religious fundamentalists. Protestant fundamentalists, for example, will say, “The Bible says the dead don’t contact us and we shouldn’t contact them. If anything does contact us, it’s probably a demon rather than a loved one.” Of course they ignore Samuel’s vision of Saul rising up from Sheol, but they claim that was a one-time exception due to the permission of God.

The ignorance of Christian fundamentalists lies primarily in their claiming to know more than they really do. How do they know what state human souls are in between death and resurrection? How do they know whether the Biblical injunctions against mediumship and communication with the dead applied to such practices in pagan religious circles? How do they know that God would not give permission to a deceased individual, in certain cases, to communicate with a living person who needs comfort? I have always been impressed by the intellectual pretense and arrogance of fundamentalism, both Christian and secular. Both ignore the possibility that deceased loved ones may indeed be contacting their grieving friends and relatives. Both ignore a potential way through exceptional experiences to comfort the grieving in their loss.

Don’t “Throw out the Baby with the Bathwater” in Christianity

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Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

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Education can be a painful experience for those who are brought up in Fundamentalist Christianity, especially if they are exposed to evolutionary biology and/or to historical-critical Biblical studies. A surprising number of seminary students graduate either as atheists, agnostics, or as liberal Protestants or Roman Catholics who believe few if any of the standard teachings of Christianity such as the bodily resurrection of Christ.

For me, seminary almost destroyed my faith–and this was a theologically conservative seminary! When I was exposed to historical critical study of the Bible, my former belief in the inerrancy of the Bible in all areas, including science and history, became a thing of the past. And the growing evidence for biological evolution, including evidence for human evolution, convinced me that my literal understanding of Genesis was flawed. When I graduated in 1986, I was an agnostic on the existence of God.

My journey back to faith began with reading the writings of Peter Kreeft and C. S. Lewis. These theologically conservative Christians were neither strict Biblical inerrantists, nor did they deny the findings of modern science. C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, even stated that he believed many of the miracles of the Old Testament were myth and probably did not actually happen. My journey culminated in 1988, when I became a member of the Anglican Catholic Church. Their belief is that the Bible is inerrant in all things necessary for salvation; this does not require absolute inerrancy regarding science or history. And since tradition and reason are used to interpret scripture, the Church sets the limits of required belief–the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds and the dictates of the seven ecumenical councils up to Nicea II in 787. What cannot be proven from scripture (as interpreted through the lens of tradition) cannot be required for salvation. So belief in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the general resurrection of all mankind are essential teachings of the church. But absolute Biblical inerrancy on scientific and historical matters are not. It becomes possible to be both theologically conservative and a non-Fundamentalist on scripture. The Church is also open to the best science of the day; it does not deny biological evolution. Evolution is thought to be the method God used to guide the development of life on earth. Creation and evolution, therefore, are not contrary to one another, but complementary.

Too many Fundamentalists give up their faith when faced with education rather than considering a third alternative. But accepting a strong doctrine of the teaching office of the Church (as do Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and traditional Anglicans) does offer a third way between Fundamentalism and liberal theology. Don’t throw out the baby of traditional Christian faith with the bathwater of nonessential opinions.