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Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

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This passage is often used to point to general revelation, the idea that there are aspects of creation which point to God’s nature, at least existence:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

(Rom 1:18-23, NRSV).

Firstly, this needs to be read in context. Paul was a major figure involved in Gentile inclusion in early Christianity. Contemporary Jews would boast of their righteousness through the law that God gave them and look down on the unrighteous, unclean Gentiles. If some people could come to accept that Gentiles were to be included in the new movement, the next biggest difficulty was being convinced that Gentiles did not need to abide by the Torah. Here Paul speaks of the unrighteousness of the Gentiles, a theme his contemporaries would be familiar with. But then, surprisingly, he goes on to speak of the unrighteousness of the Jews, “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'” (2:23-24), moving onto the universality of sin in chapter 3.

Interestingly, even though Paul makes these statements, he says quite the opposite regarding the gospel: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?… So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (10:14, 17). Additionally, I wonder if Paul’s critique is not merely noetic, but ethical. He is concerned that the Gentiles “suppress the truth” (v.18) and exchange “the truth about God for a lie” (v.25). But perhaps he is more concerned with the life of vices to which he connects it: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vv.29-31). It is not so much denial in itself but denial so that people can cut themselves off from their creator, both objectifying and deifying features of creation in accordance with their desires.

In any case, contemporary religious/secular pluralism should at least hold some interpretative sway for this passage! It remains unfortunate that Christians have used this passage to condemn those who have legitimate doubts about God’s existence or a completely different understanding of God altogether. Perhaps more worrying is its application to non-Christians who may very well be more “ethical” than the Christians condemning them! How do you understand this passage hermeneutically?

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It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

* * *

Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?

http://www.toonpool.com/user/398/files/ethics_333515.jpg

* * *

Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

* * *

Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

* * *

In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

* * *

¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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“What good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed?”

(2Esdras 7:120 NRSV).

* * *

After a short recess due to some unexpected lack of inspirations, I’m returning with a follow-up post on grace after It’s not easy being evilWhereas the former focussed on the necessity of entering grace through law, this will focus on some difficulties in law persisting after grace. I apologise ahead for the lack of footnotes and overuse of brackets. WordPress is not ideal for essay-like writings.

What makes grace possible? Certain passages in the bible that stress God’s omnipotence point out how nothing we do can ultimately sway his plan; because of God’s complete sovereignty, all redemption that a fallen world requires originates in him. For example, take the classic sermon attributed to Paul in Acts:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

(17:24-27 NRSV)

A photo of John Milton on Instagram.

If God is God then he has no need for us to contribute to the success of his plans. He’s got it sorted. In one of my favourite Milton poems (ie. in one of my favourite poems), Milton explores his now relative inability to serve God after becoming blind:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed[¹]
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

He complains that as he grows closer to God in his old age, his body prevents him from serving the Lord more fully. Yet his conclusion is akin to the description of God in Acts: The Lord is able to fulfill his will without the great works of Milton (cf. Paradise Lost, which is a great work, above that of Paradise Regained, ironically and quite tellingly making the Fall more central to being human than Christ’s redemption), only now requiring that Milton wait faithfully.

Isn’t this omnipotence partly what enables God to forgive sins? If freedom allows us to do otherwise than God intends (ie. sin) then the Lord’s omnipotence allows him to allow for that freedom independently of the fulfillment of his will. Paul expresses this asymmetry in a popular verse:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 NRSV).

* * *

This alone makes me cynical of Zizek and Rollins’ atheistic enthusiasm towards the Christian legacy. God or the infinite, the Beyond, etc does not exist; he died on the cross. All we have now is the material Christian community, and the agapeic love thereof, which accepts us unconditionally (love the sinner, hate the sin). How then is this grace possible? The immutable alternative to sin and death, God’s ultimate and unchanging plan which exists in the infinite, has been shown to be wishful thinking, an illusion. Grace always was, and now knowingly, expressed in finitude, through imperfect believers.

I’m no scholar but humour me here. Say what Paul is saying in Romans is that it is impossible to fulfill the law through obedience to it, for various reasons, one being the universal sin of humanity (Romans 3:9ff), made known through the law (3:20), even taking the opportunity given by this knowledge to further assert itself (7:7-8). I think this can be possibly erroneously supplemented (in a good way) by some passages from the Messiah himself, and some good, commonsense examples. The Sermon on the Mount is a helpful place to start:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire[…]

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

(Matthew 5:17-23, 27-30 NRSV).

Jesus cannot be seen here as just creating other absolute categories. The problem with law here is that its requirements are never absolute. Jesus points this out by relativising them. A lot of people could boast that they never committed adultery or murdered anyone. But how many could say they never indulged feelings of lust or hate for anyone? The temptation of people approaching this passage is to miss the point of what Jesus is saying by creating new absolute categories: No longer is it just wrong to sleep with the newlywed next door, it’s wrong also to think about doing so. I cannot dismiss that Jesus’ words righfully challenge smug law-abiders who think they’ve ticked all the boxes, yet in reality they missed the point of the law. Yes, taken. But we need to take our hermeneutics one step further. But what can also be taken from this passage is that Jesus is asking of us something impossible. It’s now wrong to think about committing adultery. What if it’s wrong also to want to think about doing so? This is all to easily dismissed as an untouchable depth of the depraved heart, which is not equal to ‘willful sins’ simply because we wake up with it in the same way we wake up hungry. Anger and lust are part and parcel with our humanity. Jesus asks us to not be something which cannot not be.

Perhaps this is why Paul cites ‘covetousness’ as an example of failure to live up to the law (Romans 7:8). With the possible exceptions of worshipping Yahweh alone and honouring your father and mother, covetousness is the law in the Decalogue most immediately obvious as an internal sin. As is already evident in the Torah, and then in later Rabbinic literature, case law and a whole range of imaginative possibilities were devised to determine what was and what wasn’t transgression in externally measurable circumstances: “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12 NRSV). Coveting occurs internally where things like husbands, genitals and hands don’t exist. It is not entered into with externally measurable circumstances but lurks in the infinite subconsciousness and coexists with the desires to drink water, yawn when you’re tired and scratch an itch. Of course, you don’t need to respond to those desires, but to be told not to desire in the first place, this is difficult.

Coming back to Jesus’ sermon, what is worrying (although I tend to always feel not somehow worried but inspired when I read this passage) is that he calls us to live so highly, to “be perfect” (v.48), as a part of adhering to the law, to the extent that if we neglect to live up to this perfection then we “will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.20). Jesus presents a potential disciple with a similar conclusion, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 NRSV). The same language of perfection is used here. Although this “someone” had kept all the commandments (v.20), Jesus required yet more of him. The same/a similar theme appears elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel (12:1-14; 15:1-20; 23:1ff).

Not only are the requirements of the law infinite for internal things like lusting and coveting, both of which cannot be measured empirically (this is why psychology is a soft science; real scientists make conclusions about gravity and the structure of atoms, etc), but there is no way to way to live up to external requirements either. The Sabbath is for resting but that doesn’t mean you can neglect your bone-brokened donkey. If you’re walking along and see a piece of rubbish on the ground, you can put it in the bin nearby, but then you might see another, and then another. Is it right to spend the rest of your life cleaning up the streets or is it right to pick up one piece, ignore the others, and move on? Using violence to solve problems goes against who Jesus is, but what about in self-defense? It’s not needed. I can forgo the protection of my body to maintain my peaceful ideals. What, then, about defending vulnerable individuals? How do you intervene between an adult smacking up some kid? When do your actions become no longer defense on the part of another but unneeded violence? What we need now is a bunch of Rabbis to take Jesus as the new Torah, and then to meditate on the infinite extensions of “turn the other cheek”, producing a two volume commentary on Christian non-violence and every conceivable situation where the moral responsibility of the subject would be called into question. Peter Rollins’ parable, The third mile is useful here:

* * *

Back into the big picture, Jesus is pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious elite who hold a privileged place in society, along with access to the interpretations of the law, and therefore access to God. Paul takes the same kind of idea and shows how not just the religious elite but wider Israel had an exclusive status through the law that barred the Gentiles access to God (I’m here indebted to N T Wright for his gloss on Romans 2 — not hearers of the law (Jews) but doers (some Jews and Gentiles) will be justified at the judgement). What Paul and Jesus have in common here is that they are both criticising groups who bar others from access to God, which is not just an abstract, between-me-and-God spiritual superiority but a social superiority with far-reaching material consequences (eg. Matthew 15:5-6; John 4:9, 8:1ff; Acts 6:1; Galatians 2:12). It’s easy to get off topic when discussing the proper context of the passages. But Paul and Jesus’ presentation of an alternative to the law (while, of course, upholding the law) needs to be understood with what that offers, universal access to God and the material reality that comes with that.

Can Paul’s universality of sin and Jesus’ infinite requirements of the law then be removed from this context? I’m not qualified to give a proper answer. But, I can’t see, after first acknowledging the bigger picture, why not. Universal sin and impossible obedience are just that, universal. Paul sees this and presents an alternative, namely trusting/believing/having faith in God (Romans 3:21ff, 4:16ff; cf. Galatians 3:5) and living life in the Spirit (Romans 8; cf. Galatians 5:16-26). As Kierkegaard notes, in Christianity the definition of sin has shifted, “This is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith” (making reference to Romans 14:23, where Paul has now put his theology into a practical context).

Faith, after Abraham and the passages cited above, appears to me to be believing that God will fulfill his word(s). I tread carefully in giving a definition of life in the Spirit because of my Pentecostal background, which focusses on the response of the individual to the internal leading of the Holy Spirit, immediately connecting both faith and Spirit, although I will mention that this individualism² is not without biblical support (eg. Romans 14:5-12; Exodus 25:2; 1Corinthians 12:4-11). I am also aware of the emphases of Calvinist pneumatology, which hold some stakes in this definition, that is, that because of our total depravity (I actually get some sort of sick kick out of ascribing that to humanity, which no doubt some will cite as itself evidence of the doctrine) we cannot do good, let alone accept the message of the Gospel in faith, so that it is the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts and enables us to believe, also connecting two of Paul’s qualifiers for life in Christ. What appeals to me here is not our absolute dependence on God even for faith (which I disagree with, because it leads to determinism) but the framing of the Holy Spirit as God’s initiative, the topping up of what is incomplete in faith.

This brings us back to where we started, which is to acknowledge that Paul’s sermon in Acts continues with the words, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30 NRSV). And this is to acknowledge that while Milton could not serve God as he previously could with his sight, the Lord asks him now to “stand and wait”. These are expressions of faith, universal access to God through simply believing what he says. But faith in itself is art for art’s sake. It falls to the same fate as our flawed obedience to the law. This then is the Holy Spirit, who works with us through faith to overcome the infinite requirement, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NRSV). God is pleased with what we do. Under law we were incited to sin, yet under faith the Lord uses us through his Spirit to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31 NRSV), even, as with Paul, become a necessary part in his plan by sharing the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). Now the asymmetry of the omnipotent Creator and the finitesimal created is topped up and mediated through Holy Spirit in faith.

Under the new dichotomy of faith/sin against the old of virtue/sin (better, obedience-to-the-law/sin; Kierkegaard was dismantling Socratic, not Judaic understandings of sin), we are protected from the accusations of the law because by our faith God declares us righteous. This is not simply being acquitted from the responsibility to uphold the law, especially justice, but that through faith we now enter, with the Holy Spirit, into a new expression of law (Romans 8:2; 1Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). We uphold the law. Yet we fail in obedience to the law, as cited before:

If, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (2:17 NRSV).

Under faith/sin, sin is redefined as unbelief. Christians remain believing, being justified through faith, yet remain sinners naturally in accordance with the Mosaic criteria (when we remove Jesus and faith and all that and judge ourselves again from the start). We remain disobedient, as does everyone, yet we are declared righteous; there is an absolute, finite requirement, one that can be met with: Faith.

* * *

The transcendent God then does just what atheist criticisms accuse him of doing, making meaningful something truly meaningless and securing hope in something truly hopeless.  Who is on their side? Who adheres to this incompleteness of grace, the absence of redemption, which originates in some fantasy non-material world? One unlikely place to look would be Israel’s prophets. The truth of a finite expression of grace can be understood like this: What we do matters. Material actions matter. Although God will ultimately judge the world, our sins still affect those around us. It was not enough for Israel to be called by God apart from the nations to know him and be loved by him; Israel was also to serve him. Thus Ezekiel can say, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV). Amos, speaking also of the neglect to provide for the poor and needy, writes of the Lord:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:21-24 NRSV; it is worth reading the whole chapter (or the whole of Amos) to get a better idea of where exactly Israel had screwed up)

The offense of Israel’s actions is that they assumed their election overwrote social responsibility. Are there any similarities between Israel’s complacency under election and ours under faith? Yes. As with faith/sin, you could almost apply an election/sin to Israel, as to which Paul and Jesus also make reference (Galatians 2:15; Matthew 3:9; Romans 2:3). When faith or election fulfills the law then obedience becomes secondary. Although, with the Holy Spirit, we are led into obedience, disobedience maintains its consequences (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:21). The absolute finite requirement of faith has become relativised and infinite, like its predecessor, the law. Thus Paul can say that he has not yet fully attained to the goal of his faith (Philippians 3:12). This verse can easily be read in the sense that Paul hasn’t died yet (cf. 1:21), as he’s speaking of the resurrection, but he’s also speaking of faith, righteousness before God, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, being found in him and knowing him (3:7-11), all of which are in the process of being attained in the present (this relationship of present incompleteness moving towards a complete future is elsewhere in, for example, Philippians 1:6 and 2:13-14, present salvation anticipating future). Elsewhere Paul can speak of his weaknesses, not just from suffering as a Christian, but facing responsibility (2Corinthians 11:28-29³).

Faith is now doubly incomplete. Firstly it privileges trust over obedience. Secondly, in the same way Paul cites scriptures to say there is “no one who is righteous” (Romans 3:10), he rightfully can say that there is no one who believes. What is more, if we embrace death of God theology to its end then there is no Holy Spirit, no perfect-ultimate will to top up our mistakes and bring cosmic redemption. We are left to our own devices where material action is both necessary and impossible. Yet even with God, material action is both necessary and impossible (improbable, without determinism or complete ‘sovereignty’, etc).

* * *

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).

As with most things in life, this ends in despair. People looking for happier times should return to the days of Mario Kart, picnics and puppy love. Although the conclusion is decidedly un-Christian, I’m not yet ready to take some pat answers. Something about denial being the first sign of guilt. Antinomianism is the heresy where grace is like a license to do whatever you want, and you want to sin. Ironically, it comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning law. When grace allows you to do whatever you want, you’re operating under the heresy that literally means to be without the law:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NRSV).

We will always fall short of our material responsibilities at the same time as faith’s ultimate inability to hide us from them. The obvious answer is that at least you can try. Try to be obedient. Strive towards perfection. And whether you’re a theistic Christian and your failures are contrasted to the work of the Holy Spirit and the absolute condition of your heart, or you’re an atheistic Christian and Jesus’ challenge to live always beyond the law impels you to a radical life of helping others, note this: Striving is not being. Trying is a form of failure. This is the truth of human depravity: We have miserably failed.

* * *

¹”speed” here is a verb. I always tripped up on this until I realised that.

²When I say individualism I don’t mean it in the existential sense of the individual making meaning for their self out of their personal relationship with God/existence, nor do I mean it in the consumerist/prosperity gospel sense of serving God for the benefits he provides you as an individual, but I mean it in the sense of the community with emphasis upon the individual: We are individuals, separate people, and our individual actions contribute, for good or for bad, to the Kingdom of God.

³The NRSV translates the Greek pyroumai as ‘I am indignant’, which ignores Paul’s use of it in 1Corinthians 7:9, denoting the fire of lust. I’m no translator, but the NRSV doesn’t even provide a footnote with an alternative translation, where it is possible, and, I think, important.

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A couple or so days ago I came across Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. It’s amazing how someone can be so well-read, where Christopher is both the subject and the object of that verb (which is functioning as an adjective). The book opens with a couple of quotes from Primo Levi, an Italian who survived Auschwitz. Hitchens dedicates the book to him. Here’s one of the quotes:

Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.

And that’s it. On this haphazard visit I foolishly ended up buying a collection of Heidegger’s rightings. I am gradually beginning to experience the gap between owning books and reading them. My soul too is society to an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Just to let you know, my over-engagement with reading material and good friends has crippled my usual enthusiastic blogging machinations. Something decent will arise out of this. In a few weeks or so. Unless I read Heidegger and realise out of pure deduction from his plethora of perspective that everything to say has already been said and in some sort of cliché despair turn to writing dark children’s books. And with that I leave you with a quote from my second favourite Arminian, Roger E. Olson (although he did not write it but “Someone” did):

“Someone has said that no theology is worth believing that cannot be preached standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz” (Against Calvinism, 2011, p.25).

This is a picture of Heidegger

This is a picture of Marlon Brando

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Before/while reading, you may elect to enjoy this piece of New Zealand music from the nineties.

* * *

One argument that I’ve experienced against Christianity has never really sunk in for me. Even in my pre-Christian years I think I would have contented myself with other issues such as whether or not God really exists, the scientific folly of miracles, why there is suffering and why this suffering needs to be extended into eternity with the likes of hell. The last one still holds true for me today. But what really never stuck was the critique of Christianity, the Church, Christians, etc, which focussed on the evils of individuals and groups within Christianity. If God is so good, then why are his followers not so? If McDonalds is so tasty (…), why did this fool undersalt my freakin’ chips? If Inception is such a well-worth-your-while movie, why can I buy it in Indonesia for 20c?

Such inconsistencies indicate a disconnect between the source and its dependent. The later two examples illustrate that the source is in part not responsible for the mistakes (even evils) of its representatives: How can McDonalds take responsibility for every action performed by the mass of individuals it hires? It may take some precautions in the hiring process but what help is that going to do for human caprice?

To say then that God is responsible for the Crusades and witch burnings, etc¹, misses this administrational aspect: People chose to do evil and endorse it with whatever was in vogue at the time.

* * *

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Marcus Aurelius, the favourable Roman emperor often to which this quote is attributed nonetheless engaged in war and territorial expansion throughout his lifetime. Nietzshe was wildly sexist. Darwin’s theory of evolution had a powerful influence on Social Darwinism, the practical approach to evolution that helped justify events such as the Holocaust.

Marcus was loved by the people but in a large way failed to see those beyond his lands as people. In the case of Nietzshe, his sexism² can be separated from the positive legacy of his ideas, or even, quite willingly, from the person himself, as his sexism was a result of the intellectual climate he existed in. And Darwin was a good dude but something went horribly wrong in translation. Surely we can blame him for not preventing the evil-minded from reading his writings and using it to justify their eugenics (Note the etymology of this word, ‘eu’, good + ‘genics’, genes).

Darwin shoos off some investors

In the same way is there not a reasonable 21st Century approach to Christianity apart from its historical evils, or is not God distinguishable from the many evils of his followers? If you as an atheist are not responsible for the persecution of Christians under atheistic soviet communism, because that’s not the type of atheism you adhere to, then why is this Christian responsible for the subjugation of women in the history of Christianity, if that is not a Christianity they adhere to?

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When I was in India late last year I managed to watch a documentary on National Geographic about how a woman and her husband had been kidnapped in the Philippines and taken into the jungle for a year as hostages under violently harsh conditions. The most revelatory and humbling part of the documentary was when she identified a part of herself in the actions of her persecutors. She admitted that she could not feel true disgust for what they were doing as she herself contained the same propensity to do such evil. Their evil was to her, a captive deprived of food, water, sleep, outside contact, etc,  a mirror for her own selfishness. John Bunyan, the writer of the landmark novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, three hundred years ago denounced the persecutions by and the hypocrisy of the Church of his time, which had executed or locked away many dissident voices, also wrote Grace abounding to the chief of sinners in which, as the title suggests, he saw himself as most sinful person alive and undeserving of the grace shown to him.

Did anyone else ever watch Sabrina the teenage witch and realise the sinister pun in the name of her cat?

Evil is not so much something that is found in differing doses among certain individuals and the dark nooks and crannies of our Neanderthal history, but something that we all have capacity for. If I know that so many people in the world are starving then why am I not living on bread and butter, two or three t-shirts max, fasting twice a week, and giving the rest of my time and money to the alleviation of poverty?  If I was a villager at Salem when they had the witch trials, who says I would have spoken against the killings and not condoned them? Or, even if I did speak against them, who says I would have actually done something about them, rather than acknowledging how unfortunate it was for them to actually happen, especially considering I didn’t agree with them? Not I. I am a good person by virtue of my birth. The same argument can be seen in the fact that those who are physically or sexually abused in their youth are more likely to recreate these offences in their adulthood. The evil of individuals has a lot to do with where and when they grow up and who they do that with.

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Far from allowing us to separate ourselves from historical evils of the Church and other Christians, this view of evil actually compels us to take them on as our own. Darcy Clay’s Jesus I was evil gives us the chance to see ourselves in Church history and say, “Jesus, that was me; Jesus, I was evil”³. The break from evil does not consist in distancing yourself from fundamentalists and a naive past Christianity, but from embracing them as your own so that you can see them more clearly in your present life and speak and act more clearly against them in the life of the Church and society. The evil person is a product of their environment; the enemy of evil overcomes their environment.

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¹Clearly, the longest etc you’ve seen in some time

²For example, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a little old woman jokes with Zarathustra, “Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip?” It’s possible I need a ‘wilder’ example. Also here it is important to note Nietzshe’s misinterpretation by Nazis and consequential use as justification for their crimes.

³Of course, we need to allow for the poetic flexibility of Darcy’s lyrics and the expression thereof here. It’s more likely that instead of addressing Jesus he is using his name as an intensifier to indicate the extent of his evil. What is more, Darcy justifies his current self in contrast to his earlier, evil self, “Now I help old ladies cross the street…”, etc. This, coupled with the mocking, almost boastful, tone of the outro, means a lot of imagination is required in applying Darcy’s song to my point. On the other hand, these lyrical and musical features may also indicate the true extent of the ignorance of our own evil.

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“By the term scientific is understood just what was formerly understood by the term religious: just as formerly everything called religious was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called scientific is held to be unquestionable” — Leo Tolstoy

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Pete Townshend of The Who expressed a similar sentiment with regard to politics:

“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around me,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday
And I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again;
Don’t get fooled again”

Pete Townshend can write thoughtful lyrics as well as play music. Who would've thought?

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With the onset of a more expressive atheism in society comes some new challenges, not so much for the Church, but the atheists themselves. In fact, you could say that a widespread rejection of all things religious in the West, not just any more at the intellectual/political level, as in the Enlightenment, but now much more at a popular level, is a spiritual improvement on former times. No this isn’t any of those Christian linguistic manipulations that claim comradery with the crowd in sharing a rejection of religion, pointing instead to ‘spirituality’ or ‘relationship’. As much as I value the idea of practice of commitment to Christ devoid of all things ‘religious’, I think there is also value in affirming religion, but that’s a-whole-nother post and I’m probably confusing the original intentions of this one. Rather, rejection of Christianity at a popular level is indicative of people actually thinking about and critically evaluating their beliefs rather than sticking with the other sheep¹. This rejection of Christianity is better in some ways than the former situation because instead of people implicitly denying their beliefs yet continuing to attend church and live an outwardly Christian life, the individual now has freedom to act on their implicit denial as explicit, and the Church can now more clearly see and care for those she missed in the first place.

But what makes an atheist a real atheist? One of the oldest forms of Christianity, which has been alive and well for centuries, is known as nominal Christianity. It’s an interdenominational movement that advocates averageness, uncritical thinking and just plain passive existence. Not surprisingly, it has wooed the hearts of many and spurred them all on to mass mediocrity. The real atheist, therefore, is a doctor who diagnoses the sick body they joined, the Church, by virtue of their parent’s faith, and abruptly quarantines their self, lest they too live a life limited by all those limiting factors of faith and unquestioning obedience to some anachronistic ethics system as one of the omni-nominal flock. The real atheist leaves the safe pasture of the sheep-church, to the boundless wilderness where the grass is sparse but the life is real. The real atheist is an individual.

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But how effectively can society/humanity handle the onset of ‘real atheism’? Is not the ‘real’ aspect of any ideology symptomatic of its pre-institutional form? Many Christians who know one or two things about church history will be quick to tell you of a pre-Constantine, organic, non-state, ‘real’ Christianity; Christianity before it became an institution, Christianity as a movement. The difference between a movement and an institution is dynamics: The movement is true to its name; it is fluid and striving against some ‘greater evil’, etc. The institution is stagnant; it is an establishment. The only movement the institution engages in is defending what it has already established.

Atheism as a popular movement is valuable as it questions Christian stances on ethical issues such as homosexuality and abortion, it critiques Christian theology such as that which puts more emphasis on the life to come than our current life, and provides alternate sources of meaning for people who have not found their place in the Church. Contrariwise, atheism as an institution sets up the same values it initially sought to dissemble: Following the crowd and an unquestioning acceptance of the new sacred knowledge, the scientific².

* * *

I'm a closet Neo-Lamackian. True story.

During high school we had a science teacher who was a Christian. He made it clear to us that he would teach us the theory of evolution, but that he didn’t hold to any of its fundamental tenets. There is a depth of insight to be gained from the intellectual crisis that this situation presented me with in my adolescence. Imagine turning up to church on Sunday and the preacher saying that she was really an atheist so she’d deliver the material but she doesn’t really believe in it. Though now I accept evolution as it has strong scientific backing and I can’t see how it clashes with anything in the core of what it means to follow Christ, this science teacher epitomises the rebellious spirit of movement in the movement/institution dichotomy. He represents a dynamic denouncer of knowledge held sacred by the institution. It may be to the point here that there is so much evidence for evolution that any dissident voices can be classed as madmen, but this overlooks the spirit of the act. The point may be that to denounce evolution is counter-intellectual, but the spirit in denouncing evolution is counter-institutional³. How many people in society accept evolution not because they have examined the evidence and read a couple of textbooks on the subject, but because everybody else accepts it? Their is widespread consensus in the scientific community on the validity of evolutionary theory. The dissident who bemoans this is verbally lambasted rather than commended. Therefore the real atheist does not read about evolution to find evidence for what they already believe, but to examine the evidence and proceed from there.

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¹The use of ‘sheep’ here is intended as a pun.

²The scientific is just one example. Numerous liberal ideologies could also be included such as egalitarianism in all forms, which invites naysayers to a world of counter-criticism. Ironically, secular egalitarianism has a lot in common with Christians forms of the same.

³This is not to say that Young and Old Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc are all anti-institutional as these movements often aim to set up another institution. In the same way that the scientific layman uncritically accepts evolution, the Christian may uncritically accept Creationism “because it’s in the Bible”.

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