Friday, January 28, 2011

Suffering

Mark at Christian Doubt, linked to an article on George John Romanes, a gifted scientist during the 19th century, whose scientific beliefs led to a prolonged period of questioning his faith and God. He suffered declining health, so his friend, Canon Scott-Holland, including this exhortation within a letter of sympathy to his friend:


It is a tremendous moment when first one is called upon to join the great army of those who suffer.

That vast world of love and pain opens suddenly to admit us one by one within its fortress.

We are afraid to enter into the land, yet you will, I know, feel how high is the call. It is as a trumpet speaking to us, that cries aloud—‘It is your turn—endure.’ Play your part. As they endured before you, so now, close up the ranks—be patient and strong as they were. Since Christ, this world of pain is no accident untoward or sinister, but a lawful department of life, with experiences, interests, adventures, hopes, delights, secrets of its own. These are all thrown open to us as we pass within the gates—things that we could never learn or know or see, so long as we were well.

God help you to walk through this world now opened to you as through a kingdom, regal, royal, and wide and glorious. My warmest sympathies to your wife.


These words are not necessarily easy ones to hear while in the midst of deep suffering. In fact, we may recoil in protest and anger that any one should have the audacity to encourage us to "play our part" during our suffering. There are some forms of suffering I pray I never have to endure, despite what "hopes, delights, and secrets" I may gain through the experience. However, I cannot help but be aware that there often are valuable gifts and depths of wisdom that the sufferer earns should she choose to endure and stand through the experience. In fact, they may not be gained any other way. As I try to make develop a worldview consistent with my knowledge and experiences, I ponder the role of suffering in the world. Does it make more sense that there is suffering, though often much of value to be gained through it if a benevolent God is ruler over creation, or if we were given birth in a quantum vacuum, which has no awareness of our existence? What do you think?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Birthday KJV

Today is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. My husband informed me that there will be a celebration at a local grad school today, which he may attend.

I find it interesting that it has influenced our English language to such a great extent.
This article lists some of the many phrases now in common circulation that come to us from the Bible, most of which are from the KJV. Here are a few of them:
Woe is me

Wolf in sheep's clothing

Writing is on the wall

You reap what you sow

All things must pass

All things to all men

Am I my brother's keeper?

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth

As old as Methuselah

As old as the hills

As white as snow

As you sow so shall you reap

Ashes to ashes dust to dust

At his wits end

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Casting Hell into the Lake of Fire?

This post is much harder to write than I thought. I've started and stopped. Thrown out drafts and avoided composing new ones. I don't feel I've arrived at a definite answer to my questions about hell, so I don't have firm conclusions, just tentative ideas.

I appreciate all the comments on the last post I wrote on hell. Reflecting on them has been helpful in shaping how I think about this topic. I've also reflected on a few posts found here here and here by HeIsSailing on his rejection of hell, which I highly recommend. I have ordered 2 books on the history of hell, which I will certainly discuss here when I finish them.

Based on comments several of you left on the last post as well as conversations I've had with friends at church, it's clear we handle the concept of eternal punishment very differently. For some of us, we have been plagued and tormented. For the majority, though, it's been just one of many doctrines they accept without a great deal of discomfort. Several have asked why. One of my friends noted that most just don't take their faith that seriously. I would concur. I also think that we tend to protect ourselves from unpleasantness. Our minds have terrific defense mechanisms that prevent us from "tragic news" overload. Another friend of mine noted that she couldn't handle considering every terrible outcome that could occur. And that is true of most, if not all of us. We grow desensitized to reports of shootings, we justify murders or find ways to hold victims responsible, because we'd like to think we can control our fate and prevent terrible things from happening to us. We flat out deny allegations of sexual misconduct in churches. I'm certainly an example of what happens when those defense mechanisms don't work, when one faces head on the terror that is before you. I was miserable and terrified. Of course, there came a point when I finally chose to take advantage of some defense mechanisms, and for most of my adulthood, I've done my best to just not think about hell. After my trip to Hungary, I was simply emotionally worn out. As a consequence, I stopped being quite as evangelistic. I didn't feel quite the drive. Also, in evangelizing, you are forced to confront your belief that people are unsaved. That became increasingly uncomfortable. Of course, I felt guilt for my lackadaisical ways, but I tried to rationalize my behavior. I tried to tell myself I was "leading by example." I opened my mind to the possibility that there might be other Christians saved besides those in the church of Christ. I tried to convince myself of a final fair outcome by woodenly repeating "God will do what is right." At some point I stopped considering being re baptized. I now realize why. It was because I wasn't sure I wanted to repeat a ritual in which I was accepting a God that mercilessly sent the majority of people to hell. Did I really believe that such a God existed? Of course, all my worries of hell and doubts about God finally broke through my defenses, and here I am. Examining and evaluating them at the risk of hell itself. Through this process, I have lost most, (though not all) of my fear. For two years I have been questioning God in a way that before would have left me certain of my doom. I think this has desensitized me in large part to the fear. I haven't been avoiding hell through perfect Christian behavior, prayer, or continual evangelizing. In coming close to hell, really evaluating the doctrine and examining my beliefs and feelings about it as well as those of others, it's starting to lose its grip on me. I think I'm starting to see that it's nothing to fear.

In this evaluation process of mine, I realize part of my difficulty with hell is that it has put my religious beliefs in conflict with my moral beliefs about justice and love, my conscience, and my emotional responses to others. For my entire childhood, I assumed that my heart was out of line with my religious beliefs. Being angry or horrified that most of the world was going to hell was wrong because whatever God decrees is somehow right and holy, even if it makes no earthly sense. I am now beginning to turn the tables on this problem. Why can't it be that my doctrine is out of line with my heart? Maybe it feels unjust and unloving, because sending almost all humanity to hell, for all eternity, when they did not believe the right things and did not behave in the right way for 100 or fewer years, is not just or loving. I use to discount my emotions where understanding God is concerned, believing only the Bible should guide my beliefs. However, the truth is that emotions are an important information source and help guide our behavior and relationships with others. Our sense of compassion motivates us to care for others, our anger helps us defend ourselves, our fear causes us to flee danger, and our worry causes us to be cautious and make prudent plans. I have even been cautious in the past about using my conscience and moral beliefs to pass judgement on beliefs about God and the Bible. After all, my conscience can be "seared as with a hot iron" rendering it useless. And my moral nature is fallen, so how can I trust my revulsion at the genocide described in the Bible or in God sending the Hindu from 200 AD to hell for not believing in Jesus? "God's ways are not our ways." Maybe that's true, but in a different way. Maybe God's ways are not our ways because there is no hell. Maybe it's a figment of human imagination that God finds revolting. Maybe He wishes we'd listen to the consciences he gave us. Several of you voiced similar beliefs in your comments on the last blog post. I appreciate your collective input as it has opened me up to valuing more than just my intellect in resolving the dilemma of the doctrine of hell. That being said, I still plan to do more reading on the topic!:)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

How Hell Tormented My Childhood

This sounds like an uplifting post, doesn't it? *Grin* I have put off writing about hell, because it is such an emotionally complicated topic and because, I fear, it will only serve to highlight my neurotic tendencies! However, it's clear that I need to work through my beliefs and emotional reactions on this topic. As noted in a recent post by DagoodS, it's often hard to let go of ideas that have influenced us so strongly. Though my study of hell has largely led me to believe that it is a concept humanity developed over time in a variety of contexts, I still have lingering worries about the possibility of its existence. And this serves to impact both my and others' ability to question and reevaluate their faith. At the same time, I don't want to reject aspects of Christianity just because I don't like them. What if the truth is, in fact, a bitter pill to swallow? Pretending it doesn't exist won't make it go away. Denial doesn't work as a long term strategy. In future posts, that will become clear in my case. That being said, I am hoping, through my writing, to more fully understand and integrate my studies, personal experiences, and emotional reactions on the topic of hell to come to a conclusion about its nature and existence. This is my first post in this effort. I'll begin by giving the context in which I first heard about hell and the way I responded to it as a child and adolescent.

As a child, I was a worrier. In first grade I worried that I would fail if I didn't make straight A's. In third grade I worried about selling enough girl scout cookies. Nothing was too trivial for me to obsess about. I was serious about doing everything right, even perfectly, if it was possible. So it comes as no surprise that this carried over into my religion.

For me, Christianity was about believing and doing the right things to go to heaven and avoid everlasting punishment. This was partly due to my personality but mostly due to the denomination in which I was raised (church of Christ). Hell was an ever present worry for me throughout my childhood. And not just worry really. More like a gnawing fear that I was able to suppress better some times more than others. By 6th grade, I stressed out enough that I developed ulcers. It was during that time period that I began my persistent discussions with my parents about hell. At one point they asked me if I wanted to go talk to a therapist to help me not be so anxious. That only made me feel as if I was deficient in some way, so through tears I promised myself and them that I would get better if they would not take me to a therapist. I had been baptized in fifth grade to save me from the fires of hell, but that did not serve to quell my fears. Did I carry out my baptism correctly, or was God displeased in some way? My church taught that we were saved through baptism, but we also had to live in obedience to God. Therefore, I couldn't rest easy in my salvation.

I talked with both my dad and my preacher about whether or not I should get rebaptized just to make sure my baptism was acceptable to God. What if I really didn't understand what I was doing at the time? What if I wasn't fully immersed? What about my sinful attitude during my baptism? I remember being irritated that a "frequent flyer" came forward to repent the Sunday I also came forward to be baptized. How vain to want the moment for myself! Anyway, I didn't want any of those things to send me to hell because they rendered my baptism invalid in some way.


I had additional reasons to doubt my salvation as well. What if, during bedtime prayers, I forgot to ask for forgiveness for rolling my eyes at my mom and then mysteriously died in the night? Would I go to heaven or hell? Although my worries from childhood seem simplistic and naive, they weren't far from those expressed in church by adults. I remember Bible class discussions where church members discussed whether or not one would go to hell if there was any unrepented sin. It just didn't seem possible to repent continually while also going about my daily tasks, but I did try my best.

Of course, I didn't just worry about myself. I didn't want anyone to burn in hell forever. This made me evangelistic, despite my extreme introversion. I went on every campaign and door knocking activity our church initiated. In Jr. high and high school I conducted Bible studies with adults in their home. I started a Bible study group at my school. When my family visited my grandma up in Detroit during the summers, I would talk with my cousins about God and salvation, which prompted one to be baptized after one visit. These efforts weren't easy and I berated myself often for not being more open and bold about my faith. I felt horribly self-conscious but I also felt horribly guilty for keeping the saving truth from those destined for hell. It was especially overwhelming because in my world view, almost everyone was destined for hell. (Narrow is the way that leads to life and few there be who find it.) My church taught that only Christians who followed the Bible as my denomination did were acceptable to God. This meant that over 99% of the world was going to hell. Not an easy concept to live with. I couldn't remain content to evangelize in my country. I had to move on to the world. Especially countries where people had less access to The Truth. I determined to do mission work. I finally got the opportunity for two summers during college when I visited Hungary with a mission team. I remember being very overwhelmed with the lost state of humanity as the plane touched down the first time I landed there. It was an impossible task. Why would God create humanity only to send almost every single one of us to hell for all eternity? Yes, he sent his son to die for us but why make it so hard for us to know this and accept this gift of salvation through baptism? Why make the salvation of others dependent on the mission efforts of the few saved individuals, who mainly happened to live in America during the 19th and 20th centuries (those from the church of Christ denomination)? These are the questions I began to ponder in Hungary, when the burden of hell became to great for me to bear any longer. I'll explore my response to these questions more in another post.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Bible Says What??

For an amusing look at what can happen when we literalize and overpersonalize Biblical passages, I recommend the site All True Bible Stories for Children. Numerous old testament stories have been used by the author to illustrates what nonsense and absurdity we create for ourselves at times with the Bible. The work was based on conversations the author had with a woman who was raised to interpret the word of God in highly idiosyncratic ways. For those of you who have been raised in a tradition which interprets the Bible fairly literally, you may find a dim reflection of your own past in these parodies. Here is but one example:

The Story of the Tower in Babel
Genesis 11:1-9
Over his morning newspaper, Beth's father complained about the Mexicans. He talked about how they were taking jobs away from decent Americans and ruining the economy by attracting American manufacturing firms. Beth was confused by all this. "Mother," she asked as they cleared the breakfast dishes, "shouldn't we try to cooperate with people in foreign lands instead of competing with them?"
"That is a good question, little one," her mother said. "And God has prepared an answer." And this is the story she told:

One day, many, many years ago, everyone on earth spoke the same language. Everyone was walking together when they found a big, empty field in a place called Shinar and decided to live there. The people had a big discussion and decided that they would burn some bricks and glue them together with slime until they had built a city. Then they planned to build a tower which would be so tall that the top of it would reach heaven. After that was all done, they decided to name themselves so that all the people of the world would be part of the same group.
Well, God came down from heaven to see the city and the tower being built. And God said, "Look, everyone is cooperating with each other and they can all understand each other. Now nothing will stop them from doing whatever they can imagine doing." So he decided to mix up their language and stop them from living all in the same place so that they would not be able to complete the city and the tower.
From that time on, the city was called Babel, because that's where God ruined the one world language.

"God does not mean us to get along with foreigners," said Beth's mother. "If he did, then he would not have taken the one world language away and stopped us from all living near each other."
Beth thought about this for a moment. "I guess that means that I won't have to take Spanish in high school!" she said. Then she smiled and hugged her mother. All her questions had been answered.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Benny Hinn-Dark Lord of the Sith?

I saw this video on Exploring Our Matrix. If you love watching the force being unleashed, you'll love watching Benny Hinn with a light saber. Laugh Out Loud Hilarious! I can never get too much Star Wars.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Grand Design

Over Christmas I finished the book "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Hawking and Mlodinow claim at the beginning of the book that "philosophy is dead." They assert boldly that science is leading the way to find answers to questions regarding origins that were once the domain of philosophy: Why do we exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? and Why this particular set of laws and not some other? They conclude that God is no longer needed as an explanation. Hawking and Mlodinow believe that M-Theory is the best candidate for a unified theory of everything that can answer the questions of our existence.

Regarding the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the authors state in this oft quoted passage:
Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Luke, at Common Sense Atheism, reviewed The Grand Design and discusses an unfulfilling aspect of the book, noting that no where does it actually explain how something comes from nothing. When Hawking and Mlodinow describe the spontaneous creation of the universe, they describe it arising from "quantum fluctuations" which cause "microscopic" universes to arise and then either disappear or "expand in an inflationary manner." As Luke's review notes, this quantum vacuum is not "nothing" in the sense most of us conceptualize it.

I was interested that Hawking and Mlodinow acknowledge the strong anthropic principle, which "suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves." This brings up very real questions about how the universe managed to be so fit for life, given the great unlikelihood that chance alone could account for the necessary highly specified variables being in place, such as the strength of the strong nuclear force as well as the electromagnetic force, the number of space dimensions, and the cosmological constant. However, Hawking and Mlodinow state that if M-Theory is true, then the statistically unlikely becomes likely, as our universe is one of a multitude of universes that exist. They admit that work still needs to be done to substantiate M-Theory. However, they appear confident that it will prove to be the grand unifying theory of everything, which has been the holy grail of physicists since Einstein. It's fascinating to think we may be capable of understanding our origins. However, I was certainly not left feeling as if we understand them yet.

Some are quick to dismiss fine tuning as one of the stronger arguments in favor of intelligent design. However, Hawking and Mlodinow appear to concede that the fine tuning of the universe poses a difficulty for those seeking a naturalistic explanation of the universe, given the statistical improbability of it all. Of course, M-Theory potentially answers the challenge of fine tuning, but it still remains to be seen.

As always, I enjoyed Hawking's ability to explain technical concepts in easily accessible and entertaining ways. While the book may be premature in asserting M-theory to be the answer to life's deepest questions, it will at least serve to open the public up to M-theory as a possibility. (If they weren't already aware of it from the likes of Star Trek.)