Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Of Love and Fear

[A reader made a comment in reply to the posting immediately under this, entitled “My Theological Eccentricities.” You can click on the comment box under that posting to see the full text of his remarks. This is my reply to his comment.]


In your last four sentences you say: “Since I no longer believe in Christianity, I am well aware of the possibility that there may not be any continuance [of life and consciousness] after death and that bothers me. However, in the same instance, there is a relief that there is no longer a fear that I could end up in Hell. Also, I actually prefer the fact that I believe that Christianity is not factual. You see, I prefer to know the truth rather than live a fantasy.” (Emphasis added.)

Your self-analysis is unusually candid.  Most readers don't admit that their feelings affect their beliefs and often determine them.  You call yourself an agnostic. If you really were one, you would admit that you don’t “know the truth” and your belief in the Christian God’s non-existence, or Christ’s being “a failed prophet,” may turn out to be fantasies in the end. Hiding from divine reality may be the ultimate self-delusion -- and the most perilous.

If you feel disbelief gives you a sure doubt-free grasp of truth, I think you deceive yourself. The believer’s creed may be a fantasy, but so may the unbeliever’s. That is the uncertainty we must live with, and atheism is no escape from it. In the last three paragraphs of my essay “An Agnostic Argues for Faith” (posted below) I explain why the decision I’ve made seems to me the most prudent, and why I commend it to non-theists.

This morning as I left church I reflected on your comment and asked myself: Why has the fear of hell that haunts so many, and once vexed me, receded to insignificance for me? The answer I realized is this: I don’t just believe. I love God and I love Christ, whom I believe to be his Son. I express that love every day and feel it most hours of the day. God, who is much better at loving than I am, doesn’t love me any less than I love him.

When I underwent a four-hour heart procedure three months ago, I knew there was a small risk things could go awry and I could die of a stroke or a heart attack. I felt peace and confidence as they wheeled me into the operating room that if the worst happened, I would meet someone magnificent, whom I have loved for forty years. That was not a terrifying prospect. “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Deut. 33:26. Jesus said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” I don’t have perfect love, but I know what he means. Even imperfect love makes fear small and manageable.

Why Christianity and not Buddhism or…?

You say: “Ok, let’s assume there is a god. What makes you so sure that the Christian religion describes this god? Why not Buddhism?”

As I said in an earlier comment, the philosophical agnosticism I argue for does not require a pronouncement that my belief is right and others are wrong. I contend that neither atheism nor theism can be proven. I don’t think Judaism, Christianity, or Islam can be proven either. But the fact that we can’t prove a hypothesis does not mean we can’t believe it. For those who feel dissatisfied with atheism, that leaves open the question, what – if anything – shall we believe? The process of deciding was not, for me, quick and easy. I describe it in some detail in a segment of the book I’m writing, which I trust you’ll read someday.

For now, a short answer is that the Western culture we live in certainly militated against Buddhism and Hinduism (with which I experimented) and favored Christianity. But my first stop out of atheism was Pure Theism, which I’ll enlarge on soon. I was surrounded by ardent Christians during that time, in a tight-knit social group in Manhattan in the late ‘60s. I began to feel they had something very precious that I didn’t have. That predisposed me to Christianity. I saw how impassioned faith illuminated their lives, and I wanted it to illuminate mine. The figure of Christ and his gospel became more and more compelling. Even then it took some remarkable experiences – and a couple of years -- to help me cross the chasm between Pure Theism and faith in Christ. I can’t explain that adequately here.

How do I know Christianity is right, rather than Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.? I don’t know, but the person of Christ and the Christian worldview appealed to me much more strongly than the religions of the East. I want Christianity to be true, and I see no rational barrier to its being true. Objections, sure. Reasons not to believe, plenty. But none that is rationally insurmountable. I look at them all, weigh the counter-arguments, and say, “Might this possibly be true?” The answer is a resounding, Yes! I don’t have to be sure. I don’t have to know. Belief, over time, became possible. I chose to believe. After forty years it is still the best decision I ever made.



  1. Part 1

    When I say I am agnostic, I am referring to something I cannot determine and that is whether or not there is a creator or not. In the case of Christianity, I feel confident that I can truly say that I KNOW that it is manmade. There is too much evidence that Jesus was an apocalypticist. He even states that the 12 disciples will rule over the 12 tribes of Israel and Jesus was to be God’s overlord so to speak. This was to happen during the life time of his disciples. It did not happen and ‘Christians’ had to scramble for an answer, and cleverly came up with the statement that Jesus was the son of God and his function was to die for our sins. However, there is a problem with this. In the oldest source of Mark, Jesus refers to a Son of Man, a cosmic judge who will come to destroy all those evil forces who will not make it to the coming Kingdom. You call this living a fantasy on my part, but I beg to differ. Like I said the evidence is there. But you have to open your mind to see it. It appears once again that you are trying to paint me as an atheist; even though I have stated several times that I tend to believe that life is too complex to have happened by chance. However, I am willing to admit that this maybe because of my lack of understanding of evolution. After all, Behe stated that we are irreducibly complicated to have come about by chance at the Dover PA trial of school board placing Creationism texts in the class room and the creationist lost with a conservative judge hearing the case.
    I don’t think you have it quite right when you stated that my feelings effected my beliefs. If that were so, I would probably have remained a Christian because I “feel” that I want to exist after I die, but that is not the case. Instead, I felt that the whole thing just didn’t make sense, i.e., why would Jesus be fervently preaching to prepare for the coming Kingdom if it wasn’t going to happen then. I was looking for facts, even if it ruined my hopes of eternal life. I finally found evidence that, indeed, Jesus was expecting it to happen back then and it didn’t. And the more I read, the more I am convinced that religion is manmade.
    And as far as Hell goes, initially, the Jews believed that when you died you went to a dark gloomy place called Shoal and it didn’t matter if you were god or bad. Jewish prophets declared that when bad things happened, it was because the people were not keeping gods’ rules. Eventually, it was realized that the bad things happened even to those who kept the law. Finally, the theory was developed that the bad was brought on by evil brought on by the devil and that God would eventually overthrow these evil forces and establish a kingdom free of all evil – the apocalyptical belief. The same one embraced by Jesus. The belief in a place called shoal was replaced by hell.
    Interestingly, you claim to be an agnostic, but at the same time you quote things from the Bible and claim that God said them. That seems a bit like circular reasoning, i.e., “the Bible is the Word of God. How do I know this? God said so, and God wouldn’t lie.” You say you admit that you can’t prove a God, but you quote stuff from the Bible and say that these are words of God. What is this based on? It is based on prophets claiming that God told them these things. Now that takes a whole lot of FAITH. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that your belief in Christianity came about because your parents were Christians.

  2. Part II and final.

    You stated that neither atheism nor theism can be proven as well as any particular religion, yet you embrace Christianity because you cannot disprove it. I beg to differ. I really believe that I have found the truth that Christianity is based on fantasy. Funny, Archey Bunker stated that Faith is believing in something so ridiculous that nobody in his right mind would believe it.  I stated “why not Buddhism?” The reason is that it makes a whole lot more sense that you keep being reborn until you get it right, instead of either going to heaven or hell. Sometime ago, I read a book by Paul Twitchell, The Tiger’s Fang. It was about him going in a trance and meeting a soul guide who took him across a river of souls in a boat and then to 7 different soul planes, each greater than the other. Even this makes more sense than Christianity. Really fascinating!
    In your case, it appears that you need something, and I can relate because I needed it too when I was younger. Still, since I still lean towards a creator, I still am hopeful, but am realistic that it might not be so. You mention your confidence when you went in for a four hour heart operation because there was a small chance of anything going wrong. But, do you realize that you have science and not religion to thank for that. In the past, when you had such a heart problem as you had, odds were that you died and all the praying performed by you and others did not change this. Our longer life is not attributed to better praying, but to improvements in science. Yes, it is nice to think that you will meet your creator when you die, but it still doesn’t make it fact. And selecting a particular religion because you feel comfortable with it, most likely because you were raised that way, does not make it the correct religion or prove that any religion is anything but man’s desire for a creator and an attempt to describe this desired creator.

  3. Shane,
    The earliest Christians had a problem when they tried to convince their fellow Jews that Jesus was the one upon whom God had shown his favor, his Son, the Messiah because non-Christian Jews who were anticipating a Messiah were not looking for anyone like Jesus. They all expected the Messiah to be a powerful respected figure who would command who would lead the Jewish people into a new world that overcame the injustices of the world. Jesus, on the other hand, was a relatively obscure teacher who was crucified for sedition against the empire. A convicted criminal could not be God’s Messiah. Jesus never overthrew the state. Instead, he was mocked, beaten, and executed by the state. For most Jews, to call Jesus the Messiah, let alone Lord of the universe, was preposterous, even blasphemous. To the knowledge of scholars, prior to Christianity, there were no Jews who believed that the Messiah to come would suffer and die for the sins of the world and then return again in glory.
    Jesus is often referred to as the Son of God. However, the Jews would have taken it as a reference to the king of Israel (as in Sam. 7:14 and PS. 2). Whereas, to the Gentiles, it would probably mean a “divine man” who was born of a god and a mortal and who could do great miraculous deeds. Also, in Jewish circles, Messiah would be someone anointed with oil or oiled such as an athlete after a hard workout. Hardly a term of reverence for a religious leader, let alone the Savior of the World.

  4. Shane,
    Some more comments. The Jesus of history, contrary to modern Christian beliefs, was not a proponent of “family values.” He urged his followers to abandon their homes and forsake families for the sake of the Kingdom that was soon to arrive. He didn’t encourage people to pursue fulfilling careers, make a good living, and work for a just society for the long haul because for him there was not going to be a long haul. The end of the world as we know it was at hand. The Son of Man would soon arrive, bringing condemnation and judgment against those who prospered in this age, but salvation and justice to the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed. People should sacrifice everything or be caught unawares and cast out of the Kingdom that was soon to come. In fact, he said that the last would be first in this Kingdom. That is why he said you should behave like a slave of others and also like children who were considered very low in society.
    What I am seeing here is that you have chosen to be a Christian because it makes you feel good, even though you recognize that it may not be factual. Whether or not it is factual does not matter to you. As an extreme case, I met a guy at work who was an outside contractor who worked something like 3 PCs at once and seemed very smart. Turns out that he was an ex-physicist. What blew me away is that he was a Creationist who believed in the literal word of the Bible where God created everything in 6 days about 5000 to 6000 years ago. Here he was an ex-physicist and still believed this, even that Noah literally had all those animals on the ark including dinosaurs. The Bible states that there were 7 of each clean animal and a pair of each unclean animal. Anyway, it seems that he was having a rocky life and that this group helped him by giving him support. So, in that sense, I guess I can understand why he was willing to” turn off his brain”.

  5. Wayne,

    After all you have read of my postings, and all I have read of your erudite comments, I think we understand each other's viewpoint, though we are as far apart as when we started. I concede that you may be right and I may be wrong on all our points of difference, though my belief is to the contrary. I appreciate the stimulation you have provided for me and for other commenters on this blog. Enjoy your trip to Thailand. I hope there will be new material here for you to comment on when you get back.


  6. Shane,

    Of course I'm right. :-) Just kidding. I enjoyed our discussions too. Thank You. Thailand has gotten delayed a bit since our flight on Thursday got cancelled, but we managed to get another flight on Saturday. They are giving a 50/50 chance of more snow on Sunday, so let me out of here, I've had enough snow for this winter.

  7. Wayne,

    Here's an afterthought:

    Much of what you say in your comment of February 9th, above, about Jewish messianic expectations is true, but please familiarize yourself with the Suffering Servant prophecies of Isaiah. I copied the paragraph below, and the verses that follow, from website www.chaim.org/isaiah53.htm. Shane

    This amazing passage from the Hebrew Prophets was written over 700 years before the birth of Jesus. It is found in Jewish Bibles today, though it is left out of the weekly synagogue readings, as are many other texts of the Bible. When people read Isaiah 53 without knowing which part of the Bible it comes from, they often wrongly assume is from the New Testament. Did Isaiah foresee the sufferings of Jesus to pay for our sins? Though many modern rabbis --and some ancient rabbis-- say the sufferings described are those of the nation of Israel, most ancient rabbis said it refers to Messiah's sufferings. We have provided a link to some of the great rabbinic sources which interpreted the passage as referring to the Messiah, even though they did not believe in Jesus. We have also provided a link demonstrating why Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Israel and who it must necessarily refer to. You will also find some other interesting links below. The passage actually begins with the end of Isaiah chapter 52. Read it for yourself.

    [Here are a few of the key verses:]

    53:2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,and like a root out of dry ground;
    he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

    53:3 He was despised and rejected by men;
    a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
    and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

    53:4 Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
    yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.

    53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    he was bruised for our iniquities;
    upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

  8. Shane,
    Funny, I almost commented on this passage before you brought it up. and one other. You see, Christians later interpreted texts like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in reference to the Messiah. However, the term “Messiah” never occurs in these texts, and no Jew prior to Christianity, so far as scholars know, ever understood them to refer to the future Messiah. But Christians nonetheless took them to refer to Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah. Most important were passages found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, who also speaks of the suffering of God’s righteous one, whom he calls the “Servant of the Lord.” According to the “Songs of the Suffering Servant”, as scholars have labeled four different passages in Isaiah, the most important of which is 52:13-53:12, this servant of God was one who suffered a heinous and shameful fate: he was despised and rejected (53:30, he was wounded and bruised (53:4-5), he was oppressed and afflicted, he suffered in silence and was eventually killed (53:4-5). The widely held view among scholars is that it was originally speaking of the suffering of the nation of Israel during the Babylonian captivity (see Isa. 49:3)
    Here is how the Christians used these passages to rescue a bad situation of Jesus being crucified as a common criminal.
    In Isaiah, the author refers to the Servant’s suffering as past but his vindication as future. Christians understood Jesus’ own suffering similarly, in light o this and other passages. For them, these ancient words described well what Jesus went through. Moreover, for them, Jesus clearly was the chosen one, given his resurrection and exaltation. Their conclusion: God’s Messiah had to suffer. For what reason? As a sacrifice for the sins of the world. The crucifixion, then, was turned from a stumbling block for Jews into a foundation stone for Christians (see 1 Cor. 1:23). In reflecting upon their Scriptures, the earliest Jewish Christians concluded that Jesus was meant to suffer and die. This was no mere miscarriage of justice; it was the eternal plan of God. Jesus faithfully carried out his mission, bringing salvation to the world. God therefore exalted him to heaven, making him the Lord of all and setting in motion the sequence of events that would lead to his return in fiery judgment on the earth.

  9. Wayne,

    In any case I see it as a rather remarkable coincidence that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant parallels the character and fate of Jesus so closely, and did so seven centuries before the fact. Not proof, of course; but if not prophetically inspired, an amazing coincidence.

    You point out that Jesus (arguably) made a bad call and is therefore a false prophet. Will you admit that Isaiah made a good call and is therefore a genuine prophet? If so, what does that say about Jesus?


  10. Shane said: >. Will you admit that Isaiah made a good call and is therefore a genuine prophet?>

    A lot of Christians think so, however, scholars believe that it was not a prophesy but an account of the suffering of Israel. The same appears to be true of Psalm 22. Even though the Hebrew Bible never specifically speaks of the “Messiah” as one who is to suffer, there are passages in Psalms that speak of a righteous man who suffers at the hands of God’s enemies, a man who comes to be vindicated by God. Originally, these “Psalms of Lament” may have been written by Jews who were undergoing particularly difficult times of oppression and who found relief in airing their complaints against the evil persons who attacked them and expressing their hopes that God would intervene on their behalf (see Pss 22, 35 and 69). Christians who read such Psalms, however, saw in them not the expressions of oppressed, righteous Jews from the distant past but embodiments of the pain, suffering, and ultimate vindication of the one truly righteous Jew who had recently been unjustly condemned and executed. As they reflected on what had happened to Jesus, these Jewish Christians saw in his suffering and death a fulfillment of the words of the righteous sufferer described in the Psalms. These words shaped the ways Christians understood and described the events of Jesus’ own Passion. They took the words of Psalm 22 as expressive of the events surrounding Jesus’ execution:
    “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (v. 1); “All who se me mock at me, they make mouths at me, the shake their heads” (v. 7); “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws” (vv. 14-15); “A company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me: they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (vv. 16-18).
    For the early Christians, the sufferings of the righteous Jesus were foreshadowed by the sufferings of the righteous Jew of the Psalms. His sufferings were therefore no mere miscarriage of justice; they were the plan of God.
    OK, so you ask if I will admit Isaiah made a good call. Well, if you had asked me back when I was still a Christian, I would have answered in the affirmative. However, after much reading, I have changed my mind and do not feel that these passages in the old testament were prophesies of the coming Messiah, i.e., Jesus. However, I think you can see that I do understand why you believe, since I once did as well.