Why I Am Not An Atheist 4 – Theodicy

Posted: July 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Theodicy is a term generally used to describe the problem of reconciling a powerful and benevolent God with the suffering and pain in the world. It’s generally presented as an argument for atheism, so it may seem odd that I’m describing it as one of the reasons I’m not an atheist. Hopefully I can unravel that apparent conundrum.

I do want to be clear. Christianity does assert a single creator God on whom all that exists is contingent from moment to moment. Our God is one who is both immanent (everywhere present and filling all things) and transcendent. Christianity teaches that this God who is fully revealed in Christ is a good God who loves mankind. Moreover, this God is such that the only word, inadequate as it is, that we can use to capture his essence and being is love.

So it is true that the problem of evil is a very real one for Christianity. While I don’t intend to explore that problem in this post, I have discussed some of my thoughts in various places in the past. However I do acknowledge this is truly a deep philosophical problem — for Christianity. But atheism presents itself as the rejection of all Gods and any concept of deity, not merely a rejection of the Christian God. As such, I always wondered why its arguments, such as this one, seem to often be so narrowly focused.

I’ll illustrate by drawing on my pre-Christian Hindu perspective. Suffering is acknowledged, of course, but it cannot be described as a problem for Hinduism. Now, it’s been a long time since I actively thought from a somewhat Hindu perspective and I was never a particularly devoted practitioner by any stretch of the imagination. But that lens did generally shape how I perceived the world around me for much of my first three decades of life. And I did meditate, read the Bhagavad Gita (sporadically, at least) and other texts, and commentaries on them. I searched online and found one of the texts that still sticks in my mind from chapter 18. (Always keep in mind that it’s not easy to translate these texts into English. Concepts don’t necessarily match well at all.)

Within the hearts of all living entities, resides the Supreme Lord, O Arjuna and by the potency of the illusory energy orchestrates the movements of all living entities like figurines on a carousel.

This page actually includes four commentaries or different perspectives with Hinduism on that passage. The one by Sridhara Swami captures what would have been my understanding. It’s maya (often translated illusion, but flowing from the idea of “not that“) that binds us to samsara, the wheel of suffering within which we are locked by the cycle of death and rebirth. Through transcendence, we can stop revolving from one life to another. (Reincarnation and our attachment to the illusion of the material is actually more a core part of the problem in Hinduism than something desired. I guess that’s another reason I find it odd that a significant percentage of Christians today embrace reincarnation.)

Other religions have different perspectives, of course, but as far as I can tell, it would be hard to frame evil and suffering as a problem within their frameworks. (The exception is probably Judaism, though I don’t think the problem takes exactly the same shape that it does in Christianity.) And yet, as I’ve heard atheistic arguments over the years and as I’ve heard and read stories of people who embraced or converted to atheism rather than being raised within it, this problem of evil is often close to the core. I often don’t get the sense that people even see that it’s an anti-Christian argument and not one that actually supports atheism.

Finally, I find it strange that this particular argument is so common. After all, atheism itself offers a pretty poor ultimate response to pain and suffering. I don’t want to be flippant, but for all practical purposes, the modern atheistic answer seems to boil down to something pretty simple.

Life’s a bitch and then you die.

I’ll take Hinduism or Buddhism or Shintoism or any of a host of other answers over that one. I guess I’ll never be a good materialist. That lens has never held any appeal for me. Yes, it can be difficult to resolve a God of love with all the suffering and evil that exists. But I would rather make that effort, however deep the rabbit hole goes, than abandon it.

But let’s say I was willing to embrace the materialist perspective. If I did, I think Nietzsche carries it to its logical conclusion. And that will be the topic of my next post in this series.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

Posted: December 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

19.  The soul’s salvation is the consummation of faith (cf. 1 Pet. 1:9). This consummation is the revelation of what has been believed. Revelation is the inexpressible interpenetration of the believer with the object of belief and takes place according to each believer’s degree of faith (cf. Rom. 12:6). Through that interpenetration the believer finally returns to his origin. This return is the fulfillment of desire. Fulfillment of desire is ever-active repose in the object of desire. Such repose is eternal uninterrupted enjoyment of this object. Enjoyment of this kind entails participation in supra-natural divine realities. This participation consists in the participant becoming like that in which he participates. Such likeness involves, so far as this is possible, an identity with respect to energy between the participant and that in which he participates by virtue of the likeness. This identity with respect to energy constitutes the deification of the saints. Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages, and of all that exists in either. This encompassing and fulfillment is the union, in the person granted salvation, of his real authentic origin with his real authentic consummation. This union presupposes a transcending of all that by nature is essentially limited by an origin and a consummation. Such transcendence is effected by the almighty and more than powerful energy of God, acting in a direct and infinite manner in the person found worthy of this transcendence. The action of this divine energy bestows a more than ineffable pleasure and joy on him in whom the unutterable and unfathomable union with the divine is accomplished. This, in the nature of things, cannot be perceived, conceived or expressed.

I don’t have any comments on this text and I’m not even entirely sure I understand it. Actually, I’m fairly certain I don’t understand it. But I’ve been trying to wrap my little head around theosis or deification for years now, so I thought I would go ahead and publish this text. Maybe somebody reading might want to take a stab at it in the comments.


God Is Holy

Posted: April 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on God Is Holy

I was reading something this past week when I had a sudden epiphany. For the first time, I had a sense that I grasped something of what people tend to mean when they use that tricksy word, holy. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the word itself means something set apart particularly for religious purposes, something or someone who is other. And in that sense, God is wholly other from us.

The proper dividing line from a Christian perspective is not between the natural and the supernatural or between the religious and secular. No, the proper division is between the uncreated and the created. On the one side we have God and on the other, we have everything else. Thus God is the thrice Holy, the one who is completely other in essence from all creation. We use the word holy in this context as the linguistic marker for that which beyond our ken. It’s a tautology. We could as readily say that God is God.

That’s part of the beauty and wonder of the Incarnation. The uncreated, the holy (and wholly) other, entered into creation and joined his nature, being, and essence forever with the created. We had no way to truly know God if God had not only come to us, but become one of us. God with us is a name of beautiful mystery.

I realized this week that people were using holy as though they knew what it meant, as though it had a specific set of definable attributes. Thus when they said that God is holy, they had in mind a specific list of attributes and behaviors. God is like this and God acts this way because he is holy. Through the use of the word holy, a word intended to elucidate God’s transcendence, they were actually constraining God. That strikes me as a risky proposition.

Of course, holy in this context is not generally used by itself. And I think the way it is typically paired is illuminating. That was the central aspect of my little epiphany. God is holy and just. Have you perhaps heard that particular phrase before? It implies several things. First, God’s holiness, his apartness, correlates in some sense to some idea of justice. Moreover, I have the sense that people who use that phrase believe they know what it means to be just. I have the feeling that they equate justness with the application of reward and punishment according to some sort of set standard. Those who have wronged others will get their just desserts. (I also have a feeling that few people wish to have that same standard applied to them.)

Within the systems and structures of our world, that’s not even a bad formulation of what it means to be just. After all, we see the injustice that results from tyrants and within the setting of failed states. And we see how structures of order can reduce suffering — particularly among those whom they are designed to favor. However, in fairness, those structures tend to improve life for all.  Even those who tend to get the short end of the justice stick from the systems in the US generally suffer less than those at the mercy of the warlords in a failed state. But even in an unjust, but strong dictatorship, like the former one of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, most people tend to live relatively safe and undisturbed lives.

Certainly our God is a just God. I would not argue with that statement. I do, however, take issue with the idea that God’s justness conforms to our ideas about justness. I love Jonah. And this is one of the reasons why I do. Jonah ran from God and was angry at God not because he didn’t know God, but because he did. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and it was a long-standing and brutal empire. The Assyrians understood how empires had to work in order to endure. They were feared and hated and with reason. And Jonah wanted God to make them pay. Jonah wanted justice and his definition of it was pretty much like ours.

So why did he run? Why, when he could not escape, did he put minimal effort in his prophecy? “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That was it. And why, when the city — every man, woman, child, and even animal — repented, was Jonah pissed off at God? Was it because Jonah didn’t understand God? No. Jonah knew God. He knew God to be compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and abundant in mercy, and willing to change your heart concerning evils. God did exactly what Jonah expected him to do and Jonah just wanted to die.

God is a just God, certainly. But when we say that, we have to recognize that we don’t truly know what it means to be just. If we want to understand true justness, we have to look to Jesus. And if the gospels don’t stand everything you thought you knew about reality on its head, then I would suggest you might not have truly read them.

I will also note, for what it’s worth, that the phrase “holy and just” does not appear at all in many English translations of the Holy Scriptures. In the KJV and NKJV translations it does appear once in Romans 7 as a partial description of Torah. Nowhere that I know does that particular combination of words describe God.

As Christians, our Scriptures do tell us what forms the essence of the otherness of God. 1 John 4:8 says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Of course, we don’t understand the reality of love any more than we grasp true justice. But we have the fullness of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And as we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, we perhaps begin to know love.

I’m not sure exactly how it is that so many people envision God. But it is clear to me that they have constructed a framework and placed God within it. I think their holy and just God might be more similar to the Stoic God of perfect order than anything we find in Christ.

I’m also not sure what form God’s justice will take as he ultimately sets all things ‘to rights’ as the English would say. I’m prepared to simultaneously be shocked and surprised even as I say, “Of course. that’s how it had to be.” If I understand anything of Jesus, though, I am certain that justice will flow from the love which is his essence and I know it will be full of compassion and mercy. Until then, I will use the thrice Holy to describe God, but only in the sense that God is the only Uncreated, not as though I have actually described anything of the nature and attributes of God.