UNBELIEF: THE LOGICAL AND THE EMOTIONAL SIDES

Philosophers like to put the issue this way: it is irrational to believe that (a) God is all-powerful, (b) God is unconditionally good, and (c) Undeserved suffering exists in the world. You can build a credible faith on any two of these propositions, but not on all three.

For religious believers, the unsound proposition is (c). Some understand suffering to be unreal, something like an illusion. Others acknowledge it but question whether any of it is truly undeserved.

Most non-believers claim both (a) and (b) to be the real problems, precisely the beliefs which are so crucial for believers.

Is there any way out of this impasse, logically? I think so. For God to be God, God surely must be unconditionally good. But for God to have a part in the world at all, there has to be a limiting of God’s power. God can’t have all the power there is if other beings are not to have power, too.

And the power of those other beings includes the power to do things that a Supremely Perfect Being might not do or want done.

Well, there you have it, unbelievers. So why are you still arguing about religion?

Because logic doesn’t really get to the heart of genuine unbelief — or of belief either, for that matter. The issue of whether to believe or not believe is much deeper than logic can ever access all by itself.

Let’s set abstract philosophical statements about God to the side for a moment. The God of faith has to be talked about much more personally. For instance, by statements like this: If we believe in God with all our heart, God will give us what we really need in life.

The God of this statement is not just a Powerful and Perfect Being. The God of this statement is a Promise-Making Being. People lose faith in this kind of a God not on the basis of logical considerations, but on the basis of soaring expectations and searing disappointments.

Unbelief comes when our deepest yearnings go unfulfilled, after we have been told that we have every right to expect them to be brought to pass. This is really why, I think, people give up on God.

But the yearnings still remain, most especially for the power to believe that God still will not give up on us.

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THE DIVINE AND THE HUMAN SOURCES OF RELIGIOUS SCRIPTURES

A common teaching of at least three religious traditions is that their scriptures were written down under direct, divine inspiration.

The important word here is “direct.” Its primary purpose is to minimize the role of the human scribe(s) in the process. “Minimize,” however, does not mean “eliminate.”

There is a lot of confusion about this in each tradition. What each says, in its own language(s), is that God or a ministering angel spoke the original words, then human beings — Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, Muhammad — said them to others, and finally their followers put them into written form.

This is a more subtle understanding than the one many people today latch onto, to wit: God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it.”

In my own tradition, the latching-onto has been greatly facilitated by the King James Bible’s misreading of a New Testament passage, 2 Timothy 3:16 — All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. A more accurate rendering is Every inspired scripture is profitable for…

Either way, the ensuing misreading is of two sorts. The first consists of taking “scripture” as referring to the Old and New Testaments as a whole. The second consists of ascribing their sources to God and God alone.

The writer of 2 Timothy cannot possibly have meant either. With respect to the first misreading, what he had in mind were primarily the “sacred writings” known to his letter’s recipients from their childhood (3:15): materials that would only later become the Jewish canon.

He surely had Christian materials available to him also, e.g., some early letters of Paul. But at least three of the four Gospels, along with the letters attributed to Peter and John, and the books of Hebrews and Revelation did not exist yet.

As for the second misreading, first century Christians, as did their Jewish predecessors, exhibited a remarkable sensitivity to the fallible human element in the formation of their respective messages. They were far less preoccupied than their successors became with getting into place a single body of writings whose source they could claim to be God alone.

Their point was something like this: There are a lot of humanly crafted scriptures (=writings) out there. And which of them are inspired and which are not is a decision that human beings must make.

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EXCOMMUNICATION AND OTHER CRIMES AGAINST THE SOUL

One thing that religions do well is to create bonds between people. They “bind” us together. Sometimes, though, the bindings become too tight.

When they do, people whose thinking does not conform to the letter of their religious communities’ doctrines can get treated with malignant doses of shaming and shunning, before and after being kicked out for good. Never mind that the communities doing the kicking, according to their own belief-systems, are putting those peoples’ very salvation in jeopardy.

The rationale for such institutional malfeasance is two-fold. First, naïve believers need to be protected from the questioners and doubters among them. Second, the threat of expulsion is a powerful aid to enforcing conformity, because outside the religion that promotes it there can be no redemptive connection with Sacred Reality.

It’s hard for a thinking person to take either of these rationales seriously. With regard to the first: faith cannot grow unless those seeking it are free to think for themselves. And to the second: there is a vast difference between what is truly sacred and the tribal deities of exclusivist sects.

Happily, in most civilized areas of the world at least, expulsion from a religious community is no longer accompanied by stripping people of property and even life itself. The ostracism is enough.

But the threat of ostracism is just as insidious as Inquisitions once were, and just as inimical to life in the Spirit.

By the second generation in every religion’s history, religious leaders typically become churlish toward anything blowing in the wind that they cannot control. New ideas and new visions get dismissed as dangerous gusts of teaching set in motion by “crafty rogues and their deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14)

The writer of this text could have gone on to insist that true believers  must counter these challenges by clinging tightly to a set of unquestionable doctrines and moral rules, while extinguishing the last vestige of curiosity within themselves. But he did not.

What he did instead was to propose a very different way of sharing the truth about God, the world, and human destiny. His proposal was that we speak the truth lovingly, not obsessively.

The love that he had in mind is a love of God’s goodness as much as of God’s truth, of responsibility as much as of rules, and of unity even more than uniformity.

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GROWING UP SPIRITUALLY

One of literature’s most famous opening lines is Dante’s, in The Divine Comedy: Midway on life’s journey I found myself in a dark forest, the straight path ahead lost.

Dante’s was an explicitly Christian world whose truths, even when expressed allegorically, remained wholly revealed in the Bible and church dogma. By contrast, ours’ is a religiously and philosophically uncertain world whose spiritual dimensions are revealed more in myths and dreams.

In today’s dream life, a forest frequently symbolizes the unconscious psyche, a dark and uncertain place where threatening wishes and thoughts run rampant. Some of them — especially those about domination, destruction, and death — are like tangled underbrush which obscures the path forward.

But the trees themselves symbolize connectedness between the most consuming (earth) and the most liberating (heaven) realms of human experience.

Finding oneself in a dark forest is not, as Dante believed, the result of straying from the only right path. It is the result of being guided by the unconscious toward unfamiliar and even dangerous paths, but paths that can lead to wholeness and completeness.

What makes them dangerous is that at every step we must confront previously unacknowledged and unintegrated parts of our own psyche.

Spiritual growth is like seeking a clear path through deep woods whose magnificent trees both point toward and obscure the light of a transcendent reality. It is for neither the faint of heart nor the very young.

Early in life, the process consists largely in subordinating expectations that we have for ourselves to expectations that others have for us. Self-assertion rarely gets beyond rebelling against others’ expectations without changing them.

These years represent a time of slumbering and smoldering, and then stumbling groggily on a path heading into darkness. Once in it, everything will depend upon paying close attention both to the dangers and the possibilities which lie beyond it.

The greatest temptation will be to turn our gaze backward instead of forward. The cleared, sun-lit fields of our lives to date, no matter how uneven and rocky they may have seemed while growing up on them, can appear far safer than the dark wood in front of us, and the as yet unknown creatures to be encountered in it.

But the fear and sadness which must be endured in passing through it can never be as perilous as the failure to enter it at all.

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CAN THERE BE ANYTHING SPIRITUAL ABOUT ANGER?

Many spiritually-minded people struggle with the idea that anger is unspiritual. Believing that it is can lead to guilt feelings about having any angry feelings at all.

My own thinking about anger has been influenced most by the rendering of Matthew 5:22 in the old King James Bible: whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of the judgment. Only rarely does the KJV offer the better translation available of ancient biblical texts. Here, however, it most definitely does.

Most modern translations of the New Testament leave out of Matthew 5:22 the without a cause exception which the KJV includes. In doing so, they make the verse appear to condemn any expression of anger. One translation, The New English Bible, acknowledges the exception, but only backhandedly by way of a footnote: “Some witnesses insert without good cause.”

Unlike the New English Bible’s translators, those witnesses had it right, especially with the word  “good” inserted as a modifier of the word “cause.” There are indeed good causes for anger, and working hard on never getting angry is not a good thing at all.

Jesus himself could not have condemned unconditionally any and all forms of anger. The very scriptures that say he did also report his becoming angry enough himself to call people fools, whited sepulchers, serpents and vipers (Matthew 23:19,27,33). Toward the end of his ministry he drove commercial activities off the Temple grounds in a veritable fit of righteous rage. Unlike much of ours, however, Jesus’ anger was for cause.

There is in fact a lot of anger expressed throughout the Bible. The God who inspired it comes across in it as very angry very often, as do the prophets who speak for Him. To many, myself included, not all of their anger seems justified.

But a lot of it does. It does because it is about peoples’ failures to live as they say they are going to live. More importantly, it is about peoples’ failures to treat others respectfully and fairly. Most importantly of all, it is about peoples’ failures to offer mercy and love in God’s name to everyone they meet.

Getting angry about moral failings, our own and others’, is spiritual in its very essence. It provides the energy needed for working on the condition not only of our own souls but that of the communities which nurture them.

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A LITTLE DIFFERENT LOOK INTO THE GARDEN OF EDEN

Once upon a time, I was told, human beings and every other creature of the fields and the air were meant to live happily forever. Their habitat was to be a garden planted by the very creator of the universe.

So what happened? Well, the story says, the human inhabitants of the garden disobeyed its owner, and were promptly expelled from it. And human history has been heading downhill ever since.

One thing about this story that especially troubles me is its description of the primal act of disobedience: seeking to know the mind of God.

I have never felt threatened by seeking this, and I have yet to meet a thoughtful person who does. Acknowledging these facts makes me wonder whether we have this story straight at all. I can’t help thinking that we don’t.

And maybe other people way back then thought so, too. After all, they quietly dropped the reference to the two trees in Paradise from the rest of the Old Testament altogether. Perhaps they realized that we eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it is our created nature to do so, not our fallen nature.

Here’s one way this story might have been told better, with “better” here meaning honoring more faithfully a God truly worth glorifying. In this version, Eve’s confusion would be described as confusion about whether to eat from the tree of life, not from the tree of knowledge.

Why? For one thing, she couldn’t have thought that the divine image in her did not include having a mind of her own. No woman in her right mind would ever think this.

But my story would say that Eve did wonder about how long a life God intended for her. And that wanting more of it for herself and perhaps for her intellectually challenged companion, she aggressed upon the tree of life as if its fruit had to be seized rather than received gratefully.

So it was not for seeking knowledge that Eve and Adam displeased God. It was for their not accepting mortality as an essential part of the created order. In their ungratefulness for finite life as a divine gift, Adam and Eve exiled themselves from Paradise and bequeathed to our genetic code a proclivity for a longing to return that only grace, never feasting, can ever satisfy.

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RELIGIOUS BELIEF: A MATTER OF FACT AND A MATTER OF FAITH

On the face of it, religious beliefs look very much like assertions of fact. Take, for example, the belief that the universe was created in six days.

However, when we assert something as fact we must offer relevant data and good reasons if others are to trust what we say. And I can’t do either for this particular assertion.

Nor can I do this for other cherished religious beliefs, such as:

  • Our ancestors in heaven hear our prayers;
  • The Holy Land is God’s gift to the Jews;
  • Enlightenment breaks the chain of rebirth;
  • Jesus was raised from the dead by God;
  • Those who do not submit to Allah will suffer eternal fire.

It’s not that these beliefs are untrue or unworthy of affirmation. It’s that they can’t be true or worthy in a factual sense of these words.

None of them describes events that in principle were and are open to direct observation. All of them offer, instead, an inspiring combination of wishing, hoping, and interpreting life experiences in the light of both.

It is a fact that people wish and hope for things, and that religious beliefs give especially powerful expression to our deepest wishes and highest hopes. But while we can observe the wishing and hoping, in ourselves and others, we can’t observe the “for What” of both.

We might have observed, for example, the Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment experience. But we could not have observed his transcending the cycle of death and rebirth. We might have observed Jesus alive and revisiting his followers after his crucifixion. But we could not have observed God’s bringing him back from death.

Religious traditions foster a great deal of confusion about all this. Typically, they demand the kind of assent to their basic teachings that is appropriate only to beliefs that are demonstrably true on the basis of universal experience and reasoning.

With their demands usually come escalating threats of punishments, in this life and beyond, for not believing what they believe believers ought to believe as established fact. The threats leave no room for people who simply don’t “see” what they are supposed to “see.”

But what they are supposed to see isn’t something to be “seen” at all. In every religion, the challenge of faith is to believe without seeing, and not to feel the worse for doing so.

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A TIME TO MOURN: BUT FOR HOW LONG?

Grief, the normal reaction to a significant loss, feels anything but normal when it hits. Because this is so, many grieving people try to deaden themselves to its pain by trying too hard to get on with their lives too soon.

This hurry-up strategy rarely works well. Working through grief takes time. How much time? Well, it takes the time it takes, period.

Too many mental health professionals today are still clinging to a misguided notion that grieving a loss is ok, unless it goes on too long. Then, it becomes a “mental disorder.”

In psychiatric terms, when uncomplicated bereavement becomes complicated, it requires professional treatment. Getting exercise, eating well, and reaching out to family and friends won’t any longer do.

Psychiatrists used to give peoples’ grieving at least a few months to stay uncomplicated. Now, if the latest version of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) is any indication, they’re giving it only a few weeks, after which it’s off to the pharmacy, the hospital, or both.

The ancient Preacher of the Old Testament told about the “seasons” of life. There is a time to mourn, he wrote, and there is a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:4) He did not, however, tell us how much time we are allowed for the transition.

In my experience, grief-work takes longer than most who are suffering it would like. But there is a good reason why this must be so.

Letting go of someone or something lost requires — most importantly, I think — sorting out good memories from bad ones. Then, one must decide whether to move on with as many of the good ones that the bad ones do not cancel out. This is no easy process.

In the long run, though, it is easier than putting the loss out of our minds as soon as possible and then deluding ourselves that we are doing well with moving on.

We grieve at all because we have loved, and in strict measure to how strong our love still is. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether who or what we love was worthy of our love. What does matter is that we remain capable of loving, even though it is this very capacity that will continue to make us vulnerable to loss.

And so, we will dance again, and joyfully. But not too soon.

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SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

Many people I know believe that the Ten Commandments are all that anyone needs in order to answer any question about right and wrong. My own view is that these commandments raise more questions than they answer.

Consider this question, for example: how is one to love with one’s whole being a God who according to the Third Commandment is a very “jealous” God?

Jealousy is a character defect, pure and simple. And because it is, it cannot also be a divine attribute. Any God-pretender claiming to have it should never become an object of any human being’s devotion, not to mention affection.

Another question is whether, according to the Tenth Commandment, covetous feelings are as punishable as covetous acts should be. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure Moses would agree.

And still another is why adultery, prohibited by the Seventh Commandment, should be regarded as an offense punishable by death.

These are important questions, but others that are more on my mind these days have to do with another commandment, the Ninth, about not “bearing false witness” against our neighbors. I want to look at it as a higher principle of human relationships in general, but tradition seems so often to get in the way.

The original context of this commandment was ancient Israel’s courts of elders. It was intended to prohibit lying in a judicial proceeding for the purpose of harming others. I wish its correlate had been stated with equal clarity, that we should under all circumstances attribute to others only what we know, and not just think we know, to be true about them.

Elsewhere in the Bible, there is a confusing trivializing of this commandment, seemingly to deal with little more than name-calling. By way of example, Jesus is alleged to have said that whoever calls another a “fool” deserves hell-fire. (5:22)

That this application was confusing even to those who came up with it is evident from the vignettes which also describe Jesus doing the very thing he warned others not to do. Matthew 23 has him calling Pharisees “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” “vipers,” and even “blind fools.”

Surely it was Matthew more than Jesus who was responsible for verbal aggression like this. It not only trivializes The Ninth Commandment. It undermines it altogether. Sometimes, it’s best not to take the new with the old — testament, that is.

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ON RAINBOWS, LAKES OF FIRE, AND GOD’S GRACE

In Mrs. Willis’ second grade Sunday School class, the story of the Flood did not sit well with any of us. It was too scary. But more than that, it seemed to be about something terribly unfair.

As I got older, I stopped being scared by the story, but not being angry about it. Peoples’ offenses are very different. One-punishment-fits-all is unworthy of a truly holy God.

The real problem with the story, though, is that its disaster sequences seriously weaken its climax: “…Never again will I put the earth under a curse because of humankind, however evil their inclination may be from their youth upwards…” (Genesis 8:21) Rainbows are the reminder that God repented of what he had done.

It’s easy to miss this seismic shift in theology.We are still missing it. A case in point: Christians’ gleeful recounting of divinely wrought world destruction predicted in the Book of Revelation. When Satan is released after a thousand year captivity, people will be judged by deeds already inscribed in a book of life, and those whose accounts are deficient will be flung into a lake of fire. (Chapter 20)

Clearly, third generation Christians had a harder time with persecution than their mentors did. From his cross, Jesus asked forgiveness for all his persecutors. But the Johannine community of 30 years later got so peeved with their tormentors that instead of praying for them, they consigned them to an anti-Christ of their own devising.

I love Revelation’s image of a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, with God dwelling in it and putting an end to death, mourning, crying and pain. (21:1-6) I can almost see a rainbow spanning the sky as the glorious city descends to meet us here on a glorious new earth.

Then, however, the scene changes again, to all the bad things about to happen to all those who have done so many bad things. (21:8) Just as in the story of the Flood, the divine fury here is undiscriminating. Cowards and liars come off just as badly as murderers do.

It has been an important Christian belief that in the whole of the scriptures God’s Word can be found. But this does not mean that every scriptural passage expresses that Word equally well. For an image of a future with God, I’ll take the rainbow over the lake of fire anytime.

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