Reproduced below is an email exchange from a week ago, between me and someone who wishes to remain anonymous. I responded to this person by interspersing comments into the text of his/her first email to me. (I broke up the paragraphing for easier reading, and am using Mark Harris's practice of putting long quotes in a different color.) I'm posting this with the other person's permission, with certain identifying details redacted.
I get emails like this every so often. There are more than a few people like this out there. As putative followers of Jesus, part of our job, I believe, is to try to help these folks to take baby steps — which might be very difficult for them — in the direction of God.
First, I'd like to thank you for your wonderful website ... I've been reading through it today, and it is helping me make some decisions on my faith.
Just to give you a little background on myself, I'm a XXXX living in XXX. Although I was baptized, I was raised in XXXX by agnostic / atheist parents [...] who generally scoffed at the idea of God.
Generally that led to me growing up in the same vein, although I didn't really think of the implications of an agnostic lifestyle until early adulthood.
Around that time, I considered the subject more, and I would say that throughout my 20s I vacillated between a belief in some sort of "spirituality" and fairly strong agnosticism.
I should also say that I'm highly scientifically minded, and have had a very difficult time accepting many of the stories as set forth by the Bible or the belief in a God that I could not scientifically verify.
For whatever reason, over the past few months (and certainly more so, weeks) I've once again become interested in the topic, so I launched a full-scale research effort.
I've looked down various atheist rationales, read the theories of some philosophers and looked at religion (mostly Christianity).
Unfortunately, most religions simply do not seem to acknowledge reality and what science has taught us.
That being said, I think that your visions of Christianity and religion reconcile rather nicely with modern science. The Big Bang does seem to me to indicate some variety of beginning.
So, as I first mentioned, I'd like to thank your for you website. I don't know how much "faith" I truly have, but as you present it, God seems plausible to me, and I'd like to explore further. At the very least, it is comforting. [DCT: Thanks!]
I have a few questions that I was hoping you could help me answer, if not, I understand. [DCT: I’ll try ….]
How do you reconcile all of the unconverted souls throughout history with Christianity? ... [H]ow do you envision them fitting in under your vision of God?
[DCT RESPONSE: I don’t worry about that. Orthodox Christians claim that to be saved, you have to believe X, Y, and Z (for example, that Jesus is God Incarnate and his suffering and death atoned for the sins of mankind). Jesus, on the other hand, reportedly told the inquiring scholar of the Law, in essence (Luke 10:25-37), that if he followed the Summary of the Law, then he’d live eternally — “do this and you will live.”
Inasmuch as we can’t control whether we ‘love’ God and our neighbor (at least I can’t), I usually paraphrase the Summary of the Law as entailing:
• striving to put God first — which entails, among other things, as best we can, facing the facts of the reality he wrought, along with keeping in mind that whatever God might be, we ain’t it; and
• seeking the best for others as we do for ourselves.
It seems to me that on the whole, individuals and groups that follow these two basic principles are far more likely to have their descendants survive to reproductive age, and for their cultures to continue being practiced.
In other words, in emphasizing the Summary of the Law, Jesus put his finger on what I think is a crucial part of the fundamental fabric of Creation.
Getting back to the question of the afterlife: It also seems to me that a super-intelligent Creator, who set up so many interacting natural processes that have produced us, his ‘created co-creators’ (in the words of Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner), would not just consign us to nothingness when we die.
Why? Because eventually we’d figure out that there was no future for us after this life. That would be pretty demotivating, no? Such demotivation likely would make us of little further use in the continuing creation.
That might be just fine with God, but in the absence of evidence to that effect, I’ll go with my speculation that he won’t just discard us like so much used sandpaper.
By no means do I assert that for sure this is what’s happening; I just say it’s as plausible as any scenario posited by the virulent atheists.
In any case, life is full of gambles. The evidence appears pretty compelling that the Creator has set things up so that, on the whole (and not without horrible exceptions), life doesn’t seem too terrible for us, and it seems to be getting better over time.
I’m willing to gamble on trusting the Creator that, in the very long term, things will work out OK for all of us.]
Also, I have always had a difficult time understanding how mentally impaired people fit into the religious fold. In instances of schizophrenia for instance, who is the soul?
[DCT RESPONSE: I don’t worry about that either – “it is what it is”; see also the response above about life after death.]
Perhaps these questions are too mundane, but I'm trying to reconcile these ideas with a Christian view of God.
[DCT RESPONSE: If by the Christian view of God you mean the Trinity, who (sometimes) answers prayers, rewards the ‘good,’ and punishes the ‘bad,’ I place that view in the same category as the Ptolemaic view of the universe: it explains a few things in an OK way, but ultimately it’s unsatisfactory.
Also, I've briefly looked at the churches in my neighborhood, and most appear to be fairly traditional in the teachings of Christianity. Do you know how I could find some that are more along the progressive lines that you seem to represent?
[DCT RESPONSE: ... If I were starting from scratch, I’d look at the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalists (although from what I’ve read, the UUs have been pretty much captured by the atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, etc., and theists are made to feel like a distinctly-uncomfortable minority).
As it happens, I’m an Episcopalian and can’t see that changing, even though we’re far from perfect. If you haven’t already done so, you might look at my blog posting Why I Still Call Myself a Christian and an Episcopalian.]
Finally, is it ok for me to reach out to a priest in a local church to discuss these ideas, or would he / she be upset with my uncertainty of faith?
[DCT RESPONSE: By all means! Keep in mind that there are great priests like my rector (in the blog posting just cited, I tell a story about one of our conversations), but there are also some real duds, who get threatened if you even suggest that their worldview might be suboptimal. If you run across one of the latter, don’t get discouraged.]
D.C., I think on the whole, a commendable response. My differences would be where you would expect them, principally flowing from the observation that while you see creation as unfinished, and will be completed, I see it as broken, and will be mended. Thus, I see Christianity as dealing, not just with “what is a Good life like” but with our very paltry success at actually living by the Summary (As an aside, I quite like your paraphrase), why we can’t seem to get it right, what are the consequences of that broken state, and how does that get fixed?
I also think it possible to understand a “Christian view of God” in a bit more nuanced way, but such are the differences.
To summarize what I think I read:
-There is a Creator/God , who is trustworthy, interested, and purposeful.
-I do well when if I acknowledge reality, truth and God as external to me, and as having a claim to at least recognition.
-There are claims, external to my wants, which are valid “oughts”
As a statement of theological axioms, from which all others flow, I think I would be quite content.
The courses down which that river flows, and the reliability of the extant maps are of course open for discussion!
Posted by: R. Eric Sawyer | October 11, 2008 at 03:46 PM
I admire your belief that life “… seems to be getting better over time.” I believe, however, that accepting this as a premise increases the plausibility of there being no afterlife. Here’s why:
The reason you give to the question of why God “would not just consign us to nothingness when we die” is that the realization of no afterlife would de-motivate us, making us of little use in God’s “continuing creation.”
IMHO, the fact that “things seem to be getting better and better” begs the following question: If God’s “continuing creation” seems to be making progress, and we can play a part in helping God to realize this goal, would we really need further motivation to make life worth living?
People working together, making the world a better place, are collectively producing a better world for generations to come. Perhaps we should consider the meaning of “living forever” in a terms of the fruits of our labor, our deeds, our words, our children, their children, and so on… Perhaps that this is how God intends us to “live forever”.
Thus, there is no need to posit the existence of a “life everlasting” to answer the question of “what is the meaning of life” or “why should I care about making it a great day today”.
The above is also supported as the more plausible alternative by the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever of any continued existence beyond our molecules being physically recycled. [God is not wasteful enough to “consign us to nothingness when we die”: God recycles us (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) after we have served our purpose here on Earth.]
Perhaps we are nothing more than what we appear to be: beings with the ability to reason, aspire, strive, and work together to make the world a better place for our successors. Our life here is the only one we have, so we should make the best of it. Perhaps, that makes life even more precious and valuable – both to us and in the eyes of God – precisely because we only have a limited time and do not have an immortal soul. Why isn’t this vision enough to motivate us in the here and now? Why is only an immortal life one that is worth living?
As for me, I don’t find this “demotivating” in the slightest. Even if God where some crazy cosmic scientist that created the universe with no ultimate purpose at all, of even if there were no God and the Universe just popped into being one day – or perhaps always existed [See Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang, by Steinhardt & Turok for an interesting new scientific alternative to the Big Bang theory] I am a motivated, happy liver of life, working to make the world a better place, for me and for generations to come, with no need for the promise in live everlasting. [Although, I’d take immortality if it was an option! ] For me, the knowledge that I am not immortal – that this is the only life I’ve got – makes it even more precious.
Posted by: Eric Pulaski | November 02, 2008 at 12:45 PM
Eric Pulaski writes: 'If God’s “continuing creation” seems to be making progress, and we can play a part in helping God to realize this goal, would we really need further motivation to make life worth living?'
I feel pretty much the same way you do: Even if oblivion awaited us, I think I'd die happy if I felt I'd made some infinitesimal contribution during my lifetime.
But I think we have to chalk that feeling up as a personal preference. I don't have a strong sense that a lot of people would be motivated by that alone.
Eric writes: "... there is no evidence whatsoever of any continued existence beyond our molecules being physically recycled."
I'm not so sure about that. Post-mortem 'sightings' are not unheard of, including in my own family, who are not prone to hysteria. (Most of us, anyway ... <g>) See a blog posting I did a couple of years ago, Resurrection Appearances: What Did the Disciples Really Experience? The available evidence doesn't compellingly support the notion of an afterlife, by any means. But it does suggest that we don't know enough to categorically rule out the possibility.
Thanks for stopping by, Eric.
Posted by: | November 02, 2008 at 02:49 PM