Note From a Pastor: Finding Meaning in Our Myths

WritingPenThis past weekend I got an email from a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) asking some really good questions, and I’d like to share them with you here in abbreviated form (with permission, of course). I think they’re good appetizers for a better-than-usual discussion about how faith and religion function in the world, and about the consequences (good or bad) of getting rid of them. What follows are excerpts which relay the gist of what he had to say.

Where Do You Get Your Morals?

My first question, though, is this:  What becomes the basis for moral action philosophically for you? I have read philosophers who have given various non-theistic reasons for ethical behavior, but ultimately I find them to be subjective (even, admittedly, as is my own faith).

I confess that part of my choosing to remain a Christian is its usefulness as moral motivation for ethical behavior. I’m not insinuating that atheists are immoral; they just have a harder basis for founding a system of ethics which is superior to a theistic argument. I’m curious how you found your ethics (I have found most atheists I have met to be ethical people, often morally better than most Christians). Did this take some time for you?

I believe you are correct when you point out that your own ethics are subjective, although it does make me wonder: Since you acknowledge that’s the case, why would you even feel the need to point out that non-theistic ethics are likewise subjective? If we’re all in the same boat, why make a point of saying we’re in a boat at all?

Perhaps your point there is to suggest that your particular subjectively fashioned framework for understanding the world simply works better in getting people from point A to point B? If that’s the case, we would still have to do some work to agree on what our measuring stick for that should be. Where exactly is this point B, and can we agree on what that would look like? You’ve already pointed out that you’ve seen how non-theists are perfectly capable of leading morally-guided lives, which means that their framework seems to “work” as well, at least for them.

But perhaps at that point we would get into a discussion about which worldview works for the largest number of people? That would be hard to tease out, as you have the distinct advantage of coming from a framework benefitting from centuries of legal, financial, and cultural privilege. Put differently, if your ethical system has been so historically favored that billions have lived under yours while only a tiny fraction of that number have lived under mine, how can we even fairly discuss what works for the most people? It’s going to be difficult to settle on a measuring stick according to sheer numbers.

I have more to say about how I “found” (or rather “am finding”) my ethics, and about whether or not theistic ethics are superior to non-religious ones, but I’ll have to build on that in the next conversation.

In case you may wonder about my own views of scripture, I take the Bible seriously, but not literally.  I have little need for the “five fundamentals of the Christian faith” that started the fundamentalist movement a hundred years ago. The Christian faith that I hold to is true because it addresses certain socioemotional needs most humans seem to have…  

My first reaction to this is: Of course it addresses socioemotional needs most humans have…that’s precisely how it came to have the form it currently has. The way I see it, your own relatively enlightened version of the Christian faith has been reversed engineered to do precisely that.

You know the old saying that we all have a God-shaped hole within us that can only be filled by a relationship with him? Well, there is another way of looking at it. Perhaps you have heard Douglas Adams‘s analogy of the puddle which decides the hole it sits in fits it so perfectly that the hole must have been fashioned to perfectly fit the puddle, rather than the other way around?

Along that same line, you will often hear me say that it’s not so much that we have a God-shaped hole as much as we have a hole-shaped God—our deities are created and continually re-created by us to meet the needs we feel—so of course we will consistently find that our gods fit our needs perfectly. That’s not a coincidence, but for exactly the opposite reasons than we naturally assume.

godshapedthumb

The student of history will note that gods evolve, including the Christian one. For example, back in the day Yahweh was all about wiping out populations and slaying the wicked, at one point ironically commanding that swords be run through children so they wouldn’t grow up to be child sacrificers—meaning people who run swords through children to appease deities. By contrast, the God of Jesus seems much nicer than that at points, but he also seems poised and ready to eternally torture people for things like the sin of wanting things too much.

But times have changed, and progressive Christian theology today rejects much of the biblical writers’ thinking as outdated and culturally conditioned (I agree with them). I would argue this only goes to show that our gods evolve along with us, changing form and personality to match the zeitgeist of each new generation, whether we admit it or not. But there are holdovers from the spirits of previous ages, which leads me to your next point:

Babies and Bathwater

…This is encased in a certain Jewish eschatological mythology which portrays “spiritual” (read: existential) truths we embrace.  For many (including me), this motivates an ethical concern for others and moral behavior.  (Not saying these are required for everyone, but it can be helpful for people struggling to overcome addiction, etc.)  We all need myth to create meaning.

I very much appreciate you making this point. I know C.S. Lewis was comfortable conceding that the Christian religion uses its own ancient “mythology” to inform modern life, and I’m personally willing to accept that mythology can be used as a tool for creating and communicating meaning irrespective of whether or not the stories actually happened the way they are told. As a side note, I personally suspect that science fiction (e.g. Star Trek) and superhero stories likewise function as conduits for contemporary moral values, a kind of mythology for modern times, if you will.

But about that casing you mentioned…

It seems to me the very Jewish eschatological mythology which you’ve acknowledged packs in an awful lot of bathwater around the baby. I see a terrible amount of chaff around the tiniest bit of wheat. What’s more, I suspect that same wheat can be found in other places, rendering the complicated sifting process more trouble than it’s worth.

When I look at that casing, I see that the Christian message teaches virtue begins with self-negation, metaphorically taking up your cross (a symbol of violent torture perpetrated by an oppressive system). It also teaches that human beings deserve punishment simply because of who we are and what we enjoy. It is fundamentally anti-humanistic. And to appease this deity, we are told, blood must be shed. Something must be killed. This is the casing in which we find…what? What message? What is the kernel of truth inside this casing that we are supposed to take away?

And more importantly, if we find that an overwhelming majority of people swallow the husk along with the kernel, is the net effect really a positive one? To my mind, that is up for debate. Even as we speak, our nation is lurching heavily rightward, driven in no small part by the religious fervor of those who are just reading their Bibles and are trying to make modern American life track with the ideology they find therein.

Can they really be blamed for thinking that a woman’s place is in the home, or that being gay is evil, or that killing things is how you turn away the wrath of an angry God? They got that from the Bible, and not just the Old Testament, either. I find this casing prohibitively problematic, at times even toxic.

Is the World Just?

My second question pertains to fairness and justice. I am not a universalist, but I am much, much closer to it than Calvin ever was, and it gives me some sense of comfort that the injustices and iniquities of this world are ameliorated in some form of afterlife (if you are familiar with the theologian David Hicks, you will recognize his views here). A life without anything afterward seems not only meaningless, but harsh and cruel to the majority of humanity, who live and die in relative discomfort and want. 

I can certainly understand why you would want to adhere to a belief system which promises a future in which the wrongs of the world will be righted, but what makes us so sure such a thing must exist? Do we assert this simply because it’s what we want to be true? Do we draw this conclusion primarily because the alternatives make us unhappy?

Philosophically speaking, I find that line of reasoning pretty unconvincing. It is ultimately an argument from consequences, or as I sometimes call the version C.S. Lewis always used, the “Argument from Wishing.” He contended that if we all are driven by a desire for something that nothing in this world is capable of providing, there must therefore be another world in which that appetite is satiated. But I find that pretty weak in the end, because wishing that a thing is so does not make it so. We can most definitely desire things that aren’t actually real.

Is it less satisfying to conclude that the world just isn’t a fair place, and that many of the injustices and inequities of the world will never be answered or balanced out? Certainly it is. But that doesn’t actually mean it’s not the way things are. My desire to see posthumous justice only proves that I want the world to be an ordered, purposeful place. It says something about me. But that doesn’t mean it actually is…aside from the order and purpose which we ourselves produce through our work in the world.

And that right there is the task we have before us. We work to make the world a better place to the best of our abilities, and fortunately that’s a goal which progressive Christians want to pursue as well as skeptics. To my mind, it appears the only saving this world will get is what we ourselves provide, and whether you believe God is doing it through us or we’re just doing it ourselves, I suspect we can still largely agree on many of the desired outcomes themselves. That makes us natural allies, in my book.

So much for me. I am much more interested about your beliefs than my own; not your negative beliefs (i.e., what you don’t believe) so much as your positive ones (what gives you hope and meaning). You may have covered these in one of your blogs, if so, a link to your previous article would suffice.

I’ve written a little about that, and I’ll provide at least one link below. I have plenty of “work” to do myself in fleshing what all this means in real life, and like I said above, I have more to say about how I am finding my own personal system of ethics. But for now I can at least share one link where I touched on the issue of finding purpose and meaning in life without gods or an afterlife. Perhaps this note (which is already long enough) and that article will serve as a jumping off point for further discussion.

Read: “Where Does an Atheist Find Purpose?

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.