L.B.: Spiritual girly-men

Left Behind, pp. 102-104

These pages find Rayford Steele on the edge of a spiritual crisis. Steele thinks of himself as a man's man, self-reliant, capable and proud. Here, for the first time, he begins to experience self-doubt:

Would it mean admitting that he didn't know everything? That he had relied on himself and that now he felt stupid and weak and worthless? He could admit that. After a lifetime of achieving, of excelling, of being better than most and the best in most circles, he had been as humbled as was possible in one stroke.

That last sentence is wonderfully ambivalent. If Rayford is really "as humbled as possible" then what's with all the boasting about being "the best in most circles"?

On the one hand, Rayford has finally begun to question his own self-sufficiency. There's a genuinely Christian element here. For a less evangelical take on Rayford's dilemma, consider the analogous language of AA and the other 12-step programs. Rayford imagines he is at rock bottom and considers, for the first time, the possibility of "letting go and letting God."

But on the other hand, he doesn't quite seem willing to let go. This might be an honest, even artful, depiction of the beginnings of a spiritual struggle except that L&J seem to share Rayford's ambivalence.

He has lost one child, his young son, but not the other, his college-age daughter. We've already seen L&J's explanation for this — Raymie was younger than the "age of reason" so he automatically receives the free ticket to heaven. Chloe is an adult who, like her father, was free to choose otherwise and thus, like her father, is "left behind." Yet Rayford here looks for some further explanation for why his son was raptured/killed/saved and his daughter was not.

It wasn't simply Raymie's age and innocence that had allowed his mother's influence to affect him so. It was his spirit. He didn't have the killer instinct, the "me first" attitude Rayford thought he would need to succeed in the real world. He wasn't effeminate, but Rayford had worried that he might be a mama's boy — too compassionate, too sensitive, too caring. He was always looking out for someone else when Rayford thought he should be looking out for number one.

L&J acknowledge that self-reliance can be a kind of idolatry, or at least an obstacle to the surrender of self involved in surrender to God. They even approach the idea that some of our cultural notions of "manliness" contribute to this myth of self-reliance.

But at the same time, they like this notion of manly self-reliance — as demonstrated by that blurted out non-sequitur insistence that Raymie "wasn't effeminate." They want to be Buck and Steele — manly, capable men, "the best in most circles." They can admit a need for God but not, you know, in some sissified way that would undermine their steely, young-buck macho self-reliance.

There's a hint here of something I can't quite fully suss out. An interconnectedness of L&J's reflexive homophobia, their insistence on rigid gender roles and male dominance, and the strange notions of power and magic that color their notions of salvation. More on this later.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the previous installment, I quoted 1 John 4:18 as a summary and refutation of the notion of salvation portrayed in Left Behind:

"Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."

My point wasn't that fear of judgment before a holy God is illegitimate, but that the God of the Bible desires and deserves much more than our fear. God wants our love. And I believe that God, unlike the abusive-husband-god of LB, deserves it.

That post prompted a fascinating discussion in comments on the meaning of hell and judgment. I'll revisit this topic in the future in more detail, but let me say here briefly that my own understanding of the meaning of hell follows that of C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle and, especially, The Great Divorce (kudos to Coriolis, Nicole and David for bringing those up). Lewis insists that all have the freedom to reject God, to "not be taken in" by heaven, but does so in a way that avoids the implication that God is the author of evil or, worse, a cosmic sadist. This perspective, I believe, best fits with the oft-ignored teaching — found explicitly in Hosea, the Song of Songs, and throughout the Bible — that God is a lover who woos us and longs for us to freely reciprocate that love.

We Christians attempt to believe that God's love and mercy are infinite and that God's justice and holiness are infinite. Holding both of those ideas at once is probably more than our finite little brains can handle, but I'm not prepared therefore to conclude that both can't be true. I reject L&J's insistence that God's love and mercy are finite, but I don't want, therefore, to conclude that God's wrath and judgment are inconsequential. Anyway, we'll have to dig into this in more detail later, but thanks to all for your very interesting comments on the previous post.

  • Scott

    They’re torn between preaching “manliness” to justify their Alpha Male aspirations, and preaching “submission and obedience” to the sheep to enable their Alpha Male aspirations. This turns into “be a testosterone-addled jerk to those below you, but a fawning obedient kissup to those above you”, which is the classic bully.

  • Scott

    They’re torn between preaching “manliness” to justify their Alpha Male aspirations, and preaching “submission and obedience” to the sheep to enable their Alpha Male aspirations. This turns into “be a testosterone-addled jerk to those below you, but a fawning obedient kissup to those above you”, which is the classic bully.

  • Mnemosyne

    Lewis insists that all have the freedom to reject God, to “not be taken in” by heaven, but does so in a way that avoids the implication that God is the author of evil or, worse, a cosmic sadist.
    I haven’t read The Great Divorce (I probably should get around to it one of these days), but I re-read the Narnia books a few years ago and was relieved to see that I had remembered my favorite moment from The Last Battle correctly.
    It’s when Aslan reassures the young Calormene that he, too, will be going to Heaven even though he’s been a lifelong worshipper of Tash because good deeds done in the name of the false god, Tash, are accounted in your favor by the true God, while bad deeds done in the name of God are accepted by Tash as his due. In other words, doing evil deeds in the name of God doesn’t mitigate their evilness, and doing good deeds in the name of Allah, or Krishna, or no one, doesn’t mean they are ignored.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Fred–thanks for the shout-out! Your blog has all the neat-o-est discussions going on.
    Mnemosyne–That’s one of my favorite bits, too. It implies that your relationship with God, and the way you try to live up to His example, is more important than what name you call Him by.
    I find this excerpt gives many Christians trouble, both of the “faith vs. works” variety and the “no one comes to the Father save through Me” sort too. Many folks I’ve talked to simply have decided that Lewis “got it wrong” there.
    What do y’all think?
    (I need to make a grocery list for my next trip to the bookstore. My shelf is sadly lacking in Lewis.)

  • Dave Lartigue

    The alleged truth of the matter is, though, loving or vengeful, grandpa or godzilla, the entire game — the board, the rules, the pawns, and the platers — was all made by God. So even if he’ll lovingly welcome us with open arms and all this, it’s still him who decided at one point, “Okay, you’re all a bunch of losers. But I want you to be big big winners! Here’s what you need to do to win!” And we’re all running around trying to accomplish these tasks without asking “Now hang on…why are we losers again?”

  • cjmr’s husband

    “Here’s what you need to do to win!”
    “And you better pick the right set of instructions, each of which claims to be the right ones….”

  • none

    Two comments on the foregoing.
    There’s a hint here of something I can’t quite fully suss out. An interconnectedness of L&J’s reflexive homophobia, their insistence on rigid gender roles and male dominance, and the strange notions of power and magic that color their notions of salvation. More on this later.
    There is a whole lot of this in LB that I attributed in part to L&J’s inept writing and incomplete thinking. They throw up arguments that strike me as, well, pretty darn compelling, then do nothing with them. It is as if we are simply supposed to accept that these arguments cannot stand up to The Light. This really becomes a problem when Chloe shows up.
    It is also the primary reason I am skeptical about claims of LB-inspired conversions. A nonbeliever (or in my case, a near-miss) can’t find much here to actually answer questions about faith. To continue the insipient Lewis theme, LB is not challenging and thought-provoking in the way Mere Christianity is. Or Scott Peck’s later work, for that matter.
    I find this excerpt gives many Christians trouble, both of the “faith vs. works” variety and the “no one comes to the Father save through Me” sort too. Many folks I’ve talked to simply have decided that Lewis “got it wrong” there.
    What do y’all think?
    The problem Christians have with that passage is emblematic of the problem I have with Christianity — the exclusivity. Though my faith is based more on my personal spiritual experiences, my assessment of religion is based on a more dispassionate assessment of whether a loving God would order the world the way X claims God did.
    And I have a hard time with the idea that a person who does good works and lives by the faith of his fathers would be condemned by a loving God because the faith that person was raised in doesn’t include the right magic words.

  • Buhallin

    “And you better pick the right set of instructions, each of which claims to be the right ones….”
    South Park may be rather crass most of the time (okay, ALL the time), but my favorite movie moment comes as Kenny is ascending to Heaven, where he sees: “Heaven. Population: 6″
    One of my major stopping points with regards to religion is the mutually-exclusive nature of it. If you aren’t A, you’re going to hell. If you aren’t B, you’re going to hell. You can’t be A and B at the same time. Conclusion: We’re all going to hell! Bah.
    One of my biggest stopping points with regards to Christianity is the point Dave brings up. To but it bluntly, the game is rigged. God hands us this wonderful lollipop of free will, but says “If you eat this, you’re DOOOOMED!” Mr. Owl is going straight to hell. All this by an omniscient, omnipotent being, who knew by raw definition what he would make, and what would happen when he did. If a human did that, we’d consider him the most immoral bastard in history. Yet we’re expected to believe it of a “loving” God.
    Regardless of my theological differences, Fred, great commentary as always. I tend to read to enjoyment rather than analysis, and seeing the truth of these books (which I stopped at the simple “This is BAD writing!” level), is always interesting.

  • Stephen

    It is also the primary reason I am skeptical about claims of LB-inspired conversions.
    There are a lot of “conversions” claimed by conservative Christian groups that are conversions from a form of Christianity they find unacceptable to their own. I can’t tell you how many testimonies I’ve heard from people about growing up in the Church – usually a mainline one like the Methodists or something – but they never really gave their heart to Jesus. Then they started at X church and now they’ve actually been saved!
    What this means is that at a point where they were vulnerable about their faith, some religious vultures managed to convince them that only people with a certain intellectual/emotional experience are actually Christians and they, wanting more certainty and to belong, fell for it.
    All this is a long way of saying that I share your skepticism.

  • Beth

    “As humbled as possible” recalls that marvelous old song, “Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble (when you’re perfect in every way).” Look at Steele, he’s brilliant, talented, strong, good-looking, and incredibly sexy. You’d have to be an idiot to be really humble with all that going for you. In short, L&J don’t have a clue what humility is really all about. I’m not even sure that “self-doubt” is an accurate description of what’s going on here. For the first time in his life Steele’s been wrong about something, so naturally he’s a bit shaken, but somehow I don’t think it’s going to lead him to doing any real soul-searching.
    From “Writing From the Inside Out”:
    “To vanquish doubt is to leave the domain of the human being. Conversely, to embrace both one’s doubt and faith, one’s fear and courage, is to relate to the totality of human experience…. The plain fact is, the more willing you are to mine the landscape of your own doubts, the truer and more recognizably human your characters will be…. In writing, as in all aspects of life, an unquestiong faith is the same as unwavering doubt — both are belief systems employed to try to protect a person from the complicated, sometimes contradictory, always unpredictable ebb and flow of actual experience.”
    I think what made the recent discussion about heaven and hell so interesting and productive was that no one involved seemed to think they had all the answers. Everyone was searching, questioning. Often someone would contribute insights from previous searches, but with a sense of “this might help,” not “this is the one true answer.”
    As the L.B. posts go on, I keep getting an uncomfortable sense that not only are the beliefs behind the series not really Christianity, they’re not even really religion. It’s more like a collection of superstitions and magical formulas. I think what’s missing is doubt and questioning. Without that the can be no real spiritual growth, and a religion without spiritual growth is really no religion at all.
    Finally, re: Raymie. It seems that it’s acceptable for a prepubescent boy to be sensitive and caring (assuming of course he’s not effeminate), but what about a grown man? It occurred to me I don’t remember meeting a single adult male in the book who was raptured. Obviously, men were raptured, but I don’t think any of them were even briefly described. Is that true, or have I just not been paying attention?

  • Beth

    “As humbled as possible” recalls that marvelous old song, “Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble (when you’re perfect in every way).” Look at Steele, he’s brilliant, talented, strong, good-looking, and incredibly sexy. You’d have to be an idiot to be really humble with all that going for you. In short, L&J don’t have a clue what humility is really all about. I’m not even sure that “self-doubt” is an accurate description of what’s going on here. For the first time in his life Steele’s been wrong about something, so naturally he’s a bit shaken, but somehow I don’t think it’s going to lead him to doing any real soul-searching.
    From “Writing From the Inside Out”:
    “To vanquish doubt is to leave the domain of the human being. Conversely, to embrace both one’s doubt and faith, one’s fear and courage, is to relate to the totality of human experience…. The plain fact is, the more willing you are to mine the landscape of your own doubts, the truer and more recognizably human your characters will be…. In writing, as in all aspects of life, an unquestiong faith is the same as unwavering doubt — both are belief systems employed to try to protect a person from the complicated, sometimes contradictory, always unpredictable ebb and flow of actual experience.”
    I think what made the recent discussion about heaven and hell so interesting and productive was that no one involved seemed to think they had all the answers. Everyone was searching, questioning. Often someone would contribute insights from previous searches, but with a sense of “this might help,” not “this is the one true answer.”
    As the L.B. posts go on, I keep getting an uncomfortable sense that not only are the beliefs behind the series not really Christianity, they’re not even really religion. It’s more like a collection of superstitions and magical formulas. I think what’s missing is doubt and questioning. Without that the can be no real spiritual growth, and a religion without spiritual growth is really no religion at all.
    Finally, re: Raymie. It seems that it’s acceptable for a prepubescent boy to be sensitive and caring (assuming of course he’s not effeminate), but what about a grown man? It occurred to me I don’t remember meeting a single adult male in the book who was raptured. Obviously, men were raptured, but I don’t think any of them were even briefly described. Is that true, or have I just not been paying attention?

  • Elle

    The male flight attendant (Tony?) was raptured, but we were told nothing about him other than his name. I think Fred pointed out that if L&J were going by stereotypes (which is the sort of lazy writing I’d expect from them), they’re saying gay men can be raptured. Heh.

  • http://www.rationalgrounds.com/mt-archives/2005/06/best_of_the_blo.html Rational Grounds

    Best of the Blogs

    My few (my happy few) readers out there will probably have noticed the list of blogs over to the left already, but I figured I’d give some of them a quick introduction and encourage you all to check them out….

  • http://www.rationalgrounds.com/mt-archives/2005/06/best_of_the_blo.html Rational Grounds

    Best of the Blogs

    My few (my happy few) readers out there will probably have noticed the list of blogs over to the left already, but I figured I’d give some of them a quick introduction and encourage you all to check them out….

  • Naomi

    Mnemosyne–That’s one of my favorite bits, too. It implies that your relationship with God, and the way you try to live up to His example, is more important than what name you call Him by. … What do y’all think?
    I think it dovetails beautifully with the passage in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus invites people into Paradise because of what they have done for those who are suffering. Which is another passage that tends to make “Biblical Literalists” come up with arcane explanations of why the passage must not be taken literally…

  • Pho

    It occurred to me I don’t remember meeting a single adult male in the book who was raptured.
    Passing reference is made that the Pope and a number of his Cardinals are “missing.”
    And of course, the minister of New Hope is gone.
    We don’t get much character description of anyone who is raptured, but we don’t get much of anyone who is still around, either.

  • Lila

    I have always thought that “no man cometh to the Father except by me” could be interpreted very differently from the way it usually is.
    Usual interpretation: If you’re not a Christian (usually, a Christian of some very specific brand), you’re going to Hell.
    Alternate interpretation: Jesus has been and is working out our salvation in his own way and on his own terms. He knows us whether we know him or not. Worrying about who is saved and who is damned, or when the end is coming, is not our job. Our job is to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, etc. and let God get on with his job. Remember that some very unlikely people got Jesus’ good word (the centurion, the woman at the well, the thief on the cross).
    Sorry–lengthy post. Don’t get me started on the thing about “render unto Caesar”.

  • Christopher

    There are basically two approaches to the faith vs. works debate; one which gives John primacy over Matthew, and one which give Matthew primacy over John.
    If we give Matthew primacy, we end up with Lila’s interpretation, wheras if we give John primacy, we can state that when Christ was judging people based on works, he was only judging Christians. In other words, first he weeded out the heatens, then he weeded out those who didn’t do good works.
    I tend to support the Matthew version, because to do otherwise means that, at some point in time, christ will give the following speech:
    “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was naked, you clothed me. All that you did for the least of my followers, you did for me. But since you’re a buddhist, I can’t let you in. Have fun in hell with Hitler!”
    I have a good deal of trouble imagining the Christ of the gospels saying that.

  • Beth

    Thanks Pho and Elle, but while I’m not expecting descriptions so vivid the characters seem to leap off the page, I was hoping for something more than name and occupation. The raptured women at least get scraps of dialogue and a few adjectives, so why not the men? You’d think that would be a piece of cake for the authors. They are, after all, adult males and presumably glory-bound themselves. It would seem only natural for them to give themselves or one of their saved friends a brief cameo at least, but the best we get is “the flight attendant” or “the minister” or someone’s brother or husband. The whole thing’s looking more and more like the dog that didn’t bark.
    Could this be the real raison d’etre for the millenial super-hero adventure that is Left Behind? What is a “saved Christian” man anyway? A family man, a law-abiding citizen, a church going, teetotaling pussycat. Not exactly the picture of manliness. Turning the other cheek, being humble, loving, obedient, compassionate, all those things sound fine in theory, but real life, aren’t they a little, well, faggy? How does one reconcile all that wimpy Christian stuff with the John Wayne machismo that all real men must aspire to? How except through ultra-violent, semi-pornographic, pseudo-religious hero fantasies?

  • Ray

    “”When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was naked, you clothed me. All that you did for the least of my followers, you did for me. But since you’re a buddhist, I can’t let you in. Have fun in hell with Hitler!””
    Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
    Acts 16:31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house
    Mark 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
    Acts 2:21 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
    Romans 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
    1 John 5:12 He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.
    and of course
    “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
    Matthew 22:36-40 – “Master what are we to consider the Law’s greatest commandment?” Jesus answered him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
    Mark 12:28b-33 – “What are we to consider the greatest commandment of all?” “The first and most important one is this,” Jesus replied – ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
    Luke 10:25-28 – Then one of the experts in the Law stood up to test him and said, “Master, what must I do to be sure of eternal life?” “What does the Law say and what has your reading taught you?” said Jesus. “The Law says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’ and ‘your neighbour as yourself’,” he replied. “Quite right,” said Jesus. “Do that and you will live.”
    Matthew 5:17-20 – “You must not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to complete them. Indeed, I assure you that, while Heaven and earth last, the Law will not lose a single dot or comma until its purpose is complete. This means that whoever now relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do the same will himself be called least in Heaven.
    The best reading of these I can manage is that faith is not sufficient, but it sure looks necessary.
    Google is a wonderful thing…

  • David

    Faith is not sufficient alone, because faith without any actions that back it up, is hardly faith, no? If I believe something, it will affect my actions. If I claim to believe in, oh say, freedom, but by my actions only further oppression and domination, then my belief, or faith, in the ideals of freedom is deserving of question. True faith will have outward evidence. The tricky bit is when people try to come up with concrete rules as to what that outward evidence would be. As I posted in the other LB thread from 1 Samuel 16:7 -
    “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.””
    Hence the idea that in the end, no one can judge but God.
    I also posted in the LB: Explicit Content thread my thoughts on God viewing humanity dualistically, but I’ll state again – the God I see in the Bible is not exclusive but inclusive, and as Fred mentions in the LB:Spiritual Girlymen post, actively seeking connection and relationship with all humankind. Frequently in the Bible, the idea of what sort of people God seeks relationship with is turned on it’s head and those who think they’ve got the sides all mapped out neatly find themselves consistently confounded as God tears down their carefully constructed boundaries.
    There is a constant tension in the New Testament between faith and works, but any attempt to define a percentage formula will always fail. All that can really be said is that they are interdependent. I do not see a God in the Bible who would fail to recognize genuine faith and/or works wherever they occurred.
    If you’re interested in a more poetic exploration of the connection between faith and works, Hebrews chapter 11 offers some interesting food for thought almost blurring the two concepts together inextricably.

  • Ray

    I can see there being some argument over whether works are _also_ necessary, but it seems pretty clear that faith is definitely required. The first commandment still stands – you have to worship God. Bad news for the Buddhists.
    There definitely are mixed messages on this (and on an awful lot of other things too). Is this because God keeps changing his mind? Because there’s really some higher message that resolves the apparent contradictions?
    Or is it because Christianity is a religion created by people, and people rarely agree on everything? On the same note – if this is about the different kinds of God people see in the Bible, doesn’t that suggest that there is no single ‘God’ there, but people are seeing what they want to see? And the only thing that really unites them all, is that they all want to see a god?

  • David

    The first commandment still stands – you have to worship God. Bad news for the Buddhists.
    Not neccessarily. A person following another religion might still have genuine faith, and genuinely be serving the God of the Bible even if they are calling him by a different name. It comes down to a definition of what it means to have faith and to serve God, and as I mentioned, this is a good deal more difficult to pin down in the Bible than fundamentalists would have us believe. Christ’s reduction of the Law to ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is both far simpler and far more complex than it appears.
    There definitely are mixed messages on this (and on an awful lot of other things too). Is this because God keeps changing his mind? Because there’s really some higher message that resolves the apparent contradictions?
    Or is it because Christianity is a religion created by people, and people rarely agree on everything?
    Perhaps one of the reasons people sometimes disagree is that life is complex, having many facets, and able to be to viewed in as many different ways, some of which may appear contradictory, but yet still happen to be true. I would expect a transcendent being to be at least a little difficult to pin down. Hence the use of metaphor, allergory, and simile throughout the Bible. I believe there is a single God in the Christian scriuptures, as seen by many different individuals over an extended period of time. A variety of views is to be both expected and welcomed.
    On the same note – if this is about the different kinds of God people see in the Bible, doesn’t that suggest that there is no single ‘God’ there, but people are seeing what they want to see? And the only thing that really unites them all, is that they all want to see a god?
    I can’t help but feel there’s a subtle, though perhaps not intentional, condecension in your statements towards those who believe in God, or perhaps Christianity. One could also say all atheists are only united by their desire to see no god. It is no more superior to disbelieve or believe in God. There are weak atheists as well as weak Christians. People of all stripes of belief use them as a means to avoid dealing with their problems and being honest with themselves. The fact that they do so is not argument enough, in and of itself, to discredit that belief.

  • Ray

    “A person following another religion might still have genuine faith, and genuinely be serving the God of the Bible even if they are calling him by a different name. ”
    I’m sorry, but this seems really, really weak. (And also a little condescending towards other religions – don’t worry Hindus, we know that deep down inside you’re really worshipping our God!)
    And what about the atheists? If I love my neighbour, treat others as I’d like to be treated, make peace (and cheese), and all of that, but don’t have faith in _any_ gods, then I can’t be worshipping God, and so I can’t go to heaven. All my good works count for nothing because I didn’t believe in the invisible.
    “I believe there is a single God in the Christian scriuptures, as seen by many different individuals over an extended period of time. ”
    How can you tell the difference between lots of people seeing a single God, and giving contradictory reports back, and lots of people imagining a God, and sincerely and faithfully saying what they think (their imagined) God would like them to say?
    “I can’t help but feel there’s a subtle, though perhaps not intentional, condecension in your statements towards those who believe in God, or perhaps Christianity.”
    Not Christianity in particular, God in general. I try not to be insulting about it, because I know there are plenty of good people who believe in a god or gods, and many of them are thoughtful and intelligent. I read this blog, for example, because Fred is a good writer, with interesting things to say, and a nice guy.
    But when you get down to it, theists of all stripes are united in their desire to believe in something for which there isn’t the slightest shred of evidence. Atheism, or agnosticism, is not the same thing (please don’t try the ‘atheism is a faith too’ argument), because its an evidence-driven position. If God were to appear in the sky, surrounded by the heavenly host, juggling rocks that are so heavy even he couldn’t lift them, I’d be happy to reconsider my position*.
    But he hasn’t. There isn’t any evidence that _any_ god exists. And yet people keep believing in gods. And for all that they tell you that its because they feel a direct connection to their god, its noticeable that 99% of believers believe in the god their parents told them about as kids.
    I don’t think anybody is very keen on the idea of a universe that pays no attention to their existence. The difference between atheists and theists seems to be that they take their dislike as proof that the idea must be wrong.
    * another fiction recommendation, “Hell is the Absence of God”, by Ted Chiang
    http://www.fictionbook.ru/author/chiang_ted/hell_is_the_absence_of_god/chiang_hell_is_the_absence_of_god.html

  • David

    I’m sorry, but this seems really, really weak. (And also a little condescending towards other religions – don’t worry Hindus, we know that deep down inside you’re really worshipping our God!)
    And what about the atheists? If I love my neighbour, treat others as I’d like to be treated, make peace (and cheese), and all of that, but don’t have faith in _any_ gods, then I can’t be worshipping God, and so I can’t go to heaven. All my good works count for nothing because I didn’t believe in the invisible.
    Well, as long as you’re attributing superiority complexes, I don’t think it’s any more insulting than suggesting that anyone who chooses to believe in any God is of poorer intellectual stuff than yourself. ;)
    Re: atheists, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few in Heaven. As I said, faith/works is a far more complex issue than it’s usually given lie. I should clarify, however, that the Bible does make it fairly clear that no one is saved by works alone, though it’s difficult to imagine that someone could do the right things all or their life and not have at least some of the right motivation. You’re suggesting the dichotomy that I either have to be an ***hole or a wimp. I don’t buy either.
    How can you tell the difference between lots of people seeing a single God, and giving contradictory reports back, and lots of people imagining a God, and sincerely and faithfully saying what they think (their imagined) God would like them to say?
    What can I say? When I read the Bible I see a congruity that runs deep. I see contradictions but no more or less than I see in any real, 3-dimensional personality. We could have a very protracted discussion of each individual instance, but I don’t see that being particularily helpful here. FWIW, it is a document written in a changing culture over an extended period of time, encompassing metaphor and simile and literary traditions that differ from those we most often use as our framework. That is to say, it’s not as simple as it might appear, or literalists might like to campaign.
    Wrestling with contradiction is a fundamental part of human existence, I think. It’s the drive behind the creation of art and the practice of science and philosophy. There are very few blanket statements that can be made about people, and exceptions to most rules. I wrestle with the contradictions of what I believe and what I see every day. Some days it comes out better than others. But the most interesting and genuine people I meet are not those who are 100% convinced of their position, but those who are exploring, questioning, and continuing to grow.
    But he hasn’t. There isn’t any evidence that _any_ god exists. And yet people keep believing in gods. And for all that they tell you that its because they feel a direct connection to their god, its noticeable that 99% of believers believe in the god their parents told them about as kids.
    And just as you view all believers in a God and say, ‘They are all deluded by wish-fulfillment fantasies’, the fundamentalists look at atheists and say, ‘They are all deceived by their desire to live lives of wanton debauchery’ and no discussion can take place. As long as your position is that anyone who does not share your view is in some way below you, well, there’s not much give and take to be had, is there?
    For what it’s worth, I’m not 100% convinced of my beliefs, 100% of the time. I’m suspicious of anyone who is. My point in posting hasn’t been to convince you of anything, but merely to offer my own view. This could be a fruitful discussion over a cup of coffee, and I’ve enjoy your perspectives here, but I’ll risk being branded as a poor debator with a weak position and say I don’t see much point in hashing out atheism-vs-theism/Christianity here.
    David

  • Beth

    The first commandment still stands – you have to worship God. Bad news for the Buddhists.
    Not at all. The first commandment says, “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Unless those Buddhists are decendants of people who were enslaved by Pharoah and escaped with Moses, they don’t even have to worry about it. It’s not directed at them. (Even if they are children of Israel, they’re still technically safe. Buddhists don’t worship any god, so they put no god before the LORD.) The same is true of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”) Note the first three words. It’s also worth noting that though the Shema is the single most important prayer in Judaism, Jews don’t believe you have to recite or even believe in it to go to heaven. All that’s required is that you be a righteous person.
    I agree with David that “it comes down to a definition of what it means to have faith and to serve God.” Remember that quote that Christopher so marvelously mangled: “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was naked, you clothed me. All that you did for the least of my followers, you did for me.” God (in the person of Jesus Christ) is saying that in serving/loving your fellow man, you are serving/loving Him. I’m going to be a bit radical here and suggest that not only do you not need to know God’s name and life history in order to love Him, you don’t even have to believe He exists. It is enough to love His creation.
    Atheism, or agnosticism, is not the same thing (please don’t try the ‘atheism is a faith too’ argument), because its an evidence-driven position.
    Sorry, but in the immortal words of Karl Rove, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That’s not necessarily true of course. The absence of evidence of an elephant in my living room is pretty conclusive evidence that there isn’t one. The absence of evidence of God in my living room, on the other hand, is not evidence of anything because God is not normally objectively perceiveable anyway, and He can pass through a room without breaking the furniture. When you say there’s no evidence of God, that’s simply your opinion anyway. A believer might say the very existence of the world is evidence of God’s existence. (As Walt Whitman put it, “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.”) When you say, “evidence” what you really mean is “scientifically valid evidence.” Why should that be necessary for belief? Do you have scientific evidence that your son loves you? If someone experiences God’s presence, that’s not scientific evidence, but it is evidence, so in a sense, believers are more rational than athiests. Their belief is usually based on some sort of evidence, while the belief that there is no God is based on nothing at all.

  • Ray

    There are plenty of theists around who are, in many ways, (much) smarter than me. I don’t have a feeling of general superiority, in that sense. But, to the extent that they have a belief that I can’t help but find essentially irrational, in one area at least I think they are being foolish. (Ditto for people who believe in astrology, psychics, healing crystals, etc. And I do see belief in Jesus and belief in Deepak Chopra as virtually identical things.)
    “Re: atheists, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few in Heaven.”
    If the first rule of salvation is that you have to believe in God, this is impossible. Really. The two things are contradictory. Jesus said you have to believe to get into heaven – atheists don’t believe – therefore atheists can’t get into heaven. There is plenty of room for argument about the importance of works in addition to faith, but as you said, works alone don’t cut it.
    As for motivation, I’ve found empathy has served me okay so far. (I don’t want to get into a “who is slagging who” debate, but the suggestion that atheists can have no moral compass of their own – which comes up twice in this comment – is a little irritating)
    “You’re suggesting the dichotomy that I either have to be an ***hole or a wimp. ”
    Sorry, you’ve lost me. Where does that come from?
    I’ve been reading Slacktivist for about two years now, and this is only the second time I’ve gotten into the whole theism/atheism debate, partly because I know that there’s little chance of anyone changing from their starting positions. (Though, hey, I just realised that I can claim moral superiority here in the my starting position in life was theism, so I’ve already demonstrated my ability to change my mind. No, this is not a serious argument)
    But I thought the post about private property, and about turning to God from fear, not love, were interesting in that in both cases Fred was arguing against a particular interpretation of stuff in the bible, in one case arguing from tradition and in the other arguing against it. This seemed to me to be a clear case of looking to the bible to confirm your own principles (principles I’d agree with, incidentally), which raised an obvious (to me) question.

  • Ray

    “Unless those Buddhists are decendants of people who were enslaved by Pharoah and escaped with Moses, they don’t even have to worry about it. It’s not directed at them. ”
    In that case, neither is the rest of the NT. It is, just as it appears, the preaching of a Jewish mystic, in a Jewish country, aimed at his fellow Jews.
    (While the Buddhists might get off on the ‘no gods’ technicality, the Hindus are going to be in real trouble.)
    “I’m going to be a bit radical here and suggest that not only do you not need to know God’s name and life history in order to love Him, you don’t even have to believe He exists. It is enough to love His creation.”
    It would make things a lot simpler in some ways, yes. But there are all those other quotes from the Bible that say faith is necessary. The faith vs works argument in Christianity that has come up in this thread (and that Fred has mentioned quite often) is about whether works are necessary _as well as_ faith, but it’s taken for granted that faith is a requirement.
    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
    Oh I quite agree with that, as far as it goes. Its quite possible that there is a god or gods, who for whatever reason hasn’t revealed him/her/themselves. Just as it’s quite possible that we are being observed from space by super-advanced aliens, that we are surrounded by invisible witches, that sub-atomic particles are intelligent and decide their motions themselves, or that I am a brain in a vat. There is no evidence for any of these theories, but that is not evidence that they are wrong. But I’m not going to waste time believing in them without any evidence that they are _right_.
    “When you say, “evidence” what you really mean is “scientifically valid evidence.””
    I mean evidence that is available to me. That could be God appearing in the sky every morning to tell us what the weather will be that day, or it could be a personal revelation. Public or private, ‘scientific’ or mystic, either will do. Without either, why should I put more faith in God than I do in the Purple Space Rats of the 17th Dimension?
    “Do you have scientific evidence that your son loves you?”
    I don’t know what you mean by ‘scientific’ here. My son’s behaviour when I’m around, or when he sees a picture of me, is publically observable and independently verifiable, so I’d say yes, I do have scientific evidence that he loves me. (Absolute proof, no. But pretty strong evidence)
    “If someone experiences God’s presence, that’s not scientific evidence, but it is evidence, so in a sense, believers are more rational than athiests.”
    You don’t think its a little funny that in every era, and in every country, people experience the god that their culture tells them exists? The Ancient Greeks had mystic experiences of Athene and Apollo, not of the Trinity, but when a peasant in 19th century France has a vision she doesn’t see Diana, but the Virgin Mary.
    I suppose you could argue that its all the same god, appearing in culturally appropriate dress in each case. The problem is, some of these visions say “No pork”, others say “no beef”, others say “no wine”, others say “drink wine in my memory”. Some say “kill in my name”, others say “turn the other cheek”. Some say “when you die, you go to Hades, and lose yourself”, others say, “when you die, you are reborn”, while others say “when you die, you are judged, and have happiness or torment”.
    If you have had one of those experiences, you can just follow the instructions you were given, I suppose, but if you haven’t, then you have to choose from a whole bunch of contradictory messages. So contradictory, one would think, that they can’t all be true. And if some of them are just artifacts of human consciousness, why not all of them?

  • David

    “You’re suggesting the dichotomy that I either have to be an ***hole or a wimp. ”
    Sorry, you’ve lost me. Where does that come from?
    I apologize if I misunderstood, but it seemed from your comments that you were suggesting that to believe a person who worshipped a god other than the Christian god would go to hell is an offensive belief (the ***hole), but to believe that it was possible for someone in that position to go to heaven was weak (the wimp).
    (I don’t want to get into a “who is slagging who” debate, but the suggestion that atheists can have no moral compass of their own – which comes up twice in this comment – is a little irritating)
    And here I agree with you. To suggest no one can have a moral compass outside of a belief in God is one of those things I hear people saying to convince themselves of the rightness of their own position. It is certainly not an opinion I personally share. Certainly the attitude of many Christians towards atheism is both insulting and condescending as is the attitude of some atheists I have encountered towards any belief in God. In neither case is it helpful or productive.
    I’ve been reading Slacktivist for about two years now, and this is only the second time I’ve gotten into the whole theism/atheism debate, partly because I know that there’s little chance of anyone changing from their starting positions. (Though, hey, I just realised that I can claim moral superiority here in the my starting position in life was theism, so I’ve already demonstrated my ability to change my mind. No, this is not a serious argument)
    Again, agreed. Without actually knowing another person on a semi-intimate level, it’s a debate that’s almost guaranteed to go nowhere. One’s belief, or non-belief is rarely a choice that stands alone, but one that is intertwined with life experiences, previous encounters, and a host of other factors that need to be considered and understood. As I said, over a cup of coffee with someone you’ve built somewhat of a relationship of mutual respect with, the debate might be had well. In the realm of cyberspace, between strangers, it’s somewhat less likely.

  • Sophist

    If you have had one of those experiences, you can just follow the instructions you were given, I suppose, but if you haven’t, then you have to choose from a whole bunch of contradictory messages.
    This is pretty much exactly the conclusion I’ve come to. It is quite possible that there is tonnes of absolute proof of the existence of gods in general, or one god in particular, but much of it would have to be locked up inside the minds of other people and cannot be shared with me. They have their experiences and I have mine, and the best we can do is give each other imperfect and superficial descriptions of them. So I can allow that others might have a totally rational belief in their religion, and at the same time consider my own lack of belief to have equal rational footing. It’s really quite convenient (although that makes me a somewhat suspicious of it–sometimes it seems a little too pat).

  • Sophist

    If you have had one of those experiences, you can just follow the instructions you were given, I suppose, but if you haven’t, then you have to choose from a whole bunch of contradictory messages.
    This is pretty much exactly the conclusion I’ve come to. It is quite possible that there is tonnes of absolute proof of the existence of gods in general, or one god in particular, but much of it would have to be locked up inside the minds of other people and cannot be shared with me. They have their experiences and I have mine, and the best we can do is give each other imperfect and superficial descriptions of them. So I can allow that others might have a totally rational belief in their religion, and at the same time consider my own lack of belief to have equal rational footing. It’s really quite convenient (although that makes me a somewhat suspicious of it–sometimes it seems a little too pat).

  • Ray

    “I apologize if I misunderstood, but it seemed from your comments that you were suggesting that to believe a person who worshipped a god other than the Christian god would go to hell is an offensive belief (the ***hole), but to believe that it was possible for someone in that position to go to heaven was weak (the wimp). ”
    Ah, I see. I don’t think it’s wimpish to believe that its possible for god non-believers (or other-believers) to go to heaven. I think it’s a weak _argument_, a poorly-supported interpretation of what the Bible says about salvation.
    And I don’t know if I’d say the doctrine that non-believers go to hell is _offensive_, so much as that it isn’t particularly endearing. And also undermines the argument for good works, because it implies that good works are only important if you also believe.
    I don’t really go into this debate expecting to change anyone’s mind, but I would like to get a better understanding of the positions other people hold, which is why I do try to debate as if we were all sitting around over pints (or possibly wine, but not coffee), as much as that’s possible.

  • Ray

    “god non-believers ”
    _good_ non-believers. D’oh.

  • Christopher

    If someone experiences God’s presence, that’s not scientific evidence, but it is evidence, so in a sense, believers are more rational than athiests. Their belief is usually based on some sort of evidence, while the belief that there is no God is based on nothing at all.
    Unless of course the atheist has participated in religious rituals and still hasn’t seen god.
    In which case they are replicating an experiment but they are getting variant results. Often, these variant results aren’t adequatley explain by the theistic hypothesis being offered, and so the hypothesis is rejected.
    That’s pretty scientific.

  • Dan

    “You don’t think its a little funny that in every era, and in every country, people experience the god that their culture tells them exists?”
    But is it the culture which tells people what to think, or people who create a culture around themselves that represents what they already think?

  • Ray

    I wasn’t being that detailed. I’m just talking about USians experiencing ‘God’, Indians experiencing ‘Shiva’, Pakistanis experiencing ‘Allah’, and so on. What they experience their god as saying is, I suppose, a mixture of what their culture tells them, and what they would like their culture to be saying, if you see what I mean.

  • cjmr

    For once, commenting on the original post, rather than the discussion, prompted by the Sunday sermon this week.
    With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?… (references to various sacrifices deleted) …He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy* and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6a and 6:8 NIV
    I suppose an alpha male type is capable of acting justly, and even of loving mercy (although he’d probably prefer one of the alternative translations of that word–see below), but walking humbly might be a bit of a task…
    —-
    *interestingly, in the 20 or so translations I compared, the word translated here as mercy is sometimes translated kindness or loyalty or faithfulness.

  • Beth

    Unless of course the atheist has participated in religious rituals and still hasn’t seen god. In which case they are replicating an experiment but they are getting variant results.
    First, I should confess that my claim about believers being more rational than non-believers was a little tongue in cheek. I’m just sick of hearing the opposite, and really wish that both religion and science would realize that neither has any place in the other’s realm. What you suggest is a perfectly valid scientific experiment, but it would get you laughed out of church (and rightly so), just as saying an experiment failed because the experimenter lacked faith would get you laughed out of the laboratory. Your point is well taken, though. A negative result (not experiencing God) may be just as valid evidence as a positive one.
    Your experiment would be scientifically valid, but it would be spiritually invalid. The expected result would be a non-experience, not because God doesn’t exist, but because — assuming you’re approaching this scientifically — you wouldn’t have the mindset required for such an experience (your heart wouldn’t be open to God). If you did have a genuine spiritual thirst, the experiment might still fail, but you wouldn’t think of it in those terms. The ‘God-shaped hole’ in your heart would be evidence enough, and you would no more stop believing in the existence of God because of your failure than you would stop believing in the existence water because a drinking fountain didn’t work.
    I don’t think that either theists or atheists have a monopoly on any particular virtue. There are theists who are as closed-hearted as the coldest athiest, and there are athesists who are as open to love and wonder as the most devout believer. There are also athiests who are as closed-minded as the most rigid theist, and theists who are as open to thought and investigation as the most committed scientist.

  • McJulie

    I think one area where we are getting into trouble here — in the debate over what the Bible “really” means — is that the MOST recent parts of it were written nearly two THOUSAND years ago. The most well-known English translation, the King James, is as old as Shakespeare.
    Some things, like cultural relativism (what about Buddhists? etc.) and consideration of the scientific method, that come naturally to us through our own culture wouldn’t have made any sense at all to the people who wrote the words we are now debating. So their words will not always be enlightening to us unless we recognize the imperfection of our understanding.
    I believe one of the key follies of modern fundamentalism is that they try to apply a pseudo-scientific factual literalism to a book that simply wasn’t meant to be interpreted that way. And because their goal is actually impossible, it leads them to unspeakable acts of intellectual and spiritual dishonesty.

  • Ray

    The trouble with trying to decide what the Bible’s authors _really_ meant, even when it directly conflicts with what they actually said, is that it usually amounts to creating your own religion. You decide what the essential characteristics of God are, in your own mind, and alter everything else to fit.
    The reason the Bible is contradictory and vague is that it was written by different people, at different times, with different understandings of God and the purpose of religion. These contradictions make the Bible more appealing, because it means lots of different people can pick out the bits they like, and decide that those bits are most important. Rich or poor, tolerant or intolerant, judgemental or loving, there is a Bible, and a Christianity, for you.

  • Dan

    “He wasn’t effeminate, but Rayford had worried that he might be a mama’s boy — too compassionate, too sensitive, too caring. He was always looking out for someone else”
    Well in that case, God’s quite a wimpy mama’s boy himself. And who are we kidding, Jesus was also a “girlie man”. Check out these disgustingly feminine quotes:
    “His lovingkindness endures forever”
    Psalm 136 (about 30 times!)
    “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you”
    Isaiah 66:13
    “Jesus wept”
    John 11:35
    “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”
    Matthew 23:37
    “Let us love one another, because love is from God … God is love … We love because He first loved us”
    1 John 4:7-19
    “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also”
    Luke 6:27-29
    “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you”
    Isaiah 49:15

    “The Femzoil must be sacheting girlishly into your processor!”

  • cjmr’s husband

    This is, of course, the reason for the “Real Men Love Jesus” bumper stickers. If they believed it, they wouldn’t have to advertise…

  • Jeff Weskamp

    Oh I quite agree with that, as far as it goes. Its quite possible that there is a god or gods, who for whatever reason hasn’t revealed him/her/themselves. Just as it’s quite possible that we are being observed from space by super-advanced aliens, that we are surrounded by invisible witches, that sub-atomic particles are intelligent and decide their motions themselves, or that I am a brain in a vat. There is no evidence for any of these theories, but that is not evidence that they are wrong. But I’m not going to waste time believing in them without any evidence that they are _right_.
    Carl Sagan explained this in his book, the Demon-Haunted World. Essentially, propositions that cannot be provern or disproven are scientifically useless. I could indeed be a disembodied brain in a jar experiencing a computer simulation of reality. But how do I prove or disprove such a thing? The entire universe could be an atomic paricle is some higher universe. But since we cannot look outside the universe, the hypothesis is untestable. Claims like this can comfort us, or excite our sense of wonder, but since they are beyond proof or disproof, they’re really little more than fantasies. And anyone can believe any fantasy they wish.

  • Erl

    Re: “the best in most circles”: The other thing this line reveals, aside from a staggering lack of humility, is an embarrassing and confusing insularity. Has Rayford never been to the theater? I’m sure he’s a terrible actor. Has he never listened to music? Can he really claim to sing like the greats? Has he never written bad poetry? Longed to, and failed to, run a marathon?

    Nobody is remotely close to being “the best in most circles.” The only way to imagine oneself as such is to deny the existence of the vast majority of circles, deny their relevance, or twist the meaning of best beyond recognition.

  • http://twitter.com/brundlefly Shannon Hubbell

    One thing I find interesting is that the authors seem to view being a modern commercial airline pilot as some sort of pinnacle of achievement. I would never knock pilots for their skills at all, but they are paid surprisingly little for the work they do, and I would be shocked if L&J would characterize any other job in the same income bracket the same way.

    It seems like Rayford is supposed to be somewhat glamorous and powerful because of his profession, which is a view that is decades out of date.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X