Mar 20 2010

There Are Stupid Questions

From Debunking Christianity:

Tell us. What would you believe? THAT is the question. My claim is that biblical criticism is an undercutting defeater for what Christians believe such that without the Bible they would become agnostics and then afterward possibly atheists. At that point they would see the arguments for the existence of God as little more than a shell game.

How would you respond?


Mar 17 2010

Peter Hitchens: The Rage Against God

Peter Hitchens, well-known journalist, author and brother to outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, has just written a book entitled The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith.   Here’s a short trailer:

And from the back cover:

With unflinching openness and intellectual honesty, Hitchens describes the personal loss and philosophical curiosity that led him to burn his Bible at prep school and embrace atheism in its place. From there, he traces his experience as a journalist in Soviet Moscow, and the critical observations that left him with more questions than answers, and more despair than hope for how to live a meaningful life. With first-hand insight into the blurring of the line between politics and the Church, Hitchens reveals the reasons why an honest assessment of Atheism cannot sustain disbelief in God. In the process, he provides hope for all believers who, in the words of T. S. Eliot, may discover ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

This should prove interesting.


Jan 16 2010

Exploring the Twain 7: Eastern Orthodoxy and Universalism

This is not one of the issues on my list, but I have run across a couple of articles and podcasts concerning the issue of universalism, so I thought I’d talk about it while I was in the mood. Universalism is essentially the belief that when it’s all over, everyone will end up saved (to use Western vernacular).

Universalism is a concept that has popped up time and again over Christianity’s history, and sometimes it is thought that the idea has some relationship to Eastern Orthodoxy as some of the Church Fathers (many of whom are not unique to the Eastern Church) seem to lean in that direction. However, one doesn’t have to subscribe to any Eastern theology in order to believe in universalism.  C.S. Lewis, for example, dealt with the possibility in his story The Great Divorce, at the point the George MacDonald character is introduced (it is the MacDonald character who espouses universalism; Lewis was not a universalist).

The question of “will everyone be saved” is very closely related to the question of man’s free will (and I’m not talking Arminianism vs. Calvinism here), especially in an Eastern context.  Contrary to the Augustinian/Dantean concept of Hell (to which most in the West subscribe), the Eastern Church believes that eternal punishment as well as eternal reward are both found in God’s love.  That is, God himself is both Heaven and Hell, light and darkness. To grasp this you must also understand the Orthodox concept of theosis, the process of becoming united with God.  All men are destined to find themselves eventually in God’s presence; whether they will find paradise or torment is their response to God’s love.  (Lewis’ concept in The Great Divorce was that hell was a place created out of mercy, as it would be worse for some to find themselves forced to be in God’s presence.)

One of the Church Fathers who is often seen as leaning toward universalism is Origen (185-254 A.D.), as he proposed that no one could refuse God’s love forever:

Stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him, and this healing He applies, according to the will of God, to everyman. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…to quote Zephaniah: “My determination to gather the nations, that I am assemble the kings, to pour upon them mine indignation, even say all my fierce anger, for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent”…Consider carefully the promise, that all shall call upon the Name of the Lord, and serve him with one consent.

This, however, was eventually condemned by the Orthodox Church (5th Ecumenical Council?) as not allowing for man’s free will; for if God is not resistible, then man truly does not have free will. As the Eastern Church has strongly affirmed a belief in free will, any sort of universalism has been rejected.

That being said, various Orthodox theologians (in the Western sense) still sound as if they are leaning toward universalism, including Bartholomew, the current Ecumenical Patriarch. Bartholomew’s recent book Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today contains a number of comments that, while not specifically supporting universalism, certainly makes a person wonder.  I should mention that he does specifically support the concept of free will, so presumably he resists the irresistibility of God’s love.

A Preview of Theosis

I will talk about theosis in a different post, but here it is in a nutshell: Theosis is similar to the Western concept of sanctification, that we are being not only drawn toward God, but are becoming Christlike – actually becoming like God (but not in essence).  Bartholomew makes the point in his book (p.143) that all men are being drawn to God (not just all Christians) along with the entire cosmos. If this is the case, then all men will eventually be faced with God’s love (I totally reject the whole Calvinist, God’s-wrath thing, so don’t bother going there).  At this point, the Orthodox – if I understand it correctly – believe that all men will either respond affirmatively to God’s love, or be hardened (finding their own hell in the presence of God).

Simply Irresistible

Personally, I am fairly impressed with the argument that God’s love may be irresistible; while certainly we can resist the dim reflection of reality that we presently have, can we resist seeing God’s love first-hand?  Does man’s free will have to be an equal match for the attractiveness of God’s love?

The Orthodox, more than any tradition, uphold a belief in the absolute free will of man; obviously the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions don’t, if they believe man cannot withstand the power of evil (e.g Luther’s Bondage of the Will).  If God’s love is more powerful than evil, then it goes without saying that in at least the Calvinist tradition, God must choose to withhold his love in order for man to be damned. I will point out the obvious contradiction here that God has stated specifically that it is his “will that all men be saved.”  Luther finally realized that God must approach us out of love, not wrath, and also began to grasp the concept of theosis, although he didn’t have a clearly defined theology of such.

No, the only way I can think of to completely rule out the possibility of universal salvation is the position that man has been given a unique, equal-to-God free will, or that God’s own grace empowers man to resist God.  It is interesting that no matter how you approach it, it seems that if man can resist God, it turns out that God’s wrath is actually his mercy, a la The Great Divorce.  Mercy!  However, this still does not explain the promise that one day “every knee shall bow” (Romans 14:11) or Origen’s Zephaniah passage.

Other Questions Relating to Universalism

Reading Bartholomew’s book raised other questions that relate to the concept of universalism, though perhaps not in the ultimate sense.  For one thing, Bartholomew hints that people of other other religions – especially Jews and Muslims – are responding to the revelation of God in their own way. In a section where he is discussing the things we hold in common with the other monotheistic religions he writes:

… we are obligated humbly to demonstrate a profound mutual respect, which allows our fellow human beings to journey on their own personal path to God, as they understand the will of God, without interfering with the journey of anyone else. (p.189)

After quoting from the Koran (“Truth emanates from God”), he states that “God first chooses to open dialogue with us … in many different and unique ways.” (p.190) What he means by this is not entirely clear; on one hand he is talking about the peaceful coexistence of the different religions, but on the other, he seems to be saying more.

While he says that the Orthodox invite everyone into one faith, he is against proselytizing, end of story.  To him, the Orthodox witness is to continue doing the liturgy and being silent:

Such faith can never be propagated or proselytized. … The only viable means of spreading the Gospel, at least in the Orthodox Christian view, is the cultivation of one’s own soul in order to become sufficiently spacious to embrace all people. (p. 142)

This approach, however, seems to differ quite significantly from many of the American Orthodox teachers I have heard, who are more mission oriented, as well as from the Apostolic witness we have in both the New Testament and elsewhere.

Bartholomew is totally sold on the apophatic way of life, which seems to have some negative consequences.  The failure to define Christianity in a positive (cataphatic) sense leaves so much open that Orthodoxy – while strongly preserving their Tradition – seems at times to sound almost Buddhist, or at least Unitarian.  At least, this is my impression from reading Bartholomew.  I will deal more specifically with some of these issues at a later time.

Conclusion?

While Orthodoxy hints at times at universal salvation, they officially reject it, although certainly seem to allow for some type of conversion process (they would not use that term) after death.  The key point for the Orthodox is that man is given the final opportunity to reject God’s love.

As always, I admit a flawed understanding, and welcome comments, corrections, and so on.


Jan 7 2010

Why believe in Christianity?

It seems that I just can’t stop reading the terribly unimaginative things that most atheists blog about; for me, it’s like watching a train wreck.  I just have this morbid fascination.  Perhaps it is more of a fascination with modernism, as atheism – or at least materialism, which results in atheism – is a logical conclusion.  I use “logical” here not to agree that materialism is logical, but to say that if you start down that road based on the false premises of modernism, materialism  and atheism are expected destinations.

This morning I happened across an article called Vetting Supernatural Knowledge by Matt McCormick on his blog Atheism: Proving the Negative that I at least found interesting. He begins

I frequently get accused of making the mistake of narrow mindedly demanding empirical proof for things that are not empirical, tangible evidence for the intangible, or applying scientific standards of proof to all knowledge claims when not all knowledge is empirical or scientific.

He goes on to explain how Christians typically argue that atheists ask for material proofs of the supernatural, which by definition is non-material.  He thinks this is changing the subject, and explains that asking for reasons for belief is not asking for material proof:

In looking for an answer to this question, the atheist does not need to insist, at least in principle, that the only way to acquire knowledge of the world is by empirical or scientific means. We can grant that this supernatural, subjective, or non-empirical knowledge is possible. A lot of things are possible, and we’d be foolish to try to argue for their impossibility on the basis of insufficient information.

Matt is the one of the few atheists I’ve read to actually recognize this point, which is a very good one. The problem with Matt’s point is that the vast majority of modern atheists are materialists, and they typically ask for empirical proof.  So, in response to most atheists, there is no changing the topic; it’s a very valid response to the demand, “Show me scientific proof!”

So if the theist has another method for learning about the reality of God, we’re prepared in principle to accept that. First issue: if it is not something publicly tangible that can be experienced by the rest of us, what is that method? Is it a voice in your head? A strong feeling? A powerful sense of presence? An overwhelming awareness of a transcendental reality? Something ineffable? Do you come by that knowledge by praying? By thinking? By talking to yourself? Do these ideas come to you when you get yourself into an altered state by fasting? Hallucinogenic drugs? Chanting or meditating? Does it feel like what you figure being overcome by the Holy Spirit must feel like?

Second issue: What are the criteria that you are employing to determine the reliability of this method to acquire supernatural knowledge? How can we tell when the voices or the feelings are lies?

Now, at least, we have something to discuss, although Matt is still a modernist, and still would like everything to fit neatly into one or more boxes.

Last week I came across a passage in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy that is perhaps the best response I have seen to the question why does one believe in Christianity.  While opposing turn-of-the-Century British Modernism, he maintains that he is still a rationalist, and so provides a very rational answer:

If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, “For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.” I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion. Now, the non-Christianity of the average educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.

Chesterton’s book is well worth reading, so I won’t quote any more here.  If you don’t mind the lack of formatting, the book is available online here.

While science has indeed progressed since Chesterton’s day, man’s intelligence hasn’t, and Chesterton’s thoughts are as pertinent now as ever.