Existentialism, Conspiracy Theories, and the Kingdom of God

I am no expert on philosophy, by a long shot. I’ve always been a philosopher of sorts, I’ve just not studied enough to qualify as an expert on anyone else’s philosophy. If I had to categorize my own philosophy by other’s criteria, I suppose I would be considered a Christian existentialist, a la Søren Kierkegaard. Although, he would likely disagree with me in many ways.

The whole concept of existentialism (summarized to the point of error), is that the world is absurd (as other existentialists claim) or paradoxical, as Kierkegaard claimed. Both words work, I think. The world, in it’s current state, does not make logical sense and you cannot derive your meaning in life from the world we live in. In itself, the world cannot provide a meaningful narrative by which to live. For example, if we were to accept a Darwinian mentality, or more precisely, one based in genetics, we find no individual purpose in merely evolutionary terms, and any choice we think we possess is but an illusion. We even have to question our choice of narrative; some have even suggested that a belief in God is an evolutionary trait.

Even some who believe in a creator/god will argue that history is written beforehand, and the world as we perceive it is all scripted as in The Matrix–including whether we go red pill or blue pill. Again, it’s a narrative that gives no meaning to our lives. Score one for non-Christian existentialism. Life is absurd, deal with it.

The concept of either being merely a product of the universe or controlled in some other way seems to be entirely un-Biblical, and is not much fun. However, it does absolve us from any personal responsibility to succeed or for being a failure. For some, this is a positive, I guess. At best, we go on playing out our roles as we were programmed to do, as characters in a daily soap opera, eagerly awaiting the upcoming plot twists. If we don’t like our character’s story arc, we can blame genetics, the universe, or god (whichever one you want).

Kierkegaard, famously, talked about the “leap to faith” or “leap into faith” (not “of” as typically quoted). As I understand him, he believed that while we cannot derive meaning from simply being, we come to an existential cliff of sorts, and have to leap into a better narrative. For him, that was a faith in God. Sartre thought he was nuts and leapt elsewhere. Some just merely went with the flow of absurdity for the fun (or despair) of it.

Conspiracy Theories

Most people don’t think about it all that much, or perhaps not at all. Life is what it is, and, as Shakespeare wrote,

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…

“As You Like It”

“It is what it is,” of course, works in many narratives, including an existential acceptance of the world. We live and we die, and we make the most of what’s in between. However, to do that, we must create for ourselves a working narrative to avoid insanity. Sometimes that calls for creating a certain type of narrative in which we appear sane, at least to ourselves.

A few days ago I ran across an interesting article from Time Magazine which stated:

According to a pair of new studies published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, conspiracy theorists—and there are a lot more of them than you may think—tend to have one thing in common: they feel a lack of control over their lives.

So far, this makes sense. In an absurdist or paradoxical universe, the perceptive among us realize that yes, we have no control over what is going on around us. However, as I just mentioned, we need a sense of control to avoid insanity. The article goes on to say:

Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. “The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality,” van Prooijen says.

Thus, a belief in conspiracy theories. If we aren’t in control, someone else must be, and there must be some way we can retain some individual control. They are, essentially, bedtime stories that help people feel in control, or at least a sense of purpose and meaning, in a world that is seemingly out of control.

I think that personality cults exist for the same reason, perhaps in response to a certain conspiracy narrative. Someone needs to be in control, so it’s either Donald Trump, or the “deep state.” I find it interesting how many people believe in both, and because the deep state represents evil, the binary choice is a die-hard commitment to Trump.

While I may be off on the nuances, in general I think this is all a response to what we refer to as “existential dread.” That is, the feeling that the universe is random, absurd, and totally out of control, and us with it.

The Kingdom of God

Now, here’s where I get a bit hypothetically theological. That is, I am willing to accept I am wrong here, but to me this makes sense.

The Kingdom of God (alternatively, the Kingdom of Heaven, as appears in Matthew), was the focus of Jesus’ ministry on Earth (up until he died for the sins of the world). It’s normally defined as the state of being ruled by God, or the place or state where God is ruling (aka in control). This is what the Gospel of Mark has to say about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Mark 1:14 15 (ESV)

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he would teach, “the Kingdom is like this” or “the Kingdom of God is like that.” He contrasted any earthly activity with Kingdom activity. Jesus was building a new narrative about what it was like to live as a resident of God’s Kingdom, in response to a world order that didn’t represent God’s Kingdom, and as opposed to any earthly worldview. He spoke against religious legalism, he spoke against political rebellion, and he spoke against relying on money or power. As Jacques Ellul wrote, Jesus taught us to live “upside down.” He taught that the greatest in the Kingdom was the least, the meek, the lowly, the sinners–not those who claimed power or authority.

While I believe in the traditional concept of the Kingdom of God–as living as an authentic citizen of Heaven–I am seeing that Jesus presented this as an existential narrative, in contrast to other means of dealing with an absurd (sinful) world. At the edge of the cliff, with the absurd universe at our backs, Jesus encouraged us to make a leap into the Kingdom narrative, leaving all other narratives behind.

Faith in politicians? “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Earthly power? “Take the lowest seat at the table.” And what about the need for security in an absurd world?

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Matthew 6:25-33 (ESV)

Jesus never merely preached a simple “get saved and live forever in heaven” sermon. He let many people go without ever preaching the “gospel” message, or even telling them who he was. It was almost as if that weren’t crucial to his message, or to his purpose.

What Jesus did, to my understanding at this point, was to provide the one true narrative, the “narrow gate,” the truth that will set us free (John 8:32). This message is not just for our eternal destiny, but it has real-time applications. It is a working existential narrative. We should be living in this “upside down” narrative now, in order to be free of the absurdity around us. This is the beginning of the process of “being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18).”

Competing narratives

This narrative, by the way, is in opposition to some existing “Christian” narratives, many of which are popular in America and elsewhere. Fundamentalism is a competing narrative, as well as much of what calls itself evangelicalism. You can tell simply be comparing what is taught and demonstrated to what Jesus taught. Simple enough.

There are also a variety of prosperity narratives, “Christian” political narratives, and various supernatural narratives. All of these are self-focused (more power, more money, more prestige, more privilege), and are contrary to the basic Kingdom narrative. As a wise man once said, “not by might, not by power..”

I believe we have choice. We can choose the narrative by which we live. As Jesus taught, we have the ability to choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of men. I also believe that we are faced with many distractions, as you would in a paradoxical world, and Jesus also talked about being focused and ready, and not distracted by false teachers and prophets. We shall know them by their fruit, and their fruitcakes…

Wrap-up

Now, when I talk about making a leap to the Kingdom of God, I’m not talking about being “saved” in the classic, evangelical sense, going to Heaven when you die. I don’t care if you prayed a “sinner’s prayer”–that doesn’t automatically mean you’re living the Kingdom narrative. No, I’m talking about being “saved” in the midst of absurdity, living the Kingdom of God narrative here and now. The Gospel that Jesus taught had immediate, real-world benefits that foreshadow eternity.

Making a wrong leap will leave you swimming in absurdity, trying to make sense of the chaos. Conspiracy theories, political “saviors,” fluctuating retirement portfolios, and the rest, are all false narratives. In fact, I would simply call them idols. There’s no eternal benefit to putting faith in them, and likely no immediate benefit either, just more absurdity and uncertainty.

In an absurd, paradoxical, uncertain world, we are faced with a number of absurd narratives. I believe that Jesus presented the only valid, true narrative for surviving in the midst of chaos, one which stands against the false narratives of politics and society; and that narrative makes it fairly easy to make leap after leap, remaining in the Kingdom (mindset) of Heaven.

Jonah, the whale, the Ninevites, and the far right

There’s a story in the bible about this guy named Jonah. You’ve likely heard of him. And, you’ve likely heard of his encounter with a whale, or big fish, or the Loch Ness Monster. Whatever. This story is largely immaterial; it’s a preamble, like The Hobbit is to Lord of the Rings. However, unlike LOTR, most people never get to the important part of Jonah.

The whole whale incident was because Jonah was very reluctant to go and preach hell and damnation to the people of Nineveh. After he was thrown into the sea by frightened fishermen, swallowed by something, then spat out onto a beach smelling of dead fish, he had a change of heart, and went off to preach.

After he got done doing his Jonathan Edwards bit, lo and behold, the Ninevites repented! You’d think Jonah would have a bit of job satisfaction, or even pride at his powerful delivery, but no–he was torqued. He had really been looking forward to God smiting those guys, and after all he went through, he was ready for some real fire and brimstone. But, God forgave them, because after all, they repented.

So…

Lately I’ve been reading and listening to some of the far right political nonsense, and the attitude started reminding me of the Jonah story. I’m not correlating liberals with Nineveh, or anything like that, and definitely not suggesting that the far right have been asked by God to preach whatever they’re preaching. What I’m noticing is the tribalistic attitude. With Jonah, it was him and God against the Ninevites (whether they repented or not); with the far right, it’s them and God against the liberals/Democrats, whether they’re right or not.

It’s pure tribalism. If a Democrat did anything that a Republican would have done a couple of years ago, it’s still socialist evil. It doesn’t matter that Bush, Bush, or Reagan did or said the same thing. If a Democrat says it, it’s evil, and they need to be destroyed. It seems that Democrats could even agree with the Republicans, but somehow they’d still be wrong.

Two can play…

I know that you’re already out there thinking, “Democrats do the same thing!” and, yes, they do. Tribalism runs both ways, and it’s always wrong (at least the attitude). Tribalism is nothing more than a big ad hominem–judging the man rather than the argument.

However, most liberals I know would gladly agree with a conservative–even a far-right conservative–should they be on the same side of any issue. I’ve even spoken positively about Trump the 2 or 3 times he did something I could support. It’s not common, but he has made a couple of good calls in the last 3 years. And, there are quite a number of Republicans who have said and done good things, and that needs to be celebrated.

The far-right media, however–Fox, Breitbart, and dozens of youtube nutjobs–have created such a divisive situation that for a Republican to ever agree with a liberal (heaven forbid Obama!) would be tantamount to treason. The result is the same kind of tribalistic attitude that our friend Jonah had about the Ninevites.

And the moral of the story…

If we are ever going to get back to working together, we (all of us) need to stop demonizing those different from us. At least listen to what they’re saying and judge the words, not your emotions. Don’t be like Jonah. No one wants to hang around with someone who smells like dead fish.

So you think you have free will?

I’ve been thinking again, this time about the nature of free will as it applies to salvation (following up on my last post)–specifically, the concept of universal salvation. The basic Christian concept of universal salvation, that is, the concept of universal salvation in the context of Christianity, is that Christ died for all. There are a number of Bible passages that would support this, including:

This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…

1 Timothy 2:3-6

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…

John 3:16

and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

2 Corinthians 5:15

To name a few.

back to free will

The fact that not all agree with the concept is pretty obvious, and there are reasons for those disagreements. My personal assessment is that the “ayes” outweigh the “nays,” but that’s beside the point (for now).

Believing that God will “save” everyone, whether they like it or not, logically means that free will when it comes to salvation is illusory. I should mention that Calvinists also teach that whether you are saved or not is solely up to God’s will, but that He only chooses to save some. (This ugly teaching is, I believe, based on some very evil theology, but that, too, is an issue for another time.)

It is natural for us, especially those born into the Cartesian, Western world, to have a viscerally negative response to this concept. What do you mean, we don’t control our own destiny? How can God be so presumptuous? We are not puppets!

Now, both philosophers and scientists have been dealing with this issue of free will on secular levels, which is interesting, but not necessarily relevant to this discussion, as we’re dealing specifically with God’s will versus man’s will. (Clue, I think God has the advantage here.) So, let’s set aside the question of whether what we have for breakfast is a choice or scripted by either God or genetics.

The issue of whether or not we have the freedom to choose to be “saved” or not needs to be viewed in the context of a few undeniable truths:

  • We had absolutely no say in our own birth. None. We all were incepted, and about 9 months later, hello world.
  • We did not choose our parents. Seriously. Totally out of our hands.
  • We didn’t have any say on when we were born. You could have been a cave dweller, but instead, you have iPhones.
  • We had no input into where we were born. Proud to be an American? You had nothing to do with it.
  • Ditto with race. Proud to be white? You should be thankful.

And the list goes on. Who you are, whether due to God’s specific input or genetics based on a totally random sperm making it first to an egg (I mean, think of the odds), was handed to you at birth.

So, already free will not in the race. Later on, we start being faced with choices. And now, the philosophical and scientific questions arise–what part of our choices are still tied to genetics?

Free what?

I personally (or impersonally) believe that we have a great deal of free will (and the philosopher in me asks, “is this belief programmed?”). And what about universal salvation? What if I don’t want to go to Heaven (for lack of a better term)?

I think of it this way: We are told that we live in an imperfect world, because mankind chose to exercise free will. So, God allows that, because it was our choice. He also allows the natural consequences of our choices to exist (war, hunger, etc.). But God has promised to put things right, by saving not only all of mankind, but creation itself. Why shouldn’t we all benefit from that?

The word for salvation, or saving, essentially means rescue. What would you think of a God who says he will only rescue a few that He picks? Or only those who ask the right way? Food for thought.

I think of salvation as healing. Jesus once asked a lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” The man may not have been sure; presumably, he made his living by begging, and laying near a spring that supposedly had healing powers. It was a good question… did he want to be healed, or did he really want to continue as he was? Maybe he didn’t know, or didn’t even have the capacity to choose at that point.

It’s something to think about. Do we want rescue/saving/healing? Do we even know, without being healed first?

When it comes right down to it, I think free will is highly over-rated.

Will the real Christian please stand up?

Christianity is weird

Christianity is a weird religion. I know, I’ve been a part of it for nearly 65 years. And don’t give me that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” crap–it’s a very real religion by any standards. And, it’s chock full of really weird people, who believe some really weird things. My goal, over the last several years, has been to de-weird it.

Actually, Christianity more than one religion, if you want to get right down to it. There is no way, for example, to look at the Eastern Orthodox churches and any American fundamentalist church and conclude they were the same religion. Yet, each considers themselves to be Christian (and would perhaps doubt the status of the other).

And beyond that, it’s clear to perhaps most non-Christians that Christianity is weird, but for many different reasons. From a modern perspective, the Eastern church as well as the Roman Catholic Church are weird due to their rituals, incense and chanting, and their apparent idolatry of odd paintings. The Protestant movement created new weirdness by making up their own rules and throwing out the books of the Bible they didn’t like. As the protestant church evolved into various streams of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and postmodernism, the rules changed even more.

Besides the rules, beliefs changed as well. Many contemporary churches don’t “confess” the historic creeds, and many contemporary church members (I’ll avoid the ‘C’ word for now) couldn’t even tell you what they are. Many are actually down-right heretics in what they believe about the nature of God. And trying to get any consensus on what the Bible means, or even is, is out of the question. It’s my guess that no 1st Century Christian would claim any evangelical church as Christian.

So how can Christianity be considered one religion? The only real commonality is a belief that there was a man named Jesus who was (more or less) the son of God (whatever that means), who taught a lot of good things and was crucified for either political, religious, or prophetic reasons. And, all hold that the Bible is important, was inspired to some extent (with the exception of those several books which are only accepted by half of the church), and may or may not be inerrant.

A little history

According to Acts 11:26, the disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch, where the church was rapidly growing. The word translated as “Christian” is “Christianus’ (English spelling) of a Greek word with a Latin suffix. The resulting word literally means “belonging to Christ,” denoting a possession / slave. The name was obviously adopted by the church as they thought it was appropriate.

So, who were these Christians? Did they accept the creeds of the church? No, because they hadn’t yet been written. So, did they believe the trinity? Probably not. In all likelihood, they were nearly all heretics by today’s standards, or even 4th Century standards. They probably had not contemplated the dual nature of Jesus (fully God and fully man), and some may not even have believed Jesus was “of the same substance as the Father.” Oh, dear.

In the 4th Century, various conflicts had arisen about the nature of Jesus (was he God or not?), so in 325AD what is known as the Nicean Council was held with all of the church leaders. They discussed, and argued, and at least one fist-fight broke out. At the end, they had drafted what is now known as the Nicean Creed, which stated the acceptable belief of the one universal church. Until that time, perhaps 1/3 of the church members were heretics, by post-Nicean standards.

“It’s the question that drives us”

So, were they, in fact, Christians? Or, in today’s evangelical parlance, were they “saved?”

This, then, begs the question: by what standard do we judge who is or who isn’t a Christian/saved?

As with many things Christians, it depends who you ask. Note that these are over-simplified summaries; please feel free to correct me on any points.

  • Eastern Orthodox: First, Orthodox theology does not translate well into western, modernist thought. That being said, the basic teaching of the Orthodox is that they are the only true Church, and that there is no salvation apart from the Church. Salvation is by grace, which comes through the sacraments (baptism, eucharist, etc.), and by cooperating with grace in doing good works. It’s a lifelong process, and there are no guarantees should one turn away from the Orthodox Church or faith.
  • Roman Catholic: The first splinter group, the RCC claims that it is the one, true, apostolic church, and that salvation comes through Jesus, the head, through the body, the church. This is through the sacraments, baptism, confession, and communion (eucharist). Non-catholics can be saved, but only because they are ignorant of the truth.
  • Lutherans: Lutherans believe, as taught by Martin Luther, than other we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ. Grace comes through faith, supplemented, as it were, by baptism and communion. Works do not add to our salvation. Salvation is available to all men, regardless of church membership.
  • Calvinism: Calvinists come in various stripes, but all believe that the saved are predestined. One cannot be saved if they weren’t predestined, but rather being saved is proof that you were predestined. There are disputes as to whether some are predestined for hell. In Calvinism, one can only be sure of their chosen status by persevering to the end (“eternal insecurity”).
  • Evangelicals: This is a large, hodge-podge of groups, which can include Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational groups. Typically, there is a rejection of predestination, and a belief that an individual needs to be converted from a sinful state to a Christian, by making a personal choice and confession of faith, followed by baptism (this order is important). There are disagreements about whether one can lose their salvation, or if they are “once saved, always saved.”

Now what?

So, how do we know that someone is a Christian? Is it because someone prayed a prayer “accepting” Jesus, or because they are a baptized member in good standing of a church? Is it someone who simply believes the right things? Or, is it something else?

Is, in fact, being “saved” and being a Christian the same thing?

The Bible contains some interesting passages, like this one from 1 John:

Beloved, love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:7,8

Or this one, from Jesus:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41-46

And there are plenty more texts which challenge many current beliefs about who (or who isn’t) being saved. Some read them exclusively, others see more inclusion. But, does this impact who is or isn’t a Christian?

Final thoughts

There are many from various diverse backgrounds, going back to the early church, who believe that “Heaven” (for lack of a better term) is available and open to all, including those who have believed differently than the standard Christian groups. Read the 1 John passage again, and think about it. Can a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim end up in Heaven if the love they show demonstrate that they “know God?”

I am one of those people who see a bigger salvation, a bigger God, a bigger love than the belief systems that focus on who doesn’t belong. However, I don’t believe that calling oneself a Christian has any meaning whatsoever in that respect.

If we go back to the original meaning of the word, I would propose that “Christian” applies to someone who belongs to, or is a slave of, Christ, regardless of whether they call themselves one or even believe in Jesus. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

“Christian,” then, would appear to be a functional or descriptive term rather than ontological. Or, we could say that the word “Christian” has a non-ontological meaning as well as an ontological one. I think with the way many who are labeled “Christians” act, we need to be aware of which sense of the word we are using, and not to confuse the two.

The key to knowing who is an ontological Christian, I propose, is that they demonstrate love and try to model their lives after the teachings of Jesus, as much as they are able. As the song goes, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Some have started to refer to themselves as “Red-letter Christians,” referring to those Bibles who put Jesus’ words in red. I find the term unwieldy, but I understand its use.

So does that mean that someone who claims to be a Christian but acts contrary to the basic teachings of Jesus not “saved?” I would never say that. God’s grace is unfathomable, and as 1 John 2:2 states, “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” All that we can say is certain words and actions do not reflect Christianity.